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Rise In Crime Since California’s Prison Overhaul Prompts Call For Rollback

December 27, 2018 1:34 p.m.

GUEST: Abby Vansickle, reporter, The Marshall Project

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Related Story: Rise In Crime Since California’s Prison Overhaul Prompts Call For Rollback


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

The first step Act a package of reforms for the federal prison system received bipartisan support in Congress and has now been signed into law. It's not likely though such a package of sentence reducing rehabilitation oriented provisions would have gotten much traction if California hadn't led the way. A series of justice reforms in recent years including realignment and Prop 47 have moderated sentencing and reduced our state's prison population. But an uptick in crime including violent crime here in California has prompted an effort to roll back some of those reforms.

A recent report by The Marshall Project and The L.A. Times asked if there are links between the reforms and the increase in crime. And the answer is complicated. Joining me is Abby Van Syckel reporter with The Marshall Project a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the criminal justice system. She joins me by Skype and Abby welcome to the program. You so much for having me. Now back when the state was ordered to reduce its prison population by the Supreme Court some people said they were afraid that keeping criminals out of prison would lead to more crime.

So have those fears been realized.

Well as you mentioned it's a complicated question. The first major reform went into effect in 2011 after the Supreme Court ruled that the the conditions in California's prisons were in violation of the Constitution. So the state acted quickly to sort of shift a lot of the responsibility for prisoners who had nonviolent offenses to the counties. So we wanted to look to see what had happened with crime in that period and then after 2014 which is when Prop 47 and another one of the reforms went into effect and the first thing is that it's very difficult to be able to draw any links between a rise in a particular type of crime and any particular policy decision.

One of the things we saw right away is that counties have really different. You know some counties had crime go up some had to go down. You know some had violent crime and property crime with different results. And so we didn't see any sweeping across the board pattern although we did see with statewide crime that there had been upticks and particularly from 2014 to 2017 upticks in violent crime statewide.

Now you talked to criminologists and other experts. What are some of the factors that they point to that could explain why crime has gone up in the state.

Well there are all sorts of theories about why crime goes up and goes down. We started you know we started looking back to sort of the the last few decades in California when crime was was much higher than it is now to first try to understand why crime was so high and then why it dropped and even that question is incredibly complicated. There are all sorts of theories about you know one is more people were in prison. Another there are theories about you know everything from lead to abortion all sorts of you know ideas that have been proposed and debunked and there's no concrete answer.

And the same can be said for why crime goes up. You know trying to get a firm answer on any tickler policy change leading to any type of crime. It's something that criminologists really struggle to try to try to find any direct answers to. So I would say just the clearest thing is that there is no simple answer for what's happened. We actually try to focus on you know what. Crimes have gone up and what's gone down. And can we find patterns in that sense that it was pretty clear right away that we weren't going to be able to say you know this this policy led directly to this or didn't.

Critics of the reforms though see a clear answer and they want to roll back some of the prison reform measures. Can you tell us about that.

Sure. So there is a ballot measure that's it's planted on the 2020 ballot in California and it's led primarily by law enforcement groups. And the idea is that this group this coalition said that they see various flaws in these policies and they want to make some changes from it. It's sort of sweeping. It's a variety of different changes to different policies. Among them changing crimes that are labeled as nonviolent some crimes. It would be. The definition would change so people would no longer be eligible for some of the reforms some effect early release and who gets early release and how that works.

You know it's sort of all of these different things that they have.

You know they they feel like our problems that the reforms have been crafted now as I mentioned the nation now has a prison reform package the first step act that's just been signed into law and the nation continues to grapple with a sizable prison population. Is it too soon or too complicated to draw any kind of lessons from California's approach.

You know that's one of the things that we're setting out to try to understand and these are really among the first stories that were you know that were planning to try to really dig into the questions of not only what's happened with crime in California what's happening in the prison system what does it look like when you know a system that's massively overcrowded tries to fix problems within it. Where does that lead to in the community. What's it like for people who are still in the prison system. I think these are all questions that are really important to try to understand and that we don't have clear answers to yet.

Ok then I've been speaking with Abbe Van Syckel reporter with The Marshall Project. Abbi thank you very much.

Thanks so much for having me.