In the main, issues that dominate any session of the California Legislature reflect what the public and news media consider at the time to be the most burning.
That’s why, for instance, the state’s acute housing shortage will receive much attention during the final month of this year’s session.
During Jerry Brown’s first governorship four decades ago, the most burning issue was the state’s sharply rising crime rate. It decided many contests for statewide, legislative and local offices and worked particularly well for Republicans.
Brown, Republican successors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson and legislators sharply increased penalties and built dozens of new prisons. Voters also reflected the lock-’em-up tenor of the times with such measures as the “three-strikes-you’re-out” sentencing law, imposing life sentences on repeat felons. It passed by a nearly 3-1 margin in 1994.
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California went from having about 20,000 prison inmates when Brown began his first stint as governor to a peak of over 160,000 before federal judges began ordering the severe overcrowding in prisons reduced just before he returned as governor in 2011.
Voter passage of the three-strikes measure occurred just after California’s dramatic increase in crime, both violent and non-violent, hit a peak. Its violent crime rate had more than tripled from 298 per 100,000 population in 1966 to 1,104 in 1992, according to the state Department of Justice’s recently updated crime report.
Over the next couple of decades, crime rates trended downward, sparking a perpetual debate over whether tough sentencing policies have paid off with less crime, or whether changing economic and demographic conditions caused the decline.
Since 2010, California’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted dramatically. With Brown’s return, a more liberal Legislature and federal court orders on prison overcrowding, California reversed course, softening penalties for many crimes and adopting more lenient parole and probation policies.
Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014, was a landmark, downgrading many felonies, particularly drug offenses, to misdemeanors. Another was the Brown-sponsored Proposition 57 last year that undid many tough sentencing laws, including those he signed during his first governorship.
The state’s prison population has declined by more than 25 percent to comply with federal court orders, in part by diverting low-level felons into local jails via “realignment.”
Law enforcement officials and prosecutors generally opposed the new leniency, warning that putting fewer miscreants behind bars would inevitably increase crime. And the latest state crime report may point in that direction.
While property crimes such as burglary and car theft have continued to decline, down 1.9 percent from 2011 to 2016, violent crimes have spiked, up 7.4 percent during that period, with “aggravated assault” seeing the biggest jump.
“Releasing thieves to commit more crimes and allowing drug offenders to roam freely in the community without mandating and imposing treatment does absolutely nothing to diminish criminal behavior. It increases crime, and it is simply reckless,” Robert Sass, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, told the Los Angeles Daily News.
To be fair, the crime rate, 444 per 100,000 in 2016, is still a fraction of what it was 25 years ago, but the recent upward trend is troubling. Crime, after all, isn’t just a statistical game. It’s a human tragedy for the 174,701 Californians who were victims of violent crime in 2016, and California’s new leniency likely caused some of their pain.
If the upward trend continues, it might once again re-emerge as a burning political issue.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism venture. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.