Statistics on Theft Offenses May Not Be Telling the Full Story

By Michele Hanisee

Statistics don’t lie, but they are only as good as the data that gets reported. Theft offenses – especially shoplifting – are almost certainly being underreported. Here’s why.

Under California law, police officers are generally able to arrest people for misdemeanors only if the crime is committed in the officer’s presence. Because Prop. 47 turned a litany of felonies into misdemeanors – including theft of goods valued at less than $950 – police are unable to make arrests for these crimes, unless the crime occurs in their presence.

Prior to Prop. 47, a person who committed a theft and who had prior theft convictions could be arrested and charged with the felony offense of “petty theft with a prior.” The conversion of the misdemeanor offense to a felony based upon the prior conviction is what allowed police to make arrests for thefts committed outside their presence. But Prop. 47 created a new system wherein all thefts under $950 are misdemeanors, no mater how many times the perpetrator is convicted. So unless a store employee or theft victim makes a citizen’s arrest of a suspect and holds them until police arrive, the police can do little.

Needless to say, there are significant disincentives for a theft victim or security guard at a retail establishment to do so. Detaining criminals can be dangerous, as shown by the tragic stabbing death in August of a security guard who tried to stop a transient from stealing beer from a Sylmar supermarket. Retailers who instruct their employees to detain thieves create liability for themselves should the employee be injured or killed. The potential harm that could result from a physical altercation while an employee tries to detain a theft suspect outweighs the pecuniary harm that results from the loss of property. A retailer then also faces the additional cost of paying the employee to go to court when the case proceeds to trial.

The current political environment in which police work also disincentives arrest for petty thefts. Police officers are not going to chase someone down for a misdemeanor when they know they could get sued, fired or criminally charged for any use-of-force incident. Further disincentivizing arrests is the sad fact that in L.A. County, misdemeanor convictions usually result in no jail time. A person sentenced to 180 days in jail in Los Angeles County today is highly unlikely to serve any time behind bars aside from the time it takes to process them in and out. When there are other calls for service, a police officer’s time is better spent responding to active calls than spending hours to process a booking that will not result in any jail time.

The bottom line is that criminals know Prop. 47 has freed them up to steal, steal and steal again – with little chance of facing any real consequences. Indeed, one person in LA County has been arrested 80 times for Prop. 47 offenses since the law went into effect.

While the situation seems bleak, there is a solution in the works. Fed up with the state Legislature’s repeated rejection of common-sense attempts to fix Prop. 47’s most egregious flaws, a coalition of public safety proponents has taken matters into its own hands.

We are promoting a statewide ballot initiative to enact a broad swath of critical reforms including preventing the early release of child traffickers, holding serial thieves accountable, reinstating DNA collection for a number of crimes and making parole violators accountable to the courts.

The California Public Safety Partnership (CAPSP) aims to qualify the initiative for the 2018 November general election.

We need to collect about 366,000 valid signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, and we’re aiming to gather 600,000 by the end of April 2018. Our most powerful asset in getting this initiative qualified is you.

Please share information about the initiative with your family, friends, neighbors and on social media. If you are a Twitter user, please use the CAPSP hashtag @CAsafety to help create viral support for our effort.

Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.

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