Tracking, Criminality, and Homelessness

In response to the charge that drug arrests for pot possession don’t lead to incarceration, I argued that those arrests can be thought of as ‘pre-criminal tracking’ (as in academic tracking, not surveillance):

The good news is that ten percent of these arrests are dropped, and another thirty percent result in a six month probation, after which (provided no further run-ins with the law, which in certain neighborhoods are not infrequent) the arrest is expunged from your record. But that’s still a lot of people who wind up with possession records. That’s the kind of thing employers often see if they do a background check, so it can hurt future employment opportunities (and, in NYC, minorities are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession). And someone who then winds up in the criminal justice system for some other minor offense already has one strike against him. Essentially, we’re fast-tracking young minority men to nowhere.

…the costs of criminalization, and even perhaps outlawing recreational drugs, are too great and are manufacturing future criminals.

This doesn’t just apply to the War on (Some People Who Use Certain) Drugs–low-level arrests and police encounters of any type can have tragic long-term outcomes (boldface mine):

A van pulls over on 16th Street NE and several young black men hop out. Walking by is Maurice Alexander, a lifelong Washingtonian in his sixties, on his way home from a friend’s house. Alexander watches the men from the van as they scoop up what looks like various electronics, discarded on the curb.

The van gets as far as the next stoplight before four white Metropolitan Police Department officers rush up on foot, hands on their guns. Alexander hears one of the men in the van yell, “What did we do?” The answer is shouted back: “Receiving stolen goods.”

“They got those off the ground,” Alexander protests, from the sidewalk. One of the cops gets in his face, tells him to mind his own business.

Alexander points his fingers back at the officer. He says, “I want to be a witness.”

And just like that, Alexander is in handcuffs, charged with “attempted threat,” a misdemeanor. He receives probation and ten days in jail.

Seven years later, all for pointing his fingers, Alexander found himself homeless….

Alexander, now 69, had always had a home. He grew up in a large, corner house on the 1300 block of Maryland Avenue NE. He attended Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia) and obtained a paralegal certificate from George Washington University. He became active with civil rights causes and organizations that assist offenders returning to the community from prison

He and his brother made decisions before their elderly family members passed away. His brother would put the house on the market. As for Alexander, “Because I’m a very old person,” he says, winking, “the plan was I’d go to live in a senior citizens’ home and just live out the rest of my days. I’m not so sure I wanted the responsibility of the house anyway.”

He applied for public housing with the District of Columbia Housing Authority well ahead of his aunt’s and mother’s passing, and was placed on a waiting list. When it came his turn, DCHA referred Alexander to properties owned by three rental property management companies, who each receive federal funding to provide subsidized housing. He submitted applications to all three last March, April, and May.

They all denied him. “Criminal – Misdemeanor Conviction(s) or Pending Case,” read one such denial, from Capitol Gateway Family at 201 58th St. NE.

After six months of homelessness, including sleeping under the L Street Bridge, he finally did get housing–which he should have in the first place:

After six months of homelessness, DCHA managed to find Alexander a place to live: a DCHA-owned senior home on 4th Street NW. It’s safe, it’s clean; there’s a community garden, there’s a library nearby.

“Most people, when something like this happens, they’re so accustomed to it,” Alexander says. “They just say well, I’ll go to church and maybe Jesus will step in or something, I don’t know. But me, I get pissed off, man, because I knew it was wrong, I knew it was unjustified, and I needed someone to help.”

A lot of people lack the wherewithal to fight back, including the skills and experience (Alexander was a paralegal with experience dealing with the D.C. government). Even with his abilities, he still wound up homeless over a misdemeanor for which he should have never been charged in the first place.

Suffice it to say, this isn’t something most white upper-middle and gentry class people experience (goes without saying the wealthy and rich aren’t treated like this).

But somewhere a nineteen year-old college student said something stupid so both sides do it, etc…

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