Justice reform: Policymakers must follow the path defined by voters

Illustration of an effort to assure the scales of justice are balanced. (Image: Lightspring, via Shutterstock)

Two weeks ago, another attempt to recall Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón failed decisively, with proponents unable to muster support from even 10 percent of voters despite spending over $8 million on this latest effort.

Like the June primary results, this failure reminds us that L.A. voters, like voters across California, continue to support meaningful justice reforms and candidates who embrace them.

Over the past decade, Californians have approved several changes to the criminal legal system, including course correcting laws that had driven up  the state’s incarceration rates to unprecedented levels and led to widespread racial disparities throughout the justice system.

Los Angeles County plays a crucial role in steering the direction of reform in California.

Meanwhile, voters have repeatedly rejected ballot attempts to undo those reforms.

On a parallel path, support for reform-minded candidates has been normalized in state and local elections.  The ‘lock em up’ campaign rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s is gone, replaced almost universally with rhetoric that is supportive of some version of reform. Support for change comes in various shapes and sizes depending on the county and the race, but the long term trend is clear: when given the choice, California voters continue to turn out in support of pro-reform candidates over candidates who run on a pro-incarceration platform.

This June, for example, longtime justice reform champion Attorney General Bonta easily secured a place on the November ballot and is well-positioned to defeat his Republican challenger. At the same time, voters in Contra Costa County and Alameda County overwhelmingly rejected ‘tough-on-crime’ candidates running for District Attorney.

In Los Angeles County, election night headlines spelled victory for anti-reform candidates, but when all the votes were counted, those predictions turned out to be wrong. Congresswoman Karen Bass ultimately came out ahead of billionaire former Republican Rick Caruso by a significant margin, despite Caruso spending tens of millions of dollars to push crime and fear messaging. Two out of three voters soundly rejected incumbent Sheriff Villanueva, and recent polling indicates that retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, a pro-reform candidate, is leading Villanueva ahead of the runoff election.

Los Angeles County, which operates the largest jail system in the country and is home to nearly a quarter of the state’s registered voters, plays a crucial role in steering the direction of reform in California. That a majority of voters there took to the ballot box to denounce Villanueva’s Trumpian ‘law-and-order’ platform and his department’s dangerous culture of violence speaks volumes of Angelenos’ appetite for new public safety strategies.

The trajectory of voters’ attitudes on safety and criminal justice continues toward change and mirrors what is happening nationally.

Angelenos reinforced this again when they rejected a second D.A. recall attempt. Fueled by Republican mega-donors, police unions, and others ideologically opposed to reform, the campaign was a page out of a national conservative playbook to undermine the progressive prosecutor movement, roll back widely supported reforms, and manufacture a narrative that voters have turned on reform. It failed.

Fox News pundits and other detractors of reform are quick to tout the June recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin as proof that California voters have buyer’s remorse, but the recall was an exception among the landscape of June races and the twice-defeated attempt to recall D.A. Gascón.

At the end of the day, it is true that Californians are sending a message on criminal justice reform, it is simply not the message the right would have us think it is.

The trajectory of voters’ attitudes on safety and criminal justice continues toward change and mirrors what is happening nationally, including in red states like Texas, where progressive prosecutors are taking the helm in big cities.

California policymakers should continue on the path voters have laid out for them to create a fairer, more equitable and efficient system of justice that looks beyond incarceration as its only tool to achieve safety. On this, California must continue to lead.

Editor’s Note: Anne Irwin is the executive director of Smart Justice California,  which advocates for fairness, safety and health communities through judicial reforms.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: