The High Cost of Throwing Away the Key

“The California Department of Corrections (CDC) parole system is currently a tangled web where parole violations are primarily dealt with by returning parolees to prison, driving institutions’ costs and the crowding of inmates. … The revocation sentences are served in reception centers or local jail beds where there has not traditionally been any type of program to address the reasons for their failure while on parole or provide additional preparation for their release.”

So says Governor Schwartzenegger’s new auditor, Donna Arduin, in her preliminary audit of CDC’s 2004-2005 budget.

The auditor dismissed CDC’s current “life skills” courses with “it is unknown as to the degree of success these classes will have as it relates to successful reintegration and reduced recidivism.”

A recent state report described California’s parole system as “a billion-dollar failure… with recidivism rates nearly twice the national average.”

The auditor also describes the parole system as “a revolving door.” While there are some “community detention” and “dry out” programs for nonserious, nonviolent offenders, California “has not developed a continuum of graduated sanctions that can be used to respond to parole violators.”

In other words simple parole revocation, often for violations like being late for a parole appointment, drinking a beer on the curb, or failing a drug piss test, rather than promoting prisoner reintegration, simply jerk parolees back into prison, keeping incarceration rates — and costs — way too high.

Instead, says the Republican auditor, California needs a coordinated system of halfway houses, work camps, re-entry centers, training facilities, and “community correctional facilities,” and a systematic way of tracking and assigning prisoners to appropriate detention levels to steer as many as possible back to straight lives — or at least as straight as their unconvicted friends. Otherwise, California’s prison budget might bankrupt the state.

The auditor mentions other cost control options like privatizing more prison services, and renegotiating labor contracts with guards and support staff.

The auditor singles out labor intensive administrative segregation (“ad-seg”) units (aka iso cells) as especially out of control, implying that, like parole, throwing a prisoner into “the hole” for minor rule violations is being overused without consideration for the cost.

California’s $5.6 billion/year prison system is using the costly blunt instrument of yanking parolees back into prison — and then throwing them into isolation — with minimal regard for the cost to taxpayers. Conveniently, this blank check approach to incarceration means more money for the prison bureaucrats who impose it.

The Auditor points out the obvious: California’s combined $20k/convict-parolee Corrections budget already faces big increases for inflation, general population growth, escalating guard salaries and pensions, higher workers comp, utility costs, and “significant overtime usage,” as well as for court-ordered healthcare increases, improved confinement conditions for juveniles, and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (even in jail).

Most of these cost categories, however, are driven by underlying incarceration rates — more prisoners equals more guards, more retired guards, more benefits, more bureaucrats, higher paid bureaucrats, etc.

Worse, “there is little fiscal accountability among CDC institutions,” the auditor casually notes. New cost controls which are supposed to make spendthrift wardens more fiscally responsible are proposed, and procedures are to be put in place that will “put a halt to expenditures for [unspecified] unauthorized activities.” And the cost controls that are already in place “must be used more effectively.”

The out-of-control cost of prison operations also means that prison upkeep requirements have been postponed for too long leaving older jails in badly dilapidated condition.

When even an auditor resorts to phrases like “tangled web,” “revolving door,” and “billion dollar failure” (not to mention “expenditures for unauthorized activities”) you know that California’s prison system is seriously out of control and getting worse. Costs are so high that even tough-on-crime Republican politicians are thinking out loud about major reforms. The Auditor didn’t add that the state’s probation system is an even more tangled — and useless, and costly, and out-of-control — mess. But I will. (Hint: the courts are theoretically in charge of county probation departments, not the Corrections Department.)

Another reform that might not be well received by prison officials is letting parolees have hearings and lawyers before they’re sent back to prison.

On a per capita basis, California’s incarceration rate puts it 15th in the US, not first as is commonly thought, although California has more total prisoners (about 164,000 in jail, another 114,000 parolees) than any other state. Of the country’s ten largest states, Texas, Georgia and Michigan have higher incarceration rates.

The Auditor says that the Governor plans to re-evaluate California’s parole system to see if expensive levels of parole supervision are appropriate, with an eye towards alternatives to high staffing and high rates of reincarceration where possible (primarily for drug users and the mentally ill).

With a decline in parole revocations, there’s a faint hope that some prisons can someday be closed, but the auditor may be stretching that point.

Details of the Governor’s parole reform proposal are expected to be submitted in May — maybe.

Parole reform is expected to include the state’s Youth Authority. The preliminary audit mentions improving training while badly under-educated teens are in Youth Authority custody.

Footnote: CHP costs have gone way up too. Unfunded federal Homeland Security requirements are one reason, but the biggest reason for the CHP cost jump is rising CHP pensions (CHP officers can retire as young as age 40 at half their salary, more later) increasingly paid for out of the general fund (the pension fund’s earnings are way off). The state’s recent decision to pay CHP officers time and a half for their half-hour lunch periods — at $18.8 million per year — doesn’t help either.

I’m all for paying CHP officers what they’re worth. But time and a half for lunch? Who’s negotiating these give-aways?

There’s been some talk in Sacramento about sentencing reform and early release of non-violent offenders as further cost-cutting measures, but the auditor hasn’t mentioned it — yet.

MARK SCARAMELLA is the managing editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at:


MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. ( He can be reached at