On Election Day in California, November 14, 2014, a crowd gathered outside a courthouse wearing fake handcuffs and carrying signs saying “End Mass Incarceration.” On that day, California passed Proposition 47, which would reduce punishment for more than one million people.
Passing by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin, the bill was intended to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prison system and treat low-level criminals with more compassion. As part of the bill, shoplifters would now have to steal over $950 worth of goods to be charged with a felony. Penalties for drug possession and writing bad checks were also reduced.
In the early stages, Stanford University’s Justice Advocacy project found that Proposition 47 had reduced the state’s prison population by 13,000 and would save the state $150 million in the first year.
Defenders of the law claim that the increased felony threshold merely takes into account 30 years of inflation from the previous $450 number. Others claim that California is still more lenient than other states. In Texas, for example, one has to steal more than $1500 to be charged with a felony. In South Carolina, that number is $2000.
While the law seems to be working in some facets, it has become a nightmare for retailers. Shoplifters are much less threatened by the thought of a misdemeanor conviction versus a felony. A Washington Post article calls the law a “virtual get-out-of-jail-free card”:
- Robberies are up 23 percent in San Francisco
- Property theft, including shoplifting, is up 11 percent in Los Angeles, reversing a downtrend
- Overall crime is up 20 percent in Lake Tahoe, 36 percent in La Mirada, 22 percent in Chico, and 68 percent in Desert Hot Springs
- A 2016 study showed larceny increasing by 9 percent, or about 135 more thefts per 100,000 residents.
City attorneys accustomed to handling traffic tickets and zoning violations now find themselves prosecuting crimes that used to be felonies, including forgeries, general theft and shoplifting.
District attorneys who used to threaten drug offenders and habitual shoplifters with felonies no longer have that option. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer had to ask the city council for funding to hire 15 additional lawyers and assistants to handle the influx of misdemeanor cases.
Proposition 47 has had a direct and profound negative effect on retailers. Retailers and law enforcement officials state that since shoplifting below $950 is now a misdemeanor, it means shoplifters face no pursuit and no punishment. Sources quote some large California retailers such as Safeway, Target, Rite Aid and CVS as saying that shoplifting has increased at least 15 percent, and in some cases, doubled. LAPD reported that shoplifting reports jumped by 25 percent in the first full year of the new law.
The increase in shoplifting cases is causing a debate over how much criminals pay attention to penalties and whether law enforcement is doing enough to adapt to the legal change.
Prosecutors, police and retailers, including California Retailer’s Association President Bill Dombrowski and CVS Health Spokesman Mike DeAngelis, say that one of the main problems is organized retail crime rings, whose members are well aware of the reduced penalties. The law didn’t account for that, according to Captain John Romero of LAPD’s commercial crimes division. “The law did not give an exception for organized retail crime activities,” said Romero. “We are seeing these offenders benefiting, and the retailers are paying the price.”
In addition, California is currently one of 17 states without an organized retail theft law that specifically targets organized shoplifting rings with tougher penalties. Fresno Police Sergeant Mike Hudson says that while in theory, misdemeanors can bring up to a year in county jail, “it’s not worth it to issue a citation or arrest a shoplifting suspect who would likely be released immediately because of overcrowding.” Robin Shakely, Sacramento County assistant chief deputy district attorney, said that “we’ve heard of cases where shoplifters are going into stores with a calculator so they can make sure that what they steal is worth less than $950.”
One piece of good news for California prosecutors is AB1065, a bill that makes it easier to tackle organized retail crime (ORC). As of July 2018, the bill has moved through the legislature but needs a final push in the state senate to make it to the governor’s desk.
Some officials are still defending Proposition 47 and generating certain statistics that make it look successful and not a big issue in the criminal justice system. Supporters of Proposition 47 have pointed out that, while crime in California has risen 13 percent since 2014, the trend had begun earlier and is the result of changes in crime reporting protocols.
However, it would be hard for anyone to convince Perry Lutz of that fact. Lutz owns Hobby Town USA in Rocklin, CA. Lutz says it has become a struggle to survive as a small-business retailer since the law passed. “It’s pretty well open season,” said Lutz. “They’ll pick up an $800 remote-controlled toy and simply run out the door. Our hands are tied because it’s a misdemeanor. It’s not worth pursuing the shoplifters, it’s just a waste of manpower.”
More time and better statistics will reveal the real ramifications of the new law and its effect on retailers. Hopefully, additional legislation (like AB1065) will fix some of the issues. I spent the first half of my career in Southern California leading retail loss prevention organizations and dealing with shoplifters. I live in Florida now, and I think I’m glad. But, I certainly feel for those retail loss prevention organizations and associates in California. I wish you all good luck in dealing with the issues and challenges the new law is creating.
This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated September 26, 2018.