Legislative Analyst's Office
February 22, 1995

Department of Corrections (5240)

Inmate and Parole Population Management Issues

Significant Growth in Inmate Population, But Less Than Earlier Forecasts

The Governor's Budget estimates that the prison population will continue to increase steadily, exceeding 230,000 inmates by the end of the decade. Although this represents an average annual increase of almost 11 percent, the increase is less than the amount projected previously.

The Governor's Budget assumes that the number of prison inmates will reach 131,700 by June 30, 1995, and increase further to about 148,600 by June 30, 1996, which represents an increase of 5.5 percent in the current year and 13 percent in the budget year. The budget also assumes that the population will increase further over the following four years, reaching more than 230,000 inmates by the end of 1999-2000. This represents an average annual increase of almost 11 percent from 1994-95 through 1999-2000.

Given the current estimate of prison population growth and the scheduled completion of new prison beds, the level of prison overcrowding will worsen by 1999-2000, as shown in Figure 12.

Change From Prior Projection. The CDC projects the inmate and parole populations twice each year. A projection in the fall typically becomes the basis for the Governor's January budget proposal. A second projection in the spring becomes the basis for the May Revision and is typically used when the Legislature enacts the annual budget.

The CDC's fall 1994 projection continues to predict significant increases in the prison population, but the level of growth is below the level described in the spring 1994 projection. Specifically, last spring, the CDC projected that the prison population would increase at an average annual rate of 15 percent, reaching almost 246,000 inmates by the end of 1998-99. This fall the CDC estimated that the average annual increase would be 11 percent, and that the prison population would reach about 211,000 inmates by June 30, 1999, or 35,000 fewer inmates than the previous number. Based on recent trends, which we discuss in greater detail later, the Governor's Budget has dropped the projection even further, to about 209,000.

The downward revision in the CDC's projection is due primarily to two factors. First, the CDC revised downward its estimates of offenders admitted to prison from court, including both new felons admitted to prison and parole violators readmitted to prison following a new criminal conviction. Adjustments of this type are fairly typical from one projection period to the next.

Second, and more importantly, the CDC revised its estimates of the impacts of the Three Strikes law downward due to: (1) delays in processing Three Strikes offenders through the local criminal justice system, (2) a slightly lower projection of felons who would be sentenced to prison under Three Strikes instead of being sentenced to local jails or put on probation, and (3) its use of more sophisticated population estimation techniques (the previous estimate relied on a less sophisticated technique generally used to assess the impact of proposed legislation).

Parole Violation Rates Increasing

Following several years of steady declines, parole revocation rates have begun to increase, and the CDC projects that this higher rate will continue into the future.

One factor that offsets the decrease in the estimated rate of new felon admissions to prison from court is the recent increase in the rate of parolees returned to prison for a technical parole violation. A violation is considered technical when a parolee is returned to prison by administrative action of the CDC, rather than through a new prison commitment by a court. Typically, an administrative action is taken by the CDC to return a parolee to prison when the parolee violates a condition of parole that may not constitute a violation of law or is unlikely to be prosecuted by local officials. On the other hand, a court commitment occurs when a parolee is prosecuted for a new crime. In 1993-94, more than 40,000 parole violators were returned to prison for technical parole violations.

Background. Beginning in 1991, the CDC implemented several policies and procedures that contributed to slowing prison population growth. Some parolees arrested for minor offenses were sent to community-based sanctions or treatment programs (such as substance abuse treatment) instead of prison. The issuance of warrants was delayed, giving parole agents more time to locate a parolee and determine whether he was suitable for placement in a treatment program, rather than an immediate return to prison. Also, the grounds for revoking parole were standardized statewide, a change which had the effect of reducing violation rates in some regions of the state.

The changes were an attempt to ensure the successful completion of parole by diverting nonviolent parole violators from short periods of incarceration in costly prison beds to community-based sanctions which attempted to deal with the source of parolee problems. Following implementation of the new policies, the rate at which parolees returned to prison was reduced significantly from a statewide average of approximately 70 percent in 1989 to a low of about 39 percent in 1992-93.

Rates Have Gone Up. In 1993-94, however, the rate began to climb again. By the first quarter of 1994-95, it reached about 55 percent. As a consequence, the CDC assumed a much higher parole violation rate in its fall 1994 projections. The CDC now projects that rate will remain at about 55 percent through the end of the decade, as shown in Figure 13.

