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California's prison population now eclipsed by Texas; down to 136,000

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POSTED June 13, 2012 9:20 p.m.

 

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Everything is bigger in Texas, the saying goes, and that is now also true of its prison system.

California used to have the nation's largest state prison system, topping 173,000 inmates at its peak in 2006. But since a law took effect last year that shifts responsibility for less serious criminals to county jails, the state has reduced its prison population and is no longer the largest in the nation.

California now has fewer than 136,000 state inmates, eclipsed by about 154,000 in Texas. Florida previously was third, according to 2010 figures from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, and currently has about 100,000 inmates.

The reduction in California was ordered by federal judges in a decision backed last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The courts ruled crowded prisons were causing poor care of sick and mentally ill inmates.

The news comes as the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Wednesday announced a new round of layoffs because fewer guards and other employees are needed as the inmate population shrinks.

"I believe we're No. 2," said Jeffrey Callison, the department's press secretary.

The population dropped by nearly 25,000 inmates from about 160,000 inmates when the law took effect last fall. The courts ordered the state to reduce the population by about 33,000 inmates in the state's 33 adult prisons by June 2013, though corrections officials now argue they can provide acceptable inmate care without meeting that deadline.

The 33,000 inmate reduction is larger than the entire 2010 prison population in 37 other states.

While the court order focused on prisoner care, Callison said crowding also created other problems. Nearly 20,000 inmates were once jammed into triple bunks in day rooms, gyms and other areas, and more than 9,000 inmates remain in private prisons in other states.

With fewer inmates, the prison system can now begin focusing more attention on rehabilitating the inmates that remain, Callison said.

However, he noted that the nature of the remaining population is changing. Prisons now have a higher concentration of violent, serious and sexual offenders, the criminals who are left behind as less serious offenders are sentenced to local jails.

Notices will go out later this month to department employees who are at risk of losing their jobs as a result of the historic downsizing. The notices will start a game of musical chairs as employees with more seniority bump other employees for remaining positions, and as employees shift to vacancies within the department and elsewhere in state government. Some will also likely retire or leave state government entirely.

A first round of notices went to 26,000 employees in October, but only 545 were eventually laid off. This time, notices are going to four employees for every one job that will eventually be eliminated.

Callison said the number of notices is not yet being made public, but he estimated it will be in the hundreds.

At its peak, the department employed 65,000, nearly one of every five state workers.

Corrections officials estimate the realignment will save nearly $1.5 billion annually by the time the shift is complete in four years.

 

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