It’s easy to look back at California’s overreaching anti-crime measures from the 1990s and scratch our heads at the tenor of the crime debate in that era. The state passed the toughest three-strikes-and-you’re-out law in the nation, which mandated life sentences even if the third strike was for a minor offense such as, in one widely reporting case, stealing a slice of pizza.

I often quote from the 1998 gubernatorial debate, when Democratic candidate Gray Davis — who wasn’t about to be outflanked on the right on the crime issue by GOP Attorney General Dan Lungren — pointed to Singapore as the starting point in dealing with the crime problem. That nation had caned an American teen-ager for vandalism and executed drug dealers.

The Washington Post headlined its story on the debate as follows: “Two Californians Fight for the Middle.” It was a moderate position, which strikes this writer as a tad extreme. A year earlier, Democratic Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante — trying to outdo GOP Gov. Pete Wilson — said he would (“with a tear in my eye”) execute criminals as young as 13. Wilson had vowed to execute 14 year olds.

A few years ago, the nation’s crime rate including California’s had fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s. But it was a different matter in the late 1990s. The state’s violent-crime rate was 239 per 100,000 people in 1960, and then soared to 1,013 by 1994. The rate had dropped to 703 by 1998 and kept falling, but political changes often lag a few years behind societal changes.

Pundits offer many easy explanations (depending on their political inclinations) for rising or falling crime — poverty, guns, tough-on-crime laws, police strategies, dramatic increases in incarceration rates, aging population, etc. — but the criminology data is surprisingly inconclusive.

My goal isn’t to debate crime explanations, but to offer a warning to the state’s Democrats. Unless they start dealing seriously with the latest, post-COVID crime increases, they risk seeing public sentiments turn back in that 1990s direction. The nation is in the midst of a crime wave — and California cities in particular are facing a growing sense of disorder.

“California’s 31 percent jump in homicides in 2020 reflected a national trend that saw the largest one-year increase since the FBI began collecting numbers in the 1960s,” the Los Angeles Times reported in late September. It’s not just California, of course, with homicide rates going up more than 29 percent nationwide — and by troubling rates even in red states such as Texas.

So it’s unlikely that California-specific policies explain those hikes, although data suggests that some of its criminal-justice reforms (such as Proposition 47, which reduced many low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors) have boosted auto theft and larceny rates. Nevertheless, the state’s progressive officials — especially those in control of its biggest cities — struggle even to acknowledge the seriousness of the current crime wave.

The San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 22 reported on a weekend crime spree not only in San Francisco and Oakland, but in placid suburbs such as Walnut Creek, “where roving bands of thieves swarmed into stores, grabbed as much merchandise as they could carry and escaped in getaway cars.” In Oakland, the marauders “began shooting when confronted by Oakland officers.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom described the mayhem as “unacceptable,” but it’s still unclear what specific policies (beyond additional funding) the governor plans to combat what the Chronicle described as thefts that are “carefully orchestrated, entrepreneurial and apparently driven by social media.” Meanwhile, similar incidents have spread across the Los Angeles area.

Flash-mob robbers targeted a Home Depot in the suburb of Lakewood last week. “The Home Depot incident was one of several brazen robberies playing out around Los Angeles on Friday, including one where a security guard was punched and another where an employee was sprayed with a chemical agent,” the Daily News reported.

On the Los Angeles transit systems, “reports of violent crimes were up 25 percent from the same time last year and 9 percent from 2019,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Granted, ridership levels were extremely low last year because of COVID-19, but rail and bus riders — who are comprised mostly of poor people in LA — are increasingly afraid.

The problems have been apparent in the Bay Area for quite some time. After someone was gunned down in front of her apartment in a nice area of San Francisco, my daughter has for the first time started talking about hightailing it to the suburbs. Last time I visited, she warned me not to leave anything in the trunk — even for an hour while we went to dinner. Her sentiments are not unique.

In November, “Walgreens closed five stores in five different San Francisco neighborhoods,” KQED explained. “The company claims it was because of ‘organized, rampant retail theft,’ although available information doesn’t quite back that up.” Well, KQED and Mayor London Breed might downplay the theft factor, but retail chains are unlikely to keep iffy operations open if the cost of turning them into fortresses becomes too high. This, too, hurts poor people the most.

I continue to favor a number of thoughtful criminal-justice reforms. For instance, there’s no reason that, say, police agencies cannot continue to do their jobs and also rid their departments of misbehaving police officers. But we never get balanced policies in a climate of fear — and that fear is justified when flash-mob robbers menace our cities.

Criminal-justice reform efforts shouldn’t be abandoned, nor should we revert to overly punitive tough-on-crime methods, but we must remain diligent, take the violent crime spike seriously, and prioritize public safety. If California’s Democrats are serious about criminal-justice reforms, they better take care of business now — before we’re back to the days when politicians felt the need to defend caning and the executions of 13-year-olds.

Image credit: Tekweni

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