Yesterday's Assembly decision, emptying much of the initiative to reform our broken system from its content and neutralizing any healthy effect it would have on prison population, is not only a disappointment; it is also a bitter reminder that, while cost-related arguments have the potential to bring issues to the forefront of public discourse, they can't always carry the day against the older genre of arguments, consisting of unsubstantiated moral panics and political hysteria.
It was a sobering experience to read this morning's paper, which, in addition to these disappointing news, included a report on the unveiling of a hideous crime: kidnapping, rape, and a nightmarish "compound" where the alleged perpetrator kept his victims. Beyond the immediate horror at these events, my concern is that such abnormal, outlier experiences are perceived, and raised, as the norm, feeding our fear and insecurity.
"Crime" is a generic name for a large universe of phenomena that are very easily distinguishable from each other. The Garridos of this world are very different from the vast majority of imprisoned Californians; for every Phillip Garrido there are tens of thousands of arrestees, inmates and parolees whose property and drug crimes are closely linked with the environmental and spatial dimensions of their lives. Yes, there is some free choice and rational calculation in all of this, and the best path out of prison life must include a certain component of assuming responsibility (a little about this in a following post this weekend); but these choices exist in a universe in which not everyone is offered the same set of alternatives. When the limited opportunities contribute to crime, we should be thinking about providing opportunity, in tandem with requiring responsibility. The key is to understand that the answer to crime needs to be more tailored to suit a particular situation or social reality. There is no "one-size-fits-all" answer to crime. And certainly, shaping our response to crime based on the demons we hear about, perceive, and sometimes create, will not generate anything we will be pleased with in the long run.
Who, and what, poses a risk to public safety? What are we afraid of? Those are two different questions. The former requires hard evidence and the willingness to accept the answers we might not have assumed. The latter, unfortunately, is what has been informing criminal justice policy since the Nixon Era. Our budget woes had the potential to shake us out of indifference and generate a real change. The crisis brought together lawmakers of both parties, police officers, reformers, academics, prison personnel, and Federal judges, all of whom realized that these difficult and trying times were an opportunity to generate real change and turn around the collision course that we have been navigating since the 1970s. I fear this opportunity has been, to a large extent, missed by yesterday's decision.