I’ve always maintained that the hardest governing is what gets done at the municipal level. At the county level, you’ve got a municipality or a township between you and the street. If you’re at the state level, you can govern from the state capital and blame the local officials. As for the feds, we might as well be talking about the dark side of the moon.
I am reminded of this almost daily as we wrestle with how to deal with public intoxication. Admittedly, this issue is closely tied to homelessness but with public intoxication, we’re talking about increasing numbers of individuals staggering around our public spaces hassling people for loose change, relieving themselves in public, and generally being loud and obnoxious and intimidating people.
We’ve always had some homeless among us just as we have always had those who struggle with substance abuse, but I don’t recall it ever being this bad on the street. The problem stems from the pandemic and the release of thousands of individuals who’d have otherwise remained in jail or prison.
There’s also bail reform. I say this because the obvious response to the growing number of publicly intoxicated individuals squatting in our public spaces would be strong enforcement at the local level. But State statutes make such enforcement difficult. N.J.S.A 26:2B-26 prohibits municipalities from adopting any type of ordinance or law that would make public intoxication a violation of the law. Furthermore, municipalities cannot impose fines for public intoxication and if we have laws that do, these can no longer be enforced.
As for why, N.J.S.A. 26:2B-7, states “It is the policy of the State of New Jersey that persons with an alcohol use disorder and intoxicated persons may not be subjected to criminal prosecution because of their consumption of alcoholic beverages, but rather should be afforded a continuum of treatment in order that they may lead lives as productive members of society.”
When I see those relieving themselves next to the ATM downtown and when local merchants are calling outraged because the riverfront looks like a refugee camp, I’m not thinking about a “continuum of treatment.” I’d settle for them using a restroom.
One official’s definition of a victim is another’s definition of an offender. Where you stand largely depends on whether the problem is in your neighborhood or far enough away so you don’t have to see it, smell it, sidestep it, or clean up after it.
As for handling the immediate problem, the alternative is to focus enforcement on “disorderly conduct” or “public lewdness” as opposed to public intoxication. But do we really expect police to spend their time waiting for a group of drunks to cross the magic line so that they can enforce something?
For years, jail and prison was how we dealt with mental illness, homelessness, and substance abuse. The problem now is that we can’t throw open the doors to jails and prisons without thinking about what we need to tackle these issues and assume that we’re actually accomplishing anything.
What we’ve done is not solve these problems as much as localize them and we did it all on the cheap, which never works. If we’re going to empty out the jails and prisons in the name of reform, then we need to invest serious money into building more homeless shelters, inpatient substance abuse programs, and mental health facilities to get these people, with their multiple and complex problems, off our streets.