A recent poll of California voters by the Public Policy Institute of California confirmed anew that prisons are the least popular way to spend tax money as Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators struggle with a chronic budget deficit.
When PPIC asked voters which major areas should be hit with cuts, just 24 percent named K-12 education, 35 percent said higher education, 37 percent suggested health and welfare programs, and 70 percent singled out prisons. The results were similar when voters were asked what they were willing to underwrite with higher taxes.
Interestingly, the disdain for prison spending was virtually identical among all subcategories of voters – Democrats and Republicans, liberal San Franciscans and conservative Central Valley residents, rich, poor and middle class.
The sentiments are not new. PPIC and other polling organizations have reported similar findings for years. Yet prison spending has been one of the fastest growing pieces of the budget, is now over 10 percent and is one of the few Brown largely exempted from cuts.
Prisons occupy a unique, contradictory place in societal priorities and, therefore, in politics. On one hand, we want those who commit crimes locked up so they can't prey upon us. On the other hand, we view prison spending as wasteful.
That bifurcated view is exacerbated by our extraordinarily high costs of incarceration, thanks to some truly bizarre prison employee practices and the intervention of the federal courts. California spends about three times as much per inmate as Texas, for instance.
Another complication is that while politicians may dislike having to spend so much on prisons, they're also afraid of releasing felons who might commit crimes and spark a political backlash.
As Brown proposes hefty cuts in "safety net" health and welfare services for the poor, disabled and aged, liberal groups are beating the drums for cutting prison costs, now nearly $10 billion a year, instead.
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