Wednesday, September 20, 2006

California, Castration, and Technocorrections

In my posts on the "California Challenge," I made clear that CA's corrections policy is in effect a Gordian Knot, an intractable ball of conflicting interests about which, if enlightenment were ever going to dawn, it would have done so by now. Such creatures are only untied by the sharp edge of a sword, such as wielded by Alexander the Great on the knot in question. The sword I proposed was a radical change in behavior but do-able within the framework of democratic government and with potential not just for reality but success. That doesn't mean, however, that mine is the only sword out there. There are two others, at least, and, as drastic as mine might seem they are worse.

One is simply the current course they're on, until the system collapses in whole or in part. System collapse is a powerful sword and disturbingly possible. Ask Rome. The other sword, though, is less obvious at the moment, but we're getting hints of it. And it's symbolized by the study now going on in VA that we've mentioned a couple of times recently--castration (surgical or chemical) of sex offenders as a voluntary (!?) alternative to civil commitment. It's part of a general trend on the horizon I've also referred to a couple of times, known as "technocorrections."

You don't have space and/or dollars to keep someone in an institution. You can't let them go without major controversy. What to do, what to do? Well, what if there were a drug . . . ? Or, what if there were an implanted chip . . . ? Best of all, what if there were a way to re-engineer an offender's genes . . . ? But, but . . . due process, Big Brother, uh . . . . No problem. It's all "voluntary." (At least for now.) You really going to pull money out of schools, highways, public health, other areas of criminal justice when, with one simple pill or electrode or gene snip, you can cut your correctional costs dramatically with at least as likely success at reducing recidivism and victimization as current prisons, especially CA's? Who's going to vote for a candidate who thinks that's logical? If we'll do it for sex offenders, why not everyone? Are sex offenders special? And frankly, if a guy can come off addiction to substances, to children, to the thrills of committing crimes, how could we argue?

Well, we argue because we know about other ancient concepts like "slippery slopes." Where does it end? Who all gets these "corrections"? Who decides and on what criteria? Is a government that is so bound up it can't solve the problem without resorting to these measures to be trusted to nevertheless make wise decisions about their use?

I wish I could say I'm one of the first to systematically think about these things, but I think history will award that honor to Tony Fabelo. Tony was executive director of the TX Criminal Justice Policy Council, which did some of the best work on program evaluation, statistical reporting, cost and bedspace projections in the nation until the current governor decided TX didn't need that stuff anymore. Tony wrote up an NIJ Research in Brief (May 2000, No. 5, NCJ 181411), which can also be found excerpted here, that coined the term "technocorrections." His goal was to alert us to the growing trends in the use of surveillance, pharmaceuticals, and genetic engineering that were even then moving corrections and sentencing policy more into areas that policymakers and sentencing commissions are ignoring in whole, if not in parts (such as castration in VA). A Cuban refugee, Tony has not always been impressed with government benevolence and wanted us to start systematic thinking before the trends, like most technology sold on their advantages well before their dangers are apparent, overtook our actions. As I said, he wrote in 2000. Seen much from commissions, legislatures, election campaigns on this lately? From academe? (Seriously, have you?)

The easiest (and worst) way for "technocorrections" to come about would be for a state to get so desperate to do something about its crushing correctional costs that it embraces it as the only available reed. Fortunately most of the technology is still only in formative stages, but for how long? What we need now, before the full potential beyond castration and methodone rises, is to have serious discussion by bodies with authority and legitimacy to establish principles and oversight procedures for technocorrectional mechanisms. I've pointed out before that other states are not as far from CA's knot as they might think, particularly if the economy heads seriously south. I'm on the NASC board and plan to propose it as a topic for our 2007 conference. I don't think that will be enough somehow.

So I encourage you to review Tony's work and give it time and thought. Maybe we can start a meaningful conversation here. We can't just sit. If we wait until the problems Tony outlines arise, it will be too late.

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