People pass homeless individuals in Los Angeles on Jan. 11, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
With communities across the state affected by criminal activity, a newly introduced ballot initiative aims to amend a measure passed by California voters in 2014 that some say is contributing to a decreased sense of public safety.
The bipartisan initiative, known as the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, Retail Theft Reduction Act, would alter Proposition 47—which was meant to reduce prison populations by changing some theft and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
“We’re here from both sides because Prop 47 simply isn’t working as intended,” Jeff Reisig, Yolo County district attorney, said during a press conference announcing the initiative on Feb. 8. “We’ve seen the retail theft crisis spiral out of control ... and fentanyl is a crisis fueling the highest death rate we’ve ever seen.”
As one of the longest-serving district attorneys in the state, now in his 18th year, he said his county—the “bluest and most progressive in the Central Valley”—was negatively affected by Prop 47. Many now support the initiative to amend the law, he said.
“This is a commonsense fix ... [to] have some accountability again,” Mr. Reisig said. “It’s very balanced, very humane, and focused on treatment.”
A homeless man in Santa Monica, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
The proposal would mandate drug treatment—after which, felony charges would be expunged—after three arrests for possession of hard drugs, including fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
One medical expert said change is needed because misguided sympathy is putting lives at risk.
“As a doctor, I have infinite compassion ... and empathy,” Dr. Roneet Lev, director of operations for the Scripps Mercy Emergency Department, said during the press conference. “But compassion that avoids consequences for those that commit crimes isn’t compassion; it’s cruelty.”
Acknowledging a phrase that supporters of Prop 47 use to reject penalties for drug crimes, she said a deeper understanding of addiction and mental illness is needed to find effective solutions: “We’re not going to arrest our way out of addiction, but we’re not going to naloxone our way out of it either.”
Law enforcement experts said the issues facing the state have grown in scale in recent years.
“It is inescapable that we have a serious problem with drug addiction, homelessness, and crime in California,” Vern Pierson, El Dorado County district attorney, said during the press conference. Fellow initiative leaders noted the severity of the problem.
“Crime, drugs, and homelessness have been plaguing our state for a long time as if we’re living in a third-world country,” Frank Lee, director of communications for the campaign to pass the initiative, said during the press conference. “Drug addicts and homeless people are everywhere.”
The goal of the proposal is to have stricter penalties to reduce the number of crimes committed, he said.
“The intention of this initiative is to change people’s behavior for the betterment of the state,” Mr. Lee said. “The principle of deterrence is essential.”
A series of smash-and-grab robberies left stores with boarded-up windows in San Francisco, on Nov. 22, 2021. (Lear Zhou/The Epoch Times)
Community leaders agreed that consequences for criminals are needed to improve public safety.
“We need to have deterrence and diversion for people,” Darren White, with the Oakland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said during the press event. “For those robbing for financial gain, we need jail time.”
Communities are being affected by repeat offenders, he said.
“Crime has gotten out of control,” Mr. White said. “There’s a small amount of people committing crimes in our city, but they’re making it hard on everyone.”
Across the bay, San Francisco Mayor London Breed suggested the initiative would help address issues that are detrimental to Californians.
“In San Francisco, we are making progress on property crimes, but the challenges we are facing related to fentanyl and organized retail theft require real change to our state laws,” Ms. Breed said in a Feb. 8 press release issued by the initiative campaign. “[This proposal] will make targeted but impactful changes to our laws around fentanyl and help us tackle the chronic retail theft that hurts our retailers, our workers, and our cities.”
She said that is needed because drug addiction has worsened because of cheap and readily available fentanyl in the state.
A mother walks with her son, who is homeless and addicted to fentanyl, in San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
“Fentanyl is deadlier and more addictive than any drug we’ve ever seen, and it is tearing communities and families apart,” Ms. Breed said. “We need greater interventions to get people into treatment and to hold those selling this drug in our community accountable.”
A fellow city leader seconded Ms. Breed’s concerns and said that the proposal’s guidelines that allow for mandatory treatment programs will prove beneficial.
“We need reform that doesn’t take us back to the era of mass incarceration but allows judges to mandate treatment for those struggling with severe addiction, hold repeat offenders accountable, and treat fentanyl like the killer it is,” San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said in Ms. Breed’s press release.
A new approach is needed given the challenges facing the state, he said.
“We cannot be afraid to challenge the status quo when it is clearly not working for our residents,” he said. “Prop 47 was well-intended, but what really matters is its impact—and unfortunately, it’s hurting far too many families and small businesses across the state.”
Organizers reported that more than 360,000 signatures have been collected, with approximately 550,000 needed by the end of April for the measure to qualify for the November ballot.