Opinion: This tough-on-crime proposal won’t solve California retail theft, but it would crowd our prisons

Batteries locked in retail store showcase
Retail chains have added security measures to combat shoplifting. But some also want to change California law.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

California’s Proposition 47, a milestone in criminal justice reform, is under threat. The proposed Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act, which seeks to undo important aspects of Proposition 47, would take us backward to prioritize punishment over rehabilitation.

Proposition 47 was passed in 2014 to revise penalties for nonviolent lower-level drug and property offenses. Before the reform, prosecutors had broader discretion to treat some property crimes as felonies or misdemeanors. The new law made shoplifting under $950 a misdemeanor and loosened some penalties for other property and drug crimes. It also applied retroactively, allowing incarcerated individuals to petition for release or sentence reduction.

Lawmakers aren’t letting the lack of useful data on the causes of retail theft stop them from pushing solutions to a problem they can’t define.

Dec. 21, 2023

Proposition 47 worked quickly: In its first year, it reduced the state prison population by 4,700, according to an estimate from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Over the last 10 years, the reforms have saved California more than $800 million.


Notably, Proposition 47 mandates that 65% of those savings go toward treatment services with the goal of keeping people out of jail. From 2017 through 2023, the measure provided more than 53,000 defendants with services such as mental health and drug treatment as well as housing, job training, diversion and legal support. These powerful reinvestments spanned 16 counties, including L.A., San Francisco, Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara. Recidivism plummeted for people who completed a Proposition 47 reentry program (15% compared with other statewide rates typically between 35% and 45%).

Felony drug arrests have also dropped in the wake of Proposition 47: An initial study found that they fell by about 76%, 66% and 74% for white, Black and Latino Californians and helped to reduce racial disparities in arrest rates for drug charges.

Yet despite a decade of success, misinformation abounds. The proposed act, sponsored by the Californians for Safer Communities coalition and funded largely by retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target, aims to increase penalities for drug dealers with a new “treatment-mandated felony” crime for drug possession after two previous convictions. Offenders would be given the “option” to undergo drug and mental health treatment instead of incarceration, though it’s not clear what kind of programs they would enter and if those would even have capacity for new admissions. Additionally, it proposes felony charges for repeat theft offenders.

Mob robberies at Southern California malls came as retailers such as Target noted more losses to theft. But the available information is limited and unclear.

Sept. 7, 2023

The coalition announced last month that it had collected 900,000 signatures, more than enough to put the change before voters on the November ballot. Its supporters claim that Proposition 47 has increased property theft, overdose and homelessness. Following some high-profile retail crimes in California, emotions run strong on this issue. But the evidence is stronger.

As a public health researcher, I know that involuntary treatment of the kind this act proposes can perpetuate homelessness and increase overdose risks. Involuntary interventions are more harmful than voluntary treatment. And not all treatment services are equal — medically assisted treatment for opioid disorder has proven efficacy, unlike detox and counseling-only strategies.

It is a problem that there aren’t enough voluntary, research-supported drug treatment services in California, especially since success depends on sustained participation in programs and the deficit subjects people to long waits. But forcing people into treatment, especially while not expanding the availability of needed services, is dangerous and inhumane.


Moreover, felonies often lead to homelessness. In the past, punitive measures such as Zero Tolerance Policies increased incarceration rates and homelessness, creating significant financial and social burdens. Research we’ve done at UC San Francisco shows that institutionalization often precedes homelessness; one in five participants in a statewide study became homeless directly from an institutional setting (jail or prison) with scant access to prevention services.

And felony convictions create barriers to housing and employment. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act offers limited protections for people with criminal histories, and incarceration frequently perpetuates a cycle of unemployment, homelessness and severed personal connections.

To be sure, Proposition 47 can and should be updated with an emphasis on humane policies. The evidence points toward the Housing First approach, which focuses on housing individuals regardless of their mental health, judicial or other needs and has been shown to promote economic stability. Proposition 47 can make longer-term investments in restorative justice approaches including reentry transition services for post-incarceration individuals and greater access to medically assisted treatment for substance use. The state can also divert more funding toward poverty reduction measures such as permanent supportive housing that are known to reduce root causes of crime and theft.

But the proposed Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act does not expand those resources. Instead, it would push California’s incarceration rates back up. Even prosecutors in the state have opposed the measure on the grounds that it would regress to failed policies.

For the ballot initiative to advance, county and state officials have to review the supporting signatures to ensure they came from registered California voters. If that happens, California should reject the proposal and stand up against fear-based, evidence-absent approaches, much as voters rejected another attempt to weaken Proposition 47 in 2020. If we don’t, our prisons will become more crowded and cost taxpayers a lot. We risk losing another generation to the consequences of incarceration that we’ve finally begun to tackle.

Meghan Morris is an associate professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project. The views in this piece are her own.