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Public Safety Realignment - Impacts So Far, PPIC, 2015

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September 2015

Public Safety Realignment:
Impacts So Far
Magnus Lofstrom

Brandon Martin

Summary
Prompted by a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, California’s 2011
historic public safety realignment shifted many correctional responsibilities for lowerlevel felons from the state to counties. The reform was premised on the idea that locals
can do a better job, and it was hoped that incarceration rates and corrections costs
would fall. At the same time, critics predicted crime would rise. Four years since its
implementation, realignment has made several important impacts:
Realignment significantly reduced the prison population, but the state did not reach
the court-mandated population target until after the passage of Proposition 47 in
November 2014, which reduced penalties for many property and drug offenses.
The reform challenged county jails and probation departments by making them
responsible for a greater number of offenders with a broader range of backgrounds
and needs.
The county jail population did not rise nearly as much as the prison population fell,
reducing the total number of people incarcerated in California.
Realignment did not increase violent crime, but auto thefts rose.
Research so far shows no dramatic change in recidivism rates.
State corrections spending remains high, but there is reason to believe expenditures
could drop in the future.
Realignment has largely been successful, but the state and county correctional systems
face significant challenges. The state needs to regain control of prison medical care,
which is now in the hands of a federal receiver. And the state and counties together
must make progress in reducing stubbornly high recidivism rates.

Realignment Is a Historic Reform
After decades of dramatic prisoner population growth, California’s state prisons faced severe
overcrowding in the 2000s. Lawsuits filed in 1991 and 2001 alleged inadequate mental health and
medical care, and federal courts appointed a special master and a receiver to oversee these
functions.1 In 2009, a federal three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce the prison population
from close to 190 percent to 137.5 percent of design capacity, the minimum level believed
necessary for the prison system to provide adequate mental health and medical care. Given
capacity at the time, the order required the prison population to be reduced by almost 40,000
inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in May 2011.
By then, reforms such as SB 678, which provided incentives to counties to send fewer offenders to
prison for probation failures, and non-revocable parole, which removed some lower-level offenders
from parole supervision, had already reduced the prison population. Nonetheless, the prison system
was still operating at 179.5 percent of capacity, requiring a further reduction of about 33,000
2

inmates by a court-imposed deadline of June 2013.2 Expanding prison capacity was no longer
fiscally feasible or practical. Yet releasing tens of thousands of inmates raised public safety
concerns.3
The state responded by enacting AB 109, known as public safety realignment. This historic reform
shifted incarceration and supervision responsibility for many lower-level felons from the state prison
system to county sheriffs’ and probation departments, based on the idea that locals can do a better
job. Governor Brown proposed realignment in January 2011, the legislature approved it in March
2011, and it took effect on October 1, 2011— an unusually fast track for a major policy shift.
Two features of the reform were aimed at quickly reducing the prison population. First, most
parolees who violate the terms of their release but have not been convicted of a new felony are no
longer sent to prison. Instead, they serve a short time in county jails or are otherwise sanctioned
locally. Second, most lower-level offenders with no record of sexual, violent, or serious crimes now
serve sentences in county jail or under county probation supervision.
Realignment also sought to reduce California’s high recidivism rate. It was believed that, using
evidence-based practices, counties would be able to reduce the reoffending rates of lower-level
offenders more effectively than the state parole system. Supervision of lower-level offenders
released from state prison shifted from the state to county probation departments (on so-called Post
Release Community Supervision). In addition, with several decades of significant growth in
corrections expenditures, realignment intended to save the state money. But some critics
questioned whether the reform would trigger a rise in crime.

The Prison Population Didn’t Fall Enough to Reach the Mandated Target
Realignment substantially reduced the prison population, but almost all of the decline took place
during the first year and was not enough to meet the judicial target. By September 2012, the prison
population had fallen by about 27,400 and the institutional population, including all inmates housed
in California Department of Corrections (CDCR) facilities subject to the court order, had dropped to
150.5 percent of capacity.4 The population then leveled off and began to rise slightly. Increased use
of contract beds (that is, inmates housed in non-CDCR facilities operated by private and public
entities) and the opening of a health care facility in Stockton helped the state move closer to the
target. In November 2012, California voters passed Proposition 36, revising the state’s three-strikes
law to impose a life sentence on a third felony conviction only in cases of serious or violent crimes,
further reducing the number of convicts serving time in state prisons. By October 2014, three years
into realignment, the prison population stood at 140.9 percent of capacity, still roughly 2,850
inmates above the mandated target.
The prison population finally fell below the target after state voters passed Proposition 47 in
November 2014, which reduced penalties for many drug and property offenses. Between November
2014 and August 2015, the prison population fell by almost 7,800. It has been below the target
since January 2015.5

Figure 1. After a big first-year drop, the prison population did not fall again
until Proposition 47 passed

SOURCE: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Monthly Population Report, January 2010–August 2015.
NOTE: Total prison population as of the last day of the month.

