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March 20, 2016

Making an empirical case for the relative efficacy of post-Plata realignment in California

A trio of criminologists make a data-driven case for some positive aspects of California's experiences with realignment in this Washington Post opinion piece headlined "Releasing low-level offenders did not unleash a crime wave in California."  Here are excerpts (with a link to the report that provides the empirical basis for its claims):

Some fear that reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and letting low-level offenders back on the streets — key components of prison reform — could produce a new and devastating crime wave.  Such dire predictions were common in 2011 when California embarked on a massive experiment in prison downsizing.  But five years later, California’s experience offers powerful evidence that no such crime wave is likely to occur.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s wildly overcrowded prisons were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 people in two years.  In response, the state enacted the controversial California Public Safety Realignment law, known in legislative shorthand as AB 109.

With a budget of more than $1 billion annually, “realignment” gave each of the state’s 58 counties responsibility for supervising a sizable class of offenders — the “triple nons,” or non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders — formerly housed in state prisons. Each county received unprecedented flexibility and authority to manage this population as it saw fit.

Recently, we brought together a group of distinguished social scientists to do a systematic, comprehensive assessment of California’s prison downsizing experiment.  The results, published this month in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, show that California’s decision to cede authority over low-level offenders to its counties has been, for the most part, remarkably effective public policy and an extraordinarily rich case study in governance....

To answer questions about the relationship between prison reform and crime rates, we not only compared statewide crime rates before and after the downsizing but also examined what happened in counties that favored innovative approaches vs. those that emphasized old-fashioned enforcement.

Clearly, our most important finding is that realignment has had only a very small effect on crime in California. Violent crime rates in the state have barely budged.  We’ve seen no appreciable uptick in assaults, rapes and murders that can be connected to the prisoners who were released under realignment.  This makes a lot of sense when you think about it; by and large, these offenders were eligible for release because of the nonviolent nature of their crimes.

On the other hand, a small uptick in property crime can be attributed to downsizing, with the largest increase occurring for auto theft.  So is this an argument against realignment and against prison reform more broadly?  We think not. The cost to society of a slight increase in property crime must be weighed against the cost of incarceration.

Take the example of auto theft. Our data suggest that one year served in prison instead of at large as a result of realignment prevents 1.2 auto thefts per year and saves $11,783 in crime-related costs plus harm to the victims and their families. On the other hand, keeping someone behind bars for a year costs California $51,889. In purely monetary terms — without considering, say, the substantial economic and social hardship that imprisonment can create for prisoners’ children and other relatives — incarcerating someone for a year in the hope of preventing an auto theft is like spending $450 to repair a $100 vacuum cleaner.

Turning to the question of which counties’ strategies were most successful, we have another important early finding: Counties that invested in offender reentry in the aftermath of realignment had better performance in terms of recidivism than counties that focused resources on enforcement.  As other states and the federal government contemplate their own proposals for prison downsizing, they should take a close look at what these California counties are doing right.

I have long been saying that California is a critical state to watch in the sentencing reform discussion, and I am pleased to see that a "group of distinguished social scientists" have so far concluded that the state's realignment experiences in the wake of the Supreme Court's Plata "has been, for the most part, remarkably effective public policy." But, critically, thanks to voter initiatives, California's recent sentencing reform efforts have not been confined to realignment: in 2012, California voters passed reforms to the state's three strikes laws via Prop 36, and in 2014 California voters passed reforms to what crimes are treated as felonies via Prop 47. And, notably, though some in law enforcement were quick to complain after AB 109 that realignment was responsible for a uptick in property crimes in the state, of late the focus of crime concerns and criticism has been Prop 47.

As I have repeatedly said in this space and others, I think it is especially problematic that California does not have the help of a independent sentencing commission that could and should seek to track and assess all these moving sentencing reform parts in the state.  In the absence of such a body, we all will have to rely on empirical and advocacy work done by outside researchers and policy groups concerning the effects of sentencing reform on the west coast.

March 20, 2016 at 10:14 AM | Permalink

Comments

I call BS. First of all, the study doesn't take into consideration the "soft costs" associated with auto theft, i.e., inconvenience of victim and the general lawlessness that a weak punishment regime foments. Additionally, what I think makes more sense--maybe people who steal cars are just non-violent--but also, maybe, just maybe a lot of those who were convicted of auto theft are also willing to be violent. And what happens to violent offenders who have been released who commit auto theft? They walk too--doesn;t sound like a great idea.

The stakes involved with a be nice to criminals approach: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/03/21/four-illegal-immigrants-charged-in-rape-beating-two-were-previously-deported.html

Posted by: federalist | Mar 23, 2016 9:43:50 AM

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