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California's Democratic Leaders Clash With Businesses Over Curbing Retail Theft. Here's What to Know

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A security guard stands in front of a Nieman Marcus store on June 14, 2023 in San Francisco.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With retail theft increasing, California Democratic leadership is clashing with a coalition of law enforcement and business groups in a fierce political fight over how to crack down on the problem. State lawmakers are trying to preserve progressive policies and stay away from putting more people behind bars.

The two most likely paths under consideration this year are a ballot initiative to create harsher penalties for repeat offenders, and a legislative package aimed at making it easier to go after professional crime rings.

Leaders behind the two efforts have accused one another of misleading voters and being unwilling to work toward a compromise.


How did we get here?

Both sides agree on the need to crack down, especially on large-scale thefts in which groups of people brazenly rush into stores and take goods in plain sight.

At the center of the escalating political fight is Proposition 47, a progressive ballot measure passed by voters in 2014 that reduced certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors — in part to mitigate overcrowding in jails and prisons. That includes nonviolent property crimes such as thefts under $950.

It has made it harder to arrest and punish people who shoplift, law enforcement said. Researchers told lawmakers there’s no evidence linking the proposition to increased violent crime rates.

How are the two solutions different?

A coalition of district attorneys and businesses, mostly funded by big box retailers, is pushing for an initiative to bring harsh penalties for shoplifting and drug offenses. It would make theft of any amount a felony if the person already has two theft convictions.

Possession of fentanyl would also become a felony, and those with multiple drug charges would be ordered to get treatment.

The ballot measure would still need to be certified by the Secretary of State before it could be placed on the ballot later this month.

California’s Democratic leadership, backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, wants to keep the tough-on-crime measure off the November ballot. They worry the ballot measure’s proposal would disproportionately criminalize low-income people and those with substance use issues rather than target ringleaders who hire large groups of people to steal goods for them to resell online.

Instead, lawmakers are fast-tracking a legislative package of 14 bills that would go after organized online reseller schemes and auto thieves, and provide funding for drug addiction counselors. These proposals could become laws as early as this month.

Do the efforts conflict?

If voters approve the tough-on-crime ballot initiative, Democratic leaders plan to void most measures in their own legislative package, citing potential conflicts.

Lawmakers were short on details about how the two paths conflict earlier this week. Later, they said they fear if both efforts succeed, law enforcement would be able to stack penalties and send more people to jails, leading to mass incarceration and overcrowded jails.

About a third of the measures in the package pose possible legal conflicts with the proposals in the ballot initiative, according to lawmakers.

The ballot initiative campaign accused lawmakers of holding the proposals hostage to break up the coalition. Local district attorneys who backed the ballot campaign said both efforts could work together, with the ballot measure overriding the legislative package in case of legal conflicts.

What happens next?

Backers of the ballot initiative said they’re still open to working with Democratic leadership but will only consider any solutions that involve rolling back Proposition 47.

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“We still stand ready to sit down with anybody in leadership to talk about the measure, but I don’t want to compromise,” Greg Totten, a retired district attorney and a leader of the ballot initiative campaign, said during a news conference this week.

Newsom and Democratic leaders have until June 27 to negotiate to get the initiative off the ballot. Meanwhile, lawmakers have plans to deliver the legislative package to Newsom’s desk by next week for signing, despite growing concerns from moderate Democrats.

“When you look at the package that we put together, it’s very comprehensive and it addresses a number of details in the existing framework of the law,” Assemblymember Rick Zbur, author of a retail theft bill, told reporters. “It was never intended to be something that was stacked on to a ballot measure that removed the underpinnings of the basic law that we were trying to reform.”

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