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Right result, wrong reason

April 18, 2006

AT FIRST GLANCE, NEWS THAT a federal appeals court has blocked Los Angeles police from arresting people for sleeping on the sidewalks may seem like a big deal. But the ruling and worries that it will make it difficult for the police department to clean up skid row are much ado about almost nothing.

The case began in 2003, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging a city ordinance allowing police to fine and jail people for lying or sleeping on public sidewalks. Civil libertarians argued that the law was unnecessarily punitive, especially considering that those living on the sidewalks had little choice; the city did not have enough space for them in shelters. With a novel reading of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and on Friday placed an injunction on the city's practice.

Now the city is weighing an appeal, saying police officers need all the tools they can get to wrest back control of downtown Los Angeles. That sounds reasonable -- and considering the decision's shaky constitutional reasoning, the case could very well be overturned. Such an appeal, however, would do little to help the city, the police or the homeless.

That's because the police have largely stopped fining or arresting people for sleeping or lounging on public spaces, making this fuss more philosophical than practical. The city would be better off spending its time getting behind a single, well-thought out approach to reducing crime on skid row.

Police Chief William J. Bratton is weighing a plan (which the ACLU supports) based on Rutgers University criminologist George Kelling's "broken windows" approach, which calls for cracking down on lawlessness by flooding downtown with police officers and surveillance cameras and establishing a zero-tolerance mind-set. If the plan is carried out intelligently -- and it would require more police officers -- it would help reduce crime and homelessness more than simply rounding up everyone asleep on the sidewalk.

Still, even if this plan takes effect, it is important to understand that reducing crime won't solve the region's homelessness problem. If there is something the court got right, it's that Los Angeles has not adequately addressed this issue. There are too few beds in local emergency shelters, and there is a lack of the kind of long-term supportive housing in which other cities have invested heavily in recent years.

That said, there are hopeful signs that the city and county are beginning to change their policies. This momentum, however, could easily fade -- especially if the city becomes involved in a lengthy appeals process. True, the court decision includes some fanciful flights of reasoning, which may need to be grounded if they prevent the city from proceeding with its plan. But the decision's core message is one the city has already taken to heart: add more housing for the homeless.

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