California voters may get chance to upgrade charges for some crimes

<span>Incarcerated people use the yard to exercise in San Quentin state prison in California on 26 July 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Felix Uribe Jr/The Guardian</span>
Incarcerated people use the yard to exercise in San Quentin state prison in California on 26 July 2023.Photograph: Felix Uribe Jr/The Guardian

California voters could have the chance to undo certain provisions of Proposition 47, the progressive 2014 ballot measure that changed some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in an effort to reduce crowding in state prisons.

The California secretary of state confirmed on Tuesday that organizers have collected enough signatures to put a proposal to reform the measure on the ballot on 5 November.

Prop 47 was backed by 60% of California voters a decade ago, and reduced penalties for certain non-violent and low-level offenses. At the time it passed, the state’s prisons were overcrowded – just three years earlier, the supreme court had ordered California to reduce its prison population.

The measure helped decrease the number of people in state prisons by 9% within a year of its passage as fewer people were incarcerated and more people were released early. And it saved the state millions of dollars spent on incarcerating people, while shifting funding to grants for mental health, substance abuse and education programs and significantly reducing recidivism.

But as public safety has become a major concern across the state in recent years, with cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles struggling to cope with growing homelessness and addiction crises and property crime and violent crimes increasing during and after the pandemic, critics of the proposition have increasingly argued that it has contributed to “brazen” retail theft.

They have put forward a new ballot proposal that would again increase criminal penalties for shoplifting and some drug crimes. The proposal would allow felony charges for people in possession of drugs such as fentanyl as well as for thefts under $950, for people who have two prior drug or theft convictions respectively. Both crimes currently can only be charged as misdemeanors, according to a statement from the California secretary of state’s office. It also would create a new drug-court treatment program for people who have multiple drug-possession convictions.

Supporters of the effort to reform the proposition include law enforcement, business groups and some elected officials.

“The Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction act will make targeted but impactful changes to our laws around fentanyl and help us tackle the chronic retail theft that hurts our retailers, our workers and our cities,” London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, has said of the effort.

Viral videos of smash-and-grab robberies have fueled concerns about crime across the state, as well as announcements from major retailers that they would close stores because of rising theft. But state data published by KQED revealed there was not a significant rise in shoplifting and overall theft since Prop 47 passed, but rather that arrest rates had fallen.

Opponents of the changes have argued that the new measure will do little to meaningfully tackle crime and instead bring back failed strategies, increase costs and again cause the state’s incarceration rates to rise.

“We must invest in smart solutions that prevent retail theft and promote long-term public safety, not the same failed strategies that exploded our prison populations and cost taxpayers billions without making our communities safer,” Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California, said in a statement earlier this year.

According to a state analyst, the measure could cause a rise in the state prison population that could increase costs to the state by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Criticism of the reform effort has been particularly sharp when it comes to its components that are meant to address the intertwined crises of addiction and homelessness. Reform supporters have argued the measure could reduce homelessness by getting people who are experiencing addiction into treatment. But experts have been skeptical of that claim, CalMatters has reported, given that the measure includes no fresh funding for emergency shelters, treatment beds or housing.

Some officials, including the California governor, have expressed opposition to the ballot measure to reform Prop 47 and have instead sought to address crime through legislation. Democrats in the legislature have moved ahead with a package of 14 bills aimed at tackling retail theft, and plan to amend some of them so they will not go into effect if the ballot measure passes.

“Our package was never intended to be stacked on top of a Prop 47 reform … This is not a poison pill, this is good governance,” the Democratic lawmaker Rick Chavez Zbur said, referring to the proposed package amendments, according to CalMatters.

The Associated Press contributed