When They Don’t Have to Do the Time, They’ll Do the Crime

When They Don’t Have to Do the Time, They’ll Do the Crime

When Proposition 47 was passed, no small number of critics said it would lead to increases in property crimes as it downgraded theft to a misdemeanor if the value of the stolen goods or bad checks is less than $950. The threshold had been $450.

Five years later, some law enforcement departments and retailers are saying the same thing critics did in 2014: Reducing the consequences of committing a crime will increase criminal activity.

“Brazen crimes,” in which groups rush into stores and snatch “armfuls of merchandise,” a Sacramento television station recently reported, “are on the rise and CBS13 has learned, in most cases, the crooks get away” with it.

“After searching police reports and arrest records, CBS13 found that while the rate of these grab and dash crimes is on the rise, the rate of arrest is down. We turned to law enforcement and the retail industry for answers. Both blame a California law intended to make ‘neighborhoods safe.’”

Vacaville Police Lt. Mark Donaldson told CBS13 that thieves “know the law,” and “one of the first things they ask us” when they’ve been caught is “‘can’t I just get a ticket so I can be on my way?’”

All property crime has fallen across the state for three years. Things get interesting, though, when incidents of larceny-theft are broken down by value.

In 2014, the year of Prop 47, there were 215,820 incidents when the value exceeded $400 ($50 more than the misdemeanor threshold prior to the measure). Over the next four years, the numbers were:

  • 238,456 — 2015
  • 235,543 — 2016
  • 261,346 — 2017
  • 270,124 — 2018

Meanwhile, the totals for incidents when the value was $200 through $400; $50 through $199; and under $50 have fallen for three consecutive years. Are common thieves targeting higher-end goods because they know can get away with lighter punishment, a citation rather than jail in most cases, than they previously could?

Retailers say yes.

“In states where the felony threshold has increased, over half report an increase in ORC case value. None reported a decrease,” says the National Retail Federation’s 2018 Organized Retail Crime Survey. “It appears that ORC criminals understand the new threshold and have increased their thefts to meet it.”

Apparently fed up with the environment they feel was created by Prop 47, a “coalition of crime victims, law enforcement, business owners and public safety leaders” has proposed a 2020 initiative that would, among other objectives, “reform theft laws to restore accountability for serial thieves and organized theft gangs.”

It will be intriguing to see how voters, who approved Prop 47 with a nearly 60% landslide, will react to the measure, known as the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act.” It’s not unthinkable that they won’t just reverse themselves.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is the author of the recent book on crime in California, Living in Fear in California.

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.