Council backs crime act

Panel votes to put resolution to counter prison realignment on this year’s ballot

Ken Fleming addresses the City Council on Tuesday (March 6) in the Old Municipal Building, where meetings are taking place while technology upgrades are underway in the City Council Chambers.

Ken Fleming addresses the City Council on Tuesday (March 6) in the Old Municipal Building, where meetings are taking place while technology upgrades are underway in the City Council Chambers.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Over the last several years, JD Estep has had six bikes swiped from her property. Her car was broken into and then stolen. In each instance, she called the police; sometimes the thief was caught, sometimes not, but there was one commonality: the thieves never faced meaningful consequences.

Estep was speaking to the members of the Chico City Council during its regular Tuesday meeting on an agenda item regarding a statewide issue: a resolution supporting the placement of the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act on this year’s general election ballot. Ten speakers took to the lectern, most voicing support. The unanimous vote by the council to add the act to this year’s ballot was met with loud applause.

The act aims to alter certain provisions put in place by prison realignment laws such as Assembly Bill 109 and Propositions 47 and 57. It would restrict parole for nonviolent offenders, authorize felony sentences for offenses currently treated as misdemeanors—including theft of items valued between $250 and $950—and require people convicted of some misdemeanors to submit DNA samples to the state.

Estep, a member of newly formed community watchdog group Chico First, said these laws have “emboldened repeated criminal behavior.” The group rallied to advocate for the act before the council.

From Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien’s perspective, the laws, which he’s often called the “three-headed monster,” have “really impacted safety in our community.”

“This is the first initiative I’ve seen that starts to slow that impact down in a moderate way,” he told the council.

The latest statistics on local crime from Chico PD show that only vehicle theft and arson increased between 2015 to 2016. Burglary and larceny cases declined and total property crimes decreased by 3 percent. Last year, O’Brien speculated the statistics had yet to reflect the impact of those laws, and could be indicative of the council’s support of the department and increasing of police staffing.

Recently, the police department partnered with the Chico Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Chico Business Association to launch a retail watch program to combat shoplifting. The program came about from meetings in which retailers shared how much they’ve been losing lately from theft, with some businesses reporting losses of up to $250,000 per year from shoplifting alone.

David Halimi, a local downtown business owner, shared that the amount of theft he has experienced is enough to fund the salary of a full-time employee. Citizens are doing their part with programs like the downtown property-based improvement district, he told the council, and now it’s time for the government to do its part in supporting such a resolution.

According to the initiative’s text, theft has been a statewide issue: between 2014 and 2016, California had the second highest increase in theft and property crimes in the U.S. According to the California Department of Justice, the value of property stolen in 2015 was $2.5 billion, an increase of 13 percent over 2014.

Councilman Mark Sorensen said the initiative addresses “erosion” from those laws that “absolutely needs to be undone.”

Once the initiative reaches the ballot, there may be some things that Councilman Karl Ory said he, and citizens, may or may not agree with. However, he supported the recommendation to add it because of his faith in the police chief.

Another issue the act aims to address is violent crime. Though violent crime (homicide, robbery, rape and assault) in Chico decreased 16 percent from 2015 to 2016, the state has seen an uptick of nearly 13 percent the past two years, according to the California Department of Justice. Though the rate of 174,701 incidents per 100,000 population reported last year isn’t even close to the peak of 345,508 reported in 1992.

Councilman Andrew Coolidge said not listing child trafficking, rape of an unconscious person, felony domestic violence and felony assault with a deadly weapon as violent crimes is “absolutely atrocious.” These laws, he added, have “declared open season” on citizens and businesses.

Some in the audience still weren’t convinced that the initiative is the right approach, however.

Ken Fleming, who has a background in behavioral health administration, said the war on drugs was a colossal, political public policy failure. The nation has built prisons for years and it has not worked—people are still mentally ill and living on the streets.

“Going back to the original solution, sending them back to prison some more, is not going to work,” he said. “I appreciate what you are attempting to do here, but it will not work, has not worked. We have to have housing. Go talk to the county and say to them, ‘Support mental health services.’”

Regular council attendee Benson commented that the laws were created to address prison overcrowding and a lack of mental health care. This initiative doesn’t address the root problem: crime is best minimized with education, he said, and that’s where funding should be directed.

Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer said she agreed mental health is an issue, but unfortunately, the state government has not recognized that. The city has taken a step forward by having a mental health services team work with the Chico Police Department.

According to an initiative summary for the act prepared by the California attorney general, if it passes, there likely would be tens of millions of dollars of increased correctional costs annually, court costs would increase a few million dollars per year and law enforcement costs would go up, not likely more than a couple million dollars per year.

In other news: The City Council approved a $300,000 per year program to repair city sidewalks, which, in most cases, are damaged by city street trees, according to Erik Gustafson, public works director-operations and maintenance. Rather than placing the burden of half or all of the costs onto property owners, the city opted to assume the full cost and liability. Other cities that have chosen programs like this include San Luis Obispo, Fresno and Roseville. It was unanimously approved, with Sorensen absent, having left partway through the meeting.