Although the reasons for the increase are not completely clear, it appears that parole agents sought to revoke a larger portion of parolees because of heightened public attention and awareness of parolees in the community.

Projections Subject to Significant Uncertainty

Recent trends in the inmate and parole populations indicate that the state will experience greater savings in the current year than are anticipated in the Governor's Budget. The May Revision is also likely to reduce the prison population estimate for the budget year, thereby reducing the CDC budget's request. A number of factors make the long-run projections much more uncertain. However, even if the long-range projections are reduced, it is likely that the state's prison system will be severely overcrowded and experience very significant General Fund costs well into the future.

The new projections carry with them significant implications for the current year and beyond. In addition, the projections appear to be subject to significant uncertainty.

Recent Flat Population Trend Should Reduce Current-Year Costs. The prison population has essentially remained flat for several months. In fact, as of January 15, 1995, the population was 125,300 inmates--roughly the same number as of July 31, 1994. Figure 14 compares the trend in inmate population growth for 1994-95 to the levels projected last May which were the basis for the 1994 Budget Act. The Governor's Budget assumes that the state will incur General Fund savings of $7 million in the current year because population growth was less than anticipated. Given that the population is even lower in the current year than projected in the Governor's Budget, we estimate that the state will incur General Fund savings in the current year of millions to tens of millions of dollars beyond the $7 million estimate.

Impact of Three Strikes on Prison Population Less Than Expected So Far. According to the CDC, one of the principal reasons for the slower-than- anticipated growth in the inmate population this year is the large backlog of offenders awaiting adjudication at the local level. The CDC anticipated that, by the end of December 1994, there would be almost 6,000 felons admitted to prison under the Three Strikes law. In fact, only about 3,200 were admitted.

As we reported on January 6, 1995 in The Three Strikes and You're Out Law--A Preliminary Assessment, there are thousands of cases backing up in the local criminal justice system because most offenders are refusing to plead guilty and instead are taking their cases to trial. For example, Los Angeles County anticipates that its number of criminal trials will increase by 144 percent as a result of Three Strikes and Santa Clara expects its number of trials to triple.

Because local criminal justice prosecution, public defense, and court resources are being used to handle additional Three Strikes cases going to trial, there are also fewer resources available for non- Three Strikes cases--cases involving offenders who if prosecuted would be much more likely to plead guilty and be sent to prison relatively quickly.

It is not clear when the backlog of cases will be cleared. According to the CDC, both Los Angeles and San Diego Counties (which account for about half of prison admissions) expect the backlogs to persist for at least a year.

In addition, it may be possible, especially in the long run, that behavioral changes in the criminal justice system may lessen somewhat the projected growth in the prison population attributable to the Three Strikes law. For example, the law may deter some violent and serious criminals, thereby slowing the growth in the prison population. There is also anecdotal evidence that some judges, juries, and victims are responding to the law in ways that reduce somewhat the number of persons that would otherwise be sent to prison under the measure.

However, other factors besides the 1994 Three Strikes law may also be coming into play. For example, the shortfall in projected new inmates might be related to major demographic changes, including the decreased number of young adults who as an age group are responsible for a disproportionate number of the crimes which are committed.

Projections for Budget Year Likely to Be Reduced. The Governor's Budget requests $158 million for the projected increase in the inmate and parole populations for the budget year (we discuss this request below). Given the current trends, we believe that the projected prison population for 1995-96 contained in the Governor's Budget is overstated and is very likely to be reduced at the time of the May Revision. Such a reduction would result in a commensurate reduction in the CDC budget request for 1995-96, probably in the tens of millions of dollars.

Other Factors Could Change Estimates. As we have indicated in previous years, the accuracy of the department's projections, especially in the long run, depends on a number of significant factors, including:

Changes in any one of these areas could easily result in a higher-than- projected prison growth rate by either increasing the number of inmates admitted to prison or the amount of time those inmates spend in prison. Likewise, an adjustment in the opposite direction could result in a smaller growth rate or even a decline in the inmate population.

The Bottom Line: Higher Costs, but Less Than Expected. As we indicated above, the recent estimates of the prison population have been slightly reduced from the previous estimates and, based on actual experience in the current year, the projections are likely to be reduced further. Even with these adjustments, however, the CDC is likely to continue to experience very significant increases in the number of inmates incarcerated in prison and on parole in the community in the long run. Thus, prison overcrowding will continue and, based on current authorizations for new prisons, will likely worsen by the end of the decade, as shown in Figure 12.

