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December 20, 2018

"California transformed its justice system. But now crime is up, and critics want rollbacks"

La-1545291924-l4bgfb9fvx-snap-imageThe title of this post is the headline of this notable new Los Angeles Times article that merits a read in full. Here is the first part of the piece:

Over the last decade, California has led the nation in reducing its prison population. The state has shortened sentences and diverted some offenders to the counties for incarceration and supervision, transforming California’s criminal justice system into what supporters hope will become a humane model around the country.

But amid the changes, crime has increased in recent years, sparking debate about the causes and giving ammunition to those leading a new effort to roll back some of the reforms.

An analysis by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times found that California’s crime rates remain near historic lows, but overall crime spiked in both 2012 and 2015, the years that immediately followed two major statewide measures aimed at decreasing the number of people in prison. Those jumps were mainly driven by increases in property crimes, particularly thefts from motor vehicles.

After decades of mirroring national downward trends in violent crime, California saw a 12% increase from 2014 to 2017, while the violent crime rate in the other 49 states together increased only 3%, the analysis showed. In 2014, California voters approved a ballot measure that reduced sentences for many low-level drug and property crimes. California’s property crime rate fell slightly in the last two years, but remains 2% higher than it was in 2014. By contrast, the rate of property crimes in the rest of the nation has dropped by 10% over the same period.

There is no simple explanation. Crime trends vary dramatically from county to county. Thirty-one of the state’s 58 counties saw an increase in violent crime last year, while 22 saw an increase in property crimes. The rest stayed flat or declined. What single factor can explain the fact that violent crime went up 6% last year in Los Angeles but fell 6% in Sacramento?

There also have been large differences in the way counties spent the billions in state money allocated to implement the new measures. Some focused on building jails, others on recruiting and deploying police, and still others experimented with collaborative courts and reentry programs.

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To complicate matters, specific crimes come with their own caveats. Reports of rape have increased nationally since 2013, for example, but sexual assaults have traditionally been underreported, and part of the increase stems from the FBI’s decision to broaden its definition of rape in 2013. (The Marshall Project and Times data analysis excluded rape.) Reports of aggravated assaults in California also have increased, but part of that increase is likely due to underreporting from 2005 to 2012 by the Los Angeles Police Department.

California’s criminal reform revolution began in earnest in 2011 after the U.S. Supreme Court approved a cap on the number of inmates in prison. Lawmakers responded by passing Assembly Bill 109, known as realignment, which lowered the prison population by shifting the burden to the counties to house and supervise thousands of inmates convicted of crimes that the law categorized as nonviolent and nonserious.

Three years later, California voters approved Proposition 47, which turned drug use and most theft convictions from felonies to misdemeanors. In 2016, voters overhauled the state parole system by backing Proposition 57, which gave thousands of inmates the chance to earn an earlier release from prison.

The undeniable result of all these measures is that people are on the street today who would have been locked up in previous years. Critics of the reforms argue that they have created a permissive climate that makes policing harder and weakens the deterrent effect of a possible prison sentence.

“There’s no accountability,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove). “People know they can get away with things. That’s contributed to it. That’s really been a big source of frustration. No one’s going to jail anymore.” Cooper, a retired Sacramento County sheriff’s captain, has been a leading voice in a coalition of prosecutors and law enforcement groups pushing back.

A statewide initiative that will appear on the 2020 ballot would reverse some provisions of Proposition 47, toughen supervision of parolees and disqualify some prisoners from early release.

Backers of the proposed rollback argue that the state’s drug courts, intended as an alternative to criminal courts, are seeing fewer people because prosecutors can no longer force someone into treatment with the threat of a felony. (Some counties, including San Diego, have reported decreases in drug court participation since Proposition 47, but no statewide figures are available.) Those who favor toughening the law also claim counties are struggling to supervise offenders with violent criminal records.

Supporters of the prison downsizing measures dispute any link between the new laws and an increase in crime. They argue that using 2014 as a baseline — the year with the fewest crimes reported in the state since the 1960s — unfairly skews any analysis. “To look at it from a year-to-year basis is very short-sighted,” said Michael Romano, the director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School who helped write Proposition 47. “We really have had a sustained downward trend over the past decade or two.” He said it’s unlikely any single factor led to an increase in crime, but rather a combination of issues, such as poverty and unemployment, in different counties throughout the state.

Californians for Safety and Justice, a group that co-authored Proposition 47, points out that several states saw larger increases in violent crime than California from 2016 to 2017. (An analysis by The Times and the Marshall Project found 20 states with larger increases in violent crime rates.) They note that none of the recent laws changed penalties for violent crimes.

In 2013, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that the first major prison downsizing law, realignment, had no effect on violent crime, but did lead to an increase in auto thefts. In 2016, a prestigious social science journal reached a similar conclusion. Under realignment, people convicted of auto theft, a nonviolent felony, usually serve shorter sentences in their local jails and are released under local supervision.

Two studies published this summer — one by a UC Irvine criminologist and another by the Public Policy Institute of California —found no link between Proposition 47 and increases in violent crime. Both noted a possible link between the initiative and increases in larceny, particularly thefts from motor vehicles, although the Irvine study found those links too tenuous to conclude Proposition 47 was to blame.

After national crime data for 2017 released this fall showed California departed from the national trend — violent crime in California ticked up slightly while it fell slightly across the 49 other states taken together — researchers said they planned to revisit the question of a link between Proposition 47 and violent crime. California’s robbery rate jumped 14% from 2014 to 2017; the rest of the country saw a 7% drop. “It is troubling and deserves more attention,” said Magnus Lofstrom, policy director of corrections at the Public Policy Institute of California.

In addition to praising the work of this article, I wanted to flag the possibility that the stories of crime in California might get even more complicated and unclear if and when we get complete data for 2018. The recent Brennan Center report indicates crime is down in 2018 in some major California cities and that murder is down a lot in all big California cities. If these numbers hold true throughout the state reform advocates will have some important data to push back on the claim that reform rollbacks are needed to enhance public safety.

UPDATE The day after running this general story about an uptick in California crime, the Los Angeles Times followed up with this more encouraging local tale under the headline "Crime once plagued San Joaquin County, but now its jail has empty beds. Here’s what it did right."  The unsurprising take-away is that how and how well a jurisdiction implements criminal justice reform impacts how well criminal justice reform works.

December 20, 2018 at 09:57 AM | Permalink

Comments

California is a sanctuary state. Nuff said.

Posted by: Liberty2nd | Dec 21, 2018 9:47:15 AM

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