The California Prison System: Measuring Performance
Richard Krupp, Ph.D.
October 26, 2010
My recent papers regarding a September 14, 2010, Sacramento Bee editorial viewpoint written by the federal receiver for California’s Prison Healthcare Services entitled “Split off health care from prisons agency” and the October 4, 2010 editorial special written by a former corrections official, California’s bloated prison system threatens public safety, described various distortions of data in the two editorials. For example one editorial describes the CDCR recidivism rates as “exceeding 70 percent.” The actual numbers look like this:
It is difficult to compare California recidivism rates to other states, but as the University of California, Irvine stated, California rates are “…not the highest in the nation, nor are they markedly different from those found in many other states with the nation’s largest population.”
There has also been discussion about the inmate mortality rate in California prisons. Comparative data may help gain a better picture of how California stacks up compared to other states. The actual numbers with national comparisons look like this:
In order to establish performance measures we first have to separate fact from “story-telling.” The California correctional system has been criticized by lawyers, courts, and the media for “pervasive and long-lasting overcrowding.” This situation supposedly led to “medical neglect and malfeasance.” While lawyers and judges debate the meaning of the word “overcrowding” and other nebulous terms, we should take a critical look at the numbers and determine what is real and what is “story-telling.” How does Corrections measure up considering the constant criticism from the federal court system? Based on a critical assessment we can work toward a set of reasonable performance expectations.
How does California compare with other states in terms of the number or proportion of its citizens who commit crimes that prison is the best place to put them? The United States Department of justice (USDOJ) publishes annual reports comparing state prison incarceration rates. The latest information indicates that as of June 2009 the average national rate was 954 males per 100,000 state population. For California the rate was 858; there were eighteen states with higher incarceration rates. The following chart displays the rates for several selected states.
Another measure of interest is state prison population growth. The prison population fluctuates over time due to a number of variables. The USDOJ keeps track of changes in the national prison population. For the 12/31/2007 through 6/30/2008 time period the population of state inmates grew 0.6% in the United States and grew 0.2% from 12/31/2008 through 6/30/2009. During those time periods the California state prison population grew a negligible amount the first time period and DECREASED 1.6% during the latter time period. In fact, California had the largest reduction in the number of state prison inmates in the nation from 12/31/2008 through 6/30/2009.
Based on the incarceration rate for males (the rates for females are lower but the patterns are the same) and the prison population decline in California, it appears we are doing reasonably well compared to national data. If the California state prison system is “overcrowded” it certainly has not been impacted inmate mortality rates. As seen in the next chart from USDOJ national state prison data.
Inmate suicide rates have also been the subject of “story-telling” by lawyers and portrayed by the media as fact without even a cursory analysis. The actual USDOJ data paints a different picture, as seen in the following chart:
A possible performance measure worth consideration might be inmate escapes from prison. Certainly this is a direct public safety issue that is measurable. In a paper by Richard Culp, Examining prison escapes and the routine activities theory indicates,
Though relatively rare in comparison with other forms of inmate misconduct, recent findings suggest that about 3 percent of all inmates either escape or are absent without leave from prison at some time while serving their sentence and that, annually about 1.4 percent of the correctional population either escapes or is absent without leave. Although the vast majority of these escapes are relatively benign incidents involving non-secure facilities and nonviolent inmates, about 400 inmates manage to escape each year from prisons with a secure perimeter. While much attention has been paid to other forms of inmate misconduct, very little research has focused on prison escapes.
California does keep track of inmate escapes. The number of escapes during calendar year 2009 totaled 22. Of those escapes fifteen were from adult camps and seven from adult institutions.
- The Adult Institution and Camp escape total rate per 100 Average-Daily-Population (ADP) has remained at 0.01 since 2001.
- As of 2009 there have been 19,290 escapes from Adult Institutions, Camps, and Community Based Program since 1977. Of those escapes 19,051 (98.8%) have been apprehended as of January 31, 2010.
Inmate mortality, suicide, incarceration rates do not show California state prisons are fraught with “medical neglect and malfeasance”. They indicate that California stacks up rather well compared to other states. The stories told in the courtroom and in the media need to go through a more thorough fact-checking process.
Not only does California measure up, Corrections monitors its performance through the COMPSTAT process that has been praised by the Little Hoover Commission and the Assembly committee on Accountability and Administrative Review. An Advisory Report from the Performance Management Council, Performance Management in California State Government indicates “Performance management can improve the way state government does business and can help achieve better results for Californians. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee now requires the “Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shall provide to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee an annual report on the outcomes of department operations and activities…”
As the California state prison system develops performance measures it is important to address misinformation cited by lawyers and news outlets that find their way into various federal courts and are accepted as undisputed facts. Through some momentary lapse of reason little attention has been paid to the actual available ongoing national data. The public and the people who work in the prison system deserve to know the truth and not accept distortions provided by those who are uninformed.