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California’s Prison Population: A Look At Who’s Behind Bars May Offer Clues On How To Fix Problems

By Amanda Bailey and Joseph Hayes, research associates, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune August 31, 2006

California prisons are in crisis. Inmates are dying at an unusually high rate, rehabilitation programs are minimal, and a federal receiver has taken control of the prison health care system. Prisons are severely overcrowded – with 173,000 prisoners sleeping in gyms, dayrooms and classrooms – and state prison facilities will likely run out of space by this time next year. California has the highest recidivism rate in the country: 70 percent of prisoners are re-imprisoned within three years.

In response, state leaders are debating next steps and struggling to develop a strategy to fix the system. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed large-scale construction of new prisons – and generated widespread opposition in the process; a special session of the Legislature has met to grapple with the construction issue and to evaluate whether the governor's plan includes adequate rehabilitation and other alternatives to construction.

While it's true that action is needed, but may not be forthcoming soon, the short-term decisions by policy-makers could lead us down a faulty and expensive path. An essential ingredient to solving the massive prisons problem is to take a breather and understand the population at the center of the debate – a group that has been growing at three times the rate of California's overall population for the last 15 years.

What's different about California prisoners today? For one, despite policies such as “Three Strikes and You're Out,” which have lengthened inmates' sentences and the time they serve, more and more prisoners are cycling repeatedly through the system.

In 2004, two-thirds (67 percent) of admissions to state prisons were returning inmates, a jump from 59 percent in 1990. Prisoners are being returned either for technical violations of their parole or for new crimes, which contributes to the 70 percent recidivism rate.

The current parole system increases the likelihood that parolees will return to prison. The state doesn't use any intermediate level punishment – if you violate parole, you go back to prison, no matter how minor the violation. Furthermore, this is a tremendous administrative burden – of those 173,000 prisoners, about 120,000 are admitted in and 120,000 released out of the system throughout the year.

Any thoughtful solution to the state's prisons crisis should realistically consider the effect this type of turnover has on the communities, neighborhoods and families from which prisoners come, and to which many eventually return. For example, two-thirds of women and over half of men in prison are parents of minor children – and children of incarcerated parents have been found to be more likely to serve prison time themselves. Overcrowding has curtailed rehabilitation efforts because of space and budget constraints, so released prisoners return to their neighborhoods without the skills to make it on the outside. Too often, they subsequently commit a violation of their parole, or a new crime, at the expense of their communities and families, and return to the prison system, at the expense of California taxpayers. Studies show that prisoners who earn a GED in prison are less likely to return to prison.

California's prison population is also aging rapidly. In 1990, 20 percent of the prison population was under age 25 – by the end of 2005, this group made up only 14 percent of prisoners. During the same period, the share of prisoners age 50 and older nearly tripled, from 4 percent to 11 percent. Given the state of health care in California prisons, these trends have critical implications. Researchers have estimated the cost of housing, transporting and caring for elderly prisoners to be two to three times higher than for other prisoners.

Inmates are aging because the state's overall population is aging – but also, policies have lengthened prisoners' sentences and the amount of time they serve, so they age while incarcerated. Also, older adults are increasingly likely to go to prison. As costs mount, cost-effective alternatives to incarcerating older people who are statistically less likely to pose a threat to society may become a prudent consideration.

Decision-makers charged with reforming the prison system should consider the characteristics of the prison population before implementing policies that would affect it. The changing demographics of prisoners can provide valuable clues as to the origin of rising costs and unchecked growth, and perhaps informed decisions on whether to emphasize deterrence, rehabilitation or warehousing, in crafting a coherent corrections policy.


Who’s In Prison? The Changing Demographics of Incarceration

Just the Facts: California's Changing Prison Population

A Portrait of Race and Ethnicity in California