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Prison Population Explosion: California's Rogue Elephant

NCJ Number
C Foote
Date Published
Although California has the largest prison system in the United States, the State appears to lack a coherent criminal justice system and to rely unnecessarily on imprisonment.
The inmate population in State prisons increased from 19,000 in 1977 to 113,000 in 1993. In 1980, State funding for the prison system totaled $300 million; that figure reached $3 billion in 1994. The incarceration rate per 100,000 population soared from 87 in 1977 to 358 in 1993. The author believes that California has no coherent criminal justice plan and that political and special interest pressures have prevented the formulation of effective criminal justice policies. He notes that most California inmates are not violent offenders and that higher education has suffered from the significant budgetary resources required to incarcerate offenders. Data indicate that the annual cost per inmate is about $23,000. The construction of new prison beds is also costly, as high as $105,000 per bed in maximum- security institutions and an overall average of $80,000. Prison overcrowding results in decreased prison services and affects all other facets of the criminal justice process. Flawed policy assumptions in California sentencing laws and the politics of crime are discussed. The need to make policy changes that reflect tight budget resources and that promote effective alternatives to imprisonment is emphasized. 7 references and 10 graphs