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Media coverage focuses on sentencing disparities

Media outlets across the state are posing hard questions about county sentencing practices.  CJCJ's recently launched the California Sentencing Institute, an interactive map that highlights the disparities in sentencing across California's 58 counties.  The map allows researchers, legislators, and the general public to examine the cost to taxpayers for each county's incarceration rate, as well as correlations to ethnicity and county poverty levels.

A recent KQED News investigation using the map discovered that Kings County has the highest rate of incarceration in the state.  The sentencing map shows that county incarcerates 1,569 prisoners in state facilities for every 100,000 residents, even though the county has a lower than average felony crime rate.  Kings County rate is 18% higher than the next highest county and is 84% higher than the lowest incarcerating county, San Francisco.

Reporting from data presented by CJCJ's map, the Chico ER notes that Butte County has the second highest incarceration rate among California's 58 counties and these policies are costing "California taxpayers more money, proportionally, than any other county in California except Kings and Shasta counties."  The article quotes CJCJ Communications Specialist Selena Teji stating that a person arrested for a felony in Los Angeles is less likely to be incarcerated than in Butte County.

Valley Edition, the National Public Radio broadcast for the Central Valley, focused a segment of their August 7th broadcast on exploring the data in the sentencing map with state criminal justice experts.  Valley Edition host Joe Moore interviewed Michael Males, Senior Research Fellow with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, about how local stakeholders should interpret the state's disparities.

Dr. Males noted that a significant number of counties across the state had become dependent on the prison system.  Prior to Realignment, these counties had established a practice of sending large numbers of low-level offenders such as repeat drug offenders to the state system; offenders that many other counties were serving locally.  These practices increased the costs to the state by utilizing expensive bed space, creating issues of overcrowding, and exacerbating unsafe medical conditions.

Many of the over-using counties are now facing dire challenges with realignment because they failed to develop a robust infrastructure of local alternatives to incarceration.  At $30,000 - $50,000 cost per state inmate per year and a 60% recidivism rate at the state level, Dr. Males said the question must be asked, "What else could you do with that money?"  He highlighted how other counties use lower cost options like probation, alternative release programs under community supervision, and drug counseling as tools for improving outcomes for lower-level offenders.  Such practices keep low-level offenders connected to their pro-social environments in the community while significantly reducing recidivism rates. On the same KQED interview, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi described how his county cut recidivism rates by as much as 50% since realignment, not by increasing jail use but by implementing a combination of drug counseling, education, employment opportunities, as well as helping returning offenders find a stable residence.

It's clear from these few examples that media outlets statewide are paying attention to how county sentencing disparities are impacting local residents and taxpayers.  These stories highlight the choices facing each county's criminal justice leaders regarding sentencing practices and incarceration alternatives, especially with their increased responsibility under AB 109 adult realignment.  It is critical that county stakeholders utilize AB 109 funds to implement innovation at the county level, such as a continuum of treatment and supervision options for lower-level offenders, rather than continue with their failed policies of over-incarceration that do not promote long-term public safety.

Keywords: AB 109, Brian Heller de Leon, media

Posted in Blog, Realignment, Sentencing

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California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

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