By Roderick Wright, California State Senator (Retired)
(Editor’s Note: This editorial has been written in response to the editorial, “Criminals Pillage Where ‘Lax on Crime’ DAs Rule” written by Eric W. Siddall, the Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, and which appeared in the January 2022 issue of Apartment Age magazine. Apartment Age magazine always welcomes and encourages differing viewpoints.)
I recently read the article, Criminals Pillage Where ‘Lax on Crime’ DAs Rule,” blaming the Los Angeles District Attorney for the recent spike in violent crime. There is a political movement taking place in Los Angeles County against George Gascon, the current District Attorney. The claims are that he is not prosecuting criminal cases and favors the criminals over the victims, thus causing the spike in crime. Additionally, his opponents claim that Proposition 47, the California State referendum of November 2014 that changed a handful of felonies into misdemeanors, is also a cause of the spike in violent crime.
The “get tough on crime” supporters also contend that by not holding suspects for bail, criminals get out to repeat their crimes. Using the aforementioned, political argument as a legal and moral starting point, the “get tough on crime” proponents ultimately claim the primary reason for the increase in crime is due to “soft on crime” district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is untrue as we’ll discuss.
However, over the last two years crime has gone up across the nation. Cities like Louisville, KY, Indianapolis, IN, Philadelphia, PA, Austin, TX and Milwaukee, WI – all red states with tough on crime prosecutors – have set records for homicides during the last two years. To call the reason for the spike in crime simply the fault of “soft on crime” prosecutors is a political, not a rational statement supported by any analysis.
There have been attempts to create a causal relationship between Proposition 47 and the increase in crime. For the five years between 2014 through 2019, no statistically pertinent increase in crime was detected. Moreover, other states that didn’t have a Proposition 47 still saw increases in crime in the same time period. To be fair, the claim that the increase in the felony threshold to $950 may be an issue for some minor shoplifting cases is warranted. However, the smash and grab robbery is a felony, irrespective of the value of what is taken! Entering a store and using force to take property is a robbery, which is a serious felony or strike. So again, this political talking point is inconsistent with the facts. What’s more, the people of California have voted on this issue twice.
After more than 50 years of living and serving the residents of South-Central Los Angeles, I can assure you that most gang members wouldn’t know the district attorney from “page nine in the phone book.” What did and continues to influence crimes are the three strikes laws, even after they were modified to require the third strike be serious or violent. Criminals know their own records, and most do not want to return to prison. The “smash and grab” crimes would qualify as a strike. That’s why you often see minors with no records being recruited to commit these types of crimes.
Another issue often cited as a cause of the increase in crime is the reduced use of cash bail. A frequent talking point is, “The criminal is walking out of the police station to commit the next crime, before the arrest report is completed.” The way cash bail was administered in the past became an economic tool for the bail bond companies and a legal leverage for prosecutors. All too often, poor people were unable to afford bail and risked losing their jobs, or their families waiting months for a trial or even an arraignment! They were often coerced into pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit! For years California maintained an illegal “Gang Database.” A federal prosecutor finally addressed this travesty, none of the “tough on crime” California prosecutors never addressed this – in fact, they fought to maintain it! Currently several Los Angeles police officers are being tried in Federal Court for falsifying this data. It would appear that for the “tough on crime” folks, the ends justify the means.
I believe if someone is arrested for a crime and there is reason to believe they are a danger to society, keep them in custody. If there is a strong suspicion of their failure to return to court, then make them wear an ankle bracelet. If a subsequent arrest or violation occurs during the monitoring period, remand the individual back into custody. Economic status should not be the determining factor for freedom in America.
Another bogus claim is that the Los Angeles District Attorney is not on the side of the crime victims or business owners, and instead favors criminals. Perhaps therein lies the problem with the “tough on crime folks.” The district attorney is presumed to be on the side of the law that seeks justice, not revenge. Until a defendant is convicted, justice is supposed to be blind, although some of us believe she sometimes peeks! A prosecutor should gather and present evidence in a court of law. A defendant is supposed to be to be innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, the justice system is known to pre-judge defendants before their right to a trial by jury of their peers is completed. Think of the Central Park Five. (Editor’s Note: In the “Central Park Five” matter, five black and Latino youths were convicted of assaulting a woman in 1989 in Central Park and served sentences ranging from six to twelve years. All later had their charges vacated after a prison inmate confessed to the crime.)
What we do know is that the COVID-19 lockdowns happen to be coincidental to the increase in crimes and homicides. We know that after-school programs and other programs that served young people have been scaled back. We don’t know what impact this isolation is having on young people because we have never had an experience like this before. We know Black kids in South Los Angeles aren’t carrying Gucci bags, so there must be a major fencing network somewhere? We must take inventory of the homeless population, particularly those with drug problems. Before we simply say a “soft on crime” district attorney is the cause we need to examine what’s going on in our community. Rather than focus so much attention on prosecution, perhaps we should spend more resources on prevention?
I could argue that the previous district attorney didn’t find any police officers to charge with crimes. In a few cases, even when the police departments these disgraced officers worked for stated they were culpable of murder, District Attorney Gascon’s predecessor did not prosecute them! Again, a federal prosecutor prosecuted Ed Buck (a wealthy political donor) for the murder and rape of two Black men and the attempted murder of another. Yet, no action by the so-called tough on crime district attorney was ever undertaken in the Ed Buck matter.
I read two books that altered my perspective on the criminal justice system in America. “The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander and “Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. I was particularly moved by author Stevenson because he has been able to actually save men from death row. In addition to reading their books, I had the pleasure of meeting both of these two great legal scholars.
Clearly, we have seen a spike in crime in our community. In order to address this spike in crime, we must use all the tools in the tool chest to solve the problem. I trust we won’t again simply resort to political scapegoating?
The author, Roderick Wright, is a former member of the California State Senate and Assembly. He has developed affordable housing with the Inner-City Housing Corporation. He worked in the Planning Department of the City of Los Angeles. He also worked at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). Mr. Wright has been a rental property owner for over 40 years and is also a member of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles and the Coalition of Small Rental Property Owners.