In November 2020, Californians will vote to either keep changes they made to their criminal justice system in 2014, or undo some of them.
Five years have passed, in which Californians have seen the negative impacts of Proposition 47, says California Police Chiefs Association President Ronald Lawrence. Among those negative impacts, he said, is the rise of marauding bands of shoplifters terrorizing stores across the state.
He is confident that, although 60 percent of Californians voted “yes” on Proposition 47 in 2014, a majority of Californians will vote to reverse it this year.
One of the effects of Proposition 47 was to make the theft of goods worth $950 or less a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Criminals involved in organized retail theft roam from store to store and city to city, never exceeding the $950 limit in any one place, said Lawrence.
There have even been rumors of these thieves carrying calculators with them into the stores and adding up the prices of the items they take to stay under $950. They know they will only get a ticket for a misdemeanor even if they’ve raided multiple businesses, Lawrence said.
“They will go in in packs or groups. They’ll storm a store, take stuff quickly, and leave,” Lawrence said.
“They will go up and down Interstate 80, for example,” he said. They hit multiple cities along the way. “These are not just your local crooks. They are organized crooks taking advantage of a weakened criminal justice system and weaker laws in California.”
Many stores won’t confront these shoplifters, even in cases where they are so brazen as to openly shove merchandise into bags, smile at the camera or cashier, and head out the door. Videos posted on YouTube show such cases.
“This is true. It’s not true of all of them, but it is true of some,” Lawrence said. “Some stores have policies that prohibit their employees from intervening.”
Part of the reason for such policies, he explained, is to avoid liability if a fight ensues and someone is injured. But part of the reason is also that there is practically no consequence anyway if the thief is caught.
“I will tell you firsthand I know there are stores that have given up and stopped calling,” Lawrence said. “Stores that get ripped off all the time certainly give up.”
From 2009 to 2014, businesses in California reported a steady rate of shoplifting incidents, according to the Independent Institute’s analysis of justice department data. Then in 2015, reported shoplifting incidents increased about 11 percent. However, it’s difficult to assess the real number of incidents, because many go unreported.
The National Retail Federation found in 2018 that more than half of the states that have laws similar to Proposition 47 saw an increase in retail theft. “None reported a decrease. It appears that … criminals understand the new threshold and have increased their thefts to meet it,” according to the survey.
Proposition 47 was intended to keep nonviolent criminals out of state prison by downgrading some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, thus saving money on housing inmates.
That saved money would go into a fund to support schools as well as rehabilitation programs, including providing offenders with counselors, therapy, housing, and job opportunities. So Proposition 47 was called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.
In June 2019, the Board of State and Community Corrections announced it had awarded $96 million saved by Proposition 47 to rehabilitation programs. It was the second round of Proposition 47 funding; the first came in 2017, awarding $103 million to such programs.
But Lawrence and many other law enforcement officials say these programs are not an effective replacement for the power, which Proposition 47 took away, to enforce stronger consequences for crimes.
Law Enforcement Calls for Change
The initiative to counter Proposition 47—called Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2020—has made it onto the November 2020 ballot. Lawrence’s CPCA, representing 332 police chiefs across the state, is one of the groups supporting it.
It’s not only organized shoplifting rings that have become a problem after Proposition 47, said Lawrence. It’s also about making theft easier for drug addicts as a way to fund their habits. And it takes away law enforcement’s ability to arrest drug users for possession, which used to be a path for rehabilitation.
After Proposition 47, Lawrence said, “There was no more drug court, and there was no more ability to put them on probation and get them into mandatory drug rehab. So now, when we find somebody in possession of opioids, methamphetamines, cocaine, or ecstasy—name your drug—because it’s a misdemeanor, they get a citation. They get a ticket.”
National Association of Drug Court Professionals warned in 2014 that “Proposition 47 provides for virtually no accountability, supervision or treatment for addicted offenders. … Proposition 47 turns a blind eye to over two decades of research and practice that demonstrates addicted offenders need structure and accountability in addition to treatment to become sober.”
Law enforcement groups led a similar initiative against Proposition 47 in 2018, but it didn’t make it onto the ballot. “Not enough signatures were turned in by the deadline. I’m not sure how that happened. We had enough signatures, but they weren’t turned in by the time they needed to be turned in,” Lawrence said.
