New Prisoner Data Released: As Goes California . . . Well, Never Mind

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released the latest installment in its annual series on imprisonment in the United States, Prisoners in 2011. The BJS report is a treasure trove of data, but what does it all add up to?  The authors make clear from the start what they see as the lead “story” in the numbers:

During 2011, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities declined by 0.9%, from 1,613,803 to 1,598,780.  This decline represented the second consecutive year the prison population in the United States decreased.

As one reads on, however, it becomes clear that this declining prison population story is really just a California story.  Over calendar year 2011, California’s prison population dropped by 15,493 inmates.  During that same time, the overall U.S. drop was 15,023.  Absent California, then, the real national story is one of stability in imprisonment, not decline.

That California is a bellwether for the rest of the nation is a familiar cliche, but there is little evidence that the rest of the nation is following the Golden State’s lead in this area.  

In 2010, California’s 3.6-percent reduction in prisoners was exceeded only by Vermont, Rhode Island, and Kentucky.  Then, in 2011, California’s rate of de-imprisonment accelerated to a nation-leading 9.4 percent, even as the top three from 2010 saw their rates of reduction slow (or, in Kentucky’s case, reverse entirely).  Indeed, in 2011, twenty-four states saw their prison populations increase.  Only ten states (including Wisconsin) joined California in reducing prison population in both 2010 and 2011 — and all by much lower percentages over the two-year period.

To be sure, these dramatic changes have hardly been voluntary on California’s part.  The state is under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, which had severely compromised the state’s ability to deliver constitutionally adequate medical care and mental-health treatment to inmates.  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower-court’s order in May 2011 (see my post here), which prompted a massive policy switch in California.  In essence, the Public Safety Realignment policy shifted responsibility for lower-level, nonviolent offenders from the state corrections system to local criminal-justice authorities.  The effect was dramatic and almost immediate.  In the second quarter of 2011, before the PSR took effect, 30,000 people were admitted to California prisons.  By the fourth quarter, that number had dropped to 10,000.  This diversion of tens of thousands of offenders from state jurisdiction to county represents an extraordinary experiment in local criminal-justice control.  Eventually, there may be valuable lessons for other states to learn from this experiment.

Will there be court pressure for other states to embark on similar radical changes?  Prisoners in 2011 does make clear that overcrowding is hardly limited to California.  Since there is no single, universally accepted measure for prison capacity, it is hard to quantify precisely how bad the overcrowding problems are, but BJS reports that twenty states have prison populations greater than 100 percent of their highest capacity measure.  Indeed, if overcrowding is measured in this conservative fashion, Wisconsin’s figure (130 percent of capacity) is the fourth-highest in the nation.

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