Ammiano's "Homeless Bill of Rights": Part Civil Rights, Part Prison Reform
By Dan Aiello
State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) is following through on his promise to reform California's prisons with the introduction of a homeless rights bill intended to decriminalize homelessness in the Golden State, protecting "some of society's most vulnerable members."
Make no mistake, Assembly Bill 5 is as much prison reform, as it is civil rights, legislation.
Among other things, the proposed law would require legal representation for anyone cited under local loitering, camping or panhandling ordinances.
It would give "every person in the state, regardless of actual or perceived housing status," the rights to "use and move freely in public spaces," to "rest in public spaces," and to "occupy vehicles, either to rest or use for the purposes of shelter, for 24 hours a day, seven days a week," according to Ammiano's press release.
"Overall, this bill is about not being discriminated against if you are homeless," said Ammiano. "A lot of it is aspirational. This is what we would love in a perfect world," said Ammiano today.
In an interview last month regarding the Assemblyman's wish to see significant prison reform, Ammiano told California Progress Report that our prisons have been an expensive "weapon of first choice" in the war on drugs, mental illness and homelessness.
Ammiano is a new generation of state government "reform" legislators - a California political legacy dating back to progressive Governor Hiram Johnson - and has fiercely sought to decriminalize marijuana while advocating its taxation as a revenue source for state government. It is the use of state prisons "as our weapon of choice in the wars on drugs, the mentally ill and the homeless, yes its increasingly illegal in this state to be homeless," that was the biggest contributor to a prison population that has until realignment seemed uncontrollable, Ammiano told CPR.
"We have focused too much time money and effort at criminalizing mental illness, victimless crimes and homelessness and then perceiving all inmates as if they are all the same, and that has been part of our problem," Ammiano told CPR.
Ammiano was pragmatic in what he told CPR was a waste of taxpayer dollars for a state "not any more safe," for incarcerating administrative parole violators who missed appointments with parole officers, mental illness, victimless crimes like drug possession and and incarceration of the homeless for loitering, panhandling and camping.
California spent $72,000 per year, per prisoner in 2012. The Golden State has the highest recidivism rate in the nation, nearly 20 percent higher than the next highest state correctional system. And 45 percent of those who were returned to prison in the three year post-release time period were returned for "administrative parole violations, including missed appointments and positive drug tests," according to the state's 2011 survey. According to a 2012 Pew study, the total cost to California taxpayers for returning those former inmates who did not commit a violent crime or felony: $1 billion dollars.
Ammiano told CPR he believes placing the homeless and mentally ill in overcrowded state prisons is "immoral," and likened their imprisonment to that of being thrown into state-run "Gladiator Academies."
Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report.