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“The Streets Cannot Be A Home”: A Problem That Money Can Go A Long Way Toward Fixing And That Money Must Be Found

The homeless can be scary people. They may block sidewalks, curse passers-by and aggressively demand money. Or they can be just sad.

Growing homeless encampments are stressing cities across the country. Honolulu and Sarasota responded with stiff laws taking “vagrants” off the streets and out of public parks. South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, decided to give the homeless three choices. They can go to a shelter, get arrested or leave town.

Several approaches to dealing with this tough population are being tried. The wisest combine humane treatment with respect for the public’s right to use public space without having to step around bodies.

Some “advocates” oppose forcing the homeless off the streets. They accuse the new laws of “criminalizing homelessness” and trying to “hide poverty.”

What the advocates are doing, though, is turning the homeless into spectacle. Many are mentally ill, are addicted or have criminal records. They are not street theater.

One can’t ignore the reality that rising costs in hot housing markets have priced many locals out of their rentals. But as suggested above, the inability to find other accommodations is usually part of a larger constellation of personal problems.

Enlightened advocates applaud removing the homeless from the streets as a means of directing them to the services they need. Governments have an obligation to support such services.

An example. While recently waiting in a line at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, I was hit by a harsh smell. Standing next to me was a disheveled man smiling sweetly. A social worker came by. She gently asked him whether he’d like to go with her and get cleaned up. He nodded, and they left together.

Of course, many of the homeless are far less docile. The infamous Jungle encampment in Seattle has become a scene of violence and other social mayhem. Law enforcement dreads going there.

That the homeless often prefer to live on the streets, as opposed to shelters, is not a reason to let them. Their objections range from hatred of rules to the inconvenience of being sent away every morning.

San Francisco has developed an interesting program to address some flaws in the shelter system. It created the Navigation Center as a kind of halfway house between a shelter and permanent housing. The “guests” can keep pets, store possessions and take showers. Case managers try to transition the residents into permanent housing while connecting them with health services, driver’s licenses and food stamps.

The Navigation Center has not been the perfect solution to the enormous challenge. Because its residents have been allowed to cut in line for permanent subsidized housing, the center has become wildly popular. The waiting list for admission is very long, and the most vulnerable people have the hardest time pushing their way in.

But this is how the homeless should be treated — with dignity and care but direction. Letting obviously dysfunctional humans live in their filth as a nod to some civil right is perverse. The Navigation Center concept is now being tried in Seattle, in New York and elsewhere.

There’s no point turning this into a class issue. Gentrification creates its own dislocations, for sure. But bringing jobs and tax dollars to downtowns with public transportation can’t help but provide a net benefit to those hurting economically.

For decades, urban neglect has left the poor isolated in rotting inner cities. Healthy city centers make the economic mainstream far more accessible to city dwellers.

Letting clusters — or virtual armies — of homeless people degrade the quality of civic life clearly serves no one. Fortunately, this is a problem that money can go a long way toward fixing. And that money must be found.

 

By: Froma Harrop, The National Memo, June 28, 2016

June 29, 2016 Posted by | Homeless, Mental Illness, Poverty | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Inmates Equals More Revenue”: Prison-Industrial Complex Morphs Into Treatment-Industrial Complex

Nancy Reagan’s recent death was a reminder of the shallow moralizing of the Just Say No anti-drug campaign she once championed.

Thankfully, attitudes have changed. We’re more attuned to the fact that untreated mental health issues are often a precursor to drug use. Nancy’s slogan to fight peer pressure won’t help much there.

Most people realize that the War on Drugs, begun under Nixon, has failed.

And there’s growing public awareness that we’ve let our jails and prisons become warehouses for people who need treatment — and who needed it long before they took a criminal turn.

Mandatory sentencing guidelines have been changed, and the days of presidential administrations following the whims of a drug czar are over.

Incarceration rates are dropping. To most, this is good news. But it’s not if your business model revolves around keeping people locked up.

