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June 2013
California's Changing Prison Population
  • Public safety realignment has accelerated reductions in the state’s prison population.
    The population of California’s 33 adult prison facilities declined gradually from 163,000 at its peak in 2006 to 144,000 on October 1, 2011. On that day, California’s historic public safety realignment legislation (AB 109) began transferring authority for a large number of nonserious, nonviolent, and nonsexual felony offenders from the state prison system to the counties. Since the beginning of realignment, which also eliminated the return to prison for parole violations, the population has dropped another 17% to 120,000.
  • A vast majority of prisoners have committed violent or serious offenses.
    At year-end 2012, 88% of inmates had a current or prior violent or serious felony conviction, and 16% were registered sex offenders. A large percentage of inmates have long-term sentences: 25% are serving a "second strike” sentence, and 19% are lifers with the possibility of parole. Smaller proportions are serving a "third strike” sentence (7%) or are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole (4%).
  • African American men are dramatically more likely to be imprisoned than are other groups.
    Just more than half of California’s adult male population is nonwhite or Latino (56%), but these groups make up three of every four men in prison: Latinos are 41%, African Americans are 29%, and other races are 6%. Among adult men in 2010, African Americans were incarcerated at a rate of 5,525 per 100,000, compared to 1,146 for Latinos, 671 for non-Latino whites, and 43 for Asians.
  • The prison population is aging.
    Between 1990 and early 2013, the share of prisoners age 50 and older grew from 4% to 21%. At the same time, the percentage of prisoners age 25 and younger fell from 20% to 13%. Given that aging offenders tend to have greater health care needs, these trends present a particular challenge to providing constitutionally adequate health care.
  • California continues to rely on out-of-state facilities to house inmates.
    Since a state of emergency declaration in 2006, which identified overcrowding as the source of unhealthy and unsafe prison conditions, California has housed inmates in private prisons in other states. Currently, 8,500 California prisoners are housed in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. The state of emergency was rescinded in January 2013, raising the issue of when and how these inmates must be returned.
  • Recent population reductions are not sufficient to meet federal requirements.
    The U. S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding caused the unconstitutionally poor health care delivery in California state prisons and ordered the reduction of the prisoner population to 137.5% of design capacity (or about 110,000 inmates) by June 27, 2013 (later extended to year’s end). However, even with the recent population decrease, state penal institutions are operating at 150% of their design capacity and will need to clear out nearly 10,000 more prisoners to comply with the court mandate.
  • If the state releases more prisoners, tough decisions lie ahead.
    Assessing prisoners’ risk of reoffending is critical if the current prison population is reduced. Many inmates (44%) are considered to be at low risk for reoffending, based on their age, gender, and prior criminal history. But a large portion of low-risk offenders have committed very serious crimes, such as homicide or kidnapping. Conversely, a quarter of the prison population is rated high risk for recommitting a drug, property, or violent crime. And among those serving for nonserious and nonviolent offenses, 50% are rated high risk to reoffend.


Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (prison and parole populations); Current Population Survey (overall state population); Census Bureau (age-specific state population for incarceration rates.

Notes: Incarceration rates are the number of state prisoners per 100,000 adults in the comparable general population. The rates presented here are age-adjusted and use CDCR prisoner data from March 31, 2010, and Census Bureau population data from April 1, 2010.