A Philosopher's Blog

Criminalizing Social Ills

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2016

English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un...

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.


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9 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on October 10, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Is there anybody, anywhere, who supports the criminalization of homelessness? Or is just the one of the unintended consequences of a policy that seemed good at the time?

  2. TJB said, on October 10, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Is there anybody, anywhere, who supports the criminalization of homelessness? Or is this just the one of the unintended consequences of a policy that seemed good at the time?

  3. nailheadtom said, on October 10, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Readers of Thomas Szasz, particularly his book “The Myth of Mental illness”, might look at the subject in a different light.

  4. TJB said, on October 10, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Where did Mike get the idea that this policy started in the 1980s?

    Deinstitutionalization is the name given to the policy of moving severely mentally ill people out of large state institutions and then closing part or all of those institutions; it has been a major contributing factor to the mental illness crisis. (The term also describes a similar process for mentally retarded people, but the focus of this book is exclusively on severe mental illnesses.)

    Deinstitutionalization began in 1955 with the widespread introduction of chlorpromazine, commonly known as Thorazine, the first effective antipsychotic medication, and received a major impetus 10 years later with the enactment of federal Medicaid and Medicare. Deinstitutionalization has two parts: the moving of the severely mentally ill out of the state institutions, and the closing of part or all of those institutions. The former affects people who are already mentally ill. The latter affects those who become ill after the policy has gone into effect and for the indefinite future because hospital beds have been permanently eliminated.

    The magnitude of deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill qualifies it as one of the largest social experiments in American history. In 1955, there were 558,239 severely mentally ill patients in the nation’s public psychiatric hospitals. In 1994, this number had been reduced by 486,620 patients, to 71,619, as seen in Figure 1.2. It is important to note, however, that the census of 558,239 patients in public psychiatric hospitals in 1955 was in relationship to the nation’s total population at the time, which was 164 million.

    By 1994, the nation’s population had increased to 260 million. If there had been the same proportion of patients per population in public mental hospitals in 1994 as there had been in 1955, the patients would have totaled 885,010. The true magnitude of deinstitutionalization, then, is the difference between 885,010 and 71,619. In effect, approximately 92 percent of the people who would have been living in public psychiatric hospitals in 1955 were not living there in 1994. Even allowing for the approximately 40,000 patients who occupied psychiatric beds in general hospitals or the approximately 10,000 patients who occupied psychiatric beds in community mental health centers (CMHCs) on any given day in 1994, that still means that approximately 763,391 severely mentally ill people (over three-quarters of a million) are living in the community today who would have been hospitalized 40 years ago. That number is more than the population of Baltimore or San Francisco.


    • WTP said, on October 10, 2016 at 12:15 pm

      And it was much accelerated by the loveable Jack Nicholson movie “On Flew Over the Coocoo’s Nest”.

      • TJB said, on October 10, 2016 at 1:10 pm

        Hmm, let’s see…who could we cast in the role of Nurse Rached today?

  5. DH said, on October 10, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I am hesitant to comment on many of the points you make, except that I wonder if not the police, who else would be able to address the issue of the homeless? The picture you paint is a grim one – one of police forces rounding up homeless people and carting them off to prison. Just because the police are the ones who are called when there is a problem (i.e., ” Although living on the streets is not a crime, a sizeable homeless population impacts community safety and quality of life. Residents call police about tent camps, littering, public urination and defecation, people sleeping on benches, panhandling, and displays of public intoxication or possible mental illness.”), doesn’t mean they get booked, fined and/or incarcerated.

    The article you cite, which conveniently supports your point for headline-readers, talks about alternative ways in which Denver is approaching the societal problem of mental illness and homelessness – but that discussion doesn’t appear until below the fold.

    “Denver officials have recently introduced measures intended to alleviate the problem.

    The city plans to launch a $150 million, 10-year affordable housing initiative that will boost city subsidies available for housing projects serving a wide spectrum of homeless residents.

    City Council members voted in January to create a new committee aimed at examining solutions to homelessness, as well as ways to pay for them.

    The City Council also approved a pair of contracts for a new, privately funded supportive housing program meant to help 250 of the city’s chronically homeless people.”

    The city of Anaheim, California, is also noted for taking positive steps. https://leb.fbi.gov/2014/november/policing-the-homeless-one-communitys-strategy

    The police are the ones who are out there in force, they are the ones who are called first, but just because they are the first ones on the scene and are tasked with dealing with the problems does not mean that their default action is arrest and imprisonment.

