CA imprisons fewer inmates, but for longer terms

By Don Thompson Associated Press Writer
Saturday October 27, 2001

SACRAMENTO — California is sending inmates to prison at a far lower rate than just a few years ago, but the prisoners are serving longer sentences, figures released 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 just six months ago. 

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

Prison population swings tend to be cyclical, she said, and it remains unclear if 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, 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 inmates, particularly women, 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 percent of the total population a decade ago to 20,429 or about 12.8 percent of the total today, Bach said. 

The state’s prison admission rate has also 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 percent in less than a decade, from an average 47.9 months in 1993 to the current 54.6 months, the figures show. 

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 prior to imprisonment are taken into account. 

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

The state’s prison population is expected to grow 6.3 percent over 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,” said Zimring. “We were defying gravity until 1999. That’s when we stopped toughening up (anti-crime policies). That’s when the declining crime rate could catch up.” 

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

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

Bach said the drop was due to changes in police crime-fighting tactics, a state program to help recently released inmates succeed on parole, and an emphasis on keeping persons with two convictions from committing a third crime that would bring a far longer sentence 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.