Prosecutor races test California’s patience for crime policies

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California conservatives seeing a rare path to a statewide office are amplifying a sense of lawlessness and pinning the state’s crime problem on policies that reduced sentencing and incarceration. Meanwhile, as U.S. murders in 2020 rose at the greatest rate in decades and jumped again the next year, the national GOP has made the rise of violent crime a centerpiece of its case against President Joe Biden and vulnerable House Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.

“If you’re an elected official or you want to be an elected official, you need to address the crime issue,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who recently conducted a series of Los Angeles focus groups that found stark voter malaise. “It reflects a sense among voters in this neck of the woods that society is just falling apart, and that their elected officials are unwilling or incapable of solving the problem.”

Polls capture a 9-point jump since 2020 in the share of California voters who see violence and street crime as a problem — now 64 percent — and a 16-point rise in the share who say Newsom is doing a poor job addressing the issue.

Bonta’s opponents — Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a Republican-turned-independent, and former U.S. Attorney Nathan Hochman, a Republican — have seized on that shift.

“People as I go up and down the state feel more insecure and more afraid than they have in the last two, four, six, eight years,” Hochman said in an interview. “This is Republicans’ best shot in a generation to win state attorney general.”

Schubert publicized to supporters and social media followers her visit to a troubled San Francisco neighborhood where open-air drug dealing is rampant, framing her campaign as a response to “chaos.” In his ads, Hochman has circulated images of Los Angeles railroad tracks littered by detritus due to organized train thefts while deriding progressive prosecutors as the “Let ‘Em Go Guys.”

“The Democrats were pushing the envelope a bit with their success in the 2020 election, and this is sort of an action-reaction,” said Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies chief pollster Mark DiCamillo. “The swing groups have swung back, and that’s kind of what happens in politics: It’s a pendulum going one way and then the other.”

Over the course of several election cycles, California voters have elevated progressive reformers, lightened criminal penalties and supported lawmakers who passed a host of police accountability laws — a reversal from the prevailing policies of the 1980s and 1990s, when state legislators layered on tougher laws that swelled prison populations to the point that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ordered California to incarcerate fewer people.

Bonta stood firmly in the reformers’ camp during his time in the state Legislature, pursuing policies like ending cash bail and abolishing for-profit prisons. Progressives coalesced behind the Bay Area lawmaker last year as other candidates jockeyed for the attorney general appointment, a seat opened by Xavier Becerra’s move to the Biden cabinet.

One of Bonta’s first acts in office was to launch an independent review of a 2020 police shooting in Vallejo that killed Sean Monterrosa. He also opened a public rift with the statewide California District Attorneys Association by accusing the local DA of “a failure to act.”

But a different tone is reverberating throughout California politics and nationally as Democrats ratchet up their law-and-order rhetoric under pressure from the right — a marked shift from the 2020 summer of racial reckoning and the elevation of the “defund the police” movement.

Biden urged more money for police officers during his first State of the Union speech last week, repudiating the “defund the police” rallying cry. Similarly, Newsom sought hundreds of millions of dollars to combat retail theft after the brazen looting of Louis Vuitton and other luxury shops in California last year made international news.

Rep. Karen Bass, a progressive Democrat running for mayor of Los Angeles, has called for more city police officers. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has condemned “the reign of criminals who are destroying our city.”

As Bonta strives to stay in office, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón face well-funded and fervent recall pushes. San Francisco voters decide on Boudin’s fate in June. A recall campaign targeting Gascón has not qualified for the ballot, but it has drawn some $2 million and won the nearly unanimous endorsement of a Los Angeles prosecutors’ union that has long opposed Gascón’s agenda.

Meanwhile Schubert and Hochman have sought to link Bonta to the state’s two embattled DAs. Bonta endorsed Gascón and contributed to his campaign; in the Legislature he worked with Boudin’s office on legislation to compel prosecutors to recuse themselves from police shooting cases if they received campaign funds from the officer’s union.

“Rob Bonta is aligned with those policies and those types of candidates,” Schubert said. “People need to understand that what’s happening in San Francisco and what’s happening in Los Angeles, that Rob Bonta is aligned with those types of ideologies.”

