Originally posted at the Public Policy Institute of California.
By Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin.
Last November, voters approved Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. As a result, inmate populations have dropped in California’s capacity-challenged state prisons and county jails. Reports of increases in violent crime in some areas have raised concerns, and the significant drawdown in the jail and prison populations—by roughly 17,000 inmates so far—certainly carries the risk of increased crime. But it would be premature to blame Proposition 47 for the uptick.
Proposition 47 helped bring the prison population about 8,000 inmates below a mandated target of 137.5 percent of design capacity (the number of inmates that facilities were designed to house). The target was set by a federal court in 2009 in the wake of lawsuits over prison conditions; at the time, it meant a reduction of almost 40,000 prisoners. The prison population has remained below the target since January 2015. This is a key requirement for the state to regain control of prison health care, which is currently overseen by a court-appointed receiver. The total prison population has dropped by slightly more than 45,000 inmates since it peaked in 2006.
Proposition 47 also helped bring the jail population below the statewide rated capacity (here again, the number of inmates facilities are designed to hold), after three years of increases that were driven by public safety realignment. In stark contrast to the increase of about 11,000 inmates between September 2011 and October 2014, the county jail population dropped by almost 9,000 inmates, or 10.7 percent, between October 2014 and March 2015 (the most recent month of available data).
As we noted above, reports of increased crime in a number of cities and counties in 2015 have fueled concerns about the impact of these population reductions. Between January and August, violent crime in Sacramento was up by 24 percent compared to the same months in 2014. In Riverside County, violent crime was up almost 11 percent in the first six months of 2015. In the City of Los Angeles, it was up almost 21 percent in the same time period.
There are good reasons to be cautious about attributing these upticks to Proposition 47. Crime trends fluctuate frequently and widely and it is challenging to pinpoint specific causes. The first year of realignment provides a good example of this. After a long decline, both violent and property crime in California increased in 2012, the year after realignment was implemented, and many blamed the reform. However, as our careful analysis has shown, there is no evidence that realignment led to more violent crime, and the only uptick that can be attributed to the reform is auto theft. Another reason to be cautious is that other states have seen increases in crime this year—the New York Times recently reported that violent crime, as represented by murder rates, has gone up noticeably in a number of US cities. With all this in mind, at this time we urge against drawing any firm conclusions about Proposition 47’s impact on crime.