Are Criminal Justice Reforms Making Us Safe?
The answer is yes, according to a Los Angeles Times OpEd by former Los Angeles District Attorneys Ira Reiner and Gil Garcetti and former federal prosecutor Miriam Aroni Krinsky. Their piece “Stop obstructing criminal justice reforms. It’s making us less safe,” cites evidence-based polices like the ones progressive LA District Attorney Gascon “is implementing in Los Angeles hold people accountable without relying on extreme sentences, and they save taxpayer dollars that could be invested in things that actually have an impact on crime, such as public health, housing, education and violence prevention.” The trio point to the 1980s and 90s when, “California embarked on a disastrous social experiment…….that ratcheted up punishment in criminal cases. The negative impact of these policies overwhelming fell on poor, Black and brown communities.” Let’s take a look at that negative impact.
A little context: In 1965, at the behest of liberal politicians, distinguished criminologists and behavioral scientists, California Governor Pat Brown signed the SB 822, “The Probation Subsidy Act,” into law. Under the Act, the state paid counties $4,000, the equivalent of over $34,000 in today’s dollars, to keep “mostly harmless” property felons such as car thieves and burglars in local jails or rehabilitation programs instead of sending them to overcrowded state prisons. At the time, and for the next several years, the prevailing wisdom advanced by criminologists and social scientists was that “obviously harmless” offenders could be left in the community and successfully treated with little or no threat to public safety. As a means for reducing the number of criminals going to prison, the Act was a success. The state’s inmate population between 1965 and 1978 dropped from a high of 28,482 (1966) to a low of 21,325 (1978). But the crime rate rose dramatically, including violent crime. In the five years preceding the implementation of probation subsidy (1960-1965), violent crime rose by 18% or roughly 3.6% per year. In the five years after its implementation (1966-1970), violent crime had increased by 68% or 13.6% per year. By 1980, violent crime had risen by 216% and the homicide rate had increased by 300%. The end result of keeping “low risk” criminals out of prison was a savings to the state in corrections costs, which was offset by the cost burden to local governments for the arrest and prosecution of thousands of offenders, many of which had evolved into violent criminals during this experiment. The state budget avoided the direct costs of the trauma and death caused by this crime wave, but the public paid the full price.
Beginning in 1980, and continuing over the next three decades, several changes in criminal justice policy contributed to what social scientists have characterized as the “get tough” movement. Over this period, the public largely abandoned the theory that reliable risk assessments could be made about criminals from factors other than the seriousness of the crime and an offender’s criminal history. Several ballot measures were adopted by voters to remove impediments to the arrest and prosecution of criminals and adjust the consequences to fit the crime. The last major reform was California’s 1994 adoption of the Three Strikes and You’re Out initiative, which increased the sentences for repeat serious and violent offenders. Between 1992, two years before Three Strikes was adopted, and 2014 violent crime in California dropped by two thirds, while homicide dropped by more than half. While more repeat felons were going to prison, tens of thousands of Californians were spared from becoming victims of violent crime and murder, particularly urban blacks and Hispanics who are disproportionately victimized by crime. The so-called “disastrous social experiment” was arguably the most successful domestic policy effort in California history.
Reiner, Garcetti and Krinsky tell us that “despite fear mongering claims, there is no evidence that the recent increase in certain serious crimes–and particular homicide is associated with criminal justice reforms. (The increases occurred in places where the reforms were embraced and where they were not.)
Two problems with this assertion. First, the most dramatic progressive “reforms” have been implemented statewide, starting with the so-called Public Safety Realignment law (AB109) in 2011, which essentially reinstated the Probation Subsidy Act of 46 years earlier. Realignment allowed the release of 30,000 repeat felons from state prison, prohibited prison sentences for most criminals, including car thieves, burglars, drug dealers, and wife beaters, and reduced state supervision of the criminals it released. The year after it became law violent crime in California increased for the first time in all but one of the previous fifteen years, by 12%. It has continued to increase in seven of the past ten years as the state enacted Proposition 47, a 2014 Soros/ACLU financed ballot measure that turned most felonies into misdemeanors with essentially no consequences for offenders, and Proposition 57, the 2016 Soros/Brown bankrolled initiative that dramatically reduced the sentences for serious and violent criminals and authorized the early release of thousands of inmates including rapists and murderers. Last year Los Angeles had the most murders in a decade and this year after ten months of Gascon’s reforms, homicides are up 95% and the county is awash with criminals stealing cars, assaulting strangers on busy streets, beaches and parks in broad daylight and rampaging through department stores stealing everything in sight with impunity. Last year Oakland’s murder rate rose by 129%, and in Chesa Boudin’s San Francisco there were double the shootings from 2019.
