Is California Reducing Prison Overcrowding Without Fixing Its Cause?

birdcageSince October 1st, many of us have been wondering how the Public Safety Realignment Act will impact local communities. What will happen with a sudden influx of newly released prisoners?

For those unfamiliar with Realignment, it is the set of solutions California will use to reduce the number of inmates in the state’s 33 prisons.

This issue was the topic of an ACLU Chapter forum and, no doubt, other discussions — particularly in the Southland as state prison inmates return to Los Angeles County at a higher rate than other California counties.

As the chair of the Communications Committee of the ACLU Pasadena-Foothills Chapter, I was one of the moderators the forum along with my husband, Dick Price.

As I prepared to moderate and re-familiarize myself with this issue, I came across several videos and articles that led to feelings of agitation – so much so that I decided to write about my observations with the hope that my writing will prompt a healthy discussion in this article’s comments section and maybe lead some of you to post this on Facebook.

Let me begin by giving a little background.

In March 2011, a group of organizations that included the LA Progressive sponsored a talk by award-winning author Michelle Alexander. Considering her book’s popularity and her impressive credentials, which include a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, a Juris Doctor from Stanford, and a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Michelle Alexander was a great “get” for us and our audience.

Unsurprisingly, the event’s organizers were thrilled: Alexander delivered a flawless, compelling, and passionate presentation to an overflow crowd at Pasadena’s main library. Dozens of questions were asked, the book signing line snaked clear across the lobby, and lots of Alexander’s books sold.

The gathering was a coup on all fronts but one – the 200 plus audience was almost exclusively African-American, with just a smattering of Latinos and so few whites you could count them on both hands. To me, this was a major disappointment. As my husband whispered to me midway through, “She’s preaching to the choir.”

Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, lays out the case that our sentencing policies disproportionately and unjustly result in the over-incarceration of a particular demographic, poor Black and Brown men. In her view, we are creating a population of felons who would not have been deemed felons had we not created the war on drugs, established new laws, and then instituted a practice of selective enforcement. A writer for the Chicago Reader summed this up nicely: “People all over Chicago smoke pot—but almost everyone busted for it is black.” This practice has translated into an unprecedented explosion of the prison population, with California leading the way.

Filled beyond capacity for more than 15 years, our state correctional facilities are so grossly overcrowded that the Supreme Court called the conditions cruel and unusual punishment. Declaring that California was causing “needless suffering and death,” the high court then did something truly unprecedented by ordering California to conduct massive inmate releases. When you consider that this decision was handed down by the John Robert’s court – one of the most conservative in recent memory — you understand how serious the problem had become yet it continues to be treated with callous disregard by mainstream media.

In a surprising departure from the norm, on January 12, 2012 New Yorker Magazine ran a piece entitled, The Caging of America: Why Do We Lock Up So Many People. In it, writer Adam Gopnik states, “Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S. – more than were in Stalin’s gulags.” He goes on to say that, “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.”

In a relatively short period of time, our nation has incarcerated enough people to create the second largest city in the United States. According to Alexander, the prison population has quintupled in less than 30 years. Yet this phenomenon doesn’t warrant sufficient interest to get more than a dozen white people to attend a Michelle Alexander talk.

However, when the discussion turns to the release of many of these inmates — most of them certainly Black and Brown men — the audience’s complexion likely gets decidedly whiter.

On October 1, 2011, California took the first of several incremental steps to carry out the U.S. Supreme Court order by releasing the first group of the three types of offenders that will be released

  • non-violent offenders;
  • non-sex offenders; and
  • non-serious offenders

In a League of Women Voters forum, Brian Biery of the Flintridge Center — one of the organizers who also sponsored the Michelle Alexander talk — faced a shockingly large, mostly white, crowd. Unprepared for the turnout, Biery didn’t have enough handouts to go around.  In what may be another sign of overwhelming public interest in this topic,  the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation produced  a series of publications focusing on the realignment and made them available to the public.

Many years ago, I had a friend who idealized the so-called “Founding Fathers” — you know, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the boys — almost to the point of worship. When I pointed out that many of them were slaveowners and that their refusal to end slavery at the founding of this nation led to continued suffering and the death of untold millions, he maintained that we can’t judge them using contemporary norms.

I argued that what we saw in them is what we see today — something that Martin Luther King Jr. called callous indifference to the suffering of people we view as “others.”

sharon kyle

A century and half from now, I wonder if people will look at what Adam Gopnik likens to modern-day slavery — our prison-industrial complex — and shake their heads in wonder at the callous indifference demonstrated by most people today particularly in California where we spend more on prisons than on higher education.

But more than anything I hope the Realignment forums lead to meaningful discussions and raise question about the  policies that have led to United States being dubbed “Incarceration Nation”.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

 

aclu newly released prisoners

Published by the LA Progressive on March 12, 2012
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the BlackCommentator.com. Photo courtesy Wadeva Images. www.wadevaimages.com