COMMUNITY COMMENTARY: Rethinking California’s philosophy on criminals

After more than a decade of litigation, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling last month, Brown v. Plata, that mandates improved living conditions in California prisons, including a decrease of 33,000 inmates to reduce overcrowding. The merits of this decision are for another discussion. For better or for worse, we now have a measure for every law that is passed that will increase incarceration; it is not dollars spent, but felons put back on the streets.
It is difficult to be objective about crime, especially those that harm the most vulnerable of us. When passions are aroused, the need for certainty, for being on the side of good against evil, is so strong that few people in political life can resist the temptation to join in. This was the unreported story of the passage of Chelsea’s law last year that increased punishment for sexual offenses against minors. The political dynamics were clearly illustrated on May 26, 2010 (available on video: http://www.ci.encinitas.ca.us/video/video.html) when the City of Encinitas Council was asked to vote on endorsing a letter supporting the law.
The law provides up-to-life imprisonment for aggravated first offenses, at a cost estimated to reach over $100 million dollars per year. As with the truism that prevention is more effective than incarceration, the belief that early inappropriate sexual activity is predictive of later violent crimes is equally uncertain. But by the time the issue came to the Encinitas Council this law was on steamroller, and sending the letter of support to the legislature seemed assured.
Council member Maggie Houlihan suggested that while she, like everyone else, abhors sexual violence, this law should be considered in the context of other social needs. She suggested a modification of the letter of endorsement that would have noted the need for this larger perspective.
Jerome Stocks dismissed this vehemently, saying, “I don’t want to hear about potential problems, let the legislature find the money.” Maggie wasn’t intimidated. After a sharp interaction, acknowledging that her vote against unconditional support of the bill would draw constituents’ anger, she concluded with, “This is a much larger problem of our penal system.”
The vote to send the letter was only opposed by Maggie, with the other three members who were clearly ambivalent not willing to go on record against it. Several months later at an election forum in Cardiff, I brought this up in front of the large audience. Dan Dalager, whom I confronted for passively voting for this resolution, didn’t defend his vote, but pointed out that three other members did the same thing.
Then, Teresa Barth, who was also on the ballot for the council, stood up and made a statement that explains much about the political process in our country at all levels. She said, “I didn’t want to vote to send that letter. But, if I had voted against it, every candidate’s mailer would have blasted me for not supporting Chelsea’s Law, that I was soft on child sexual predators.”
Maggie Houlihan may well have been the only elected official in California to publicly question Chelsea’s Law. It was promoted and accepted as being targeted for “the worst of the worst,” the irredeemable sociopaths such as Chelsea King’s killer, John Gardner. Actually, the first person that was prosecuted under this law was Joseph Cantorna, a 50-year-old brain damaged man whose offense was inappropriately touching two boys whom he believed to be his grandsons. After the expense of pre-trial incarceration and preparing a prosecution under this law, it took the Judge five minutes to throw the case against this obviously incompetent person out of court.
Brown v. Plata must be a clarion call not only to those who hold political office, but also for the citizens who elect them. We need to rethink our illusions about crime and punishment, and welcome conversations that have been silenced by misplaced rage that preclude reasoned discussion. With this court decision, we have no other choice.
Additional details can be found on AlRodbell.blogspot.com.

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