July 22, 2014


Three strike laws are statutes enacted by state governments to deter recidivism. They basically increase penalties on habitual offenders or career criminals so as to dissuade such career paths or habits. While these statues are predominately issued to give life sentences to repeat first degree felons, or more decades to second and third degree felons, the logic of the system has worked its way down to quite petty offenses. This can make way for unfortunate rulings against 'crimes' associated with the condition of being homeless at the city or county levels.

The last post on our blog, written by Kineci, told of one such situation for a friend of ours who lives on the streets in Tampa. He has been arrested many times for trespassing. Trespassing and loitering become a perpetual state for many on the streets because they have nowhere to go. (which, BTW, is precisely why the Well is determined to create an oasis of hospitality) Our friend was trying to leave town because he knew the next arrest would mean a more severe punishment. He never made it out of town (which never really was a great solution anyway) and was arrested on Saturday. Now he is facing much more significant jail time because he is a 'habitual' offender. You see he is chronically homeless.

Many years ago our society ran asylums where they would put people that were considered mentally ill. These hospitals were heavily criticized as they were often very poorly kept up, understaffed and filled with very difficult individuals. After some exposure of the conditions of these places, where entire segments of the population were segregated, there was much demand for deinstitutionalization.  Under Ronald Reagan the call was made that these asylums be closed, and they were.  While it is not hard to praise the end of such horrific conditions for some of our societies most vulnerable people it is sometimes hard to take a sober look at how such moves have played out in our cities.

Deinstitutionalization basically flushed these mental hospitals out into our streets. The idea was that within our communities folks with mental disabilities could live less isolated lives and find local community mental health services to assist when needed. What we ended up having in many of our cities is an open asylum where those who needed such hospitalization or care are left to wander the streets alone. We do have many mental health services in Tampa, though you are seen, assessed, and turned out almost immediately. There is no place to stay and be safe, which is precisely what so many with paranoia and anxiety need.

Where we once hospitalized we now criminalize. Where once people were put in institutions run by nurses and doctors they are now ending up in institutions run by police and wardens. While deinstitutionalization was a move made for humanitarian reasons (giving the benefit of the doubt) it never served society or those that needed the help. What we are seeing now is some kind of twisted repentance or undoing of deistitutionalization. What we are seeing today is the reinstitutionalization of our most vulnerable. Though now they are not in poorly kept hospitals but highly profitable penal institutions.

I assure you, we are not better off.

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