Look Past Partisan Rhetoric To Understand California's Recent Crime Problems

California's leaders can take the recent rise in property crime seriously without repeating the same "tough on crime" mistakes of the past.


Like all areas of our society these days, every problem draws simple partisan answers—and then sparks a nasty battle over pat policy proposals and between two factions that portray the other side as devious and dangerous. Pick any issue—housing, guns, immigration, etc.—and we can easily map out both sides' overheated arguments and positions.

We therefore shouldn't be surprised that Californians have reacted to the troubling issue of growing violent crime rates in that predictable manner. It makes perfect sense, too, given that crime—and the fear of it—affects our sense of safety. I spend a lot of time in San Francisco, and it's the main issue that everyone is talking about.

Even the Associated Press has noticed that the city's crime wave—including a string of organized and brazen robberies, a shoplifting epidemic, and daytime shootings—has challenged the city's "vaunted tolerance." San Franciscans "are used to living cheek by jowl with open drug use, feces-infested streets, and petty crime," AP reported, but many are moving out amid "a general feeling of vulnerability."

Despite what some commentators have argued, San Francisco does not yet resemble Road Warrior, but the crime problem is ominous. Last time I visited my daughter in San Francisco, she insisted that I not leave anything in the trunk even for an hour. San Franciscans now take everything out of their cars and leave them unlocked—to avoid having to replace smashed windows.

Conservatives are blaming Proposition 47, which reduced a number of low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and police defunding for the upsurge. Also predictably, liberals are pointing to a surge in gun ownership during the pandemic as well as economic hardship and isolation caused by COVID-19. I doubt any of those theories offer a full explanation.

Prop. 47 boosted larceny thefts, but has had no impact on murder rates. Despite the rhetoric, virtually no police department has seen funding cuts. There's no way the people who bought legal guns during the pandemic are using them to commit armed robberies. Poor people don't turn to a life of crime because of economic struggles.

Other states are facing similar problems, so there's probably not a California-specific reason for soaring crime rates, but California officials need to take the matter seriously given that public insecurity could easily lead back to the counterproductive days of tough-on-crime lawmaking—something that increased the size and power of government and led to myriad injustices.

At least with the crime issue, we can all agree on a certain set of facts given the general reliability of state and federal crime statistics (especially for murder and other highly reported categories). So policy makers should start there rather than (as is the case with San Francisco's district attorney) embrace the politics of denial.

"In 2020, property crime in California reached the lowest level since 1960 (as far back as consistent crime statistics go)," according to a recent analysis of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco by the Public Policy Institute of California. In 2021, however, property crime has increased as much as 13 percent with an astounding 21 percent hike in car break-ins.

Regarding the far-more concerning crime of murder, rates are up 30 percentthe highest annual jump the FBI has ever recorded. The state still has a relatively low murder rate nationwide, but that offers slim comfort. As The Orange County Register reported, homicides doubled over four years in Anaheim, Hemet, Riverside, Pasadena, Torrance, and Glendale.

When it comes to crime policy, statistical analyses over time don't entirely matter. The public's sense of disorder and danger drive policy—and it usually always cuts in a predictable direction. In the late 1990s, California politicians tried to out-tough one another on their crime policies, to the point that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante both agreeing to use the death penalty for criminals as young as 13.

It's easy to roll our eyes at that insanity, but I just returned last week from a trip to my old hometown of Washington, D.C. The murder rate is roughly a third of what it was when I last lived there, but no normal person bases their judgments on the FBI's Unified Crime Reports. Instead, they react to what they read and feel. My Uber driver told me about another driver who died in a wreck after two girls, aged 13 and 15, tried to steal his car.

Not to sound like a Pollyanna, but when it comes to crime policy it would be nice to try a less-partisan approach. We can, you know, be tough on brazen crimes while still holding officers accountable and seeking appropriate alternatives to incarceration. So far, state officials are saying the right things, but as long as people are living in fear we're always at risk of repeating all our past mistakes.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.