Using Jails as Homeless Shelters is Not a Good Strategy: The Jerome Murdough Case

March 26, 2015 | Lucas Anderson

Among the many counterproductive and illogical ways that a city can fill its jails and overburden its criminal justice system is by criminalizing things that homeless people do in order to survive. New York City, perhaps more than any other city, excels at spending money on arrests, prosecutions, and jails, rather than on programs that would address the root causes of homelessness and provide effective mental health or drug addiction treatments.

ANIMAL has obtained court transcripts for the one of the final court appearances of Jerome Murdough, a homeless and mentally ill veteran who was repeatedly arrested for sleeping inside the stairwells and hallways of public housing buildings last winter. Less than two weeks after this court appearance, Murdough was sent to Rikers Island on $2,500 bail and was, in the words of an anonymous city official, “baked to death” in a severely overheated cell. These transcripts reveal a shocking and deplorable lack of interest on the part of the prosecutor or the court in doing anything other than imposing another fruitless and costly jail sentence for someone whose crime consisted of finding a place to sleep inside during a snowstorm.

A veteran of the Marine Corps who suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and frequent epileptic seizures, Murdough had reportedly been arrested for trespassing eleven times before his last court appearance. Despite all of the money and time the city spent on those cases, it seems that they had done little to convince Murdough that he shouldn’t find a place to sleep indoors during the depths of winter. (As unpleasant as this year’s winter may have been, it should be remembered that last year’s was historically grueling.) In early February of last year, soon before his final arrest for which he was held on bail, Murdough was brought to the Manhattan criminal court building on four separate trespassing incidents, all of which took place during the winter months within the same East Harlem precinct. As with his other trespassing arrests, none of those four incidents involved violence, threats, theft, or anything more than a mentally ill homeless person hoping to briefly escape the cold.

The transcript of that court appearance reveals that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office evidently thought that a long stretch in jail would teach Murdough a lesson about sleeping indoors during the winter: the Assistant DA recommended a jail sentence of three months. (That’s the same penalty one might get for, say, driving a minivan into a pedestrian while drunk and high, and then driving off.) Murdough’s attorney asked the court to place him in an alternative behavioral program instead, but Judge Neil Ross would only accept a disposition of ten days jail.

When people in the field of criminal justice talk about criminal punishments, they often talk about the need to deter future crimes. So it might have been a minimally competent thing for the police, the DA’s office, and the court to consider whether more arrests and more nights in jail could have somehow deterred Murdough from trespassing, or whether there wasn’t some better solution. But in all of its interactions with Murdough, the city failed to accomplish a single positive thing. If Murdough had survived his last stint at Rikers it’s impossible to say how long the cycle of arrests, prosecutions, incarceration, release, arrests, etc., for trespassing and other minor crimes might have continued.

In an interview with ANIMAL, Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty said that problems associated with homelessness are most effectively addressed through interventions that take place entirely outside of the criminal justice system. “Pre-arrest diversion is most important. The fact that someone might be arrested for simply trying to survive, whether it’s taking shelter or sleeping outside, that behavior should not be criminalized in the first place.” Rather than waiting until a homeless person commits a criminal offense to intervene, Tars noted that it would be better to invest in a social service system with adequate housing and treatment services that could proactively address situations involving mental illness or addiction.

With a record high homeless population in the city, one would think that policy makers would be more inclined to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness, instead of continuing to criminally prosecute its symptoms. In December, Mayor de Blasio announced a $130 million program to support pretrial diversion programs and to help mentally ill inmates transition back into society. This program was funded in part by the Manhattan DA’s office, indicating that there is at least some interest among prosecutors’ offices in solving, rather than reflexively punishing, problems associated with homelessness and mental illness. But the city would be better served if the Mayor’s office also worked to reform police and social service practices in order to prevent homeless people and the mentally ill from needlessly entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

While New York already has an expansive shelter system, Tars noted that existing facilities may not be equipped to address the needs of all homeless New Yorkers. “For chronically homeless individuals with mental illness or addictions, the conditions in available shelter spaces may not be conducive to the needs of that individual.” Thus, for people with mental health or addiction problems, “their disabilities may prevent them from having access to beds that are otherwise theoretically available.” Providing adequate shelter and treatment for people with mental illnesses or addictions might be a challenging endeavor. As the Department of Investigation recently revealed, even the city’s existing family shelters are woefully ill-managed. But a robust shelter service program that can take in all homeless individuals would be cheaper, more effective, and far more humane than the current approach of relying on jails as temporary shelters.

The Comptroller’s office recently found that it costs almost $100,000 per inmate, per year to house someone at Rikers. If even a fraction of that money were diverted towards providing adequate shelter facilities and effective treatment services to prevent, rather than punish, offenses like trespassing, then the absurd cycle of arrests and prosecutions for crimes of necessity that marked the last months of Jerome Murdough’s life might be forestalled in the future.

Jerome Murdough Transcript by Lucas

(Photo: Matt Green)