The criminalization of homelessness is perpetuating and exacerbating a neverending cycle that shuffles people from the streets to jail and back again — a cycle that disproportionately impacts people of color, a report from the Vera Institute of Justice finds. The report, No Access to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness and Jail (19 pages, PDF), highlights how homelessness can quickly lead to criminal justice system involvement and how barriers posed by homelessness in turn lead to negative outcomes at each decision point. According to the report, people experiencing homelessness are over-policed on the street, are often cited for low-level offenses such as sleeping outside, are unable to pay fines, and face barriers in appearing in court. As a result, those citations lead to warrants and arrests, with homeless people facing high rates of pretrial detention and conviction and longer sentences. Upon release, they also face barriers in housing and employment — often causing them to become homeless again; indeed, formerly incarcerated people are nearly ten times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. To break the homelessness/jail cycle, the report's authors call for eliminating harmful city ordinances that criminalize quality-of-life offenses; ending the practice of issuing warrants for unpaid fines; creating avenues for forgiveness of fines, fees, and legal debt arising from offenses associated with homelessness; addressing housing and employment restrictions for justice system-involved people; and supporting Housing First policies and developing cross-agency partnerships to better address underlying issues of homelessness that lead to incarceration.
(Photo credit: Vera Institute of Justice)