Homelessness After Prison or Jail: Housing First

Criminal justice reform offers ideas to housing policy; perhaps housing can return the favor.

Lowry’s posting suggested using the criminal justice notion of swift, certain and fair punishment to minimize evictions from public housing.   What about using the homelessness-prevention notion of “Housing First” in the criminal justice context?

It’s been clear for years that requiring homeless people to subdue their mental illness or kick their drug habits or otherwise become model citizens before being sheltered failed utterly to reduce their misbehavior but succeeded splendidly in increasing the duration of their exposure to the elements.  What a surprise: without a roof under which to sleep or a safe place to store one’s stuff, other life changes become damn near impossible.

The same logic should apply to any program of reentry from prison or jail: before discharging a prisoner, corrections officials should make sure that s/he has a place to live, and provide one (albeit minimal) if not.  In other words, treat people who are homeless because they’ve been locked up the same as people who are homeless for any other reason.  This means recognizing that, without a stable place to live, staying out of trouble with the law becomes one of those damn near impossible life changes.  And that’s without even considering the people incarcerated precisely because they’re homeless—because “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

It’s costly to provide housing.  But just as scholars and practitioners finally figured out that it was cheaper to house people than to keep shuttling them between the streets and the emergency rooms, I suspect we’ll soon find that it’s cheaper to house those who’ve made it out of the criminal justice system than it is to keep sending them back in.

The Strangely Underreported Decline in the Incarceration Rate

I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.

At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.

If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.

You’d think this would be big news, but it’s gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, if you google on news articles and op-eds about incarceration that have appeared during the Obama Administration, you will find precious few that mention or even seem aware of the change. John Tierney dropped some breadcrumbs in his recent NYT article, which I hope means he will delve into the decline in incarceration as his series of articles on criminal justice progresses. There’s a great deal a good journalist could illuminate for the public, for example which policies and politics are producing the change and how it plays out on the ground.

Why hasn’t the shrinkage of the correctional population received more attention already? Three forces are likely at play. Continue Reading…