Likely the chamber of commerce is cringing at Kern County’s new title — “The Murder Capital of California.” But that is how Gov. Gavin Newsom described it during a recent news conference.
It’s not a fair description. In fact, it’s just another poke in a continuing insult exchange between the governor and Kern politicians.
There are few “white hats” in this war of words, as Kern’s mostly Republican politicians try to lay the blame for crime at the Democratic governor’s feet.
This show is getting old. If anyone — on either side to of the political divide — really wants to solve problems, they should look for common solutions.
The latest volley of insults is based on state crime statistics that show for the past several years, Kern has had the highest homicide rate of any county in the state. (It’s nice to be No. 1, but not in murders.)
This does not mean there are more murders in Kern than anywhere else in the state. Rather, based on the county’s population size, the “homicide rate” is high.
According to the California Attorney General’s Office, in 2020, Kern’s rate was 12.7 homicides per 100,000 residents, with 116 people dying. San Joaquin County was No. 2, with 10.8 homicides per 100,000 residents, with 84 people dying.
But in sheer numbers, the entire county was dwarfed by just the city of Los Angeles in 2020 for the number of homicides, with 349 people murdered — add in several hundreds more if you considered all of Los Angeles County.
Statistics can be twisted to paint any picture, or fuel an argument over increasing crime and violence in California’s communities. And to what end? Instead, how about actually solving problems and making Californians safer?
A few days ago, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer slapped back at Newsom with an open letter to the governor published in The Californian.
“Gov. Newsom, you have failed to protect Californians from crime, but you have succeeded in destroying their confidence in the criminal justice system,” she concluded, after blaming Newsom for signing laws and adopting policies that released from prison dangerous criminals and reduced penalties for crimes.
Zimmer put the blame on Newsom, when in some cases, it was California voters who overwhelmingly passed ballot initiatives and courts that issued rulings demanding criminal justice reforms.
In 2020, California voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 20, which was backed by law enforcement and prosecutors and which would have rolled back some reforms Zimmer now blames for the state crime rate.
Zimmer was correct to note that prison realignment has moved many criminals out of state prisons and into county jails. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some inmates convicted of violent crimes were released from state prison to reduce crowding.
Last summer, Zimmer spoke in Ridgecrest to explain Kern’s high murder rate. As reported by the Ridgecrest Daily Independent, the district attorney then also blamed such things as the rise of street gangs — notably prison gangs.
“We have five prisons,” Zimmer reportedly said in her Ridgecrest presentation. There are “more prisons in Kern County than in any other place. So, if there is a murder that occurs in a prison, that goes into our statistics.”
She noted other contributors to Kern’s crimes are high rates of drug use, teen births, low high school graduation rates and increased homelessness.
It is no coincidence that the California counties with the highest homicide rates are rural counties that provide plenty of remote, hard-to-patrol places for criminals to conduct business, including murder.
The proximity to Los Angeles and gang-plagued Southern California urban centers, combined with relatively affordable housing, have for decades attracted criminals to Kern.
If they ever were, today’s Kern and Bakersfield are not “Andy’s Mayberry,” where homes safely can remain unlocked and crime is low.
Why is Kern’s homicide rate the state’s highest? Political sound bites on both sides will not provide the answers.
It takes a willingness to look honestly at our problems and work together for solutions.