As a result of the growth in the inmate population, the CDC's General Fund costs will continue to increase into the budget year and through the end of the decade. Given the current level of overcrowding of approximately 175 percent and the projected growth in the inmate population, the Legislature will need to assess whether to authorize construction of additional prisons, expand alternative inmate housing programs, or reduce the prison population.

Inmate and Parole Population Projections Will Be Updated in May

We withhold recommendation on the CDC's request for a net increase of $120 million to fund inmate and parole population growth, pending review of the revised budget proposal and population projections to be included in the May Revision.

The budget requests a net increase of $158 million and 1,568 personnel-years to accommodate inmate and parole population changes and increased prison construction lease payments in the budget year. The changes in the inmate and parole populations are shown in Figure 15.

Inmate Population. The budget requests an increase of $130 million and 1,729 personnel-years to accommodate additional inmates in institutions, fund associated population-driven support costs, and open two new prisons (in Lassen and Monterey Counties). The amount includes $129 million from the General Fund and $1.3 million from the Inmate Welfare Fund and reimbursements. As Figure 15 shows, the total population is projected to increase by 13 percent to about 148,600 inmates during 1995-96. We discuss the department's plan to accommodate this growth in the inmate population in more detail below.

Parole Population. The budget proposes a net General Fund reduction of $10 million and a reduction of 160 personnel-years in the parole program. This reduction is primarily due to two factors. First, the parole population growth is far less than previously anticipated. Although the CDC 's spring 1994 population projections (the basis for the 1994 Budget Act) had estimated that there would be approximately 99,700 parolees by the end of the budget year, the Governor's Budget projection for 1995-96 now estimates that total will be about 93,400, or 6,300 fewer parolees than anticipated previously. Figure 15 shows that the new estimated parole population is expected to increase by 1.6 percent, from 91,900 to 93,400 during the budget year.

Second, the budget assumes that a total of 10,000 parolees who are undocumented immigrants will be removed from the regular parole caseload and that they will be deported by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (USINS). This number is actually higher than previously estimated, resulting in a larger than expected reduction in the regular parole caseload with commensurate savings. (We discuss the estimate of undocumented felons in greater detail below.)

Lease Payments for Prisons. The budget also requests an increase of $28.3 million from the General Fund and $9.9 million from reimbursements for increased payments and insurance on prisons that were constructed using lease payment bonds. The primary reason for the increase is opening of new prisons in Lassen and Madera Counties. Both were constructed using lease-payment bonds and the bond agreements require the state to begin making payments after the facilities are occupied. The Lassen prison will be completely occupied in September 1995, and the Madera prison in July 1995.

Projections Will Be Updated. As we indicated above, recent trends indicate that the inmate and parole population projections are likely to be reduced substantially when they are updated by the May Revision. A reduction in the projected population for 1995-96 could result in a significant reduction in the amount requested to accommodate inmate and parole population growth. Based on actual population growth to date, we expect the reduction will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

For these reasons, we withhold recommendation on the proposed (1) increase of $130 million to support inmate population growth and (2) net reduction of $10 million to support the parole population, pending receipt and review in May of the department's revised estimates. Our review indicates that the proposed increase for lease payments ($28.3 million from the General Fund and $9.9 million from reimbursements) is reasonable and we recommend that it be approved.

Inmate Housing Plan Contains Uncertainties

We withhold recommendation on the CDC's plan for housing the projected increase in the prison population in the budget year because it contains a number of uncertainties. The plan will be updated as part of the May Revision.

Background. Inmates are admitted and discharged from the CDC virtually every day. In order to accommodate the changes in the inmate population, the department develops a plan several times each year for housing additional inmates. When a new prison is first occupied, the plan usually specifies that the number of inmates housed there will approximate the number for which the facility was designed (generally around 2,000 inmates for most new facilities). The plan also specifies which other institutions will increase their level of overcrowding. The plan includes a specific list of the institutions which will receive additional inmates, the number and security levels of the inmates to be received, and the months in which the inmates will be placed in the facility. The inmate housing plan must remain fluid, primarily because the CDC has very little control as to when it will receive inmates from county jails, and given the high levels of prison overcrowding.

Inmate Housing Plan for 1995-96. The Governor's Budget includes an inmate housing plan to accommodate the approximately 17,000 additional inmates that the department expects to receive during 1995-96. The plan calls for the following:

Uncertainty With the Plan. Our review indicates that there is substantial uncertainty surrounding several parts of the inmate housing plan, some of which may be resolved by the time of the May Revision.

