The Golden State was among the first to enact a draconian three-strikes law when the tough-on-crime mood swept the country in the 1990s. Today, support for criminal justice reform is swelling, and California is once again surfing the wave of a new national mood—this time by relaxing criminal penalties (as mandated by Prop 47, a 2014 ballot measure) and cutting its state prison population (as part of its “realignment” policy designed to reduce overcrowding). The result, according to a piece by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Debra Saunders, may be a new crime wave:
In San Francisco, theft from cars is up 47 percent this year over the same period in 2014. Auto theft is up by 17 percent. Robberies are up 23 percent. And aggravated assaults are up 2 percent, according to San Francisco police spokesman Carlos Manfredi. Burglaries are down 5 percent.
The City of Angeles saw a 12.7 percent increase in overall crime this year, according to the Los Angeles Times; violent offenses rose 20.6 percent, while property crime rose by 11 percent. Mayor Eric Garcetti says Prop 47 may explain Los Angeles’ change in course from crime reduction to crime increases.
We should be careful not to overstate the link between the crime jump and California policy. Crime is up not just in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but in urban centers across the country—perhaps as a result of the backlash against police violence that has taken place over the last year. And it is too soon to evaluate whether California’s reforms may contribute to any long-term elevation of the crime rate. But Saunders is right that California’s decision to roll back elements of its notoriously harsh criminal justice system may carry risks as well as benefits:
In March, after three years of realignment and five months of Prop 47, the state prison population was down to 112,300. That’s more than 50,000 fewer state inmates. A change that big cannot come without consequences — and those consequences most likely are not safer neighborhoods.
As the nation’s experiment with criminal justice reform moves forward, it is likely to become increasingly clear that there is a real tradeoff involved in many proposals. The nationwide crime crackdown that began in the 1970s dramatically increased the number of Americans behind bars, exploded state prison budgets (crowding out more productive expenses), and needlessly destroyed the lives of countless people (disproportionately, the lives of young black men). At the same time, there is strong evidence that it really did help restrain the crime wave ravaging America’s cities.
Easing sentences will probably reverse some of the corrosive effects of America’s generation-long crime crackdown, but it is quite possible that it will also lead to an overall rate of crime—violent and nonviolent—somewhat higher than the record lows the nation currently enjoys. As with the drug war, the nation faces two rather grim choices when it comes to its criminal justice system—either double-down on a ruinous policy, or else enact reforms that could themselves bring about ugly consequences.
This means that it’s not enough for sentencing reform advocates to simply state that easing sentences could save money and rightly give many people second chances. They will need to convince voters that these benefits are important enough that they outweigh the risk of an elevated crime rate—because that risk, as the California situation may be starting to demonstrate, cannot be ignored. On the other hand, it’s not enough for opponents of sentencing reform to simply state that releasing convicts earlier could cause the crime rate to spike. For their part, they need to explain why it is worth it for the government to contain that risk at the cost of tens of billions of dollars from state and federal coffers, decimated communities, and many ruined lives.
At Via Meadia, we believe that reform experiments, like those underway in Utah and New Jersey, are laudable and worthwhile. But nobody should be under the illusion that downsizing the carceral state will always and everywhere be cost-free.