In 2003, Brian Beinlich stood before a judge in an Orange County courtroom, barely comprehending what had happened.
The judge had just told Beinlich he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in prison. He would not be eligible for parole for 81 years. His crime? Stealing two bottles of Hennessy from a Costco in Fountain Valley, Calif., and waving a box cutter at the security guards who chased him down.
A wave of criminal justice reforms in California in recent years sought to ease thousands of harsh sentences like the one Beinlich received, reduce the state's bloated prison populations and create more opportunities for parole and rehabilitation. But if several large grocery store chains have their way, a measure on the ballot this fall will roll back some of these reforms, increasing penalties for shoplifting and making it harder for those convicted of certain nonviolent property and drug crimes to get early parole.
While Proposition 20 was launched and financed primarily by law enforcement groups, grocery outlets served as early partners in the effort. They are taking a controversial stance at a sensitive time for corporate America, when companies of every stripe have taken pains to demonstrate support for the Black Lives Matter movement and its goals of tearing down racist systems of policing and mass incarceration.
Albertsons and Kroger - the grocers with the biggest financial contributions to Prop. 20 - and the California Grocers Association said in statements they supported the measure because shoplifting and organized retail crime have been on the rise, amounting to significant losses, and threatening the safety of employees and customers. They say that previous reforms went too far in removing teeth from laws meant to address this type of crime.
"People are stealing, and there are no consequences," said Richard Temple, a spokesman for the Yes on Prop. 20 campaign.
Experts said theft is a big problem for retailers, especially for grocery stores, which have high foot traffic. A 2020 survey by the National Retail Federation found that theft - which the industry calls "shrink" - was at an all-time high, costing the industry $61.7 billion in fiscal year 2019, or 1.62% of retailers' profits. A whole niche industry around battling retail theft, through cameras, locked display cases and undercover security guards has sprung up.
The landscape of shoplifting and petty theft jurisprudence in California has shifted dramatically in recent years, largely due to Proposition 47, which voters approved in 2014. That measure raised the bar for grand theft and downgraded the classification of most shoplifting crimes to a misdemeanor. Whereas before, property theft of above $450 could be charged as a felony, now that limit is $950. Proposition 57, approved two years later, hastened the release of some nonviolent offenders from prisons.
But after it was implemented, retailers and law enforcement officials blamed Prop. 47 for a spike in shoplifting; they said organized retail theft rings were taking advantage of reduced penalties. Safeway, Target, Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies said in 2016 that shoplifting had increased at least 15%.
L.A. County prosecutors, police union political action committees and other law enforcement groups - joined by grocers - launched a campaign in early 2018 to collect signatures for the ballot initiative that would undo some reforms. While the initiative failed to secure a spot to go before voters in 2018, it later acquired enough signatures to make the 2020 ballot.