The for-profit prison industry has kept one step ahead of the trend. They got wise quick, sensing the winds shifting away from mass incarceration and toward the need to address mental health issues within the nation’s prisons and jails.

For those familiar with the term “prison-industrial complex,” meet its offspring — the “treatment-industrial complex.”

A report released in February by Grassroots Leadership, a civil and human rights organization, rings some warning bells. The report, “Incorrect Care: A Prison Profiteer Turns Care into Confinement,” is part of a series of reports that has focused on reducing the nation’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.

This latest installment takes an in-depth look at the privatization efforts in Texas, Florida and South Carolina. In particular, it goes after the shifting business models of for-profit prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, as well as spinoff rehabilitation companies like Correct Care Solutions.

The charge is that just as prisons are often not about rehabilitation, these new for-profit treatment places are not about helping people regain their mental stability and, therefore, their release. The report also challenges the quality of care being offered, citing cases of violence and patient deaths.

One startling figure from the report: 50 percent of people in correctional facilities suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders. This compares to estimated rates of only 1 percent to 3 percent within the U.S. population. Prisoners represent a huge market for mental health care. If the prison operator also has a side business in mental health care, a conflict of interest presents itself.

Under normal circumstances, a person can get out of prison after serving his sentence. In fact, 90 percent of people who are sentenced do just that. But inmates can be placed by a judge into a for-profit mental health program in a prison — say, under civil commitment laws now on the books in about 20 states — and be detained there past the end of the sentence. The operator has a clear incentive to keep a person there indefinitely, to increase the return on its investment.

The Grassroots Leadership report points out that these private operators offer cost savings to a state when the facility is full: Thus the cost per head goes down. Assigning inmates to these facilities can be very appealing to lawmakers trying to balance tight budgets. Potentially, it becomes even more alluring when a lobbyist with the industry is making a hefty donation to a re-election campaign.

A basic set of circumstances and decisions has set the stage in many states. Legislatures have cut public mental health budgets, resulting in understaffing and poor conditions in state-run facilities. Community-based mental health programs are also being shorted. That leads to more untreated people who act out and then find themselves in a criminal justice system.

By virtue of their mental state, many of these people are not in a position to self-advocate for better care. Locked up, they are easily forgotten. One question must continuously be asked by legislators, advocates and the taxpayers whose dollars are being spent: In a for-profit model — in which more inmates equals more revenue — what possible incentive does a rehabilitation company have to help people regain stability and rejoin society? If such an incentive doesn’t exist and outweigh the profit motive, it’s hard to see how private-sector rehab programs won’t make matters worse.

 

By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-Page Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, March 18, 2016

March 19, 2016 Posted by | Mass Incarceration, Mental Illness, Prison-Industrial Complex | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“He Was Opposed To Women Having A Say In Anything”: The Ugly Views Of America’s Latest Mass Shooter

This isn’t the first time he’s targeted a movie theater. John Russell Houser, America’s latest mass shooter, had reportedly threatened violence against theaters before he opened fire in a Louisiana cinema last night, killing two others and himself.

Houser, who’s had several run-ins with the law dating back to the 1980s, allegedly once attempted to burn down the office of a lawyer representing theaters that showed pornography. Former attorney John Swearingen told NBC News on Friday that Houser had once tried to burn down his Columbus, Georgia, law office back in the 1980s.

“I represented somebody — maybe several people — he did not like, and he tried to hire someone to burn the law office,” Swearingen said.

According to the local sheriff, Houser applied in 2006 for a permit to carry a concealed weapon but was denied because he had been arrested on an arson charge. The sheriff did not say whether Houser had been convicted. In Alabama, where Houser resided “off and on” for a nearly a decade, residents are not required to apply for a permit or license to buy or own a handgun so no background could be done.

Emerging reports also indicate that Houser was a far-right activist. Houser appears to have been a fan of the Tea Party, the Westboro Baptist Church and Golden Dawn — and extreme right-wing neo-Nazi political party in Greece. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Houser attended a conference hosted by former KKK leader David Duke in 2005 and the host of a talk radio show Houser frequently called into, described the 56-year-old as a “radical Republican.”

