Newsom pulls anti-crime ballot measure, capping Democrats' chaotic response to Prop. 47 reform

In a wild turn of events, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic lawmakers backed away Tuesday from plans to put an anti-crime measure on the ballot, a day after they announced the proposal that had been the subject of protracted negotiations at the Capitol.

The abrupt cancellation capped half a year of political maneuvering on criminal justice policy, with Democrats zigging and zagging as they responded to a tough-on-crime initiative backed by Republicans, district attorneys and major retail stores. That initiative is still heading to the November ballot, asking voters to repeal parts of Proposition 47, the decade-old law that turned some nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors.

Newsom had hoped to offer voters an alternative measure, something that would address concerns about theft and fentanyl without being as punitive as the prosecutors’ measure. Democrats spent days haggling over the alternative measure, and it was formalized in legislation Sunday night — in the final hours before the cutoff for lawmakers to draft a measure for the November ballot.

The measure backed by the governor and legislative leaders addressed repeat shoplifting by making the third petty-theft-related offense over a three-year period eligible for a three-year jail sentence. In cases involving multiple thefts, the offenses could be prosecuted as a felony if the total value of stolen goods exceeded $950. It also would have stiffened penalties for drug dealers who sold fentanyl without the buyer’s knowledge.

Newsom touted the plan as “targeted reforms to Prop. 47” that reflected a “balanced approach.”

He said it would “put public safety first without reverting to outdated and ineffective policies of decades past.”

But it fundamentally sought to do something that Newsom and legislative leaders had said for months that they did not want to do — ask voters to change Proposition 47, a pillar of the state’s progressive criminal justice reforms that’s meant to reduce incarceration.

Lawmakers were scheduled to vote on Newsom’s measure Wednesday night, a plan that was already chaotic with members leaving Sacramento for the July 4 holiday and a one-month summer recess — and a deadline for Newsom to sign the legislation before midnight Wednesday to make the ballot. Then Newsom decided to fly to Washington on Wednesday to “stand with the President,” his campaign spokesman said, as Biden meets with Democratic governors in an attempt to shore up support for his reelection campaign.

Newsom blamed the tight timeline in a statement explaining his decision to pull the measure.

“We are unable to meet the ballot deadline to secure necessary amendments to ensure this measure’s success and we will be withdrawing it from consideration,” Newsom said in a statement. “I’d like to thank the Legislature and countless stakeholders who came to the table to work on meaningful reforms and I look forward to our work ahead.”

Although Newsom said his measure had the necessary votes to pass, three Democratic lawmakers said it lacked support — an astonishing political miscalculation in a body where Democrats hold a sizable supermajority.

Its collapse marked a rare case of Democratic lawmakers standing up to the governor on one of his priorities — but also evinced a wobbly strategy by two inexperienced legislative leaders. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas took the helm last year in the lower chamber, and Senate leader Mike McGuire was sworn in to lead the upper chamber earlier this year. Both men made high-profile efforts to address theft through legislation and — like Newsom — said numerous times this year that they did not want to ask voters to reform Proposition 47.

Instead they advanced a package of anti-crime bills and used them to try to persuade the prosecutors to withdraw their measure from the ballot. Democrats tried to strongarm negotiations by adding provisions to revoke their own anti-crime bills if voters passed the prosecutors’ measure — a tactic that backfired after drawing broad condemnation from sheriffs and district attorneys who convinced enough lawmakers to withdraw their support. It also caused uproar among Republicans, who yanked their support for what had been a bipartisan package of anti-crime bills. Democrats ended up repealing the controversial provisions just weeks after proposing them.

“For months, attempts were made to engage the California District Attorneys Association in this effort. They refused, opting to instead push a ballot measure that would revive policies from the era of mass incarceration and the failed War on Drugs,” Newsom said in the statement.

After talks collapsed, Newsom and Democratic leaders came up with the plan to draft their own alternative measure. But it struggled to gain support — felled by opposition from progressive Democrats who oppose stiffer criminal penalties and want to avoid filling jails, as well as from moderate Democrats who value support from sheriffs and district attorneys backing the more conservative measure. Newsom’s measure didn’t have any support from law enforcement groups.

The Legislature’s Black caucus opposed the measure, Assemblymember Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City) said during a hearing Tuesday morning, with concerns that it could disproportionately affect Black Californians. The bill passed a procedural vote on the Assembly floor on Monday but didn’t garner a majority of the full chamber, a rare occurrence for a bill backed by leadership. Republicans blasted the legislation for including the phrase “Alexandra’s Law” without an OK from the family of a 20-year-old from Riverside County whose parents have been advocating for stiffer punishment for drug dealers since their daughter died after taking a fentanyl pill that she bought from a dealer on Snapchat.

The whole saga marked a huge win for the California District Attorneys Assn., which has opposed Proposition 47 for many years and now will see its measure on the November ballot without any competing proposals.

“We are pleased the Governor and Legislature have dropped their countermeasure and welcome them to join our campaign to responsibly amend Prop 47 to deal with retail theft, the fentanyl crisis and homelessness,” said a statement from Greg Totten, CEO of the California District Attorneys Assn.

Daniel Conway, a vice president of the California Grocers Assn., which supported both ballot measures, said:

“I think with just one measure on the ballot, it’s a much more clear choice for voters.”

Newsom said he planned to “soon” sign the package of anti-crime bills, calling them “the most significant reform in decades.”

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