Depends whom you ask (real helpful, huh?).

On the one hand, the state has significantly reduced its prison population since realignment went into effect last October. At the end of September 2011, there were 144,456 inmates in the state’s 33 prisons, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (Note: that does not represent California’s total prison population, which also includes prisoners in in-state and out-of-state private facilities, and those in work camps).

California’s 33 prisons are designed to hold about 80,000 prisoners (based on one inmate/cell). So at the start of realignment, the prisons were at about 180% overcapacity.

Data source: CDCR (click on the chart above to see the interactive version)

By the end of July 2012 the inmate population had been reduced to just over 120,000, or 150 percent of capacity. So over the last ten months, California’s 33 prisons shed more than 24,000 inmates. And that puts the system within reach of meeting its court-ordered goal of getting population down to about 110,000 (or 137.5 percent capacity) by June 2013.

All in all, sounds pretty good.

There are some skeptics, however. who are likely to point out several factors that might detract from this record of success. For one, much of the reduction – about 30 percent – took place within the first three months of realignment. But that trend has slowed, casting some doubt as to whether the June 13 goal can actually be met.

Also at issue is the burden that realignment has placed on many county jails throughout the state. New low-level offenders are now mostly serving out sentences in county jail facilities, many of which have limited space and are not equipped to hold inmates for long periods of time. In the first four months after realignment went into effect, the jail populations in a number of counties across the state skyrocketed . The trend isn’t universal, but it increased overcrowding in various county facilities. (Check out the interactive map).

The rising jail population also raises the question of whether California’s realignment experiment is actually reforming the state’s beleaguered prison system or just serving as a quick-fix. Nearly as many non-violent, low-level offenders are still being thrown behind bars for lengthy terms; it’s just that more of them are now being packed into county jails rather than state prisons.

Is California’s Prison Realignment Experiment Working? 20 May,2015Matthew Green

  • richmck

    California’s leaderless state/county correctional system has operated and expanded without coordination or any plan for decades. The U.S. Supreme Court order requiring a 32,000 reduction in the prison population will partially rebalance the correctional system and reduce prison operating costs by over $1 billion annually.
    California has never had a prison bed shortage but rather a massive county jail bed shortage. A 2006 analysis of the jail system by the California Sherriff’s Association reported a 65,000 jail bed shortage. Rather than deal with the shortage, the excess jail population was just shifted to prison, adding the unnecessary $1 billion to the annual prison budget. The State is still operating without a plan. The last comprehensive plan, published in 1971, was of course, ignored. Prison costs went up as educational funding declined. It shouldn’t take a U.S. Supreme Court order to fix the system but it did.

  • Herbert_maxwell

    Most of the prisoners are in prison for drug related offenses and they should be released if they did not have a victim. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s drugs such as opium and heroin were legal. After prohibition, during the depression, rather than lay-off revenooers thus adding to the ranks of the unemployed, the federal government passed laws making selected drugs illegal. Thus we now have millions of drug offenders in jail wasting billions of dollars when the money could be better used for education. QUESTION: Is this dumb or what? ANSWER: It is dumb! Much of the drug money is used for narco-terrorism. Legalize drugs, create employment, generate taxes and keep the money in the USA instead of giving money to people to kill us. In 1970 I attended a two-weeks course conducted by the then Bureau of Dangerous Drugs (now DEA) and when I learned how much money could be made trafficking in drugs, I realized we could not stop drugs from entering the country due to the huge profits for traffickers. It was sad and discouraging in the early seventies to watch the BMWs and Mercedes Benz drive to East Palo Alto to buy therir drugs. All levels of our society-rich, famous, legal, doctors, plebians, poor, religious, celebrities, sports figures use drugs by the tens of millions. They always have an they always will. So, stop the war on drugs-unless there is a victim-ditto for prostitution. No victim, no crime. Let the police officials go after the real crooks who steal money by the Trillions-white collar crime.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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