Report links property crime spike to California prisoner reduction plan

California’s prison reduction efforts have caused property crime to go up significantly, according to a report released Monday by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The report adds academic credibility to longstanding complaints by conservative lawmakers and law-enforcement groups that state correctional changes since October 2011 have increased crime. In response to a lawsuit over prison crowding and state budget problems, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature approved a plan that gave counties responsibility for lower-level offenders who were previously incarcerated and supervised after release by the state, a process called realignment.

The net effect of the changes is that 18,000 offenders who previously would have been in jail or prison are no longer behind bars, the PPIC authors found. The authors found “robust evidence” that having those offenders on the street played a significant role in the 7.6 percent increase in statewide property crime last year.

“We have certainlyheard that realignment is causing crime to go up, and that’s what we found at least as far as property crime,” said Magnus Lofstrom, a report co-author and a research fellow at PPIC, a nonprofit and non-partisan research organization.

Lofstrom said he expects property crime will go up further as result of future prison releases needed to meet the requirements of a federal court case. The state needs to reduce its prison population by an additional 8,000 offenders.

Administration officials said that the crime increases noted in the PPIC report come after historic declines and that the state’s correction changes need time to become effective.

“Crime rates remain at historically low levels and are substantially below those observed a decade ago, as this study notes. Under realignment, the state is investing hundreds millions of dollars in local rehabilitation and crime-prevention programs to continue to improve public safety in our communities. The impact of these investments will be measured over years, not months,” Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a written statement. She also pointed out that a study by a San Francisco-based research organization reached a different conclusion, finding no link between realignment and increased crime.

But critics of the state’s prison reduction plan said the PPIC report should force lawmakers to rethink the plan.

“The governor and the Legislature should have seen this coming three years ago,” said Sen. Jim Nielson, R-Gerber, a former chairman of the California Board of Prison Terms. “You cannot put unrehabilitated people back into the community. They’re just thumbing their noses at us.”

While many sheriffs have expressed opposition to the prison reduction plan, they have faced the “reality that these are the cards that we’ve been dealt,” said Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association. Like Nielson, Ahern said the state needs to provide funding for county jail and state prison capacity.

The PPIC report cautions against that solution. While incarceration is effective at reducing crime, it is not a cost-effective strategy, Lofstrom said. The study estimated that incarcerating one offender would save $11,783 in crime-related costs in one year, compared to the $51,889 cost of housing an offender in prison for a year. Investing in police staffing, for instance, would provide a more cost-effective approach, the report states.

Violent crime went up last year, but the authors found no link between the increase and realignment. The strongest link between realignment and increased crime was auto theft, which went up 15 percent last year, the authors found.