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In a Prop 47 World, Are Tougher Fines the Answer?

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Officials in Lancaster are uneasy about the effect Proposition 47 will have on their small city in northern Los Angeles County. As such, they plan to | Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr/Creative Commons

This story was originally published in KCET's Agenda blog, February 11, 2015

Officials in Lancaster passed a divisive ordinance Tuesday to, in their words, "counteract" the effects of Proposition 47 on their city in northern Los Angeles County.

The city council approved a measure to levy fines for offenses such as shoplifting and receiving stolen property that the November voter initiative reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. The ordinance allows police to issue a $500 ticket for the first offense and a $1,000 ticket for any subsequent offense.

"It is increasingly unlikely that criminal charges will be filed against persons who commit these offenses," said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris in a statement to the press before the ordinance was passed. "In fact, this new proposition will likely embolden some offenders to repeatedly commit these crimes, putting local residents and businesses particularly at risk."

Victoria Adams, who is with the District Attorney's office, is among those who question the legality of Lancaster's right to override state law with its ordinance.

Laurie L. Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School, seconds that doubt and questions whether the new law will be effective. "Most of these fines will never be paid because the people who are convicted of them are often homeless or addicts. What we'll probably have is a paper-pushing system where nobody is rehabilitated," she said.

Jocelyn Corbett, assistant Lancaster city attorney, said officials fear that stores will be repeatedly shoplifted due to Prop 47. Officials said that the initiative, coupled with recently passed early prison and jail release measures and prison realignment, would result in few prosecutions and little jail time for offenders.

Lynne Lyman, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates reforming drug policy, said that no evidence shows that fines create an incentive not to commit crimes. Instead of looking for ways to punish citizens, focus should be placed on helping people "get a regular job or participate in society as a full-fledged citizen."

"What Lancaster has to understand is they're part of L.A. County, whose residents voted for prop 47. Unless they secede and become their own state or county, they're going to have to learn to work with the rest of the county," Lyman said.

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