Fresno Chamber of Commerce Business News. Valley Business. Valley Stories.

FRESNO, Calif. -After discussing retail theft and petty crimes affecting businesses of all sizes, it is evident that this complex issue has no easy fix. Having listened to numerous struggling business owners, who diligently navigate the challenges of entrepreneurship each day, all are now joining a call to action saying, ‘Enough is enough.’

It is no secret that retail theft and general crimes against businesses of all sectors have exploded all throughout the country.

Locally, the need for change is reinforced by Fresno County leaders, law enforcement agencies, and state and local organizations. According to officials, long-term, long-lasting solutions will not be found locally but rather in those that hold valuable seats in Sacramento.

California Retailers Association- Proposition 47

“We are now part of the problem because we are enabling individuals to continue destructive lifestyles and making these choices. We are allowing them to get away with that behavior without that accountability piece,” said Rachel Michelin, President of the California Retailers Association (CRA).

[RELATED– Accountability: A Key Question]

Michelin is one of many who attribute the loopholes in Proposition 47 to the distressing images that flood television screens and social media of businesses constantly being targets of theft and petty crimes.

In 2014, the passage of Prop 47 reclassified some non-violent property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies in most cases, this exempts some with specific prior convictions.

According to Michelin, anytime you pass a sweeping public policy via the ballot, there are always unintended consequences years later, which is what the state is experiencing now.

Some argue Prop 47 is a free pass for criminals who steal up to $950. For clarification, it is not a free pass, but it did reduce potential charges for many of these individuals.

Prior to Prop 47, a person could face a felony conviction for petty theft if they had at least three prior convictions. This could have put that person in prison for sixteen months to three years.

The chances of a more serious conviction often led people to go through a pre-plea diversion program, which would get people into treatments.

After Prop 47, a person can no longer be charged with petty theft with a prior, regardless of how many past convictions a person may have.

Michelin says there is no need to throw out Proposition 47 entirely because it has some good and positive aspects. However, CRA proposes a revision to the existing proposition; add petty theft with a prior and aggregation.

Aggregation would allow law enforcement to easily add multiple offenses together to surpass the $950 misdemeanor threshold, meaning each incident will no longer be a separate cite and release.

Incorporating these two elements into the proposition would target persistent repeat offenders who perpetuate their behaviors while evading responsibility. Michelin emphasizes that the objective is not to throw people in jail but rather to steer them towards a more positive path.

“For every large retailer we hear about, there are five or six more small retailers that have been hit. They don’t have the resources that a large national brand has to lock up items, put law enforcement in front of their store, or have loss prevention professionals. Especially in a time where they are struggling to even get people for work for them, it becomes very challenging,” Michelin said.

To promote a policy change, CRA is reinforcing those efforts by pursuing two distinct avenues.

The first is in partnership with Golden State Communities, a group made up of the District Attorney’s Association and victim rights organizations to launch a major ballot measure to tackle retail theft and hard drug crimes.

The second lane, in which Michelin went more into detail– is to focus on a public affairs campaign by going through the legislature.

Californians for Safe Stores and Neighborhoods will be launching this campaign in January. By working alongside the legislature and governor’s office, CRA hopes to move the needle in the right direction to get something on the ballot.

“I’d rather show collaboration on how we can work together to find good policy to fix this program, while at the same time addressing the need to get people help. We need to get people into programs that are going to be helpful to them while protecting our businesses and protecting our employees and protecting our customers.”

Local Insights with the Fresno County Law Enforcement

Retail theft is a symptom of addiction, according to Fresno County District Attorney, Lisa A. Smittcamp, who says this problem goes far beyond available bed space in the county jail.

“The criminal justice system is not the answer to every problem. It’s not the answer for every addict, it’s not the answer for every mentally ill person, but it used to be able to be a stopgap.”

As previously mentioned in part two of this series, some local business owners have quit reporting these petty crimes because of the lack of accountability. Major retailers have refrained from calling the police and avoid filing reports when faced with theft to steer clear of negative publicity. Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper recently called out several retail giants after refusing to work with law enforcement in executing anti-theft operations.

This is part of the problem, says Smittcamp when expressing how much state laws and this new “normal” of not reporting have prohibited law enforcement from doing anything, even within the boundaries Prop 47 has put the state in.

She adds the frustration stretches to police officers, prosecutors, and some elected officials who are good people, ‘but it’s the left of the left of the left’ that are not in their position to promote or increase public safety. “They are there to make the people who fund their campaigns happy.”

The ‘lefts’ are in reference to those who hold a seat in the Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees, who kill, according to Smittcamp, vital public safety bills, preventing them from reaching the floor for a proper vote.

In a Retail Theft Forum held Wednesday night in Clovis hosted by Assemblyman Jim Patterson alongside several law enforcement officials, including Smittcamp who gave an example about a prior fentanyl advisement bill (SB 44, also known as Alexandra’s Bill) that had all the potential to pass. It had the support of 25 senators, needing 50% to pass out of 40 total senators, it was an obvious winner. But in the end, it did not make it past the Senate Public Safety Committee, which is made up of the current following members:

Senator Aisha Wahab (Chair)- Dem, 10………………………………..No Vote Received
Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (Vice Chair)- Rep, 23……………….Voted Yes
Senator Steven Bradford- Dem 35…………………………… ………….No Vote Received
Senator Nancy Skinner- Dem, 9 ………………………………………….No Vote Received
Senator Scott D. Wiener- Dem 11…………………………………………No Vote Received

“This is the extreme left that is annihilating public safety in the state of California,” said Smittcamp.

