Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

The Prisons, the Universities and California

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    California's prison palace San Quentin is getting an upgrade even as residents probably wouldn't mind a few folks moving there from Sacremento Capitol buildings.

    People don't usually think of prisons and universities in the same breath, but in California, they share an important distinction. This is a state in which people usually stick to their home regions. But the prisons and the public universities are the only two places where Californians from different regions and backgrounds routinely come together, live together, and get to know each other better.

    In this way, prisons and universities define the state, more so than almost any other institution. And over the past geneation, the resources devoted to each has shifted -- thus defining Hotel California more as a prison and less as a place of learning.

    As the Bay Citizen points out in this story, the percentage of the state budget spent on corrections and prisons has gone from 3 percent to 11 percent since 1980. The portion spent on higher education has dropped from 10 percent to 6.6 percent.

    Why? The answer is a paradox. Polls suggest that California voters want less money spent on prisons and more on universities. But more money is being spent on prisons -- and less on universities -- because of California voters.

    How's that? California voters have approved sentencing guidelines and other tough-on-crime provisions that have required the expansion of prisons. They've also approved spending protection for a host of programs -- but not higher education. So the higher spending on other programs, including prisons (and debt service, a function of the failure to balance the budget), is crowing out higher education spending. The system that voters helped design is overriding the desires of Californians.

    There's no better example of the California disease.