California voters opened up the jail cells in 2014, when they approved a ballot initiative called Proposition 47. That law, with passed 60%-40%, reduced felony-level crimes for burglaries, auto theft and drug possession to misdemeanors in the name of saving jail space for more-serious criminal acts. The then-new law also allowed shoplifters and thieves to steal from store shelves because prosecutors could only seek a felony conviction if the goods were valued at $950 and above.
The so-called smash-and-grab robberies were considered misdemeanor crimes if the goods were below the $950 limit. That is why major retailers such as Walgreens say they are shuttering their stores.
A second similar ballot measure, Prop 57, passed in 2016. It loosened the prison sentences for nonviolent felons and passed overwhelmingly 64%-35%.
A 2020 ballot measure, Proposition 20, sought to change Prop 47 by dropping the felony threshold to $250. It failed at the ballot last November 38%-61%.
"What we're seeing here is unprecedented, really, in cities all throughout the state," Josiah O’Neil, a sheriff’s deputy, told the “Washington Watch” AFR radio program. "From Los Angeles to San Francisco, and even here in San Diego County, the crime is out of control because they know there is no consequences on both ends.”
O’Neil was interviewed on the program because he supports a signature-gathering effort that is asking Californians to increase the criminal penalties for the smash-and-grab thieves looting store shelves.
Californians are seeking 800,000 total signatures across the state to ensure at least 623,000 signatures are confirmed as valid voters. That would put the issue on ballot this November if the signatures are turned in by April to meet the state deadline.
According to O’Neil, the ballot measure would not repeal Prop 47, or change the $950 figure, but it would give the courts the ability to impose a tougher sentence on repeat offenders.
“It's really tools in the hands of law enforcement to deal with it,” he said.