A few recent events have made me think about the advantages and drawbacks of reforming the correctional system incrementally, that is–by “fixing” one aspect of it at a time. Two things in particular came to mind.
The first is the tension between death penalty activism and life imprisonment, or long-term imprisonment, activism. Last year, at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty meeting, I talked about the perils limiting activism only to the grounds that would “work”, such as innocence and cost. In the same meeting, Senator Mark Leno, for whose good intentions and immense contributions to correctional reform I have much respect, said that abolishing the death penalty would not hamper public safety, as we could still throw dangerous convicted felons into prisons for the rest of their lives. This idea, of limiting the struggle to the death penalty under the assumption that life imprisonment was somehow okay or even advisable, worked well in a room in which people were gathered as a narrow coalition – there were representatives of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in the room, as well as law enforcement agents who oppose the death penalty but are otherwise on board with law and order policies. So, politically, narrowing the struggle to “just” the death penalty is necessary to bring together all these groups of activists. However, narrowing the focus of the struggle to the death penalty under the argument that life imprisonment in a supermax facility, say, under SHU conditions, is not as bad, is a severe blow to the struggle against isolation, debriefing, and other humiliating conditions suffered by inmates who were not sentenced to death–precisely the conditions leading to the hunger strike, now entering its third week. Is this why the strike is getting so little press coverage? Because, in California, it is now politically easier to stomach a potential death penalty abolition than humane conditions for presumed gang members? Both of these goals are worth fighting for, and I wonder whether patience and incremental gains here will be to the inmates’ advantage or detriment.
The second is SB9, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act, which for all its noble purpose and fancy name affects the sentencing of very few juveniles in CA, and less than 3,000 nationwide should it become national policy. Happily, SB9 recently passed 5 to 2 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting; that is a very good thing, and it may make a meaningful difference in the lives of the few young men and women behind bars with no glimmer of hope for freedom in their future. However, as some blog commentators mentioned here in the last few days, the proposal is limited in effect to those juveniles, rather than giving more hope to juveniles sentenced to life with parole (say, 25 to life) or to otherwise lengthy sentences. Both groups of inmates – and the second group is, of course, more numerous – are worth fighting for, and again, I hope the incremental system will work to the benefit of the second group over time.
Changes and reform in criminal justice policies have historically been incremental. SB9 would not have existed without Roper v. Simmons, after which many activists may have asked themselves why it made sense to separate the fight . Similarly, the current proposal to end the death penalty in CA would not have come to life without years of moratoria and incremental struggles about amounts of this or that drug. And none of this would have been achieved, in my opinion, without the mundane, gray backdrop of the financial crisis, serving as a constant reminder to activists and disinterested citizens alike that we cannot afford mass incarceration and punitive extravaganzas. The current hunger strike in Pelican Bay, which I hope will finally start attracting more media now (mainstream news coverage of this event of seminal importance has been pitiful, with the exception of the L.A. Times), might not have come into existence had the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata not given inmates hope for change.
So, the revolution will not come in a shiny parade. It will happen stone by stone, proposal by proposal, shutting down the mechanism not because all policymakers will suddenly come to the realization that what we have done is excessive, brutal and inhumane, but because we will gradually be unable to afford more and more pieces of the puzzle. It will be less dramatic, but the end result will be no less gratifying, and it is still worth fighting for, step by step, brick by brick.