California drastically reduced its prison population, and crime didn't skyrocket the way critics thought it might

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Since 2011, California has taken radical steps to address its prison-overcrowding crisis by enacting a series of laws meant to reduce the state's prison population.

California's plan, the centerpiece of which was the Public Safety Realignment Act in 2011, has been maligned by critics who believed the realignment would cause a spike in crime — or at least not deliver the promised financial savings.

In 2012, a year after the passage of the act, California's state senate Republican caucus wrote that it had proved to be anything but safe.

In 2013, Ronald De Pompa, then the Glendale police chief, called realignment "dangerous public policy," noting that stories of crimes made possible by early inmate release — and concerns related to shifting responsibilities from the state to counties — would "eventually give way to new crime trends and sprees."

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California drastically reduced its prison population, and crime didn't skyrocket the way critics thought it might
Prisoners stand while being processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. They arrive by the busload each Tuesday and Thursday, dozens of new inmates entering Georgiaâs prison system. Most stay only a week or two. But for those sentenced to die, this is their last stop. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Frederick Harris, right, cuts the hair of Josh Harris, no relation, as he is processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. When inmates arrive, their possessions are inventoried. Then they shower and don white jumpsuits. They sit in barber chairs while permanent inmates give them close haircuts, then pose for an ID photo. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A motivational poster hangs on the wall as prisoners stand at attention while being processed for intake at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The prison, the stateâs biggest, houses about 2,100 male inmates on a wooded, 900-acre campus about 50 miles south of Atlanta. A warden and three deputy wardens oversee more than 600 employees. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Prisoner Ricky Wheat looks out from his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Inside the prison itâs loud and busy. Heavy metal gates clank open and shut. Inmates shuffle in single-file lines, guided by just a few guards. Chatter, shouts and the crackling of radios echo with nothing soft in sight to absorb the sound. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A prisoner faces a mural painted by inmates on a cinderblock wall inside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. When visitors approach, inmates in the hallways turn their backs and stand close to the walls. That makes it easy for guards to spot a guy who steps out of line. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Capt. Dwain Williams checks on a prisoner in the the Special Management Unit, known as high-max at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Face-to-face interaction is rare. The cells are only 7 by 13½ feet, and inmates canât see out unless guards slide back a metal cover over the grated opening on the door. Meals slide through an opening like a mail slot. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An inmate looks out of his cell in the the Special Management Unit, known as high-max at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. A select few have glass instead of sliding metal doors as windows because theyâre known to hurt themselves and need extra supervision. Theyâre on the same row as others whose cells are behind a glass partition because they have a history of throwing things, including bodily fluids, from their cells. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
An inmate takes a GED exam at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. While many in high-max wonât ever be free, some will eventually get out. The GED program aims to help a relatively small number of inmates who will eventually get out be better prepared for release. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Sgt. Michael Stovall looks through a set of security gates on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The inmates on death row have been convicted of horrific crimes, but they generally cause few problems according to prison Warden Bruce Chatman. Possibly because many still have appeals pending and donât want to risk jeopardizing a chance, however slim, that their lives could be spared, he said. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Personal items sit on shelves of a prisoner's cell on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The 76 death row inmates live in four âpodsâ of neatly kept single-inmate cells measuring just 6½ by 9 feet and feature a bed, sink, toilet and shelves. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Shoes sit under a prisoner's bed in his cell on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Georgia has executed inmates by injection since October 2001, when the state Supreme Court ruled electrocution violated the stateâs ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A prisoner on death row stands in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. An electric chair that was used in 23 executions, a primitive-looking wooden armchair outfitted with leather straps, now sits unused in a closet off the area where witnesses sit for executions. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A cell sits empty on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Once a judge signs an execution order, the warden meets with the inmate to read him the order, give him a copy and ask if he has any questions. The inmate doesnât return to death row but instead is held in the prisonâs medical area under 24-hour watch by two guards for the roughly two weeks until his execution date. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A calendar hangs inside a prisoner's cell on death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. On the day of the execution, the condemned inmate can receive visitors until about 3 p.m., when heâs given a medical checkup and then brought to a holding cell near the execution chamber around 5 p.m. Heâs given his final meal and has an opportunity to record a final statement. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Sgt. Andrew Archie walks through death row at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. The 76 death row inmates live in four âpodsâ of neatly kept single-inmate cells measuring just 6½ by 9 feet and feature a bed, sink, toilet and shelves. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Prison Warden Bruce Chatman talks with prisoners on death row as they walk in a yard at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. On the unusually warm early December morning, six men were in the yard that includes basketball and volleyball nets. Several took the opportunity to bend the wardenâs ear, asking about a backed-up toilet and people allowed to visit. Another asked: âHey, warden. Can you help us get a basketball? Itâs been over two months.â (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Correctional officers are reflected in a puddle as they stand guard outside a yard for death row inmates at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Inmates are allowed into the common area or into the outside yard in small groups of men who are known to get along. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Deputy Warden of Security Keith Eutsey, left, and Warden Bruce Chatman walk to the execution chamber along rows of barbed wire at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in Jackson, Ga. Death row inmates donât have far to go when their appeals run out. The chamber where lethal injections take place, a small room with a gurney, separated by a large pane of glass from the observation area, is on the grounds. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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It appears much of that fear was ill-founded, according to a new study by three crime professors who examined the effects of California's Realignment Act on crime rates.