Contrast this with cities who have voted to keep those awful “tough on crime” district attorneys like San Diego, where homicides increased by only 1.7% last year, or Sacramento which saw a 26% increase in homicides….not good but far less than Los Angeles, Oakland or San Francisco.
Finally, while the Times OpEd touts savings in tax dollars from progressive policies that keep criminals on the streets, the California corrections budget has increased every year since the adoption of Realignment, along with the cost of local jails and police departments.
Nothing that these three soft-on-crime former law enforcement officials assert in their Times OpEd stands up to scrutiny. Its pure propaganda. The Los Angeles Times might consider hiring a 9-year-old with a computer to check out the facts before publishing this hogwash.
It should be noted that one of them, Miriam Aroni Krinsky, heads of the Soros-funded group “Fair and Just Prosecution,” a San Francisco-based advocate for reducing the consequences for criminals and promoting District Attorneys whose campaigns are financed by Soros.
Perhaps the best thing CJLF can do is point to specific cases where criminal justice “reform” has given early release to a criminal, and then that criminal goes on to commit a serious crime like murder or child rape in the time when, but for the “reform”-driven release, he still would have been in prison and thus the crime would have been prevented. Years ago, I wrote several posts about one such case, that of Wendell Callahan, a crack dealer who used his early release to murder a mother and her two daughters aged 10 and 7.
My experience is that “reformers” have a tough time with examples like that, and eventually have to admit that, hey, stuff happens, but the Criminal Is Wonderful ideology is too valuable to give up just because of a little blood here and there.
So CJLF would do the public a service to compile a list of such cases, together with all the less-than-pleasant details. This is also something the Sentencing Commission should do but isn’t about to.
Hi Michael –
I know that you, Kent, and Bill like to tout tough on crime policies as making us safer – but it just seems to me to be a bunch of fear mongering and constant scare tactics that are deployed to keep voting for “tough” policies. The public safety realignment that was passed in 2011 was probably the only sane solution to the Supreme Court order in Brown vs. Plata – the state was flat broke, unable to fund building and financing a bunch of new prisons, and nobody wanted to see a bunch of prison inmates released en masse (realignment did not release anybody from state prison – it only prohibited prison sentences for non-non-nons newly convicted). You, Kent, and Bill are so keen to point out failures in the system (a released inmate commits another crime) but I think the approach of Prop 47 and AB 109 may be more effective because they keep people from going to costly, overcrowded prisons where the recidivism rate is near 70%-80%. I enjoy reading what you, Kent and Bill write but it just seems to me that the “tough on crime” crowd is only capable of constant fear-mongering and scaring people – the results of recent CA elections might suggest that voters are tiring of scare tactics.
I appreciate you reading this and considering what I have to say.
We moved away from tough on crime policies in the Sixties and Seventies and believed more in education and rehab. Did we get safer or more endangered?
We moved toward tough on crime policies in the Ninties and the first decade of the Two thousands. Did we get safer or more endangered?
We have now started to move away from tough on crime policies again, starting roughly six or seven years ago with the increasing triumph of criminal justice reform and “progressive” prosecutors. Are we safer now or were we safer in 2014?
Here are some numbers that will help you answer these questions: https://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm.
And can we stow the tired refrain that “correlation is not causation”? Of course that’s true, but when the correlation is this strong for this long — going back 60 years — it most certainly IS causation. Not that this is hard to figure out, even absent the statistics. When more criminals are in for longer sentences, they’re not in your neighborhood or business area or school district doing their “work.”
