California's Money Pit: The Prison System

Report: prison spending up; prison population down

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    California prisons are good for two things: 1) Keeping people behind bars, and 2) Wasting lots and lots of money, according to a new report.

    The report -- released by the California State Auditor -- says about $1 out of every $10 from state's general fund budget goes to the Department of Corrections.

    With almost 10 percent of that budget going to prisons, you'd think we'd be getting one helluva prison system. You'd be wrong.

    According to the report:

    While Corrections' expenditures have increased by almost 32 percent in the last three years, the inmate population has decreased by 1 percent during the same period.

    It seems the prison system has found a way to do less with more. Good work, guys. But the findings don't end with that embarrassment. The system may in fact be so wasteful, it's sometimes cheaper to export our prisoners than to actually incarcerate them in our own system, according to the report's findings:

    The cost of housing an inmate out of state in fiscal year 2007-08 was less per inmate than the amount Corrections spent to house inmates in some of its institutions.

    And although this sounds like a problem worthy of a solution, actually fixing this mess could be dicey. We know the prison system is a money-sucking disaster, but according to the report, we don't exactly know why:

    Corrections' ability to determine the influence that factors such as overcrowding, vacant positions, escalating overtime costs, and aging inmates have on the cost of operations is limited because of a lack of information.

    So the system is broken, but we don't have the data to pinpoint a fix.

    Corrections released a response to the report, saying "...the report does not completely capture the complexity of many of these issues."

    Yes, this is a complex problem, but without the proper data, it can never be fixed (complex or not).

    Simple solutions rarely fix complex problems, but in this case, the report has a simple recommendation for the Department of Corrections: Get a new data system to track information, and if you can't get a new data system, get the one you have to start actually collecting usable data.

    At the very least, that's a simple solution everyone can agree upon.