Capitol Alert

Does California need a homeless court? Voters could decide

A proposed ballot initiative would create a special court to steer homeless Californians to treatment after arrests for a range of crimes including defecation in public and drug use.

Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, submitted the ballot initiative on Thursday for review by the Attorney General’s Office. If it moves forward, it would require 623,212 signatures to reach the ballot.

Gatto’s office says the initiative would “radically” change the state’s approach to homelessness.

It would classify certain crimes, such as public defecation or drug use, “as cries for help.” Under the plan, people arrested on suspicion of committing those crimes would be diverted to a special court “to determine whether a person committed those crimes due to economic need, a drug dependency, or mental health issues.”

The court would then sentence the offender to a treatment plan, with their record being expunged once they complete their sentence.

“It is not humane to leave people who need help on the streets,” Gatto said in prepared remarks. “This initiative would use the existing system and laws already on the books to get people the help they need. We the people must go to the ballot box on this issue, because governments everywhere have let us down, and have let down the people on the streets.”

In January 2018, there were nearly 130,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.