By Don Thompson
Published October 27, 2001
SACRAMENTO – California is sending inmates to prison at a far lower rate than it did just a few years ago, but the prisoners are serving longer sentences, figures made public 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 six months ago.
However, the slumping economy could boost crime and convictions beyond projections, said spokeswoman Margot Bach of the California Department of Corrections.
Prison population swings tend to be cyclical, she said, and it remains unclear whether 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 at 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 populations, particularly female, 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% of the total population, a decade ago to 20,429, or about 12.8% of the total, today, Bach said.
The state’s prison admission rate also has 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% in less than a decade, from an average 47.9 months in 1993 to the current 54.6 months, the figures show.