Michelle Alexander and Ruth Wilson Gilmore spent more than 800 words in the June 5th Sacramento Bee to make the point I just made in my headline with eight. But whether laid out pithily in eight words or belabored for 800 — or 8,000 for that matter — twaddle is still twaddle.
The authors begin their piece as follows: “The fearmongering responses to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring California’s prison system ‘cruel and unusual’ in violation of the Eighth Amendment were predictable.”
My most recent piece concerned this very topic, and indeed I struck a note of concern — “fearmongering,” in the authors’ view — over the ramifications to California that might follow in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata. And if my reaction was predictable, no less so was that of Alexander and Gilmore, both of whom have written books (here and here) in which they condemn the American criminal justice system as racist.
Yes, I admit to being less sanguine than are Alexander and Gilmore at the prospect of 46,000 convicted felons being loosed upon an unwary populace, but contrary to their assumptions (and is there any doubt what they would assume about me?), I am unconcerned with the melanin content of these criminals’ skin. Rather, I am concerned with seeing these criminals remain behind bars for the period of time the law prescribes as a consequence of their misdeeds. Whatever significance I attach to their skin color is derived solely from the fact that the majority of California’s felons have been sent to prison for victimizing people whose complexion matches their own.
But Alexander and Gilmore see sinister motives in my desire to see felons do their time. They write:
Any student of anti-racist civil rights struggles — against slavery, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow, race-based immigration controls — finds in the historical record similar reactions to decisions perceived to benefit poor people of color. The prognosis is always perpetual disorder.
Thus in just a few words do the authors distill what is perhaps the favorite rhetorical device from the leftist handbook, to wit, to insinuate that anyone who opposes them on any issue is morally deficient, in this case racist. If you favor taking a hard line on crime, if you think felons deserve to do a proper stretch in the big house, you are no better than the reprobates from America’s past who argued for slavery and the other moral failings cited above.
Alexander and Gilmore argue that the impending release of such a large number of felons should be of little concern, as “nearly everyone sentenced to prison leaves.” And they point out that the average California prison term is just 54 months. True enough, but if compliance with the Brown v. Plata decision results in the worst-case scenario of wholesale early release and permanent reduction in the prison population, it will mean that at any given time there will be 46,000 felons roaming the streets of California who otherwise would be behind bars. If Alexander and Gilmore believe this will have no significant impact on crime in the state, I’m keen to learn how they think those 46,000 miscreants will be spending their time if not by practicing the same craft that got them locked up in the first place.
And if it is the welfare of “people of color” Alexander and Gilmore are concerned with, they should be aware that about 55 percent of California’s state prison inmates are incarcerated for “crimes against persons,” i.e., everything from murder to assault to sex crimes, the vast majority of which were committed against members of the offender’s own ethnic group. Like the majority in Brown v. Plata, indeed like nearly everyone on the left, Alexander and Gilmore are more sympathetic to criminals than to those who suffer at their hands.
Alexander and Gilmore also decry the hardships endured by parolees, the “modestly educated men and women released every day [who] go back to urban and rural communities to restart lives.” Note the reference to the “modestly educated,” as though one’s level of education, like one’s criminal behavior, is merely the fated result of powerful, even irresistible, forces rather than a logical consequence of one’s own choices.
They point to one woman, Susan Burton, as emblematic of the type of program they would like to see implemented on a wider scale. But Burton’s experience seems to argue at least as strongly for my position as it does for Alexander and Gilmore’s. Burton was hailed last year as one of CNN’s “Heroes” for her work in assisting female parolees in their return to society. Burton herself was a multiple recidivist and cocaine addict before finally getting clean in a rehabilitation program in 1997. After going straight, she founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project, which provides housing, food, clothing, and other help to women newly released from prison. “In return,” CNN reported, “Burton asks that residents stay clean, attend 12-step meetings, and enroll in school, get drug treatment or find work.”
In other words, Burton places expectations of responsibility on the women she helps, the very sort of expectations Alexander and Gilmore seem willing to forgo in the criminals whom they enrobe in the comforting mantle of victimhood. If all ex-cons would but make the wise choices Burton demands of her clients, recidivism would soon be all but eliminated.
Alexander and Gilmore even employ a noted police executive in their campaign to relieve criminals of moral culpability. “To call the mass incarceration of poor people ‘unintended,’” they write, “is to ignore the teachings of philosopher-police chief William Bratton. He unabashedly told Los Angeles organizers that when Jim Crow was found unconstitutional, legislators wrote new laws using different criteria to get similar outcomes.”
I couldn’t locate the quote attributed to Bratton online, so I was unable to evaluate its context. But given that he oversaw the dramatic increase in arrests in Los Angeles that accompanied an equally dramatic drop in crime, I’d be curious to hear his reaction to having his words interposed in such a fashion. If Bratton is indeed a “philosopher,” his tenure as chief of the LAPD proved the philosophy he practiced was little more than “Brattonism,” i.e., the relentless advancement of his own agenda at the expense of anything or anyone that threatened to impede it. And in the exercise of that philosophy he was not above pandering to whatever political constituency that served his ends. If he had any qualms about all those arrests his officers were making, he certainly didn’t express them while violent crime in Los Angeles was being cut in half.
The “mass incarceration” that Alexander and Gilmore lament is not an exercise in “racial domination and social exclusion” as they claim, but rather the consequence of mass lawbreaking which is sadly more prevalent among some ethnic groups than others. California’s prisons are overcrowded because so many people have chosen to engage in the type of conduct that earns one a bunk bed behind bars. Forty-six thousand of those people may soon be out on the streets and free to resume that type of conduct. Calling attention to this fact is neither racist nor “fearmongering.” Maybe there really is something to be afraid of.