By David M. Greenwald
Yolo County DA Jeff Reisig last week put forward a five-point plan to reduce homelessness. While it contains some reasonable suggestions, the first plank is problematic and would require legislative action that under current conditions is highly unlikely. In addition, the plan in general suffers from a prosecutor’s rather than legislator’s mentality, which sees homelessness as combated through enforcement rather than the provision of services and treatment.
“Homelessness is an exploding humanitarian crisis affecting almost every community in California. Too many people suffering from severe mental illness and crippling addiction are being allowed to languish in filth and perish on our streets from disease, overdose and violence,” Reisig writes. “They need help.”
He argues: “Meanwhile, the quality of life for all Californians has dramatically declined as the crime and despair associated with the crisis has seeped across our state. There are real potential solutions to this crisis. They are not easy and they are not cheap. But, if California ever hopes to turn the tide, dramatic action is required.”
His five-point plan, he acknowledges, will “require groundbreaking legislation, funding and commitment from leaders and communities.”
- Amend California law to mandate state-funded treatment for seriously addicted drug users, including involuntary residential treatment, when appropriate.
- Expand conservatorship laws – make it easier to allow the seriously mentally ill and addicted to be conserved by loved ones and health professionals.
- Establish permanent drug courts and mental health courts in every county, where judges can collaborate with health professionals and all the parties to oversee a comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation plan.
- Build addiction and mental health facilities that can serve as secure treatment focused sanctuaries, not jails or prisons.
- Develop a statewide chain of drop-in-centers to provide free ongoing support and Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) to those on the path to recovery.
While some of these are reasonable goals, the first one is problematic at best.
The press release includes sample legislation which appeared to be a March 2020 amendment to AB 2804. They argue: “These addictions are best treated by residential and professionally conducted treatment programs,” but note that laws such as Prop. 47 and Prop. 36 (2000) “have removed temporary confinement for many of the most common drug offenses.”
It argues: “Temporary confinement is often an effective step in helping those suffering from a drug addiction to succeed in a drug treatment program.”
Given that, it would seem likely that such a move would require the voters to amend Prop. 47—that the legislature probably could not do that itself.
This follows in line with the DA’s complaint about Prop. 47 in which it eliminates the stick approach to compelling people to undertake drug treatment. But do these approaches work? Many would argue that they have not.
Beyond that there is a large problem with the proposal—it is an enforcement-based model. They talk about things like drug courts and mental health courts which are indeed improvements over the previous system, but they still require the individual to actually enter into the legal system in the first place. There is in fact nothing here that seeks to intervene prior to entrance into the legal system. That represents a huge barrier to this plan being a comprehensive solution.
For people suffering from mental illness, that means they must have broken laws in order to enter the system. For people suffering from drug addiction, this still relies on criminal sanctions and threats rather than a purely public health approach.
Moreover, most of this deals with the back end of addiction and mental health crisis, once people have gotten to the point where they come in contact with the criminal legal system. That is not surprising, given that it is a district attorney putting forward these proposals.
There is nothing here about education. Nothing here about job training. Nothing here about access to affordable housing. These omissions mean that someone effectively has to break the law before these reforms will make any difference rather than attempting to prevent drug addiction, prevent mental health crises, prevent homelessness in the first place.
There is a clear need to deal with these issues at this stage, and this proposal largely avoids the need for jails and prisons for low level drug offenses and for mental health related offenses, but it is limited to the back end. And it also does not have many mechanisms to prevent recidivism.
This is a problem because, even if what they propose to happen works, where do people end up once they are released from court-ordered facilities? Sure, they have free ongoing support and drop-in centers, but nothing to allow them to build their lives, nothing to allow people to get quality jobs, no place for people to stay once they have cleaned up—if they do.
In short, while this is a midway path toward legal reform, pushing people from strict punishment-based approaches to treatment-based approaches, it falls well-short of any kind of comprehensive approach to homelessness.
It gets people who are addicted to drugs out of prisons and jails, which is a good thing, but it keeps them in the criminal legal system—which is probably not the best place for them, and it waits until they enter that system before setting up these approaches.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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