As Crime Worsens in California, Soros-Backed Group Mobilizes Against Referendum To Restore Tougher Criminal Penalties

Crime up in Golden State

George Soros
George Soros (edited from Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
April 23, 2024

A George Soros-backed progressive group behind many of California's soft-on-crime reforms has launched a fundraising effort against a potential November voter referendum to restore tougher criminal penalties for theft and drug offenses—even as Golden State voters increasingly disapprove of their state's lax approach to criminal justice.

Action for Safety and Justice, which is organized under the San Francisco Bay Area's progressive dark money network Tides—bankrolled by Soros and other billionaire activists—is fundraising for the fight against a ballot initiative that would gut a 2014 law that downgraded punishment for drug offenders and for thieves who steal goods valued at less than $950. So far, the group's nascent committee has reported raising $70,000, according to campaign finance records, as it braces for a battle with the referendum backers, who on Thursday announced they had gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The fundraising push is the latest sign that California progressive groups and donors are not backing down from their drive for a more lenient criminal justice system even as the state's voters move the other way. Supporters of the referendum gathered nearly a million signatures—well over the nearly 550,000 they needed—to get it on the state ballot, while Oakland-area activists this week scored a recall election for their soft-on-crime district attorney, Pamela Price. And just last month, voters in deep-blue San Francisco delivered a blow to their city's lenient policies by granting police the power to chase suspects and conduct more surveillance.

The push comes as crime sprees grab headlines across California cities, small businesses shutter and lose insurance coverage due to crime, and some business owners threaten their local leaders with not paying taxes until governments stem the crime problems.

Tides, whose affiliates have funneled $170 million in taxpayer funds to left-wing groups, is a powerful backer of California's criminal justice reforms. The network sponsors groups like Smart Justice California, which since 2018 has invested more than $25 million in the state's efforts to relax the justice system and "shift the public narrative" on crime and punishment. Soros is one of the Tides network's prominent donors, giving nearly $1.7 million to the Tides Center, nearly $1.2 million to the Tides Foundation, and nearly $23 million to Tides's advocacy enterprise through his Open Society Foundations in 2021 alone.

Action for Safety and Justice is the political spending arm of the progressive multi-state nonprofit Alliance for Safety and Justice, whose executive director, Lenore Anderson, cowrote the 2014 law that loosened punishment for drug offenses and theft in California. Anderson also pushed a law that has freed violent felons who went on to commit murder and other crimes. Alliance backers include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; billionaire John Arnold, who has replaced George Soros as the biggest donor to the nation's criminal justice makeover; and other liberal philanthropies, such as the Ford Foundation.

The Action for Safety and Justice committee last week reported its first fundraising haul, including $25,000 each from Quinn Delaney, the wife of a wealthy Bay Area developer who has helped fund many of California's soft-on-crime policies and district attorneys, and billionaire oil heiress Stacy Schusterman, who lives in Oklahoma but has given more than $1 million to relax the Golden State's criminal justice system.

Fundraising committee treasurer Tinisch Hollins, the executive director of the California branch of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, is a prominent activist in the state whom California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) tapped to help "transform" the San Quentin state prison into a rehabilitation center. She also helped lead San Francisco's reparations panel, which recommended the city pay $5 million to each black resident.

Newsom has for years defended the 2014 law and opposed a 2020 ballot effort to revoke it. California Assembly speaker Robert Rivas (D.) last month also came out against the referendum, telling a Bay Area public radio station, "I don't want to go back to the ballot. I don't think we need to repeal" the 2014 law. Rivas told reporters last week that "there's no turning back the clock on criminal justice reforms."

In a nod to public consternation over crime, Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders are trying to pass proposals that Newsom says will "hold professional criminals accountable." The proposals won't, however, restore the penalties undone by the 2014 law—which only California voters can do through a referendum. Law enforcement sees Newsom's push as an ultimately meaningless political show.

"It's unfortunate that state leadership continues to mislead Californians," Riverside County sheriff Chad Bianco, who supports the referendum, told the Washington Free Beacon. "The stunts they are trying to pull with bills acting like they are suddenly tough on crime are a slap on the face to public safety."