A terrifying murder on a quiet street highlights California’s blame game over crime

Historically low crime rates can’t stop Republicans from blaming Democrats for murder and theft

In early September, a man broke into a house on my street and murdered Kate Tibbitts, 61, after sexually assaulting her. He also killed her two dogs, Ginny and Molly, before setting the house on fire. Police quickly arrested Troy Davis, a 51-year-old parolee with a lengthy record, for the crime.

If this horrific murder had occurred in San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s critics would be using it to fuel the ongoing recall effort against him. But it happened in Sacramento, where I lived for the past two years, and where few blame the local DA for crimes.

Instead, Scott Jones, Sacramento’s pro-Trump sheriff, blamed “liberal, anti-public-safety policies.”

In reality, it appears that Jones’ department may deserve some blame for releasing the man police suspect of killing Tibbitts. A sheriff’s spokesman initially blamed Davis’ release on a “zero bail” law the California State Legislature passed in 2018. The law would have eliminated cash bail, replacing it with a system to keep people behind bars based on the risk they posed to the public. However, voters rejected the law in a 2020 referendum and it never took effect. The California Supreme Court later restricted the use of cash bail on constitutional grounds, but this apparently wasn’t a factor in Davis’ release.

The truth, according to reports by The Sacramento Bee and KCRA 3 news, is that both the Elk Grove Police Department and the sheriff’s department apparently failed to contact Davis’ parole officer after he was arrested on auto theft charges in June. If they had contacted the parole officer to request a revocation of his parole due to the new arrest, Davis might still be in jail for violating his parole.

“If the June arrest had resulted in a parole violation, our current bail schedule would have resulted in a $50,000 bail,” a Sacramento Superior Court spokesperson told The Bee, “adding that the court ‘has no record’ of the jail calling the court for guidance on whether Davis could be released.”

Instead, Sheriff Jones’ jail released Davis, who now faces charges of murder, burglary, arson and intent to rape.

Jones’ deceitful response exemplifes the twisted blame game over crime in California. It’s also a preview of three upcoming political fights that will center on crime: The efforts to recall Boudin and Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, as well as the campaign to unseat Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Among the political fights that will center on crime include the campaign to unseat California Attorney General Rob Bonta.<ins> (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)</ins>

Among the political fights that will center on crime include the campaign to unseat California Attorney General Rob Bonta. (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

Polls show an increase in voters’ concern about violent crime despite the fact that overall crime rates have been at historic lows in recent years. Republicans and police groups will try to exploit this anxiety to win in 2022, but they face an uphill battle.

“This has been a very peaceful era in California, crime-wise,” said Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley criminologist. “If you’re a Republican, domestic peace is bad news in California. Problems are opportunities when you’re a conservative political minority, and eras of peace and prosperity are bad news for non-incumbents.”

Facts and data don’t matter to partisan operatives angling to fault Democrats for every crime. Within weeks of Tibbitts’ death, an independent political committee supporting Sacramento County DA Anne Marie Schubert’s campaign for attorney general created ads that falsely blame Bonta, a criminal justice reformer who co-authored the 2018 bail reform law, for the murder in Schubert’s jurisdiction.

“Zero bail let her killer out of jail,” said the ads, which feature a picture of a smiling Tibbitts.

Blaming Democrats for crime is an old political strategy. For decades, the GOP hammered Democratic opponents with the “soft on crime” label. Democrats often responded by trying to outdo Republicans on law and order, adopting “lock em’ up” political stances.

Terrible policies like the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act of 1976 — signed by Gov. Jerry Brown — toughened felony sentencing laws by lengthening them and helped swell California’s prison population from 20,000 in 1975 to over 170,000 by 2006. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the state prison guard union, became one of the state’s biggest power brokers and pushed for draconian laws that kept state prisons full.

Brown won the CCPOA’s endorsement during his 2006 run for attorney general as a “tough of crime” Oakland mayor. Then, after returning to the Governor’s Office in 2011, Brown flipped the script. Faced with a massive budget deficit and a U.S. Supreme Court order to shrink the population of California’s overcrowded prisons, Brown championed reform. He slashed the state prison budget, shifted lower-level offenders to county jails and diverted funds to treatment programs.

Republicans warned that “public safety realignment” would result in “blood in the streets” and started blaming it for crimes before it even went into effect. Despite their howls, voters subsequently approved two further reforms — Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 — to update sentencing laws and fund rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders.

The prophesied bloodbath never materialized. On the contrary, California experienced historically low rates of violent crime over the past decade. In 2019, both violent crime and property crime reached lows resembling crime rates in the early 1960s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“The era of criminal justice reform has happened at the same time that we’ve seen lower crime rates than we’ve seen in times of higher incarceration,” said Lenore Anderson, who co-authored Prop. 47 and leads the Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Criminal justice reform improves public safety.”

Major spikes in murder and violent crime during the pandemic have stoked new political attacks against California’s reforms. But violent crime has risen across the nation, including in Republican states. In addition, while some property crimes have increased, the rate remains well below that of previous decades.

California’s critics ignore these inconvenient facts. After all, the news can only be bad — and only Democrats can be blamed for crime.

The recalls targeting Boudin and Gascón are warm-up acts for the upcoming effort to replace Bonta with a vocal opponent of reform. Schubert, the Sacramento DA challenging Bonta, is a former Republican running as an independent. She faces tough odds. Though a June poll by David Binder Research found that 65% of likely California voters think crime is getting worse, 61% of those polled said they favored treatment and rehabilitation over imprisonment.

“These attacks will fail because they’re out of touch and because voters are smarter than the fear-mongering politics of the 1980s,” Anderson said. “Californians are so tired of the blame game.”

Reform opponents like Schubert need voters to feel rising fear and anxiety over crime. They also need a bogeyman like the one whose violent murder of Kate Tibbitts shattered the sense of peace and safety on 11th Avenue, the quiet Sacramento street I’ve gotten to know so well.

Unfortunately for Schubert and her supporters, it appears Davis’ release was the result of police error, not progressive reform. Rest assured, however, that they will continue to hunt for other heinous crimes to blame on criminal justice reforms that, by all objective measurements, have made California a safer place to live.

Gil Duran is Opinon Editor of The Examiner. Write him at gduran@sfexaminer.com