Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Stealth Democracy and Ineffective CJ Policy

Two interesting juxtaposed stories today. One found that countries with the least happy and confident math students did best on common math tests whereas those with the happiest and most confident did worse (guess where the US was). In other words, don’t worry about how people “feel” if you want best performance; if you want mediocrity, then go ahead and fret about how you connect with them. The other talked about how the Federation of American Scientists has decided that, to get science across to American students, they are going to figure out how to do it through video games. Don’t challenge them; speak to their personal interests instead. Think the science guys will produce anything different from our math guys?

What does this have to do with corrections sentencing? I’ll get there. First, let’s go back to the recent BJS/JRSA conference last week.

The new head of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jeffrey Sedgwick, spoke at the conference, and, for the first time in the many years I've attended these, I enjoyed a BJS director's speech. Personable, knowledgeable (an academic), and a policy geek, he was very impressive after those who were less so. Plus, he didn't blow on and on. In fact, he got finished too quickly, and JRSA staff had to scramble to fill the Q&A time. (At one point, I thought they were going to ask him his pick for the Super Bowl.)

That's not to say I liked what he said. For a couple of reasons. More practically, he spelled out the Office of Justice Programs' priorities for the coming year. Internet child porn. Terrorism and homeland security. Identity theft. Weapons violence. Human trafficking. Notice anything here? Anything of immediate relevance to most of what we do in corrections sentencing? At a time when we desperately need good info, data, and leadership on sentencing, recidivism, reentry, and comparisons of prison to alternative sanctions, we get a list straight from prime-time tv. Not his fault. Not even likely his priorities. But it shows you where the feds' heads are.

"CSI-Law & Order."

Which actually was the second reason I didn't like what he said. The guy comes from the old school of analysis--thorough data, clear exposition, complex thought about complex topics. Yet he admitted that he's an old fogey in today's modern times. People don't learn or think the way they used to in a "literate" world so they don't get or pay attention to old ways of presenting evidence and options. The answer to this? We in corrections sentencing and the rest of crim just analysis have to get better at reaching out and making ourselves clear to these "happy" and "confident" souls. The people who get their cj knowledge from "CSI-L&O" and "Grand Theft Auto."

Shouldn't we just toll the bells for our nation's future right now?

Now, in fairness, these are not his words. His words were that we should "enable our users" to better grasp and apply our work. There is a disconnect between people who know the data, research, foundations of a policy area and the public. So, rather than have expectations for the public and policymakers as citizens and officials to be better aware, informed, and capable of rational action, we have to adjust what we say to them to their current levels of involvement and knowledge (that is, "Dancing with the Stars" and "Deal or No Deal"). Rather than challenge citizens and their elected reps to be the best they can be, we need to engage them in their current media, like video games. Sound like the first paragraph? See where it goes?

It’s hard really to argue with Dr. Sedgwick. In practical terms, he's probably right. The sweep of history is certainly not moving in the direction of reasoned discourse. There's probably no hope right now of our current citizenry living up to the requirements of citizenship as envisioned by the people who put this republic together. But that's a problem that I don't believe any amount of "enabling" will allow us to overcome.

Too cynical, you say? What a defeatist. What's the evidence for such a dour conclusion?

It's called Stealth Democracy, written a few years back by two poli sci types. It basically found through extensive surveys that the American experiment in self-government has failed. Their findings were, simply, that Americans did not want to be bothered with involvement in the government policy affecting their lives except when they decided they did. And then they expected the resulting government to just give them exactly what they wanted when they wanted it. IOW, the result was a stealth democracy, one operating under the radar, and effective control.

This potentially is a very dangerous situation, full of portents for deceptive, manipulative public officials. But what if, like Dr. Sedgwick, you take the "public" part of "public servant" seriously? Then you devote yourself to capturing citizen attention however you can, even when those citizens are resolutely determined to ignore you and to leave their capacities for understanding and action undeveloped next to the remote or game control. Is it then worth your time to focus on pressing problems, like prison populations and re-increasing crime, that need attention when you're dealing with folks who turn off anything that costs, takes work, and sounds hard? Or do you go for the prurient--child porn, human trafficking, ID theft--that, while important, do not affect as many or as much as that exponential rate of inmates will? Do you give folks what they need, whether they want it or not, or do you try to entice them with the same logic that got us "The Bachelor" and "Laguna Beach"? Do you deal with our problems directly, or do you follow the same process that replaced Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor with Barbara Walters and Nancy Grace?

This isn't elitism. I'm white trash to the bone, with the bio and family to prove it. It's reality. It affects every aspect of American life today. Groupmind and whatever the market will bear v. standards and realistic appraisals of the oncoming future. Listening to people who study and know what they're talking about v. the lowest common denominator (LCD) to get the most votes and support. The first gives you a chance. The second is CA's Gordian Knot, all symbolism, no substance. Pretend policy.

I just don't see how we make things better by following the "dumbing down" philosophy that's brought us where we are today. Dr. Sedgwick is truly a smarter and more accomplished person than I am, and, if he can make it work, he'll get my vote for anything (unless it has to do with Salma Hayek). But the Stealth Democracy guys didn't really leave anyone optimistic about the future of our government system, a system running on LCDs instead of the citizens we were supposed to be. "Enabling" them would truly be a feat. I just can't help feeling it will look like "Grand Theft Auto."

I do think we can do better, though, enabling aside. In a couple of days, I’ll explain why. Tomorrow, though, I’ll talk a little more about the problem itself. And Friday I’ll tell you what I think is our best option, better than just hope that we can touch people who don’t care or want us to touch them. On that kind of icky thought, let’s end for now.

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