Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's not yesterday any more

But getting people around my age, late boomers who grew up in the "fear years" of the 1970s, to rethink their assumptions about prisons, crime and criminal justice is hard; and it keeps us locked into mass incarceration. Consider SF Chron Columnist Chip Johnson's broadside at the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area's demonstration at San Quentin Prison last weekend (read Johnson's column here).

The demonstration this past Saturday called attention to the "cruel and unusual" conditions in California's prison system (documented by the US Supreme Court in Brown v Plata), and called for reforms including reconsidering our use of LWOP, the death penalty, three strikes and super max prisons (most of which would raise human rights claims problems in Europe).

According to Johnson, this is just the late 1960s remake with Occupy members reprising the sad fate of "radical chic". Johnson has a right and a duty to play the grey-head when necessary, but in dismissing the effort to bring prison reform into the center of political renewal today as hopelessly naieve and nostalgic, Johnson is seriously and revealingly misguided.

Apparently not immune to nostalgia himself, Johnson takes his view of prisons and prisoners from noted comedian Richard Pryor:

The comedian spent six weeks on location at Arizona State Penitentiary while making the 1980 film "Stir Crazy" and described getting to know some of the inmates.

"I talked to 'em and - thank God we got penitentiaries," Pryor quipped.

I'm with Richard on this one.

Putting aside the wisdom of taking criminological insights from a man perhaps best known for nearly burning himself to death smoking cocaine, the key data point here is 1980. In 1980 California was just coming off nearly three decades of escalating homicide rates fueled by the nearly complete shut down of the state's mental hospital system. In 1980 there were only around 50,000 prisoners in California prisons, compared to more than 160,000 today. In 1980, sentences for many violent crimes, set on the basis of parole practice in the 1960s and 1970s, remained relatively lenient. In 1970 a first degree murderer could realistically hope to be paroled in less than 10 years. Today burglars with past offenses serve more than that. In 1980, our prisons, designed to rehabilitate, remained relatively capable of delivering individualized care and control of inmates. Today after decades of hyper-overcrowding and mass incarceration the prisons have become a humanitarian disaster and a fiscal time bomb.

But it is not just prisons that have changed. In 1980 the best criminological work suggested policing could do little to reduce crime which remained stubbornly high after more than a decade of police led "war on crime." Research also suggested that little of the rehabilitative techniques promised in corrections could be proven successful at reducing recidivism so locking people up forever made a certain kind of sense to the most risk averse of citizens. Today, crime rates have dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, in many cases back to early 1960s levels, and according to the best research it is because of innovative policing rather than mass imprisonment (see Zimring's The City that Became Safe). Research also suggests that people age of crime by 40 and that most violent crimes are not repeated. That does not mean early paroles for serial killers as Johnson imagines. But it should mean prison and jail sentences proportionate to the harm and risk to the community of actual crimes, not the scatter-shot and "supersize me" approach that has dominated California's penal policies for the past generation.

In short, it's not yesterday anymore. The failure of many over 50 to get that is the biggest obstacle facing the state and nation today. In turning to prison reform Occupy is once again showing its ability to think beyond the confines of political thought still dominated by baby boomers.

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