By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – This was the week where we swore in new and reelected officials in Yolo County and elsewhere.
Yolo County Sheriff Tom Lopez reminded us that California is now shifting DA and sheriff elections to Presidential years in the hope of increasing participation. The immediate effect is that both DA Jeff Reisig and Sheriff Tom Lopez have been elected to six years which will not expire until 2028.
Sheriff Lopez caught my attention at the end of his speech upon being sworn in to his second term in office.
He thanked his deputies, “who keep the community safe and put the bad folks in jail. The correctional officers who ensure that the bad folks stay secured in jail…”
It was an interesting juxtaposition to listen to Sheriff Lopez on the heels of the historic swearing in of Pamela Price in Alameda County as DA. During her acceptance speech, she echoed Bryan Stephenson when she said, “I also know that none of us want to be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives.”
Stevenson, an attorney in Alabama and author of Just Mercy which became a movie in 2020, famously said, “I believe that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
The notion that the people in jail are bad folks is a sentiment, frankly, from another time. A good percentage of the people incarcerated in county jail are there awaiting their due process of law and have yet to be convicted of anything.
Many of them are there because they are too poor to afford bail and have committed minor crimes, suffer from substance use disorder or are battling mental illness. Many come from poor backgrounds, are the victims of abuse and survivors of violence and most, but not all, hardly qualify as bad people.
Some may have done things that they shouldn’t have, but we are still far too quick to attribute to mistakes and troubled backgrounds a notion that people are bad.
Indeed, one in five people are incarcerated due to a drug offense. Is that a bad person, or someone who is struggling with substance use disorder, often as a result of untreated trauma or mental illness?
According to a report from the American Psychological Association, “64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of federal prisoners” have reported mental health concerns.
Moreover, other studies have found that 20 percent of those in jails and 15 percent in state prisons are estimated to have “a serious mental illness.” And some believe that the 15 to 20 percent estimate to be very conservative.
A 2015 article in the Atlantic noted, “America’s largest mental hospital is a jail.” The article notes, “At Cook County, where a third of those incarcerated suffer from psychological disorders, officials are looking for ways to treat inmates less like prisoners and more like patients.”
An LA Times article from September of last year reported that thousands of mentally ill detainees incarcerated across California languish in jail, denied trial or proper treatment for over a year.
The Times article faced on one individual, but according to their report, “According to a decade of legal filings reviewed by The Times and interviews with mental health advocates, public defenders, family members of the mentally ill and former detainees, Haasjes’ experience fits within a much larger pattern of neglect involving some of the most vulnerable people in state custody.”
They added, “At the heart of the problem is a persistent failure by state officials to sufficiently expand state hospitals or other community-based care options despite surging numbers of incompetent criminal detainees and a string of court orders mandating the state transfer such defendants out of jails faster.
“Without the needed beds, mentally ill defendants are being left behind bars and without substantive care for far longer than the courts have said is constitutional. While their criminal cases and rights to a speedy trial are put on hold based on their illnesses, they are denied the services that might restore them to competency and allow their cases to proceed.
“In other words, they and their advocates say, they are trapped in the criminal justice system with no access to justice.”
There is no denying that there are some bad people who are and should be incarcerated. But the notion that our jails are filled with “bad folks” belies the fact that, for so many, it is filled with folks who are suffering from substance use and mental illness and need access to treatment rather than to be placed in a cage.
Others are there awaiting trial because, despite things like the Humphrey ruling, they simply cannot afford to pay bail.
Larisa Heiphetz, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, wrote in an op-ed in the Crime Report in 2020 that we need to stop talking about “evil” criminals.
She noted that, in a panel study of more than 500 adults and children, “when asked why someone might break the law, adults, like children, focused on internal qualities. They thought people might break the law because ‘they have no sense of right or wrong,’ out of ‘evilness,’ or simply because they found it ‘fun’ to commit crimes.”
That view has consequences. She noted “a follow-up study from my lab shows that attributing transgressions to internal qualities can reduce generosity toward people who have done something wrong”
She writes, “In a culture that thinks its incarcerated citizens are evil, it can be difficult to give them anything, including the benefits of full citizenship.”
That’s part of the problem: “Our legal system says that after people serve their time, their debt to society is paid. True reform must take this idea seriously.”
One of the reasons that recidivism rates are so high is that we make it difficult for people who have served their time to move on. Post-release supervision restricts things like jobs, housing, and benefits. We fail to educate or provide those incarcerated with adequate levels of treatment.
And ultimately, we treat people who were incarcerated as though they are bad people who will always be bad.
As Heiphetz points out, “Incarcerated people are not irredeemably bad people.” Or at least most of them aren’t.
So while I am sure that the sheriff did not give a huge amount of thought to his comment this week, it reflects a mindset that underlies a much broader problem.
That thinking should have gone away a long time ago and, while I understand the sheriff was merely attempting to thank his deputies and staff, there are better ways to express it.