Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · August 9, 2006

California’s Changing Prison Population: Larger, Older… And More Violent

Aging Prisoners and Health Care Could Be Expensive Combination, Two-Thirds of Incarcerated Women Have Underage Children

SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 9, 2006 – California’s prisoners aren’t who they used to be, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The comprehensive demographic analysis reveals a prison population that is not only larger but changing dramatically. Some of the major changes have unsettling implications, including potentially prohibitive health care costs for an aging inmate population and the social welfare consequences of incarcerated women with minor children.

Since 1990, the number of prisoners in California has risen three times faster than the overall adult population, standing at almost 168,000 in 2005. Adults younger than 25 years old account for a declining segment of the prison population (declining from 20% in 1990 to 14% in 2005), while the share of adults age 50 and older has nearly tripled (rising from 4% to 11%). What accounts for this shift? Surprisingly – given that criminological research tells us young people are the most likely group to commit crimes – older adults are increasingly being admitted to prison. Additionally, more inmates are aging in prison because tougher sentencing laws lead to more time served.

The graying of the state’s inmate population raises the prospect of soaring health care costs – a prospect that is even more ominous in light of a recent federal court-appointed receiver’s report that says California’s prison health care system is in a state of almost complete disrepair. Prior research estimates that the expense of housing, transporting, and caring for elderly inmates is two-to-three times higher than for other prisoners. “Whether or not federal actions will bring relief remains to be seen, but providing medical and health care to California’s prisoners is on its way to being an acute financial challenge,” says PPIC research associate Amanda Bailey, who co-authored the study with PPIC research associate Joseph Hayes.

The PPIC analysis also raises disquieting questions about the families and communities that prisoners leave behind – and may someday rejoin. For example, 64 percent of female inmates have children under the age of 18 – and over half of these mothers were living with their children at the time of their arrest. “The effects of incarceration certainly extend beyond prison walls to touch thousands of children and other family members,” says Hayes. “Some communities experience a revolving door of prisoners coming and going.” The study finds that 58 percent of women in California prisons have an immediate family member who has been in prison, compared to 42 percent of men.

The prison population is also marked by large racial/ethnic disparities. At 38 percent, Latino men now constitute the largest share of the state’s male prisoners (roughly comparable to their share of the adult population). At 27 percent, white men are underrepresented in prison; but at 29 percent, African American men are vastly overrepresented. African American men are 7 times as likely as white men and 4.5 times as likely as Latino men to be incarcerated. One out of every 12 African American men in California between the age of 25 and 29 is currently in state prison. There are also disparities by offense type, with African American and Latino prisoners (52% each) more likely than whites (44%) to be imprisoned for violent offenses.

Prisoners in general are more likely to be serving sentences for violent offenses than in the past. Violent offenders now constitute a majority (just over 50%) of prisoners, and their share is growing. In contrast, the share of drug offenders is declining – 28 to 21 percent in the past 6 years. Part of this decline results from Proposition 36, which passed in 2000 and diverts non-violent drug offenders from prison to treatment centers.

Overall, the dynamic, complex prison population described in the study, Who’s In Prison? The Changing Demographics of Incarceration, presents considerable challenges for public policy. Besides those discussed above, these are also characteristics of concern:

  • The San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire contribute disproportionately to the state’s prison population. Between 1990 and 2002, their share of admissions has risen from 11 to 14 percent and from 8 to 15 percent, respectively.
  • The vast majority of prison admissions are inmates being returned from parole because of new offenses or parole violations: In 2004, over two-thirds (67%) of admissions were prisoners being returned to prison.
  • U.S.-born adults are nearly three times as likely as foreign-born adults to be incarcerated; however, foreign-born prisoners are more likely to be serving time for violent offenses (60% vs. 50% among men).
  • Women constitute 7 percent of the total prison population – and their numbers are increasing slightly faster than men’s.
  • A majority of men (52%) are imprisoned for violent crimes. Women are considerably more likely to be serving time for property crimes (36%) or drug offenses (30%).
  • Forty-four percent of California prisoners do not have a high school diploma or GED.
  • “Three Strikes and You’re Out” legislation (1994) has affected African Americans disproportionately – they constitute 38 percent of “striker” offenders, but 29 percent of the overall prison population.
  • Three Strikes and the state’s enactment of the federal Truth in Sentencing program (1994) have produced longer sentences and more time served. Together with Prop 36, they have helped transform the prison population to one increasingly composed of violent offenders.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.