Methods: Using data from The Vera Institute of Justice and The U.S. Census Bureau to create state-level incarceration rates and racial and gender disparity rates for the years 2000-2015, we employ a quasi-experimental synthetic control method (SCM) to examine the impact of the reforms on: 1) total incarceration rate (prison and jail); 2) racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration rates; 3) and the male-female gap in incarceration. SCM, an innovative methodology used in policy evaluation, uses a data-driven approach to match the treated state (California) to a weighted combination of other states (the synthetic control group) that has trends in incarceration that are nearly identical to those in California prior to the reform. If California’s incarceration trends prior to the reform closely match the synthetic control group, post-reform differences between California and the synthetic control group reveal the effect of the reforms.
Results: Analyses suggest several key findings. First, California’s reforms have substantially reduced its total incarceration rate, a central goal of the reform efforts and a main objective of the Smart Decarceration initiative. Second, California’s reforms have not affected all populations equally. Perhaps most significantly, our results suggest that California’s reforms exacerbated racial disparities in incarceration. The Black-White incarceration gap and the Latinx-White incarceration gap both increased after California’s reforms. In terms of gender, we also find that California’s reforms increased the gap between male and female incarceration rates.
Discussion: This study takes into account four significant corrections policy reform efforts at reducing California’s prison population. Our results suggest that race-neutral decarceration efforts like California’s are likely to reduce incarceration overall but are not likely to help with the important Smart Decarceration goal of reducing racial disparities in incarceration. Thus, to reduce racial disparities, policy-makers likely need to make this an explicit aim of their policies.