Hometown California

Episode 04- Criminal Justice Reform in California, An Interview with Magnus Lofstrom from the PPIC

August 19, 2020 Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) Season 1 Episode 4
Hometown California
Episode 04- Criminal Justice Reform in California, An Interview with Magnus Lofstrom from the PPIC
Chapters
Hometown California
Episode 04- Criminal Justice Reform in California, An Interview with Magnus Lofstrom from the PPIC
Aug 19, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC)

Our host, Paul A. Smith, talks with Magnus Lofstrom, Policy Director and Senior Fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) about several of the criminal justice reforms that have occurred in California over the past ten years, and the intersection with the day-to-day management of counties.

  • What was the impetus for reform when the efforts began?
  • Is California setting the trend, or following other states?
  • What does the data reveal about the effectiveness of the reforms?
  • How have the reforms impacted counties?
  • What are some differences the data shows between rural and urban counties?
  • Where do we go from here?

Listen in as Lofstrom provides insight gained from PPIC's study of the data about California's criminal justice reforms. The resulting publications range from one-page fact sheets to comprehensive, in-depth reports.

As head of the Criminal Justice team at the PPIC, Lofstrom has spent years monitoring criminal justice reforms in California and studying their impacts, looking at recidivism and improving reentry outcomes, and assessing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

With a commitment to provide high-quality research and analysis, PPIC encourages civil, productive dialogue that inspires sustainable policy solutions in Sacramento and around the state. The mission, vision, and values of the PPIC drive the organizational choices and staff activities that continue this work. More information and research in other subject areas is available on the PPIC website.

Show Notes Transcript

Our host, Paul A. Smith, talks with Magnus Lofstrom, Policy Director and Senior Fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) about several of the criminal justice reforms that have occurred in California over the past ten years, and the intersection with the day-to-day management of counties.

  • What was the impetus for reform when the efforts began?
  • Is California setting the trend, or following other states?
  • What does the data reveal about the effectiveness of the reforms?
  • How have the reforms impacted counties?
  • What are some differences the data shows between rural and urban counties?
  • Where do we go from here?

Listen in as Lofstrom provides insight gained from PPIC's study of the data about California's criminal justice reforms. The resulting publications range from one-page fact sheets to comprehensive, in-depth reports.

As head of the Criminal Justice team at the PPIC, Lofstrom has spent years monitoring criminal justice reforms in California and studying their impacts, looking at recidivism and improving reentry outcomes, and assessing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

With a commitment to provide high-quality research and analysis, PPIC encourages civil, productive dialogue that inspires sustainable policy solutions in Sacramento and around the state. The mission, vision, and values of the PPIC drive the organizational choices and staff activities that continue this work. More information and research in other subject areas is available on the PPIC website.

INTRO:  [00:00:00] 
Welcome to Hometown California, a production of the Rural County Representatives of California, advocating for California's rural counties for nearly 50 years. Hometown California tells the rural story through the eyes of those who live, work and play in the rural communities of the Golden State. 

PAUL: [00:00:24]
This is hometown California. I'm your host, Paul Smith. Joining me today is Magnus Lofstrom, policy director of criminal justice and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Welcome, Magnus.

MAGNUS: [00:00:37] 
Thanks for having me, Paul. 

PAUL: [00:00:38] 
Magnus is no stranger to RCRC. He presented a few years ago at one of our annual meetings and did a great job. We like those presentations so much we thought, "You know what? Let's talk to Magnus and bring him back for a podcast and get an update on what's going on with criminal justice." So, Magnus, big, thank you for the work you do, the work you share with RCRC, and for spending some time updating us on what's going on in the criminal justice world. 

MAGNUS: [00:01:02] 
Thank you, Paul, for having me and giving me an opportunity to share a little bit about what we've found in our work over the last few years. 

PAUL: [00:01:10]
Yeah. So first, let's talk about PPIC as a whole. Maybe share with our listeners what PPIC is then maybe your role and what your focus is in the criminal justice world. 

