In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan defunded mental health programs AND shut down mental institutions. As a result a new word entered the U.S. lexicon: homelessness. About one quarter of those released ended up on the streets, many others were re-instutionalized in unfunded and inappropriate institutions rife with abuse. Thousands of mentally ill people ended up in jail.
The Reagan fiasco happened when the movement for the rights of the mentally ill was subverted by those wanting to decrease federal and state budgets allocated for human needs.
In a similar situation, progressive calls to integrate children with mental and physical disabilities into public schools continue to be subverted by budget cutters. Without funding, integration programs are set up to fail, to dehumanize and restigmatize.
So when I hear President Obama has started the process of de-incarcerating low level drug offenders, I am cautious in my enthusiasm. We must end mass incarceration, AND fully-funded wrap-around programs to reintegrate people. We have to eliminate housing and job discrimination and provide counseling to help people make the transition, this could be another frying-pan-to-fire presidential decree with a Reaganesque legacy.
Recently enthusiasm has grown among tax cutters, to end mass incarceration. Compromises with these forces that dissolve reintegration programs are no compromise at all.
Incarceration does something to the human psyche. Poverty post-prison only intensifies those issues. Racism adds another layer. Without addressing these issues we will create an open air prison for the de-incarcerated. Without housing and job assistance, homelessness will increase, as will re-institutionalization. If we think the insanity of mass incarceration can not get worse we need to remember what happened to mental patients in the 1980s.
The fact that Obama is talking about banning the box for federal employees is a good sign. The fact that he is deporting 1/3 of the tiny portion of those he is de-incarcerating is an indication that — so far — this new policy, like the old one it seeks to change, continues to dehumanize.