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Taking Back California – Part Three: Fighting Crime

In recent years, California’s become a target for conservatives around the rest of the country who claim it is the prime example of a deep blue state where crime is out of control. This isn’t entirely deserved, since blue cities across the U.S. cope with similar, if not worse, levels of violent crime and property crime. The issue of rising crime is nonetheless one of the biggest ones of concern to California’s voters and for good reason.

As crime rates rise in California, law enforcement is hindered by laws that tie their hands and budget cuts that deplete their resources. Crime statistics, alarming enough as officially released, are probably understated as victims no longer bother to report them. Smash-and-grab robberies by organized gangs routinely make headline news. Retail theft, afflicting businesses already coping with online competition, has forced the closure of countless stores and threatens to push California’s downtowns into an economic doom loop. The problem of homeless encampments is more visible and more problematic than ever.

The reasons Californians confront a multifaceted onslaught of lawlessness and chaos can’t be traced to any single cause. Background conditions play a major role. The state has become one of the most difficult places to earn a living wage, thanks to a legislatively engineered epidemic of scarcity and high prices for every essential, including food, fuel, and housing. At the same time, the state has become one of the easiest places to be homeless—which is not to say being homeless is easy—thanks to the mildest weather in the U.S., a legislatively engineered lack of laws to control vagrancy, drug use, and petty theft, along with a massive Homeless Industrial Complex that won’t collect billions of dollars per year anymore if the problem is ever solved.

But the direct and explicit causes of California’s crime and homelessness epidemics are known, as are the solutions. At the top of this list is the need to repeal the notorious Prop. 47, sold to voters in 2014 as a compassionate way to give nonviolent offenders a second chance by downgrading drug and property crimes. Proposition 47 has led to what police derisively refer to as “catch and release,” because suspects are only issued citations with a court date and let go. With respect to the homeless, passage of this initiative has made it a waste of time for police to arrest anyone for openly using illegal drugs or for petty theft (defined as stealing items worth less than $950 per day). Only very serious crimes are still investigated.

Reducing crime and homelessness in California also requires judicial changes. A ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in the case Martin v. Boise held that cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough homeless shelter beds. This case and similar ones (ref. Jones v City of Los Angeles) have made it almost impossible to get the homeless off the streets. The situation is made much worse because the definition of “shelter” has been opportunistically conflated into insanely expensive “permanent supportive housing” that California’s taxpayers are now spending over $500,000 per unit to construct, to the delight of participating politically connected developers and nonprofits.

Finally, a primary cause of California’s crime wave are district attorneys, who consistently favor criminals over victims. There are several of these district attorneys active in California counties, the most notorious among them being Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascon in Los Angeles. But here is where hope begins. Boudin was recalled by voters in San Francisco in 2022, and Gascon is in a tight race for reelection this November in Los Angeles. Voter sentiment in California is changing. Maybe they’ve finally had enough.

A big test of just how much voter sentiment is changing will come if a proposition to repeal Prop. 47 qualifies for the state ballot, which is likely. Another reason for hope is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reconsider Martin v. Boise, with a ruling expected later this year. A trifecta, then, might see Californians entering 2025 with Prop. 47 repealed, the criminal-friendly George Gascon no longer serving as district attorney in a county of 9.7 million people, and a new U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it easier to get homeless people off the street and into shelters.

Regardless of what happens in this year’s election and at the U.S. Supreme Court, most Californian voters still need to be convinced that law and order is achievable without violating the dignity and human rights of all concerned. Only with a cultural shift can current and future reforms be sustained. There are three things that conservatives should keep in mind as they consider what message and tone to share with voters on the issues of crime and homelessness.

First, if a conservative candidate or incumbent is unwavering in their commitment to a realistic agenda to reduce crime, there is no harm in acknowledging that criminals themselves are victims. Nobody chooses their parents, their genes, or the society they’re born into. Early childhood trauma can damage a developing brain for life. There is no harm in expressing this fact, and doing so is a better way to attract undecided voters than taking on a punitive tone. One of the reasons crime-friendly district attorneys have been able to attract major donations and win elections is because they have seized the rhetorical high ground of compassion. It’s helpful to expose the hideous results of progressive “compassion,” but that job is much easier when the perpetrators of these failed policies cannot hide behind the shield of compassion. Conservatives must emphasize that they also have compassion, but that compassion comes with obligations. Sometimes genuine compassion seems cruel, but results matter.

Which brings up a second point that conservative candidates should emphasize: deterrence matters. This fact comes with a crucial nuance. It turns out that criminals are not deterred by the severity of punishment nearly as much as they are deterred by the certainty of punishment. In California today, criminals have almost no fear of punishment. The laws aren’t in place to make it likely they’ll ever be held accountable, and either there aren’t enough police to arrest them anyway or police who operate on limited resources are unwilling to spend time on yet another “catch and release” case. If California’s laws and prosecutors were reoriented to a high probability of convictions with sentencing, crime rates would drop overnight.

Finally, the entire concept of incarceration needs to be revisited. I recall a retired sheriff once telling me about an encounter he had with an ex-con who had recently been released. The ex-con confronted the sheriff, who had made the original arrest that sent him to prison. But then something unexpected happened. He explained that while in prison, he earned a high school diploma, learned a vocation that accounted for his current employment, and had been cured of his drug addiction. Prison was the best thing that ever happened to this young man.

A related story came from someone who spent most of his career helping homeless people. He operated a private shelter that put conditions on entry, unlike government-funded shelters. To get admitted, the homeless person had to commit to sobriety, counseling, and job training. The program is successful and could be expanded if government funding were available. More to the point, this man and every other professional homeless advocate operating privately funded shelters have shared the same conclusion—homeless people are almost all substance abusers or mentally ill, or both. Whether that’s the cause or the effect of their homeless status is irrelevant. They need to be compelled into shelters where they can get treatment and recover their dignity.

If Californians begin to reform their laws, recall their crime-friendly DAs, and get some help from the U.S. Supreme Court this year, then the overwhelming question going forward is how to come up with innovative new forms of incarceration. The number of incarcerated individuals may not go up as much as statistics currently indicate. Crime is deterred by the certainty of punishment, not by the severity of the sentence. California’s homeless population includes a high percentage of individuals who would find housing with family or friends if they knew they were going to have to go to a shelter and stay sober.

By expressing these three concepts—compassion, deterrence, and rehabilitative modes of incarceration—conservative candidates in California have a chance to win over voters who won’t respond to a harsher “lock them all up” message. Adding this nuance costs nothing and, in fact, can pave the way for a productive discussion over the cost/benefit of differing modes of incarceration.

For example, if inmates are sequestered to Cal Fire to work the fire lines, why can’t they do other tasks throughout the rural regions of California? Why not use inmates to improve rural access roads, remove dead trees from our overgrown forests, or even work in agriculture? Why can’t homeless people also have these opportunities?

As for the possible need to expand California’s capacity to absorb minimum security inmates and recovering substance abusers, why not equip new facilities with the latest robotic and surveillance technologies, not to eliminate them but at least to reduce the need for guards and fences? The amount of money that is currently spent to allegedly help the homeless in California could easily pay for shelters—voluntary and involuntary—established in less expensive parts of the state, with plenty of money left over for counseling, job training, and treatment.

Californians can reduce crime without having to invest hundreds of billions of dollars. It can be done by redirecting money that is currently wasted and by political and judicial reforms that change the rules and create deterrence. It can be done with compassion for everyone concerned and deliver results everyone wants. This is the message conservatives can carry in California all the way to victory in upcoming elections now and in the future.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).