As national imprisonment rates continue to fall, so too does crime, according to data collected by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Between 2010 and 2015, the national imprisonment rate declined 8.4 percent while property and violent crime rates fell a combined 14.6 percent. During this time period, 31 states saw reductions in both crime and imprisonment. This includes California, which experienced a sharp 25.2 percent reduction in imprisonment rates along with a 1.1 percent reduction in property and violent crime rates.
“The lack of a consistent relationship between the crime and imprisonment trends reinforces the findings of the National Research Council and others that the imprisonment rate in many states and the nation as a whole has long since passed the point of diminishing public safety returns,” Pew’s fact sheet on the data explains.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States closed out 2015 with the lowest prison population since 2005, with just over 1.5 million prisoners. Of those in state prisons, just over half, 53 percent, were serving sentences for violent offenses as of yearend 2014, the last year for which data is available. In federal prisons, nearly half are serving time for drug offenses.
Nationwide, crime remains at historic lows. As Pew notes, even after a significant uptick, the violent crime rate at the end of 2015 remained half of what it was in 1991. The national property crime rate has similarly declined more than 50 percent since 1991.
That California’s experience is in line with that of the rest of the country is significant given the range of reforms the state has pursued in recent years.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court found the state prison system overcrowded and unable to provide for adequate medical and mental health services, and ordered California to reduce its prison population. State lawmakers passed AB109, known as Realignment, to comply with this request, shifting responsibility for non-serious offenders to county jails.
Though crime slightly increased in 2012, there’s no evidence AB109 was particularly responsible for it, and crime then proceeded to fall to all-time lows throughout the state in 2013 and 2014.
In 2012, voters approved Proposition 36, which reformed “three strikes” laws, requiring a life sentence for a “third strike” be reserved for serious crimes. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47. Prop. 47 reduced a handful of offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, contributing to population declines in not only state prison but also county jails.
In 2015, crime increased statewide, both in raw numbers and overall rate. Still, both remain a far cry from what they were in every preceding decade. According to data from the California Department of Justice, the violent crime rate in 2015 stood at 426 per 100,000 people; the number was 439.3 in 2010, 526.9 in 2005.
Similar patterns hold for property offenses in California, which is notable considering nonviolent offenses are what have been most impacted by reforms. In 2015, the property crime rate stood at 2,620.4 per 100,000; it was 2,630.1 in 2010, 3,321 in 2005.
As tempting a solution as incarceration is, we have to keep in mind that incarceration is a costly venture that generally fails to bring long-lasting benefits.
Despite a budget greater than $10 billion, the state’s correction system has generally failed to “correct.”
We’ve experimented enough with mass incarceration for more than enough time to learn that longer-term investments in crime
prevention and rehabilitation are needed.