Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"We can't control ourselves"

The New York Times gives California's prison crisis and parole reforms front page billing today in an excellent article by Randal Archibold. The litany of problems will be familiar to readers of these posts. Our massively overcrowded prisons are being slowly reduced only under great pressure from federal courts. The main solution is to reduce the capacity of the state to return paroled prisoners for relatively minor crimes by eliminating parole supervision altogether for many and creating more alternatives to reimprisonment for others. Of course problems have arisen with early implementation, and some backlash is brewing. But the key line in what is mostly an up-beat story is that of State Senator Mark Leno (Dem San Francisco) who sums up the problem in one sentence, "we can't control ourselves."

Note the paradox that we are talking about a system of social control, or corrections as we like to call it, whose fundamental purpose is to promote law and order, but which is fundamentally out of control. But it is not the administration of the prison Leno is talking about.

But even with the progress in recent months, State Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco who helped push through changes in the prison system, suggested that further reductions would be a hard sell. Mr. Leno called the changes under way “a noble effort” and the best that could be achieved in the current political climate.

Many lawmakers, he said, still want to lengthen sentences and spend more on incarceration, both politically popular notions.

This is why I cannot yet agree with my friend Stanford Law professor and criminologist Joan Petersilia, who has done more than anyone to create the criminological conditions for rationality in California penal policy, and who is quoted in the article as suggesting California has been through a "seismic shift." The shift is not yet near seismic enough. Or perhaps, we can agree that the system has experienced at 6.4 on that continuous seismic scale, but not the kind of 8.0 that would allow us to truly rebuild from the rubble of our current system which is flawed right down to its molecules. The major problem, as Mark Leno underscores, is not penological but political. So long as parole reform remains the limits of this (I think ironically characterized by Leno) "noble effort", we remain inside a prison crisis whose vicissitudes I may well be charting into my retirement, or furlough-hood (if the state budget caves sooner).

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