When it comes to crime and justice, it seems like a déjà vu again.
Beginning in the 1980s, crime and the fear of crime created a “school-to-prison line” that led to the United States having the highest incarceration rate of citizens of any nation on Earth, by far. With our “Three Strikes and You’re Out” Act signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, California has led to the incarceration of people and throwing away the key.
Both property and violent crime peaked nationally in 1991, but the relentless drive to build and fill prisons continued until 2008. By then, more than one in 100 adults were behind bars. Nearly half of black men, 45% of Latinos and 40% of whites had been arrested at the age of 23. It was expensive, cruel and unbearable.
The courts challenged the overcrowding of the jail. Both right-wing and left-wing reformers have challenged the inequalities of mass incarceration. The United States seemed to be making sense. California is once again leading the way, enacting genuine criminal justice reforms backed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Today, crime and the fear of crime are on the rise again, perhaps inevitably after reaching historic lows both nationally and here in California. It is a confusing and troubling time with homeless camp metastases, increased street drug use and increased gun killings. Making sense of these disturbing tendencies is almost impossible as toxic political polarization transforms rational discussion into hysterical resentment. Angry right-wing voices paint California as an anarchic hell where law and order have collapsed. Shrieking voices from the left are clamoring for “defunding the police,” denouncing officers as racist occupiers.
At the forefront of this turmoil are elected prosecutors in the two most prominent meters of California: George George Gascon in Los Angeles County and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. Both ran in 2020 as Frankish reformers. Gascon defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey and Boudin ironically followed George Gascon (who returned to Los Angeles to run, after rising to the top of the Los Angeles Police Department before serving as chief in San Francisco and later as district attorney) . Each of them made radical reforms according to their campaign promises.
Now both are the goals of well-funded recovery efforts. Boudin faces voters on June 7. Proponents of Gascon’s memory are collecting signatures after a first attempt failed.
Both probably spent their first days in office, perhaps following the example of Philadelphia prosecutor Larry Krasner, the first of a national wave of reformers. Elected in 2017, he immediately moved to change office and enact broad changes. He was re-elected in 2021 with more than 70% of the vote.
If powerful interests come out with theirs, neither Boudin nor George Gascon will have a chance to overcome their first shortcomings. Advocates of the reminder seek to exploit legitimate public fears to thwart delayed reform.
Both prosecutors deserve a chance to stay in office to learn and recover from their initial mistakes. Why? For two common sense reasons. First, the memory of Newsom should teach us the madness of letting unhappy losers repeat the election. Despite the mistakes, Gascon and Boudin are fulfilling the promises they made to voters. Two years is too short to test them and the impact of their policies. Second, the disastrous legacy of mass incarceration should teach us the madness of listening to those who claim that more arrests, prison sentences, and criminal records are the right answer to crime and disorder. Will Boudin and George Gascon survive the memory attempts? It depends on whether the memory of the voters is wisely long or foolishly short.
Rick Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena and deputy mayor of Los Angeles and has served as city manager in Azusa, Ventura and Santa Monica. You will receive feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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