Urban Wire The Prison Population Decline is a California Story
Jesse Jannetta
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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

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