Is mass incarceration a necessary ingredient for crime prevention?

CA has evolved to become very good at state sanctioned disappearances. Communities across the state have been swallowed whole as the tentacles of the criminal justice system reach far further than just the individual incarcerated bodies. But the current response to crime treats it as a cancerous disease that must be rooted out, as opposed to a symptom of a larger condition of human suffering. By retraining our minds to see crime through a different lens we can transcend traditional understandings of crime prevention not as a tool of social control, but as a tool for comprehending the crucial factor that leads to criminality: autonomy, or lack thereof. Ultimately, identifying mass incarceration’s hermeneutic location is key to forging social change.

A quick glance at CA crime trends demonstrates that over the last 20 years crime has dropped to the pre-mass incarceration levels of the 1960’s. The normative assumption that crime is going down because prison admissions are increasing makes sense on a static and superficial level, but since crime is low in CA society it begs the question as to why prison admissions are still growing? After 40 unrelenting years, CA has grown comfortable relying on incarceration as a catch all mechanism for correcting societal ill’s. Whether one thinks law enforcement agencies should be in the trenches interacting with a wide array of issues ranging from poverty, addiction, and/or mental health is a different conversation, but highlights where CA has placed its resources. Incarceration as a blunt instrument is akin to trench warfare in World War II. No progress is achieved, but the body counts rise at chilling rates. History teaches us that CA trusts its mass incarceration process.

The ‘smart on crime’ discourse betrays original thought, but illuminates a plethora of alternative approaches to crime prevention besides mass incarceration. As Attorney General, Kamala Harris targeted truancy as a problematic indicator of future problems and sought to aggressively reverse the trends she was observing. Students who don’t go to school consistently are at danger of falling behind, and those who fall behind are more likely to drop out (nationwide 82% of prisoners are high school dropouts). Instead of greasing up the prison pipeline, Harris sought to disrupt the flow in a tangible way. This is good policy, folks. Restorative justice also offers an exciting avenue of reform that focuses on healing the relationships destroyed by crime. Unlike the criminal justice system, restorative justice emphasizes the agency of victims in directly participating in the resolution process. Beyond that, this model recognizes that individuals are not inherently violent, but may have simply engaged in violence at a particular time. Humans make mistakes, but deserve a shot at life after life.

While these policy positions are certainly a step in the reformist direction, the elephant in the room remains the social forces that drive individuals to crime. Beyond seeing mass incarceration as the alive-and-well legacy of slavery, there are confounding economic issues that contribute to creating a disposable sub-class of citizens primed for entrance to the criminal justice system. Surpluses from capital, labor, land, and state capacity have driven the prison expansion movement in CA. The economy is unforgiving for those who don’t have skills, and CA does an exceptionally poor job of preparing its most important assets — Californians — for a life of upward mobility. The last thing you want is for people to feel like they don’t have anything, because people who have nothing will do anything to get something. Inserting autonomy into communities that are black holes is difficult, but increasing access to basic features of the middle class — education, healthcare, food and housing security — is the foundation that must be laid. A minuscule percentage of CA prisoners are incorrigible psychopaths, the vast majority can be lumped into those who didn’t have access to the benefits of a middle class existence. In the words of John Stuart Mill, “He who chooses his own plan for himself employs all his faculties.” It seems safe to assume that Californians would rather live in a welfare state than a police state.

Complacency in this moment of mass incarceration is the tyranny of the majority. As long as we see incarcerated Californians as the ‘others’ in society, we won’t be able to tackle mass incarceration as the problem of human suffering that it is. One doesn’t need to be directly touched by injustice to fight against it. Until the privileged are more outraged than the oppressed there will be no justice in CA.

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