Three years into California’s dramatic experiment in decentralizing the adult criminal justice system, we still have very limited knowledge of which correctional programs and services are most effective at reducing recidivism and which counties are achieving success under realignment. Even more troubling, this is not the first time the state has made a major corrections policy change without putting in place the tools to evaluate it. Nearly 20 years ago, California initiated a similar experiment with the juvenile justice system, and we still lack the necessary data to evaluate its success. This time, the stakes are even higher.
To understand whether and how well corrections reforms work, we need individual-level data, records that allow us to follow people as they move through the corrections system. Unfortunately, neither reform effort mandated this type of data collection. Neither charged a single state entity with devising a means of collecting, standardizing, and integrating data across the myriad components of the criminal justice system—police, courts, jails, prisons, and parole and probation departments. In fact, in both cases realignment magnified data integration problems. It transferred responsibility for certain offenders from the state to the counties, further decentralizing authority over offender management and data collection.
Troubled state correctional facilities were an impetus for both juvenile and adult reform. In each case populations in youth and adult state facilities declined—as intended—after lower-level offenders were transferred from state to county authority. In the case of juvenile justice, the youth population in state facilities dropped by 69 percent between 2007 and 2013; in the adult system, the state prison population dropped by 17 percent between 2011 and 2013.
But the impact at the county level differed for juveniles and adults. Adult county jail populations have increased by 14 percent since reform of the adult system began. By contrast, juvenile populations—held in county juvenile halls, camps, and ranches— have dropped by 37 percent. This decline occurred even though the reform gave counties the incentive—and later the obligation—to retain lower-level offenders.
The juvenile justice reforms coincided with a steady drop in juvenile felony arrest rates. This decline undoubtedly played a role in the dwindling number of youths in county confinement. But what remains unknown is the role of county corrections programs in rehabilitating juveniles and, in turn, driving arrest rates down. Good data would help us to make those assessments.
Any sense of urgency to create an integrated data system may have been diminished by the decline in juvenile crime rates that followed the 2007 reform. These rates are still near historic lows. Similarly, adult crime rates are also near historic lows. Realignment of that system has resulted in only a modest rise in crime so far. If these historically low crime rates are the new normal, California may choose the same path it followed after juvenile justice realignment.
However, before choosing this path we should consider the stakes. About 200,000 adults, most of whom will return to their communities at some point, are incarcerated in California’s jails and prisons. This is 26 times larger than the number of youth confined in all state juvenile facilities, county juvenile halls, ranches, and camps. Californians should ask themselves if they want to forego a greater understanding of what will be most effective in helping to rehabilitate these offenders—now and in the future.