Four years ago if police caught someone suspected of shoplifting from a Manteca store they’d be arrested and booked at the San Joaquin County Jail.
They’d stay there until they posted bail or appeared before a judge, assuming of course, that the jail wasn’t overcrowded with suspects charged with more serious crimes.
Today even if the jail isn’t overcrowded, the odds are a shoplifting suspect being booked or spending any time in jail is fairly slim.
That’s because voters approving Proposition 47 in November of 2014 eliminated the felony status for a number of nonviolent crimes involving drugs and property offenses by dropping them to misdemeanors.
And while crime statistics don’t reflect an uptick in misdemeanors in Manteca, residents have expressed a growing frustration with what some call “catch and release” when it comes to criminal suspects for a wide array of property crimes.
“Our duty is to follow the law,” noted Manteca Police Chief Jodie Estarziau.
And the law as amended by voters is clear. If a suspect us caught trying to steal less than $950 worth of merchandise from a store, the only thing officers can legally due is cite and release them unless they have outstanding warrants, converted the act of shoplifting into a robbery by using or threatening force or attempt to flee from officers.
Estarziau noted there is a move afoot in Sacramento to try and amend the law allowing the arrest of shoplifting suspects when they have crossed the threshold of being accused of stealing an accumulative amount of $950 worth of merchandise within a year’s time.
It’s not that Manteca Police don’t arrest people. Officers have made 1,174 arrests as of July 31 this year. That is down 4.63 percent over the same period in 2016 when 1,231 arrests were made. There were 2,087 arrests in 2016 and 2,189 arrests in 2015. Arrests, however, are at a third of 2009 levels when 3,189 suspects were booked into county jail by Manteca Police.
For years, the county jail struggled with capacity issues prompting the sheriff working under the direction of the San Joaquin County Superior Court to shorten the jail sentences of those convicted of non-violent crime that were serving their time at the county jail to make room for suspects accused of more violent crimes.
Just as the county got a handle on its capacity issues, the so-called realignment measures under Assembly Bill 109 aimed at complying with federal court order to reduce inmate population at the state’s 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity went into effect. Not only did it trigger the early release of a large number of offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes before their full terms were served, but going forward those convicted of a number of crimes that would have served time in prison are now serving their terms in county jails. That creates situations where there may not be sufficient room at the county jail in French Camp prompting some suspects that are arrested for property crimes were arrests are still justified to be booked and released.
Citizens who argue that they want anyone that can be legally arrested for property crimes to be arrested in all cases ignores a reality police agencies have to deal with.
While Manteca Police have a booking officer, if he is not available the transporting and booking of a suspect in a low level property crime would take an officer out of Manteca for a minimum of an hour to transport a suspect to county jail that will end up being released right away, go through booking, and return to Manteca.
That reduces Manteca’s police presence that can be critical on some shifts when the department is down to minimum staffing.
It means if police booked everyone into the county jail involved in low level property crime that can still legally be arrested under California law every time an incident occurs, it could jeopardize public safety in Manteca.
Manteca does not operate a jail per se where they can hold someone for a long period as it requires correctional officers under state law. Adding correctional officers to staff a city jail 24/7, 365 days a year was estimated a decade ago as an $800,000 annual cost to the city.