Nine years ago, Californians overwhelmingly passed Proposition 47 – The “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” – and in so doing affirmed and then reaffirmed in later elections their desire that California both reduce crime and rates of incarceration. This is a tall order for any bureaucracy – and one that in the nearly ten years since its passage in 2014 – has been subject to much controversy.
Reducing incarceration happens several ways – and includes strategies and legal tools to simply release prisoners. Administratively that can be achieved by declaring jails and prisons overcrowded or, as occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, can be implemented through emergency measures based on public health priorities to reduce the population.
Other methods are the decriminalization or reduction in the sanctions for which most criminals are incarcerated, or the development of diversion programs in the form of pre or post-conviction alternatives to incarceration rehabilitation programming and applying the laws to incoming, in process, and retroactively to already incarcerated inmates.
The standard measure for rehabilitation is known as recidivism – the rate at which convicted offenders are rearrested, reconvicted, and reincarcerated. The rearrest rate runs higher than convictions which in turn runs higher than reincarcerations. If one accepts the theory that a relatively small percentage of the population are responsible for most of the crime then an improving (meaning declining) recidivism rate should be an indicator of a declining crime rate. Recidivism is measured over a three-year period and historically has been low the first year of release and then increases in years two and three.
Unfortunately, the recidivism rates have not improved and for the Prop 47 cohort of offenders has actually worsened.
This has not deterred Prop 47’s advocates.
Writing in the Op/Ed pages of the Orange County Register recently, Christine DeBerry of the so-called “Prosecutors Alliance of California,” which boasts almost no members who are actually prosecutors, writes that since its passage, rearrest and reconviction rates for Prop 47 offenders have dropped. However, other than including a hyperlink to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California – she fails to mention by how much.
The answer is this: According to the same PPIC study, rearrest rates of the Prop 47 cohort are 70.8 percent and the decline from Prop 47’s passage in 2014 to this year is a scant 1.8 percent. Re-conviction rates have dropped just 3.1 percent over the rates prior to Prop 47.
Meanwhile, the recidivism rate for felons released from state prison is 68 percent – meaning the Prop 47 cohort and their advocates’ much ballyhooed treatment and rehabilitation programs actually do slightly worse upon release than state prison inmates.
Let me reiterate that. Nearly 3/4 of all Prop 47 thieves and drug dealers are re-arrested. Roughly the same number were re-arrested before Prop 47’s passage and they reoffend at a higher rate than former state prison inmates. Worse, this has been occurring for 9 years.
What about budgetary savings from reducing both the number of inmates in county jails and state prisons and its use for crime prevention?
In 2022 the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reported that in the 8 years since passage, the savings due to reduced incarceration was California $600 million, which was then spent on the “root causes of crime” and “trauma recovery and school-based programs.” Recently, Tinisch Collins of the Alliance for Safety and Justice made the case for the success of Prop 47. She writes that Los Angeles County has spent $60 million dollars on rehabilitative programs and that their programs have been effective.
In actuality crime is up as is prison spending despite a drop in prison population of nearly 75,000 inmates since 2017 as well as a drop in county jail headcounts since 2014. As I said, reducing inmate populations can be achieved any number of ways that have nothing to do with Prop 47.
What’s much harder to achieve is reducing crime.
Just this year both the FBI Uniform Crime Reports as well as the California Attorney General’s office annual crime statistics show an increase in property crime of 6.2 percent and a violent crime increase of 6.1 percent. The newly released FBI statistics confirm that California is now a high crime outlier – crime is increasing in California while in most of the rest of the country it is declining.
All of this brings into question how advocates of Prop 47 define success – not to mention a highly suspect budgetary shell game of $600 million in budget savings – which cannot be validated by reading the budget of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Given the high-profile increase in shoplifting and organized retail crime that, for a variety of reasons, is not always reflected in the reported statistics, people are asking if Prop 47 is not to blame.
DeBerry has an answer for this – blame the police and prosecutors for not doing their jobs. In her analysis ,if we simply enforced laws related to stolen property resellers – more commonly known as fencing operations – we could dry up the demand for stolen property and consequently remove the motivation to steal.
For the rest of the shoplifters DeBerry has no answer. They are often the drug addicts who, to support their addiction, steal. Before Prop 47, a shoplifter under the influence of narcotics or indeed anyone arrested for being under the influence would receive a 90-day sentence. This was long enough to be a deterrence, detox, and get into a treatment program. Was it a perfect system? No. Did many addicts reoffend? Yes. But fewer also died.
Today’s Prop 47 enabled open air drug markets – don’t forget, Prop 47 effectively decriminalized drug possession and use – are no place to treat addicts. Consequently, they are dying on California’s streets by 11,403 between April 2022 and March 2023 to be exact – making California America’s deadliest State.
Proponents of Prop 47 often point out that increasing the felony theft threshold from $400 to $950 aligned California with the rest of the nation and that’s true. The problem is that California’s county jails no longer have the capacity to incarcerate people for misdemeanor offenses. A combination of events has caused this but the main problem is that AB109 – passed by the legislature in 2011 – transferred the responsibility for housing non-violent felons to the county jails. They are the so-called triple-nons, or nonviolent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders. Today, 90 percent of our jail capacity is taken up by felons and that capacity has further been reduced not because of a lack of beds but rather a lack of staffing.
In short, a felony is no longer a felony and a misdemeanor is an infraction. Even DeBerry thinks serial offenders should be incarcerated – just not for long periods. The trouble is where do we put them?
Ironically, recidivism is about to improve as the State of California will no longer track 3-year recidivism statistics. They cynically know that to show success, they need to reduce the time window that we track offenders after their sentence is completed. In 2024, the standard for measuring recidivism in California will drop to two years.
Just in time for the elections.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute, and author of the recent PRI study on California’s crime wave, “Paradise Lost.”