As a rookie police officer in 1966, I had firm ideas about how to prevent crime – arrest as many lawbreakers as possible and lock them up for a very long time. As I rose through the ranks to become police chief in San Diego, I found little reason to question those principles.
But my thinking has changed – and I’m not alone. Today we know a lot more about what works to deter would-be criminals and change the behavior of those who have already broken the law. While prison will always be the proper punishment for most violent offenders, we know that for many lower-level offenders, other sanctions can more effectively steer them toward productive lives.
Californians understand this, which is why they approved Proposition 47 in 2014. The measure changed drug possession and five petty-theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and required that savings from reduced incarceration be invested in drug treatment, mental health care and crime-prevention efforts.
Since the initiative’s passage, critics have tried mightily to blame it for a rise in crime, but there’s no data proving such a link. After two decades of steep declines, crime has inched up in many parts of the country, including areas that have not adopted Proposition 47-style reforms.
As I learned from almost 50 years in law enforcement, making sense of crime trends is a tricky business. That’s why I was delighted to see a groundbreaking study released last month by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts. It looked at 23 states that between 2001 and 2011 raised the amount of stolen money or value of stolen goods above which prosecutors may charge thefts as felonies. Felonies typically carry a penalty of at least a year in state prison, while misdemeanors generally result in probation or less than a year in local jail.
Pew’s study found that raising the felony threshold has no impact on property crime or larceny rates. It also showed that states that increased their thresholds saw crime drop about the same amount as the 27 states that did not change their theft laws. The study further revealed that the threshold amount has no bearing on property crime and larceny rates.
What does it all mean? While harsher penalties cost taxpayers a bundle for prisons, they do not automatically cut crime, just as lighter penalties don’t automatically invite more crime. Offenders act for a wide variety of reasons, and whether they might be convicted of a felony rather than a misdemeanor isn’t a large part of their thinking.
In California, these latest results should help put the lie to flimsy claims that Proposition 47 has emboldened criminals and endangered the rest of us. Remember, the same dire predictions of a crime surge accompanied the state’s 2011 adoption of realignment, which shifted responsibility for tens of thousands of felons from the state to the counties. And a similar chorus of warnings rang out when voters softened the state’s three-strikes law in 2012.
None of the doomsday scenarios came true.
During my career in policing, California’s prison population skyrocketed largely because of the policies I championed. But now I’m part of a growing movement among law enforcement professionals who believe we don’t need to have gigantic prison populations to control crime. If we focus on research about what works and what doesn’t, we can hold offenders accountable and give taxpayers more public safety for their hard-earned dollars.
William Lansdowne retired in 2014 after five decades in law enforcement, concluding with 10 years as chief of police in San Diego. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.