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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

The Cost Of Life In Prison

Audio

The Supreme Court has rejected California's challenge to reduce its overcrowded prison population. The High Court says the state must follow a federal order to reduce its prison numbers by 40-thousand within two years. Yesterday, we told how overcrowding is taking a toll on old and sick inmates. Now, we look at the cost of spending life in prison. KPBS Producer Wendy Fry joins us with that part of the story.

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Above: As an inmate ages, his expenses behind bars can nearly triple as he requires more health care.

DWANE BROWN (Host): The Supreme Court has rejected California's challenge to reduce its overcrowded prison population. The high court says the state must follow a federal order to reduce its prison numbers by 40,000 within two years. Yesterday, we told you how overcrowding is taking a toll on old and sick inmates. Now, we look at the cost of spending life in prison. KPBS Producer Wendy Fry joins us with that part of the story.

Wendy, you went through state documents, analyzed data about California's prison population. What surprised you most?

WENDY FRY (Web Producer): The lack of data that the Department of Corrections uses to track costs. We spend more than 10 percent of the General Fund and more than $10 billion on Corrections, and the California State Auditor has found that the Department of Corrections is just failing to keep basic data so that those costs can be tracked and we can find a way to save some money. In fact, the databases for the inmates, and prison populations and costs are spread out among several different agencies and more than 80 databases.

BROWN: What kind of trends have you seen in our prison system over say the last 10 years?

FRY: The prison population that is over the age of 40 is increasing at an alarming rate, while the prison population change of younger inmates is going down and that's because of Three Strikes law. It's problematic because of how expensive the older inmates are with their increased health care costs. That's just because just like outside of prison the majority of our health care costs are spent in the last years of our lives, the same is true behind bars.

BROWN: And California inmates taxpayers cost what? $50,000 per year?

FRY: That's according to the California State Auditor, but then, once an inmate reaches the age of 55, you can basically calculate three times the cost. If we think we're having a prison crisis right now, we just need to wait about 5 years.

BROWN: I wonder how California compares to say a large state like New York.

FRY: We spend on average more than any other state on cost per inmate. A lot of that has to do with the failure in data keeping. The Department of Corrections is overpaying employees to take care of these aging inmates by almost $600,000.

So, one of the aspects I was very interested in is how California compares to other states in terms of decreased violent crimes, we checked with the Bureau of Justice and the percent change of violent crimes and compared that with the percent change of prison population. And yes, we have decreased violent crimes, but our prison population has increased. Whereas other states, for example New York was able to reduce its prison population and reduce violent crimes.

BROWN: How does the juvenile justice system compare to the adult system?

FRY: We also have more juveniles serving life sentences than in California than in any other state. More than 2600 juveniles are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 and if you calculate out the cost, using the 50-grand a year and then the 150-grand after they each reach the age of 55, you're going to be looking at $6.4 billion* to have those 2600 juveniles to serve out a life sentence in prison.

BROWN: What kind of policy changes, Wendy, can we expect going forward?

FRY: They're looking at moving toward privatization as the governor announced in his State address. In other states, where they have privatized medical care for aging and dying inmates such as Tennessee and New York, there have been reports of problems with accountability to the public and some questions raised over the methods used to save money.

ALAN RAY: That's KPBS producer Wendy Fry. You can see inside the California Medical Facility, and hear from aging inmates by going to our Web site and looking at KPBS.org/prisons.

*This figure was estimated with a complex equation obtained through several public requests for information through several agencies. It factors in rate of release, decreased life expectancy for lifelong inmates and other considerations. It does not factor general increases to health care costs.

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