By Darren E. Weiss

California’s prison system will soon come under fire as the state swiftly heads toward a dubious landmark. For the first time the state will spend more on its prisons than on higher education.

Revealed in the May revisions of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget, the state will spend $10 billion on prisons in fiscal 2007-08, a nine percent increase from last year. Spending on higher education rose to $12 billion — a six percent increase. Based on those trends, California’s prison budget will exceed spending on the state’s universities and community colleges in five years. No other large state in the nation spends nearly as much on prisons as on higher education.

“The budget is definitely a statement of priorities for our state,” said Bill Shiebler, president of UC Student Association, a system-wide advocacy group that has been fighting tuition increases in state universities for several years. “It’s very disappointing that they are deciding to increase the prison budget instead of expanding the education budget in a way that makes it easier for students to go to school and get an education.”

Shiebler said one of the problems with California’s prison system is that the state tends to put more funding into infrastructure growth rather than rehabilitation programs, which increases the inmate recidivism rate.

California has one of the highest prison return rates in the country, with 70 percent of released inmates coming back within three years.

“Politicians, especially in Sacramento, are taking the easy way out and the lazy way out and it’s frustrating,” Schiebler said. “Voters in California should be really upset.”

Under a new state law, AB900, California will spend $7.4 billion for prison construction, including the building of 40,000 new beds. Interest payments on the billions of dollars in bonds sold to finance the construction alone will come to $330 million per year by 2011 — money that will not be available for higher education.

Currently, there are about 173,000 inmates and 56,500 employees operating under the $10 billion budget in California’s prisons. By contrast, over three million students and 250,00 faculty and staff members populate the state’s public universities and community colleges with just $2 billion more.

Barbara Tombs, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, said the overwhelming number of inmates in California’s prisons accounts for its huge budget.

“California needs to make sure they’re putting the right people in prison for the right amount,” she said.

Tombs was the executive director of the Kansas Sentencing Commission from 1995-2003 before directing the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. She supports AB900 but said it is only a small piece of the pie. California, she said, is taking a less-than-complete approach with its prisons.

“Two variables affect prison population: who goes in and how long they stay,” she said. “AB900 addresses neither of those.”

When asked if California’s large prison budget was a reflection of the state’s priorities, Steve Boilard, a legislative analyst of the California Legislature, said it is not.

“Both [the prison and higher education] systems are driven by a number of variables,” he said. “By participation levels, workload levels, how many people are incarcerated, and how many students enroll.” These variables are beyond the control of the state, he said.

Boilard, who specializes in higher education issues, said the amount of money spent on California’s university system is a response to some external, non-policy factors — the state of the economy, the perceived value of education, student preparation levels, the growth of the college-age population — and does not necessarily reflect the state’s priority to higher education.

Among the big states, California spends more than any other on higher education and prisons. Texas, for instance, will spend $4.5 billion on higher education in 2007 and $2 billion on prisons, while Florida will spend $3.9 billion on its universities and $2.1 billion on prisons.