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San Diego Jail Populations Dropped During the Pandemic

But researchers found plummeting inmate totals had no consistent impact on violent or property crime. Local police leaders have pushed back against the findings.

The San Diego Central Jail.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
In spring of 2020, California conducted an experiment.

The COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and jails — with their close confines and questionable sanitary conditions — were seen as potentially lethal breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus.

At the urging of criminal justice advocates and defense lawyers, county officials began releasing some inmates early and refusing to book people for some crimes. Then state judicial officials ordered that bail be set at zero for nearly all misdemeanor crimes and some felonies.

The result? Fewer arrestees were sent to jail, and inmate populations plummeted. In the year before the emergency bail schedule was implemented, average daily population rates hovered around 5,600. In the year after bail rules changed, jail populations fell to about 3,900.

Criminologists saw a rare opportunity.

Over the last decade, the state has implemented several controversial reform measures intended, in part, to help reduce the state's massive jail and prison population. These efforts continue to be met with resistance, and some critics claim that as inmate populations have fallen, crime has climbed.

But in the wake of the state's pandemic-era bail orders, jail populations fell "more severely and abruptly than any of the state's... reforms," researchers at the University of Irvine and the University of Arizona noted. So how did crime fare under this period of concentrated decarceration?

Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at UC Irvine, and Bradley Bartos, an assistance professor at Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy, devised a study that focused on six California counties with jail populations of more than 1,000 that saw inmate totals fall by about 30 percent in the year after the state's pandemic-era bail rules went into effect.

The results were mixed, but the researchers found plummeting inmate totals had no consistent impact on violent or property crime.

Kubrin said the findings aren't meant to suggest sudden decarceration had no impact on crime. In several counties, jail population declines were linked to crime increases, and in one county, reduced inmate totals may have caused crime to go down.

But in the rest — including San Diego — the analysis concluded some factor other than a decline in jail population fueled crime increases or decreases. Locally, for example, San Diego saw both violent crime and property crime increase in the wake of bail changes, but the study found those changes likely weren't linked to plummeting inmate totals.

"I think the narrative that we were hearing is decarceration goes hand-in-hand with crime," Kubrin said. "Well, we find no consistent relationship."

Some police leaders pushed back against the findings, saying, in part, that crime statistics during the pandemic were seriously distorted. Jared Wilson, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, argued that a confluence of factors including staffing struggles fueled by COVID-19 cases among officers, a shift in proactive policing due to political pressures, and a drastic change in the public's behavior likely had impacts on crime figures in 2020.

"It's just not a suitable comparison period," Wilson said.

County law enforcement leaders have often argued that criminal reforms like Proposition 47, which re-categorized some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors, have fueled crime increases by reducing penalties — an especially problematic strategy when it comes to repeat offenders.

"Since 2011, we've seen less accountability for breaking the law in California," Wilson said. "Our criminal justice system has become a revolving door."

Others argue those assertions aren't supported by the research. Several studies have found that the state's criminal reform measures did not impact violent crime and had only marginal impacts on property crime.

It's a finding echoed in the recent study out of UC Irvine and the University of Arizona.

Their research focused on six counties — Orange, Sonoma, San Mateo, San Francisco, Contra Costa and San Diego. These were the regions that saw the biggest "dose" of decarceration, Charis said.

The analysis then compared those counties to a synthetic version of themselves — one that didn't experience as much of a decrease in jail population — that was pieced together from other counties across the state that didn't see inmate totals fall as much, but that did have very similar crime trends as the counties being studied.

The researchers then compared crime trends in the county being analyzed with the synthetic version of itself, and if the trends aligned, it indicated that decarceration did not have an impact on crime.

Some counties did see crime increases that the analysis attributed to plummeting jail populations. Sonoma County saw violent and property crime increases associated with decarceration. And Orange and San Mateo counties saw property crime increases as a result of jail population decreases.

One county, San Francisco, saw violent crime decrease as a result of its declining jail population, the study showed.

Other counties — like San Diego — saw crime increases and decreases in the year after inmate totals fell, but the analysis determined decarceration didn't fuel those trends.

"Although it remains unclear what specific factors are behind crime increases in California (and beyond), our findings suggest they do not appear to be driven by (jail) downsizing measures implemented in the wake of COVID-19," the study read.

The analysis had its limitations. Ideally, researchers would have been able to use data from counties that experienced no jail reductions as a basis for their comparison model, but all California counties were ordered to comply with the new rules.

Even so, researchers say the findings add to growing evidence that criminal reform measures can reduce the number of those behind bars without negatively impacting public safety.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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