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Liberal California mayors are backing this ballot measure that could lock up repeat retail thieves

San Francisco CNN  —  For the first time in ten years, California voters could get the opportunity to change a controversial law aimed at criminal justice reform. A new proposal, called The Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act, would roll back parts of Proposition 47, approved by California voters in 2014 to reduce overcrowding in jails by reducing punishments for some crimes, like theft and drug possession. Many of the proposal’s backers are exactly who you’d expect: district attorneys, Republican lawmakers and big chain stores that have been lashing out against a Covid-era rise in shoplifting that last year subsided. But it has support from a handful of Democratic mayors, too. Although Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom opposes the proposal, arguing the system is sufficiently tough on crime. But it appears destined to be decided by voters: The proposal needs fewer than 547,000 signatures to get on California’s ballot in November, and organizers tell CNN they have 75% of the signatures needed. Targeting chronic and repeated retail theft Currently under Prop 47, if someone steals less than $950 in merchandise, in most cases they will be charged with a misdemeanor. It’s a leniency compared to many other jurisdictions that some argue has led to skyrocketing theft in recent years. From 2019 to 2022, San Francisco saw an increase in shoplifting by 24%, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, which used data from the state’s Department of Justice to examine the problem. The situation was so dire last year at one Walgreens store in San Francisco, employees resorted to padlocking frozen foods. Under the new proposal, “an offender with two prior convictions for theft can be charged with a felony, regardless of the value of the stolen property.” It would also allow prosecutors to add together the value of property stolen across multiple thefts to exceed the $950 threshold for a felony charge, and create harsher punishments for organized retail theft rings. The proposal has garnered predictable support from big retailers. Walmart, which has 144 Supercenters and more than 100,000 employees in the state, is the top funder of the ballot initiative. It dontated $2.5 million to the committee sponsoring the measure. “The Homeless, Drug Addiction, Retail Theft Reduction Act is a balanced community safety approach with effective tools to allow judges to use their discretion to hold individuals accountable for repeated retail theft offenses,” Walmart said in a statement. “We believe these tools are what is needed to help communities enforce the law and improve safety for all.” A boarded-up Walgreens is open for business near the Westfield San Francisco Centre in 2023. Jason Henry/The New York Times/Redux Similarly, Walgreens expressed its support of the proposal in a statement to CNN. “Walgreens has taken a number of steps to address safety in our stores,” the company said. “Walgreens also supports the various external efforts of policymakers and advocacy groups, including proposed ballot measures, legislation and funding that will help foster a safer environment in the communities we serve.” Target, which donated $500,000 in support of the measure, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But on a broad scale, the numbers don’t necessarily support retailers’ outcry on this issue. The National Retail Federation, a lobbying organization that represents big retailers, reported that shrink – losses due to external and internal theft, damaged products, inventory mismanagement and other errors — has remained about the same, between 1 and 1.5% of sales, since 2016. Target on Tuesday reported shrink declined in the fourth quarter. So why the outcry? Some analysts say it’s because it’s a useful deflection from other issues retailers face, like inflation, the shift to online shopping and over-expansion of brick-and-mortar retail, and their own mismanagement of inventory. And it forces lawmakers to respond. Tougher consequences for Fentanyl dealers In 2022, Marlene Harden’s teen daughter was killed by fentanyl poisoning. Harden said 18-year-old Chloe got what she thought was a Percocet from a dealer on Snapchat. But the pill was laced with fentanyl. “The toughest decision of my life … was to take her off life support,” Harden told CNN. Harden believes lax California criminal policies contributed to her daughter’s death and now she is speaking out in hopes of changing them. “Nothing is being done. They’re coming into the court through the court system getting a slap on the wrist and getting sent home. We want change and we want to help hold these drug dealers accountable for the murder that they’re selling our children,” said Harden. Marlene Harden's daughter died of fentanyl poisioning. CNN When Prop 47 was approved by California voters ten years ago, it turned most drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. And right now, non-prescription fentanyl is not listed on Prop 47 as a hard drug that can result in harsher punishments in certain cases. The new proposal would create harsher penalties for people who deal fentanyl and other hard drugs. It would also “warn convicted hard drug dealers and manufacturers that they can be charged with murder if they continue to traffic in hard drugs and someone dies as a result,” and, “reinstate penalties for hard drug dealers whose trafficking kills or seriously injures a drug user,” according to the Act. In addition to harsher punishments for repeat offenders, the proposal would “create a new class of crime called a treatment-mandated felony.” Offenders could serve jail time for repeated hard drug related offenses if they refuse to participate in drug and mental health treatment. The effort to undo some aspects of Prop 47 comes amid a broader check on some other liberal crime enforcement policies in America. Oregon’s legislature, which also recently passed laws to reduce penalties for drug possession, reversed course last week and re-criminalized substances like fentanyl. A