In 2014, Californians voted Proposition 47 into law. Marketed as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, the measure was intended to reduce the state’s prison population. It downgraded thefts with property values under $950 and illegal drug possession for personal use from felonies to misdemeanors. Almost overnight, people who were caught committing grand theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen goods, forgery, and writing bad checks experienced light, if any, consequences. Those already behind bars for such offenses saw their sentences retroactively reduced. 

The funds saved by not prosecuting and incarcerating were supposed to go toward local government’s truancy prevention programs, mental-health care, substance-abuse treatment, and victim services. 

But now, ten years later, the magical thinking that led to the measure’s passage has hit the reality wall. By all measures, crime has escalated in the Golden State. When cities and counties failed to bolster addiction services and psychiatric care, sick people began living and dying on the streets in great numbers. And there’s not much anyone can do about it, until the voters are given a say.

In November 2024, Californians will likely have that opportunity. The initiative to pass the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act, put forth by Californians for Safer Communities, has already surpassed the required 546,000 signatures to add it to the ballot. The Act would drastically amend Proposition 47. If approved by voters, it would reclassify theft as a jail-eligible felony when a suspect has two or more prior convictions; add new laws to address “smash and grab” thefts; allow the aggregation of multiple thefts by a single person to reach the current $950 threshold for felony theft; add fentanyl to the list of hard drugs resulting in felony prison time for drug dealers; and provide addiction and mental-health services for treatment-mandated felony charges.

As a California state assemblyman, Kevin Kiley led the failed 2022 legislative effort to repeal Proposition 47. Now, as a representative of California’s Third Congressional District, he is backing the new ballot initiative. This time, support from California citizens and state leaders appears strong. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Erica Sandberg: Why do you believe this initiative is important? 

Kevin Kiley: We must do everything we can to restore sanity and safety in California. This initiative would fix the major problems with Proposition 47. 

Sandberg: The name Homelessness, Drug Addiction, and Theft Reduction Act is specific about its purpose. Do you think calling Proposition 47 the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act had something to do with its passage? 

Kiley: It’s misleading, of course. There is a long tradition in California ballot initiatives of incorrectly describing what they will do. This is something the state attorney general [Rob Bonta] should address. It’s abusing authority, giving voters an inaccurate idea about what it means. The various ways in which Proposition 47 was communicated accounted for its passage.

Sandberg: How did California change after 2014? 

Kiley: Proposition 47 is directly responsible for a rise in crime and homelessness in the last decade. The connection is beyond dispute now. Any notion that it’s not is patently absurd. California has tied the hands of law enforcement, and there are no consequences for many crimes. 

Sandberg: California’s cities and counties were supposed to use the savings from Prop. 47 for essential programs, like substance-addiction care. In many cases that never materialized. What happened instead?

Kiley: When we don’t get people in drug or mental-health treatment, homelessness rises.  Crime increases. You can talk to any retailer in the state, and they will tell you what this law has done to their business. We are all living with the damage. Just walk down the streets of San Francisco, and you’ll see it.

But the tragedy of Proposition 47 is not just that it caused crime to skyrocket. It also lacks compassion because it undercuts the ability to get people the help they need. There is no incentive to go into treatment. 

Sandberg: How has the movement toward getting this new initiative on the ballot been going?

Kiley: There’s a ton of volunteer activity. People are setting up shop outside of stores, gathering signatures. The latest count shows that we have enough, but we’re not stopping, because it’s good to have a buffer. The support is incredible. People are excited about this. 

Sandberg: Do you ever wonder whether it really had to get this bad before Californians acted?

Kiley: I wish we could have changed this sooner. The fact is, California has been going down a misguided path for a long time. Not just with Proposition 47, but also with Proposition 57 [passed by voters in 2016, which made thousands of prisoners eligible for early release]. By systematically rolling back the consequences for criminal activity, the state has degraded quality of life. People are less safe, and many moved out. Businesses shut down.

California used to be associated with positive things like innovation and beauty. It was where people could pursue the American dream. In many ways, the state is now overshadowed by negative elements and misguided politics. Across the country and around the world, California’s cities are increasingly seen as being in decay. It’s very sad. Reversing what Proposition 47 has done could be a first step in turning the tide. 

Sandberg: Are you surprised that California leaders, including Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, are behind this reform?

Kiley: I’ve been very encouraged by the level of bipartisan support. Democrats see that this is common sense. That speaks to just how misguided Proposition 47 was.

Sandberg: What would you say to critics of the repeal effort?

Kiley: Those who have foisted this agenda on us can’t deny what it has wrought. People are incredibly frustrated. Now that Californians see what this law has done, they are overwhelmingly in favor of change.  

If the radical element wants to fight me on this, they’re welcome to do so. But they won’t prevail.

Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next