Urban Wire As the California Prison Population Drops, the Jail Population Rises
Jesse Jannetta
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The second post in a MetroTrends series about California's incarcerated population. Read the first post.

As I discussed in my post yesterday, the sharp drop in California’s prison population is the driving force behind the national decline in the prison population recently reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But although the state’s prison population has fallen, how many fewer people are behind bars in California? To answer that question, we have to examine what is happening with California’s jail population. Local jail facilities have begun to house offenders sentenced to more than a year of incarceration—offenders who would have been sent to state prison prior to the state’s realignment plan.

Since the realignment plan took effect, the jail population in California has risen substantially. The average daily population in California jails has increased by 8 percent over the nine months since realignment, reversing a gradual downward trend. This is equivalent to 6,000 more people in jail in California on an average day than were there prior to realignment. Four of the 10 largest jail systems in California saw increases of more than 10 percent in their average daily population: Fresno (29.6 percent), Los Angeles (17.5 percent), Orange (10.8 percent), and Riverside (18.6 percent) counties.

This growth in the jail population is almost certain to continue as jail inmates with longer sentences accumulate in custody. The average length of stay in California jails was just slightly over 20 days in the most recent quarter for which data were available. Longer sentences served in jail mean longer stays, which mean higher jail populations. In the short term, this appears to have resulted in more early releases due to lack of jail space. Releases due to lack of space increased by 21 percent over the first nine months of realignment. Early releases of sentenced offenders have increased by 56 percent, while pretrial releases have gone up by 2.5 percent, but pretrial release remains more common.

Longer-term jail population trends are harder to predict, of course. But the Public Policy Institute of California notes that over 9,000 additional jail beds are slated for construction statewide. The true California incarceration rate includes both jail and prison populations, and the impact of realignment on incarceration levels in California won’t be clear until we know how much the jail population will rise.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center