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Proposition 47’s Impact on Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice Outcomes

Summary

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to correctional systems and law enforcement’s interactions with the community, widespread protests focused on the deaths of African Americans in police custody have intensified concern about racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system. In recent years, California has implemented a number of significant reforms that were not motivated by racial disparities but might have narrowed them in a number of ways. In this report, we extend our previous arrest work to examine the impact of Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, on racial disparities in arrest and jail booking rates and in the likelihood of an arrest resulting in a booking.

While significant inequities persist in California and elsewhere, our findings point to a reduction in pretrial detention and a narrowing of racial disparities in key statewide criminal justice outcomes.

  • After Prop 47 passed in November 2014, the number of bookings quickly dropped by 10.4 percent. As a result, California’s use of pretrial detention has declined.
  • Prop 47 also led to notable decreases in racial/ethnic disparities in arrests and bookings. The African American–white arrest rate gap narrowed by about 5.9 percent, while the African American–white booking rate gap shrank by about 8.2 percent. Prop 47 has not meaningfully changed the disparities in arrest and booking rates between Latinos and whites, which are still only a small fraction of the African American–white gap.
  • The narrowing of African American–white disparities has been driven by property and drug offenses. The gap in arrests for these offenses dropped by about 24 percent and the bookings gap narrowed by almost 33 percent. Even more striking, African American–white gaps in arrest and booking rates for drug felonies decreased by about 36 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
  • The likelihood of an arrest leading to a jail booking declined the most for whites, but this is attributable to the relatively larger share of white arrests for drug offenses covered by Prop 47. When we account for arrest offense differences, the decreases in the likelihood of an arrest being booked are similar across race and ethnicity.

We also looked at the cumulative impact of reforms and prison population reduction measures in California since 2009 on racial disparities in incarceration. We found that the sizable reduction in the overall incarceration rate produced by these efforts has led to a narrowing of racial disparities in the proportion institutionalized on any given day. In particular, the African American–white incarceration gap dropped from about 4.5 percentage points to 2.8 percentage points, a decrease of about 36 percent.

In addition to meaningfully reducing racial disparities in key criminal justice outcomes, the reclassification of drug and property offenses led to significant decreases in arrests and bookings, and hence pretrial detention. These decreases have the potential to reduce and/or redirect the use of public resources. However, more work is needed. Given evidence that the reforms have led to some increases in property crime, it is important for policymakers and practitioners to identify effective programs and policies that can reduce recidivism and maintain public safety while also continuing to address racial disparities.

This research was supported with funding from the Arnold Ventures.

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