MAGNUS: [00:01:21] 
Sure. Yeah. So we at the Public Policy Institute of California, are an independent, nonpartisan research institute or think tank. We have offices in Sacramento and in San Francisco, and we focus on data driven research to inform policy discussions and provide, hopefully, policy solutions to some of the more pressing issues that we face here in California. So broadly, that includes, our K-12 education system, our higher education system, safety net, water issues-- obviously a big challenge for the state of California-- and also the economy and political governance and reforms. 

[00:02:04] 
Criminal justice is one of our core areas as well. And so I head up our criminal justice team. And really what we focus on are, I think we can put it in three categories, three bullets, so to speak. First, as I'm sure we're going to be talking about, there've been a number of reforms that we passed in California over the last 10 years or so. And so we've been working on monitoring those reforms and their impacts. Having a good understanding of that, I think is important as we move forward. Also, importantly, we're looking at recidivism and ways for us to improve reentry outcomes among those who are involved with our correctional system. And then we're working on a topic that is received, rightfully so, a lot of attention in the last few months or so. And that's racial disparity in our criminal justice system. 

PAUL: [00:02:58]
Yeah, those are all very important things and intersect with counties very much, both in the reform side and in the day-to-day management of what counties do. So let's get right into it. I think you alluded to a lot of reforms in California. Perhaps, Magnus, you can walk through and list some of the reforms that have been made in the last 10 years, and we can take it from there. 

MAGNUS: [00:03:21]
Yeah, I mean, there are so many changes that we have made in California. And I think that the best way to get an understanding of where we're coming from, the where we came from in California is to look at what was the impetus behind all these reforms. And it really goes back to overcrowding in our state prison system that led to a federal court order to reduce our state prison population. And that was based on the state prison not being able to provide adequate mental health and health care to the inmate population. So we had those court ordered and we had to reduce the prison population. And at the same time, had to deal with the health and mental health care system. So we were even under, and are largely still, under federal receivership running those systems within our state prisons.

PAUL: [00:04:10]
Yeah, I think, Magnus, safe to say for our listeners that many of these reforms really just driven by the federal courts. Yes, there's been a desire to make those changes by a variety of interest groups. But overriding this is the federal court system, you know, kind of instructing California to do some things that it had not done before. Is that basically kind of where we're at? 

MAGNUS: [00:04:28] 
That's at least where we were when we started, when we embarked on this path of some significant criminal justice reforms. We didn't have much of a choice. Our two choices where to expand our correctional system. This goes back to around 2007, 2008. And as we all recall, that's the beginning of the Great Recession and the budget crisis that we faced here in California. So building additional costly prison was really not an option that we could afford. And if we didn't do anything, the federal courts would force us to release a number of prisoners. So we really were looking for, what are the solutions that we can implement here that reduces the state prison system. And hopefully we can do this in a way where we're can do it safely and reduce the spending on our system as well. And hopefully as well, you know the longer term goal was to improve these reentry outcomes among those folks who are in the criminal justice system. So the big one was arguably 2011 Realignment, which really shifted a lot of correctional responsibilities from the state to the counties. So that's where those with a new conviction for a nonserious, nonviolent, non-sexual offense and no history of those, instead of serving that time, a felony, in state prison would now serve that time in a county jail. So it was a big shift. And also those who. coming out of the state prison system, were now under supervision of county probation departments as well. So those are very big shifts that obviously had an impact on the counties. 

PAUL: [00:06:04] 
And just to be clear, that's AB 109, as more commonly known in county land. But, yeah, what are the others? 

MAGNUS:  [00:06:10] 
We did some rollbacks to our three strikes- Prop 36 in 2012. That was also intended to reduce the prison population and did so. And then importantly, we in 2014, through the voter initiative process, we passed Prop 47. It reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. That was a big one. We've also legalize pot since then. And Prop 57, that is increasing the number of opportunities for inmates and the incentive to participate in programming that is aimed at improving reentry outcomes as well. So Prop 57 then in 2016 is another one. And there are a number of measures that the state has been forced to take to draw down the prison population as well by the federal court. So big, big changes. 

