Prop. 20: Will Voters Fix Unintended Consequences in State’s Soft-on-Crime Shift?


Starting with the Legislature’s approval of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s public safety realignment plan in 2011, California has undergone a big change on criminal justice policy.

Turning its back on policies like “Three Strikes” that were passed during the 1990’s, voters approved three ballot measures (Props 36, 47, and 57) that reduced mandatory sentencing laws and shifted thousands of offenders serving time for serious offenses into local communities.

Writing in the forward to Kerry Jackson’s 2019 book Living in Fear in California, PRI President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy Sally C. Pipes writes that, “these collective policy changes represented a radical departure from California’s history of tough-on-crime policies.

With citizen-initiated consequences frequently comes a host of unintended consequences.  Unless there’s a specific provision in the law to allow the Legislature to act, voters must act again to correct them.  That’s what Proposition 20 on the November ballot will give voters the opportunity to do.

Jackson writes in his book that, “since the passing of Prop. 47, some opponents have said that the ballot measure has left law enforcement with less incentive to pursue low-level offenders.”  He writes of a surge of automobile break-ins and surge in repeat burglaries and property crimes since the measure’s passage.  In addition, the surge in shoplifting cases against retailers statewide since these changes went into effect has been well-documented.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s analysis of Prop. 20, any person with two or more prior convictions for theft-related crimes could be charged with a new crime of serial theft.  Those acting with others who commit petty theft or shoplifting two or more times within a 6 month period and the value of the goods stolen exceeded $250 could be charged with organized retail theft.   Both new crimes would be punishable by up to 3 years in county jail.

Proponents write in their official ballot argument that “nonviolent crimes in California include domestic violence, exploding a bomb, shooting into a house with the intent to kill or injure people, raping an unconscious person and beating a child so savagely it could result in coma or death.”  Prop. 20, if enacted, would restore the definition of these crimes – 22 in all – as violent crimes.

As Jackson writes in Living in Fear in California, “expanding the catalog of violent crimes whose violators should not be considered for early release is a rational response to the flaws that have plagued some of the state’s criminal justice reorganizations.”

Opponents of Prop. 20 call it a “prison spending scam” in their official ballot argument.  They make that case that its passage would “waste tens of millions on prisons while cutting rehabilitation programs and support for crime victims.”

To be sure, the Legislative Analyst’s office estimates that “more than several thousand people would be affected by the proposition each year” and annual state and local corrections spending would increase by tens of millions annually if it passes.

But proponents note that under the specific language of Prop. 20, offenders charged and convicted under Prop. 20’s provisions would be “directed to local jail or rehabilitation programs.”

During the Prop. 57 campaign, Gov. Jerry Brown publicly stated that he would exclude sex offenders from parole when implementing the measure.  While Brown may have been sincere in his intent, a judge ruled that they would be included in the rules implementing the measure.  “If the voters had intended to exclude all registered sex offenders from early parole consideration under Proposition 57, they presumably would have said so,” Judge Allen Sumner wrote.

With Prop. 20, California voters now have a chance to say so.  Its fate will have a significant impact on whether the countless incidents of crime related to the passage of last decade’s sweeping public safety policy changes will become a way of life for some time to come.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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