Gov. Newsom calls for new laws targeting retail thieves amid rash of robberies

Gov. Newsom calls for new laws targeting retail thieves amid rash of robberies

Gov. Gavin Newsom called for new laws targeting retail thieves Tuesday amid a rash of brazen robberies often captured on video and spread on social media and TV newscasts that have tarnished the Golden State’s image — and drawn scrutiny to criminal justice reforms he backed.

Newsom’s legislative framework adds teeth to prosecution of people he says are “professional thieves.” He called for increasing felony penalties and prison time for those who resell stolen goods. He also called for new penalties for auto burglary and for possession of items stolen from a vehicle, locked or not, with intent to resell.

“Building on California’s existing laws and record public safety investments, I’m calling for new legislation to expand criminal penalties for those profiting on retail theft and auto burglaries,” Newsom said in a statement. “These laws will make California safer and bolster police and prosecutor tools to arrest and hold professional criminals accountable.”

But Republican leaders said the Democratic governor is partly to blame for supporting criminal justice reform laws like Proposition 47, the voter approved 2014 initiative that softened penalties for drug and property crimes. Newsom’s proposal notably didn’t include rollbacks to the initiative, as many critics are calling for.

“You cannot effectively address property crime without reforming Prop 47 and at least having the threat of real accountability for thieves,” Assemblyman James Gallagher, the state’s Assembly Republican Leader, said Tuesday in a post on social media site X. “Cite and release doesn’t work.”

California’s Little Hoover Commission, an independent state watchdog agency, last month heard testimony from retailers and law enforcement officials about brazen store thefts, at the request of Republican lawmakers. The commission is expected to hold more meetings this year before making a recommendation.

Retailers, who in many areas have had to lock up items to keep thieves from clearing out shelves, testified that thefts have gotten out of control and they feel helpless because police are reluctant to respond to low-level crimes for which arrested suspects are often given a court date and released from jail. They noted that it wasn’t just career criminals clearing out store shelves to resell goods on the black market but often people filling up a basket and leaving without paying.

But commissioners, mostly Democrats, pushed back, questioning whether data demonstrate there’s a problem and whether Prop 47 or other reform measures are to blame. Law enforcement officials who testified said the retail robbery trend is real, though data tend to mask the rise in property crimes because retailers often give up on calling police. Those officials also said that Prop 47 has made enforcement more challenging.

It remains to be seen whether Newsom’s fellow Democrats will try and go farther. Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur, who chairs a Select Committee on Retail Theft that held a hearing on the issue last month, has raised the prospect of modifying Prop 47. But Zbur applauded Newsom on Tuesday for “prioritizing the fight against retail theft with his release of a strong legislative package.”

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said that “this framework will close loopholes criminals have exploited and increase felony penalties for smash and grabs, retail theft, and auto burglaries.”

Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform group, praised Newsom for avoiding rolling back measures like Prop 47, which she said “have been critical in safely moving California away from the era of failed ‘tough on crime’ policy that resulted in a mass incarceration crisis.”

California Retailers Association President and CEO Rachel Michelin called the proposal “another huge step in the right direction on tackling this problem” and said retailers “appreciate that the Governor and his team listened to our concerns.”

Previous efforts have failed to repeal or modify Prop 47 and other recent criminal justice reform measures such as Proposition 57, a 2016 initiative that increased parole eligibility, and AB 109, which allowed many felons to serve their sentences at county jails instead of prison.

Voters in 2020 rejected Proposition 20, which would have rolled back provisions of those measures. Assemblyman Juan Alanis, a Modesto Republican, introduced a Prop 47 repeal a year ago that was turned into a request for the Little Hoover Commission report on the retail theft problem.

Alanis on Tuesday called Newsom’s proposal “a good first step.”

“But a lot of work still needs to be done,” Alanis said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and the governor on these important issues. But we as a legislature must have a serious conversation about the continued impacts Prop 47 has had across the state of California.”