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On February 27th, I had the opportunity to present to the California Assembly Budget Subcommittee Number 5: Public Safety on the crucial topic of California sentencing policy. I have been involved in this issue for the past 31 years at the CJCJ, and have witnessed the explosive and unprecedented growth of the state’s prison population that began after passage of the Determinate Sentencing Law in 1977.

The Determinant Sentencing Law ushered in a period of unprecedented prison expansion as the prison population climbed 7‑fold over the next two decades. In an attempt to keep up with the burgeoning prison population, the state constructed 21 new prisons between 1984 and 1996 — building more prisons in this period than in the entire history of the state. By 2006, the prison population reached its crisis peak, with a total population of 172,000, and operating at double its design capacity. 

Since 2011, the state has made significant progress in reducing the prison population through a combination of lawsuits, Supreme Court decrees, Public Safety Realignment, and voter initiatives, such as Proposition 47. However, the need for comprehensive sentencing reform is still great. One of the essential goals of sentencing is uniformity — the idea that similar crimes result in similar sentences. Unfortunately, uniformity remains an elusive goal in California. 

While state sentencing laws are passed by the legislature, their interpretation and implementation is a function of the state’s 58 counties. Sentencing laws are in no way implemented in a uniform manner at the county level. The stark difference in how counties sentence is demonstrated by the variations in imprisonment rates. Crimes that result in prison sentencing in one county do not result in a prison sentences in another county. In many instances, the rate of imprisonment among high-imprisoning counties is six to 10 times greater than the low-imprisoning counties. For example, in 2015, Fresno County had an imprisonment rate of 656 per 100,000 compared to San Francisco with a rate of 149 per 100,000.

The questions are often asked: Are these differences related to crime rates? Do high-imprisonment counties have higher crime rates than low-imprisonment counties? The answer is NO — county crime rates are not related to imprisonment rates. 

Part I offenses reported to police per 100,000 adults age 18 – 69.

Prison population per 1,000 adult felony arrests.

These differences in imprisonment rate do not come without consequences and costs. When counties rely on high levels of prison commitments, those costs are passed on to the tax payers of other counties. In other words, counties that send few people to state prison end up subsidizing the counties that send more.

These geographical disparities are issues that have dominated California sentencing policy since the early 20th century and continue to confound efforts to reach a sentencing system that is fair, equitable and uniform. 

In moving forward to establish some degree of sentencing uniformity, I recommend three policy initiatives:

Create a state-wide sentencing oversight committee to monitor the sentencing practices of all 58 counties. Establish a ceiling on prison commitment rates that approximates the current state average for all 58 counties. Any county that exceeds the average state rate would be charged a percentage of the state costs for housing that person in the state prison. The use of charge-back legislation has proven very effective at keeping the incarceration rates down in the juvenile system and I believe it will have the same effect on the adult side. There are currently on many counties that exceed the state average. Promote localized sentencing though Public Safety Realignment with an emphasis on rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing, and urge courts and probation departments to implement this mandate in crafting sentences.

Download the Powerpoint Presentation including this material »

Daniel Macallair Executive Director

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice 

Related Links:

CJCJ’s California Sentencing Institute now shows 2015 trends

California legislature hears pros and cons of statewide sentencing reform

Counties’ continued disparities in Realignment implementation