Monday Morning Thoughts: Our Approach to Criminal Justice Is Like the Parable of Babies in the River

by David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

During a recent forum, San Francisco DA candidate John Hamasaki criticized the system for spending on the back end to clean up the problem rather than the front end.

He said, “The criminal justice system exists as it is currently to clean up on the back end. What we didn’t do on the front end when we provide communities and people with the resources that they need, people are not driven to commit crimes, especially low level, petty theft, car break-ins, property crimes that we’re talking about right now.”

While that doesn’t mean that people on the back end should not be held accountable, it means that we have failed to invest in front end solutions to the problems we face in our communities.

I recently read this fascinating parable, a group of villagers working in the fields, and someone noticed a baby in the nearby river, floating downstream.  A woman rushed out, rescued the baby and cared for it.  Over the next several days, more and more babies were found floating downstream, the villagers began rescuing them as well—and the whole village became involved in the enterprise, spending time rescuing the children, making sure they were cared for.

They weren’t saving all the babies, but they felt that they were doing as much as they could.

Before long, however, the village became exhausted by all of this rescue work.  Some of the villagers decided that they should go upstream to discover the root of the problem.  But they were voted down by those who argued that every possible hand was needed to save the babies.

“Don’t you see,” cried some, “If we find out how they’re getting in the river, we can stop the problem and no babies will drown?  By going upstream, we can eliminate the cause of the problem!”

This is a great parable for our approach to crime.  What we are doing is putting all or at least most of our resources into the back end of the problem—arresting people and incarcerating them when they commit a crime.  That’s an expensive approach.  We don’t stop crime.  We only react to it.  And it is consuming all of our time.

What we need to do instead is attack the problem at the source.  On the one hand, we need to treat the roots of the problem—mental illness, substance abuse, childhood trauma, and economic hardship.

On the other hand, we need to go even further and focus on early interventions, job training, education, anti-poverty programs, stable housing, food insecurity.

But we are not doing that.  Instead, we are spending our time and resources on back-end interventions, which is not only expensive but ineffective.

Observe that right now mental health and substance use disorder underlie a huge percentage of crimes.  Forty-three percent of the prison population is diagnosed with a mental health disorder.  Former SF DA Chesa Boudin used to point out that the San Francisco Jail was the largest mental health provider in their city/county.

San Francisco is not alone.  Senator Sydney Kamlager pointed out, “The biggest mental health provider in Los Angeles, as in San Francisco, is the jail.”

The problem is that the county jail, does not have the resources to actually treat people with mental health disorders—so it is a warehouse.

Moreover, 65 percent of the prison population has a substance use disorder.

Furthermore, the vast majority of women in prison have been victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and child abuse. Seventy-nine percent of women in federal and state prisons reported physical abuse and over 60 percent reported past sexual abuse.

So the vast majority of the people in prison are suffering from mental health disorders, substance use disorders and/or were victims of physical or sexual abuse.

Instead of addressing those problems, we throw people in cages.

As one who has sat in arraignment court and watched the endless parade of people who are brought before a judge for a status on a bed at the local mental health institution, I’ve seen them sent back to their jail cell and have their matter put off another month or three. We’re using our jails and prisons as de facto mental health institutions without the actual doctors or treatment.

It’s worse than that.  We’re not only failing to treat people before they get in prison or jail, but we are making them worse by sticking them in the prison environment.

I was reading Bill Keller’s book this week, What’s Prison For, where he noted an observation of how incarcerated people are treated from the moment they arrive at the facility.  They are yelled and berated by the officers, ordered to strip naked, and after being searched they are kept naked for a number of minutes until they are finally issued some boxers.

“During the process, officers are yelling obscenities at the inmates… This demoralizing routine seeks obedience but provides no direction or guidance to the inmate…  Intake is the first opportunity to rehabilitate, and as such this stage should be taken more seriously, new arrivals should have counseling available and should receive immediate training to prepare them for the prison culture and to inoculate them against gang recruiting extortion, and other threats.”

“Treat people like people,” said Keri Blakinger as cited by Keller.  Blakinger spent nearly two years in New York for being caught with six ounces of heroin.  “If you treat people like objects, animals, or numbers, you cannot make them better at being people.”

A lot of prison reformers have visited facilities in Germany and Norway and are stunned by the difference, even for serious offenses.

For one thing, Keller cites, “American correction officers are trained for a few weeks, with a heavy emphasis on how to keep control.  In Germany, aspiring prison officers study for two intensive years, including college-level courses in psychology, ethics, and communications skills.”

Here’s the amazing part—it works a lot better.

Keller describes: “So we’re talking down the hall, and there’s like this big glass-enclosed room and one of the American corrections guys say, ‘what’s that?'”

A German guy says, “It’s a kitchen.  If they don’t, don’t want to go down to the dining area, they can prepare their own meals.”

And the American guy says, “There’s knives in there.”

And the German guy says, “Yeah, it’s a kitchen.  What do you expect?”

The American guy says, “Well How often do you have an incident?”

“What do you mean by incident?”

“You know, somebody gets stabbed or something?”

The German guys looked at the American like he was crazy: “We’ve been open five years and nothing like that has ever happened.”

We treat people like they were animals and then are surprised when they act like that when they are in there and also when they get out.  That’s part of the up-river problem that we have failed to explore because we are so transfixed on catching and caging people who commit crimes rather than finding out ways to intervene and stop them before they do.

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. Keith Y Echols

    You keep looking at the problem from just one side of the equation.  The parable works the other way too.  Say it takes a 2 month trip to go up stream to the source of the problem.  You take away resources for the harvest and/or hunting, village maintenance.   And you know that you can’t all of the babies from coming down the stream….a significant number are still going to go down stream. So if you focus your resources from going in and saving the babies, you’re going to have a whole lot of babies drowning in the river.

