By David M. Greenwald
Moderate Democrats backed by deep red money were able to oust San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and nearly got LA DA George Gascón on the ballot as well. One of the major contentions has been that a rise of crime can be tied to the reform policies of some of these DAs.
The data calls this into question. Comparative data in both San Francisco and Los Angeles has consistently shown that, while crime rose, crime has risen everywhere and crime has risen faster in places with traditional DAs—like Sacramento, Alameda, Kern and other such counties.
But LA Times columnist Anita Chabria notes that, while homicides are up across the state and many have put the blame on things like Gavin Newsom, Prop. 47 and Prop. 57 as well as progressive DAs for lowering penalties on nonviolent crimes and facilitating early prison releases, a deeper dive into the data shows a far more complicated story.
Chabria argues, “The biggest risks for homicides came in conservative counties with iron-fist sheriffs and district attorneys, places where progressives in power are nearly as common as monkeys riding unicorns.”
Deep red Kern County leads the state in homicide rate at nearly 14 per 100,000. That’s nearly 2.5 times the state average of 6 per 100,000 and well above the 8.5 per 100,000. She notes, “The number of people annually murdered… in Kern has nearly doubled since 2015 to 124 lives last year.”
In Kern, Donald Trump won with 54 percent of the vote in 2020 and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy earned 64 percent.
Then you have Merced County with the second highest homicide rate of 9.5 per 100,000 residents.
She notes, “Merced is a political mixed bag, as a ‘blue wave’ of Bay Area refugees and political converts have turned this agricultural stronghold into a nearly equally split county, but one where Democrats are far from a shoo-in to win any election.”
Third is Tulare County, “Tulare County, running from Delano in the south to a bit north of Visalia, where people were violently killed at a rate of 8.8 per 100,000.”
She notes, “Trump took nearly 53% of the vote there in 2020, and McCarthy, who also represents part of the area, took nearly 59%.”
She further notes, “Recently, after two suspects in a fentanyl bust were released on bail, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told Fox News that ‘California’s system of justice is failing us all.’”
The key point is that in none of these three counties could you argue that they “coddle their criminals.”
At the same time, it seems that not only do these counties “share the same problems of dark-blue Los Angeles and San Francisco—poverty, homelessness, drugs—they are doing worse on homicides.”
This has been the problem all along. First of all, while it is true that murders went up a lot during the pandemic—many people are forgetting it was a pandemic, the world was turned upside down, people were out of work, lives were disrupted, suicides and depression were soaring.
But, sadly, people who want to use statistics to tie policies with bad outcomes, don’t seem to understand concepts like comparative statics. Comparative statics mean that you can look at the stats in one place where a treatment or intervention occurred and another place where it did not occur and then you can compare the outcomes. While correlation does not prove causation, it does tend to at least debunk it is the place without the treatment that has the larger impact.
That’s what has happened with crime. Crime has gone up across the board—in red and blue states. And what is perhaps most telling is that in red states it has gone up more—suggesting that local policies are not driving the crime rates. California is a microcosm of that.
That’s the point that Chabria is making in her column.
She also notes Contra Costa County—which as some of you know has a very progressive DA who was easily reelected in June, Diana Becton.
Becton told Chabria that she has focused on “moving beyond a singular narrative of incarceration being the answer to everything.”
Despite this—or perhaps because of it—the county is “holding its own when it comes to safety.”
Contra Costa’s murder rate increased slightly from last year, but remains around 4 per 100,000 residents. That’s better than the state average.
Chabria concludes from this that “the idea that progressive policies lead to more violent crime just doesn’t pan out, any more than the idea that getting tough dissuades criminals.”
Chabria believes that we should be talking about guns and NIMBYism instead of progressive prosecutors. That if you want to understand the driver of the murder rate it is the availability of guns, particularly in red areas.
Chabria then moves further and notes that we “also have a problem with our criminal justice reforms. Just not the ones guys like Sheriff Boudreaux target.”
A lot of important points here.
First, as she notes, “Racist before reforms and still, our system has locked up people of color at alarming rates, while criminalizing health issues including addiction and mental illness. So the changes we’ve put in place to create equity, fairness and compassion are vital to reimagining a paradigm that for too long crushed not just people, but communities.”
She argues that where we have failed “is in supporting and implementing those reforms. When someone is released from prison, diverted from jail or is the victim of a crime, that can’t be the end of the story.”
This is the problem we talked about earlier this week. Ninety-five percent of the people who are sentenced to jail or prison are released back into the community and yet we fail to provide them with the resources to succeed—so they don’t. Sixty to 70 percent recidivate. It’s worse than that—we make it hard if not impossible to succeed because we fail to provide things like “addiction treatment, mental health support, housing, job training, social workers.” Plus we limit their jobs and limit their government benefits.
Chabria quotes Jeff Reisig, Yolo County’s DA, who said, “too much, too fast, too little support.”
She notes, “He’s also president of the California District Attorneys Assn., and a middle-of-the-road kind of guy when it comes to justice.” (That might be a little generous but okay at least she isn’t drinking the kool-aid here).
Writes Chabria: “I’m starting to think we don’t want to change as much as we say we do.”
As she puts it, and I have argued using other terms, “Most Californians are liberal at a distance, but bring it too close and it just doesn’t make sense here.”
This is critical—where she ties NIMBYism to the failure of justice reform.
She writes, “That intolerance has created an impossible-to-untangle mess of crime, housing, mental health and addiction that endlessly churns around us — all at heart different angles of poverty, race and inequity. People of color are disproportionately among the ranks of our homeless, incarcerated, mentally ill and addicted, and the vast majority of murder victims are Black and Latino.”
I agree—his is what happened in San Francisco and almost happened in LA too. The thing is, I interview and talk with some of the leaders of the recall, as I did this past week in Los Angeles, and they’ll tell me, hey I’m a lifelong Democrat and most of them are and would rather gouge out their eye than vote for Trump.
But here’s the thing, when push comes to shove, they often sound just like him.
They see crime happening near them, they get concerned and think that the answer is putting more people in cages – even though that approach is actually really expensive and really ineffective. If we spend $100,000 on incarcerating one person for a year, less than ten percent of that money goes to rehabilitation and education services.
So why are we surprised when they come right back and commit a crime when they are released?
But here’s the thing as well—we are judging criminal justice reform on pandemic era stats. Now that the world is slowly shifting away from the lockdown of 2020, we are starting to see that homicide rates are trending back downward.
Other crimes are either flat or down across the state as well.
Chabria notes: “Overall, violent crime in California is the lowest it’s been since the 1970s, and has been that way for at least 10 years. California has the second-lowest homicide rate of any of the 10 largest states after New York, less than half the rate of states including Illinois, Georgia and Ohio.”
But you wouldn’t know it listening to the rhetoric on Fox News or elsewhere.
As Chambira puts it: “We are significantly safer than most other big states, even after a decade of major changes to our carceral system.”
My problem has been that some people ignore data, while others are not fully evaluating the data that we have—and that is driving the wrong conclusions about the outcome of reform.