A bipartisan coalition of California district attorneys vows that Proposition 47 will get the fix it needs if voters approve a new ballot initiative.
Advocates hope to have the more than 500,000 petition signatures necessary to qualify the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act for the November ballot.
The initiative would give judges and prosecutors more control in prosecuting crime, which advocates say will result in reductions in drug addiction, homelessness, and retail theft.
Many crimes can be tried as felonies under the proposal, said Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward. For drug addicts driven to crime, prosecutors can leverage harsher penalties with rehabilitation, something Ward said was lost after voters approved the landmark Prop. 47 in 2014.
“We were able to come up with — like I said — a comprehensive, yet very fair plan to really treat our drug, mental health crisis for the individuals we see living on the street and also while doing so address the rampant theft issue, which many of us feel those two things are intrinsically connected,” Ward said.
Ward also said that the initiative is backed by the California District Attorneys Association.
(You can read the proposed act at this link.)
Prop 47 Encouraged Drug Addicts to Turn to Criminal Behavior: Smittcamp
Approved by a nearly 60% majority of voters in 2014, Prop. 47 reduced many non-violent crimes such as theft and drug possession to misdemeanors from felonies.
The maximum penalties mandated by the law limited prosecutors’ ability to find a punishment that fit the crime, said Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp.
“When we were taken out of that game and not being able to be an active participant for growth for those people, it just took another tool out of the toolbox,” Smittcamp said.
By the time many drug addicts get into the criminal justice system, they’ve already sought help through family, church, or even treatment.
“Sometimes a night in jail or a week in jail, or involvement with the police or a district attorney in a court is what they need to sort of snap them out of it and reach their bottom,” said Smittcamp, adding that she saw people’s addictions spin out of control.
Initiative Brings Back Felony Charges for Many Crimes, Adds Penalties to Fentanyl
The initiative creates a treatment-mandated felony for repeated offenses of hard drug convictions.
For those on their third possession charge of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, prosecutors can charge people with felonies. But those charged with felonies can opt for drug rehabilitation.
“Every single person charged with a mandatory-treatment felony has the opportunity to do a treatment program, at the end of that program, the entire case gets dismissed,” Ward said.
Ward said the misdemeanor sentencing requirements in Prop. 47 don’t incentivize habitual drug users to seek treatment.
In addition to restoring treatment as an option, the initiative adds potential murder charges for hard drug dealers whose customers die as a result. It would also put the penalties for fentanyl on parity with other hard drugs, something that hasn’t been done in California.
Punishments for “smash-and-grab” thefts would also be increased.
Ward said the proposal should be a good compromise as it isn’t a complete return to pre-Prop. 47 rules.
“Proponents of Prop. 47 certainly would have to admit that this is less draconian than the laws existing prior to Prop. 47 were,” Ward said.
Can Initiative Solve Homelessness in a Year?
Some advocates say that the new initiative could solve homelessness within a year, according to Ward. Ward thinks the estimation is a bit ambitious, but the reasoning behind it is sound.
Because of the decriminalization of drugs, Ward and other prosecutors cite Prop. 47 as contributing to the sharp increase in homelessness. Others, however, point to California’s housing shortage and high housing costs as being the biggest driver of homelessness.
Before 2014, homelessness had been going down in California, according to Point-in-Time Counts conducted after 2007.
In a GV Wire op-ed, Fresno Mission CEO Matthew Dildine blamed Prop. 47 and California’s other housing policies for rising homelessness. He also attributed an 85% decline in the price of methamphetamine to its decriminalization.
Fresno police confirmed to GV Wire that the price of meth has gone down but could not definitively say it was because of Prop. 47.
Smittcamp said she has seen first-hand the success of drug treatment programs.
She said she spent nine years in the Veterans Court, where her job was to keep veteran defendants out of prison.
“That’s what we do as we work with them,” Smittcamp said. “We put them in rehabs, we get all of the treatments through the (Veterans Administration), and every single day we have success in that court.”
David Daniel, deputy administrator with Westcare California, said their inpatient programs always have availability. They had their first graduation since after Covid in 2023 and several people walked across the stage, giving speeches about how the program saved their lives.
“You can’t walk away from something like that and not be impacted,” Daniel said.
How Much Would This New Approach Cost?
While Ward could not provide a figure on how much mandating treatment for drug addicts would cost, he noted that the state has spent many billions of dollars on homeless programs that have yet to prove effective.
He also pointed out that California’s big cities —San Francisco, most notably — have seen businesses exit or close down because of retail theft, car burglaries, vandalism, and shopper reluctance to cross paths with aggressive panhandlers.
“If we don’t change the trajectory of the state, we’re in for bigger problems, not only with our economy, but with the humanitarian aspect,” Ward said.
Where Does Newsom Stand on Prop. 47?
On Jan. 9, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on lawmakers to come up with legislation to punish property crimes — without mentioning Prop. 47.
“Building on California’s existing laws and record public safety investments, I’m calling for new legislation to expand criminal penalties for those profiting on retail theft and auto burglaries. These laws will make California safer and bolster police and prosecutor tools to arrest and hold professional criminals accountable,” Newsom said in a news release.
But many public safety initiatives have died in the California Legislature. Smittcamp cited 20 bills that Democrats and Republicans have created that all stopped in the Senate and Assembly public safety committees.
“There is legislation that has been coauthored by 24 senators that cannot get past public safety committee,” Smittcamp said. “That’s five people. So five people are saying ‘no’ to what the entire state of California wants.”
Amending Prop. 47 in the Legislature is difficult — in part to protect the will of the voters who approved it.
Authors baked into the law restrictions on how it can be amended, Ward said. Any amendment requires two-thirds from both houses of the Legislature. And only “so long as the amendments are consistent with, and further the intent of this act.”
GV Wire looked at three legislative attempts in 2022 and 2023 from Democrats and Republicans to reform Prop. 47, all of which were stopped at the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.
Two from Democrats sought to reform Prop. 47 by lowering the threshold for crimes to be considered felonies. One from Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) sought to repeal Prop. 47.
Analysis from the Assembly Committee on Public Safety said because the provisions of one bill — AB 1603 from former Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) — would have decreased the dollar amount of theft required to be considered a felony, it ran contrary to the original intent of Prop. 47.
Ward and Smittcamp say they are confident about voters’ willingness to amend Prop. 47.
A 2022 poll from the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found at a rate of two-to-one, voters supported changing the 2014 law.
“We have challenges every day. We need to raise, you know, $8 to $10 million, and we need to get over 500,000 signatures to make it happen,” Smittcamp said. “But I think the polling shows that once it gets on the ballot, it’s a done deal.”