California Prison Population Leading US Decline, Sort Of

California Prison Overcrowding

new report by the US department of Justice shows the US prison population is on the decline, with the California prison system leading the trend. For the second year in a row, California’s prison population decreased, while the federal prison population increased. In fact, California’s prison population declined by an astonishing 9.4% in 2011. This change was the highest in of all 51 jurisdictions, followed by Connecticut with a 5.1% decrease.

This downward trend for California can be explained by a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on May 23, 2011. The Court upheld a ruling from California that its prison population could be no higher than 137.5% of design capacity. The ruling was based on prisons’ abilities to provide adequate medical and mental health care in the overcrowded facilities.

The California State Legislature enacted two laws in response, AB 109 and AB 117, which mandated that the state decrease its prison population beginning in 2011. Meanwhile, Governor Brown has been fighting the order and vows to challenge the ruling in the courtroom.

For now, the Public Safety Realignment (PSR) policy has been put into place by shifting new nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenders to local jail facilities which are under county supervision, rather than the state’s. Although counties are given funding by the State to deal with the increased number of inmates, each county must develop its own custodial and post-custody plan.

In other words, California’s state prison system pushed inmates out into the county systems, providing a skewed analysis of statewide trends, and perhaps a rosier picture than we would like to believe.

Other notable facts from the report:

  • State and federal prison populations totaled 1,598,780 inmates at the end of 2011, a decrease of 0.9% (15,023 prisoners) from year-end 2010.
  • Nearly half (48%) of inmates in federal prison were serving time for drug offenses in 2011.
  • At year-end 2011, 492 out of every 100,000 U.S. residents were sentenced to more than one year in prison.