Prison Spending Affecting Higher Education in California: Report

California is spending 1,370 percent more money on prisons today compared to 1980 levels. NBC Bay Area got the first look at a report from Los Altos-based, non-partisan research group California Common Sense (CACS) published Thursday.

It’s the first time a group has looked at 30 years worth of data and crunched the numbers to show a long-term trend between state spending on prisons and on higher education, according to Director of Research Mike Polyakov.

California spent $592 million on corrections in 1980, Polyakov said. That spending has jumped to $9.2 billion in 2011.

Meanwhile, higher education spending has decreased. Researchers found that there is a trend to pay University of California and California State University faculty less money than in the past.

“What we found is faculty salaries have decreased about 10 percent since 1990,” Polyakov said.

At the same time, Polyakov said prison guard salaries reached a record high in 2006.

“The average salary we calculated was somewhere in area of $100,000," he said. "Today, it’s closer to $75,000.”

So even though the officers' pay has come down in the last few years, CACS researchers found that correctional officers are still making anywhere from 50 to 90 percent above market rate compared to the rest of the country.

California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) spokesperson Ryan Sherman said it’s an unfair comparison because the cost of living in California is so high.

“Buying a house in the Bay Area is extremely expensive. There’s a number of prisons in the Bay Area and so the officers need to be compensated appropriately in California. CHP officers are paid more than correctional officers and it’s the same standards, same hiring practices they go through so I don’t know that they’re paid too much. I think they actually deserve more," Sherman said.

"I think most public employees deserve more -- teachers, professors -- I think everybody has been biting the bullet the last few years.”

Sherman added that his members have recognized the state budget problems and are keeping up their share.

"As it pertains to benefits, salaries, things like that, our members are fairly compensated, although they haven’t had a raise in years. They’ve actually taken 15, up to 15 percent in pay cuts over the last couple years,” Sherman said. “We’re realistic. We know there’s no money available.”

The corrections department’s only source of income come from the general fund, according to Sherman.

“We’re kind of relying on the general fund unlike higher education and some other agencies that have special funds.”

Polyakov warns if this trend doesn’t reverse quickly and substantially enough, there could be major brain drain out of California because professors at public universities are getting paid too little.

"They’re behind market rates," Polyakov said. "If you can’t pay your faculty as much as the other universities, as a comparable university does, well eventually they’re going to go there.”

San Jose State University professor Jonathan Roth couldn’t agree more.

"I’ve taught at Ivy League schools, and the students are better, it’s more interesting, right?" he said. "The conditions are better, the pay is higher but it doesn’t make as much of a difference.”

Roth said he wanted to make that difference here, but that too many classes are being cut and leaving his students in tears.

“We’ve lost over the last two years, half of our lecture sessions - half.”

He’s worried about the students, who may have to stay longer because the courses they need for a specific degree are either full or not even offered.

"They lose motivation, they get frustrated, they leave - they lose their dreams,” said Roth. “And we’re often forgotten.”

The 20-year teaching veteran said morale at SJSU is at an all-time low among his professors.

“The problem here now is professors are making less than plumbers, less than air conditioning repairmen, less than corrections officers. Not that those jobs aren’t important, but I’m a much more difficult person to replace,” Roth said.

Gov. Jerry Brown was in office when the state spent five times more on higher education than on prisons.

NBC Bay Area caught up with him at a rally for Prop. 30, which would increase sales and income taxes to help fund higher education. Brown blamed the skyrocketing corrections spending on the prison-building boom.

“What happened in the intervening years is 23 prisons were built, and instead of getting three-percent of the general fund, it went as high as eleven-percent. We’re reversing that. Prisons are only going to get 7.5 percent, and that’s a real reduction in our prison system.”

Polyakov and CACS' point is that that may still not be enough. For example, the CCPOA is set to start salary increases again next year.

“In 10 to 20 years, these are going to be really important issues," Polyakov said. "Everything from the higher education funding. Are we going to have enough college prepared students 10 years down the line?”

Contact Us