Homeless people in California convicted of drug crimes or charges such as indecent exposure or defecating in public could be sentenced to treatment instead of jail time under a proposed ballot
Plans for the initiative — which were submitted last week and aren't yet approved for the November ballot — come as Californians now view homelessness as a top concern in the state, tied with jobs and the economy, according to a recent poll.
“We are not getting people the help that they need,” said Mike Gatto, a former Democratic state assemblyman who is spearheading the measure. “Because of that, we have a situation that many people feel is spiraling out of control.”
The initiative would create a special court in counties with more than 100,000 residents to determine whether offenders should be directed to substance abuse or mental health treatment instead of jail. If the person completes the treatment program, the offense would be erased from their record.
But some advocates for homeless people are strongly opposed, saying the measure takes the wrong approach to treatment. They say the best solutions include funding outreach teams, providing voluntary treatment early on and helping people get permanent housing.
“We know that delivering those services in a forced, institutional setting — which this seems aimed at doing — actually has a very low success rate. It doesn’t result in people stabilizing over the long term,” said Anya Lawler, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which supports the causes of low-income Californians.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who chairs Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide commission on homelessness, did not immediately respond to a question sent to his office asking for his position on the ballot proposal.
Backers of the initiative must still receive state approval for the text of the measure and gather more than 620,000 signatures to qualify it for the November 2020 ballot.
The proposal comes amid growing calls to review the Lanterman-Petris-Short conservatorship law, California’s landmark legislation governing involuntary commitments of people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others.
The law was signed in 1967 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan with the goal of ending the indefinite confinement of mentally ill people against their will. But some lawmakers say it has made it too difficult to help those who are suffering and deteriorating on the street.
A group of state lawmakers plans to audit the law later this fall.
The number of homeless people has grown in California communities, both big and small. In Los Angeles County homelessness jumped 12 percent to nearly 59,000 this year compared with 2018. Sacramento County saw a 19 percent increase to nearly 5,600, compared with two years ago. Merced County experienced an 18 percent rise this year to more than 600 people without a permanent home. The list goes on.
California is home to one quarter of the nation's homeless people, though it represents just 12 percent of the country's overall population. It also has the highest share of unsheltered homeless people, 69 percent, of any state.