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Who’s in prison and why?

May 15, 2009 - 4:34 pm

While reading about the state’s budget woes yesterday, I ran across a quote from someone associated with the state prison guards union. I can’t find the quote now, but it was something like: All this talk about prisons being filled with nonviolent people is “fantasy.” (He may have said “nonserious.”) It was in response to a proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to release some 38,000 prison inmates to save money. The governor has proposed transfering about 19,000 illegal immigrant inmates to federal custody (leading, presumably, to deportation) and sending another 19,000 “low-level” criminals to county jails. Of course, the prison guards union, one of the state’s most politically powerful forces, want as many Californians locked up as possible, because that means lots of jobs and union members.

Intrigued by the remark, I went to the website of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (a misnomer if there ever was one, because very little rehab takes place in state prisons) and looked up the prison-inmate population stats.

As of Dec. 31, 2007—the last figures available—here’s how many people were locked up for various offenses:\

Crimes against persons

  • Homicide: 26,968
  • Robbery: 19,772
  • Assault and Battery: 24,413
  • Sex Offenses: 14,926
  • Kidnapping: 2,533

Property Crimes

  • Burglary: 13,380
  • Theft: 11,006
  • Vehicle Theft: 6,150
  • Forgery / Fraud: 2,729
  • Other Property: 1,022


  • Possession: 13,501
  • Poss. for Sale / Sales / Manufacturing / Other: 20,237

Other Crimes

  • Escape: 121
  • DUI: 2,481
  • Arson: 457
  • Weapon Possession: 6,530
  • Other: 3,903

Total: 170,129

Let’s agree that the 88,612 people in the first set of offenses belong behind bars. Let’s add all the “Other Crimes” inmates to that list, too, bringing our total to 102,104. Property crimes? I’m gonna assume that most of those folks are not first-time offenders, so maybe they belong in prison, too, bringing our total to 136,391. So, that leaves us with those 33,738 people in the poky for drug crimes who can probably be released without too much damage to society. According to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, it costs about $47,000 to keep someone in prison for one year, meaning that if we made those drug “criminals” do community service instead, we’d save more than $1.5 billion over a year’s time, not to mention the revenue that would be added to the state budget for any income, sales or property tax those people paid.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jake permalink
    May 16, 2009 - 6:54 am 6:54 am

    You’re closer than you realize to keeping those drug offenders incarcerated. Discussing their plight with a judge or criminal attorner will reveal additional details about them including their involvement in more serious offences. What you’ve also overlooked is the vast number of prisoners with serious mental impairments. Mental health experts often refer to our prisons as the largest mental health facilities in the nation.

  2. May 16, 2009 - 8:07 am 8:07 am

    I’d like to add: there are some 10% wrongful convicted!
    One of many voices:
    *American Legal System Is Corrupt Beyond Recognition
    Judge Tells Harvard Law School
    By Geraldine Hawkins March 7, 2003

    There is much left to think about US highest prisoner rate among civilized democratic nations, 10 to 12 times.
    For example:
    *Follow the Prison Money Trail
    By Silja J.A.Talvi September 4,06, to save construction cost.:
    Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) has already received more contributions from a private prison company than any other politician campaigning for state office in the United States.
    *Profit puts inmates in hard spot

  3. David Rolland permalink*
    May 16, 2009 - 8:15 am 8:15 am

    But they weren’t convicted of other crimes; they were convicted on drug charges. Are you saying all these people, on their way out of prison, would admit to more serious crimes, and then we’d investigate and prosecute them again? Also, I know all about mental illness in jails and prisons, and yes, many people are dually diagnosed. But mental illness is not a crime, and ideally, mentally ill drug offenders would be diverted to get help for their problems. My post is idealistic, not realistic. We could save so much money of we helped people deal with the root causes of their problems, rather than sent them in and out of the revolving prison doors constantly, housing them in prisons to the tune of $47,000 per year plus the cost of the criminal justice system. Obviously, the help wouldn’t always work, but unless they commit more serious crimes, it doesn’t make economic or moral sense for them to be locked up.

    • Jake permalink
      May 16, 2009 - 9:21 am 9:21 am

      Good luck trying to sell your prespective to the California voters, who just say no to the meager efforts of a failing state legislature and executive to keep the state afloat. A far more popular investment is in early childhood development and early education. The drop out rate in our high schools spells trouble and should be a wake up call on our inadequate investment in building a productive next generation.

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