Californians are beginning to appreciate that our prison system is deeply flawed and unsustainable. But the prisons are only the center of a whole way of imagining public safety that has dominated California for nearly 40 years and which has left us badly positioned to confront the risks we face in this new century. We need a new way of thinking about public safety.
Our current model places violent crime at the center of our public universe. The swollen prisons now contain some 6X their population in 1980, nearly 170,000 adults. Built to contain armies of Charles Manson’s, and Richard Allen Davis’s prowling around California’s homes and hills, their aging “legacy” prisoners present medical needs that threaten to strain the state’s finances for decades. Fortunately we do not have armies of such socio-paths in our hills (although we have stealthy individuals like Philip Garrido hiding in plain sight, but more on that later). Instead of the Manson family (which really did seem pretty scary to me when I moved to the state as a student in 1977), what menaces Californians today are the “four horsemen” of the environmental apocalypse, fire, drought, earthquake, and climate change.
When those operate in combination, — an earthquake for example, leading to widespread fires in a large urban area, — millions of Californian’s are endangered. Crime indeed can be part of that threat, but it does not define it. Consider the fate of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina blasted it in 2005. The resulting urban environmental disaster posed serious life risks to thousands of residents, mostly in the form of flood, fire, lack of food and water. What dominated the early coverage of the disaster, however, were sordid and ultimately almost completely false rumors of violent crime. What was undeniably true is that a state which spent billions to incarcerate more of its citizens than almost any other state in the union (Louisiana), had proved utterly incapable of protecting its citizens against a disaster folks had seen coming for decades. Are we next?
What would replace the gold plated fortresses that now gird our state as the center of a new public safety model centered on these environmental risks and their social consequences? Here are a few ideas just to begin the discussion.
- Infrastructure: I’m no engineer, but we clearly need new or improved systems to address water, energy, and sustainable/resilient urban living to prevent as many post-Katrina like disasters as possible. They will not be cheap, but designing, building and operating them will stimulate our economy and provide good jobs for thousands of Californians.
- Public Safety Officers: Police as we know them ought to morph into public safety officers whose primary job is to help the population manage both routine and catastrophic risk. Public safety “cops” could still do a very effective job addressing crime risks (it was some of UC’s finest who discovered kidnapper Philip Garrido who had evaded decades of correctional oversight, simply by maintaining a steady and prevention oriented eye on campus public spaces) while also being there to lead us in the first steps toward recovery after a devastating quake. We need other more specialized forms of public safety agents as well, like mental health caseworkers, drug treatment providers, and public health officers.
- Jails: Prisons will always play a part in our public safety toolkit. Somewhere between the fewer than 30,000 prisoners we locked up when I moved to this then gleaming state, and the nearly 170,000 now locked up lies a rationally scaled system (hint: it’s a whole lot closer to the starting point than we may imagine). Jails and county probation systems, might come to play a much larger role than they do now in providing periods of punishment, as well as providing ground level classification that can identify individuals better handled in mental health or drug treatment.