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Drug addicted, mentally ill, homeless in Sacramento. (Photo: Ramona Russell)

How Prop. 47 Fueled the Homeless Epidemic

Top law enforcement official says failed state policies are responsible for the drug addiction and mental illness crisis

By Ramona Russell, February 24, 2020 7:03 am

“When you’re in the trenches, you know this is not a housing crisis, but a drug addiction and mental illness crisis. Prop. 47 is a dismal failure and an inhumane way to deal with drug addiction and homelessness.”


Ronald A. Lawrence, the Citrus Heights Chief of Police and President of the California Police Chiefs Association where he represents all 333 municipal police chiefs in the entire state, says Proposition 47 can be blamed for the increase in homelessness and drug addiction.

Ronald A. Lawrence. (Photo: provided by Ronald Lawrence)

“When you’re in the trenches, you know this is not a housing crisis, but a drug addiction and mental illness crisis. Prop. 47 is a dismal failure and an inhumane way to deal with drug addiction and homelessness. Before it went into effect, we had mechanisms and means to get people the help they needed,” says Lawrence who has spent thirty years in law enforcement.

Proposition 47, also referred to as The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, decriminalized drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, which removed law enforcement’s ability to make an arrest in most circumstances and therefore the court’s ability to order drug rehabilitation programs. Another factor of the proposition was to raise the theft threshold to $950 per location, also making it a misdemeanor from a felony.

Lawrence adds, “Arrests are not the problem, addiction is. Cops are now issuing citations to drug users with dangerous drugs. It’s a misnomer cops want to throw people in jail. No one wants drug addicts to stay in prison; we want them to get clean and be productive members of society. But what people fail to see is unless an addict hits rock bottom, they are not going to get the help they need. The criminal justice system and court mandated rehab was the best chance we had to save their lives.”

“Governor Brown had a choice. He could have built more prisons, but instead he reduced the population by releasing or pushing inmates to local county jails, which are not designed to house someone past a year and prevents law enforcement from taking low-level offenders in,” explains Lawrence.

He believes the culmination of the last decade of criminal justice reform starting with Assembly Bill 109, which overwhelmed county jails by housing nonviolent offenders from prison, has been a failure. Add to that Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, which allows nonviolent felons to qualify for early release, also made it to where the parole board can only consider an inmate’s most recent charge, not their entire history.

Some of the crimes that are considered “nonviolent” in California are human trafficking of a child, rape of an unconscious person or by intoxication, drive by shooting at inhabited dwelling or vehicle, assault with a firearm or deadly weapon, assault on a police officer, serial arson, exploding a bomb to injure people, solicitation to commit murder, assault from a caregiver to a child under eight years old that could result in a coma or death and felony domestic violence. Questions Lawrence, “Domestic violence has the word ‘violent’ in the title. How is this possible?”

“The number one thing people can do is support the California Criminal Sentencing, Parole and DNA Collection Initiative (formerly known as the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act) in November. This initiative intends to fix some of the unintended consequences of propositions 47 and 57. It would require a parole board to consider an inmate’s entire criminal history when considering release. It would also reduce the ceiling from $950 to $250 on a third conviction for petty theft, which can allow the district attorney’s office to do a wobbler (charge as a misdemeanor or a felony). This is designed for repeat offenders who continue to rip us off, not for first-time offenders,” says Lawrence.

“If the source of the problem is drug addiction, now the court can mandate drug rehabilitation, which forces addicts into programs when they didn’t know they needed it in the first place,” Lawrence said. “The criminal justice system plays a role in getting people help, and law enforcement does all we can for those who want that help, but our failed state policies have eroded those mechanisms.”

Homeless addict passed out in Land Park, Sacramento. (Photo: Ramona Russell)

Lawrence, who has been a chief of police for nine years, believes in a philosophical, hands on, tough love approach when dealing with the homeless population. “We do our own count once a year, which is much more accurate than the Point-in-Time (PIT) count. We ask about drug addiction, mental illness and veteran status. We have a navigator who gets people into the right programs. We enforce all ordinances on the books, including aggressive panhandling and shopping carts, which we return to the stores. Our city isn’t as politically influenced as other cities; we have a very supportive Mayor and City Council.”

