If you haven’t seen John Oliver’s piece on the prison system in the United States, you should check it out. Oliver uses satire to make his point that the U.S. criminal justice system, and particularly the War on Drugs, fosters massive inequities.
“On the one hand, the War on Drugs has completely solved our nation’s drug problem, so that’s good. On the other hand, our drugs laws do seem to be a little draconian, and a lot of racist. Because while white people and African Americans use drugs about the same amount, a study has found that African Americans have been sent to prison for drug offenses at up to 10 times the rate, for some utterly known reason.”
What the U.S. prison system does to people and families, particularly communities of color, isn’t humorous at all, of course, and that was Oliver’s point. It’s depressing.
“Tough on crime” sentencing policies gained significant traction as the War on Drugs picked up in the 1980s. While appearing tough on crime was good for politicians’ reelection prospects, did anyone look down the road to anticipate the long-term impacts of criminalizing health problems like substance abuse and mental illness?
This summer as an intern at HIP, I’ve been working with a team of people to conduct a Health Impact Assessment to evaluate the impacts of tough sentencing policies. Proposition 47, the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” ballot initiative, would change six low-level non-violent felonies to misdemeanors, and channel savings to prevent crime, treat offenders and people victimized by crime, and keep kids in school. Our HIA found that the ballot initiative would improve the chances at healthier and happier lives for Californians and their families.
We heard directly from the people across the state who would be most impacted by a change in sentencing policies – people who had been incarcerated, their family members, and the service providers who help them. Some quotes from our focus groups:
“It used to be you do the crime, you do the time, but it’s no longer like that. The felony conviction on your record lasts for a long time. You can’t get a job, you can’t get housing, and you recidivate.”
“People don’t understand that when you lock someone up, it makes their family go through that mental turmoil, that trauma, every day. Locking someone up tears families up. It makes them go crazy.”
“If I had help for mental illness, I wouldn’t have went to prison. If I had a job, I wouldn’t have gone to prison.”
It saves money to boot. Because charging people with misdemeanors instead of felonies for these low level crimes would mean that thousands of people would not go to prison, the state would save $200 million to $300 million a year. There would be fewer people sentenced to jail as well, so counties will save $400 million to $600 million. Proposition 47 requires that state savings go toward helping the root causes of people committing crime – up to $195 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment, up to $75 million for truancy and dropout prevention, and up to $30 million for victim of crime services.
An HIA about incarceration that HIP worked on in Wisconsin also showed that providing treatment alternatives to incarceration were resoundingly positive: it would reduce recidivism, keep families together, and save money. The evidence is so strong, as one of the Wisconsin HIA partners said, “The greatest challenge in presenting the HIA was to explain to journalists that we were not hiding the downside of the policy – the preponderance of evidence for alternatives was simply that overwhelming.”
Sometimes the best public health interventions are not, strictly speaking, health interventions. A policy change that reduces the criminalization of substance abuse and mental health issues would support Californians to have a better shot at living healthy lives.
Matthew Mellon is pursuing a dual master’s degree in Public Health and Public Policy at the University of Michigan.