Some of California’s ‘reddest’ counties suddenly have alarmingly high homicide rates. What’s going on?
Donald Trump greets Kevin McCarthy (R-CA 23) whose district includes two of California’s highest murder-rate counties.GOP Leader / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Californians in 2021 continued to kill each other at their highest rate in 15 years. Data released on Aug. 25 by Attorney General Rob Bonta showed a statewide homicide rate of exactly six for every 100,000 residents. That’s a jump of 9.1 percent from 2020—and the first time the rate has been six or higher since 2007 when 6.19 Californians per 100,000 died at the hands of another person.
While it is popular at least on the political right to blame liberal policies for rising violent crime rates and for crime in general, California’s homicide stats show that in fact, as noted by Los Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria, some of the worst murder rates in the state were recorded in the most politically conservative counties.
California is hardly unique in that trend. In 2020, eight of the states with the top 10 highest homicide rates not only voted for Trump in 2020, but supported the Republican nominee in every presidential election of the 21st century, according to stats cited by the center-left think tank Third Way. The difference between red and blue states wasn’t especially close. According to those 2020 stats, the murder rate in states where Trump won was a whopping 40 percent higher than in states won by Democrat Joe Biden.
And though Republicans often claim that violent crime rates are worse in cities with Democratic-led governments, Third Way found that the 2020 stats show Republican-led Jacksonville, Fla., had 128 more murders than San Francisco, even though the California city’s population was somewhat smaller.
Within California, Third Way noted, San Francisco—represented in Congress by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—experienced only about half the murder rate of Bakersfield, a city whose congressional rep is Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
Bakersfield is the largest city, and seat of government, in Kern County, where Trump won the 2020 vote by 10 percentage points—and which also had the highest homicide rate of the state’s 58 counties, a rate of 13.7 per 100,000 residents.
The Leading Factor in Determining County Crime Rates—Politics
Kern County, which forms the largest slice of McCarthy’s congressional district, CA-23, not only led the state in death by homicide in 2021, it has been—in the words of Gov. Gavin Newsom—the “murder capital of California” for five straight years. Trump won that county in 2016 as well as 2020. The county also voted for Republican Mitt Romney over incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 and another Republican, John McCain, over Obama in 2008.
Neighboring Kings County’s 2021 homicide rate of 7.2 per 100,000 residents was higher than San Francisco’s 6.5 and twice as high as San Diego County’s 3.6. A third San Joaquin Valley County, Tulare, which also shares a county line with Kern County, saw an alarming murder rate of 8.8 per 100,000—a significant jump from 2020’s rate of 6.0. Both Kings and Tulare counties voted heavily for Trump in 2020.
McCarthy also represents much of Tulare County, where he won his 2020 race by 18 percentage points. (McCarthy won the CA-23 Kern County vote by 28 percent.)
Up north in Siskiyou County Trump won by almost 16 percentage points in 2020. The sparsely populated, largely rural county along the Oregon border saw four murders in 2021, but with a population of just 44,118 Sisikiyou’s homicide rate was 9.07 per 100,000, higher than Los Angeles County’s 8.5, and Alameda County’s 8.7.
Several of the rural, low-population Trump-voting counties kept their murder rates low in 2021, and some—such as Plumas, Shasta, and Colusa—experienced no murders at all that year. But in general, the trend of Republican voting counties in California out-murdering their Democratic-voting counterparts is not a new one.
In 202, as California and the rest of the country experienced the sudden and alarming rise in homicides, the 23 Republican-voting counties outpaced the state’s 35 blue counties in overall murder rate by 14 percent. That's according to a study by researcher Mike Males of the San Francisco nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ),
“The clearest difference between areas that have cut crime substantially and those suffering the worst crime trends and rates is not geographic nor demographic, but how they vote—Republican versus Democratic,” the CJCJ report states.
But Aren’t Republican Counties ‘Tough’ on Crime?
