Could crime again become a big political issue in California now that former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a foe of Gov. Jerry Brown, will spearhead a ballot measure campaign to repeal realignment, which has seen the state’s prison population drop by about 40,000 inmates as newly convicted felons are redirected into county jails or probation. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters recalls that crime dominated California’s political landscape during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s before giving way to other preoccupations.
Governors and legislators were elected and un-elected on the crime issue, and voters ousted a chief justice who was against capital punishment. During one four-year span, Republicans defeated three Democratic state senators by accusing them of being soft on crime. The state’s prison population increased more than eightfold after the 1970s, and costs rose from a few hundred million dollars a year to nearly $10 billion. Crime faded as a decisive political issue largely because the crime rate, having hit a peak about 1980, receded sharply. Overall crime rates have not jumped again, and crime barely registers in polls of voters’ concerns, but Republican Party leaders, eager to arrest the GOP decline, seem to believe that angst over realignment, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to federal court pressure to cut prison overcrowding, could resonate.