Recidivism dips

Public policy researchers say they’ve released their most in-depth analysis yet on impact of California justice experiments

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the July 18, 2019 issue.

Eight years after the Golden State implemented sweeping changes to its criminal justice system, a recent study suggested there has been small but measurable progress in one key area for evaluating these experiments: declining recidivism rates.

A decade ago, a panel of federal judges determined that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that they were increasing inmate death rates. Known as the Plata case, the judges ordered state leaders to reduce the prison population or risk a court-mandated mass release. In 2011, California realigned its prison system, shifting thousands of lower-level inmates to county jails rather than state penitentiaries. Then, in 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced certain felonies to misdemeanors.

Evaluating the aftermath of those reforms, the Public Policy Institute of California presented its study in late June to an audience in downtown Sacramento. The study tracked recidivism rates between 2011 and 2015.

“During the last decade, California has radically changed how we manage our offender population,” PPIC director of public affairs Deborah Gonzalez told the audience. “As someone who was working [in] the legislature during [the Plata case], the passage of realignment and the implementation of Prop. 47, I can say that there have always been a lot of bipartisan questions about these changes.”

The study was presented by two of its authors, Mia Bird, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, and Justin Goss, an accounting expert at UCLA. The analysis included data not only from the state prison system, but also from 12 county jails and probation departments, including Sacramento’s, with those counties representing about 60% of the state’s population.

“This is quite a broad look at recidivism,” Bird noted. “It’s quite different than the past reports we’ve done that have taken a narrow population and tried to understand the causal effect of a policy change on that group.”

The new study found a 2% reduction in the overall re-arrest rate, to 66% of inmates released from prison or jail ending up in custody again. The felony re-arrest rate dropped from 56% to 53%. The felony reconviction rate dropped even further, from 30% to 22%. While re-arrests for drug offenses were markedly down, there was a 1% increase in re-arrests for violent crimes.

During the presentation, Bird said the study provided a good foundation to research which state and local approaches were most effective.

“What’s really important is that we need to understand what individuals are receiving in terms of interventions,” she said. “What kinds of programs? What kinds of services? And are they aligned with those criminogenic needs of these individuals?”