Column: California’s knock-down, drag-out fight over addiction and theft

 The California state Capitol facade framed by trees and other foliage
The California state Capitol in Sacramento.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Hello and happy Thursday. There are 145 days until the election, and today we’re talking guns and drugs. And no, it’s not (entirely) Hunter Biden.

Turns out Donald Trump has a gun, too.

The former president had turned in two guns to New York authorities last year when he was charged in the hush-money case in which he was just found guilty.


Now there are reports that Trump told a probation official this week that he’s got a gun in Florida, which would be a no-no. Federal law prohibits felons from possessing firearms.

Will he give it up? Better yet, should he give it up?

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated gun laws in 2022 with its inane contention that we can only have restrictions if they date to the 1800s, challenges to gun rules are as common as videos of Kid Rock shooting Bud Light cans.

That includes arguments that felons should be allowed to pack heat. Federal courts have concluded in two cases that under the new rules, they can indeed.

One of those cases is out of L.A. — a guy with five prior nonviolent felony convictions (think vandalism, drug possession) who got nabbed for throwing a pistol out the window during a police chase. The 9th Circuit agreed with him that the no-guns-for-felons rule (at least nonviolent felons who have served their time) didn’t jibe with the Supreme Court’s thinking.

So the appeals court overturned his conviction in May, paving the way for thousands of firearms cases in the West to be overturned.

It is an issue that almost certainly will wind up in front of the Supreme Court, with The Donald as a prime example of the kind of justice-involved individual whose rights need protecting. But also, Hunter Biden will probably use the same argument in his case, that the Founding Fathers never said you couldn’t be addicted to crack and own a gun.


But until then, there’s definitely a new campaign slogan for law-and-order Republicans: Trump, putting guns back in the hands of felons.

Now on to drugs.

Back to the ’80s

Welcome to the new drug war, same as the old drug war.

I am talking about the Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act, a tough-on-crime initiative that just collected enough signatures to show up on California’s November ballot.


Because I am also talking about the Democrats’ competing package of crime bills meant to either persuade or strong-arm the initiative backers into removing it before it reaches voters — and thereby stop the potential dismantling of years of criminal justice reforms.

Which side are you on? It’s sort of a worldview question, whether you think punishment can stop addiction. I’ll explain that.

But first, the brawl.

A fight over addiction, theft and jail time

Democrats inserted language into some of their bills that would kill them entirely if the initiative passes. That forces the backers of the initiative, including Republicans, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, the union representing corrections officers (and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who keeps shifting right in her politics) to choose between this set of bills with some really good solutions and their own measure.

This has made the initiative backers big-mad.

They say it’s an unfair “poison pill.”

But the truth is, the initiative is a hostile takeover attempt of criminal justice reform. You can love the Democrats’ tactic or hate it, but a fight’s a fight and the stakes here are high. The whole thing has to be won or lost by June 27, when initiatives for the ballot have to be finalized.

Here are three things you should know about the Homelessness, Drug Addiction and Theft Reduction Act:

  • It makes a direct connection among the use of “hard drugs,” homelessness and Proposition 47 — the 2014 measure voters passed in response to decades of overcrowding and federal oversight of prisons.

    But anyone who actually knows anything about California’s homeless population will tell you that drug use isn’t what landed most folks on the street — despite what you see in the most visible encampments.

    Just ask the growing number of young children on Skid Row, or the alarming numbers of elderly people who are being forced out of stable homes by one illness or economic setback. Not saying we don’t have an ugly fentanyl problem. But not everyone on the street is a criminal.

  • It would create a “new class of crime called a treatment-mandated felony.” So people in some cases would either have to successfully complete a court-ordered drug program or go to jail — or even prison. I would absolutely love it if addiction were as simple as forcing people into treatment. But just ask Joe Biden how that works.

    So this is just a cell-filler.

    Which is literally what we did during the crack era of the 1980s and 1990s when we put an entire generation of poor Black and brown people behind bars while glorifying the cocaine use of rich folks. Then we dumped all the poor kids in foster care.

    There’s a de facto racism in which drugs land people in prison and what that means to communities, and it’s ridiculous to do that all over again. Can we just not?

  • If both the bills and the initiative passed, they wouldn’t work together — Democrats’ argument for the kill-bill switch.

    Though Republicans are playing that down, Irwin Nowick, a former senior consultant of the California State Senate who worked on criminal justice and Proposition 47, told me there is “substantiative conflict” between the initiative and some of the bills. You can’t have both.

So, in my book, this is a no-brainer for the legislative package over a hyped-up and not-entirely-transparent effort to convince voters that incarceration is a solution to homelessness and drug use.


But how did we get here?

Lenore Anderson, president of Alliance for Safety and Justice and an author of Proposition 47, said she thinks many people were surprised when it passed because it was a groundbreaking reform that hadn’t been done anywhere else in the nation, and was the first to attempt to reverse decades of unfair incarceration.

But after it passed a decade ago, it almost immediately became the scapegoat of all social ills. Republicans and tough-on-crime folks hate it.

It made a lot offenses, especially those around drugs, into lesser crimes served at county jail instead of state prison.

Sheriffs (who run jails) and counties hated this because it’s costly, troublesome and has at least partially dumped the mental illness and addiction problems of thousands of Californians at their feet.

Critics say Proposition 47 has created a revolving door for a petty criminal class. And crime did spike for a long stretch — especially during the pandemic and during its aftermath.

Crime numbers are largely dropping now. And Proposition 47 has put $800 million into diversion and community programs by cutting prison costs.


But, as Anderson put it, there is still a “broader sense of fear.”

You can argue the reasons why but the truth is most of us have the perception that there is more lawlessness not matter what the numbers say. We are living in a post-pandemic, anxiety-driven world in which many don’t feel secure — in their homes, their finances, you name it.

Which led to conservative folks seizing on our anxieties to undo criminal justice reform. It’s a huge issue this election cycle because we are in a fentanyl crisis with no easy answers, homelessness is at frightening levels and people keep stealing our Amazon packages. Wrap those in an initiative and you’ve got a winner.

But not a solution.

What else you should be reading

The must-read: Southern Baptists Vote to Oppose Use of IVF
The Good for the Goose: Gun control groups meet the prospect of Hunter Biden’s appeal with silence
The L.A. Times Special: Biden vs. Trump: Where they stand on Israel, Palestinians, Middle East

Stay Golden,
Anita Chabria

P.S. Not long ago, I wrote about Paris Hilton ‘sliving’ at the Capitol in support of a bill to provide oversight of youth residential treatment facilities (she’s spoken about her abuse in one).

This week, there was a hearing at the U.S. Capitol on the issue. Here’s Hilton’s take.

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