    The other thing is that humans are conditioned to act on the tangible and not the theoretical.  The data generally shows that prevention is the best strategy or a “stitch in time, saves nine”.  But that is intangible, it lacks the visceral connection to reality.  In the case of the babies in the river; it’s seeing cute babies in danger in the water.  In the case of crime on the streets or homelessness it’s seeing something undesirable that you want removed from site.   Getting people to commit to building future services and infrastructure even if it’s in their own self interest is hard.  The best way is to tie faces to those projects.  It’s one of the reasons we need elected leaders to convince people to elect them to do these things….as opposed having them vote directly on these kind of long term issues.

    1. Walter Shwe

      To be honest I don’t need a parable to understand the best way to tackle criminal justice issues. Prevention is much better for 2 reasons I can think of off the top of my head. It prevents crimes from occurring in the first place and is usually much cheaper. Incarceration is expensive.

      I work in the mental health field. It’s been known for decades that prevention is much more humane and cheaper than treatment after someone has experienced mental health issues. Psychiatric hospitalization runs over $1,000/day.

      We elect public officials to make decisions based upon the views of those that voted for them. I have never been in favor of the California Measures and Propositions system. If major decisions are made directly by voters, why bother having so many elected officials. There are good reasons that the founding fathers made amending the US Constitution difficult.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        David & Walter:

        I do not, however, oppose draconian policies that remove/clean the streets.  But it has to be coupled with a rehabilitative system.  There’s no sense in gathering up all the law breakers and putting them in jail if all they do is get back out to cause more problems or sit in jail to rot and eat up society’s resources.

        Or to stretch the analogy of the babies in the river to it’s breaking point; what’s the point of going out to save the babies if you can’t turn those babies into productive members of the village?  If all those saved babies keep crawling back into the river to drown…what’s the point?  Or if the babies stay accumulate in the village but are never taught to be productive members of society and become a drain on community resources….what’s the point?  I’m not advocating to just let the babies drown in the river.  I’m also not advocating that most of the resources need to go to fixing the source of the problem (because that leaves a lot of babies drowning in the water).  So, I’m guess I’m pro prison justice reform (more reform/rehab).  I’m pro preventative services.  And I’m pro draconian clean up efforts.  The problem is the right mix of resource allocation with limited resources.

        1. David Greenwald

          I’m generally of the belief that if you are able to do the other things, you don’t need to come down hard. I completely agree that it makes no sense to lock people and then release them without support and services and a means to turn their lives around. There are of course people who need to be locked up for the safety of society, but that’s a relatively small segment of the population.

        2. Keith Y Echols

          I’m generally of the belief that if you are able to do the other things, you don’t need to come down hard. 

          Coming down hard gets the job done.   Remember that the idea behind removal is a quick temporary fix to clean things up.  Aggressively cleaning things up and rehabilitation are not mutually exclusive….except maybe in terms of funding allocation.   But you can’t have one with out the other.

  2. Jean-Jacques Surbeck

    The analogy with the babies floating downstream is cute but (intentionally?) misleading. Babies are by definition innocent of any wrongdoing. To equate their condition (being defenceless, they can only be victims) with that of mostly adult people who prey on others renders the analogy pointless. I understand the imagery of wanting to go upstream to address the source of the problem, but just the same, while it is true that the biggest problem a society faces when dealing with crime is the allocation of resources, there is one crucial element that is missing here (as usual in these pages): personal responsibility. Granted, mental illnesses often diminish the perception of reality, but not all criminals are mental health patients. Quite a few are criminals by choice. Sure, treating them harshly from the get go is not going to induce them to become model citizens, but far more needs to be done to address their mindset, the one thanks to which they give themselves permission to hurt other people in myriads of ways. They are the people who are throwing the babies in the water upstream, and if they refuse to change their ways, then a sane society has no other choice than you keep them incarcerated.

    1. David Greenwald

      You missed the point of the analogy. The key isn’t whether the babies are innocent or guilty, the point is that something is happening to them that causes them to end up in the river – so you can either deal with the effect (save babies as they float downstream) or figure out why they are ending up in the river in the first place.

      “Quite a few are criminals by choice. ”

      Actually that’s largely not true. Look at the percentage of people incarcerated with mental illness, substance use disorder or who were themselves abused as children. The point is, until we address these underlying issues, we are not going to cut into crime, not matter how much we put people in cages.

      1. Jean-Jacques Surbeck

        I didn’t miss the point of the analogy: notice I wrote “I understand the imagery of wanting to go upstream to address the source of the problem”. And when you say it’s largely not true when I say quite a few criminals are criminals by choice, your mistaken contention then is that a majority of crimes can be explained (i.e. excused) either by mental illness, drugs, unhappy or abused childhood, etc… No matter how much criminals hurt other people, either by stealing, destroying, maiming or killing, there is always a “reason” that explains their anti-social behavior. I contend that it is that kind of misplaced compassion on steroids that is understood by criminals as a green light to pursue their nefarious activities. It is that kind of attitude that is not going to cut into crime as on the contrary it encourages it. People in “cages”? Nice manipulative attempt. The bottom line remains that if you don’t want to go to jail (a.k.a. “cages”), don’t commit crimes.

  3. Walter Shwe

    They are the people who are throwing the babies in the water upstream, and if they refuse to change their ways, then a sane society has no other choice than you keep them incarcerated.

    Almost everyone except those that get life in prison without the possibility of parole get out eventually unless they die in prison. Aggressive rehabilitation efforts should be initiated the moment the convicted land in prison. Otherwise the convicted often learn more ways to commit crimes.

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