Opinion: Has crime faded away as big issue?



October 24, 2014 05:00 PM

Updated October 25, 2014 08:33 PM

Crime – or the fear of crime – dominated California’s politics for a quarter-century. Proposition 47, which would reduce punishment for some crimes, tests whether that era has passed.

During its heyday, Republicans rode the crime issue hard and successfully, such as the 1982 election of Republican George Deukmejian, a death penalty champion, as governor.

Democrats felt the backlash, such as Jerry Brown’s failing bid for the Senate in 1982 and the ouster of Brown appointee Rose Bird and two other anti-death penalty state Supreme Court justices in 1986.

There was some factual basis for the issue’s dominance.

California’s crime rate rose sharply during the 1970s and hit a peak about 1980. Several particularly heinous crimes added fuel, such as the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a newly released felon.

Voters responded with a “three strikes and you’re out” law to keep more felons behind bars, capping more than a decade of tough lock-’em-up laws by legislators scared of being branded soft on crime. They packed prisons with tens of thousands of new inmates, far over their designed capacity.

The crime rate, meanwhile, was declining, but even so remained a potent political factor into the first decade of the 21st century.

The second decade, however, has seen a reversal. Overall, the state’s politics have trended leftward, and with that, support for the death penalty and other tough-on-crime laws has diminished.

Federal judges, meanwhile, have ordered that the state reduce prison overcrowding. Three years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators responded with realignment, under which those convicted of low-level felonies are diverted into local jails and probation, rather than prison, thus reducing inmate populations via attrition.

Concurrently, probation and parole officials lightened up on released felons, reducing the numbers who go back in prison.

Legislators have mulled a broader rewrite of criminal laws, either directly or through a “sentencing commission,” to revise what was wrought during the state’s political crime wave.

Proposition 47 would short-circuit that process by downgrading some property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and allowing those already behind bars for those crimes – as many as 10,000 – to seek sentence reductions.

It was financed primarily by a few wealthy people, particularly financier George Soros, but the American Civil Liberties Union added $3.5 million last week.

Many police and prosecutor groups oppose it, but are unable to raise more than token campaign funds.

A new Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 59 percent of voters support Proposition 47. If it passes, it will close the books on crime as a powerful political issue in California.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee