Realignment and Recidivism Revisited: A Closer Look at the Effects of California’s Historic Correctional Reform on Recidivism Outcomes

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(5) 536 –558
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211058705
Realignment and Recidivism
Revisited: A Closer Look at
the Effects of California’s
Historic Correctional Reform
on Recidivism Outcomes
Mia Bird1, Viet Nguyen2, and Ryken Grattet3
California’s 2011 Public Safety Realignment has received considerable attention
nationally as a watershed moment in the movement to downsize prisons. The
present study leverages data collected in 12 California counties to provide the most
comprehensive examination to date of how Realignment has impacted recidivism for
the key offender groups targeted in the reform. We find small to modest increases in
rearrest in three of four groups targeted in the reform. The fourth group experienced
moderate decreases in rearrest. Moreover, all groups experienced decreases in
reconviction, which gives credence to the idea that a significant reprioritization of
who should be in prison can positively affect public safety. These findings point to
the complex ways that reforms like Realignment can affect custodial and community-
based supervision systems by changing incentives for law enforcement and the people
who supervise offenders. Our conclusions discuss the implications for other states
and systems considering similar reforms.
Public Safety Realignment, correctional reform, recidivism, prison downsizing
1University of California, Berkeley, USA
2University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
3University of California, Davis, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ryken Grattet, University of California, Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616-5270, USA.
1058705CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211058705Criminal Justice Policy ReviewBird et al.
Bird et al. 537
California’s Public Safety Realignment, also known as AB 109, was a historic reform
aimed at downsizing prisons in the largest prison system in the United States. The
immediate stimulant for the reform was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in two cases
dealing with the constitutionality of the system’s health care delivery to prisoners,
which upheld an order by a lower court to reduce the prison population to 137.5% of
prison design capacity. However, the broader context of chronic overcrowding, soar-
ing costs, and persistently high recidivism also provided incentives to policymakers to
reform the state’s sentencing and correctional policy.
Public Safety Realignment (Realignment) reduced the prison population by trans-
ferring responsibility for managing lower level felony offenders from the state to the
counties. The prison population declined dramatically, by more than 27,000 inmates,
during the first year following Realignment. Although jail populations increased by
about 9,000 inmates following Realignment, the overall level of incarceration in the
state declined (Lofstrom & Raphael, 2016). The overall decline in incarceration asso-
ciated with Realignment resulted from changes in both front-end sentencing policies
and back-end revocation policies (Grattet & Bird, 2018). The front-end changes
included requiring that certain types of lower level offenders who had no history of
serious, violent, or sexual offending serve their time locally. The “back-end” changes
included a requirement that all revocations for supervision violations for people
released from prison be served in county jails rather than state prison. Together, these
changes mean that California counties now shoulder a greater burden for incarcerating
and supervising felony offenders in the state. Realignment has generated significant
national attention because it resulted in large declines in the state’s prison population
without dramatic increases in crime (Lofstrom & Martin, 2015; Lofstrom & Raphael,
2015) and because it prioritizes the use of prison—the most costly form of correctional
control—for serious and violent offenders (Grattet et al., 2016).
Dubbed “The Great California Prison Experiment” (VanSickle & Villa, 2018), a
small body of research has begun to accumulate about Realignment’s impacts on crime
(Lofstrom & Martin, 2015; Lofstrom & Raphael, 2015), local correctional systems
(Grattet & Bird, 2017; Grattet et al., 2017, 2016), and recidivism (Bird & Grattet,
2016). To date, other than a preliminary report by the present researchers (Bird et al.,
2017), research on recidivism has been limited to only a segment of the population
affected by Realignment, people released from prisons. This focus neglects the larger
group of offenders who, after Realignment, were required to serve time locally in
county jails and/or be supervised by county probation departments.
In addition, prior work is limited in that it only covered the initial months after the
reform, when many counties were contending with managing a group of offenders
with more serious criminal histories than the populations they were used to supervis-
ing. Nonetheless, this early research focusing solely on prison releases shows that
recidivism rates remained high in the aftermath of the reform; for some groups of
offenders, recidivism rates were somewhat better and for others they were somewhat
worse than prior to the reform. It remains to be seen whether the findings of research

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