Is Lighter Drug Punishment Really Causing Mayhem in L.A.?

Is Lighter Drug Punishment Really Causing Mayhem in L.A.?
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The tough-on-crime crowd is blaming Proposition 47, the voter-approved measure that downgraded some low-level drug and property allegations from felonies to misdemeanors, for a spike in local crime this year.

Total violent crime in the city of Los Angeles is up 21 percent compared with last year; property crime is up nearly 11 percent, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Proposition 47 has been in effect now for one year.

A new report from the ACLU of California says it's too soon to see if the increase is the result of narcotics aficionados facing misdemeanor cases instead of felonies. But it's clear that letting low-level offenders walk the streets has not caused mayhem in recent years, at least according to our reading of the document.

The same law-and-order crowd said California's late-2011 prison realignment, which sent 27,000 non-serious, nonviolent or non–sex offenders to shorter stints in county jails, would unleash a torrent of crime. "Violent crime rates remain unaffected by realignment," according to a Public Policy Institute of California report earlier this year.

Property crime went up in 2012, but then statewide violent and property declined in 2013, a full year after realignment was implemented, the PPIC said.

Now law enforcement leaders like L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Marc Debbaudt, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys of Los Angeles County, are blaming this year's crime increase on Proposition 47.

But the measure didn't go into effect (on Nov. 5, 2014) until after crime started to rise, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck noted last summer. Likewise, cities across the nation, from Chicago to St. Louis, New York to New Orleans, have seen a spike in violent crime.

Those communities are not living under Proposition 47.

Critics have little data to prove their case. Debbaudt of the DA group has argued, for example, that his estimation of 47's impact on crime is a matter of trusting his senses. "I'm not going to deny what I know and see in my courtroom to be true," he told KCRW's Which Way, L.A.? last month.

The ACLU's report says blaming the measure, which passed with 60 percent of the statewide vote, is premature. 

"Some are making irresponsible and inaccurate statements linking Proposition 47 and crime," the civil liberties organization says in its report. "Others are falsely claiming that they are no longer able to arrest people for petty crime or that a misdemeanor is not a 'real' penalty. These statements are both untrue and counterproductive."

In general, the PPIC argued in its realignment report, "Reduced reliance on incarceration appears to have a small and very limited effect on crime."

Even within California, crime is not universally on the rise. In San Diego, crime rates have remained at historic lows, according to a San Diego Association of Governments analysis.

"With numerous changes at the state level, from public safety realignment (AB 109) to Proposition 47, along with other issues faced by law enforcement across the country, there has been the perception that crime couldn’t go any lower and may start to increase," the association says in its 2015 midyear crime report.

The ACLU found that some communities saw huge increases in the number of arrests post-47. "We looked at data from counties across the state, and there's very different things happening," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, director of criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU of California.

A summary of the ACLU's report notes that while "some law enforcement agencies reported dramatic increases in low-level arrests" in the first half of the year, "others reported equally dramatic reductions."

This reflects cops' priorities and interpretation of the law more than it reflects actual drug users committing crime, the organization argues.

And while Proposition 47 reduced the number of people in California's jails, the number "is climbing again as county jails change their detention and early-release practices," the summary says. 

Dooley-Sammuli says that critics like Sheriff McDonnell should use the law to its full, intended extent instead of complaining that it ties the hands of his cops.

She described much of the law-and-order response to the public's democratic will here as "resistance."

In Los Angeles drug arrests are down. But the law doesn't tell law enforcement to ignore drug crimes. It just reduces the severity of the subsequent cases against suspects and tries to ensure not only that they will avoid serious time behind bars but also that they could tap into drug treatment created by a criminal justice tax savings under 47.

"Change is hard," Dooley-Sammuli told us. "We've told law enforcement to deal with these problems. This is going to requre a culture shift to get over the shock of change and really focus on what we all want, across the political spectrum."


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