California Urban Crime Hit ‘Historic’ Low Before Pandemic

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Los Angeles at dusk. Photo by James Watson via Flickr

California’s urban crime rate plummeted to a record low at least six months before the coronavirus lockdowns began to reduce crime levels across the nation, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ).

The Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit think tank, said the latest available data for the first six months of 2019 from 69 California cities with populations over 100,000 , showed that violent and property crime rates had declined 10.4 percent compared to a similar period in the first half of 2010.

Violent crime rates registered a 13.5 percent drop, while property crime declined by 9.9 percent.

A breakdown of the data, however, showed that in at least 24 cities—including Oakland and San Jose—the overall crime rate actually increased; and the one-year statewide comparison between 2019 and 2018 recorded only “modest declines” in urban violent crime and property crime, by 2.6 percent and 0.8 percent respectively.

Researchers said the variations reflected local circumstances and conditions, arguing that the significance of their findings was that the declining trend occurred during a period when California introduced controversial reforms to its justice system—reforms which critics claimed would lead to crime increases.

“Our ten-year review of the state’s crime statistics finds that, despite opposition group claims that criminal justice reforms have negatively affected public safety, crime trends have remained at historically low levels through a period of large-scale justice reform,” said the report’s lead author, Mike Males, a senior research fellow at CJCJ.

California series of reforms coincided with a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a lower court’s appointment of a federal monitor to run the state’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. The Court, which found the state to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment ban against “cruel and unusual punishment,” allowed a mandate requiring a reduction in the state’s incarcerated populations to stand.

In 2011, the state legislature passed a so-called “Public Safety Realignment” bill which required the transfer of state inmates held for nonviolent or nonsexual offenses to county facilities.

Three years later, in 2014, following voter approval of Proposition 47, a selection of minor drug and property offenses were downgraded in the state criminal code from felonies to misdemeanors. And in 2016, the passage of another ballot referendum—Proposition 57—opened up opportunities for inmates in state prison to qualify for early parole if they participated in rehabilitation programs.

The three measures resulted in the transfer or release of thousands of  individuals held in state facilities.

Editor’s Note: Despite the releases, a 2018 report claimed that state prisons were still at 134 percent of capacity, leading to calls for a new ballot measure.

Critics pointed towards crime spikes in some cities as proof that the reforms threatened public safety, but several studies—including the most recent CJCJ research, argued that the increases were either the result of miscounting of data or specific local problems.

For example, the Los Angeles Police Department’s correction of “substantial underreporting” of some offenses “made statewide crime rates appear artificially low prior to the adjustment, leading to misimpressions that crime rose in 2016,” the study said.

While the study stopped short of directly attributing the decline to the justice reforms, it concluded that “our review finds no relationship between crime and Public Safety Realignment, Proposition 47, or Proposition 57.”

Instead, the study added, ”Crime rates appear to be highly localized, suggesting that differences in city-wide and county-level approaches to public safety, not statewide policies, are influencing overall trends.”

The most recent available national data has shown a sharp falloff in most categories of crime, with the exception of auto theft, since the lockdowns and shelter-at-home orders imposed by most states in early spring.

Download the CJCJ study and accompanying tables here.

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