Violent Crime in California Falls to Lowest Rate Since 1967

California Justice Department Data for 2013 Mirror National Trend of Falling Crime, Incarceration Rates

Updated Oct. 3, 2014 7:09 p.m. ET

Inmates flash hand signals at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. California Justice Department data showed the state’s crime rates for 2013 fell amid a prison overhaul. Associated Press

Crime in California dropped in 2013 even as the state has undertaken a prison overhaul that has resulted in fewer people being locked up.

Violent crime fell to its lowest rate since 1967, and property crime declined after an uptick in 2012, according to the California Justice Department. The data mirror a national trend of falling crime and incarceration rates.

State officials and criminal-justice experts across the country have been watching California’s crime rate as the state carries out what criminologists have called a historic prisoner-reduction experiment.

The state-prison population has dropped by about 25,000 since 2011, when California embarked on a policy of “realignment,” which has moved some nonviolent offenders to counties.

The shift has resulted in thousands of people on the street who in the past would have been behind bars. To be sure, the county-jail population has grown by about 10,000. But some counties have been forced to release offenders because of overcrowding, while others are choosing rehabilitation programs over incarceration. In 2013, researchers found that 18,000 offenders who would have been in either prison or jail in years past weren’t serving time behind bars.

Local law-enforcement officials had blamed the 2012 property-crime jump on the realignment, as many counties grappled with the influx of low-level criminals such as thieves and drug offenders. The recent drop in property crime, they say, is because rehabilitation programs counties have put into place are starting to take effect.

“I believe that spike in property crime is directly attributable to realignment,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association. “And the decline is attributable to our efforts in programming: expanding partnerships with community-based organizations and focusing on rehabilitative opportunities.”

State officials in charge of realignment said it was too soon to draw conclusions from the new figures, released a week ago.

“While it’s still too early to attribute a decrease in crime to any one factor, it’s heartening to see this and we take it as a positive sign,” said Linda Penner, who chairs the Board of State and Community Corrections and is Gov. Jerry Brown ’s liaison on public safety issues.

Criminal-justice experts say it isn’t surprising the crime rate is falling despite long-term falls in the prison population.

“The bigger things that drive crime rates are demographics, economics and police,” said James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a criminal-justice research group. “The prison stuff is really about punishment—it’s simply not that big of a hammer for the crime rate.”

Mr. Austin said the new crime numbers show those who argued realignment was behind the 2012 property-crime rise were incorrect to link the two.

Meanwhile, researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California concluded last year that there was “robust evidence” realignment was related to the 2012 increase in property crime, in particular car theft. Magnus Lofstrom, senior fellow at the PPIC, noted that both the jail population and state prison population edged up in 2013 in California.

That, as well as county programs taking hold and an improving economy, could be contributing factors to the drop in 2013, he said.

“I think its promising—we’re seeing improvement in the measure that is arguably most important,” said Mr. Lofstrom.

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Corrections & Amplifications

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson is president of the California State Sheriff’s Association. An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the organization.