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Report: Decreases in U.S. Jail Population Slowed By California's Realignment

Exponential increases in the U.S. jail population over the past 20 years appear to have leveled off and even reversed slightly, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported in May 2014 that the jail population in midyear 2013—731,208 nationwide—was "significantly lower" than the peak year of 2008, when the jail population reached 785,533.

The jail incarceration rate—which is "the confined population per 100,000 U.S. residents," according to the BJS—also declined to 231 per 100.00 in 2013, continuing a downward trend since that figure reached a high of 259 per 100,000 in 2007.

But in relation to more recent data from 2011 and 2012, the decreases weren't "statistically significant," the report said, largely because of California's transfer of thousands of prisoners from its state prisons to county jails as part of the state's "realignment" policy that offset the decreases in the national jail population.

Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that California's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation had to reduce its prison population to alleviate overcrowding, California's jail population has increased by about 12,000 prisoners.

"(California's) Public Safety Realignment policy is designed to reduce the prison population through normal attrition of the existing population while placing new nonviolent, nonserious, nonsex offenders under county jurisdiction for incarceration in local jail facilities," the BJS report said.

While California is giving more money to the state's 58 counties to handle the influx of offenders, "each county must develop a plan for custody and post-custody that best serves its needs," the report added. Apparently, those counties have decided to continue incarcerating nonviolent offenders.

The BJS report also noted that the demographics of California's jail population were very different from the U.S. jail population.

For instance, Hispanics accounted for 15% of the total jail population nationwide in midyear 2013; but in California, Hispanics represented 45% of jail prisoners. Whites and Blacks represented 47% and 36% of the U.S. jail population, respectively, while in California they accounted for 32% and 20% of the population.

There was also a "slight difference" in prisoner conviction status, the BJS reported, noting that 37% of the national jail population were convicted and sentenced, while 43% of California's had been.

In spite of the decline in the overall U.S. jail population, new jails continue to be built and new bed space continues to be added.

By midyear 2013, rated capacity in jails—which is the maximum number of beds assigned to a facility, according to the report—reached 891,271 beds, an increase of 1.6% from the prior year. In fact, the rated capacity nationwide has increased by about 100,000 beds since 2005—and continues to rise—even though the average daily population of all jails has fallen by about 50,000 since 2008.

It seems neither the contractors building the new jails, nor the politicians awarding them their lucrative contracts, are aware that the jail population—excluding California—is declining.

Source: "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013-Statistical Tables” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2014;

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