California: The State of Incarceration


Despite California’s reputation as a progressive state, it is one of the epicenters of mass incarceration in the United States, incarcerating more people than any other state except Texas. Annually, California law enforcement agencies make almost 800,000 arrests and more than 600,000 bookings into county jails, and courts send almost 30,000 people to prison.† The result is that, on an average day in California, around 60,000 people are held in county jails and close to 100,000 people are incarcerated in state prisons.† In addition to people in criminal custody, approximately 1,800 people are detained by ICE in California.†

The state is set to spend over $18 billion on the criminal legal system in fiscal year 2023, which does not include city- or county-level spending. In 2021, California cities spent $14 billion on policing, and counties spent $19 billion on policing, jails, probation, and the judicial system. And despite the state’s commitment to racial equity, people of color disproportionately carry this burden—a direct result of decades of policy failure and systemic disinvestment in housing, employment, treatment, education, and other social services. Although Black and Latinx Californians make up 47 percent of the state’s population, they together comprise 66 percent of the county jail and 74 percent of the prison populations.

However, a lack of data transparency obscures the full picture of incarceration across the state and makes it difficult to disrupt the status quo. Data is strewn across various governmental websites, hidden in spreadsheets and antiquated databases, and generally inaccessible to all but the most determined and technologically savvy users. In this new tool, Vera has gathered and mapped an array of criminal legal system data—from facility population and budget data to arrest and racial demographic statistics. With access to more comprehensive, clearer data, we can work together to transform California from a state of incarceration to one that truly invests in safety, wellness, and racial justice.

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How much of that $ is spent in sex offender registration and associated hysteria?

California is the state with the highest population in the country. So of course they’re going to have more people in jails and prisons. That number is probably a lot lower on a per capita basis. But the worst mistake this shoddy piece of journalism makes is to lump Blacks in with Latinos when they compare disparities. African Americans are only 5% of California’s population, so their disparity is greater compared to Latinos who make up a much larger percentage of California’s population. But the California black incarceration disparity isn’t as bad as Wisconsin which is horrific. From what I read, blacks make up 42% of the prison population, but only 6% state residents.