By: Jeff Reisig, DA Yolo County; Jim Cooper, Sheriff, Sacramento County; Anne Marie Schubert, Retired DA, Sacramento County; Greg Totten, CEO California District Attorneys Association and Retired DA, Ventura County
(An edited version of this piece ran in the Sacramento Bee on May 31, 2023)
It is time for new thinking on our homeless epidemic. Every Californian has long witnessed the humanitarian crisis of our present course. But in recent weeks, the situation has hit a tipping point. San Francisco’s exodus of Nordstrom, Whole Foods, and other retailers may not be the most critical data points on this issue. But these events have struck a nerve because they drive home the fact that no one, regardless of their socioeconomic status, is immune from the quality of life deterioration that our communities are experiencing. Our once great cities are being hollowed out. We can no longer keep listening to the same, tired blame game of politics, or keep trying the same approaches that have proven to be abject failures at addressing the crisis.
But we don’t need to look far for the solution. One of the beauties of our democracy is that the respective states are laboratories for policy innovation. California has the highest per capita homelessness of any state in the country. We can do better. Our fellow states have. And it is time to look to those states for the lessons on how.
So here’s what these states offer to teach us—if we’re willing to listen.
First, some would have us believe that our high cost of housing is the problem. But several states with high housing costs have low homelessness. And we’ve spent billions on housing while the problem has grown exponentially. Others argue that our temperate climate is the cause of homelessness. But several states with cold climates also have high homelessness, and others with warm climates have low homelessness. These arguments may be superficially appealing. But facts, as they say, are stubborn things.
However, what does stand out in the facts is that several large, Democratic states have low homelessness. It is these blue states that show us the way to ending our crisis. Let’s take New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, and Illinois as examples. No one could honestly question the progressive bona fides of Newark, Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago. Yet the states that are home to each of these cities have substantially lower homelessness per capita than California.
There is one simple answer–each of these states have much stronger hard drug laws than California. Fentanyl, heroin, other hard drug addictions, and the associated mental health crises that these drugs entail are the root cause of California’s homeless crisis. Until we address addiction and mental health, homelessness in our state will only continue to grow. The stubborn fact is that California’s hard drug laws are out of step with progressive states that have low homelessness.
- In California, there is essentially no consequence for hard drug possession. Therefore law enforcement rarely arrests for the crime.
- In New Jersey, hard drug possession can lead to a 3-5 year sentence and substantial fines. The result is a homeless rate more than 4 times lower than California’s.
- In Maryland, multiple cases of hard drug possession can result in an 18-24 month sentence and substantial fines. Maryland has a more than 5 times lower homeless rate than California.
- In Michigan, hard drug possession can result in a 4 year sentence and substantial fines. Michigan’s homeless rate is also more than 5 times lower than California’s.
- In Illinois, possession of fentanyl can result in a 3-7 year sentence and substantial fines. The result is one of the lowest homeless rates in the country—a rate over 6 times lower than California.
The facts are unmistakable. The way to end our homeless crisis—is to end our drug crisis.
We can end our homeless crisis in one year with a new approach that takes a modest step in the direction of these other progressive states. Here’s how:
First, prosecutors would have the discretion to charge hard drug possession as a new class of crime called a “treatment mandated felony.” The judge would have the final say on whether the defendant should be charged in this manner. The factors that the prosecutor and judge would consider in the decision would include:
- The defendant’s prior history
- The quantity of drugs in the defendant’s possession
- The defendant’s amenability to drug treatment
- Other offenses coupled with the drug possession such as illegal weapons possession
If the defendant is charged with this new, “treatment mandated felony,” an addiction specialist would be assigned to provide a complete suite of services to the defendant including:
- Drug and mental health treatment (outpatient whenever possible)
- Job training
Decades of research have proven that drug treatment in the criminal justice system works. And there are countless shelter beds available from our billions in housing spending. But many of the beds remain empty because we have no system to incentivize people to get the help they need.
If the defendant successfully completes drug and mental treatment, they would receive full expungement of the drug charge. If the defendant refuses drug treatment, they could receive up to 18 months time served. The defendant can short-circuit this sentence at any time by choosing the treatment path instead. If the defendant is re-arrested for hard drug possession, they would be eligible for a complete do-over of the treatment path for as many times as it takes until they get better.
The goal of this proposal is to treat drugs and mental health as the humanitarian crises that they are–to get people the help they need–not to punish them, and to simultaneously reclaim the safety of our communities. But under the current legal framework, there is no accountability in the law when people refuse to get help. New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, and Illinois understand this. That’s why they created tougher hard drug laws—and it has worked. The result has been exponentially lower homelessness in these states than in California.
This proposal would modestly move California in the direction of these other progressive states that have shown the way on homelessness. With this new approach, drug addiction and mental health would be treated. And we would rapidly get people off the streets, into shelter, and under the care they need.
We can end our homeless crisis in one year. Let’s start today.
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