PAUL: [00:07:04]
Before we drill down on some of those, just as an overall thing, is California setting the trend here? Are we behind the trend? What's your sense of of all of this? I know other states, while not having this serious overcrowding, a lot of other states and even the federal government, have looked at the criminal justice system and been in sticker shock with the price tag. So where does California fit in that paradigm? 

MAGNUS: [00:07:25] 
I don't think there's any doubt that we're at the forefront of criminal justice reform. And I think this is not a time that we are at the forefront of this because we are more progressive. It's we were at the forefront of this, and continue to be, because we really didn't have much of a choice. Motivated by the federal court order to reduce the prison population. But it certainly has led to momentum of a number of changes. So the rest of the country is definitely looking for lessons from California, because, as you say, there is you know, whether one comes in from a perspective, a conservative perspective, where you're concerned about spending, this is a costly system. Our state correctional system costs us about 13 billion dollars a year. That does not include what the counties are spending on the correctional systems within the counties. So they're costly. And obviously, we want to make sure that we manage public safety and our correctional system in a cost effective way. So if there are alternatives, then that seems worthwhile looking for. And if one comes in from the more liberal perspective, it might be a concern about those who are involved with the criminal justice system as well as their families and communities. So there's more of a bipartisan movement to make changes to our criminal justice system. 

PAUL: [00:08:43] 
So you've done a lot of research on this over the last several years. It is a moving target with ongoing reforms. But for our listeners, maybe give us kind of a how's it going type pulse on these reforms taken as a whole. What does your research say? What does your initial research say and what is on the agenda to further evaluate this research? Because a lot of it takes time. A lot of it takes good data. Maybe, Magnus, talk a little bit about that. 

MAGNUS: [00:09:13] 
There are a variety of areas that have been affected by these reforms. And so we've certainly seen that we've reduced our prison population. So that's the first thing. That's what motivated these changes, the need for reducing the prison population. 

We reached a peak in around 2006. Since then, after these reforms, and this is pre-COVID, the prison population dropped by more than 50,000 inmates. That's a reduction of about 28 percent with the shift of AB 109, or realignment, we saw at first the jail population increase in the counties and created some capacity challenges for the counties. A lot of early releases because the counties did not have the space. The state provided funding to build up and add some capacity in terms of jails. But then when Prop 47 happened, we saw that the jail population decreased with the reclassification of a number of felony offenses that were drug and property to misdemeanors. So in terms of incarceration, we are at a very low level. So that's the first thing. Our reliance on incarceration has gone back to levels that we really hadn't seen since the early 1990s before we passed three strikes. That's a big impact there. You know, now the biggest question is what happened to things like public safety, right? 

PAUL: [00:10:32]
Right. A lot of critics listening to this conversation might just say that AB 109 was just a shift from the state to the counties, more eloquently known as a dump. What does your research say? And can you comment about that? 

MAGNUS: [00:10:46]
There's no doubt that we shifted those responsibilities. So, individuals who were convicted of these offenses are serving their time in the counties as opposed to in the state prison system. If they are picked up on a supervision violation, the revocation for that is at the county level as well. You can't ship them back to the state prison system. And then, of course, it added to the burden of the county probation department as well. And the inmate population, even though these released offenders who are coming to the county, they have not just served time for a violent or sexual offense, because they would stay under the state parole system if that's the case. But they're more for your property types of offenses. You have high recidivism rates among those offenders as well. So it definitely presented challenges to the counties, but the state did provide funding to the counties as well. And I think, you know, to me, one of the important takeaways from this is, this happened very quickly and it undoubtedly presented a big challenge to the counties. And when we look at then what happened in terms of crime rates or recidivism rates in all of this, we haven't seen any evidence of an impact on violent crime as a result of our reforms. We have seen some impacts in terms of property crime. When it came to realignment, we saw an uptick in auto thefts right after realignment that we said that was due because of realignment. When you fast forward to Prop 47, same thing. We have no evidence of an impact on violent crime, but we did find some evidence of impacts on property crime. This time it's on larcenies, car break ins, and some evidence of shoplifting as well. So there were some impacts there. 