The study found that Realignment had little to no effect on crime rates between 2012 and 2014, leading the study authors to conclude that California's effort was "evidence that prison populations can be safely reduced without harming the public," the study said.

The Realignment Act sought to reduce overcrowding by sending parole violators and those convicted of nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual crimes to county jails rather than state prisons. It also established that parole violators could be held only for a maximum of 180 days.

California's prison population peaked in 2007, with 174,000 prisoners, from fewer than 25,000 in the '70s. Nearly 30,000 inmates were "realigned" in the first 15 months of the law's implementation, with many being outright released on parole, according to the study, which was first reported in The Washington Post.

In that same period, the state had saved $453 million.

The original push for realignment came not of the state's own volition but from a court order.

In 2011, the Supreme Court found that the size of California's prison population violated the prisoners' Eighth Amendment right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment because the state had inadequate facilities to properly house them and provide healthcare.

The ruling upheld an order that the state must reduce its prison population to 137.5% of the capacity of the state's facilities. Some prisons in the state held 300% their capacity, and the entire system was at 200% capacity in 2010, according to a paper by Donald Specter, the director of Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public-interest law firm.

In addition to the Realignment Act, California approved Prop 47 in 2014, reducing sentences for many nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual crimes by making them misdemeanors.

One effect of realignment is that the shift in the inmate population from state prisons to county jails means that many inmates end up being released early. Because of the added pressure to house offenders who would have been in prison, jails reaching capacity have had to determine which inmates can be safely released to make room for incoming convicts.

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times in 2014 found that offenders in jails lacking capacity were often serving only fractions of the average sentences for their offenses:

In Fresno County, misdemeanor offenders were sentenced to an average of three months in jail but served 19 days, according to an analysis of jail logs. Drunk drivers got an average of 60 days but served 16.

Some have argued that de facto reductions in penalties for some offenses could put a dent in incarceration's deterrent effect. The director of a woman's shelter told the LA Times that abusers say "go ahead and call the police, because nothing is going to happen to me anyway."

Kern County Sheriff's Lt. Greg Gonzales told the paper that even with ad hoc procedures in place to determine who to release when jails need to make room for new offenders, "every release is a bad release."

But Jody Sundt, Emily J. Salisbury, and Mark G. Harmon's study found that crime was virtually unaffected by the new criminal justice policies.

The study found that realignment had no effect on violent or property crime rates in 2012, 2013, or 2014. The team did note a "moderately large, statistically significant association" between realignment and auto theft rates in 2012, but the rate dropped to pre-realignment rates by 2014.

An earlier study by Magnus Lofstrom and Steven Raphael in 2013 found no evidence that realignment caused an increase in murder or rape rates, but that robbery may have been affected and property crime was likely affected.

The Sundt study specifically addresses these findings, suggesting that the increase in auto theft that Lofstrom and Raphael noted may have simply been attributed the year-to-year instability of that particular crime's incidence.

Despite fears that realignment would "create more harm than good" — as Matthew Logan, an assistant criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino, put it — many were optimistic about the law's success.

"In my opinion, the average person should feel encouraged about the study's findings," Logan told Business Insider in an email.

Logan noted that research on realignment's impact was only beginning, and he raised the possibility that the program may simply shift the burden of prison overcrowding to jails.

While California's realignment was spurred by a court order, deinstitutionalization in the state is being driven by larger factors, Larry K. Gaines, professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at CSUSB, told Business Insider.

"The recession made us realize we really can't afford" throwing everybody in jail or prison, Gaines said. "The drive to deinstitutionalize is money."

But Gaines admitted there is a component of social reform behind that drive, too: "There is some realization that we are destroying people's lives."

While Sundt and her colleagues include details on the weaknesses of their analysis and uncertainties about the shift of inmates to county jails, and offer recommendations on how to properly act on the data, the study's authors offer a largely positive outlook.

"The worst fears about the effect of California's Realignment Act on public safety have not been realized," they write. "Indeed, early results indicate that realignment was a significant success."

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