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Bay Area Ransackings Is a Reminder That Proposition 47 Isn’t Working

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An estimated mob of 80 individuals ransacked a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek’s outdoor shopping mall, located east of San Francisco on Nov. 20. Two employees were assaulted by participants, and videos display masked people streaming out of stores with bags and boxes, jumping into their cars. That week, similar incidents had occurred in cities throughout the Bay Area, such as San Francisco, San Jose and Hayward. 

The ransacking surge in the Bay Area is just one example of how recent changes in California laws that intend to decrease the crowding and costs of incarceration — in particular Proposition 47, which reduces sentences for drug possession and theft under $950 to misdemeanors — have actually had the impact of increasing crime rates. While criminal justice reform is absolutely necessary, recent events should serve as a reminder that Proposition 47 is not working in achieving those aims and is in strong need of reform. 

The promises of Proposition 47 are misleadingly ideal on paper. The title “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” deceives voters who have been looking for reforms that reallocate funding from prison systems to mental health, school and rehabilitation resources because the actual practice of Proposition 47 falls short of its promise of “safety.” Its true impacts have led to incidents such as the Bay Area ransackings, which ultimately reduce safety. Additionally, whether the extra funding accumulated by reduced prison populations is enough to cover the social programs suggested remains questionable.

In an analysis by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times, it was found that from 2014 — the year Proposition 47 was implemented  — to 2017, there was a 12% increase in violent crimes. The analysis also reports that there was an overall crime spike in 2015, particularly in property crimes, which includes crimes such as shoplifting, burglary, larceny and vandalism. While property crime rates have since lowered, as of 2018, property crime rates remain 2% higher than it had been before 2014. 

This isn’t surprising considering that the bar that separates thefts from being considered a misdemeanor and felony was raised from $400 to $950 after Proposition 47. Even criminals themselves have attested to the way in which the proposition has incentivized theft.

“Proposition 47, it’s cool. Like for me, I can go do a [commercial] burglary and know that if it’s not over $900, they’ll just give me a ticket and let me go,” LA county resident Semisi Sina said in a 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Times

Basically, Proposition 47 tells criminals like Sina, who has racked up 16 arrests, that if they commit the right kinds of crimes, they’ll be easily let off the hook.

While Proposition 47 has succeeded in reducing prison populations and in 2020, was projected to save $122 million in the next year, many question whether that money is even enough to cover social program investments. Proposition 47 doesn’t seem to be meeting its goals, and the current “benefits” aren’t outweighing the problems created.

“We want real accountability, we want people prosecuted and we want people to feel safe,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said, in response to Bay Area ransacking, at a press conference in San Francisco on Nov. 22. 

Is this really possible to achieve if Newsom continues to support Proposition 47?

Newsom has made some efforts to address the issue of ransacking. In July, as a response to the drug-store raids, Newsom revived the temporary law that established the California Highway Patrol and extended the law to address criminal offenses for organized retail theft. As of these past few weeks, he increased CHP presence on the highways neighboring San Francisco and Walnut Creek. This reactionary approach is costly and unsustainable. 

The issue isn’t the lack of enforcement; if anything, increased enforcement could risk aggravating the issue. Rather, the source of the problem lies in the laws telling criminals that as long as what they steal is within the $950 price range, they’re off the hook. If Newsom wants there to be “real accountability,” the first step starts with a reform to address the issues created by Proposition 47. 

Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.