By Christopher Zoukis
In November 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47, a ballot initiative which reduced criminal sentences for many comparatively minor drug or property offenses. Proposition 47 was part of a broad-scale revision of California’s criminal law system, which started in 2011 with public safety realignment, the state’s response to a federal court order to reduce overcrowding in state prisons (accomplished by shifting less serious offenders to local jails).
The ballot initiative dropped crimes such as drug possession, theft, shoplifting, check forgery, bad check passing, receiving stolen property, and identity theft from felonies to misdemeanors, thus generally eliminating prison terms and reducing the amount of time, if any, spent in local jails. Advocates of those changes maintained they would help lower mass incarceration and allow more significant emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment programs as alternatives.
A new study, The Impact of Proposition 47 on Crime and Recidivism, released June 12 by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), examined Proposition 47’s impact on crime by reviewing crime statistics after it took effect, and assessing the likely reasons for post-adoption crime trends.
The PPIC report also compared crime trends in the Golden State with those in similar states and concluded the violent crime rate rose less in California than elsewhere, while finding larcenies grew in California while declining in other states.
In 2016, the report found, larcenies increased by approximately 9% from previous levels when stricter penalties were on the books. That rise translated into around 135 more thefts per 100,000 Californians. Of that total increase, approximately 75% came from thefts from motor vehicles. Just in San Francisco alone, auto burglaries climbed by over 30,000 in 2017; local authorities attributed the rise primarily to gang activities.
Although violent crimes also rose about 13% after Proposition 47 took effect, the report did not link the spike to the initiative-caused sentencing reductions, but rather to earlier begun unconnected changes Los Angeles police and the Federal Bureau of Investigations made in the way they categorize offenses.
The FBI had earlier broadened its definition of sexual crimes, and L.A. police boosted its crime reporting system after complaints it had underreported violent offenses. Without those changes, the state’s violent crime rate would have climbed 4.7% between 2014 and 2016.
By examining jail bookings levels in 12 sample counties, the PPIC report found a decline of about 8%, due both to the initiative’s downgrading of many offenses, and adoption or increasing use in some areas of administrative cite-and-release procedures that eliminated jail stays for many offenses. Critics of Proposition 47 claim that it did not eradicate lower-level crimes but just gave local law enforcers incentives not to enforce laws against them.
Recidivism also fell for offenders released after serving time for the offenses downgraded by Proposition 47, with re-arrest rates within two years declining from 72.6% to 70.8%, and re-convictions dropping from 49.1% to 46.0%.
Some legislators and law enforcement officials maintain that Proposition 47 had harmful effects, however, and are working to get on this fall’s ballot the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018” initiative, to revise both it and Proposition 57, a ballot measure from 2016 that liberalized early release of inmates for good behavior.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.