December 16, 2017
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How Much Do California’s Counties Spend on Incarceration and Responding to Crime?

by Scott Graves and Amy Rose


For decades, California took a “tough on crime” approach to criminal and juvenile justice. Harsh, one-size-fits-all sentencing policies such as the 1994 “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law emphasized punishment over rehabilitation and significantly lengthened prison sentences. These and other policies greatly increased the number of adults incarcerated by the state and contributed to the creation of a bloated and costly correctional system. This shift toward a “do the crime, do the time” philosophy also affected California youth involved with the juvenile justice system. In 2000, for example, the voters passed Proposition 21, which required more youth accused of crimes to be tried in adult court, among other changes.

In recent years, however, California has fundamentally reformed its approach to criminal and juvenile justice through legislation and at the ballot box. These reforms have aimed to reduce incarceration, promote more effective pathways to rehabilitation, prevent crime, and spend tax revenues more wisely. These policy changes largely stemmed from litigation against the state that prompted judicial intervention, with the most prominent example being the 2009 federal court order — subsequently upheld by the US Supreme Court — requiring California to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. Significant reforms include:

  • The California Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act (Senate Bill 678 of 2009). This legislation created financial incentives for counties to reduce the number of adult felony probationers sent to state prison, including by reducing recidivismthrough the use of “evidence-based” (scientifically proven) supervision practices.
  • Public safety realignment (Assembly 109 of 2011). The state transferred, or realigned, to counties the responsibility for managing and supervising adults convicted of certain “lower-level” felonies, effective October 1, 2011. (Previously, these individuals would have served state prison sentences and been released to state parole.) Counties receive constitutionally protected funding from the state each year to carry out these responsibilities.
  • Prop. 36 of 2012. This ballot initiative amended the state’s “three strikes” law to shorten prison sentences for many people who receive a third strike for a nonviolent, nonserious felony.
  • Prop. 47 of 2014. This ballot initiative reclassified certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, thus helping to reduce the number of adults incarcerated in state prisons as well as in county jails.
  • Prop. 57 of 2016. This ballot initiative established new policies to address overcrowding in state prisons. Specifically, the measure 1) created a new parole consideration process for state prisoners serving a sentence for a nonviolent felony offense and 2) gave state officials broad new authority to award sentencing credits to reduce the amount of time that people spend in prison. Prop. 57 also changed state law to require juvenile court judges to decide whether youth should be tried in adult court.

On the whole, these reforms have provided an opening for counties to reassess how they respond to crime as well as how they address incarceration — two key areas of county budgets. In an effort to highlight counties’ individual approaches in these areas, this analysis examines county spending on both incarceration and responding to crime for selected fiscal years from 1990-91 to 2015-16. This analysis includes four components: 1) an interactive tool below that shows inflation-adjusted expenditures as well as spending as a share of each county’s budget; 2) individual county Fact Sheets below that display the same spending data; 3) a downloadable Excel file that includes the full data set produced by this analysis; and 4) a Technical Appendix that describes the methodology.



CourtesyCalifornia Budget & Policy Center

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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