SAN FRANCISCO —Proposition 47, the state measure that reduced penalties for some property and drug crimes, did not lead to a rise in violent crime. However, larcenies did go up—driven by an increase in thefts from motor vehicles. Proposition 47 also helped reduce the state’s stubbornly high recidivism rates, but this is due in part to changes in law enforcement and prosecutorial practices.
These are the key findings of a new report, The Impact of Proposition 47 on Crime and Recidivism, released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
Passed by voters in 2014, Proposition 47 continued the state’s efforts to reduce incarceration. By the end of 2016, California’s prison and jail populations had dropped by more than 15,000 inmates, and the incarceration rate is now at levels not seen since the early 1990s.
While there was an uptick in the violent crime rate from 2014 to 2016, the report finds that this trend appears to have started before November 2014 and is due largely to unrelated changes in crime reporting. Regarding property crimes, Proposition 47 had no apparent impact on burglaries or auto thefts, but it did contribute to an increase in larcenies—such as theft from motor vehicles and shoplifting—which increased by roughly 9 percent, or about 135 more thefts per 100,000 residents. Thefts from motor vehicles account for about three-quarters of this increase.
“The increases in some property crimes associated with Proposition 47 highlight the need to identify and implement alternative, cost-effective crime-prevention strategies,” said Magnus Lofstrom, report co-author and PPIC senior fellow.
A goal of Proposition 47 was to lower the state’s high recidivism rates. The report finds that the measure did lead to lower recidivism rates among lower-level offenders, reducing their rearrest and reconviction rates by 1.8 and 3.1 percentage points, respectively, compared to similar offenders before the reform.
The report draws on statewide crime and arrest data provided by the California Department of Justice, as well as criminal justice data collected through the BSCC–PPIC Multi-County Study, a collaborative effort among the California Board of State and Community Corrections, PPIC, and a group of 12 California counties.
California’s crime rates remain historically low. While violent crime rates increased by about 13 percent after Proposition 47, this trend appears to have preceded the reform—and was sparked by changes in crime reporting by the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
The FBI widened its definition of sexual crimes in 2014, which added about eight more violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Accounting for this change reduces the 2014–16 increase in the violent crime rate from 13 to 10.7 percent. That same year, the LAPD reformed its crime reporting after revelations that it had underreported violent crimes. When PPIC researchers examined statewide trends without LAPD statistics, the increase in violent crime drops to 6.4 percent. When authors accounted for both the FBI’s expanded definition of sexual crimes and the LAPD’s revised crime reporting, the 2014–16 increase drops to 4.7 percent.
To determine whether Proposition 47 affected crime rates, the report compares crime rates in California to those of states that historically have had very similar crime trends. The increase in California’s violent crime rate was less than that of comparison states. The 9 percent rise in larcenies, however, contrasts with the decline in comparison states.
Overall, jail bookings in the 12 counties studied decreased from almost 60,000 in October 2014 to 55,400 one year later—a decline of about 8 percent. Bookings declined among all racial/ethnic groups, but declines were relatively larger for whites and Latinos than for African Americans.
The overall decline was driven by a reduction in bookings for Proposition 47 drug and property offenses, which include check forgery, drug possession, receiving stolen property, and theft. Bookings for these offenses dropped by about 38 percent, from roughly 14,600 in October 2014 to 9,100 in October 2015.
“Proposition 47 was a further step in prioritizing prison and jail space—one of the most costly correctional interventions—for higher-level offenders in California,” said Mia Bird, PPIC fellow and report co-author. Additional co-authors include PPIC research associates Brandon Martin and Viet Nguyen, and UC Berkeley professor Steven Raphael.
The two-year reconviction rate for individuals released under Proposition 47 was 46 percent—or 3.1 percentage points lower than their pre-reform counterparts. The two-year rearrest rate also declined, from 72.6 percent to 70.8 percent. Although recidivism rates dropped, it is not clear to what extent this is driven by reduced reoffending, or by reductions in arrests and prosecutions by law enforcement and district attorneys.
Proposition 47 also called for redirecting savings from reduced prison incarceration to treatment interventions. But the allocation of that money has only recently begun, so the initiative’s full impact on treatment and recidivism is still unknown.
The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.