Dueling realities

Efforts to roll back mass incarceration may be good for equity, but public safety impact is still being debated

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the December 6, 2018, issue.

A new independent report found that California’s arrest rates have reached a historic low and are roughly correlated to the continued trend of falling crime rates.

The analysis also attributed the drop in part to large-scale sentencing reforms. It was issued just one week after California’s main victims advocacy organization authored a scathing op-ed in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle about those very changes.

The report was compiled by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research center that has been tracking crime rates across the 58 counties since 2012, after lawmakers enacted the first of several major reforms, Assembly Bill 109, more commonly known as realignment. That bill steered thousands of newly convicted offenders from state prisons to county jails and probation supervision. AB 109 was followed by the voter-approved Proposition 47, which lowered some drug and property crimes to misdemeanors, and then Proposition 57, which changed juvenile sentencing policies and made more state prisoners eligible for early parole.

Most recently, lawmakers overhauled the state’s cash bail system, though those changes are pending. The PPIC’s new report indicates that arrest rates in California have fallen to 3,428 per 100,000 residents, a 58 percent drop since 1989.

“The past four decades have seen tremendous change in the criminal justice landscape in California,” wrote Magnus Lofstrom, a coauthor of the report.

Among Lofstrom’s findings is that racial disparities in arrests have narrowed slightly.

But victims advocates paint a darker narrative. Writing in the pages of The Chronicle last week, attorney Nina Salarno Besselman, president of Crime Victims United, contended the benefits of reform were illusory.

“Raping an unconscious person isn’t officially a ‘violent’ crime in California. Nor is pimping a child for sex. If an abuser beats a spouse or a domestic partner with enough force to cause injury, that’s not a violent crime either under California law,” Besselman wrote. “Clearly, few voters knew this. But this deception did more than leave us feeling betrayed and angry. It made us less safe, and cost people their lives.”

Besselman went on to list a number of murders that victims advocates believe would have been prevented under California’s old laws. She was writing in support of two statewide measures on the 2020 ballot.

The PPIC said it currently has research underway that will examine more closely what factors have caused the arrest rates to plummet.