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Here’s how to curb smash-and-grab thefts
dirkse portrait
Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse

One of the most basic obligations of government is to provide for the safety of the public. It’s time to stop sugar-coating the facts. Our communities are becoming more dangerous, violent and unstable. More bluntly, they are becoming lawless.

One example is the organized looting of retail stores, from San Francisco to Monterey to Rodeo Drive. It is as prevalent in neighborhood drug stores as it is in upscale department stores.

Organized groups are invading stores during business hours, breaking open display cases or sweeping shelves of goods, then running to waiting cars. Any police officer or security guard trying to stop them is overwhelmed. With dozens of thieves fleeing, witnesses are confused.

The loot is later collected by organized crime, then transported and sold elsewhere.

The problem is so profound that some stores are closing, leaving neighborhoods without pharmacists or groceries. Other stores have lost so much that it threatens their solvency and the jobs of employees.

We have seen the price the public pays for policies that weaken our ability to hold criminals in jail.

Months ago I informed the Stanislaus Board of Supervisors of the recidivism rate of persons released from prisons for COVID-19 under no bail restrictions. While our board has acted decisively to increase the manpower and resources of the sheriff’s office, we still face many challenges.

Proposition 47 promised to cut California’s incarceration costs by reducing the prison population, guiding drug abusers out of prison cells and into treatment and providing victims with services. Prop. 47 required that those who steal property valued at less than $950 be charged with misdemeanors – not felonies.

Criminals figured out how to game the system. Now, an organized gang of 20, 30 or even 80 criminals can invade a store, each steal up to $949, and not one will have committed a felony. Ask the store owner out $75,000 if that’s not a felony.

With so few consequences, criminals are incentivized to escalate their bad behavior – not abandon it. Others are likely to join their ranks.

Prop. 47 has failed. Instead of reform, we’re seeing rampages.

California can fix this.

First, judges must reject the woefully insufficient bail schedule of $100 for misdemeanors and $1,000 for felonies. We need risk assessment of those arrested and tools to keep violent criminals in jail longer and our communities safer.

Second, legislators need to lower the threshold for felony theft. Cut the current $950 in half and make it cumulative.

Finally, hold those who break our laws accountable. When criminals become repeat offenders, it sends the message that there are few consequences for breaking the law. Releasing criminals without rehabilitation is a failure.

If such steps are not taken, we could follow the suggestion of Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp who says the U.S. attorney should bring federal charges against smash-and-grab robbers because California laws are too weak.

“I have no sympathy, no empathy whatsoever for people smashing and grabbing, stealing people’s items, creating havoc and terror in our streets,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “We want real accountability. We want people prosecuted. And we want people to feel safe this holiday season.”

If the governor really believes this, he has the power to fix it. Gov. Newsom should sponsor legislation to increase penalties and create more holding capacity in our prisons. If the state continues to release criminals into our communities, then the state should cover the additional costs of parole, probation, incarceration, and losses to victims.

Your local law enforcement is committed to enforcing all laws. But without consequences for breaking the law, our work becomes meaningless. If the courts, the governor, and the Legislature do their parts, we’ll keep our communities safe.

Tell them it’s time to act.

Jeff Dirkse is the sheriff of Stanislaus County.