In summary

Reducing penalties without requiring accountability is not working for drug offenses or serious crimes.

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By Shelley Zimmerman, Special to CalMatters

Shelley Zimmerman is the former chief of police of San Diego. She retired in 2018 after 35 years with the San Diego Police Department.

As a former police chief, I know our laws must evolve to serve our communities better. However, I am deeply concerned about the real-world impacts we are seeing due to a steady erosion of accountability. 

Just look at the drug overdose crisis unfolding. California set out on a mission to reduce penalties for many crimes and promote treatment as an alternative. A laudable goal, but the evidence shows this approach has not been successful. 

Last week we learned more than 100,000 people died nationwide from drug overdoses in the past year. Unfortunately, this tragic crisis has been building for a while in California. 

Our state’s drug-related overdose deaths increased by nearly 40% from 2014 to 2019 after drug penalties were first reduced and by almost 50% from 2020 to 2021 once the pandemic hit – outpacing many other states. In San Francisco, 700 people died of drug overdoses – more than double that amount killed by COVID-19 in 2020. 

If there were 700 homicides, it would be a public safety crisis. Where is the urgency?

This is not what we were promised by proponents of criminal justice reforms. Proposition 47, which dramatically lowered penalties for drug crimes, told voters it would dedicate its “massive savings to crime prevention strategies in K–12 schools, assistance for victims of crime, and mental health treatment and drug treatment to stop the cycle of crime.” 

It’s been seven years since Prop. 47 became law and our drug addiction crisis is out of control – a trend that emerged before COVID-19 accelerated the problem. 

Instead of incentivizing rehabilitation, Prop. 47 caused enrollment to drop in drug courts which offer treatment in place of jail time, according to one estimate. Without the support of drug courts, many have to fend for themselves.  The resulting addiction and dependency often lead to criminal behavior that hurts others in the community. As corroboration of this, more than 80% of male arrestees in San Diego County tested positive for an illicit drug – a 21-year high.

Reducing penalties without requiring accountability is not working for drug offenses, nor will it work if applied to more serious crimes. As President Ronald Reagan once said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.” 

Despite the current challenges, California could make things worse under a proposal to create permanent $0 bail across the state. Senate Bill 262 would release most arrested people – including very serious offenses – if they cannot afford bail. 

California instituted a temporary “Zero Bail” policy last year, which many counties have continued to the detriment of victims. For example, just before the Zero Bail bill was up for a vote, a Sacramento woman was murdered in her home allegedly by a man previously released on Zero Bail.  

Supporters of these reforms say they don’t endanger communities, yet there is no hiding that California’s homicide rate soared 31% last year and to a 13-year high. Homicides are a revealing statistic for measuring crime trends because murders are not underreported. 

By allowing lower-level crimes to proliferate without consequences, we fail to prevent more severe ones. Even though I’m retired from the San Diego Police Department, I still receive frantic phone calls from community members who haven’t heard so much gunfire in their neighborhoods since the early ’90s. There is a genuine concern.

We can see from our overdose crisis and rising crime rates that California is not fulfilling many of its promises. Passing more flawed policies like Zero Bail takes us further in the wrong direction.

Ignoring the plight of victims is no longer an option. There is no acceptable level of crime when you’re the victim, yet these new laws ignore their rights.

We need a more balanced approach that combines accountability and effective rehabilitation services – not one that perpetuates a cycle of addiction and crime. 

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