Viewpoints: Think twice before making misdemeanors of felonies

My 11-year-old son got an eccentric introduction to California’s initiative process recently.

He was tagging along as I dropped a check in the mail to the Franchise Tax Board. Outside the post office, we encountered a man with an armload of clipboards. He was doing his best impression of an old-time carnival barker.

“Step right up, sir, and sign your name to make sure murderers, rapists and child molesters stay in prison!”

Goodness, I’m certainly in favor of that. Who wouldn’t be? No surprise, the signature gatherer was doing brisk business on Tax Day.

“First,” the man interjected, deftly employing a time-honored carny trick, “would you mind signing this petition to split California into six states?”

Sure, why not? Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper is putting serious resources into his proposed initiative to divide up the Golden State. It will never happen – can you imagine Congress consenting? – but I signed anyway. I’m looking forward to a raucous fall campaign.

But what about keeping California’s worst malefactors behind bars? As it happens, my clipboard-juggling friend wasn’t the only one well practiced at the art of bait-and-switch.

Putting felons in prison and keeping them there is closely tied to the question of “realignment.” Compelled by a Supreme Court decision ordering the release of 40,000 state prisoners, in 2011 the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 109, which has cut the prison population by shifting felony property and drug offenders to the county jails.

Is realignment working? Last week, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, admitted at a Public Policy Institute of California conference that lawmakers don’t really know. Sure, the prison population is getting smaller. But they could use more data.

Steinberg promised to push for greater reporting requirements, but we already know from statewide crime statistics that property crimes such as burglary and auto theft are going up.

What are prosecutors to do? San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne came up with the novel solution of making most nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors.

Their initiative statute’s language runs to a little more than 14 pages. Boiled down, the state would use the money saved by not sending people to prison to pay for crime prevention, mental health services and drug abuse programs. Some of the estimated $150 million to $250 million in savings would go to K-12 programs, too.

Problem solved? Don’t bet on it. Trouble is, the term “nonviolent crime” is a euphemism. I was the victim of one such crime last year. I was minding my own business at a Starbucks when a kid walked in, grabbed my laptop and ran out to a waiting car.

Technically what happened to me was “grand theft from a person,” not robbery, because I wasn’t physically holding the computer.

The upshot? Despite four arrests, with the suspects implicated in two dozen similar crimes across three counties, San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos decided to prosecute only one – a minor – who ended up doing a short stint in a juvenile detention facility.

Oh, and I couldn’t walk into a Starbucks for 10 months without having a panic attack. But, hey, at least it wasn’t a “violent crime.”

As an investigating officer explained to me, police simply aren’t pursuing thieves as zealously because of AB 109. If passed, expect the Gascón-Lansdowne initiative to make matters worse.

Petty theft, check-kiting, receiving stolen goods, prescription drug fraud – those are all nonviolent offenses. But they aren’t victimless crimes. So I didn’t sign the petition.

As we walked to the car, my son looked at me quizzically. “What was that about?” he asked.

California is a weird and wonderful place, I told him. We’re one of only about two dozen states that let voters make laws. When you turn 18 and register to vote, you can sign a petition if you like to put a question on the ballot. We can petition for all kinds of crazy stuff.

“Like what?”

Like whether we should treat serious crimes less seriously. When you heard that man talking about keeping murderers, rapists and child molesters in prison, it sounded pretty good, right? But if you stop and read the details, maybe it isn’t such a good idea.

And when you really think about it, why should we have to make that decision at all? That’s why we elect people to serve in our state Assembly and Senate. We want them to handle these problems. Why should some random guy dropping off his tax return at the Post Office have to ponder the pros and cons of changing the penal code? Why let the politicians off the hook?

I finished my rant and asked my son if he had any questions.

“Well, maybe just one,” he replied. “What exactly are ‘rapists’ and ‘child molesters’?”

But that’s another story for another time.