Tough on Crime Rhetoric Fails at the Polls

Kamala Harris, Joyce Dudley, Steve Cooley, Jill Ravitch, Paul Zellerbach (clockwise from left)

Across the state and across party lines, California voters on Tuesday rejected overheated “tough on crime” rhetoric choosing instead candidates with a more balanced approach to public safety and promises to efficiently use public funds in a time of dwindling dollars.

“It’s not like we live on Devil’s Island,” said Judge Paul Zellerbach who vowed to review all pending death penalty cases in Riverside County after his win over incumbent District Attorney Rod Pachecho. During the campaign Pacheco referred to his opponent as “Judge Marshmallow” for being “soft on crime” and frequently touted plans to “speed up” the death penalty and his hard line approach to prosecutions.

But voters seem to have been swayed more by Zellerbach’s criticism of Pacheco’s inflated office budget, overzealous prosecutions leading to low conviction rates at trial, and the reported climate of fear and intimidation in the D.A.’s office.

Tough on crime talk also fell flat for Chris Kelley in the Democratic primary for Attorney General. Voters opted for District Attorney Kamala Harris even after Kelley bought and used the search term “death penalty” on Google for several months, and despite his series of attack ads criticizing Harris for her rejection of the death penalty as costly and ineffective and her stance in favor of permanent imprisonment.

On the Republican side, Senator Tom Harman showcased bills to “speed up” and “fix” California’s death penalty as centerpieces in his campaign for state Attorney General, and labeled District Attorney Steve Cooley a “liberal” for his belief that California’s Three Strikes Law should be limited to those with a history of violent or serious crimes. Still, Republican voters soundly rejected Harman in favor of Cooley.

Across California, over half of District Attorney incumbents in contested counties were either ousted or must face a runoff in the fall, signaling that voters may be tired of “rhetoric as usual” when it comes to criminal justice policy.

In Santa Barbara, voters chose Joyce Dudley, a long-time prosecutor who ran the county’s Head Start Program before law school. Her campaign included messages about being “smarter about how we use our resources to both prosecute criminals and protect our county.” Jill Ravitch prevailed in Sonoma with talk that balanced prosecution with rehabilitation and prevention, and after telling voters she supports reform of the Three Strikes Law.

Smart on crime messages may not be novel but their effectiveness in Tuesday’s elections seems to signal an important shift in California’s prosecutorial landscape. For years, presenting oneself as a hammer battering crime was a requirement. This time around, a hard-line stance alone without a plan for effective and budget-conscious enforcement is the new electoral kiss of death. Californians are weary of budget cuts to valued social services and cautious about wasteful spending on ineffective or lower priority criminal justice policies, like the $1 billion over the next five years that will be poured into death penalty spending.

Senator Harmon’s YouTube video titled “Steve Cooley is a Loser” may have had some traction in times of plenty; now it appears voters want less tough guy talk and more smart choices on economically viable public safety programs.

Natasha Minsker

Natasha Minsker is the death penalty policy director of the ACLU of Northern California. The People’s Budget Fix is supported by Drug Policy Alliance, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Families Amend California’s Three Strikes, and the ACLU California affiliates.

Republished with permission from the ACLU Blog of Rights.


  1. Frank Courser says

    Thankfully the public is finally understanding these “dumb on crime” policies have done nothing but perpetuate our prison population and have never made us safer! In fact they may have created more crime. Prison programs have all but gone away, making prisons nothing more than a finishing school for felons. Mandatory sentencing laws such as Three Strikes swept up not the violent repeat offenders as intended, but drug users, shoplifters and the mentally ill. Now the legislature must gain the political will to correct these ill conceived policies and reverse the damage done. Fixing Three Strikes, fixing parole, removing the Board of prison hearings commission and replacing them with qualified judges that understand the laws and sentencing. No longer can we base our criminal justice system on retribution and revenge. We must carefully craft our policies and direct them at only those that present a clear and present danger to public safety.

    • Clara says

      Thank you, sir, for putting these issues and possible solutions so clearly! I could not agree with you more on the Three Strikes law, and with your description of prison as a “finishing school” for criminals. What must take place is so distasteful to the typical voter: to decriminalize casual drug use, and in some cases sales; and ease punishment for lesser crimes. To warehouse so much of a male population without benefit of actual rehabilitation is a crime itself.

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