Report 97125 Summary - September 1998

California Department of Corrections: The Cost of Incarcerating Inmates in State-Run Prisons is Higher Than The Department's Published Cost


The California Department of Corrections (department) was established in 1944 and is responsible for incarcerating criminals. Its operation includes work, academic education, vocational training, and medical, dental, and psychiatric care for California's approximately 146,000 inmates, as well as parole services, such as supervision and surveillance.

Each fiscal year, the department calculates and publishes the amount of incarceration costs per inmate. The department's calculation focuses primarily on those operating costs directly related to housing and supporting inmates, such as food, clothing, health care, and inmate activities. For fiscal year 1996-97, the department calculated annual incarceration costs at $21,012 per inmate.

We reviewed the department's calculation and found that, although it appropriately reflects many of the operating costs, it does not include all costs incurred by the State. When we included all of the costs, we found that annual incarceration costs were $24,807 per inmate for fiscal year 1996-97, $3,795 higher per inmate than the department's published figure. The total difference of costs to incarcerate inmates between the department's calculation and our estimate is $517 million.

The primary reason for this difference is the department's calculation does not include capital costs, such as lease-purchase payments, debt-service costs for new construction, and costs of improving and renovating existing prisons. The department's calculation also does not include reimbursements to local governments for transportation costs, court fees, and county charges related to state inmates. Finally, the department's calculation does not include its share of state central-service costs, such as costs of various accounting functions performed by the State Controller's Office for other state departments.

We calculated the annual incarceration costs per inmate for each of the 32 state-run prisons operating during fiscal year 1996-97, as well as a statewide cost per inmate. Our calculation includes all operating and capital costs. We found that annual incarceration costs per inmate vary significantly from one prison to another, depending on each prison's security levels, facility types, and age. Annual costs per inmate for the 32 prisons ranged from $18,562 to $38,554 per year.

The Appendix contains our complete cost model, detailing the various components of incarceration costs for fiscal year 1996-97, and a discussion of the methodology we used to construct our model.