Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Criminalization lite

Nice at first glance to see (via HAC News) that the Justice Department helped prepare a report on "Alternatives to Criminalization" of homelessness, together with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Except the recommendations, in a report called "Searching Out Solutions" (ick, that awful word "solutions") are strikingly status quo:

1) To give people more services so they aren't homeless in the first place. (So, yep, 24-hour access to unlimited shelter space would sure be a nice start. So would more cheap places to live. Yep. Show us the money.) Or,

2) To engage in "collaboration between service providers and law enforcement regarding outreach" with help from, inter alia, "behavioral health professionals" (ugh, what a chilling euphemism for counselors), so that people are talked into accepting prescribed services instead of getting arrested. Or,

3) To set up "alternative justice system strategies," such as special courts or citation dismissal programs so people who have been arrested get serviced in lieu of punishment, or at least so they get to atone (for what exactly?) through community service diversion programs instead of ending up with criminal records. (Really there is some good language here about helping people with "re-entry" as they emerge from imprisonment. That's good. Nothing more vulnerable than a newly released prisoner. But how about arranging to drag fewer people into the criminal-law meatgrinder in the first place?)

None of these ideas under discussion would change the actual laws prohibiting things that people do when they are homeless, like sleeping or sitting down. All of these ideas still allow people to be threatened with arrest for being homeless if the "services" that they are told that they need don't meet their actual needs. None of this discussion considers the strong likelihood that, if people arrested for crimes of homelessness received a uniformly vigorous defense in court, a good bit of the time they would be acquitted of their charges as a matter of justice, not diverted to improving programs as a matter of mercy.

We're not Hungary. But this is not great.

Have to say the report does contain a good phrase for the lexicon: "'Acts of living' laws." It's better than the San Francisco official phrase, "Quality of life offenses."

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