Source: Homelessness Is Not A Crime
What is mass incarceration?
Mass incarceration refers to the entire system of laws, rules, policies and customs that make up the current U.S. criminal justice system, leading to the imprisonment of 2.3 million Americans.1 The use of incarceration has grown drastically since the mid-twentieth century as a result of stop-and-frisk tactics, The War on Drugs, and minimum sentencing.
The policies of the current criminal justice system have impacted different identities in different ways, as evidenced by the staggering inequality in incarceration rates. This includes increased rates of incarceration for African Americans and Latinos, the mentally ill, veterans and those of lower socioeconomic status. It is telling that the rate of homelessness also increases within those same groups.
How does mass incarceration affect the homeless?
As the rate of incarceration has increased, so has the rate of homelessness, with approximately equal numbers of people experiencing homelessness and incarceration within any given year since 1980. According to data from the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, 49% of homeless individuals had spent 5 or more days in jail or prison. 2. Furthermore, 16% of individuals incarcerated as of 1999 had been homeless at some point within the previous year. This is not surprising, considering that re-entry into society following incarceration can often lead to homelessness. “Collateral consequences” also have a large impact on the ability to find employment, contributing to financial stress and poverty. Felon status can prevent access to Section 8 Housing vouchers as well, directly contributing to homelessness.3
How are the homeless “criminalized”?
Because of the high rate of incarceration for those suffering from homelessness, including the chronically homeless, it is important to identify why when addressing the issue of mass incarceration. While historically the imprisonment of the homeless is nothing new, the number of individuals locked up for vagrancy and other “homeless-targeted” crimes has increased. In recent years, many cities with high homelessness rates such as Los Angeles and Seattle have created laws against sleeping or sitting on the streets. While the Supreme Court issued an opinion that such laws are unconstitutional citing the Eighth Amendment in Jones v. Los Angeles (2008), this opinion was removed from the books when the case was dropped and moved to civil court.6 However, the Supreme Court has chosen not to review other cases, most notably Lavan v. Los Angeles (2013) regarding laws targeted at the homeless and cases of removal of property from public spaces since. Misdemeanor charges for disturbing the peace, trespassing, public intoxication and unauthorized removal of property such as shopping carts have targeted homeless individuals as well, not only leading to time incarcerated but also further difficulty in finding employment and escaping poverty.
Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has also had a significant impact on the number of mentally ill individuals in prison and on the streets. It is theorized that patients who would have received treatments in mental hospitals have instead been pushed into the prison system instead. This is particularly of interest when addressing the concerns of the homeless, as 27% of homeless individuals have a serious mental illness. In order to effectively address either mass incarceration and homelessness, it will be vital to ensure proper mental healthcare outside of the walls of a mental institution. 7