The juxtaposition of two recent news stories may signal a new era in politics in California and many other states. In March, a state planning agency announced that $10.2 billion will be required to finance California prison construction for the remainder of this decade. This new sum--far more than the state has spent building prisons in its entire history--would facilitate the expansion of the prison system from 100,000 persons in 1991 to more than 200,000 by the end of the decade.
Seemingly unrelated to the prison construction story, the Richmond Unified School District in Northern California filed for bankruptcy in April, and the schools remained open only because of an emergency court order. State financial aid to the school district was opposed by a governor who has also been attempting to suspend a voter-approved formula to guarantee state aid to public schools. With program cuts and teacher layoffs all over the state, additional state aid to a troubled school district was a precedent the governor thought California could not afford.
In the fiscally strained 1990s, California's prison situation and its school budget are linked as never before. The unquenchable appetite for expanding prisons is in a zero-sum competition with other essential services. Recognition of this emerging struggle may offer the best hope yet for putting sensible limits on prison growth.
The long shadow cast by the prison crunch on money for other state services is a new development because traditionally prison budgets were not big-ticket items. A decade ago, California's prison budget was less than 1/20th of its kindergarten-through-12th-grade education budget, and expenditures on education and school construction had expanded much more in the previous 20 years than had the commitment for prisons. Even the unprecedented growth in prison population during the 1980s was not fully reflected in public budgets. As the population in the state prisons quadrupled from 22,500 to 100,000 in 11 years, most of the additional prisoners were pressed into existing correctional facilities. This proved only a temporary cost-saving measure, and the 1990s is when push comes to shove.
California is now planning both operating budgets for prisons and construction costs at levels far in excess of those that funded the entire prison costs of the United States 20 years ago. Then again, the state anticipates having a larger prison population by the end of this decade than that of all 50 states had in 1973.
The bills for this tremendous growth will come due during a period of very tight public money. With a $14.4-billion budget deficit, this state will be cutting services substantially. Prisons have been an increasingly visible exception to the pattern of "every program suffers." In this era of conspicuous competition, every prison guard hired is a teacher not employed; every cell unit constructed is many schoolrooms that cannot be built. The visibility of this competition is a new aspect in California politics, as it will be for the majority of states.
Perhaps the explicit competition between prisons and other public needs will end the curious period of non-debate in public life about the purposes and limits of prisons. For 20 years, as the number of prisoners doubled and then trebled in the United States, the policies behind prison expansion have been unexamined as well as uncontested. Instead, next year's prison population is treated in official reports as a natural phenomenon beyond human control, like monsoons or droughts. Public concern about crime is assumed to provide consensus support for any imaginable level of expansion. The conventional political wisdom in most states regards opposition to prison expansion as the moral equivalent of retiring from elective office.
Politics is the sole significant impediment to prison limits. As an administrative and legal matter, placing limits on prison growth is not a mysterious process. The most effective method available under current circumstances is to set arbitrary numerical growth limits at the state level, holding population constant or allowing for growth only to the level of an increase in the state's adult population.
The fact that the obstacles to limiting prison growth are only political does not mean that a solution to the prison boom is an easy matter. But identifying the roots of the expansion as political clarifies why the competition between schools and prisons is of such importance.
Almost nobody succeeded in holding the line on prison population in the 1980s because almost nobody tried. Now that prisons have joined schools, roads, welfare and health care as a major expenditure category in state government, prison budgets cannot remain immune from the intense struggle for limited funds. Less clear is the political outcome once it becomes known that unlimited prison-building is a policy that the schoolchildren of California cannot afford.