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Gov. Jerry Brown Prepares to Protect Criminal Justice Reforms

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California Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra have both supported sweeping criminal justice reforms in California.  (Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

A fight is brewing in Sacramento over how to fix perceived shortcomings in a series of criminal justice reforms that were supported by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by California voters in recent years.

On one side is a group that believes California has moved too far away from the tough-on-crime laws that proliferated here in the 1990s. They are pushing a ballot measure that would roll back many of the parole changes championed by Brown, expand DNA collection to include people convicted of misdemeanors, and increase penalties for people convicted of theft.

On the other side are the governor and criminal justice reform advocates, who say that ballot measure goes too far and are supporting a bill that aims to close what critics see as a loophole in one of the recent criminal justice ballot measures, Proposition 47.

Today, lawmakers in a public safety committee will consider that proposed law, Assembly Bill 1065. It would create a new crime for organized retail theft, so people who are shoplifting as part of a theft ring and operating across different counties can be charged with a felony. It's a change that retailers, who are sponsoring the measure, have wanted for years.

"As an industry we've seen increases in shoplifting and violence in our stores — it's a nationwide trend," said Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association. "We have wanted an organized retail crime statute in California for more than 10 years. So we're viewing this as an opportunity."


Dombrowski won't blame Proposition 47, but critics say organized theft got worse after voters passed the ballot measure in 2014. It it best known for making most drug-possession charges misdemeanors instead of felonies. But it also increased the threshold for felony shoplifting and theft —  from $450 to $950 —  for the first time in decades. That means that people caught stealing goods worth less than $950 are now being charged with a misdemeanor in California, in some cases even if they do it again and again. AB 1065 would allow prosecutors to charge serial shoplifters as felons.

But supporters of a proposed ballot measure argue that AB 1065 doesn't go far enough. They include Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, a former police officer who is backing the competing ballot measure, which supporters have dubbed the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018.

They say Proposition 47's theft provisions aren't the only problem — that another ballot measure, authored by Brown, is letting dangerous criminals free. Proposition 57 made it easier for many felons to get paroled from state prison, especially if they participated in rehabilitation programs behind bars.

Cooper recently penned an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, arguing that there was a "hidden flaw" in Proposition 57.

"While it promised to keep violent offenders in prison, the list of crimes considered violent under California law is remarkably short. The list doesn’t include raping an unconscious person, or pimping a child, or beating a spouse. Clearly, few voters knew this," Cooper wrote.

Uncharacteristically, the governor hit back with a letter to the editor.

"Don’t be fooled by Assemblymember Jim Cooper’s latest ploy to scare Californians into supporting his cynical and deeply flawed ballot initiative, which would gut key provisions of Proposition 57 and other criminal justice reforms," Brown wrote.

The governor also expressed his support for AB 1065 in a written statement to KQED.

"We support this legislation and think this is a measured approach to helping address concerns raised by the retail and grocery industries," the governor said.

The big question is what happens next with the ballot measure — particularly if AB 1065 passes. Running an initiative campaign in California is expensive, and Dombrowski said his retail group has no interest in backing the measure.

"The proposed initiative would help us, probably, on the shoplifting side. It also contains a lot of other issues that (criminal) justice reform advocates would be very upset with," he said. "I characterize it ... one-third of what we want but two-thirds of it is stuff we don't even want to touch. So as an industry, we're not participating in Cooper's initiative."

Backers of the measure have about $107,000 in the bank, most of it donated by grocery stores. Jerry Brown has nearly $15 million.

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