By Steven Greenhut.
To deal with federal court orders demanding a reduction in prison populations, California officials – and state voters, via initiative – passed a series of sentencing reformsover the past seven years that have reduced overcrowding from 181 percent of capacity to 137.5 percent capacity. That’s a reduction of 33,000 inmates.
The main policy is known as realignment. Pushed through by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, the two new laws allow “non-violent, non-serious and non-sex offenders to serve their sentence in county jails instead of state prisons,” according to an explanation from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The department says that no state prisoners had their time reduced and that the laws did not provide any early releases.
The second policy is Proposition 47, a statewide initiative that passed 60 percent to 40 percent in November 2014. As Ballotpedia explains, the initiative “classified ‘non-serious, nonviolent crimes’ as misdemeanors instead of felonies unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.” It also permitted resentencing “for those currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses that the initiative reduces to misdemeanors.” That measure did therefore lead to early releases.
The state passed a variety of other sentencing-reform measures beginning in 2010. For instance, California had long taken a tough-on-crime approach, including passage of the nation’s toughest “three strikes and you’re out” laws in 1994, in the midst of frighteningly high crime rates. But even that signature crime-fighting law was revised, as voters passed, 70 percent to 30 percent, a 2012 statewide initiative that required a life sentence only if the third strike were serious or violent.
The new laws reduced prison overcrowding, although they didn’t actually reduce the amount of tax dollars spent on the prison system. The big question: What have they done to crime rates? A spike in some crimes over that period has led to a vociferous debate, with Republicans and some moderate Democrats fanning fears of a crime wave. One Republican gubernatorial candidate, Abel Maldonado, ran for governor in 2014 on an anti-crime platform, but didn’t gain traction.
Currently, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former sheriff’s captain from Elk Grove, is leading efforts qualify a ballot measure for the 2018 general election that would roll back much of Proposition 47. It also would roll back the loosened parole requirements in Proposition 57, which passed on the 2016 statewide ballot, and expand the list of crimes that requires collection of the perpetrator’s DNA, according to an Associated Press report.
Such pushback is due in large part to fears of growing crime rates. “Since the passage of Proposition 47 by voters in 2014 and the signing of AB109 in 2011, violent crime has been on the rise in California, up 12 percent in 2015 statewide according to the FBI,” according to a statement in March by Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside County. Politifact double-checked his claim and found a one-year violent crime increase (from 2014 to 2015) of 8.4 percent.
That’s certainly enough to spark concern, but it’s hard to assess crime data based on short periods of time – and even harder to trace crime increases or decreases to any particular policy cause. New research from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice looked at the entire 2010-2016 period of criminal-justice policy reform and found some mixed results. Overall, however, the group explains that the state’s crime rate was “stable” over that time.
“Urban crime rates in California declined precipitously through the 1990s and 2000s,” wrote author Mike Males. “Since 2010, crime in California has stabilized, hovering near historically low levels.” Males compared the first six months of 2016 (the latest reporting period) with the first six months of 2010 and found that “total crime rates experienced no net change, while property crime declined by 1 percent and violent crime increased by 3 percent.”
National crime data show a small overall uptick nationwide, which might suggest that something other than California-only realignment and sentencing reform policies were at work here. Crime data often is affected more by local factors, and indeed the study finds that “crime rates at the local level have varied considerably.” For instance, crime rates shot up 18 percent in Downey, but dropped an astounding 29 percent in Santa Clara.
Regarding the big cities, the report found increased violent crime rates in Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Jose – but lower violent crime rates in Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco. Likewise, some big cities (Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Diego) faced rising property crimes, but others (Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose) saw falling rates of property crime from 2010 to 2016.
The report found “no visible change” due to realignment and called for “more data” before “drawing conclusions about Prop. 47’s effect on crime.” Other studies from last year echo these conclusions. These numbers, based on the newest FBI statistics, suggest that current concerns about a justice-reform-driven crime wave are overblown.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him firstname.lastname@example.org.