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.
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.