News and Commentary

California Just Proved Once Again That Going Easy On Criminals Results In More Crime

California’s latest attempt to handle one of the perpetual subjects of progressive complaint, jail and prison overpopulation supposedly caused by “over-incarceration,” has proven once again what should not need re-proving: going easy on criminals results in more crime.

Back in 2014, nearly 60% of Californians voted in favor of Proposition 47, which sought to thin out jails and prisons by downgrading many “nonviolent, nonserious” felonies to misdemeanors and allowing some prisoners to be eligible for re-sentencing for more lenient terms (see summary below). The measure ostensibly saved the state millions in incarceration costs, but while that particular budget line might look better, the state and its residents have suffered as a result.

Since Prop 47 went into effect, arrests are down 30% while violent crime in Los Angeles is up a devastating 40%. And it’s not just L.A. — Southern California as a whole is feeling the deleterious effects of the law’s “lighter” touch.

A major reason for the stunning increase in violent crime is the reckless way Prop 47 downgraded some offenses, including theft of a firearm, which used to be a felony but which is now treated as a misdemeanor, along with several other serious property theft offenses. The overall effect of downgrading so many offenses, along with the increasingly hostile attitude among many communities toward police officers (the “Ferguson Effect”), has resulted in officers deciding it’s simply not worth it to go after criminals for the “minor” things — many of which lead to worse crimes.

“Without any real consequences, criminals were given a green light to steal more weapons and therefore commit more crimes,” contends FOX 11 Los Angeles’ VP Bob Cook in a recent op-ed. “With so many crimes downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors, police officers in many instances felt it was not worth it to make arrests for these offenses. This has become especially true at a time when police conduct has come under increased scrutiny at every turn. Officers don’t want to be the next media case over a misdemeanor.”

The Blaze notes that some local law enforcement officials and legislators in the state are making similar arguments. Ontario police Sgt. Jeff Higbee explained that there was simply “little to no jail time associated with a single theft.” Riverside police Sgt. Sean Brown summed up the heart of the issue, saying, “If nobody goes to jail for committing a crime, what’s to prevent them from committing more crimes?” California Assemblyman Matt Harper remarked in April that playing “these nonviolent offender games” is a “recipe for disaster.”

In April, Fox News reported on California’s surge in crime and its connection to prison reform. Here’s an excerpt:

“The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show violent crime rates in some California cities has increased by over 50 percent,” said Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys. “If you look at the national data, our violent crime rates are going up faster than the rest of the nation. So why?”

Prosecutors and police have an explanation — a series of prison reform measures, which reduce the state prison population by 20,000 inmates by releasing non-violent offenders early and making some felonies misdemeanors. One law, Assembly Bill 109, transferred 60,000 felony parole violators a year from state prison to county control. The measure saved California $100 million but some argue it was not without casualties.

Below is a summary of Prop 47 provided by Ballotpedia (formatting adjusted):

What did the measure do?

The initiative:

  • Classified “non-serious, nonviolent crimes” as misdemeanors instead of felonies unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.
  • Permited re-sentencing for those currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses that the initiative reduces to misdemeanors. Under Proposition 47, 10,000 inmates were eligible for resentencing, according to Lenore Anderson of Californians for Safety and Justice.
  • Required a “thorough review” of criminal history and risk assessment of any individuals before re-sentencing to ensure that they do not pose a risk to the public.
  • Created a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund. The fund was set to receive appropriations based on savings accrued by the state during the fiscal year, as compared to the previous fiscal year, due to the initiative’s implementation. Estimates ranged from $150 million to $250 million per year.
  • Distributed funds from the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund as follows: 25 percent to the Department of Education, 10 percent to the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, and 65 percent to the Board of State and Community Correction.

Which crimes were affected?

The measure required misdemeanor sentencing instead of felony for the following crimes:

  • Shoplifting, where the value of property stolen does not exceed $950
  • Grand theft, where the value of the stolen property does not exceed $950
  • Receiving stolen property, where the value of the property does not exceed $950
  • Forgery, where the value of forged check, bond or bill does not exceed $950
  • Fraud, where the value of the fraudulent check, draft or order does not exceed $950
  • Writing a bad check, where the value of the check does not exceed $950
  • Personal use of most illegal drugs

In January 2015, it was announced that as many as 1 million Californians could be eligible to change past felony convictions on their records under Proposition 47.