In this file photo taken Friday, April 17, 2015, new cells are under construction at Mule Creek State Prison, in Ione, Calif. California prison officials say federal mandates, which led to more expensive private prison beds, and increased spending on prison construction have caused a $3 billion drop in promised budget savings from what was predicted four years ago.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)
SACRAMENTO, California — Federal judicial orders are mostly to blame for a $3 billion drop in the budget savings that California prison officials promised four years ago, corrections officials said Wednesday.
They projected billions of dollars in reduced prison spending starting in 2012 through a long-term plan to dramatically trim the inmate population in response to federal court orders and recession-driven budget pressures.
But instead there is a $3 billion annual difference between the promised savings and the $10.5 billion corrections department budget Gov. Jerry Brown proposed earlier this month, in part because the state also chose to boost the number of prison beds available.
Federal judges required the state to reduce the headcount in the state's 34 main adult prisons more than officials wished, according to the revised long-term plan Brown's administration released Wednesday at the insistence of state lawmakers.
That led to more expensive private prison beds in California and other states and ended plans to close a dilapidated state lockup as the state scrambled to maintain enough beds, according to the new plan.
But the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now houses about 35,000 fewer inmates than it did at its peak in 2006, leading liberal and conservative advocacy groups and a state lawmaker to question why the savings never materialized.
"The money's going up, and the population's going down," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, who heads the Senate Public Safety Committee and the budget committee that oversees corrections spending. "When do you start seeing the long-term savings?"
The department says its budget would have been $1.3 billion higher this year without the changes the state has made in the last four years.
The revised plan says the current level of spending is needed to hold the inmate headcount below the level set by federal judges. Brown's budget includes more than $120 million in stop-gap population control measures, including fixing up the rundown California Rehabilitation Center at Norco and keeping 4,900 inmates in private lockups past this year's legislative deadline. The revised corrections plan also relies in part on space for nearly 2,400 inmates in three new cell houses built at existing prisons.
Lawmakers funded the new cell houses with the promise that the department would close the Norco prison, Hancock said in advance of the new report. "And suddenly, after the money was committed, they weren't going to close Norco — a pattern that is unfortunate and shows why we need oversight," she said.
The conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation also questioned the increased spending despite the state transferring responsibility for thousands of lower-level offenders from state prisons to local jails since 2011. The left-leaning California Budget & Policy Center and various inmate advocacy groups questioned why Brown's budget does not do more to reduce the prison population by using more alternatives to incarceration.
The department was able to meet next month's court-ordered inmate population cap a year early because California voters lowered penalties for some drug and property crimes in 2014. Voters also eased the state's tough three-strikes career criminal law after corrections officials unveiled their first blueprint for budget savings.
"The world has really changed since blueprint number one," Hancock said. "The people of California are out in front of their corrections system."