Sudden Decompression

8 June 2014

I've never voted in a General Election for a Republican Presidential nominee; and, the one time that I registered as a Republican, it was to vote against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primary election by voting for a candidate who had withdrawn. One may fairly conclude that I was anti-Reagan; I remain so. But I was-and-am also anti-Carter and anti-Mondale; indeed, I have never voted in a General Election for a Democratic Presidential nominee. And my dog in the fight over Reagan's legacy is truth as such, not the development or defense of one of the narratives of either of the two major political tribes.

Part of the conventional narrative of progressives and of Democrats is that our problem of homeless people became a crisis as a result of a ruthless expulsion of mentally ill people from hospitals, by the Reagan Administration, simply to save money. One problem with this part of that narrative was that, at the time that people were being deïnstitutionalized, there was very little in the way of protest from the other tribe, nor much from any other part of the political continuum.

The forceable incarceration of the mentally ill simply for being mentally ill was and remains deeply problematic; it operationalizes as the criminalization of victimless behaviors. Further, like almost every other state programme (essential or otherwise), actual practice bore little resemblance to supportive pontifications by educators and by journalists, regardless of which party were in power. The captivity of the mentally ill was a great injustice, which many progressives, classical liberals, and indeed conservatives wanted to see ended. Not a lot of thought was given to what was to happen to the inmates upon release.

Some of these people had been getting-by before they were locked-up. But the problem now was that the structures that they had earlier found or created in order to get-by were largely demolished by their incarceration. They had spent months or years — sometimes many years — in an peculiar society in which all or nearly all of the people around them were ill-adapted to ordinary life. Most of the possessions of those deïnstitutionalized had been dispersed or destroyed during their institutionalization. The victims didn't have homes. Those released had the stigma of having been locked-up. But, no, few people, regardless of ideological commitments, had much considered what the incarceration itself implied for the ability of the incarcerated to reädapt to the outside world.

We have a very similar problem coming upon us even as I write. It's not coming at us so fast or so slowly that the speed-of-approach should blind anyone; but none-the-less almost everyone is again blind, regardless of ideological commitment.

Our nation may be moving in the general direction of decriminalization of drug-crimes. Some constituent states are decriminalizing marijuana, and the Federal state seems to be allowing that decriminalization. The Presidential Administration is looking to scale back the penalties for crimes involving crack cocaine. And these changes ought to be happening. Consenting adults ought to be able to buy and ingest whatever they want. (Unfortunately, contrary to the apparent trend of decriminalization, many progressives are looking to outlaw tobacco products and to turn sugars into controlled substances.)

But with decriminalization would come the release of a great many institutionalized people. Once again, those released would have spent months or years or even many years in an environment where most of the people around them were ill-adapted to ordinary society. Most of their possessions would have been dispersed or destroyed. Many wouldn't have homes. They'll confront the stigma of having been imprisoned. (If they don't report their imprisonments on job forms and rental applications, then they'll have large, unexplained gaps in their histories!)

I don't offer you a solution to the problems to come. If the progressives wake-up to the problems before any large-scale release, then they'll devise some scheme of half-way houses that in practice will bear little resemblance to progressive theory, and assuredly victimize tax-payers.

No matter what, narratives will be formulated that obscure the current failure to anticipate a predictable, large-scale problem.

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