An explosion of California property crimes – due to Prop. 47

By Marc Debbaudt

Congratulations are not in order for San Francisco’s latest No. 1 ranking; the city with the highest increase in property crime rates in the United States, according to recently released FBI statistics.

A Chronicle report on the “rampant looting of cars” in San Francisco shined a light on one area of this increase in property crime. Sadly, since Proposition 47 reduced (and for intents eliminated) penalties for many property crimes, cities across California have joined San Francisco in seeing dramatic rises in property crime rates.

Proposition 47 proponents, such as Bill Lansdowne, a former police chief in San Diego and San Jose, have blamed the crime rate increase on police staffing shortages, social services cutbacks, mental health calls, and homelessness – but those excuses don’t fly. In the same time period that San Francisco and other California cities saw property crime rates increase, the next four largest states (Florida, Texas, New York and Illinois) all saw decreases in property crime. Every excuse singled out by Lansdowne exists in those states, but what they don’t have is Prop. 47.

The Prop. 47 reckless experiment led to an increase in the number of crime victims because it reduced felony theft offenses to misdemeanors. The initiative’s champions wanted to ensure addicts who steal to fund their drug habits were not punished for those thefts, so they reduced many former felony theft crimes to misdemeanors. A misdemeanor conviction carries little, if any, incarceration time and results in virtually no supervision if probation is imposed.

The FBI statistics are grim. They establish a crime rate increase from 2014 to 2015. They are based on information derived from law enforcement agencies that submit comparable data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. From that data, the FBI compared crime rates for the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2015, that is, after the passage of Prop. 47. The FBI data covered the 66 cities in California with populations over 100,000.

Four cities joined San Francisco in the Top 10 for largest property crime rate increases; 49 cities saw overall increases; and 24 suffered double-digit increases. (By contrast, the California Department of Justice derives its numbers by comparison of burglaries and auto thefts from 2014 to prior years, which really doesn’t address the rise in crime following the passage of Prop. 47.)

The numbers are equally dismal for violent crime rates. San Francisco ranked No. 8 in the increase in violent crime for the same time period. Across California, 48 cities saw their violent crime rate increase, with 34 seeing double-digit increases.

While Prop. 47 supporters spend a considerable amount of energy dwelling on the cost of the criminal justice system and incarceration, the cost of crime to victims and society is not mentioned. That cost is staggering! It is calculable using the widely accepted Rand Corporation Cost of Crime Calculator, and is a sobering measuring stick of the true costs of “criminal justice reform.”

In San Francisco, for example, increased crime rates from 2014 to 2015 for the January-June time period cost more than $120 million. In my county, Los Angeles, the cost was more than $250 million. That is just a six-month comparison, with no reason to believe the second half of 2015 will prove any better. In truth, Prop. 47 and the other reckless experiments in criminal justice reform such as prison realignment, merely shifted the cost from society at large – which funds the criminal justice system – to individual victims, carrying with it a vastly increased human price tag as penalties for criminal activity were eliminated.

A criminal who takes advantage of a criminal justice policy to reoffend is clearly a failure in the abstract for any particular criminal justice reform. However, as evidenced by the statistics above, that failure also means the creation of all-too-real crime victims.

That’s the real tragedy of reckless experiments in criminal justice reform; the unnecessary creation of more crime victims. Can we dare to hope that these efforts to reform the criminal justice system will stop when that number proves unbearable? The crime statistics for the first half of 2015 suggest we already are well past that point.

Marc Debbaudt is the immediate past president and president emeritus of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles deputy district attorneys.


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