How Prop. 47 Fueled the Homeless Epidemic

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.

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“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.”

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.” 

Ramona Russell is a writer, advocate and public relations and social media strategist, and the creator of Save Sac, an advocacy group whose focus is the public health and safety for the city of Sacramento, California.

This article was originally published by the California Globe.


  1. Thank you Chief Lawrence for putting the truth where all can understand. We have known for some time that that is the real issue. When California stopped helping the mentally ill decades ago with meds every month (where by they were checked and if too long without meds went 72 hours ‘5150’.) And every 30 days allowed to renew. No costs. Here we are well over 25 years of that bad decision, and now the ill self medicate and drugs are rampant. Which leads to poverty and of course homelessness.
    Keep up the good work Chief.

  2. Not all homeless are drug addicts, most affordable homes are rented to illegals, and not all mentally ill. How many seniors are the streets? You all can believe what you want, ⁰

  3. Truthseeker says

    The “allowable theft” limit causes prices to be raised for everyone so that store owners can stay in business, and has encouraged car break-ins as well. How does the recent move to “expunge” criminal records work into this? Are the records still to be available for law enforcement and parole boards?

    The move to decriminalize marijuana–in order for the state to be able to tax it and make money has backfired as well–all they have done is to create a broader market for marijuana–which is definitely a gateway drug–and raise county law enforcement costs–while the illegal growers happily provide their motivation-sapping weed to the gullible public at sale prices. Even the man who first pushed for legalization of medical marijuana has admitted that the ultimate goal was legalizing recreational use.

  4. The state doesn’t have the money to build new jails or prisons to accommodate the ones being released due to Prop 47, but we have the money to build new homes to house the same folks!

  5. Chief Lawrence has issued a much, common sense, wake-up call. Unfortunately, those who really need to hear it, the state legislature, are tone deaf, not ever owning their mistakes. Instead they point their fingers at someone or something else, never realizing that three fingers are pointing back to themselves, a la. the AB5 fiasco. The CAGOP needs to get on board and promote with the November initiative that Chief Lawrence describes. It is a good start.

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