Study Finds Proposition 47 Not to Blame for Uptick in Crime

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An Oakland Police Department vehicle parked outside an officer-involved shooting. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

2015 was the year California began revamping the way it sentences people for certain nonviolent drug and theft crimes -- reducing the prison population and reinvesting that money in supportive services.

It was also the year that crime went up. According to Charis Kubrin, who co-authored a recent study on the uptick, statewide violent crime rose 8 percent and property crime rose by 6 percent.

"I think a lot of people assumed, 'Oh, it must be because Proposition 47 caused those upticks in crime,' " said Kubrin.

But there wasn't any definitive research on the topic, and so Kubrin and UC Irvine colleague Bradley Bartos set out to learn whether that assumption was accurate. Was the change in policy a factor in the increase? Using 44 years of data from every state in the country, they created a fictitious comparison -- a California where Proposition 47 did not happen.

And for the first time, the researchers say there's conclusive evidence that Proposition 47 is not to blame for the rise in crime. While the study initially did show a modest causal relationship between the measure and an increase in larceny and property crimes, Kubrin said that the finding did not survive standard cross-checking protocol.


"You can't really look to the trends themselves to provide insight on a policy, and I think that's a trap that many of us fall into," she said.

Kubrin said there a number of other factors that could impact crime, from demographics to police-community relations.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón agrees. He was an early proponent of Proposition 47 and argued that it has been a success -- reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system in his city and allowing the state to reinvest millions of dollars.

Not everyone supports the Proposition 47 reforms, however. A proposed ballot initiative this November could reverse some elements of the law.  Gascón said studies like this one from UC Irvine help debunk falsehoods and fuel an evolution in attitudes.

"For the people that grew up in the 'lock-em up, tough on crime' era, that generation may never be able to come around. ... I think other people are going to be more thoughtful; they're going to begin to reflect on it and start looking at science and will evolve," said Gascón, "I think new generations of law enforcement will grow up in this environment and will be better informed."

Kubrin hopes that science will continue to fill that role. She said the study should be replicated and that more research is needed to see whether the findings go beyond the first year.