Why is California experiencing more crime victimization?

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As a new Pacific Research Institute study documents, criminal justice policy changes enacted in the past decade centered around decarcerating and decriminalizing – have led to a tragic new reality – mass victimization.

The latest California crime trends in California are not encouraging.

In 2022, Los Angeles had a sobering 2,106 more aggravated assaults compared to 2021, 41 percent of which were committed with weapons – for a total crime increase of over 11 percent. Police in the San Francisco Bay Area’s 15 most populous cities recorded a 5 percent homicide increase in 2022, which was nearly 50 percent higher than 2019’s figure.

Why is California experiencing more crime victimization these days?

As a new Pacific Research Institute study documents, criminal justice policy changes enacted in the past decade centered around decarcerating and decriminalizing – have led to a tragic new reality – mass victimization.  These changes include the AB 109 prison realignment law and voter-approved Props. 47 and 57 which weakened sentencing laws.

Following a decade of policy changes, we saw over 1 million reported crimes in California in 2021, the last full year of published crime statistics – an annual increase of 6.7 percent for violent crime.  In contrast, 2011 saw among the lowest crime rates since records were kept.  Sadly, violent crime in three major categories – homicide, sexual assault, and aggravated assault – are up from 2011 to 2021.

What’s also up are the nearly 70,000 state prison inmates released in the same decade.  Voters were led to believe that Prop 57 would release only non-violent offenders.   Today, Prop 57 allows for the early release of potentially all violent offenders with the exception of those serving sentences of life without parole or sentences of death.  It effectively ties prosecutors’ hands and many offenders have been set free – and some dangerous people are re-offending.

Tragically, we saw violent offenders who had been released like Smiley Martin allegedly gun down 18 people in Sacramento and Aariel Maynor be convicted of murdering Jacqueline Avant while she slept.  Both were granted early release under Prop 57.

One of Prop. 47’s most notable impacts is retail theft.  Proponents argue that sentencing changes have reduced theft incidents and led to more appropriate penalties for shoplifting and burglary.  However, one reason theft has declined is because what was once a felony – entering a retail business with the intent to shoplift – is no longer.   Misdemeanor thefts can still be prosecuted, but cascading transfers of state prison inmates to county jails make that effectively impossible and leave ineffective diversion programs the only option to clear court calendars.

The Raley’s Companies CEO Keith Knopf calls Prop. 47’s effective decriminalization of retail theft under $950 “the beginning of everything we’re suffering from right now.”  Speaking at a recent PRI conference, he said the $60 million the grocery store chain loses annually to retail theft, “is not available to lower prices so people can afford more food and is not available to pay people more . . . this is money for nothing.”

Prop. 47 is also making our drug addiction and homelessness problems worse.  Orange County Rescue Mission president Jim Palmer told PRI last year that the enactment of Prop. 47 unexpectedly coincided with the opioid and fentanyl crises, and affected their ability to address one of the key factors for many who become homeless – drug addiction.  “A lot of those that are addicted all of a sudden had an income opportunity to steal,” he said.  “It was a way to fund addiction on an individual basis by users.”

Reforms are also essential to address unacceptable racial disparities in the criminal justice system, proponents contend.  I share their concern.  However, even more unacceptable is the fact that, as PRI’s research found, Blacks are victimized at a rate of nearly 4.5 times their percentage of the state population.  That’s why to save lives and reduce minority overrepresentation in prison, the best strategy is crime prevention through deterrence.

California made great progress in reducing crime victimization under laws like “Three Strikes” and 10-20-Life.  Between 1994 and 2011, the decline in homicides saved the lives of over 28,000 people who would have otherwise perished had homicide rates remained at their 1993 levels.  It also reduced the number of Black inmates by 35 percent.

This is the real tragedy that a decade of policy mistakes has brought California – more people becoming victims of homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, thefts, and overdose deaths.  That’s why laws like AB 109, Prop. 47 and Prop. 57 need to be reformed or repealed – to prevent the needless victimization of more Californians.

Steve Smith, a thirty-year veteran of law enforcement and former Gavilan College administration of justice instructor, is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.  Download the new study “Paradise Lost: Crime in California 2011-2021” at pacificresearch.org.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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