Any Spike in Repeat Crimes After California Sped Prisoner Release? New Research Says No
By Ben Christopher, CALMatters
When the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to disgorge tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prison system in 2011, Justice Antonin Scalia warned in his dissent of “the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence” including the “inevitable murders, robberies, and rapes to be committed by the released inmates.”
But researchers who’ve looked at how how often those released from the state’s prisons and jails in the ruling’s aftermath say such fears have not come to pass.
A new analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California found that between 2011 and 2015, the felony re-conviction rate across 12 counties that represent nearly two-thirds of the state population fell by 27%. The re-conviction rate for all crimes fell by 15%.
The decline was sharpest for drug-related offenses, falling 44% over the same period.
Fewer Californians going back behind bars
The decline in recidivism between 2011 and 2015 was driven mostly by declining arrests and convictions of those who served time for drug-related offenses.
Here’s the background: In the face of a court order and a budget crunch, California lawmakers began to embrace less punitive criminal justice policies in 2011, enacting a “realignment” program that pared down penalties for non-violent crimes and shifted non-violent felons out of the state’s prisons and into county-run jails.
Voters followed suit with Prop. 47 in 2014, which recategorized a series of felonies and misdemeanors.
“People were really worried that recidivism rates would go up and we’re not seeing that,” Mia Bird, a research fellow at the institute and the study’s lead author.
As with any academic study, this one comes with caveats.
The state recidivism rate remains high—roughly half of convicted felons get arrested again within two years of release.
And the decline researchers observed was largely driven by fewer re-arrests and convictions for drug-related offenses. The rate of re-arrest for those incarcerated for violent crimes and other offenses “against a person” including harassment and stalking, ticked up slightly.
There are also different ways to interpret the results. The overall drop could mean that formerly incarcerated Californians began committing fewer crimes in years after reform. Or it could mean that police, prosecutors and the court system are just taking a laxer approach, resulting in fewer arrests and convictions.
“Let’s say someone is arrested for shoplifting and whereas before they would go to jail, now, assuming it’s drug-related, it’s treated as a health issue,” said Kevin O’Connell, a private research consultant on criminal justice policy. “When you’re seeing fewer people coming back to jails and prisons, when you’re seeing fewer victims, less property crime, that’s good. But the why is unclear.”