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Prison Spending Loses Its Luster

Corrections officials have new blueprint to slash spending, reduce prison population

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Opinion: Prison Spending Loses Its Luster

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There was a time in California when a boom in prison construction and spending was actually popular.

 During George Deukmejian's governorship in the 1980's, and continuing with the Wilson Administration, California engaged in an aggressive cycle of prison building.

It was part of a tough-on-crime mentality that polled well with voters. It also was an important source of jobs, especially in the chronically job-starved Central Valley.

Affluent areas on the coast might have raised an uproar about building a prison. But in the 1980's, new prisons were welcomed in relatively remote spots like Avenal and Corcoran.

These prisons were sources of well-paying jobs in a region where seasonal unemployment tied to farming cycles was commonly in double digits.

That job boom also led to rising influence of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which lobbied for strong compensation and benefits. Predictably, prison spending soared. In 1980 it was 3 percent of the general fund.

Twenty years later, that had nearly tripled, leading to criticism of a bloated system. This week, corrections officials released a plan which Gov. Jerry Brown believes will save billions of dollars and will end federal court oversight of the prison system by next year.

Faced with a court order to reduce the crowded prisons' population by 40,000, the Brown Administration is pursuing a program called 'realignment', which shifts non-violent lower level offenders to county jails. Under this plan, no inmates will be released early from state prison.

The Department of Corrections plans to scrap $4 billion worth of new construction, reduce spending due to realignment, and bring back out-of-state prisoners now housed in private prisons.

Officials say they believe they can cut spending $1.5 billion a year by the time the program is fully enacted. There are still a lot of questions about how Corrections Secretary Matt Cate can satisfy the courts on medical and mental health care of inmates, while still presiding over this ambitious downsizing program.

But it should certainly will serve to quiet complaints from the legislature, which has had to make deep cuts in higher education and programs for the poor as prison spending has grown. California's prison boom cycle is now hitting bust.

Kevin Riggs is an Emmy-winning former TV journalist. He is currently Senior Vice President with Randle Communications in Sacramento.

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