Editorial: Time to cut prison spending

One piece of Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill's alternative budget stands out and is worth highlighting in depth: Getting prison spending under control.

Twenty years ago, the prison budget took 4 percent of the state's general fund. Now, it is close to 10 percent -- and still growing. If legislators would enact the elements that Hill recommends, they'd go a long way to put the state budget on a sustainable path for the long-term future. Here's what Hill recommends:

Divert some lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. The LAO recommends that legislators change sentencing laws to make some lower-level property or drug crimes (such as forgery, petty theft, theft with a prior theft) punishable as misdemeanors at the local level. This would cut the prison population by about 31,000 at any given time, a savings of $691 million a year.

For legislators who don't like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's early release proposal, this is a viable alternative and saves the state more money ($691 million vs. the governor's $527 million). Expensive state prisons shouldn't be housing short-term, nonviolent offenders who could serve time in county jails. To accomplish this, legislators would have to accelerate building 13,000 new county jail beds that the Legislature authorized in Assembly Bill 900 last year.

Shift parole supervision of lower-level offenders to counties. Now, when a state prison inmate finishes a prison sentence, state staff supervise the offender's parole. This shift of 71,000 parolees, about 56 percent of the state's caseload, would save the state $495 million. It would also serve the policy goal of giving counties a greater stake in the success of offenders when they return to the local community. To give counties the resources to handle this, the LAO is recommending legislators shift three existing pots of money: waste and water enterprise special district property taxes ($188 million), city Proposition 172 sales taxes ($178 million) and vehicle license fees held by the Department of Motor Vehicles ($130 million).

Negotiate a reasonable contract with the prison guards union. The budget situation requires that the state revisit all state employee contracts. The governor has proposed a retroactive 5 percent raise for prison guards effective July 1, 2007, and raises in 2008 and 2009. The LAO recommends the Legislature reject this plan, saving $260 million a year.

Get prison overtime costs under control. When positions go unfilled or guards call in sick, other guards fill those positions by working overtime at 1.5 times the cost of their regular salary. While some overtime costs are inevitable, prison overtime costs are outrageously high -- $471 million last year (up from $53 million a decade ago). This is inexcusable.

Use a different population and staffing formula for prisons. California's process is confusing, unique nationally and results in big staffing errors. It doesn't account for differences in prisons, resulting in some being overstaffed and others understaffed (which drives up overtime).

These recommendations would save the state money and improve the prison system. The LAO has been making these recommendations for years, to deaf ears. Maybe a $16 billion deficit will sharpen the Legislature's hearing.