LOS ANGELES — A police officer is shot dead in Whittier by a gang member. A mentally ill homeless man walks into a steakhouse in Ventura and stabs a man to death in front of his family. In Bakersfield, a man angry over his divorce goes on a shooting rampage, killing his ex-wife and four others.
In the aftermath of these high-profile killings, some police officers, district attorneys and politicians were quick to use them as examples to show that criminal justice reform had let dangerous people onto the streets.
It turned out they were wrong. Not one of the crimes was directly linked to any of several new laws that seek to reduce incarceration and lower harsh penalties. But the cases show how muddled the debate over criminal justice has become, even in this liberal state.
Over the last decade, California has been at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to reduce mass incarceration, in part because the state was forced by the courts to lower the population of severely overcrowded prisons. California, once a byword for get-tough-on-crime policies like its three-strikes law enacted in the 1990s, has let thousands of inmates out of prison or jail.
Overall crime rates, meanwhile, are at historic lows, with levels not seen since the 1960s. Yet some categories of crimes, like theft, have ticked up, feeding into a narrative by opponents of criminal justice reform that California’s new measures have gone too far.
Now that President Donald Trump has signed into law a federal criminal justice reform bill, California’s experience, and the political fallout, is especially instructive. Experts are finally starting to study the effects on crime rates.
At the same time, powerful forces are lining up in an attempt to roll back some of the changes and, supporters of the new laws fear, return California to its get-tough-on-crime days.
Police unions have put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a ballot measure to expand the category of crimes that can be charged as felonies. And the grocery store chain Albertsons has also contributed to the effort, blaming the changes for a rise in shoplifting. Big bail companies have raised $3 million to overturn a recent California law that ends the cash bail system, which critics have long said unfairly targets the poor.
Jerry Brown, the former governor, left office recently with a $15 million campaign war chest, and has said some that money could be used to defend his criminal justice legacy by trying to defeat the ballot measures.
The data on crime, and what it says about reforms, has been contested. Small upticks in some types of crime in some areas has muddied the picture. And Californians may well be confused about what to believe: One day, headlines say that crime is up; the next, that crime is down. For instance, violent crime rose in California in 2012 and between 2015 and 2017, allowing opponents of the laws to point to increases, even as scholars say arguments about criminal justice policies should not be based on short-term fluctuations — and that overall crime rates are declining.
Activists see parallels in the strategies of opponents of more lenient sentencing laws in California and the rhetoric on crime at the national level. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned early last year about a “staggering increase in homicides.” Violent crime had ticked up in 2015 and 2016 after a long decline, but when FBI statistics for 2017 were released — after Sessions’ warning — they showed that violent crime had gone down again.
One of the most controversial changes in California was a law passed last year to end cash bail. Initially anticipated by liberal activists as a significant step to end the practice of holding poor defendants in pretrial detention because they could not afford bail, the final version of the law has been disavowed by many of its early supporters. That is because, activists say, the law gives judges more discretion to hold the accused before trial. The new system will also use algorithms to assess whether a defendant is a flight risk or might commit another crime — tools that activists say are biased against people of color.
“It gives judges basically unlimited power without due process,” said John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles. The risk assessment tools that judges would use, he said, “embed racial bias.”
The controversy over the bail law has essentially placed the bail industry and civil liberties advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union on the same side. But it is the bail industry that has backed a ballot measure to overturn the law, which has received enough signatures to go before California voters in 2020.
In pushing the measure, the industry has offered contradictory arguments, sometimes suggesting that eliminating cash bail would mean more criminals on the streets, and other times adopting the argument of the liberal activists that the new law could, in fact, end up locking up more people in a manner that would be unfair to poor African-Americans.
Jeff Clayton, spokesman for a coalition of bail companies backing the ballot proposition, said the issue would be “focus grouped and polled” to figure out what the right message should be for advertisements in the run-up to the vote in 2020.
