This story was co-written with Matt Ferner
There is a pressing threat to California’s recent criminal justice reforms: a small group of mostly men with troubled histories, livelihoods that depend on preserving mass incarceration and a penchant for loudly spreading disinformation to advance their pro-carceral agenda. These extremists are carrying law enforcement’s water in its existential fight to defeat smart criminal justice reforms.
California has spent the last seven years engaging in a series of progressive criminal justice reforms designed to end the state’s addiction to mass incarceration. The results have been great for public safety. New data shows that California crime is dropping to all-time lows. The most current data (from April 2019) indicates that the total urban crime rate is down 5%, with violent crime down 2% and property crime down almost 6%. This is the third-lowest crime rate ever recorded in California. On a city-by-city level, the majority of cities (56 out of the 73 biggest cities in the state) have seen drops in crime. And this isn’t new—the numbers pouring in since 2013 have established that reform has done no harm to public safety.
In 2013, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and SAGE journal both found that realignment—the initiative moving a substantial number of people from state to local supervision—had no effect on violent crime. PPIC found the same with regard to Proposition 47 (which re-categorized certain offenses as misdemeanors) findings echoed by a UC Irvine criminologist as well in 2018. All in all, California finds itself standing out: almost half of U.S. states have had larger increases in violent crime rates than California from 2016 to 2017 according to the LA Times and Marshall Project.
Despite this data, California law enforcement is engaged in what it sees as a war for its life. They know they can’t continue to justify their two billion dollar cost with a shrinking justice system and declining crime rates. They need the narrative to be that violent crime is both rampant and caused by reform, in spite of some notable public backlash to this bankrupt ideology.
One of the most regressive DAs in California, Mike Ramos, who peddled this false narrative and who was seeking his fourth term in office, lost his race for DA in San Bernardino to a relative unknown. Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, another enemy of reform, nearly lost her seat as well when she failed to bring charges in the wake of the police killing of Stephon Clark—she was only saved by substantial campaign donations from law enforcement in the immediate wake of the killing (and to date she has taken nearly half a million dollars from law enforcement groups). And then, of course, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which gave $2 million to a ballot measure to roll back some of the gains made by recent reforms, but then later asked for that money back.
And as it turns out, those supporting the narrative that reforms are making Californians less safe are some of the most dubious extremists in the state. They’ve mounted this disinformation campaign, insisting from various elected positions that the placid blue sky is falling. The leading faces of the “movement” against reform in California are, in actuality, a handful of prominent extremists with troubled histories, desperately trying to protect a system built for a different time and which has been rapidly collapsing around them.
Assemblyman Jim Cooper may be the most prominent of these law-enforcement-funded mouthpieces. Cooper has a disturbing history: a career cop who oversaw Sacramento’s jail during a scandal over the strip-searching of women at the jail, who were videotaped and made to dance. He also once grabbed his crotch and told a newly engaged subordinate she needed “Jungle Love” before she got married. An outside investigation confirmed the incident, but no subsequent corrective action was taken. At nearly the same time, a grand jury found he had engaged in illegal self-dealing by using simultaneous positions on the city council and with the sheriff to bully other city council members (often using sexually derogatory language and wearing his gun) into increasing their contract with the sheriff (where Cooper was still employed) from $7.7 million to $16.9 million. His next stop? The California Assembly.
There, he’s been a thorn in the side of his party, fighting tooth and nail to undermine progressive reforms. He fought for a ballot measure that kept nonviolent offenders out of prison and repeatedly stood in the way of efforts to end cash bail. He fought to give law enforcement a backdoor into people’s cell phones while also routinely opposing efforts to increase transparency and accountability for police officers involved in misconduct. He’s also spoken out against Prop 57, which allows parole opportunities for certain people, calling the measure “grossly wrong.” He’s a “Hall of Shame” member. He’s also a leading and vocal proponent for a 2020 ballot measure that is aimed at rolling back some of the successful provisions of Proposition 47 and 57, toughening supervision of parolees, and disqualifying some prisoners from early release. Cooper frames the issue as a public safety crisis when there is none.
