Sheriff: ‘Safe schools’ initiative ravaged California with drug addiction and fueled homelessness

A California sheriff said legislation touted as creating safer neighborhoods and schools is to blame for the state's soaring addiction and homeless rates.

"When we stopped enforcing drug rules and laws," Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco told Fox News, "we started seeing a major, major, major increase in what we see now as the severe mental health problems of people that are living on the street."

Bianco said a large portion of California's homeless population is suffering from severe drug addiction, which has made many individuals unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

"They're just whacked out, sometime's they're uncontrollable," he said. "You never know how to act or react around them because it's uncertain what they are going to do."

The problem stems from Proposition 47, approved by voters nearly a decade ago, Bianco argued.

Also referred to as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop 47 changed crimes like theft of goods under $950 and drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors and ultimately reduced California’s prison population by more than 13,000 inmates. More than half the money saved on prison costs is earmarked for mental health services, substance use disorder treatment and other programs.

"It was astonishing that people did not do the research of what they were voting for, and they trusted the government to be honest to them when they said it was safe schools and safe streets, because everybody's for that," Bianco said. "But we were lied to."

California's fatal overdose rate rose more than 35% between 2014 and 2019, then skyrocketed the following year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

But California's 2021 death rate of 26.6 per 100,000 residents still ranked lower than most states. The conservative states of Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia had the highest drug mortality rates, with the latter reporting a death rate of 90.9 per 100,000 people, according to the CDC data. 

Bianco said a false narrative of mass incarceration for simple drug possession fueled Prop 47's popularity.

"Every single person that went to court was told, 'You're either going to have to go to jail or you're going to have to go to drug diversion,'" Bianco said. Most chose diversion, he said.

Across the state, 67% of drug courts surveyed by the Center for Court Innovation reported their caseloads decreased after the passage of Prop 47. Even among the defendants who were referred to the courts following the change in drug charge classification, many refused to enroll in diversion programs, suggesting the courts have less leverage to push addicts to seek help, researchers wrote.

The inability to force people into substance abuse treatment has led to a "drastic increase" in mental health issues and drug-related crime, Bianco said.

"We cannot force them into drug rehab," he said. "Now they get a ticket. If they fail to go to court on that ticket, they just get another ticket."

To hear more from Bianco, click here.

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