California voters will decide an anti-crime measure in November; Democrats say this one is better   

California News Filler

By Nigel Duara 
CalMatters Writer 

Democratic legislative leaders Sunday night unveiled a ballot measure they say will reduce retail theft and punish drug suppliers who sell fentanyl-tainted products to unwitting consumers. 

It’s designed as an alternative to a measure already on the November ballot that would increase punishments and roll back Proposition 47, which voters approved in 2014 and which reduced certain property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, provided that the stolen goods aren’t worth more than $950. 

In a joint statement, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Senate Democratic leader Mike McGuire of Santa Rosa and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas of Salinas said the measure (Senate Bill 1381) will improve public safety without returning to mass incarceration. 

“This balanced approach cracks down on crime and protects our communities — without reverting to ineffective and costly policies of the past,” Newsom said in the statement.     

McGuire said the proposal “will crack down on retail theft and hold offenders accountable for hardcore drug crimes, without enacting the draconian policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s that devastated communities of color and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.” 

And Rivas said the measure “will deliver real results that we can afford. We listened to Californians and are giving them a better choice.”   

But Democrats’ efforts have already drawn scorn from Republican legislators, who called the second ballot measure a “shady” attempt to confuse voters. Assembly GOP leader James Gallagher of Chico called it a “Deep Fake reform initiative” in a social media post, while Senate leader Brian Jones of San Diego called the bill “a blatant attempt to undermine the will of the people.” 

In a memo, the campaign for the Prop. 47 repeal said the Democrats’ proposal “is a weak attempt to appear to address the public safety crisis California is facing. In fact, this proposal utterly fails to make meaningful changes.” 

A group of police unions sent a letter urging legislators to vote against the new bill, arguing it doesn’t include harsh enough penalties for shoplifting and fentanyl trafficking. “Our law enforcement organizations are strongly opposed to the ongoing political games involved in this latest attempt to improperly influence and defeat a citizens initiative,” said the letter signed by 22 police unions.  

Dan Dow, district attorney in San Luis Obispo County, called the Democrats’ move “outrageous.”  

“They had an opportunity to stand in solidarity with Californians across the state. Instead, they fought us at every turn,” he added. “Now they are continuing to do their best to manipulate voters instead.”   

Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders had said that Prop. 47 didn’t need to be changed. They tried to persuade the Prop. 47 repeal proponents to withdraw their measure by proposing a package of retail theft bills — and later adding amendments to kill these bills if they are signed into law and if voters approved the repeal measure. 

That strategy appeared to fail, leading to this alternative measure instead. Even some Democrats rebelled. And late Saturday, Democrats removed those “poison pill” amendments from the bills. 

The competing measure, supported by Newsom, calls for a new felony for drug dealers who sell drugs that contain fentanyl without informing the purchaser, advising a sentence of four to six years in jail. The proposal would also mandate that judges advise people who are convicted of fentanyl trafficking that they can be charged with homicide if someone dies from consuming the drugs.  

The measure would also change how authorities aggregate the value of stolen property. Under Prop. 47, the thefts have to have been “motivated by one intention, one general impulse, and one plan.” Under the new proposal put forward by Democrats, police can aggregate all goods stolen within three years — if it adds up to more than $950, it can be charged as grand theft, a felony.  

The bill also permits district attorneys to charge people with a felony if they have two or more shoplifting or theft convictions within the prior three years. It is authored by Sen. Aisha Wahab, a Fremont Democrat who is chairperson of the Senate public safety committee, and Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur, a Los Angeles Democrat who led a select committee on retail theft. 

The Assembly and Senate are scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday evening. To improve the chances of passage, the bill also calls a special election on Nov. 5, so it only requires a simple majority, not a two-thirds vote, for approval. 

And if it’s approved and signed by Newsom, another bill unveiled Sunday evening would specify that this new measure would appear first on the Nov. 5 ballot as Proposition 2. (Prop. 1 was Newsom’s mental health measure that narrowly passed in March.)   

The original Prop. 47 rollback would allow district attorneys to charge people with a felony on a third offense for drug possession, or for thefts of less than $950. It would also allow for harsher penalties for people who traffic fentanyl that leads to someone’s death.  

It would also create a “treatment-mandated felony” that would permit people convicted of multiple drug possession crimes the option of participating in drug and mental health treatment instead of being incarcerated.  

It could also end up costing the prison system hundreds of millions of dollars a year to house more people.  

With backing from law enforcement groups and major retailers, including Walmart and Home Depot, the measure officially qualified for the ballot earlier this month. It has already peeled off at least one swing-district Democrat, state Sen. Dave Min of Irvine, who is seeking to succeed Rep. Katie Porter in Congress.  

If voters approve multiple measures that conflict with each other, which would be the case if both crime measures pass, the one that receives more “yes” votes is the one that goes into effect. 

Prop. 47 made some simple drug possession charges into misdemeanors, and allowed people who were convicted of felonies on those charges before 2014 to have them reclassified to misdemeanors.  

That shakeup of the criminal justice system has had measurable impacts: A February report from the Board of State and Community Corrections found that the state saved $93 million between 2019 and 2023 by diverting more than 21,000 people from jail or prison and providing them substance abuse and mental health treatment instead.  

According to the study, those 21,000 people had a recidivism rate of 15.3%, far lower than the statewide rate of about 40%.  

But nearly since its inception, Prop. 47 has faced opposition from Republicans and some conservative Democrats — opposition that coalesced during the pandemic, when property crime in California became if not more common, then at least more attention-getting: Videos of flash mobs running through retail stores grabbing whatever they could circulated on social media. State statistics show the shoplifting rate dropped during the pandemic, then rebounded in 2022 but was still about 8% lower than pre-pandemic shoplifting rate. 

The administration tried to respond. Newsom created an Organized Retail Crime Task Force, staffed by the California Highway Patrol. And at least one proposal in 2022 by a Democrat would have reduced the threshold for felony theft and shoplifting from $950 to $400, but that bill died in committee.   

In the meantime, district attorneys across the state have complained that Prop. 47’s changes have had unintended consequences. For instance, participation in drug courts has dropped precipitously, and district attorneys blame Prop. 47’s lower penalties for simple drug possession. 

Republicans have successfully pushed through the occasional tough-on-crime measure, highlighted last year by Sen. Shannon Grove’s push to reclassify human trafficking of a minor for purposes of a commercial sex act as a “serious felony,” which would be treated as a strike under California’s “three strikes” law.  

But none would compare to the scale of the ballot measure to roll back Prop. 47. 

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