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California Focus: On crime, is recall side barking up wrong tree?

The latest crime statistics and a new study from the federal Department of Justice reveal that backers of the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom have spent months barking up at least one wrong tree.

Since early spring, Republican candidates to replace Newsom have blasted him for spawning what they often describe as a crime wave.

But midyear numbers from some of the most heavily populated parts of California demonstrate there really is no new statewide crime wave. Yes, some types of crime are up in some areas: At midyear in Los Angeles, there had been 179 murders, the highest in a decade — which some lawyers have blamed on the slowdown in anti-gang prosecutions spawned by local District Attorney George Gascon. But overall crime was relatively stable.

In San Diego, there was a 1.7% decrease in violent crime at midyear compared with last year. Overall crime was down 8% and San Diego was ranked the safest of the 10 largest American cities.

In San Francisco, crimes involving guns stood at 119 at midyear, roughly double the mid-2019 figure from before the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns. Car break-ins were down in the Bay Area, but shoplifting was up.

It’s a decidedly mixed picture statewide, with local — not statewide — reasons generally behind the varied local crime statistics.

But a crime wave may be coming yet, because recidivism is another matter entirely. Under policies pushed hard by ex-Gov. Jerry Brown and accelerated by Newsom, state prison rolls have been cut by more than 30,000 since the early 2000s. The new 34-state study from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that about three-fourths of those former convicts will have been arrested for something else within five years after their releases.

Ironically, the study appeared on a legal news service the same day state officials announced the impending release of a 21-time arsonist from Madera County who was sentenced seven years ago to 30 years in prison. Kenneth Jackson set his wildfires in 2013 in Yosemite Lakes Park, an area near the town of Coarsegold, between Yosemite National Park’s south entrance and Fresno.

Jackson’s sentence was reduced in 2018, but Madera County officials twice blocked early parole. Local District Attorney Sally Moreno now seeks to prevent him from being paroled back to the county, wanting him sent elsewhere. She decried in a video statement the state’s process for determining which convicts to release in cutting prison population even further, partly to reduce COVID-19 risk.

The federal recidivism study indicates a repeat arsonist like Jackson will try to set more wildfires, for whatever psychological motive.

So far, Newsom and his antagonists have said nothing about either the meaning of the federal study for California or about the Jackson release.

If Newsom’s challengers wanted a solid cause for attacking him, the Justice Department has given them one. But recidivism is never as sexy as an alleged crime wave. It’s possible to gin one of those up almost anytime. One longstanding truism among reporters says that whenever a news organization wants to create a “crime wave,” it need only copy the daily police blotter. The same is true for political candidates, who have been trying it all year.

But the strong likelihood of recidivism among freed criminals ought to give pause to Newsom and other state officials, if only because it does not appear likely to lessen very soon, so the issue will be awaiting Newsom rivals next year even if he survives the recall.

Some might claim the federal study is racist because of the preponderance of minorities in the prison system. But it concluded the rates of rearrest by ethnic group were very similar. Among the 408,000 released inmates involved, 35% of whites were rearrested within the first year, compared with 37% of Latinos and 38% of Blacks.

So racism does not seem a likely factor here.

It’s an open question why the replacement candidates have not used any of this against Newsom, when they appear to be trying every other angle imaginable.

But one thing the governor can be sure of if he survives next month’s vote: Eventually, someone will pick up on this. As they should.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].

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