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Top California Democrats announce ballot measure targeting retail theft

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Top California Democrats announced Sunday they will ask voters to approve a plan cracking down on retail theft.

The plan is an effort to compete with another crime-focused measure backed by a coalition of business groups that lawmakers said would result in more people being put behind bars. Both proposals would include make shoplifting a felony for repeat offenders and increase penalties for fentanyl dealers.

Under the retailers’ plan, any prior theft-related convictions, even if they happened years ago, would count toward a three-strike policy for increased sentences. Lawmakers also are proposing harsher punishment for repeat thieves, but the convictions would have to happen within three years of each other.

Prosecutors could aggregate the amount of all stolen goods within three years to charge harsher offenses under the Democrats’ plan.

Lawmakers hope to place the measure on the ballot in November. They will vote to advance the plan and deliver it to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature before the deadline on Wednesday.

The last-minute plan is an attempt by top California Democrats to override another initiative cracking down on shoplifters and drug dealers, which is backed by a broad coalition of businesses, law enforcement and local officials.

The proposal by the business groups, which is already on the November ballot, would also make possession of fentanyl a felony and authorize judges to order those with multiple drug charges to get treatment.

Lawmakers said the change would disproportionately incarcerate low-income people and those with substance use issues rather than target ringleaders who hire large groups of people to steal goods for resale online.

Republican lawmakers blasted the Democrats’ plan, with one calling it “ a sham ” to confuse voters.

The coalition of retailers and state leaders have clashed over how to crack down retail theft crimes.

The retailers’ proposal would roll back parts of Proposition 47, the progressive ballot measure approved by 60% of state voters in 2014 that reduced certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors to help address overcrowding in jails. In recent years, Proposition 47 has become the focus of critics who say California is too lax on crime.

Democrat leaders, including Newsom, repeatedly rejected calls to unravel Proposition 47 or to go back to voters for crime reforms.

Democratic lawmakers were fast-tracking a legislative package of 13 bills that would go after organized online reseller schemes and auto thieves and provide funding for drug addiction counselors. State leaders planned to enact the proposals into laws as soon as this month and void the package if voters approve the business groups’ proposal in November. They abandoned that plan Saturday night.

Democrats also are concerned the retailers’ tough-on-crime proposal would drive more Republicans and conservative voters to the polls in contested U.S. House races that could determine control of Congress.

Crime is shaping up to be the major political issue in California’s November’s election. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón face tough reelection bids against challengers who have criticized their approaches to crime and punishment.

Trân Nguyễn, The Associated Press