By Chris Adams

California, the nation’s largest and one of its most politically liberal states, has long been a laboratory for social and political changes. And on the issue criminal justice system, the Golden State’s widespread changes over the past decade may be doing so.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Charis Kubrin of the University of California, Irvine, detailed how California has drastically remade its criminal justice system – and how academics have attempted to analyze those changes.

Kubrin (bio, Twitter) is a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and has studied the impact of the state’s effort to downsize its prison population, as well as other changes put in place by state order Many of those changes are controversial and could be undone by voters, but they offer a hint of what may happen if other states follow California’s lead.

“California is one of the biggest criminal justice experiments in the history of the criminal justice system,” she said. “Basically, everybody is watching California now.”

Among the changes:

  • Rapidly decreasing the state’s prison population, after decades of rapid growth. The population peaked at 173,000 in 2006, despite the fact that the prisons were only designed to hold 79,000 people. After a Supreme Court ruling that prisons were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment, the state began reducing its prison rolls by 33,000 people.
  • A proposition that reduced certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors  and required misdemeanors sentencing for certain crimes such as shoplifting, petty theft, receiving stolen property and writing a bad check.

Both changes were politically contentious and led to worries and alarming claims that crime would spike. But neither initiative had funds in place to actually evaluate the impact of the changes. Did, in fact, crime go up?

Kubrin has done the research to answer that question. For crime offenses such as homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery, there has been no impact from the state’s changes. On the property crime of burglary, there was also no impact.

Her bottom line: “We can downsize our prisons without risking public safety.”

Kubrin also pointed to an ongoing problem with the way research such as hers gets to the public. Compared with journalists, most researchers operate at a glacial pace – even though they would love to see their work reach the public through mass media. Journalists, meanwhile, need to get a story out today, and they need relatively simple conclusions. The two sides also talk in different languages – particularly researchers, whose work is larded up with dense statistics and scientific qualifiers.

Kubrin encouraged reporters to talk with researchers on an ongoing basis, and not just for that day’s story. Over time, they might come to better understand how such research is done, and the researchers might come to better understand how to communicate with the media – and therefore the public.