The 2014 measure, which reclassified as misdemeanors many nonviolent crimes that formerly were felonies, has been called the “biggest criminal justice experiment in America.” A study by criminologists from the University of California-Irvine refutes critics who say it has endangered public safety.
When California voters reclassified many nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors back in 2014, law enforcement officials warned that crime rates would rise as a result.
When some types of crime did increase in 2015, some law enforcers argued that a large drop in felony arrests throughout the state had emboldened criminals.
They also contended that drug and theft offenders who formerly were jailed pending trial were receiving just citations and orders to appear in court after Proposition 47 passed, and that few actually showed up for their court dates.
Proponents of what was known as Proposition 47 argued that it was a good way to reduce the state’s prison population, which had long been criticized for preventing many inmates from getting adequate health care.
Authors of what they call the first thorough study of Proposition 47’s impact say they have refuted the police contentions.
“Proposition 47 has been blamed for rising crime in California since it took effect in 2014, yet no research has evaluated this claim,” wrote criminologist Charis Kubrin of the University of California Irvine and her student Bradley Bartos.
“Using a novel method of policy analysis to compare crime rates in California pre- and post-Proposition 47, our findings suggest that the blame is misplaced.”
To meet the challenge of analyzing the causes of crime increases in the state in 2015, the year after Proposition 47 was approved, Kubrin and Bartos say they “constructed a synthetic control group to approximate California crime rates had Proposition 47 not been enacted.”
They explain that what they call a “synthetic California” was a weighted combination of other states’ crime rates that closely matched California’s for 44 years from 1970 to 2014.
The criminologists found that crime rates in the combination of states that resembled California but did not have a new law like Proposition 47 were about the same after the California measure passed.
That indicated that Proposition 47 did not cause the California crime trends, Kubrin and Bartos concluded. The trends held true for several categories of serious crime, including homicide, rape, assault, robbery and burglary.
California’s combined prison and jail population peaked at about 256,000 in 2006. Since then, it has dropped by about 55,000.
A primary reason was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 that found that conditions in many prisons violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Contributing to the decline were Proposition 47 and a major policy shift ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown after the high court decision that involved sending many state prisoners back to their originating counties, where they could be jailed or released under supervision.
Criminologist Joan Petersilia of Stanford University termed the Brown prisoner “realignment” plan “the biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America.”
Proposition 47 allowed California’s counties to reduce imprisonment time for low-level offenses and increase it for serious crimes.
The study authors conclude that while reform opponents “routinely cite rising crime rates as ‘proof’ that Prop 47 is harming public safety, prompting repeated calls to repeal the measure,” Brown’s realignment and Prop 47 “have shown us we can, in fact, downsize our prisons without comprising public safety.”
The researchers say that “crime rates going up (or down for that matter) tell us nothing about the source of those trends, and studies such as this one are necessary to determine any link between criminal justice reform and crime rates.”
The full study will be published this summer in journal Criminology & Public Policy of the American Society of Criminology.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.