People are seen looting stores at the Grove shopping center in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles on May 30, 2020. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
With retail theft impacting communities, California officials scheduled a hearing earlier this month to learn more about the issue and make recommendations to lawmakers, with some questioning if existing laws are failing to effectively address the crime.
California’s Little Hoover Commission—an independent oversight agency providing recommendations for the state government—gathered information from stakeholders during a four-hour hearing Dec. 14 where commissioners grilled various witnesses, including Sacramento Sheriff Jim Cooper and state Sen. Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks)—a lawmaker who introduced a failed bill earlier this year to strengthen penalties for retail theft offenders.
Tasked with investigating the issue and reporting findings and recommendations for lawmakers to consider, the bi-partisan 13-member panel is made up of nine members of the public appointed by the governor and the Legislature, as well as two lawmakers each from the state Senate and Assembly.
After watching videos of smash-and-grab robberies and hearing accounts of retail theft incidents, including violent encounters, some on the panel said the problem is little understood.
A lack of data stems from inconsistent reporting, they said.
“If you think about the scope of the problem, it’s anecdotally compelling, statistically fuzzy,” Commissioner David Beier said during the meeting. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act.”
Some on the panel, like Mr. Beier, argued that “data drives decisions” and said they needed more information to act upon.
“We don’t have the luxury of making conclusions on the basis of incomplete or incorrect information,” he said. “We’re trying to focus on concrete things the government can do by scaling it to the facts that we know or can ascertain.”
Retail industry experts told the commission that relevant data is difficult to produce, in part because the problem is so recent.
“The challenge is, the data that you all are asking for pretty much doesn’t exist,” Daniel Conway, vice president of government relations for the California Grocers Association, told the commission during the meeting. “This phenomenon that we’re seeing around retail theft is relatively new.”
The Council on Criminal Justice—a Washington, D.C.-based public policy group—noted the inherent unreliability of retail theft crime data, in a report from November, because of inconsistent reporting from retailers. The authors suggested some stores don’t call the police when such a crime occurs because nothing is done.
Sacramento Sheriff Jim Cooper agreed that numbers are difficult to pinpoint.
“We really don’t know the numbers because ... crimes are underreported,” Mr. Cooper said. “Some stores are told not to report it.”
He also told commissioners about the rash of thefts impacting his community, saying the problem has become a “constant flow” of criminal activity and said laxer drug enforcement policies enacted by voter initiatives, including 2014’s Proposition 47 which reduced some felony theft and drug crimes to misdemeanors, is contributing to the problem.
According to a letter from June that was sent to the commission from 66 bipartisan members of both the California Assembly and Senate, the lawmakers said it’s unclear if the proposition has led to today’s surge in retail theft.
“With convincing arguments from both support and opposition as well as a lack of concrete information on retail theft, it is difficult to ascertain the actual impact of Prop. 47,” the letter to commissioners said.
It was these lawmakers who requested the commission study the matter and publish a report studying retail theft, shoplifting, and organized crime.
“We recognize the Commission’s long standing reputation as a trusted provider of independent research to the Legislature,” the letter reads, acknowledging the respect given to the group, which informs the state on government operations and policy, since its establishment in 1962. “This is why we request that the Commission shed light on this multi-faceted issue.”
Lawmakers said in the letter that they want the study to include the number and value of reported thefts and responses by police and district attorneys.
While most witnesses testifying before the panel requested amending Proposition 47 by allowing for repeat offenders to be charged with felonies, one commissioner said such would be difficult.
“For a lot of people, changing Prop. 47 is a huge ask,” Commissioner Janna Sidley said during the meeting.
Passed as a voter initiative, lawmakers can’t amend the measure. Changes would have to be put forth on a ballot for voters to decide.
Further contributing to the crime problem are prior legislative actions, according to experts who spoke before the panel, including a 2010 law that established the criminal threshold for theft at $950, which Prop. 47 codified.
Some say the higher threshold allows criminals to target stores with little chance of receiving substantive punishment, as charges are limited to misdemeanors for amounts less than $950.
Also impacting prosecutors’ efforts are pre-trial diversions—where offers are made to defendants lessening sentences in a law, which took effect in 2021, Will Rivera, assistant head deputy for the Los Angeles City Attorney, told the commission.
The former chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, long a supporter of reducing sentences and prison populations, told commissioners during a meeting they held in November that laws need to be enforced to protect the public.
“I don’t see why they’re not prosecuted as felons and why they’re not serving serious time,” Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said at the time. “And I’m a criminal justice [reform] person.”
Retailers additionally told the panel in the most recent hearing their businesses are being negatively impacted by theft. Stores are responding by increasing security, putting items under lock and key, and installing better surveillance cameras, like those with facial recognition and license plate readers, an industry spokesperson told the panel.
“We’re doing all that we can in investing in this defensive retailing technology,” said another representative from the California Grocers Association, Lynn Melillo, who is also a vice president with the grocery chain Bristol Farms. “Retail grocery operates on a very thin margin ... every dollar counts.”
Retailers said they need help from lawmakers to protect their employees and the public.
“We’re looking for legislation that gives the police and the district attorneys the tools they need to get real sentences for criminals that are doing retail theft in our stores,” Ms. Melillo said. “We want to see some type of consequence for repeat offenders.”
Some are returning several times per week to steal from the same store, while others are targeting multiple stores on the same day, she said.
Prosecutors also testified that a focus on repeat offenders would be helpful in deterring such crimes.
“Misdemeanors have no consequences. That’s the practical fact; they don’t,” Jonathan Raven—chief deputy district attorney for Yolo County—told the commission. “They’re not going to do any jail time.”
Many of those caught stealing have drug abuse histories, law enforcement experts told the panel.
CVS items among nearly 14,000 products recovered from retail theft ring investigation in Glendale, Calif., on Aug. 31, 2023. (Courtesy of California Highway Patrol)
Before the laws were changed, prosecutors, he said, could negotiate with defendants and offer drug treatment as an alternative to jail time, Mr. Raven said.
“If you have the option of a felony, you have some incentive, and, some might say, some leverage,” he said. “You can nudge them in ... to treatment.”
Today, some lawmakers say criminals are taking advantage of relaxed regulations.
“There’s a reason people are calling our state ‘Crimeafornia’,” Senate Minority Leader Brian W. Jones (R-San Diego) said in a Dec. 13 press release. “The increase in theft at all levels—shoplifting, smash-and-grab sprees, and organized retail crime—is stunning, costly, and dangerous.”
The commission will next meet Jan. 25 for a third hearing on the issue.