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California Budget Held Captive By State Prisons

Prisoners lay on their bunks at California State Prison in Los Angeles County...

Credit: California Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation

Above: Prisoners lay on their bunks at California State Prison in Los Angeles County, located in the city of Lancaster. (Eds. note: The Department of Corrections said it no longer uses triple bunks in its facilities.)

— California is a mess financially, and one of its huge burdens is its prisons.

The state spends $10 billion a year on its prison system, which once was a model for states to follow but now is a model of what to avoid, NPR's Laura Sullivan tells Renee Montagne.

The prison population has grown from 25,000 to 175,000 since the early 1990s, not because of an increase in crime, Sullivan says, but because of the "tough-on-crime, three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws. But the growing population isn't the only prison-related challenge facing the state.

Unions are another factor. The prisons employ 33,000 people, including the nation's highest-paid correctional officers. The unions are a powerful political force, backing ballot measures for longer sentencing and punishment, for example.

Parole and probation represent another complicating factor. California has the country's toughest parole sanctions on the books. Each year the system releases 120,000 parolees, and each year 75,000 return to prison for violating their parole on technical terms, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer.

Texas used to have similar laws but found them too costly. So it slowly stopped returning parolees to prison for technical violations, and now Texas doesn't have the overcrowding and fiscal problems facing California, Sullivan says.

The three-strikes rule has returned as a ballot measure, but voters have not repealed it, she adds.

And yet another challenge is the rising cost of health care.

It all adds up to a vicious cycle that California's prisons can't seem to pull out of: Tough laws mean more prison time, more prison time means overcrowding, and overcrowding means less money for health care and other programs to help rehabilitate people and keep them from coming back to prison.

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