By Andrew Do, Orange County Supervisor.
Sunshine, sand and security. There’s nowhere else on Earth that can rival Orange County’s unique quality of life.
Yet, our public safety – the ability to leave our doors unlocked and walk down the street at night – is in jeopardy. The Register’s recent analysis of law enforcement data revealed that crime rates are rising in our community.
Crime in Orange County has risen 23 percent in the past year – with some cities experiencing nearly a 50 percent surge in property crime. It’s the largest increase in crime in the past decade, and it didn’t happen by accident.
California is engaging in a radical experiment with public safety. Prison realignment has put more convicted criminals back on the streets, while Proposition 47, approved by voters in 2014, has given drug offenders and thieves a “virtual get-out-of-jail-free” card.
“After decades of being tough on crime,” the San Francisco Chronicle noted last month, “the state is shifting toward a philosophy that emphasizes crime prevention and criminal rehabilitation.”
This radical experiment has included the widespread release of convicted criminals under the state’s prison realignment plan. In 2006, the state had more than 173,000 prisoners locked up. Today, that number has dropped to just 127,000. Orange County’s jails, which were designed to hold low-level offenders, are filled with serious, violent offenders.
As a former Orange County prosecutor, I know how much time and energy our deputy sheriffs, investigators and district attorneys put into building a strong case. After all of that hard work to get a conviction, prison realignment has allowed many of these criminals to gain early release only to return to their old ways.
The effects of prison realignment have only been amplified by Prop. 47, which reduced many drug and property crimes to misdemeanors. “It’s not uncommon to arrest the same guy twice in a single day,” a Garden Grove police officer recently told the Register. “It’s almost like criminals are laughing in our face.”
Academics say it’s too early to link Prop. 47 with the increase in crime. However, the data speaks for itself. Last year, property crimes increased by 23 percent locally and by 13 percent statewide. Over the same period, property crimes fell by 4.2 percent nationwide, according to the FBI’s crime statistics.
From San Francisco to Santa Ana, gang members are boasting, “Property crime – do no time.” Our neighbors in San Bernardino County caught one thief “shoplifting with his calculator” in order to remain below the $950 threshold set by Prop. 47.
Prison realignment and Prop. 47 are only the tip of the iceberg. In 2014, California lawmakers approved AB1468, which created a presumption of split sentencing, expanded funding for restorative justice programs and ended the requirement that criminals enter a drug treatment program before gaining access to food stamps.
All of these more lenient criminal justice policies have played to the public’s compassion. We see friends and neighbors whose children struggle with drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. We want these young people to get the help they need to straighten out their lives instead of crowding our prisons.
Unfortunately, these lenient policies not only fail our community, but also the offenders themselves. As a former public defender, I know that many drug addicts and low-level criminals need the threat of punishment to clean up their act and get the help and treatment they desperately need. Drug courts, one of our most effective tools for helping end the cycle of addiction, are struggling to enroll offenders. Without the threat of felony charges, many addicts are cashing in their Prop. 47 card, instead of entering a treatment program.
As the state puts more criminals back on the street, Orange County can’t sit idly by. Last year, the county provided an additional $24 million to the Sheriff’s Department to increase our jail capacity and upgrade equipment at the Crime Lab. In this year’s county budget, public safety must remain our highest priority.
We may not be able to change the state’s “catch-and-release” program for criminals, but we can invest more of our resources in public safety.
Originally published in the Orange County Register.
Andrew Do, a former prosecutor, is First District Orange County supervisor.