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The Diminishing Returns of Incarceration: Evidence from California’s Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (SACPA)

  • Author(s): Bartos, Bradley Jerome
  • Advisor(s): McCleary, Richard D
  • et al.

An inefficient reliance on incarceration as a means to reduce crime has led to massive costs and widespread demand for reform. However, criminal justice policymakers since the “Tough on Crime” era have been reluctant to support decarceration reforms out of fear that the reforms could be perceived to threaten public safety, and by extension, their chances at re-election. The current study examines a precursor to the national decarceration movement sparked by the 2008 Financial Crisis, California’s Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (SACPA). Using synthetic control group methods, this study evaluates whether SACPA threatened public safety or cost more than it saved, as critics predicted. The results suggest UCR Part 1 property crimes increased and aggravated assaults decreased in the years following SACPAs implementation. Although motor vehicle thefts and other property crimes increased following the intervention, almost no support was found for the claim that SACPA caused violent crime to increase and threaten public safety. The estimated increases in motor vehicle theft, burglary, larceny-theft, and robbery are translated into costs using both a conservative and a generous “cost-per-offense” metric. The combined cost of the estimated property crime increases from 2001 to 2006 amounts to less than a quarter of California’s SACPA-related savings over the same time period. Thus, SACPA, a decarceration measure opposed by criminal justice policymakers because it would endanger public safety and cost more than it saved, resulted in substantial savings and no net effect on violent crime in the five years following its implementation.

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