“He was anti-abortion. The best I can recall,” former radio host Calvin Floyd told the Washington Post. “Rusty had an issue with feminine rights. He was opposed to women having a say in anything. You could talk with him a few minutes, and you would know he had a high IQ but there was a lot missing with him,” Floyd explained.

Last night, Houser stood up in a crowded screening of Amy Schumer’s comedy “Trainwreck” at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana and opened fire, killing two young women and injuring nine other people.

Local authorities have since described Houser as a “drifter,” although at one point he did wage an unsuccessful campaign for elected office. According to court documents, in 2008 Houser’s wife removed all the guns from the couple’s home citing threats he had made to family members and his history of mental illness. CNN reports Houser had been evicted from his home in March 2014 and court records show that he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002.

“It is a shame Tim McVeigh is not going to be with us to enjoy the hilarity of turning the tables with an IRON HAND,” Houser wrote on the Golden Dawn website, referring to the far-right mastermind of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

 

By: Sophia Tesfaye, Salon,

July 27, 2015 Posted by | Gun Violence, Mass Shootings, Mental Illness | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Gun Nuts: Arm The Mentally Ill!”: Is This The Week The NRA Finally Jumped The Shark?

What a week it’s been for the Second Amendment. For starters, noted political philosopher Vince Vaughn said firearms should be available like they’re in candy machines at our nation’s schools. Probably because you never know when you’ll have to engage in pitched battle with Dean Pritchard to keep your frat house on campus.

OK, that’s not the actual reason, but his regurgitation of pretty much every inane—and wrong!—talking point he seems to have snorted off the National Rifle Association looking glass is no less fictitious.

But I guess there must be a full moon out for the wolves of Winchester this week, because along with the wit and wisdom of Mr. Vaughn, the NRA’s decided to pop off about the rights of domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill to have access to any ol’ gun they please.

This latest freakout was in response to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) looking to bring back a rule proposed in 1998 that would block misdemeanor domestic abusers from owning or purchasing guns.

Tyranny, really.

Because, you see, in their tiny, malfunctioning cerebral cortexes, it’s a defensive maneuver. It’s an effort to prevent President Obama from engaging in the unprecedented confiscation of all guns, a move they’ve predicted since the day they heard the name Obama and just knew something had gone awry.

Much like the guy screaming about the end of the world on the street corner, when it doesn’t happen, the NRA just pushes back the timeline a bit, rinses and repeats. Considering their target audience is comprised of the same old white men who buy penis pills via group email, pulling this off is not as difficult as one would imagine.

There has been much already said about the NRA’s putting guns in the hands of the mentally disturbed by blocking universal background checks, which is really the most reasonable legislation imaginable. You can read more about that here and here. But not nearly enough time has been spent on the tragic role guns play in domestic violence.

The stats, of course, don’t lie, as much as discredited, sham researchers like the infamous John Lott try to tell you your nose is not in front of your face. This is why, on the same day as the first national Wear Orange Day, in which celebrities, policymakers, and regular Joes and Janes all across the country are sporting orange to honor victims of gun violence and say enough already, the U.S. House of Representatives is holding hearings on “Domestic Violence and Guns: An Epidemic for Women and Families.”

For an epidemic it is. Over half of all women killed by partners between 2003 and 2012 were murdered with guns. A gun’s presence makes a woman seven times more likely to be murdered by her abuser.

And, of course, the simple stat that belies what the NRA and all those Twitter trolls posing with their AK-girlfriends spew out. You know, the ones suffering from Gunorrhea, who like to hock out one canard after another—more guns means less crime, good guys with guns are like Iron Man, and other assorted delirium and detritus—women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than in other high-income countries.

