Monday, March 28, 2011

The New CCPOA? Victimhood, Citizenhood, and Political Gain

(image from Crime Victims United of California website)

Joshua Page's recent post on the California Progress Report about the CCPOA raises interesting and important questions about the extent to which the union that shaped so much of California's punitive landscape has morphed into a more realistic factor in policymaking. In recent years, the CCPOA has periodically spoken out against overcrowding (in our conference, too) and issued its fairly sensible blueprints for reform. "Despite these signs of a softened stance," writes Page, "the CCPOA’s actions question the extent of its transformation." He cites sad examples such as the CCPOA's objection to the now-forgotten Prop 5 and its support of Prop 9, the punitive proposal masquerading as a victim rights proposition, which voters in CA approved under the name Marsy's Law.

There are other important aspects in Page's post, but the one I found most intriguing has to do with the CCPOA's deliberately political use of victim rights.

In the early 1990s, the union effectively created Crime Victims United of California (CVUC), the most influential crime victims’ organization in California, if not the entire United States. (The union also helped establish another influential group, the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, but now works primarily with CVUC). The CCPOA committed extensive resources to the development of the CVUC, providing office space, lobbying staff, attorneys, and seed money. Harriet Salarno, president of CVUC, says forthrightly, “I could not do this without CCPOA, because we didn’t have the money to do it.” Beyond material resources, the CCPOA also taught CVUC how to play the political game.

The union developed CVUC for strategic purposes. This is not to say that CCPOA’s leaders do not genuinely care for and want to assist victims and their families; they do. But, CVUC helps the CCPOA achieve its goals from outside its ranks in three main ways. First, it validates the CCPOA’s public claims that prison officers are uniquely skilled professionals who work the “toughest beat in the state.” Second, it legitimates the CCPOA’s assertions that the union serves universal purposes (rather than its individual, pecuniary interests) by supporting crime victims and bolstering public safety. Just as families of schoolchildren promote teachers and the California Teachers Association, crime victims’ advocates endorse prison officers and the CCPOA. Third, CVUC helps the union achieve policy objectives, often providing a sympathetic face to campaigns that advance a “tough on crime” agenda.

In Governing Through Crime, Jonathan Simon writes about the transformation in our cultural conception of the quintessential citizen - from yeoman farmer to small business owner to victim. Our whole concept of public policy is constructed around our understanding of ourselves as potential victims. Our fetish of homeownership, the emergence of gated communities - all reflect our understanding of the home primarily as a fortress against crime (plenty of crime, of course, happens in upscale well-protected mansions, too; it's just not the crime you would expect.) The fact that a prison guard union finds it useful to create a pet organization of victim advocacy attests to the immense symbolic power of the victim in social discourse. CCPOA, a well-seasoned player in the California political game, understands the power of the victim all too well.

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