Does Prisoner Release Cause an Increase in Crime?

Federal prisoner meets with lawyer and advocate about prisoner release

A summary of “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety.” (Harmon Leymon)

Dr. Mark G. Harmon Leymon, Assistant Professor of Criminology at Portland State University, along with colleagues from Purdue and UNLV, conducted a study that examined prisoner release in California beginning in 2011. The study was recently published in Criminology & Public Policy, an American Society of Criminology journal (Volume 15, Issue 2, May 2016).

Situational Overview

The California Realignment Act on Public Safety was instituted by Governor Jerry Brown in response to a federal court judgment stating that prison overcrowding inflicted “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Brown v. Plata, 2011). Prison conditions had deteriorated to the point where harmful conditions were causing suicides and other preventable deaths.

Under the Act, California implemented a plan to release 27,527 inmates from state prisons over a period of 15 months. As a result, overcrowding was reduced to 150 percent of prison design capacity (down from 180 percent). The actions also caused cost savings of $453 million as inmates were transferred to local jails, enrolled in community programs, and otherwise monitored by law enforcement personnel.

Critics of the Realignment Act argued that releasing large numbers of incarcerated individuals would create the risk of an uptick in crime, thus putting local communities in danger. On the other hand, advocates of the Act believed that the cost savings could be invested into strategies to reduce recidivism rates, improve social programs, and enhance the quality of policing in the impacted communities.

Research Findings

The research team used a regression point displacement design (RPDD) to measure the effect of the Act on violent and property crime rates. RPDD is a newer approach within criminology and criminal justice research. The value of the approach is that it is better able to control unmeasured influences on the issues being studied.

The results showed that there was no measurable increase in crime in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The one exception was an increase in auto theft in 2012. This one year uptick ultimately stabilized to previous levels over the full three years of the study. Taken together, the results show that, at least in California, strategically reducing the prison population has not resulted in measurable harm to public safety.

In Conclusion

The success of the Realignment Act has since brought about additional changes amongst a once-skeptical public. Most notable is the voter approval of California Proposition 47, which reclassified several lower-level felonies crimes as misdemeanors in order to help keep from reversing the decrease in the state’s prison population.

While continuing research is warranted to determine exactly why crime did not increase, results of this study have the potential to help identify solutions to the problem of “mass incarceration” in the United States.