The sight of criminals running free in our streets gets the blood up. But while the looting and violence, as ugly as they are, will decelerate, there’s a relatively invisible hand of crime that has the potential to cause harm on a long-term basis.
At roughly the same time the governor was issuing new rules for us to live by as the pandemic arrived, a couple of policy changes were implemented, both, ostensibly, to slow the spread of coronavirus. At the end of March, it was announced the state was going to release 3,500 inmates over 60 days to thin out the prison population. A couple of weeks later, the Judicial Council of California approved an emergency order to temporarily end cash bail for suspects charged with misdemeanors and some felonies.
In some places, the decisions make sense. Just not in the real world.
“Eric Medina has been arrested four times on suspicion of grand theft auto in the last three weeks,” the Los Angeles Times reported on April 30.
“It began with the theft of a Ford van April 9, authorities said. Within a day, he was back on the streets, helped by California’s statewide zero-bail policy for lesser offenders fueled by the coronavirus outbreak.”
Medina was arrested three more times in connection with auto thefts by the time the story, headlined “L.A. police blame zero bail for rise in repeat offenders,” was published.
In early May, a Monterey Park man was arrested for theft three times in 12 hours, and released after each one, free to go out and create more mayhem.
Later in the month, a man was arrested in Alameda County seven times, “including one instance in which Dublin police officers arrived to find him beating a person,” say media reports. He was eventually held on a $200,000 bond, after having been freed under the zero cash bail policy. He is suspected of committing multiple crimes that he has yet to be charged with.
The list could go on. The criminally inclined have taken advantage of the zero cash bail policy to go out and offend again. By the middle of May, “there were 711 suspected criminals released in the Golden State on $0 bail and 87 inmates had ended up back in police custody” in Fresno County alone, according to Fox News. Imagine the numbers statewide — and three weeks later, and with the temptation to loot lurking right outside the door during the George Floyd riots.
“There’s no doubt that setting bail at zero impacts public safety,” said Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard. “There’s no question about it.
“When you are dealing with a criminal population, they are not law-abiding citizens. And if they know bail is going to be set at zero for certain offenses, it’s obvious they are going to commit those offenses and be cited and released and continue on their criminal path.”
Early release from state prisons — and from some local jails — further puts the rest of us at greater risk, say “law enforcement leaders and many district attorneys,” who “see an intensifying public safety threat posed by the mass release as well as a trampling of the rights of crime victims,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
Of the roughly 1,000 inmates Alameda County had released from the middle of March to the middle of May, 30 were rearrested. Seven “high risk” sex offenders have been released early from jail in Orange County. They “are the most dangerous kind of criminal and the most likely to re-offend,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a public statement. “They are doing everything they can to avoid detection by the parole officers assigned to monitor them so they can potentially commit additional sex offenses.”
Many of those released early have no plans for their post-incarceration lives, no particular destination, and re-entered an economy struggling under the weight of a pandemic lockdown. For some, offending again will seem to them as if it’s their only choice. It’s in this environment that Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed shutting down a pair of state prisons, which could put as many as 11,000 inmates on the streets, more than just a few not ready to transition to life on the outside.
Finally, we move on to the responses our “leaders” had to the protests that become riots.
The demonstrations over George Floyd’s death turned violent in Minneapolis on May 26. Our elected officials had at least a day to produce a plan. They should have known it was coming. Los Angeles is almost riot central. Think of the Watts riots in 1965, and the 1992 Rodney King rampages.
Yet they appeared unprepared.
Elected officials, from the governor down to big- and mid-city mayors, should have publicly welcomed a peaceful protest. They could have even marched in the demonstrations and promised protection. But they also needed to be clear that violence and destruction and the blocking of the free movement of people on streets and highways would not be allowed. The unambiguous message: These are our cities, and this is our state, and we will not hurt each other, and we will not destroy each other’s property.
Instead, they showed weakness and even tacitly endorsed rioting and looting by not strongly declaring they would not be tolerated. The non-reaction reaction led to many Californians being forced to live under open-ended curfews, which can themselves be provocative.
Naturally, there have been demands that law enforcement agencies reform use-of-force policies. And, just as a clock is expected to move in a predictable path, the politicians have begun making promises of reform.
The most effective change, though, will not be discussed out loud. Police unions will continue to zealously protect their members, even prone-to-violence officers who should be fired for misconduct. Politicians will not challenge their political power. Those who do are likely to suffer the fate of Cecilia Iglesias, a member of the Santa Ana City Council who was removed from office, the “victim,” says California Policy Center President Will Swaim, “of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association’s $500,000 recall campaign.”
Please give us more like Iglesias, courageous lawmakers who will scale back police unions’ power. Organized labor corrupts everything it touches, even the noble calling of law enforcement. Policy changes and procedure reforms won’t make much, if any, difference as long as the few abusive officers out there aren’t held accountable because the unions have their backs.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.