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A Million Californians Signed on to Prop 47 Reform. Now Newsom May Counter With His Version.
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By Edward Smith
Published 3 weeks ago on
June 25, 2024

Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, left, says California politicians should use their package of criminal justice laws to bolster the Prop. 47 reforms brought forth by district attorneys and big-box retailers. (GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)

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Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward says admitting failure isn’t an easy thing to do.

“I do not understand why the Democratic leadership is so afraid of the voice and the voters of the state of California. Because anytime it’s an initiative they’re in support of, they want it to go to the voters. Clearly, they have a problem with taking a stance that 47 was a problem.” — Tulare County DA Tim Ward

Proposition 47 is the landmark 2014 voter initiative that many say is the reason behind California’s high crime and homelessness rates.

Ward thinks that for legislators, the fear of admitting Proposition 47’s failures is behind a poison pill recently inserted into a slew of public safety bills.

“I think that the Legislature wants to not be put in a position to say Prop. 47 was wrong — we were wrong,” Ward said. “That’s tough, that’s tough for human nature to do.”

California legislators have proposed a suite of laws aimed at prosecuting retail theft.

At least seven public safety bills — many of them written to increase punishment for retail theft — now contain language saying the reforms would be inoperative if voters approve the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act.

With nearly 1 million signatures on the ballot initiative, Ward said the likelihood of the initiative passing is high.

Ward called on legislators to use their lawmaking powers to support the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act instead of working against the measure’s backers.

On Monday, Politico also reported Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic legislators may be going a step further in opposing the tough-on-crime initiative by possibly coming out with their own competing ballot proposition.

The ballot initiative supported by Ward would give judges and prosecutors more leeway in charging accused thieves and drug addicts with felonies instead of misdemeanors. It also gives drug treatment as an alternative to drug-related crimes.

“I do not understand why the Democratic leadership is so afraid of the voice and the voters of the state of California,” Ward said. “Because anytime it’s an initiative they’re in support of, they want it to go to the voters. Clearly, they have a problem with taking a stance that 47 was a problem.”

Soria Pulled Her Name From Her Own Public Safety Bill

Assembly Bill 1960, originally authored by Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria (D-Merced), didn’t always have the paragraph saying “if the proposed initiative measure… is approved by the voters at the statewide general election on November 5, 2024, this section shall become inoperative.”

The bill required additional jail or prison time for criminals who damage property, aimed particularly at smash-and-grab crimes.

Because of the clause, Soria removed her name from the bill’s authorship entirely. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas put his name on there in her place.

“We need greater accountability in California against repeat offenders who continue to engage in theft and harm our businesses,” Soria said in a statement to the media. “That’s the commitment I made to our community and law enforcement partners and it’s a commitment I won’t break. That is why I have removed my name from AB 1960.”

Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria (D-Merced) removed her name from Assembly Bill 1960 after clause was added nullifying it if a ballot initiative reforming Proposition 47 would be passed. (California Legislative Information)

Where Does Newsom Stand on Prop 47 Reform?

Newsom’s media team did not say whether he or other Democrats are coming out with a competing ballot measure to the one proposed by many California district attorneys, law enforcement agencies and major retailers.

In his January state budget proposal, Newsom said Prop. 47 reform doesn’t address the fundamental issue behind California’s crime rate. He said the $950 felony threshold for stolen goods created by Prop. 47 is lower than 39 other states, including Texas, which has a $2,500 threshold for felony shoplifting.

A response from the Governor’s media team said the main focus of the initiative is illegal drugs, not theft. Of the 11 provisions, seven deal with drugs and four deal with theft.

Newsom also said that the initiative does not remove the $950 threshold.

The initiative grants prosecutors the ability to charge felonies to repeat shoplifters and people caught with drugs.

One of the biggest changes the initiative makes is giving people with hard drug possession crimes a choice between prison or drug treatment, said Ward.

Ward said since the passing of Prop. 47, the number drug courts and drug treatment centers has declined. He said Prop. 47 removed the “stick” portion

“Prop 47 decriminalized drug possession and with the stroke of a pen, started an immediate and severe decline in drug rehabilitation programs, our drug court programs, no one is doing drug treatment anymore, the stats show that time and time again,” Ward said. “Nothing in these plans is geared because, to use an analogy, there’s no carrot and a stick.”

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the initiative’s mandates would increase state and local criminal justice system costs in the hundreds of millions

Inoperability Clause Forcing a Choice for Retailers: Ward

Ward said many of the bills with the inoperability clause work in concert with Prop. 47 reform, but they don’t address the heart of the issue.

Assembly Bill 1802 defines organized retail theft and opened up pathways to charge crimes as felonies. Senate Bill 1242 allows felony charges for some people who start fires. Senate Bill 1416 added enhancements for people who try to sell stolen goods.

KCRA quoted Senate Pro Tempore Mike McGuire as saying the inoperability clauses were added to make sure laws make sense if the Prop 47 reform is approved.

“We added inoperability clauses to help ensure that if these bill were put into law and the ballot initiative also goes into effect, we don’t have a world-class mess of conflicting policies on our hands,” McGuire said in the KCRA article.

Ward said the additional language forces retailers and district attorneys — who backed the ballot initiative — to choose between the two.

“What in the world is rationale for having everything repealed if the voters pass the initiative?” Ward said. “The only explanation is to punish the retailers and punish the district attorney’s association.”

‘Subversion of Democracy at its Finest’: Ward

In addition to Prop. 47’s changes, it also limited future legislation around criminal justice. Only laws further relaxing criminal prosecution can be passed under California constitution, Ward said. The only way to change that is through another ballot initiative.

Even the bills being proposed by the Legislature rely on odd workarounds to be legally viable, Ward said.

Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-Visalia) said it’s an effort to stop the ballot initiative. Democrats feel pressure to pass meaningful criminal justice reform, he said.

“Democrats on the hard left are having trouble because they want to make it look like they’re solving the problem,” Mathis said. But in reality, the only way to fix a ballot initiative is with another ballot initiative.

Ward said polling shows “resounding” support behind the initiative. And while many view the insertion of these clauses as threats, Ward says people will see through the attempt.

“I guarantee you the population will not only see it as politics, but subversion of democracy at its finest,” Ward said.

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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