Imagine if after years of packing ever greater numbers of offenders into prisons lacking in rehabilitation and rife with interpersonal violence, county courts, realizing that public safety could never improve this way, decided to keep an increasing portion of its offender population at home and outside of bars, while investing in innovative rehabilitative techniques. Seem impossible? it has up until now to me. In Governing through Crime I argued that mass imprisonment is a policy held in place not by crime (or even its repressed others, racisms, class exploitation, etc.) but by changes in the structure of our political institutions around the problem of violent crime that had made the physical transfer of threatening populations a central tendency of governing late modern America. Yet as detailed in a recent series by James Sterngold in the San Francisco Chronicle (read it now) the scenario I began with has actually occurred in California, the carceral behemoth itself, only not in its adult system. Instead, the youth prison system, aimed at juveniles who have committed serious or violent crimes, after steadily growing through the 1980s and early 1990s, went into a steep decline after reports of abuse emerged in the mid-1990s, and today fewer than 636 of the more than 200 thousand juveniles arrested in a typical year are sent to a prison.
How did this happen? This is a story waiting to be told, and of vital importance to those of us most anxious to dismantle both mass incarceration and the culture of fear and control that sustains it. Here are a few speculative hypotheses (i.e. guesses):
- Demons and Daemons: Youth are easy to demonize, they can morph quickly into super predators more frightening than a hardened repeat offender, but they can also morph back. As a subject of imagination, youth embody both our greatest fears and hopes (see generally popular culture of the last century or so)
- Responsible governance: This process of decarceration was not ordered by any court or the legislature. Rather, prodded by scandals involving abuse of youth inmates, county level officials seem to have made the decision to take on the burden of creating alternative strategies for addressing the crime risk posed by these youths (not inconsiderable risks at all) and to do so at home in the county of residence, and without recourse to locked doors. These are the same counties that are sending thousands of adult prisoners to an equally failed adult prison system. They key may be that different people in the counties are making these calls. In the adult system it is prosecutors, the elected officials who in some ways have the most stake in governing through crime.