WASHINGTON (July 18, 2017) – California has a long history of pioneering criminal justice reforms. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, such reforms mostly toughened the state’s approach to handling criminals, with some of the most significant policy reforms implemented at the ballot box. More recently, as overall crime rates have fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s, the state has led the way both to soften earlier approaches and to implement innovative policies that reduce sentences for some offenders.

In a new white paper, R Street Institute Senior Fellow Steven Greenhut places these shifts in historical context, examining a few of the most significant reform policies that have passed through the Legislature or been put to voters through the state’s robust initiative process.

“There is an old saying,” notes Steven Greenhut. “As California goes, so goes the nation. As such, it is worth seeing where the state is headed on this crucial issue. California’s past approaches—especially its ‘three-strikes’ law— have become models for other states, although such policies have led to some troubling results.”

The more recent shifts have been driven in part by a prison-overcrowding crisis, but public sentiment has also changed over the years. Not every new proposal is ideal, of course, and California has yet to embrace the kind of wide-ranging reforms in its corrections bureaucracy that have been implemented by Texas, for instance, writes Greenhut.

“California still has an astoundingly high recidivism rate of approximately 65 percent,” notes Greenhut. “The question remains whether current upward trends in crime rates will lead to increased fear among the general public and a scuttling of the state’s efforts to move away from its longstanding, but expensive and counterproductive ‘law and order’ approach. However, it would be a shame if the state abandons attempts at meaningful reform before the bulk of their efforts have an opportunity to be closely examined for long-term results.”

R Street is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization whose mission is to promote free markets and limited, effective government. It has headquarters in Washington, D.C. and five regional offices across the country. Its website is www.rstreet.org.

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