Historic prison reform raises fundamental questions

By Daniel Weintraub

California’s historic experiment in prison reform remains a work in progress, raising new questions about the exact combination of law enforcement, prison time and rehabilitation that will achieve the lowest crime rates.

It’s an explosive issue, because any change of the magnitude California is attempting is likely to impose short-term costs, and those costs might even involve the loss of life. That seems unthinkable. But what if those short-term costs can produce long-term savings, not just in dollars but in lives as well? Then the problem gets trickier.

In case you have not been following this issue closely, here’s a quick recap:

In 2011, led by Gov. Jerry Brown, California shifted responsibility for its least dangerous felons from the state prisons to the counties. The change was prompted by federal court orders requiring the state to reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons. But the policy was also in line with reforms that criminal justice experts – including some very tough law and order types – had been advocating for years.

The idea was to get low-level inmates out of the state prisons, which are widely seen as training grounds for lives of crime, and into local custody. There, proximity to family and friends and a chance for better services, including alcohol and drug addiction counseling, might lead a few more of these inmates to straighten out their lives.

But it wasn’t simply a shift from state to local custody for those inmates. Everyone involved expected the change to result in fewer inmates behind bars overall, and it did.

In the span of two years, the prison population dropped by 27,000 as those state inmates completing their terms were released and new offenders convicted of non-sexual, non-violent and non-serious crimes were kept in county jails rather than sent to state institutions. Parolees who violated the terms of their release, meanwhile, were also kept in local custody rather than sent to the state. As expected, the jail population also grew during that time frame, but by only 9,000.

That means that 18,000 felons who in past years would have been in prison or jail were no longer incarcerated at all.

Opponents of the change warned all along that the new policy would lead to increased crime, and they pounced on any evidence to support their position. First they focused on anecdotes of crimes committed by parolees, even though the inmates in the stories they cited would have been on the streets within weeks or months at the most even under the old system.

More troubling were early reports of a general increase in crime in many parts of the state. Could that uptick be driven by the greater number of ex-cons who were now free? Analysts cautioned at first that the early numbers were not conclusive. But now, with a full year of data to crunch, that analysis is changing.

A recent study by the independent and respected Public Policy Institute of California found that the policy change led directly to a significant increase in vehicle theft. Other property crimes also increased, but by a lesser amount.

The study was not just a simple look at crime rates before and after the policy shift. Researchers examined county by county changes, compared those changes to the incarceration rates in those counties, and then compared them to other states. They found that while California’s crime rates closely tracked a set of comparable states for more than a decade, the property crime rates began to diverge noticeably at the end of 2011, just as the shift was taking effect.

In the end, the researchers concluded that the policy shift – known as realignment – was responsible for an additional 24,000 motor vehicle thefts per year, or an increase of 65 for every 100,000 residents.

If your first reaction is to conclude that this means the policy change has been a failure, wait. That may not be the case. As difficult as it might be, consider this cost-benefit analysis.

It costs the state about $52,000 to keep an inmate in prison for one year. The study found that each year in prison served by one of the inmates targeted by this shift prevents, on average, 1.2 auto thefts. If preventing an auto theft is worth, as one estimate suggests, about $9,500, then each year of prison for one of these inmates would prevent about $11,800 in crime-related costs. In purely fiscal terms, we were spending $52,000 on each inmate to save less than $12,000.

The question to consider is whether it is possible to get a better outcome by smartly spending the money saved by the shift – about $1 billion a year – on something besides prison cells and guards. After all, 70 percent of inmates who leave prison are back behind bars within three years. We must be able to do better than that.

It turns out we probably can. One simple answer is hiring more police. Studies suggest that each police officer hired results in crime reduction worth far more than the cost of that officer’s pay and benefits. Money spent managing parolees and helping them readjust after their inevitable return to society might also pay more dividends than more prison time. Finally, better early childhood education, especially for high-risk kids, might provide the biggest bang for the buck by preventing the whole cycle of crime before it ever begins.

And while the Public Policy Institute study says California’s prison reform has not led to an increase in violent crime, the same logic would apply even if it had. It’s all but inevitable that a few drug offenders or burglars who were not in prison for a couple of months when they otherwise could have been are going to commit a violent crime. But the same thing was true before this change. The only way to prevent that is to put every convicted criminal in prison for life, and that is not going to happen.

These are tough issues. It’s a credit to the our often dysfunctional state government that the reform has gotten this far without politicians running for cover. But even in the face of these difficult statistics, the answer is not to turn back. It’s to work harder to improve the policy so that it, in the long run, it saves money, property and lives.

Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report. Email him at daniel.weintraub@gmail.com

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