Friday, January 19, 2007

It's Really Working, Isn't It?

The Governor's holiday gift to Californians was a proposal for an $11 billion expansion program of one sorry part of the state's overburdened infrastructure. Only problem was, it was for prisons. The prisons are in terrible shape - operating at double capacity, meaning the conditions for the prisons have been judged by federal courts to be illegal and they have warned the state they will be taken over if the state doesn't fix them. California also has the highest recidivism rate in the United States - and it's not a strong standard to start with. Schwarzenegger's proposal was for 73,000 new beds, or in other words to add 50% more prison beds to the number built between 1984 and 2004, which was the greatest prison building boom in world history. That didn't work, so let's do it again!

Crime is plastered all over the newspapers every day now, particularly in L.A., which is going through one of its regular gang crime booms (up 14% over 2005 citywide, up 25% in South L.A., and up 42% in the San Fernando Valley). Here's a sample of headlines just from the last 2 days. Enjoy the incoherence:
  • "Governor blames public indifference for prison ills" (Jan 18)
  • "DEA raids marijuana outlets" (Jan 18)
  • "L.A. urged to alter gang tactics" (Jan 18)
  • "Hate-crime case witnesses called heroes" (Jan 18)
  • "FBI joins L.A.policing effort in war on street gang crime"
  • "Anti-gang battle needs more than just cops"
  • "Democrats offer plan to overhaul sentencing"
These articles lay out the following picture. We spend a fortune on prisons and justice but we're supposed to spend more. Because we don't spend more, violent offenders get out on early release. But that doesn't really matter, because keeping them in makes them worse. It'll save money to shorten sentences so we'll do that. That contradicts our faith in prisons we'll spend billions more on them. As the gang problem gets press, politicians call for more cops. But more cops won''t solve the gang problem, which starts with a lack of jobs. But we can't create more jobs, because we have to build more prisons.

This machine doesn't help neighborhoods or young men. It's excellent, however, for juicing politicians.

The "more than cops" piece was written by the LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. Near the end of it, he says the true thing that the official crime talk of California politicians always avoids.
Although some gang members are sociopaths who need to be locked away for good, many are products of economic, educational, cultural and social forces that have destroyed families and communities. They grow up with absent dads and addicted moms in places where the manufacturing jobs of yesteryear gave way to a service economy that doesn't buy you a house and barely pays the rent.
"If you don't have a job for them, it's over," [Connie] Rice said about what happens if you're lucky enough to talk a kid out of a gang. "[Father] Greg Boyle is right. The only factor that has ever substantially reduced crime by gangs is jobs."
So jobs are the one thing politicians won't talk about. The "New Economy" and poverty go together, and together they produce gang crime. Sure it's "not that simple" - but it's 80% that simple. Problem is, admitting this would make folks like Schwarzenegger have to rethink their economic ideologies, in which zero government steering of the economy makes us all rich and free.

It's easier and cheaper for Arnold to get up there on autopilot and say we don't care about prisons enough to spend another $11 billion. That's not true. We the people just don't have the money Even if we did, we wouldn't waste it on more prisons that won't fix the economy but will destroy more lives.