By Michele Hanisee
Several pieces in the Los Angeles Times regarding prisoners, mental health, and TV shows portraying same caught my eye, and frankly, require a response. It is clear that a false narrative is developing of state prisons packed with non-violent offenders. Baloney.
It’s important that any discussion be guided by facts, not anecdotes or singular cases. First, a little statistical analysis courtesy of the California Department of Corrections is in order. California’s most current “Prison Census Data” ending December 31, 2013, tells a revealing story about the 128,211 male and 6,128 female inmates serving time in state prison. More than 70% of the total inmate population is serving time for “Crimes Against Persons.” What are “Crimes Against Persons” as defined by the report: “Murder, Manslaughter, Robbery, Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Assault/Battery, Lewd Acts with a Child, Oral Copulation, Sodomy, Penetration with a Foreign Object, ‘Other Sex Offenses’, and Kidnapping.”
But wait, what about those “non-violent offenders” and “drug offenders” filling our prisons? Well, 6% of inmates were convicted of the “non- violent” offense of residential burglary,less than one percent are in for all other “property crimes.” Those in for “non-violent” drug offenses include inmates convicted of possessing, selling or manufacturing drugs, and they represent just more than 8% of the prison population. The oft-touted “inmate in for marijuana,” that is the person serving time for marijuana sales, represented .03% of the inmate population; those for possession of marijuana a whopping 0.0%.
I detail those statistics above to remind those who opine on the criminal justice system that the inmates represent real people who have suffered. No, not the inmate, their victims. The victims who did not make a decision, as did the 70% of prison inmates, to engage in a violent crime. They, instead, were subjected to the awful trauma inflicted on them by the inmates. The resources provided by the State to these victims is a mere band-aid – basic burial expenses or a few sessions of counseling, at best. They are not glorified in TV shows or “documentaries” to lament their plight. Instead, victims get to make an appearance at a preliminary hearing and trial, to relive their trauma under often hostile questioning from a defense attorney, are allowed to make a victim impact statement at sentencing. They are then promptly forgotten by a system that pours its resources into incarcerating and “rehabilitating” their victimizer.
There is an escalating mantra, exemplified by Meredith Blake, an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, of a growing awareness of “mass incarceration…and its disproportionate effects on communities of color.” That liberal hyperbole places the victimizer ahead of the victim. Don’t the citizens of the “communities of color” deserve protection from those 70% of inmates who committed murders, sexual assaults, kidnappings and other violent crimes? Take Chicago, which has suffered 303 homicides in 2016 with 75% of victims Black and 19% Hispanic. Is there an acceptable level of victimization in a particular community before we can begin incarcerating those who committed the crimes?
Likewise, the growing claim that prisons are just populated by low level, non-violent offenders who would probably provide amusing anecdotes at a cocktail party deserves a bit more scrutiny. Let’s be very clear – I am not averse to actress Laverne Cox’s statement that her show Orange is the New Black has sparked a conversation “that really is about humanizing people who are incarcerated.” What I object to is falsely representing the type of crimes that have led to incarceration, and most particularly, the obsessive focus on those who have chosen to victimize others and the abject indifference to the real pain and suffering of their victims.