No Crime Wave After California's Prison Downsizing

After embarking on a major downsizing and reorganization of the prison system, the state of California has experienced no notable increase in major crimes, according to a new scientific analysis published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science.

This is particularly true in counties that chose to invest more money in rehabilitation programs rather than stronger law enforcement.

And while there was a slight uptick in property crimes, the researchers note that keeping nonviolent offenders in prison costs taxpayers far more than the slight rise in offenses.

In 2011, California undertook one of the largest criminal justice experiments in history. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, the state passed the Public Safety Realignment Act, which required that California’s 58 counties make plans to deal with the transfer of 33,000 inmates from state prisons to county supervision. Their options included adding jail beds, putting the prisoners on probation or under electronic monitoring, or providing drug/alcohol rehabilitation services.

In the first systematic, scientific analysis of the Public Safety Realignment Act, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, answered the urgent question: Is California becoming more dangerous as prisons downsize?

“We’ve seen no appreciable uptick in assaults, rapes, or murders that can be connected to the prisoners who were released under realignment,” said University of California, Irvine (UCI) professor Dr. Charis Kubrin, professor of criminology, law & society. “This is not surprising, of course, because these offenders were eligible for release precisely because of the nonviolent nature of their crimes.”

Findings did show, however, a very small uptick in property crimes, especially auto theft. But Dr. Carroll Seron, professor of criminology, law & society and interim dean of UCI’s School of Social Ecology, noted, “One must weigh the cost of a slight increase in property crimes against the cost of incarceration.”

For example, just one year served in prison as a result of realignment prevents approximately 1.2 auto thefts per year and saves $11,783 in crime-related costs, as reported in the journal.

While researchers recognize that this is no small fee for the victim, keeping someone behind bars for a year costs California taxpayers $51,889, according to the publication — and this figure does not include the economic and social hardships that imprisonment can cause for the inmates’ children and families.

Significantly, the researchers found that counties that chose to invest their state-provided realignment dollars in offender rehabilitation programs experienced less recidivism (relapse in criminal behavior) compared to counties that used these resources for reincarceration or enhanced law enforcement.

Specifically, the rearrest rate under realignment was 3.7 percentage points greater for offenders released to enforcement-focused counties, such as San Bernardino, than for those released to rehabilitation-focused counties, such as Alameda.

Source: University of California, Irvine