Sunday, July 25, 2010

NorCal counties lead state in prisoners

by Tom Nadeau

The Sacramento Bee recently reported that the likely impact of a federal judge’s ruling that California officials reduce the state prison population would be significant, especially on five north state counties which have the highest rate of incarcerated citizens.

In an update of a survey the Bee’s Phillip Reese did one year ago, he reported in March that:
A panel of federal judges [has] ordered state officials to lower California's prison population by around 40,500. While no mass prisoner releases are imminent, the order could eventually impact some counties a lot more than others. The Sacramento region, for instance, sends a high proportion of its residents to prison; if the judges' order was applied equally, 3,000 would-be prisoners would either be on the region's streets, under house arrest or sitting in already-crowded jails. (Those offenders, however, would likely be guilty of lower-level felonies.))
The top five counties with the most residents in prison were, in descending order, Kings, Yuba, Shasta, Tehama and Lake.

[Note: inmates generally return to their home county upon release, although some filigrees on this trend do exist.]

The breakdown ...

Kings with a total population of about 153,800 reportedly has the highest per capita rate with 1,455 in prison, or 9.4 persons per 1,000 total residents.

"Northern California" is defined in different ways by various interested parties.

California is, north to south, about 875 miles long, with Smith River in Del Norte County the northernmost and Imperial beach in San Diego County the southernmost points of reference. Dividing the state simply in miles would make Merced in Merced County roughly the mid-way point at 491 miles.

However, based on population counts, politicians, county clerk vote counters and campaign organizers regard anything north of Bakersfield to be “Northern California,” since that’s where the half-way mark for population lies.

Hanford, the county seat of Kings County, is 518 south of Smith River, but, politically speaking, it would still be in Northern California.

At last published count, Yuba, population 60,200 had 603 residents in prison, or 8.3 persons per 1,000; Shasta, population of 163,300 had 1,503 residents in prison, or 8.2 per 1,000;Tehama, with a population of 56,000 in 2008 had 503 residents in prison; or 8.0 per 1,000. and; Lake population 58,300 had 503 residents in prison; or 7.9 per 1,000.

As others see us

So it was that the respected Economist magazine in Britain tersely reported July 22 that:
Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.

The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.
Thus, California’s rate of incarceration is among the highest in a nation which in turn sports the highest record of imprisoning more of its citizens for committing the least of crimes.

It does not take much of a leap of imagination to realize that the people of California who, 30 years ago would have considered such situation indicative of being a prison state, now likes to think of itself as being “tough on crime.”

Income clearly plays a key role.

At the time of the 2000 census, the median income for a household in Kings County was $35,749. The per capita income was $15,848. About 19.5% of the population was below the poverty. In 2003, Kings County had the lowest per capita income in the state of California, according to Census statistics.

Similarly, the median income for a household in Yuba County was $30,460. The per capital income was $14,124. About 20.8% of the population was below the poverty line.

[Note: Kings County is awarded the “lowest per capita income in the state, with $15,848, while, on the same 2000 census, Yuba County shows a lower PCI of $14,124. These figures are drawn from the generally reliable Wikipedia. I can not determine the cause of the anomaly, other than it might derive from an incorrect assumption by a contributing Wikipedian.]

For Shasta County, the median income for a household was $34,335. The per capita income was $17,738. About 15.4% of the population were below the poverty line.

The median income for a household in Tehama County was $31,206, and the per capita income was $15,793. About 17.3% of the population was below the poverty line.

The median income for a Lake County household is $49,627. The per capital income for was $43,825. About 4.6% of the population were below the poverty line.

The higher incarceration rates seem to track the lower income, which should surprise no one. Two anomalies should be pointed out.

Kings County is home to Corcoran state prison, which was built to house 3,396 prisoners but as of 2008 housed 5,544 prisoners – or 163 per cent of its rated capacity.

One punitive tactic the state sometimes employs is to put prisoners as far away from supportive families as possible. This in turn leads to some of the families moving to be closer to the prisons where their relative is incarcerated, which in turn can increase the number of resident felons in a county. Some families can have more than one child who is doing time or did time.

Lake County shows relatively high household and per capita income. This may come from the fact that Lake County gets its name from Clear Lake, a popular place for summer homes.
Some well off retirees choose to relocate to their summer homes, and either sell their original main residence elsewhere for added income or leaving it to their children. This can skew the comparative income figures.

Echoes from the past

The state of California’s decision to save money by releasing prisoners echoes an experience many may have forgotten: Ronald Reagan’s decision when he first became governor of California in the early 1970s that he would save money by closing many (possibly most) state mental institutions and release its tenants to the streets.

The theory was that new therapeutic medications made such a wave of discharges possible.

I was living on University Avenue in Berkeley, Calif. when the sick and hapless were booted out of care-giving facilities. Within two weeks lone loonies were showing up wandering up and down University Avenue, frightening pedestrians, walking in front of moving cars and getting arrested to be placed in jail.
I asked a Berkeley cop at the time, what was going on.

It seems, he said, that the dischargees just were not compos mentis enough to take their medications correctly (some took all his or her pills all at once; others didn’t take them at all; and some were selling them to make up for the fact the small income they had been awarded wasn’t enough to pay their rent.)

Where were the cops taken the loonies their were arresting, I asked the helpful, honest cop.

“They’re going in with the bad guys in jail,” I recall the cop saying.

So, Reagan’s cost-saving move transferred the sick and helpless from care-giving facilities to prison environments where they were often victimized by other inmates who were there for serious offenses.

This sudden spike in jail populations, of course led (in part) to the hiring of more correctional officers, which later in turn led to the expansion of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association – now one of the states most powerful lobbying groups.
The truth was, the money being “Saved” was not being saved at all. It was simply being diverted from providing more care to paying for more cops.

Proving once again that Californians get what they pay for – and, sometimes, what they won’t pay for.


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