Rearrest and reconviction rates declined in the four years following the enactment of major justice reforms in California aimed at shifting lower-level offenders from state prisons to county jails, according to a new study.
In an examination of data from 12 California counties between 2011 and 2015, researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that individuals reconvicted for felony offenses dropped from 30 percent to 22 percent. Recidivism rates also fell sharply for drug offenses.
The PPIC researchers stopped short of concluding that the 2011 California reforms, known as “realignment,” were directly responsible for the decline, but suggested they had “played a substantial role…through greater emphasis on drug treatment interventions.”
The study also discussed Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014, which reduced drug possession and some low-level property crimes to misdemeanors.
“Another potential interpretation is that the reduction in sanctions for drug possession under Prop 47 sent a signal to law enforcement to prioritize more serious offenders, which could in turn drive reductions in rearrests for drug offenses,” the researchers said.
“In an environment where incentives are changing for both felony offenders and the criminal justice systems tasked with securing public safety, it is difficult to precisely determine why recidivism rates are declining. “
More than 300,000 felony offenders in California were released to counties between October 2011 and October 2015.
Under public safety realignment, new sentencing rules made non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders ineligible for prison sentences and, instead, required they be sentenced locally. The new rules also required most violations of parole to be served in local jails.
The measures were undertaken in response to a Supreme Court mandate to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons.
As a result of the moves, the state’s prison population dropped by more than 27,000 in the first year of realignment. The subsequent increase in the size of county jail and probation populations “marked a new era for corrections and rehabilitation—one that proponents hoped would lower recidivism,” researchers said.
Although a crime increase predicted by critics did not materialize, other issues drew concerns, such as an increase in jail deaths.
Overall, the rearrest rate declined by 3 percent and the reconviction rate declined by 15 percent for individuals released during the four-year period. The largest reduction occurred in the felony reconviction rate, which dropped by 27 percent.
The full study can be downloaded here.