After more than a year in office, Gov. Gray Davis is still trying to cement his reputation as the toughest-on-crime governor in recent memory. As he does so, he leads the state into dangerous waters.
California has experienced a remarkable drop in crime over the past decade. Politicians here, as in other states where crime rates have plummeted, are quick to claim credit, citing laws they backed or tougher enforcement policies as having made a difference. That Davis emulated his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson, in pushing for ever-stiffer penalties for even minor offenses and rejecting moves to temper unduly harsh laws is not surprising. Governors who have done otherwise, particularly Democratic governors, have seen their political careers come to an abrupt end.
Yet with state prisons bursting and rehabilitation and drug treatment programs grossly underfunded, Davis, whose crime-fighter bona fides are now assured, needs to show he is responsive as well to the unintended consequences of his tough stance. Here's where to start:
California's three-strikes law is among the nation's harshest. A prison term of 25 years to life can fall even on felons whose third strike is a nonviolent petty theft or bad check, not the best use for scarce prison cells. It is also too often a waste of recoverable lives. Yet Davis has rejected even a proposal to study the costs and consequences of this law. A new proposal, AB 2447, is now before the Legislature. It would further encourage skittish judges to use the discretion the state Supreme Court has granted them to remove a prior felony from sentencing consideration when the newest felony is neither violent nor serious. Davis should support it.
The governor should also give up efforts to renew an expired state law that requires a six-month driving suspension for anyone convicted of even a minor drug charge, regardless of whether the offender was behind the wheel or even in a car at the time of the arrest. Federal and state laws already impose stiff penalties for drug crimes; the "smoke a joint, lose your license" law was gratuitous.
If Davis is serious about effectively fighting drug abuse, there are better ways. The state prison system is the logical place to start. The California Department of Corrections estimates that 80% of all its inmates may be substance abusers and that 37% were imprisoned specifically for dealing in or possessing illegal drugs.
Davis has already taken a small but significant step in the right direction by asking legislators to fund 1,500 new drug treatment slots, with the modest goal of providing intensive drug treatment programs for 9,000 of the state's 162,000 prisoners by the end of the governor's first term. Davis can make more progress in cutting drug abuse among criminals--and recidivism by parolees--by approving the $50 million the state Senate has set aside for establishing drug treatment programs in county jails.
This is crime-fighting that makes sense and can make a difference.