Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Gavin Newsom Isn’t Alone in Cracking Down on Crime

As concerns rise about crime and safety, Democratic leaders have been shifting to the right when it comes to criminal justice policies. Last month, 11 percent of Californians identified crime and drugs as the top issue.

In the last six months, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has sent state police into Oakland to crack down on thefts, announced new efforts to charge drug dealers with murder and sent attorneys from the California National Guard and the California Department of Justice to help Alameda County prosecute more people.

His focus on prosecution and policing marks a departure from his past embrace of criminal justice reform efforts that focused more on rehabilitation than locking people in jail. It has increased speculation that he's preparing for a future presidential run, but Newsom is just one of many Democratic leaders across the country shifting to the right on criminal justice policies amid rising concerns from Americans about crime and safety.

Before he became governor, Newsom forged much of his political reputation through advocacy on criminal justice-related ballot measures. He was a leading supporter of Proposition 47, a 2014 law approved by voters that reduced punishments for drug possession and theft of property worth less than $950. In 2016, he spearheaded the successful campaign to legalize recreational cannabis in California and supported a failed effort to end the death penalty. Though Californians affirmed their support for capital punishment that election, Newsom thwarted the will of the voters when he became governor in 2019 and placed a moratorium on executions in the state.

But in the last year, he's embraced a tougher approach to crime. Earlier this month, he touted his efforts to recruit and train more state police officers, and promoted a string of arrests in Oakland by more than 100 state police officers he sent to crack down on crime there. Last year, he similarly deployed state police to San Francisco to crack down on fentanyl dealing and ordered the California National Guard to help target drug traffickers operating in the city.

Newsom's shift to a more tough-on-crime approach reflects his constituents' views on the issue. In February, 11 percent of Californians identified crime, gangs and drugs as the top issues facing the state, an increase from five years before when 3 percent identified it as a top issue, according to polls by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Just 3 percent identified crime as the top issue in 2014, the same year voters passed Proposition 47.

The heightened concern accompanies an increase in violent crime in California. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state's violent crime rate increased by 5.7 percent from 2021 to 2022, the last year for which comprehensive data is available. Experts at the PPIC noted that the nation as a whole has also seen violent crime increase in the years since the COVID pandemic hit and that California's violent and property crime rates are still well below levels from the '80s and '90s.

Americans also view crime as more of a problem nationally. Last year, 63 percent of Americans identified crime as extremely or very serious in a Gallup poll, up from 54 percent in 2021.

Tinisch Hollins, who runs the criminal justice reform organization Californians for Safety and Justice, said the recent efforts to recall politicians over progressive policies is helping drive the more moderate push from many Democrats.

"There is for sure a trend that is sweeping the country with people who have been typically progressive or liberal moving to the middle or to the right," she said.

Oregon voters in 2020 voted to decriminalize possession of drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin, LSD and oxycodone. Earlier this month, lawmakers voted to roll the law back and allow drug users to be sent to jail for possessing small quantities of hard drugs.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell went from telling the Seattle Times that he wanted to focus on treatment as a response to the city's fentanyl crisis in April to pleading with City Council members in October to approve an expansion of drug arrests in the city, according to the paper. Earlier that year, Washington state lawmakers voted to continue keeping drug possession illegal.

In New York City, Gov. Kathy Hochul sent the National Guard into the subway system to conduct random bag searches after a spate of violence on trains.

Hollins has been very critical of San Francisco Mayor London Breed's recent actions on crime. Hollins pointed to Breed's successful championing of Proposition E, which expands San Francisco police's power, and Proposition F, which requires welfare recipients to submit to drug screenings. She characterized the mayor's advocacy for the measures as a significant swing to the right from Breed, who just a few years ago led an effort to spend $60 million to uplift the city's Black community in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Hollins said she's particularly concerned about Breed's backing of a proposed ballot measure that would roll back parts of Proposition 47.

Breed has characterized the ballot measures as important steps to crack down on crime and drug use in the city as she fights to win reelection.

Newsom faces some of the same political pressure to crack down on crime, Hollins said, but she praised the governor for continuing to support Proposition 47. She said it's too early to judge his deployments of state police officers in the Bay Area to fight crime, which she said could be beneficial if they are targeted and don't amount to a general increase in policing.

The state police deployments have led to increases in arrests but also concern that the officers are pulling people over for minor things like tinted windows or a broken taillight as a pretext to search cars. City leaders in San Francisco and other cities across the state have sought to limit police use of so-called pretextual stops, which have been linked to racial profiling.

Hollins said she is concerned about the possibility those officers are conducting pretextual stops, especially in light of the recent passage of Proposition E, which lowers the standards for when San Francisco officers can initiate car chases and surveil residents with drones and cameras.

"We tried tough on crime. We tried mass incarceration," she said. "We know they don't work or increase public safety."

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, chair of the California Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus, said she views Newsom's policies as moving in the wrong direction and as evidence he's contemplating a run for higher office.

"We know our governor has other political ambitions," she said. "I think we're seeing some of these ... reactionary policies so he can go out and say, 'I cleaned up our state.' "

Americans' attitudes on criminal justice tend to shift back and forth, said Mike Madrid, a California-based Republican strategist. When crime is low, they tend to support more rehabilitation-focused policies, but when it's up, they turn to a more "lock them up and throw away the key" approach, he said.

The Democratic Party is shifting toward the right on crime, Madrid said, because people feel less safe in their communities. Newsom, in particular, needs to be receptive to that shift in public sentiment as he faces down a difficult budget year that will test his political power. Backers of a long-shot effort to recall Newsom have also cited crime as one of the issues motivating them to try to oust the governor.

"I don't think it's because he's running for president," Madrid said of Newsom's shift on crime. "It's because he's a governor who needs a lot of support going into a tough budget season."

Katie Merrill, a Democratic consultant in California, characterized Newsom's moves as being responsive to complaints from communities in response to rising property and violent crime.

She said she also doesn't see it as a sign he is mounting a presidential run.

"There is plenty that he has done in terms of debating Ron DeSantis and running ads in Florida that people used to justify their speculation that he's running for president," she said. "But this is just good policy ... You can talk to anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Sacramento, in Los Angeles — I bet any poll would tell you they feel less safe than they did two years ago or three years ago."

(c)2024 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners