A Look At Race and Prison Reform Debate

prison-reformThis week, Yolo Judicial Watch covered a typical Yolo County trial in which an Hispanic defendant was judged by a nearly all-white jury that contained no other Hispanics. 

We have been trying to get good data on Yolo County juries and defendants, but we can safely, from observation alone, draw one conclusion: Latinos as defendants are over-represented in this county as compared to their population.  And Latinos in terms of their representation on juries are under-represented.

In the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time To Kill,” the character played by Samuel L. Jackson, on trial for murdering his 11-year-old daughter’s rapists, looked at the all-white Southern jury and said, “That’s a jury of my peers?”

Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow,” argues that the mass incarceration of African-Americans under the guise of the war on drugs is simply a new version of Jim Crow designed to disenfranchise minorities, particularly black men, in this country.

In an op-ed last week co-written with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, she commented on the reaction to the proposed prison reform as predictable and she argues the backlash reveals racial bias.

She writes, “The court ordered the population thinned so medical services can be effectively delivered to the state’s wards, a necessity given the uncontested fact that ‘an inmate in California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days.’ “

Nevertheless, she argued, “Some justices, politicians, law enforcement and pundits insist on a coming tsunami of crime and havoc.”

I can argue both ways on the racial issue.  On the one hand, middle class America fears crimes.  On the other hand, that fear of crime often comes with the face of a minority.

For our part, we have focused on Three Strikes and de-criminalization of drugs as possible focal points for reform.

Obviously, juries themselves are not the sole culprit, as we also have mandatory sentencing laws, most of which were developed during the last crime fear in 1994.

The authors of the op-ed 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.”

They argue to points, first, “Nearly everyone sentenced to prison leaves. The average California prison term is about 54 months; time served in jail awaiting trial makes the typical period in state custody about 43 months.”

In other words, the fear about a crime wave does not seem reasonable, as the people released from prison would be released at some point anyway.

They add, “California sends people back inside on parole technicalities at twice the national rate, and certainly parole reform is among administrative tools California will use to achieve reductions.”

They thus argue, “What’s been ballyhooed as ‘early release’ is actually a weak tweak in a system that’s spiraled out of control because Democrats and Republicans have marched to a ‘get tough’ beat that has little to do with preventing crime or addressing its community consequences. Poor people – a majority of whom are people of color – have become locked up, locked out, demonized and disposable. Once released, they are legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives in employment, housing and public benefits. They are relegated to permanent, second-class status.”

That brings them to point number two.

They write, “The modestly-educated men and women released every day go back to urban and rural communities to restart lives. How to make return to the free world successful is not rocket science; it doesn’t require more police and jails, and it isn’t expensive.”

That is really a point that everyone misses.  Want to talk about lack of resources, it is cheaper to re-train, educate and help people than it is to re-incarcerate.  Those who cry lack of resources, rarely cry that when they are putting someone in prison at $50K per year.

Writes Ms. Alexander and Ms. Gilmore: “For nearly two decades, researchers of various ideologies and problem-solving methods have studied what people should do when they come home and how to reduce crime in the first place.”

The studies have all found a similar conclusion: “Meet basic needs and lower barriers to reintegration. And now there’s evidence: results theorized by researchers actually work in practice.”

They argue that these remedies can be produced cost-effectively. “The network knows how skid row’s problems can be cost-effectively solved, by redirecting county and city resources from policing and jails to housing and human services.”

They continue, “These projects do not discriminate based on conviction; they point the way to efforts being made that strive to assure basic human rights are being met for all. Discrimination of people released from prison denies them work, housing and food. Contrary even to voter preferences, California has increased prison budgets while disinvesting in places where small improvements in resources make huge improvements in general well-being.”

It is here that they drop the race card.  They write, “What underlies the refusal to cheaply and effectively reverse organized abandonment? If it’s not money, it must be race.”

To me, this is the point where they over-extend their case.  But I can see why they might be tempted to do it.

They write, “Nearly everyone in the United States – whatever their race, ethnicity, religion or party – thinks ‘black’ when they hear ‘prison’ or ‘crime.’ “

The crux of their point is here, “To call the mass incarceration of poor people ‘unintended’ 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. And just as poll taxes disenfranchised poor white people, these new laws ensnare them.”

Do we agree that these policies are racist?  We do not think they are racist in intent.  In fact, ensnared as well are countless lower class white people.

But there are likely racial elements here.  The connotation with minority and crime and prison is unavoidable.  The lack of minorities on juries is structural but also intentional.  We often watch minorities dismissed from juries through the use of peremptory challenges and even sometimes for cause.

Personally I have been surprised at the lengths to which normally cost-conscious people are willing to defend the spending in the criminal justice system.  That goes toward charging policies and prison terms.

With common sense reforms, we could probably be safer – fewer people in prison, more money used to combat violent and dangerous criminals, more money used for rehabilitation, job training and education.  It seems like it should be common sense and yet it is not.  Maybe these authors are onto something after all.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Frankly

    The key to a good life in this country is the ability to make a good living. Jobs are given to the most qualified. We spend most of our early years building our credentials of qualification. We earn a high school diploma, a college degree and gain work experience. These are the hard qualifications. We also develop soft skills: how to relate with people; how to communicate; how to behave in different social and professional situations… basically how to conform. Lastly, we learn morality.

    The key to reducing our prison population has little to do with looking at it through a race filter; it has everything to do with these previous three things. The first two – the hard and soft qualifications – are “exciters”; they are tools for us to encourage better employment opportunities. Morality, however, is an “aggravator”; it is behavior expected to be consistently demonstrated above a line of cultural and social acceptance. Fall below the line, and the other two can be wiped out. Conversely, hard and soft skills can overcome some individual lapses in morality.

    The argument being made here, in the guise of racism, is for society to lower the line for what we consider moral behavior. That is the absolute worse thing we can do to ourselves… suffer more crime in some twisted logic of racial empathy.

    The key to reducing our prison population is a secondary societal goal compared to the ability to be free to protect our life, liberty and property. We should not, nor do we need to, offer up more acceptance of criminal activity as a means to an end of fewer prisoners. The key is locked up in improving overall hard skills, soft skills and morality for more people.

    Not to politicize this argument, but the source of our problems seems to be ideological-based. The left rejects morality being taught, they support our crappy public school system and demand society accept any and all cultural behaviors not matter how foreign and problematic to business owners. Meanwhile the right supports business making profits at the expense of jobs and wages. Where we can come together to make a dent in our prison population is to begin looking at these things differently. We have a social obligation to help people better take care of themselves for a better life. However, we will not solve the problem by just lowering the bar for crime and punishment.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]And Latinos in terms of their representation on juries are under-represented.[/quote]

    Now why do you think that is? I think Yolo County draws its jury pools from the voter registry. Seems to me it would be wise for Latinos to make sure 1) they register to vote; 2) serve on juries when summoned.

    [quote]They thus argue, “What’s been ballyhooed as ‘early release’ is actually a weak tweak in a system that’s spiraled out of control because Democrats and Republicans have marched to a ‘get tough’ beat that has little to do with preventing crime or addressing its community consequences. [/quote]

    Bravo for not blaming this one on just the Republicans!

    [quote]That is really a point that everyone misses. Want to talk about lack of resources, it is cheaper to re-train, educate and help people than it is to re-incarcerate. Those who cry lack of resources, rarely cry that when they are putting someone in prison at $50K per year.[/quote]

    Is it cheaper? Please show the statistics to prove this. Now think about this carefully – we need mental health programs, re-entry programs, housing programs, job training programs, drug rehab programs and the list goes on. I would venture to say there is the very real possibility that all these programs will cost more than simply housing a prisoner for $50 a year. And I’m wondering if that is why CA has chosen the path of incarceration – as a cost cutting measure. Don’t know…

    Now I don’t necessarily agree with over-incarceration as a solution, but I would really like to get some good solid stats on the issue. However, I’m not sure you can, bc the needs of lawbreakers is so great. And as you know, when the gov’t runs these service programs such as drug rehab or whatever, they become top heavy with administrative costs, and not much funding trickles down to actually solve the problem. Perhaps privatizing some of this might be an answer, but they tried that with juvenile jails, and it turned out to be a disaster. I really don’t think the answers are as simplistic as the critics are making out here…

    I still favor heading things off in the first place with youth programs, to try and steer kids away from crime and into gainful employment. To me, that is the true solution…

  3. E Roberts Musser

    To Jeff Boone: I like your idea of teaching morality. It makes a lot of sense, and something I see that has gone terribly awry in this country and elsewhere. In fact it would appear that very often bad behavior is rewarded in our society. Look at Hollywood, as a perfect example. The worse the behavior, the more successful the career. Or U.S. Congress – the recently disgraced Representative Charlie Rangel as but one of many, many examples on both sides of the aisle. Look at all the banks that were bailed out with no strings attached. The banks continue the foreclosure scandal/ripoff with robo-courts in FL, to cover up their own perfidy, and the CEOs of these corrupt institutions are making record profits.

