At $50k a pop, which counties are sending low-level offenders to prison?

By Rina Palta


When Governor Jerry Brown proposed sending 30-40,000 prison inmates back to county jails to help free up space in California’s overcrowded prisons and save the state some cash, he encountered a good deal of resistance.

The state, counties said, would have to pay for these new responsibilities. ”Otherwise they’re just shifting their problems down to counties,” Allan Krauter of the Kern County Administrative Office told KERO, the local ABC affiliate. ”We’re willing to help, but as equal partners, not as victims of this whole thing.”

The “victim” message echoed in a lot of counties after Brown’s announcement and eventually contributed to the governor backing down a bit on the “realignment” of prison services. But the blame game is a tough one in this debate over who’s responsible for California’s jam-packed, expensive prison system. Why? Because while it may be a popular line to credit the state for the large number of people in prison, the truth of the matter is that counties sent all those inmates there–and some, like Kern County, sent more than others.


A report released this month by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice breaks down the number of “low-level offenders” in prison by the county they came from. “Low-level offenders,” in this context, are those who are not serving time for a “strike” offense (meaning they’ve never been convicted of a violent felony) and are in prison for a property or drug crime like grand theft, forgery, selling marijuana, or possession of a controlled substance.

Looking at counties throughout the state, some send a lot more people–like 13 times the rate–to prison for these “low-level offenses” than others.

San Francisco County, for instance, has 101 inmates in prison for such crimes; Contra Costa 117; Alameda County 337. Meanwhile, Kern County has 841, Orange County 1,136, and Riverside County 1,534. Additionally the report says, “more than one-fourth of the total prisoners from Calaveras county were sentenced for low-level, non-strike offenses, five times the percentage in Los Angeles.”

And at an average cost of $50,000 per year, counties “are imposing radically varying burdens on state taxpayers to incarcerate their low-priority offenders.”

Michael Males, the senior research fellow who authored the report, says no demographic differences he could find between the counties explain the number of low-level offenders they’re sending to prison–not crime rates, not politics, not population sizes, and not poverty levels.

“Some counties have simply become more reliant on the state prison system than others,” Males says. And those who have become most reliant will naturally be in the worst jam if offenders start trickling back to the counties.

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