Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Weather Report: Strange weather or climate change?

The most important political storm in recent history (was it the storm or the meme?) "Super-Storm Sandy" helped not only President Obama but re-raise the question of whether unusual weather is a sign of profound climate change, in this case global average temperature rises caused by human carbon effects.  When it comes to our massive penal state, recent events have raised a similar question.  Are recent change in prison growth patterns, judicial decisions, and electoral results variation within the norm or evidence of a more profound change that could mark the end of our forty year experiment with mass incarceration?  I'm struck by an analogy that Philip Smith makes in his great contribution to the Sage Handbook of Punishment and Society (edited by Richard Sparks and myself, as a handbook its a wee pricey, but put it on your holiday wish list or appeal to your local library to order it).  In his chapter on cultural analysis of punishment, "Punishment and Meaning: The Cultural Sociological Approach", Smith suggests that many of the classical sociological theories of punishment: "do a great job of explaining the longterm penal climate" but are poor at making sense of local and short-term variation.  Foucault's account of disciplinary society, for example, makes great sense of the emergence of the cellular prison as a dominant mode of punishment, but can it help us understand California's Three-Strikes law, or declining public support for capital punishment in California.  Smith argues persuasively that we need the tools of cultural sociology to make sense of the short-term and local and to connect them to the broader more structural features of penality, but the question that we face at the moment is whether the local and possibly short-term penal events we are seeing represent a spurt of unusual weather within a stable penal climate, or are we witnessing climate change,  Our friends Ian Loader and Richard Sparks lend us a more specific climate metaphor in their 2010 book, Public Criminology? suggesting that the penal climate (globally?  or at least in the North?) has gotten decidedly hotter due to the politicization of crime policy.  Are these recent events in California signals of cooling in one of the hottest penal states in the world, or just a spate of moderation in a longterm trend toward extreme penal heat?

So what events do we have in mind?

  1. The drop in California's (and the US) prison population in both absolute and relative to population terms since 2010
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
As a student of punishment and society I've contributed to the view that California and the US generally has experienced a penal climate change beginning in the 1970s that have produced mass incarceration and the culture of fear that locks down others in gated communities and sterile office parks.  Like others (Loic Wacquant, David Garland, Nicola Lacey, Bernard Harcourt),  I have thought about this penal climate shift as broadly related to what may or may not be well labelled "neo-liberalism", the very clear shift in political-economy from state centered and protectionist toward market-centered and unregulated (each account provides a very different analysis of how these political-economic changes mediate penal policies).  Was the financial crisis of 2008 the beginning of the end of "neo-liberalism"? Is Obamacare really the beginning of a new phase of strong regulatory and welfare state development?  I'd love to think so personally, but I'm skeptical.

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.

Monday, November 5, 2012

2012: Hope and Change Election Too

I know, Obama's slogan this time is "Forward" and Mitt Romney is campaigning (false as ever) as the real change, but at least in California, this election is as much, or more, about hope and change as in 2008, when those words hung across the landscape of Berkeley like Christmas decorations on December 23.

Yes on Propositions 34 & 36
Forty years after California (and much of the nation) began its turn toward penal severity and mass incarceration, California voters have a chance to signal that the hot emotions of racialized crime fear has finally run its course.  It is true that both measures are modest in their reach.  Proposition 34 would repeal the death penalty, only to replace it with Life imprisonment Without Parole.  Since the vast majority of California's more than 700 death row inmates are likely to die in prison of old age under any plausible scenario, this would change little on the ground.  Nor does it count on people being necessarily less afraid of crime.  Indeed its primary populist appeal is to move the funds saved from lawyering death cases to funding police departments in investigating cold murder and rape cases.  Proposition 36 would allow prisoners serving life sentences under California's notoriously broad 3-Strikes law, to seek re-sentencing if their third strike was for a non-violent, non-serious crime (and assuming they were not already convicted of a murder or rape); a measure expected to reach only about 3500 of the more than 30,000 prisoners  serving enhanced terms under the 3-Strikes law.

Still, both measures represent a big change that should be embraced by all Californians, a change away from penal measures intended to signal severity as an end in itself, not just despite, but in-spite of the fact that they delivered little objective crime control.  The hope here is not just a hope that serious violent crime has gone away (even with the crime decline the violence in next door Oakland makes that difficult) but hope that new approaches, like innovative policing and restorative justice, can reduce crime and address the community scars of violent crime without incarceration.  Forty years ago the conventional wisdom in criminology was that neither prison rehabilitation programs or police patrol tactics could meaningfully reduce crime.  Today neither position is dominant.  Furthermore, despite their poll tested pragmatic moderateness, both propositions would signal major change 1.) because they both deal with violent crime which I have long called the "hard back of mass incarceration" in contrast to the "soft underbelly" of drug crime and parole violations; and 2.) they are voter propositions, a form of law making long sought to favor fear over reason.

Yes on Proposition 30
For nearly forty years the state of California has been disinvesting in education, both K through 12, and higher education, in order to reduce taxes.  At the start this must have been very tempting, since California taxes were relatively high and our education system was excellent.  Now our tax system is highly uneven and unreliable, but manifestly fails to meet the state's basic revenue needs, and our education system is diminished at every level.  Proposition 30 is again a modest turn toward hope and change.  In asking for voters to approve a tax increase (and not just bond measures for debt), Proposition 30 breaks with decades of lying to voters about the realities facing the state.  It asks not just for an income tax increase on high income earners, but a sales tax increase that will be paid by everyone.  In this mildly progressive but still broad base, Proposition 30 hints of California's New Deal period when the state made the great investments that turned it into the dominant state of the postwar period.  The hope here is modest.  The tax increase is temporary and the funds would stop the hemorrhaging of education not reinvest in it.

Re-elect President Obama
It is true that for readers of this blog, the President has not been a major change agent.  We did not expect him to lead on issues like "mass incarceration," and his promises to end our national disgrace at Guantanamo ran into a wall of Congressional fear.  His Justice Departments aggressive prosecution of whistle blowers like Bradley manning, and the quiet war on marijuana, while letting financial crooks sleep on their gains has been a mystery to many of his supporters.  Still, the President has kept his promise to never "govern through fear."   While he has steadily sought to address the priority threats of George Bush's fear regime, including ordering the military execution of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama has not generated a new list of monsters, struggling to let uprisings in the Arab world proceed without demonizing the new leaders.  Most importantly, in getting even a modest national health system and re-regulating the financial services industry, President Obama has begun to change the machinery of governance, moving us from the model of  punish and prosecute that was "governing through crime," to approaches that require cooperation, trust, and new positive benefits for citizens.