“The documentary, Seattle is Dying, is a precursor to what is happening in California,” he says. “We need to start with policies at the state level and voters need to do their homework and look who is supporting initiatives and ballots. Police chiefs are about public health and safety. When we oppose or support a policy, it’s always in the best interest for those two things. The California Police Chiefs Association is nonpartisan and closely watches 500-600 bills a year related to public safety. Those bills that are bad for public safety, we oppose and those that promote public safety, we support.”

“Those who championed state policies that had negative consequences to public safety, unintended or otherwise, need to own those decisions. But this is not a time to cast blame or point fingers over negative causes of crucial issues such as homelessness. We should not concern ourselves with the past, but rather work to find real solutions to address the burdening homelessness issue, drug addiction crisis and mental health needs in California. The California Criminal Sentencing, Parole and DNA Collection Initiative is one path forward to a better future, and it’s up to the voters to set a new course.” 

“What people fail to see is unless an addict hits rock bottom, they are not going to get the help they need. The criminal justice system and court mandated rehab was the best chance we had to save their lives.”

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47 thoughts on “How Prop. 47 Fueled the Homeless Epidemic

  1. Thank You Ramona for another informative article on what plagues most California cities.
    One fact that does not get enough attention is the name of the initiatives. The A.G. chooses titles that sound good to most uninformed voters, such as Prop 47, The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act. One would assume we are protecting our neighborhoods and children, which is far from the reality of the bill’s intent! This needs to stop!
    It is my hope with articles like yours, readers will share with family, friends, neighbors to make an effective change.
    Keep doing what your doing , we need your voice!

    1. Great comment!! If I could add…when I do community presentations and tell the room they voted for Prop 47, overwhelmingly, their jaws hit the ground. Names and titles are deceiving.

  2. The problem started when Ronald Reagan closed state mental hospitals and other treatment facilities across the state and dumped thousands of addicts and mentally ill onto our streets saying the private sector and churches would step in and provide the services and treatment needed. Nope.

    1. Incorrect: former Governor Ronald Reagan did not close the state’s mental hospitals as the leftist media has incorrectly repeated for 50 years. It was President John F. Kennedy who in his October 31, 1963 legislation –The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 — ordered the building of 1,500 mental health centers, while closing many mental health hospitals over time, known as deinstitutionalization. Governors were just required to execute on the President’s Executive Order, while at the same time, Congress failed to fund the mental health centers.

      1. What about the Mental_Health_Systems_Act_of_1980? That was In 1981 President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress repealed most of the law.

        1. Pres. Kennedy said when he signed the 1963 bill that the legislation to build community 1,500 centers would mean the population of those living in state mental hospitals — at that time more than 500,000 people — could be cut in half. The idea was to de-federalize and localize mental institutions by having states in charge. The MHSA of 1980, authored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, signed into law by Pres. Jimmy Carter, was a denouncement to JFK’s Executive Order, attempting rehabilitation of people with severe mental illnesses,. Pres. Reagan and Congress converted the remaining funding of the MHSA into mental health block grants for states, allowing them to spend it however they chose.

      2. You are incorrect – it was Reagan who took away all funding For MHSA – I was working in mental health at the time – He decided the mentally ill should work ! Guess what ? Imagine trying to work when the voices in you head don’t go away , even when you are so sedated you can’t think straight ! These are the homeless ! The government failed them !

        1. Leigh, I wonder if I could chat with you. My father worked in the California Department of Mental Hygiene (as it was called then) and I’d like to ask a few non-political questions about that era, under Pat Brown or Reagan.
          You can reach me at JasonNeller@gmail.com. I’ll delete this comment after a week.

    2. THANK YOU…. I remember that to, now we hear of why those places can’t be opened again to help these people that need help its easy to turn and look away and that is what our governor of California has been doing and the rest,,,,,,,

    3. Some truth there is not enough help for the mental ill and drug addicts. It’s easy to say lock them up but give an portion “go to jail to go to treatment”

    1. Everyones reason will be different. The path to addiction varies from individual to individual, and includes childhood experiences to genetics to injury to choice. The problem is the inability to make the addict address the issue, and instead make an entire town live with the life choices (because that which you do not change, you choose) of these individuals.

