California prison reform didn't cause crime increase, study finds

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A large-scale study by researchers from major California universities found the state's prison downsizing efforts have had little to no impact on the crime rate, despite anecdotal complaints from some law enforcement leaders.

The findings take up an entire issue of the The Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science, which publishes Friday.

UC-Irvine Professor Charis Kubrin, a criminologist who guest edited the issue along with UCI colleague Carroll Seron, said the work presents the most comprehensive investigation into the impacts of 2011's prison realignment to date – and answers the biggest question the reform raised.

"Is California more dangerous as a result of realignment? The answer is 'no,' " she said. 

The study was done in conjunction with the Public Policy Institute of California and UC-Berkeley, among others, and comes amid an uptick in crime in Los Angeles, Long Beach and some other California cities. Long Beach reported double digit increases in violent crimes and property crimes in 2015 over the year before.

Law enforcement leaders have in part blamed the crime increase on California's tide toward less harsh punishments, including prison realignment and Proposition 47, which made most low-level drug crimes misdemeanors. 

"If they get arrested, they get out of jail and are back on the streets before the officer has completed the report," Long Beach Police Deputy Police Chief Rich Rocchi told KPCC earlier this month

Kubrin said realignment, at least, should not be blamed. 

"There are so many factors in crime increases: poverty, gun availability, demographic shifts, drug markets, gang activity, I can go on and on," she said.

Controlling for all of those factors, the Public Policy Institute of California's Magnus Lofstrum and UC-Berkeley's Steven Rafael found "very little evidence that the large reduction in California incarceration had an effect on violent crime, and modest evidence of effects on property crime, auto theft in particular," according to their paper, which is included in the journal issue.

Researchers from the PPIC also found little impact on offender recidivism, though they did notice a difference between counties that invested in rehabilitation services and those who primarily invested in law enforcement. Offenders released to San Bernardino County, for instance, had a 3.7 percent higher rate of being rearrested than those released to Alameda County. 

Kurbin said Proposition 47 has not been sufficiently studied to draw any conclusions as to its effects.

Come November, Californians will likely have to decide whether to take those reforms further. Governor Jerry Brown is pursuing a ballot initiative that would make it easier for non-violent offenders to get parole. 

Kurbin said voters will have to decide for themselves whether policies like realignment are good — taking all kinds of factors into account, like the impact on victims and their families — but at least realignment's case, a rise in crime was not an issue. 

"We can now think about prison downsizing without assuming a big crime wave is imminent," she said. 

Realignment, which passed through the legislature as AB109, went into effect in October 2011 after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.

Justices found that conditions in California's prisons, particularly when it came to health and mental health care, were so terrible they were unconstitutional. They blamed overcrowding and told the state to remedy the situation.

In response, California decided to reduce the prison population by changing how lower level, non-violent felons are treated – leaving punishment for each county to decide and execute. 

Many law enforcement officials at the time predicted that without the threat of prison and ability to lock up parole violators for months, a crime wave would sweep the state, Kubrin said.

"What struck me was the assumption that no doubt would this fail," she said.

And the state "did not provide a penny to evaluate the policy," despite undertaking one the biggest prison downsizing experiments in history, she said.

Much of the research presented in the journal was funded by the National Science Foundation. 

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