January 15, 2001

Column 29

It's the Martin Luther King holiday weekend and I thought I would write for a bit. I was talking with someone (in here) about Martin Luther King and all he accomplished before he was assassinated. While we were talking, we got on the subject of how it was only 50 years ago that discrimination and racism was a way of life in America. How most of white America, at the time, felt it was normal and didn't find anything strange with it, in fact, they didn't see it as wrong. One of the questions we had was why is it so hard (now) finding people from the civil rights era generation who will admit they supported segregation and racism, either philosophically or by not speaking up and letting it be know they thought it was wrong. After all, there is such a thing of consent by silence.
Since that generation is now of the age to have Grandchildren, we were wondering what, the civil rights era generation tell their Grandchildren, their part was during this struggle for equality. Being a bit cynical, I said they probably tell their Grandchildren they were there marching and protesting and demanding change. Maybe that isn't fair, but I think most of these people would never admit they supported the racism and discrimination back then, or worse, were indifferent and did nothing at all.

After talking with this guy, I sat here and thought about our conversation and couldn't help wondering about today’s generation. What will they tell their Grandchildren in 50 years, when the question of the Death Penalty comes up and are asked what they did to try and stop it. I say this because I'm sure in 50 years from now, there won't be a Death Penalty in the USA and people will look at the Death Penalty then, the same way people today look, at how people supported segregation and racism 50 years ago. By supporting it, I mean either by their indifference and inaction, or in more overt ways. I suspect when your Grandchild is sitting on your knee and asking you what you did to fight against the Death Penalty, you will tell them you fought against it and how you felt it was a horrible thing that our Government did. But, I wonder if your Grandchildren would feel the same about Grandma and Grandpa if they could look inside of you and see the truth.

Some time ago, I got a letter from someone and they asked why I never write about how racism is such a big part of the Death Penalty and how Blacks are sentenced to death much more. I wasn't sure how to reply to that question. I am not Black, but I do see the disparity in the sentencing of Minorities, when it comes to the Death Penalty. It's not just Blacks, but most Minorities who get sentenced to death at a higher percentage. I suppose I never talk about it, because I assumed it was common knowledge that the race of a person plays a part in them getting sentenced to death. I'm not sure what the racial breakdown is of the races on Death Row, here in California, but if I remember correctly it is about 55% of the Death Row population that is Minority. I think that's a pretty clear indication racism is still strong in America.
It's not only in the Death Penalty where you can see racism in the justice system. It is prevalent across the spectrum of the criminal justice system. It goes far beyond crime and is rooted in the way society is structured. The ‘Have's’ and the ‘Have Not's’. I have no doubt with Bush as the President, in the next 4 years the ‘Have's’ will have a lot more and the ‘Have Not's’ will have even less. As a result, you will see a rise in crime and there will be even more people sent to prison. This new compassionate conservatism at work.

A friend asked why it is G.W. Bush can get arrested, use drugs and have a drinking problem, but when he says it was just being youthful, that is okay and he expects people to forgive him and overlook his past. However, when Bush has a chance at forgiveness or to understand someone else's youthful activities, he is intolerant and sends them to prison for long periods of time. It isn't just Bush who has this attitude. It seems to be a common thing with most politicians. It's very hypocritical of many of them who have a past of drug use and drinking and raising hell. However, now that they are politicians, it is something they feel everyone else should be locked up for.

In the last election, there was a law passed in California called Prop 36. It's a law which requires treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, rather than sending them to prison. There are many politicians who don't support this law. They feel all drug offenders should be send to prison instead. I've been trying to follow the progress of this and I get the feeling some politicians are trying to set it up so this treatment law fails. There is a problem with funding and a shortage of money to run these programs. As a result, the drug offenders will not be getting adequate treatment. I have a feeling it will be one of those things where it is under funded to make sure it fails. The politicians can then go to the public and say, "look, this was a bad idea and it isn't working, so we have to go back to sending drug offenders to prison". I hope I'm wrong, but it looks like that's the way it's headed, but time will tell. The irony is, the funding for these drug treatment programs would cost the tax payer much less than to send that same person to prison. So the money saved by not sending that person to prison could be invested in these programs. Prisons don't have more than token drug treatment programs. You can see evidence of that with someone like Robert Downey Jr. and the lack of help he got for his drug problem, during his stay in prison.

Proposition 36 is a good idea and can be successful if it's implemented in a way to make it work. But there is a need for alternatives to prison for people who are arrested for other offenses besides drugs. In the past 30 years, the system has focused on punishment, with no focus on rehabilitation. As a result there are now more people in American prisons than in any other country in the world. After 30 years of failure it is time to try alternatives to prison. It is unfortunate so many politicians are locked into this mentality where they feel they have to be tough on crime. They seem to be afraid to try anything innovative for fear they will be perceived as being soft on crime and coddling criminals. I read somewhere that the definition of insanity is to keep trying something over and over again even though it keeps failing. Not sure how the saying goes exactly, but that's the essence of it. Maybe it's time to put some sanity into the system and try other ways to solve the problems and put a stop to the present cycle of failure with the justice system.

Okay, I am out of here for this one and I hope to be back soon. Take care.