Despite California’s Prop. 47 Accomplishments Over Decade, Law Finds Itself in Crosshairs of State Leaders

By Olivia Biliunas and Bergen Greenley

SACRAMENTO, CA – Proposition 47, a 2014 CA ballot measure that lowered simple possession of illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor and raised the felony threshold for theft from $400 to $950, may be in trouble with state leaders.

KQED recently released an article highlighting the different views on this legislation, noting Democrats have defended it for years as an important criminal justice reform measure, but now many state leaders, even Democrats, are beginning to push to reverse this law over concerns of public safety and property crimes.

Even though there has been no substantial increase in theft or shoplifting since Prop. 47 passed, according to state data, police are now less likely to arrest someone for stealing, said KQED.

“About 15 percent of theft cases resulted in an arrest in 2013, the year before Prop. 47 passed. In 2022, that number had dropped to 6.6 percent … that means in more than 90 percent of reported cases of theft, no one is ever arrested,” state data obtained by KQED revealed.

KQED notes that in the state and even on the left there is a sense property crimes are out of control with big name retailers locking their doors and viral video footage of thieves ransacking luxury goods, leaving those who support Prop. 47 saying something needs to be done.

Gov. Gavin Newsom states, “It’s become deeply organized. And that’s what we need to go after. And that’s a whole different thing,” KQED reports.

There is at least one ballot measure as of now that will be put before CA voters in 2024 to roll back portions of Prop. 47, and dozens more in the state Legislature. Even the mayors of large liberal cities like San Jose and San Francisco have recently supported the initiative to roll back these portions of the law, according to KQED.

According to KQED, determining whether Prop. 47 has actually changed criminal behavior is difficult to measure but, upon their findings, reported shoplifting has remained stable and arrest rates have gone down, though evidence shows that not all shoplifting events are recorded.

KQED also reports police are arresting low-level shoplifters with less force, but Prop. 47 is being blamed for organized retail rings and flash mobs, and the increased dollar threshold for felony theft shows no evidence of increased theft.

KQED added it is tough to prosecute repeat offenders and that participation in diversion programs or drug courts has declined. The news report positively notes that the state has saved over $800 million by keeping people out of prisons and utilizing that money for high success reentry programs.

Prop. 47’s purpose was to reserve space in jail for those who actually pose a violent threat rather than those guilty of minor drug or theft offenses. The cost savings from this extra space and reduced prison population could then be used for rehabilitation programs. At the time it was passed, violent crime in California was at a 50-year low, and the measure passed easily with 60 percent support, according to KQED.

Lenore Anderson, a ballot measure architect, said, “People should be held accountable. This is not permitted activity. This is a crime. The question is, what level of crime is it?”

KQED adds a controversial part of the ballot is that possession of illegal drugs was lowered from a felony to a misdemeanor and the felony threshold for theft was raised from $400 to $950.

Andersen further notes that for those cycling through the justice system, “Oftentimes there’s underlying addiction issues. There’s extreme economic desperation, there’s extreme instability…whatever the problem is, voters are clear. That’s not who we’re targeting with these precious justice system resources. Let’s put those folks on a pathway to treatment and healing and get them to stop cycling in and out through a different approach.”

Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón notes, “I think it’s important, first of all, just to sort of separate organized retail theft from Prop. 47, because Prop. 47 doesn’t apply to organized retail theft — they are robberies, they are burglaries, they are conspiracies…the reality is that we have a problem. And the problem is primarily driven by organized retail theft. And it has to be addressed.”

KQED reports that with these organized retail offenses, aggression and violence are detailed in eight of 10 reports.

Since Prop. 47 was approved in 2014, reported incidences of shoplifting have not increased—they have actually fallen from 97,000 to 82,000 in 2022, according to the California Department of Justice.

However, these numbers may be going down because of lower reporting rather than lower crime overall, said KQED, noting Rick Chavez Zbur, Chair of the Santa Monica Assembly’s special committee on retail theft, said he has been told by various retailers that they don’t even bother to report thefts to police anymore in most cases. He noted Prop. 47 does allow businesses and police to report thefts of any amount, but they are now just choosing not to do so.

The San Francisco Police Chief said the hands-off approach and the low reporting numbers “fuel some of this brazenness…when there’s apathy and no accountability.”

In an Instagram post, Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig blamed Prop. 47, saying, “This retail theft mob happened at a Nordstrom in California today. Because of broken state laws, these crimes are considered ‘non-serious’ and ‘non-violent’ and nobody will go to state prison, even if caught and convicted. State laws need to be fixed and YES, many people need to go to prison for this type of crime.”

Police on the other hand noted that a security guard was pepper sprayed and $60,000 of merchandise was stolen constituting a felony, according to KQED.

Lanelle Laws, a licensed therapist writes that drug court requires people to “quit cold turkey” and that influences them to go back to prison.

Yolo County DA Reisig answers with a personal story saying, “My own family member is the poster child for the failure of Prop. 47 that not only decriminalized hard drugs but essentially decriminalized many forms of theft,” he said. “I’m not saying that we need to go back to a system where everybody goes to prison for drugs, but this isn’t working with Prop. 47 because there’s no stick anymore.”

The news source wraps up on a positive note, stating that, economically, Prop. 47 is keeping more people out of prisons and jails resulting in money saved which in turn is used for reentry programs.

They highlight a Prop. 47 reentry program success story of David Barclay who states, “Now that I’m able to give back to others, that’s just the ultimate blessing.”

About The Author

Olivia Biliunas is a fourth year student at UC Davis pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and a minor in Professional Writing. With a passion for the field of law she hopes to one day find herself making an impact on other people's lives as a lawyer. In her spare time she loves to go skiing and wakesurfing.

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