CA Sending Less Inmates to Prison

By Don Thompson


Published October 27, 2001

SACRAMENTO – California is sending inmates to prison at a far lower rate than it did just a few years ago, but the prisoners are serving longer sentences, figures made public Friday show.

The number of prison inmates is expected to drop in the next two years from the current 159,114 to as low as 155,720 in mid–2003 before beginning a slow climb to about 164,620 by mid–2007.

That’s thousands fewer inmates than prison officials predicted six months ago.

However, the slumping economy could boost crime and convictions beyond projections, said spokeswoman Margot Bach of the California Department of Corrections.

Prison population swings tend to be cyclical, she said, and it remains unclear whether the drop in imprisonments is a long– or short–term trend.

The trend stems largely from policy decisions and runs counter to California’s rapidly growing population, said Frank Zimring, a University of California at Berkeley law professor who has studied California prisons for more than 20 years.

For instance, most of the slowdown is in minimum– and medium–security populations, particularly female, in large part because of a state initiative that took effect July 1 requiring treatment instead of prison or jail for first– and second–time nonviolent drug offenders.

The drug initiative will cut the prisons’ population by about 5,440 next year and by more than 7,700 inmates by 2007, the department predicts.

However, the state’s maximum–security population, particularly inmates serving life terms and extended sentences under the Three Strikes law, continues to grow, according to the department’s fall report now being reviewed by the Governor’s Office. Those inmates require higher–security prisons and more supervision, Bach said.

The number of inmates serving life .in prison has grown from about 9,800, or 10% of the total population, a decade ago to 20,429, or about 12.8% of the total, today, Bach said.

The state’s prison admission rate also has dropped significantly, from 293.5 felons per 100,000 Californians five years ago to 239.2 per 100,000 today.

However, prison sentence length throughout the system has grown by 20% in less than a decade, from an average 47.9 months in 1993 to the current 54.6 months, the figures show.


  • Prison population
    Mid–2001: 161,500
    Mid 2003: 155,720*
    Mid 2007: 164,620*
  • Lifers in prison
    1991 9,800 or 10% of the total population in the prison system
    2001: 20429 or 12.8% of the total population
  • Prison admission rate
    1996: 293.5 felons per 100,000 California residents
    2001 : 239.2 per 100,000 residents
  • Prison sentence length
    1993: 47.9 months
    2001: 54.6 months
  • Actual time served in prison
    1993: 23.6 months
    2001: 35.7 months
  • *Projected
    Source: California Department of Corrections

Actual time behind prison walls has grown from an average 23.6 months to 35.7 months when early–release incentives and time spent in county jails before imprisonment are taken into account.

That increase could. partly be a function of weeding out inmates such as drug offenders who would have served shorter sentences, Zimring said.

The state’s prison population is expected to grow by 6.3% during the next 10 years, Bach said, down sharply from the 14.5% increase in the number of inmates California saw during the 1980s.

“California’s prison rate kept growing while the crime rate kept dropping,” Zimring said. “We were defying gravity until 1999. That’s when we stopped toughening up lanti–crime policies]. That’s when the declining crime rate could catch up.”

The total of 19,725 inmates who entered California prisons in the first half of this year is 4.5% lower than the number of incarcerations during the same period last year.

The number of parolees returned to prison for parole violations also is below that projected by prison officials just six months ago.

Bach from the Corrections Department attributed the drop to:

  • Changes in police crime–fighting tactics.
  • A state program to help recently released inmates succeed on parole.
  • An emphasis on keeping persons with two convictions from committing a third crime that would bring a far longer sentece under the state’s Three Strikes law.

Supervision of twice–convicted parolees was doubled so that one parole officer now oversees about 40 parolees instead of 70 or 80, Bach said.

“We want to keep them from coming back for their third strike,” she said.