This week in the opinion pages of the Orange County Register, UC Santa Cruz Professor Craig Haney and Prosecutors Alliance of California founder Christine DeBerry made the case for further closings in California’s prison system.
Using the tired trope of “mass incarceration,” they declare that California has been squandering the $18 billion per year it spends on prisons. They argue that surplus funds from prison closures can be used to address the “root” causes of crime and prevent future crime.
Sounds good, but the trouble is – it’s not true. There has never been a “crime reduction dividend” through de-criminalization. Prop. 47 was supposed to use incarceration savings to fund schools but hasn’t. Prop. 57 was intended to save us billions in incarceration costs yet has actually accelerated the increase in violent crime.
While the authors correctly state that in the last ten years the prison population has dropped from 165,000 to 95,000, they fail to mention the corresponding increase in violent crime – much of which is committed by released violent offenders. Thefts are only down because they have been reclassified as misdemeanors and businesses and victims have given up on the justice system. Thousands of retail stores have closed in California and the ones that remain open have raised prices to offset losses.
The President of Raley’s Stores Keith Knopf reported recently that across their California businesses, they experience 60 million dollars in losses since the passage and implementation of Prop. 47.
In my recent study, Paradise Lost: Crime in the Golden State 2011-2021, I discover that the period of “mass incarceration” has been replaced with mass victimization. Violent crime in all categories has risen dramatically as a result of early release policies.
Since the passage of AB 109 in 2011 and subsequent prison population reductions, California homicides rose from 1,794 to 2,361 in 2021 – an increase of 31.6 percent. Aggravated assaults rose from 91,483 to 123,122 – an increase of 34.6 percent. Rapes rose from under 8,000 per year in 2011 to nearly 16,000 at their peak in 2018.
In California, annual drug overdose deaths stood at 1,226 in 2000. After two decades of decriminalization and failed diversion efforts, they had risen to 10,000 fatalities in 2021. Most of these deaths were caused by opioids – specifically fentanyl. Despite the shocking death toll, the California Legislature actually reduced the crime of selling fentanyl to a misdemeanor in 2022 through SB 73.
At the end of February 2023, the prison population stood at just 95,460. Victimization numbers tell a different story. In 2021, the last year of complete statistics, the number of violent crime victims was 183,546, and property crime victims numbered 857,599 – for a total of 1,041,145 reported victimizations.
Haney and DeBerry want to release the 57% of inmates the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claim are “low risk” for reoffending, but CDCR doesn’t have a great track record for predicting recidivism. Three early release criminals shot 20 people last year alone, killing eight of the victims.
The current inmate population is made up of the following:
9,964 inmates held for assault with a deadly weapon, 2,039 for kidnapping, 3,380 for manslaughter, 13,212 for 1st degree murder, 5,929 for 2nd degree murder, 9,068 for lewd acts with children, 2,682 rapists, 260 for sodomy, 468 for rape with a foreign object, 820 for oral copulation, 14,914 “other” assaults and battery, and 13, 680 for robbery to name a few.
78,875 are incarcerated for crimes against persons, 6,817 for property crimes, 2,465 for drug crime, 7,075 are defined as “other” and, 228 are at large escapees.
Criminal justice reform advocates would have you believe that prisons are full of unjustly punished inmates. These numbers tell a different story.
In the words of then State Senator Chuck Poochigian, “Felons do not think like academics – and academics do not know how felons think.”
There has been no “crime reduction dividend” with the recent decline of the prison population of the past ten years. Only more deaths and victimization.
There are many ways to reduce crime such as better educational opportunities, school choice, after school programming, support for working families, faith-based programs, mental health services, and drug use prevention to name a few.
Releasing inmates who are unprepared to live peaceful lives and removing deterrence through decriminalization has failed.
Crime is a choice – not an inevitability – and holding those accountable is the surest way to save lives.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute, and is the author of the new PRI study on California’s growing crime trend, “Paradise Lost.”