Irvine Study on Prop 47 Disproves Its Own Conclusion

Michele Hanisee
President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys

A recent study by a University of Irvine professor and a doctoral student purports to examine whether Prop 47 was responsible for the rising crime rate in 2015, the year after its passage. The authors, in what they admitted was a “quasi-experimental” study, invented “a synthetic control group” to compare California’s crime rate to this “synthetic” California.   They concluded that Prop 47 was not responsible for the upticks in crime after its enactment. But a careful analysis of the actual study seems to contradict their conclusion.

The authors led with an initial concession – that there were upticks in crime across California the year after Prop 47 was enacted. No debate there. The study also notes that “California reduced its prison population by 13,000 through Prop 47.” Apparently, no conclusion could be drawn by the authors based on the uptick in crime and the reductions in incarcerations. Common sense would seem to indicate that it means that criminals are getting away with more crime.

But more to the point of the study. Did Prop 47 – which changed the sentences for theft and drug crimes – cause crime to go up? Well, the study did not consider drug offenses at all. Instead, it examined “Part 1” crimes which include homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, auto theft and larceny. However, since, Prop 47 only affected the sentencing on drug offenses and larceny offenses (and, to some small degree, auto thefts if the car is valued at less than $950) it was irrelevant to consider its impact on homicide, rape, aggravated assault and the other Part 1 crimes that Prop 47 never addressed.

What were the results of the study on the rise in larceny crimes in 2015? Not surprisingly, the study showed that “Prop 47 did have an impact” and “the larceny effect appears significant.” To quote from the study directly, “only larceny appears to have an impact that is large relative to the unidentified variation observed in donor pool states.” So – Prop 47 had “an impact that is large” on larceny offenses! In fact, in the real world, the California Attorney General “Crime in California” documented the larceny rate soared more than 12% from 2014 to 2015-all while property crime fell across the US by 3.4%.

To no one’s surprise, Prop 47 was found to have no effect on crimes that were not changed by Prop 47.

A better question to ask is “has Prop 47 been successful?” The promise was savings on incarceration that would be redirected to schools, mental healthcare and community-based treatment and prevention – the premise being that redirecting the money to these areas would result in a reduction in crime and recidivism.

If Prop 47 was supposed to reduce crime rates through community treatment and rehabilitation it has arguably failed. Crimes rates, the study concedes, went up. The authors note that California’s recidivism rates, “remain stubbornly high today, even as prison and state parole populations have dropped dramatically.”

The study also notes the failure of Prop 47 to generate the promised savings on incarceration costs. “One anticipated benefit from Prop 47 was that the state would save money on corrections due to fewer individuals being sentenced to prison,” said the study, “but those savings have not fully materialized.”

The authors conclude by saying “While reforms such as Realignment and Prop 47 have shown us we can, in fact, downsize our prisons without compromising public safety… solutions to America’s ‘crime problem’ should not be limited to ‘back end’ efforts at reform that focus solely on sentencing and incarceration.”

Perhaps the authors should read their own study again. Crime went up, savings on incarceration were minimal, and the recidivism rate remains high. That sounds like a compromise to public safety. Just ask the victims of all those additional crimes.

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