Sick of Crime, Californians Crave Harsher, Old-Fashioned Punishments

A new poll indicates that a majority of voters want to see a 2014 ballot measure that reduced penalties for some thefts altered or eliminated in favor of a return to older, sterner punishments

With crime continuing its upward trend across California, and especially in Los Angeles, a new poll indicates that a majority of voters here want to see a 2014 ballot measure that reduced penalties for some thefts altered or eliminated in favor of a return to older, sterner punishments.

At issue is Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which reduced certain drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors, and allows defendants who have completed their sentences for felony convictions that would have qualified as misdemeanors under Prop 47 to apply to reclassify those convictions as misdemeanors.

The measure was passed in an attempt to reduce incarceration rates and save the state money. California superior courts received 200,000 petitions for resentencing or applications for reclassification of felonies as misdemeanors in the first 13 months after Prop 47 became law.

In the statewide poll of voters—conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times—78 percent of respondents said crime had risen across California in the last year, with 67 percent saying it has also increased locally.

Most of those surveyed also said they would support changes to Prop 47, which raised the threshold for felony theft from $400 to $950 worth of property. Of those polled, 57 percent are in favor of amending the Proposition, with 30 percent choosing to leave the rule unchanged.

While the Public Policy Institute of California reports that rates of violent crimes and thefts did rise across Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco in 2021, the group says it has only reached pre-pandemic levels. But it may not look that way to anyone who has seen reports of rampant smash-and-grab gangs causing businesses to take measures like wrapping stores in razor wire.

Attitudes toward crime do split along political lines, the survey shows, but there is some crossover. Of voters who consider themselves “strongly conservative,” 88 percent want to amend Prop 47, while 64 percent of “moderate” voters and 41 percent of “somewhat liberal” voters agree. Those who identify as “strongly liberal,” meanwhile, would keep the law as is by a margin of 67 percent.

Poll director Mark DiCamillo tells the Times that crime is one of the “most critical” issues to California voters.

“It’s not just an issue where conservatives and Republicans are chiming in,” DiCamillo said, adding, “It’s an issue that has favored the Republicans traditionally, and I think the Democrats will likely be on the defensive.”

DiCamillo also noted that voters are less and less concerned about COVID, which was a major factor in Governor Gavin Newsom handily defeating last year’s recall election. But with the pandemic largely off the table and crime encroaching, Republicans are hoping this will put them in closer contention with Newsom as he pursues reelection in November.

Of voters surveyed, 51 percent said they disapproved of Newsom’s handling of crime and public safety, a surge of 16 points since September, 2020.

State legislators, meanwhile, are considering possible remedies for Proposition 47. One proposal would knock the felony threshold back down to $400, while another would allow prosecutors to pursue charges where stolen goods are recovered, even if the theft did not occur in that jurisdiction. Lawmakers are also mulling a proposal to repeal Prop 47 entirely.

A fourth initiative would allow prosecutors to charge anyone with two or more prior theft convictions with a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

Lenore Anderson, president of Alliance for Safety and Justice, tells the Times that while rising crime is a concern, much of the pushback is political, and that it increases during election years.

“There is also active effort on the part of people who oppose criminal justice reform to push a narrative that these crime shifts are related to criminal justice reform,” she said.

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