Last month, Whittier police officer Keith Lane Boyer was gunned down by career criminal Michael Christopher Mejia. Within hours of the shooting, the tragedy of Boyer’s death took a back seat to the political desires of local politicians.
California’s law enforcement lobby has become desperate. After decades of political success ramming through tough-on-crime policies like “three strikes” and broadening the scope of sentencing enhancements, California has increasingly embraced criminal justice reforms, thus reducing both the state’s reliance on incarceration and the influence of the law enforcement lobby. The latest tactic of an increasingly powerless law enforcement lobby boils down to politicizing the deaths of police officers in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against criminal justice reform, regardless of the truth.
It wasn’t enough for Boyer’s death to be a tragic act of criminal violence – it had to be perverted and distorted for political ends. “Enough is enough,” declared Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper during a press conference soon after the shooting. “You’re passing these propositions, you’re creating these laws that [are] raising crime. It’s not good for our communities and it’s not good for our officers. What you have today is an example of that.”
The propositions Piper is referring to include Proposition 36, passed by voters in 2012, Proposition 47, passed in 2014, and Proposition 57 passed in 2016.
Proposition 36 reformed the state’s “three strikes” law, which resulted in scores of low-level offenders receiving life sentences for petty theft and simple drug possession. Prop. 36 reformed the system by requiring a third strike, or life sentence, be reserved for serious and violent offenses. As a result, over 1,500 people were released from prison, by all accounts experiencing remarkably low rates of recidivism.
Proposition 47 reduced a handful of drug possession and petty theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, with the aim of using the savings from no longer incarcerating people in California’s prisons, at a cost $71,000 per inmate per year, to invest in rehabilitation programs and crime prevention efforts. Individuals convicted of misdemeanors in California still face up to a year of incarceration.
Proposition 57 is the most recent of the criminal justice reform efforts. Backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the initiative does quite a few things. First, it allows parole consideration for persons convicted of nonviolent felonies upon the completion of serving the prison term for their primary offense. Second, it expands the use of credits for participation in rehabilitation and educational programming. Third, it takes away the authority for determining whether to charge juveniles as adults from prosecutors and gives them to judges.
Law enforcement groups, like the California District Attorneys Association and California Peace Officers Association, adamantly opposed all three measures, which were, respectively, approved by 69 percent, 59 percent and 64 percent of voters.
In the aftermath of Boyer’s shooting, State Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, reinforced Piper’s assertion that these measures were involved in the death of the officer, saying the shooting “appears to be another example of the danger created by the passage of misleading propositions and bad legislation that have allowed dangerous criminals back onto the streets of California.”
Incidentally, Stone also erroneously asserted “violent crime has been on the rise in California, up 12 percent in 2015 statewide according to the FBI.” The actual number is 8.4 percent.
Likewise, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell attempted to connect the dots for the public, asserting, “AB 109 provides for some early releases. Prop 47 stops people from entering the system and Prop 57 accelerates their release.”
Assembly Bill 109, known as Realignment, was passed by the California legislature in 2011 after the United States Supreme Court, upon finding the overcrowded prison system a violation of the Eight Amendments protections from cruel and unusual punishment, ordered the state to immediately reduce its prison population. To accomplish this, AB 109 sent responsibility for incarcerating non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenders to the county level.
Still – to the basic question of whether Boyer’s death had anything to do with any of these measures – the answer is clearly and obviously not. “None of the state’s recent criminal justice reforms – including AB 109, Proposition 47 or Proposition 57 – impacted when this individual was released from state prison,” said Jeffrey Callison, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Of course, McDonnell, Piper and Stone could have waited for a basic investigation of the facts to come out before making public proclamations blaming reforms that almost exclusively impact low-level petty thieves and drug offenders.
The only available research on the impact of California’s criminal justice reforms indicates no impact on violent crime and at most a possible impact on property crimes.
“We’ve seen no appreciable uptick in assaults, rapes or murders that can be connected to the prisoners who were released under realignment,” said University of California, Irvine professor Charis Kubrin. “This is not surprising, of course, because these offenders were eligible for release precisely because of the nonviolent nature of their crimes.”
Indeed, if one assesses crime trends in California since 2010, it isn’t clear what’s going on. In 2010, there were 163,957 violent crimes and 981,523 property crimes. By 2012, following AB 109, there were 160,629 violent crimes and 1,048,764 property crimes. Two years later, violent crime fell to 151,425 and property crimes fell to 946,682. By comparison, in 1992, there were 345,508 violent crimes and 1,715,376 property crimes in California.
Upticks in both violent and property crime in 2015 contributed to heightened hysteria by law enforcement groups, though preliminary data from 2016 indicates overall decreases in crime in California’s urban areas. In other words, crime is a complex phenomenon that fluctuates for a litany of reasons; McDonnell, Piper and even Stone probably understand this, but publicly choose to scapegoat criminal justice reforms regardless of what the facts are.
None of this behavior is new. California’s version of the “war on cops” narrative ropes in criminal justice reforms in ways not seen elsewhere.
Just last year, in campaigning against Proposition 57 and against Proposition 62, which would have abolished the death penalty, Brian Moriguchi, president of the Professional Peace Officers Association, invoked the recent shooting of two police officers in Palm Springs to raise fears about criminal justice reform. “If we don’t speak up now about some of the propositions that are in the upcoming election, there will be more police officers murdered and more crime on the streets of Los Angeles,” he said.
This sort of rhetoric has the toxic effect of undermining public confidence in reforms that not only make sense from justice perspective – no one is served by imprisoning petty thieves and drug offenders for years on end – but from a resource allocation perspective.
Fundamentally, law enforcement groups have a vested financial interest in keeping prisons and jails full. Though the prison population has fallen more than 30,000 since 2012, the California prison budget continues to grow, from $9.845 billion in 2011-12 to the Governor’s proposed $13.766 billion for the next year. Meanwhile, California police officers clear over $100,000 on average, with hefty pensions to go along with it. Though California still invests little in crime prevention and rehabilitation, it saw fit to give California’s prison guards a new contract with raises and other benefits adding nearly $600 million in costs.
In this context, it is understandable why the law enforcement lobby insists on relying on misinformation. They have abdicated their responsibility to serve the best interests of the public – which demands evidence-based solutions to crime that go beyond simple incarceration – and have put their own financial interests first and foremost. In defense of this, the law enforcement lobby has shown no shame in exploiting the tragic deaths for political and financial gain.