Proposition 47, issued in 2014 in California, lowered criminal sentences for drug possession, theft, shoplifting, identity theft, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks, and check forgery from felony charges that can bring prison terms to misdemeanors that usually come with minimal jail sentences, if any. Since that time, the Public Policy Institute says that larcenies increased by 9 percent, and thefts from vehicles had a three-quarters increase.
Overcrowded prison systems and a seemingly racist or unfair targeting of minorities created calls for reforms, especially on nonviolent crimes like stealing and drug possession. But even the noblest of intentions have unintended consequences. The consequences from this action weren’t very hard to foresee though. In economics, when something is more expensive you get less of it and when something is cheaper you buy more of it. There is never a shopping frenzy on Black Friday because of higher prices. Human behavior is the same way; when you lower penalties for crime, you get more of it.
Moreover, these types of crimes tend to be connected and sometimes light sentences make them worse. While it is not the most effective method, drug addicts who are usually convicted for drug possession or for stealing to support their habit, often receive treatment in jail. The lack of jail time for these crimes means there is less chance of addicts receiving the help that solves the addiction, which is the root cause of their criminal behavior. Instead, the San Louis Obispo County chief probation officer reports that drug users are fueling the rise in crime, especially car thefts, to support their drug habits.
Whenever the topic of criminal justice and reform comes up, I’m often reminded of a story told by a Chinese philosopher, Han Fei. In his teachings, he encouraged people to think of a young fellow who is a bad character. His parents may get angry at him, but he never makes any change. The villagers may reprove him, but he is not moved. His teachers and elders may admonish him, but he never reforms. The love of his parents, the efforts of the villagers, and the wisdom of his teachers and elders…and yet not even a hair on his shins is altered. It is only after the district magistrate sends out his soldiers and in the name of the law searches for wicked individuals that the young man becomes afraid and changes his ways and alters his deeds. So while the love of parents is not sufficient to discipline the children, the severe penalties of the district magistrate are.
This story ended up supporting legalist thinking in China, but modern conservatives might simply call it the law-and- order point of view. Change a few words and it has a striking application to the modern debate on the supposed ills of the criminal justice system. Liberals seem to blame everybody and everything for a criminal’s behavior except the criminal. The law-and-order view holds people accountable regardless of their race, gender, sex, creed, or myths about structural racism or the cycle of poverty. If they break the law, they are punished. It doesn’t matter how angry they are at white cops, they can’t commit vandalism. It’s sad if they are addicted, but they are still penalized for drug possession. If they break school rules, they are punished. When people feel the natural consequences of their behavior they tend to reform it.
When those consequences are minimized, softened, or excused away under various theories of social justice, then you end up getting more it. Despite the dramatic rise in crime in some areas, Californians for Safety and Justice argue that California is still seeing historic low-crime rates. That is small comfort to the victims of crime who suffer the most from the so-called compassion of their elites. They seem to have compassion for criminals who do the crime, but not for the honest, hardworking people that fall victim to them.