Berkeley Criminologist Barry Krisberg on Downsizing the Prison-Industrial Complex
Q. Is California an outlier, in terms of the amount of public resources being funneled into corrections?
A. Yes. Back in 1980 when Jerry Brown was governor, there were about 30,000 people in California prisons, roughly the same as in Texas and New York. So here we are 30 years later: California has more than 170,000 prisoners; New York has about 65,000. We have more prisoners than Texas by a substantial amount. We’ve built 32 new prisons since the early ’80s — and yet they’re still jammed to the rafters. There are Southern states with higher rates of incarceration, but there’s no state where the numbers of people incarcerated has grown as dramatically in recent years.
It’s very important to remember that these high incarceration rates are not related to public safety. New York State over the last 10 years has experienced the largest reduction in crime in the country. Not because it “got tough” on crime by locking up the criminals. It reduced its prison population during that time, and has a much lower imprisonment rate than California. The California county that has seen the most significant decline in crime in the past decade has been San Diego — which has a very low incarceration rate compared to other counties. It’s been sending fewer people to prison, not more. Some believe that if we send more people to prison, we’re safer. It’s just not true.
Q. What drives incarceration rates, if not crime?
A. Laws and policies. It isn’t that California has more crime than other places. It’s that we have harsher sentences. We keep people longer. We have the highest parole failure rate in the country — meaning we send a huge number of parolees back to prison for violating the rules of parole, not for new crimes. Other states use community-based options for parolees who miss appointments or fail routine drug tests. California has chosen this unique path of ratcheting up incarceration — way beyond any other state — and it’s paying the price.