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Kings County Has California’s Highest Incarceration Rate

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Kern County (pictured), along with the neighboring counties of Tulare and Kings, have among the state's highest rates of incarceration of their residents. (CalMatters/Larry Valenzuela)
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Shasta County in rural northern California has some of the state’s highest incarceration rates. Ask Robert Bowman what’s going on, and he takes a long, deep sigh.

Nigel Duara

CalMatters

“It’s a perfect storm of bad,” he said.

Bowman, director of the county’s program that helps formerly incarcerated people transition back to life outside, identifies three main drivers of crime in Shasta County: high housing costs, untreated mental illness, and drug trafficking.

Those are some of the same factors blamed for crime in other California counties that rank among the highest for incarcerated people, according to a report released this morning by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that seeks to end mass incarceration.

The report takes newly available data from California prisons to show where inmates come from – not just their home counties, but their neighborhoods. The group’s stated intent is to show lawmakers where they can better direct public dollars.

The neighborhoods where incarcerated people come from often have a higher percentage of Black and Latino residents than the state average, according to the report, while the counties that host the prisons are predominantly white.

The effect has been “the siphoning of political power from disproportionately Black and Latino communities to pad out the mostly rural and often predominantly white regions where prisons are located,” the study found.

Unsurprisingly, the most populous counties send the most people to state prison. Los Angeles County had the most people incarcerated, followed by Riverside and San Diego counties.

But in some counties, though they have fewer total people in state prisons, the rate of incarceration is much higher than the statewide average of 310 per 100,000 people.

Kings County Incarceration Rate Twice the State Average

Tiny Kings County in the San Joaquin Valley has the state’s highest incarceration rate at 666 per 100,000, the study found.

Shasta County ranked second among counties that send people to prison, with 663 county residents incarcerated per 100,000 people. The county of fewer than 200,000 is framed by mountains to its north, west, and east. People move there for cheap land and open spaces, or burrow further into its hills to escape creeping modernity, Bowman said.

“And then we have those who have moved up here for political reasons and I’ll just leave it at that,” Bowman said with a laugh.

The report takes newly available data from California prisons to show where inmates come from – not just their home counties, but their neighborhoods. The group’s stated intent is to show lawmakers where they can better direct public dollars.

In one Shasta County Census tract that encompasses most of the city of Redding, more than one in every 100 people is in a state prison.

Disparities also persist in cities like Los Angeles, where the neighborhoods of Watts and Crenshaw have more than five times the incarceration rate of Bel-Air and Brentwood, according to the study’s calculations.

“There’s fewer Beverly Hills in our community,” Bowman said.

Homelessness, Untreated Mental Illness Lead to Prison

But many of the same issues that crop up in Los Angeles and San Francisco are true in far northern California: homelessness, untreated mental illness, and a resistance among locals to new construction or low-income housing.

Bowman points to a proposed micro shelter at a Lutheran church in Redding that would serve as transitional housing for up to five people. Neighbors hung a sign on a chain link fence: “Tiny Houses = Big Problems.” The shelter is expected to open this fall.

About the Author

Nigel Duara joined CalMatters in 2020 as a Los Angeles-based reporter covering poverty and inequality issues. Previously, he served as a national and climate correspondent on the HBO show VICE News Tonight. He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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