By Eric Siddall
We have an incarceration problem in this country. Minority communities bear the brunt of this harsh reality. We need to acknowledge this fact and discuss a smarter, nimbler, and more humane approach to this challenge.
But we also have another problem. Far too many people of color are victims of crime, a fact often overlooked in the current criminal justice debate. We need to acknowledge and address this harsh reality as well.
Prop. 57 presents itself as an answer to this problem, but a closer look at the initiative indicates it will only make things worse for California’s minority communities.
First, a few important statistics. Despite representing 6.5 percent of the state population, blacks comprise 24 percent of its prison population. Male blacks who drop out of high school face a 70 percent chance of going to prison, compared to 17 percent of similarly situated whites. These facts should give us pause and demand reflection.
However, behind these incarceration numbers are numbers that are equally terrible. In the United States in 2015, according to the FBI, more than 50 percent of all murder victims were black, despite the fact that blacks comprise only 12 percent of the US population. 7,039 African-American men and women were the victims of homicide, out of a total 13,455 homicides nationwide. This means blacks suffer a rate of victimization more than four times higher than their representation in the overall population – this is unacceptable.
To be sure, overall homicide rates have dropped substantially since the early 1990s, which is something for which we should be thankful. In 1993, the year before California’s Three-Strikes was enacted, there were 1,944 homicides in Los Angeles County. By 2015, this number had dropped to 649.
Despite this remarkable reduction in the overall rate of homicides, minority communities still face the most significant impact of crime. Today, within a 5-mile radius of the Compton courthouse, there are approximately 118 criminal street gangs. In the past six months, there were 528 violent crimes in Compton per 10,000 residents, including 21 homicides. Fourteen of the 21 homicide victims were black, despite the fact that Compton is 40 percent African-American. Compare this to Brentwood which had a mere 18 violent crimes per 10,000 residents and suffered no homicides.
Frankly, considering these numbers, it might seem easy for the Westside family to vote “yes” on Proposition 57. Crime is not something they experience on a daily basis. They don’t have to take a different route to school in the morning because there is a yellow tape blocking off a crime scene. Crime for that family is an allegory. It is a conversation piece.
For the family in Compton, crime is a daily reality. Every other week, there is a body bag carrying a young male away to the coroner’s office. Every night there is an airship hovering over the city while a pursuit occurs on the ground of a carjacking suspect. If you look at a gang map, almost every inch of Compton is covered by a gang claiming a part of the city. Brentwood doesn’t even have a gang map.
My opposition to Proposition 57 is personal. For the past eight years, I was assigned as a prosecutor in the South Central Judicial District. This is an area that covers Compton and Watts. When I see these numbers, it makes my blood boil, because behind each number is a wounded family and community. Too often, I have sat in my office with a mother and father grieving over their young son. What I find morally reprehensible is that we continue to allow neighborhoods like Compton and Watts to experience huge murder rates while Brentwood is safe and sound.
This is no doubt that we need to take a compressive approach to crime that goes well beyond incarceration. We need to acknowledge that our high incarcerations reflect a societal failure. We need to address the socio-economic issues that underline the many problems of lower income communities.
Proposition 57 does none of the above. Read the one-page summary – the Proposition allows tens of thousands of violent, dangerous and career criminals to be released early.
It disarms us from attacking the criminal element, it releases prisoners back into vulnerable communities, it does nothing to address recidivism, and it breaks the promise we made to victims and witness. Proposition 57 is a well-intentioned disaster that will only lead to more crime, more death, and devastated communities.