Prison headcounts: a tale of two states

California has just declared a prison crowding emergency and has begun triple-bunking prisoners. A friend just back from New York reports that, with crime rates falling, New York State has begun shutting down vacant prisons, and wants to know why California is so different?

The immediate cause of the surge in the California population is that the counties, squeezed for cash by the governor’s cost-shifting, have started to shift some costs back by moving inmates quickly from the county jails they pay for to the state prison system.

But the problem goes much deeper. California has about 5 inmates per 1000 population, while New York State has about 3 inmates per 1000. (That puts California at just about the national average, an average distorted by the high-imprisonment South. To get the total number of people behind bars, including local and county facilities, add about 50% to the prison-inmate number.)

So why does California have so many prisoners?

1. Compared to national norms, and especially to police-rich New York City, California generally, and LA County in particular (which supplies about 1/3 of the state’s prison inmates) are grossly underpoliced. NYC has 44,000 cops for 7 million residents, or nearly 6 per 1000; LA has 9,000 cops for 3.5 million residents (and four times the area), or something under 3 per 1000. Policing reduces crime, thus reducing the need for imprisonment. (Court capacity, rather than arrest volume, is the limiting factor in producing prison sentences, so the additional arrests produced by hiring more police don’t lead to additional sentences.)

2. New York City has had a famously effective set of police reforms. LA is just starting.

3. The prison guards union in California exerts astonishing power. (To his credit, our new governor seems to be willing to fight the union.) One of the triumphs of the union was getting the Parole Department (whose employees are also union members) to institute a policy of sending parolees back to prison (typically for 90 days or more) for “technical” violations of parole conditions, such as a dirty drug test. A plurality of admissions to California state prisons are parole re-admissions, as opposed to fresh sentences.

4. NY has no “Three Strikes” law. California’s was passed ten years ago, and now the bills are coming due. The discounted present value of the cost of a 25 year prison term is about half a million dollars, but fiscal conservatives don’t seem to be capable of noting that.

Imprisoning people who need to be there is highly cost-effective crime control. But the voters can’t repeal the law of diminishing returns. The larger the prison system, the lower the personal crime rate of the marginal prisoner.

Doubling the number of prisoners between 1980 and 1989 was probably a good investment in crime control, even accounting for the suffering of the prisoners and their intimates. Doubling it again between 1989 and today almost certainly wasn’t worth it. Continuing to ratchet up the prison headcount as crime rates fall is madness.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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