3 Ways to Fight Mass Criminalization

All too often when we face big problems in our culture and our politics, we can become overwhelmed because there doesn't seem to be a way out. We talk about a cycle of perpetual war that has enormous human and financial costs. We point out the control that billionaires have over our democracy, which is widening the income gap in this country. We also talk about a system of mass incarceration that has resulted in the largest prisoner population in the entire world.

But on October 9th, in partnership with the ACLU and The Nation Magazine, Brave New Films is releasing OverCriminalized, a new video series that shines a light on solutions that are saving lives and money, keeping the public safer, and moving us away from our national obsessions with arresting and incarcerating our fellow citizens.

In each of the three episodes, we explore vexing social problems that we currently criminalize all over the country - mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. We sent our production team to San Antonio, Seattle, and Salt Lake City to profile three new programs that are working.

In San Antonio, we looked into Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), which are specially trained police officers who can de-escalate situations in which people are experiencing a mental health crisis. Instead of a violent outcome where the patient or police are hurt, and the person suffering the crisis ends up in jail, police are able to immediately connect them with treatment services.

In Seattle, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) gives police the option of diverting those with substance abuse issues from jail directly to social workers. And unlike other solutions, like drug courts, patients are not kicked out for relapses.

And in Salt Lake City, we looked at Utah's Housing First program which boils down to a simple idea: give homeless people a place to live. The chronically homeless often are dealing with mental illness and substance abuse. Having a home first allows the stability and time needed to tackle the other problems.

We interviewed the local police, social workers, and government officials that are helping these programs succeed and talked to the people who have begun to get the help they need and avoid jail time. Everyone, from the young lady in Seattle suffering from scoliosis who sought heroine when she couldn't afford OxyContin, to the several homeless men and women we spoke to in Utah now had reason to hope.

And along the way, taxpayers saved money, because in each case helping people was far cheaper than locking them up.

We've seen this before with alternatives to incarceration in New York, mentor programs in Oregon, and treatment facilities in Colorado. And as in our other work looking for solutions, we learned that this isn't rocket science. If you put people who are sick in jail instead of a hospital they don't get better; if someone bounces between a cell and the street for years, they'll never find a stable place to live. We were inspired by these policy makers from across the political spectrum who took a leap of faith, stopped trying to outdo one another to see who could be tougher on crime, and finally started to try to solve problems.

More than ever, we know that there's a way out of the mass incarceration and the over-criminalization of our communities. It begins with you. Is your city over-criminalized? You can do something about it.