Who has time to read every newsletter? But when one shows up, headlined, “Why does the United States lock up so many people?,” attention must be paid. The answers are to be found in The New Yorker piece, by Adam Gopnik, called “The Caging of America.”
Here are some of Gopnik’s words:
Although academic scholars have been analyzing the social costs of our 30-year punishment binge for some time, the American public has been oddly disinterested in our de-evolution into a full-blown prison nation… Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.
The person who pointed out this piece in her newsletter is forensic psychologist Karen Franklin, who can always be counted on for awareness of the most interesting and potentially significant developments in the criminal justice system.
Nowadays, one out of every 99 American adults is behind bars. That’s actually a pretty big segment of a population to be locked up, and it costs a hellacious amount of money that could be better spent elsewhere. More to the point, a lot these imprisoned people will, like so many before them, be released into the condition of people experiencing homelessness.
It’s all too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction like, “If a bunch of former inmates are homeless, so what?” Fortunately, a few moments’ reflection can reveal the reasons why it is a good idea to care about this particular societal problem. Statistically, if you know 400 people, four of them are incarcerated. These days, almost everybody has a family member or a friend in the system. Often, we know this is a basically okay person who messed up in a way that probably won’t happen again. Which is exactly the case with a lot of the anonymous homeless.
Gopnik goes into a great deal of detail about the present state of affairs in the incarceration business, and believes that nonviolent crime should not be dealt with by prison sentences. He gives the example:
… [N]o social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two.
Dana Goodyear wrote about the wrong way to do things, as demonstrated in Los Angeles in 2006:
Garden-variety addicts were caught up in the drug sweep, and those arrested with, say, a five-dollar rock of crack cocaine were charged with possession for sale, which is a felony, rather than the lesser charge of simple possession… [T]here was a new policy in the DA’s office — not to plea-bargain on Skid Row drug cases… Those convicted of drug sales will, upon release, no longer be eligible for food stamps, and some federal housing programs.
And good luck getting any kind of housing. Why should a landlord rent to someone with a record, if other tenants apply with clean slates? The answer is, because not renting to someone with a record can help perpetuate the vicious cycle that the ever-larger numbers of people find themselves caught up in. A record leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to a record, especially when a person can run afoul of the law by such a simple act as sitting on a sidewalk.
The stigma goes so deep, homelessness even becomes part of the definition of criminality. In The Evil that Men Do, authors Roy Hazelwood and Stephen G. Michaud enumerate the traits of the antisocial personality:
… [L]ying, substance abuse, promiscuity, disdain for social norms, cruelty, use of aliases, lack of a fixed address…
The Center for Economic and Policy Research issued a report that one of its authors, senior economist John Schmitt, summed up by saying:
We incarcerate an astonishing share of non-violent offenders, particularly for drug-related offenses. We have far better ways to handle these kinds of offenses, but so far common sense has not prevailed. …[W]e have created a situation over the last 30 years where about one in eight men is an ex-offender…
The press release announcing the report says:
Three decades of harsh criminal justice policies have created a large population of ex-offenders that struggle in the labor market long after they have paid their debts to society.
For someone emerging from prison and trying to rebuild a life, it’s incredibly hard to get a job without a place to live, and almost as difficult to find a place to live without a job.
Marin County, CA, has a reputation dating back to the 1960s (and earlier) as a wacky place. Maybe that’s why it comes up with fresh ideas. Doug Sovern reported that the county, with around 5,000 people either homeless or “precariously housed,” only had 70 shelter beds and was desperate for new answers.
Cris Jones of St. Vincent de Paul told the TV journalist:
Our clients have tickets for sleeping outside even though there’s not a shelter. Open containers, small infractions and the tickets end up getting bigger and bigger.
The solution was to establish a community court that refers offenders to mental health and substance abuse services. The hope is that by avoiding handing out punishments for minor crimes, and keeping people’s records clean, they will be better equipped to turn their lives around and escape homelessness. It was meant to be a six-month pilot program, but no report on the outcome seems to have been published yet.
People wind up without a roof over their heads for all kinds of reasons. One of the most useless ways to spend time is arguing about who is worthy of how much help, and what they may or may not have done to deserve being demoted to the pariah status in our society. Everybody has made mistakes, and a lot of people have paid for their mistakes. The point is, right now, a large number of pretty much blameless people are out in the cold, along with the small percentage of folks who have been in trouble.
It’s up to America to quit wasting energy on side issues and get busy on actions that can help lift our whole society out of the cycle it seems to be stuck in. Let’s do something that will help everybody, like adopt the Universal Living Wage (ULW), a change that can make an enormous difference. It is predicted that the ULW will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Please learn about the Universal Living Wage and how it works.
Source: “The Caging of America,” The New Yorker, 01/30/12
Source: “Why does the United States lock up so many people?,” forensicpsychologist.blogspot.com, 01/29/12
Source: “Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, 05/05/08
Source: “Growth of Ex-Offender Population in United States Is a Dramatic Drag on Economy,” CEPR.net, 11/15/10
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBS San Francisco, 06/13/11
Image by zappowbang (Justin Henry), used under its Creative Commons license.