PAUL: [00:12:32] 
And what's the research showing on the recidivism? Because that's the other half of the equation that was not just about the crime rate. Are we doing a little better job either at the state or local level on making sure folks don't reaffirmed? My understanding is much of AB 109 debate was also about trying to get better services, better rehabilitation services at the local level to these offenders, and hopefully steer them in a much better direction. 

MAGNUS: [00:12:57]
Right, absolutely. That was definitely, you know, motivation behind it and the way that it was designed. And the same thing with, you know, Prop 47, that actually provided some funding for reentry programming. And this is kind of a situation where it's whether the glass is half full or half empty depends on who you are. We haven't seen strong evidence that actual re-offending is down as a result of these reforms. It obviously doesn't mean that there are no programs that have led to improvements. But broadly speaking, we haven't seen evidence of improvement in terms of recidivism rates or re-offending rates. We spend much less in terms of locking people up for a supervision violation. In the past, it was not unusual that someone who was picked up on a parole supervision would spend two, three months in state prison. That's pretty costly. With realignment, that was really limited to 10 days or less in most cases. And so with that, we haven't seen an increase in re-offending rates either, so I think that the jury's still out on it. I think that we should give it a lot of credit to the counties for reacting and handling these challenges, because clearly it's not an easy situation to deal with. But, yes, I think it's fair to say we haven't seen the strong evidence yet that we are significantly, and broadly speaking, successful at improving reentry. And that's part of what research seeks to do, right?

PAUL:  Right. 

MAGNUS: [00:14:26] 
But we can identify the types of solutions and strategies that can improve reentry. And you mentioned data challenges. And that's a big part of this. This is challenging to get the data that can truly allow us to speak to this issue and identify what are those most effective solutions that have been implemented throughout California. What are the ones that can be replicated in other areas and possibly to a broader offender population? 

PAUL: [00:14:58]
Magnus, from what I'm picking up in your conversation, is that when you look at these reforms, particularly over the last 10 years, it sounds like we have met the test of the federal courts. So we've kind of solved that problem, i.e., we've lowered the prison population to get under those court orders. So that's obviously been a success. Second is, you just have not seen violent crime rise in any great, noticeable amount due to these reforms. But obviously, crimes against properties, there's been an uptick on that. And then the jury's still out on whether programs at the local level have improved recidivism rates and assisted those. So overall, kind of a mixed bag with that report card, if that's in fact what it is. 

MAGNUS: [00:15:42]
Well, I think it depends on how you're looking at it, right? in terms of the outcomes, if we focus on the public safety system, the crime rates and recidivism rates, we're not seeing increases except, you know, I gave you some examples of property crime that we tied to the reforms. But we also have many, many fewer individuals who are in our correctional system. And we're talking about dollars saved from that. And also in terms of the lives that the individuals who are part of the criminal justice system and have been part of it, and their families and communities as well. So it's hard to tell, but those are what we're seeing at a high level, as I said. And that's not only at the local level. We're talking about the state parole system as well. 

PAUL: [00:16:28] 
Are you aware of any other states that are looking to California's model, both the shifting from the state to the county with respect to more direct supervision by the counties? Are you seeing other states look at that? 

MAGNUS: [00:16:41] 
I think when it comes to the supervision of released offenders, we were and we continue to be a little bit of an outlier in the sense that we mandate supervision of released offenders to a much, much larger extent than most other states. Essentially, all offenders who come out of the state prison system are either going to the counties for post-release community supervision or in the state parole system. So in a sense, you know, we are quite different there and we're probably looking at other states to see if that's something we can reduce effectively as well. So that's one area where I would say we're not at the forefront of efforts and changes. 

PAUL: [00:17:24] 
And conversely, can you assess what might be out there that's working in other states that maybe California should look to? 

