Jail Is No Place for Social Work : Drug Abusers, Mentally Ill, Homeless Don’t Belong There

<i> Terry Smerling is a judge in the Los Angeles Municipal Court. </i>

Debilitated persons who live at the margins of society without assistance are increasingly becoming the subjects of criminal proceedings. As a result, the criminal-justice system is saddled with the responsibility of acting as social-welfare agency of last resort--a role that it performs inefficiently and at great expense.

The criminal-justice system has been forced to assume this role as a result of recent cuts in public funds for treatment programs to assist drug abusers, the mentally ill and the homeless.

By far the largest group of offenders needing treatment are drug abusers. Without their criminal activity--including drug intoxication and possession, thefts, traffic offenses and aberrant or violent drug-induced acts--the criminal-justice system’s workload would easily be cut in half. Many chronic drug abusers can be effectively treated in drug programs. Defendants committed to drug programs by court order have a cure rate higher than volunteer patients, and considerably higher than defendants sentenced to jail.

California law deals sternly with drug offenders. The crimes of being under the influence of PCP, heroin or cocaine carry mandatory minimum jail penalties of 30 to 90 days; repeat offenders commonly receive jail sentences of 180 days or more.


The law does contain two loopholes, however: Judges may order first offenders to undergo treatment in outpatient drug programs in lieu of prosecution, and they may place convicted repeat offenders in in-patient programs as a substitute for jail. Unfortunately, because of cuts in public funding for such programs, the waiting time for admission has increased from a few days to months. In the interim the drug addiction continues, and addicts are frequently rearrested. At that point they are considered unworthy of compassion, and are incarcerated rather than treated.

Another staple of the courts is mental illness. The bizarre behavior and delusions of the poor and unattended mentally ill inevitably bring them into contact with law enforcement. Due to cuts in mental-health services, the number of mentally ill persons enmeshed in the criminal-justice system has risen astronomically. Criminal-justice professionals are constantly looking for programs in which to place such persons, but few exist. Because prisoners receive priority for scarce space in county psychiatric facilities, police officers are encouraged to make mercy bookings--arrests of the mentally ill to enhance their chances of receiving at least some minimal psychiatric attention. As a result, the Los Angeles County Jail has become one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the country.

A third category of needy persons often inappropriately under the auspices of the criminal-justice system is the homeless, who overlap with, but are not solely composed of, the mentally ill. The homeless usually commit public-nuisance crimes such as sleeping in parks, drinking in public or loitering, and sometimes minor property crimes. Often the solution to their problems is simply a safe place to live, where they could get food, clothing and counseling. Unfortunately, funding for such programs is extremely scarce, and all too frequently the vagrant released from a few days in jail returns to the park to sleep for lack of anyplace else to go.

Ironically, the process of “criminalizing” the debilitated has achieved only false economies, because the savings derived from cuts in human services are more than offset by increased expenditures on the criminal-justice system. Operating a municipal courtroom costs $1,800 a day in Los Angeles, excluding prosecution and law-enforcement costs, and the county spends $33 a day to incarcerate each prisoner.


The county jail population has increased by more than 50% in less than three years to an incredible 20,000 prisoners, almost double its authorized capacity of 11,000. As that population swells, the county must construct new jail facilities at a cost of $75,000 per bed. Consequently, the share of the county budget going to the criminal-justice system has skyrocketed from 32% in fiscal 1977-78 to more than 50% for the current fiscal year.

Although the average cost of treating a drug abuser is roughly $2,000 a year, the county’s modest budget of $23 million for drug rehabilitation has been slashed by $3 million. It is at least three times as expensive to commit a mental patient through the criminal-justice system as to commit directly. And there is a direct correlation between homelessness and the lack of short-term, in-patient psychiatric treatment--which stabilizes the condition of such persons, making them better able to function. Yet since 1979, due to budget cuts, the number of spaces in acute care psychiatric facilities has been reduced dramatically.

These cuts in human services are not saving money. We have simply shifted the burden to a criminal-justice system that is not equipped to deal with it. To borrow from conservative social critics, the public’s money is being thrown at social problems through the expansion of the criminal-justice system at a time when more economic, practical and thoughtful, not to mention humane, solutions are being ignored.