Notes on Kamp: Culture Shift
We should focus less on punitive measures and more on restorative ones
Last week, when City Council passed the South's first Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, it was a much-needed corrective to the discrimination people with criminal records face. It was, however, also a reminder, in the statistics bandied about, that far too many people are finding themselves caught up in the criminal justice system.
Initiatives like fair chance ordinances, and organizations like the Texas Jail Project, which I wrote about this week (see "Giving Voice to the Voiceless," April 1), work to help people who have already been affected by our culture's enthusiasm for the punitive. In a sense, these people and policies are cleaning up the mess. However, we need to take a hard look at how we got here in the first place.
We've not focused enough of our attention on limiting the number of people arrested. There are certainly plenty of people who commit crimes and deserve to be punished for them. But the number of people who are going to jail is too high. There are a few fairly simple steps we could take to get those numbers down. First, we could acknowledge that jails should not be substitutes for mental hospitals. On Monday, March 28, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report claiming that states like Texas that have failed to expand Medicaid "could dramatically improve access to treatment for people with mental and substance use disorders" by changing course. It's all too often that the mentally ill find themselves in jail, and it should go without saying that it's also often where people with drug and alcohol problems end up. Increased access to care, and better care, could reduce the frequency with which police officers are expected to do the job of mental health workers.
Second, we need to re-evaluate standard law enforcement response-to-resistance policies. It's not that police officers shouldn't be allowed to defend or protect themselves, but it's clear that there's a disconnect between what the average person thinks of as resisting arrest, and what the police are trained to interpret as resistance. There should be a greater premium on having policies in place that require training on how to de-escalate tense situations without use of force and arrest.
Third, we can move toward setting bonds that can actually be paid by people charged with crimes, allowing them a chance to maintain their lives while they wait for trial, and reducing the number of people who feel forced to plead guilty in order to escape months of pre-trial detention.
Finally, and most obviously, we can reduce the number of arrests by reducing the number of things defined as crimes. It's become commonplace wisdom that the drug war is a mistake, but that hasn't changed laws here in Texas. It's still entirely possible to go to jail for possession of marijuana.
While we're waiting on all that to change, we can, of course, continue to deal with the current mess. The Texas Jail Project has done a good job of highlighting the fact that, as Executive Director Diana Claitor puts it, "there's no guarantee of constitutional rights inside a jail." Basic rights that everyone should have, no matter their alleged crime, are not being respected. It's dispiriting to realize that part of the reason for that is that people don't necessarily care what happens to "criminals." But what's happening inside of jails affects far more people accused and convicted of misdemeanors than it does murderers and rapists (who still do have rights under the Constitution). And those people are in some instances not receiving access to things that you really might assume they would, such as medication for life-threatening illnesses, or their constitutionally mandated speedy trial.
Jails are controlled by county sheriffs, who are elected officials, and they're overseen by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Inquiries about what goes on in jails, such as the March 30 meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, are led by Texas legislators, who are also elected officials. Bringing about change means holding those officials accountable for their positions on jail standards.
I always suspect that the people who are okay with a law-and-order society lack imagination. Do they really think it could never be them on the wrong side of things? At last week's City Council meeting, Darwin Hamilton, who left prison at the age of 24 in 1998, and is now an advocate for criminal justice reform, made that point eloquently while advocating for fair chance hiring: "So what I would say to you is, for those of you who are in opposition or in doubt as to whether or not you should support this ordinance, let me remind you, you will not always be a member of this dais. And no one knows their destiny. And you, or possibly members of your family, will one day make a mistake, be arrested, and you will wish, hope, or pray, that you had men and women like us advocating for your opportunity. So I would say to you use your leadership and this opportunity to do something transformational."