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Proposed Rollback of Justice Reforms Sparks Debate Over Cause of Crime Spikes

Justice reform advocates are fighting back against efforts to turn back the clock on California laws that reduce some drug and petty theft to offenses unworthy of jail time.

In 2014, the state's voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces certain drug, petty theft, stolen property and bad-check felonies to misdemeanors. That proposition, along with prison realignment, three-strikes modification (so only a serious or violent felony counts as a strike) and Proposition 57 (which expands parole opportunities for nonviolent inmates), helped to reduce the Golden State's prison population from a peak of 163,000 in 2006 to 131,148 today. It's estimated that at least $103 million in taxpayer dollars has been saved as a result of Proposition 47 alone.

Recent spikes in crime in Los Angeles and across the state, however, have the law-and-order crowd eyeing these reforms as a cause. They've proposed a ballot initiative called the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act. It would expand the definition of a violent crime, create a third strike for thieves who take something worth at least $250, and require parole boards to consider an inmate's entire rap sheet.

The proposal is seen as a rollback of reforms enacted by Propositions 47 and 57, and both sides are now battling over the effects of those propositions. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) recently revealed California crime data that shows statewide property crime — a key point of contention — actually declined 3 percent between 2010, before those reforms were approved, and 2016, afterward.

"This ballot proposal is misguided," says Alex Johnson, managing director of Californians for Safety and Justice. "We want to make sure the record is clear and folks are aware that crimes are at a historical low."

The CJCJ report, authored by noted criminologist Mike Males, found that statewide property crime has dropped 57 percent since 1970. His analysis acknowledges that property crime increased 7 percent after prison realignment and 7 percent following the passage of Proposition 47. But in both cases, Males writes, such crime subsided and produced a "net decline" across the Golden State.

Los Angeles County saw an 8.3 percent reduction in burglaries since 2010 but a 4 percent increase in property crimes overall, according to the report. A spokesman for Californians for Safety and Justice said via email that data show violent crime has remained flat during that time.

Proponents of the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act say that, since the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014, California has seen a greater increase in violent crime than the rest of the nation. They claim a 69.5 percent increase in violent crime in the city of L.A. from 2013 to present times. "So-called 'nonviolent' offenders are eligible for early release from prison after serving only a fraction of the sentence ordered by a judge," according to the initiative's request for title and summary. "Californians need better protection from such violent criminals."

Los Angeles Police Department crime stats show a 16.3 percent increase in violent crimes since 2015 and 6.4 percent reduction since August. Property crime is down about 1 percent over the last month but up 9 percent since 2015.

But many big cities in the United States have been grappling with spikes in crime, even as the national crime rate, like L.A.'s, remains near historic lows. (Spikes in crime seem to bounce off this low bottom.) Those metros outside California aren't bound to Proposition 47, so it could be problematic to blame justice reform.

A recent Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of justice reform measures since 2000 concluded that "property crime and larceny rates were lower" in most of the states that reduced such crimes from felonies. In California, people once arrested on the street for possession of a small amount of drugs now often are released as a result of Proposition 47.

Critics say those folks are out breaking into homes and cars instead of being confined to custody. Defenders of justice reform say there's little proof that's the case. Expect this war over crime data to heat up if the proposed initiative — backed by state Assemblyman Jim Cooper, an Elk Grove Democrat, and Sacramento County District Attorney Anne-Marie Schubert — makes it to the ballot.

"Criminologists will tell you increasing homeless, the economy, policing — all impact crime more than state sentencing laws," says Johnson of Californians for Safety and Justice. "We simply can't continue to waste billions of taxpayer dollars a year on incarceration."

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