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State Prisoners, California and Nationwide


Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released its advance figures on prison populations.  This is a census of prisoners in state and federal prisons, not county jails.*  The total state prison population declined by 29,223 from year-end 2011 to year-end 2012.  California alone accounted for 51% of the drop, while California and Texas together accounted for 71%.

In California, the drop is primarily due to the Realignment program shifting convicted felons to county jails.  In theory, it was not supposed to reduce the total persons incarcerated, although the hydraulic pressure on overcrowded jails has done that.

So who is left in California's prisons?  Let's compare the most serious offense of commitment of California prisoners versus the 50-state total:

State Prisoners by Commitment Offense - 2012 (%)
Offense Type California All States
Violent 69.8 53.0
Property 14.5 18.3
Drug 9.1 16.8
Public Order 6.5 10.6
Other/unspec. 0.1 1.4

The California year-end 2010 numbers, before Realignment, looked pretty much like the 50-state 2012 numbers: 58.8, 18.9, 15.0, 7.2, 0.2.

So a substantially larger portion of California's prisoners today have a commitment offense that is violent.  Many of the others have violent priors or have plea-bargained away violent charges in a deal for a drug or property commitment offense.

BJS's "public order" category is a bit of problem.  This category "includes weapons, drunk driving, and court offenses; commercialized vice, morals, and decency offenses; and liquor law violations and other public-order offenses."  That's quite a hodge-podge.  "Weapons" would include a felon with violent priors being caught in possession of an AK-47.  I doubt many people are in state prison for "liquor law violations."

The hot topic of the moment is whether California should comply with the order of the Triumvirate by releasing prisoners or by finding more space.  When Gov. Brown and Secretary Beard say we have already pushed out of state prison those we safely can, they are certainly not exaggerating.  (I think we have already pushed out more than we safely can, but that's another debate.)

Let's also take a look at California's female prison population, before and after Realignment:

California Female Prisoners by Commitment Offense (%)
Offense Type 2010 2012
Violent 40.9 62.4
Property 33.3 22.3
Drug 21.1 10.9
Public Order 4.3 4.1
Other/unspec. 0.4 0.2

The number of property offenders has dropped by a third, and the number of drug offenders has been cut in half.  The percentage with violent commitment offenses is close to that of the men.  These are more than just "mean girls."  And again, a property or drug offense of commitment does not mean that the prisoner is "non-violent."

If you release prisoners in inverse order of dangerousness (i.e., least dangerous first), the danger to public safety per prisoner released increases as you go along.  That would seem to be obvious to anyone with sense.

* In a few small-population states, there is a unified system, so the figures do include local jail populations for these states.

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