SACRAMENTO — After decades of relentless growth, California's prison population is falling and is expected to remain in decline for at least the next two years.
The drop has intensified opposition to plans for a $335-million maximum-security prison in the Kern County city of Delano, with foes saying fewer inmates should mean the new 5,000-bed prison is unnecessary.
State officials, however, insist they still desperately need space for the most dangerous inmates, noting that some prisons housing the system's greatest security risks are at more than 180% of capacity.
"Our numbers of serious, violent offenders continue to grow," said Stephen Green, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. "The drop in our population is at the lower end, particularly among drug users and women."
Green said the decline among those groups could force the closure of five small, private prisons housing low-risk inmates under contract with the state--including one praised as a model for preparing prisoners to rejoin society.
The state spends $21.3 million annually on the five private facilities, which house about 1,400 inmates. With falling numbers and a budget crisis, officials may opt to cancel the contracts and move those prisoners to other institutions.
"Mothballing some minimum-security facilities is a definite possibility," Green said.
After peaking at about 162,000 in 1999, the number of adults in state custody began to stabilize and then drop, with 158,909 behind bars today.
Also falling are numbers in the California Youth Authority, where the population has tumbled more than 8%, to 6,569 from 7,200, in the last two years.
While modest, the 1.7% dip in adult incarceration in the past year represents a shift that seemed unfathomable during the 1980s, when annual growth was 14.5%, and the 1990s, when the surge continued at a somewhat slower pace. Indeed, the last time the state's penal system experienced a sustained decline in inmates was in 1977.
Analysts attribute the drop to several factors, including the diversion of drug offenders into treatment under Proposition 36, approved by voters a year ago. Since July, when the law took effect, thousands of people arrested for nonviolent drug crimes have been sentenced to probation and treatment programs rather than jail or prison.
"The largest commitment offense for women is drugs, and we've seen our biggest decline in population among women," said Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. "Proposition 36 has had a definite impact on our numbers."
Other possible explanations for the dip include a strong economy and increased spending on programs to help parolees blend smoothly back into society--and to avoid violations that would land them back behind bars.
Two years ago, for example, the Department of Corrections' budget included $24 million for increased supervision of two types of parolees--those with mental health problems and about 10,000 who have two "strikes" on their record. The funding slashed caseloads for parole agents serving those groups from a ratio of 70 parolees to one agent to 40 to 1.
As a result, Green said, the recidivism rate for parolees--the proportion who commit new offenses--has dropped from about 72% to about 56%.
"That's still way too high, but it is evidence that we've put more parole agents on the street and they're doing a better job of supervising their parolees," Green said.
Experts who track prison trends say the population decline is, in some ways, overdue, trailing crime rates that have fallen in recent years.
"From 1992 to 1999, California and the rest of the nation were sort of defying gravity--the crime rate went down and the imprisonment rate kept going up," said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall. "So in a sense, what we're seeing is just a belated leveling out."
The question that puzzles Zimring is, why now?
Zimring thinks the passage of Proposition 36 likely was a symptom of a broader "relaxation of the public and prosecutorial mood" that began building in the late 1990s.
For years, a lock-'em-all-up mentality dominated in society and the Legislature, an era that gave birth to the three-strikes law and countless others extending sentences for certain crimes. Aside from a growth in sheer inmate numbers during that time, the proportion of Californians locked up grew too--from 119 per 100,000 residents in 1981 to 467 per 100,000 this year.
Eventually, Zimring said, that push for ever-stricter laws began to wane, and a softening in the charging and sentencing of criminals surfaced.
"Most of the explosion in California imprisonment was driven by the joint discretion of prosecutors and judges," Zimring said. "When they stop getting tougher, things are bound to even out."
Whatever forces may be at work, Zimring called the population decline a mere blip compared with the tremendous growth of the past two decades.