Editorial: Blame it on Prop 47: The latest chapter in an endless work of fiction about crime
Three bills to roll back or outright repeal Proposition 47 come before a key Assembly committee Tuesday. We’ve been here before, and it’s getting old.
Proposition 47 is the smart ballot measure adopted by Californians by a wide margin in 2014 to adjust how we deal with lower-level crimes such as drug possession and petty theft. Having just enough drugs for personal use or stealing things worth less than $950 are no longer felonies but are still crimes. As misdemeanors, they can be prosecuted and punished with six months to a year in jail, fines or both, despite ridiculous claims by opponents that we’ve “decriminalized” crime and that there are no longer any consequences for shoplifting or worse offenses.
Still, terms for these possession and small property crimes are now generally shorter and less costly to the public than when they could be charged as felonies, and the resulting half-billion dollars (so far) in savings has been invested in health, behavioral and education programs that lift petty offenders out of the criminal cycle and into more responsible and healthy lives. The results have been good. Recidivism for people committing those crimes is down.
That doesn’t sit well with prosecutors who still measure their success by the length of prison terms, or politicians who use crime panics to scare up votes. Republicans especially, but some Democrats too, have blamed a host of violent offenses on Proposition 47, even though the measure has nothing to do with such crimes.
Debunked tropes about California’s justice reforms supposedly causing crime keep coming up. They were false when crime was dropping, and they’re just as false now.
So, for example, several years ago Los Angeles County supervisors created a commission that spent many months and hundreds of thousands of public dollars seeking a nonexistent link between the measure and the 2017 murder of a Whittier police officer. The panel disbanded without finding a connection, because there wasn’t one.
More false blather gave us Proposition 20, a back-to-the-90s ballot measure to reinstate a host of pointless but costly sentencing excesses. Enough voters were misled into signing petitions to get it on the 2020 ballot, but by election day most saw through the nonsense and defeated it by an even greater margin than Proposition 47’s passage.
The latest tactic is to somehow tie Proposition 47 to the smash-and-grab thefts that plagued several high-end retail stores from San Francisco to Beverly Hills during the holiday season last year.
The claim is absurd. Obviously. The whole reason the crimes were news is that the thieves took jewelry, designer handbags and other luxury goods worth well in excess of Proposition 47’s modest $950 limits, and besides, the perpetrators had guns, hammers and other tools and weapons they used in order to take the items by force or fear. These were armed robberies, and the suspects in many, if not most of them, were caught and appropriately charged with felonies. Proposition 47 wasn’t involved in the least, as the authors of the three dumb-on-crime bills know perfectly well.
They also know that California’s $950 dividing line between petty theft (misdemeanor) and grand theft (felony) is one of the lowest among states, although they want you to believe the opposite. In 38 states you’d have to steal something worth at least $1,000 to be charged with a felony. In tough-on-crime Texas and South Carolina, it’s $2,500. Yet two of the bills in the Public Safety Committee this week would drive California’s felony threshold back down to $400, where it was in the 1980s, so we can once again send more petty thieves and drug addicts to state prison for more years and give up the savings that fund the programs that actually reduce recidivism.
The conversation about bail reform should be about the role of money but instead keeps zeroing in on crime. Anti-reformers seem to like the confusion.
The Make America Scared Again crowd must also know how preposterous their claim is that Proposition 47 has somehow “emboldened” crooks to commit all manner of crimes. They can’t honestly believe the tragic increase in gun homicides and aggravated assaults is a delayed nationwide response to California adjusting the misdemeanor-felony threshold for shoplifting in 2014.
We can only assume the authors of these disingenuous bills — Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) and Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) — are motivated by political gain. Jumping on the Dump-Proposition-47 bandwagon might, for example, help Kiley and Salas woo conservative voters in their current bids for congress. The only honest response of the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Tuesday would be to shut their bills down and close this latest chapter of anti-47 fiction.
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