Newsom and Democratic lawmakers announce ballot measure to rival more conservative crime reform

FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom answers a reporters question about his revised 2024-25 state budget during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, May 10, 2024. Newsom used his State of the State address on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, to boost President Joe Biden ahead of Thursday's pivotal presidential debate, comparing Donald Trump's version of the Republican Party to the rise of fascism prior to World War II and offering Democrats' ideals as "an antidote to the poisonous populism of the right." (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Monday's proposal amounts to an abrupt political reversal for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had said he opposed efforts to change the state's controversial Proposition 47 through the ballot measure process. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders on Monday announced a new November ballot initiative to crack down on retail theft and fentanyl dealers, an effort designed to compete against a tougher anti-crime measure championed by a group of county district attorneys.

The measure would retool the controversial criminal justice reform California voters approved a decade ago, Proposition 47, which changed certain lower-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors and invested in drug and mental health treatment.

Monday's announcement is an abrupt political reversal for Newsom, who earlier this year said he opposed efforts to alter Proposition 47 through the ballot measure process and insisted that the necessary reforms could be handled legislatively.

The measure comes just weeks after the crime initiative proposed by a group of county district attorneys qualified for the November ballot. Newsom criticized the prosecutor-led plan as a regressive effort that could take California back to the 1990s era of mass incarceration.

The latest ballot initiative backed by the governor would address repeat shoplifting by making the third petty-theft-related offense over a three-year period eligible for a three-year jail sentence. In cases involving multiple thefts, if the total amount stolen exceeds $950, the offenses could be prosecuted as a felony.

The proposal — announced Monday by the governor and Senate Pro Tem Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) — also would enact stiffer penalties for dealers who knowingly mixed drugs with fentanyl without the buyer's knowledge. Under the measure, judges also would be required to issue warnings to convicted fentanyl dealers about the lethal risks associated with distributing the drug, making it easier for prosecutors to charge dealers with murder if a death occurs. The initiative also would increase resources for drug treatment and mental health programs.

“With targeted reforms to Prop. 47, this ballot measure is a critical step forward in our efforts to strengthen California’s public safety laws and provide law enforcement with additional tools to address the growing concerns of property crime and the fentanyl crisis," Newsom said in a written statement released Monday. "This balanced approach cracks down on crime and protects our communities — without reverting to ineffective and costly policies of the past.”

If the measure is approved by the Democratic-led Legislature this week, as expected, California voters in November would see two competing crime measures on the ballot: the one supported by the governor and the separate Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act, which has strong support among some county district attorneys and anti-crime groups.

McGuire on Monday told reporters that there were "some reservations" about the Legislature bringing in their own ballot initiative. But he said, ultimately, their proposal is less punitive and costly.

"I assure you that it's going to crack down on community-based crimes and hold hard-core drug dealers accountable," he said.

The legislative bill package and the ballot measure will be voted on Wednesday.

The prosecutors' initiative would change the law to make a third offense of theft a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison, regardless of the value of merchandise. The measure also would make possession of fentanyl a felony. Finally, the proposal would impose a “treatment-mandated felony” the third time someone is arrested on a drug possession charge.

Read more: Newsom suggests ways to crack down on property crime without dismantling Proposition 47

California voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014, during an era when the tough-on-crime policies of the past were under attack for being ineffective and unjust, and when the courts found the state's overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional.

Before that measure passed, thefts could be considered a felony if stolen merchandise was valued at $450 or more, but Proposition 47 raised the threshold to $950. Critics have disparaged the change since it was enacted, saying the reduced punishment led to an increase in thefts in California. Newsom and other supporters of Proposition 47 said that most other states, including Texas, have higher dollar-amount thresholds than California for a suspect to be charged with a felony.

Newsom and the Legislature plan to cut back on prison spending and transition away from a criminal justice system dependent on incarceration. They argue that the prosecutor-led initiative could end up placing low-level drug and theft offenders back into state prisons instead of jails, where they serve time for misdemeanors, ballooning California's prison population.

“Here’s what Californians tell us: They don’t want to go back to mass incarceration, and spending billions of dollars to imprison people for years over minor offenses,” Rivas said in a statement.

The Legislature also is considering what is now a complementary bill package that would, among several things, give store owners the chance to file for restraining orders against repeat offenders and provide district attorneys with better tools to prosecute car break-ins and multiple thefts that take place in different counties.

The newly proposed ballot measure follows a few long weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions and contentious political maneuvering involving both the crime bills and the ballot measures, which have been intertwined during debate in the Capitol.

Most notably, it comes after Democrats unexpectedly inserted an amendment to the crime bills that would revoke parts of legislation — which until that point had bipartisan support — if voters approve the prosecutor-supported ballot initiative. That amendment has recently been stricken from the bills, but the criticism and mistrust the maneuver created remains.

"That was a punch to the gut to the proponents," said Yolo County Dist. Atty. Jeff Reisig, one of the prosecutors involved in the initiative.

Since then, members of the Republican and Democratic caucuses, and leaders of the prosecutor-led coalition, quarreled via separately live-streamed news conferences over the political gamesmanship taking place.

"Don't play politics on public safety. It's the wrong thing to do in the current environment," said Greg Totten, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Assn. and a supporter of the prosecutor-led initiative. "We all came together to draft and qualify a ballot initiative, frankly because politicians in the Capitol have ignored our concerns."

Read more: Can California curb retail theft without changing Prop. 47? Assembly Democrats unveil their plan

The Democratic caucus has reportedly been split since, and members have removed their names from the bipartisan package because of strong-arm tactics.

Times staff writer Taryn Luna contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.