Money for Prisons, Not for Social Services

By Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, Sep 16, 2010 (IPS) - Many of those who have lost their jobs and
homes in the United States due to the lingering economic recession are
ending up in jail, according to a new study released by an independent think
tank Thursday.

There is a strong link between poverty and incarceration in the United
states, according to the report, "Money Well Spent: How positive social
investments will reduce incarceration rates", by the Justice Policy
Institute (JPI).

The report's findings on the relationship between poverty and the justice
system suggests that more and more people from poor and low-income
communities are being arrested and jailed, even though nationwide, crime
rates have fallen.

"What we have seen in this research is that there is less focus on safety
for the poor and more on policing and arrests," Tracy Velázquez, executive
director of the Washington-based JPI, told IPS.

The report notes that as prison populations have grown, so too have racial
disparities in the justice system.

"This is especially evident in arrest and incarceration patterns for drug
offences," said Sarah Lyons, National Emerson Hunger Fellow and primary
author of the report, who added that without adequate funding for social
services, it is less likely that people will be able to succeed and avoid
contact with the justice system.

Despite comparable usage of illicit drugs, in 2008, African Americans, who
make up 12.2 percent of the general population, comprised 44 percent of
those incarcerated for drug offences, according to the report.

Researchers say that disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in
communities of colour destabilises families and communities and decreases
the likelihood of positive outcomes for children and other family members
left behind.

Due to the prolonged economic meltdown, many states are now making drastic
cuts in funding for social services - such as health, education, and public
housing - but not on policing and prison improvement and expansion.

There are nearly two million people behind bars in the U.S., most poor
whites and people of colour, making the United States the number one country
in the world in terms of the imprisonment rate.

The report notes that about 16 percent of incarcerated people also
experienced homelessness before being arrested.

"Most of these people are significantly more likely to have both a mental
illness and a substance addiction, which frequently go untreated," said
Nastassia Walsh of JPI. She said that states with higher high school
graduation rates and college enrollment have lower crime rates than those
with lower educational attainment levels.

The JPI study points out that the stress of living in poverty is a "risk
factor" for experiencing mental health problems, and that many people who
want treatment can't afford it.

"More than 50 percent people in prisons are suffering from mental illness of
some kind," said Walsh, who holds that increased investment in mental health
and substance abuse treatment can improve public safety and reduce criminal
justice involvement.

According to the study's findings, investments in job training and
employment have been associated with heightened public safety. Youth who are
employed are more likely to avoid justice involvement. In addition, people
who are incarcerated are more likely to report having had extended periods
of unemployment and lower wages than people in the general population.

"It's time for our elected officials to realise that creating safe, healthy
communities is a better investment in our country's future than more prison
beds," stated Velázquez. "Low-income communities and people of colour are
bearing the brunt of this recession, as well as of our policies that have
led to mass incarceration."

"By shifting our priorities, we can reduce these disproportionate impacts
and make a real difference, especially for our country's children and
families," she said.

More funding for affordable housing, education and employment could help
turn around the lives of people struggling with homelessness, including
children and youth, who are particularly affected by lack of housing, the
report says.

'It's a question of where we choose to spend our money," said Velázquez.
"Until we quit funneling tax dollars into prisons and policing practices
that sweep large numbers of people into the system — many of whom pose
little risk to public safety — we should not be surprised to see
incarceration rates continue to climb."

Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination (CERD) expressed similar concerns about the lack of progress
to end racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system and urged
Washington to take practical actions to end unjust police actions against
the poor and minorities.

The international body documented a number of cases that showed that police
officials in many cities were not only engaged in acts that violated the
U.S. constitution, but also the International Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The report's authors urged the U.S. government to take actions to comply
with that international human rights treaty.