Sheriff Sniff: Criminals finding new safe harbor

Sheriff Stan Sniff

Special to Valley News

Prop. 47, the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” has indeed produced a safe harbor – but not for schools and neighborhoods. Instead, a swath of repeat criminals have found refuge in the measure’s broad, inflexible provisions.

The statewide proposition was approved by California voters Nov. 4, and took effect Nov. 5. The measure reclassified a large group of nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors under state law, purportedly to ease punishment for minor drug offenses while relieving state prison crowding. In reality, Prop. 47 decreased penalties not just for “minor” drug offenses, but also for possession of major drugs such as heroin and the date-rape drug rohypnol. The proposition also declared all thefts of less than $950 to be misdemeanors – regardless of what is stolen. Previously, the state’s threshold for felony theft was $400 and stealing a gun was an automatic felony.

It is too soon for a comprehensive look at how these changes have affected public safety, though the FBI uniform crime statistics did show that property crimes – likely traced to leniency in Prop. 47 – have seen an uptick in Riverside County in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period last year.

But at least one result of Prop. 47 is already clear. According to deputies on patrol throughout Riverside County, offenders have adjusted their behavior to push the limits of the new law.

The anecdotal evidence is extensive, and includes the following examples:

Deputies say in many cases, those arrested for theft take care not to exceed the $950 cutoff under Prop. 47. As one suspect put it, “I am not going to jail, right? I only stole under $900 worth of stuff.”

A suspect who victimized more than 100 residents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties said the new, lenient treatment for mail theft made stealing people’s identities attractive to him. It is worth risking a misdemeanor to cash in on the lucre of identity theft, he said.

And while not all Riverside County criminals are fully versed on Prop. 47, repeat offenders are learning fast:

When one suspect stole from a local store for the third time, she expressed surprise that she wasn’t going to jail, but said she was happy her actions weren’t serious anymore.

During a sweep, deputies arrested and booked two active gang members in possession of two stolen handguns. Because the guns were valued at less than $950, the suspects were cited and released. One of them expressed shock that the crime was only a misdemeanor and he could go home.

The takeaway here – and the message offenders are absorbing – is there are no real consequences for criminal activity that falls below the threshold set in Prop. 47. The rigid proposition provides officers no leeway, no option for confining these “minor” offenders, unless the suspect has a previous conviction record of qualifying felonies.

Area criminals are quickly adapting to exploit this new leniency. Riverside County residents should be aware of this trend and understand the repercussions of automatic citations, rather than jail time, for gang members slinging stolen guns, identity thieves intercepting mail, predators toting date rape drugs, and thieves who habitually victimize homeowners and businesses throughout our communities. For these crimes and others – thanks to Prop. 47 – the price is steep for the public, while slight for the perpetrators.

Stan Sniff is the sheriff of Riverside County. He can be reached via email at ssniff@riversidesheriff.org.

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