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Poll: California voters want to reinstate tougher penalties for some crimes, change Prop. 47

A woman brooms up broken glass outside her clothing boutique in Burbank
Amy Jordan sweeps broken glass Dec. 3 outside her Burbank boutique Slone Vintage, which was damaged by burglars.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Amid a recent uptick in some criminal activity, the majority of California voters in a new statewide poll reported concern over state crime rates and said they would support reinstating penalties for certain thefts that a 2014 ballot measure reduced.

Seventy-eight percent of voters surveyed in a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times said that crime has risen statewide over the last year, and 65% said it has increased locally. Most also said they would support changes to Proposition 47, which reduced some theft and drug felonies to misdemeanors as a way to reduce incarceration rates and save the state money.

The ballot measure raised the threshold for the value of goods stolen to trigger a felony from $400 to $950, and reclassified some offenses as misdemeanors. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents said they would support amending Proposition 47 to let certain property crimes be prosecuted again as felonies, while 30% favor leaving the law unchanged.

The numbers follow a flurry of recent “smash-and-grab” robberies and rail thefts that critics of Proposition 47 say is evidence that brazen criminal activity is rampant in California and too few are being held accountable. Property and violent crime rates did increase in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco in 2021, though roughly to pre-pandemic levels, according to preliminary data analyzed by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

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Still, voters across the political spectrum support changing the law. According to the poll, 88% of “strongly conservative” voters said they want to amend Proposition 47, while 64% of “moderate” voters and 41% of “somewhat liberal” voters said the same. Those who identify as “strongly liberal” voters largely support Proposition 47, with 67% saying they’d rather keep it as is.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said crime is one of the issues of which California voters are “most critical.”

“It’s not just an issue where conservatives and Republicans are chiming in,” DiCamillo said.

DiCamillo said that as voters worry less about COVID-19, their attention leading up to the November election will turn to traditional issues such as crime in their communities, a trend that could benefit Republicans.

Concerns about rising crime and the homelessness crisis emerged as the top issues driving voter dissatisfaction with Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“It’s an issue that has favored the Republicans traditionally, and I think the Democrats will likely be on the defensive,” he said.

Legislators in both political parties, however, have already introduced a handful of bills to modify Proposition 47, including one that would lower the value of goods stolen back down to $400 to qualify a theft as a felony. Another proposal would allow prosecutors to pursue charges where stolen goods are recovered, even if the theft did not occur in that jurisdiction, and a third would repeal Proposition 47.

A proposed ballot measure would similarly permit prosecutors to pursue charges across jurisdictional lines and add sentence enhancements for significant property loss. It would also allow prosecutors to charge those with two or more prior theft convictions with a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

In December, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed $300 million in grants for law enforcement to prevent and prosecute organized retail theft rings. He traveled to Los Angeles the following month to help clean up debris scattered along railroad tracks where cargo cars had been ransacked.

Fifty-one percent of voters surveyed in the Berkeley IGS poll said they disapproved of Newsom’s handling of crime and public safety, an increase of 16 percentage points since September 2020.

Lenore Anderson, president of Alliance for Safety and Justice, said that fear over crime and violence have increased nationally, not just in the Golden State. Although some concern is legitimate, Anderson said, much of it is political.

“There is also active effort on the part of people who oppose criminal justice reform to push a narrative that these crime shifts are related to criminal justice reform,” Anderson said, adding that such messaging increases during election years.

Anderson also said that Proposition 47 helps reallocate funds into programs that “advance public safety without growing mass incarceration.”

But Anne Hyde-Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, which led the unsuccessful effort to recall Newsom last fall, said that the timing “couldn’t be better” for California to start strengthening criminal justice policies. She noted that the organization is now working with victims’ groups to get the proposed initiative on the November ballot.

“Every candidate, — Democrat, independent, Republican, — every candidate has to be tough on crime,” she said. “It is the top issue in the state.”

The UC Berkeley IGS poll was conducted online in English and Spanish between Feb. 3 and 10. The estimated margin of error for the full sample of 8,937 voters used to evaluate Newsom’s job performance is plus or minus 2 percentage points. For a smaller sample of 4,460 voters used in questions related to crime, the estimated margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.


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