Our Voices

Behind The Headlines: Proposed Rollbacks Of Criminal Legal Reforms Disconnected From Reality

In California, the nation’s most populous state, opponents of criminal legal reforms are supporting a ballot initiative that aims to overturn a decade’s worth of previous ballot initiatives that reduced jail time for a number of property and drug crimes.

The proposed rollback is the latest pro-prison initiative to gain steam in recent months. Earlier this month, the Oregon governor signed a bill to re-criminalize certain drugs, a move the state predicts will send hundreds of additional people to jail for misdemeanor drug possession. In March, the Louisiana governor signed several bills aimed at increasing jail penalties, including one that will require courts to treat all 17-year-olds charged with crimes, including misdemeanors, as adults. And last summer, the White House came out in support of a House bill proposing severe mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl possession.

Serious Crime in the United States is Actually Decreasing

Many of these pro-prison initiatives capitalize on the widespread belief, held by 77% of Americans, that crime is increasing. Prison backers link the supposed surge of criminality to criminal legal reforms intended to reduce mass incarceration, enacted in the wake of racial justice protests in 2020. By returning to harsher prison penalties, the logic goes, we can once more reduce crime to manageable levels.

But the talk of a spike in crime doesn’t reflect reality. In fact, FBI data shows that both violent and property crimes are decreasing in the United States. Murders in U.S. cities dropped by more than 12% in 2023, the biggest national decline on record. Theft at retail stores is also trending downwards. And while mortality rates from drug overdose are a serious social problem throughout the country, research shows that incarceration actually increases the likelihood of fatal drug overdose by imposing stigma, unemployment, family disruption, and neighborhood decline.

Politicos Manipulate Fear of Crime to Motivate Election Turnout

In the face of hard data showing a decrease in crime, what’s really motivating politicians’ renewed focus on pro-prison policies?

Power. If there’s one thing both sides of the political aisle can agree on, it’s winning elections. Political strategists have long known that ballot initiatives like California’s are a powerful motivator of voter turnout in midterm and presidential elections. And talk of violent crime, specifically, motivates specific voter bases. Violent crime is rated as “very important” to the vote of 77% of self-identified conservative Republicans and 75% of older voters, who reliably trend Republican. The same is true of 65% of self-identified moderate and conservative Democrats and 81% of Black voters, who reliably trend Democrat.

By keeping voters in the dark about decreasing crime rates, politicians of all stripes lure their most reliable bases to the polls. So it’s up to us to spread word of the true story: Criminal legal reforms that reduce mass incarceration are working to reduce crime.