At first, it seems counterintuitive that murder rates would run consistently higher in more politically conservative areas which generally boast of tough-on-crime policies. According to statistics reported by CJCJ, 12 of 13 counties with the state’s highest incarceration rates vote predominantly Republican, while Democratic-voting counties have 16 of 18 lowest rates of incarcerating their residents.
A person in a Republican-voting California county, per the CJCJ numbers, is 58 percent more likely to be arrested than in a Democratic county, and 41 percent more likely to be sent to jail. Tulare County arrests people for drugs at five times the rate of Democratic San Mateo County. Rural and Republican Shasta County makes all types of arrests at three times the rate seen in San Francisco.
In Kern County, according to California Sentencing Institute stats as of 2016 (the latest year available), 687 people per 100,000 were incarcerated compared to a statewide rate of 486. Kings County led California with 1,338 inmates per 100,000 residents. Of the counties with the top 10 incarceration rates, nine voted for Trump in 2020.
Is Race a Factor in Red-County Homicide Rates?
Why are counties with the toughest crime policies the most plagued by crime and murder? Are immigrants and people of color, who tend to be arrested at higher rates than whites, migrating to rural red counties, causing murder rates there to go up?
The short answer is—no.
In most homicides, victim and killer are of the same race. According to FBI statistics from 2018, 81 percent of white murder victims nationwide were killed by other whites, while 89 percent of Black victims were slain by Black perpetrators. The numbers were generally similar to previous years.
Since the 1990s, according to CJCJ statistics, the white death rate from homicide has dropped sharply in California’s Democratic-voting counties—but not in the predominantly Republican counties. By 2020, the CJCJ reports, even with the overall spike in murders, homicide rates for whites in Republican counties were twice as high as in Democratic ones and were about the same as the homicide rate for people of color in blue counties. It appears that white people in Trump-voting counties simply kill each other at alarmingly high rates, and aren’t slowing down.
Why Do ‘Tough on Crime’ Counties Have So Many Murders?
The causes of crime and especially murder are always complex and difficult to understand. Conservatives—for example, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, blame government policies such as California’s Proposition 47 and Prop 57, which they say have made California less safe. Prop 47, passed in 2014, reclassified some felonies, mainly theft and drug crimes, as misdemeanors, allowing lighter sentences for offenders in those categories. The 2016 Prop 57 increased the chances of parole for inmates who were convicted of nonviolent felonies.
Without getting into the policy particulars of each law, one fact stands out. In the years since those laws were passed, overall crime in California has decreased, and violent crime has remained largely stable. Whether those laws caused a decrease in crime is uncertain. Crime has been decreasing in the state at least since the early 1990s. Violent crime peaked in 1992 and has been going down ever since, until 2020. But even with a startling 31 percent year-on-year spike in homicides in 2020, the overall violent crime rate crept up by less than 1 percent.
There appears to be one other certainty: the “tough on crime” approach does not decrease crime or violent crime. A study by the Death Penalty Information Center using FBI crime data showed that the ultimate “tough on crime” policy, capital punishment, did nothing to reduce the exact crime it is designed to prevent—murder.
Studies have also shown that policies such as mass incarceration and stop-and-frisk—which allows police to detain and search people for little or no reason—result in no significant changes in crime rates one way or the other.
Even in California’s “murder capital,” Kern County, Sheriff Youngblood—who rails against the “liberal media” and claims that the “liberal left” wants his anti-crime policies to fail—admits that other factors play an important role in crime and murder rates, foremost among them, poverty.
But even poverty does not offer a direct correlation with murder rates. Kern County, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California, has the 15th highest poverty rate among the state’s counties, at 16.7 percent, based on average numbers from 2017 to 2019. Tulare County was 16th at 16.4. The county with the highest poverty rate, Los Angeles, where 20.8 percent of residents live below the poverty line, had the sixth-highest murder rate in 2021, 8.5 per 100,000.