Prison Funding Finding Funds for Fighting Crime  Essay

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Prison Funding

Finding Funds for Fighting Crime: Financial Contingency planning for California's Prison System

Prisons have always been a controversial aspect of society, and far more so in the modern era of sociological and psychological inquiry into the nature of crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. Deciding precisely what function prisons are meant to serve and how they should go about serving it has been the cause of a great deal of social and political debate, and these issues are far from settled. There are those that argue for the reduction of prison terms and sentencing lengths and a move to more rehabilitative efforts rather than the punitive focus most prisons seem to hold today, while others insist that making prisons punitive and able to accommodate more inmates serves as a deterrent to crime and as a testament to the rules of justice. These abstract issues in and of themselves make the prison issue highly contentious, before the many practical complications of prisons are even considered.

Funding prison systems creates a slew of other debates from a wide range of perspectives. Much like arguments about government funding for anything else, there are both pragmatic and ideological arguments that come into play when trying to secure funding for prisons, and these can create fluctuations in the available funding for prison systems at certain politically and economically sensitive times. Regardless of where ideology and policy come down, however, those in charge of prison systems have to make sure that all basic needs and legal requirements are being provided for with whatever funding is available.

The following pages will examine the various sources of funding available to the California Prison System, which is one of the largest in the nation and constitutes a significant portion of the state's budget (Governor's Budget, 2012; Skelton, 2011). Making ends meet for all of the system's prisons and prisoners can be a challenging and complex task, involving many different types of funding from many different outlets and coming at varying rates. It is only through the careful pursuit and coordination of all potential funding sources that the prison system is adequately maintained and operated regardless of the societal and political debates regarding the purpose and rectitude of this operation, and at times navigating the channels of practicalities involved in prison funding can be just as difficult and subtle as effectively navigating political and ideological channels argued form less pragmatic perspectives.

Public-Private Partnerships

It was not until 2006 that public-private partnerships became a major source of funding/funding structure for California prisons (Gilroy et al., 2010). Overcrowding and other issues had continued to place strains on the California Prison System for quite some time, and it was in 2006 that Governor Schwarzenegger declared an emergency in the corrections institutions and programs in the state, opening the door for greater private intervention in what had been an almost exclusively public sphere (Gilroy et al., 2010). Since that time, public-private partnerships have become much more commonplace in the state, not only providing a means of funding the prison system but also creating savings (Gilroy et al., 2010).

The current estimate for the cost of housing a single inmate for one year in the California Prison System is approaching $50,000, and the total cost to the state in direct terms (not counting future reimbursements, federal funds, and certain other costs) for the prison system as a whole exceeds ten billon dollars annually (Gilroy et al., 2010; Governor's Budget, 2012; Skelton, 2011). Private operations have been able to create a savings of up to 28% per inmate depending on the level of private partnership within the public prison system, which translates to a savings of fourteen thousand dollars per inmate or a total savings in direct costs of over three billion dollars (Gilroy et al., 2006). Private involvement in the prison system is the source of some controversy in terms of public opinion and policy, however the savings and essentially limitless funding capacity of private enterprise has made it a necessary part of funding the California Prison System (Gilroy et al., 2006).


Non-profits do not appear to be a major source of funding for the California Prison System, as their entrance into fundamental and large-scale operations was also limited until the emergency declaration by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006 (Gilroy et al., 2010). What involvement non-profits do have is largely limited to support services and non-essentials, however these still represent certain savings to the state and thus "funding," in a certain sense (Gilroy et al., 2006). Seeking greater levels of partnership and involvement from non-profits will help to make up for funding shortcomings that might occur in the future.

Bond Issuance

According to the information available in the latest budget for the state, just over eight-hundred thousand dollars in funds from general bonds are used as funding for operations within the California Prison System (Governor's Budget, 2012). This is a fairly small amount in terms of the total funding of the California Prison System, representing only three-quarters of one percent of all direct funds necessary to maintain full operations for all facilities and inmates, however these funds are still vital to the cash-strapped system (Governor's Budget, 2012; Gilroy et al., 2006). It is far from certain that bonds can be relied upon to provide more significant amounts of funding in the future, though, or even that they will continue to provide the same level of funding that they currently do, and this is for entirely pragmatic and financial reasons directly related to market forces rather than ideological controversies.

Issuing bonds would be rather difficult and not necessarily possible or advantageous given the current state of the overall economy -- bonds require purchasers, and given the impact that the recent economic downturn has had on expendable income and investment accounts, purchasers are in short supply. In addition, California has suffered significant deficits in recent years, reaching crisis level at certain times. Bonds are only purchased when the rate of return is commensurate with the risk these bonds carry, and California would have to pay a fairly substantial interest rate on the borrowed money that bonds reflect. Bond issuance should not be counted on as a major source of funding for California's prisons, then.


There are several different specific grant programs used as a means of organizing and securing funding for various aspects of the California Prison System, from the juvenile incarceration facilities and programs included in the state budget to some of the higher-order planning operations that help to adjust and run the system from year to year (Governor's Budget, 2012). Despite this range in the areas of the California Prison System in which grants are utilized as a funding source, this type of funding is far less substantial even than bonds, comprising a total of under two hundred thousand dollars' worth of the total budget for the prison system (Governor's Budget, 2012). This works out to under two-tenths of one percent of the total annual operating budget, and like bonds this is not a number that is likely to increase over the coming years without an unexpected upturn in the state and global economy, therefore these should not be looked to as sources for additional funding for new expansion or development projects in the current period but rather should be relied upon as little as possible.

Multi-Level Government Financing

The vast majority of funding for the California Prison System comes from various governments, from the local level (in some communities) though counties, the state, and up to the federal government (Governor's Budget, 2012; Gilroy, 2010; Skelton, 2011). These government sources of funding have also been tightened as of late, and cost burdens have been significant shifted in California in the past year (Skelton, 2011). This area is undoubtedly the most significant consideration for prison funding in the state.

Current California Governor Jerry Brown has made a reorganization of the prison system and its funding structures one of his top priorities since taking office, and part of his efforts here have been to shift the cost burden from the state of California to the counties within it, with the state providing a significant amount of finding to county jails and prisons while also transferring many non-violent and low-risk offenders (primarily individuals incarcerated for drug-related crimes) to the county facilities (Skelton, 2011). Though this has of course led to some backlash by city mayors and other politicians, it also has created an initial cost savings to the state that will necessarily increase as the program continues to take hold, and represents a method for reducing the cost of the system as a whole (including to counties) by reducing the number of inmates housed in prison facilities overall and reducing sentencing lengths based on the practical constraints on the system (Skelton, 2011). What this means for future funding is that the state should not be looked t for increased monies, but rather local and possibly federal governments can be sought out to fund more targeted programs.


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