Housing Not Jail
Officer and Detainee by Darlene Dobbs, Lamp Community Art Project, All Rights Reserved.
In every county across the United States, jails serve as de facto homes for people living with mental illness. Almost all of these inmates have been arrested and jailed multiple times, generally for behaviors linked to their disability and to life on the street. Once in jail, they are far more likely to be victims of violence. Because there are so few (if any) mental health services behind bars, their mental state deteriorates, and their suicide rate is much higher than that of the general inmate population.
Our crumbling public mental health system has trapped people living with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Without housing and appropriate services, they cycle in and out of jails and prisons at great detriment to their health and well being and at astronomical cost to taxpayers.
Criminalization of poverty, homelessness and mental illness on Los Angeles’ Skid Row
In September of 2006, Los Angeles kicked off a massive, discriminatory policing initiative targeting poor, homeless and disabled people on Skid Row. Now in its third year, the so-called “Safer Cities Initiative” brought 50 additional uniformed officers and dozens of undercover officers to a 50-square block area with relatively low rates of serious or violent crime.
The effort has resulted in the incarceration of thousands of Skid Row residents living with mental illness, and has infringed on the civil and human rights of the predominantly black downtown community:
- 9,000 arrests each year in a community that’s home to 13,000 people. These arrests have had no affect on violent crime in the area.
- 12,000 citations each year for “crimes” such as crossing the street against a flashing red hand. When a poor or homeless Skid Row resident can’t pay the fine, the citation turns to warrant and leads to arrest.
- Thousands shut out of federally-funded housing and food programs. When people return from jail, their criminal record forces them to live on the street, where they cost taxpayers as much as $100,000 each year as they circulate through emergency rooms and jails.
- $6 million each year for 50 additional uniformed officers and as many undercover officers to police a 50-square block area. That’s about equal to the amount the city “invests” in homeless services for the entire year. Over two years, that money could have been used to get 750 people off the streets and into housing with support services.
- Thousands facing prison sentences because officers systematically escalate possession charges to “possession with intent to sell,” and initiate undercover stings for sales of extremely small quantities of drugs, meaning those struggling with addiction are facing years in prison instead of treatment and probation.
- Countless cases in an overburdened court system. Because prosecutors have refused to accept plea bargains on drug cases from Skid Row, public defenders are left with no option but to take cases involving $5 in crack cocaine to trial in a court system that has a difficult time finding space and resources for murder and rape trials.