California sees sharp increase in crime, fueling political debate


OCTOBER 2, 2016 4:00 PM


Orinda, an affluent, bucolic Contra Costa County town, would seem to be an unlikely scene for a vicious street crime.

However, one day last week, two armed robbers wearing Halloween masks confronted a couple, both 70 years old, as they unloaded groceries in their driveway. They battered the man, even though he surrendered his wallet, and shot his wife twice before fleeing.

It will be recorded as one of the approximately 170,000 violent crimes committed in California this year – and after several decades of decline, armed robberies, rapes, homicides and other violent crimes are on the upswing.

Just hours before the Orinda couple were assaulted, the FBI released its annual state-by-state breakdown on crime, revealing that in 2015, California saw a 7.6 percent increase in violent acts from the previous year to 166,883, or 426.3 per 100,000 population.

That was 2 1/2 times the 3 percent national increase, the 13th highest of any state. Moreover, California’s overall violent crime rate is also the nation’s 13th highest. Our homicide rate increased by 8.5 percent, well over the 4.9 percent recorded nationally.

These disturbing data provide new grist for the state’s escalating debate over crime and punishment – particularly since three of the Nov. 8 ballot measures provide opportunities for voters to weigh in.

One, Proposition 62, would repeal the state’s death penalty. Another, Proposition 66, would go the other way, speeding up executions. And Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 57 would make it easier for felons deemed to be nonviolent under a very narrow definition of violent crime to obtain parole, and allow the state to cut sentences of all felons for good behavior.

This year’s crop of crime-related measures follows Brown’s historic “realignment” that has sharply reduced the state’s prison population in response to federal court pressure, and Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified six nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Critics, mostly in the law enforcement field, have contended that realignment and Proposition 47 have sparked recent increases in crime, not only of the violent variety but also auto thefts, burglaries and other nonviolent crimes.

The liberal Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice issued a report last month that sees “no correlation between rates of Proposition 47-related prison releases or jail population decreases and county crime.”

Almost simultaneously, the Public Policy Institute of California released a study of “California’s historic corrections reforms,” concluding they “did not lead to a broad increase in crime rates” but may have contributed to a rise in auto thefts.

The PPIC report suggests that the recent uptick in crime may just be an anomaly in an otherwise “long-term decline.”

Perhaps so, but when California’s crime rates, both violent and nonviolent, spike much higher than national trends, we should legitimately wonder whether releasing tens of thousands of criminals who otherwise would have been behind bars is having a negative effect.

Orinda’s residents certainly must wonder.

Dan Walters: 916-321-1195,, @WaltersBee

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