Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Big swings in state crime stats

The beginning of Jerry Brown’s first governorship four decades ago coincided with a dramatic increase in crime.

Crimes of all kinds climbed to more than 7,000 per 100,000 Californians during the first year of his governorship, twice the crime rate during father Pat Brown’s gubernatorial term a decade earlier.

Not surprisingly, crime was a dominating political issue during the 1970s, and Brown was in the thick of it, largely due to his adamant opposition to capital punishment. In fact, the Legislature overrode his veto of a death penalty bill.

Despite that conflict, he and legislators scrambled to adjust to the political crime wave with a flurry of lock-’em-up bills, but some didn’t scramble fast enough. In three successive elections – 1976, 1978 and 1980 – Democratic senators lost their seats to Republicans who accused them of being soft on crime.

Prosecutors and judges also felt the political heat and became less flexible in how they dealt with miscreants.

The crime issue finally caught up with Brown as he lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982. And tough sentencing laws continued to proliferate through the 1980s and into the 1990s, capped by the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” decree of voters.

Predictably, as sentencing laws and judicial attitudes hardened, the result was a sharp climb in prison inmates.

They ballooned from about 20,000 inmates during Brown 1.0 to more than 160,000 when he returned to the governorship 36 years later, and the state had spent many billions of dollars to build and operate 23 new prisons.

California’s crime rate, meanwhile, peaked in 1980 at just under 8,000 per 100,000 population and has slowly, but surely, declined ever since to under 3,000. In fact, as the Public Policy Institute of California reported recently, the state’s violent crime rate now is the lowest since 1967, the year Pat Brown left office.

Over the last few years, Jerry Brown and legislators, under pressure from the federal courts to ease prison overcrowding, have modified the state’s harsh sentencing and parole laws, shifted low-level felons into local custody and probation through “realignment,” and reduced the prison population by about one-third.

Last year, voters passed Proposition 47, which softened up criminal laws even more – too much in the eyes of some in law enforcement – and Brown did his bit this month by vetoing bills that would have toughened up treatment of some crimes.

The governor criticized the measures as a “multiplication and particularization of criminal behavior (that) creates increasing complexity without commensurate benefits.” He also hinted that he wants the Legislature to reform sentencing policies, rather than add more crimes.

“Before we keep going down this road,” he wrote, “I think we should pause and reflect on how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just, and more cost-effective.”

So, one might wonder, did the state’s crime rate decrease by nearly 60 percent from its 1980 apex because of all those tough laws, or were the rise and fall of crime rates more the products of evolving economic and social conditions?

PPIC detects no increase in violent crime from realignment, but does see a sharp uptick in auto thefts. An isolated event or harbinger of another crime spike?