CA Legislature shake-up on public safety

This story appeared on Calmatters

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer in Los Angeles on Aug. 1, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Back in July, when criticism over the Assembly public safety committee’s decision to stall a bill to increase penalties for child sex trafficking was at an all-time high, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer told reporters that he was used to pushback: “I’ve been chair of public safety for quite some time. I leave the Assembly pretty soon, so somebody else will have to do this.”

But the Los Angeles Democrat will be replaced as chairperson before he terms out next year.

Of the several committee shake-ups carried out by Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas last week, the removal of Jones-Sawyer from the public safety committee was one of the most noteworthy. Per his announcement, Rivas tapped Kevin McCarty of Sacramento to be the next chairperson. 

  • Rivas, in a statement: “Californians have a right to be safe in their homes and on their streets. I’m confident Assemblymember McCarty will bring commitment and conscientiousness to this role. I thank Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer for his work to bring needed reforms to our justice system.”

Appointed by Rivas’ predecessor in 2016, Jones-Sawyer’s tenure as chairperson hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. This past session, his decisions regarding bills related to child sex trafficking and the fentanyl crisis were particularly rocked by controversy. At least twice, Republican Assemblymembers attempted to force a floor vote on the issues, frustrated by what they argued as an unwillingness from Jones-Sawyer and Democratic lawmakers on the committee to enact harsher penalties for drug dealers and sex traffickers.

Modesto Republican Assemblymember Juan Alanis and vice chairperson of the public safety committee told CalMatters in August that he saw the committee prioritizing criminals over victims: “I don’t like when we look out in the audience and we see faces that say, ‘You failed us.’”

But for Jones-Sawyer — who described himself as a “New Testament kind of guy” and believed that “everybody needs a chance” at redemption — toeing the line between enforcing the law and unjustly criminalizing disadvantaged communities was his challenge.

Now, it’s a responsibility that McCarty must navigate, even as he makes a bid for mayor of Sacramento.

A stint as public safety committee chairperson could offer some opportunities for McCarty to lead the charge in curbing crime rates, which polls show a majority of California adults say is a problem, as well as criminal justice reform. But just as some of Jones-Sawyer’s decisions rankled the public and legislators on both sides — at one point even Gov. Gavin Newsom had to intervene to have the child sex trafficking bill reconsidered — the role may also present its share of pitfalls. 

(FYI: The other candidates competing with McCarty for mayor in the March 5 primary include Public Health Advocates policy director Flojaune Cofer, former City Councilmember Steve Hansen and former state Sen. Richard Pan.)

In addition to public safety, Rivas’ reshuffling will likely impact the state’s approach to housing policy, writes CalMatters housing reporter Ben Christopher. With the Legislature passing a number of bills that would make it easier for the state to develop affordable housing, Rivas is continuing the momentum for next year’s session by elevating many pro-housing lawmakers. 

Namely, he tapped San Diego Democrat Chris Ward as the new chairperson of the Assembly’s housing committee (last year, Ward introduced an unsuccessful bill that would have prioritized dense urban development) and shifted Oakland Democrat Buffy Wicks, who is a reliable pro-housing lawmaker, to the powerful appropriations committee.

For more on Rivas’ Assembly committee reorg, read Ben’s story.

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Holiday stealing season?

Police vehicles are stationed at Union Square following robberies in San Francisco on Dec. 2, 2021. Photo by Eric Risberg, AP Photo

Speaking of crime, the Newsom administration wants to stop the scary smash-and-grab mobs descending on retailers this holiday season, whether it’s standalone boutique stores or well-populated malls

Heading into Black Friday, the governor announced that more police officers will patrol “key retail districts,” and that law enforcement will carry out “proactive and confidential” operations to combat organized retail crime.

  • Newsom, in a statement: “When criminals run out of stores with stolen goods, they need to be arrested and escorted directly into jail cells…. The California Highway Patrol — working with allied agencies — is increasing enforcement efforts and conducting and supporting covert and confidential takedowns to stop these criminals in their tracks…”

This includes San Francisco’s popular Union Square shopping district, which has been plagued by a string of departing retailers who often cite crime as their reason for leaving — though that sole justification has been hotly debated

During a press conference last week, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins reiterated the city’s dedication to catching offenders, reports the San Francisco Chronicle: “Some news outlets have continued to push a narrative that we do not enforce our laws here in San Francisco and in the state of California. But I am here today to remind everyone…. We will prosecute those who commit crime in this city, and that includes organized retail theft.”

But some business groups were not impressed by Newsom’s announcement. In a statement, the president of the California Business Roundtable called it a “piecemeal response” to a complex problem that requires a “much more aggressive solution.”

Meanwhile in the Legislature, Rivas carved out a select committee to address the rising rate of retail theft in California. Led by Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur, a Santa Monica Democrat, the bipartisan committee was expected to meet in the fall and through 2024, though no hearing is scheduled as of yet. 

Rural schools call for repair cash

Students being taught a science lesson outside of the classroom at the Keyes Elementary School in Keyes on Nov. 15, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Leaking roofs, broken door handles and grass-destroying gophers — these are just some of the maintenance issues that staff and students have to deal with at California K-12 schools. But unlike most other states, explains CalMatters K-12 education reporter Carolyn Jones, California does not have a permanent funding stream for fixing school facilities. Instead, funds come from state and local bonds, which are finite and typically generated through property taxes. 

But while larger, urban and more affluent districts have an easier time raising funds, schools in rural communities often struggle to raise the cash. That’s because voters in these larger districts are more likely to approve new taxes, and property values are higher, which make it easier to borrow more.

The Legislature is currently considering Assembly Bill 247, which would enable the state to borrow $14 billion for repairing K-12 and community college facilities. Despite a November 2024 ballot already crowded with other bond proposals, Torrance Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi — chairperson of the education committee and a co-author of AB 247 — said he’s confident the governor will support the school bond.

Besides providing safe conditions, why is it so important to have a “nice” looking school? According to the California Department of Education, students who attend schools that are in good shape perform better on tests, are less likely to be suspended and have better attendance. But without proper funding, it’s difficult for staff and teachers to coax students to stay in class if the roof over their heads is leaking.

  • Eric Gross, Pacific Elementary School District superintendent: “I can teach your kids to read, but I am not a construction manager. The state needs to step in to help superintendents like me, because we don’t have the time or expertise to do this on our own.”

Read more on the state of disrepair of California schools in Carolyn’s story.

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