    Here is another instance, which gives food for thought. Some 17 year old in China actually sold his kidney, for $3000, to purchase a laptop computer and some other gadgets. When his mom found out what he had done, she was horrified. Perhaps over-consumerism/over-advertising and neighbor envy is playing a part in corrupting our youth. Just food for thought…

  4. David M. Greenwald

    “Now why do you think that is? I think Yolo County draws its jury pools from the voter registry. Seems to me it would be wise for Latinos to make sure 1) they register to vote; 2) serve on juries when summoned.”

    I don’t know where Yolo County draws it from, I know a lot of places went to Driver’s Licenses because people were not registering in order to avoid jury duty.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    From the Yolo County Court:

    [quote]4. Where do you get your names for jury duty?

    We select all jurors at random from lists. Yolo Superior Court receives names annually from the Yolo County Voter Registration lists and the California Department of Motor Vehicles.[/quote]

    So I’ll add a third point to my list: Latinos should make sure they obtain a driver’s license!

  6. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]But they just get preremtoried right off.[/quote]

    Not if there are enough of them! They should really make a concerted effort to be registered voters and drivers. When they are summoned for jury duty, they should make a point to serve.

    Sometime it might be interesting to observe who shows up for jury service, bc that might be very telling… do you have a good feel for who shows up in general – the ethnic and age makeup? I have heard anecdotally that it tends to be white senior citizens… don’t know if this is actually true…

  7. Tecnichick

    “Latinos as defendants are over-represented in this county as compared to their population”

    This does not surprise me becuase if you look at the demographics of Yolo County it is pretty safe to say that hispanics make up the majority of the population because Yolo is primarily an Agricultural industry. That being said, it would also be a good argument to say that based on population, hispanics should be the predominary factor for jury selection. Blacks make up for less than 3% of our populaton. So why would whites make 100% of the jury in most if not all trials? I seen it was mentioned about how they get their pools but I think there is more to it than what is being said. I believe that somewhere behind the scenes, they run names and social security numbers of the people that were pooled. I believe that initially, the hundreds of people that called are from the voters registrations and the DMV records but then how it gets determined of who gets the first 12 seats? Just from the times that I have reported, and during the questioning, I have noticed that most that are in the 12 seats are government workers. Government workers receive their regular salary while sitting on the jury. Possibly they dont want to risk jeopardizing a trial for someone who would be at a financial loss for not going to work? In any case, I think the whole thing is facinating and I would love to sit on a jury but that will probably never happen. I have been excused too many times for being liberal.

  8. jimt

    Re: Jeff Boone post above:

    Good post: I strongly agree with your points.

    Which brings up how such issues are presented and framed:
    I would submit that most of the issues that are described by media, schools, etc. as racial issues are in fact primarily cultural issues, not racial. If we integrate all races into a common culture; I would submit that what are currently called “racial” issues would greatly diminish. That is not to say that there is no racial discrimination or prejudice (there is); but cultural differences are what keep most people apart and prejudiced against other groups. I find it interesting that some prominent European politicians have called into question multiculturalism; with the German chancellor (or PM; Merkel?) even publicly declaring multiculturalism a failure. This is in contrast to the United States, where I believe the tensions that our multicultural policies create benefit political interests thru the use of wedge politics; dividing the population and keeping different constituencies squabbling amongst themselves; helping to distract from more fundamental problems that most of all of us face (mainly economic) and helping to enable the looting and pilfering of USA Inc. by the big money boys to continue unabated.

    So what about identifying people on the basis of culture rather than skin color? Why contribute to putting more and more emphasis on skin color; and what is the evidence that it trumps culture, including cultural norms of behavour?

  9. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Just from the times that I have reported, and during the questioning, I have noticed that most that are in the 12 seats are government workers. Government workers receive their regular salary while sitting on the jury. [/quote]

    How do you know they are gov’t workers? What percentage are gov’t workers in your estimation? Assuming that is correct, it would seem that perhaps only those people paid for jury service are serving? If we take your other assumptions as true, that Hispanics are the majority in the county, and are agricultural workers, then taking off work for jury service is not an option bc they cannot afford it. This very well might explain why too few Hispanics are showing up for jury service – but it would behoove them to find a way if called…

  10. Tecnichick

    ERM – How do you know they are gov’t workers?

    I have been summoned to Jury duty three times. All three times, in a room with over 100 people, I made it to the first 12. I am a government employee. The Prosecution and Defense then usually asks you a series of questions, one of which is “where do you work?” From what I could tell, each of the 12 were some form of salaried position, either local,state or federal government. That is how I made this assumption. Additionally, each coworker that I have that has been summoned has served on the jury. So each of my coworkers all made it to the Jury? I would say that is 100%.

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