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Over the past two decades, homeless populations in the greater Los Angeles metro area have skyrocketed. There are many factors influencing the rise of homeless individuals on city streets, including a weakening economy, lack of access to social services, and an increase in mental health and drug-related issues. Perhaps the most alarming factor is that California’s prison system has released thousands of prisoners in an effort to reduce facility overcrowding. The result of these mass releases has led to a flood of former inmates with no places to go, boosting the Los Angeles homeless population dramatically. Violent attacks within homeless communities have also seen a sharp uptick, sometimes involving innocent victims.

Mass Prison Releases in California

California’s prison system has long been known for harsh conditions and severe overcrowding. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), the fiscal and policy advisory group for the California Legislature, 2006 represented a peak in state prison populations. For a system designed to accommodate only 85,000 inmates, 2006 saw prison populations reach a total of more than 165,000 inmates. This overcrowding led to a dramatic increase in violence in California’s many prisons, including attacks on corrections staff, staggering inmate suicide rates far above national averages, and riots. One riot at the California Institute for Men in Chino resulted in injuries to over 175 inmates and extensive property damage. After touring the facility, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger characterized the damage as being like one of his movie sets after action scenes were filmed – except in real life and with real consequences.

In 2008, a three-judge panel ordered the immediate release of 44,000 inmates to help ease overcrowded conditions. The order was put on hold briefly by the U.S. Supreme Court. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the state would have to release more than 30,000 prisoners. Two additional statewide initiatives, Propositions 36 and 47, were passed by California’s voters in 2012 and 2014 to further reduce prison overcrowding. These initiatives, conducted under the administration of Governor Jerry Brown, reclassified some serious crimes as misdemeanors and changed sentencing guidelines to avoid sending non-violent criminals to prisons in the state.

Free, But With No Place to Go

Unfortunately for communities throughout California, but particularly in the greater Los Angeles area, mass prison releases have created dangerous conditions. Due to nationwide failures in prisoner reform initiatives, many inmates released early or at the end of their sentences are ill-equipped to deal with normal life. Others may have developed mental illnesses or drug addiction and may have struggled with these conditions even before being incarcerated.

With no job prospects, few skills, and no connections to communities, released inmates flooded the streets of Los Angeles. The mass releases also overwhelmed any parolee oversight organizations, with parole officers unable or unwilling to handle huge caseloads. Trouble was brewing in downtown Los Angeles, where camps occupied by hundreds of homeless individuals, including former inmates, flourished.

Violent Attacks on the Rise

By the end of 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had recorded nearly 10,000 violent crimes at the hands of homeless individuals. Victims were targeted from all walks of life, including fellow homeless individuals as well as innocent passersby. Some of the most shocking attacks include:

  • Attorney Brandon Coen, who was attacked by a homeless man while Coen was walking his dog on a downtown sidewalk. The attacker, Charles Fuller, had four prior felony convictions. After being arrested by the LAPD, he was charged with a misdemeanor and released.
  • Four months later, Charles Fuller committed another unprovoked attack, this time targeting a mother and daughter.
  • A woman named Heidi Van Tassel was dragged from her car near the Hollywood Walk of Fame and doused with a bucket of feces by a homeless individual by the name of Jere Blessings. Van Tassel is required to be tested for infectious diseases every three months and has experienced symptoms of PTSD for months after the attack.
  • In August 2019, Jacob Makwana was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon after he was caught on video throwing a rock through a man’s car windshield.

These are only a few of the attacks that have occurred in conjunction with LA’s homeless problem. Increases in drug felonies, vandalism, and theft have also skyrocketed. With so many of California’s prisoners being released onto city streets, the problem will only grow worse as time goes on. Until there is measurable and effective prisoner reform in California’s incarceration facilities, released inmates will continue to be under-equipped and unprepared for a life outside the prison cell.

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