Sheriff Donny Youngblood and District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer recently announced a plan to address homelessness through jail time ("Inside Kern County's plan to reduce homelessness by jailing misdemeanor drug offenses," Sept. 16). Unfortunately, this policy is a bad case of “feels over reals.” If our elected officials used evidence-based policy making, they would realize that this is very likely to backfire.
Beyond being potentially illegal, if this idea were to be fully implemented it would result in more overdose deaths and higher costs for taxpayers. Based on published evidence, incarceration does little to nothing to reduce homelessness or addiction. Rather, it creates second order effects that trap people in homelessness and burden public health systems.
For example, a prominent study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that, “Punishment alone is a futile and ineffective response to drug abuse.” Even worse, National Institutes of Health funded research found that relapse, overdose and re-offense are the norm upon release from incarceration. Already, we can see that incarceration doesn’t work and causes more offenses.
Strangely, this idea becomes even more ill-conceived the further you look into it. For example, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development policy mandates that after 90 days of incarceration, a person loses their homeless status. Incarceration is a serious setback for getting people off the streets and into housing. So it is totally unsurprising that yet another NIH study found that people incarcerated just once are 700 percent more likely to experience homelessness.
By kicking the can down the road and making it harder for people to get housing, this is only going to further strain resources in the long run. A 2017 report in Psychological Services showed that this dynamic is even worse for the veterans who give everything for our country.
It’s not like better alternatives don’t exist. Permanent supportive housing is extremely effective in getting people off the streets for good and reducing the public health burden of addiction. A 2017 RAND Corporation study in Los Angeles found PSH results in a 70 percent reduction in emergency room visits, and over 95 percent of PSH recipients stay in housing past the crucial one year mark.
Kern County’s homelessness problem is almost entirely caused by lack of homes rather than some nefarious criminal conspiracy. The California Housing Partnership has shown that Kern County is 26,000 affordable housing units away from meeting regional goals. Further, multi-family housing is experiencing a super low 2 percent vacancy rate.
For the folks that say the district attorney and sheriff are basing this policy on their years of experience, it is crucial to remember that individual perspectives are limited. Evidence-based policy utilizing real data can save us from costly mistakes like the ones being proposed.
Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, District Attorney Zimmer thinks 80 percent of Kern’s homeless population is addicted to drugs even though the Point-In-Time count data shows this number to be only 51 percent at most. Literally making up statistics based on gut feelings is dangerous and irresponsible. That’s exactly how you get policies that make things worse.
Given that the plan under discussion will do the opposite of what proponents claim, it is appropriate here to paraphrase legendary California rapper Mac Dre: this idea is stupid doo doo dumb. If taxpayers care about where their money is going, then the responsible thing to do is to invest in housing instead of investing in criminalizing the homeless.
Ian Sharples is a Bakersfield native and director of public affairs for the Income Property Association of Kern. He is also the founder of Hermit Communications and a 2019 Leadership Bakersfield graduate.