Ours may be the world’s greatest legal system, but problems abound, and the criminal law system is a revolving door that must be closed.
That’s not just the viewpoint of a San Quentin prisoner. It’s also the assessment of the country’s top law enforcement officer.
In a recent speech to the American Bar Association, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons, for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
From its early days, our republic has been bound together by our legal system, and the values that define it. Political concepts such as equality, opportunity, and justice were first introduced in the United States Constitution.
While words contained in the Constitution sound promising, the benefits are not shared equally. Holder said that “drugs, crime and punishment are a vicious cycle that traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.” He goes on to say the justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.
In 2000, voters approved a ballot initiative stating that most people charged with drug possession in California would be sentenced to treatment, rather than prison. But more than a decade later, traditional punishment for drug possession still burdens the community. Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote, “Felony convictions can have an adverse effect in other areas, such as housing, and employment.”
“As a nation, we are coldly
efficient in our incarceration efforts”
Thirteen other states now classify drug possession as a misdemeanor, but California does not. However, State Senator, Mark Leno has introduced legislation that would allow prosecutors to charge simple possession of drugs as a misdemeanor.
Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, said those states that already classify drug possession as a misdemeanor, “have experienced lower rates of drug use, higher rates of drug treatment, and even lower rates of violence and property crimes.”
Certain federal legislation, including the landmark Childhood Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention are designed to assist government and community leaders in understanding and addressing youthful exposure to violence. The school-to-prison pipeline must stop. Holder’s attention to the problem at the federal level is welcomed, but leadership is needed to establish a more rational dynamic in state law as well.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon takes no position on Leno’s bill, but Gascon did state, “I think the public and the state are ready for this.”
The California District Attorneys Association, which last year successfully opposed a similar bill to make drug possession a misdemeanor, is also opposing Leno’s current bill.
In San Francisco, and now the City of Davis, most drug defendants are assigned to a restorative justice court system or a treatment program for minor offenses. The neighborhood court plan saves money and jail space without increasing crime.
Holder says that “Although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system – widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone – and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
“As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts,” said Holder. But, while it sounds like the criminal justice system is doing its job well, Holder said that about 60 percent of the former state prisoners are rearrested for technical or minor violations at great cost to taxpayers.
The San Quentin News staff thinks that if only a small percentage of those billions were spent on treatment and re-training of defendants, society would reap great benefits. By turning people into statistics, we risk losing the personal story. Understanding ones past is the key to real recovery.