Even in deep blue California, a place where Republicans have little power to do much of anything, the state is currently moving to the right on property crime. That’s because the situation has become bad enough that even Democratic voters are sick of it. That discontent has bubbled up to the point that elected officials feel compelled to act. Yesterday Gov. Newsom announced a push for new legislation to crack down on property crime.
Newsom is laying out his priorities at a politically fraught moment for Democrats navigating rising concerns about public safety, exacerbated by highly visible incidents of people making off with merchandise. Elected officials who have backed lighter sentencing in an effort to reduce mass incarceration are looking for ways to address crime without abandoning a yearslong movement away from lengthy prison terms.
Those dynamics have amplified calls to roll back Prop 47, a 2014 ballot measure that reduced drug and property crimes to misdemeanors and drew support from a cross-section of California Democrats, including Newsom. But the Democratic governor is resisting calls to revisit the initiative, instead embracing a mix of new penalties and bills that solidify existing law.
Newsom is asking lawmakers to create new categories of crimes targeting “professional” offenders who have stolen property or burglarized vehicles with the intent to resell them and to enhance penalties for people who resell large amounts of stolen goods. He also wants to clarify existing powers to arrest retail thieves and aggregate separate offenses, making permanent a law allowing charges for organized retail crime.
What California should do is revisit Prop. 47, the 2014 ballot initiative that raised the threshold to treat property crimes as felonies from $400 to $950 but there are some obvious reasons this isn’t happening. First, an effort to undo Prop. 47 (which was known as Prop 20) failed in 2020 and that was seen as a signal that criminal justice reform is something voters in the state are committed to. My own guess is that the 2020 vote was a fluke caused primarily by the death of George Floyd and the surge of concern about criminal justice reform that followed that summer. November 2020 was not the moment to successfully argue we needed to get tougher on crime.
But since then things have changed. Nearly every city that played with defunding the police has come to regret it. Funding has been restored and the whole idea of defunding has become an embarrassment to Democrats. A poll in Feb. 2022 found that a majority of voters in the state had changed their minds on Prop. 47:
Seventy-eight percent of voters surveyed in a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times said that crime has risen statewide over the last year, and 65% said it has increased locally. Most also said they would support changes to Proposition 47, which reduced some theft and drug felonies to misdemeanors as a way to reduce incarceration rates and save the state money.
The ballot measure raised the threshold for the value of goods stolen to trigger a felony from $400 to $950, and reclassified some offenses as misdemeanors. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents said they would support amending Proposition 47 to let certain property crimes be prosecuted again as felonies, while 30% favor leaving the law unchanged.
So the support to change Prop. 47 is there but there’s another problem for Gov. Newsom which is entirely political.
Newsom has consistently stood behind Prop 47. He fought law enforcement’s unsuccessful 2020 ballot initiative to roll back the measure — his current chief of staff helped lead the opposition campaign — has argued law enforcement has ample tools to address crime, and cited studies that did not find the initiative was driving a significant uptick in crime.
Gov. Gavin Newsom would have to admit he was wrong and he doesn’t want to do that. So what we’re getting instead is a workaround proposal, one specifically designed to sidestep elements of Prop. 47 without openly admitting that’s what we’re doing. As a reminder here’s what Prop. 47 did. It “reduced a host of felonies to misdemeanors, including drug crimes, date rape, and all thefts under $950, even for repeat offenders who steal every day.” It also “decriminalized drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, removed law enforcement’s ability to make an arrest in most circumstances, as well as removing judges’ ability to order drug rehabilitation programs rather than incarceration.” You can really see the outlines of many of California’s current problems.
Now, from the Governor’s website, here’s some of his new property crime framework which he is calling on legislators to pass.
1) CRACKING DOWN ON PROFESSIONAL THIEVES: Creates new penalties targeting those engaged in retail theft to resell, and those that resell the stolen property — increasing felony penalties and prison time.
2) INCREASING ENFORCEMENT TOOLS: Bolsters existing law to ensure police can arrest suspects of retail theft, even if they didn’t witness a crime in progress.
3) AGGREGATING THEFT AMOUNTS: Clarifies that the penal code allows law enforcement to combine the value of multiple thefts — even across different victims — to reach the threshold for grand theft.
I’m not actually sure what “professional thieves” means in this context. Many of the people who “boost” merchandise in California cities are homeless. They get a few dollars for each item they steal, enough to buy drugs. Are they professional thieves? They are certainly working for professional thieves but I’m guessing this proposal is mostly aimed at resellers who are working out in the open in cities like San Francisco. They literally just put stolen goods out on blankets around the corner from where they were stolen.
Section 2 is a workaround for the part of Prop. 47 that limited law enforcements ability to make arrests. Section 3 is a direct workaround for the $950 limit set by Prop. 47. Under the new proposal, police can combine the value of multiple thefts to reach the felony threshold. It’s something I guess but this really undermines the idea that Newsom was right to support Prop. 47 in the first place. Not everyone is impressed with the new plan.
Assemblyman Vince Fong who represents Bakersfield and portions of Tulare County said he’s not impressed with the proposals.
In a statement to FOX26, Fong said the following:
“Once again, the governor is a natural at making splashy headlines. These hollow descriptions are nothing more than an attempt to placate the public but lack critical details or a plan of action,” Fong says, “Criminals must be held accountable for their criminal behavior that takes away our sense of safety. These proposals do not go far enough to solve our out-of-control theft crisis.”
I guess we’ll see what happens but the push to revisit Prop. 47 hasn’t ended yet. It’s survival may depend on whether these new proposals get passed and eventually make any difference. We’ll know it has worked when drug stores are able to keep items out in the open again instead of locked up behind plastic. Alternatively, we’ll know it worked when tourists are able to park their cars on the streets of San Francisco without having them broken into by smash and grab thieves. I’ll believe it when I see it.