A client of mine was recently sentenced to 19 years in state prison. His sentencing took place a handful of days after his 18th birthday.
Prior to that, and all during the time I represented this client, he was housed at juvenile hall. Although he was a teenage boy, the district attorney decided to charge him as an adult.
By age 16, my client had made the very grown-up decision to replace his failed high school career with the instant acceptance and gratification he got for having the same tattoos and wearing the same colors as the tough kids in the neighborhood who never looked afraid of the cops, or of anybody for that matter. My client then learned that if he sold weed for them, would get paid both money and weed. His one parent who was not perpetually high on crank worked two jobs; no one lifted a finger to save him.
None of this changes the fact that he swung a knife at two other gang members to keep them at bay while his buddies pummeled another kid, who was also a gang member. But the kid described in the police reports bore little resemblance to the kid facing a felony sentence two years later. The kid who sat beside me was in protective custody after resigning gang membership in the most terrifying and official way possible: by renouncing gang membership when he was booked into the adult county jail on his 18th birthday. My client had his GED and had devoured the copy of Ender’s Game that I had loaned him.
For the next 16.15 years (which is 85% of 19 years, as required by law), my client will be a ward of California’s bloated prison population. For perspective, the Supreme Court recently ordered California Governor Jerry Brown to release another 10,000 prisoners by the end of the year. A federal court in Sacramento had found that, on average, one person per week was dying due to preventable medical reasons, made unpreventable by the fact that California’s prison system was at over 175% of capacity. With the release of 10,000 more prisoners, the prison population will hover at the 137% of capacity ordered by the court.
Who are all of these prisoners? Some of them are terrifying individuals. It should be no surprise that there are some pretty scary people in prison whose crimes garner media attention and inspire harsh sentencing laws, like Three Strikes. But then those laws are used against less-scary people who wind up in prison for decades for crimes such as stealing a bike, or punching a security guard while shoplifting a beer. Many of these laws were passed through ballot proposition, and by overwhelming margins. None of these laws included new taxes to pay for the added expense of more prisoners and, as more and more “lifers” entered old age, more elderly prisoners.
Also, let us not forget that since the California taxpayers decided that they had had enough of funding state hospitals for the seriously mentally ill, the Department of Corrections has become the biggest purveyor of mental health services in the state.
Among the more notorious groups in prison are California’s prison gangs. California’s prisons have themselves been the incubator for violent prison gangs whose associates on the street, especially their impressionable family and neighbors, form the tendrils of the monster that sucks in kids like my client like a hungry giant squid. Voters responded to their Frankenstein by passing the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act by, you guessed it, ballot proposition. This was the law the DA chose to use to have ten years added to my client’s sentence.
These are the forces that have combined to send someone who can’t grow a moustache to live in a locked facility among actual hardened criminals. Although he could have controlled his behavior on the day he was arrested, I fail to see what say he had in any of the surrounding circumstances that, at the time, made a knife fight with gang rivals seem like a good idea.
I also fail to see how a decade-and-a-half in California’s prisons will change those circumstances. Like it or not, people like my client will be our neighbors again, someday. Will his time behind bars make him a better neighbor? Will my client “spend his time regretting his crimes and holding himself accountable for his behavior” like he is supposed to?
This will only be true to the same extent that a dog might learn not to relieve itself indoors by having his nose rubbed in it; unless punishment occurs more or less simultaneously with the crime, the punishment won’t be associated with the crime. Anyone who has successfully completed any prison term, of any length, will tell you that after year 3, 4, or 5, the unique combination of misery, anxiety, violence, and boredom is no longer associated with any specific cause; it becomes suffering without purpose, lesson, or goal.
When my client is released 16 years from now, his neighborhood will either still be dangerous, or will be razed to the ground in order to make room for retail stores and stucco condominiums. The schools will still be failing, and even more job opportunities will have been either shipped overseas or given to machines.
So the only consolation that I can give to my client, on his 18th birthday, is that the world might not change as much as one might expect before his release.