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A New Study Probes the Question: Should Californians Continue to Subsidize "Prison-Happy" Counties?

Monday, Aug. 1, 2011

SANTA CLARA, Calif., Aug.1 , 2011 — Should the state of California continue to pay equally for counties that send disproportionately large numbers of inmates to prison, relative to the counties’ rates of violent crime?

The issue is taking on greater prominence as Gov. Jerry Brown tries to “realign” prisons by shifting more of the burden to counties starting Oct. 1. Santa Clara University criminal-justice law professor W. David Ball says any realignment plan should consider the findings of his new study, which quantifies a large disparity among counties in their use of state prison space.

The study, which is already sparking debate among counties and policy makers, is available for download at

Ball found that a third of the state’s 58 counties send a far disproportionate number of “new felons” to prison, relative to their rate of violent crime, than others. He suggests the state should use new metrics to decide how much to fund "high usage" counties – which include San Bernardino, Orange, Santa Clara, Fresno, Placer, Santa Barbara, Kern, and Riverside.

In his study, “Tough on Crime (On the State’s Dime)" Prof. Ball cites the examples of Alameda and San Bernardino counties, which have roughly equivalent rates of violent and other crimes. Yet San Bernardino sent an average of more than three times as many “new felons” to prison annually over the past decade, costing the state (and its fellow counties) at least an extra $93 million a year.

Ball says that the state, already crushed by rising prison costs and a federal mandate to relieve overcrowding, should consider defining “justified incarceration” in terms of violent crime. That means increasing the cost to counties of incarcerating non-violent criminals (a model that has worked in juvenile justice system) and increasing financial support for county diversion programs (such as drug programs or programs for the mentally ill).

Other highlights of the study:

*Localities are crucial - and critically under-examined - contributors to state prison populations.

* Local policies and policymakers affect the state’s corrections budget, even though the state has no say in designing or implementing these policies. State officials must take these local differences into account, and create incentives for counties to behave differently.

*Using a new metric to determine proper subsidies for state prison populations would help distinguish between crime-driven incarceration and optional, policy-driven incarceration.

*While there may be other explanations for high-use vs. low-use county outcomes, the issue is not being studied properly and solutions that have been proposed to realign California’s overcrowded prisons largely retain or magnify these county disparities.

“Some counties incarcerate at current levels because they have to. Some counties incarcerate at current levels because they choose to,” said Ball. “Prison resources should not be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.”


Media Contact: 
Deborah Lohse | SCU Media Relations | (408) 554-5121 |




Tags: California prisons, law school

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