California has too many inmates, the U.S. Supreme Court and nearly everyone else agrees.
Orange-jumpsuited felons pack cell blocks, and row after row of bunk beds claim countless square feet in gymnasiums and other correctional buildings in the state’s 33 prisons.
The burden of paying for this system falls on all Californians.
But a third of the state bears greater responsibility for our overcrowded prisons than their fellow residents, according to a recently released study from Santa Clara University’s law school. W. David Ball, a criminal law professor and the study’s author, devised a new statistical measure to determine how many new felons a California county can justify sending to prison each year.
In his report, titled “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime),” Ball argues that 18 counties consume far more prison spending than the rest of the state when violent crime rates are factored in.
The study compares San Bernardino and Alameda counties, which are similar in population size and number of violent offenses. They differ dramatically, however, when it comes to incarceration rates. San Bernardino County sent three times as many felons to prison as Alameda County did from 2000 through 2009.
For additional context, San Bernardino County had 203 “new felon admissions” per 100,000 residents in 2009. That is 41 percent higher than Los Angeles County’s rate of 144, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [PDF] show.
Michael Ramos, San Bernardino district attorney, did not dispute the numbers, though he said those data points unfairly maligned his county. Ramos continued in a written statement:
While county to county comparisons can be illustrative, by definition all crime issues are local. So to some extent all such comparisons are apples to oranges. Professor Ball’s study strongly implies that San Bernardino County has given up on rehabilitation and sends low-level offenders to prison because it is cheaper. I can attest that no public safety official in this County has ever had such a discussion, nor do we reduce public safety nor an individual’s liberty to such a financial equation.
The disparities are not a coincidence, Ball writes, but the result of policy decisions by local criminal justice agencies. County district attorneys choose which crimes to prosecute and what punishment to seek. Superior court judges and local juries have final say on whether convicts receive prison terms.
“The state is paying for San Bernardino’s decision to treat crime with prison,” Ball wrote, “but Alameda – indeed any California citizen who does not live in San Bernardino – has no say in electing the people who design San Bernardino’s criminal justice policies.”
To track that disparity with greater sophistication, Ball invented the “violent crime coverage rate.” It is a simple formula: "Coverage is the number of new felon admissions (NFA) for a given county in a given year as a percentage of reported violent crime for the county in the same year," the report says. Mathematically, it would look like this:
(For the data geeks among you, all formulas and related methodology are detailed at length in the report, posted at the bottom.)
The first of Ball’s findings is that rates of violent crime – murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault – have almost zero bearing on the number of prison sentences handed down in California counties. A regression analysis revealed violent crimes account for only 3 percent of what happens with incarceration numbers. That number is too low to be statistically significant.
Counties with the highest prison use generally enjoyed low violent crime rates and less reported criminal activity than the statewide average. “The argument that prison usage is driven by violent crime rates has no statistical support,” the report says.
For the analysis, Ball organized the state’s 58 counties into categories:
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• High use: The 18 counties that take up more prison space and money than their violent crime rates justify. These counties are spread across the state, including Santa Barbara and San Bernardino, as well as Santa Clara and Shasta.
• Low use: The 14 counties that send felons to prison less often than Ball’s model predicted. Most of these jurisdictions are in Northern California, including six within or near the Bay Area.
• Middle use: A diverse mix of 25 counties that incarcerate at roughly the state average.
• Los Angeles County: Home to 9.8 million people, it is too large to include with any other jurisdiction without skewing the numbers. It would have otherwise fallen within the low-use category.
The coverage rate is an imperfect tool, a point Ball readily concedes. Critics can counter that sending more felons to prison has contributed to lower rime rates. If true, that undermines the study’s key presumption, that prisoner counts should rise and fall in concert with violent crime numbers.
“I will not attempt to determine whether changes in prison are, in fact, the cause of changes in crime, not the other way around,” Ball wrote, “but I note that this is the subject of vociferous – and voluminous – academic debate.”
Such debates also are taking place in police departments and courtrooms.
At a panel discussion on state sentencing law at USC in May, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck argued that, with crime rates dropping to historic lows, arrests should decline. Continuing this logic, felony prosecutions should drop, shrinking the prison population.
Seated beside Beck, Ed Jagels, former Kern County district attorney, made the case that incarceration and crime rates move in opposite directions. Higher prison use, therefore, equals lower crime. (Kern County is a high-use jurisdiction in the study.)
California’s corrections crisis, Jagels continued, isn’t the result of too many felony prison sentences.
“If we have prison overcrowding, it’s because we didn’t build the prisons we should have,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the study's author. His name is
W. David Ball.