The drop in the state prison population is due largely to the implementation of Assembly Bill 109, the state's prison realignment plan aimed at reducing the prison population, officials said.
On the eve of the bill's inception on Oct. 1, 2011, the state's inmate population was 160,295, or at more than double what the system was designed to hold. That number has dropped more than 17 percent to its current level of 132,618, putting it at 155 percent of design capacity, according to the CDCR. In 1995, the total prison population was 127,462.
"The whole purpose of realignment was to reserve state prison for inmates that have committed the most serious crimes and are serving the longest sentences," said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the CDCR.
"The realignment is doing exactly what it was supposed to do," he said.
But local authorities say AB 109 has meant an increase in their county jail populations. While most have warned it has caused an uptick in crime, the link between increased crime and the implementation of AB 109 is under debate.
"We haven't seen an increase in the number of cases submitted since they started (accepting) AB 109 releases," said Michael Fermin, assistant district attorney for San Bernardino County.
But Los Angeles County jail numbers have increased by the hundreds, and in Lancaster, violent crimes jumped 16 percent during the first half of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.
Of the 39 murders committed in Fresno by mid-September of 2012, nearly a quarter were committed by those on post-release community supervision through probation. Under AB 109, state prisoners up for parole as of Oct. 1, 2011, could be eligible for PRCS.
"Today, if you're arrested for a lower offense, (deputies) will cite and release you" because the jails are so crowded, said Robert Fonzi, assistant sheriff of San Bernardino County.
For those who work in the state's 33 prisons, realignment has reduced overcrowding and the tension that comes with it.
"I used to come to work and the sirens would be going off all the time," said Lt. Dirk Williams, a spokesman for California Institution for Men in Chino.
The sirens indicate a violent outbreak at the facility, potentially leading to a lockdown where inmates are locked in their cells while guards quell the outbreak.
"You'd also always see the inmates coming and going through the hallways," Williams said in an interview at the state prison.
"Now, there really aren't that many any more."
Inmates crammed into bunks in a gymnasium inside CIM became one of the images many proponents of prison population control said violated an inmate's Eighth Amendment rights. The amendment prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments.
"There would be double and triple-bunks lined up against the walls and rows and rows until you hit the other wall," Williams said as his voice echoed in the now empty space of CIM's gym.
CIM was at more than double its design capacity in December 2004. Now, it's currently at 160 percent of capacity with 4,753 inmates held in a facility designed to hold 2,976 - more than a 35 percent drop, according to the CDCR.
"We used to have about 200 to 250 people coming through here every week," said Sgt. Joseph Powers, who has worked at the Chino prison for nearly two decades.
"It's 30 to 50 a week now," he said.
A former inmate, Manuel - who declined to give his last name - knows all too well the dangers of having to live in the common areas of a California prison.
In 2006, he and more than 100 other men shared the gymnasium space at Ironwood State Prison near Blythe.
"(There was) a lot of tension. Stress. Not knowing if at any moment it's about to go down as far as a race war," he said.
The 33-year-old's last stint in prison was at CIM in 2009.
"Yeah, it was crowded," he recalled.
"Significantly more so than in 2002 when I first started visiting CDCR."
But for local officials, reducing the state prison population has only transferred the problem to their communities.
Local jails are overcrowded and violent crime is on the rise, they contend.
"There has been a significant increase in assault on staff by inmates, and that is because of the overcrowding, definitely," said Fonzi, the San Bernardino County assistant sheriff.
Fonzi blames AB 109 for an increase in assaults on jail staff and two successful escapes this past summer from the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore.
One escapee, Darnell Keith Washington, 24, and his wife, Tania Washington, 25, who is suspected of helping him escape, are suspected of going on a crime spree, which included a shootout with a Los Angeles County deputy in South El Monte, numerous carjackings, and the killing of a 55-year-old Hercules woman, Susie Ko.
Darnell Washington was awaiting trial when he escaped from the facility on Aug. 27.
Fonzi said that due to crowded conditions at the county jails, Washington was able to escape.
Weeks prior to Washington's escape, two men accused of robbing a Montclair jewelry store also escaped due to crowded conditions, Fonzi said. Steven Patrick Gallagher, 24, of Pomona, and Jonathan Wayne Mundo, 23, of Las Vegas, disappeared from the facility on June 19. Both were later apprehended.
As crime increases and local officials find themselves housing more and more inmates, they too have had to resort to alternative measures, including early-release as well as work-release programs and weekend jail to help alleviate overcrowding at the local level.
According to the Corrections Standard Authority, which gathers county and local jail population numbers, during the second quarter of 2012, the most recent numbers available, more than 13,000 inmates were released statewide due to a lack of space in county jails.
During the same time frame, the daily adult inmate population at county jails was 78,662. That's an increase of 8,705 inmates from the first quarter of 2012.
Los Angeles County jail numbers made up nearly a third of the total increase.
In San Bernardino County, Cindy Bachman, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department, explained the county must manage its inmate population or face the possibility of handing over control of the jails to the state.
"We're always keeping an eye on our numbers," she said, adding the county has had to resort to early release to stay under the state's designated inmate cap.
And inmates in county jails are incarcerated for periods far exceeding the original intent of a county jail: up to one year.
"Right now we have in our jails a person who is serving out an 18-year sentence," Fonzi said.
"That's not how AB 109 was presented to us. Our jails aren't set up to meet the needs of people incarcerated for those kinds of periods of time. One we can deal with, but when we get to five, 10, 100, we're really going to have issues."
The problem of releasing jail inmates earlier and without the proper supervision is affecting communities across the state. In Hesperia, of the 88 burglaries committed since the implementation of prison realignment to July of last year, about 30 can be linked to a single post-release community supervision probationer.
With no choice but to work within the new regulations, local law enforcement agencies are trying to make the best of what some still see as a bad situation.
While not perfect, said Michelle Scray, chief probation officer for the San Bernardino County Probation Department, AB 109 was the best of the choices available.
"It's the best of the worst options," Scray said.
Prisoner realignment was eventually chosen as the way to reduce the prison population after two other proposals were rejected, including the early release of state inmates.
Probation officials are using existing programs to help those placed on PRCS probation from returning to jail.
The programs include anger management, addiction support and assistance in finding employment.
Law enforcement is also looking to help.
"I will be looking at AB 109 and how it's led to our jails' overcrowding," said newly appointed San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon.
McMahon is not only looking to secure a grant to help upgrade Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center during his term as sheriff but to also reach out to community and faith-based groups to help newly released inmates have a successful integration back into society.
Members of the American Civil Liberties Union applaud local authorities for focusing less on adding more jails and more on evidence-based rehabilitation programs or pretrial release.
"I know that we cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who also noted that his city has embraced the idea of pretrial supervised release.
A recent statewide survey shows overwhelming support from the public for such a front-end sentencing reform.
Los Angeles County is working on a pretrial decision-making process through a Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee subcommittee.
San Bernardino County authorities have not discussed such a plan.
Phyllis Morris, the interim public defender for San Bernardino County, sees the availability of more faith- and community-based programs for those under prison realignment as an opportunity for lower-risk offenders.
"What we're doing is not working," Morris said at a recent re-entry seminar held in San Bernardino.
"You have to rehabilitate the system before you can rehabilitate the client."
Reach Beatriz via email, call her at 909-386-3921, or find her on Twitter @IEBeatriz.