Criminal justice reform is working
December 22, 2017


From the Press Enterprise

Over the past several years, California has dramatically reduced the prison population, given hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to live a better life free from the burden of a felony record for low-level offenses and freed up hundreds of millions of dollars for crime prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.

Contrary to the misinformation peddled by pundits and politicians who uncritically regurgitate anything and everything law enforcement unions and district attorney associations feed to them, this has been done without undermining public safety.

From 2006 to 2016, California’s prison population fell from 163,000 to 115,000. Since many of those in California’s prisons in 2006 were low level offenders — including 15,000 whose controlling offense was drug possession and many serving life sentences for mere possession thanks to now-reformed “three strikes” laws — there was unsurprisingly little actual public safety impact to no longer keeping such people in state prisons.

Indisputable is that there is less crime today than in 2006, when the prison population reached its peak, as one can find out by reviewing FBI crime reports or the annual Crime in California reports released by the state Department of Justice. By comparison, from 2006 to 2016, violent crimes reported by police agencies statewide fell 10 percent and property crimes dropped 13 percent.

This happened despite the fact that there were over 40,000 fewer people in prison and state population growth of three million people.

Rather than celebrate decreases in crime, there are those content to peddle in good old fashioned dishonest fear-mongering. Take for example, recent remarks by Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, on the Doug McIntyre radio program.

“You can walk into Best Buy or Sears or any big package store,” she said. “Walk out with a big flat screen TV, as long as it’s under $950 and you can do that every day of the week. And every day of the week it’s still going to be a misdemeanor, no matter how many times you do it, and at most you’re just going to get a citation to appear.”

It’s the sort of narrative that satisfies those who want to believe California is less safe and stable than it is actually is. But to the extent such a story can be taken seriously, if your local law enforcement would choose to do nothing more than endlessly cite and release a known repeat offender with no plans to stop, you have only your local law enforcement to blame.

According to research by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, between 2010 and 2016, 58 percent of cities and local areas in California showed decreases in property crimes. What this shows is that crime is impacted more by local factors and how law enforcement responds than by not warehousing low-level offenders in state prisons.

To zero in further, CJCJ has recently released an assessment of crime in Los Angeles County from 2010-2016.

Notably, if you take out L.A. County, both violent and property crimes are down statewide 2 and 6 percent respectively. If you look at L.A. County as a whole, violent and property crimes are up 8 and 4 percent. But there are wide variations within the county itself. About 53 percent of the county’s jurisdictions reported crime increases, 47 percent reported decreases.

Critics and supporters of reform alike should be digging into what’s working and what isn’t at the local level, rather than pretending criminal justice reforms are driving a statewide crime wave that doesn’t exist.

For instance, since police in California spend much of their time arresting drug offenders in pursuit of our absurd “war on drugs” — about 220,000 arrests, 20 percent of arrests — perhaps we can try things like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to divert drug offenders to community based services instead of repeating an endless cycle of incarceration.

Existing jail space can be used better too — critics can thank Prop. 47 for freeing up jail space and curbing early releases. And we can do a better job of using incarceration to rehabilitate and not just warehouse.

Ultimately, our reliance on incarceration must end and our focus set on preventing crime, not just packing prisons, overpaying prison guards and babbling about imaginary statewide crime waves.

Sal Rodriguez is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group.