California's Changing Prison Population
- The state prison population has stabilized in the past five years, but the system is still overcrowded.
After several decades of rapid, steady growth, California’s state prison population peaked at 173,000 in 2006. Since then, a gradual decrease brought it down to 163,000 at year-end 2010. Even so, California penal institutions were operating at 175% of their design capacity. Poor health care delivery prompted the U. S. Supreme Court to order the transfer or release of more than 30,000 prisoners within two years.
- Realignment of the criminal justice system has begun to accelerate the prison population’s decrease.
In response to the Supreme Court mandate, California now sends many lower-level offenders to local custody instead of to state prison. Since the advent of realignment on October 1, 2011, the total in-custody prison population has fallen by 12%, from 161,000 to 141,000 at the end of February 2012.
- Approximately 595 adults per 100,000 in California are in state prison.
Incarceration rates have followed a similar trajectory, increasing from 443 per 100,000 adults in 1990 to a peak of 673 in 1998, then declining to the current rate of 595. California’s incarceration rate ranks 18th among states.
- The prison population is aging.
In 1990, 20% of prisoners were under age 25; by the end of 2011, only 13% were under age 25. During this same period, the share of prisoners age 50 and older grew from 4% to 19%. There are at least three reasons for this: the state’s overall population is aging; prisoners are serving longer sentences; and more older adults are new admissions to prison. These last two factors are likely to change as realignment continues.
- Women constitute only 5% of the prison population.
Among women prisoners, 46% are serving time for violent crimes (compared with 64% of men), 30% for property crimes, and 19% for drug crimes. Women are also less likely than men to be incarcerated for parole violations (21%, compared with 29%, respectively).
- African Americans are dramatically more likely to be imprisoned than are other groups.
More than half of California’s adult male population is Latino or nonwhite (55%), but three of every four men in prison are Latino or nonwhite: 41% are Latino, 29% are African American, and 6% are of another race. 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. Among women, African Americans were incarcerated at a rate of 342 per 100,000, compared to 57 for Latinas, 66 for non-Latina whites, and 5 for Asians.
- The foreign-born are less likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than the native-born.
The foreign-born make up 36% of the state’s adult population and 16% of the prison population. The incarceration rate is much lower for foreign-born adults (258 per 100,000) than for U.S.-born adults (815 per 100,000).
- Inland and poorer areas of the state are disproportionately represented in the prison system.
The Far North, San Joaquin Valley, and Inland Empire regions of the state have the highest incarceration rates: 792, 785, and 762 per 100,000 residents, respectively. Rates are much lower for wealthier coastal regions: 336 for the Bay Area and 389 for the South Coast (Orange and Ventura Counties).
- Though the violent crime rate is down, a majority of prisoners (63%) are serving time for violent crimes.
The violent crime rate has dropped from more than 1,000 per 100,000 residents in 1990 to less than 500 in 2010. The number of prisoners serving time for drug offenses has dropped by 20,000 since 2000, in part due to Proposition 36, which mandates treatment instead of incarceration for some drug felons. More recently, under realignment, many other nonviolent felony offenders are now remanded to local custody instead of to state prison, further concentrating the proportion of violent felony offenders in state institutions.
Sources: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data, 1990–2011; Census Bureau data, 2010.
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 data from March 31, 2010, in the numerator and Census Bureau data from April 1, 2010, in the denominator. State incarceration rate rankings come from Bureau of Justice Statistics data from midyear 2009. Crime data are from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, 1990–2010. Except where explicitly noted, all other state-level figures are from CDCR data at year-end, 1990–2011.