      1. This is exactly what is happening. Everyone else has to deal with the horrible behaviors of the out of control individual and if we stand up and say this is insane the homeless indsrtl complex pimps step in to bully the honest folk.

        “because that which you do not change, you choose”

      2. Yes! That’s the core of it. But, the justifying advocates keep putting the blame on the rest of us.
        How’s that even logical?

    2. Perhaps the disintegration of family, values, morals and easy access to drugs and pain-numbing substances.

      Just a thought.

  3. Thank you for this article. It’s about time the harsh realities of this epidemic are clearly explained. This is an entirely different and accurate portrayal of what is truly driving the homeless onto our streets. Repeal 47 and 57, reinstate drug court and get these people off the streets and into treatment and a better life. We should also re-examine what is determined as non violent crime. It’s a disgrace to society what criminals are allowed to get away with!

  4. Would like to ask if someone on staff could write an article comparing Calif govt workers salaries compared to the private sector. An article written three years ago summarized a California study indicating the average Calif govt worker was making $121k on average vs a private sector worker making $62k. This is why any proposition (esp 13) needs to be voted NO on. California is receiving far more tax than it needs! This needs to be publicized

    1. I am a retired probation officer. I would love to be paid that salary you quoted. Don’t think your facts are correct, unless you are referring to people in office or management.

  5. Would love to see AB1946 and SB40 become law. That would help get these transient/drug addicts/alcoholics/mental health issue people help.

  6. Excellent report.
    The laws have to be changed so the officer can arrest and jail, Like in the old days. The lazy can stay in jail or get a job. The mental ill and addicts can go the rehab to get treated and released. Some will never get out. We must keep our cities safe.

  7. Great comment!! If I could add…when I do community presentations and tell the room they voted for Prop 47, overwhelmingly, their jaws hit the ground. Names and titles are deceiving. Katy Grimes, you are my hero…many people are quick to blame Reagan. Thank you

  8. Please Voters, do NOT
    vote for George Gascon for District Attorney, the culprit for Prop 47!!

  9. What people fail to see is unless an addict hits rock bottom, they are not going to get the help they need. The criminal justice system and court-mandated rehab was the best chance we had to save their lives.”
    I don’t think this is true. People get help when they decide to get help, not when they hit “rock bottom”.
    Thousands go through “cold turkey” withdrawals (i.e. “rock bottom”) every day in jails across the country and shoot up within 24 hours of release.

  10. Why did it take so long for the “common sense” gene to kick in for California? There’s nothing merciful or progressive about leaving people to die on the streets. Something needs to be done NOW!!

  11. GUN VIOLENCE is another catch word that makes no sense in this equation: it is not a long jail sentence for drive by shooting, using a gun in a crime, or a felon to be caught with a gun. Most such felons are serial repeat offenders. So, if you want to curtail gun violence, let’s start by taking GUN OFFENDERS OFF OUR STREETS!!! Hard, long, time without TV, gyms, recreation, or amusement might, just might, make prison horrible enough to make the scum get a job and work instead of prey on citizens. Kill murders while we’re at it!

    1. Excellent comment, Mr. Chacey! I read an editorial years ago about contracting with Turkey to house our hardened criminals. It would save an extraordinary amount of money and act as a strong deterrent to the never-do-wells of our society.

  12. Thank you for that correction. I had believed Gov Ronald Reagan was the one who was the cause of releasing the mentally ill from the institutions. I am so happy to hear that wasn’t the case. For years that is who everyone blames. However the law went even further by requiring judgement of the mentally ill by others that they be a harm to themselves or others before they can be treated. Which is an impossibility to judge.

  13. Just heard your comments on KFI and I agree absolutely. The Politicians running for local office just keep blaming the cost of rents not the true causes that fueled this epidemic with no consequences. Our district LA city council district 4 has more of the same politicians wanting housing first ($700,000 units) and not mandatory treatment first to solve the underlying cause.
    One Candidate I heard at the debates gets it SUSAN COLLINS she is the only one with common sense and can process the information.

