“Beware.” This is the caution we issue nearly every day to San Franciscans to warn them to be alert for those who seek to exploit the current crisis to rob, cheat, and profit. Well, it’s not just street criminals and two-bit hustlers who seek to get over during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can now add so-called “criminal justice reformers” to the list of culprits that should keep your eyes peeled.
On April 6, the California Judicial Council adopted new emergency rules to lower California’s jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rules included setting bail statewide at $0 for “misdemeanors and lower-level felonies.” This comes on top of the actions of some local prosecutors and Superior Courts, especially larger population counties that implemented similar strategies. Likewise, some police chiefs across California have instructed their officers to cite and release suspects accused of low-level crimes. Ticket today, court appearance sometime later. This is all in the name of limiting the spread of COVID-19.
For truly low-level crime, that can make sense. Of course, our state has a warped sense of what a “low level” crime is, and rarely do rules get balanced with common sense.
Enter the “reformers.” As our criminals hit their version of the California Lottery, crime in most cities plummeted. Proof! Proof that if we lower jail populations, crime won’t go up, they argue. Given how well it’s working, we should make this permanent. After all, we have data. While that suggestion and their “proof” are both laughable, this is not a joke. They are serious.
Never mind that crime is down because people are indoors. You can’t rob someone up at gunpoint for their wallet and iPhone if they’re not on the sidewalk. You’re less likely to burglarize a home if all the occupants are binge-watching Netflix. Crime is down because a huge portion of the potential victims is safe at home. And not all crime is down. Car theft is up. Commercial burglary is up. Arson is up. Their data argument does not hold water.
Outside of the figures, however, is the lack of common sense in how the rules are constructed. A criminal with a violent track-record can commit a non-violent crime, and he gets to walk immediately. This is absurd. In April, a violent criminal in San Jose, with a carjacking conviction on his resume and documented gang affiliations, was released on car theft charges based on the Judicial Council’s new rules. Less than a week later, this “non-violent” offender carjacked a new victim, smashed another victim over the head with a hammer, and caused a police pursuit. San Jose police officers were forced to make a dangerous arrest on someone who should not have been on the streets.
Of course, this policy is all rooted in the fallacy that our laws break out “non-violent” and “violent” crimes in a manner that reasonable adults would agree on. They don’t. So when press releases go out from the Judicial Council touting that the new laws only apply to non-violent or low-level crimes, it’s knowingly misleading to the public. Criminals who commit physical violence on another will walk. They’ll walk, and they’ll do it again, and walk again. What’s the bail for someone who violates their supervised parole, under the new rules? Nothing. That’s right. If you prove that you cannot be relied on to check in with your parole officer, the State of California right now lets you go on $0 bail and hopes that you’ll show up for court when you are supposed to.
To be clear, we have no desire to see COVID-19 spread through our jails. None. At the same time, however, a zero-consequence state is incentivizing criminals and marginalizing crime victims. The best way to not get COVID-19 in jail is to not go to jail in the first place. Hey, stay home, wash your hands, and keep your distance without using a weapon, and you’d probably do OK right now.
Over the last several weeks, we have seen our community come together to try and beat back this virus. It’s inspiring. We’ve also seen those who have used the confusion of the time, and the vulnerabilities of others to get what they want. Those pushing for the permanent adoption of the criminal-first policies above are no better than the guy selling $30 rolls of toilet paper on Amazon. It’s shameful. It’s exploitative. And we should put a stop to it.