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California Study Finds State Prison Overcrowding Driven by County Policy Decisions, Not Violent Crime Rates

A June 2011 study by Santa Clara University criminal law professor W. David Ball examines the extent to which overcrowding in California’s prisons is a function of decisions made at the county level about how to deal with crime. Ball’s report compiles data from a ten-year period (2000-2009) to show that California’s 58 counties use state prison resources at dramatically different rates, and that 18 counties in particular – dubbed “high use” counties – send many more felons to state prisons than their violent crime rates would seem to justify.

Ball’s report asks whether the citizens of one county should subsidize the decisions made by officials of another county, including district attorneys, judges, police and probation officers (all elected or appointed locally), to address crime with prison (as opposed to jail or probation) more often than their own law enforcement officials may deem appropriate. Given differences in local policy choices – and the fiscal impact of those differences – Ball argues that state officials should “create incentives for counties to behave differently” in terms of their response to crime.

The report proposes the use of a new metric, the “violent crime coverage rate” – the ratio of new felon admissions (NFA) to reported violent crime (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) for a given county during a given year – to measure “justifiable” incarceration; that is, incarceration driven by violent crime as opposed to county policy choices. Ball suggests that defining “justified incarceration” in this way will enable state officials to devise policies to manage county use of state prison resources “without either penalizing crime-ridden areas or rewarding prison-happy ones.”

The report found state-wide annual averages of 185 NFA and 820 violent crimes, both calculated per 100,000 adult population at risk (APAR), yielding a statewide violent crime coverage rate of 22.5%.

In the 18 “high use” counties, which include Fresno, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Santa Clara, the report found annual averages of 224 NFA and 623 violent crimes per 100,000 APAR, yielding a high use cov-erage rate of 35.9%.

By contrast, in 14 “low use” counties, which include Alameda, Marin, Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and San Diego, the report found annual averages of 122 NFA and 836 violent crimes per 100,000 APAR, yielding a low use coverage rate of just 14.6%.
Ball segregated Los Angeles County for separate analysis; with a population of 10 million people, it is too large to include within any of the other categories without skewing the results. With a violent crime coverage rate of 18.8%, Los Angeles would otherwise have fallen within the low use category.

In the remaining 25 California counties, deemed by Ball to be “middle use,” the report found an average annual coverage rate of 27.6%.

Significantly, using regression analysis, Ball determined that changes in violent crime rates account for only 3% of the variance in NFA rates. In other words, violent crime rates have little bearing on the number of state prison sentences meted out by the counties.

Ball illustrates this point by comparing Alameda (a low use county) with San Bernardino (high use). The two counties have similar population sizes and similar amounts of reported violent crime, as well as similar amounts of reported property crime. Yet from 2000 to 2009, San Bernardino sentenced 3.5 times as many felons to prison as Alameda County.

To put this in perspective, if all California counties incarcerated at the high use rate (35.9%), the state would have to find room to house an additional 26,000-plus NFAs each year and the cost to taxpayers, Ball estimates, would be an additional $890 million during the first year alone. Conversely, if all counties adopted the low use coverage rate (14.6%), 15,000-plus fewer prisoners would be sent to state prisons each year, with first-year savings estimated at more than $500 million.

Sources: California Watch; “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates – And Why it Should,” by W. David Ball, Santa Clara School of Law (June 2011)

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