California is in the midst of a retail theft lollapalooza. The Little Hoover Commission, a state watchdog agency, held the first of several hearings on the subject last month and will meet for a second session Thursday. A bipartisan Assembly select committee (chaired by Democrat Rick Chavez Zbur of Los Angeles) will meet in Sacramento this month and hold a hearing in Los Angeles early next year.
All this official attention to commercial property crime is both encouraging and frightening. Retail theft is a serious problem, not only for store owners who lose merchandise and money to shoplifters and “smash-and-grab” robbers, but for people who Californians no longer feel safe on their streets and spending in stores. They have the right to expect leaders to take the issue seriously.
The problem is that officials often respond to complex challenges with the easiest, simplest, most politically palatable tools in their tool kits, whether they’re addressing the real problem or just responding to those perspective without making actual progress. And in retail theft, that often means promoting — once again — rollbacks of criminal justice reform measures.
Above that is Proposition 47, the landmark initiative adopted by California voters in 2014. The measure changed the state’s dividing line between misdemeanor and felony theft and made possession of illegal drugs for of personal use which is a misdemeanor. It does not change laws involving robbery, burglary or crimes of violence.
In deep blue California, the hottest rhetoric directed against smart-on-crime laws may come from the political right, but the real threat often comes from Democrats, especially those who represent the regions outside of Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In 2020, Jim Cooper — then a member of the Assembly representing a part of Sacramento — was one of the main proponents of Proposition 20, an initiative to roll back most of Proposition 47 based on false arguments. Voters rejected it, and in the years since, legislative leaders have wisely rejected other irresponsible rollbacks.
Now the leadership has changed. New Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) appointed Kevin McCarty – who is running for mayor of Sacramento – to replace Reggie Jones-Sawyer as chair of the Public Safety Committee (Jones-Sawyer is running for Los Angeles City Council).
As Californians grow weary of retail crime, McCarty can read the room. “Everything is on the table,” he said, including Proposition 47. “We’re missing some accountability,” he said, for thieves who repeatedly steal items that fall under the $950 felony- misdemeanor threshold.
Other studies have suggested a continuing link between Proposition 47 and increased thefts from motor vehicles, particularly from unlocked vehicles where owners leave personal items in plain sight. that view. But the same studies belie the broader evils often attributed to the reform by critics. Of course Proposition 47 is not to blame for smash-and-grab robberies. It has nothing to do with robbery.
Re-airing the debunked but popular complaints about criminal justice reforms could, in theory, produce some data that was not present in previous examinations, however unlikely. Often, such exercises have less to do with facts, good policy or true public safety, and more to do with political calculation.
So as California lawmakers hold hearings and propose legislation in 2024 — the 10th anniversary of Proposition 47, the 30th anniversary of the disastrous three-strikes law, and an urgent important election year — let’s keep a few things in mind:
Reports of looting and other symptoms of social breakdown are all over the country, including in states that lack Proposition 47-type reforms. The same is true of chain store closings. California’s dividing line between misdemeanor and felony theft, contrary to the common refrain of anti-Proposition 47 activists, is actually lower, not higher, than in most other states.
The type of shoplifting covered by Proposition 47 is low; the robberies that are not covered by Proposition 47 are already there. State lawmakers have passed laws that give police officers new tools to crack down on repeat theft offenders — even if they have the ability to do so.
Given these facts, factors other than criminal justice reform are likely behind the rise in retail theft. Committees and commissions should do their best to find out the real reasons, no matter how complicated or unpleasant. If Proposition 47 is found to be one of the reasons for the increase in retail theft, then we need to address the problem. Otherwise, as studies have repeatedly shown, we accept the facts – again – and move on.