JAIL IS NOT LIKE your closet as a kid. We do not “clean” up the parks by throwing all the people we don’t like the look of into a jail, slamming the door and then telling our parents that we have done the job of cleaning up our room.
Out of sight, out of mind does not work when it comes to people.
And yet, we have heard repeatedly in recent months about how bail reform is to blame for homelessness in Manchester, that the solution to homelessness in Manchester is to modify or even repeal bail reform, enabling more people to be jailed pre-trial.
Because, by gosh, if we just kept all the homeless in jail, us residents wouldn’t have to see them — out of sight, out of mind.
Come on, Manchester. We are better than that. Homelessness is a societal problem, one that deserves our genuine attention and commitment to achieving real, sustainable solutions.
We do not fix homelessness by throwing poor people in jail. We do not fix those with substance-use disorders by throwing them in jail. We do not fix mental illness by throwing people with it in jail. And we do not fix poverty by throwing the poor in jail.
Notice the theme. Jail does not fix these social problems. Period.
In fact, the opposite is true. We compound these problems when we convince ourselves that jail is the answer.
Instead, when people go to jail, they lose jobs. They can lose housing, lose custody of their kids and lose the family and community supports that they need to live productive lives. Jail rips apart the social fabric of families and communities, causing longer-term problems. When people leave jails, which they inevitably do, they have an even more difficult time re-entering their community, accessing housing and employment and avoiding recidivism.
Too often, homelessness awaits them.
How do we know this? Because as a country and a state, we have endured decades of “tough on crime” policies that sought to solve our social problems through incarceration. Not only did that not work, it disproportionately impacted poor people. “Tough on crime” really meant “tough on the poor.”
And let’s not forget that, when talking about bail reform, we are talking about whether people should be detained before trial, while still presumed innocent under the Constitution.
So, the proposal being made by some is not just to jail homeless people, it’s to jail homeless people who are presumed innocent. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s to jail only poor people who are presumed innocent.
Oh, and let’s not forget that jail costs $150 per inmate per day. It’s bad math to believe that if we don’t have the money to provide services to people without housing or recovery services that we do have the money to send them to jail. The city may not pay but the county that runs the jail does.
Incarceration is incredibly expensive, coming in at roughly $36,000 per year. Imagine if we used that money to help someone access housing, or access drug treatment, or access mental health services. It would be better math in the long run.
Bail reform advanced economic justice by preventing poor people from being detained pre-trial simply because they are poor. It also advances public safety by enabling people who are dangerous to themselves or others to be detained pre-trial without bail.
It is the responsibility of prosecutors, judges and others to appropriately assess dangerousness. If there are concerns about how well prosecutors are proving dangerousness or how well judges are ruling on the issue, let’s talk about more effective training. The law itself is fine.
But most of all, our police and elected officials need to stop using bail reform as a cop-out. Spend the resources necessary to achieve actual sustained solutions to homelessness, substance use and mental illness in this state.
Jail is not an effective or sustainable solution to homelessness, mental illness or substance use. The longer our police and elected officials try to convince us it is, the longer it will be before we achieve sustainable solutions to these social issues.
As taxpayers, we deserve fact-based and sustainable solutions from our police department and our elected officials.
Edna White, Paul Introcaso and Livia O’Neil are affiliated with the New Hampshire Bail and Bond Fund, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization launched in September 2018 that provides bail for people being held in the Valley Street jail in Manchester. It is part of Unitarian Universalist Action New Hampshire.