ALTERNATIVES TO JAILS
Putting people in jail doesn't solve our community's problems - in fact, it makes them worse. But there are alternatives.
People who end up in jail have many unmet needs.
The majority of people who end up in jail have some combination of mental illness, substance dependency, physical illness or disability and trauma. They are frequently unhoused. Their life stories show a series of escalating unmet needs.
Many people who landed in jail first found that they could not find a bed in a rehab facility, accessible mental healthcare, or a home to live in. Their stories point us to a larger reality: Our jails and prisons in the United States are, in practice, facilities which detain people with untreated illnesses who are living in poverty.
Substance Use Disorder Treatment.
In Maine in 2020, 502 people died from drug overdoses. Increasingly, we have learned to view the opioid epidemic as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Yet our priorities as a state continue to be focused on criminalization, with a lack of adequate resources for substance use disorder treatment and safe withdrawal.
In the recent Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety report on the Maine biennial budget, members noted that “[o]ur neighbors continue to suffer from this disorder, get arrested, are incarcerated and die because Maine does not provide substance use disorder services.”
Many people who end up in jail simply needed a home to live in, and being chronically unhoused had amplified their existing stress to extreme levels.
Getting and staying sober, complying with conditions of bail and parole, taking care of one's physical and mental health - these things are almost impossible to do without stable housing.
Though vouchers and other programs aim to provide some housing support, market prices for rent have outstripped the amount offered by vouchers.
On the other hand, residential programs, mental health facilities and other social service providers currently struggle with long waitlists and funding and staff deficits.
Stigma-free mental healthcare.
Currently, police respond to many mental health emergencies that would be better handled by trained mental health providers. Yet the problem truly begins before the emergency starts, when people in crisis cannot get timely help in a safe environment.
At this time, behavioral health services have waitlists of thousands of adults and children, while people visiting the emergency room for mental healthcare may wait days before a bed opens up. The pandemic has only made the problem worse.
Beyond the simple availability of mental health treatment, many people who have been incarcerated say that they needed treatment which was free of stigma, trauma-aware, and would not criminalize them for being in crisis.