As a result of legislative and court cases, many California prisoners have been released early, and, according to this story in the New York Times, very few are returning to prison for new crimes.

A key element in interpreting these stories from a liberal press who generally do not approve of prison, is to pay attention to what is actually being said.

In this case, the key statement is “just 4.7 percent of the former life prisoners have returned to prison for new crimes”, where the proper evaluative results would have been derived by the question, “how many of the former life prisoners have been arrested since getting out”.

Because of the early release legislation and court cases, many crimes that were prison crimes have now been reduced to county jail or probation level crimes; consequently, using “returned to prison” as the criteria for success or failure is deceptive.

Fortunately, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (disclosure: I once served on its Board of Trustees) keeps track of stuff like this and sound information can be found here   and here

An excerpt from the New York Times article.

Formerly branded career criminals, those released over the last two years have returned to crime at a remarkably low rate — partly because they had aged in prison, experts say, and because participation in crime declines steadily after age 25, but also because of the intense practical aid and counseling many have received. And California’s experience with the release of these inmates provides one way forward as the country considers how to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.

“I hope the enduring lesson is that all of these people are not hopeless recidivists,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which provides legal aid to prisoners and training to public defenders.

“Those who remain dangerous should be kept behind bars,” added Mr. Romano, who was an author of the 2012 revisions. “But there are many people in prison who are no threat to public safety.”

More than 20 states joined California in adopting some form of a three-strikes law. But California’s was perhaps the country’s harshest and contributed to a soaring prison population. The state, under court order to reduce prison crowding, has diverted low-level felons to county jails and, after another voter initiative last year, has redefined minor thefts and drug possession as misdemeanors….

After being free for an average of more than 18 months, just 4.7 percent of the former life prisoners have returned to prison for new crimes, usually burglaries or drug crimes. By comparison, Mr. Romano calculates based on state data, of all inmates released from California prisons, about 45 percent return for new crimes over a similar period.

Retrieved February 26, 2015 from