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California doesn't need to roll back its criminal justice reforms to do a better job fighting crime

California doesn't need to roll back its criminal justice reforms to do a better job fighting crime
North County Correctional Facility in Castaic. (Los Angeles Times)

In the statute books, California has changed sentencing policies to make them more rational and just, and to ensure that costly prison beds are used for only the most serious criminals. On the ground, though, police and prosecutors have been slow to update their practices, and that has gotten in the way of their ability to fight crime. There are sensible fixes — not rollbacks of landmark sentencing reforms, but new laws that can provide guidance and valuable tools to crime fighters.

One of them deals with shoplifting.

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Like all states, California has a monetary dividing line between grand theft and petty theft. But as the tough-on-crime era took hold in the 1980s, lawmakers stopped adjusting that line for inflation. That meant that as prices rose, thefts that once would have been treated as misdemeanors became felonies, and shoplifters who formerly would have been sent to jail for a few months were instead looking at hard time in state prison.

In 2014, Proposition 47 finally adjusted the $450 limit upward to $950. That may sound like a huge jump, but it merely accounts for 30 years of inflation and is well short of the more generous dividing line used in some fairly conservative states. In Texas, for example, you'd have to steal goods worth $1,500 or more to be charged with a felony. In South Carolina, the line is set at $2,000.

Police, prosecutors and courts that currently don't even bother with misdemeanors in general ought to do so.


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Here in California, though, store owners complain of being hit by a rash of shoplifting. As a result of Proposition 47, some frustrated prosecutors say, thieves tally their booty on calculators to be sure they don't hit the $950 limit in any single trip to the store, then come back the next day for another haul.

But other states have more sophisticated laws that recognize the problem of organized retail theft — crimes orchestrated by gangs that recruit thieves to swipe items worth less than the felony limit, and to do it multiple times. Prosecutors in those states can add up the value of goods stolen by the same thief on different days and from stores in different counties in order to bring felony charges, curb the activity of theft rings and bring relief to store owners. California doesn't currently have such laws.

Truth be told, it may not actually need them, because even under current laws, savvy prosecutors can add up the value of stolen goods in order to bring felony charges. But they don't. A statute directly on point — showing the way for police, prosecutors and judges to bring felony charges in cases of multiple thefts — would help.

Under federal court oversight for prison overcrowding, California lawmakers felt compelled to reject bills that would have increased the number of felons. But criminal justice reform measures changed all that by clearing out inmates who were doing time for simple drug possession or other petty crimes, and by requiring county jails to house inmates convicted of less serious felonies as well as misdemeanors. Prisons are still crowded, but not so much that serial shoplifting can't be charged as the serious crime that it is. A bill to make it easier for prosecutors to tackle organized theft, AB 1065, has moved through the Legislature but needs a final push in the Senate to make it to the governor's desk.

The bill is a far more level-headed, forward-looking approach than a proposed initiative that failed to make the November ballot but has qualified for the 2020 election. That measure would reverse many of the sensible and innovative criminal justice reforms of the last seven years and refill jails and prisons by, among other things, dropping the grand theft limit down to $250, considerably lower than it was even before Proposition 47, and far lower than it is in most other states.

Store owners hurt by shoplifting have been receptive to some of the anti-reform pushback, but like other Californians, they would be better served by better local practices and better laws that respond to real problems, like organized retail theft. Some such thefts currently dismissed by police as misdemeanors can and should be treated as felonies. And, by the way, police, prosecutors and courts that currently don't even bother with misdemeanors in general ought to do so, and lawmakers should pave the way with other carefully crafted laws.

Over the last few years, California has made necessary criminal justice policy changes. What remains undone is the systems change that fleshes out those policies. AB 1065 and other bills like it will help get that change under way.

This piece is the first in a series on criminal justice reform in California.

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