Capitol Alert

California public safety overhauls show promise, but problems remain

Several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San Quentin prison in 2009.
Several hundred inmates crowd the gymnasium at San Quentin prison in 2009. Associated Press file

A contentious program that shifted control of some state prisoners to local governments dramatically reduced the prison population in California, but the decrease was not enough to meet a federal court order, according to a report released Monday.

It was only after statewide voters last fall approved reduced penalties for certain drug and property crimes that the prison population fell below the mandated target, said the new analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California. It has remained there since January, more than a year ahead of schedule.

Public safety realignment, launched four years ago, was considered one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s largest political and policy hurdles since he returned to the Governor’s Office in 2011. Brown, responding to the prison reduction order, argued that local authorities were better positioned to deal with alleviating the overcrowding crisis. But his critics, including law-and-order Republicans and some in law enforcement, asserted the changes would lead to a spike in crime.

PPIC makes no wholesale claims about the efficacy of the program. However, it provides a snapshot of its early effects as new reforms continue to take hold, including November’s successful Proposition 47 that changed most nonviolent property and drug crimes to misdemeanors from felonies.

“Realignment has largely been successful, but the state and county correctional systems face significant challenges,” wrote Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin, the authors of the study. “The state needs to regain control of prison medical care, which is now in the hands of a federal receiver. And the state and counties together must make progress in reducing stubbornly high recidivism rates.”

The report found no dramatic change in recidivism rates. There also was no evidence that realignment has increased violent crime in California.

The lone area where crime increased was in auto thefts. Researchers estimate that the overhaul led to car thefts increasing by more than 70 per 100,000 residents. The car theft rate is about 17 percent higher than it would have been without realignment, the report states.

Although the realignment shift drove county jail populations close to historical highs, the program also has changed the profile of those incarcerated. The report found that by early 2014, some 1,761 inmates were serving sentences of more than five years, up from 1,155 in 2013.

Still, while county jail populations increased since 2011, the growth was far smaller than the prison population drop.

Researchers suggest various alternative crime-prevention strategies such as boosting policing, behavioral therapy and targeted intervention for high-risk youths.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago