How California softened its ‘tough-on-crime’ approach


Steven Greenhut
Resident Senior Fellow and Western Region Director, State Affairs

Press Release

Policy study: How California softened its ‘tough-on-crime’ approach

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California has a long history of pioneering criminal-justice reforms. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, such reforms mostly toughened the state’s approach to handling criminals, with some of the most significant policy reforms implemented at the ballot box. California’s past approaches—especially its “three-strikes” law—have become models for other states, although such policies have led to some troubling results.

Given the high costs—both financially and in terms of civil liberties—the state’s incarceration-heavy approach imposed, these changing policies and attitudes are a welcome development. Many of the tough-on-crime approaches of the past were driven by the state’s powerful law-enforcement lobby and “public safety” unions, who appeared at times more interested in protecting their budgets (and creating new “customers”) than promoting justice.

Not every new proposal is ideal, of course, and California has yet to embrace the kind of wide-ranging reforms in its corrections bureaucracy that have been implemented by Texas, for instance. The state also has failed to implement significant reforms to its public-employee pension system and has moved away from outsourcing – measures that could help stretch California’s budget, which is burdened by the highest cost in the nation (total and per capita) for running its prison system. Notwithstanding such costs, California still has an astoundingly high recidivism rate of approximately 65 percent.

This paper seeks to place these shifts in historical context. It examines a few of the most significant reform policies that have passed through the Legislature or been put to voters through the state’s robust initiative process. As California goes, so goes the nation. As such, it is worth seeing where the state is headed on this significant issue.

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