In the year after its approval by California voters, Proposition 47 led to the release of over 4,500 inmates from the state’s overcrowded prison system—and some law-enforcement officials are blaming the releases on a statewide increase in crime. But a new report says the data just doesn’t back up that claim.
Passed in November, 2014, amid intense controversy over prison overcrowding, Proposition 47 retroactively reclassified six types of non-violent crime from felonies to misdemeanors, allowing prisoners incarcerated for those offenses to be released early. The crimes reclassified as misdemeanors include personal-use drug possession of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and cannabis concentrates, shoplifting and forgery.
The proposition was proposed as a solution to the severe overcrowding then facing California’s prison system. In 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state must reduce its prison population to 110,000 inmates, or 137.5 percent of capacity, by April, 2014. The court granted the state a two-year extension in February, 2014, and Proposition 47, passed in November of that year, was an effort to reduce that overcrowding. Opponents of the proposition worried that inmates released early would commit new crimes, while proponents argued that money saved by keeping fewer people in jail could be used for drug treatment and crime prevention.
Since Proposition 47 went into effect in November, 2014, California has seen a moderate increase in both violent and property crime, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. In 2014, the bureau reported a property crime rate of 2,441.1 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants and a violent crime rate of 396.1 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2015, those numbers rose to 2,618.3 and 426.3 per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. Neither the FBI nor the California Attorney General has yet published statistics for the first half of 2016.
A rash of media reports featuring prominent law-enforcement officials have blamed Proposition 47 for the rise in crime. A typical headline, found on NPR’s website, proclaimed “California Cops Frustrated With ‘Catch-and-Release’ Crime-Fighting.” A feature story in the Washington Post called the law “a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card.”
But a recently-released report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, found that when crime statistics are broken down by California county, the data shows no correlation between Proposition 47 releases and crime rates.
One of the study’s authors, Mike Males, said much of the media coverage is driven by anecdotal stories focusing on repeat offenders who are not representative of the wider population of people released under Proposition 47 or an earlier bill, AB 109, known as “realignment.” The law moved non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual felony offenders from state prisons to county jails.
“A local sheriff says, ‘Oh, we got some guy who would’ve been in prison if it wasn’t for Prop. 47 or all this realignment stuff, and he went out and beat up a couple of people and stole their watches’ or something. OK. That kind of anecdotal thing unfortunately gets in the news media too much as proof of something,” Males said. “You could just as easily say, well, we had a guy that got out of state prison where he served fifteen years for drug and property offenses and the first thing he did was rob somebody when he got out of prison. So did going to prison cause him to do that? Should we not send people to prison? You could make the opposite argument from anecdotes. Everybody has anecdotes.”
Males’ study, coauthored with policy analyst Erica Webster, relies on numbers instead of anecdotes. In Alameda County, which contains Oakland, 1.6 out of every 100,000 inmates held in the county’s jails were released under Proposition 47 between its passage in November, 2014, and December, 2015, the period under examination in the study. Over the same period, violent crime fell by 9 percent and property crime rose by 2 percent.
In neighboring Contra Costa County, 1.4 out of every 100,000 inmates were released over the same period, and violent crime rose by 3 percent while property crime fell by 1 percent. Statewide, an average of 11.7 inmates per 100,000 were released, while violent crime went up by nine percent and property crime went up by seven percent.
Webster and Males say the results are the same throughout the state—that is, they show no correlation between releases and crime rates.
“One year isn’t enough to see how a policy has impacted crime, because crime can fluctuate from year to year,” Webster said. “And given that a lot of people are sort of critical of Prop. 47 and saying that it has directly caused the crime increases that we’re seeing in California, we just want to check the data to see if those statements are accurate. We would say at this point, you can’t make that claim.”
Webster said the causes of crime are complex and usually can’t be explained by any one factor. “Sometimes it’s just a year-to-year sort of change and there’s not too great of an explanation,” she said. “Growing wage income disparities, wealth gaps, it could be a crime ring moving through an area—there’s a great number of reasons. And none of them may be able to account for a particular year’s increase in crime.”
Males said even poverty, which is often held up as having a direct causal effect on crime, can’t always be relied on as an indicator. “Generally you see higher rates of crime among poorer populations. That has been complicated in recent years by the fact that older whites have shown large increases in crime and drug abuse, and imprisonment. And they’re the richest demographic,” he said. That trend can be seen nationally, Males said, and also in California at the state level.
At the same time that older whites have shown an increase in crime rates, crime has dramatically dropped among California youth, Males said. According to the California Attorney General’s office, juvenile arrests have fallen by more than half since the beginning of the decade. In 2010, 185,867 juvenile offenders were arrested in the state, compared to 71,923 in 2015.
The trend holds nationally as well: FBI statistics show a ten-year decrease of 54.8 percent in juvenile arrests.
“Right now, juvenile crime is at its lowest rate [in California] since statistics were first gathered in the 1950’s. The drop is that large,” Males said. “Young people have really rescued California.”
