From Three Strikes to Who's in Charge?

California used to be a tough on violent crime state

The Sept. 3 murder of Kate Tibbitts and her two dogs in Sacramento’s Land Park has directed the harsh glare of the public spotlight on California’s soft-on-crime policies. It had me wondering: What happened to the state’s Three Strike and You’re Out law.

Tibbitts’ brothers, as brother George noted in a joint statement, weren’t sure if the suspect was released for good behavior, to relieve jail overcrowding or measures to slow the spread of COVID. They do believe the suspect’s release is proof of “a monumental failure of the political and criminal justice system” in California.

The Sacramento Bee reports that some critics suspect Troy Davis benefited from “zero bail” and authorities are pointing fingers at each other. Davis, who should be presumed innocent of his crime ahead of his trial, has been convicted of a number of crimes, some violent. Because he was a career criminal, the suspect would be expected to have served four years in prison for a 2018 robbery conviction. But he was paroled last year.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has blasted the case as an example of “zero bail” policies allowing the release of dangerous inmates.

“(Kate) did not have to die,” Jones wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. “You see, the suspect was arrested this summer for a felony and then unceremoniously released under the darling of social justice warriors — ’zero bail.’

Who likes zero bail? Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote against cash bail in this 2017 opinion piece:

Shamefully, California continues to use a cash bail system. The only two countries that even allow for-profit bail operations are the United States and dictator Duterte’s Philippines.

I’ve seen an ugly cycle that began years ago: Weak laws lead to weaker law enforcement.

In 2014, Californians passed Proposition 47, supported by Newsom, which didn’t stop prosecutors from going after low-level offenders, but did reduce the payoff — jail time, if that, and not prison — they could expect from a guilty verdict, as I wrote in 2015.

“The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” isn’t living up to its promise. Also known as Proposition 47, the ballot initiative that passed in November with 60 percent of the vote, the act downgraded drug possession and many property crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor. Proponents argued that lesser punishment for low-level offenders would enhance public safety. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón was the rare prosecutor who pushed for its passage , because, as he told The Chronicle, “What we have been doing hasn’t worked, frankly.”

Gascón spokesman Alex Bastian told me, “The voters indicated that possessing small amounts of narcotics” should not constitute a felony. Californians don’t want three-year sentences for drug possession. I don’t either, but on the ground, the legal fix is not living up to its hype. Prop. 47 has made it easier for drug offenders to avoid mandated treatment programs. The measure reduced penalties for thefts of goods worth less than $950. Habitual offenders know that, critics say, and they’ve changed their habits to avoid hard time. The measure’s passage also prompted the state to free some 3,700 inmates.

In San Francisco, theft from cars is up 47 percent this year over the same period in 2014, auto theft is up by 17 percent, robberies are up 23 percent and aggravated assaults are up 2 percent, according to San Francisco Police spokesman Officer Carlos Manfredi. Burglaries are down 5 percent.

Sacramento passes laws that undermine voter-approved anti-crime measures, next demoralized law enforcement officials started to shrug. Some aren’t particularly keen on arresting people, only to see suspects released without a trial because it wasn’t worthy prosecuting crimes downgraded to misdemeanor status.

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Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Contact her at