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Releasing Prisoners Without Increasing Crime

New research finds California crime rates remained stable even as its prison population was reduced.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images)

The idea that America has far too many people behind bars has become bipartisan, conventional wisdom. But actually releasing prisoners early remains a scary prospect due to fears that crime rates will rise once they’re back in their local communities.

A new study that examines the effects of a large-scale prisoner release in California suggests such fears are largely unfounded.

It finds a court-mandated 2011 law that reduced the state’s prison population by 17 percent “had no effect on aggregate rates of violent or property crime.”

“Significant reductions in the size of prison populations are possible without endangering public safety,” concludes a research team led by Jody Sundt of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels.”

Sundt and her colleagues used as a “natural experiment” the 2011 passage of the California Public Safety Realignment Act, the state’s response to a court order to reduce overcrowding in the prison system.

Implemented in October of that year, it moved some prisoners from state prisons to county jails, and made significant changes to the parole system. Responsibility for felons convicted of “non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crimes” was shifted from the state to the county level.

“Within just 15 months of its passage, Realignment reduced the size of the total prison population by 27,527 inmates,” the researchers write in the journal Criminology and Public Policy. “Prison crowding declined from 181 to 150 percent of design capacity. Approximately $453 million was saved in 2012.”

All good — but were the state’s streets less safe? The researchers’ analysis concludes the answer is no.

They found the act “had no effect on violent or property crime rates in 2012, 2013, or 2014.” The only significant exception was “a moderately large, statistically significant association between Realignment and auto theft rates” in 2012.

That latter finding should be interpreted cautiously, the researchers write, given that there are “large year-to-year variations” in such rates. In any case, they add, by 2014, “auto theft rates returned to pre-Realignment levels.”

Three years after its passage, “California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels,” Sundt and her colleagues conclude. “With a mixture of jail use, community corrections, law enforcement, and other preventative efforts, California counties have provided a comparable level of public safety to that previously achieved by state prisons.”