California’s 35th governor, George Deukmejian, built much of his political capital being tough on crime. The former attorney general wrote the state’s capital punishment law while in the legislature. While governor, Deukmejian supported strong crime laws and appointed tough judges. He built new prisons and while he served as governor the prison population increased three-fold. I bring up the former governor because the issues of crime and punishment that propelled his political rise appear to be once again taking hold as a priority concern of voters as we head into the election of 2016 and beyond.
In part due to the prisoner build-up that started in the 1980s, courts and activists have combined to try to reduce prison populations through legislation (AB 109) moving state prisoners to local lock-ups pressuring local officials to release some prisoners early, and Proposition 47 that downgraded some drug possession and theft crimes to misdemeanors.
In other words, more people who use to be in prison are out on the street and there is evidence that a number return to the life of crime.
A Los Angeles Times review found that property crime has increased in nine of California’s 10 largest cities so far this year compared with the same period last year. Violent crime was up in all 10.
Will these circumstances bring us full circle and re-energize law and order candidates?
Police officers are becoming more vocal about the effects these measures are having on public safety. One LAPD officer went on a public blog to urge voters to consider that so-called non-violent offenders often have violent pasts and the voters must do their homework before voting on measures like Prop 47 or supporting AB 109. His commentary was written after a suspect recently released from prison because of AB 109 realignment was arrested after allegedly committing seven robberies over two days.
It is not just the police who have stories to tell about how the changes in law affected the crime and justice landscape.
In a Los Angeles Times article headlined Unintended consequences of Prop 47 pose challenge to criminal justice system, a repeat offender arrested 16 times, was quoted: “Now, you can get away with it because of Proposition 47.”
While prison populations have been reduced because of new laws and advocates of those laws say taxpayer money is saved, the police officer on the blog said more than tax dollars must be considered when criminals with violent pasts are put back on the streets.
On top of the rise in crime, the death penalty issue gained prominence again when the Ninth Circuit recently reaffirmed California’s death penalty. In addition, security concerns rose to new heights with overseas terrorist attacks.
These are different times than when Gov. Deukmejian was taking his tough law and order stands in the 1980s. One clear example—the multiple efforts to legalize marijuana on next year’s ballot. Quite a different atmosphere than when as attorney general, Deukmejian participated in a raid on a Northern California marijuana farm.
But the public safety issue can have great sway in elections when voters feel criminals are gaining the upper hand. That’s why it would not be surprising to see candidates rallying around the crime and justice issues—some hoping to ride those issues to higher offices in the same way George Deukmejian did.