PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · June 23, 2020

Prop 47 Has Reduced Racial Disparities in Arrests and Bookings in California, but Serious Inequities Remain


SAN FRANCISCO, June 23, 2020—Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, has led to a marked decrease in racial disparities in arrests and bookings in California. Still, arrest rates remain higher for African Americans than for other groups. Prop 47, along with other criminal justice reforms, has also narrowed—but far from eliminated—disparities in incarceration rates between African Americans and whites. These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

These new insights into the impact of California’s criminal justice reforms and the persistence of racial disparities come at a time of heightened attention to inequities in police activity and criminal justice policies.

“The effects of Prop 47 on racial disparities represent a notable but modest step toward addressing inequities in criminal justice outcomes,” said Magnus Lofstrom, policy director and senior fellow at PPIC and one of the report’s authors. “Still, there remain sizeable and troubling disparities, especially between African Americans and whites. Our state still has much work to do.”

Lofstrom added, “Of course, the period covered by this study precedes the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ushered in significant changes in arrest and booking practices. Future research will need to examine how such changes are affecting different groups, including by race and ethnicity.”

The report finds:

  • Overall, California’s use of pretrial detention has declined since Prop 47. After Prop 47 passed in November 2014, the total number of bookings statewide quickly dropped by about 10 percent. This decrease was driven by a large decline in felony bookings, which dropped by about 30 percent.
  • Prop 47 narrowed the gap between African Americans and whites in arrests and bookings. The African American–white gap in arrests shrank by 5.9 percent, while the African American–white gap in bookings narrowed by 8.2 percent. The disparities between Latinos and whites in arrests and bookings—which are only a small fraction of that between African Americans and whites—saw no notable change after Prop 47.
  • The narrowing of disparities between African Americans and whites has been driven by trends in arrests and bookings for property and drug offenses. The gap in arrest rates between African Americans and whites for drug and property offenses (including felonies and misdemeanors) dropped by 24.4 percent after Prop 47, while the gap in booking rates narrowed by 32.6 percent. The decline in arrests and bookings for drug felonies is especially striking. For these offenses, the gap in the arrest and booking rates between African Americans and whites narrowed by about 55 percent. As a result, African American arrest and booking rates for drug felonies are now lower than the rates were for whites before Prop 47 passed.
  • Despite progress after Prop 47, troubling racial disparities in arrests persist. African Americans make up slightly less than 6 percent of California’s total population, but account for 16 percent of all arrests. In addition, the arrest rate of African Americans is slightly more than three times that for whites. Almost all counties show an arrest rate for African Americans at least double that for whites, while 13 counties have rates at least five times that of whites.
  • Overall incarceration rates in California have declined—with a narrowing of racial disparities—because of Prop 47 and other criminal justice reforms. Prop 47 followed previous reforms intended to reduce California’s prison population, including the 2011 “realignment” that reassigned—from the state to counties—responsibility for certain offenders. California’s prison population has declined to levels not seen since the early 1990s because of the combined impact of these policies. Further, between 2007 and 2017 the share of African Americans incarcerated in California dropped from 5.5 percent to 3.5 percent. Declines in incarceration rates were much smaller for Latinos (from 1.5 percent to 1.2 percent) and whites (from 1.0 percent to 0.7 percent). As a result, the African American–white disparity in incarceration rates dropped by 36 percent, from 4.5 percentage points to 2.8 percentage points. About half of this decline occurred after the implementation of Prop 47.

“These new findings help shed light on the critical question of what criminal justice reforms mean for addressing racial and ethnic disparities,” Lofstrom said.

The report, Proposition 47’s Impact on Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice Outcomes, draws on data from the Monthly Arrest and Citation Register collected by the California Department of Justice and data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. It is supported with funding from Arnold Ventures.

In addition to Lofstrom, the report is co-authored by Brandon Martin at PPIC and Steven Raphael at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley. Research support was provided by PPIC’s Alexandria Gumbs and Joseph Hayes.

About PPIC

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.