But he thinks the two-year delay has only drawn more support for the initiative. “The truth of the matter is I think now being on the 2020 ballot works in our favor because our citizens are frustrated, our retailers are frustrated, and come [November] 2020 I think that our ballot measure has a pretty good chance of winning,” he said.
More Californians have had time to see the effects of Proposition 47, Lawrence said, including increased drug addiction, homelessness, shoplifting, and car burglaries.
Rise in Crime
Before Proposition 47 was enacted in 2014, smash-and-grab burglaries had been on the decline for several years in California, according to the Independent Institute. In 2015, they jumped 15 percent over the previous year.
In 2017, there was a record number of car burglaries in San Francisco—about 30,000, representing a 24 percent increase over the previous year.
For victims, Lawrence said, it can be traumatic to have thieves breaking into their cars or homes, rummaging through their personal belongings, and stealing their computers, TVs, or golf clubs. “If you’re the victim of one of these crimes, it’s very invasive. It feels dirty,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate reality that we’re faced with here in California.”
“Since 2014, California has had a larger increase in violent crime than the rest of the United States. Since 2013, violent crime in Los Angeles has increased 69.5 percent,” according to the official proposal for legislative changes.
It’s hard to tell precisely how much Proposition 47 is directly responsible for these spikes, since many factors can influence a rise in crime. For example, Lawrence said, “The opioid crisis certainly has fed into the rise in theft crimes.” But it’s a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, because he feels Proposition 47 has also fed the drug crisis.
The 2020 ballot initiative aims to rollback not only Proposition 47, but also aspects of 2011’s AB 109 and 2016’s Proposition 57.
AB 109 shifted the responsibility for certain types of offenders away from the state, making counties responsible for jailing them or monitoring their parole. Lawrence said this has overloaded the county system and led to the release of criminals because there’s simply no room for them in the jails.
Proposition 57 increased the chances of parole and early release of felons convicted of crimes defined as non-violent.
Former Governor Jerry Brown vehemently opposed both the 2018 and 2020 calls for rollbacks to these laws.
“Read the fine print,” Brown wrote on Twitter in 2018. “This flawed initiative would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and endanger public safety by restricting parole and undermining inmate rehabilitation.”
The parole restrictions he mentioned were related to the ballot initiative’s call for parole review boards to consider additional factors—including a felon’s age, attitude about the crime, and mental condition—before deciding to release a prisoner on parole after he or she has completed the maximum sentence. It would also redefine some crimes as “violent,” thus excluding them from the parole review program.
Brown launched a taxpayer-funded lawsuit to keep the initiative off the ballot in 2020, but lost the case in court.
What the 2020 Initiative Could Change
The 2020 intiative’s reforms include changes to the parole system with the aim of stopping the early release of violent felons, expanding parolee oversight, and strengthening penalties for parole violations.
It would reclassify currently “non-violent” crimes—including rape of an unconscious person, sex trafficking of a child, and 14 other crimes—as “violent” to prevent the early release of inmates convicted of these crimes.
It would expand the collection of DNA from criminals for the state database.
It would reform theft laws to try tackling the problem of serial thieves and organized theft gangs. For example, after a third misdemeanor theft, the threshold for felony would be lowered to $200. And the crime would be a “wobbler”; wobblers are crimes that can be charged either as a misdemeanor, or as a felony for repeat offenders.
Those For and Against
Aside from the CPCA, groups that opposed Prop. 47 in 2014 included the California Republican Party, California State Sheriffs Association, California District Attorneys Association, California Peace Officers Association, California Correctional Supervisors Association, National Association of Drug Court Professionals, Crime Victims United, and the California Retailers Association.
Proponents of Prop. 47 included the California Democratic Party, American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Open Society Policy Center, American Federation of State, and many labor unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association.
U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich broke party lines on the issue.
Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a businessman and early supporter of Proposition 47, co-wrote an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times Sept. 16, 2014. “Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue in California. The state imprisons five times as many people as it did 50 years ago (when crime rates were similar). And as Californians know, the state’s prison system ballooned over the last few decades and became so crowded that federal judges have mandated significant reductions.”
Feinstein opposed Proposition 47, writing in an editorial published by the Daily News, “This would mean shorter prison sentences for serious crimes like stealing firearms, identity theft, and possessing dangerous narcotics such as cocaine and date-rape drugs. … The crimes that would be reclassified from a felony to a misdemeanor are not minor crimes.”