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Legislators Continue War Against the Poor, Homeless and Formerly Incarcerated

Legislators in states like Georgia are preparing to expand their war on the homeless this legislative session.

In the Deep South, the journey from incarceration to freedom can be bleak and disheartening. For many emerging from Southern prisons, the transition is marked by dehumanization and the daunting prospect of rebuilding a life amidst systemic barriers. Mental health issues, which often led to the incarceration, remain unaddressed, and resources are limited upon release. So, the road to reintegration is fraught with challenges. 


In states like Georgia, the struggle is particularly acute. Upon release, individuals receive $25 on a debit card, which offers little opportunity for meaningful reentry into society and helps lead to a cycle of homelessness and despair. The company behind that tiny card begins charging a fee within a few days of release, even if the card is unused.  


Critics say the onus to provide for those being released from prisons shouldn't be on the state, but the reality is most persons who end up within the state's carceral tentacles come from unstable, troubled, and financially beleaguered backgrounds. More advanced nations, like Norway, offer transitional housing and considerable workforce training. But post-release U.S. residents receive no real rehabilitative and vocational programming. U.S. prisons and government instead rely on nonprofits to encourage community integration, but nonprofit availability is piecemeal, unreliable and largely ineffective in the face of homelessness. They also can't compete with the financial interests of private companies and legislators' push to fill beds with new criminal laws. 


The Georgia General Assembly, for example, is considering legislation to greatly expand the list of crimes for prosecution under the state's RICO statute. Another bill that would require cash bail for 30 more crimes is sailing through the General Assembly. Georgia leaders are also building a new state-of-the-art prison in Washington County to replace the county's existing facility. The state plans to spend $436.7 million to do so, the AJC reports. If the state builds it, it will surely fill it.  


Legislation closely following the philosophical misfires of the Cicero Institute, which critics accuse of criminalizing homelessness, is showing up in many state legislatures. Rather than one all-encompassing law and an effective plan, legislators seek to “house” the homeless population in prisons. Georgia Senate Bill 62 prohibits county or municipal ordinances or policies allowing public camping or sleeping. In addition to prohibiting designated camping areas, the legislation puts an end to the recent “Battle of the South River Forrest” where unhoused people resisted being forced off land the state wants to use for the construction of the controversial “Cop City” police training area. 


Another Georgia bill, SB63, forbids any organization, including churches, from posting bonds for more than three persons per year. It also forbids professional bond companies from posting any bonds for the undocumented.  


Meanwhile, state legislatures in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, have their own anti-bail laws, many seeking to limit the use of bail funds, impose new controls, or outright prohibit them. The end result mutes community voices while more individuals remain imprisoned because they cannot afford to pay bond. At any given time, more than 400,000 un-convicted people are detained in American jails, not because they have been proven guilty, but because many simply cannot afford bail. 


A better, proven method would be for Southern states to re-imagine the role of incarceration, as Norway did in the 1990s. Instead of perpetuating systems of punishment and poverty, states should prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration. This includes allowing incarcerated individuals to earn real money while in prison and providing them a financial foundation upon release. Or, better yet, setting the newly released up for success, as one state is working to do.  


Colorado is trying a groundbreaking experiment demonstrating the potential of providing more substantial "gate money" to parolees. With $3,000 in hand, individuals were able to secure housing, transportation, and other essentials, which led to a significant reduction in recidivism rates. Despite the proven success of such programs, Southern legislators have hindered such programs. 


Studies consistently show that formerly incarcerated individuals who secure jobs soon after release are less likely to re-offend. This highlights the importance of investing in job training and educational programs within correctional facilities, as well as providing support for job placement upon release. 

However, states like Georgia are painting a starkly different picture. 


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