Corrections Realignment Largely Successful but Challenges Remain
State Reduces Reliance on Incarceration Without Spike in Crime—Recidivism, Costs Still High
SAN FRANCISCO, September 28, 2015—California’s historic public safety realignment has largely succeeded, but state and county correctional systems are still facing significant challenges, according to a new report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
Prompted by a federal court order to reduce overcrowding in California’s prison system, realignment shifted responsibility and funding for many lower-level felony offenders from the state to the counties. Four years after this major change in corrections policy, the PPIC report, Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far, concludes:
- Realignment significantly reduced the prison population. The reform brought the total prison population down by 27,400 to 133,400 in its first year—not enough to meet the court-ordered target of 137.5 percent of the population that the prisons were designed to house. Almost all of the decline occurred in the first year, and the prison population did not fall below the target until after the November 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for many property and drug offenses.
- The reform challenged county jails and probation departments by making them responsible for more offenders with a broader range of backgrounds and needs. The shift pushed jail populations close to historical highs until shortly after the passage of Proposition 47, when the statewide jail population dropped by almost 10,000 inmates. The long-term effect of Proposition 47 will not be clear until counties refine their release policies in response to the new law.
- Realignment reduced the total number of people incarcerated in California. The county jail population did not rise nearly as much as the prison population fell—it increased by about one inmate for every three fewer offenders in state prison.
- Realignment did not increase violent crime, but auto thefts rose. Some 18,000 offenders who would have been incarcerated were on the street because of realignment, yet rates of violent crime and property crime are now below 2011 levels and at historic lows. The only crime increase attributable to realignment is a modest rise in property crime, driven entirely by auto theft. The auto theft rate increased by slightly more than 70 per 100,000 residents.
- Recidivism rates are largely unchanged. Realignment shifted post-release supervision of most lower-level felons from state parole to county probation departments. Based on the idea that local authorities can do a better job through the increased use of evidence-based practices, the reform was expected to lower the state’s high recidivism rates. While there is no evidence so far that recidivism rates have fallen, the report notes that this does not mean the reform has failed. Counties need time to identify the most effective approaches.
- State spending on corrections remains stubbornly high. The drop in prisoner and parolee populations was expected to save money, and county responsibility for corrections was thought to be more cost effective. However, in the 2015–16 budget year, General Fund spending for corrections is $10.07 billion, compared to $9.65 billion spent in 2010–11. Adding the $1 billion that goes to the counties each year to fund realignment, state spending on corrections is at an all-time high. Higher outlays for inmate medical and mental health care have contributed to the rise in spending. To manage costs, the state needs to regain control of health care services from the federal court. In addition, the state has allocated one-time funds for jail construction—space that is important if counties are to avoid overcrowding and provide adequate services.
"Realignment has succeeded in many respects, and it appears to have moved California corrections in the right direction,” said Magnus Lofstrom, senior fellow at PPIC, who authored the report with PPIC research associate Brandon Martin. "But the state and counties together must make progress in reducing the stubbornly high rates of recidivism.”
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.