Abstract: Were California's Decarceration Efforts Smart? a Quasi-Experimental Examination of Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Disparities (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Were California's Decarceration Efforts Smart? a Quasi-Experimental Examination of Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Disparities

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salong 13, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Aaron Gottlieb, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Pajarita Charles, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Jean Kjellstrand, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Branden McLeod, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
JanaƩ Bonsu, Doctoral Student, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background: In the last 10 years, California has undertaken perhaps the largest decarceration effort in recent U.S. history. In response to a federal mandate requiring a reduction in overcrowding, California implemented several reforms to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in state prisons. While previous research has examined the effects of these reforms, much of this literature has been limited to an assessment of impact on crime. Other research evaluating incarceration rates to assess if the policy reduced overcrowding is also limited because prison and jail rates are generally examined separately, the focus is usually on one specific reform rather than the full set of reform efforts, and a control group has not been incorporated into the methodology. Perhaps most importantly, little is known about how California’s reform efforts have impacted different groups. In an era of smart decarceration, knowing who has benefited most (or least) from criminal justice reforms is needed in order to inform future policies. In this study, we examine how California’s reforms affected the total incarcerated population, racial and ethnic disparities, and the male-female gap in incarceration. This study has direct implications for advancing smart decarceration goals which include reducing the incarcerated population and redressing disparities.

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.