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Number of California Prisoners Falling; Lifer Population Declines Slightly as Well

As of April 1, 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) counted just over 122,000 prisoners in custody, more than 25 percent lower than its 2006 peak, continuing a downward trend that began after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that capped the state prison system’s population at 137.5 percent of capacity. The current population represents 130.6 percent of capacity.

To reduce its prisoner population, the state has made increasing use of diversionary programs for nonviolent offenders and reclassifying other prisoners so they can serve sentences in county jails.

CDCR’s Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) has also revamped its policies and procedures, making the process more transparent as it implements a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that parole decisions need not be based solely on the seriousness of the crime. “I’m not sure that there are really any other places in life where somebody is scrutinized so much in such a public way by people they don’t know,” observes BPH Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer.

During the first 11 months of 2019, BPH granted release to 1,074 California prisoners serving an indefinite term. That still left CDCR with over 38,000 “lifers,” a number higher than the next three states – Texas, New York and Florida – combined. Yet it was slightly lower than the 2006 peak in California of 40,000.

Meanwhile, Americans serving life sentences in the rest of the nation combined increased by 15 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to the Sentencing Project.