People without homes in the U.S. are overrepresented in the criminal justice system due to “punitive laws and enforcement practices,” according to a Vera Institute of Justice report published Aug. 12.
While that represents only 0.17% of the total U.S. population, Vera found that “people who are homeless are 11 times more likely to be arrested, nationwide, than those who are housed.”
Lack of housing and laws on activities common to homelessness have created a negative feedback loop from which it is hard to escape.
For example, many local ordinances criminalize loitering, as well as sleeping or camping in public spaces, while enforcement of such laws has increased in the last decade.
Some municipalities have laws restricting where and how a homeless person can ask for help from the general public.
This practice furthers racial disparities with the criminal justice system because around 40% of the unhoused population of the U.S. is Black, while Blacks make up only about 13% of the total population.
Further, Blacks who are homeless experience more police interactions than other unhoused persons.
Policing practices such as “sweeps” of homeless communities can result in lost documentation, along with medication and other personal property, which “can cause harmful health consequences, exacerbate emotional distress and make it nearly impossible for people experiencing homelessness to access important public benefits.”
Once a citation has been issued, the unhoused person faces several barriers related to criminal justice proceedings. These include a lack of:
- Transportation to court proceedings
- Access to the Internet or a mailbox for notifications about hearing dates
- Secure locations to keep court documents and paperwork
- Legal representation in cases where “right to counsel” laws aren’t triggered by initial citations in which jail time is not a possibility
Such barriers can result in a low-level citation becoming a bench warrant or arrest due to a person’s failure to appear in court or their ability to pay the fine.
For example, “an analysis of court records from 2015 to 2018 in Austin, Texas revealed that out of 10,529 citations issued for sitting or lying down, camping or panhandling in public, 6,181 (nearly 60 percent) resulted in the issuance of a bench warrant.”
Unhoused persons who are arrested are far more likely than the general populace to be jailed prior to their formal hearing.
Factors include lacking funds to pay bail and an inability to meet court requirements for release, such as lack of a physical address or other means by which they can be contacted regarding upcoming proceedings.
Those who are jailed following their bail hearings are far more likely to receive longer sentences than those who are released.
Contributing factors to this trend include “the pressures faced by people incarcerated pretrial to plead guilty and end the ordeal of detention” and “limited access to defense counsel while incarcerated, as well as limited resources to devote to their cases.”
Upon release, homeless persons face significant challenges in meeting the probation or parole requirements, and the challenge of finding housing only increases with a criminal record due to background checks run by most private property owners.
All of this creates a circular movement from a legal criminalization of homelessness and overenforcement of such laws to jail time to difficulty finding housing and back again.
The report offered several reforms that could help end this negative feedback loop, including ending policies that criminalize homelessness, creating a means for fines to be forgiven, and supporting efforts to find housing and employment for unhoused persons.
“Without legal and policy changes, the cycle of homelessness and jail will persist. This cycle will deepen already existing racial disparities within the criminal legal system,” the report said.
“The time has come for local justice systems to take immediate action to halt the cycle of homelessness and entanglement with the criminal legal system. This begins with acknowledging the harms perpetuated by the current system, addressing deepening racial disparities, and enacting urgently needed policy and practice changes.”
The full report is available here.