Jean JohnsonFollow


Criminology and Criminal Justice


Psychology; Nonviolence and Peace Studies


Doerner, Jill

Advisor Department

Sociology and Anthropology


Johnson, Heather

Advisor Department

Writing & Rhetoric




Homelessness; Criminal Justice; Racism; Developmental Disability; Alcoholism/Addiction; Poverty

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.


JEAN JOHNSON (Criminology & Criminal Justice)

Locked Up and Locked Out: True Stories of the Interlocking Cycle of

Homelessness and the Criminal Justice System

Sponsor: Jill Doerner (Criminology & Criminal Justice, Sociology & Anthropology), Heather Johnson (Writing & Rhetoric)

Key locks work when a key made with teeth is placed into a cylinder with a series of pins and tumblers. If you don’t insert the right key one or more of the pins will remain in the way, preventing the key from turning and the lock will remain closed. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, tens of thousands of homeless people are locked into a criminal justice system with a revolving door between the streets, shelters, and jails. Once in the system, the pins and tumblers of injustice will keep them locked into a cycle of poverty, discrimination, and abuse.

There are many reasons why people become homeless. Some become homeless by the choices they make or were intellectually unable to make, or perhaps by just not having a choice, exasperated by a dysfunctional circumstance into which they were born. But when communities choose to criminalize homelessness for minor offenses, for charges related to mental health decompensation, or when our courts impose exorbitant fines and fees on those with no means to pay, when detention facilities are unable to adequately discharge people into appropriate housing, supportive services, and opportunities for employment, we create an ever-evolving problem that keeps people locked in and locked out.

I hope to bring to light the profound impact the criminal justice system has on the lives of the homeless by sharing four true stories of individuals I came to know during thirty years of working with chronically homeless men and women in Rhode Island. Their stories are uniquely personal but not unique in general, for a vast majority of the homeless. They each intersect with the criminal justice system in a different way: racial prejudice, mental illness, addiction, developmental disability, abuse and generational poverty. I do not contend that they are guiltless. I contend only that the criminal justice system either declined to recognize their disability or disadvantage or would not overlook the strictest confines of the law. By engaging you with the struggles, the suffering, and the injustice encountered by the individuals in these stories, my hope is that you will recognize that the tumblers of justice for many homeless are locking them out.