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California's Criminal Justice Experiment

In 2011, the state transferred responsibility for a substantial group of inmates to the counties in order to downsize the overcrowded state-run facilities.
(Photo: Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images)

(Photo: Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images)

For the last five years, a great criminal justice experiment has been underway in California. Decades of "tough on crime" policies had left the state prisons—built to house a maximum of less than 80,000 people—totally overwhelmed. By 2006, the prison population had climbed to an all time high of roughly 173,000. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowding in the state's prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The court ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce prison populations. In order to comply, the state passed new legislation—the Public Safety Realignment—which shifted the responsibility for many non-violent offenders from the state to its 58 counties, and gave each county a good deal of leeway and funding to figure out the best way to manage offenders.

Speaking to a group of the state's law enforcement officials last year, Governor Jerry Brown declared that this "realignment is working." The results of California's re-alignment experiment could serve as a model for the rest of the nation, which continues to struggle with its mass incarceration epidemic. Criminal justice reform is one of the few issues with support from politicians on both sides of the aisle; nearly every presidential candidate has called for reform. (Even former President Bill Clinton, whose "tough on crime" policies helped to catalyze the nation's incarceration crisis, has said those policies "overshot the mark.")

But for decarceration to work across the country, it needs more than bipartisan support and the endorsement of California's governor. It needs evidence. This month, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science dedicated an entire issue—with special editors Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, professors at the University of California–Irvine—to chronicling the enactment of re-alignment and parsing its effects on the state. Pacific Standard narrowed the issue,  down to a few highlights:


Poor conditions in California county jails in the mid-19th century gave rise to the first state prison—and it was plagued by overcrowding and underfunding from the beginning. By 1860, the prison at San Quentin was operating at double its capacity. "As was true in other states, California was only too glad to establish prisons when it believed prisoners, through their labor, would be a source of profits, not costs," David Ball, an associate professor at the Santa Clara School of Law writes in a new article.

When it became clear the fruits of prison labor would never arrive, the state sought to transfer the burden of responsibility for prisoners back to the counties. As early as 1858, the Joint Committee on State Prison Affairs proposed that offenders sentenced to fewer than two years should be incarcerated in county facilities; then-governor J. Neely Johnson suggested abolishing state prisons entirely that same year. State prisons were once the experimental solution, Ball notes, and despite widespread support for Public Safety Realignment in the present, "it could simply be the pause before the pendulum begins to swing the other way."


... if counties provide re-entry and rehabilitative services.

Historically, recidivism rates in California have topped national averages: Two-thirds of released offenders in California end up back behind bars, while, nationally, less than half of all released offenders wind up back in prison. In the year after Public Safety Realignment, the rate of returns to prison statewide dropped sharply.

But researchers still wanted to know how local Public Safety Realignment implementation policies, which vary from county to county, affected recidivism. Mia Bird and Ryken Grattet, research fellows at the Public Policy Institute of California, found that many counties experienced increases in felony re-arrest rates, but the counties that emphasized re-entry services had lower rates of recidivism, as measured by felony re-arrest and re-conviction rates, than those that focused on enforcement.

Recidivism rates are notoriously tricky to nail down, and it's important to note that institutional policies might skew the numbers. The authors point to anecdotal evidence to suggest Public Safety Realignment could be changing the way police officers and prosecutors use their discretion in making arrests and pursuing convictions. If, for example, prosecutors are now more likely to seek convictions for prison-eligible offenses than they were before Public Safety Realignment, it could push prison population and recidivism rates higher.


In the wake of re-alignment, on average, one out of every three inmates removed from the state prison system ended up in a county facility, meaning two-thirds of those offenders were released into the community (often still under the supervision of the corrections system). Naturally, the question arose: What effect would these releases have on crime rates? A study by Magnus Lofstrom, a senior research fellow at PPIC, and Steven Raphael, a professor at the University of California–Berkeley, found that, following the implementation of Public Safety Realignment, there was no significant change in violent crime rates, though there was a modest increase in property theft. (Car thefts were the main source of the increase.)

Extrapolating from their monthly crime data, the authors found that each prison year served prevents approximately 0.5 violent crimes and 2.2 property crimes per year. Those numbers are likely overestimates, according to the researchers, and still considerably lower than previous estimates of 10 or even 20 fewer violent incidents per prison year served. With that data in hand, a cost-benefit analysis of prison effects becomes possible; researchers can begin to answer the question of whether it is worth it, economically speaking, to incarcerate someone to prevent one or two property crimes a year? An auto theft costs an average of less than $10,000 in crime-related costs; incarcerating an individual in California for a year costs more than $50,000. "Incorporating some of the more difficult to price social costs in the calculation would certainly lower the return even further," the authors write.


Widespread support for reform does not necessarily mean the end of mass incarceration. Researchers from the University of Washington—Katherine Beckett, Anna Reosti, and Emily Knaphus—point out that massive institutions like this create vested interests that serve to perpetuate the system.

If you look closely at recent progressive reforms—and at the media's framing of those reforms—as the researchers did here, you'll notice that the policy changes afoot have not been comprehensive. Their analysis revealed that progressive sentencing reforms have mostly been limited to non-violent and drug offenses. When it comes to violent or repeat offenders, policymakers calling for reform tended to endorse the current policies or call for even more punitive measures. But research suggests that, to truly make a dent in the tremendous prison population in the United States, broad sentencing reforms—for all types of offenses—will be necessary.

The end of mass incarceration may be farther off than it appears.