California’s Prison Downsizing Offers a Model for Other States, Study Says

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The success of California’s Public Safety Realignment Act in reducing state prison populations without a corresponding increase in crime suggests that other jurisdictions around the country can enact similar reforms without endangering public safety, according to a study published in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy, an American Society of Criminology journal.

The study, entitled “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety,” cites already published data showing that the 17 percent reduction in the size of California’s prison population over a 15-month period, beginning with the Act’s implementation in 2011, did not have an effect on aggregate rates of violent crime or property crime.

“Moreover, 3 years after the passage of Realignment, California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels,” write authors Jody Sundt of Indiana University, Emily J. Salisbury of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Mark G. Harmon of Portland State University.

The California results demonstrate that “we make a mistake…when we assume that prisons are the only meaningful or viable response to crime,” the authors add.

According to the data referenced in the study, the California Realignment Act  reduced the size of the state’s prison population by 27, 527 inmates within 15 months. Many of the inmates were transferred to local jails or released into the community. Critics of the Act linked the policy to recorded increases in offenses such as auto theft. But the authors argued that the slight  uptick in such offenses leveled off over time–and was not necessarily linked to realignment.

These results should serve as an object lesson for other jurisdictions, said the authors.

“For the first time in decades it appears that a ‘window of opportunity’ for justice reform  is opening to allow for a reevaluation of the effectiveness and wisdom of policies that have created the largest prison population in the world,” they wrote, citing a phrase used by criminologist Michael Tonry.

The realignment strategy was implemented after the state lost an appeal of a federal court ruling that California inmates had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Constitution, as a result of overcrowding.  According to earlier studies, realignment saved California taxpayers approximately $453 million in the costs of maintaining the state prison population.

The study is available for a fee here. (Journalists who would like to access the study free of charge should email Deputy Editor Alice Popovici at alice@thecrimereport.org).

The data in this study are also referenced in an earlier study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

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