The Crime Issue Rises

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

The murder of Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer and the big increase of property crimes have highlighted growing concern over the consequences of recent legislation and ballot measures that have opened prison doors. The crime issue, so powerful in the final decades of the last century, is rising again in the public consciousness.

In the 1980s and 1990s, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson captured the governor’s office in part because of their strong anti-crime agendas. The three-strikes law was passed at the time and Wilson supported a number of ballot measures tagged as tough on crime.

In a Sacramento Bee op-ed published before the last election Wilson wrote, “The three strikes initiative approved in 1994 and other sensible crime control laws prevented millions of Californians from becoming crime victims. It would be gross dereliction of duty to discard laws that have provided us protection of such proven effectiveness.”

However, voters chose to support Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced many property crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor, and Prop 57 in 2016, which reduced penalties for drug possession. The legislature passed and the governor signed AB 109 to relieve prison overcrowding under court order. Public safety officials have made no secret in their belief that these actions lead to increased crime activity. In particular, burglaries are up with many apprehended criminals quickly released because of the reduction in penalties under the ballot propositions. Home burglaries are considered non-violent and have minimum penalties.

Whittier police chief Jeff Piper saying, “Enough is enough,” blamed his officers killing on the lenient criminal justice laws. The alleged killer had recently been released from jail. Los Angeles County sheriff Jim McDonnell pointed to Props 47 and 57 and AB 109 for releasing too many criminals without providing rehabilitation services. An LAPD officer, speaking to the San Fernando Valley community group, Valley Vote, brought up the legislation and initiatives as reasons property crime increased.

Efforts to reform the justice system and reduce prison overcrowding prompted the law changes. Voters are sympathetic to efforts allowing prisoners to achieve rehabilitation. Voters passed both ballot initiatives despite major opposition from the public safety community. Elected officials have also moved in the direction of reform and rehabilitation. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even added the term “rehabilitation” to the Department of Corrections to create the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

A frustrated Jonathan Shapiro, former federal prosecutor and former chair of California’s Little Hoover Commission, complained in a Los Angeles Daily News op-ed about the lack of response to the Little Hoover Commission’s suggestions of reforms and funding of the corrections department:Whether Mejia’s (Officer Boyer’s alleged killer) release from state prison was directly due to Proposition 47 or AB109 is irrelevant. It was the state’s movement of convicts to already underfunded and overwhelmed counties that has swamped probation offices, vastly increasing probation officers’ caseloads, and rendering them unable to keep tabs on men like Mejia.”

But the consequences on the street and in people’s lives have changed the tone of the conversation. Look at neighborhood websites with constant chatter about break-ins and suspicious activity, and how to set up alarm systems and security cameras.

The news media is starting to focus on this issue. This report from CBS Los Angeles blames the jump in burglaries on early inmate release. This KTLA Channel 5 report has a police captain noting that the criminals know about the law changes and are responding accordingly.

Will there be a movement to have voters reconsider the ballot measures either through legislative action or a new ballot measure? It probably starts with debates over crime in the next statewide election. The crime issue will be a major piece of the governor’s race in 2018.

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