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OverCriminalized: Alternatives to Incarceration?

by George Lavender for In These Times:  

America's prisons and jails are filled with people arrested for crimes connected to homelessness, mental health issues, and drug addiction. “Overcriminalized,” a series of videos from Brave New Films launching today spotlights attempts to offer alternatives to incarceration in three cities: Salt Lake City, Utah, Seattle, Washington, and San Antonio, Texas.

Nowhere to go but Jail 

In 2014 100 cities criminalized sitting or lying in public places. “The homeless end up in criminal justice systems, because there hasn't been a better alternative” says Lloyd Pendleton, Director of Utah Homeless Task Force. Salt Lake City adopted a “Housing First” approach to homelessness. As Gordon Walker, Director of Housing and Community Development in the city explains that means “instead of asking people to change their lives before we gave them housing, we chose to give them housing, along with the supportive services and then allow them to change their lives if they wanted.”

The War on People

“I really can't remember what the first thing I got arrested for (was)” says Misti Barrickman as she recalls a long list of drug related arrests. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, is a pre-booking diversion program for minor drug offenses that provides people in the Seattle, Washington area with treatment programs. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “drug arrests in Seattle fell more than 30 percent from 2010 to 2011 – and local jail populations appear to be declining too” at least in part due to LEAD. The Drug Policy Alliance also praised the program for marking a shift away from an “enforcement-first” approach to one focused on health. 

Arrested for Needing Help

Prisons and jails contain a disproportionate number of people with serious mental health issues. “Mental illness is the only disease that when you're in a crisis, the cops are called” says Michelle Mata in this video “you're having a heart attack, you don't call the police.” A 2012 investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found “at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.” In San Antonio, Texas, police officers are given a 40 hour crisis intervention training.