Is California, one of the bluest state in the US, at a turning point over crime, homelessness?

LOS ANGELES – Ron Wyghtman has watched L.A. and his small corner of Venice change drastically over decades.

The 66-year-old remembers when the city saw violent crime reach historic highs in the 1990s with gangs, murders and a crack epidemic. It got safer. But now, Wyghtman says he sees it both backtracking and moving toward a new crisis.

Tents and a disheveled RV now line his streets. Feces often mark the black fence that surrounds his small community. The sounds of emergency sirens echo during the dead of night and in the middle of the day.

“The other day there was a shooting. It never ends,” Wyghtman said, looking toward the pile of trash and broken bicycle parts that sits in front of his home now. “It’s ridiculous and scary and just sad.”

California often touts its reputation as a progressive leader, rolling out policies and plans aiming to reshape the state and inspire the rest of the country. But residents such as Wyghtman in Los Angeles and San Francisco – two of the state’s largest cities and liberal leaders – have signaled they feel frustrated and unsafe and are in need of change after seeing both crime and homelessness appear to explode.

Polls reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the direction of the state as a whole, and the discontent has fueled recent recall efforts.

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"This is a fraught moment for progressives in California," said Jody David Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in the relationship between criminal justice and race. "They should not be resting on their laurels. They should not be lulled into any false sense of security just because California is viewed as a deep blue state."

Crimes steal headlines, but data tells complicated story

Videos went viral last summer showing people in stores snatching items and stuffing them into bags before waltzing out unchecked. The spate of smash-and-grab crimes, centered mostly in San Francisco and L.A., was followed by looting of idle trains in Los Angeles. Thieves would break open cargo containers, taking goods and leaving heaps of trash behind on the tracks.

Despite the headlines, crime rates across the state – including in its biggest cities – tell a complicated story.

The latest statistics provided by the California Department of Justice from 2020 show the state's homicide rate hit its highest rate since 2007, but it still was well below the peaks of the 1990s.

There were 397 homicides in L.A. in 2021, the highest number of killings in 15 years. Fifty-six were reported in San Francisco, the most since 2017.

But other categories, such as burglary, were at historic lows. Reported property crimes across the state dropped to their lowest rate since 1960. Larceny dropped by more than 18% and burglary dropped by nearly 5%, according to the state's data.

“One of the confounding issues is that, according to the most recent available data, crime rates are actually on the decline in California, and have been for many years,” said Michael Romano, a Stanford Law School lecturer and expert on criminal justice reform.

“So, I think that there is a gap between perception and reality, but in terms of politics, obviously, the way that people feel and think and believe is primary,” he said.

Similarly, the jarring viral videos showing thieves nonchalantly stuffing garbage bags with merchandise don't tell a full story. Data on retail thefts shows the crimes either were down or hadn't changed in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2021, though many retailers say crimes routinely go unreported because of a lack of criminal charges brought in many cases.

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Regardless of the data, retailers say they've noticed a drastic uptick in thefts across the state, according to Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association.

“It's a lot of finger-pointing,” said Michelin, whose organization includes roughly 70 national companies and more than 200 local and regional ones. “Retailers say when they call the police, the police say, ‘Well, why should we show up, they're not going to get prosecuted,’ (and) prosecutors are saying, ‘We're not prosecuting, because the police, they're not putting the cases together.’”

Some place blame on Proposition 47

Retailers and some voters have put part of the blame on Proposition 47, a ballot measure passed in 2014 that reduced penalties for certain property crimes, such as shoplifting of items valued at no more than $950, from felonies to misdemeanors. They argue thieves are more apt to steal from stores because of lax penalties from both police and prosecutors.

"Proposition 47 has bolstered criminals because they know that if they are caught stealing the consequences are minimal," Mark Powell, a former reserve officer and vice president on the San Diego County Board of Education, wrote in an opinion piece for the Times of San Diego. "Our political leaders need to strengthen property crime laws and enact new legislation or amend current laws – or we can simply get used to being ripped off on a regular basis, feeling there is nothing we can do about it."

This just happened at the @Walgreens on Gough & Fell Streets in San Francisco. #[email protected]/uSbnTQQk4J

— Lyanne Melendez (@LyanneMelendez) June 14, 2021

Despite numerous studies showing the measure was not tied to increases in crime, voters have shown an openness to change. A University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies poll released in mid-February found voters, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, support amending the measure by strengthening penalties.

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Criminals have seemingly become more bold and brazen. Robberies, looting in stores and even homicides happen in broad daylight with witnesses nearby.

One day in January, two women in different parts of L.A. were victims of random attacks by homeless men. The same month, the body of a 16-year-old girl was found on the side of a major highway in the city. Earlier this month in Northern California, rival gangs started a shootout in the streets of downtown Sacramento as patrons were leaving crowded bars and a concert. The gunfight left six dead and 12 wounded.

Will minorities pay the price if policies are rolled back?

The incidents and national headlines led to public officials announcing new measures and seemed to cause a change of tone by some leaders on policing and crime as California and its major cities became a talking point – a shift that some researchers and advocates worry could hinder progress made on changes to the criminal justice system.

That progress, experts note, sought to fix policies that target minorities at disproportionate levels.

Minorities should play a leading role in any discussions about changes in policies or rolling them back, said Armour, the USC law professor.

Armour noted the history of discriminatory policies that unfairly targeted minorities, such as redlining – a practice that weaponized banks and lending agencies to cut off minorities from essential services and hinder them from moving into white areas.

