California Crime: From ‘Three Strikes’ to ‘No Strikes’?

The University of California, Irvine released a forecast in February predicting a drop in California’s violent crime rate in 2017. The same month, a Whittier, California police officer was shot and killed, and another officer wounded, by a recently-incarcerated gang member. The tragedy touched off a debate about California’s controversial efforts to reduce prison overcrowding.

Common sense would seem to dictate that California cannot move from overaggressive law enforcement under “Three Strikes” to a hasty effort to comply with a Federal mandate to reduce prison overcrowding without consequence. For UCI to forecast a decrease in violent crime in 2017 when, in 2015, violent crime hit a double-digit increase as reported by The Los Angeles Times simply doesn’t add up. But that hasn’t stopped otherwise respectable sources from chalking up the increase in violent crime to a fluke, proving that statics are only as honest as the people who interpret them.

As much as we may wish to compartmentalize nonviolent vs. violent crime, the reality is that antisocial behavior, of which crime is but one manifestation, is on a spectrum. There is no surefire way to predict whether a low-level offender will remain nonviolent for life. Complicating matters, evidence indicates that recidivism among nonviolent offenders is in some cases higher than their more violent counterparts.

Society has long debated the concept of “gateway drugs“, which are thought to open the door to the use of harder street drugs. Seemingly, however, we have no comparable concept when it comes to crime. To the contrary, an argument that has gained popularity in recent decades is that Americans over-incarcerate people who in no way pose a threat to society. We even have a name for such offenses: “victimless crimes“. Using this logic, we should reduce sentencing for nonviolent crimes — in what California Gov. Jerry Brown calls a “Public Safety Realignment” — without fear that it will come back to haunt us.

Not so fast.

Critics of Gov. Brown’s Public Safety Realignment efforts point out that rather than reduce overall rates of incarceration the State’s efforts to reduce mass incarceration have transferred cost and care burdens to county and city jails — in what can only amount to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution. All the while, law enforcement waste time and resources arresting and re-arresting the same offenders dozens of times over thanks to “catch-and-release“. Issuing what The Washington Post termed “Get-Out-of-Jail Free Cards” may perversely enable early-stage “gateway crime” offenders to move on to more serious crimes.

So does the concept of a victimless crime hold up upon closer examination?

Take, as an example, drug possession. Indeed, simple drug possession is victimless. Also true: The argument can and is made that the government has no business regulating what people choose to put into their own bodies. Step back a bit, however, and the picture becomes more murky: Gangs compete over turf, in part, to defend drug territories. Substance abusers, in turn, may seek out easy ways to come up with cash. They may break into your car, your home or, as is trending in recent years, steal your Amazon deliveries right off your doorstep.

We typically view low-level “petty crimes” as distinct from one another and from more serious offenses overall. And yet individuals who are under the influence may also commit assault, engage in lewd acts or participate in other incidents that serve to decrease the quality of life in a given community. Drug dealers, similarly, may be busted for possession of a deadly weapon or for assault in defense of a territory. Individuals who are drug-dependent, in turn, may panhandle (a low-level offense) or they may mug others (a violent offense). Using just this this one facet of criminality as an example, it becomes apparent that crimes that revolve around procuring and securing illegal drugs and/or the territory in which to deal drugs covers the gamut from “victimless” to “violent”.

If we are completely honest with ourselves it’s not so much a question of IF there are victims but WHEN, how and to what extent.

The fact that so many people — particularly people of color — are incarcerated is a national shame. But we can’t fix the problem simply by depreciating the seriousness of the conduct (and hence the crime). It would be a more productive use of activists’ and policymakers’ time to focus on improving blighted areas, no-cost drug treatment to anyone who seeks it, economic development, no-cost vocational training, mandatory job placement services for parolees, affordable housing and early-intervention programs for at-risk youth.

To address the problem on the leading (symptomatic) edge — i.e. “Mass incarceration must be stopped!” — is to do a disservice to the back (originating) edge of the problem. Say what one will about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty or President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal but at least in their day political leaders put actions behind their politically-correct, feel-good rhetoric. Thanks to the political influence of Ayn Rand and the NIMBY phenomena, we have a lot more moral outrage today than boots-on-the-ground will to abridge our own comforts for the sake of lifting others’ burdens.

In 1960 the State of California reaffirmed a commitment to residents’ tuition-free access to higher education, which served as a tangible investment in a better path, better future. But when access to free- and low-cost higher education ceased to be a priority, rising costs disproportionately impacted poor and middle class families. This and other public policy moves undercut the investment in a future American middle class and helps explain seemingly unrelated trends: a disturbing loss of American social mobility and the student loan debt crisis.

Reduced sentencing and early release — if these trends indeed enable criminals to return to their communities and disproportionately victimize their own — is not a kindness to the people who live, work and raise families in those communities. Never will this be more true than for those who are already disadvantaged. If we are genuinely concerned for the safety of our communities, we cannot afford to shove the problem under the rug — or paper over rising crime rates — and call it a day.

Beyond the matter of social justice, critics of mass incarceration point to the high cost. The problem is, reducing prison populations doesn’t necessarily reduce costs as much as it serves to displace them. The cost of hiring more law enforcement — and to fund their retirement benefits — is just one way a cost savings achieved through lower rates of incarceration can be negated in the event cities and counties attempt to improve public safety in response to higher crime rates.

As Americans, we not only shoulder the cost of crime directly but indirectly. An indirect cost arising from higher rates of crime consists of reduced property values and fewer sources of employment as communities become less desirable (safe). Similarly, cost increases borne by insurers, hospitals and consumers — as emergency rooms treat victims of violence — are yet another way cost burdens are shifted but not eliminated. The cost to homeowners and automobile drivers who face higher insurance premiums as a result of theft risk serve as another example among many that receive little consideration. A reduced quality of life — apart from outright losses of life to violence — are also a factor in increased mortality and rising inequality.

There are no shortcuts. Addressing the problem of mass incarceration begins and ends with causes, not symptoms.

If we, as a society, care about the fate of those who are at highest risk of incarceration throughout their lives, we will give low-income families and communities the resources to forge a more constructive path. Such efforts need not be purely private, nor should they be purely public. They should, however, elicit an all-hands-on-deck, bipartisan effort. Crime, after all, is not merely an inner city problem. It’s not a San Bernardino problem. It is not a Chicago problem. Or a California prison problem.

Crime is not a them problem. It is an us problem.

The prison overcrowding that triggered a 2011 federal mandate to reduce California’s prison population by at least 30,000 inmates made it necessary to implement early release as a stopgap. But relying on early release measures as a long-term solution is the lazy way out and will more than likely backfire. So while it may be tempting to dismiss, as an anomaly, a ~10 percent jump in violent crime in 2015, rising crime rates will ultimately make their way into California crime statics in the decade to come. Before more senseless tragedies make national news — before more parents question whether it is safe to allow their children to play in their own front yards — California lawmakers would do well to reconsider the wisdom of swinging the legal pendulum from the draconian “Three Strikes” to an overly-permissive “No Strikes”.


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