Guest Commentary: The Crime and Homelessness Conundrum – Why Enlarging County Jail Isn’t Helpful

PC: Anthony Ramos
Via Wikimedia Commons

By Mark Dempsey

My email to Sacramento County:

Supervisors,

Spending a billion dollars to enlarge the County Jail is the epitome of a bad idea. True, the jail is full, but 60 – 80% of the inmates are not convicted of anything, except being too poor to afford bail. In Sacramento County it’s not “innocent until proven guilty,” it’s “guilty until proven wealthy.”

Waiting in jail for a court date almost certainly means people who are already experiencing the stress of poverty will have lost whatever job that kept them from being destitute too. So it’s doubly cruel to rely on caging more people. They are already poor people, and will be poorer when they get out, even if they’re judged to be innocent.

Never mind the nearly-billion-dollar expense for the county to enlarge the jail, the absence of any testimony about no-cash bail–like Illinois and Washington D.C.–or supervised release is a huge error of omission.

Meanwhile, despite America’s surplus of prisons, The Intercept just exposed one principal reason jail expansion is endemic throughout the country: Architectural firms specializing in incarceration are making millions in profits for promoting jail expansions.

The way the jail expansion boondoggle occurs is that the architectural firms study future jail needs, which somehow always require a jail expansion (surprise!). The Intercept article doesn’t feature the firm promoting Sacramento County’s jail expansion, but the pattern of selling expansion as a crime “solution” is identical.

As for homelessness: Richard Nixon stopped the federal programs that built affordable housing in 1971, and, as it cut taxes on the wealthy roughly in half, the Reagan administration also cut HUD’s affordable housing budget by 75%. Is it any surprise homelessness became such a problem?

A recent California study discovered a significant majority of unhoused people became homeless because of rent rises, and began seeking solace from their depressing condition in drugs or mental illness only after they became homeless.

Wall Street firms recently became among the largest homeowners in the country and relentlessly increased rents on the properties they acquired. Incomes have not nearly kept pace with the rent rises. Zillow notes that a “ratio of median rent to median income greater than 22% was correlated with higher homelessness rates and a rent-to-income ratio above 32% was associated with even sharper increases in homelessness.”

A lack of resources is not at the root of homelessness, either. There are currently more vacant homes than homeless people in the US. Rent control or mandated rent reductions for vacant properties seems like a natural solution, so what does public policy advocate? Building more homes! In Vancouver, the Canadians curbed this kind of extortionate house hoarding by taxing vacant properties.

Some public policymakers–Kevin Kiley, Sue Frost, Rosario Rodriguez, etc.–believe “coddling criminals”–e.g. Proposition 47’s act of reducing felonies to misdemeanors–leads to more crime, shoplifting, etc. Not so. Here’s from KQED: “Among our findings: The Numbers: Shoplifting numbers reported to law enforcement have not risen since Proposition 47, but the rate of arrests has fallen significantly.”

Yet Supervisor-elect Rodriguez promises more draconian penalties like that’s going to solve anything. Kevin Kiley is doubling down on a repeal of Prop 47.

It’s not for lack of funding that police make fewer arrests either. The US population increased 42% from 1982 to 2017. During that same period, spending on police increased by 187%. Police have the money. Heck, police now have armored personnel carriers.

On the incarceration side, with only five percent of the world’s population, the US has 25% of its prisoners–five times the world’s per-capita average incarceration rate. That’s seven times the per-capita rates in Canada and France. So are Canada’s and France’s crime rates far worse than the US? Nope. Slightly lower. Putting people in cages does not prevent crime.

The bottom line (from “The Root Cause of Violent Crime Is Not What We Think It Is,” NY Times) is “If you want policies that actually work, you have to change the political conversation from ‘tough candidates punishing bad people’ to ‘strong communities keeping everyone safe.’

Candidates who care about solving a problem pay attention to what caused it. Imagine a plumber who tells you to get more absorbent flooring but does not look for the leak.”

Despite Hollywood’s “copaganda” that says police solve all crimes and only bad people go to jail, police solve only 15% of crimes in California and roughly 50% of murders.

To isolate one community’s experience, from 2010 to 2021, San Francisco’s police budget increased by 15%, yet total arrests declined by 41%, and although reported offenses were up (+28%) crimes cleared (-33%) and total arrests (-41%) both declined.

Knowing this should make the public skeptical of the effectiveness of those massive investments in punishment, or in trusting police to do something different than “lock-’em-up” justice. It’s also suggestive that San Francisco’s police were slacking off despite their increased funding which amounts to a kind of extortion, hoping for even bigger police budgets. (“Crime is up! Give us even more money!”)

Several of Sacramento’s supervisors, and supervisor-elect Rodriguez want us to believe crime is on the rise. However…(from an Attorney General’s report entitled 2022 Crime in California) “From 2017 to 2022, the property crime rate decreased 7.1 percent” and “The homicide rate decreased 5.0 percent in 2022…”

So not all crime increased.

And could treating people better, not putting them in cages, possibly be more effective in preventing crime and homelessness? Studies (here, here & here, for just a few examples) say better welfare prevents crime. Just giving poor people money is cheaper than harassing them with police, or taking them to emergency rooms.

Incarceration even has a terrible track record of success at treating drug addicts compared to actual medical treatment, and it’s seven times more expensive than rehab. Unfortunately, programs that help people are vulnerable to sabotage, so when Oregon decriminalized drugs, policymakers left it to the police to implement their program.

Unsurprisingly, police sabotage worked and the decriminalization was rolled back. The change would not be trivial if we were to decide treating people well would be better and cheaper than the practice of caging people.

Sadly, in my experience with the County–I sat on a Community Planning Advisory Council for nearly a decade, among other things–I don’t hold out much hope for the kind of sustained, intelligent effort required to deal with the very real problems of crime and homelessness.

Instead, my bet is that the public will see attempts at better marketing of policies that are bound to fail. You know marketing…that’s the kind of communication that tries to persuade you that if you just buy this model of new car, you’ll be able to date a supermodel.

Marketing is smoke and mirrors, bullshit and manipulation, the lipstick on the pig. The biggest problem with marketing is not that it’s so misleading–that’s true too.

But the big problem is that the marketers start to believe their own bullshit. Running the County on delusional thinking is not a winning societal strategy. It’s a recipe for some very serious trouble.

Your constituent,

Mark Dempsey

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