Laws redirect thieves from prison to jail

Recent changes to state law will result in many theft-related crimes formerly charged as felonies to be handled as misdemeanors.

Locally, this means many thieves who commit property crimes in La Cañada Flintridge and surrounding areas will be spending much less time behind bars, and doing so in county jail rather than in state prison, said Capt. Dave Silversparre of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station.

A bill signed into law last year by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised the stolen property value determination needed to trigger felony grand theft charges from $400-plus to $950-plus. With that change, thefts of property valued between $401 and $949 that last year would have been prosecuted as felony grand theft will now result in misdemeanor petty theft charges.

Last year's Chelsea's Law, which toughened sentences for sex offenders following the February 2010 rape and murder of San Diego County teenager Chelsea King, also changed penalties related to property theft.

While it used to be that petty theft could rise to a felony charge if the suspect had a prior petty theft conviction, Chelsea's law restricts felony filings for petty theft unless the suspect has had at least three prior petty theft convictions, a prior "serious or violent" felony conviction, or is a sex offender.

"It's too early to see the exact ramifications [of these laws], but we presume more people will have to become victims of theft before perpetrators will be sent to state prison with a felony conviction," Silversparre said.

There were 104 incidents of felony grand theft and 65 misdemeanor petty thefts committed last year in La Cañada Flintridge, but under the new rules a significant number of those grand thefts would now be treated as misdemeanors, explained Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Harley.

Thefts that involve break-ins to locked homes and vehicles, however, continue to be handled as felony burglaries. In 2010, La Cañada experienced 67 incidents of vehicle burglary and 94 burglaries of homes or other structures, Harley said.

Last year burglaries declined 7.8% and thefts dropped 11.3% compared to 2009.


Dollars and sense

Proponents of lowering the property value trigger for grand theft argue that failing to adjust for inflation 28 years after lawmakers first set the $400 trigger in 1982 would violate the law's intent.

According to state analysts, $400 in 1982 had roughly the value of $900 today, while the $200 trigger for grand theft established in 1923 would equate to about $2,534 today — meaning even the latest $950 ceiling for petty theft is almost three times stricter a definition of that crime than in the days when President Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House.

"It defies logic to send people to prison for $400 when that threshold hasn't changed in almost 30 years. The state prison system is already overflowing as it is," said Quintin Mecke, a spokesman for the law's author, state Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

State officials are already under a 2009 federal court order to release 46,000 state prison inmates in order to relieve dangerous levels of overcrowding in what has become the nation's largest prison system.

Gov. Jerry Brown's recent budget proposal also aims to transfer responsibility for other nonviolent, low-level offenders from state prisons to county-run jails.

"We can't continue to build new prisons, and the last thing we want to see is for the state to have to release serious, violent criminals. So when you look at a nonviolent offense, you have to be realistic about what's the best option for handling that," Mecke said.


Local pols divided

While no member of state Senate or Assembly voted against Chelsea's Law, La Cañada Flintridge's state representatives were divided about handling more low-level property crimes at the county level.

State Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) was one of only four Assembly Democrats to vote against raising the property value threshold for grand theft.

"It was too big of a jump. The solution to prison overcrowding is not to reduce sentencing. In reality, this will be putting more criminals back on the street," Portantino said.

"I think one of the biggest responsibilities of government is to make people feel safe when they go to bed at night," he continued. "Even if that means differing with my own part on occasion, I was elected to do what's in the best interests of my district as I see it."

State Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who voted for the Ammiano bill, said using state prisons to house low-level property crime offenders is a potentially misguided use of public funds.

"State prisons were built for murderers and people who create mayhem and do other terrible, terrible things. While we shouldn't condone property crime or in any way excuse it, at state prisons we spend close to $50,000 per inmate [per year], and they're overcrowded," Liu said.

Projections that as many as 2,000 would-be state inmates will be redirected from prisons to jails this year could result in savings in the upper 10s of millions of dollars.

"The intent of the bill was really just to adjust for inflation. But if there's an outcry at the local law-enforcement level, we'll go back and look at it," Liu said.

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