This all just gets a collective yawn from the almost entirely male leadership of the NRA. When they’re not watering down legislation meant to protect women in Louisiana, blocking federal legislation to stop abusers from accessing guns, or actually committing these very transgressions themselves.

Because, who honestly thinks stalkers should have their guns taken away? Show of hands, NRA brass?

Gun nuts love to talk about “freedom.” Although, when hearing them utter it, it becomes meaningless to American women, who enjoy the “freedom” to be stalked and killed like animals because of gun fondlers, profiteers, and their squeezes in our legislative bodies. It leads me to think the word only applies to the male of our species in their vision, where, as Janis Joplin once sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

 

By: Cliff Schecter, The Daily Beast, June 3, 2015

June 4, 2015 Posted by | Domestic Violence, Gun Violence, Mental Illness, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Relic Of Frontier Barbarism:” The Case Of Scott Panetti — And The True Meaning Of ‘Cruel And Unusual’

So what does “cruel and unusual” mean?

I once asked that of a law professor. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, but I figured there had to be some technical definition I, as a layperson, was missing. I mean, from where I sit, it’s pretty “cruel and unusual” to execute someone, but to judge from the 1,392 executions of the last 38 years, that isn’t the case.

Scott Panetti almost became number 1,393 last week, but within hours of his scheduled lethal injection, he was reprieved by a federal judge. The court said it needs more time to consider the issues his case raises.

In a rational place, it would not be news that Panetti was not killed. In a rational place, they would understand that state-sanctioned execution is a relic of frontier barbarism that leaves us all wet with the blood of the damned. In a rational place, they would say there’s something especially repugnant about applying that grisly sanction to the mentally ill, like Panetti.

But Panetti doesn’t live in a rational place. He lives in America. Worse, he lives in Texas.

They love their executions in Rick Perry’s kingdom. Since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group, that state has killed almost 520 people. That’s nearly five times more than the next bloodiest state, Oklahoma, with 111.

There is no question Panetti deserves punishment. In 1992, he shot his estranged wife’s parents to death as she and the couple’s daughter looked on. He held them both hostage before releasing them unharmed.

But there is also no question that Panetti, 56, suffers from severe mental illness. At his trial, in which he was somehow, bizarrely, allowed to represent himself, he wore a purple cowboy suit with a 10-gallon hat and summoned a personality he called “Sarge” to explain what happened on the fateful day. His witness list included 200 people. Among them: John F. Kennedy, the pope, Anne Bancroft and Jesus Christ.

The state contends that Panetti, who was off his meds at the time of the killing, is faking it. During a 2004 hearing, the county sheriff called him “the best actor there is.” In its most recent filings, Texas accuses him of “grossly exaggerating” his symptoms.

If it’s an act, it’s been going on a long time. His attorneys say Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia 14 years before the shootings and was hospitalized 13 times between 1978 and 1991. Now a court decides on his life or death.

It’s a pregnant decision in a country where, apparently, it isn’t “cruel and unusual” to preside, as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did, over the execution of a man so profoundly impaired that he saved the pie from his last meal to eat later. Or to let a man gasp and snort for almost two hours as a lethal injection very slowly killed him, as happened in Arizona. Or to set a man on fire, as has happened at least twice in Florida’s electric chair. Or to execute people for crimes committed when they were children. Or to send innocent people to death row. Or to choose whom to execute based on color of killer, color of victim, gender, geography and class.

So what, exactly, might be too cruel and unusual for us to allow? The professor could not answer. Which, of course, is an answer.

As flawed and broken as our system of death is, we continue to embrace the puritanical morality of eye for eye and blood for blood. Most of the western world has left this savagery behind, but we insist on it, leaving us isolated from our national peers, those nations whose values are most like ours, but looming large among the outlaw likes of Somalia and Iran.

Now we are debating whether to kill a man so addled he tried to subpoena Jesus. And that leads to a conclusion as painful as it is unavoidable:

What’s “cruel and unusual” is us.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, December 8, 2014

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Death Penalty, Mental Illness | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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