Even as prison sentences get shorter, crime continues to fall in California cities

Crime continued to fall in California’s urban cities for the first half of 2018 – years after major criminal justice reform efforts aimed at emptying the state’s prisons, according to a new report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Compared with 2017, the rate of violent crime fell overall by 2 percent during the first half of the year in 73 cities with a population of 100,000 or higher. Homicides declined by nearly 13 percent and assaults were down by 0.9 percent. Robberies decreased 3.2 percent.

Crime trends have been closely watched in recent years as many are taking stock of the state’s policies to reduce prison overcrowding. Since 2011, new laws have shifted the responsibility for nonviolent crimes to county jails and another law reduced several felony offenses to misdemeanors.

The legislation often referred to as “prison realignment” specifically mandated, among other things, that offenders who have never been convicted of a violent or serious crime, an aggravated white collar crime and are not required to register as a sex offender serve out their sentence in local jails.

Proposition 47, which was passed in 2014, not only reduced penalties for future offenders, it also allowed inmates serving prison sentences to be re-sentenced.

Critics said the big shifts would lead to higher crime rates.

The outcome, however, has defied some expectations, said Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the center who authored the report. The center’s latest analysis shows the trend will likely continue for the year 2018, he said. The center’s mission is to reduce incarceration rates.

“What we’re (asking) is did those (changes) lead to an increase in crime as some people have charged? We’re not finding it. It’s been pretty flat,” Males said. “If you look at those lines, that’s kind of the way you want crime to be.”

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, whose mission is to reduce incarceration, is not the first to point the trend out. In 2015, the Public Policy Institute of California concluded the reforms were a “success.”

Trends in the latest data varied widely in the state’s largest cities with some seeing potential drops in property and violent crimes where others saw jumps. Among the largest cities with populations higher than 250,000, San Jose, San Diego and Long Beach each reported increases in violent crime, while Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco saw decreases.

“There were fewer motor vehicle thefts and fewer vehicle break-ins that were causing a big spike in places like San Francisco – those abated in 2018. We don’t know why that happened,” Males said. “A lot of this is just the kind of thing that happens with cycles in crime. It doesn’t appear to be due to laws or reforms or anything like that.”

This article was updated at 3:38 p.m. on April 5, 2019, to correct the changes in robberies and assaults.

Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.