Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday in no uncertain terms that he thinks shoplifters should be prosecuted under existing California laws, as he called out local officials whom he said have been reluctant to do so.
He was responding to a recent run of large-scale thefts in California and across the nation in which groups of individuals shoplift en masse from stores or smash and grab from display cases. Single operators have also been a growing problem for retailers who say the thieves face little consequence.
Newsom, a Democrat who has boasted of his criminal justice reform efforts, promised that the proposed budget he sends to state lawmakers next month will "significantly increase our efforts to go after these retail rings."
Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Newsom appointee who has touted his own progressive reforms, separately made similar get-tough comments Wednesday.
Both defended Proposition 47, a ballot measure approved by California voters in 2014 that reduced certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
Property crime dropped significantly since then despite the recent high-profile cases, Newsom said. State crime statistics show property crimes dipped 7.7% last year, led by a nearly 15% drop in larceny thefts and 4% drop in burglaries.
But Newsom said both the recent spate of mass thefts and lack of prosecutions are "unacceptable."
"If people are breaking in, people stealing your property, they need to be arrested. Police need to arrest them. Prosecutors need to prosecute them. Judges need to hold people accountable for breaking the law," Newsom said. "These are not victimless crimes, and I have no empathy for these criminal elements."
Even thefts under $950 should be prosecuted as misdemeanors or "stacked" into felony complaints if there are repeat offenses, he said, contending some officials "choose" not to do so.
"I want to see local efforts. I want to see them stepped up," said Newsom, formerly San Francisco's mayor. "Look at the laws. You have the ability. Stack repeat offenders and move to prosecute."
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin last week announced felony charges against nine people for a series of thefts, and Bay Area prosecutors announced a joint effort to combat organized retail theft.
Boudin's spokeswoman, Rachel Marshall, agreed with Newsom's comments on Proposition 47 and the need for "every player in the legal system and every city agency" to step up.
"Our office prosecutes cases in which police make arrests; this year, we have filed charges in 80% of burglaries referred to us," she said. She said the office "has been a leader through the retail theft taskforce, funded by Governor Newsom, in dismantling the networks behind organized retail theft."
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, who also ran on a reform platform, did not respond to comment requests.
Bonta, the state's top law enforcement officer, also called for cracking down on organized retail thefts like those before the Thanksgiving holiday.
"Those are felonies. There are more than enough tools in the California criminal justice toolbox to charge them as such and hold the folks accountable," Bonta said during a Sacramento Press Club forum.
"These fit squarely within the organized retail crime statutes in the state of California where people are acting in concert with one or more people to exchange or return or sell what they steal."
Newsom also repeated his criticism of San Diego-based U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez a day after an 11-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Benitez and upheld California’s ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets.
He called Benitez a "radical judge ... who seemingly thinks weapons of war are appropriate" — criticism he first leveled in June when the judge overturned the state's assault weapon ban.
Newsom noted a 15-year-old Michigan youth is alleged to have used a handgun with three magazines holding 15 bullets each to kill four of his school classmates and wound seven others Friday.
"There’s no country on Planet Earth that experiences what we experience," Newsom said. "How about the freedom from ... the fear and anxiety of being able to send your kid to a school like this without worrying about weapons of war being promoted by judges and being promoted by politicians?"