Realignment Changed County Jail Populations
Realignment gave counties new responsibilities for managing most parolees who violate release
terms and felons convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crimes. This shift boosted jail
populations close to historical highs. In September 2014, county jails housed 82,681 inmates, up
15 percent from September 2011. The surge has aggravated crowding problems, pushing the
average daily jail population statewide above the rated capacity of 79,855 inmates. In September
2014, to address jail crowding, counties released 8,292 pre-sentenced inmates and 5,914
sentenced inmates, increases of 18 percent and 39 percent, respectively, from September 2011.
Then, in the first few months after Proposition 47’s passage, the jail population dropped by almost
10,000 inmates. Not enough time has passed to show Proposition 47’s long-term impact. The
proposition’s real effect will not become evident until counties have been able to refine release
policies in response to the new law.

Figure 2. Jail populations rose in the first and second year after realignment

SOURCE: Board of State and Community Corrections, Jail Profile Survey January 2010–December 2014.

Figure 3. As jail populations increased early releases also increased

SOURCE: Board of State and Community Corrections, Jail Profile Survey January 2010–December2014.
NOTE: Early releases include both convicted offenders released before having served their full sentence and inmates awaiting
trial or sentencing. They are released because of jail capacity constraints.

Realignment has also changed the profile of county jail populations. Before realignment, the
maximum jail sentence was one year.6 Now, the jail time convicted offenders serve is often longer.
By early 2014, 1,761 jail inmates were serving sentences of more than five years, up from 1,155 in
2013. Higher inmate populations, especially those serving longer terms, increase demand for
medical and mental health beds and program and recreation space. Crowding also raises concerns
about violence among inmates and between inmates and staff. Inmate assaults on staff have risen
from 765 in the first nine months of 2011 to 1,058 in the same period in 2014. Furthermore, even if
Proposition 47 significantly reduces jail populations, these facilities will house higher shares of
inmates who committed serious crimes. The changing population mix could make inmate
supervision more difficult.

Realignment Reduced California’s Reliance on Incarceration
County jail populations rose under realignment, but the increase was significantly smaller than the
prison population drop. The jail population rose by only about one inmate for every three fewer
offenders in state prison (Lofstrom and Raphael 2013a). The decline in the total jail-and-prison
population largely took place in realignment’s first year, when California’s combined jail-and-prisonincarceration rate dropped to 566 per 100,000 residents from 619. Between September 2012 and
October 2014, the combined jail-and-prison population actually increased at a pace slightly above
the state’s overall population growth rate. Since then, Proposition 47 has substantially reduced both
the jail and total incarcerated populations. In the first two months after its passage, California’s total
incarceration rate fell to a 20-year low of 538 inmates per 100,000 residents.

Figure 4. Realignment and Proposition 47 significantly reduced incarceration
in California

SOURCE: Board of State and Community Corrections, Jail Profile Survey and California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation, Monthly Population Report, December 2010-December 2014.

Realignment Did Not Increase Violent Crime, but Auto Thefts Rose
Some 18,000 offenders who would have been incarcerated were on the street because of
realignment (Lofstrom and Raphael 2015). Public safety concerns are understandable, but analysis
shows little cause for alarm. California’s crimes rate increased in 2012, but fell in 2013 and 2014.
Property and violent crime rates are both now below 2011 levels and have reached historic lows.
In-depth research shows no evidence that realignment has increased violent crime. Lofstrom and
Raphael (2015) use a data-driven matching strategy to identify a combination of states with crime
trends similar to California’s prior to realignment (the so-called synthetic control method). The postrealignment crime trends of these matched groups of states best represent what the crime rates
would have been in California had the state not implemented realignment.
The only crime increase attributable to realignment is a modest rise in property crime, driven
entirely by auto theft. Lofstrom and Raphael (2015) estimate that realignment raised the auto theft
rate by slightly more than 70 per 100,000 residents. All else equal, California’s auto theft rate is
about 17 percent higher than it would have been without realignment.

