The data on crime, recidivism, and jail capacity

150 150 Sharon Aungst

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Researchers who have reviewed the data regarding realignment agree that it is too early to tell if realignment will be successful (or not) and whether crime will increase (or not) as a result of realignment. A September 2012 report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Crime Trends in California states that “California’s crime rate has been declining since 1980 and is now below the national rate. Crime rates vary dramatically across the state and by category. After substantial increases between 1960 and 1992, violent crime has declined.  Property crime is at its lowest level since 1960. As violent crime continues to decline, property crime may be on the rise.” (Data Source:   The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report 1960–2001 and 2002–2011 county level crime data from the Attorney General’s Division of California Justice Information Services.)

Crime rates vary significantly across counties and month to month and are affected by a number of factors, from the economy and unemployment rate to family life. Determining the effect of AB 109 on crime rates will be very difficult. Counties may see an increase or decrease in crime but should be cautious about interpreting this as AB 109 success or failure. If the crime rate spikes or valleys in one month, should we make wholesale changes to local policies only to see crime rates go in the reverse direction the following month and have to make yet another course correction?  We have to evaluate all of our policies over the long term. A good example of this is recidivism rates. An organization could decide that if an offender stays out of prison or jail for a week, then they did not recidivate so whatever they are doing must be a success. We know that the minimum time period for evaluating recidivism is three years so it is important to know how systems are defining and measuring their results to know if something is really working (or not).

We know that what we were doing wasn’t working. For decades too many people coming out of our state prisons were no better off, and in some cases worse off, than they were when they went to prison. In fact, an average of two out of three people coming out of prison were re-arrested within a few years. Click here for CDCR’s 2011 outcomes report that reviews recidivism rates for inmates released from 2002 to 2009.  Click here for CDCR’s 2010 outcomes report.  

State prisons have not succeeded in reducing repeat offense rates and this has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.  We can reduce criminal behavior by implementing programs based on research that shows what works and what doesn’t. We know that incarceration by itself only incapacitates a person for the length of their sentence, but most offenders eventually leave prison or jail.  If we value public safety we should provide offenders with the treatment and supervision that we know works.  The only other alternatives are to incarcerate all offenders for life or release them and hope for the best.    

Sentencing and Supervision of Offenders

Reductions in the state prison population are primarily due to new non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders (nons) being sentenced to county jail instead of state prison. Serious, violent, and sexual offenders are sentenced to prison and the “nons” are sentenced to county jail. There are 59 crimes that fall into the “nons” category that were specifically excluded so these offenders will serve their sentence in prison versus county jails.  You can review this list here.  

AB 109 also changed who supervises offenders released from prison – which did not affect prison population. Offenders who were sentenced to prison for “nons” type offenses are released on Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS) and are supervised by county probation instead of state parole. Despite the headlines proclaiming that inmates are being released from prison early, these inmates have served their entire term and instead of being released to state parole they are being released to post-release community supervision (PRCS) and supervised by probation.  

It is true that many “nons” have criminal histories that include more serious offenses. This has not changed as a result of AB 109. These offenders were living in our communities under state parole supervision before AB 109. Now these offenders are supervised by probation instead of parole.  

Jail Capacity Challenges

Jails are indeed very challenged. The data cited below is from PPIC’s September 2012 report “Capacity Challenges in California’s Jails”.  (Data Sources:  California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Jail Profile Survey, January 2007–December 2011 and September 2010–December 2011.)  Many jails already faced capacity problems before realignment began. In the year prior to AB 109, 17 counties were operating under court ordered caps, the statewide rated jail capacity was 75,987 beds and the average daily population was 71,060. Although it would appear that counties had plenty of bed capacity, county capacity varied significantly by county. As a result some released both pretrial and sentenced inmates early. For example, LA County reported monthly average releases of about 1,600 sentenced offenders and 300 pretrial defendants. The data shows that realignment may have increased the average daily population of jails by around 4,000 inmates.  

Counties have several options for managing capacity constraints. The first is to build more jail space – over half of counties plan to do just that. For some counties, even this extra capacity won’t eliminate future overcrowding issues. The costs associated with adding jail beds is significant in that jail construction itself is only 10 percent of the cost over its lifetime – 90 percent is operational costs which could create major problems for financially strapped counties. Counties can implement alternatives to incarceration, including electronic monitoring, substance abuse treatment and work release programs. Another option, which is the subject of the Partnership’s latest report, is to release low-risk pretrial defendants based on a risk and need assessment instrument.  The report discusses national standards and programs, the importance of data, and reviews 5 CA counties pretrial programs and their results.  

Counties’ jails faced serious capacity constraints even before realignment began and it appears realignment will add even more pressure forcing counties to make some difficult choices.  We would argue that this is the most important time for counties to look at their entire criminal justice system, how each part of the system creates pressures for the jail, and the best alternatives for their county based on their own data and the evidence of what works.  We recommend that counties also bring in experts to conduct a complete analysis of their jail population and trends.  Knowing who is being incarcerated, their status (pretrial, presentence, sentenced), who (and how and why) inmates are released, and projections based on these trends will provide counties with the data necessary to choose strategies that are most likely to work.  Hastily investing in alternatives that are not based on the data or the evidence of what works, can delay progress, waste significant dollars, and reduce flexibility.  Many of the alternatives counties can choose are inexpensive and can be easily modified if needed. 


Had the State begun considering ways to reduce the prison population years ago, based on the evidence, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But we can’t revise history – we can only learn from our mistakes and make better use of the data and evidence base moving forward.

One of the most important things we can learn from all of this is that full participation of all Californians in our government is critical. We must all take responsibility for getting the facts, making choices about what is most important to our families and our communities, and then actively participating in achieving the results we want.  


Sharon Aungst

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