President Trump’s Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities will help continue the criminal justice reform momentum that began when the FIRST Step Act was signed into law. Importantly, the president’s executive order increases the likelihood that people returning from incarceration who have nonviolent or minor encounters with the police will be connected to the social services that they need in order to live law-abiding lives.
People returning from incarceration experience mental health, homelessness, and addiction issues at a higher rate than the general population. The executive order mandates that the attorney general and the secretary of health and human services identify ways to “increase the capacity of social workers working directly with law enforcement agencies.” In addition, these agencies will “provide guidance regarding the development and implementation of co-responder programs, which involve social workers or other mental health professionals working alongside law enforcement officers so that they arrive and address situations together.” The executive order, like the FIRST Step Act, addresses key social service gaps in our criminal justice system that can lead to safer and more prosperous communities.
Housing insecurity and homelessness are some of the most significant and devastating barriers affecting returning citizens. The Prison Policy Initiative determined that formerly incarcerated people are “almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public” and that their engagement with homeless shelters often lasts years. The Institute for Justice & Research Development at Florida State University published a report this year from a multistate reentry research project which found that 85% of formerly incarcerated participants experienced various forms of housing insecurity. This includes street homelessness and couch surfing, with only approximately 15% of participants reporting access to their own apartment or home at the time of release. Homeless shelters also tend to be populated with high percentages of people with criminal histories, and a study based on homeless and incarceration trends in New York City found that 23.1% of shelter residents reported a period of incarceration within the last two years.
Mental health issues are commonplace for people exiting incarceration. The Bureau of Justice Statistics examined the prevalence of mental illness in U.S. correctional facilities and reported startlingly high rates of mental illness, with 60% of jail inmates and 49% of state prison inmates reporting significant psychological symptoms, as compared to 11% of the general population. More recent literature reviews demonstrate that people with mental illness are dramatically overrepresented within correctional facilities, with, for example, rates of schizophrenia from 2 to over 6 times the rate in the general population.
Substance use disorders can be expected in the prison population and in those exiting incarceration. Incarceration, particularly recent incarceration, appears to be a significant risk factor for death by drug overdose and, presumptively, significant rates of substance abuse. Substance use disorders can be lethal, especially during the high-stress transition period back to the community. A 2007 study conducted in a Washington state prison found that people exiting incarceration had a risk of overdose death post-release that is 12.7% higher than someone without a recent period of incarceration. In a similar study, drug-related deaths in the first 12 weeks post-release were determined to account for 58% of all deaths in the same time period.
Once implemented, this executive order will make sure the homeless, mentally ill, or addicted person that encounters the police will have access to a social worker right away. The social worker can more readily connect the person to housing and treatment, freeing the police officer to address crime. For people who have been to prison, any interaction with a police officer could trigger a parole or probation violation. However, that same interaction with a social worker could mean that critical services are secured and delivered.
The FIRST Step Act was the most major piece of federal criminal justice legislation in decades. This executive order continues that important work and helps the formerly incarcerated successfully reenter society.