News Analysis
By Drew Phelps

After decades of statewide decline in crime, California is beginning to see a reverse in that trend. According to the 2016 Crime in California report released Aug. 17 by the office of California’s attorney general, total crime, including both violent and property crimes, has increased by 4.08% in the five-year period from 2011 to 2016.

Violent crimes, like murder, rape, and robberies, led the way with a 12.48% jump from 2011, while property crime, including burglary and theft, saw a more modest increase of 2.74%.

In more recent trends, total crime fell in the year-to-year comparison: a 1.2% drop from 2015 to 2016. However, that overall figure masks some of the intricacies of the changes. Declines in property crime drove the difference with a 2.19% drop, while violent crime actually rose by 4.87% in the same year-long span.

How do Fresno and other Valley counties stack up?

In what may be a revelation to some, Fresno County ranks sixth – and is the largest county by population to rank that highly, trailing only Mono, San Benito, Sierra, Mariposa, and Tulare counties – in decline of crimes. We’ve seen a 20.6% drop in total crime from 2011 to 2016. In concert with statewide trends though, a downturn in property crime is driving the change while violent crime is now more prevalent. Respectively, the two figures have fallen by 23.89% and risen by 3.07%.

In an interview with GV Wire News Director Bill McEwen, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims cited the reasons for the overall crime reduction. Among them: A concerted effort by her office’s deputies to work closely with residents. She pointed out that deputies still personally respond to property crimes instead of asking residents to fill out reports online. They also do home checks when people are on vacation.

Kern (+9.2%), Kings (-4.32%), Madera (+2.71%), Merced (-13.23%), and Tulare (-23.21%) counties, by comparison, have seen widely varied change over the same span. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these counties, apart from Tulare, experienced a rise in violent crime more extreme than Fresno. Violent crime rates in these counties rose to the tune of 15.31%, 17.9%, 28.16%, and 5.6% respectively. Meanwhile, Tulare County saw a huge drop-off in violent crime: 15.59%. Property crime fell in all local counties except Kern, which saw an 8.31% uptick.

Fresno County’s success in reducing crime should not, however, hide the fact that, by sheer number of crimes per 100,000, it still experiences more crime on the whole than any local counties except Kern. In 2016, Fresno County had 3,836 crimes per 100,000 residents – 416 less than Kern County, but 468 more than Merced County, the next highest.

Why the mixed results?

It is unclear why the state is seeing a revival in crime, but a few interpretations have been offered.

One of the most common explanations, put forth by commentators from Dan Walters to our own reporters at GV Wire, is the impact of Propositions 47 and 57. These laws were designed to reduce the burden on California’s overpopulated prisons, but have often been cited by law enforcement officials as drivers of the new trend in statewide crime. By allowing minor offenders to go free, they argue, we are allowing far more repeat offenses that could otherwise be avoided.

With a limited track record, the numbers can be used to both support and deny this claim. For instance, both violent and property crimes rose at significant rates from 2014, the year Prop. 47 was passed, to 2015, which seems to indicate that the new law played a role in the rise of crime rates. However, a simple visual inspection tells us that, though on a general downward trajectory, crime often fluctuates from year to year – it also rose in 2012 after declining for eight years in a row and, prior to the steady decline, total crime varied from year to year dating back to the late 90s. Additionally, as mentioned, total crime fell from 2015 to 2016 after both propositions were enacted.

Essentially, logic seems to support the theory that Props. 47 and 57 are leading to the crime increases, but the empirical evidence is still lacking.

One factor for which the evidence has been displayed clearly is the impact of police presence on crime. Despite its importance in the crime equation though, there is little proof that the number of police has exclusive explanatory power for the amount of crime committed within a community.

In analyzing the number of sworn officers per county in the same period (2011-2016) it can be seen that Fresno County, despite experiencing a 20.6% drop in overall crime, lost approximately 388 officers. At the same time, Kern County, in which crime increased by 9.2%, 148 total officers were added to various departments countywide.

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