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Housing costs still rising — at state prisons

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The average annual cost of housing an inmate in the California prison system has more than doubled over the past decade to $43,287 a year, according to figures by the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Most of the increase is due to rising labor costs, but health-care expenditures resulting from federal court orders in Sacramento and San Francisco have more than tripled in the 10-year period and figured significantly into the increase, the LAO reported. "A little bit of it is due to the growth in the inmate population, but that's a relatively small share," said Brian Brown, the author of the LAO's criminal justice report that contained the cost figures. "The bigger portion has to do with the combination of the increases in salary for the correctional officers, who make up the bulk of the prison staff, and all the increases related to health care services for inmates."

The annual cost per inmate pencils out to a daily per capita prison rate of $119 — nearly a 33 percent jump since the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in October said that it was paying an average of $90 a day to house a prisoner.

"Wow," said state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, the chairman of the budget subcommittee that oversees prison spending, when told about the $43,287 figure.

Machado said the numbers "bear out the problem within the prison system."

"It also says the prison system is broken because our population keeps increasing and we have a recidivism rate above 70 percent," Machado added. "More than anything, it points out that we need to have a comprehensive review of our system and do the reforms that we have been talking about."

Among the changes discussed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats are the elimination of parole for some 24,000 low-risk offenders and the creation of a sentencing commission to regulate the flow of inmates into the system.

Republicans in the Legislature have expressed skepticism about both plans. GOP Assemblyman Todd Spitzer of Orange, however, said California residents are going to have to come to grips with the state's rising per-inmate costs, especially in light of voter-approved sentencing initiatives such as the "three-strikes" law for repeat offenders and the Jessica's Law statute for sex criminals.

"I think the public better get ready because it's going to get a lot higher," Spitzer said.

The $43,287-per-inmate price tag exceeds the $34,000 average cost that corrections officials were quoting as recently as late last year. It also represents a better than 100 percent increase over the $21,000 average the state used to spend on inmates in 1997.

Security costs, most of which are dedicated to labor, account for $19,561 of the current total, which compares to a figure of about $9,600 a decade ago, Brown said. Inmate health care, meanwhile, now costs $9,330 per prisoner. In 1997, it added up to about $2,500 per inmate, according to Brown.

Favorable contracts won by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association in the past decade have pushed the security cost upward. Rank-and-file correctional officers in the state now earn a top-scale salary of more than $73,000 a year, plus benefits.

But the state's prison cops also work under the fourth highest inmate-to-staff ratio in the country — 6.46 to one, compared to a national average of 4.47 to one, according to a UC Irvine study released last year.

"Certainly, corrections is a labor-intensive business," CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran said.