By David M. Greenwald
How much is the cost of housing driving problems like homelessness, recidivism, and ultimately the cycle of crime? An editorial this week in the LA Times illustrates just one problem that we face—the prison to street pipeline.
The editorial doesn’t directly link the problem to the perpetuation of crime, but it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that going from a prison to the streets is not a good way to stay out of trouble.
One problem: “gate money” has not increased in nearly 50 years.
“When it comes to the room, gate money doesn’t go as far as it used to,” the Times notes. “In 1973, the $200 the state provided might have been enough for a bus ticket from San Quentin to Los Angeles and a couple months in a decent apartment. With enough luck and outside help, that might have been sufficient time to find work that paid enough to keep the former prisoner housed.”
But the state has not increased this payment in almost half a century, “and the same $200 today means a bus ride, a sandwich and at most a night or two in a cheap motel. After that, many people wind up homeless. The state’s system amounts to a prison-to-street pipeline.”
The Times notes, “Researchers have found a strong link between leaving prison and living in tents or makeshift cardboard shelters. That’s especially true in places like Los Angeles where housing prices have skyrocketed over the course of a typical prison term.”
They note, “Unaffordable housing costs increase the chance that a person who leaves prison will return, because instead of a secure dwelling with a warm bed and a door that locks, the mean streets offer little but desperation and the danger of falling back into bad habits such as drug use and theft.”
Housing is a huge part of this problem and simply increasing the gate money will not fix the problem.
Over the last decade or so, California’s incarcerated population is on the decline and Governor Newsom last year ordered the closure of Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy and the California Correctional Center in Susanville.
The Times argues, “The considerable savings reaped from no longer running those institutions should be reallocated to reentry programs that house people coming home.”
Last year, Assemblymember David Chiu “introduced AB 328, a bill to create the Reentry Housing and Workforce Development Program, which would provide grants, incentives and other support for people leaving prison.”
But the Susanville closure has been on hold, pending a lawsuit, and so any savings realized are also on hold.
The Times notes, “The need for reentry housing hasn’t slowed, though, and California has an unusual, and enormous, surplus of funds, so there’s no reason to delay a program to keep people off the street and reduce criminal recidivism.”
Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Los Angeles Democrat, and several of his colleagues are recrafting the bill to launch a pilot project funded by $200 million from the state’s surplus.
The Times writes, “Funding will be available on a year-to-year basis once the California Correctional Center closes, and that ought to be followed by other, well-considered closures (and cost savings) as the prison population declines and much of the state’s overbuilt complex of carceral facilities reaches the end of its useful life.”
While this may not be enough to fully fund what is needed for reentry programs, “but it is at least a step toward reinvesting in programs that protect us all by keeping people out of prison when they don’t need to be there.”
The people most impacted by the housing crisis are those on the margins, those with no resources and little in the way of margin for error. Most of all this is a small investment now compared to the cost of locking someone in prison for a year. We can pay a little now to get them back on their feet or a lot later when they fall into homelessness and commit new crimes to survive.