nuanced issue Thanh Tran spent 10 years behind bars, with most of his time in state prison for attempted robbery and attempted murder. Tran said his biological mother has been unhoused and addicted to drugs for decades, so Tran spent most of his early life in foster care. During those turbulent years, he was in and out of juvenile hall and eventually joined a gang. At 18-years-old, he said he attempted to rob a drug house and was convicted of attempted robbery and attempted murder. Now a policy consultant for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Tran believes fixing the root of the problem is the only way to freedom. “When I was incarcerated, I saw a lot of people coming in and out and more often than not, they’re coming in and out because of mental health issues and poverty. And all of these issues we don’t necessarily want to address. It’s easier to say this is a criminal problem.” Thanh Tran said addressing mental health issues was likely to be more effective than stiffer criminal penalities. CNN Lenore Anderson, a co-author of Prop 47, stood by the law as it stands. “Stringency of penalties is not going to be the way we get ourselves out of this,” she said. “What works better for accountability is not the severity of the sentence, it’s the likelihood of getting caught.” Anderson said lawmakers should require law enforcement to share data – like arrest records and bench warrants – in real time, so officers can make quick arrests out of repeat offenders. And, she said, lawmakers should update procedures in courtrooms that process misdemeanors to eliminate delays in the state’s treatment (or punishment). “It’s important that we go for swift and certain as opposed to bureaucratic and lengthy.” She also suggested that lawmakers take alternatives to incarceration – like addiction treatment, sober housing options, and other diversion programs – more seriously. “When we start to rebalance our justice system, and back away from the one-size-fits-all prison approach, it means that we need to get more forward thinking with the systems we use to hold people accountable.” Bi-partisan support is growing Dozens of Republican and non-partisan lawmakers across the state, in addition to numerous District Attorneys, have signed on in support. “This initiative is a balanced approach, that will fix [Prop] 47, that will reduce crime, that will help people that are on the street actually go through a rehabilitation program, that will actually allow them to get back on their feet,” said Republican Mayor Richard Bailey of Coronado, a city in San Diego County. “And that’s why you’re seeing so many mayors from across the political spectrum with very diverse backgrounds coming out in support of this initiative.” The proposal has another unlikely champion: San Francisco Mayor London Breed. She is one of three Democratic mayors supporting the proposal. When asked by CNN why she was breaking from the Democratic party on the issue, Mayor Breed responded, “This is not a party issue. I don’t see this as a partisan issue. This is about keeping people safe.” San Francisco Mayor London Breed supports the proposal to reform Prop 47. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images It comes as she faces a tough re-election campaign – and a city full of voters frustrated with crime and blight. A recent San Francisco Chronicle poll found that just 28% of likely voters approve of Breed’s performance, even though crime in San Francisco is down in recent years. Police data shows that larceny theft, which includes retail theft and car break-ins, is down 37% from this time last year. “[Residents] want us to hold people, especially people who are violent criminals, accountable. They want to make sure that their communities aren’t destroyed by just what’s happening around the violence related to some of the crimes or fentanyl or anything of that nature,” Breed said. On Tuesday, San Francisco voters approved two ballot measures spearheaded by Breed. Prop E allows SFPD to deploy new technologies, including surveillance cameras and drones, and, loosens restrictions around vehicle chases. Prop F allows the city to require welfare recipients to undergo drug screenings, and to withhold public funds from those who decline treatment. Violent crime in San Francisco is down in recent years. But some crimes like robbery are up more than 20% since 2021, according to police data. “[Residents] want us to hold people, especially people who are violent criminals, accountable. They want to make sure that their communities aren’t destroyed by just what’s happening around the violence related to some of the crimes or fentanyl or anything of that nature.” Miracle also asked Breed if, “the rest of the country is going to see this and think maybe liberal policies don’t entirely work?” “I don’t think it’s fair to say that liberal policies don’t work. We’re not abandoning San Francisco values of second chances and compassion and support and help those things will continue in addition to the accountability piece,” Breed responded. Newsom maintains support of Prop 47 California Governor Gavin Newsom recently criticized calls to change Prop 47 when he argued, “…the nature of retail theft has changed… it has become deeply organized and that’s what we need to go after.” He also reminded reporters that California’s $950 threshold for prosecuting retail theft as a felony is one of the toughest in the nation. Some red states like Texas and South Carolina require theft of at least $2,500 and $2,000 worth of items, respectively, to charge someone with a felony. Last September, the state announced it would be sending $267 million to law enforcement agencies throughout the state to tackle organized retail theft. In January, Newsom also called upon the state legislature to allow law enforcement to combine the value of multiple thefts to exceed the $950 threshold – just like the change called for in The Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act. He’s also calling for additional penalties for thieves who sell or intend to resell stolen items. The problem may have different solutions – and could be in the hands of California voters this fall.