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Proposition 47 changes look certain for vote

The more time passes since the 2014 passage of California’s Proposition 47, the more it’s clear that voters blundered in approving the initiative’s setting an absolute $950 floor value for a theft or burglary to be considered a felony.

This ballot measure deprived judges of the right to decide whether a crime involving less than $950 in merchandise or other goods might also be felonious.

One result has been a cadre of repeat offenders who, time and again, take goods worth less than $950 and then are quickly released by police even when they are caught because many cops and courts disdain spending time on “minor” cases.

That’s one thing that led to repeat assaults on stores by so-called “smash-and-grab” robbers who carefully designed their crimes to involve $949 or less in-store value — per person involved.

These crimes sometimes see long caravans of late-model cars and pickups descend suddenly on stores and malls and depart with the loot almost as quickly.

It does not now matter how often a person is caught among those thieves; each offense is completely separate, unlike many other crimes where repeat offenders often get stronger sentences than first-timers.

That’s why the current circulating initiative seems certain to get a vote in November. Known as the “Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act,” it aims to make possession of fentanyl a felony and allow judges to treat repeat misdemeanor thefts as more serious crimes. 

That ballot will also include a measure making it far more difficult to pass local tax initiatives, among others.

The move to toughen Prop. 47 leaves most of the original initiative intact. It does not change the felony threshold level for most thefts, which is far lower than the bottom limit of felonies in many other states.

When it passed, few foresaw it could spawn a new form of robbery and burglary in California, the smash-and-grab. This gets its name from the manner in which store windows and glass counters are smashed, with items locked inside transparent displays often quickly grabbed, bagged and then quickly sold on the Internet.

The phenomenon has become common enough to convince mayors of many significant cities that they need to band together and promote the proposed new initiative, which passed the 25% mark for needed voter signatures on Jan. 24.

Prop. 47 made most forms of drug possession a misdemeanor, as it did with many thefts. It passed with support from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was then lieutenant governor; Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon; Santa Clara County D.A. Jeff Rosen; several police chiefs who didn’t want to waste their cops’ time on “minor” crimes; the American Civil Liberties Union, Roman Catholic bishops; and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The new effort to toughen it up — even if that increases the state’s prison populace a bit — now includes San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan.

Said Breed, “The challenges…related to fentanyl and organized retail theft require real changes to our state laws.” She added that she seeks to keep what works well in Prop. 47 and only change what does not.

Once this measure qualifies for the ballot — and it has until late June to do that — it will probably prove the most popular item this fall.

As early as 2018, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California noted that Prop. 47 appears linked to some theft increases. That’s important in an era when violent crimes like rape and murder are down, but car burglaries and other forms of property theft are way up. 

Newsom has resisted calls from district attorneys, mayors and police chiefs to modify Prop. 47, as have many voters, as reflected in the 2020 rejection of a previous initiative to alter Prop. 47. But that was before smash-and-grabs started and before the gap between violent crimes against persons and property crimes became wide.

The new realities make it clear some change is needed, but sponsors of the current effort have been careful not to completely gut Prop. 47. 

That combination makes it more likely the new effort will succeed where the past effort did not, in part because it took an indiscriminate wrecking ball to Prop. 47. 

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]. 

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