California

Half of Americans have a relative who’s been to prison, new study finds

Sen. Holly Mitchell talks about the ‘cradle to prison pipeline’

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, speaks at a press conference on March 20, 2017, to introduce a package of juvenile justice reform bills in the California Legislature. Video courtesy of California Senate
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Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, speaks at a press conference on March 20, 2017, to introduce a package of juvenile justice reform bills in the California Legislature. Video courtesy of California Senate

Nearly half of American adults — 113 million people — have a relative who either is or has been incarcerated, according to a study by Cornell University and criminal justice advocacy organization FWD.us.

“These new findings bring to light the staggering scale of the United States’ incarceration crisis,” FWD.us President Todd Schulte said in a statement announcing the findings. “This research corroborates what too many families have known for too long: Our current criminal justice system is harming our economy, communities and families and undermining the promise of what America can and should be.”

The study found that America’s prison population has quadrupled since 1980, and that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation.

California is far from the national leader in incarceration rates — the Golden State ranks 32nd in the country in the new study.

Yet despite the passage of landmark sentencing reform bills, California prisons remain overcapacity.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that 127,930 inmates were in custody during a count on Dec. 5, or about 135 percent of design capacity, according to CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison.

Callison said the state prisons are in compliance, albeit barely, with a federal judicial order mandating a prison population no more than 137.5 percent capacity. He added that “the notion of design capacity is predicated on one inmate per cell,” while it’s common practice for two or more inmates to bunk in a single cell.

Callison said that the prison population has dropped dramatically from a high of more than 170,000 just a few years ago, when inmates were “triple-bunked in day rooms and gymnasiums.”

He said that AB109, a prison realignment bill, removed thousands of inmates from state custody, while Propositions 36, 47 and 57 “have also in various ways reduced the population.”

However, in addition to remaining over capacity, California prisons house a disproportionate number of people of color.

The study provided a fresh look at California’s prison demographics, revealing that African American men are incarcerated at 10 times the rate that of white men, while Latino men are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of white men.

The report also detailed the impact incarceration can have on family.

“More than half (54 percent) of the parents who are incarcerated were the primary breadwinners in their families, and three-quarters were employed in the month prior to the arrest,” according to a statement accompanying the study’s release. “The loss of a family’s primary income source is highly destabilizing and can push families into financial disaster.

Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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