Periodically, California experiences an uptick in crime — or at least an increase in public consciousness and concern about crime — and it becomes a political issue.
During the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, as crime rates and public fears were peaking, Republicans made big election gains by accusing Democratic rivals of being soft on crime.
Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson rode the issue into the governorship, Republicans made substantial gains in the Legislature and it contributed greatly to three liberal Supreme Court justices being ousted by voters.
The era also saw a spate of lock-‘em-up sentencing laws, such as “three strikes and you’re out,” that packed the prisons with tens of thousands of additional felons.
By and by, as crime rates declined and the state’s politics drifted leftward, the issue reversed itself. Over the last decade a series of legislative acts and ballot measures has softened punishments and reduced the prison population by a third, with former Gov. Jerry Brown leading the “criminal justice reform” movement.
The current governor, Gavin Newsom, has largely continued Brown’s policies, unilaterally suspending the execution of murderers and proposing to shut down some prisons. It was a bit odd, therefore, to see Newsom publicly denounce lawbreakers last week after a series of smash-and-grab raids on high-end retail outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California.
“The level of organized retail theft we are seeing is simply unacceptable,” said Newsom said. “Businesses and customers should feel safe while doing their holiday shopping.”
San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who faces a recall election on allegations that he has been too soft on crime, announced felony charges against nine people arrested for retail thefts, saying, “These brazen acts will not be tolerated in San Francisco.”
Despite the response to retail thefts, the state’s more serious problem is a disturbing increase in violent crime. The state saw a 31% increase in homicides in 2020 to 2,258, the most since 2007.
As Newsom was decrying the retail thefts last week, Oakland’s police chief, LeRonne Armstrong, was announcing the city’s 100th homicide of the year and saying, “If this is not a call to everyone in the community that this is a crisis, I don’t know what is.” Oakland had seen 66 homicides by this time last year and 52 in 2019.
The responses by Newsom and Boudin imply that they see political peril in concerns about crime. The situation also emboldens critics of the recent actions to soften criminal penalties, such as Proposition 47 in 2014 and Jerry Brown’s Proposition 57 in 2016.
One of them is Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former police officer who was a sponsor of Proposition 20, an unsuccessful 2020 measure to undo some provisions of the previous initiatives.
“The public needs to know that there is a direct correlation between rampant serial theft and voters being duped by proponents of Proposition 47,” said Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove. “We are watching an epidemic of theft caused by Proposition 47 that over promised and under delivered, which has quite literally, turned California into the Wild Wild West.”
So will crime be an issue for the 2020 elections, when Newsom, Boudin and other political figures, such as Attorney General Rob Bonta, face voters?
Sacramento’s district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, is running against Bonta as a tough-on-crime prosecutor. Boudin’s recall will also be on the ballot, and critics of Los Angeles’ district attorney, George Gascón, are also trying to recall him.
If crime, particularly violent crime, continues its upward swing, it could, indeed, become 2022’s hot button election issue.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.