SACRAMENTO (AP) — Auto theft increased significantly in California and other property crimes also rose after the state began an initiative resulting in more inmates being released early, according to the first independent study of crime trends driven by the "realignment" program to reduce the state prison population.
While violent crimes did not increase after realignment, the study released Monday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that property crime increased as inmates who previously would have gone to state prisons were instead sent to county jails, which often freed them early due their own overcrowding problems.
About 18,000 offenders who previously would be behind bars are currently free because of early releases or jail diversion programs, the researchers estimate.
The nonpartisan institute blames the law for a nearly 15 percent increase in vehicle thefts in the first year after it took effect in October 2011. That amounts to about 24,000 additional car thefts each year.
Gov. Jerry Brown sought the changes in response to federal court orders requiring the reduction of prison overcrowding to improve medical and mental health treatment for state inmates. The state faces a February deadline to further reduce the prison population, which the researchers projected would result in more crime.
Property crime in general rose nearly 8 percent in California even as the property crime rate dropped nationally.
The findings are a logical consequence of the law, which sends nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious offenders to county jails. Violent, sexual and serious criminals still serve their time in prison.
"The policy really targeted those lower-level felons," said Magnus Lofstrom, who co-authored the study. "So among the offenders who are now on the street because of realignment, very few have that very serious background."
Crime remains at historically low levels, said Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Realignment's impact "will be measured over years, not months," she said in a statement on behalf of the administration.
The first-year crime rates should have captured the biggest effect from the drop in incarceration because that's when the prison population declined most dramatically, Lofstrom said.
The connection between the new law and an increase in property crime was apparent even after researchers adjusted for changes in underlying crime rates due to other factors like the poor economy.
Every year that a criminal does not spend behind bars because of realignment results in an average of two property crimes, the institute projected.
Violent crime rose more than 3 percent in California during the same period, but the increase was not generally attributable to realignment, the researchers found. Other states that did not change their criminal justice systems saw similar or greater increases in crimes including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, though the researchers said realignment may have contributed to a slight increase in robberies.
Two groups that differ philosophically on realignment nonetheless said the institute's findings generally track their own analyses of crime rates.
"Auto theft really went through the roof, which makes perfect sense. Auto theft is neither serious nor violent. You can steal cars from now to eternity and never go to state prison," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. He predicted an eventual but smaller increase in violent crime.
Daniel Macallair, executive director of the liberal Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said the institute's findings are reassuring.
"A lot of the fears that were raised early on, that it's going to put criminals back on the street and unleash a (violent) crime wave, is just simply not happening," he said.