The authors on this blog are not fear-mongering. Their critics are complacency-mongering, and lives are being lost because of it.
Brett, we do appreciate comments and, so long as they are civil, are happy to respond. Bill, Kent and I did not adopt the “tough on crime” approach in a vacuum. As my state abandoned appropriate sanctions for “low level” offenders, a new class of criminal evolved. This included Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin Angelo Buono, known as the hillside stranglers who raped and murdered 13 women between 1976 and 1979. Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, the toolbox killers, kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered five young women in 1979. William Bonin, the freeway killer, committed the rape, torture and murder of at least 21 boys and young men between 1979 and 1980. David Carpenter, the trailside killer, from 1979–1981, he raped and murdered five women and was suspected of killing at least two others around hiking trails in the bay area. Richard Chase, the vampire killer, killed and drank the blood of six people in Sacramento between 1977-1978. Carol Bundy, the sunset strip killer, murdered at least 8 mostly young prostitutes and runaways in 1980. The Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least five people and claims to have killed 37 in the bay area between 1968 and 1974. Charles Manson, orchestrated the Tate/La Bianca murders of seven people.
This is a partial list of California-only serial killers between 1965 and 1980. There were dozens of other muti-victim murderers from California and other states who committed their crimes during this period as the entire country experimented with short sentences and rehabilitation for so-called low level criminals. Almost every murderer on this list had multiple encounters with California law enforcement during this period and all benefitted from the reduced sentences under the Probation Subsidy Act and the unlimited mercy of Pat Brown and Jerry Brown appointed judges. Essentially the state policies allowed them to remain on the streets until they became murderers.
With regard to the prison overcrowding decision. I recommend that you review Kent’s brief in Schwarzenegger v. Plata: https://www.cjlf.org/program/briefs/PlataM.pdf
You may recall that the California Legislature opposed the three strikes law, refusing to even hold a hearing in 1993, until national coverage of Polly Klaas who was kidnapped, raped and killed by a habitual felon. Then, during the 1994 election year, legislators stumbled over themselves to get their name on a Three Strikes bill. Mike Reynolds, the father of a girl, also murdered by a repeat felon, did not trust that the legislature would not amend or repeal the law a year later, so he qualified the Three Strikes initiative and it passed overwhelmingly. The legislature paid the public back for this by refusing to fund expansion of the California prison system after the initiative was adopted. Also, the lawsuits were based on the one-inmate-per-cell standard for prisons, even though almost all the state’s prison cells have two bunks. By that standard CA prisons have been overcrowded for since the 1980s. The three judges on the panel which ordered the releases were the three most liberal, pro-criminal jurists on the federal bench at that time, including Stephen Reinhardt, the “liberal lion” of the Ninth Circuit.
Finally to Bill’s request. While we do try and report on the violent crimes committed by “low level” offenders our state law is keeping on the streets, we don’t do enough. Actually there are so many violent offenses being committed, in Los Angeles County alone, we would need a substantial increase in resources to document them. But in a recent post I noted that the impact of Realignment and other pro-criminal policies certainly materialized for 61 year-old Molly Tibbitts, who on September 4 was sexually assaulted and murdered. Habitual felon Troy Davis was arrested for these crimes along with killing the victim’s dogs and setting fire to her home. Davis had been arrested for stealing a car last June and was released without bail. Davis had been arrested nine times between 2014 and 2021, with convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and robbery in 2017 and 2018. These are serious and violent felonies which, prior to enactment of Public Safety Realignment in 2011, and Proposition 57 in 2016, would have kept him in prison for at least ten to fifteen years. He never would have been free to steal a car last June, get released on zero bail and brutally murder Tibbitts. Under the progressive sentencing and bail reforms enacted in recent years, Davis was left on the streets to kill somebody.
