Something amazing has happened in California. First, a brief background: Crime rates across the state, after a long period of steady decline, had reached fifty-year lows in 2014. Then, that November, a 60 percent majority of California voters—presumably incapable of accepting such good news without a measure of collective guilt—decided that it would be a really enlightened idea to pass Proposition 47, a ballot initiative bearing the cheery name “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” The purpose of this measure was to downgrade many types of drug possession and property crimes from felonies (punishable by more than a year in prison) to misdemeanors (which often entail no prison time at all). For the benefit of squeamish skeptics, the self-assured proponents of Prop 47 condescended to explain that these reduced penalties would not only alleviate prison overcrowding, but would also make California's streets safer by placing drug offenders into warm-and-fuzzy treatment and counseling programs, rather than into disagreeable prison cells. If you think this sounds like a familiar old tune, you're quite correct. It was #1 on the left-wing hit parade throughout the 1960s, when it became the theme song of skyrocketing crime rates across the United States. And now the Golden Oldie is back, in the Golden State.
The tangible results of Prop 47 were both immediate and breathtaking. Within a year, there were some 14,000 fewer inmates in California's state prisons and local jails, just as the Proposition's backers had promised.
But the other half of their promise—improved public safety—somehow failed to materialize. In 2015:
- Violent crime increased (above 2014 levels) in every one of California's 10 largest cities, while property crime increased in 9 of the 10.
- Of 66 California cities whose crime trends were analyzed in depth, 49 saw their violent crime rates increase—usually by at least 10 percent.
- Forty-eight of those same 66 California cities saw their property crime rates rise—and in half of those cases, the increase was 10 percent or greater. A typical case was San Francisco, where theft of merchandise from automobiles increased by 47 percent, auto theft rose by 17 percent, and robberies were up 23 percent.
- The property crime rates for California cities as a whole increased, on average, by 116.9 offenses per 100,000 residents. By contrast, in states that hadn't passed Prop 47 or anything like it, the corresponding rates decreased by 29.6 offenses per 100,000 residents.
These statistics are stunning.
California criminals, meanwhile, ingeniously adapted their tactics to the new law, so as to maximize their gains and minimize their risks. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, profiled Semisi Sina, a practiced criminal who “rejoiced when he first heard about Proposition 47”—particularly its provision reducing to misdemeanor status the theft of any merchandise whose value was below $950. Semisi interpreted this as a green light for him to begin stealing, among other things, some higher-end bicycles—an offense that previously would have been classified as a felony. “Proposition 47, it's cool,” Semisi chirps. “Like for me, I can go do a burglary and know that if it's not over $900, they'll just give me a ticket and let me go.”
Ain't “criminal justice reform” grand?
Noting that “the most commonly committed felonies no longer carry a prison sentence,” Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation says that when California police apprehend someone today, “they're just going to cite him and let him out again.” Palm Springs police chief Al Franz calls the new arrangement under Prop 47 “catch and release.” And sheriff's deputies throughout the state are well aware that they're generally wasting their time when they arrest and book suspects on narcotics charges, only to have them either released immediately or given minimal penalties. As a result, drug arrests by such deputies in California declined by 30 percent in 2015.
Yet another promise of Prop 47 that failed to materialize was the happy notion that drug offenders and thieves would dutifully file into treatment/counseling centers to get their psychological and emotional houses in order. If Prop 47 has demonstrated anything, it's that without the credible threat of a felony conviction and a lengthy prison term, very few offenders are willing to proactively do anything to transform themselves into better citizens. According to Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, enrollment in L.A. substance-abuse treatment programs is down by 60 percent since the enactment of Prop 47. From January through August of 2015, only 73 of nearly 2,200 drug offenders who were sentenced under Prop 47 guidelines entered any kind of court-ordered treatment program. “If the purpose of [Proposition] 47 was largely to rehabilitate drug offenders,” says Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, “that's not what's happening.”
Supporters of Prop 47 think everything's going swimmingly, however. One of its authors, Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, buoyantly reports that “Proposition 47 is working. It's reducing the state prison population, it's giving people second chances and it's saving state money that has never been saved before.” Another Prop 47 backer, the ACLU of California, casually dismisses the ominous crime statistics cited above. “It's way too early to assess 2015 crime rates in California at all, let alone potential causes,” says the organization.
It's a safe bet that the thousands of crime victims whose lives have been shaken—and in some cases destroyed—as a consequence of Prop 47, see things differently.