Dan Walters: Can crime again be big issue in California?

05/10/2013 12:00 AM

05/12/2013 2:39 PM

Crime dominated California's political landscape during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s before giving way to other preoccupations.

During that era, the state's voters and politicians debated – and decided – issues such as capital punishment, "three strikes and you're out," and prison construction, all hinged on voters' fears of becoming crime victims.

Governors and legislators were elected and un-elected on the crime issue, and voters ousted a chief justice who was against capital punishment. During one four-year span, Republicans defeated three Democratic state senators by accusing them of being soft on crime.

The state's prison population increased more than eightfold after the 1970s, and costs rose from a few hundred million dollars a year to nearly $10 billion.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association became one of the state's most powerful political players.

Crime faded as a decisive political issue largely because the crime rate, having hit a peak about 1980, receded sharply. Whether that was due to new tough-on-crime laws or demographic and economic factors is still a matter of debate.

Like fashions, hairstyles and tastes in popular music, politics tend to run in cycles. What's old becomes new again, and some believe California is ripe for a rebirth of crime as a high-impact political issue.

Overall crime rates have not jumped again, and crime barely registers in polls of voters' concerns, but Republican Party leaders, eager to arrest the GOP decline, seem to believe that angst over realignment, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to federal court pressure to cut prison overcrowding, could resonate.

Abel Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor aiming to become Brown's GOP foe next year, says he will spearhead a ballot measure campaign to repeal realignment, which has seen the state's prison population drop by about 40,000 inmates as newly convicted felons are redirected into county jails or probation.

Some local police authorities say realignment is causing a new wave of local crime, and Maldonado casts "early release" as a life-and-death issue.

Meanwhile, Republican legislative leaders, hoping to gain at least a few seats in 2014 legislative elections, have ginned up a media campaign accusing Brown and other Democrats of blocking bipartisan legislation from 2007 to build more prison and local jail capacity to ease overcrowding.

Brown has responded by placing the onus for any crime increase on the federal court.

Crime is a problematic issue, given little hard evidence that there's a significant new wave of felonious activity.

However, it's stung Democrats before – Brown felt its bite in his first governorship – and Republicans don't have many alternatives.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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