Law, Crime and Imprisonment: Relative Sentence Severity in California, 1983-1998

Connie Stivers Ireland, University of California, Irvine

During the past three decades, crime control legislation in California has been designed to increase prosecution and lengthen terms of imprisonment. The prison population grew dramatically with a decline in crime in the 1990 s; Americans believe the War on Crime has been a success. The present research will use California parole and crime data to construct a sentence severity index, which can be used to calculate the probability of a prison sentence given the index crime rate, and the expected number of days in prison per reported crime. These indices demonstrate offender likelihood of imprisonment and length of stay as these trends have changed over the last twenty years in California. This analysis examines what part of the criminal justice system (e.g. arrest, prosecution, conviction, imprisonment) has sustained the bulk of the impact of this tough-on-crime legislation. While the California prison population has increased dramatically over the last two decades, the expected number of days in prison per index offense is shorter today than in the past. These findings suggest that our tough-on-crime approach has not produced the intended consequences, and that more people are serving shorter terms of incarceration per reported index offense in California.

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Updated 05/20/2006