Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews Justice Reform

Op Ed: The Myth That Crime Rises as Prisons Shrink

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

California’s dramatic reduction in its prison populations hasn’t compromised public safety

By Charis E. Kubrin and Bradley J. Bartos

Speaking on the subject of downsizing prison populations recently, criminologist Joan Petersilia distinguished between symbolic speechmaking, which is easy, and actual reform, which she called “about as easy as bending granite.” Yet in recent years, actual reform may be the best way to characterize many of the changes that have occurred in America’s criminal justice system.

California has been at the epicenter of these changes. In just a few years, the state has passed a series of legislative bills and ballot measures intended to reduce its massive prison population. One of them was Proposition 47, otherwise known as the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative.

Approved by the voters in 2014, Prop 47 was controversial from the start. It downgraded the lowest-level non-violent drug and petty-theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Critics warned that the measure would embolden would-be criminals as felony arrests throughout the state plummeted. After Prop 47 went into effect in 2014, lowering prison populations by 13,000, that controversy only escalated. Soon law-enforcement officials were calling for the measure to be repealed. They blamed rising crime rates on Prop 47.

But the science doesn’t support the assertion that Prop 47 is to blame. We recently published a study that was the first effort to systematically evaluate Prop 47’s impact on crime in California.

Our research found that the proposition had no appreciable impact on crime in the year following its enactment. Specifically, it had no effect on rates of homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery or burglary. Larceny and motor-vehicle thefts did seem to have increased moderately after Prop 47 went into effect, but these results were both sensitive to small changes in our modeling and small enough that we cannot rule out spuriousness.

[Editor’s note:  Kubrin and Bartos’ UC Irvine study, released this spring, was followed a few months later, by another study, in June,  from the Public Policy Institute of California, which arrived at similar conclusions.]

Examining the results of public policies like Prop 47 is difficult because we don’t know what crime rates in California would look like had the policy not been enacted. We solved that problem by using a novel method that allows us to compare crime in California to a statistical amalgamation of other states, which we called “Synthetic California” — states that, combined, had near-identical crime rates to California’s in the decades leading up to Prop 47 but that did not enact Prop 47-style policies themselves.

Still unknown is whether Prop 47’s effects are permanent, temporary, accruing or delaying, and our statewide analysis is unable to tease out which counties or cities may depart from our overall findings. But what’s clear so far is that Prop 47 has not compromised public safety, even as it continues to lower California’s prison population and has saved the state more than $110 million in prison-related costs since 2016.

The steps taken in California are being closely watched by other states confronting their own challenges arising from prison overcrowding. These states are waiting to see whether California’s large-scale prison-downsizing efforts will compromise public safety or whether they can look to reforms such as Prop 47 as a possible solution to replicate.

And there will be more to watch. Just last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation making California the first state to eliminate cash bail for defendants awaiting trial. The measure’s impact on jail populations around the state remains to be seen, but its impact on crime rates will certainly be tracked and analyzed in the years to come. With that kind of careful empirical analysis — rather than alarmist rhetoric — we can refine California’s decarceration blueprint and provide better guidance to the rest of the nation.


Charis E. Kubrin is a professor of Criminology, Law and Society in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, ckubrin@uci.edu, @cekubrin,

Bradley J. Bartos is a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, bbartos@uci.edu, @B_Bartos

This commentary was first published at Governing Magazine.

5 Comments

  • The benefit of the Kubrin/Bartos review is simply that the effects of one part of prison reform is being looked at by non politicians. Using only the first year stats is curious & is likely not reflective of present conditions. Also the shift of prisoners to local counties, most being overcrowded, seems unaccounted for. As for the State Prison’s $110 million is savings, press reports seem to say that is an accounting fiction.
    In my opinion the passage of major reform should require an agreed upon objective measure of effects. This is where academia could be very constructive in building objective measures that collect data day one. As it is, the scramble for data comes after the fact, definitely a moving target & laced with partisanship & other intervening variables.
    If I’m another jurisdiction I wouldn’t necessarily tie my tail to that kite without looking at the clouds.

    • Thanks for the comment and I wholeheartedly agree with you that evaluation of such important policies should be a standard part of the process. We only used data from 2015 because at the time we began the analysis, that was the only data available. It took a couple of years to collect all the data we used, run the analyses, write up the findings, and publish them in a leading journal in the field. This is definitely a slower timeline than one would want but to do things right, that was necessary. As we say at the end of the paper, of course additional research is needed to determine whether our findings are permanent, temporary, accruing or decaying. I do hope someone else publishes research to answer this question. In the meantime, the Public Policy Institute of California recently released their findings related to Prop 47’s impact on crime and recidivism and they track ours very closely. See their report here: http://www.ppic.org/publication/the-impact-of-proposition-47-on-crime-and-recidivism/.

  • Professor Kubrin, thanks for your efforts to apply science to public policy. While I feel that the impact of Prop 47 is not nearly as benign as is being presented or thought, I’d like you to consider building a model/template that could serve as a required attachment to legislated justice revision. Presently, civic leaders can take almost any position on revisions without fear of objective scrutiny of their statements. Governmental management is not an exact science, managing for effect being a big piece, yet solid data/facts should be part of formula.
    As an aside, I can attest that petty crime, largely going unreported, has made a noticeable increase in my South Orange County neighborhood. Prop 47 has had the effect, regardless of its various intents, of removing much of the consequence to common crime. This in turn has street policing informally dealing with such crime, as formal effort is seen as ineffective. This, in turn, drops actual crime occurrence off the radar. As I have said in the past, “steal my Rolex”, I don’t actually have one, “go to prison, steal my gardener’s tools, his livelihood, there will be little to no consequence.”

  • The whole prison overcrowding issue is a direct result of prior politicians failure to plan for the future, as is the water crisis. The population in the state of California has grown exponentially. The water system, much like the prison system has not grown in comparison. The water system in the state of California dates back to the 1930’s and 1940’s and is in much need of renovation. The prison system is also in the same state of disrepair. Instead of adding to the number of beds in the prison system, politicians who have approved new prisons and jails have instead closed older prisons and jails, thus not increasing the number of beds.

    There will always be a certain percentage of the population who will not conform to society’s rule of law. Therefore there will always be a need for prisons and jails. Politicians failure to plan for the future is to blame for prison and jail overcrowding issues. Prop 47, prop 57 and AB-109 already has and will, without a doubt lead to more crime in the State of California. Politicians and liberals will get exactly what they have asked for and created. The criminal Justice system in California is swinging way to the left and will not be corrected until the silent Majority gets tired of being victimized.

  • What a delight to see reasoned discussion on this site.

    BTW, Mr Gibbons is right on point regarding the lack of planning on two of the most pressing issues in this state’s past, present and future. And how often do you hear anyone running for office say a darn word about planning ahead on these and other important issues (like traffic – and forget mass-transit as the panacea, this ain’t the east coast).

    Quality of life issues in this state goes far beyond plastic bags, freedom to urinate in any damn restroom you feel like and straws being served in restaurants.

Leave a Comment