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Californians Worry About Crime, Setting up a Ballot Measure Showdown
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 1 month ago on
April 21, 2024

Californians once supported criminal justice reforms to lighten penalties for crime but attitudes have changed. A November ballot measure could be a test for just how much. (CalMatters/Loren Elliott)

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Californians once supported criminal justice reforms to lighten penalties for crime but attitudes have changed. A November ballot measure could be a test for just how much.

Dan Walters Profile Picture
Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Democrats completely dominate California’s state government, and one aspect of that hegemony is their ability to act without compunction. When doing whatever they want to do, Democratic officeholders don’t have to worry about competition from the state’s shriveled-up Republican Party nor, for the most part, criticism from equally shrunken political media.

Thus, the Capitol has become an echo chamber rather than a forum for forthright debate about issues. The syndrome explains why its leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, ignored indications that as California emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, its law-abiding residents were becoming increasingly worried about crime. The concerns arose even though voters had approved two ballot measures in the previous decade to lower penalties and in 2020 rejected a measure to get tougher on some crimes.

Democrats were committed to “criminal justice reform,” which meant decreasing penalties for crime, reducing the numbers of offenders behind bars and implicitly viewing them more as victims of an unjust society rather than victimizers.

Videos of Crimes Influence Perceptions

Post-pandemic worries about crime were fueled by videos depicting brazen carjackings, home robberies and smash and grab assaults on stores. Just before the 2022 elections, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll that confirmed the shift.

“Californians’ perception of crime spiked during the pandemic – as did certain types of crime,” PPIC found, adding, “nearly 2 in 3 Californians call violence and street crime in their local community a problem. This includes 31% who call them a big problem, a noticeable increase from February 2020 (24%).”

Changing attitudes are particularly evident in the traditionally liberal San Francisco Bay Area, where stores and restaurants have closed their doors after experiencing multiple crimes. San Francisco voters recalled their reform-minded district attorney. Across the bay, Alameda County’s DA also faces a recall effort.

Facts bolster the sentiment. Last July, Attorney General Rob Bonta, a strong criminal justice reform advocate, released annual crime data, revealing that the state’s violent crime rate increased by 6.1% in 2022, and property crime was up 6.2%. Homicides dipped, but robberies jumped by 10.2%.

The dissonance between the public’s changing attitudes and the Capitol’s unchanging commitment to softening criminal penalties reached a climax last year when the Assembly Public Safety Committee rejected legislation that would have reclassified human trafficking of a minor as a “serious felony,” thereby increasing punishment for committing it.

Similar legislation had repeatedly died in the Legislature but the 2023 rejection touched a nerve and became a media sensation. Newsom and legislative leaders sensed the backlash and quickly revived and enacted the bill.

Dems Now Recast Themselves as Crime Fighters

Having finally gotten the message, Newsom and other Democratic figures began to recast themselves as crime fighters. The governor pledged to crack down on street crime and dispatched dozens of California Highway Patrol officers to bolster Bay Area policing. Legislative leaders now want to fine-tune criminal statutes to crack down on retail theft without materially changing the criminal justice reform measures that the Legislature and voters had enacted.

They also hope to head off a November ballot measure that would go further in undoing some of the previous softer-on-crime decrees. On Thursday, law enforcement groups, big city mayors and major retailers submitted 900,000 signatures for the measure, virtually guaranteeing it a place on the November ballot.

Its heavyweight proponents can easily spend the millions of dollars a full-fledged statewide campaign requires. In a statement, the coalition said “half-measures” are not good enough, an apparent reference to the legislative package.

A head-on collision over crime appears to loom, but it’s also possible that the measure’s backers and Democratic leaders, including Newsom, could reach a compromise that the Legislature would enact and the ballot measure would be withdrawn. It’s happened before.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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