The rise in real or perceived crime, gun violence and the cries to recall progressive district attorneys have been used to sound an alarm to halt prison reform.
Calls for halting criminal justice reform point to crimes committed by those who have been incarcerated, paroled, and then reoffended. But those offenders aren’t the long-term prisoners.
The unspoken reality is most criminal justice reforms were not retroactive, meaning most long-term offenders didn’t receive the benefits. People are still incarcerated 25 to 30 years later for crimes that now receive lesser sentences.
There are still elderly prisoners 65 to 75 years old who are moving around wearing fluorescent-colored vests with an array of labels indicating disabilities such as “hearing impaired,” “vision impaired,” “mobility impaired” or having to be pushed around the prison in a wheelchair.
True—some reforms allowed some prisoners to appear in front of the parole board early. This is a strenuous process in which you are vetted to be found suitable for release. Even with all the self-help work and other prison accomplishments, there is no guarantee of release.
Most legislation was structured to win bipartisan support and took the “safe” political approach, with a focus on “low level” offenders.
Sentencing enhancement relief and sentencing reductions are given to new “offenders,” who are arrested and then released. They haven’t gone through the process of healing internal trauma or gaining accountability through self-help groups to curb “criminal thinking.” This “catch and release” policy may have caused the trend of rising property crime.
COVID restrictions were lifted after more than a year of shelter-in-place protocols. Now people are interacting again and sometimes not for the best. Gun violence, Asian hate, even police shootings are dominating the media.
The movement to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón has become a partisan rallying cry for “tough on crime” advocates. San Quentin News has had the honor of working with both these D.A.s as well as others. SQNews held our first D.A. forum with Gascón, and we have had many other forums with his office members.
We collaborated with Boudin on a restorative healing project in which incarcerated people read letters of pain and trauma from victims and survivors, causing the participants to reflect on their own actions.
Gascón and Boudin’s only mistake is that they believe in a just and balanced judicial system. They always instilled in us an awareness of the victim’s and survivor’s rights and concerns and what we needed to do to not reoffend. This is not an endorsement of anyone; their cities have a right to elect whomever they want. But the question becomes, what is public safety? If there are data and statistics that show that lifers and long-term offenders who have paroled have a lower recidivism rate compared to those who have not, according to independent and CDCR studies, then why are those of us still incarcerated being used or held accountable for the rise in crime?
As Americans and Californians, we have a culture problem. As a country, we seem to be obsessed with violence. There is a rise in homelessness, mental health disorders, school closures, inflation, and a politically divided country. These are some of the underlying factors behind crimes.
We find billions of dollars to fund wars, while people are sleeping in cars because of food insecurity. Now we are watching tragic gun violence where multiple people are being shot and killed. Most of us incarcerated mourn these senseless crimes, especially if you are responsible for having committed one yourself.
There need to be schools and programs teaching conflict resolution. Some, if not most, shootings in the Black community by youth (Black on Black crime) are driven by low self-esteem, resentment issues and a false manhood belief system of what personal respect looks like.
We witnessed this with the so-called “slap heard around the world” when one of my icons, actor Will Smith, slapped another one of my icons, comedian Chris Rock, at the Oscars. My feeling of hurt, dismay, and head-shaking — man, violence is never the option.
Rock showed poise and didn’t react. Smith may have allowed underlying personal issues to boil to the top — an impulsive action that caused harm. Conflict resolution can be a learned behavior. If someone has health problems, they call a doctor. If you are in trouble, you call the police. So, if there is a rise in crime and it’s a problem, society and those entrusted to solve the issue might want to seek the advice of the incarcerated.