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Did California's Jail Reforms Cause an Uptick in Crime?

After voters eased penalties for several common crimes, opponents claim the reforms have led to a crime wave.

It’s been more than a year since California voters overwhelmingly decided to scale back penalties for several common crimes through Proposition 47. But debate over the new law has only grown more heated.

The biggest controversy is whether Proposition 47 caused a crime wave in California. Opponents say the law’s sweeping changes -- including making misdemeanors out of crimes that were once felonies, including drug possession, theft and kiting checks -- have made it much harder for police and prosecutors to go after repeat offenders. “Reformers say everyone needs a second chance, but the tragedy is that public safety has suffered as crime rates have soared,” Marc Debbaudt, the president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “Residents have become victims under the guise of reforming punishment for so-called victimless drug offenses.”

Proposition 47 proponents question whether the surge in crime is really as widespread as their adversaries say, and they dispute the notion that Proposition 47 is responsible for the upticks that communities are seeing. Preliminary data show, for example, increases in both violent crime and property crime in the last year in the area served by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. But the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department reported lower crime rates at the same time. Reports of higher crime rates are hardly unique to California. Baltimore, Milwaukee, New Orleans, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., for example, all grappled with more murders in the last year, but none of those places had seen any criminal law changes akin to Proposition 47.

In fact, Proposition 47 is the latest of many steps California has taken to reduce its jail and prison populations -- the state is, after all, under a federal court order to end overcrowding in its prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union of California notes that the decrease in California inmates was bigger in 2000 and in 2010 than it was in 2015. “Proposition 47 is the latest focus of the sky-is-falling rhetoric of an impending crime wave,” the group wrote in a November report. “The fact is that it’s way too early to assess 2015 crime rates in California at all, let alone potential causes.”

What is clear, though, is that Proposition 47 made big changes -- and fast -- to the criminal justice system. Everyone from ex-cons to sheriffs to mental health providers is still getting adjusted to the new reality. The law does seem to make it more difficult to crack down on repeat offenders, because they’re released more frequently and will never serve more than a year in jail as long as they keep committing the same crime. The new measure reduces the number of prisoners who must submit DNA samples to the state: California only collects genetic information from felony suspects, not offenders accused of committing misdemeanors. The downgrades also make it easier for unauthorized immigrants who commit crimes to escape deportation.

Another huge worry is that inmates are starting to shun drug courts. In Los Angeles County, for example, enrollment is down by 60 percent. Why would inmates undergo a treatment program that can last two years, when their maximum jail sentence for drug possession is six months?

But part of the promise of Proposition 47 is that California will better spend the money it’s saving from housing fewer inmates -- the state’s prison population declined by 7,700 inmates in its first nine months. State officials will calculate their savings next year, and direct any money toward mental health, anti-truancy efforts, victim services and drug abuse treatment.

In other words, it will take a long time before Proposition 47’s full impact can be felt. But don’t expect advocates on either side to give up the fight in the meantime.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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