Tough-on-crime measure officially qualifies for November ballot as rifts in Legislature mount

Burbank, CA - December 03: Amy Jordan sweeps broken glass from her Alone Vintage boutique that was hit by smash and grab burglars early morning on 3200 block of Magnolia Blvd. on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 in Burbank, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Amy Jordan sweeps broken glass from her vintage boutique, which was hit by smash-and-grab burglars in Burbank in 2021. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A ballot measure to impose harsher criminal penalties for drug possession and theft, altering the controversial Proposition 47 passed in 2014, has qualified for the November ballot.

The measure, however, may be undercut by the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, which is pushing a package of bills targeting retail thefts across the state. The lawmakers hope the legislation will sway voters to reject the tough-on-crime ballot initiative, and are using the bills to pressure proponents of the measure rescind their proposal.

News of the ballot measure qualifying comes just two weeks before the secretary of state releases the official slate of statewide propositions that will appear on the November ballot. It also comes as Democratic leadership made a hardball move last week by promising to add an amendment to their retail crime legislation that would revoke the laws if voters pass the statewide proposition.

“We’re calling today upon our leaders to stop playing politics,” Greg Totten, co-chair of Californians for Safer Communities, said Wednesday during a news conference. “The Legislature’s plan to include an automatic repeal ... proves they are not serious about addressing the explosion in retail theft and the state’s fentanyl crisis.”

Since voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014, the initiative has been a focus of debate over whether it is the reason for the rash of retail thefts across the state. Democratic lawmakers say that the measure helped reduce prison populations and that some areas have seen property crimes go down. Republicans say the measure has led to a lack of arrests and less accountability for thieves.

Read more: New change coming to retail theft legislation could splinter support for tough-on-crime initiative

The secretary of state has verified that the measure gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, made possible by a multimillion-dollar signature-gathering effort that big-box retailers including Walmart, Home Deport and Target largely funded.

The ballot initiative, called the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act, would change the law to make a third offense of theft, regardless of the value of merchandise, a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. The measure also would make possession of fentanyl a felony. Finally, the measure would impose a “treatment-mandated felony” the third time someone is arrested for drug possession.

Democrats have crafted a comprehensive 14-bill package that they think will address the issue of property crime and drug use in California — without the need to go back to the ballot box.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has repeatedly said he is against bringing Proposition 47 back to the ballot.

“It doesn’t achieve the goals that are intended. I want to do something that can be done legislatively with more flexibility,” Newsom told The Times last week. “We have launched a package of bills working in both houses of the Legislature that have been fantastic in addressing legitimate concerns we have been addressing for years now. Not just retail theft, but organized retail theft.”

Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Select Committee on Retail Theft, told reporters Tuesday that the package of bills was “never intended” to be stacked on top of a “one-sided ballot measure.”

Times staff writer Mackenzie Mays contributed to this report.

Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.