George Gascon, the newly elected District Attorney of Los Angeles, has run into an effort to recall him for his policy to review the lengthy sentences of thousands of people now in prison for violent crimes.
At the heart of the matter are gang enhancements, a judicial instrument that allows for adding prison time in criminal cases. If the offender was a gang member when he committed the crime, then that leads to additional time to serve beyond what the specific crime calls for.
Say that a person got 30 years for murder, the gang enhancement would then allow the judge to tack on another 5 years. Just because they were a gang member at the time.
I worked part time in the California prison system for 10 years – thru the end of 2016 – and it always struck me as supremely unfair to add this extra time.
Starting in 2006, the federal government got involved in improving the quality of care the inmates received in California because the state had a history of providing inferior services.
Inmates had brought a suit in federal court against the state. It was them who took the initiative.
Since then, the overall care has improved but still has a long way to go.
Designing and implementing an effective rehabilitation system for the inmate remains in its early stages. Inmates spend a lot of time doing nothing when they could be learning new skills and improving their ability to interact.
Given the enormous amount of money invested and the huge bureaucracy built, the people empowered to carry out the federal mandate have shown little imagination in putting together effective programs to assist the prisoner – psychologically and vocationally – in the quest to renew themselves.
At the same time, more effort needs to be put into prevention and into building better schools and creating more opportunities in the neighborhoods were offenders grow up.
That will take a whole different vision, but meanwhile, the gang enhancement acts as a means to defer what must be done. This is not acceptable and represents a grave injustice.
People fail for a variety of reasons, but I assure you that not one of those inmates set out in life wanting to be a failure.
Arriving in prison and spending time in it, is a statement of a failed life.
We all stumble at one point or another and we all need a helping hand along the way.
At the heart of the matter is inequality.
As a nation, we hold the sad distinction of being the country with the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the world.
It is tragic, isn’t it, to be a developed nation and to not have acknowledged that it is so much easier to simply add years of incarceration when we should be willing to explore options that will reconnect the offender to their humanity.
Our prison system is not a good example of what we can be as a nation.
Eliminating the gang enhancement is a small step in the direction of a more humane system and as such, Mr Gascon’s courageous efforts should be allowed time to work.
I have no doubt that, as he says, much vigilance would be exercised in determining who would qualify for the sentence reduction, mindful as he is of the possibility that a mistake could be made with grave consequences.
We need to trust a little as we invest in human beings.
We have to.
But just think of all of those men and women who, getting a chance for an earlier release, might contribute to enriching their communities and us all.
Think of all those men and women who, getting a chance for an earlier release, might smile and say, thank you fellow human beings, for seeing that hope was still alive in me.
Oscar Valdes. Oscarvaldes.net
The videos ‘Letters to A Shooter’ are available on YouTube.com