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The cost of incarceration
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California has an incarceration rate of 549 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than almost any democracy on earth. Read on to learn more about who is incarcerated in California and why.

199,000 people from California are behind bars

Pie chart showing that 241,000 California residents are locked up in federal prisons, state prisons, local jails and other types of facilities

Additionally, the number of people impacted by county and city jails in California is much larger than the graph above would suggest, because people cycle through local jails relatively quickly. Each year, at least 368,000 different people are booked into local jails in California.

Using 2020 census data, we looked at where people in California prisons come from. We found mass incarceration harms all corners of the state.

Rates of imprisonment have grown dramatically in the last 40 years

graph showing the number of people in state prison and local jails per 100,000 residents in California from 1978 to 2015 Also see these California graphs:

Graph showing the number of people in California jails who were convicted and the number who were unconvicted, for the years 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1999, 2005, and 2013.

Today, California’s incarceration rates stand out internationally

graphic comparing the incarceration rates of the founding NATO members with the incarceration rates of the United States and the state of California. The incarceration rate of 664 per 100,000 for the United States and 549 for California is much higher than any of the founding NATO members In the U.S., incarceration extends beyond prisons and local jails to include other systems of confinement. The U.S. and state incarceration rates in this graph include people held by these other parts of the justice system, so they may be slightly higher than the commonly reported incarceration rates that only include prisons and jails. Details on the data are available in States of Incarceration: The Global Context. We also have a version of this graph focusing on the incarceration of women.

People of color are overrepresented in prisons and jails

2010 graph showing incarceration rates per 100,000 people of various racial and ethnic groups in California

racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in CA as of 2010

See also our detailed graphs about Whites, Hispanics, and Blacks in California prisons and jails.

California's criminal justice system is more than just its prisons and jails

Pie chart showing that 566,000 California residents are in various types of correctional facilities or under criminal justice supervision on probation or parole

The high cost of being incarcerated in California

Prisons and jails in California are increasingly shifting the cost of incarceration to people behind bars and their families, hiding the true economic costs of mass incarceration:

Our other articles about California

Protecting family contact in California prisons and jails

Prison-based gerrymandering in California

Data on COVID-19 in California jails and prisons

We gave California a "C-" grade in September 2021 for its response to the coronavirus in prisons, noting that:

  • Prison populations have dropped by almost 20% in California, but in June 2021, the state prison system was still holding more people than it was designed for, at 107% of their design capacity (and up from 103% in January 2021).
  • Over half of all people in California prisons (52%) have tested positive for COVID-19.

For more detail, see our report States of Emergency. Or check out these other resources:

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