Numerous studies support the common-sense notion that treating offenders’ drug addictions and mental illnesses helps keep at least some of them from going back to jail. Get that junkie off heroin, and maybe he won’t steal your car stereo for fix money; get that mentally ill homeless person on proper medications, and maybe she can find a job instead of turning tricks in alleys. “It’s not the drug itself, it’s the stealing and robbing they do to get the drug,” says Abbie Zimmerman, a therapist at Transitions Clinic, a program based in San Francisco’s hard-bitten Hunter’s Point area that treats former prisoners (including Sanders, who is now an outreach worker there). “If I can keep them sober, I can keep them out of jail.”
But no one has been willing to pay for such treatment for hundreds of thousands of ex-cons. And they certainly can’t afford it themselves: According to a recent report by the Council of State Governments, the vast majority of released prisoners re-enter society with little money and no health insurance. But now many of those former prisoners are eligible for insurance, courtesy of the federal government.
Among many other reforms, the ACA is drastically expanding Medicaid, the federal insurance scheme for the poor. Previously, able-bodied childless adults were generally not covered by Medicaid, regardless of how impoverished they might have been. But starting this year, any American citizen under age 65 with a family income at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line—about $25,000 for a family of three—is eligible for Medicaid (at least in the two dozen states that have so far agreed to participate in this aspect of Obamacare). Meanwhile, citizens and legal immigrants earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line are now entitled to subsidies to help pay for private insurance. Taken together, those two provisions mean that tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of the inmates released every year are now eligible for health insurance, including coverage for mental health and substance abuse services.
Providing treatment to those former prisoners could yield enormous benefits for all of us. The average cost to incarcerate someone for a year is roughly $25,000. That means if only one percent of each year’s released inmates stay out of trouble, taxpayers will save nearly $200 million annually—and the pool of troubled ex-cons looking to steal your car stereo will be that much smaller. “Success in implementing the Affordable Care Act has the potential to decrease crime, recidivism, and criminal justice costs, while simultaneously improving the health and safety of communities,” sums up a recent report by the federal Department of Justice.
It all looks great on paper. But there are significant obstacles to making this work in the real world. One is the simple fact that many former prisoners aren’t even aware of their new entitlements. “I don’t really know what Obamacare is,” says Ernest Kirkwood, a Transitions client who spent 29 years in prison, when I tell him I’d like to talk to him about the new health care regime. “I never read the newspaper.”