Figure 5. California’s recent property crime increases are greater than those
of comparison states

SOURCE: Lofstrom and Raphael (2015), using data from the Uniform Crime Reports of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the
California Department of Justice.

The slight property crime increase tied to realignment suggests incarceration prevents some law
breaking, but its effects at the pre-realignment incarceration rate are limited. Cost-benefit
calculations show that an additional dollar spent on incarceration generates only 23 cents in crime
savings. The state would benefit from alternative crime prevention strategies. Promising
approaches include increases in policing, cognitive behavioral therapy, early childhood programs,
and targeted interventions for high-risk youth. Other options include alternative systems for
managing probationers and parolees, including swift and certain but moderate sanctions, such as
those of Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement. The Hawaii initiative served as a model
for California’s flash incarceration program, which imposes penalties of no more than ten days in jail
for supervision violations.

Recidivism Rates Are So Far Mostly Unchanged
Recidivism—the rate at which offenders are found to re-offend within a certain period—is the
primary gauge for measuring correctional system performance.7 One of realignment’s goals was to
reduce recidivism among lower-level offenders. To accomplish this, realignment shifted postrelease supervision of most lower-level felons from state parole to county probation departments
(Post Release Community Supervision) and called on counties to use evidence-based practices to
prevent returns to crime. So far, there is no clear evidence that this approach has significantly
reduced recidivism.
Another realignment goal was to decrease returns to prison, a major cause of overcrowding.
Realignment achieved this essentially by halting the return of released offenders to prison for
parole violations. Before the reform, California had the nation’s highest return-to-state-custody rate.
More than 40 percent of released offenders were back in prison within a year. In realignment’s first
year, the return rate dropped by about 33 percentage points, putting the state below the national
average (Lofstrom, Raphael, and Grattet 2014). We do not know to what extent the drop in returns to
prison reflected less re-offending or simply the shift of post-release supervision from the state to
counties, which means that probation and parole violators go to jail instead of prison.
Research on the first group of offenders released after realignment provides no evidence of
dramatic changes in recidivism. Rearrest and reconviction rates were roughly in line with rates
before realignment (CDCR 2013; Lofstrom, Raphael, and Grattet 2014). One-year rearrest rates

dropped 2 percentage points. However, the proportion of those rearrested multiple times rose
about 7 percentage points, which may reflect the increased time released offenders are on the
street (Lofstrom and Raphael 2013b).
Post-realignment reconviction rates increased about 1.2 percentage points, mostly driven by felony
reconvictions. Lofstrom, Raphael, and Grattet (2014) also found an increased reconviction rate
among rearrested released offenders. This may reflect criminal prosecution of offenses that
previously would have been handled as parole violations by the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH).
The fact that recidivism rates have not fallen does not mean realignment has failed. First,
realignment was implemented unusually quickly and counties had to prepare in a hurry. They need
time to identify the most effective approaches. Research finds substantial differences among
counties in the extent that recidivism rates changed after realignment. There is evidence consistent
with relatively better results in counties that prioritize re-entry services relative to those counties
that prioritized enforcement (Bird and Grattet 2014). Second, realignment put on the street some
released offenders who previously would have been incarcerated. In and of itself, this could make
new crimes more likely. It is possible though that county supervision programs have partially offset
the effects of increased street time. Third, police, probation officers, prosecutors, and judges may
have changed practices under realignment, potentially affecting key measures of recidivism, such
as arrest and conviction rates.

State Corrections Spending Continues to Increase
One anticipated benefit from realignment was that the state, even with making realignment
payments to the counties, would be able to save money on corrections. Savings were expected
from a drop in prisoner and parolee populations. In addition, county responsibility for corrections
was thought to be more cost-effective.8 Savings have not materialized, however. California’s 2015–
16 budget year general fund corrections spending is $10.07 billion, more than the $9.65 billion
spent in 2010–11, the last full budget year before realignment. It is nearly the same as the $10.12
billion spent in 2007–08, when the state had 40,000 more inmates and more than 80,000 more
parolees under their supervision than today. Adding the $1 billion that goes to the counties each
year to fund realignment, the state is spending an all-time high on corrections. Still, expenditures
might have been even greater if California had taken a different approach to meeting the courtordered capacity mandate, such as building new prisons.

Adding the $1 billion
that goes to the
counties each year to
fund realignment, the
state is spending an alltime high on
corrections.

