Is Expanding Medicaid an Essential Part of Reducing Mass Incarceration? An Interview with Harold Pollack

March 11, 2015

Every policy lever available was pulled in order to create our system of mass incarceration over the past 40 years. Reformers will have to be equally clever and nimble in trying to challenge and dismantle this system. And one important lever that I hadn’t thought much about in this context is the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA, or Obamacare) expansion of Medicaid. This expansion is being blocked in 22 states, which is preventing 5.1 million Americans from getting health-care.


This came up in an excellent interview between Connor Kilpatrick and the political scientist and incarceration scholar Marie Gottschalk over at Jacobin. Commenting on the limits of the current wave of bipartisan support against incarceration, Gottschalk notes that “If you care about reentry and about keeping people out of prison in the first place, there’s no public policy that you should support more strongly now than Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion gives states huge infusions of federal money to expand mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and medical care for many of the people who are most likely to end up in prison. It also allows states and localities to shift a significant portion of their correctional health care costs to the federal tab.” Similar concerns were raised by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig at The New Republic.

I immediately got Gottschalk’s new book Caught, the subject of the Jacobin interview, and though I just started the book I highly recommended it as a guide to where the prison state stands in 2015. But I wanted to know more about the relationship between Medicaid and deincarceration.

So I reached out to friend-of-the-blog Harold Pollack. Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He is also Co-Director of The University of Chicago Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He has published widely at the interface between poverty policy and public health, and he also writes for a wide variety of online and print publications. He is also a thoughtful scholar on health care and crime policy and how they interact in communities.

Mike Konczal: How important is the Medicaid expansion for deincarceration?

Harold Pollack: I’m convinced that Medicaid expansion is essential for this problem. It’s essential for two different purposes. First, individuals in this population need health services, and there needs to be a clear way that individuals can get access to services from qualified providers. The Medicaid expansion does that.

Secondly, the entire ecosystem of care requires proper financing. And for historical reasons, mental health and substance abuse services have been put into their own silos. They are not properly financed, except through a patchwork of safety net funding streams that don’t particularly work well. They have also been poorly-integrated with standard medical care.

Konczal: Let’s talk about individuals first. In what ways could Medicaid benefit people who are or are likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system?

Pollack: Think about who is not eligible for Medicaid before health reform. A low-income male who is not a veteran or a custodial parent, or who doesn’t qualify for Ryan-White HIV/AIDS benefits. They may have a serious substance abuse problem, but that wouldn’t qualify them for federal disability benefits. They, with the expansion, can get access to Medicaid simply because they are poor.

The criminal justice population is quite varied, but there are a couple of key areas in which Medicaid expansion would be especially beneficial for them. With the expansion, Medicaid can now cover basic outpatient substance abuse treatment. This is true for both Medicaid and private insurance after health reform. And ACA provides these services in a way that is much more integrated with people’s regular medical care.

One basic challenge with drug and alcohol treatment is that these services are in a separate system that people don’t want to use, and don’t use. With the Medicaid expansion, you can go to a neighborhood clinic and they can help you get Methadone or Suboxone. They can also get you the psychiatric care you need within the same umbrella of your regular care. So it is much more likely that people will use it.

There’s very good evidence that alcohol and illicit drug treatment reduces criminal offending. [Editor note: Both this study and this study, obtained via follow-up email, show treatment reduces violent and property crime enough to far pass a cost-benefit test.] Both It partly reduces criminal offending by reducing the need to commit property crimes to get the substances. It also reduces offending by allowing people to be more functional, and thus more likely to stay employed. Especially in the case of alcohol, people getting their substance abuse under control makes it less likely that they’ll be intoxicated, and thus less likely to commit crimes or be victims of crime.

Konczal: What about those with mental illness?

Pollack: When it comes to those with serious mental illness, we end up using local jails to try and manage them. It’s important that they can get access to help and mental health treatment outside of the criminal justice itself. It’s ironic that when someone with psychiatric disorders is inside the jail, they do have access to some of these services. But those services are often unavailable or totally disconnected when they leave the jail.

We don’t really know whether, or by how much, these services can be expected to reduce offending among this group. This remains a hypothesis that depends on how well we actually implement programs. Much will depend on how effectively we can implement Medicaid expansion.

Konczal: How does this element of Medicaid deal with the traditional criticisms of the program?

Pollack: Medicaid has many shortcomings. It doesn’t pay a market rate for important services. But for all of its faults, Medicaid recipients are grateful to have it. The satisfaction they have is quite high compared to traditional health insurance. Medicaid gives people access to the basic health care that they need to stay healthy and improve their lives. It is also genuinely designed for people who have no money, which is really important for these indigent populations. Medicaid is inferior to private insurance in terms of reimbursement to providers, but it’s better for really poor people than any private insurance I’ve seen, because it’s been road tested for a long time in meeting the needs of indigent people.

And as I mentioned, ACA is especially important, because the ACA includes very specific components in the area of mental health and substance use.

Konczal: One thing I’ve noticed is that for all the talk about ending mandatory minimums, most of the real energy is about giving judges flexibility to ignore mandatory minimums. But that put a lot of pressure on keeping recidivism down, because judges, especially elected ones, won’t ignore long records.

Pollack: Deincarceration requires the puzzle pieces to fit together to be sustainable and politically tenable. That requires that we deal with the real-life problems people face when they are released. It requires monitoring and people have access to services, both to improve their quality of life and to reduce the probabilities that they will reoffend.

If we just release people without support services, my fear is that it will not go well. Then it will ultimately generate political backlash. I’m very heartened that we are reducing the mandatory minimums, in particular for older offenders who tend to be less violent. It’s essential that we address the excessive sentencing. But we also have to do what we need to do to make this effective.

Even if judges can reduce sentencing, they are ultimately dependent on the available resources to help and monitor the people that come before them. And if judges don’t see those services, then they aren’t going to use their discretion to release many of these people as early as they might.

And if property crimes are being committed by people under criminal justice supervision, and they have a history of violent offending, then they are much more likely to be sent back with a pretty serious sanctions.

Konczal: Tell me more about the second issue, how the ACA rationalizes the funding stream for these services.

Pollack: We’ve had a messy system in the past, and we’ll ultimately rationalize it under Medicaid. Safety net providers for substance abuse and mental illness have always been paid for by a patchwork of public funding through obscure agencies and local governments. It has always been a huge challenge where access has been inadequate, with long waiting lines, and the services provided were often quite forbidding. Given this separate funding, it’s very difficult to integrate this in with people’s overall health care. When you have these silos of places to go, with one for mental health, another silo for substance abuse, and another for safety net health care, that person isn’t going to get the integrated care they really need. The ACA is trying to bring those things together.

Many of these issues will still be in play going forward, but it will be in the context of a coherent system that at-least addresses these issues within the context of broader health care.