Following the passage of Proposition 47—which reduced the penalties for certain drug and property crimes in California—the jail population declined by 9 percent. This is among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The reduction in the jail population freed space that counties could use to hold more serious offenders. As a result, early releases due to jail capacity constraints declined by 65 percent in the group of counties operating under court orders to manage overcrowding. This group includes Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and Stanislaus Counties.

Based on a sample of county jail systems, the report estimates a 50 percent decline in the number of individuals being held or serving sentences for offenses covered by Proposition 47. These offenses include drug possession for personal use, receiving stolen property or shoplifting property worth $950 or less, and writing bad checks or forging a check worth $950 or less. The report identifies four key drivers of the decline in the Prop 47 jail population:

  • A decline in new bookings on arrests and warrants for Proposition 47 offenses, reducing the flow of individuals into the jail system.
  • A decline in the number of convictions for Proposition 47 offenses.
  • An increase in the percentage of Proposition 47 defendants receiving pretrial releases.
  • A decline in the average length of stay for sentenced offenders, which resulted in less time in custody.

“Taken together, there were significant changes in county jail populations following the passage of Proposition 47,” said Mia Bird, PPIC research fellow and a co-author of the report. “For counties with court orders to cap their jail populations, Prop 47 created flexibility, allowing jail space to be reallocated toward more serious offenders who might otherwise have been released.”

The report is based on local criminal justice data collected in a collaborative effort between the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), PPIC, and a group of California counties. The data is drawn from a subset of counties, selected to represent statewide trends but also allow for in-depth analysis of changes at the county level.

This report focuses on the short-term effects of Prop 47 on the jail population. Evaluation of longer-term outcomes, including crime and recidivism, will be essential in directing future policy efforts.

The authors also caution that a key component of Proposition 47 has not been realized. The measure requires that savings be reinvested in behavioral health treatments and other prevention programs. This funding is scheduled to be allocated by August 2016. A complete evaluation will need to account for the role these programs may play in improving public safety.

The report is titled How Has Proposition 47 Affected California’s Jail Population? In addition to Bird, the coauthors are research associate Sonya Tafoya, research fellow Ryken Grattet, and research associate Viet Nguyen, all of PPIC. The report is supported with funding from The California Endowment.

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PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.