California prisons dip below court-ordered population cap

Inmates exercise in the general population yard at Pelican Bay State Prison. California prison population reports show crowding has fallen below a court-ordered cap for the first time.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

California’s beleaguered prison system on Thursday dipped below a court-imposed population cap for the first time, a benchmark the state will have to maintain to satisfy judges overseeing the agency.

A 2013 ruling by a panel of three judges gave California until February 2016 to reduce prison crowding to 137.5% of what state lockups are designed to hold, which currently translates to a population limit of 113,722.


For the Record

Jan. 29, 6:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said the current California prison population limit is 114,650. The limit is 113,722.


The state prison system’s weekly population report put crowding at a modern low of 113,463, or 137.2% of capacity.


The total prisoner population is currently 132,240, with more than 8,800 inmates housed in private prisons out of state. But federal courts are concerned only with the number of those housed in 34 state-owned prisons.

Population reports shows the number of those inmates has dropped by 4,000 in the last year, due to the use of private prisons both in and out of California, enforcement of court orders to expand parole and early release programs, and passage of Proposition 47, making felony drug possession a misdemeanor.

The population average is also helped by the fact that cells for nearly 1,000 prisoners remain empty at a newly opened state medical prison near Stockton.

Other individual prisons remain overcrowded. For instance, the Central California Women’s Facility, built to fit 2,000 prisoners, currently has 3,383.

In a November report, the corrections agency had projected the inmate population to grow this year because of an uptick in felony convictions, which would eventually push the state above the court-ordered population cap. The agency is expected to revise those official projections next spring.

Federal judges had ruled that crowded conditions thwarted efforts to provide adequate medical and psychiatric treatment to prisoners, and was responsible for preventable deaths. If the state fails to meet the current population caps, on a timetable negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown, a court-appointed official has authority to release prisoners.