SAN FRANCISCO, May 19, 2015—California’s historic public safety realignment has substantially reduced the state’s reliance on incarceration, and there is no evidence it has affected rates of violent crime. However, it has led to an increase in auto theft of 17 percent—slightly more than 70 per 100,000 residents. These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
The report confirms the findings of an earlier PPIC study that focused on the first year of realignment, which shifted the responsibility for many lower-level offenders from the state prisons to county jail and probation systems. The PPIC analysis found that effects identified in the first year of realignment have continued.
An analysis of FBI crime data shows that after increasing slightly in 2012—the first year of realignment—California’s violent crime rate rates dropped in 2013 by 6.4 percent, to a 46-year low of 396 per 100,000 residents. This was roughly in line with declines in states whose crime trends were similar to those of California before realignment.
Property crime in California increased noticeably in 2012—by 7.8 percent—and the auto theft rate increased significantly. Property crime dropped in 2013—by 3.8 percent, to 2,665 per 100,000 residents—but the decline was no greater than that of comparable states. In other words, the "auto theft gap” that emerged between California and comparable states in realignment’s first year has held steady.
"Despite concerns about the impact of realignment on crime rates, our analysis suggests that reducing California’s reliance on incarceration has had a very limited impact on crime,” said Magnus Lofstrom, PPIC senior fellow, who coauthored the report with Steven Raphael, PPIC adjunct fellow and professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
The PPIC report, Realignment, Incarceration, and Crime Trends in California, also analyzes changes in the prison and jail populations and finds realignment’s impact was concentrated in the first year. The prison population dropped by 27,000 in the first year of reform, and county jail populations increased by only 9,000, which means about 18,000 former inmates were on the streets. Both the prison and jail populations have increased only slightly since 2012. As a result, the number of offenders on the street did not increase after the first year.
The authors say it will be important to track the effect of Proposition 47, which will further reduce the state’s reliance on incarceration. The 2014 state initiative converted a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. In the first four months after Proposition 47 took effect, the prison population dropped by almost 5,000, to about 131,200 (or 340 inmates per 100,000 residents). This—along with the increased use of in-state contract beds in both public and private facilities and the opening of a new health care facility in Stockton—has reduced prison overcrowding and brought the prison population under the target set by a federal court order.
The PPIC report notes that incarceration prevents some crime, but that when incarceration rates are high, its effect is very limited. The state would benefit from seeking alternative crime prevention strategies that are less costly—such as early childhood programs, targeted interventions for high-risk youth, increased policing, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
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.