Editor’s note: This commentary was originally published in print on April 23 as part of a pro-con debate page. To read the counterpoint, click here.
Have California’s criminal justice reforms gone too far?
Last year I was commissioned by the Pacific Research Institute to conduct a study on crime in California. That study is titled “Paradise Lost — Crime in the Golden State 2011-2021,” which was published February 2022.
The results of the report show a decline in public safety in California. From the passage of Assembly Bill 109 in 2011 to voter passage of Propositions 47 and 57 to the last vote of the last session of the California Legislature in 2021, more Californians are dead, have been sexually assaulted, are the victims of injury, and have had more property stolen than if all of the legislative and public policy of the last ten years had not occurred.
In 2011, Californians were as safe as we had ever been. For example, the number of homicides that year was 1,794. One would have to go back to 1971 to find a lower number. Rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies, and total property crimes were also amongst the lowest in recorded statistics.
What got us there? Three Strikes. In 1993 California’s homicide number reached a record high of 4,096 and Californians had enough. Three Strikes went on the ballot and despite dire predictions by the then Department of Corrections of exploding prison populations, the opposite happened. From a pre-Three Strikes population increase of 190% the year before passage the rate of incarceration after passage slowed to just 30%. The reason why? Deterrence. So effective was Three Strikes at lowering the violent crime rate that from 1994-2011 28,169 lives were saved than would have otherwise been lost had homicides stayed at their 1993 level and not increased, which they certainly would have. Three Strikes had another benefit. The rate of Black incarceration dropped 34% after its passage.
In 2021, the last full year of published crime statistics in California, there were over 1 million reported crimes. About 18% or 183,546 were violent and the 82% or 857,599 were property crimes. That’s up 6.7% for violent crime and 3% for property crime over 2020, which was in turn up over 2019.
In fact, for the ten-year period of the study a number of troubling crime trends in serious crimes emerged. Homicides had risen 31.6%, aggravated assaults rose 34.6%, rapes rose 88.7% and overdose deaths when viewed back to 2000 when earlier drug reforms like Pro.p 36 began had risen from 1,226 in 2000 to nearly 10,000 in 2021, an increase of 715%.
What was wrong in 2011? Prisons were overcrowded, racial overrepresentations persisted and rehabilitation programs opportunities were limited. But rather than increase capacity and improve rehabilitation programming under AB 109 tens of thousands of prison inmates who were unfit for release were released or transferred to county jails.
Under Prop. 47 we effectively decriminalized thefts of under $950 in value as well as possession of “personal use” amounts of dangerous drugs. Comparisons to other states with similar theft thresholds don’t hold up when you consider California’s overreliance on non-custodial punishment. Probation doesn’t matter to thieves and addicts. With Prop. 57 we further reduced the prison population by making all classifications of inmates except those serving life without the possibility of parole or who were under the sentence of death eligible for release.
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New rules for evaluating prisoners for release require that a prisoner convicted of multiple counts be evaluated as if they had only one count and the use of a firearm or membership in a street gang cannot be included. Did they complete a program? No matter — as long as they indicate a willingness to participate in a rehabilitation program they are given early release credits. None of the Prop. 57 inmates are required to appear before the parole board. Their release is automatic based on formula established by Prop. 57 and court interpretations of the intent of the statue.
Reducing crime, incarceration, and racial overrepresentations cannot be done without changing incentives. Reformers know this but they have gone about it in the wrong order and they have forgotten the lesson of deterrence.
When I added it all up our current program of decarceration and decriminalization to prevent so called mass incarceration has given us a new reality for 2023 — that of mass victimization.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: Crime in the Golden State 2011-2021.”