    I had a first cousin, with whom I was very close, suffer from mental illness and homelessness. It began when she rejected her traditional role as wife and mother – she moved to New Mexico (from DC) and began what she called a “Spiritual Journey”. This became a very alternate lifestyle – including her writing of paranoid rants to my wife and other family members and behavior that was very far out of the mainstream. Was she mentally ill? Perhaps – but she was completely within her rights to live her life as she pleased.

    Her behavior occasionally created legal problems for herself – she stopped paying rent in her apartment and was ultimately evicted – forcibly put out into the street among a pile of her belongings. Her adult children were called to help – they took responsibility for her as best they could, offered her a place to sleep and tried to get her to see a doctor. She refused, of course – her paranoia had grown to the point where there was no way she would see medication as anything but a plot against her. She left the comfort of her daughter’s home and hit the streets – and when she was picked up by police she was not arrested, not put in jail – but held while they called her daughter to come please pick her up. This led to screaming, physical fighting, paranoid rants and many tears on both sides – but the police did not and could not arrest her.

    Her son and daughter tried for months to get her help – but were told the same thing over and over – that unless she represented a clear danger to herself or others, treatment could not be forced upon her.

    Ultimately she disappeared into the streets – she was gone for two years. No one heard from her. One day she resurfaced with a brain tumor, and was dead a few months later.

    They had tried to have her committed – they hired doctors and lawyers and were told the same thing every time – unless she is a danger to herself or others, or unless she signs herself in, there is nothing that can be done. You cannot force a person to take medication or accept treatment.

    Another way to look at the criminalization, though, is to recognize that it can be a loophole. I have a niece who got involved with pain killers – she was addicted to them herself, she lied and stole to support her habit – she shoplifted, stole handbags out of cars, she dealt. She went into the system over and over again – she was released on her own recognizance, her mother mortgaged her house to pay her legal bills and fines, she was released on probation with rehab as a requirement of probation, she was sent to a court-appointed psychiatrist – but the addiction was too strong. Ultimately she pulled the last straw, and was sent to prison for three years. In prison, which was not the “Orange Is The New Black” kind of prison, but rather a minimum security halfway house, she lived in a dorm, attended classes, attended therapy sessions, learned a trade, and could not leave.

    After three years she is clean, she has a new attitude – she has learned how to function in society without drugs and wants to get a degree in psychology so she can help young girls who are going through what she went through. It was only through her arrest and imprisonment that the laws were able to be used to violate her civil rights, keep her against her will, and force her to go through the rehab and therapy that ultimately succeeded for her.

    As in other discussions on this forum, this kind of success story does not make the news. Pictures of homeless people being carted away by police tug at our heartstrings and make us angry at the “criminalization of social ills”, but our society is at least a little more enlightened than that. I wish that my cousin in the first story HAD committed a crime – robbed a convenience store to support a drug habit or gotten caught shoplifting or dealing. Had she been arrested, she might have gotten the treatment she needed – but as it was, her civil rights won out.

    Despite the tragedy, my cynical side tends to side with the civil rights argument. I wonder if not crime, then where does one draw the line at involuntary incarceration? Right now the line is drawn at a clear and present danger – without a crime, without danger, a person is free to roam the streets and rant and do whatever they wish. All the shelters in the world, all the low-cost housing, all the therapy and all the treatment are a waste unless the person in question seeks it. Perhaps, though, we should have a team of government-funded brown-shirts going around picking up those who are deemed to be mentally ill, and have them committed to rehab hospitals until they are re-socialized. I wonder where they would start?

    • wtp said, on October 10, 2016 at 4:04 pm

      Long story short, Mike is a sophist, not a true philosopher.

  6. TJB said, on October 10, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Looks like the Dems want to define mental illness as those who do not agree with them. Exhibit A.

    Hillary Clinton encouraged supporters Monday to follow and stage an intervention for a protester who was removed by security after he interrupted her rally in Detroit.

    “You know,” Clinton said after the demonstrator was forcibly removed from her campaign event, “I do hope somebody follows that gentleman out and stages an intervention.”

    The demonstrator, an African-American man, was wearing a shirt featuring a likeness of Bill Clinton with the word “RAPE” printed across the front.

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