Surging crime forces a second-look at Calif.’s criminal justice reforms

A new study from the Pacific Research Institute puts a brighter light on the seismic impact of criminal reforms from the 2010s.

A recent study from the Pacific Research Institute released this month that details California’s surging crime in the wake of various state laws that were intended for criminal justice reform. 

Paradise Lost: Crime in the Golden State 2011-2021 was authored by PRI senior fellow Steve Smith, a 30-year law enforcement veteran. 


In an interview with Sunrise FM, Smith discussed the rising crime numbers in the 2010s. 

The big picture: Assembly Bill 109, Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 served as the focal point of Smith’s study.

  • AB 109 was signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, which resulted in the release and transfer to county jails of tens of thousands of inmates who were considered non-violent, non-serious and non-sex offenders. 
  • Proposition 47, called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, was passed by voters in 2014 and reclassified several felony theft offenses as misdemeanors. 
  • Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, was passed by voters in 2016 and allows for the early release for inmates at 50 percent of their time served, down from the previous threshold of 85 percent. 

By the numbers: California’s criminal justice reform led to skyrocketing crime numbers from 2011-2021, according to the study. 

  • In 2021, California reported 2,361 homicides, a 31.6 percent increase from a decade before. 
  • Reported aggravated assaults came in above 123,000 in 2021, a 34.6 increase from 2011. 
  • California also had around 10,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2021, which was a 715 percent increase from two decades prior and over double the 2011 mark. Smith went back to 2001 to compare fatal drug overdoses because that was the year Proposition 36 passed, which allowed for personal use drug offenders to go into diversion instead of being criminally prosecuted. 

What they’re saying: Smith said he was very surprised to see the crime statistics coming in as high as they are, even with his lengthy law enforcement career. 

  • “I had retired from law enforcement in 2015, so yes I pay attention to things, but I hadn’t really taken a hard look at the statistics,” Smith said. “When I read that in 2021 we were back up to 2,361 homicides and 123,122 aggravated assaults, it was disturbing.” 
  • Smith said he used homicides as a benchmark for the study because there is not an underreporting phenomenon. 
  • “We know when homicides are committed because somebody is dead. In all other categories of crimes there’s a decision made on the part of the victims where the reporting parties are witnesses as to whether they’re going to contact law enforcement,” Smith said. “So using homicide as the benchmark is the most reliable source of increasing crimes.” 
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