Criminalizing Social Ills
The United States, like all societies, suffers from a range of ills. This include such things as mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction. There are, of course, many ways that these problems could be addressed. Unfortunately, the dominant approach has been to recast these ills as problems to be solved by law enforcement and criminalization. I will briefly consider the failures of this approach in these cases.
In the 1980s there was a major shift in America’s policy regarding mental illness: in the name of fiscal savings, the mentally ill were released from the hospitals into the community. One major impact of this change was an increase in the number of homeless people. 20-25% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness, compared to 6% of the entire population. The mentally ill who are homeless, as one might suspect, are generally not treated. People with untreated severe mental illnesses often behave in ways that the public finds problematic, which often leads to their being arrested and imprisoned. Prisons are ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill and mainly serve to warehouse these people until they serve their sentences. Having a criminal record simply makes matters worse, thus it is likely that they will simply be returned to prison and remain untreated—thus creating a hopeless cycle which offers little chance for escape.
The criminalization of mental illness has not solved the problem, rather it has made it worse. As such, it is a failure from a practical standpoint. It has not helped treat people and the cost of operating mental health institutions has been replaced with the cost of maintaining prisons. Perhaps someone does profit from this system; but it costs society as a whole a great deal.
It is also a moral failure. On utilitarian grounds, it is morally wrong because it has increased rather than decreased unhappiness. Put informally, it has done more harm than good. For moral systems that focus on obligations to the wellbeing of others (such as the version of Christianity that embraces the parable of the good Samaritan), this approach is also a moral failure. As such, criminalizing mental illness has proven a resounding failure.
While mental illness leads many to the streets, America’s economic system also generates a large number of homeless people. Many of the homeless end up that way due to being bankrupted by medical expenses. Since the homeless have no homes, they tend to live and sleep in public areas. As would be expected, the presence of the homeless in such areas is regarded as a problem and some cities try to address the matter by criminalizing such things as lying down or camping in public areas. The ordinances that do this typically impose fines, but since the homeless generally cannot afford to pay fines they usually end up in the criminal justice system—which is often a pathway to prison. A criminal record only makes matters worse for the homeless and increases the chance they will remain homeless. This means that they are likely to be arrested again for breaking the ordinances that target the homeless, thus creating a vicious circle.
As might be suspected, this approach to homelessness comes with a significant monetary cost. For example, Denver spent over $750,000 enforcing its homeless targeting ordinances. Other cities pay comparable costs, making the criminalization of homelessness costly to everyone. There have been some efforts to address homelessness through other means, such as providing affordable housing, but dealing with the underlying causes is certainly challenging given existing values.
Once again, trying to solve a problem through criminalization proves to be a terrible approach. Even on the heartless grounds of saving money, it fails—the cost of policing the homeless would seem to consume whatever savings might be accrued for letting people fall through the social safety net. This, of course, could be countered—one might be able to show that the monetary cost strategies aimed at getting the homeless into homes would exceed the cost of policing the homeless on the streets. After all, the politicians could lower the cost significantly simply by not policing the homelessness who do not commit serious crimes, such as robbery. This, however, does still leave the homeless without homes and this can impose other economic costs—such medical expenses paid for by the public. This could be countered by arguing that the homeless should be completely abandoned—this would certainly yield financial savings.
Such abandonment does, however, run into a moral challenge. The harms suffered by the homeless (and society) would seem to make a compelling utilitarian moral argument in favor of approaches that aim at getting the homeless back into society. Moral views that accept that people should love one another also enjoin us to not abandon our fellows. In any case, criminalizing homelessness is no solution, financial or moral.
Drug addiction is another problem that has largely been addressed by criminalization. About half of the people in federal prisons and 16% of those in state prison are there for drug offenses. This is the result of the war on drugs, which endeavored to solve the drug problem by arresting our way out of it. Since the negative consequences of this approach fell mainly on minorities and the poor, there was little interest among politicians to take a different approach. However, as prison populations swelled and public attitudes towards drug use changed, there was some talk of reconsidering this war. The biggest change in the public discussion arose from the opioid epidemic—a drug epidemic that goes beyond ravaging the poor and minorities to impacting the white middle class. This has resulted in some changes in the approach to the problem, such as the police offering free treatment for drug users rather than arresting them. It does remain to be seen if these changes will be lasting and widespread. However, this is certainly a positive change to a failed approach to the health issue of drugs.
While some for profit prisons have done well for their shareholders in the war on drugs, the financial cost to society as a whole has been substantial. Criminalization of addiction has also failed to reduce addiction. As such, this approach has proven a practical failure.
As above, there are also the moral concerns about this approach in terms of the harms being inflicted on individuals and society as a whole. Fortunately, there is a chance that America will rethink the war on drugs (in which we are the enemy) and recast it as a health issue. This not only has the potential to be far more of a practical success, it also would seem to be the right thing to do morally. Transforming people in need into criminals cannot solve the ills of society; addressing those needs can.