A Choice: Jails or Homes




Bobby Watts, Executive Director 
Shortly before heading to D.C. for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I  engaged in an email exchange with the NYC Independent Budget Office. I was sure that a figure in their recently-recently released report was incorrect. But it wasn't a typo - the annualized cost of an inmate in NYC jails is $167,731 per year. 

A few months ago, inspired by a night sleeping out in the park with the Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness, my letter in this space focused on the importance of choices, anchored in a quote by President Dwight Eisenhower which goes in part, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed… We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people …”  
Shortly before heading to Washington, D.C. with several CFH consumers and 100,000 other friends for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I engaged in an email exchange with staff from the NYC Independent Budget Office. I was sure that a figure in their recently-released report was incorrect.  But it wasn’t a typo - the annualized cost of an inmate in NYC jails is $167,731 per year. On a given night, 70% of the
inmates (and therefore 70% of the expenses) are for those who have been arrested and awaiting trial, many of them for non-violent drug-related offenses. The drug usage rates in the U.S. is very similar to other industrialized nations, but this country decided to undertake a war of choice beginning in the 1980s, the “war on drugs”—not by directing most of the efforts to drug treatment and prevention, but on criminalization policies that resulted in incarceration rates far beyond any other nation on earth.  

The human costs are that disease is not only criminalized, but remains untreated, and becomes a driver of homelessness – not only because some people do not receive the help they need to right their lives, but because a drug felony will make someone ineligible for basic life supports: food stamps, welfare, even the ability to live in public housing projects.  

To put our choices in perspective through other lenses: The cost to incarcerate someone in NYC jails for a year dwarfs what drug treatment costs, what shelter costs, and certainly what housing would cost. Under the Advantage rental subsidy program for families leaving the shelter system, which was discontinued for lack of funds, 23 families would have been housed for a year with this amount of money. Put another way, it is three times the cost of putting someone through Harvard for a year.  

Do we really feel that incarceration and causing homelessness at this cost is the best choice we can make?

It certainly isn’t better for the individual, and it isn’t better for society. According to The Blinker, NYC will spend over five times more next year on housing drug offenders in jail, than it will on housing low-income New Yorkers in NYCHA. The City will spend almost 50% more on housing drug offenders in jail than it will on making NYC storm resistant next year. And the city will spend 50% more next year housing drug offenders in jail than it will on CUNY.   

If we feel we don’t have the money to address homelessness, we only need to see what different choices we need to make.  Deciding to no longer criminalize health problems is an easy, moral, economical, and sensible choice to make. 

Join the fight to end homelessness. Learn more at www.careforthehomeless.org

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