SAN FRANCISCO, December 9, 2013—Property crime—particularly auto theft—increased in California as a result of public safety realignment, which substantially reduced the state’s prison population. But there is no evidence that this policy shift had an impact on the most serious violent crimes, murder and rape. These are the key findings of a new report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
The report finds that California crime rates increased during the first year of realignment, from 2011 to 2012. The rates vary widely across the state, with California’s 10 largest counties generally seeing greater increases in crime than in the state overall. Property crime—motor vehicle theft, larceny, and burglary—rose 7.6 percent. This increase is higher than the increases in states whose crime trends were similar to those of California before realignment. Nationwide, property crime decreased slightly.
Auto theft increased 14.8 percent due to realignment, which translates to about 24,000 more auto thefts per year. This reverses a decline in the auto theft rate and brings it back to 2009 levels. In an analysis based on data from the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center, the PPIC report finds that auto thefts began to increase noticeably at the time realignment began.
While violent crime—including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—rose 3.4 percent during the same time period, the increases appear to be part of a broader trend also experienced by the comparison states. There is some indication of a modest increase in robberies related to realignment—by about 6 per year per 100,000 residents, say the report’s authors, PPIC research fellow Magnus Lofstrom and Steven Raphael, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and PPIC adjunct fellow.
“Realignment has brought enormous change to California, and it appears to have affected auto thefts, in particular,” Lofstrom said. “Nonetheless, despite recent increases, rates of property and violent crime remain at historically low levels in the state—substantially lower than they were a decade ago.”
The PPIC report finds that realignment increased the number of property crimes by 1 to 1.5 per year for each realigned offender who is no longer incarcerated.
Realignment went into effect on October 1, 2011, in response to a federal court order that California reduce overcrowding in its state prisons. This was achieved by sentencing lower-level felony offenders to county jails, rather than prison, and giving counties much of the responsibilities for parolees. A recent PPIC report found that the state quickly reduced its prison population by 27,000, with county jails absorbing many of the inmates. But about 18,000 who would have been in prison or jail before the policy shift are now on the streets, raising concerns about the policy’s impact on crime rates.
Because California still has 8,000 more state prison inmates than its court-mandated limit of 110,000, the new PPIC report, Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California, assesses how further reductions would affect crime rates. The authors find that if the state further reduces the prison population—rather than transferring prisoners to other facilities— the effect on property crime could be between 7 and 12 percent greater per released offender than realignment’s current effect.
The report also looks at the cost-effectiveness of prison incarceration in reducing crime and finds that alternatives could improve public safety and at lower cost. The analysis suggests that spending an additional dollar on policing would prevent more crimes—3.5 to 7 times as many—than spending it on prison incarceration.
Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California is supported with funding from the Smith Richardson Foundation.
PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.