Even with its ugly, low-brow new page design, the LA Times is still the master of the long-form story. Today Megan Garvey and Jack Leonard combine data, fieldwork, and interviews to create a superb picture of Los Angeles County’s broken criminal-justice system. It runs nearly 3000 words — that’s 100 column inches, if you’re keeping score at home — and as far as I can tell not a word is wasted. I plan to use it as the kick-off reading for my course in crime control policy this spring. The basic fact is that L.A. County has a huge amount of crime, and not enough cops, prosecutors, judges, or jail beds. Once people figure out that they can basically get away with it as long as they don’t commit any of the “three strikes” crimes, the crime rate goes up even more, leaving the system even more overstretched.
Prop. 36, California’s treatment-not-prison program for drug offenders, comes in for its share of criticism. While treatment is nominally required as a condition of remaining on the street, in fact most Prop. 36 clients blow it off, and the maximum penalty for refusing to do treatment is … being ordered to do treatment. Only after three defaults is jail time even an option. The story doesn’t mention it, but the legislature, following the recommendations of the UCLA evaluation team, tried to tighten up, until the sponsors of the initiative got the courts to rule that making mandatory treatment, you know, like, mandatory was a violation of the intent of the voters when they passed a mandatory-treatment-instead-of-prison law.
Sending people to prison for drug possession is both an injustice and a waste of prison space, and some Prop. 36 clients actually go to treatment and benefit from it. So compared to the previous system, Prop. 36 is a big improvement. But compared to a sensible system, it leaves a lot to be desired. With any luck, the story will push the legislature to try once again to put some teeth into the program.