With the implementation of Proposition 47 central valley law enforcement leaders warned about its potential to drive crime up. They argued that fewer people facing felonies gives people less chance to recover from addiction and change their life, while leaving them on the street to re-offend. But now even some in law enforcement are questioning if that is the case.
Valley Public Radio took a close look at the data from Fresno city and County to see if, six months into the experiment, the warnings are coming true.
Both Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and Police Chief Jerry Dyer say there is no question that in the early stages of the Proposition 47 experiment their predictions of increased crime are becoming a reality.
Sheriff Mims says increases in robbery and assault reflect the fact that crimes like burglary, theft and drug offenses are now downgraded to misdemeanors leaving potential criminals on the street to commit more and worse crimes.
“Frankly, they can do a misdemeanor standing on their head. That’s no big deal to a drug offender. It is minor. It is minimal. They can go out and score more drugs. Unfortunately, they commit more serious crimes and that is proven by our drug stats,” Mims said.
In this regard, early numbers from the County do appear to show a year over year increase.
There have been increases in robbery, and double digit jumps in assault, burglary and theft in the county.
Data from the City of Fresno covering the first three months of the year, also shows a slight increase compared to 2014 in theft, robbery, and assault; while burglary and car theft have declined.
Police Chief Jerry Dyer says he understands it is difficult to prove a direct causation but stresses it’s not just about a total increase in crime, but the type of crimes.
“We know without a doubt that there are people not being booked into jail because it is a misdemeanor under prop 47, where those individuals are out committing crimes. So there is a direct correlation,” Dyer said.
But the hard data and perspectives from other parts of the law enforcement world could be telling a different story.
The small increases in crime in the City of Fresno are within historical trends for the same three month period going back nearly ten years.
In the County, outside of a short term spike in violent and property crimes toward the end of last year, crime rates have fallen back to their longer, downward trend.
In fact, violent crimes are on par to be roughly similar with rates over the past 3 years.
And non-violent crimes are essentially half what they were in 2012.
According to Steve Wright with the Fresno County District Attorney, there does not seem to be an increase in overall crime but instead a shift away from felonies toward misdemeanors.
Wright says one unexpected outcome is that people are now piling up more misdemeanor charges which is gumming up the court’s work.
“There are more failures to appear. They are not showing up at court like they are supposed to. So it has ended up being an increase in our work because we are having to put cases on calendar again and again and again because they get arrested, they get cited out, failure to appear, they get arrested, cited out, failure to appear,” Wright said.
This is causing concern among law enforcement who say people with drug problems are now less likely to receive drug treatment without the threat of a felony conviction or probation hanging over their head.
The County DA says they are trying to establish misdemeanor drug courts that they hope to have active by the end of the summer to provide more resources to drug addicts.
Criminal justice expert Lizzie Buchen with the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is highly skeptical of the claims made by many in the law enforcement community.
She says there are so many factors that complicate justice reform that it is hard to blame just one policy for a shift in a state as large as California, without specifically tracking each person’s record.
“Crime is a result of so many different things. And you don’t see that the more people you incarcerate the fewer crimes you have. That is not what you see at all. Throughout the history of American criminal justice no one has been able to draw that correlation,” Buchen said.
Buchen also says convicting someone of a misdemeanor means they can rely on the support of friends, family, school and a steady job rather than jail time to reform their lives.
There is one point of relative agreement across the board, Prop 47 has made it easier to handle the inmate population in the Fresno County jail, keeping the most dangerous offenders off the street.