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January 20, 2014

"Obamacare Is a Powerful New Crime-Fighting Tool"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent article from The Atlantic. The subheading highlights its themes: "An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 prisoners released each year have substance abuse or mental health problems. But no one has been willing to pay for their treatment — until now."  Here is an excerpt:

An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 men and women released from America’s lockups each year have either substance abuse problems, mental health problems, or both. Very often, those problems were largely responsible for getting them locked up in the first place. Most addicted and mentally ill prisoners receive little or no effective treatment while they’re incarcerated or after they’re turned loose, so it’s little surprise that ... they soon wind up back in jail. But for some, that revolving door may stop spinning this year, thanks to a little-noticed side-effect of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Obamacare, it turns out, might be a crime-fighting tool.

Numerous studies support the common-sense notion that treating offenders’ drug addictions and mental illnesses helps keep at least some of them from going back to jail. Get that junkie off heroin, and maybe he won’t steal your car stereo for fix money; get that mentally ill homeless person on proper medications, and maybe she can find a job instead of turning tricks in alleys. “It’s not the drug itself, it’s the stealing and robbing they do to get the drug,” says Abbie Zimmerman, a therapist at Transitions Clinic, a program based in San Francisco’s hard-bitten Hunter’s Point area that treats former prisoners (including Sanders, who is now an outreach worker there). “If I can keep them sober, I can keep them out of jail.”

But no one has been willing to pay for such treatment for hundreds of thousands of ex-cons. And they certainly can’t afford it themselves: According to a recent report by the Council of State Governments, the vast majority of released prisoners re-enter society with little money and no health insurance. But now many of those former prisoners are eligible for insurance, courtesy of the federal government.

Among many other reforms, the ACA is drastically expanding Medicaid, the federal insurance scheme for the poor. Previously, able-bodied childless adults were generally not covered by Medicaid, regardless of how impoverished they might have been. But starting this year, any American citizen under age 65 with a family income at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line — about $25,000 for a family of three — is eligible for Medicaid (at least in the two dozen states that have so far agreed to participate in this aspect of Obamacare). Meanwhile, citizens and legal immigrants earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line are now entitled to subsidies to help pay for private insurance. Taken together, those two provisions mean that tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of the inmates released every year are now eligible for health insurance, including coverage for mental health and substance abuse services.

Providing treatment to those former prisoners could yield enormous benefits for all of us. The average cost to incarcerate someone for a year is roughly $25,000. That means if only one percent of each year’s released inmates stay out of trouble, taxpayers will save nearly $200 million annually — and the pool of troubled ex-cons looking to steal your car stereo will be that much smaller. “Success in implementing the Affordable Care Act has the potential to decrease crime, recidivism, and criminal justice costs, while simultaneously improving the health and safety of communities,” sums up a recent report by the federal Department of Justice.

It all looks great on paper. But there are significant obstacles to making this work in the real world. One is the simple fact that many former prisoners aren’t even aware of their new entitlements. “I don’t really know what Obamacare is,” says Ernest Kirkwood, a Transitions client who spent 29 years in prison, when I tell him I’d like to talk to him about the new health care regime. “I never read the newspaper.”

Making services available is one thing. Getting people whose judgment isn’t that great in the first place to actually use them is another. Plenty of drug users and mentally ill people don’t want to admit they have a problem. The stigma that persists around mental illness keeps some should-be patients away. Richard Rawson, a professor of psychiatry specializing in substance abuse at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out that an earlier experiment that provided residential treatment to just-released drug offenders didn’t work as well as hoped. “People said, ‘I just got out, I don’t want to be in rehab for another year,’” he says.

January 20, 2014 at 09:03 AM | Permalink


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All this looks interesting...until you look at how this nefarious scheme is actually going to work...which is not at all! Programs have ostensibly been available for prisoners from the get go, while they were still in prison, let alone once they got out. Now that we have to put our information onto a website that practically transmits our bank identification straight to Beijing and Moscow hackers, we can "say" that we are doing things to help people. But the proof is in the pudding: Can someone actually TELL me how this is going to pragmatically, actually WORK? Remember, everyone was supposed to keep their plan, their doctor, and get a $2500 reduction to boot.

Go on. Start 'splainin', Lucy. NO partisan rhetoric; just the cold, hard fact, ma'am.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Jan 20, 2014 3:38:57 PM

Erik Knight --

Nailed it.

Do people have no memory whatever? We tried de-emphasizing prison and doubling down on social programs in the Sixties and Seventies. What happened?

We got a national crime wave is what happened.

This time, however, the same priorities will get opposite results.

Sure they will.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 20, 2014 5:14:58 PM

| "An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 prisoners released each year have substance abuse or mental health problems."|

Here is how I see it:
1} Substance use is a choice. Illegal substance use is an illegal choice. Robbery, burglary, and larceny are choices, whether the import is to buy electronics or narcotics.

2} The meds given for so-called "mental illness" are already doled-out so liberally by professionals in our day -- more so for inmates -- as to comprise an injurious and nearly pathological phenomenon.

3} "Get that junkie off heroin" & “If I can keep them sober, I can keep them out of jail,” is fantastic, prep-school-playground imagination: hasn't worked in my area,
with ample Obama-like resources. Where's the precedent?

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 21, 2014 9:01:53 AM

Very catchy title.. love the idea and hopefully see some result.

Posted by: Nhick | Jan 21, 2014 9:14:28 AM

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