Law, Dis-Order and Insanity 

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Albert Einstein once said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

The longstanding and ongoing criminalization of poor people, people with substance-abuse problems, people suffering from mental health issues and people who are unhoused is “insanity” according to Einstein’s definition.

The unhoused population of California is .05% of the total population (39 million Californians divided by an estimated 180,000–200,000 unhoused Californians). Although a small percentage of the total number, unhoused residents and the poor are often scapegoated and blamed for society’s ills by morally bankrupt politicians, “law enforcement” and members of the business community.

The most recent reiteration is the intentionally named Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act that will be listed as the California Drug and Theft Crime Penalties and Treatment-Mandated Felonies Initiative on the November ballot. 

The proposed measure is sponsored by the Californians for Safer Communities (CFSC) coalition and mostly funded by large retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target. It is a reactionary measure that will only result in more incarceration, criminal prosecutions and increased costs to taxpayers.

If passed by California voters, it will increase penalties for drug dealers and users with a new “treatment-mandated felony” crime for drug possession after two previous convictions. The act would also increase penalties for retail theft and shoplifting.

The sponsors claim the measure will provide more “critical mental health, drug treatment services and job training within our justice system for people who are homeless and suffering from mental illness or struggling with substance abuse.” In other words, services mandated by the courts.

Local politicians such as Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors and Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp have signed on in support. Even liberal politicians such as Governor Gavin Newsom, Assembly Member James Ramos (D–San Bernardino) and former State Senator Gloria Romero are in support, joining the reactionary forces. Also in support are most law enforcement associations and many district attorneys. Many small businesses across the state support the measure as do many large corporations and retailers.

The CFSC website claims in large bold print that harkens back to the Nixon and Reagan administrations that “Skyrocketing Theft and Drug Trafficking Make Our Communities More Dangerous” claiming the act “will make our communities safe.”

This proposed act is a renewal of the “war on drugs,” which has been an abject failure. It is a war on the poor that has proven to be unequal and racist in its application.

The website also says that “this measure will hold repeat [shoplifting] offenders accountable for the safety of our communities, rather than putting them back on the streets,” falsely implying that shoplifting is a violent crime.

The act aims to overturn certain aspects of Proposition 47, an important referendum on criminal justice passed by California voters in 2014. Prop 47 changed the law so that some low-level nonviolent felonies can only be charged as misdemeanors. This includes most drug possession charges and shoplifting (less than $950) charges.

Since being implemented in 2015, Californians have saved more than $800 million in reduced incarceration costs. The state has sent more than $300 million of these savings to cities and counties for successful rehabilitation and crime prevention efforts. This proposed measure will lead to more felony convictions, expensive incarceration measures and more homelessness.

The Brookings Institution, a well-established research institute, released a study on retail theft in the United States titled “Retail theft in US cities: Separating fact from fiction” by Thea Sebastian and Hanna Love on March 6. The study found that “felony convictions often lead to homelessness. Past experience and the record show that punitive measures such as Zero Tolerance Policies increased incarceration rates and homelessness, creating significant financial and social burdens.”

A 2023 UC San Francisco comprehensive study on homelessness shows that institutionalization often precedes homelessness. One in five participants in the statewide study became homeless directly from a jail or a prison.

The referenced Brookings report found that “existing data on retail theft is highly unreliable and imprecise. First, ‘retail theft’ is not an independent category reported by most police departments.

“Moreover, the terms increasingly used by industry and government officials—‘organized retail crime’ or ‘organized retail theft’—have no consistent legal definition across states and often encompass broader crimes such as cargo and employee theft (which are already associated with more severe sanctions). Even the California Retailers Association has acknowledged a lack of comprehensive and reliable data on retail theft.”

Brookings researchers found that “shoplifting in major cities did not actually spike in the ways that media has reported. According to the Council on Criminal Justice, only 24 cities consistently reported shoplifting data over the past five years, and of those cities, shoplifting decreased in 17.

“Moreover, looking across all 24 cities, the prevalence of shoplifting in 2023 remained below 2018 and 2019 levels. Even San Francisco—which has often been cited as having a “shoplifting epidemic”—saw a 5% decline in shoplifting between 2019 and 2023.”

The Brookings research exposed that “corporate claims are not holding up to scrutiny, and are being used to close stores that are essential assets for many communities. For instance, the CEO of Walgreens has acknowledged that perhaps retailers ‘cried too much last year’ and overspent on security measures that failed to reflect real needs.

“And although the National Retail Federation said that ‘organized retail crime’ drove nearly half of all inventory losses in 2021, the group later retracted its claim; it now no longer attaches a dollar amount to money that is lost due to retail theft. And in memorable cases, major retailers have chosen to maintain stores with much higher rates of crime, while closing others.”

Shoplifting is a complex issue and cannot be reduced by punitive measures. Online research shows that people shoplift for various reasons, including psychological disorders. Such disorders might include depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and kleptomania.

Often, financial difficulty can lead to shoplifting. Research indicates that more than half of Americans are worried about keeping up with the cost of living.

Another factor is that shoplifting is low risk. Studies have shown that just one in 48 shoplifters is caught. Sometimes, peer pressure happens when friends or family influence a person to steal. This is especially true for younger people who might suffer from low self-esteem.

Obviously, shoplifting is a deeply complicated issue in a society with skewed values. It can only be addressed by understanding the root causes, not with felony convictions. Substance abuse, addiction and the trafficking of dangerous drugs like fentanyl can only be solved by increasing treatment programs, increasing support for economically disadvantaged communities and coordinating law enforcement efforts at the federal, state and local level to target major suppliers.

If passed, this measure would prove costly and be dangerous, as documented in the Brookings report, which states that “the shoplifting [issue] has captured public attention across the United States and California which has fueled momentum to further criminalize retail theft.

“Already, this punitive turn is producing serious consequences for communities. Last April, for instance, a man in San Francisco was shot by a security guard who accused him of stealing from Walgreens. In November, the Albuquerque, N.M., police killed a man accused of shoplifting from Kohl’s as part of their increased patrols to combat retail theft. And just last month, police officers killed a Virginia man suspected of stealing sunglasses at a Fairfax County shopping center.”

This proposed measure presents a false narrative. If passed, incarceration rates and costs will undoubtedly increase. The measure will not solve the health crisis of drug addiction, will not reduce shoplifting and will do nothing to alleviate the crisis of homelessness. It will further the spread of poverty in communities that are already decimated.

It is imperative for all Californians to understand this measure and educate voters about the dangers it presents.

Author

  • Bob McCloskey

    Bob McCloskey is an activist and a reporter for the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at bobmccloskey06@gmail.com.

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Kathleen Shannon
Kathleen Shannon
7 days ago

CRIMINALIZATION OF THE POOR..
NOT MENTIONED IN THIS PRESENT ARTICLE, BANNING ENCAMPMENTS, NO SLEEPING IN PUBLIC, RENDERING THE UNHOUSED AS “PLACELESS.” ” NO PLACE, LIKE NO PLACE, NO HOME….”

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