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Impact of Public Safety Realignment on Recidivism Varies across Counties, Groups of Offenders

SAN FRANCISCO, December 11, 2017—California’s historic public safety realignment has had a modest effect on the state’s persistently high recidivism rates, varying across groups of offenders and counties, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The report examines recidivism through two measures, rearrest and reconviction rates, for offenders affected by public safety realignment, the 2011 law that shifted management of lower-level felony offenders from states to counties. Prompted by a federal court mandate to reduce overcrowding in the state prison system, realignment led to a significant reduction in overall incarceration levels.

The report is based on data from 12 counties that are representative of the state. It looks at the first two years of realignment, during which counties faced challenges associated with quickly implementing the law. Specifically, it finds:

  • Slightly higher recidivism rates among individuals on post-release community supervision (PRCS). These offenders were released from state prison after serving time for certain low-level felonies and then supervised by county probation agencies. In the two years after realignment, 71.9 percent of these individuals were rearrested—a share that is 2.6 percentage points higher than the share of similar individuals rearrested before realignment—and 56.4 percent were reconvicted (2.4 points higher). Higher rates of recidivism in some counties—notably Los Angeles County, the largest—are a major factor. In 9 of the 12 counties studied, individuals under PRCS have lower reconviction rates.
  • No consistent effect on recidivism among individuals sentenced under section 1170(h) of the California Penal Code. These offenders were sentenced for a specific set of lower-level felonies and, under realignment, served time in county jail rather than state prison. While 74.5 percent of them were rearrested (a share that is 2.3 percentage points higher than the rate for similar individuals before realignment), 54.9 percent were reconvicted (2.0 points lower).
  • Lower recidivism among 1170(h) offenders who received “straight sentences”—mixed results among those with “split sentences.” The group serving “straight sentences”—jail time only—had the best outcomes: the same two-year rearrest rates and two-year reconviction rates that are 3.0 percentage points lower. Those who got “split sentences”—jail time followed by probation supervision—had higher rates of rearrest but lower rates of reconviction compared with similar individuals before realignment.

Further study is needed of the higher recidivism rates for groups that are supervised after their release—PRCS offenders and those who received split sentences under 1170(h). It could be that more individuals are reoffending—or that their misconduct is more likely to be detected because they are being monitored more closely under probation supervision.

“The effects of realignment vary across groups of offenders and counties. As more data becomes available we may observe the effects changing over time,” said report coauthor Mia Bird, a PPIC research fellow. “A greater understanding of the programs or services that reduce recidivism will be essential to help us identify strategies to maintain public safety.”

The considerable variation in recidivism across the counties studied is probably linked to differences in demographic composition, economic resources, and geography. It may also be explained by capacity differences and varying levels of experience with evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism.

The report is titled Realignment and Recidivism in California. In addition to Bird, coauthors are Ryken Grattet, PPIC adjunct fellow and professor and chair of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and Viet Nguyen, PPIC research associate. The report is supported with funding from the National Institute of Justice.


The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.

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