2 Years in Jail for Sitting on a Milk Crate? The Shocking Ways America Punishes Poor People Living on the Street (Hard Times, USA)
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Selective Enforcement of the Law
While laws like sit-lie are passed to arm police with the ability to go after the homeless (and no one can really pretend otherwise, even though in theory the laws apply to everyone) other, more neutral laws like loitering or jaywalking are often exploited to harass the poor.
"Let's say there's no sleeping in a public park," Jeremy Rosen, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, tells AlterNet. "A homeless person taking a nap in the park will be hassled. A businessman man who falls asleep on a park bench would not be."
Other examples of laws that are more likely to be used against the homeless include holding open containers, loitering or the ban on public urination. Advocates say these laws doubly discriminate. First, because they criminalize activities, like sleeping or peeing, that humans need to do to survive, but that the homeless can't do at a home they don't have. At the same time they're often used as a pretext to bust and drive poor and homeless people out of certain spaces -- crackdowns that generally coincide with building developers' heightened interest in a low-income area or big city events.
In 2006, Los Angeles launched the Safer Cities Initiative, an effort to clean up Skid Row, home to the bulk of LA's homeless population. The effort was spearheaded by William Bratton, a devotee of the "broken windows theory," which posits that if cities aggressively police low-level, so-called "quality of life" crimes like public urination or loitering, violent crime will decrease and neighborhoods will be reborn. (George Kelling, who helped develop the broken-windows theory consulted on Safer Cities. Although SCI officially started in 2006, similar strategies had been outlined in an earlier LAPD memo titled, "Homeless Reduction Strategies.")
Fifty police officers were dropped on Skid Row, the equivalent of sending 1,700 extra officers into the much bigger district of Van Nuys, Calif. according to a UCLA report about the program. Officers started handing out citations and arresting people for such pernicious activities as jaywalking and public urination. The UCLA study, conducted a year after the start of the program, found that the majority of the LAPD's 12,000 citations were primarily handed out to people who walked across the street when a Don't Walk sign was on. The study's authors estimated that proportionally, this was between 48 and 69 times more than the jaywalking citations issued citywide. The citations often led to arrest warrants. In the first year of the program, of 1,346 arrests, only 22 were for violent crimes like aggravated assault or robbery.
Historically, Skid Row has posed a challenge for lawmakers. Homeless encampments can create health and sanitation problems, and the area has a high crime rate. But the Safer Cities Initiative helps show the problems with a law enforcement approach over social policy fixes. The program was initially supposed to combine policing with programs aiding Skid Row residents, but those didn't really materialize. As far as efficacy, studies found that although the rate of violent crime fell in Skid Row, serious crime had diminished city-wide at the same time.
The UCLA study pointed out that the 50-person police force cost around $6 million one year, while that same year the city allocated only $5.7 million for shelters and services for the whole city (at the time of the program Skid Row had far fewer shelter beds than it did homeless people). There were loads of unintended consequences: for example, police started more aggressively busting people for drug use in "buy/bust" stings, collaring users for selling and sending addicts to prison. Addicts, including those with serious mental problems, were no longer eligible for drug treatment over prison if convicted of selling even small quantities, according to the report. Once they'd left prison, they were ineligible for federal housing programs and even food stamps.