Commentary: Prisons are a good place for budget overhaul

California's cost of guarding, feeding, clothing, medicating and supposedly educating its nearly 170,000 prison inmates and supervising 110,000 parolees is about $10 billion a year. And it's very easily the fastest-growing segment of the deficit-ridden state budget over the past decade.

It is, by a very wide margin, the costliest prison system among the largest states, with a per-inmate cost that prison officials tag at around $45,000 a year, roughly what it costs to send a youngster to one of the more prestigious private universities.

The average among the nation's 10 most populous states, according to one recent calculation, is $27,237 per year per inmate, including states with substantially higher incarceration rates, such as Texas. Therefore, prisons consume a much-higher portion of California's general fund budget than those of other states – more than 10 percent.

The other nine states' prison costs range from less than 4 percent of their general fund budgets (Florida) to 8.2 percent (Michigan) with an average of about 6 percent. Or to put it another way, were California spending an average amount on its felons, it would be spending about $4 billion less each year.

Given their high costs, one might think that our prisons would be very commodious and successful in rehabilitation. But they are terribly overcrowded, so much so that a federal judge may order inmate releases. The system's recidivism rate is among the nation's highest, as are its costs of supervising parolees. And prison health care is so bad (despite its $14,000 per inmate annual cost) that a federal receiver has been put in charge and he wants to spend much more.

To read the complete column, visit www.sacbee.com/walters.