Crime & Justice

Study: California prison realignment bumped up car thefts, but little else

Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail.
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail.
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail Grant Slater/KPCC

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Three and a half years after Governor Brown pushed lower level prison inmates down to county jails where they are serving less time, a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California shows only the slightest change in crime rates.

The study authors said car thefts - which were down - would have been even lower without realignment. 

"Despite concerns about the impact of realignment on crime rates, our analysis suggests that reducing California's reliance on incarceration has had a very limited impact on crime," said Magnus Lofstrom, one of the study's authors.

Most police and prosecutors staunchly opposed realignment and warned it would increase the crime rate. Some were unconvinced by the study.

“I think the jury might still be out on the net effect of everything,” said Mark Zahner of the California District Attorneys Association, a leading opponent of realignment when it was enacted.

The authors said FBI crime data shows that after increasing slightly in 2012, California's violent crime rate rates dropped in 2013 by 6.4 percent, to a 46-year low of 396 per 100,000 residents.

Property crime increased by 7.8 percent in 2012, but then dropped in 2013 by 3.8 percent.

“This was roughly in line with declines in states whose crime trends were similar to those of California before realignment,” said Loftsrom, a U.C. Berkeley professor of public policy.

Realignment reduced the prison population by about 27,000 by September of 2012, according to the study. But county jail populations increased by only 9,000. That means the number of offenders on the street that otherwise would have been locked up was 18,000.

The study found that number remained the same in 2013.

Some cities - including Los Angeles - have seen an uptick in violent crime over the last few months, but its unclear whether its connected to realignment or even whether its a trend.

As for car thefts, the study said the rate is 17 percent higher than it would have been without realignment. In other words, 24,000 more cars were stolen in the first year of realignment than otherwise would have been.

That has the authors and Zahner scratching their heads.

“I don’t know why there’s an uptick in that specific crime," he said. "It warrants scrutiny."

One possible reason: a statewide study found car thieves are among the most likely to re-commit their crimes.

Proposition 47 is further reducing prison and jail populations. The 2014 state initiative converted a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

In the first four months after Proposition 47 took effect, the prison population dropped by almost 5,000, to about 131,200, according to the study.

The authors said the measure's effect on crime should be closely watched.