Commentary: The Myth That Crime Rises as Prisons Shrink

Governing

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 Soon law-enforcement officials were calling for the measure to be repealed.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.

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