Crime and punishment in California

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After decades of prison planning work in California and across the country, I’ve seen two prevailing assumptions about crime and punishment finally begin to crack amid years of real-world testing.

The first is that prisons are the primary way to reduce crime. The second is that law enforcement will not support changes that reduce incarceration. Both of these changing perceptions are converging now in California, just when the state must make major changes to protect its public safety and fiscal security.

First, some context. California has been experiencing its lowest crime rates since 1960, according to the latest statewide data (from 2011). This drop is partly due to demographics (an aging population) and other external factors, but improvements in policing procedures and better coordination among law enforcement agencies also play a critical role.


In 1960, California’s prison population was less than 22,000. If you applied that year’s incarceration rate to today’s crime rate and total population, the state would have only 52,000 prisoners, well under the current state prison population of about 130,000. This dramatic rise is because the state, over the decades, dramatically increased the number of people it sent to prison and the length of their imprisonment.

However, a growing body of science shows that prison-only approaches may feel good initially — and be safe politically — but an overreliance on incarceration ultimately can make things worse. In other words, there is limited scientific evidence that prison reduces crime, or that longer prison terms reduce recidivism or crime rates.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s data show that people serving one, two or three years have the same recidivism rates. We also know that the vast majority of people arrested in California are not recently released prisoners. Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey have significantly reduced their prison populations and continued to lower their crime rates.

That’s good news for California because in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must reduce its badly crowded prison population. The legislative result was public safety realignment, which moved responsibility for people convicted of nonviolent, non-sex, non-serious crimes from state prisons and parole to county jails and probation officers.

More than a year into this landmark approach, some counties are seeing previous or new programs (alternatives to incarceration) bear fruit, but many are also struggling with overcrowding and added costs. This has forced some sheriffs to release people they otherwise would send to jail or state prison.

Making matters worse, the state will not be able to meet the federal deadline and may have to reduce the number of people in state prisons by as many as 15,000 more by the end of 2013. To confront this challenge, a federal panel of judges asked me to work with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a plan that will safely reduce the prison population without jeopardizing the low crime rate.


It can be done, but the real task will be the politics, not the science, of reducing a huge, expensive prison population. Fortunately, some leaders in law enforcement are stepping forward to help policymakers make necessary changes.

Take, for example, the role they played in the recent passage of Proposition 36. Voters — by a 2-1 margin — passed the initiative, which revises the state’s 1994 three-strikes law so that only violent felonies will count as a third strike that would lock someone up for 25 years to life. According to election-night polling by Californians for Safety and Justice, voters wanted to reform three strikes for a variety of reasons, including its excessive sentences for petty crimes and to reserve prison space for more dangerous crimes.

However, 7 in 10 voters supported the change because of its fiscal impact. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts that the adjustment made by Proposition 36 will save more than $100 million a year. The percentage of California’s general fund dedicated to corrections has risen, from 2.9% in 1981 to 10.5% last year.

But attempts to reform the three-strikes law and other justice policies have used fiscal argument before — unsuccessfully. I believe the key to Proposition 36’s success was support from district attorneys in L.A., San Francisco and San Jose, as well as police leaders like LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. They are on the front lines of law enforcement, and their perspectives carry great weight with voters.

We have more work to do. Reducing the justice system’s costs without compromising public safety starts with the acknowledgment that the state has for too long punished people beyond its means, and too often those punishments did not fit the crime, or ultimately improve public safety. Fortunately, there are models in practice that counties can implement or expand for immediate impact.

San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Cruz are among many counties using split sentences — the person spends part of the time on supervised probation and the rest incarcerated — to ensure their jail populations do not increase post-realignment. Contra Costa County has shortened probation terms (18 months or less versus three- to five-year terms), which has produced significantly lower recidivism rates and probation caseloads.


The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has launched a comprehensive rehabilitation program to reduce jail violence and recidivism, and soon will begin a pilot pretrial program that monitors low-risk offenders in the community as they await trial, instead of having them sit in crowded jails.

These approaches and others show that we can safely reduce jail and prison populations, but only if brave policymakers and leaders in law enforcement continue to test the faltering assumptions that prison is the first or only answer to crime, and that law enforcement is not open to change.

James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, is a former executive with the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University.