Proposition 47’s approach to theft and drug crime needs reform

Issues with theft and drug abuse are plaguing the Golden State.

Adam Pigott, Staff Writer

Of all the controversial topics in America, criminal justice reform might be one of the most difficult issues to address. Mass incarceration has recently been a problem in the United States, with around 1.5 million people being held in state and federal prisons at the end of 2016, according to the US Department of Justice. States like New York and California have been the frontrunners in establishing propositions that decrease mass incarceration. 

The fact that California is passionate about criminal justice reform is not bad. However, there are problems with California’s policy that need to be addressed—particularly Proposition 47. The raised felony threshold waters down the rule of law, particularly as it relates to theft and substance abuse.


Proposition 47 was passed in 2014 and was designed to relieve strain on the mass incarceration system by keeping non-violent criminals out of crowded prisons. It increased the amount a person can steal before facing a felony, from $450 to $950. Unless a shoplifter has some serious prior conviction such as rape, murder or certain firearm-related offenses, stealing anything up to $950 in value is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in county jail, probation or a citation. 

Under Proposition 47, shoplifters still face some form of accountability, but it appears to have caused the state some issues. A 2018 study from the Independent Institute shows that an increase in vehicle break-ins, also known as “smash-and-grab” crimes, is an unintended consequence of Proposition 47. Of the cities studied, San Francisco had the most smash-and-grab crimes—a vehicle break-in was reported every 20 minutes, on average. The arrest rate for vehicle break-ins in the city was less than two percent, and the penalties consisted of trivial citations.

In addition to these reports, the California Public Safety Partnership Issues Committee revealed that since the law was passed, theft has increased by 12% to 25% across the state. 

While reducing crowds in prisons is a well-meaning idea, there are some impacts that police departments and prosecutors say are serious problems. A survey from the National Retail Federation in 2018 found that when states increase the felony threshold, losses from retail crimes also increase. CBS-13 reported that before Proposition 47, Vacaville, California’s annual loss to retail crime was $150,000 but by 2019 it was $380,000. From 2013 to 2014, there were 100 reported cases of organized retail theft. From 2018 to 2019, there were 164 cases.

According to Los Angeles Daily News, Proposition 47 has uncrowded prisons and saved the state millions. But the trade off is a complete and utter disregard for victims of property crimes. As long as the offender does not have a serious criminal record and the items have a price tag at or below $950, they will not be charged with a felony. There will always be people who steal and destroy property, but if the punishment is decreased, there is a decreased incentive to follow the law. 


Theft-related crimes are not the only problems connected to the proposition. Kentucky senator Rand Paul once said that we cannot incarcerate our way out of a drug problem, and he’s absolutely right. The concept of being merciful through more treatment and shorter prison sentences seems ideal, but some have taken advantage of the system and made the same mistakes repeatedly.

The Washington Post reported the story of a drug-addicted homeless man named James Lewis Rabenberg from San Diego in 2015. Rabenberg was found in possession of methamphetamine, fined $700 and given a three-year probation. Under Proposition 47, he was not charged with a felony. 

This encounter was not the last time the San Diego Police saw him, unfortunately. Rabenberg had been arrested six times for misdemeanors—and released all six times. All this happened in less than four months. He was arrested a seventh time for both drug possession and brandishing a weapon on April 26, 2015.

At this point, Rabenberg should have been faced with a choice: either face time in prison or enroll in an 18-month rehabilitation program established by San Diego’s alternative drug court. He wasn’t. Instead, he went to jail for three days and was released back on the streets. 

It is because of Proposition 47 that he got away with simply a slap on the wrist. I do not believe that a drug offense should automatically be answered with serious prison time, but putting offenders in jail for a short time and then sending them back on the streets does not solve the problem, as seen in Rabenberg’s case.


Criminal justice reform legislature such as Proposition 47 has done some good things for people such as Ingrid Archie, a woman who served prison time for various felony convictions. She succeeded in appealing her felony convictions through Proposition 47 and got her life back through the New Way of Life program. I applaud people such as her, as this is a great example of criminal justice reform. She was an ex-convict, and then she turned her life around for the better. The problem ultimately lies with the people who take advantage of the system.

There are some organizations proposing legislation that would amend certain aspects of Proposition 47. The Police Chief’s Association is sponsoring the Keep California Safe Act of 2020, an initiative that would establish “serial theft” as a felony when someone is caught stealing property valued at $250 three times.

People caught possessing drugs should face a similar consequence. Some cities’ alternative drug courts give misdemeanors for the first offense, and then by the second or third offense give the suspect two options: either they face time in state prison or they do an intensive, 18-month long rehabilitative program. The Washington Post revealed that San Diego’s alternative drug court reported graduation rates of up to 60%. Rehabilitative services have provided a lot of good for those suffering from drug addictions, so these programs should be utilized more often.

There are problems with our system and criminal justice reform is important, but so is making sure that people follow the law. These amendments are a good way to reduce our prison populations without compromising public safety.

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