  14. Having lived on the edge of skid row for several years I can guarantee you that the primary reason for an increase in homelessness is neoliberal policies that have been implemented of the past several decades. Slashing budgets that deal directly with providing services to some of the most vulnerable individuals in society lands them on the streets where their preyed upon by drug dealers. After all getting a mentally ill and or partially mentally ill person hooked on drugs (living in squalor) that creates a false sense of euphoria ,what could possibly go wrong? Simple minded solutions like throwing them in jail to the tune of $65,000 per year per person is purely idiotic because it does nothing to solve the root of the problem. Furthermore coming to terms with the fact that a portion of the mentally ill homeless population are unemployable is, for America, a tough pill to swallow.

  15. A great article. As someone who has worked in law enforcement for the last 15 years, I can see how AB109, and Prop 47 have completely failed our communities. However, maybe the general public doesn’t. This article does a great job of clearly illustrating how Prop 47 contributed to some of the problems our communities now face. Thank you.

  16. I’m about to start walking around with a sword here in LA. Then I think maybe it’s time to move. Then I think people actually want you to move, even though you are against all odds a productive member of society. Think about it, this is the fault of the landlords. Scare out the old tenants by making the communities unbearable and bring in the new and clueless. They are less likely to argue and fight back at first. But then slowly month by month the toxic environment and culture reveals itself and they become more and more aware as crime occurs in their lives. Then the cycle repeats the same with small business as well. It’s rigged baby and it makes money for the property owners regardless. If you move to LA just realize that its rigged out here and once you make a living you have to get out of the city or else you’ll get raped or robbed or assaulted at some point and no one will care. I’m thinking about going to Brentwood now, or somewhere boring smh

  17. I knew Ronald A. Lawrence’s agenda, the second I read his position/title. He wants to lock drug addicts and homeless people up and (basically) ‘throw away the key’. He wants them all to become felons so that, eventually and quite swiftly, they’ll automatically become ‘lifers’ in prison. Jails and institutions are not these people’s ‘rock bottom’. What was stated in this article is that they have to want to get clean. Them being locked up doesn’t make them want to be clean. As a matter of a fact, they STILL GET HIGH and DRUNK WHILE LOCKED UP. Most of them have been locked up at some point in their lives and still are in their current situation.
    I speak as a homeless, recovered alcoholic and drug addict (weed, spice, cocaine, ecstasy, prescription drugs) with a lengthy criminal record and a person who has been diagnosed with mental illnesses. I’ve attended MANY mandated programs both through the criminal justice system and psychiatric institutions; none of them worked. Nothing the states did helped me. None of it made me reach my ‘rock bottom’. It all made things COMPLETELY WORSE! My ‘rock bottom’ was me being sick and tired of feeling like I was drowning in substances. I hated the way I felt from being high and drunk 24/7. And, after about 20 years of it, I changed my mind about how I was living my life and turned towards Jesus for deliverance. I had been in and out of jails and mental hospitals for TWENTY YEARS (!!!!!!!!) & NONE OF IT ever came remotely CLOSE to helping me! And what has kept me clean has been the love of Christ and exiting a toxic marriage that encouraged me to stay high and drunk and waste my life away. It’s the pain of life that makes people wind up and stay drunks and addicts. Drinking and drugging may start out fun but it quickly transforms into a coping mechanism. Just like there are workaholics, shopaholics and sexaholics, there are alcoholics and drug addicts. Everyone is trying to COPE with something; there’s something in their life that they don’t want to deal with or are dealing with it in the worst way(s) possible.
    Lastly, what is the success rate of all the inmates before Proposition 47? I’ll state confidently that it wasn’t good. (Hence, Proposition 47.) The recidivism rate was higher, before Proposition 47. How in the WORLD does Ronald A. Lawrence see building MORE prisons as the solution? If you need more institutions to “house” more inmates then obviously the solution is not working. After the majority of U.S. territories are used to build criminal institutions to house all of these convicts — which would quickly turn out to be almost every single American — then what? Take over Mexico and use that land to build more prisons? What after that? Conquer nearby islands and do the same thing? Then what? When do you see that the perceived criminal acts are not the issue and that criminalizing and locking up everyone is not the solution? America has death sentences and life sentences within its criminal justice system and it hasn’t decreased murder rates not even by .00000000000001%. Ronald A. Lawrence states that a person has to want to change. Well, criminalizing people won’t make them want to change and that’s proven by the (lack of a reliable) success rate of “rehabilitation” within the criminal justice system even before Proposition 47.

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