Higher Crime Rates: Coming To A Neighborhood Near You

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ate last week, California state officials announced the state would no longer impose restrictions prohibiting sex offenders from residing within 2,000 feet of a school or park. The resolution derives from a unanimous California Supreme Court decision on March 2 that concluded Jessica’s Law violates sex offenders’ Constitutional rights. The weakening of Jessica’s Law is the latest in a growing trend of state legislation that has drastically changed public safety in California.

The question is, did the legislations’ messaging impact the public’s knowledge of the implications the passing of these policies would have on California’s public safety? Yes, no, maybe, or it depends? It’s all in the messaging.

In October 2011, California fundamentally altered statewide public safety policy with the signing of AB 109 by Governor Jerry Brown. The purpose of this piece of legislation was to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons by releasing criminals who have been convicted of a crime that was non-violent, non-serious or non-sexual; also known as “triple nons”. Upon their release, these individuals are then transferred to a type of county probation system called Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS).

Although the topline messaging to the public was that AB 109 was going to save the state millions in incarceration costs, rehabilitate perpetual drug users, and appease Supreme Court mandates to reduce overcrowding, the “catch” of AB 109 is the non-inclusion of criminal history when classifying a triple-non offender. Release is solely dependent upon the crime the individual is currently incarcerated for and not their complete criminal background. For example, in April 2013 Tobias Dustin Summers, a classified AB 109 triple non-offender, kidnapped a 10-year old Northridge girl while under Post Release Community Supervision. Summers had a criminal history dating back to 2002 that included assault, battery and kidnapping, but because his entire criminal history is not included under AB 109, Tobias was released in August 2012.

In addition to AB 109, this past November 2014, California voters approved the passing of Proposition 47, which reduces the penalty for “non-serious and non-violent property and drug crimes” from a felony to a misdemeanor. These crimes include fraud, receiving stolen property and the personal use of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Prior to November, the conviction of any one of these crimes would have resulted in an arrest and incarceration. However, in most cases, criminals are now given a ticket and released back into the community. Proposition 47 passed with little-to-no resistance from the law enforcement community, victims’ rights advocates, or community organizations. While supporters campaigned on a message that Prop 47 would save the state approximately $150 million to $250 million per year (which would then be partially redirected to a ‘Safe Neighborhood and Schools’ Fund) the opposition never effectively delivered an alternative message clearly highlighting the consequences reducing these crimes to misdemeanors could have on public safety.

In just four short years, California has implemented three pieces of legislation that have dramatically changed not only public safety laws, but more importantly, victims’ rights. The latest changes adopted by the Governor, the Legislature and even the voters have shifted the concentration of public safety laws in California from guarding victims to favoring the rights of many perpetrators.

The top line messaging for the aforementioned public safety legislation has been fairly consistent: reforming a broken justice system that doesn’t rehabilitate offenders and huge savings to the taxpayers.

The arguments highlighting the consequences were nearly absent. One might expect the opposition to aggressively communicate the purpose of the original laws. For example, the purpose of not permitting sex offenders to reside within 2,000 feet of a school or park is to protect children, like Jessica, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a sex offender living in her community. Furthermore, the purpose of incarceration and felony convictions with respect to illegal drug use are to protect the community from crimes that are typically drug-related such a burglary and assault.

Moreover, the opposition did not use empirical data to highlight negative consequences to the public. The negative effect of dramatically weakening California’s public safety policy is already being made evident with a 27% increase of violent crimes in the City of Los Angeles. In fact, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck stated that crime is up in every one of his bureaus. This increase, according to the Los Angeles Times, “is driven in part by a spike in aggravated assaults. The jump in aggravated assaults began last year and has continued into the first three months of 2015.”

Will this trend continue or will the public engage and demand some retooling of these latest so-called reforms? Based upon the messaging campaigns waged across California that were unchallenged, it’s likely not. However, as the trend continues, that may very well change once the spike in crime starts to reach the front porches of more and more citizens in the coming years.

Bottom line, whether you are in the fight on a public outreach campaign or public policy advocacy effort, always be prepared with a proactive strategy and a clear alternative message. Never let a messaging campaign go unchallenged.

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