LOS ANGELES (AP) — A recent change in California law making certain drug and property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies played “a significant role” in the rising crime rate in Los Angeles County and has taken away the incentive for addicts to seek treatment, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said Thursday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, McDonnell also said legalizing marijuana for recreational use is a bad idea and that recent public backlash against police over use of force is having an impact on his agency, the largest sheriff’s department in the country.
Many in law enforcement have criticized Proposition 47, which voters passed last November. To ease overcrowding in the prison system, it reduced the penalties for shoplifting, forgery, fraud, petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs — including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
So far this year the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reports a 3.39 percent increase in violent crime and a 6.9 percent increase in property crime.
“We had 10 years of crime reductions, we were at 50-year lows in many areas on crime statistics, and all of a sudden, right after November when 47 kicked in, that changed — and fairly dramatically, very quickly,” he said. “It would be naive to say that 47 didn’t play a major role in that.”
McDonnell said the law prevents authorities from leveraging the threat of a felony charge to get addicts into treatment. As a result, county treatment rolls are down 60 percent.
“People are no longer incarcerated, they’re not in treatment, they’re out reoffending on the street,” McDonnell said.
Proposition 47 came after California’s 2011 prison realignment law, which pushed many criminals into county jails to decrease state prison populations. Jails previously housing only people awaiting trial or those sentenced to less than a year now also hold more hardened criminals serving longer terms. McDonnell said one county inmate has a 42-year sentence.
“That’s not something we’re equipped to deal with effectively,” McDonnell said. “The state prison system has been sued and had consent decrees over it, and it’s predictable that as a result, we’re going to have the same kind of lawsuits and the same kind of damages.”
One of the goals of Proposition 47 was to use savings from reduced jail populations to fund drug treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration. But there’s been no savings in Los Angeles County — the jails are filled with about 18,000 inmates.
Before Proposition 47, the jails were overcrowded and inmates served just 10 to 15 percent of their sentences. Now they’re serving 90 percent of the sentences, McDonnell said, but there’s no money for the treatment services.
McDonnell also said DNA databases are less robust because those charged with Prop 47 crimes aren’t required to provide DNA samples. A bill that would have ensured authorities could continue collecting such samples died last week in the Senate Public Safety Committee, after passing in the Assembly.
But Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and an attorney who co-authored Prop 47, warned of “premature conclusions” about the law’s effects.
“Crime rates are shifting in cities outside California — locales that have not had recent changes in criminal law,” Anderson said in a statement to The Associated Press. “Voters passed Proposition 47 because the old system was costly and failed to break the cycle of crime.”
McDonnell touched on a number of other law enforcement issues in his interview:
— Body cameras are being tested by the department and he hopes to provide them to deputies on patrol and in jails. McDonnell said deputies shouldn’t be able to review the camera footage before making an initial statement in any use of force incident.
After the initial statement, he said deputies could then review the video and make a supplemental statement.
This approach has been supported by civil libertarians and differs from the Los Angeles Police Department, which has a policy that allows officers to review body camera footage before providing a statement.
— Marijuana legalization is bad for society. He said pot is far more potent today and so the gentle buzz people expect is far more intense and sometimes produces hallucinations. There are many unresolved questions about how law enforcement will test for levels of intoxication.
— Media coverage of violent police encounters is having an impact on law enforcement. Deputies are worried that any use of force could be misconstrued when captured on video, McDonnell said. Less than 1 percent of the millions of daily police contacts with the public result in uses of force, but those are what people focus on, he said.
McDonnell is planning a 32-hour course for deputies on crisis intervention training, especially to deal with the mentally ill, which make up 40 percent of the use of force contacts for deputies.
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