Wednesday, December 1, 2010

People are going to die

I have been arguing for some time that mass incarceration rests almost completely on an exaggerated fear of the risks of homicide that America in general, and California in particular, embraced after the bloody 1970s, and which remains seared into our political consciousness more than thirty years later, despite substantial drops in homicides and violent crime since the early 1990s. You can talk about the war on drugs, tough sentences for burglars, and over imprisonment of technical parole violators; but they all come down to a fear of citizens being murdered by someone that state could have stopped first.

This logic was on display in today's Supreme Court Oral arguments over California's appeal from the important 3-Judge panel decision ordering population reduction in order to remedy long standing medical and mental health conditions in California prisons. As commentator Hadar Aviram points out in her analysis, almost all of the Justices (save Scalia and Thomas) seemed to appreciate the extent of California's mismanagement. Where there seemed to be the most concern was that the population reduction might lead to more crime in California. The Justice seemed particularly horrified by California's 70 percent recidivism rate for parolees (failing to comprehend that most of this is for technical violations that are a symptom rather than a cause of exaggerated fear). But its not just crime in general, that people (and Justices) fear. It is murder.

Sensing this, Carter G. Philips, the learned advocate for the State of California, closed his final rebuttal with a simple but well calculated statement. As quoted in Adam Liptak's article in the NYtimes

“Anytime you say you are going to release 30,000 inmates in a compressed period of time,” he said, “I guarantee you that there is going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California.”

Of course Californians are already dying of the state's prison management. According to earlier fact finding by the Judge Thelton Henderson in the medical part of the case (Plata v. Schwarzenegger), a prisoner a week dies of routine medical problems that a constitutionally adequate prison health system could prevent. But those kinds of deaths do not count in twisted logic of governing through crime.

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