California Senate leader opposes Prop. 47 changes. Here’s how he wants to tackle retail theft

California’s new Senate leader on Monday came out against changes to Proposition 47, instead advocating for tools to target organized retail theft and help those dealing with opioid addictions.

“I do not believe that this state needs to touch Prop. 47 to be able to help make our communities safer, full stop,” said Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, during a press conference.

That stance puts him in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom, who stated his opposition to altering the 2014 ballot measure during his January budget presentation. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, said last week he was not yet ready to take a position on reworking Proposition 47.

Republicans and moderate Democrats have been pushing for changes to the measure amid concerns about retail theft and fentanyl overdoses. Proposition 47 made some nonviolent crimes misdemeanors, including shoplifting of items worth $950 or less and certain drug possession offenses.

The Public Policy Institute of California in September reported 2022 crime data showed shoplifting rates were lower that year than they were in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, commercial burglary and robbery rates increased during that time period.

More than 7,300 Californians died of opioid-related causes in 2022, more than 87% of which were connected to fentanyl overdoses, according to California Department of Public Health data.

McGuire retail theft, fentanyl package

Voters approved Proposition 47 as part of a larger effort to reform punitive state sentencing laws of the 1980s and 1990s. A panel of federal judges in 2009 ordered California to curb prison overcrowding, resulting in a series of ballot initiatives and legislation to reduce the number of inmates in state facilities.

McGuire, who took over as Senate leader on Feb. 5, cited this history when explaining why he does not want to see alterations to Proposition 47.

“We cannot forget how horrific the ‘90s were on communities of color in this state,” McGuire said. “Governing must also be about learning from our mistakes in the past. And that was a clear mistake. Mass incarceration simply isn’t the answer. In fact, we hear from all the experts that it makes addiction even worse.”

McGuire instead laid out a series of bills from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers meant to increase access to drug treatment and addiction services within the legal system and address large-scale retail theft.

The Senate leader’s bill package comes on the heels of a similar proposal from Rivas. The Assembly speaker on Feb. 15 announced legislation that closely resembled a plan that Newsom requested last month.

The Assembly bills would create the crime of retail theft with intent to sell, which aims to penalize groups of thieves stealing merchandise and selling it online. The package would also allow prosecutors to aggregate the value of thefts to reach a more serious crime and require online retailers to keep records demonstrating products’ chain of custody.

McGuire’s Senate package includes a bill that would prevent the illicit use and sale of xylazine, also known as tranq, which is causing an increasing amount of overdoses. It also features measures requiring certifications for online third-party sellers and increasing penalties on organized retail theft.

Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones, R-Santee, on Monday continued to blame Proposition 47 for retail theft. He said Republicans are “still reviewing the specifics of the legislative package” and are “optimistic about the proposals here today.”

Proposition 47 negotiations

Although Newsom and McGuire are against Proposition 47 changes, a ballot measure from the California District Attorneys Association would allow those in favor of reworking it to take their plan directly to voters.

It’s unclear whether this will prompt the governor and legislative leaders to negotiate with those pushing alterations.

West Hollywood Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur, who chairs an Assembly Select Committee on Retail Theft, said on Feb. 15 that Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, is “continuing to work with stakeholders with respect to things that might have to go to the ballot.”

McGuire on Monday said he and Rivas are “in constant contact on the shared legislative priority” of retail theft.

“We’re going to be working together with the leaders who you see on this day today, with leaders in the Assembly in the months to come to get solutions across the finish line,” he said.