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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris believes taxpayers aren’t "getting a good return on investment" when it comes to California’s prison system.
The California Democrat told the Women Unshackled forum in Washington D.C. in July that alternatives to locking up inmates, such as drug treatment programs, are far cheaper and sometimes more effective than prison sentences. Her figures for California’s per inmate costs were eye-opening.
"Let’s look at the fact that there is an issue around how much we are paying — and again, this gets back to the economic cost — it costs us about $33,000 a year to lock somebody up. In California it costs about $75,000 a year," Harris said on July 18, 2017.
Harris makes her claim at about the 16:50 minute mark in the video above.
Harris made criminal justice reform a top priority during her time as California’s attorney general and has done the same so far in the Senate. Recently, she teamed up with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to push bipartisan bail reform legislation that would prevent minor offenders from sitting in jail if they can’t afford the cost of being released before trial.
In discussing prison costs, Harris said governments should place a greater focus on crime prevention and drug treatment given the high cost of incarceration.
We interpreted Harris's claim about per inmate expenses to mean the operational costs to house male and female inmates, including security, health care, facility upkeep and employee compensation.
Advocates for criminal justice reform often argue that just looking at the operational costs of running prisons ignores the social costs of incarcerating Americans.
We looked at those costs as well, but based our rating primarily on the evidence supporting the numbers Harris cited in her Women Unshackled appearance.
A spokesperson for Harris provided us with data on the cost of federal incarceration, from the independent Vera Institute of Justice, as well as numbers for California, based on Gov. Jerry Brown’s spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
In its May 2017 report "The Price of Prisons," the Vera Institute examined the cost to house inmates at prisons nationwide. It obtained data for 45 states and found the total cost per inmate averaged $33,274. The institute advocates for reducing inmate totals and improving conditions in prisons. It reported receiving about three-quarters of its funding from the federal government.
The study’s findings support Harris’ claim on the average cost of housing inmates nationally. But what about the California’s per inmate price of $75,000?
For that figure, Harris’ spokesman cited a June 2017 article by the Associated Press. It estimated the cost per inmate would reach a record $75,560 in the current fiscal year. The AP based its estimate on the money Gov. Brown set aside in this year’s budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
To verify this figure and put it in context, we examined the governor’s 2017-18 budget and contacted the Brown Administration’s corrections and finance departments, as well as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
These sources pointed us to the projected $76,320 cost per inmate in Brown’s 2017-18 budget. That qualifies as "about $75,000" as Harris put it.
A spokeswoman for the state’s corrections department told us California paid about $73,000 per inmate last fiscal year, also very close to Harris’ number.
Cost in context
While Harris’ numbers are nearly spot on, we wanted to know what’s driving this high cost to lock up prisoners in California.
The expense to house each inmate has doubled since 2005, even as court orders reduced the prison population by about a quarter, according to the Associated Press.
Several reasons account for the dramatic increase. Viewed simply, fewer inmates combined with higher corrections spending equals a higher per capita cost.
But why are there fewer inmates and higher spending?
California was forced to cut inmate levels after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision found that overcrowding in prisons violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
The drop in inmates hasn’t led to the closure of any prisons and hasn’t led to a reduction of prison staffing that corresponds directly to the drop in inmates.
Jonathan Peterson, an analyst at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said that’s because there are security requirements at the prisons that don’t allow for the elimination of guards simply because there are fewer inmates.
"Regardless of how many inmates are in a particular unit, you still need the one guard to open and close the doors," Peterson said.
The governor’s budget expects a nearly 2-to-1 inmate to prison staff ratio for the current fiscal year. That’s down from a ratio of a 2.24-to-1 just two years ago.
Higher employee costs
Just as the inmate population started to drop, employee compensation in the prison system jumped significantly. The corrections department budget has gone up $1.2 billion since 2012 due to employee compensation and retirement costs, according to the Department of Finance. Of that increase, $436 million is directly tied to increased pension contributions by the state for prison employees.
Additionally, in July 2013, the state opened the California Health Care Facility providing 2,600 beds for inmates needing medical attention. The facility has cost $288 million since it opened, the finance department reported.
California voters have contributed to the shrinking prison population in recent years by approving ballot measures that reclassify many felony drug and property crimes as misdemeanors and improving chances for parole for offenders classified as nonviolent.
These measures are expected to further reduce the prison population by thousands of inmates. If that happens and prison employee costs rise or stay stable, California’s per capita inmate expense will continue to be higher than other states.
Sen. Kamala Harris recently claimed "it costs us about $33,000 a year (nationally) to lock somebody up. In California it costs about $75,000 a year."
A recent study that examined costs in 45 states plus data from California’s departments of corrections and finance support the senator’s statement.
Digging deeper, we found reducing inmates in California’s prisons, which Harris supports, may actually increase the per capita costs she highlights.
That will be especially true if salary and pension costs continue to increase as inmate numbers drop. Harris doesn’t make a specific claim about what’s driving these costs.
Her statement centers on the costs alone to house inmates nationally and in California.
The evidence supports the figures she cited.
We rate Harris' claim True.
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
PolitiFact California intern Eli Flesch contributed research and writing to this fact check.
Tyrone Gayle, spokesman for Sen. Kamala Harris, email exchange Aug. 4, 2017
Terry Thornton, spokeswoman, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, interview Aug. 8, 2017
H.D. Palmer, spokesman, California Department of Finance, email exchange Aug. 8, 2017
Caitlin O’Neil and Jonathan Peterson, fiscal policy analysts, California Legislative Analyst’s Office, interview Aug. 8, 2017
The Law Dictionary, "What is the average cost to house inmates in prison?" Accessed August 3, 2017
The Associated Press, "At $75,560, housing a prisoner in California now costs more than a year at Harvard," June 4, 2017
California Legislative Analyst’s Office, "How much does it cost to incarcerate an inmate?" March 2017
Federal Bureau of Prisons, "Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration," July 19, 2016
Reuters, "U.S. spending on prisons grew at three times rate of school spending: report," July 7, 2016
PolitiFact Virginia, "Sanders says it costs more to go prison than to the University of Virginia," November 23, 2015
The New York Times, "Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population," May 23, 2011
Ballotpedia, "California Proposition 47, Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (2014)," Accessed August 3, 2017
Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation, "The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.," October 2016.
State of California, "2017-18 State Budget: Corrections and Rehabilitations," Accessed August 6, 2017
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