Widespread protests have highlighted long-standing racial disparities in criminal justice systems across the country. These disparities have narrowed in California, as the state has enacted reforms to reduce its reliance on incarceration, but they are still significant. At a virtual event last week, PPIC researcher Brandon Martin outlined new findings on the impact of one recent reform—Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014—and a panel of experts discussed a wide range of criminal justice issues.
For Sydney Kamlager, who represents the 54th District in the California State Assembly, PPIC’s findings show that “smart reforms work.” The drop in arrests and bookings among African Americans since Prop 47 reclassified some drug and property felonies to misdemeanors has been striking. But the PPIC report also shows that there is a lot more work to be done.
Kings County sheriff David Robinson highlighted the need to deal with opioid addiction. One consequence of converting drug offenses to misdemeanors is that fewer people are getting treatment for substance use disorders while they are in custody. “We really need to focus . . . on what we can do now to help people with drug issues.”
Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, noted that his organization saw Prop 47 as a way of reallocating resources to address addiction, homelessness, and mental health crises. While long-standing problems can’t be fixed overnight, he added, “seeing the money going back to communities of color is just as exciting as seeing the closing of racial disparities in arrests and bookings.”
The panelists agreed that efforts to build on recent reforms should be based on a broad—and broadly shared—definition of public safety. Kamlager noted that “there is a huge difference between problem-solving and punishment, and very often we have moved into the realm of punishment . . . and more often than not we’ve seen disparities in who is punished and how they are punished.”
Jordan argued that “we need an approach to public safety that starts with public health.” For example, he added, “We cannot expect police to respond to mental health crises, to drug addiction crises, to homelessness issues.“ Robinson agreed: “We’ve got to redirect these services to make sure that law enforcement isn’t the first responder . . . in a lot of these civil situations and mental health crises.” Kamlager pointed to bills moving through the legislature that address this and a range of other issues. “The legislature is doing its part,” she said. “But we need everybody at the table.”
Ultimately, the panelists emphasized the link between public safety and community investment. After noting that crime “hot spots” are typically in lower-income communities with limited funding for schools and other resources, Robinson said: “We’ve got to do more beyond law enforcement to address these inequities.” Jordan agreed: “When you think about safe communities . . . you think about manicured lawns, you think about HOAs, you think about good schools. . . . How do we get to that? Investment.”