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How Has Proposition 47 Affected California’s Jail Population?


Proposition 47 reduced the penalties associated with certain drug and property
crimes by preventing prosecutors from charging these offenses as felonies in
most cases. The proposition passed with strong support from California voters
in November 2014. In the months that followed, jail populations declined
sharply, driven primarily by a redu
ction in individuals being held or serving
time for Prop 47 offenses. Based on a sample of California county jail systems,
we estimate a 50 percent decline in the number of individuals being held or
serving sentences for Prop 47 offenses. This change drove
an overall decline in
the jail population of 9 percent in the year following the proposition’s passage.

Four key mechanisms drove this decline in the jail population. First, we find an
immediate decline in new bookings on arrests and warrants for Prop 47
offenses, reducing the flow of individuals into the jail system. Second, we also
see a decline in the number of convictions for these individuals. Third, we find
the share of Prop 47 defendants receiving pretrial releases increased. Finally,
we see a decli
ne in the average length of stay for sentenced offenders, which
resulted in less custody time.

While all counties under study experienced jail population declines after
Prop 47, w
e find those counties with over
crowded jail facilities
used some
of this newly a
vailable jail space to house offenders they would have
otherwise had to release early due to jail capacity constraints. This increased
flexibility has resulted in a reduction in early releases for offenders with
more serious charges.

Taken together, we find significant changes in the level and composition of
those incarcerated in jails following the passage of Prop 47. These changes
suggest there are important public safety trade
-offs to consider in evaluating
proposition’s effects, including crime and
recidivism outcomes for Prop 47
offenders and those with more serious charges. In addition, a key component
Prop 47
—the reinvestment of state correctional savings in behavioral health
treatments and other prevention programs
—has not yet been realized. A
complete assessment of the effects of Prop 47 will need to account for the role
that these programs may play in improving public safety. This evaluative work
will be essential in directing future policy efforts as California pursues effective
and efficien
t criminal justice reforms.

This research was supported with funding from The California Endowment.

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