After long climb, state’s prison population falls

By Andy Furillo
Bee Staff Writer
(Published May 6, 2000)

Twenty years of prison population growth in California has come to a halt, with the number of inmates actually dropping over the last six months of 1999 and projected to stay steady for at least the next two years.

In its spring 2000 population report, the Department of Corrections said it had 160,687 inmates in custody as of Dec. 31, 1999, a total of 1,377 fewer than the head count compiled last June 30 — “the largest half-year drop in at least the last 20 years,” the agency said.

The department projected that the prison population will drop a little bit more next year before a microscopic rise to 160,804 in 2002. It then projected the addition of 13,000 inmates over the next three years. Department analysts linked the projected rise to the state’s expected population increase.

Experts attributed the current stabilization to a number of factors — a booming economy, tougher sentencing laws that may be deterring would-be criminals, prison drug treatment, more spending on parole programs and policing techniques that emphasize prevention as well as arrest.

Whatever the reason, the experts are in agreement on one thing: “It is very good news,” said Frank Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor who has been studying incarceration in California and across the country for more than 20 years. “A declining prison population is an ‘everybody wins’ statistic for California.”

The leveling of the prison population follows 21 years of unchecked prison population growth dating to a 1979 level of 22,000, according to Zimring — a period in which the number of inmates in the state grew seven-fold. “It is a very significant change, a very dramatic shift,” said Craig Cornett, director of criminal justice for the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. “There’s a lot of debate on why it’s happening, but nobody really knows the answer. I don’t think we have a good sense of it yet.”

It is in line with the reduction of prison population growth rates across the country, which fell to 4.4 percent last year — the lowest increase in 20 years, according to the Justice Department.

The six-month decrease and the projected stabilization also follow nearly a decade of decreasing crime rates in the state.

Corrections officials said they could only speculate about why the prison population has leveled off. Gerald Beckett, the chief of the department’s statistical analysis section, listed the economy “being in pretty good shape” as a possible factor. But, Beckett said, in the past “we’ve never seen a real close correlation between economic conditions and the intake into prison,” that the incarceration rate also has boomed during robust economic times.

Beckett said that new admissions into the state’s prisons have actually been dropping for three straight years. The overall population number went down in the latter half of 1999, however, because the number of parolees being returned to the system for new crimes or violations of the conditions of their releases flattened out and then began to drop.

The lessening of parole revocations follows a $27.8 million package of bills put together by the Legislature and then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1998 that represented one of the state’s largest-ever investments in alternatives to incarceration. Wilson and the Legislature increased funding for “therapeutic community” drug treatment beds in the prisons, expanded the program’s “after care” component and restored and added funding to a batch of programs designed to assist parolees on the outside. The programs have since been retained by Gov. Gray Davis.

“I don’t want to make too much of that, but there’s certainly been a change in emphasis to some degree,” Cornett said. “There are more resources available now than when we had enormous revocation rates. A parole agent who might see a homeless guy about to commit an offense now has additional resources to get (him) into temporary housing. If the parolee’s got a drug problem, he might be able to get him into a slot before the addiction results in (him) knocking over a liquor store.”

Cornett also cited new and different policing techniques as “having a positive effect.” They include a boost in the number of officers employing community policing concepts that emphasize working in partnership with other segments of society to prevent crime on the front end.

Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, attributed the decrease to the six-year effect of the tough 1994 “three strikes” law. But Prof. Zimring, in a study released last year, said the law has had little proven deterrent effect.

Passage of the law fueled predictions in 1994 that the state would have to build so many prisons it would wipe out funding for other state programs, with higher education comprising the biggest target. The Department of Corrections, in fact, once projected the inmate population would increase to 250,000 by Jan. 1, 2000. But in the six years since the law went into effect, the Corrections budget has actually decreased to 5.3 percent of the state budget from 5.5 percent, according to the state Department of Finance. Spending on higher education, meanwhile, has increased from 10.5 percent of the budget to 11.7 in the same time span. Corrections, meanwhile, has no plans to build any prisons beyond the one already funded for construction near Delano. Late last year, it even cancelled contracts on four smaller private prisons that would have added 2,000 more beds to the system.

The agency’s planning chief, Ernie Van Sant, said it is the first time in his 15 years with the department that there are no plans for future prisons. Dan Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said the projected flat line in corrections spending “hopefully will give us extra money to improve the quality of life” and fund “a lot of needs we’ve neglected in recent years” in California.

“Ultimately we’re all better off because of it,” Macallair said. “We have a growing population here. There’s going to be a need for a more educated work force in the future. California is going to have to be ready to meet that challenge.”