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Criminal justice at a "familiar crossroads"

On January 30, 1988, 27-year-old Karen Toshima and her boyfriend, Eddie Poon, were walking the crowded streets of Westwood, looking forward to celebrating Karen’s recent promotion at the ad agency where she worked. At that time, Westwood was the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights.

At approximately 10:45 pm, as Karen and Eddie strolled along Broxton Avenue, unbeknownst to them, members of two rival gangs assembled on opposite sides of the street. Without warning, Durrell Collins pulled a .38 caliber handgun from his waistband and fired two shots at rival gang member Tyrone Swain. Swain escaped unscathed, but tragically, Karen Toshima was struck in the head and died.

The killing of Karen Toshima served as a wake-up call to affluent neighborhoods in Los Angeles about something lower-income neighborhoods had already known; violent street gangs had taken over their streets.

The shots fired in Westwood that evening was a bellwether of what became an explosion in street violence. Over the next six years, homicides in Los Angeles County rose dramatically. Then in 1994, due to the passage of laws that enhanced punishments for gun use and gang crimes, homicides slowly declined to lows not seen in Los Angeles since the early 1960s.

But all that changed two years ago! The long and hard-fought progress we made to achieve safer communities is being thrown away.

Today, robberies, shootings, and homicides have risen dramatically. In 2021 the homicide rate was the highest in the last 15 years, and 2022 portends to be even deadlier. Once again, gang violence is the driving force behind increased shootings and homicides. But ask yourself why? Why is this happening now? Why have our streets in low-and high-income neighborhoods become so chaotic and bloody?

Starting in 2009, a series of bad laws, and even worse policies, were enacted to reduce overcrowded prisons and “reform” the criminal justice system. Under the guise of “social justice” and “equity,” those increased criminal enforcement policies that were enacted following the death of Karen Toshima were systematically deleted, rewritten, and unenforced. As a practical matter, those “reforms” resulted in weakened criminal accountability and a revolving door of justice—the perfect formula for increasing crime.

Statewide, the enactment of AB 109, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57 (all designed to reduce incarceration) have dramatically changed the way our court system works and have led to greater leniency for criminal behavior and less justice for victims. Adding insult to injury, “progressive” prosecutors have gone even further by implementing dangerous policies that lessen and, in some cases, even eliminate accountability, punishment, and deterrence for misdemeanor and felonious criminal behavior. The results of these poorly conceived and executed brands of reform are higher rates of crime and victimization.

Criminal justice reform works when it is the result of a well-researched and conceived strategy to amend and improve how we respond to criminal behavior. Clearly, from time to time, our laws and their applications need to be reviewed and revised to respond to those new challenges produced by our ever-changing society. Prosecutors must be flexible and intuitive in applying the law to ensure the prioritizing of public safety, support for victims, and accomplish fair and proportional sentences for offenders.

Incarceration should not be the first option for most non-violent offenders. Diversion programs should be offered for most first-time non-violent misdemeanor crimes. The overall goal of a well-managed system should be the safety and security of all of our people through the intelligent application of justice.

Durrell Collins was granted parole for the killing of Karen Toshima on July 7, 2022. Governor Gavin Newsome has until December 4, 2022, to overturn the grant of parole or let it stand.

The public was not represented at the hearing because the Los Angeles County District Attorney ended the 40-year practice of sending deputy district attorneys to parole hearings to stand alongside victims and represent the public at large. Moreover, Los Angeles County prosecutors have been ordered to never oppose parole, even for those inmates determined by prison officials to pose a high threat of recidivism or a safety risk to the public at large.

Durrell Collins has been handed a new lease on life, something he denied Karen Toshima and her family.

A generation ago, the people of Los Angeles County demanded that their elected officials adopt “common sense” and effective reforms to protect their streets and neighborhoods from violent criminals and the crimes they commit. They demanded safe and orderly neighborhoods where businesses could thrive, children could grow, and a young couple could stroll in celebration of life.

What will this generation do?

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