Crime and Social Justice in Santa Monica, CA

tl;dr: Check out new QSIDE-affiliated work on criminal justice:

J. Crodelle, C. Vallejo, M. Schmidtchen, C.M. Topaz, M.R. D’Orsogna. Impacts of California Proposition 47 on Crime in Santa Monica, CA, submitted (2020).

[Credit: substantial parts of the blog post below are excerpted from this work and were written by Maria D’Orsogna.]

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S.Constitution mandates that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted [by the government].” Cruel and unusual punishment can take many forms, and the federal judiciary has ruled that one such form is prison overcrowding.

In 2009, federal courts required the state California to reduce prison overcrowding to 137.5% of design capacity in order to guarantee inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights. In, 2011, prompted by an appeal by the State of California, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this decision in Brown vs.Plata: California’s prison population would have to decrease from approximately 156,000 to 110,000 individuals.

To comply with federal orders, state lawmakers enacted significant legislative reforms over the years. Assembly Bill (AB) 109, also known as the Public Safety Realignment Bill, and Assembly Bill 117, also known as the Criminal Justice Realignment Bill, were approved and went into effect in 2011. These laws allowed those convicted of certain non-violent crimes to serve their sentences in county facilities, under house arrest, or in alternative sentencing schemes, rather than in state prisons. Overall, 500 criminal statutes were amended and penalties for parole violations were reduced. In 2012, voters approved Proposition (Prop.) 36, which revised California’s 1994 Three Strikes Law mandating a sentence of 25 years to life for those convicted of a third felony. Under Prop. 36, to be considered a strike, the third offense must be a serious or violent felony, or the perpetrator must previously have been previously convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation.

The state prison population fell after enactment of AB 109 and AB 117, but not below the 2009 court-mandated target. Further progress was needed, and this need led to the development of Prop. 47 in 2014. The ballot title of this proposition was the oddly-punctuated “Criminal Sentences. Misdemeanor Penalties. Initiative Statute,” though supporters often refer to the measure as “The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.” This ballot measure passed with 59.6% of the vote on Nov. 4, 2014, and went into effect the next next day.

Prop. 47 made three broad changes to felony sentencing laws in the state of California:

  1. Certain non-violent theft and drug possession offenses were reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors.
  2. Those serving sentences for the reclassified offenses were allowed to petition courts for re-sentencing.
  3. Those who had completed felony sentences now classified as misdemeanors were able to petition courts to amend their criminal records. 

Felonies reclassified as misdemeanors under Prop. 47 include shoplifting, attempted shoplifting, grand theft auto, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, writing bad checks; each up to a maximum monetary value of 950 USD. Possession of most illegal drugs for personal use, including methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, was also reclassified as a misdemeanor. The law allows for some exceptions. For instance reclassification may not apply if perpetrators have a criminal record including violence or sexual offenses.

It was only after passage of Prop. 47 that the incarcerated population dropped below the 2009 court-mandated target. One study found a 50% decline in the number of individuals being held or serving sentences for the reclassified crimes. Prop. 47 also stipulated that any resulting monetary savings should be diverted to crime prevention programs targeting youth and recidivists. The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund was specifically created to manage these savings, estimated to be between 150 and 250 million USD per year. To date, 65% of payments have been distributed to the Board of State and Community Correction, with the Department of Education and the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board receiving minor percentages. There is also evidence that reducing penalties for drug possession lessened racial and ethnic disparities in the California criminal justice system.

From a social justice point of view, Prop. 47 has had many positive effects, as we have already mentioned: reduced incarceration; increased funding crime prevention (as opposed to policing or incarceration); and improved equity in the justice system. However, the law remains controversial because of the (possible) effect on the incidence of crime.

Several parties, including law enforcement officials, district attorneys, and mayors point to the law for rising crime.  Some studies link moderate or sustained crime increases to the enactment of Prop. 47, while other groups maintain that current data is inconclusive and that a longer term perspective is necessary. A preliminary analysis conducted state-wide by the California Police Chiefs Association finds that the consequences of Prop. 47 are not homogeneous among cities of comparable size and that county specific factors, such as efficacy of monitoring and treatment programs, and how probation and/or incarceration are handled locally, may affect crime rates. Judging the outcomes of Prop. 47 has led to a contentious debate within academic, political, and community settings, culminating in a growing movement to reverse some of its reforms through a proposed 2020 ballot initiative. Public safety agencies, caught between opposite viewpoints on the overall positive or negative societal effects of Prop. 47, have often expressed the need to better understand its consequences to optimize operations and budgets, to improve procedures, and to share impartial findings with stakeholder groups.

In Impacts of California Proposition 47 on Crime in Santa Monica, CA, we study a publicly available database that reports crimes in the city from 2006 – 2019. One of our primary results is that we do find a rise in reported reclassified crimes that is coincident with the enactment of Prop. 47, while reported non-reclassified crimes do not go up. However, we find a subsequent drop in reclassified crimes beginning in late 2018, coincident with the Santa Monica Police Department’s adoption of new community policing measures.

Although we find a rise in reclassified crimes that coincides with passage of Prop. 47, our research does not provide a definite causative explanation for it.  While it is possible that the new law directly motivated offenders to commit more reclassified crimes, there are other possible explanations. These could include increased attention of police, heightened public awareness, and more reporting, all of which may have been influenced by media coverage. The observed rise could be a loose manifestation of the Hawthorne effect, whereby individuals modify their behavior as a result of being part of an experiment or study. In our context, crime reporting behavior could have been affected by awareness of the changes brought by Prop. 47. Similarly, the decrease in the number of reported reclassified crimes observed in late 2018 may be due to shifts in policing, but perhaps also due to waning public attention to Prop. 47.

Regardless, we hope that considerations relevant to public utility, respect for human rights, and existence of socioeconomic and other disparities, will be used  in combination with our results to assess the overall effect of Prop. 47.