For those that believe the answer to homeless problems is to arrest and prosecute them for every infraction such as trespassing, San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar has some sobering news. Not only is it ineffective at changing illegal behavior but it is expensive.
“Trespassing is an infraction,” Verber Salazar said. “As a misdemeanor there is no jail time and the most they can be fined is $100 and most can’t pay it.”
She added sentencing the homeless to community work details as punishment is problematic at best as one of the two leading factors to end up being on the streets is mental illness and addiction problems.
But perhaps the biggest problem with dealing with the homeless by citing or arresting and then prosecuting them for quality of life crimes is the cost.
Citing a homeless person for trespassing and then prosecuting them costs $600 on average when police and district attorney costs are tabulated. If they are actually booked in jail, it adds another $850 onto the bill. And if the case goes to court, the costs soar past $2,000.
“It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t change the behavior,” Verber Salazar told Manteca Rotarians during their noon meeting Thursday at Ernie’s Rendezvous Room.
She noted if there you were to arrest all 300 plus homeless in Manteca every day for breaking laws that are primarily misdemeanors they’d be back on the street again the next day. Simply repeating the process over and over again ties up resources and accelerates the expenditure of tax dollars without solving the problem.
It is why the district attorney is a champion of the process Manteca is using that is similar to what her office is pursuing with other jurisdictions. It is to have law enforcement work in tandem with non-profit agencies such as Inner City Action on efforts to coax the homeless off the streets and into programs that can deal with addiction if needed as well as get them the services, mentoring, and assistance needed to get them integrated back into society.
That doesn’t mean those homeless that cause considerable damage to a community aren’t prosecuted.
Verber Salazar pointed to a program that her office working with Stockton Police Department and the community is using in a Wilson Way neighborhood in Stockton where police calls about homeless issues have dropped 60 percent in the past year.
It started with a resident calling Verber Salazar and saying he wanted his neighborhood back. The two met and Verber Salazar — after hearing the resident rattle off his knowledge of specific homeless individuals that caused the majority of the problems — devised a targeted enforcement approach that she hopes to expand eventually throughout the county.
In talking with merchants, community leaders as well as police officers it was quickly determined that a handful of the homeless were causing the most problems.
For most homeless, officials are taking similar action Manteca Police is by building relationships, making them aware of services that are available, and constantly urging them to get off the streets.
“It often takes 70 to 90 different times to ask before a homeless individual before they will finally say ‘yes’,” Verber Salazar said.
The ones that cause the most egregious problems for the community are given the same options plus one more — if they don’t accept help to get off the streets the DA and police will work to build up a case based on their transgressions that can qualify for prison time.
The district attorney stressed that being homeless isn’t a crime per se. She also said mental illness and addiction need to be addressed as well. It is why her office is keeping a close watch on a pilot San Francisco program that would force mentally ill people who are homeless into treatment programs.
She added that equally important is to make resources available to prevent people on the edge from becoming homeless.
“It is a lot easier to keep people off the street than it is to get them off (the street),” she said.
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