Volume 59
Issue 4
Fall '22

Our Fragmented Approach to Public Safety

Written By: Maria Ponomarenko

Abstract

This Essay explores the ways in which the division of funding and responsibility for various social services across local, state, and federal governments disincentivizes sound approaches to societal problems—particularly when it comes to addressing the needs of the unhoused. Whereas local governments primarily are responsible for funding and directing the police, most other services, including housing, healthcare, and substance abuse treatment, are funded and overseen by other government units. This Essay demonstrates how this fragmentation of authority has contributed to society’s overreliance on policing and criminal punishment in addressing the problem of homelessness. First, because fiscal responsibility for various government services is distributed across the various levels of government, no one government unit may have the financial incentive to depart from the more punitive status quo. Second, fragmentation creates a familiar sort of collective action problem: Unless all of the municipalities in a particular region step up to do their part, the few who do may find themselves carrying the burden for the region as a whole. Finally, even if all of the actors at various lev-els of government were equally invested in pursuing a more humane and cost- effective approach, fragmentation makes it more difficult to mount a coordinated response to problems that invariably spill over across jurisdictions and policy domains. This Essay concludes by pointing out that fragmentation may, if any-thing, be of still greater concern when it comes to the broader project of reimagining public safety and redefining the role of the police.

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