In one of the first academic studies on the effects of California’s criminal justice reforms on crime rates, Bradley J. Bartos and Charis E. Kubrin, of the University of California, Irvine, found no links between Proposition 47 — a ballot measure enacted in 2014 that reduced some drug crimes and thefts to misdemeanors — and violent crime. The study, published in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, found that larceny and auto thefts seemed to have increased moderately after the measure was enacted, but said other factors may have been to blame and that more study was needed.
“At the time I was hearing so many claims about what Prop 47 was doing to crime in the state,” Kubrin said. “Prop 47 has nothing to do with violent crime.”
Even so, her research was challenged by law enforcement groups. A statement released by the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys attacked the study, saying that because crime had ticked up after Proposition 47 was enacted, the measure had “arguably failed.”
Links between criminal justice policies and crime rates have long been tenuous. There are almost endless factors that can lead to crime, including poverty and drug addiction.
“The literature on how policing and levels of punishment relates to actual crime is so disputed,” said Rob Smith, executive director of the Justice Collaborative.
Smith said that it was “important to understand that we are in a historic decline.”
“So these year-to-year fluctuations don’t really tell you much,” he said.
While pointing to short-term increases in certain crimes in recent years, some — mainly law enforcement personnel and victims’ rights advocates — have also been quick to seize on highly publicized crimes as evidence that California’s policies have become too lenient.
In one example, John Cox, the Republican businessman who lost the race for governor, in several instances pointed to the death last year of Anthony Mele, a 35-year-old man who was killed in the steakhouse in Ventura by a homeless man.
Cox said he believed the system was too lenient and that “plea bargains” had allowed too many criminals onto the streets.
“I think of Anthony Mele, a young man who was murdered in cold blood by a guy who was out,” he said.
Richard Simon, senior deputy district attorney in Ventura who is prosecuting the case and who believes California has become too liberal on criminal justice, said the suspect, Jamal Jackson, was not on the streets because of any recent changes.
Similarly, in the killing of the police officer in Whittier in 2017, law enforcement initially blamed criminal justice reform, saying the suspect would not have been on the streets had it not been for new sentencing guidelines. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a statement saying the suspect was not released early as a result of justice reforms. And an investigation by The Los Angeles Times and The Marshall Project revealed that missteps by Los Angeles County and probation officials — who were overseeing the suspect after his release from prison — had led to him being on the streets.
Another case that has galvanized opponents of the justice overhaul was a homicide last year in Fresno, in which a man was cited — but not arrested — for methamphetamine and then shortly after killed a young man in a robbery attempt. The mother of the victim and law enforcement officers have blamed the reforms, saying that under old laws the assailant would have been arrested and off the streets.
But activists and supporters of the new sentencing measures in California have pushed back. They note that no new law precludes an arrest for possessing drugs. And in the Fresno case, they say there were other circumstances, such as the presence of guns in the hotel room where they found the suspect with meth hours before the killing, that could have justified an arrest.
Advocates worry that it is only a matter of time before a high-profile crime will be linked definitively to criminal justice reforms, giving opponents a Willie Horton-style example to stoke fear. They say that would hardly justify a return to a harsher system — that a free society should not lock up lots of people, at great cost, on the worry that one may commit a horrible crime.
“We all want to live in a society where you can walk from your house to work or the bus station or the subway and feel and be safe,” said Smith of the Justice Collaborative. “And the reality is across California and across the country we are safer than almost at any time in history.”
California’s reform effort began in earnest in 2011, with a law that shifted many state prison inmates to county jails, and was followed by other measures approved by voters that reduced penalties for certain crimes and allowed for more inmates to be released early for good behavior. The high mark for California’s prison population was 2006, with about 163,000 people incarcerated. Nowadays, there are about 115,000 people behind bars, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
As California moves toward referendums in 2020 on sentencing laws and bail, scholars worry that opponents will be successful in stoking fear among the public about runaway crime.
“I really worry that people will make decisions based on fear rather than empirical data,” Kubrin said.