Criminal justice

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California Republicans have been hammering the state’s Democratic governors for their handling of crime for at least half a century. It’s no different this election season. 

Early on in his term, Newsom incensed the state’s tough-on-crime voters by halting executions statewide — a decision that got a specific call-out in the recall petition. But public opinion may be on the governor’s side, and the overwhelming defeat of a ballot measure last November suggests most voters don’t want to return to the era of “lock ’em up.”  

Meanwhile, homicides in California shot up in 2020, though they still remain low by historical standards. Whether that increase is a pandemic-era anomaly or a sign of things to come, it’s another political vulnerability for a governor who has been a stalwart liberal on crime. Recall proponents, who held a July 20 press event at the state Capitol with relatives of murder victims, certainly think so.

What he’s done:

  • End the death penalty (for now): Newsom made no secret of his opposition to capital punishment during his 2018 campaign. Sure enough, one of his first acts as governor was to place a statewide moratorium on executions. It’s not a permanent ban — there are still more than 700 people on death row and a future governor can undo the move with the stroke of a pen. Recall supporters are counting on it.
  • Put new limits on police use of force: One of 2019’s fiercest legislative battles was over a bill to make it more difficult for police to legally justify killing civilians. After helping to broker a compromise between criminal justice reform advocates and police unions, Newsom signed the bill into law calling on further action to “make this moment meaningful.” A CalMatters analysis found that the law hasn’t yet had the transformative impact hoped for by supporters. 
  • Move forward with two prison closures: Newsom has been flirting with the idea of closing a state prison since his inauguration. Now, he’s pushing ahead with shuttering two: Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy by Sept. 30, and California Correctional Center in Susanville by next summer. It’s a response to a long-term decline in the state’s incarcerated population — helped along by the pandemic — but it also represents a sea change in a state once the epicenter of the “tough on crime” movement.

What he hasn’t:

  • End the death penalty (for good): In 2018, Newsom not only said he wanted to end capital punishment in California, he said he wanted the voters to do it. In 2016, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have done that by a 6-percentage-point margin. Newsom hasn’t yet given them another chance — or backed an effort to put it back on the ballot. 
  • Support a new gun tax: In 2021, Newsom’s tough on guns rhetoric collided with his commitment not to raise taxes during a budget boom. An excise tax on guns, gun parts and ammo to fund violence intervention programs passed the Assembly by a thread and is pending before the Senate. Newsom has been mum.
  • Replace cops with mental health professionals: Newsom last year vetoed a bill that would have let some cities send clinicians or social workers to respond  to certain mental health-related 911 calls rather than armed police. He praised the bill’s “underlying goal”  but argued that it put responsibility for the new project with the wrong state agency. Another version is before the Legislature this year, while some cities have acted on their own