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Hi! You've been referred here because you repeated a false claim about California's shoplifting law
Not only did California not "legalize shoplifting," its shoplifting law is still comparatively strict
(A quick a note: If you came here via email because you’re a subscriber, please note that the headline above, which also appeared in your inbox, is not a personal accusation! It was an attempt at cheek, and in retrospect I should have realized it might have been off-putting for people to see that in their inboxes. My apologies!)
You might have heard that there’s shoplifting plague in California, particularly in San Francisco. It’s a narrative driven in large part by viral videos of brazen shoplifting, claims from retailers that they’re closing stores because of theft (some of which have since been persuasively challenged, and some of which have been walked back by retailers themselves), the election of reformist district attorneys, and photos of retailers keeping more and more merchandise under lock and key.
This post isn’t about all of that. My own take is that it’s complicated. But if you want a thorough, nuanced overview of the issue, I recommend this Atlantic piece by Amanda Mull.
This post is about one specific, stubbornly persistent claim from the shoplifting doomsdayers — that the reason for shoplifting boom across California (which again, may or may not be real) is Proposition 47, a ballot measure passed by the state’s voters in 2014.
Prop 47 law has effectively legalized shoplifting, they say, so long as you steal less than $950 worth of stuff. It’s a claim regularly made on Fox News, by countless Twitter and Facebook accounts, and by high-volume brocasters like Adam Corolla. I’ve also seen a resurgence of the claim in recent weeks on Twitter, particularly since Elon Musk began amplifying Twitter Blue subscribers, which is a little like handing a football stadium’s PA system over to the drunkest fans in the stands.
So just to be clear: This claim is false. Prop 47 did not legalize low-level shoplifting.
Here’s what Prop 47 did do:
Prior to the law, if you stole merchandise worth less than $400 in California, you could only be charged with a misdemeanor. But that $400 figure was set decades ago. Prop 47 raised the figure to $950 to adjust for inflation and cost of living increases. It also raised the limit to $950 for other crimes, including check fraud, grand theft, receipt of stolen property, and forgery.
Under Prop 47, theft of less than $950 under all of those scenarios is still a crime. It’s still punishable with fines and up to six months in jail. But it’s now a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
So what?, you might be asking. California still more than doubled the minimum amount you need to steal to be charged with a felony. They still liberalized the law. Wouldn’t that cause in an increase in theft-related crimes?
Unclear! One study found that the law may have contributed to a rise in car break-ins and grand larceny, but the same study found that it likely reduced recidivism rates (Prop 47 also redirected some funding from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation). Another study in 2018 also found no link.
Property crime in California did jump in 2015, perhaps due to the false claims around Prop 47, which might have given some people the false impression that they could now shoplift with impunity (funny how that works!). But in the years since, property crime in the state has fallen at roughly at the same rate that it has across the rest of the country.
But as with much of the criminal justice data right now, the statistical waters have been muddied quite a bit by the pandemic, which abruptly injected unexpected variables into how crime is committed, reported, charged, and tabulated.
So I won’t claim without reservation that Prop 47 had no effect on shoplifting. I’m not sure the evidence we have conclusively tells us that. But the evidence doesn’t say it caused shoplifting, either.
But here’s some context you don’t often see in this discussion: Compared to the rest of the country, the Prop 47’s shoplifting provisions are not particularly lenient.
In fact, 34 states have a higher misdemeanor/felony shoplifting threshold than California’s $950. That includes not-exactly-soft-on-crime states like Arkansas Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Those states all put the misdemeanor/felony cutoff at $1,000.
In Nevada, it’s $1,200. In Delaware, Montana, Maryland, and Utah, it’s $1,500. And in Colorado, Rhode Island, and South Carolina, it’s $2,000.
Want to guess the state with the highest cutoff — the state where you can steal the most stuff without getting charged with a felony?
It’s Texas*! The cutoff in Texas is $2,500 — almost three times the cutoff in lefty, liberal, criminal-coddling California! In Texas, theft of merchandise valued between $750 and $2,500 is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and up to a year in jail.
(*Just to be accurate, Texas is tied. Wisconsin’s cutoff is also $2,500.)
I should add here that these are generalizations based on me looking up these laws. I’m not an expert on the law in any of these states, so I may have missed some nuance for some of them. Many also have exceptions. In most states, for example, you can be charged with felony theft while still under the threshold if you have prior convictions. And in Texas, you can still be charged with a felony for stealing less than $2,500 worth of stuff if you stole a firearm, if you stole aluminum, copper, bronze or brass, or if you stole from a corpse (!).
But three things are indisputable, here: First, California never legalized shoplifting. Second, California’s shoplifting law isn’t particularly lenient.
And third, if you’re a shoplifter in California who wants to steal a lot more stuff without worrying about a felony charge, you might consider moving to Texas.
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