By Kerry Jackson
California was once known for being tough on criminals. We’re not talking about frontier days, but much more recently.
It was only five years ago when the Washington Post’s Max Ehrenfreund wrote that “California’s criminal justice system has long been among the most punitive.” At one time, Newsweek said, the state’s three-strikes law was “the toughest in the nation.” Even Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was “more conservative on criminal justice issues than this Republican predecessors,” according to the New York Times.
Simply put, Californians had little patience with crime.
The pendulum, however, has swung hard in the other direction. Within this cycle, there has been an increase in crime. In raw numbers, violent criminal incidents have increased for three straight years, from a valley of 151,425 in 2013, to 178,553 in 2017, according to the state’s most recent data.
Rates have gone up, as well, from 393.3 incidents per 100,000 population in 2014 to 450.7 in 2017.
Homicides jumped 9.1% from 2014 to 2015, after falling for two straight years. They rose again by 2.1% from 2015 to 2016, then fell 6.1% from 2016 to 2017.
Incidents of rape have continued to climb, from 19.5 per 100,000 in 2013, nearly doubling to 37.2 by 2017. The increase from 2015 to 2016 was 6.4%, followed by a 6.9% jump from 2016 to 2017.
The raw numbers as well as the rates of robbery and aggravated assault have also grown over the last three years.
In the latest year from which data are available, California’s property crime rate (2,491 per 100,000) is higher than the national average (2,362 per 100,000).
Among the biggest property-crime concerns is the sharp rise in automobile break-ins. There were a little more than 200,000 incidents in 2014. Over the next three years, the numbers grew, reaching 256,625 in 2017.
The recent uptick has not been solely driven by urban crime. Rural residents have also been increasingly victimized. And it’s possible rural crime is worse than the data suggest. Columnist, scholar, and lifelong California resident Victor Davis Hanson has said that rural residents believe 75% of the crime in the countryside goes unreported because they “know the authorities are short-handed or that little will be done to those if caught.”
Though crime rates have not returned to the historical highs they reached in earlier decades — the late 1970s for property crimes, the early 1990s for violent crimes — the recent increase in serious felonies against persons has heightened concerns. The trend has also sent some in search of an explanation.
One common school of thought is a strong belief that policy overhauls enacted in recent years intended to reduce the state’s prison population (Assembly Bill 109) and reform the state’s criminal sentencing laws (Propositions 47 and 57), largely in response to a federal order to ease overcrowded conditions, are directly responsible for the growth in criminal activity.
Critics say the changes have released inmates back into the streets before they should have been, leaving them free to commit crimes they should still be serving time for, and in some cases keeps them from serving any meaningful time at all. One former prosecutor calls these “reforms” a “dangerous trifecta … that radically altered our state’s approach to crime and punishment.”
On the other side are those who don’t believe the policies are contributing to increased crime. There has been some scholarly research on the subject, but it’s too early to truly tell how much impact the reforms had on criminal activity.
What we do know is that there is a correlation between the policy changes and the three-year in increase criminal activity that began in 2015. Establishing causation, or demonstrating the lack thereof, requires a greater sample size. We just won’t know for sure until a few more years pass. But it is quite likely that the sharp surge in some property crimes in 2015 can in part be attributed to Prop 47, which reduced penalties for grand theft, shoplifting, bad checks, receiving stolen goods, and other crimes.
The desire to make the state’s criminal justice system more just and to preserve civil liberties is laudable. But the state has obligations to victims as well as a duty to discourage future crime. This is the balance policymakers must seek.
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