Transcript: Remarks by LAO analyst Drew Soderborg on the increase in California’s prison population before the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment on Oct. 21, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Drew Soderborg, Managing Principal Analyst, Corrections, Transportation, and Environment, at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, on the contributing factors to the increase and decline in California’s prison population. The hearing before the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment was held on Oct. 21, 2013:

…To begin with, I’ll be discussing the increase and decline in the state’s prison population.

I’ll be referencing a graph that I believe was included in your briefing packets. It depicts the prison population between 1976 and 2013.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the prison population began to increase until it reached about 161,000 in 1999.

The most dramatic population growth occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Over that two decade period, the population grew by over 500%.

Following a couple of years of decline in the early 2000’s, the prison population again started growing in 2002 until it reached a peak of about 173,000 in 2006.

The prison population has generally been in decline since that point.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation currently estimates that the prison population will be about 134,000 by Dec. 31, 2013.

Now, one of the most significant contributors to the growth in the prison population was the increase in the crime rate. The property and violent crime rate increased significantly beginning in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 1980, the property crime rate increased by more than 100%. And between 1960 and 1992, the violent crime rate increased by almost 400%.

Since 1992, the crime rate has generally been in decline and overall crime has been cut in half since its peak in 1992, and violent crime has decreased by 60% since 1992 while property crime has decreased by 45% since 1980.

However, crime wasn’t the only contributor to the growth in the state’s prison population. Another major contributor were various statutes that were enacted over this time period.

So in 1976, the legislature passed the Determinate Sentencing Law. Before the law, offenders sentenced to state prison served indeterminate terms with open-ended terms such as 5 years to life, and they were only released from prison once a parole board had determined that they were of a low risk to re-offend.

After the passage of the law, however, most offenders served set terms in state prison. Now, the switch [to] determinate sentencing by itself wouldn’t necessarily result in an increase in the prison population, but there was a significant increase in sentence lengths that were passed following the passage of the determinate sentencing law.

The lengths of various sentences were increased, enhancements were increased, and judicial discretion was reduced in ways that generally lengthens the sentences that were imposed on offenders.

For example, Stanford University did a review of the laws related to enhancements, which lengthen prison terms, and found that in the three decades following the determinate sentencing laws, there are at least 80 substantive increases in sentences made.

One of the most well-known changes that increased sentence length was of course the Three Strikes Law, which was approved both by voters and the legislature in 1994. The Three Strikes Law required longer prison sentences for certain repeat offenders. For example, if an offender had had two prior serious or violent convictions, any new felony conviction that that offender incurred would make that offender eligible for a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. It also increased sentence lengths for individuals that were convicted of only one prior serious or violent offense; in that case, if that individual went on to commit another felony, the sentence that could be imposed on them was doubled.

Another major contributor to the prison population over this time period were parolees returning after either committing a new crime or committing a technical violation of their supervision.

For example, between 1987 and 2007 – the 2007 is around the peak of the prison population – the total number of parole violations that resulted in an offender being returned to prison increased, from about 32,000 to 93,000. That’s about a 300% increase.

While some parolees were returned for committing new offenses, the majority of parolees were returned for technical violations of their supervision. A typical example of that would be having a dirty drug test or failing to meet with your parole officer at a designated time. It is important to note, though, that some technical violations were actually new offenses but they chose to pursue them as technical violations because they didn’t think they had the evidence to win a conviction in the court of law.

Another important fact is that prior to Realignment, California was the only state that required virtually every offender released from prison to be supervised in the community.

And another major factor that helped this state accommodate this increase in the prison population was an expansion in the number of prisons operated by the state. Between 1987 and 1998, 20 new prisons were activated. And who while that in of itself didn’t directly contribute to the prison population, it did allow the state to allow the increase that was occurring.

Since, as I mentioned, about 2006, the state’s prison population has generally been in decline. This has been due largely to several different statutory changes that have been put in place.

A notable one is Chapter 28 Statutes of 2009 – that was a piece of trailer bill legislation that made a series of different changes. For example, it increased the credits an inmate can earn and it also increased the dollar threshold on property crimes, which made it so that fewer offenders that commit property crime would be eligible for state prison.

In 2009, SB 678 was passed. SB 678 is, of course, the law that incentivizes the counties to reduce the number of adult felony probationers that are committed to prison. That helped reduce the prison population.

And of course, the 2011 Realignment, possibly the most notable example, which generally reduced the number of individuals that were eligible for state prison and notably reduced the number of individuals that could be sent back to state prison after committing offense following their release from state prison.

And most recently, Prop. 36, which modified the application of the Three Strikes Law. It was passed in 2012. That no only reduced the number of individuals that the Three Strikes life sentences apply to, but it also made certain individuals that were serving those sentences eligible for re-sentencing and has resulted in the release in some of these offenders.

So now, I’d be happy to take any questions on some of the population dynamics or I could move on to the section of the presentation related more to health care and how the population interacts that.


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One Comment on “Transcript: Remarks by LAO analyst Drew Soderborg on the increase in California’s prison population before the Assembly Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment on Oct. 21, 2013

  1. Pingback: Spotlight: California Justice Reinvestment Committee hearing on the state prison population - Oct. 21, 2013 | What The Folly?!

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