Males said there haven’t been any systematic studies done on the drop in youth crime, making it impossible to evaluate what has caused the decrease. But he said possible factors include higher educational attainment among young people and higher rates of immigration, since recent immigrant populations typically commit crime at lower rates than the native-born population.
“Trump is blaming immigrants and minorities and gangs and Muslim terrorists for crime, and actually it’s his own demographic, older whites, that seem to be showing the biggest increases in crime,” Males said.
Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said that while the study points out there is no apparent direct correlation between Proposition 47 and crime, it does not necessarily prove there is no causal relationship that could be revealed with more data.
“It means the two are not related. But that does not mean that once you properly model it, that they couldn’t become related,” she said. “They’ve done a very basic analysis that seems to suggest that the two are unrelated, but really you would have to do a much more sophisticated analysis to be able to ascertain with certainty the causal relationship between Prop. 47 and crime rates.”
Kubrin said there are no easy answers to crime prevention, and a complex variety of sometimes ill-understood elements contribute to crime. “Often we want to know what is the causal factor causing crime to go up, or down for that matter. And it’s really important to emphasize that criminologists think about the constellation of factors,” she said.
According to Kubrin, crime rates can be affected by “everything from housing to the economy to unemployment to homelessness, mental health and drugs and guns and gangs.”
“All of those factors historically have been shown to be fairly robust predictors of crime. Policies like Prop. 47 obviously can have a role, but these other structural things tend to, I think, have a slightly bigger role,” she said.
Jim Dudley, a lecturer at San Francisco State University and the former Deputy Chief of Patrol with the San Francisco Police Department, said that California crime statistics collected since the passage of Proposition 47 can be misleading. Since some felonies have been reclassified as misdemeanors, he said, it can appear that felonies are down when in reality they’re just being classified differently.
“Prop. 47 changed all of these felony crimes—including grand theft, gun theft from cars, possession of stolen property, personal use of drugs—all those things that had been felonies were reduced to misdemeanors,” he said. “From here forward, we’re not going to be able to say 2013 stats are the same as 2016 stats, or 2017. They’re forever changed.”
Previously, there was no threshold for grand theft in California, meaning that there was no set dollar amount to distinguish between misdemeanor and felony theft. Proposition 47 established a threshold of $950 for a felony grand theft charge. According to Dudley, this means that people who would have been charged with felony theft are now being charged with misdemeanors, leading to fewer felony arrests.
Dudley also said that Proposition 47 can make it harder for prosecutors to get drug addicts into treatment. Before its passage, he said, the threat of felony charges could be used as leverage to convince a person to accept a plea deal requiring them to enter drug treatment.
“In the past, if you had somebody with felony possession of drugs and now they’re pleading out as misdemeanor personal use cases. If they’re misdemeanors, you don’t have the leverage of getting them to take a drug rehab condition of probation,” he said. “They know that it’s easier to do, you know, 30, 60, 90 days, rather than commit to a one-year drug program.”
But Will Matthews, the manager of public affairs with Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit working to decrease the crime rate through policy solutions, said that Proposition 47 can help get people into drug treatment before they commit more serious crimes. Part of the money saved by reducing incarceration rates is earmarked for drug treatment and crime prevention, he said.
“We have spent a lot of time in this state and in this nation, just being responsive to crime—sitting around waiting for crime to happen and then going after the perpetrators of the crimes and then punishing them as harshly as possible, wrongfully thinking that that would help solve crime problems,” he said. “Instead what we really should be focused on is trying to prevent crime from happening in the first place.”
According to the text of Proposition 47, 65 percent of the money saved by releasing inmates will be used to “administer a grant program to public agencies aimed at supporting mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and diversion programs for people in the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on programs that reduce recidivism of people convicted of less serious crimes, such as those covered by this measure, and those who have substance abuse and mental health problems.”
However, distribution of that money has been held up by disagreements over how much was actually saved. Governor Jerry Brown’s office claimed Proposition 47 only saved the state $30 million in 2015, while independent analysts have put the number at over $130 million. If the analysts are right, that’s up to $100 million that should have been taken out of the prison budget this year and reinvested into crime prevention, victims’ services, and drug and mental health treatment.
Matthews said another important piece of Proposition 47 that could contribute to crime reduction is a provision that allows people convicted of one of the felonies that were downgraded to misdemeanors to apply to have their felony charges retroactively changed to misdemeanors in their criminal records. He said there are over 4,800 restrictions placed on convicted felons by the state of California that make it more difficult for people to turn their lives around post-release.
“Having a felony on your record really is like having a scarlet letter on you for the rest of your life,” he said. “It prevents folks from accessing jobs. It prevents folks from accessing housing. It prevents folks from accessing financial aid to go back to college.”
The first year’s data is not enough to draw wide conclusions about a policy, Matthews said, and more time is needed before the impact of Proposition 47 can be fully evaluated.
“Generally criminologists will tell you that you need about three years’ worth of data in order to do a really good study looking at any new policy and its impact on crime. And we just haven’t had the time yet,” he said.