California’s public safety realignment program, which resulted in about 27,000 low-level felons being diverted from state prisons to county jails, has produced a marked increase in property crimes around the state but has had no statistically significant effect on violent crimes.
That is the conclusion of a study released Monday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Since the program began in 2011, the cumulative inmate population of county jails has increased by about 9,000, meaning that there has been a net increase at any given time of about 18,000 offenders being on the streets who previously would have been behind bars.
The program gives counties flexibility in how to handle the new offenders assigned to them, through such means as electronic monitoring, house arrest or split sentences in which half their time is served on probation. In addition, some counties reduce the time certain state inmates spend in jail or release them on their promise to appear in court — inmates who previously would have been detained before their trials.
The study estimates that there have been an additional 1 to1.5 property crimes committed per year for each offender not incarcerated. The effect has been most pronounced on auto thefts, which have increased by about 65 thefts per 100,000 residents since realignment was implemented.
Although violent crimes in California have increased by 3.2 percent since 2011, that increase closely tracks national trends and almost exactly matches the rate of increase experienced by other states that had similar crime rates to California before realignment. Therefore, said researcher Magnus Lofstrom, a co-author of the report, that increase cannot be attributed to any state-only policy.
“That’s very different from what we see in property crimes,” Lofstrom said.
The report finds there is “convincing and robust evidence” of an increase in property crimes that is directly attributable to realignment. Almost all of that increase is accounted for a spike in auto thefts equal to about an additional 1.2 thefts for each offender on the street who would have previously been incarcerated.
Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said the findings of the report “totally make sense,” in large part because the offenders on the street today who would have been incarcerated before are largely those who previously would have been serving time in jail for misdemeanors.
“It’s those less-serious offenders in county jail whose time is actually reduced,” he said, noting that county jail inmates now serve about 50 percent of their sentenced time, as opposed to about 70 percent before realignment.
Dean said that “several jurisdictions in Ventura County” have experienced what he called significant increases in property crimes, notably the cities of Ventura and Oxnard.
The report notes that even though crime rates in California have begun to rise after an extended period of decline, they remain at “historically low levels and are substantially below those observed a decade ago.” Even with the recent increases, the rate of property crimes is 20 percent below that from 2003 and the rate of violent crime is down 27 percent.
Despite the reduction in the state prison population achieved by realignment, the state still houses about 8,000 more prison inmates than is required to meet a inmate-population cap ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. State officials are negotiating with federal judges to seek a delay in meeting the court mandate while they implement new programs designed to reduce recidivism.
Should the ultimate solution result in 8,000 additional offenders being on the street, the report estimates that the effect on crime “would be slightly greater” than the increases that have already been experienced, Lofstrom said.
Based on studies done by the RAND Corp., the report estimates that the most efficient way to try to return the number of property crimes to their pre-realignment levels would be to invest in additional law enforcement officers — an approach, it says, that “could likely provide improved outcomes at lower costs.”
It estimates that an additional $1 spent on incarcerated realigned offenders would yield between 23 cents and 48 cents in terms of the value of crimes averted. The same dollar invested in increased policing, the report says, would generate about $1.60 in crime savings.
The RAND Corp. noted that an auto theft today costs on average $9,533.