California must rein in its prison guard costs

The federal government has avoided its responsibilities in protecting the nation’s borders and reforming outdated immigration laws. Now federal officials are trying to avoid paying for illegal immigrants convicted of state crimes in California.

The cost to imprison illegal immigrants convicted of crimes should be a shared responsibility. Since 1995, Congress has forced the federal government to pay a per-diem cost based on prison guard salaries. But now the federal government is resisting.

California has 18,300 deportable inmates among the 156,000 inmates in the state’s 33 prisons. The question is what is a reasonable federal cost of imprisoning illegal immigrants. President George W. Bush tried to end the reimbursement program, and President Barack Obama wants to make deep cuts because of the nation’s dire deficit and debt situation.

Obama would give the state prison system $32.8 million, roughly the equivalent of covering only $9,000 of a guard’s salary. The state is correct in its complaint that the federal government is not picking up its fair share of the cost.

The state is appealing to California’s congressional delegation to hold to 2010 reimbursement levels of $88.1 million.

Roughly, that would be the equivalent of about $24,100 per guard. That’s still low, but probably realistic given the nation’s budget situation. Gov. Jerry Brown included that amount in his budget proposal.

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