Crime, Incarceration, and ‘Reform’ Prosecutors: Debate Continued

Editor’s note from Glenn Greenwald:

We are pleased to present the second part of our debate on crime and prosecutorial policy between Leighton Woodhouse and Ben Spielberg. The first installation — which contained an original statement from Ben, a rebuttal from Leighton, and then a further rebuttal from Ben — was very well-received by our readership here and provoked a spirited, enlightening and substantive debate in the comment section among subscribers: exactly what we believe good journalism should foster. This second installment — which begins with Leighton’s rebuttal, is followed by Ben’s response, and then concludes with Leighton’s response to that — is, in my view, even better, as it further isolates and highlights the divergent underlying assumptions that drive these vital public policy debates about crime and punishment around the country. I hope the readership here finds this exchange at least as nutritious and thought-provoking as the first installment.

(On a personal note: I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude for the outpouring of support, empathy and understanding from readers here in response to my August 16 note about the health crisis our family is enduring and how it is preventing me, for now, from writing here the way I would like to do. My husband remains in ICU and officially in critically condition, but has shown recent stability and even some improvements that give us more hope than ever for his full recovery. I hope and expect to be back shortly. And we will also very soon — this month, perhaps this week — unveil the new project I have been alluding to that I am certain will excite everyone here and dramatically expand the reach and impact of the journalism we do. In the meantime, thank you so much to everyone who reached out by email, in the comment section, and otherwise with such compassion and human decency. It really means a lot. Enjoy the debate.)

By Leighton Woodhouse

I have to admit I’m finding it to be a bit of a challenge to respond to most of the points in your rebuttal, in some cases because the relevance is lost on me and in others because they’re wholly unsupported by the facts.

But let me try to characterize each of your points in turn:

You begin by citing statistics about rates of economic inequality and high housing costs in San Francisco. I’m unclear on the purpose of this laundry list, as your disapproval of these indices is not a point of disagreement between us, nor do they represent anything over which the District Attorney has any control. I agree that San Francisco is an expensive city with a vast wealth gap, and that that’s regrettable. There’s no argument between us here.

You go on to claim that homelessness is the inevitable outcome of these economic conditions, stating blithely that it is not an addiction problem. I don’t understand what you base these claims on.

Judging from the various articles and blog posts you link to, the argument that homelessness is caused by the high cost of housing and not by drug addiction seems to be entirely based on a statistical correlation between the cost of housing in various cities and their respective rates of homelessness. That’s obviously not a causal argument. We could spend all day coming up with potential confounding variables that would complicate this simplistic narrative. But I would argue that there’s a better approach than just brainstorming alternative explanations, and that’s to go out in the field and talk to people. Qualitative research can often bring into clear view what is overlooked by the necessarily reductionist models of quantitative analyses such as the ones you’re apparently relying on.

Unlike most of the authors you link to, including some who call themselves social scientists, I’ve done exactly that. Michael Shellenberger and I have visited tent encampments up and down the state of California — in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Fresno. We’ve shot hours of interviews with homeless people, much of which we’ve already made public and the remainder of which we’d be happy to.

Our method was simple: talk to anyone who would talk to us, which, as it turned out, was most people we approached. We asked them straightforward questions about how they became homeless, whether they would choose to take shelter if offered and under what conditions, and what their drug use habits were. Almost everyone was as plain and direct with us as we were with them.

From these interviews it was clear as day what we were looking at: the tent encampments in all of these cities are sites where people who are addicted to (principally) meth and fentanyl can acquire and use those drugs. That’s the reason they exist. These are places plagued by brutal violence, rampant theft and human trafficking, as people who live in them will tell you. The only reason people live there at all is because the power of addiction is so relentless that the fear of withdrawal eclipses the fear of any of those things.

I’m assuming from what you’ve said that you’re under the impression that urban tent encampments are full of people who moved there because they couldn’t find an apartment they could afford, and that many of them are not doing drugs. If that’s your impression, then it’s an easy enough one to reality check: You should go visit some of these camps and ask people yourself. I’ll go with you. They’ll tell you the same things they’ve told me.

