District Attorney Larry Krasner on Tuesday submitted the following public comment to the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services (OHS) on its planned application for $3.8 million in Emergency Solutions Grant funds, which will be awarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act:
“The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) submits this comment on the Office for Homeless Services’ planned application for the 2020 Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES Act) – ESG-CV funds, through the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) submission to Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). In its request for submissions, DCED stated that its ‘priority for the use of these ESG funds will be to assist homeless providers and communities prepare for, prevent the spread of and respond to the coronavirus.’ One of the most impactful ways we can prevent the spread of coronavirus in our city is to decrease Philadelphia’s jail population by releasing inmates who pose more of a risk to the public in custody than they do upon release. It is therefore imperative that OHS provide a significant portion of any ESG-CV funds to organizations providing housing for people recently released from city jails, and those who might go into jail if not provided with housing. Please support these vital crime prevention and public health strategies.
The 2019 novel coronavirus has proved particularly adept at spreading through the nation’s corrections facilities where social distancing is impossible and hygiene products are scarce.(1) People enter and leave jails all the time, potentially unknowingly bringing in COVID-19 with them, (2) or taking it back out into the community. This poses a threat not only to incarcerated people and corrections staff, but to the communities where recently released inmates and corrections staff live. For this reason, the Philadelphia DAO has been working with other criminal justice agencies to mitigate this public health threat and better allow for physical distancing in the jails by both reducing admissions and discharging those who pose no threat to public safety. Efforts have been made to release those accused but not yet convicted of less serious crimes; people who completed or were close to reaching their minimum sentence; people in jail on probation violations; and non-violent offenders, particularly those with underlying conditions that put them at risk for severe illness. Yet, as of mid-May 2020, Philadelphia has nearly as many incarcerated people in its local jails as New York, a city with a population more than five times as large as ours.(3)
Among the obstacles to reducing Philadelphia’s jail population is the lack of affordable housing or other non-congregate housing for Philadelphians who are homeless or housing insecure. The shortage has hampered decarceration in several ways. For those with unstable housing, relying on friends for temporary accommodations and similar strategies for finding shelter whenever and wherever it becomes available can increase the spread of coronavirus to multiple communities. For those at high risk of severe illness if they contract coronavirus, release from jails onto city streets or bus stations does little to protect them and risks exposing others. Health providers, including mental health providers, have difficulty providing consistent, effective treatment to people without stable housing. The absence of stable housing also increases the likelihood that someone will be re-arrested and returned to jail and also puts the arresting officers at risk of exposure to COVID-19.(4) For these and other reasons, the courts are often reluctant to allow release for those who are otherwise eligible if it cannot be shown that they have a home to go to. We must create shelter in our communities to safely reduce the jail population further and to maintain our jail population at these lower levels for as long as the coronavirus poses a threat to community well-being.
Policies implemented by criminal justice agencies to prevent the spread of coronavirus are impeded by the lack of housing, as are longer-term efforts to reform our local criminal justice system. This reform includes ending the inhumane and expensive practice of incarcerating hundreds of people with serious mental illness who pose no real threat to public safety in county jails. None of the drivers of homelessness—e.g., lack of affordable housing, mental illness and substance use disorders, and being victimized by domestic violence (5)—can be effectively addressed through the resources of the criminal justice system, yet the practical difficulties of homelessness often push people experiencing homelessness into our jails.(6) Where substance use disorder or mental illness are present, people experiencing homelessness face additional charges that can land them in jail for an extended period of time. In fact, despite efforts at reform, the percentage of incarcerated people in Philadelphia jails with serious mental illness has increased since 2015.(7)
The accumulation of a criminal record only increases any difficulties a person may have had in finding a job or renting a home.(8) And the trauma and violence experienced in our jails can aggravate both mental and physical health problems. Appropriate housing options are needed for people with serious mental illness and other comorbid conditions both to fight coronavirus and to effectively serve this vulnerable community. Yet a March 2020 report by experts at Penn, UCLA, and Boston University found that Philadelphia already needed more than 2,500 additional beds to quarantine its homeless population(9) – a number that has surely increased as the epidemic has continued.
In the last few years, evidence of the superiority of the Housing First approach over the wasteful cycle of arrest, incarcerate, and release has been mounting.(10) These programs can reduce recidivism(11) and decrease homelessness(12) while saving taxpayers thousands of dollars per person, per year.(13)
That savings can be put to work supporting efforts to stop the pandemic, providing needed services to people throughout the city, or stemming expected shortfalls in city revenue resulting from the current economic crisis. Philadelphia must do everything in its power to engage in homelessness prevention while providing more emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, and street outreach than it ever has at any point in its history. This will prevent crime and enhance public safety.
A number of community-based organizations have been coordinating to provide vulnerable Philadelphians with food, social support, and housing assistance, but there is a limit to what they can do without additional resources from city, state, and federal programs. I urge the OHS to do everything in its power to support housing for some of our most vulnerable and often unfairly vilified neighbors.”
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