Many Californians had high hopes for Proposition 47, a ballot initiative passed in November 2014 with 60 percent voter approval. The measure reduced penalties for some crimes, including certain drug violations, to help relieve overcrowding in state prisons.
While Prop 47 succeeded in meeting those objectives, it also triggered a major unintended consequence: It set in motion a wave of smash-and-grab motor-vehicle burglaries and a surge of retail shopliftings. For this reason, Prop 47 has earned the dishonor of receiving Independent Institutes fifth California Golden Fleece® Award, recognition given quarterly to state or local government programs or laws that swindle taxpayers or break the public trust.
The main reason Prop 47 spurred an epidemic of property theft and destruction was its weakening of criminal penalties: By raising the monetary threshold for a felony theft to $950 in property value, up from $500 before the measure passed, Prop 47 lowered thieves expected cost of criminal activity.
By reducing penalties associated with car break-ins, shoplifting, and other property crimesand by making it more difficult to issue felony sentencesProp 47 de-prioritizes justice for California residents and businesses, who are now increasingly victims of vandals and thieves operating with near impunity, writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Lawrence J. McQuillan, in his new report, California Property Crime Surge Is Unintended Consequence of Proposition 47.
Among the reports findings and recommendations:
Californians have been reporting significantly more vehicle break-ins than would be expected had crime trends continued on their pre-Prop-47 path. In 2015 and 2016, reported vehicle break-ins were up 21 percent and 27 percent, respectively, from the earlier trend line. In 2017, vehicle break-ins surpassed previous records, with a 24 percent increase above 2016 levels.
In San Francisco, where the smash-and-grab epidemic is worst, on average one vehicle break-in was reported every 20 minutes. Overall, the arrest rate is less than 2 percent, and the consequences for apprehended criminals are mere citations. People would likely report more crimes if they had greater confidence that law enforcement would secure arrests, prosecutions, and convictions.
In 2015, the first year of Prop 47s relaxed rules, shopliftings rose statewide nearly 11 percent above the previous five-year average, amounting to about 11,000 additional shopliftings. Organized crime rings are often involved.
Policymakers and the public could reduce vehicle break-ins and shopliftings by lowering the felony threshold from property valued at $950 to an amount closer to the pre-Prop-47 value of $500. When sentencing a thief, courts should be allowed to consider the total combined value of all stolen property across multiple incidents.
Law enforcement should make property crimes a higher priority, pursuing arrests even for small crimes, so that track records of criminal activity are established.
▪ Property owners, businesses, and residents should step up their use of security technology, community involvement (including social media), and police reporting. Ultimately, people will help by reporting more crimes when they gain more confidence that law enforcement is taking the problem more seriously.
Property crimes produce true victims. Californians deserve a legal system that provides true justice, McQuillans report concludes.
Lawrence J. McQuillan, PhD, is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation. The California Golden Fleece® Awards expose waste, fraud, and abuse in California government. To receive this ignoble designation, a spending program, tax, law, or regulation must (1) violate common-sense principles of responsible government, (2) be considered wasteful by people of diverse political outlooks, and (3) be well documented in its harm.
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