Policy group links increased auto thefts to prison inmate shifts

SACRAMENTO -- A policy group says it has found "robust evidence" that increased property crimes in California, and auto thefts in particular, are tied to the state's shifted prison population.

The conclusion is contained in a report published Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, attempting to measure the effects of a 2011 law that made parole violators and nonviolent felons wards of counties instead of state prisons. Designed to reduce crowding and costs in the state's prison system, it also exacerbated overcrowding in county jails, and led to increases in the number of jail inmates released early or sentenced to community programs.

"Realignment markedly decreased the overall reliance on incarceration in California," the report's authors remark, noting the state prison count dropped by 27,000, but only 9,000 added offenders showed up in jails.

They used a statistical analysis to show that where that felon count dropped the most, property crimes rose the most. They found an increase of roughly two crimes for each missing felon. A little more than half those new crimes were auto thefts.

Property crimes in California increased 7.6% in 2012, and auto thefts rose more than 14%. The authors note that auto thefts in the last part of 2012 were 20% higher than the same period in 2010, and that the rise began in October 2011, the same month realignment went into effect. They found no such correlation with violent crimes.

However, the report comes with caveats. It examines only one year of new crime data -- monthly reports collected by the state Department of Justice. It also includes no insight into who is committing those new crimes, or why auto thefts in particular have increased.

The authors also point out their data shows a diminishing return in counties as incarceration rates increase and costs rise, suggesting it might be more effective to spend that money on policing instead.

California's prison population remains some 8,000 inmates over what federal judges have said they will allow. The state currently is in negotiations with lawyers representing inmates in two class-action lawsuits over further steps it can take to meet those population caps.