Retail theft proving troublesome for California lawmakers looking to stay progressive

Mar 23, 2024, 6:00 PM

California Governor Gavin Newsom attends an event with fellow governors in the East Room of the Whi...

California Governor Gavin Newsom attends an event with fellow governors in the East Room of the White House on February 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris all addressed the state and territory leaders who are in Washington for the annual National Governors Association Winter Meeting. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Facing mounting pressure to crack down on a retail theft crisis, California lawmakers are split on how best to tackle the problem that some say has caused major store closures and products like deodorants to be locked behind plexiglass.

Top Democratic leaders have already ruled out reforming progressive policies like Proposition 47, a ballot measure approved by 60% of state voters in 2014 that reduced certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors to address overcrowding jails. But a growing number of law enforcement officials, along with Republican and moderate Democratic lawmakers, said California needs to consider all options, including rolling back the measure.

While shoplifting has been a growing problem, large-scale thefts, in which groups of individuals brazenly rush into stores and take goods in plain sight, have become a crisis in California and elsewhere in recent years. California Retailers Association said it’s challenging to quantify the issue in California because many stores don’t share their data.

Urban areas and big cities like Bay Area and Los Angeles saw a steady increase in shoplifting between 2021 and 2022, according to a study of the latest crime data by The Public Policy Institute of California. Across the state, shoplifting rates rose during the same time period but were still lower than the pre-pandemic levels in 2019, while commercial burglaries and robberies have become more prevalent in urban counties, the study says.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, a champion of Proposition 47 who has repeatedly argued California already has tools to sufficiently go after criminals, rejected calls to reform the measure in January. He instead urged lawmakers to bolster existing laws and go after motor vehicle thefts and resellers of stolen merchandise. California also is spending $267 million to help dozens of local law enforcement agencies increase patrols, buy surveillance equipment and conduct other activities to crack down on retail theft.

“Not to say everything about Prop. 47 is hunky-dory and perfect,” Newsom said in January. “We want to help fix some of the ambiguities there, but we could do it without reforming or going back to the voters.”

California voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014 to help California comply with a 2011 California Supreme Court order, which upheld that California’s overcrowded prisons violated incarcerated individuals’ Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The proposition modified, but did not eliminate, sentencing for many drug and nonviolent property crimes, including thefts under $950.

Funding saved from having fewer people in jails and prisons, which totals to $113 million this fiscal year, have gone to local programs to fight recidivism with some successes, state officials and advocates said. But the proposition has made it harder to prosecute shoplifters and enabled brazen crime rings, law enforcement officials said. An effort to reform the measure failed in 2020.

Following Newsom’s directions, Democratic leaders in both chambers at the Capitol also have shut down calls to repeal the measure. Last month, the state’s new Senate President Pro Tempore Mike McGuire, with bipartisan support, introduced a package of legislation that would target auto thefts and large-scale resell schemes and expand diversion programs such as drug courts and treatment services. Online marketplaces also would be required to crack down on users reselling stolen goods on their platforms under the proposal.

“I do not believe that this state needs to touch Prop. 47 to be able to help make our communities safer, full stop,” McGuire said during a news conference.

Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, who has said he also doesn’t want to repeal Proposition 47, co-authored similar legislation taking aim at repeat thieves and online resellers. It would allow law enforcement to “stack” the value of goods stolen from different victims to impose harsher penalties and arrest people for shoplifting using video footage or witness statements. The measure also would mandate online sellers to maintain records proving the merchandise wasn’t stolen and require some retail businesses to report stolen goods data.

But some Democratic lawmakers said those efforts won’t be enough to make a difference. Assemblymember James Ramos, who authored bipartisan legislation to increase penalties for repeat shoplifters, said many lawmakers want to see “the pendulum swing back to the middle.” The bill would require voters’ approval.

“Prop. 47 needs to have some type of resetting,” Ramos said. “We have the opportunity now to start that dialogue.”

Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said he also is exploring options, including putting something on the ballot.

“Everything is on the table,” McCarty said.

Meanwhile, major retail groups and the California District Attorney Association, along with Democratic mayors of San Francisco and San Jose, have thrown their support behind a ballot initiative to stiffen penalties for repeat thieves, among other things. The groups are still collecting signatures to qualify for the November ballot before the April deadline.

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Retail theft proving troublesome for California lawmakers looking to stay progressive