MAGNUS: [00:17:30]
Well, I think one of the things we're all, you know, looking at now is bail reform and pretrial detention. When we look at the county jail population, the vast majority of people who are in county jail are there on pretrial detention. And so then there are questions about what can be done. Can we reduce the pretrial detention levels that we are currently experiencing? And can we do so safely? So there are states that have implement the bail reform and handled this differently. And that's certainly something that people here in California have looked at. But we might actually be seeing some changes to pretrial detention and bail in California in the future. 

PAUL: [00:18:08]
Right. Voters are going to weigh in on that in November because there's a referendum of a statute the legislature passed a couple of years ago, drastically overhauling the bail system and the pretrial system. So that one's gonna be an interesting one, wouldn't you say? 

MAGNUS: [00:18:23] 
Absolutely. This is moving from bail being what determines whether you have money to get out of county jail or if it's using risk assessment tools, which is basically using data to predict the likelihood that someone is going to show up to court for a future court date or commit a crime while being out. So that's a big, big shift and will be very interesting to see how that plays out. 

PAUL: [00:18:49] 
Yeah, just putting a little plug in- we're going to be talking about that proposition in some upcoming episodes as we look at all of the propositions before voters head to the polls in November, or actually just fill out their ballot at home with the mail-in requirements. Let's talk a little bit about your research and, kind of, what you're seeing from a number of aspects. One. How's it going in rural California? And then, obviously, the big elephant in the room is the issue of racial disparity. It's a hot topic these days. Maybe spend a little bit time of where you see the disparities both between urban and rural sentencing and incarceration and offending rates, and then as well, that racial overview. 

MAGNUS: [00:19:30] 
Right. So one area where we have looked at, we've contrasted rural versus the more urban counties, is in terms of arrests. We've been working on a multi-year project, but we're trying to get a better sense of what the trends are in terms of arrests in California, but also differences across jurisdictions in the state and especially the counties. And we see some interesting patterns there. One is, we see, for example, that arrest rates measured by the number of arrests per 100,000 residents in a county, what we see there is that varies greatly across California. Some counties where you find the highest arrest rates, those arrest rates are about three times that of those counties where we have the lowest one. And what we see there is that the counties with the high arrest rate, they actually tend to be the rural counties. And we have looked at them, what can explain these kind of patterns? Why would they be higher in rural counties? And they're kind of like two factors that seem to be behind that. One, which is not surprising at all, that's crime rates. So the differences that we see arrest rates across counties tend to be driven primarily by differences in crime rates. So if there's a high violent crime rate, you're going to see higher violent arrest rates as well. And then more broadly, higher arrest rates. So that's one part of it. And then there's another part which is not unrelated to the crime rate. And that's about economic opportunities and economic conditions. So it tends to be that, you know, the high arrest counties are also those that have higher levels of poverty and fewer economic opportunities. So that's on just like broad level where we see more engagement in terms of arrests. But if we then focus in on racial disparity and how that differs across counties, we see different patterns there. It's definitely not one urban versus rural counties where you see that it's higher primarily in rural or urban counties. The factor that kind of typifies the counties where we have the highest racial disparity measured by the differences in the arrest rate of whites compared to African-Americans, are really, maybe surprisingly, are in the relatively wealthy counties. So it's not in poor counties that we see the highest racial disparity in California, it's really in the relatively wealthy counties. And the relatively wealthy counties of the bay area is where we see the highest levels of racial disparity in terms of arrests. 

PAUL: [00:22:02] 
Does your research show that certain crimes are committed more likely in a rural area? For example, I would assume production of illegal drugs, meth amphetamines, may be higher in rural areas then urbans, or is auto theft higher in urban areas than rural areas? Have you been able to determine that? 

