Friday, July 6, 2007

The Soft End

A particularly ugly corner of California's on-going correctional health care scandal emerged in the New York Times this morning in a story by Solomon Moore that leads the National Report (read it). In one example, a pregnant prisoner was ignored when she reported to the staff that her fetus had stopped moving. The pregnancy ended in still-birth. The blinding head aches and nausea of a five year old were ignored for six weeks before a hospital visit was permitted and produced a diagnosis of brain cancer. These horror stories involving kids are emerging from a privately managed alternative custody center in San Diego where some mothers of young children are permitted to serve their prison sentences as an alternative to the state's traditional prisons. The women, mostly convicted of drug crimes, live with their young children.

The goal of placing women prisoners with children in custody facilities close to the urban communities where most of them come from has been at the forefront of Governor Schwarzenegger's plans for reforming the state's troubled prison system, and would be supported by many criminologists. But as the troubles reported in San Diego suggest, even the soft end of our harsh penal system comes with systematic cruelty and exposure to terrible risks that we normally do not expect from American government, least of all toward very young children.

It is tempting to try to roll back mass imprisonment by supporting alternative custody strategies and other ways of protecting people from the the worst consequences of incarceration. But as these glimpses from what is the "soft end" of our penal apparatus remind us, the consequences of being governed through crime remain alarmingly severe even for those lucky enough to qualify for an "alternative." Even diversion to new problem-solving courts for drug or mental health treatment, clearly the best news out of the criminal justice system in recent years, leaves people vulnerable to failure and reinstatement of criminal charges and eventual incarceration.

The only solution is to protect people on the front end from being defined as criminals for purposes of being governed at all. That means legalizing drugs and rolling back much of the apparatus of preventive criminalization accumulated over the course of the 20th century. To do so we will have to convince Americans that there are other ways to govern real problems like addiction and mental illness.

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