California - Proposal to Contract Out Prison Beds

I applaud the Governor for calling for contracting out prison beds.  Unfortunately, he opposed my proposal to do exactly that when it could have made a difference:

Debate Remarks, AB 900

California State Senate, April 26, 2007

Reamrks by California State Senator Tom McClintock

I would like to begin with some stubborn facts.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, for fiscal year 06-07, it will cost California taxpayers $42,000 per year for each inmate in the California Department of Corrections. And yet, the U.S. Department of Justice reports it only costs them $25,000 per inmate and Illinois Department of Corrections reports its costs at $23,000 per inmate. Florida reports an average of just $18,000 per inmate – less than half of the $42,000 we now pay in this state.

These are not subtle differences.

The increase in our costs has been exponential over the last six years. In 2000-2001, the per inmate cost in California was just $25,000.

In six years, the price we pay per inmate has increased 68 percent – with most of that increase since the governor took office: ballooning by $10,000 per year from $32,000 to $42,000.

And in keeping with this casual approach to our state’s finances, there is absolutely nothing in this measure to contain these costs.

In fact, the administration already has put on the table an additional $1 billion increase in salaries for prison guards, just for openers.

This is a $7 1/2 billion bond measure for construction. That’s nearly $900 for every family in this state. The “infill” beds – the cheapest beds in the plan — will cost $163,000 each. Yet Michigan’s Bellamy Creek prison – a multi-level facility recently completed – cost $54,000 per bed. The Illinois Department of corrections places their mid-level construction costs at $56,000 per bed.

And the voters will never get a say in this mountain of debt – and this ocean of waste – because this measure employs a specious fiction that denies our people their constitutional right to vote on all taxpayer-supported debt.

And this, at a time when our debt service obligations have tripled in just four years. There is simply no precedent for the borrowing and spending binge upon which this state is now embarked.

It is absolutely true that we face a severe crisis of overcrowding and overspending in our prisons. But this measure addresses the problem in exactly the wrong way.

We don’t need to plunge the state into a new spiral of costs and we don’t need to release dangerous criminals. There is a third alternative.

Many other states, including Alaska, Arizona, Florida, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Washington, Colorado, Mississippi, North Carolina, Hawaii, Idaho, Vermont, and Wyoming contract out custody of significant portions of their prison populations.

I’ve talked with two of those companies, and both tell me that they are prepared to provide medium level security for $23,000 per year – and that includes the capital cost of construction. And they can do so within 15 to 18 months of the contract signing – well before the very first beds under this proposal will be ready.

By doing so, we could save $7 1/2 billion in construction costs, $7 1/2 billion more in interest payments, and save a billion dollars a year in operating costs for the 50,000 beds.

The proponents say, “But we do that. We allow for contracting out for the next four years.”

And that is the most mendacious claim of all. Out of one side of their mouths they promise it and out of the other they make very sure it can’t happen.

You see, the two biggest contractors combined have only 1,400 beds currently available between them. In order to construct the additional capacity, they have to amortize construction costs and they need longer contracts to do so – exactly what this measure makes impossible.

I have heard only two arguments against this. The union argues that the prisoners don’t want to go. Well, sorry, prison isn’t voluntary and prisoners don’t get to choose their accommodations.

The other argument is that government shouldn’t turn over lethal force to private contractors. That is sheer nonsense. Since the founding of this nation the Constitution has provided for contracting out the waging of war to privateers. Contracting is no different than deputizing – both are the delegation of sovereign powers – as many other states are practicing today. And I might add that we are ourselves already contracting out more than 300 prisoners.

The choice could not possibly be more clear. We must alleviate overcrowding in our prisons.

There are two ways to do so WITHOUT releasing dangerous criminals.

The first is this measure – $15 billion in capital and interest – and the guarantee that our costs will continue to spiral out of control.

The other is already the practice of many other states – and available to us right now – that will not only avoid $15 of principal and interest, but will allow us to reduce our general fund expenses for the prisons by a billion dollars a year.

I’d like to amend this measure to vote on that alternative, but because the entire legislative process has once again been bypassed by the extra-constitutional use of a conference report – I can’t do that.

It troubles me greatly that we are still acting so recklessly even as we are watching our finances deteriorating so rapidly. Even at this late hour, the spending spree continues – even when the opportunity for both major reform and major cost savings is staring us right in the face.