Rationalizing California’s Corrections Compensation

Later this year California Governor Gavin Newsom will negotiate a new contract with state prison workers that must be approved by the legislature. The consequences are big, especially for discretionary programs supplied by the state’s General Fund.

The state’s inmate population has dropped 22 percent since 2010–11, to 127,000:

Source: Governor’s Budgets

Staffing declined 15 percent, to 57,000:

CDCR = California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Source: Governor’s Budgets

Currently there are .45 CDCR employees per inmate, up 10 percent:

Source: Governor’s Budgets

Salary spending rose to $5.7 billion, up 29 percent:

Source: Governor’s Budgets

As a result, salary spending per inmate increased 66%:

Source: Governor’s Budgets

And salary spending per employee grew 51 percent:

Source: Governor’s Budgets

Because more than half of California’s General Fund spending is determined by constitution, contracts and entitlements, increased spending on CDCR compensation disproportionately burdens discretionary programs funded by the General Fund, such as California State University. The $5.7 billion in salary CDCR will pay its 57,000 employees this year is 36 percent more than the $4.2 billion the state will provide CSU, which serves 7x as many students (410,000). Because contracts are protected while CSU funding is discretionary, crowd-out is most evident during recessions. Eg, when General Fund revenues fell 15 percent between 2007–8 and 2011–12, funding for CSU dropped 33 percent.

CDCR salaries comprise the largest share of state salary spending:

Source: Governor’s 2019–20 Budget

Because some of that table is funded by Special Funds while 100 percent of CDCR spending comes out of the General Fund, CDCR salaries comprise an even greater share of General Fund salary spending.

CDCR employees and retirees are also the beneficiaries of employee benefits, which also crowd out discretionary spending:

Source: Governor’s 2019–20 Budget

>$3 billion of those costs are attributable to CDCR this year. That translates into $57,000 per CDCR employee, up >100 percent since 2010.

Private prison corporations aren’t the only ones profiting from incarceration. So are public employees, and especially in California. The $5.7 billion in salary paid to CDCR employees is 3x the revenues of the country’s largest private prison corporation. Including employee benefits, it’s 5x.

California’s prison employees provide valuable services in difficult environments but after a >80 percent increase in compensation spending per inmate and a >60 percent increase in compensation spending per employee and to protect discretionary programs from the next recession, now is the time for the governor and state legislature to rationalize CDCR staffing and salaries.