California has long been criticized for its growing corrections expenditures, especially as General Fund spending on higher education has declined. The beginning of a new budget year is a good time to examine where the state now stands on spending in these two key areas.

California’s legislature recently adopted a budget for 2016–2017 that devotes $14.5 billion of General Fund revenue to higher education institutions, including the University of California, California State University, and California’s community college system. It allocates $10.6 billion for operations of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which is responsible for adults in state custody and parolees under state jurisdiction.

These budget allocations reflect a striking shift from California’s budget of forty years ago, when the state spent a larger share on higher education and a much smaller share on corrections. But by the 2008–2009 budget year, allocations to higher education (11.1%) and corrections (10.7%) were almost identical. In the years since, higher education spending has outpaced corrections in relative terms, largely because recent criminal justice reforms have drawn down the number of adults in state custody and on parole. Nonetheless, California spends more on corrections and less on higher education today, in relative terms, than at nearly any point in the past thirty years.

Despite these dramatic trends, spending in each area has actually increased alongside of growth in the populations served. Enrollment in higher education institutions has increased roughly 50% since the 1977–78 academic year; the budget has increased 65% (according to CPEC Fiscal Profiles). Until 2011’s realignment of California’s corrections responsibilities, the number of adults in CDCR custody had increased 555% and the budget increased 526% (CDCR Monthly Population Reports).

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