Realignment and Recidivism in California
California has experienced significant changes in its criminal justice landscape since the 2011 implementation of public safety realignment—which shifted the management of lower-level offenders from the state prison and parole system to county jail and probation systems. The prison population has dropped dramatically, and though jail populations rose, overall incarceration levels have declined.
One goal of realignment was to reduce California’s persistently high recidivism rates. Using data from 12 counties representative of the state, this report examines rearrest and reconviction rates after release from custody for two groups of offenders affected by realignment: those on post-release community supervision (PRCS) and those sentenced under section 1170(h) of the California Penal Code. Overall, we find realignment had modest effects on recidivism, with considerable variation across offender groups and counties. Specifically:
- Individuals on PRCS have somewhat higher recidivism than similar individuals released before realignment. PRCS offenders are released from state prison after serving time for certain lower-level felonies and receive supervision by county probation agencies. In the two years following realignment, we find that 71.9 percent of these individuals were rearrested (2.6 percentage points higher than before realignment), and 56.4 percent were reconvicted (2.4 points higher).
- Realignment did not have a consistent effect on recidivism for individuals sentenced under 1170(h). These offenders are sentenced for a specific set of lower-level felonies and, under realignment, serve time in county jail rather than state prison. In the two years following realignment, we find that 74.5 percent of these individuals were rearrested (2.3 percentage points higher than their pre-realignment counterparts) and 54.9 percent were reconvicted (2.0 points lower).
- Offenders who received straight sentences have the same or lower rates of recidivism. Realignment created two types of 1170(h) offenders: those who receive both jail time and probation supervision (known as a “split” sentence) and those who receive jail time with no supervision (known as a “straight” sentence). The group serving “straight” sentences had the best outcomes: the same two-year rearrest rates and lower two-year reconviction rates (by 3.0 percentage points). Those who received “split” sentences had higher rates of rearrest (by 7.8 points) but lower rates of reconviction (by 3.4 points) compared with similar individuals before realignment.
- The effects of realignment on recidivism vary substantially across counties. For example, overall we find reconviction rates were higher for those on PRCS after realignment, but in fact nine counties saw lower rates of reconviction—indicating that the overall finding is driven by a small number of counties. County variation in recidivism outcomes is likely linked to demographic, economic, and geographic differences, as well as the range of county capacity and experiences providing evidence-based interventions before realignment. However, some of this variation may be due to different intervention strategies, creating the potential for counties to learn from each other over time.
Notably, offenders who received a jail term and no supervision stand out as having better outcomes on all measures of recidivism, when compared with similar individuals released before realignment. This finding suggests we need to carefully consider the complex relationship between supervision and recidivism. While it could simply be easier to detect reoffending when an individual is under supervision, the requirements of supervision could also create more opportunities for non-criminal violations. With a longer follow-up window and more recent data, the relationship between supervision and recidivism, as well as the overall effects of realignment, may change as counties build capacity and experience with evidence-based practices. Policymakers, practitioners, and researchers must continue to work together to develop the data and expertise necessary to understand the impacts of California’s corrections reforms and to identify effective strategies to reduce recidivism.