MAGNUS: [00:22:22] 
We did look at that, and it's quite consistent with what you're describing there, Paul, especially when we're looking at drugs. So one big component of that that drives those differences, rural versus urban, are really drug offenses. That's a big part of it. We also see, if we look at it in terms of the types of crime rates that are associated with the higher arrest rates, it's, well, violent offenses. No surprise there. If there is a high violent crime rate, you're going to see higher violent arrest rates. But just broadly, the higher burglary rates that we see in California tend to be in the rural counties. And that's a factor that's also contributing to the higher arrest rates in rural counties. 

PAUL: [00:23:02] 
Yeah, that's interesting. Where do you get your debt and how do you put all this together? 

MAGNUS: [00:23:07]
And we get our data from a variety of sources and we spend a lot of time trying to get the data that can speak to these issues in a credible and reliable way. You know, we're an independent, nonpartisan organization and it's very, very important for us that we continue to have a reputation of being objective and reliable. One way to do that is to make our research data driven, and we are definitely an organization that relies on data. So we get it from a variety of sources. We have worked with counties themself. We work with county sheriff's department and probation departments. They've provided us with invaluable data that have helped us do research, especially around realignment. We also work with the state agencies. So we really collaborate with a variety of agencies at both the state and the local level to get as much as up to date data as possible. And that's kind of the challenge that we run into. It takes a lot of effort and oftentimes there's a lag of several years, so that's why it can be a little bit frustrating to get the answers about what the most recent reforms are doing in terms of their effectiveness and ability to reach the goals that were set.

PAUL: [00:24:18]
So what's next? 

We talked a little bit about, perhaps, bail reform and the voters weighing in on that. Voters are also going to consider another criminal justice measure. Maybe highlight what that is and where that could impact. And then maybe, Magnus, wrap up with where do we go from here and what thoughts you have, regardless of these two ballot measures, where you think things are headed. 

MAGNUS: [00:24:39]
We have a report coming out next week actually on pretrial detention and bail reform. We will continue to monitor and keep an eye on what happens in terms of bail reform, depending on what the voters decide. We also have Prop 20 includes some reversal of the reclassifications that took place as a part of Prop 47. 

PAUL: [00:25:00] 
Proposition 20 is the measure I just alluded to the where the voters will be weighing in on that in November. 

MAGNUS: [00:25:06] 
Correct.  And so, we had a report that came out just a month or two ago. But we looked at Prop 47 and racial disparity and we found that Prop 47 led to decreases in racial disparity and especially in the types of offenses that were reclassified, and especially in terms of drug offenses. So we actually have less racial disparity as a result of that particular reform. And so where we're going next is looking at other efforts within the criminal justice system that would reduce racial disparity. And interestingly, in this pandemic, a number of changes have been made to the criminal justice system, motivated by public health issues. And that includes local directives to reduce arrests and bookings into county jails. It includes the Judicial Council's emergency measure to put in place a zero bail for most lower level offenses. And what we're doing, and we have just gotten data from the State Department of Justice, we're going to look at how those kind of measures have affected racial disparity as well. And another big, big issue is coming back to this reentry side of things and the role of our state prison system and those individuals who come out of a state prison system. So we are currently working to get data to do evaluation on programming within the state prison system. So those are some of the things that we have in the pipeline. And given how quickly things change in this crazy world of ours, I'm sure there'll be other topics as well. 

PAUL: [00:26:41] 
Magnus Lofstrom of the Public Policy Institute of California, PPIC, fascinating stuff. Always learn a lot by talking to you. And I know our listeners will share that view as well. So thanks for spending some time with us, Magnus. Really appreciate it. And I hope our listeners were able to get some more insights. I also encourage listeners to go to the Public Policy Institute of California's website. There's some fascinating stuff, not just on criminal justice, but a whole host of public policy conversations. Once again, Magnus, thank you very much. 

MAGNUS: [00:27:10] 
Thank you. Thank you, Paul, for having me. 

OUTRO: [00:27:13]
You've been listening to Hometown California, a production of the Rural County Representatives of California. Subscribe now so you don't miss an episode, and be sure to rate and review this podcast. I'm your host, Paul Smith. And thanks for listening.