Studies Suggest Legislation Not to Blame for Rising Crime Rates

 

A report delivered by senior members of the Long Beach Police Department during Tuesday night’s city council meeting sought to provide answers as to why there’s been a swell in violent and property crime during the first quarter of this year. While the report didn’t name a definitive catalyst, it did advance a narrative that has been pushed by police departments across the state: legislative changes are behind the recent spike.

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Deputy Chief Richard Rocchi rattled off alarming statistics during his report to council. Violent crime is up 13 percent, shootings are up 42 percent and the murder rate has increased by 83 percent from what it was a year ago. He noted an increase in gang activity, something that has accounted for about one third of shooting statistics in Long Beach this year. The city, which had seen crime hit a 40-year low in 2014, has joined a sobering national trend of increasing crime in almost every major municipality.

“Major cities across the country and even into Canada are experiencing similar increases in their violent crime categories, as we are seeing here in Long Beach in the first quarter of 2016 compared to 2015,” Rochhi said.

Crime, and most notably the murder rate, have increased in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Las Vegas and even Jacksonville. Long Beach, which had seen six murders by the end of April 2015, has seen 10 murders committed in the same period of time this year.

What Long Beach and Los Angeles have in common, but don’t share with any of the non-Californian cities, are recent passages of decarceration laws that took nonviolent offenders and placed them on parole or reduced some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, which have ultimately kept many people out of the state’s prison system.

The two “legislative challenges” that Rocchi referred to during the report were AB-109, the realignment bill passed by the state legislature in response to a federal mandate for California to decrease its prison capacity issues, which had been deemed unconstitutional. The other was Proposition 47, the voter-approved law that took effect in November 2014, which reduced crimes like drug possession, petty theft, shoplifting and receiving stolen property from felonies to misdemeanors.

“Although well-intended to reduce prison populations, we have seen that legislation impact this and we’re still working with our agencies across the country and major city chiefs to determine how this legislation is in fact impacting us,” Rochhi said.

This stance has gained support from the council, with council members Suzie Price and Al Austin supporting the department's views that legislative changes like AB-109 and Prop 47 are to blame for the rise in crime. The problem—and this is something that the deputy chief noted himself—is that there is no empirical evidence to support those claims. However, studies challenging the “anecdotal” evidence referenced by law enforcement agencies across the state are starting to emerge.

An article published yesterday by The Washington Post, which cited two separate studies keying in on California’s crime rates after the passage of AB-109, found that the state’s prison realignment had very minimal impact on crime rates.

The study, titled “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous?” was co-authored by criminology professors Jody Sundt, Emily J. Salisbury and Mark G. Harmon and published in the journal of the American Society of Criminology last week. The study compared pre-realignment California to incarceration as pre-integration Mississippi was to segregation, as it had more people per capita behind bars than any other state in the country.

The California Public Safety Realignment Act (AB-109) was signed into law in 2011 and realigned some 27,500 inmates within the first 15 months, reducing prison overcrowding from 181 percent—with some prisons at over 300 percent—to 137.5 percent, but according to the authors of the report, it had a negligible impact on crime between 2010-2014, the years analyzed in the study.

“The worst fears about the effect of California’s Realignment Act on public safety have not been realized,” the study reads. “Indeed, early results indicate that Realignment was a significant success.”

The study noted that it saved the state approximately $453 million during that time span, and, more importantly, the data showed little effect on violent or property crime rates in the years following its passage. The data suggests that it may have actually lowered violent crimes, estimating that with a 95 percent confidence level violent crimes went down by 9.5 per 100,000 people.

The data did show a slight uptick in auto thefts in first two years after AB-109, a figure that dipped back down to pre-realignment levels in the last year  after it was included in the study. However, it did note that auto thefts are not “temporally stable” and large year-to-year variations occur periodically, especially in states like California that have large ports of entry.

“The large reduction in incarceration following the passage of Realignment modestly increased property crimes, primarily by increasing the rate of auto theft, but the reduction in the incarceration rate had little effect on violent crime,” the authors wrote.

A separate study compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2015 looked more in depth at the effects of Prop 47 and found that Los Angeles County reduced its jail population by just 6 percent compared to San Diego County (14 percent) and Orange County (17 percent) during the first year of Prop 47’s implementation.

The ACLU’s study did find that of the state’s five most populated counties (Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino) LA had just the third most petitions submitted by Prop 47 eligible residents (just over 25,000), more than one-third of which were reclassification requests by people who had already served their sentences.

It also found that enforcing Prop 47 offenses varied by agency, with some choosing to continue arresting low-level offenders while others chose to focus on felony crimes where offenders would potentially serve more time.

For instance, Ventura County saw an increase of about 15 percent in low-level Prop 47 crime bookings during the study’s time window. Counties like Tulare, San Francisco and Los Angeles had dramatic cutbacks for the same crimes in the same period of time, with all three registering decreases of over 50 percent.

“Prop 47 offenses are now misdemeanors, punishable by a maximum penalty of one year in county jail,” the ACLU report read. “If law enforcement agencies want to, they can continue arresting people and incarcerating them.”

It noted that while it’s too early in the process to make take a definitive stance on the long-term effect of Prop 47—only about 18 months of data is available—San Diego is still reporting all-time lows in crime. However, it also is the only county of the three receiving the most Prop 47 petitions—San Diego received the most, besting LA by over 12,000—spending more on probationary programs than on its sheriff’s department. 

“Recent research right here in California suggests the counties that invest more in reentry services get better results than those who rely more heavily on traditional law enforcement tactics,” the report said. “People with drug and mental health problems who haven’t committed violent crimes don’t belong in prison, but they don’t belong on the street either; they should be in rehabilitation programs and supportive housing.” 



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