Prison Guards Score Again

David Crane
Lecturer and Research Scholar at Stanford University and President of Govern for California

Governor Jerry Brown is negotiating yet another salary increase for state prison employees, the fourth in seven years.

Salaries for California’s prison employees already exceed $5 billion per year, 2.5x the revenues of the country’s largest private prison corporation. Pension and other benefits raise total compensation to $8 billion per year, nearly $1 billion more than governor and legislature will provide the University of California and California State University.

57,000 people work in California’s prisons. 675,000 students attend UC and CSU. Looked at that way, the governor and state legislature are electing to spend $140,000 in compensation per prison employee versus $10,000 per university student.

This latest increase follows three salary increases negotiated by Brown and approved by the legislature in 2011, 2103 and 2016. The cost falls on discretionary programs such as UC, CSU, courts and parks.

What accounts for Brown’s generosity towards California’s prison employees? Presumably he wanted their support for some reforms he sought earlier this decade to reduce the state’s prison population, now 127,000 inmates. But the latest increase is a mystery. The Legislative Analyst’s Office seems to be wondering about the same thing.

It can be tempting to blame prison employees or their unions but they are perfectly within their rights in seeking the highest possible compensation. The blame, if any, falls on the governor and the legislature for it is is they who represent citizens and taxpayers and who negotiate and approve employee compensation.

The legislature should drill down before it approves the latest increase. Even if it approves the salary increase there is an opportunity to free up money for UC, CSU and other discretionary programs by, eg, eliminating expensive subsidies for retired employee health insurance.

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