The blog of the Urban Institute
January 15, 2013

The Prison Population Decline is a California Story

January 15, 2013

The first post in a MetroTrends series about California's incarcerated population.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported recently that 15,023 fewer people were in prison at the end of 2011 than a year prior. Some heralded this second consecutive annual drop as a sign that the nation’s experiment with mass incarceration was over, but the decline was driven almost entirely by California. California’s prison population fell by 15,493 individuals from 2010 to 2011. No other state saw its prison population change in either direction by more than 1,500 people over that period, although the federal prison population did grow from 2010 to 2011 by over 6,000 people. In other words, the decline in the prison population is a California story.

So what is the California story? Spurred by a federal court mandate to substantially reduce overcrowding, California’s prison population has been falling gradually for a number of years as the result of declining admissions, particularly for parole violators.

The decline accelerated after October 2011, when a package of policy changes collectively known as Public Safety Realignment took effect. Under realignment, county jails—rather than the state prison system—became responsible for holding certain felons sentenced to more than a year of incarceration, as well as all post-prison supervision (parole and probation) violators. The plan also transferred responsibility for the bulk of post-prison supervision from state parole to county probation agencies. The Public Policy Institute of California determined that the realignment plan was directly responsible for an 11,116-person drop in the California prison population in the last three months of 2011 alone. As of November 2012, the population had dropped by a further 14,000.

What the realignment plan is actually realigning is the division of correctional labor between state and local government. So while the overall downward trend in California’s prison population is promising at first blush, it’s important to look at the impact of realignment on California’s local jails to fully comprehend the nature and magnitude of the changes that have taken place.

Next post: growth in the California jail population since realignment began


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The non-violent/non-serious classification is extlmeery misleading. Realignment only considers the offender's current commitment offense. Many of the parolees being transferred to the counties include repeat offenders with PRIOR convictions for violent/serious offenses no matter how recent the convictions occurred. For example: If a felon paroled for assault with a deadly weapon picks up a new prison term while on parole for possession of methamphetamine, he is reclassified upon his release as a non-violent/non-serious offender. Furthermore, the state is providing less money to the counties per offender than the state is currently allotted yet they expect the counties to somehow rehabilitate those who have already failed probation and parole numerous times. Our state prisoners are not the rehab thirsty individuals the Governor would like for us to believe they are. And what about counties like LA, who have been under Court supervision for years due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions the same conditions cited by the Supreme Court in rendering it's prisoner release order? This is nothing but a shell game designed to dump the state's responsibilities onto our already overburdened and underfunded counties. The only possible outcome of this legislation is the bankruptcy of our counties and a huge spike in crime.