POPs, GEOPs and MacGuffins

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

Alfred Hitchcock often employed a technique in his films known as a “MacGuffin,” which is an object, device or event that draws attention from the real plot but is largely insignificant itself. MacGuffins are also employed in California politics, as the example below demonstrates.

California houses less than 2 percent of its ~128,000 state prison inmates in privately-operated prisons (POP’s). The other 98 percent are housed in government-employee-operated prisons (GEOP’s):

POP’s and GEOP’s both profit from incarceration, though GEOP’s earn much greater revenues and GEOP employees don’t have to share those revenues with shareholders. This year California’s legislature and governor will award $10 billion in compensation to 57,000 GEOP employees, which is 5x more than the revenues of the largest POP operator in the country. It’s also 5x more than the legislature and governor will award the state court system and 2.5x more than CSU and UC will each collect. It should come as no surprise that, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, GEOP’s are three times more expensive per inmate than POP’s.

This year the state legislature passed a bill to ban POP’s in California, which is fine with us.  What’s not fine with us is that same legislature doing nothing to address their extraordinary spending on GEOP compensation while taking donations from GEOP employees to whom they granted five salary increases in nine years, most recently in June. Because of the way California’s budget works, increases in GEOP employee compensation disproportionately reduce resources available for courts, UC, CSU and other discretionary programs. While many a legislator will tout the POP-banning legislation, nary a word will be volunteered about the donations they receive from GEOP employees, their votes to boost GEOP employee compensation, or the negative consequences of those votes on discretionary programs.

Legislation banning POP’s in California is a political MacGuffin while the real plot is excess spending on GEOP employee compensation by elected officials who receive political donations from the beneficiaries of those compensation arrangements. Using the San Francisco Chronicle’s estimate, if California’s GEOP’s operated at the same cost level as POP’s, the state could save enough to double spending on courts and boost allocations to each of UC and CSU by 50 percent.

The governor signed the POP-banning legislation. Now the legislature should send him bills to reduce and control GEOP compensation.

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