As California attempts to weather its current fiscal crisis, sacrifices will have to be made. The budget will need to be cut, and taxes may need to be raised. But we must carefully consider whom we will ask to sacrifice.
We should be able to ask our state universities — which, as we all know, provide generous salaries to their faculty and staff and bargain-basement tuition prices for their students — to make do with a little less. But there is one area where we cannot afford to cut any further: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
After all, California’s prison budgets have already been cut to the bone, as evidenced by the fact that the state only spends about $50,000 per prisoner a year (the most of any state in the country), according to The Bay Citizen. That really isn’t so much when you think about it — it’s less than the cost of room, board, tuition and living expenses for a nonresident student attending UC Berkeley.
In 2006, the average correctional officer earned a meager $73,248 per year — only about 20 percent more than UC assistant professors with doctorates, according to a USC law school report. Even including overtime, only about 6,000 guards took home six figures, with the highest payout at just over a quarter million dollars. And forget retirement security — guards must wait until age 55 before they can retire with 85 percent of their final year’s salary (and medical benefits) for the rest of their lives.
Critics have pointed out that these salaries are the highest of prison guards in any state and are about twice the national average, but this fails to take into account California’s high cost of living. A representative of the prison guards union, Ryan Sherman, put it too lightly when he told NBC Bay Area “I don’t know that they’re paid too much. I think they actually deserve more.”
Even if prison guards’ compensation were excessive, reductions in guard pay should be ruled out for practical reasons — when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to support a contract favored by the prison guards union, which has spent millions lobbying Sacramento, it mounted an effort to recall him.
So, now that we’ve ruled out capping guards’ salaries, let’s look at other misguided proposals to reduce prison costs. One example is Proposition 36, which will appear on the November ballot. Proposition 36 — in an ill-advised effort to alleviate prison overcrowding and make sentences more humane — would reform California’s enormously expensive three strikes law, which the prison guards union has historically backed.
Some observers might be confused as to how the union’s support for prison cost reduction and its commitment to “help inmates turn their lives around” squares with its support for California’s three strikes law and its expenditure of millions of dollars to defeat virtually every treatment program for drug offenders, even though these programs have been proven to reduce costs.
Cynics and conspiracy theorists might even explain the union’s political predilections by claiming that it actually profits from pro-incarceration policies, which lead to more prisoners, more prison guards and thus more political clout for the union, which the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies calls “one of the most powerful political forces in Sacramento.” But the fact is that the union has put forward the only sensible ways to save money on incarceration, like cutting medical care for inmates, canceling California’s contract with the federal Employment Development Department — which helps paroled inmates find jobs — and hiring more guards to reduce current guards’ overtime.
The efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the corrections department stands in stark contrast to the bloated bureaucracy and inflated salaries that characterize the UC system. Tenured UC Berkeley and UCLA faculty now earn about $40,000 per year less than they would at the university’s private-sector competitors. Shouldn’t UC faculty accept significantly lower wages in the name of public service?
Meanwhile, UC students demand enormous government subsidies for their education and protest ungratefully every time the regents raise their tuition. How will we ever convince them — and, for that matter, the rest of the 47 percent of Americans who are dependent on government — to take personal responsibility and care for their lives?
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