Fact Sheet

California State and County Governments Spend More Than $20 Billion Annually on Incarceration and Responding to Crime

Endnotes are available in the PDF version of this Fact Sheet.

In recent years, California has made a series of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the number of people involved with state and county correctional systems, promoting rehabilitation, preventing crime, and spending limited tax dollars more wisely. For example, through the 2011 public safety “realignment,” California policymakers transferred responsibility and funding for many adults convicted of “lower-level” felonies from the state prison and parole systems to the counties. Since 2007, these criminal justice reforms have helped to reduce the number of state prisoners by more than one-quarter and the number of state parolees by nearly two-thirds. In contrast, the statewide county jail population has fluctuated since 2007. However, as of late 2015, county jails held only slightly more people than they did in September 2011 — the month before the state-to-county realignment took effect.

Despite these significant reforms, spending on incarceration and crime-related activities at the county and state levels remains high. As of 2014-15, California’s state and county governments spent $20.7 billion on incarceration and responding to crime, according to a Budget Center analysis of state data. Specifically:

  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of this spending — $15.1 billion — was for incarceration of adults and juveniles at the state and county levels. At the state level, spending on incarceration ($10.8 billion) reflects state operations and related capital outlay for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). At the county level, spending on incarceration ($4.3 billion) includes adult and juvenile detention, jail facilities, and related capital outlay.
  • More than one-quarter (27%) of this spending — $5.6 billion — was for activities associated with responding to crime. At the state level, this spending ($1.4 billion) includes support for trial courts as reflected in the state budget along with related capital outlay. At the county level, this spending ($4.3 billion) reflects support for district attorney prosecution; probation; public defenders; certain trial court activities (expenditures not reflected in the state category); juvenile wards of the court; grand juries; and related capital outlay. County-level expenditures in this category exclude the cost of policing that is provided by county sheriff’s departments.

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Significantly reducing state and county spending on incarceration and responding to crime will require continued implementation of recent reforms and going beyond recent changes in criminal justice policy. For instance, Proposition 47 (2014), which reduced penalties for several nonviolent drug and property crimes, allows individuals who are serving felony sentences for Prop. 47-related crimes to petition the court for resentencing to a misdemeanor based on this new classification, possibly resulting in early release. State and local officials should ensure that everyone in prison or jail who qualifies for resentencing under Prop. 47 has a chance to petition the court, which would likely lead to further reductions in state and county incarceration levels.

Policy changes that go beyond recent reforms could include simplifying the state’s complex Penal Code in order to shorten prison sentences, providing state officials with new policy options for further reducing incarceration, and increasing the use of alternatives to incarceration at the county level, particularly for youth. Decreasing the costs of incarceration and responding to crime at both the state and county levels would free up revenues that could then be redirected to public services and systems that can help more Californians achieve economic opportunity and security and promote broadly shared prosperity.

This analysis is the first part of a multiphase effort to analyze state and county spending on incarceration and responding to crime. Future phases of this work will examine trends in spending over time and provide county-by-county information.

For more information about the methodology used to calculate the expenditures reported in this Fact Sheet, see the Technical Appendix.