Higher outlays for inmate medical and mental health care
contribute to rising corrections spending. The state has raised
the budget for inmate medical and mental health care. It has
also built new facilities, including the California Health Care
Facility in Stockton, and remodeled old ones at a cost of more
than $2 billion.9 To manage costs, regaining control of
medical and mental health care at its facilities is a top priority
for California.10 In that regard, the state seems to be close to
meeting the conditions for ending receivership.11

In addition to the yearly spending on state corrections, county
realignment payments, and one-time state corrections infrastructure expenditures, the state has
also provided funds for jail construction. Specifically, the state legislature has made $2.2 billion in
one-time bond funds available for county jail construction. Funding programs in AB 900 passed in
2007, SB 1022 in 2012, and SB 863 in 2014 are paying for an estimated 14,000 jail beds across the
state. Counties will also get much-needed space for medical, educational, and other services. New
jail space is important if counties are to avoid overcrowding, provide adequate services and avoid
lawsuits. That risk may well have been reduced given the likely jail population relief stemming from
Proposition 47.

Conclusion
Realignment—one of the most significant changes in California corrections in decades—is
approaching the four-year mark. Prompted by a federal court mandate to reduce overcrowding in
California’s expensive prison system (Petersilia and Snyder 2013), the reform was premised on the
idea that locals can do a better job through increased use of evidence-based practices.
Realignment shifted administrative and funding responsibility for many lower-level offenders from
the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to county jail and probation systems.
The reform was expected to lower incarceration rates, improve recidivism trends, and lower costs.
In important ways, realignment has succeeded and it appears to have moved California corrections
in the right direction. The reform significantly reduced the prison population, although the state did
not reach the federally mandated target until passage of Proposition 47, which reduced penalties
for many property and drug offenses. Realignment increased the number of inmates in county jails,
but Proposition 47 is now causing the jail population to fall.
For county jails, realignment represents a significant challenge. Jails now house offenders serving
long sentences. That raises demand for medical and mental health beds, as well as programming
and recreation space. The state has allocated $2.2 billion for county jail construction, but many
aging facilities may be unsafe and lack space for essential programs (Martin and Lofstrom 2014).
Proposition 47’s effects on the jail population are unclear but are likely to be substantial. Jail
population projections will have to be revised to get a more accurate sense of future needs.
Realignment, combined with other recent measures such as non-revocable parole, Proposition 36,
and Proposition 47, has lowered incarceration in California to levels not seen since the mid-1990s.
Research shows that, at pre-realignment incarceration rates, putting people behind bars does not
prevent crime cost-effectively (Lofstrom and Raphael 2015). However, incarceration becomes more
cost-effective as the incarceration rate decreases. Both violent and property crime are now at or
below levels last seen in the 1960s. Despite this encouraging trend, the significant drop in
incarceration makes it essential to watch crime trends closely.
Corrections spending remains high. It may be that significant savings can only be achieved by
closing a state prison, which would require a larger drop in the prison population. The legislature
passed a bill requiring that the antiquated California Rehabilitation Center in Riverside County be
shut by 2016, but the closure is on hold because of the court-mandated target. It also remains to be
seen what the cost effects will be when the state regains control over the prison health care system.
Under realignment, counties have put in place a variety of strategies. Some may prove successful,
while others will not pan out (Lin and Petersilia 2014; Bird and Grattet 2014). We need to learn from
this historic reform. What alternative strategies work and in what context? Can successful
approaches be expanded and replicated elsewhere? Research has become more challenging
because of the need to collect consistent data from counties. PPIC is currently working with 12
counties and the Board of State and Community Corrections to gather data. But more needs to be
done to ensure long-term availability of quality data, and more counties must get involved. And we
need more research to tell us what corrections strategies work best in this new environment.

NOTES
1. The special master is the court appointed monitor for mental health care in California’s state prisons. The receiver is
the court appointed official in charge of medical care in California’s state prisons. The special master does not make
day to day decisions regarding the operations of mental health care. They only submit oversight reports to the court
regarding the compliance with the court’s rulings. However, the receiver has complete control over day to day
decisions regarding the operations of medical care in prison. Over time, the receiver will give back control of each
medical facility to CDCR when the receiver believes they are able to provide adequate care. The receiver is also
required to submit regular reports to the court regarding improvements in medical care.
2. Through negotiations with the federal court, the deadline to reach the mandated target was extended and is now
February 2016.

