California’s prison population have reached the crisis stage of overcrowding — with some prisons at 300 percent capacity — the state in 2011 began to parole thousands of inmates to their original counties. Within 15 months, more than 27,500 inmates had been “realigned” from state prisons to county jails or to parole in what was called “an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history.” This led to the understandable fear that suddenly returning thousands of convicts to the streets would cause a spike in crime.
Two detailed studies that examined crime in California, including one released last week by the journal of the American Society of Criminology, found that when considering the patterns of crime nationally and in California between 2010 and 2014, there was little or no deviation in the crime rate after the mass prisoner release.
The new study, “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous?” by criminology professors Jody Sundt, Emily J. Salisbury and Mark G. Harmon, found that auto theft did rise somewhat in 2012 and 2013, but by 2014 it had fallen back to the norm.
“An astounding 17 percent reduction in the size of the California prison population,” Sundt’s study concluded, “had no effect on aggregate rates of violent or property crime.” The study said that California’s initial, full-throated embrace of incarceration as a means to fight crime, such as the notorious “Three Strikes” law, “may affect crime, but it does so at a high social, human and economic cost and is far less cost-effective than alternatives. Moreover, there is now evidence that prison populations can be safely reduced without harming the public.”
“Mass incarceration” has become one of the key topics in the ongoing dispute about justice reform in America. The U.S. has more inmates per capita than any other country. We have more jails than colleges. And California took its drastic steps only after ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. But since the initial realignment, California voters also approved Proposition 47, which reclassified many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, further lightening the load on the state prison system. The fact that these studies are not finding a severe, or any, impact on crime after a mass release of prisoners adds a significant piece to the conversation about how America handles incarceration.
Read in full the new study