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Minus California's 'Realignment,' U.S. Prison Population Increased in 2011

For those parroting a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report that claims decreases in the numbers of prisoners nationwide for the second consecutive year, they should read the fine print.

The BJS' National Prisoner Statistics report-released in December 2012-boasts a decline of 0.9% in the "number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities," from 1,613,803 in 2010 to 1,598,780 by year's end in 2011. At first glance, that's a decrease of 16,707 prisoners.

But without California's Public Safety Realignment Act-which, as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires that California reduces its prison population to 137.5% of the design capacity of all its correctional facilities-the U.S. prison population in 2011 remained stagnant at best.

"Realignment" in California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is less a release or diversion program and more so a massive transfer. CDCR's overall population decreased by 15,493 in 2011 to 149,569. Ultimately, at its current design capacity, CDCR must reduce the population to 110,000. And it will get there by transferring- not releasing- thousands of "low-level offenders" from CDCR's jurisdiction to the control of county jails.

By BJS standards, that's certainly a reduction in the prison population, but it's not a decrease in the number of those locked up. Without California's "realignment," the national prison population actually increased by more than 1,000, thanks in part to a sizable bump in the number of federal prisoners.

In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (SOP) incarcerated 216,362 people, an increase of almost 6,600 (up 3.1%) from 2010. Nearly half of those prisoners, according to the BJS report, were serving time for drug offenses, and another 35% were in prison for "public-order" crimes, such as weapons and immigration offenses. Only 8% of the BOP population was incarcerated for violent crimes.

About 22,100 SOP prisoners were sentenced for immigration offenses, an increase of nearly 10% over the year before. The increase coincides with SOP's reliance on private prison companies, like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, among others, to house immigrants. For-profit companies, in fact, held 14% more SOP prisoners in 2011 than in 2010.

And the total number of prisoners nationwide held in private facilities ticked up from 127,945 to 130,941. Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota, the BJS report said, each incarcerated at least 17% more prisoners in private prisons in 2011.

The states with the largest increases in their total prison populations were Kentucky (+4.9%), Idaho (+4.1%), Tennessee (+3.7%), New Mexico (+3.5%) and Indiana (+3.1%). Collectively, those states incarcerated 3,450 more prisoners in 2011 than the year before.

Overall, the BJS, a division of the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs, reported that 26 states, including California, saw decreases in their prison population. California's was the largest reduction, followed by Texas (1,425 fewer prisoners than in 2010), Florida (-1,251), Michigan (-1,225) and New York (-1,220). Most of those states, however, already maintain the largest prison populations in the country; thus, the reductions were relatively nominal, ranging from 0.8% to 2.8% of their rolls. California was the exception, reducing its population by 9.4%.

A recent report from The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C. credited lawmakers in Michigan and New York for enacting "a mix of administrative and legislative policies" to reduce their prison populations. In Michigan, reforms included a "repeal of almost all of the state's mandatory minimum drug sentences, replacing them with sentencing guidelines," the report said. Similar drug law modifications were passed in New Jersey.

Overall, at least six states closed 20 prisons in 2012, according to The Sentencing Project, potentially saving about $337 million and reducing prison capacity by more than 14,000 beds.

Sources: "Prisoners in 2011," U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2012,; "On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings," The Sentencing Project,

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