"Over Criminalized" documentary screens at SMC

You see them on the street getting pulled over by the police. You assume that they're doing something wrong, or that they're a criminal.

You assume they're not doing anything with their lives, not trying to get a job, and most likely doing drugs.

The criminalization of the mentally ill, homeless, and substance abusers is a societal issue that is very present in the U.S. It is a problem that is often overlooked by police, by citizens who believe they have more pressing issues to think about.

This problem is what producer Jim Miller sought to tackle in his documentary "Over Criminalized" and with his Q&A; at Santa Monica College on October 23. While Miller was not able to be present, Laurie Jones, Program Director, provided insight on the project and the topic at hand.

The documentary covers success stories, things that actually worked, and programs that are actually helping people. It is divided into three parts: mental illness, homelessness, and substance abuse.

The film acknowledges the fact that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world, and attempts to look at who is resolving this issue.

The first section about mental illness begins with a news segment about 18-year-old Keith Vidal, who was shot and killed in his home by Brunswick County police in North Carolina. The teen battled with schizophrenia.

A string of other similar cases were shown where police shot and killed mentally ill people, mostly those diagnosed with schizophrenia.

According to the documentary, the U.S. spends nearly $9 billion per year on mentally ill prisoners. In 2013, 356,368 severely mentally ill people were imprisoned in the U.S.

The focus was on the fact that most police officers have no formal mental illness training.

In San Antonio Texas, however, police officers are able to handle situations with mentally ill through programs created by local hospitals. The training program known as Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), provides face-to-face screening and assessment, crisis intervention, and psychiatric evaluation. 95 percent of police officers in San Antonio are CIT trained.

The second half of the documentary covers substance abuse and the interviewees admitted to having been arrested upwards of 10-20 times. In 2012 29,960 people were arrested for drugs in New York State, a staggering number.

While it does document the the escalating number of the arrested substance abusers, it instead focuses more on treatment centers that were established in Washington State called the LEAD program.

Substance abusers trying to receive methadone for trying to kick their addiction can have to wait a year, being completely off of the drugs. If they slip up, their year starts over again. This is where the LEAD Program steps in with counseling, treatment options, and housing. There is no one strike rule.

Finally, the three part documentary ends with homelessness, nowhere left to go but jail.

The accounts in the story discuss the expectations placed on homeless people when society expects them to get off the street. When delving further into the story, you find out that it’s not that easy. Homeless people get arrested for small crimes such as trespassing, petty theft, open containers, etc.

In 2014, 100 cities banned sitting or lying down in public places. This gives the homeless nowhere to go. The commonality between all of the accounts in the video is that the people had been arrested numerous times, often having arrests occur one after another.

The solution that was found was housing first, instead of just assuming it will be too expensive to house homeless people. This idea was developed in Utah and was found that the approximate cost of housing would be $7800 per person, and per year. In the end, it is far better to find housing for homeless people, rather than pay taxpayer’s dollars on placing them in jail.

Once the documentary ended, the discussion with the audience ensued.

To no surprise, the first question from an audience member was, “Is this fiscally sound?” While Jones didn’t know the exact numbers, there was a survey sheet that went around, and any questions to that magnitude would be answered through email. You can gather from the video that imprisonment is no more fiscally sound than getting people treatment or housing.

Jones said, “CIT training is only half of the issue. Often times police officers have nowhere to take the person they’re arresting. The next step is finding those people housing.”

Another audience member commented on her disbelief of the treatment of homeless people. “I don’t understand how people can take in a homeless dog, feed it, kiss it in the mouth, and the next day step over a homeless person like they’re not a human being.”

She also expressed how she thinks it is a societal issue that needs to be solved. “This needs to be education among human beings,” she continued. While Jones agreed, the audience member said it best, “We are all human beings on planet earth, and it’s our responsibility to take care of each other.” Instead of the focus being on cost, she thinks, “It’s not cost effective, it’s human effective.”

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