Recidivism of Felony Offenders in California
California has undertaken numerous corrections reforms in the past decade—including public safety realignment in 2011 and Proposition 47 in 2014—in hopes of reducing the prison population, maintaining public safety, and improving persistently high recidivism rates. These reforms lowered incarceration levels, and in their aftermath, crime rates have fluctuated. Recidivism rates provide another important window into public safety and the effectiveness of correctional interventions under these policy changes.
For the first time, this report provides recidivism rates for all types of felony offenders in California—including those sentenced to prison, jail only, jail followed by probation, or probation only. Previously, statewide recidivism outcomes could only be tracked for individuals leaving prison custody. This study draws on unique data from 12 representative counties, allowing us to estimate two-year recidivism rates for felony offenders released in the four years following realignment from October 2011 to October 2015. We focus on felony offenders to provide insight into outcomes for those who have been convicted of more severe offenses.
Our analysis of recidivism relies on rearrest and reconviction rates, which are often used to capture changes in reoffending in response to a policy change. However, it is important to note that these rates may also reflect changes in the practices of criminal justice agencies. For example, if a policy change led to a shift in policing strategies, such as reduced enforcement for drug possession offenses, we may observe changes in rearrest rates even if there is no change in the underlying behavior of former offenders. We find:
- Overall recidivism rates have declined for felony offenders. The share of felony offenders rearrested for any offense within two years declined somewhat from 68 percent to 66 percent over the four-year period. The two-year reconviction rate for any offense dropped substantially from 41 percent to 35 percent.
- Reductions in recidivism rates were largest for felony offenses. The share of offenders rearrested for a felony offense decreased moderately from 56 percent to 53 percent in the four years after realignment. The felony reconviction rate dropped markedly from 30 percent to 22 percent. These reductions were concentrated in later years and may be linked to Proposition 47.
- Rearrest rates for felony offenses increased toward the end of the period. When we examine the last several months for which we have data, we see that 50 percent of individuals released in June 2015 were rearrested for felonies within two years, compared with 53 percent for those released in October 2015.
- Recidivism rates fell sharply for drug offenses. The reconviction rate for property offenses also fell, while the rearrest rate for property offenses held steady, with a slight uptick for individuals released at the end of the period. For offenses against a person—a category that includes violent offenses—there was an increase in the rearrest rate (from 19% to 20%) but no change in the reconviction rate.
- Recidivism rates have declined for each of the four sentencing groups. Those sentenced to prison or jail experienced large declines in rearrest and reconviction rates, when compared with those sentenced to jail followed by probation or to probation only. Individuals who received probation—with or without a jail sentence—initially experienced increases in recidivism rates under realignment but then saw decreases in later years and under Proposition 47.
- Individuals released from prison had the highest reconviction rates. This group also served the longest and most costly incarceration terms. This finding is consistent with previous research that has found little evidence linking more severe sanctions to lower recidivism.
- Recidivism rates are likely to be related to multiple factors. Offender behavior is one factor. But policy changes can also play a role in that they may affect the practices of criminal justice agents, such as police officers and district attorneys. More and better data are needed to pinpoint the relevant causes of changes in recidivism.
Additional efforts to improve our understanding of the relationships among policy, implementation, and recidivism outcomes are essential to move the state toward a more evidence-based criminal justice system. Facilitating better data connections across correctional institutions, intervention programs, and law enforcement would help further the state’s goals of improving public safety, reducing costs, and ensuring equity in its correctional systems.