So what events do we have in mind?
- The drop in California's (and the US) prison population in both absolute and relative to population terms since 2010
- The Supreme Court's stunningly strong (although nail bitingly close) decision in Brown v. Plata, requiring California to impose structural restraints on its prison population and implying that the human dignity retained by prisoners may present a broad protection against penal excess.
- The results of the November 2012 election in California which saw voters overwhelmingly adopt a moderation of California's notoriously excessive 3-Strikes law, narrowly defeat a death penalty repeal (which would have been a global first if it had passed), and perhaps most importantly, comfortably adopt a tax increase (albeit temporary and regressive in many respects).
Instead the relationship between "neo-liberalism" and the hot penal climate may be far looser than implied by some of the sociological accounts. Building "neo-liberalism" in the California and the US in the 1980s and 1990s may have gone facilitated and been facilitated by building and filling prisons but that does not mean the two must remain aligned. It is a sad fact of penal history (see my own chapter in the Handbook) that penal practices fail regularly and at times spectacularly. Rising political alignments often find it extremely helpful to be able criticize the penal status quo, but after forty years the penal status quo is now associated with that alignment, in such instances, the alignment stays and penal policies change, sometimes in profound ways (as in the transformations in penalty that marked the rise of working class voters at the beginning of the 20th century, see David Garland's Punishment and Welfare). Mass incarceration has failed, spectacularly in the form of overcrowding, humanitarian medical failure, and a mounting chronic illness crisis.
All of these, were in central display in the Supreme Court's Brown v. Plata decision. In my forthcoming book Mass Incarceration on Trial (sorry if you pre-ordered, its delayed due to my editing but coming out next Fall) I try to unpack what that decision teaches us about changes in the social meaning of incarceration, and about how we can further those changes to make sure short-term and local weather variation moves toward penal climate change, and cooling in particular.
If you are in the Bay Area I'll be trying to answer some of these questions tonight at Revolution Books, 2425 Channing Avenue, Berkeley, at 7 pm tonight. Dress for heavy weather and come on by and join the discussion.