New Report: Racial Disparities in State Prisons Widens Even as Total Population Declines

SACRAMENTO — A new report by the California Budget & Policy Center shows despite the significant decline in the state’s prison population, California is still supporting a massive prison system that incarcerates men and women of color at higher rates than white men and women. 

The report Racial Disparities in California’s State Prisons Remain Large Despite Justice System Reforms — highlights how racial disparities for women and men across the 34 state-owned prisons continued to prevail over the last decade even as voters and policymakers approved justice system reforms to address one-size-fits-all sentencing measures that disproportionately impacted Californians of color for generations and created a prison overcrowding crisis.

While California has made progress in reducing its prison population in recent years, 2021-22 state budget proposals from Governor Newsom and the Legislature do not include plans to close additional state prisons beyond two in the next 13 months: one in Tracy, in September 2021, and one in Susanville, in June 2022. In addition, the Budget Center findings on racial disparities point to the need for an array of policies inside and outside the justice system to end Californians of color bearing the human and economic costs of incarceration.

Findings in the report — showing data from 2010-2019 — include:

  • Black women made up more than one-quarter (26%) of women incarcerated by the state — more than four times higher than their share (6%) of all women in California.
  • American Indian women comprised almost 2% of incarcerated women — nearly five times their share of all women in California (0.4%)
  • Black men made up more than one-quarter (28%) of men incarcerated by the state — nearly five times higher than their share (6%) of all men in California.
  • American Indian men made up about 1% of incarcerated men in 2019 — more than twice their share of all men in the state (0.4%).
  • Latinx men comprised 45% of men in prison, compared to 36% of all California men.
  • The incarceration rate for Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander men — who make up a relatively small share of the prison population — increased by 26%.

Meanwhile, state-level incarceration overall declined for women and men over the same time period of 2010-2019. The number of Latinx women incarcerated by the state dropped by more than one-third (35%) and the number of American Indian women in state prisons decreased by over one-fifth (22%). The number of Black women in state prisons fell by almost half, and the decline for white women was almost as large. The number of white men in state prisons declined by more than one-third (36%) between 2010 and 2019 — the largest drop among men. And the number of Black men in state prisons dropped by one-quarter (25%).

“State leaders should be alarmed that racial disparities among incarcerated adults have widened when the prison population is down and crime rates are at historic lows — and take a hard look at the human and economic costs California keeps paying for our prison system, ” said Scott Graves, director of research with the Budget Center and author of the report. “Policymakers have an opportunity to close more state prisons, reform California’s parole process, end extremely long prison sentences, and examine sentencing laws built on racism and penalizing poverty that feed into the massive prison system.”

California incarcerates more than 98,000 adults at the state level, with the vast majority — nearly 93,300 — housed in 34 state-owned prisons. California also houses nearly 4,800 people in other facilities, including fire camps, in-state “contract beds,” and community-based facilities that provide rehabilitative services. The sizable drop in state-level incarceration prior to mid-2020 largely resulted from a series of justice system reforms adopted by state policymakers and California voters. Further declines in incarceration since mid-2020 have mainly occurred as a result of changes adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as suspending intakes from county jails and implementing early releases.

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The California Budget & Policy Center engages in independent fiscal and policy analysis and public education with the goal of improving public policies affecting the economic and social well-being of Californians with low and middle incomes. Support for the Budget Center comes from foundation grants, subscriptions, and individual contributions.