U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris. Associated Press file photo.

Harris correct on costs of keeping prisoners

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris believes taxpayers aren’t “getting a good return on investment” when it comes to California’s prison system.

The California Democrat told the Women Unshackled forum in Washington D.C. in July that alternatives to locking up inmates, such as drug treatment programs, are far cheaper and sometimes more effective than prison sentences.

Harris made criminal justice reform a top priority during her time as California’s attorney general and has done the same so far in the Senate. Recently, she teamed up with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to push bipartisan bail-reform legislation that would prevent minor offenders from sitting in jail if they can’t afford release on bail before trial.

We interpreted Harris’s claim about per inmate expenses to mean the operational costs to house male and female inmates, including security, health care, facility upkeep and employee compensation.

Advocates for criminal justice reform often argue that looking only at the operational costs of prisons ignores the social costs of incarcerating Americans. We looked at those costs as well, but based our rating primarily on the evidence supporting the numbers Harris cited.

A spokesperson for Harris provided us with data on the cost of federal incarceration, from the independent Vera Institute of Justice, as well as numbers for California, based on Gov. Jerry Brown’s spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

In its May 2017 report “The Price of Prisons,” the Vera Institute obtained data for 45 states and found the total cost per inmate averaged $33,274. The institute advocates reducing inmate totals and improving conditions in prisons. It reported receiving about three-quarters of its funding from the federal government.

The study’s findings support Harris’ claim on the average cost of housing inmates nationally. But what about the California’s per inmate price of $75,000?

For that figure, Harris’ spokesman cited a June 2017 article by the Associated Press. It estimated the cost per inmate would reach a record $75,560 in the current fiscal year. The AP based its estimate on the money Gov. Brown set aside in this year’s budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

To verify this figure and put it in context, we examined the governor’s 2017-18 budget and contacted the Brown administration’s corrections and finance departments, as well as the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

These sources pointed us to the projected $76,320 cost per inmate in Brown’s 2017-18 budget. That is “about $75,000” as Harris put it.

A spokeswoman for the state’s corrections department told us California paid about $73,000 per inmate last fiscal year, also very close to Harris’ number.

While Harris’ numbers are nearly spot on, we wanted to know what’s driving this high cost to lock up prisoners in California.

The expense to house each inmate has doubled since 2005, even as court orders reduced the prison population by about a quarter, according to the Associated Press. Several reasons account for the dramatic increase. Viewed simply, fewer inmates combined with higher corrections spending equals a higher per capita cost.

Our ruling

Sen. Kamala Harris recently claimed “it costs us about $33,000 a year (nationally) to lock somebody up. In California it costs about $75,000 a year.” A recent study that examined costs in 45 states plus data from California’s departments of corrections and finance support the senator’s statement.

Digging deeper, we found reducing inmates in California’s prisons, which Harris supports, may actually increase the per capita costs she highlights. That will be especially true if salary and pension costs continue to increase as inmate numbers drop.

Harris’ statement centers on the costs alone to house inmates nationally and in California. The evidence supports the figures she cited.

We rate Harris’ claim True.

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