Prop. 47: Crime fighting program or get out of jail free card?

KTVU has been examining the car burglary epidemic in San Francisco and whether a hotly-debated measure is related. Police in the city are citing Prop. 47, which made certain misdemeanors instead of felonies, as a reason behind the sky-high property crime rate. But supporters of the measure say it’s not that simple.

There were approximately 26,000 vehicle break-ins in San Francisco last year alone – four times the number in 2012.

The San Francisco police union has run radio ads blaming Prop. 47 and District Attorney George, saying he's coddling criminals and giving them get-out-of-jail-free cards because of a law, which he helped write.

In the radio ad, union President Martin Halloran says, in part, “If you leave your purse in your car and it ends up in the hands of a criminal, under Gascon’s law, it’s just a slap on the wrist with a ticket issued.”

But Gascon says there's no direct link between Prop. 47 and the crime rate, and that SFPD officers are to blame for not making enough arrests.

“Sometimes the best way to deflect your own incompetence is try to go after something else,” Gascon said. “I believe Prop. 47 became a vehicle for that.”

SFPD data shows that smash-and-grabs were rising in San Francisco even before Prop. 47 passed. And other cities like Oakland haven't had such shocking increases in property crime over the same period.

Across the state, Prop. 47 downgraded drug possession and five other nonviolent felony crimes – shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks and forgery – to misdemeanors, as long as the value is less than $950.

And if a suspect was convicted when these crimes were felonies, they can be resentenced.

Car burglaries are only felonies if the cops catch the thieves in the act. But catching a suspect in possession of stolen property is still a misdemeanor.

And Prop. 47 has become a lightning rod in the debate over crime.

Supporters of the law say it's costly and bad policy to send drug users or thieves to prison without giving them another chance.

“Prop. 47 is working,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. She and Gascon helped write the measure.

“We’ve seen literally hundreds of thousands of people get an opportunity to remove an old felony record from their criminal record and get chances at stability,” said Anderson.

The law was passed in 2014 by almost 60 percent of California voters, on both sides of the aisle.

“This is not some kind of a lefty, crazy idea,” Gascon said.

Statewide, most DAs, police chiefs and sheriffs were against it. But not Gascon or Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who says the message at the polls was clear.

“What the voters were saying is, take some of the money that you’re spending on prisons and spend that for preventative programs that we think will lower crime.”

These include drug treatment programs, schools and crime victims' funds. That's why, on the ballot, Prop. 47 was called the "Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act."

Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen says the people who benefit from Prop. 47 “are the people that are working in our restaurants, our department stores, are people that are coming to your house to work on your house.”

But San Francisco police say criminals are taking advantage of Prop. 47 and reoffending.

“Realistically, we can arrest them all day, every day, but once it gets to the criminal justice system, the question is, ‘What’s going to happen?’”

Take the case of Kristen "Jason" Bell, busted by SFPD for nine felony auto burglaries. Over the DA's objections, a judge released him on bail. Police fear people like Bell will reoffend.

“Many of these perpetrators, that’s the trade for them, and so they’re going to continue to repeat the same issues over and over and over again,” said SFPD Capt. John Sanford.

Chief Greg Suhr said he’s all for people getting another chance – but up to a point.

“So when you say rehabilitation, I agree, but for people who don’t take advantage of the second chance or third chance or fourth chance, there has to be some mechanism by which that the public gets some relief from these serial property criminals,” said Suhr.

But Gascon says those convicted under Prop. 47 could still face up a year in jail for a misdemeanor.

“Is a year in jail a get out of jail card?” Gascon asked. “Prop. 47 has nothing to do with the fact that there has been a significant slowdown in police activity in the city way before Prop. 47 passed.”

An exact cause behind a complex problem like San Francisco’s car burglary epidemic can be tough to pin down. Factors like fewer police officers, other changes in the law like realignment or three strikes reform may all contribute.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi says as the blame game continues between the police and the prosecutors, crime victims are the ones who suffer.

“This is becoming a political football. It’s not about making sure people are safe or that your car’s not getting broken into,” Adachi said. “This is about pointing fingers.”

Adachi said car burglaries are crimes that have been happening “since the beginning of time. For the police officers association to somehow point the proverbial finger at the DA and say, ‘Oh, it’s his fault,’ it’s ridiculous.”