With all the rhetoric one hears about the role of the War on Drugs and the hyper incarceration of low level, nonviolent criminals a fair assumption to reach would be that these types of offenders are the driving engine of mass incarceration in CA. This discourse however is shallow, naive, and emblematic of seeking simple answers for complex problems. One phenomena cannot explain a force as prolific and sinister as mass incarceration, although increasingly aggressive prosecutors can certainly receive a significant amount of the blame (Locked In by Professor Pfaff dives into this issue at great lengths).
When analyzing crime trends it becomes readily apparent that violent crime has always been central to contemporary prison growth in CA. Violent crime as a category is composed of four offenses; murder & non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Given the proliferation of firearms it’s fair to assume the majority of these crimes, especially robberies, murders, & assaults, are committed with guns present (which trigger sentencing enhancements). With this qualification in mind, from 1960-80 CA’s violent crime rate jumped from 236 to 888 violent crimes per 100,000 residents – an astonishing 276% rise. After a brief decline in the mid 80’s the violent crime rate rose to an all-time peak in 1992 of 1,104 per 100,000. Since then the violent crime rate has subsided substantially, and despite recent upticks in 2012 and 2015, it has remained steady at levels recorded in the 1960’s.
Property crimes have fluctuated more wildly than violent crimes over the past 50 plus years in CA. Property crimes include; burglary, larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, shoplifting, and vandalism. It’s a rather large category that is brought together under thembrella of obtaining/destroying property using illegal means. The 2015 property crime rate of 2,620 per 100,000 residents is up 6.6% from the half-century low point of 2,459 in 2014. Similar to violent crime, property crime increased drastically between 1960-80 – from 3,140 per 100,000 residents in 1961 to an all-time peak in 1980 of 6,900 per 100,000. But the property crime rates then fell in the 1980’s & 90’s, as Baby Boomers aged out of peak criminal years, and by 2011 it was down almost 63%. Of all the reported property crimes in CA in 2015, 65% were larceny thefts, 19% were burglaries, and 17% were auto thefts.
There are 58 counties in CA so there are 58 different rates of criminal activities. The lowest rates of both violent crime and property crime in 2015 were in small rural Sierra counties & on the South Coast (which includes San Diego, Orange, and Ventura counties – relatively affluent regions). Property crime rates in these two regions were 1,798 and 2,085 per 100,000, respectively; violent crime rates were 348 and 283. CA’s highest rates of property and violent crime were in the comparatively poor San Joaquin Valley, at 3,245 and 574 per 100,000. The crime category that varies the most widely across regions is robbery: in 2015, the robbery rate in the Bay Area (179 per 100,000) was almost six times higher than the rate in the Sierras (32). The highest auto theft rates were in the Bay Area (557) and the San Joaquin Valley (532), while the lowest rates were on the South Coast (280) and in the Sierras (176). The graphic below highlights the violent crime & property crime rates in 15 counties in 2015:
The meta narrative that CA prisons are filled with low level, non violent offenders loses muster when one examines the empirical data. This blogger doesn’t deny the impact of the War on the Drugs and the over policing of communities of color for trivial offenses, but one simple look at the breakdown of the offenders in CA prisons paints a different picture. The chart at the bottom highlights that nearly 60% of inmates in CA prions are incarcerated on violent offenses while only 15% are locked up for drug offenses. Misguided understandings of Mass incarceration plague popular accounts of the issue. Drug offenders are 15% of the institutional populations but engender 85% of the conversations. The longer we focus on these offenders the longer it will take to address the greater problems. #StayWoker