CA Legislature shake-up on public safety

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 an in-depth story on Rivas’ Assembly committee reorg, go here.

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