For New York City’s most frequently jailed people, the cycle probably goes something like this: You’re homeless, or mentally ill, or addicted to drugs. Maybe all three. Those three factors are so tightly wound together that it’s difficult to tell the causes from the effects. You get picked up for sleeping on the street, and police find a crack rock in your pocket, so you go to jail. A little while later, you get out, and a little while after that, you get picked up again. Back to jail it is.
The American Journal of Public Health published a study of the 800 most frequently incarcerated people between 2008 and 2013 in the New York City jail system, and found that few of them are what you’d call hardened criminals. Eighty-eight percent of the detentions had a misdemeanor as the top charge, the Wall Street Journal reports, and small-time drug possession and petit larceny together made up over half of those misdemeanors. If appeals to humanity don’t sway you, consider the finances: The city has spent $129 million on those 800 detainees alone, according to the report.
The population’s demographics paint an equally bleak picture. Ninety-seven percent of those 800 people are “significant” drug abusers; over half are homeless; 37 percent were prescribed anti-psychotic meds in jail; 91 percent are black or hispanic.
The experience in jail for those 37 percent who are mentally ill is probably hellish. Last year, the New York Times published a report detailing the brutal beatings that are doled out to mentally ill Rikers detainees, including one in which a man was handcuffed to a gurney, taken to an area with no security cameras, and beaten by correction officers until the walls were stained with his blood.
“Obviously, if you look at these numbers, it calls for a change in policy,” the judge who presides over the Brooklyn’s Mental Health Court told the Journal. But what changes should be made? Remanding addicts and mentally ill small-time offenders to treatment instead of tossing them into a cell is one easy answer. Ending the NYPD’s toxic “broken windows” tactic of aggressively arresting people for low-level crimes—the policy that lands many of the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers in jail in the first place—is another. Too bad that second one isn’t going to happen until Mayor de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bratton are gone.