Over the last few years in California, urban street homelessness has dramatically increased and many are wondering why. Discussions from law enforcement shed some light on the answer: Two state laws have released thousands of prison inmates and reduced the threat of punishment for crimes like drug possession and petty theft.
The issue started in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prison crowding amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and compelled the state to act. The state legislature responded with AB 109, which moved thousands of non-serious and non-violent offenders from state prisons to county jails. A few years later, responding to the overcrowding of jails, Prop 47 released low-level felons, including thousands of mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates.
The impact of these two laws strained California’s social service programs such that thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded prison life for the churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.
Seven years ago, individuals convicted of possessing small amounts of heroin or methamphetamine could easily be sent to jail. Courts gave clear options: Rehab or jail. Not so anymore. Because Prop. 47 reduced possession and many other charges to misdemeanors, prison is no longer an option and, therefore, the leverage to compel addicts into treatment was eliminated.
Another of Prop. 47’s major failings is the lack of increased penalties for repeat drug and petty theft offenses. Crimes that used to land offenders in jail are now addressed with a citation. Often, offenders spend little time in jail or walk free with a ticket that will never be paid.
It seems clear that Prop. 47 is increasing the homeless population. As fewer people were detained in jail, unsheltered homeless numbers in downtown San Diego, for example, increased. In fact, the street homeless population increased more than 24 percent as jail populations fell by 1,200 each night in 2015. The Downtown San Diego Partnership current count of street homelessness is more than 1,300 and continues to rise.
Figures collected by the Washington Post one year after passage of Prop. 47, suggest that around 3,000 heavy drug users will avoid significant jail time in the city of San Diego alone. With an estimated one-third of the homeless in San Diego identified as chronic substance abusers, it’s no wonder emergency room visits for drug overdoses have increased.
The Washington Post also reported that from January through June 2015, San Diego police booked about half as many adults into jail on narcotics charges as they did in 2013 (from 3,014 to 1,609). Part of the decrease is explained by rising misdemeanor citations (from 398 to 1,320 over six months). Police and social workers that work the streets attest to the flood of criminals joining the homeless population.
Housing First, the government’s policy on homelessness, focuses on providing permanent, free housing to the street homeless. It prides itself on housing active drug users and requiring no behavioral changes in exchange for a permanent place to live. Nobody knows how many felons released due to Prop. 47 are now residing in housing intended for the homeless. It seems likely, however, that state law has shifted housing for thousands of felons from prisons and jails to permanent housing intended for the homeless.