State Dramatically Reduces Incarceration without Major Increase in Crime
But Reforms Fail To Lower Recidivism Rates, Corrections Spending
SAN FRANCISCO, September 27, 2016—California has reduced the number of offenders incarcerated in the state without broadly increasing crime rates. But so far, the state’s historic reforms have not lowered California’s high recidivism rates or corrections spending. These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
After a federal court ordered the state in 2009 to shrink the size of its prison population, California embarked on a path—unmatched by any other state—of reducing incarceration and reforming its corrections system. October marks the five-year anniversary of public safety realignment, the major reform that shifted responsibility for lower-level felons from the state prison and parole systems to county jail and probation systems. The passage of Proposition 47 in 2014 led to more changes. The PPIC report, California’s Historic Corrections Reforms, assesses the impact of the reforms and their implications for the future in key areas:
- Incarceration. After reaching a peak in 2006 of almost 256,000, the total number of inmates in state prisons and county jails declined by about 55,000. The incarceration rate fell from 702 to 515 per 100,000 residents—a level not seen since the early 1990s. The prison population rapidly declined in the first year of realignment, when most lower-level felons with new convictions began serving their sentences in county jail or under probation supervision instead of in state prison. But the decline was about 10,000 inmates short of the court-mandated target of 137.5 percent of the prisons’ design capacity.
Realignment also increased the statewide jail population by about 9,000 inmates in the first year, leading to early releases because of crowding. It was not until voters passed Proposition 47—which reduced penalties for some drug and property offenses—that the prison population fell below the court-ordered target and the jail population dropped to pre-realignment levels. Each of these reforms changed the composition of the jail population—and presented new challenges to the counties. A companion PPIC report, California’s County Jails in the Era of Reform, also released today, examines these changes.
- Crime rates. Realignment resulted in an additional 18,000 offenders on the street, but through 2014 there is no evidence to suggest that it affected violent crime. Auto thefts did increase, by about 60 per 100,000 residents. In 2014, the most recent year with comprehensive data available, crime rates were at lows not seen since the 1960s. In 2015, violent crime rose by 8.4 percent and property crime by 6.6 percent, but data are not yet available to determine if these increases are part of a national trend or specific to California. The role of Proposition 47 on crime remains unknown, but compared to other states, California’s increase in property crime appears to stand out more than its increase in violent crime.
- Recidivism. Rearrest and reconviction rates for offenders released in the first year of realignment are similar to what they were before realignment: 69 percent of offenders released from state prison are rearrested within two years, and 42 percent are convicted again. This reconviction rate—about 5 percentage points higher than before realignment—may simply reflect prosecution of offenses that in the past would have been processed administratively. California did make one significant advance: realignment effectively reduced the costly practice of returning released offenders to prison for parole violations. As a result, two-year return-to-prison rates, which had been the highest in the nation, dropped from 55 percent to 16.5 percent.
- Spending. Despite a lower incarceration rate, the state’s General Fund spending on corrections in 2016–17 is $10.6 billion—9 percent more than the $9.7 billion spent in 2010–11, the last year before realignment. The state also gives the counties $1.3 billion in realignment funds. Since 2012, increases to the corrections budget have funded additional space to house prisoners, employee salaries and benefits, and bond repayment. The state has also invested significantly to improve delivery of health care for inmates, though prisons continue to operate under a court-ordered medical receivership. Regaining control of health care could help the state reduce costs. But to realize substantial savings, the state may need to reduce the prison population enough to close a state prison or reduce its use of private and out-of-state facilities to house prisoners.
Even with the significant decline in incarceration, California still houses about 200,000 inmates and spends at historically high levels on corrections, the report notes.
"California’s corrections reforms have brought some success and presented new challenges,” said Magnus Lofstrom, PPIC senior research fellow, who coauthored the report with research fellow Mia Bird and research associate Brandon Martin. "Identifying cost-effective strategies to reduce crime and recidivism will be critical as the state and counties work to achieve the goals of corrections reform.”
The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.