We Can’t Wait
Why the city must enforce its laws—now
By Thien Ho
The story is bleak. An unsheltered population grows by more than 250% in six years. Sixteen encampments. Daily assaults. Hypodermic needles on soccer fields. Children walking to school through human feces and urine. Unanswered calls to city authorities for help.
As district attorney for Sacramento County, my mandate is public safety. While our office would never prosecute someone for being homeless, laws apply to everyone, even unhoused people.
I was recently asked by Mayor Darrell Steinberg to offer diversion to every unhoused person faced with prosecution. The mayor’s proposal would mean dismissal of every misdemeanor committed by an unhoused person. No input from victims. No evaluation of the crime.
The mayor’s idea, I instantly concluded, was inappropriate and unlawful.
Our office has taken appropriate steps. Together with the Superior Court, we developed strategies to divert defendants with serious mental illness or drug addiction away from incarceration. We now provide 12 alternative courts, serving almost 5,000 people.
Other recommendations will take time to develop. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants a ballot measure to create 10,000 new housing units for behavioral health patients. Archaic conservatorship protocols are under reconsideration by lawmakers.
But we can’t wait. We must act now.
Our office surveyed more than 1,600 residents. The message was clear. The time for pondering and talking has long passed. This is why in early August I gave the city 30 days to enforce its own codes and ordinances.
Our office can’t enforce city laws. We prosecute state misdemeanors and felonies. City ordinances and codes fall under the city attorney. Enforcement by the city attorney has been inconsistent, to put it mildly.
To satisfy the city’s obligation to enforce its laws, I asked the city attorney to provide four attorneys, in different parts of town, to coordinate prosecution or diversion. I also spelled out requests for outreach and three temporary camp locations or shelters.
The temporary sites must be properly sited, not on streets or in parks or near schools, libraries, playgrounds or rivers. They must have 24-hour security, garbage removal and no nearby campers.
Areas of city prosecution must include sidewalk obstructions and pedestrian interference, park usage, storage of private property in public areas, vehicle encampments and traffic, and critical infrastructure.
I asked for monthly reports on how many people moved from supportive to non-subsidized housing, how many used city shelters or camp areas, and how many refused shelter. It’s important for the public to see these numbers every day.
Unfortunately, many unsheltered people refuse help. I asked the city to tighten the refusal option. After one refusal, the individual will receive a warning. After the second contact, a citation will be issued but dismissed if the person accepts shelter. A third refusal brings a trip to jail and a misdemeanor citation.
I made other requests to the city. I want prohibitions on camping during the day and secure sites for unsheltered people to store belongings. My requests all comply with state and federal laws.
What happens if the city ignores my requests?
State law provides the public with protection from the decisions and indecisions of its leaders. If the city continues to allow public nuisances on municipal property, the city and its officials are accountable under the law. Dereliction of duty is not an excuse or a defense.
Our office has the responsibility to prosecute state misdemeanors. That’s what we will do. I ask Mayor Steinberg and his City Council colleagues to enforce the codes and ordinances they and their predecessors approved.
Thien Ho is district attorney for Sacramento County. He can be reached at (916) 874-6218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.