Like Cooper, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer has been an outspoken opponent of progress, claiming reform caused a local killing, and notoriously focusing on busting marijuana dispensaries post-legalization. Also like Cooper, he has also been plagued by corruption and scandal, having been investigated for sex with a minor, allowing his right-hand man to run a drug trafficking ring, singing racist songs in front of minority officers and making sexually suggestive remarks in meetings, and yet remaining “beyond criticism” in Fresno politics. Again following Cooper’s path, he’s considering running for higher office once his position expires in 2019.
A third member of the hall-of-shame club is Sheriff Donny Youngblood of Kern County, whose department became notorious for a series of killings by police and who has been caught on tape saying that it’s cheaper to kill suspects than to wound them. His opposition to reform has been loud and ongoing, claiming even in the face of data to the contrary that these reforms must somehow be bad for safety, and even claiming that empty jails (the goal of all reform intended to reduce incarceration and increase safety) are bad because “what it means is people who should be there are free.”
These extremists have been amply funded by special interests, preserving their positions even when the voters attempt to throw them out. Youngblood and Dyer derive direct support from law enforcement funding and professional associations, but Cooper is in a league of his own, with a much larger capacity to stymie reform efforts and a publicly available donor list that reads like a who’s who of leading criminal justice reform obstructionists in California. During the most recent election, police unions and bail bondsmen poured more than $200,000 into Cooper’s campaign, earning a spot as one of his highest-spending special interest groups. Bondsmen have hailed Cooper as an ally in the fight against bail reform and in defense of their profits.
The funders enabling these scandal-plagued outliers are, by and large, police unions and bail industry representatives, fighting to preserve power. At present, California’s police unions have been engaged in a frantic fight to prevent the public from gaining access to police misconduct records, just the latest skirmish in a longstanding war to keep abusive cops on the streets and preserve their own livelihoods by preserving mass incarceration. It’s an expensive battle: the California Correctional Peace Officers Association spends about $8 million per year on lobbying. Meanwhile, the bail industry has been pouring money into legislators like Cooper, trying to prevent smarter, more equitable reforms from ending their industry. Just last year, the Peace Officers Research Association of California gave $41,500 to Cooper, the biggest individual donation from a police union and one of the largest overall contributions to his campaign. The donation came the same year the group was forced to fire its secretary, a Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy (recently demoted after browsing pornography on the job) after it was revealed that he was at the heart of a texting scandal involving dozens of racist, homophobic, and misogynist slurs.
Criminal justice reforms in California have been smart and effective, the data clearly reveals this. It’s time to pay attention to that data, rather than a small group of backward cops, prosecutors, and lawmakers who are pushing a false narrative for their own gain.
Emily Galvin-Almanza, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, has been a public defender in both California and New York, most recently at The Bronx Defenders, where she spent the last five years as a criminal defense attorney. There, she litigated trial cases and wrote about her work in The Atlantic and Slate, advocating for reform not just on the page but at the New York State Legislature and in testimony to the New York City Council. Prior to joining The Bronx Defenders, Emily was with Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, where she fought for reforms to California’s three strikes law and represented lifers seeking relief under the reformed law. In addition to her work with The Justice Collaborative, Emily is also the CEO and founder of Partners for Justice, a nonprofit that trains and places college graduates in public defenders’ offices to fight the enmeshed penalties of justice-system involvement, obtain access to vital services, and make low-income community members’ voices heard. Emily was a clerk to the Honorable Thelton Henderson in the Northern District of California, received her B.A. in English from Harvard University, and her J.D. from Stanford Law School.
Matt Ferner, editor in chief at The Appeal, previously worked as a senior reporter for HuffPost where for nearly a decade he wrote about politics, the criminal justice system, the drug war, police, prosecutors, and mass incarceration around the nation. His reporting has been cited in legal briefs and academic research, has influenced policy, exposed misconduct and helped lead to investigations of government corruption. Matt obtained a BA from the University of Colorado Boulder and an MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles.