California used to have the nation's largest state prison system, topping 173,000 inmates at its peak in 2006. But since a law took effect last year that shifts responsibility for less serious criminals to county jails, the state has reduced its prison population and is no longer the largest in the nation.For the record, California's population is nearly half-again as big as Texas' (49% larger, according to the 2010 census), so for our prison population to outstrip their's speaks volumes about overincarceration here.
California now has fewer than 136,000 state inmates, eclipsed by about 154,000 in Texas. Florida previously was third, according to 2010 figures from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and currently has about 100,000 inmates.
The reduction in California was ordered by federal judges in a decision backed last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The courts ruled crowded prisons were causing poor care of sick and mentally ill inmates.
Comparing inmate population estimates in the story for the four largest states in the 2010 census makes the case even more starkly: Texas imprisons our citizenry 69% more frequently than in California, and at more than twice the rate as New York state. This table compares 2010 census population and crime rates to the approximate number of people in prison for the four largest US states (prisoner totals rounded to match rounded totals from the SacBee article; crime rate source here).
Notice that New York's violent and property crime rates per 100,000 people are substantially lower than here in Texas despite us locking up twice as many people per capita. Indeed, all these states see less property crime per capita than does Texas, and only Florida (another high-incarceration rate state) has a higher violent crime rate among Texas' big-state peers.
The other day Grits ran through a series of hypotheses regarding why crime has continued to decline nationwide despite what appear to be countervailing economic and sociological trends. For those who believe that crime has declined mainly because of "tuff on crime" strategies by the government locking up large numbers of criminals, how do you reconcile New York's success at crime reduction with that state's relatively low incarceration levels? If locking up more people improves safety, why aren't Texas' crime rates lower than in California, or in the Empire State?