The U.S. Supreme Court just upheld lower court rulings that California prisons are impermissibly overcrowded. This leaves California with a difficult choice--spend billions of dollars it doesn't have to expand facilities or release thousands of dangerous criminals onto the streets. So why is this good news for California? Because it may well eliminate billions of dollars in unnecessary government spending and reduce the influence of one of the more nefarious political interest groups in California.
In California, the prison guards' union is one of the formidable and influential players in California politics. California prison guards earn six figure salaries, have fat pensions, and are perhaps the single most powerful special interest group on the political scene. Political candidates backed by the union have an almost 100 percent certainty of being elected, and politicians of all stripes vie for the favor of the prison guards. Now being a prison guard is one of the worst jobs imaginable, and you couldn't pay me enough to take that job for even one day. On the other hand, you don't see prison guards making this kind of money and having this kind of influence in other states.
So how did we get where we are? The answer is that California keeps more people in jail than the other states. The prison population is artificially swelled by a number of factors. The three strikes law, can send a felon to prison for a mandatory 25 year sentence for something like stealing a pizza. California parolees are returned at a rate much higher than other states because very minor violations are cause for being sent back to prison. With this bulging prison population there is a bigger demand for prison guards, which gives them that much more influence.
The wasteful spending caused by this overincarceration is legendary. California prisoners are entitled to medical care, including expensive procedures such as heart transplants, that many of us would be jealous to have, though day to day health care may fall short. A recent Los Angeles Times story details how critically ill prisoners are tended to at off prison sites, under round the clock guard by two or three prison guards, at the cost of $800,000 per prisoner per year. Such critically ill prisoners could easily be released into the civilian health system without danger to society, but since this would result in the elimination of cushy prison guard jobs, it hasn't been done, with the cry of "public safety" being used as a shield to justify this waste.
But wouldn't the wholesale release of thousands of prisoners in fact be a threat to public safety. Of course it will, though it can be mitigated by releasing those who pose a lesser danger. But the fact is that public safety is not something that has to be maximized to the exclusion of everything else. As my criminal law professor said, if you threw everybody in jail the streets would be completely safe. So really, public safety is a balancing factor. And with proportionately more people in California prisons than in other states, is California a noticeably safer place to be? I don't think so.