A Jump in California Crime Rates May Blow It for National Prison Reform

An untimely rise in violent crime, burglaries, auto theft and larceny is pitting victims’ rights groups against social justice campaigners.
California's crime rate has gone up, and there’s a heated national debate over the causes. (Photo: Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images)
Jan 28, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

During an investigation in early January 2013, California Highway Patrol officers tracked a stolen car to a home in Southeast Fresno. Investigators found not just the tools of thieves, but stolen property and drugs, officers said. The CHP arrested two gang members. One man was on probation, having recently been released from state prison as a result of overcrowding.

The alleged criminality of these men is part of what’s fueling a renewed debate in California—and nationally—over the state’s prison reform. Under a court mandated “realignment” plan, California has been shifting thousand of inmates convicted of “non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenses” to county jails instead of state prisons. Once there, oftentimes the prisoners are released early because of overcrowding.

Now, new statistics show crime has ticked up in California since realignment began in October 2011, and that has victims’ rights advocates around the country crying foul.

Groups such as the Crime Victims Action Alliance want the state to reverse course, while some researchers argue there’s no connection between the increase in crime and realignment. The outcome of the debate could have serious repercussions for the national prison reform movement.

Property crime was down nationally in 2011, but California saw a year-over-year increase of 4.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, the first increase since 2004, according to the Wall Street Journal. That rise occurred within the period immediately after realignment started. In the preceding nine months, the rate for property crime, which includes burglary, auto theft and larceny, was down 2.4 percent.

Moreover, a new report by the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ), a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank based in San Francisco, shows that violent and property crime rates rose in 40 of California’s 69 cities with populations of 100,000 or more in the first half of 2012 compared to the first half of 2011—the biggest crime increase in 20 years.

“Knee-jerk reactions are very common, especially when there’s any kind of liberalization policy. We’ve got to avoid emotional reactions.”

Even though the crime rate remains at historic lows, victims’ rights advocates are all but shouting, “I told you so.”

Crime would go up as a result of realignment “was what we kept telling everyone who would listen to us and, lo and behold, this is what we’re seeing,” Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Action Alliance, a victims’ rights group, tells TakePart.

Ward wants the state to reverse its attempt to decrease its swollen prison population, which it’s been court-mandated to bring to 137.5 percent of capacity. “We’re certainly hopeful that in the coming year, we’ll see some strong legislation to roll back some of the provisions of A.B. 109 [the realignment legation],” she says.

Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice Research Fellow Mike Males, who wrote the CJCJ’s report on the crime increase, says there’s no connection between the geographic areas where crime is going up and where the realignment offenders are being sent. He notes the counties with the largest proportions of realigned offenders and parolees showed smaller increases in violent and property crimes than did counties with smaller proportions of realigned offenders.

“There’s really no pattern here to suggest realignment is the cause,” he tells TakePart. “The increase in crime must be connected to factors other than realignment.”

Males says California’s effort to reduce its prison population, while not unique, is important in the national debate because of the scale. “Other states are also reducing their populations for similar reasons,” he says. “We’re worried about emotional, anecdotal and agenda driven kinds of responses to this.”

He urged lawmakers to take a calm approach when looking for what could be the cause of what’s, in his estimation, “really a tiny uptick.”

Knee-jerk reactions are very common, especially when there’s any kind of liberalization policy,” Males says. “We’ve got to avoid emotional reactions. California crime rates are at historic lows.”

Do you think the U.S. should be looking for ways to reduce prison populations or should the country try to find ways to keep inmates incarcerated longer? Explain yourself in COMMENTS.