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The Absolute Gall of Council Member Harris

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Jeff Harris recently published a disgusting op-ed in the Sacramento Bee in which he pretends to care about the homeless as a flimsy pretext for opposing an end to cash bail in the state of California. You can read the op-ed at this link (if you subscribe to the Bee).

The context of his op-ed comes from two directions. The first is the city of Sacramento’s “Comprehensive Siting Plan to Address Homelessness”, which was passed last month right around the time Harris published this piece. The second is that the California State Legislature was considering a bill which would have set bail to $0 for a number of offenses (the bill ultimately failed last week). This is a reform that advocates for social justice have been pushing for some time.

Cash bail is an absurd system which essentially allows the wealthy and privileged to avoid imprisonment and go about their normal lives, while the poor are trapped in jail, imprisoned without having been convicted of a crime, simply because they could not afford the cost of bail.

The push to end cash bail has been a contentious fight that very frequently is answered by uninformed fearmongering, and Harris’ op-ed is a classic example. In particular, because the bill being debated would only have set bail to $0 for less serious offenses, Harris focuses his attention on people selling “hardcore drugs” such as meth and heroin, rather than the traditional approach to scaring voters which focuses on violent crimes like murder.

Harris’ argument here, like most fearmongering, is incredibly ignorant - perhaps willfully so, though Harris might just be ignant.

Like all other similar reforms, the $0 bail proposal in the state legislature simply meant that, UNLESS someone was held without bail, they had to be set free without being charged a fee. The intent of the reform is to narrow the options to either a) keep someone in jail until trial because letting them go free is too risky, or b) let them free pending their trial.

This “risk-assessment” strategy is not without major flaws of its own, but Harris can’t get into them because to acknowledge the existence of risk assessment would entirely invalidate his own premise.

Far more egregious than his ignorance of the bill he is criticizing, however, is his gross use of the unhoused as a pawn in his argument. The crux of Harris’ op-ed is that getting rid of cash bail is a bad thing because it will release drug dealers back onto our streets, and this will harm the unhoused population. To be fair, this argument does have a grain of truth at the heart of it: the unhoused do often suffer from addiction, and the city absolutely has a responsibility to provide treatment and offer services to meet this need. And there are certainly some drug dealers who are predatory and exploit people who are suffering.

But it is difficult to believe Jeff Harris has genuine empathy and compassion for the unhoused community, or to read this as anything more than a deeply cynical attempt to play on people’s emotions in order to score points. Public comments made at the meeting for the Comprehensive Siting Plan to Address Homelessness made it very clear that the unhoused community was not significantly consulted in the crafting of the plan, and did not feel that their needs were being met with this plan. Among a number of concerns that were brought up (and largely ignored by the city council) was the lack of any permanent housing solutions in the so-called “comprehensive” plan, and in particular the fact that the majority of “new housing” is simply safe parking or safe ground for people to camp.

It’s true that drug dealers sometimes prey upon addicts and make their situation worse, or even use predatory methods to get people hooked in the first place, but you know what is an even bigger contributor to addiction? Housing instability. There is a deep pool of research - not new research, it’s been around for decades - showing that a) homelessness is frequently a cause of addiction rather than just a consequence of it, and b) that it is nearly impossible to recover from addiction while living on the streets.

In fact, Harris himself acknowledges this fact in his op-ed! “Rehabilitation becomes exponentially more difficult once a person is homeless and has severe addiction”, he says. “This is a problem because homeless individuals — given their challenging circumstances — are especially vulnerable to drug addiction,” he says. All true, Jeff, so why not do something about it? If Harris was truly concerned for the well-being of the unhoused, he would support the calls from many in the community to focus on permanent housing solutions instead of buying a $100 million dollar band-aid. Advocates and activists call for “Housing First” because it has been proven to work. Addiction - as well as a number of other serious issues such as mental health struggles that the unhoused face - is much easier to treat if a person has stable housing, and a city-sanctioned field of tents does not qualify.

Unfortunately, Harris seems to view addiction as a moral choice instead of a health crisis, so he says things like this: "Unfortunately, many of these individuals commit crimes to support their habits and fall into a difficult cycle to escape." “We are also developing “good neighbor” policies to demonstrate that these sites can be responsibly operated and not a magnet for crime or drug use.” “We cannot stand by while hardcore drugs continue to prey on vulnerable individuals and create more addicts.”

Particularly upsetting is his reference to “good neighbor” policies, as if unhoused people should need to gain the approval of the land-owning class in order to be granted access to services. Harris’ primary concern here, instead of treating addiction or housing the unhoused, seems to be some version of respectability politics - if we can just get these homeless folks to act right and be less distasteful, maybe the community will throw them a bone. It’s disgusting and offensive to the people suffering in the streets, and not only should Harris be ashamed for writing this op-ed, but the Sacramento Bee should be embarrassed to have ever published such trash.

Bonus food for thought

This is just one angle of criticism against Harris’ position here. Some other points to think about are:

  • The relationship between the unhoused and law enforcement/the criminal justice system is already fraught. A second piece of Mayor Steinberg’s plan - one which fortunately has not been approved by the council yet - is the criminalization of homelessness, making it illegal to refuse the meager assistance that the city is offering. The existence of cash bail already has a harmful impact on the unhoused, and this would be doubly true if Steinberg has his way.

  • The dynamics of drug dealing are not as black and white as Harris portrays them. The narrative of a single, evil dealer preying on an unsuspecting population is a common TV and movie narrative, but in reality dealers are often also users, and are sometimes also unhoused themselves. Many do it out of desperation, not out of malice or greed.

  • The last four decades have shown the War on Drugs to be perhaps the single greatest public policy failure that the United States has ever engaged in (unless of course the intent was simply to imprison millions of black folks, in which case it was quite evil but very successful). So why on earth, in the year 2021, is a Sacramento city council member still pushing War on Drugs tactics? Arresting dealers is pointless; there is money to be made so there will always be more dealers to replace them. You can’t solve addiction by getting rid of the supply of drugs, you have to instead reduce the demand for them, which requires treating addiction like the health crisis that it is.

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