California Won’t Educate You, But We’ll Lock You Up: How The Lack Of Data Leads To Bad Policy

By Diana Tate Vermeire, Racial Justice Project Director, ACLU of Northern California

The state’s criminal justice system is quickly becoming the only social service California is willing to fund. Our prison system is bursting at the seams, while school funding is drying up at the well. In the midst of a fiscal crisis — one that only seems to be getting worse — California continues to prioritize criminal justice spending instead of investing in the future of our state. Public education and crucial social service programs like welfare-to-work continue to experience drastic cuts, but California is loath to cut criminal justice spending.

Rather than choosing to prioritize basic necessities like a quality education, a job, and a place to live, our state’s leaders are instead forcing social service agencies to close their doors, deny services, or turn certain individuals away altogether. Meanwhile, our jails and prisons remain open to anyone brought to their doors, no matter the cost. That choice-pouring scarce financial resources into the criminal justice system rather than much-needed social services-has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, and an alarming uptick in the number of women – both women of color and white women –  who are behind bars.

A new study by the ACLU of Northern California and the W. Haywood Burns Institute explores how racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in access to education, employment, and housing impact presence in the criminal justice system in three California counties: Alameda, Fresno, and Los Angeles. An important finding is that — surprise, surprise — these factors are related to how likely it is someone will wind up in jail or prison. It’s no far leap to presume that this is not an accident, but a direct result of the choices California makes.

But our study also found that counties are not collecting data in a way that allows us to fully understand how the existence of the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities outside the criminal justice system creates or reinforces those same disparities within it. This lack of data means that policymakers are creating policies without fully understanding the impact of their decisions.

Without adequate data from the counties, we turned to first-hand stories of people’s life experiences before and after their contact with police, jails, or prison.  

We interviewed people on probation, and their responses were alarming.

–  Those who attended schools where police officers regularly patrolled campuses had a greater likelihood of being arrested at a young age, expelled, and suspended.

–  Nearly two-thirds of the people interviewed reported they had inadequate income at the time of their arrest, and around 20 percent indicated that they turned to crime to help make ends meet.

–  In Alameda County, people on probation were less likely to have graduated high school, compared to the county’s average graduation rate.

–  In Fresno County, with a county unemployment rate of less than 10 percent, 29 percent of men interviewed and 59 percent of women interviewed were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest. Nearly 21 percent of the Black labor force in Fresno County is unemployed, but 64 percent of Black interviewees were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest.

Our findings point to a disturbing reality: we have overfunded California’s criminal justice system at the expense of critical social services. Those services, which are meant to ensure our citizens have access to the basic necessities of life, have been sacrificed for more prisons and an expensive new death row.

Communities of color and women can no longer afford California’s business as usual. The rates of incarceration for people of color — and increasingly, women — are not caused solely by the systemic bias within the criminal justice system. They are also directly related to the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities of who has access to the basic necessities of quality education, employment, and housing.

It’s time California prioritizes public safety by investing in prevention and intervention strategies, particularly those that reduce racial, ethnic, and gender disparities. By no means will all crime be eliminated. But we can choose to invest in programs that help turn lives around and give opportunities, instead of giving up so easily. To help us get there, counties must collect better data so we know the realities of what we are working with, and policymakers can make better, more informed decisions.