Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Matters of life, death, guns and politics

In this 2011 photo, Gov. Jerry Brown, left, talks with his then-political adviser, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda.
In this 2011 photo, Gov. Jerry Brown, left, talks with his then-political adviser, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda. Associated Press files

Gun sales and violent crime are on the rise. So are the politics of crime and punishment.

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a criminal justice initiative for the November ballot that would grant authorities greater flexibility to release prisoners who seem to be mending their ways.

Netflix founder Reed Hastings and a few of his rich friends pledge to spend millions of dollars on an initiative that would abolish the death penalty.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his donor friends are advocating separate ballot measures to fully legalize marijuana and subject gun owners to background checks when they buy ammunition.

On the flip side, cops, prosecutors and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison officers, are pushing an initiative that promises to speed executions.

Abortion restrictions, taxes, drug price regulations and many other issues are in the mix for the ballot this November. But some of the weightiest measures involve crime and punishment.

In recent elections, voters have turned away from the lock ’em up attitudes of past decades. But law-and-order advocates predict a tilt back to their side. Homicide rates, though down from highs of a few decades ago, spiked upward in most major California cities, Sacramento included, and gun sales hit 890,000 in 2015, three times more than were sold in 2003.

Guesses about how rising crime and gun sales and the interplay of ballot measures might play out are just that. Brown, for one, said he doubts one measure will have much impact on the others.

“Some people like the death penalty and like to smoke marijuana. Other people like to have their guns and are against the death penalty,” Brown told me. “Some people see a more thoughtful, effective prison system as something they believe in as a matter of justice and public safety.”

In his fourth term as governor, Brown is nothing if not an expert on California voters. Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones is a neophyte by comparison. But Jones finds cause for hope as he runs against Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat in the swing district that includes Elk Grove and Folsom.

Bera, a physician, supports gun control. Jones has ingratiated himself to gun owners by issuing concealed carry permits to thousands of people who feel the need to pack. He believes large numbers of gun owners will head to the polls to vote against Newsom’s initiative. While they are at it, Jones believes, they will vote for him and against Bera.

“In my short political career, I have never met another group of single-issue voters like gun owners. They are true single-issue voters,” Jones said. “That (Newsom initiative) will definitely draw them to vote.”

Fascinating though the politics of crime can be, the policy questions being raised are matters of life and death. Ballot measures are blunt instruments and not the best way to deal with criminal justice, as Sen. Steve Glazer has found.

Glazer, a former political adviser to Brown, was the lone Democrat on the Senate Public Safety Committee to vote for a bill last July that would have fixed an oozing wound left by Proposition 47, the 2014 initiative that reduced penalties for drug possession and theft to misdemeanors.

As advertised, the initiative led to the release of thousands of lower-level prisoners. However, Proposition 47’s backers, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and the ACLU, neglected to let voters in on a secret: People convicted of what have become misdemeanors no longer must provide law enforcement with DNA samples.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, carried legislation last year to plug the DNA collection hole. The Assembly approved it 74-2. But civil libertarians and defense attorneys opposed it, and the bill died in the liberal Senate Public Safety Committee.

Unwilling to give up, Glazer made a request of the California Department of Justice: Run a search of people who had given DNA samples in past years after being convicted of crimes that once were felonies but had become misdemeanors as a result of Proposition 47.

The result: In 2013, 2014 and 2015, people were arrested for 1,383 crimes based on DNA samples taken after they had been convicted of drug possession, possession of stolen property, shoplifting and other low-level offenses, all crimes that have become misdemeanors. Under Proposition 47, people convicted of such crimes no longer must provide DNA.

Burglary and other property crime accounted for most of the 1,383 arrests. But there also were 53 murders, four attempted murders and 187 rapes, including child molestation.

“Now, we have clear evidence how it helped solve crimes,” said Glazer, who plans to introduce legislation to take up where Cooper’s measure left off. “It has to do with catching bad guys. Why would we restrict our ability to solve these cold cases?”

Department of Justice officials haven’t released details of the 53 murders or 187 rapes solved with the aid of DNA provided by supposedly low-level miscreants.

But each murder, rape and burglary that otherwise might be solved if cops could take swabs of a criminal’s DNA is a testament to the folly of resorting to ballot measures to alter the criminal justice system. Not that such cautionary tales have ever stopped initiative promoters from pushing crime-related initiatives.