Look Past Partisan Rhetoric To Understand California’s Recent Crime Problems

Like all areas of our society these days, every problem draws simple partisan answers—and then sparks a nasty battle over pat policy proposals and between two factions that portray the other side as devious and dangerous. Pick any issue—housing, guns, immigration, etc.—and we can easily map out both sides’ overheated arguments and positions.

We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that Californians have reacted to the troubling issue of growing violent crime rates in that predictable manner. It makes perfect sense, too, given that crime—and the fear of it—affects our sense of safety. It’s the biggest issue everyone talks about when they spend time in San Francisco.

Even the Associated Press has noticed that the city’s crime wave—including a string of organized and brazen robberies, a shoplifting epidemic, and daytime shootings—has challenged the city’s “vaunted tolerance.” San Franciscans are used to “living cheek-by-jowl” with open drugs, feces infested streets and petty crimes, AP reported. However, many people are leaving amid a “general feeling of vulnerability.”

Despite what some commentators have argued, San Francisco does not yet resemble Road Warrior, but the crime problem is ominous. When I last visited San Francisco with my daughter, she demanded that I don’t leave anything behind even for an hour. San Franciscans now take everything out of their cars and leave them unlocked—to avoid having to replace smashed windows.

Conservatives point to Proposition 47 and defunding police for their upsurge. This reduced the number of low-level criminal offenses from felonies, misdemeanors, as well as a few other lower-level crime categories. Also predictably, liberals are pointing to a surge in gun ownership during the pandemic as well as economic hardship and isolation caused by COVID-19. I doubt any of those theories offer a full explanation.

Prop. 47 boosted larceny thefts, but has had no impact on murder rates. The rhetoric aside, almost no police department has suffered funding cuts. It’s unlikely that those who purchased legal firearms during the pandemic will use them for armed robberies. Because of their economic difficulties, poor people aren’t forced to live a criminal life.

Other states are facing similar problems, so there’s probably not a California-specific reason for soaring crime rates, but California officials need to take the matter seriously given that public insecurity could easily lead back to the counterproductive days of tough-on-crime lawmaking—something that increased the size and power of government and led to myriad injustices.

With the exception of the issue of crime, there is a common set of facts that we all can agree upon. This is due to the generally reliable federal and state crime statistics. Instead of embracing the politics denial (as was the case for San Francisco’s District Attorney), policymakers should begin there.

“In 2020, property crime in California reached the lowest level since 1960 (as far back as consistent crime statistics go),” according to a recent analysis of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco by the Public Policy Institute of California. In 2021, however, property crime has increased as much as 13 percent with an astounding 21 percent hike in car break-ins.

Rates for the more serious crime of murder are at an all-time high of 30 percentThis is the FBI’s largest annual jump. Although the state has an overall low murder rate, it offers little comfort. It is as follows: Register for Orange CountyAccording to reports, the number of homicides has doubled in Anaheim, Hemet and Riverside over four years.

Statistics over time are not very relevant when it comes to criminal policy. The public’s sense of disorder and danger drive policy—and it usually always cuts in a predictable direction. California lawmakers tried to compete with each other in crime policies during the late 1990s. Pete Wilson and Cruz Bustamante, Democratic Assembly Speaker, both agreed to the death penalty being used for juvenile criminals.

While it is easy to be smug about this absurdity, last week I returned to Washington D.C. from a visit to my home town. The murder rate is roughly a third of what it was when I last lived there, but no normal person bases their judgments on the FBI’s Unified Crime Reports. They respond to what they hear and feel. My Uber driver told me about another driver who died in a wreck after two girls, aged 13 and 15, tried to steal his car.

I don’t want to be a Pollyanna but it is nice to have a more neutral approach to crime policy. While we can take out brazen criminals while holding those responsible accountable, it is possible to find alternatives to prison. So far, state officials are saying the right things, but as long as people are living in fear we’re always at risk of repeating all our past mistakes.

This column appeared in The Orange County Register for the first time.