Over the course of several decades, government at all levels goes through cycles. These cycles and the role of government has been on my mind quite a lot over the past couple of years as I’ve watched the trifecta of homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness manifest itself on the streets of my community and in several other communities.
We want to see homelessness as a separate and distinct problem from mental illness just as we tend to categorize substance abuse as its own thing. I’m not sure that the government was ever any good at dealing with this trifecta of issues. What we got really good at was criminalizing poverty, substance abuse and to a lesser degree mental illness.
But lately we’ve been on a downsizing kick; by that I mean we’ve used the pandemic and concerns over public health to empty out the prisons. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, from the end of 2019 when the pandemic was just getting started through the end of 2021, New Jersey’s prison population decreased some 33 percent. Over the last couple of years, more than 5,000 individuals have been released onto our streets.
At first glance, who could argue with this effort to “decarcerate”? Over the decades, you couldn’t sell taxpayers on any meaningful funding for mental health and addiction services, but you could always get hearty approval for more prisons and jails and being tough on crime and so we did. We cast a wide dragnet and many were caught up.
Now that we’ve decided to release a third of the previously incarcerated, we’ve neglected to replace what the institution provided. What looks at first glance like social justice is really one hell of a quick fix to make ends meet in a budget where you’re not sure what your tax revenues will be.
But is it really justice? Let’s face it, for half these people, the DOC was far more stable than they could ever hope for now that they’re out on the street. The DOC told them when to get up, eat, take their medication, go to work, recreate, and sleep. They had warmth and shelter.
Now that we’ve done some emptying out of our prisons and jails, I see growing numbers sleeping behind the ATMs, under bridges, and in the bank drive-through. When they’re not idling away the hours self-medicating with alcohol, they’re yelling at the demons in their head and scaring passersby, all because there is nothing to replace the institution.
If we’re going to be serious about social justice as opposed to simply shuffling bodies around and creating new ghettos, then we have to invest in facilities and programs and personnel to provide stability in the lives of these people. Stability will look different depending on the person.
For those suffering from mental illness, stability might involve a long-term care facility, first to deal with substance abuse issues and then to provide treatment. For the chronically homeless, it may be a tiny home village that provides a home base and an access point for daily and weekly wrap-around services. To do it right, we will spend more than we ever did locking them up.
But I guarantee that if we ignore this state of affairs, there will come a tipping point in the not-too-distant-future when we’ll go toward candidates screaming about “tough on crime,” building more prisons as we re-criminalize poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse and we’ll vote for them because we’re sick and tired of seeing this mess on our streets. That’s the price for getting it half right.