How can we be safe from crime?
There are two camps of thought vigorously competing to answer this question and get you to vote for them. Many conservatives want to stay the traditional course with a tough-on-crime, law-and-order slant. Some progressives want to implement new strategies that get to the root of crime and are evidence-based.
The problem with law-and-order rhetoric is that it is just that — rhetoric. California has one of the largest prison systems in the nation, with more than 100,000 people incarcerated, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Has that fact made Californians feel any safer? Many conservatives argue that arresting our way out of the crime problem should make us the safest state in the union. But the rate of violent crime here is higher than the national average, according to FBI crime statistics.
The draconian laws that emerged from the tough-on-crime era are too concerned with being punitive. Life without the possibility of parole, three-strikes laws and other sentencing enhancements, which add additional time to a sentence, are not proven crime deterrents.
It is true that violent crime in California has decreased since the three-strikes law was enacted in 1994. But empirical studies have shown, according to American Bar Association, “that California would have experienced virtually all of its decline in crime without ‘three strikes’” or other sentencing enhancements.
The former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin went beyond this rhetoric, embodying the anti-punitive ethos of many recent progressive reformers. He sought to address the root of crime. He charged fewer people than his predecessor and sent fewer people to jail and prison, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And his tenure coincided with the lowest violent crime rate in San Francisco since 1985, according to a data analysis by Mother Jones.
Despite those results, Boudin was recalled earlier this year. The backlash occurred after local sentiment shifted toward tough-on-crime policies during the COVID-19 pandemic in response to an uptick in homicides across the country.
It is too early to determine how pandemic lockdowns and the fallout affected violent crime. However, given the connection between desperation and crime, it should not surprise us that violence spiked. People lost jobs and income, social services, addiction services, loved ones and human connection.
Despite the setback of Boudin’s recall, there have been other wins for people who want the United States to move away from incarceration. Surprisingly, the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court actually made one of the most impactful changes to crime laws this year.
The justices in June ruled in favor of legislation from 2010 and 2018 that sought to narrow the racist damage caused by drug possession laws of the 1980s and ’90s.
In 1986, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that set mandatory minimum sentences for possessing certain amounts of certain drugs. The legislation imposed much harsher sanctions on crack-cocaine offenses than powder-cocaine offenses, which significantly affected Black Americans.
Now, in an effort to correct the racial disparities of the tough-on-crime era, trial court judges are permitted to weigh various factors, including new facts and laws, when considering resentencing.
Also this year, California passed Assembly Bill 1540, which expands opportunities for resentencing and incentivizes self-development and positive programming in state prisons.
More evidence against the tough-on-crime mentality can be found in the bill’s text. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation houses 35,000 people serving life sentences, which represents 38% of the prison population. Many of those people have been incarcerated for decades and, as of June 2019, roughly 24% of the prison population was over 50 years of age.
Progressive prosecutors understand the research showing that recidivism rates diminish dramatically as you grow older.
Research has also found that prisons create more crime. One of the many ways that overuse of prisons hurts communities is that incarceration robs children of their parents. The result of this is that children with incarcerated parents tend to fall into the grasp of the court systems themselves, making imprisonment predictably generational. In this case, we are creating a symptom with what was meant to be a cure.
Finally, while studies have repeatedly concluded that crimes are committed evenly across racial lines, people of color are more likely to end up in prison and for longer periods of time, according to The Sentencing Project. The crack vs. powder cocaine issue was just one of thousands of codified inequalities. There are many more to tackle.
(Additional reporting by PJP)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.