Friday, January 19, 2007

Nice To Be Listened To

A couple of really good articles on the latest in developments of corrections sentencing reform in CA, the very real threat of court order and prison pop caps (along with unbelievable expenses already incurred by the state just in anticipation) and the recognitions by Dem legislators there that the traditional kind of sentencing commission will likely be worse than a waste of time. The latter even say what I proposed here a long time ago, that CA's new commission have the power to do regulating barring an explicit overturning by the legislature. Of course it has drawn the mindless, knee-jerk, malinformed opposition of some legislators already:

Republican lawmakers are particularly leery, suggesting that sentencing reform is merely a covert attempt to shorten criminal sentences. Assembly Republican leader Michael Villines of Clovis is among the wary, saying that the problem with the prisons is not the sentencing system but a lack of beds.

"We will stand firm in defending the integrity of our state's public safety laws," Villines said, "and will resist any effort to return California to the failed soft-on-crime policies of the past."

Overall, the articles are great, but here's the question that doesn't seem to get asked here, which should have been the immediate response to the sound bite of the legislator above. Where is evidence that prison is the best option? Seriously, where is it? What shows that the states which imprison at the levels of the CO's, the TX's, my own OK actually have lower crime rates than the states that don't? If they don't, then why is the option that costs us the most get such devotion?

Why doesn't this get asked?

CA recid rates demonstrate failure at rate that would not be tolerated in any business in America. Why is such failure not only tolerated but insisted upon, especially by a political party that always emphasizes "running government like a business"? Why is there such opposition to alternatives that have demonstrated both better public safety and lower costs? Why insist that those alternatives are “soft on crime” when the CA prisons are the state’s most successful program at perpetuating crime?

We know the answer: expressive justice, the willingness to pay for expressions of outrage. Then maybe the answer is to have the CA opponents actually have to pay for their outrage instead of charging it to us. There are several systems that could force some or all of the costs of their outrage back on them--what MN does with its juvy system, quotas on how many offenders counties can send, giving vouchers to counties and letting them use any savings in their own general budgets. Make the opponents and their constituents actually have to pay for it instead of some unseen folks in Sacramento. They want to send people to demonstrably failing prisons? Fine, it’s a democracy. Just stop slipping the bill off to people who might want to put that money on demonstrably effective public safety in all its aspects, not just those that give the "soft on crime" sophists goosebumps.

I think the long-term thing that’s most disturbing about the knee-jerk negative reaction to the thought of not using failing prisons as much isn’t even the way it diverts resources from crime and victimization prevention that do work. It’s that it’s the clearest possible sign that we as a society have just given up, that we see no possibility of doing better, of being better. I’m more often accused of cynicism (which I call realism) than I am of idealism, but there is nothing more cynical than a policy that says prisons are the only way to deal with crime and illegality.

It’s not that that’s just demonstrably wrong, it’s that that sums up everything we’ve become as a society in the last few decades. Excessive imprisonment and its ideological advocates are just symptoms of this sickness we’ve been suffering, the true cynicism and irony that have infected everything we do, not just corrections and sentencing. I’ve mentioned that the Governator out there has apparently figured out that, even if he can’t be Pres, he can carve himself a place in world history from the position he has on a variety of topics. Well, if Governor Terminator can terminate this cynicism and the self-defeating and –defeated view we have taken to making this place as good as humans are capable, if he can cultivate “the wisdom to know the difference” and motivate CA to show the way on one of the chief carcinogenics in our system, corrections sentencing, then that place in history could really be his.

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