Best practices for reducing crime can empower California to build safer communities through policy.

California’s Skyrocketing Crime: How It Happened and What to Do About It


Key Points

  • There has been a concerning increase in violent crime and homicide rates in California.
  • Cities like San Francisco and Oakland have been adversely affected by rising crime, leading to economic challenges, a decline in safety perception, and demands for action from various community groups.
  • Over the years policies and decisions at both the state and local levels are believed to have contributed to the rise in crime. These include changes in sentencing laws, budget reallocations, and the election of progressive district attorneys. However, there is still great potential for political repercussions and the need for innovative solutions to address crime.

A recent headline from the satirical news website The Babylon Bee read “California Achieves World’s First Crime Rate Of Zero After Legalizing All Crime.” That piece reads in part:

“This is a great moment for our state,” Governor Gavin Newsom said. “No other state in the nation’s history has successfully brought the crime rate down to nothing. California is once again leading the way! Now, please, for the safety of your loved ones, don’t venture out of your homes at night. Or at least carry an air horn. Whatever. I don’t care.”

Analysts point to the state’s legalization of all criminal acts as the catalyst for reaching a zero crime rate. “It was a bold but revolutionary move,” said Professor Kyle Ray of the California Crime Institute. “California has effectively eliminated all crime from existence simply by making every unlawful or despicable act completely acceptable. Murder, assault, robbery — these are yesterday’s terms. Californians are now truly free to express themselves however they choose. Zero crime!”

Unfortunately, sometimes life comes a little too close to imitating art. In California’s case, de-carceration, de-prosecution, and de-policing has led to a toxic mix that has eroded public safety in the Golden State.

While crime began to crest in many states in 2022, the 2022 Crime in California report shows:

  • State-wide violent crime was up 6.1% compared to 2021.
  • Property crime was up 6.2% over the same time period.
  • The homicide rate increased 23.9% in the five years since 2017. 
  • By contrast, the rates for overall arrests and homicide arrests declined in 2022.


San Francisco and Oakland: California Beacons of Opportunity Turned Cautionary Tales 

Two Bay-area cities—San Francisco and Oakland—exemplify California’s public safety decline.

In San Francisco, a destination once regarded as the booming tech hub of the world, rising violent crime, homelessness, and open-air drug markets have led to massive exits from businesses large and small. In fact, the number of fleeing businesses is so large that several media and advocacy groups have developed databases of all the companies leaving. 

This trend has severely damaged the city’s reputation. A recent Gallup poll found that only 52% of Americans thought San Francisco was safe—down from 70% in 2006. It has also opened San Francisco up to the negative impact that crime has on economic opportunity. As multiple studies have found, violent crime robs communities of job growth and economic mobility—an outcome that tends to hurt disadvantaged communities and low-income residents the most. 

Across the Golden Gate Bridge in Oakland, CA, residents have become so tired of unabated violent crime that the local NAACP chapter joined Black religious leaders in calling on city leadership to declare a “state of emergency” over the impact of surging violence on minority communities. They specifically called out “failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police,” as well as the failure to “prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes.” 

Bad ideas in Oakland have contributed to a cycle of violence that has trapped low-income residents in places they feel unsafe. The NAACP chapter there is demanding accountability, both of the offenders and of the politicians who placate them. In the first six months of 2023, crime is up 26% overall in Oakland,  according to the Oakland Police Department.


How Did California Get Into This Crime Crisis?

How did California get here? A brew of bad policies at the state and local levels over the last decade appears to have finally come to a head. 

  • Beginning in 2011, in response to a lawsuit about prison crowding, the California legislature passed AB 109, “Public Safety Realignment,” which made most property and drug offenses ineligible for state prison sentences and eliminated state parole supervision in most instances in favor of less intensive county options.


  •  Then, in 2014, voters approved Proposition 47,  “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act,” which made all types of theft under $950 and some drug crimes misdemeanors.


  • In 2016, voters approved Proposition 57, “The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016” which created a system of earned early release that applied to many inmates, including those convicted of rape, gang, and gun crimes.


  • Finally, in 2020, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons, Governor Newsom released more than 10,000 inmates back onto the street, many of whom had violent and serious convictions.

At the local level, both San Francisco and Oakland reduced or repurposed portions of their police department budgets amid calls to “defund” the police. In 2020, San Francisco diverted $120 million from the police department and sheriff’s office budgets over the next two years. In Oakland, the city council repurposed $17 million away from the police department in favor of doubling the budget of a civilian crime prevention entity.

And then there are the elected District Attorneys. In San Francisco, progressive defense attorney Chesa Boudin was elected in 2020, along with a wave of other progressive prosecutors around the country with large financial backing. In addition to not prosecuting a host of lower-level crimes, Boudin quickly announced he would not pursue enhanced penalties for gang members. Crime rose dramatically, and Boudin was recalled in 2022.

Shortly after the Boudin recall, Oakland elected district attorney Pamela Price, who promised to discontinue use of those same enhanced penalties and favor probation over incarceration. She is currently facing the potential of her own recall effort.



The tragic story of Christian Gwynn who was fatally shot as a result of violence is a wake-up call to the need for change in policies that will reduce urban violence.


Rising Crime Doesn’t Have to be the New Norm in California—or Anywhere Else

Now there is mounting fear of even greater political blowback. But political implications aside, it doesn’t have to be this way.

We recently published our first analysis of a city and state’s public safety infrastructure. While this initial report looks at Atlanta, GA, the implications extend to cities and states across the country. Blue and red cities in blue and red states have been innovating and implementing best practices to reduce crime and violence, and these steps are helping several communities restore safety, hope, and opportunity. 

For more on how cities and states can get back on the right track, check out the report and recommendations here.

About The Author

Josh Crawford

Director of Criminal Justice Initiatives

Josh Crawford is a native of Massachusetts. He went to Penn State for his undergraduate degree and then finished law school in Boston. After a brief stint in Sacramento, California, working in the county district attorney’s office, Josh moved to Kentucky to help start the Pegasus Institute, a nonpartisan organization designed to promote opportunity. In addition to serving as executive director of the organization, Josh had a special focus on criminal justice policy.

“By focusing on public safety and order, we can restore hope and opportunity to rural communities.”

Share This