Time was when anything but the toughest stance against crime was a ticket to political trouble in California.
That included the death penalty, which was Dianne Feinstein’s ticket to stardom back in 1990 when her defense of the practice before a convention hall of angry liberal Democrats – a calculated move, some would say – cemented the centrist reputation she’d hoped for. And it applied to a cornucopia of the strictest of laws enacted during the 1990s – “three strikes” for repeat offenders, “one strike” for rapists, truth-in-sentencing laws.
But that was then and this is . . . well, a different California where a November ballot measure will test the public’s attachment to that hard line on public safety.
If approved, Proposition 47, aka the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, would lower the classification of most non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes in California from felony to misdemeanor status.
In all, it would affect 10,000 state inmates who’d be looking at resentencing and the possibility of an earlier prison release. The idea being that the money Sacramento saves on housing fewer prisoners would be reinvested in social spending (K-12 education, mental health and rehabilitation programs).
Two things worth noting about Prop 47:
1. Except for a passing mention in this month’s gubernatorial debate about a prisoner’s early release leading to a hideous crime (more on that in a moment), the measure has flown under the radar screen. At present, California television viewers are getting healthy doses of ads for Proposition 45 (boosting the state insurance commissioner’s authority over health insurance) and Proposition 46 (increasing the state cap on medical malpractice damages), but as yet nothing on Prop 47.
2. The relative silence from the law-and-order community that ordinarily is a loud voice against such sentence-reducing ideas. That would include country sheriffs and district attorneys as well as crime-victim movements that, once upon a time in California, were quite adept at marching on the State Capitol and shaming lawmakers into action.
So what’s happened in California over the past two decades to possibly change the public-safety dynamic? For one, there’s the collapse of the state’s GOP and, with it, the absence of a noticeable voice defining the topic on more conservative terms (i.e., recidivism rather than rehabilitation).
Furthermore, whereas the 1990s saw riveting crime stories aplenty in California (Polly Klass’s abduction and murder; O.J. Simpson’s Bronco ride), public-safety news in California of late is less riveting – a fixture on local news, yes, but nothing as sensational as “the trial of the century.”
But that could change if Proposition 47 passes – for the simple reason of unintended consequences. What happens if, while easing prison overcrowding, California gets it wrong and the early release of inmates brings with it an uptick in violent crimes?
It’s already happened at least once in the Golden State: Jerome Sidney DeAvila, a sex offender who had been in and out of prison for parole violations (he’d disabled his ankle bracelet at least seven times) and whose latest offense was mentioned in California’s gubernatorial debate. In February 2013, after being released from a San Joaquin County jail due to overcrowding concerns, DeAvila was arrested for robbing, raping and murdering his 76-year-old grandmother in her home – leaving her remains in a wheelbarrow behind her Stockton house.
Could something that horrific become a more familiar story in the Golden State? Think of it as roll of the dice meets ticking time bomb: three years ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown ushered in a concept called “realignment” – keeping new convicted low-level offenders without current or prior serious or violent offenses in county lock-up instead of the state’s penal system. The net result: on average, some 13,500 inmates are released in California each month – a 34% increase since Brown took office in 2011.
More offenders are leaving California jails earlier. However, it’s not clear if the decisions are always just – or sensible. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, LA County inmates jail convicted of child endangerment were let go after serving only two months of their six-month sentences. Statewide, parolees jailed for spousal abuse served as little as seven days, thus increasing the chances of repeat domestic violence.
Such could be California’s future: revolving-door justice that fails at protecting the endangered. Absent a more visible debate over Prop 47 over the next seven weeks, ironically it will be voters determining that very fate.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.