Property crimes across the state rose 7.6 percent this year, and Santa Clara County was hit the worst, with an increase of 20.4 percent, according to a recent report that pins the rise on California's controversial prisoner-realignment policy.
The report by the Public Policy Institute of California states that the policy, which aims to reduce the state's overcrowded prisons, didn't appear to change rates in violent crime like murder or rape. But its effect on auto theft rates was particularly pronounced, with an increase of 14.8 percent or 24,000 more auto thefts per year.
Realignment went into effect on Oct. 1, 2011, in response to a federal court order for California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. It shifts responsibility for nonviolent criminals from the state to local level by sending some prisoners to jail instead of prison. It quickly reduced the state's prison population by 27,000, but two thirds -- about 18,000 -- who would have been in prison or jail before the shift are now on the streets, according to the report.
Crime rates varied widely across the state, but the 10 largest counties generally saw greater increases in crime than in the state overall, according to the report. Palo Alto police statistics show car theft rose 26.3 percent, larceny increased 11.8 percent and burglary rose 15.6 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Counties with high incarceration rates experienced higher crime after more prisoners were released back to their counties through realignment, the report states. The increase is higher than in states where crime trends were similar to California's before realignment. Nationwide, property crime decreased slightly.
The rising crime numbers related to prisoner early releases are concerning, the authors wrote. California still has 8,000 state prison inmates before it reaches its court-mandated limit of 110,000. If the state further reduces the prison population rather than transferring prisoners to other facilities, the effect on property crime could be 7 to 12 percent greater per released offender, the authors noted.
Violent crime, including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, did rise 3.4 percent during the same time period, but the increases appear to be part of a broader trend. They were also experienced other states, according to the report.
Robberies increased modestly, to about 6 per year per 100,000 residents, which do appear related to realignment.
Magnus Lofstrom, an Institute research fellow and report co-author, took a longer view.
"Realignment has brought enormous change to California, and it appears to have affected auto thefts, in particular. Nonetheless, despite recent increases, rates of property and violent crime remain at historically low levels in the state, substantially lower than they were a decade ago," he said.
From a cost-versus-benefit perspective, additional prison time does not necessarily pay, the authors said.
Each prison year served by a realigned offender prevents 1.2 auto thefts, the authors estimate. An auto theft costs on average $9,533, according to a RAND Corporation study. One prison year would prevent $11,783 in auto-theft-related costs. But the annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner for one year is $51,889 in California, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office.
Alternatives could improve public safety at lower cost. Spending an additional dollar on policing would prevent more crimes -- 3.5 to 7 times as many -- than spending it on prison incarceration, the study found.