I’m not sure what to make of your observation that “many people who are economically secure and have homes are addicted to drugs.” I’ll concede that’s true, but it’s neither here nor there. The fact that some people who are addicted to drugs live in houses and apartments doesn’t mean that the people who live in tents on the sidewalk are not primarily in that situation because of drugs. Some people have resources that others do not — family members who are willing to pay their rent, or bank accounts that haven’t yet been entirely drained.

In fact, we could go even further than you have in complicating this picture, and it would still bear out my argument: Many of the people who are “homeless” living in tent encampments do have houses and apartments they could go home to. I’ve interviewed at least a dozen parents of addicts. Most of them have spent years pleading with their kids to come home, where they could live for free if they wanted. Their children refuse, for one reason and one reason only: they’re addicted and need to stay close to the dealers. One recovering addict I know slept in doorways in the Tenderloin even though he owned a house in Daly City, just a short train ride away. Despite being a homeowner, he was still compelled to sleep on the streets because he couldn’t risk being more than a few minutes from the closest dealer when he got dopesick.

This all speaks to a fundamental problem with the way we speak about this issue. We call it “homelessness” but that’s a misleading descriptor. It’s an addiction crisis, one of the symptoms of which is living on the street.

Your argument that many homeless people “became addicted after becoming homeless” seems, likewise, academic at best. I suppose the utility of the argument is that if that’s true, you can keep blaming the cause of homelessness on landlords. But from a standpoint of what to do about homelessness, what difference does it make? If what’s keeping people homeless is substance abuse, then the solution remains the same: we need to treat people’s addiction to fix their lives. Building more housing or strengthening tenant protections or whatever your proposed solution is will undoubtedly help some people — mostly the working poor, in my opinion — but it won’t help the person who’s living in a tent because they have meth-induced psychosis and think aliens implanted a chip in their brain. That person will not be able to live functionally and autonomously in their own apartment even if the rent were a fraction of the market rate, until their addiction is treated.

Finally, you make the brazen claim that “most people experiencing homelessness are not addicted to drugs,” without so much as a hotlink to show it. What are you basing this quantitative claim on?

For the sake of this discussion, I want to make sure we agree on what we’re talking about: unsheltered homelessness. I make no claims about the circumstances of people living in homeless shelters, who tend to fit your characterization of the homeless much more closely than do people living in tent camps or on the streets. Typically, in shelters, you have to abide by rules, including curfews and on-site abstinence, which is why people who are drug dependent tend to avoid them (I know this because numerous homeless people have told it to me, on camera). Accordingly, people who reside in shelters are more likely to be temporarily homeless as a result of job loss or medical debt or eviction rather than indefinitely homeless due to drug addiction. Is the majority of the sheltered homeless not addicted? I have no idea; it’s not an issue I’ve reported on or looked into. I’m willing to grant for argument’s sake that they’re not.

But if you’re including that demographic in your definition of “the homeless,” then we’ve gone far afield from the topic at hand, since the office of the District Attorney has little to nothing to do with that population of people. In San Francisco, the DA’s concern is with people living on the streets. If that’s who you’re talking about, then I have no idea what the basis is for your claim that the majority of people living in tents on the sidewalk and sleeping in doorways are not suffering from addiction. It flies in the face of everything I’ve heard from numerous interviews with EMTs, social workers, psychiatric nurses, recovered addicts and Emergency Room workers, as well as extensive conversations with the unsheltered homeless themselves all over California. I’ve done enough reporting on this issue to be able to just say straight up that on this claim, you’re simply wrong.

I suspect that your reluctance to acknowledge the obvious — that people living on the street are there primarily due to drug addiction and untreated mental illness — comes from a concern that doing so will stigmatize the most vulnerable among us. I understand that concern, though I don’t share it. I think the reason I don’t share it is because I simply don’t think of the issue in those moralistic terms. Addiction is a disease, and those who suffer from it are victims of their afflictions. I don’t judge them for it any more than I’d judge someone for having cancer. Like anyone with a disease, addicts deserve treatment. But such is the nature of addiction that they’re never going to get it if we just sit around waiting for them to volunteer for it instead of taking forceful action to make it happen, for their sake as well as for our own.

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