Hi Michael and Bill –
I know you two believe in a “tough on crime” strategy and approach – maybe I just am a different kind of person than you two but it seems that the only strategy you seem to want to adopt is a more “strong” approach – more police and prisons – than wanting to adopt strategies that will reduce the need for more police and prisons in the first place (more housing assistance, job training, public health and so on)
To Bill in particular – I have read almost all of your blog postings and you seem to mention the Sixties and Seventies quite often. You seem to take the lesson that the reason crime rates increased in the Sixties and Seventies was due to the lack of enforcement (less prison/police). I am just curious – do you have some personal involvement with the policies of the Sixties and Seventies that would cause you to make this conclusion (I know you were an AUSA and that you were involved with the pre SRA sentencing regime – parole, no sentencing guidelines). It seems that you want to take a position that the Sixties and Seventies policies caused an increase in crime without considering the nuances (various state sentencing/parole policies, cultural trends within states) of different state policies or cultural trends that might cause crime to increase beyond police/prison
To Michael in particular – the fact remains that the United States Supreme Court affirmed the findings of the three judges you mention (albeit only on a 5-4 vote) and that something had to be done to reduce the overcrowding. The fact that several serial killers would emerge during the period of the Sixties and Seventies would not lead me necessarily to believe that more serial killers would emerge now due to the rollback of the tough on crime policies – crime rates were near historic lows in 2019 in California (they did increase in 2020 but that was probably part of the national increase)
I know you both came of age during a different era (the Sixties and Seventies that Bill keeps mentioning) and that you would probably link those policies enacted to address the problems of a different era to solving today’s similar problem (policies that increased prison population to produce less crime).
It just seems to me that prison is the most expensive solution to address crime and even if it appeared to “work”, we should try to find ways to reduce crime and prison population.
Thank you for reading my comments – I admire you both and find your posts fun to read even if I disagree with them.
Brett: Everything is new if you don’t know history. America is currently reliving its history from the late 60s though the 80s. If you sincerely care about crime and how it has evolved you might read “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,” the exhaustively researched book by John Jay College Professor Barry Latzer: https://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fall-Violent-Crime-America/dp/159403835X
Having met too many victims and read too many criminal cases to feel very much compassion for criminals, I do believe that states should be partnering with private industry to teach real job skills to prison inmates, and require eight hours of work for every inmate, including those who don’t want to learn job skills. This has never been done on a large scale because legislators would rather spend tax dollars on projects they believe will help keep them in office, instead of on what’s best for the people they were elected to serve.
Hi Michael –
Thanks for responding to my post. I just think about things differently than you guys I guess – maybe it is because I am younger than you guys but I just think that prison, even if it is effective at reducing crime, should be avoided whenever possible in favor of more cost effective alternatives that change lives in a positive manner (prison seems to be ineffective at this with the high recidivism) and protect public safety while minimizing use of taxpayer dollars.
Brett, your initial comment seems to assume that the 70-80% recidivism rate of prisoners in state prison is the result of the prison rather than a result of the person’s character and that the same people would have a lower rate if they did not go to state prison. There is little or no empirical support for that assumption that I know of.
Your second and third comments seem to assume that spending more on government social programs will reduce the crime rate. Those of us who lived through the Sixties know that was exactly the pitch that was used to sell the Great Society, and it was a total failure. Crime went up sharply, not down.
Improving education would certainly be a good thing, whether it reduced crime or not, but the problems with education today have little to do with spending levels and a great deal to do with fundamentally wrong beliefs of the people running the schools.
It is not an either/or fund allocation problem. We can and should be tough on people who have already demonstrated that they have chosen a life of crime. Social programs are not going to change them. For the next generation, the primary problem is culture, not insufficient funding of government programs. Too many young people are subject to cultural influences that tell them to take what they want and that traditional values of hard work, striving for excellence, obedience to the law, and respect for the rights of others are for chumps.
That is the true root cause of crime, and resource allocation will not change it.
And BTW, the difference in viewpoint is not because you are younger, at least not directly. It is because you have accepted the misinformation that journalism and academia have been dishing out. Those of us who are older had the benefit of seeing both sides on the news and in school, whereas younger people today have to actively seek out the side that is censored from campuses and most news media. But some young people do exactly that and can recognize the fallacies that they have been fed.