In 2022, CRA sponsored AB 2390, presented by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. The purpose of the bill was to reintroduce aggregation, but it did not progress through the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which was formed by the following members at the time:

Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer (Chair)- Dem, 57 ……………………..Voted No

Tom Lackey- Rep, 34 (Vice Chair)…………………………………………. No Vote Received

Mia Bonta- Dem, 18…………………………………………………………… Voted No

Isaac Bryan- Dem, 55…………………………………………………………..Voted No

Bill Quirk- Dem, 20……………………………………………………………..Voted No

Miguel Santiago- Dem, 54…………………………………………………… Voted No

Kelly Seyarto- Rep, 32………………………………………………………….No Vote Received

Earlier this year, a group of assembly members, including Muratsuchi, presented AB 1708, aiming to reinstate petty theft with a prior with a pre-plea diversion program. Unfortunately, the bill faced rejection in the committee. Two republican voted yes, while two (Dem) voted no and the remaining four members (Dem) came back as no vote received.

AB 1708 was granted reconsideration, providing a small window until the end of January for something to be done.

“Until as a state, we change our values, we are stuck,” said the DA.

Probably one of the biggest frauds ever committed in the state, according to Fresno County Sheriff Zanoni has been Prop 47 and AB 109- the prison realignment, which allowed people serving a prison sentence to now be housed in the local jails.

Sheriff Zanoni reports a significant surge in bookings, primarily involving individuals facing charges related to grand theft, organized retail theft, and shoplifting.

“One of the issues we look at when we talk about shoplifting, organized retail theft, and grand theft is we had 1,430 bookings from 2020 to today (Nov. 15, 2023), and 1,122 of those bookings for those charges were released. That 78% of the total were released in less than 10 days. The highest reasons for the release was federal overcrowding, bond, and court releases. You can see they are not spending any time in custody, so what are they doing, they are back out on the streets, they are committing crimes and creating victims,” said Zanoni.

Solutions will not be found at the local level, but there are measures that can be implemented to hinder the progress of these criminals, and it all starts with reporting.

“The victims don’t know that they have relevant information that needs to be said to potentially elevate (the crime) or identify the perpetrators,” Smittcamp said.

When a business owner calls law enforcement to report a crime, they may not realize that those small details can elevate a misdemeanor to a felony and that petty crime can be considered a strong-armed robbery.  Which as a result makes that call a higher priority, higher charges, and higher chances of getting prosecuted.

What Can the Business Community Do Now

In support of California for Safe Stores and Neighborhoods campaign, business owners are urged to become part of the coalition to stay updated on the most recent developments related to upcoming hearings and events. Michelin believes that increased pressure and visibility on this issue will ideally motivate policymakers to enact change, particularly within the legislative cycle.

The chance to give the campaign one significant push is approaching, as the deadline to put something on the ballot is June 27th.

Through the initiative route, CRA welcomes all who are willing to support it, recognizing that it carries a significant cost and may encounter opposition along the way, so the more supporters, the better.

Locally, District Attorney Smittcamp says to be proactive, install functioning security cameras, make the report, and foster a sense of community vigilance to protect each other’s businesses.

The Fresno/Clovis Police Departments are actively working on finding the best technology, forging new partnerships, and expanding its police force. This commitment is driven by a $23 million grant received from the state, which is aimed at decreasing the challenges presented by retail theft.

Loss prevention personnel from some of these larger local retailers and multiple law enforcement agencies gather periodically to discuss repeat offenders. They share surveillance videos and images of the perpetrators to foster a strong connection between stores and law enforcement. This collaborative effort aims to narrow the communication gap between all parties and lays the groundwork for potential charges against the individuals involved.

As the holiday season approaches, all these ongoing and initiated changes are taking place.

In the Retail Theft Forum, officials provided valuable insights for business owners on enhancing security measures to protect themselves and their customers. One of the best tips they offered is to be a good quality witness and they strongly discourage confrontation to help avoid a more dangerous situation. Remember their faces, take a photo of them, of their vehicle, and look for distinct characteristics such as a tattoo and unique piercings.

Despite the obstacles, District Attorney Smittcamp takes the opportunity to highlight the progress made and continues to be made for the benefit of the business community. Statistically, the Fresno County DA’s Office has one of the highest crime-filing rates in California. Smittcamp credits the strong leadership and relationships with law enforcement partners that communicate daily.

As businesses come together and engage with local and statewide initiatives, there is hope for a more secure and economically thriving environment. Through collaboration, legislative adjustments, and proactive community involvement, there is a path forward towards resolving the challenges posed by retail theft, and addiction-related crimes.

This narrative is ongoing, and the Fresno Chamber remains committed to providing continuous updates and new developments as they unfold, particularly at the state level. Sign up for our Government Affairs Newsletter to stay up-to-date.