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In recent months, San Franciscans have seen alarming headlines announcing the city has suffered huge increases in crime and now has the country’s highest rate of property crime. There are calls for rolling back criminal justice reforms that ameliorated penalties for lower-level drug and property offenses.

However, analysis shows that San Francisco’s crime trends are driven by just one type of offense: thefts from motor vehicles. This offense rocketed upward by 128 percent during the reform era from January 2010 through October 2019 (Figure 1). Meanwhile, nearly all other violent and property offenses fell.

Figure 1. San Francisco crime rates per 100,000 population during the justice reform era, 2010 – 2019

Source: California Department of Justice, Open Justice, Crimes & Clearances. San Francisco crime rates through 2019 are based on January-October rates posted by the San Francisco Police Department. Note: The 2019 population is estimated using the population increase in San Francisco from 2017 to 2018.

Further, while the rate of thefts from motor vehicles per 100,000 population rose substantially in San Francisco (1,171.0 in 2010 to 2,772.4 in 2018; up 137 percent), they showed slight declines across the rest of California (591.2 in 2010 to 561.0 in 2018; down 5 percent)(Figure 2). In 2018, San Francisco’s rate of thefts from motor vehicles, by far the most prevalent single offense reported in the city, was five times the rate for the rest of California. Through October 2019, thefts from motor vehicles in other parts of the state dropped 7 percent compared to the first ten months of 2018.

Figure 2. Thefts from motor vehicles per 100,000 population, San Francisco vs. rest of California, 2010 – 2018 

Source: California Department of Justice, Open Justice, Crimes & Clearances.

It does not make sense to roll back an entire package of criminal justice reforms that generally are associated with favorable trends in crime (including thefts from motor vehicles statewide) and are enabling the state to remain in compliance with court-mandated reductions in prison populations to deal with one offense in one city. Nor do general rollbacks of reforms seem advisable in San Francisco, since nearly all other crimes show declines since 2010.

Instead of weakening reforms, justice policies should proactively address the particular challenges of each offense. For example, law enforcement commentaries indicate that thefts from motor vehicles appear to be driven not by random individuals, but by organized rings that target tourist areas where high-end items are more likely to be stored in vehicles. Law enforcement and courts already possess the power to address organized crime and crimes involving drug-involved individuals in ways tailored to the root causes and nature of the offense without wholesale changes in state law.