Medical Incarceration Monday: Supreme Court decision criminalizes mental illness.

The Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson decision handed down by the SCOTUS is a disability issue because ultimately, it criminalizes mental illness.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness explains: “Under the ruling, localities will be able to arrest, ticket, and fine people for sleeping outdoors on public property, even if leaders have failed to produce enough affordable housing or shelter for everyone in the community who needs it.”

Disability Rights CA (DRC) clarifies, “Justice Sotomayor’s dissent recognized, in a society where ‘those with a history of mental health conditions… are at greater risk of homelessness’ and where ‘[l]ess than 5% of housing in the United States is accessible for moderate mobility disabilities’, Grants Pass will harm people across disabilities, especially Black, Native American and LGBTQIA2S+ individuals, survivors of domestic violence, and veterans. Instead of correcting the failed policies that lead to houselessness, elected officials now have one more tool to support efforts to conserve and institutionalize unhoused persons.”

This Supreme Court decision comes as we’ve been watching so-called mental health courts (MHCs) establish themselves at an increasing rate, while homelessness rises across the country. California’s CARE courts are an example of how these programs are framed as supportive measures for people who need additional support from a more sensitive, nuanced system. While some individuals may benefit from this system, these courts also provide infrastructure to streamline the institutionalization of newly criminalized, disabled people affected by housing shortages and instability.

People who experience housing instability due to severe mental illness or intellectual/developmental disability are among the most vulnerable in our societies. Now, MHCs are in place nationwide to place these vulnerable people under conservatorship or guardianship and incarcerate them in mental health facilities, jails, prisons, or other restrictive residential settings.

Unfortunately, we know criminalization does not solve houselessness. It does, however, benefit privately owned prison labor force development. The SCOTUS decision simply smoothes the way to disappear people into the prison industrial complex, , denying their personhood. DRC states, “It traps people in cycles of poverty and institutionalization. It chills unhoused individuals from calling the police or engaging with outreach workers.” As the 13th Amendment of the Constitution allows slavery as a punishment for crime, we now live in a country that creates the conditions for houselessness, has a system of courts specifically devoted to dealing with the majority of houseless people who experience mental illness, and then legally enslaves those mentally ill, houseless people for their survival crimes.

Further Reading:
ASAN condemns ruling in Grants Pass v. Johnson

Building Life: Housing Justice and Abolition

Criminalization And Homelessness: The Intersecting Need For Abolition

N.Y.U. Journal of Legislation & Public Policy – Under One Roof: Building an Abolitionist Approach to Housing Justice