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California’s Prop 47 Narrowed Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

The significant drop in African-American felony arrests stems from drug reforms.

Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California just released a study finding that Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, resulted in less pretrial detention and narrowed racial disparities within the criminal justice system, but serious inequities still remain. The study, "Proposition 47’s Impact on Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice Outcomes," which is supported by Arnold Ventures, helps to shine a light on how reforms have addressed racial inequities inherent in the U.S. criminal justice system. 

Today, PPIC research associate Brandon Martin will join a panel of experts during an online-only event to discuss these new findings about Prop 47’s and the overall state of criminal justice reform in California. The event begins at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. 

Prop 47 was approved by voters in 2014 as part of statewide action aimed at reducing California’s prison population. While the reform has been successful at that primary goal, this new study shows that it also resulted in fewer arrests and bookings across the board — the number of people booked into jail decreased by more than 10 percent. The gap between African-American and white arrest and booking rates also narrowed, declining by 5.9 percent and 8.2 percent respectively. This result was driven by a significant decline in African-American bookings for drug and property felonies. In fact, after Prop 47 was enacted, the African-American felony drug arrest rate quickly dropped to below the pre-Prop 47 rate for whites and Latinos. 

“The effects of Prop 47 on racial disparities represent a notable but modest step toward addressing inequities in criminal justice outcomes,” said Magnus Lofstrom, Policy Director and Senior Fellow at PPIC and one of the report’s authors in a press release. “Still, there remain sizable and troubling disparities, especially between African-Americans and whites. Our state still has much work to do.” 

The report also looked at the total effect of criminal justice reforms and prison population reduction measures that California has implemented since 2009 and found that the overall reduction in the incarceration rate also narrowed racial disparities. As a result of California’s reforms, the gap between African-American and white incarceration rates dropped from about 4.5 percentage points to 2.8 percentage points. 

At a time when the nation is debating criminal justice reforms and the steps necessary to create a racially equitable society, this research helps to underscore the sorts of reforms that can have a measurable impact. 

“What PPIC is doing in California is a guide of what others should be doing to dig deep into data in order to better understand the impact of reform efforts,” said Nikki Smith-Kea, Criminal Justice Manager who oversees this project at Arnold Ventures. “At a time when there are such major calls for reform, we need to make sure that changes will not cause more harm than good.” 

The changes approved in Prop. 47 stem from the 2011 Supreme Court case Brown v. Plata. In a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons was so severe that it violated the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The opinion documented inadequate physical and mental health services behind bars, high risk infectious diseases, and a suicide rate that approached one per week. 

Kennedy even included photos demonstrating the dire conditions — rare for a Supreme Court opinion, but critical to illustrating the prison systems’ true horror. 

“After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population,” Kennedy wrote. His order specifically held that the state had to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of its design capacity — 110,000 people behind bars. 

In response, the state undertook a series of reforms aimed at reversing decades of prison growth. In addition to legislative action that shifted responsibility for many low-level crimes from state to local facilities, voters were also asked to approve three initiatives. 

Besides Prop 47, voters in California approved Prop 36 in 2012, which revised the state’s notorious three-strikes law. And in 2016, voters approved Prop 57, which expanded early parole for people convicted of nonviolent offenses who participate in certain rehabilitative programs. 

These reforms and other court orders have reduced California’s prison population by 44,000 people — 25 percent below its 2006 peak. This state decline alone accounts for nearly half of all cuts to the national incarceration rate since 2011.