State corrections officials will be dismissing 9,200 arrest warrants for parole violators, based on a review if the warrant is old or no one is looking for the parole. This is only one of the many measures our state has taken to comply with the Supreme Court ruling of 2011, which ordered California to reduce its prison population. Soon nonviolent offenders will be dealt by individual counties, leaving the state to deal with violent offenders. Presently, California prisons are operating at 155 percent above capacity, and we must reduce to 133 percent by next year.
So either our state is deeply infatuated with crime, or we are devoted to incarceration. I would lean toward a love of imprisonment. Some have blamed California’s increased population to the Three Strikes Law, which states that any person convicted of his/her third felony can receive life imprisonment. The law doesn’t take into consideration the seriousness of the third offense. Hence, a nonviolent offense like theft or fraud can receive a life sentence. Proposition 36, which passed with 68 percent this last election, reshaped the three strikes law so that the third felony must be a violent offense to receive a life sentence.
It was a victory for anyone serving a life sentence for a nonviolent crime, but the very existence of the Three Strikes Law is still a testament to a disheveled justice system bent on incarceration. On average, a person convicted of burglary in the United States is given 16 months. However, Canada gives burglary five months and England gives seven months.
We are a nation that is ruthless against crime and headstrong for punishment. One in every 100 adults in the United States is either in prison or jail. The United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, yet contains only 5 percent of the world’s population. And our precious Golden State has 120,000 in prison alone.
Some researchers have attributed the United States’ higher rates of violent crimes as the cause for its large prison population. They also state that the U.S. is one of the most ethnically diverse nations, which can produce racial tension and thus, conflict. And then there is the War on Drugs. In the 1980s, the United States had 40,000 jailed for drug related offenses, which are counted as felonies. In 2008, inmates incarcerated for drug offenses were numbered at 500,000.
But blaming humanity’s violent tendencies absolves civic society. What if our problem is neither drug nor violence-related, but instead cultural? James Whitman, a specialist of comparative law at Yale University, believes it is America’s emphasis on individual responsibility which has influenced the judicial system, causing harsher punishments and increased incarceration.
For years we have been programmed in the divinity of individuality. The very phrase, “Land of Opportunity” is based on the notion that anyone can pull themselves from poverty and into luxury. Yet realistically, a kid living in Santa Ana has a lesser chance of receiving a decent education than one living in Mission Viejo. This kid would have fewer resources and opportunities to pull himself out of poverty. Perhaps we have embellished the strength of individuality and underestimated the potency of communal solidarity.
Then again, maybe democracy is to blame for our large prison populations. Alexis de Tocqueville believed when a nation becomes too dependent on public opinion, it becomes subject to the “tyranny of the majority.” We are one of the very few nations that votes in civil servants like sheriffs and judges. Their dependency on public approval may corrupt attempts to issue fair sentencing.
Should laws pertaining to a person’s fate be decided by a majority? After all, the populace is neither legally nor personally knowledgeable about every individual crime. And there is no law which can be passed that will magically administer equal and fair sentencing. What is certain is that our justice system reflects our contentious society in which we must live individually, but be judged by the majority.
To reconcile such a fragmentation requires a refinement of tradition. Although we are statistically more violent and diverse, neither accounts for retaining the contradictory idea of individual liability and public condemnation. Perhaps to initiate fairness we must remove we, the people, from the legal equation, and redirect ourselves into becoming a community of individuals rather than just a land inhabited by individuals.
Nidia Sandoval is a fourth-year history major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed Under: Opinion