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Hold Up: Concerns About Gov. Brown's Prison Spending Budget

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Photo by sfxeric via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr

Photo by sfxeric via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr
By Nick Wilson/Special to LAistConcerns were raised this week over Governor Brown’s budget proposal for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Last year, the CDCR overspent its budget, shifted millions of dollars allocated for rehabilitation programs into prison security, and deferred payments to contractors.

In an attempt at more realistic budgeting, Governor Brown’s proposal includes an additional $395 million in General Fund support, as well as a $292 million in personnel savings. What the proposal does not include, however, is details of how these savings will be achieved or guarantees that the CDCR will not overspend in the future.

In a report issued Monday, the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office recommended that the legislature not approve the administration’s proposal until many of its questions are answered. According to the report, $300 million in last year’s budget allocated to programs such as adult parole and rehabilitation was shifted to other areas including prison security. The department also shifted expenses into future fiscal years by delaying the payment of $90 million in contracts.

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LAO's Paul Golaszewski told LAist, “We are concerned that some of the Governor’s other proposals could lead to a new shortfall within the department’s budget. For example, there are reductions to inmate medical care and personnel costs, but the administration has not identified how these savings would be achieved. In the past, such unallocated cuts have usually not resulted in the budgeted level of savings, and can lead to shortfalls within the department’s budget.”

Given the department’s history of overspending, LAO’s report also called for stronger legislative oversight of spending. Representatives of the CDCR faced difficult questions before Wednesday’s Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety chaired by Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) said he wants to stop the CDCR from redirecting funds without the legislature’s approval. Asking how the legislature can provide better oversight of the budget, Feuer said, “There are only a few ways we can impose cost controls. One of them is the pretense of cost control, which we’ve been applying up to now.” Another choice, Feuer points out, is it be “very rigorous” about a performance-based budgeting model for the department. He suggests identifying a few priorities such as reducing recidivism, comparing California’s efforts to other jurisdictions, and making changes based on the results.

Dave Lewis, deputy director for fiscal services at CDCR, told the subcommittee, “We have set-up meetings with our various stakeholders to try and open the books, if you will, so that people can look at whatever they’d like to.”

The subcommittee was joined by both Assembly Budget Chair Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley) and Committee Vice-Chair Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber). Blumenfield noted that it was unusual for the chair and vice chair to stop by subcommittee meetings, but said, “Public safety and corrections is a pivotal part of the Governor’s proposal and we really need to give it its due in terms of vetting it and moving forward a proposal.”

Neilsen announced plans to look into the questionable legality of the department bypassing the legislature to shift funds from programs to staffing. “We could do much more to bring down recidivism if we weren’t re-directing these dollars for programming into a department slush fund.”

After the CDCR raised concerns over the costs imposed on the department by court supervision of health care in California’s prison system, Feueur responded, “It has been the inadequacy of government in California to contend with the key issues.”

Summarizing the LAO’s position, Golaszewski said, “We give credit to the administration for trying to address some of the past problems in the department’s budget. However, we think that some additional accountability and transparency needs to be built into the proposal.”

“Before providing the department with additional funding to account for the persistent shortfalls in its budget for security operations, we think that the Legislature should require the department to provide a detailed list of where they have had leftover savings in their budget in past years,” he continued. “This way, the Legislature would be able to determine if there are any lower-priority department functions or operations that could be reduced or eliminated to alleviate the need for some of the augmentation. Moreover, we think it would be helpful for the Legislature to know exactly what the department has not been doing in the past in order to generate the savings, so that it can hold them accountable in the future to perform these functions.”

Following the questioning, the committee decided to return to the topic later in the legislative session. The Senate Subcommittee on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary is expected to take up the issue on Feb. 8.

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