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Endorsement: No on Proposition 20. Don’t let police unions roll back justice reforms

An undated photo from the California corrections department shows inmates crowded at the state prison in Lancaster.
An undated photo from the California corrections department shows inmates in crowded conditions at the state prison in Lancaster.
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Proposition 20 is built on a package of falsehoods about critical reforms that California lawmakers and voters wisely adopted over the last nine years to curb some of the most gratuitous excesses of the state’s criminal justice system. The measure deserves a resounding “no.” This state is leading the nation away from decades of foolish and wasteful policies that prevent even low-level offenders from correcting their mistakes and getting on with productive and law-abiding lives. This is no time to reverse course.

Under Proposition 20, some opportunities to apply for parole — currently granted to some prison inmates after they complete rehabilitation programs — would be revoked. Those inmates would no longer have incentives to complete rehabilitation programs in the hope of parole.

The threshold that separates petty theft, a misdemeanor, from grand theft, a felony, would be drastically (and pointlessly) lowered for some offenders to as little as $250, from the current $950.

People convicted of some misdemeanors — petty theft, and possession of small amounts of drugs — would be treated like felons in that their DNA would go forever into a state databank that is meant to catch killers and rapists.

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And for what purpose? The measure’s backers, chiefly police unions, present no evidence that these moves would make anyone safer or reduce recidivism.

What they do present is a continuing line of nonsense about three key reforms: AB 109 “realignment,” which shifted responsibility for the jailing and probation of lower-level felons from the state to counties; Proposition 47, which adjusted the line between petty theft and grand theft and made simple drug possession a misdemeanor; and Proposition 57, which allowed prison inmates to apply for early parole under certain conditions.

The disingenuous arguments date back to 2011, when AB 109 was signed into law. Police complained that the state didn’t give them enough money to deal with their new responsibilities — which was strange, because AB 109 didn’t give police any new responsibilities.

Later, there were complaints about “109ers” — violent criminals released from prison early because of AB 109 — going on to commit horrific killings. That allegation was strange too, because in fact AB 109 didn’t let anyone out of prison, early or otherwise. The most notorious version of this specious claim was the brief gubernatorial campaign of former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who presented a roster of killers who he said were able to commit their crimes because of AB 109.

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Of course it was all fake. None of those killers was at liberty because of AB 109 or any other reform, but because they had completed their sentences — mostly, by the way, in pre-reform state prisons that were so crowded and so bereft of rehabilitation programs and medical and mental healthcare that a federal judge called them breeding grounds for criminal behavior.

Police and other critics continued to blame other high-profile crimes on criminal justice reforms, but a series of studies — including one that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appears to have instigated to blame reforms for the killing of a Whittier police officer — found no connection between the reforms and violent crime, although they did cite a possible link to an uptick in vehicle break-ins in some cities.

Proposition 20 is built in part on these false claims and in part on the latest assertion — that shoplifters are spurred on by California’s $950 line separating petty from grand theft, adopted as part of Proposition 47.

But failure to adjust the previous threshold upward (for inflation) over the years had incentivized county prosecutors to charge an ever-greater swath of low-level thieves with felonies and send them off to increasingly crowded prisons, at state expense, rather than keep them in jail on the county tab. The threshold is higher even in tough-on-crime states like Texas, where it is $1,500, and South Carolina, where it’s $2,500.

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Contrary to the claims by Proposition 20 proponents, nothing prevents police in California from arresting a suspected shoplifter for taking items worth less than $950. Some officers are instructed by their chiefs not to bother, because the paperwork isn’t worth their time, but that’s a problem with law enforcement, not with the law.

Proposition 20 would lower the felony threshold to $250 for some repeat offenders. That’s extreme — and also unnecessary because the state already has laws to charge serial offenders with felonies.

Proposition 20 would be an untimely and ill-considered step backward for California. Voters can instead move their state forward by voting “no.”


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