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To counter recent legislation that would step up penalties on petty crimes, a group of progressive state lawmakers yesterday offered a rival approach, focusing instead on more services for offenders and survivors of crimes.

They are backing a new legislative package — dubbed “#SmartSolutions” — to address retail theft, fentanyl abuse and support for crime survivors.

The proposals come amid the ongoing tension among Democrats, who are split over how to address the growing public concern about crime, even though statistics paint a mixed picture. For example, retail theft rose in recent years but still remained below pre-pandemic levels in 2022, according to an analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Some Democratic legislators and local officials — eager to show they are acting especially during an election year — have advocated for tougher sentences for retail theft or backed a ballot measure to roll back Proposition 47, a voter-approved measure in 2014 that raised the felony threshold for shoplifting to $950.

Others, however, argue that raising penalties and undoing Prop. 47 could mean California is reverting back to the tough-on-crime policies in the 1980s and the 1990s that led to mass incarceration.

“Some lawmakers have responded (to retail theft) by pushing policies that solely focus on punitive measures that deepen our crisis of mass incarceration at a time when California has pledged to walk away from it and dismantle it,” said state Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, a Los Angeles Democrat.

Smallwood-Cuevas is sponsoring two bills that would require counties to set up diversion programs for theft-related offenses and increase staffing at grocery store checkout counters.

“I’m not saying that we are not going to be holding folks accountable to the actions that they take,” she said at a state Capitol press conference this morning where three other legislators spoke. “We will not rely on incarceration as a solution, but rather look for ways to build training, create career skills, build industry networks that drive our folks into contribution to our communities.”

Also this morning, two bills toughening state law around petty crimes, such as retail thefts and the “smash-and-grabs,” cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee. They are part of the “Safer California Plan” championed by new Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire, a Santa Rosa Democrat.

Under Senate Bill 1242, introduced by Sen. Dave Min, an Irvine Democrat who is running for Congress, those who set fire during organized retail theft might face harsher penalties for reckless arson at the discretion of the judge.

Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers’ Association, which supports the bill, pointed to a September incident where a woman set fire in a Target to steal baby formula. “When these businesses fall victim to arson, it not only results in financial loss but disrupts the local economy, leading to job losses and decline in community morale,” she said during the committee hearing. “Stronger penalties serve as a deterrent to potential offenders and help protect both property and human life.”

Another bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, would create new crimes for those who break into vehicles to steal and for those who steal and try to sell more than $950 worth of items. The bill would fix the “locked doors loophole” in state law, which currently requires district attorneys to prove the doors to a car or a house were locked when prosecuting burglars, Wiener said.

Carl Nicita, principal legislative liaison for the San Francisco Police Department, said that requirement is hard to meet: “Victims are often asked to testify in court that their vehicle was locked. But when a victim is a tourist or a visitor, as is often the case in San Francisco, it can be very difficult to secure the testimony of a victim because they live elsewhere.”

The bill, Nicita said during the hearing, would “send a message that, if you break into cars, you will be held accountable.”

Several other bills on retail theft that would increase penalties or give law enforcement more authority have not had a hearing yet. Assembly Bill 1990, by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, would allow police officers to make warrantless arrests on misdemeanors of shoplifting offenses, even if they were not present when the alleged crime occurred.

SB 923, from Sen. Bob Archuleta, a Norwalk Democrat, would subject shoplifters with multiple prior convictions to as long as three years behind bars. The bill was scheduled for a hearing yesterday but was then rescheduled for Apr. 16.

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