District attorneys wield far greater influence than the attorney general over whom to prosecute and what sentences to seek. But Schubert and Hochman argue Bonta should have used the power of his office to rein in progressive prosecutors, particularly after Gascón ordered a sweeping set of changes that barred prosecutors from imposing various sentencing enhancements, seeking the death penalty or life without parole, charging juveniles as adults and attending parole hearings. (Gascón has since modified some of those orders.)

“As the attorney general you have the constitutional authority — and some may say duty — to intervene when a local district attorney is not doing their job,” Schubert said. “If I’m the attorney general and the DA, no matter who it is, is refusing to follow the law, then I’m going to step in to do it.”

Bonta declined to be interviewed for this story. His campaign spokesperson, Nathan Click, pointed to the attorney general’s work with local law enforcement to dismantle retail theft rings, oversee gang takedowns and curb gun violence by cracking down on firearms manufacturers.

Click deflected a question about whether Bonta supports Gascón and Boudin.

“AG Bonta is focused on keeping Californians safe,” Click said in a statement, “not political attacks from election opponents.”

Bonta has also shown signs of recalibrating. During a talk last week, he stressed the need to “repair our broken criminal justice system” and “rebuild trust between our communities and law enforcement,” familiar talking points. But he also said voter-approved initiatives to lessen penalties and increase parole may have undermined public safety.

“I know that some folks are wondering if there is causation between those propositions and what we’re seeing today, and there may be,” Bonta said, adding he was open to “tweaks and changes” to “address an unintended consequence or, at base, to keep people safe.”

Criminal justice reform advocates argue that California is a far safer place than it was decades ago during the tough-on-crime era.

Anne Irwin, whose organization Smart Justice California has been a critical hub of political support for reformers, acknowledged that “people are definitely concerned about crime, more so than they were a few years ago,” a mood exacerbated by pandemic anxiety. But said she believes most Californians remain committed to moving away from incarceration and harsh punishment, seeking instead to address “root causes” like poverty and mental illness.

“We always knew that there would be a coordinated effort by conservatives and others on the right to unwind the progress we have made, and that day is here,” Irwin said. “I think Schubert is certainly hyping a sensationalized, Fox News image of California, and she’s putting all of her eggs in that basket, but when the votes are counted, a Fox News view of the world just doesn’t win in a California statewide race.”

But voters are reacting to more recent trend lines, such as a spike in some types of violent crime. Homicides in California soared by 30 percent between 2019 and 2020.

“That increase in the number of homicides, it is the biggest one-year increase we’ve seen since 1960,” said Magnus Lofstrom, a criminal justice policy director at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Bonta’s allies point out that violent crime has risen across the state and the country, undercutting the argument from his political foes that the issue is specific to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Irwin said Schubert should “focus on her own backyard” of Sacramento, where the violent crime rate has also soared.

“Schubert is trying to blame progressive DAs in two places for really vexing societal problems, but nearly every community in California is facing the same problems no matter who is the DA,” Irwin said.

Schubert’s lack of party affiliation could buoy her in a statewide general election, but it could undermine her ability to advance beyond the June primary, from which only the top two candidates advance. Republican voters who toe the party line may instead gravitate toward Hochman or Eric Early, a Republican candidate with fewer resources.

Law enforcement unions, however, have contributed heavily to and endorsed Schubert, who left the Republican Party during the Trump presidency. Schubert gained fame in recent years for efforts that resulted in the cold case arrest and conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo, one of the state’s most notorious serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s.

“People are getting frustrated. They want to see results,” said San Francisco Police Officers Association acting President Tracy McCray. McCray said the union backed Schubert because she was best positioned to send “a strong message from the top on down, from the state level down to the local level, saying we cannot continue to have brazen crime happening in our communities.”

But Bonta’s defenders argue voters will not so quickly abandon the course they’ve charted.

The fault lines were evident during a crime survivors’ event at the state Capitol in Sacramento, during which Bonta urged attendees to “rise up and join with like-minded elected leaders like the senators here and make change happen.” He was introduced by Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice Tinisch Hollins, who called public safety “the top political issue for every elected official” but forcefully rebuffed crescendoing calls for more law enforcement funding and harsher penalties.

“I call bullshit,” Hollins said, adding: “We cannot go back. We will not go back.”

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