Big Expansion of Community Correctional Facilities Proposed

The budget proposes to expand the number of beds available in community correctional facilities over the next two years by 2,492--an increase of about 46 percent. The department's plan will result in a higher risk level of inmates being placed in community facilities than previously permitted and may cost more on a per-inmate basis than placement in state prisons. Given CDC's experience, it may also be difficult for the department to obtain contracts for so many new beds within its current schedule.

Background. The CDC contracts with some local governments and private vendors for community-based facilities in which inmates are incarcerated. These facilities--generally referred to as community correctional facilities (CCFs)--provide incarceration on a scale much smaller than state prison. The facilities, which are located throughout the state, generally house inmates for very short periods of time and/or provide special types of treatment or services for the inmates.

Currently, the CDC contracts for about 5,400 beds in these local facilities. The largest share--about 2,700 beds--is in CCFs that are operated by local public entities (usually small cities) to house parole violators. About 1,400 beds are in CCFs operated by private vendors, and another 1,100 beds are in private work-furlough facilities (facilities for inmates with a short time left on their prison sentences where inmates receive assistance in finding jobs and transitioning back into the community). The remaining 200 beds are in private facilities that provide specialized services (such as the Prisoner Mother Program, the Substance Abuse Treatment Unit, and the Alternative Sentencing Program).

Contracted facilities are generally small, housing less than 500 inmates each. They house inmates in conditions that are much less overcrowded than state prisons.

Budget Proposes Major Expansion of CCFs. The budget proposes a major expansion of inmate bed capacity through an emergency housing plan to add 20,000 beds primarily through a combination of overcrowding and new construction in existing prisons. The plan is the result of inmate population growth and the lengthy time it would take to construct new prisons. (We discuss the emergency housing plan in detail in our analysis of the CDC's capital outlay request--please see the Capital Outlay chapter at the end of this Analysis.)

As part of the emergency housing plan, the budget proposes to increase the number of beds in CCFs by 2,492--an increase of 46 percent. Of this amount, 2,000 would be added through contracts for four new 500-bed facilities. Eight hundred beds would be occupied in the budget year and the remaining 1,200 in 1996-97. In addition, 492 beds would be added to existing CCFs operated by public entities that are already under contract.

The CDC advises that it will soon release a Request for Proposal (RFP); it has targeted July 1, 1995, to award contracts; and, it expects to have contracts approved by the Department of General Services by September 1, 1995. Activation of the new beds is scheduled for the beginning of the budget year and would be completed in early 1996-97.

While the inmate population has not grown as expected, given the levels of overcrowding, historical patterns of population growth, and the difficulty in obtaining additional prison beds, we believe that the CDC still has a need to obtain additional beds.

We have three additional observations regarding the proposal.

CCFs Would House Higher-Risk Offenders. Historically, the CCFs have housed relatively low-security inmates who have a short period of incarceration. For example, CCFs are currently off-limits for most inmates who committed a violent sexual offense. Under the proposed expansion, the criteria would be relaxed to allow some offenders from higher risk categories--such as sexual offenders--to be placed in the facilities.

Costs Likely to Be Greater. The per-capita costs to keep an inmate in a CCF are generally higher than the per capita costs to keep an inmate in prison. Among the reasons is that a CCF is much smaller and less overcrowded than a CDC institution, and thus cannot operate at the same economies of scale as prisons.

The budget assumes that the per-capita costs of the CCFs will be the same as the per-capita cost of placing an inmate in an overcrowded state prison--about $11,000. However, the per capita costs of the current CCF is about $17,000, or about $6,000 more than it costs to keep an inmate in an overcrowded state prison. The exact per- capita costs of the proposal will depend on the responses to the RFP and the reimbursement rates negotiated by the CDC. Based on past experience, however, we expect that the costs will be higher than the budgeted amount.

Can the CDC Obtain so Many New CCFs on its Current Schedule? It appears that the department can add the 492 beds through expansion of existing CCFs. In fact, these vendors have already expressed interest and some advise that their use permits will permit the expansions to occur.

It is not clear, however, how successful the department will be in adding the 2,000 new beds. It took the CDC a number of years to obtain its existing 5,400 beds. In addition, unlike state prisons, private vendors who wish to obtain the contracts will be subject to location rules, planning, and zoning requirements of local governments. The department's plan to place more risky inmates in these facilities could make local permitting more difficult.

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