Irish Penal Reform Trust

US: ‘Can we downsize our prisons and jails without compromising public safety?’ Findings from California’s Prop 47

1st May 2019

Proposition 47 (‘Prop 47’) was a referendum passed by voters in the state of California in 2014. It recategorised some nonviolent offences as misdemeanours, rather than felonies, as they had previously been categorized. These offences mainly included shoplifting and drug possession.

Prop 47 also focuses on crime prevention. As state prison and jail population numbers were predicted to fall, it was estimated that state savings would grow by millions and would be reinvested in prevention efforts. Since the enactment of Prop 47 on November 14, 2014, the number of people incarcerated in California’s prisons and jails has decreased by approximately 13,000 inmates, helping alleviate crowding conditions in those institutions.

To date, there has been no systematic analysis of Prop 47’s impact on crime rates throughout the state. However, a 2018 study uses a synthetic control group (using offence frequencies from 1970 through 2015) to evaluate Prop 47’s impact on violent and property crime rates in the year after its implementation.

No evidence was found that the impact of Prop 47 has any impact on the frequency of violent offences. Although initial analysis suggested increases in property offences (such as larceny and motor-vehicle thefts) after Prop 47’s enactment, this does not survive significance and sensitivity testing. Overall, the study finds find very little evidence to suggest that Prop 47 caused crime to increase in California.

Those in favour of Prop 47 believe that punishment is now more commensurate with crime. They also believe that Prop 47 helps California to make smarter use of its criminal justice and incarceration resources by reducing allocation of prison space to low-level, nonviolent offenders, which frees up space for those who commit more serious offences. Prop 47 has also presented the opportunity to decrease custody time for lower level drug and property offenders and, in exchange, increase custody time (where necessary) for more serious offenders who might otherwise have been released too early because of capacity constraints. These changes, proponents suggest, are likely to increase public safety and lower crime rates throughout the state. Prop 47’s reallocation of resources to prevention efforts should also significantly improve public safety in the longer term

(These findings should be interpreted within the context of the study’s potential limitations – read more in the full study.)

The full study is available here.

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