The California Assembly has officially created the first retail theft committee, called the Select Committee on Retail Theft, to address the problem of inconsistent reporting practices within the retail sector.
Legislators said it is difficult to find ways to halt smash-and-grab robberies in California, even though recordings of the crimes are going viral on social media and garnering attention across the globe.
While accepting the need for action, some argue that viral videos are misrepresenting the world and making retail theft incidents seem more numerous than they are.
“What is happening in our communities is unacceptable and we must act with urgency,” Assemblyman Rick Chavez Zbur (D-Hollywood) said in a Dec. 18 press release. “But we must also look at the facts and find the solutions that will actually work.”
Experts claim that inconsistent reporting practices within the retail sector impede comprehension.
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The California Assembly’s recently established Select Committee on Retail Theft convened for the first time on December 19 to address the problem.
“The retailers are screaming for help,” committee member Assemblyman Juan Alanis (R-Modesto) told The Epoch Times after the meeting. “Everyone has their own ideas, and hopefully by the end of these hearings, we can identify some solutions.”
The 11-member team, chaired by Mr. Zbur and made up of two Republicans and nine Democrats, was established by Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) in October to find answers to what lawmakers refer to as a “ongoing crisis.”
“The Select Committee was formed to do just that—to listen to the experts and those in our communities who are impacted, to discern the facts, and to understand the best path forward,” Mr. Zbur said.
Retail crime, which includes stealing and commercial burglaries and robberies (in which employees are intimidated by violence or threats), is a major problem in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Los Angeles County, according to a press release issued by a committee on December 12.
“This is impacting our constituents,” committee member Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) said during the hearing. “They’re feeling the brunt of this in higher costs … and feeling unsafe in public spaces.”
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Greater rates of theft are seen in larger counties. According to Magnus Lofstrom, senior fellow and policy director at the Public Policy Institute of California, there has been an increase in commercial burglaries and robberies in twenty-one and twenty-five of the state’s fifty-eight counties, respectively.
He emphasized the difficulty in getting reliable data and pointed out that reporting changes—some firms no longer reporting thefts to the police—are affecting statistics.
“As with any data, there are important limitations … to incidents reported,” Mr. Lofstrom said.
The California Retailers Association’s president and CEO, Rachel Michelin, informed the committee that police enforcement has instructed certain retailers not to call until there is a threat of violence.
A Sacramento company was forewarned that misdemeanor theft complaints would result in a public nuisance complaint against the store, which would further skew data, she claimed.
Retailers are requesting that lawmakers take up changes to state law brought about by the 2014 ballot proposal known as Prop 47, which reduced certain felonies involving theft and drugs to misdemeanors to reduce the number of people incarcerated.
Petty theft with a prior offense that permits the filing of felony charges for repeat offenders and “aggregation of thefts,” where the worth of stolen items can be added together to exceed the $950 felony threshold, are of particular concern.
Prop. 47 removed both, and their reinstatement would need another ballot proposal.
Prosecutors in California contend that some regulations in place, such as Prop. 47, restrict their options and enable numerous crimes to go unpunished.
“Even if you can charge them with a felony, the jails are so crowded they won’t serve any time,” Ivy B. Fitzpatrick, managing district attorney for Riverside County, told the commission. “With no real consequences for repeat offenders, we’re seeing a rise in retail theft crimes.”
According to her, one individual who was accused of 54 burglary offenses spent a total of seven months in county jail.
Commissioners were informed by Ms. Fitzpatrick that fewer prosecutors’ choices for sentencing have also resulted in a decrease in the number of people enrolled in drug treatment diversion programs—down 67% since the passage of Prop. 47, despite a 42% increase in homelessness statewide.
According to law enforcement officials, repeat criminals are making the situation worse, which is having a detrimental effect on communities throughout California.
Alexander Gammelgard, the president of the California Police Chiefs Association and the chief of police of Grass Valley, stated during the hearing that “when we see the same people committing the same crime… it suggests the system is broken.”
As per the assembly speaker, striking a balance between the pressing need to tackle retail theft and the latest law reform initiatives is a multifaceted undertaking.
“It’s important that we preserve our successful criminal justice reforms,” Mr. Rivas said during the hearing. “But at the same time, we need to ensure that we are delivering solutions to businesses and consumers.”
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the incoming chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, stated he understands the severity of the issue and is searching for innovative solutions.
“Inaction is unacceptable,” he said during the meeting.
Although experts informed the panel that Prop. 47 was contributing to an increase in criminal behavior, and panel head Mr. Zbur indicated reluctance to specifically name the voter initiative.
“I’m circumspect on pulling Prop. 47,” Mr. Zbur said during the hearing. “We should be thinking about smart solutions and out-of-the-box thinking.”
Over a dozen people gave their perspectives during the approximately thirty minutes of public discussion over the four hours of the information-gathering hearing.
Mr. Zbur states that the committee intends to have meetings in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2024 at yet-to-be-determined dates to allow interested parties to offer feedback.