What Does it Mean to Spend More on Prisons than Higher Education

Yesterday, in his State of the State speech, the Governor endorsed a constitutional amendment that would require the state to spend more money on higher education than it does on prisons.  A nice idea, and one that would likely have the support of most progressives.

“Thirty years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons” Schwarzenegger said. “Today almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7½ percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.”

Schwarzenegger wants a constitutional amendment to prevent California lawmakers from ever spending more on prisons than on higher education. But California already spends more on education than on anything else. (KPCC)

But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it. And of course, there’s this, the hubris of the legislature:

“Every legislator would tell you that they value higher education more than they do prison spending,” Hollingsworth remarked. “The fact is we would be spending a lot less on the prisons than the university system if we had our own control over it.”

That would be really nice, if it were remotely true.  Up until this point, the Legislature has shown no willingness to break from the failing policies of the past that have given us a 70% recidivism rate, spiraling costs, and an increasingly dangerous prisons environment. The court decisions haven’t been in effect for all that long, in the grand scheme of things.  The decisions that brought us to this point were made over decades, and blaming the courts is a cheap political move. A throwaway line, really.


Now, you can’t really consider the costs of the prison system without looking at CCPOA. The prison guards’ union does have vastly different goals to either the governor, the legislature or the people. Of course, when Arnold speaks of taking the prison system private, that is who he is targeting. From my perspective, I deeply believe in the rights of workers to unionize and to bargain collectively. And given the conditions at a typical prison in the state, the protections a union offers are important. But their goals are simple: more prison guard hours.  That means more overtime, more guards, and when following the logic: more prisoners.

But the problem with privatizing the prisons is a similar one: the more prisoners, the more profits for the privately held prisons.  It is essentially the same motive that CCPOA has, but this time they have Wall Street looking over their backs.  I’m not sure that is really the answer either.

Pots and Pans Pictures, Images and PhotosThe real solution to this mess requires an incredibly courageous stand by a few critical elected officials that are willing to prioritize policy over politics. Don’t laugh, it’s possible. Only then can we follow states like Kansas, yes Kansas, in rethinking how our prisons can and should work.


This is, as the Governor pointed out yesterday, all about our priorities.  When the Governor stands up and says that we will not cut education, he is saying something about CalWORKS as well. And IHSS. And CalGrants. You get the point.  It is critical that we protect education, of course. But when the problem is a pot that is too small, you don’t solve the problem by saying that you will not skim any liquid off and focus on the carrots floating on the top.  No, you look for a bigger pot.

3 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to Spend More on Prisons than Higher Education”

  1. That Governor Terminator will want to eliminate the entire SSP part of the Budget(Legally He can only get away with $15 per month from the State Supplemental Payment that goes along with the Supplemental Security Income payment from the SSA), Along with IHSS and Calworks to balance the states budget. I told My elected state officials “No more Cuts” to the Seniors, Blind or the Disabled and I meant It, Line in the Sand time. Restore Majority rule, no more 2/3rds junk for the Budget or else…

  2. Spending 50k per prisoner while Florida spends 18k shows exactly why prisons eat up so much of the budget. And if bad teachers could actually be fired (a horrifying thought, I know) how much more efficiently would the tens of billions going to education every year be spent?

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