Once upon a time, only three decades ago, crime and punishment were a powerful political message in California. No more. Results of the November election indicate that voters are looking for different avenues to deal with crime and punishment issues.

The state that pioneered the Three Strikes movement and built new prisons to accommodate many additional prisoners, continued on the path of reversing those trends. In recent elections, the Three Strikes law was modified, prisoners were released, and sending individuals to prison was made harder.

Advocates for a tougher stance on crime sensed it was time to try and rollback recent changes in the law designed to reduce the number of prisoners. The thinking was that an increase in property crimes including plentiful shoplifting incidents with no repercussions or smashed car windows and more would have voters rethink their recent change of heart. This election, efforts to reverse the recent trends were foiled for the most part and a more progressive agenda dealing with crime was enhanced. 

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 20 was handily defeated. Its purpose was to reverse pieces of two ballot measures from the last decade that changed some felonies to misdemeanors and made it easier for prisoners to be paroled. The proposition never got out of the starting blocks despite solid police organization support, falling 37.7% to 62.3%. Convicted felons on parole were granted a right to vote by the voters when they passed Proposition 17 by a lopsided 59% to 41% margin.

In Los Angeles County, the race for District Attorney was a match between the rhetoric for progressive reforms and stricter response to police malfeasance offered by challenger George Gascón and incumbent Jackie Lacey, who was by no means an old-time conservative prosecutor, but was favored by law enforcement but not by the justice reformers. Gascón holds a lead of 53.8% to 46.2%.

In the same mold, L.A. voters supported a ballot measure with 57% of the vote to move 10% of the county’s budget to pay for social service and other programs to reduce the need for more incarcerations. None of the designated money can be used for jails or law enforcement. While not a direct proposal to defund policing agencies, budget experts expect money for the diversion will come from law enforcement funds.

The only measure that can be argued that went against the grain of more progressive justice reforms was the defeat of Proposition 25, the referendum to wipe out a legislative bill that eliminated the cash bail system. However, one wonders if the complexity of the referendum process helped assist the scuttling of the cash bail ballot measure. With a referendum, the desire to keep the legislative act in place requires a yes vote; to kill the law passed by the legislature takes a no vote. When concerned voters say with frustration about ballot measures, “a yes means no and a no means yes,” they probably have referendum voting in mind. Did such thinking help bring the cash bail reform down?

There is no question that California has changed in many ways in the last few decades, and public policy over crime and punishment and the attitude toward police has definitely dropped a few notches. Despite anecdotal evidence of increased crime, there has yet to be a backlash against this new policy direction as the recent election attests. 

However, if crime grows, attitudes and votes will change.