Fight over retail theft is testing California Democrats' strive to avoid mass incarceration policies

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state leaders reversed course on a plan to place a crime-focused initiative on the November ballot a day after announcing it.

In a statement released Tuesday night, Newsom said there’s not enough time for state leaders to work out final language before the Wednesday deadline. State leaders rolled out the proposed measure Sunday night after spending weeks unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a separate, more punitive proposal on the same subject off the ballot.

The unusual and abrupt move highlights state Democrats' difficult balancing act between tamping down voters' frustration on crimes and avoiding a return to mass incarceration policies — all while the Governor has his eyes set on political ambitions elsewhere.

Newsom, who reportedly has presidential goals of his own, jetted off to Washington D.C. Wednesday morning to support President Joe Biden and will spend the next few days fundraising for the president after a shaky debate performance.

“This gives you real insight into Gavin Newsom and how he thinks and where he’s at,” Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan said. “It is that he cares about himself above all others.”

The now-abandoned measure would have competed with the tougher-on-crime ballot initiative backed by a broad coalition of district attorneys, business groups and local officials. Both proposals would increase penalties for some drug charges and make shoplifting a felony for repeat offenders, but Democratic lawmakers' plan was narrower in scope and less punitive. They argued the district attorneys' proposal would return California to the the war on drugs and mass incarceration era.

Lawmakers will now return to their original plan of advancing a legislative package of bills to target auto thieves and professional reseller schemes, which they aim to deliver to Newsom by the end of the session in August.

Republicans and the coalition led by district attorneys, who called the Democrats' ballot measure “a sham,” celebrated its defeat Wednesday.

“For once, Californians benefitted from having a governor who cares more about national politics than his job in Sacramento,” state Senate Republican leader Brian Jones said in a statement.

How to tackle crimes in California has become increasingly difficult to navigate in recent years for state Democrats, many of whom have spent the last decade championing progressive policies to depopulate jails and prisons and invest in rehabilitation programs.

But the issue hit a boiling point this year amid mounting criticism from Republicans and law enforcement. Voters across the state are also vexed over what they see as a lawless California where retail crimes and drug abuse run rampant as the state grapples with a homelessness crisis.

As the issue could even affect the makeup — and control — of Congress, some Democrats broke with party leadership and said they supported the tough-on crime approach.

It's hard to quantify the retail crime issue in California because of the lack of local data, but many point to major store closures and everyday products like toothpaste being locked behind plexiglass as evidence of a crisis. Videos of large groups of people brazenly rushing into stores and stealing in plain sight have gone viral.

The state attorney general and experts said crime rates in California remain low compared to the heights decades ago.

The plan to put an alternative crime-focused measure on the ballot was one of several attempts state leaders have made to walk the tightrope on crime — tactics even some top Democrats weren't happy with. State Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire told reporters on Monday it’s “unfortunate” and “frustrating” that lawmakers have to put a crime-focused measure on the ballot. Other Democrats also withdrew their support when leadership planned to void their own legislative package if voters approve the tough-on-crime initiative led by business groups.

The lawmakers' balancing act on crime “requires a lot of buy-in, and it requires often a set-aside of your own political ambitions and sometimes making things uncomfortable,” political science professor McCuan said. "And not all politicians are prepared to do that.”

Criminal justice reform groups are lining up support behind the legislative package, which they say is much more comprehensive and impactful than the ballot initiatives in addressing retail theft and drug abuse.

Beyond the fight over the crime ballot measures, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón face tough reelection bids against challengers who have criticized their approaches to crime and punishment.

“California right now has to position itself to double down on real solutions,” said Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which wrote a 2014 proposition to reduce some non-violent charges from felonies into misdemeanors. “What we need right now is leadership.”