Revolving-door justice in Los Angeles

The L.A. Times shows how the system really works: badly.

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 &#8212 that’s 100 column inches, if you’re keeping score at home &#8212 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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “Revolving-door justice in Los Angeles”

  1. I agree that the LA Times piece was good, but whereas you come away talking about tightening up, I came away with a sense of vindicated hopelessness. The changes that can make a difference are radical, and we don't have the wherewithal to pull them off.
    In your post about Afghan heroin and collapsing street prices, you indicated surprise at the good news that a drop in street prices to one fifth the previous level had had little effect on the number of new users. I think you'd be equally surprised when such a small effect was also seen as a result of out-and-out legalization.
    Mandatory drug treatment is a waste of time due to its being mandatory. It is simply a means of avoiding the worse alternative: jail.
    Drug treatment should be both readily available (which, presumably, it is under the current scheme) and voluntary (which, as an alternative to jail, it is not).
    Until such time as a druggie decides that he needs and wants drug treatment, leave him to the consequences of his own choices.
    Short of that we're just in for more of the same.
    By the way:
    "Got an error: Bad ObjectDriver config: Connection error: User mkleiman_mt has already more than 'max_user_connections' active connections"

  2. You think that's bad- we just learned from a Seattle paper yesterday that, while the courts have been releasing drunk drivers on the condition that they have an interlock device installed on their ignition- nobody apparently is authorized to enforce this requirement, or feels any inclination to do so.
    As a person spending most of my driving time on two-lane roads with no shoulders, in a county where we often have a death each week from a driver crossing the centerline, I would ask- what goes on here?
    How can law enforcement get so excited about their "emphasis patrols" etc and still miss the nuts and bolts of keeping the really murderous drivers off the road?
    It all points to some really misplaced priorities.

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