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Chances Of Being Locked Up Vary Widely Across California

More than 800 inmates are housed in the downtown San Francisco high-security jail. They have access to a condom machine in the gym.
Kenny Goldberg
More than 800 inmates are housed in the downtown San Francisco high-security jail. They have access to a condom machine in the gym.

The number of inmates in California's county jails has fallen significantly since peaking in 2007, but new statistics show a wide disparity still exists among locales, with liberal enclaves like Marin and San Francisco far less likely to lock up criminals than conservative places like Kings, Lassen and Tuolumne counties.

The different incarceration rates outlined in the data reflect policies established by Gov. Jerry Brown and others to let California's 58 counties tailor their criminal justice systems to local conditions and law enforcement philosophies — setting up 58 different approaches.

That makes sense as counties deal with different conditions as well as differing philosophies in their approaches to law enforcement, said Magnus Lofstrom, who studies the issue for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.


"If you have a county with a substantial gang and drug problem ... it would be perfectly reasonable to see higher incarceration rates," Lofstrom said. On the other hand, "it is troubling if we have a situation where we have two offenders who committed similar crimes and have similar backgrounds, if they face different sentences."

But it's unclear if that's happening because the possibility hasn't been studied in-depth, he said.

The numbers compiled by the Board of State and Community Corrections and provided to The Associated Press reflect local crime and poverty rates and counties' varying ability to afford alternatives to jail such as drug treatment. Some counties tend to hold people while they await court hearings, while others let them out immediately.

California voters, legislators and federal judges have increasingly favored alternatives to jail or prison, particularly for drug addicts and nonviolent offenders. The result is the state's overall incarceration rate has dipped by nearly one-fifth since its peak, to 567 inmates per 100,000 people.

Much of that drop is due to a 2011 law that reduced the state's prison population by making counties responsible for jailing those convicted of nonsexual, nonserious and nonviolent crimes.


That reduced the differences between counties' incarceration rates, Lofstrom said, because counties that had a history of sending large numbers of lower-level inmates to state prisons suddenly had to find room for them in their local lockups, or turn to alternative sentences. They also had to bear the costs of those local incarcerations instead of sending them off to state prisons at the state's expense.

That produced what Lofstrom called an "equalizing effect" from the state's overall drop in relying on incarceration, though there still are dramatic differences between counties' approaches.

Most counties have seen significant drops in their incarceration rates since 2007 — 20 percent or more. Just five counties — Kings, Lassen, San Luis Obispo, Sierra and Tuolumne — increased their incarceration rates.

Marin and San Francisco counties have rates of less than half the state average, while Kings in the southern Central Valley has a rate more than twice as high.

The statistics reviewed by the AP cover the period through mid-2014, before voters in November approved Proposition 47, which treats certain drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes said the ballot measure illustrates the philosophical differences between counties. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon was a leading advocate of Proposition 47 and has emphasized alternatives to incarceration, while Fagundes was one of many prosecutors who opposed lowering the penalties.

"I'm certainly not averse to rehabilitating those who can be rehabilitated. I'm not averse to sending those to prison who are a danger to our community," Fagundes said.

Violent and property crime have increased in Kings County since 2007, while they have declined in the state as a whole.

The county also has high poverty and unemployment, factors that Yuba County officials also said contribute to the high incarceration rate there because it can lead to more property crimes and more people in jail. Officials in both counties also said they see a high percentage of suspects battling drug addictions.

"Some of it may be philosophical, but I think a lot of it is driven by the demographics of people coming into the system," said Yuba County District Attorney Patrick McGrath.

He started a program 18 months ago to divert drug offenders to treatment programs instead of jail, and county officials are working on ways to keep more suspects out of jail while they are awaiting trial.

"I recognize times have changed, it's the will of the people of California," McGrath said.