Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prisons: Two Opposing Views

Strangely, the New York Times and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin both carried commentaries on 8/20/09 regarding our prison system and the wisdom of keeping so many people incarcerated. Compare and contrast -- have fun!

Nicholas D. Kristof, in the Times, suggests that we could probably afford better and more universal health care if we used our criminal justice money more wisely. He cites the example of Curtis Wilkerson, serving a life sentence in California for (hold your breath!) stealing a pair of socks worth $2.50. (Yes, it was his "third strike." I'm not claiming he's an angel. At the age of 19 he abetted robbery -- twice.) Kristof wonders whether we really need to spend $216,000 annually on keeping people like this in prison, comparing that sum to the $8,000 the State spends annually on each child in the Oakland public school system.

Citing a study indicating that 82% of those sentenced to state prisons were convicted of non-violent crimes, Kristof asks why the U.S. incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb, in introducing a bill to establish a commission to study the situation, says "There are only two possibilities here. Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." (I have another hypothesis: in our predominantly selfish society with a wide gap between wealthy and poor, the former will go to just about any lengths to protect what they have from the latter.)

Well, enough of rational thinking. Let's see what California State Senator Bob Dutton has to say about the situation. "Everyone knows that liberals have a soft spot for criminals," he (or his ghost writer) begins, apparently having been inspired by the very first post on this blog to make a bold attempt to emulate famous writers who encapsulate entire universes of knowledge into their initial sentence. He goes on to criticize "unelected liberal judges" for requiring the state to release 43,000 inmates in the next two years. (Even assuming that the "liberal" label actually provides legitimate information, I can't help wondering whether conservative judges aren't selected in exactly the same manner. A fine point, I know.)

Never mind that legally constituted federal courts, attempting to enforce the U.S. Constitution and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, have mandated after years of delay and inaction (during which time Dutton has been accepting public money as both a State Senator and a State Assembly member) that the time has finally come to stop the prison overcrowding that inevitably leads, as it did recently, to riots.

Dutton says that "California already has an abysmal 70 percent recidivism rate from rehabilitation programs." Not true. We might have a 70 percent recidivism rate from prisons, but just about everybody knows (not including the Senator, apparently) that very little money is spent in this state on rehabilitation. Dutton also says it would be a crime (so to speak) for a "rehabilitated" inmate (the quotes are his, implying that a "rehabilitated inmate" would be an oxymoron) to re-enter society and accept a job during this deep recession that might otherwise be taken by a "law-abiding constituent." With attitudes like this, no wonder recidivism is high!

Not embarrassed at using fear tactics, Dutton states that unless California's liberals come to their senses soon, someone could become the victim of another wanton killing. Parolee Charles Samuel, he says, has been arrested by police and is suspected of slashing the throat of a 17-year-old high school student. (Note that he doesn't say that Charles Samuel has been convicted of this crime, only that he's been arrested; another great American principle -- innocent until proven guilty -- bites the dust.) "Releasing hardened criminals to make prison more roomy and comfortable for the remaining criminals is both foolish and short-sighted...[T]he liberals' love affair with criminals now risks the safety of every Californian -- including themselves." Perhaps the conservatives' hate affair with social justice is just as much to blame.

Suppose, hypothetically, you had to be in the same room for a couple of hours with a politician who can't use the word "liberal" without combining it with character-assassination-style insults or a guy who stole a pair of socks worth $2.50. With whom would you feel safer?


  1. Your hypothesis stated immediately after Sen. Webb's quote doesn't make sense in the context of this piece or of the American criminal justice system more generally.

    Specifically, you stated that 82% of all persons are in prison for non-violent crimes. That means usually one thing: drugs. If you want to know why we have such high incarceration rates, it's because we criminalize severely drugs in ways most other countries don't. Ceasing to prohibit willing transactions between people would solve most of the problems cited here.

    Also do note that "innocent until proven guilty" is a principle only applying to legal sanction. I am perfectly allowed to believe someone is guilty regardless of whether they've been convicted of anything. I just don't have the power to send them to jail. The state must consider the accused innocent until proven guilty. The people can think and say what they want.

  2. Yes, the people can think and say what they want... but shouldn't the dissemination of accurate information... and the responsibility to seek it... be components of that freedom? Otherwise, we are "free" to justify atavistic beliefs such as White supremacy, the inferiority of women, and other misinformed notions that impede social evolution.

    Ron, can you please provide us with more information about the takeover of our prison system by private, corporate contractors? Most people don't know it, but the government is relinquishing the responsibility for prisoner rehabilitation to corporate operational models that have given us the pharmaceutical and health insurance juggernauts.

    When can I have lunch with that hapless third-striker?

  3. Dutton's rhetoric reminds me of George Bush & Willie Horton.