He also cited the so-called "war on drugs" that led to harsh penalties for drug offenders and Blacks being targeted, jailed and incarcerated at substantially higher rates than whites even though both races use and sell drugs at roughly comparable rates.

"Black folks just like everyone else wants to see safety and they yearn for safe streets for their children, so they can be frustrated, too," he said.

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Some of the biggest changes to California's criminal justice system happened after the Supreme Court weighed in on the state's intensely overcrowded prisons, ordering the state to reduce its population by about 33,000 inmates. The state's 33 prisons were constructed to house about 80,000 inmates. But in 2009, they were holding double that.

Since then, voters approved measures that lowered penalties for property and drug crimes, along with approving early parole for many inmates. The shifts and court order reformed how the state handled inmates, and some felons were placed in jails or alternative programs rather than prisons. In turn, some jails did not take in inmates with lower-level convictions.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was targeted in a failed recall attempt before the pandemic, told USA TODAY he understands the frustrations and temptations to change course. But, he argued, Californians know the state and its major cities can't arrest its way out of the problem.

"I do believe deeply in my city. I do believe deeply in my state. But I think that the frustrations are right, maybe not the emotions always, but the frustrations, which is what can we do to build more housing? How can we reduce all the bureaucracy, well-intentioned or whatever it is that has gotten in the way of us being that place that had the California Dream," he said.

Over the months, Gov. Gavin Newsom has outlined a number of new plans and policies with more money for police, funds for a task force targeting organized thefts and even grants for businesses targeted by thieves. And despite the headline-grabbing calls by some progressives to defund the police, many leaders and candidates in the state have outlined plans to hire more officers, including candidates in the mayoral race in Los Angeles to replace Garcetti.

Concerns rise over housing, homelessness

California has an estimated 161,000 unhoused residents – more than a quarter of the nation's 580,000 homeless, according to the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the Bay Area and Los Angeles, tents and RV-lined streets have become a common sight.

Misty Keyser, 51, hears sirens almost every evening along Venice Boulevard.

Down the block from her home, more than a dozen tents have taken over a park bordering Venice’s public library. The 51-year-old says for years she’s watched in frustration as leaders statewide and in the greater Los Angeles area promise change that never comes. Instead, she says, lower-income homes were replaced by mansions and vacation homes, only further crippling the state’s housing crisis.

“It just feels like it’s only getting worse,” she said from the stoop of her one-story bungalow. “I don’t know what is needed, but we need change. We have people living outside like a third-world country. I mean, that just sounds insane. How is it still happening?”

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Keyser said it’s heartbreaking to see the conditions people live in.

“It’s so hard. I just want these people to be housed and get the help they need,” she said. “I don’t have the answers, I don’t. But we need someone who does.”

In San Francisco, more than 8,000 residents were unhoused as of 2019, an outdated figure that residents and city officials have said is expected to rise because of the pandemic. The 2019 data marked a roughly 17% uptick from 2018.

In Los Angeles, the homeless population was estimated to be more than 66,000, or 1.7% of the city’s 3.8 million residents in 2020.

Polls show voters' frustration

Recent polls show voters are fed up and, in some cases, have lost faith in elected leaders to solve these issues.

One poll showed more than half of voters believe California is on the wrong track. The mid-February survey, conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, also found Newsom’s approval rating was declining: Only 48% approved his job performance. 

The poll also showed roughly two in three California voters believe crime in their local communities had increased over the past year, and a little over half of respondents said it has increased a lot. Those feelings were largely in unison regardless of political party, race, age or gender, according to Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll.

“A lot of issues are heavily driven by party, and through a partisan prism, but this is not one of them – voters, broadly speaking, see crime increasing,” DiCamillo said.

But, the issue is one that could be heavily swayed by perceptions rather than the realities of their communities.

“When you're evaluating the broader context of California, because voters are only hearing about what it's like in other parts of the state, what it's like in L.A., what it's like in the Bay Area … it often paints a little darker picture than what they're seeing in their own backyard, especially if they’re not living in a major urban area,” DiCamillo said.

In both the Bay Area and L.A., progressive district attorneys have seemingly become a target as opponents put the blame on them. Now both are facing serious recall efforts that are putting both their criminal justice reforms and political future to test.

Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón saw his own employees, members of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in L.A., vote nearly unanimously, 97.9%, in February to support the recall effort against him. The city's former police chief, Charlie Beck, also rescinded his endorsement earlier this year and said he, too, now supports the effort to recall Gascón.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is also in hot water. Dozens of prosecutors have left his office over the months in what they say were disagreements over how certain crimes were prosecuted. Some have even volunteered to help recall him.

A poll commissioned by the group seeking to recall Boudin showed an uphill battle for the progressive, who supported the defund the police movement and other reforms to reduce incarceration.

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Recalling the top prosecutors in the state's two largest and most liberal cities would mark a sharp turn for the Golden State. But Romano, the Stanford Law School lecturer and expert on criminal justice reform, argued the past decade of elections in California suggest most voters aren’t looking to make a U-turn on criminal justice and return to tougher sentencing measures.

Most recently, about 62% of voters opposed Proposition 20 in 2020. The measure would have toughened sentencing in criminal cases and cut the number of prison inmates eligible for early parole.

“While voters may have concerns about public safety, I think they are also not eager to go back to a time where we're locking people up and throwing away the key,”Romano said. “Year after year after year, for a dozen years now, California voters have spoken quite clearly that they are looking toward more progressive criminal justice policies.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is California at a turning point over crime and homelessness

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