3. With the passing of AB 900 in 2007, the legislature had authorized $6.4 billion in lease revenue bonds for new
prisons, including medical and mental health treatment facilities. However, none of these expansions would have
been up and running by the 2013 deadline.
4. The prison population drop may understate the reform’s impact because the fall is measured against the population
when realignment was first implemented, not against CDCR projections of what the population would have been
without realignment. In addition to the 34 CDCR facilities, inmates are housed in private prison facilities in Arizona,
Mississippi, and Oklahoma as well as in a mix of public and private in-state facilities in so-called contract beds.
5. Proposition 47 reclassifies many drug and property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies or wobblers, which
may be charged as misdemeanors or felonies at a prosecutor’s discretion. The new law also lets offenders file for
resentencing, which may result in release. The downward pressure on the prison population stems from fewer
offenders sent to state prison as well as releases of resentenced inmates.
6. Inmates awaiting trial could spend more than a year in jail.
7. No single recidivism measure perfectly captures offender behavior as each measure may reflect not only changes in
offender behavior but also changes in criminal justice system responses, which also may be affected by a major
policy change such as realignment. Arrest rates, for example, depend partly on decisions made by parole, probation,
and police officers, while conviction rates are also affected by the decision of local prosecutors and judges. As a
result, to best gauge re-offending it is important to look at various measures taken at different points in time. Relevant
measures include rearrest, reconviction, and return to custody rates. For a more complete performance assessment,
we also need measures of what type of crimes, and frequency, released offenders are observed to be arrested and
sanctioned for, including parole violations, misdemeanors, and felonies (possibly further disaggregated by severity of
the crime), measured at various times since release.
8. CDCR released a plan in 2012 entitled “The Future of California Corrections” but more commonly known as the
“Blueprint,” that predicted the state would save $1.5 billion annually when realignment was fully implemented.
9. This cost for capital outlays is financed over time, so the additional yearly cost of construction is relatively low. But the
staffing and operations of these new facilities costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
10. The receiver is responsible for improving state prison medical care and has little incentive to hold down costs.
11. Folsom State Prison has already left federal receivership.

REFERENCES
Bird, Mia, and Ryken Grattet. 2014. Do Local Realignment Policies Affect Recidivism in California? Public Policy Institute
of California.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 2013. An Examination of Offenders Released from State Prison
in the First Year of Public Safety Realignment.
Lin, Jeffrey and Joan Petersilia, 2014. Follow the Money: How California Counties Are Spending Their Public Safety
Realignment Funds. Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
Lofstrom, Magnus, and Steven Raphael. 2013a. Impact of Realignment on County Jail Populations. Public Policy Institute
of California.
Lofstrom, Magnus, and Steven Raphael. 2013b. Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California. Public Policy
Institute of California.
Lofstrom, Magnus, and Steven Raphael. 2015. Realignment, Incarceration, and Crime Trends in California. Public Policy
Institute of California.
Lofstrom, Magnus, Steven Raphael, and Ryken Grattet. 2014. Is Public Safety Realignment Reducing Recidivism in
California? Public Policy Institute of California.
Martin, Brandon, and Magnus Lofstrom. 2014. Key Factors in California’s Jail Construction Needs. Public Policy Institute
of California.
Petersilia, Joan, and Jessica Greenlick Snyder. 2013. “Looking Past the Hype: 10 Questions Everyone Should Ask About
California’s Prison Realignment.” California Journal of Politics and Policy 5(2): 266–306.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This report has benefited significantly from comments and suggestions by Mia Bird, Darby Kernan, Lee Seale, Drew
Soderborg, Sonya Tafoya, and Lynette Ubois.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Magnus Lofstrom is a senior research fellow at PPIC. His areas of expertise include public safety, immigration,
entrepreneurship, and education. His recent work examines crime trends in California, public safety realignment and
recidivism, and California’s jail capacity and construction needs. He also holds appointments as research fellow at the
Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), Germany, community scholar at the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan
State University, and research associate at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California,
San Diego. He serves on the editorial board of Industrial Relations and was a member of California controller John
Chiang’s Council of Economic Advisors. Prior to joining PPIC, he was an assistant professor of economics at the University
of Texas at Dallas. He received his PhD in economics from the University of California, San Diego.
Brandon Martin is a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California. He studies corrections and public
safety, with recent work examining the need for jail construction in California and the changes in state and local
correctional populations. He has previous research experience in the area of legislative committees, including legislative
and oversight responsibilities and the electoral considerations of committee assignments. He holds an MA in political
science from the University of California, Davis, and a BA in political science from Michigan State University.

OTHER PUBLICATIONS
Alternatives to Incarceration
Impact of Realignment on County Jail Populations
Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California
Realignment, Incarceration, and Crime Trends in California

© 2015 Public Policy Institute of California
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Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
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