More Jail Time or More Housing?

Written by Norm Stamper, Ph.D., Seattle Chief of Police (Ret)

To achieve public safety, social justice, and an equitable society, we must disentangle issues of crime from issues of homelessness.

Preventing crime, detecting and apprehending those who commit it, and helping to ensure public safety is a fundamental responsibility of local governments. This role also calls for explicit recognition of principles of social justice—fairness, dignity, equity—in all aspects of local law enforcement.

While this call for justice may be motivated by hearts and values, it is also driven by hard data, backed by stacks of studies and reams of reports.

As a former Seattle Police Chief with over three decades of experience in the field I have spent my adult life examining the purpose of policing, and how to deter crime in order to protect public safety—while at the same time appreciating the nature and extent of structural discrimination inherent in the system. Patterned racism and other forms of bigotry inevitably produce miscarriages of justice. This often shows up in certain policing approaches: stop and frisk, use of force, the incarceration of nonviolent individuals whose only “crime” is poverty.

In this age of social upheaval and division, there are those who seek to demonize or criminalize people who are homeless, with old stereotypes about the deserving and undeserving poor. It’s important to remember that people are complex, systems are complex, and we should consider the perspectives of people who have experienced homelessness.

Homelessness and Victimization

Those who work on the front lines – both in law enforcement and in human services – know only too well the link between homelessness and victimization. People experiencing homelessness are far more likely to be the victims of crime than their housed neighbors. People experiencing homelessness are also at risk of being used and taken advantage of by organized criminals who see the unhoused as a disposable workforce and a convenient camouflage.

Of those forced to live outside because they cannot afford housing, nearly half report being the victim of a violent attack while homeless. Of those, three-quarters report being attacked multiple times.[1]

This population has no doors or locks to protect them from theft or violence. They have no privacy, no safe harbor. They are without access to basic human needs. They may be forced to steal for another, or to submit to unspeakable acts for a few dollars or something to relieve the pain.

To Serve and Protect

In these cases, the purpose of law enforcement is not to criminalize homelessness—we know that doesn’t work—and it’s not to play an endless game of whack-a-mole that moves encampments from one site to another—that doesn’t work either. The purpose of law enforcement must be to protect the safety of those who are forced to live outside, and to work with other agencies to ensure services and other forms of assistance.

Make no mistake. The place for perpetual predators and violent criminals is prison. But for people who are preyed upon, or who are so limited in their choices that commission of low-level, nonviolent offenses become a means of survival, we should ask ourselves what the root cause really is. If people had housing—in hotels like the old SROs, apartments, duplexes, or even shared communal housing—we might find that these crimes of desperation drop in direct relationship to the stability of having a place to call home.

Policing will always be a key function of government, but we don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done. When working with people experiencing homelessness, our community has a choice. We can continue to pour resources into jails and prisons, a system known to frustrate crime prevention and to reproduce racial inequities—or we can invest in housing that gives people a chance to stabilize and get better.