It’s more than just an echo of the Obama’s 2008 campaign. The California ballot in 2012 will carry two measures aimed directly at the heart of the state’s fear-based political culture and the massive penal system it has spawned.
The first, which was formally certified for the November election on Monday of this week (read the SacBee story here), will offer voters the option to repeal the death penalty for special circumstance murder and replace it with life without parole (LWOP). A second initiative was just submitted to the state for certification (read the SFChron story here) will offer voters the option to modify California’s notorious three-strikes law, to require that the third strike (with its 25 year to life mandatory sentence), only applies to the “serious” or “violent” felonies, and not the assortment of felonies including so called “wobbler” misdemeanors that have resulted in life sentences before.
Over the next months we will examine the proposals in more detail. Here I want to note the generational significance of this election. Since the 1960s, American national, state, and local elections and politics have been profoundly reshaped by the fear of violent crime (see my book Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Culture and Created a Culture of Fear). Sometimes elections have turned on crime — as in 1988 when George H. W. Bush pulverized Michael Dukakis as soft on crime for his opposition to the death penalty, or in California in 1994 when Pete Wilson revived his recession weakened chances of re-election by seizing on public outrage at the murder of Petaluma twelve-year-old Polly Klaas.
More often crime has simply lurked in the background, disciplining the candidates to hew to a narrow line around the most severe anti-crime policies, as in 2008 when both McCain and Obama raced to denounce the Supreme Court for striking down capital punishment for rapists of children.
This will be the first election in memory where two measures aimed at reducing the severity of punishments at the very top of the penal spectrum, and which deal with violent or serious crimes (not the drug use crimes that have been the most common focus of penal reduction measures). Why now? The obvious candidates are the state’s deep fiscal difficulties, the worst since the Great Depression which have seen cities go bankrupt and thousands of state and local services trimmed back and the fact that with some local exceptions, crime remains significantly lower than the peaks set during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, when many of the state’s punitive policies were established.
These trends have been magnified and publicized by the state’s epic prison-heath care crisis which drew the ire of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata (PDF here) — which more or less declared California a less than civilized state engaged in torture — and resulted in an order to reduce prison populations by as many as 40,000 inmates from the level of 2009. By reducing the fear of violent crime and raising the attractiveness of cost savings with little actual risk, measures like the 3-Strikes modification and death-penalty repeal are well designed to take maximum advantage of these trends, without pushing the envelope very much in terms of challenging the basic premises of California’s hyper-punitive penal code.
But these trends are also being magnified by generational turning points that suggest even more significant turn away from governing through crime is possible. Here a different kind of numerology may be at work, not a trend, but the singular biblical span of 40 years, and its half, 20 years, which is the most common measure of a human generation (most common is 20 to 25 which points to 40 to 40 as the core generational span).
In a recent New Yorker comment, writer Adam Gopnik offered a rule of (roughly) 40 and 20 years to explain popular culture trends. According to Gopnik, 40 somethings, who generally dominate cultural consumption are invariably fascinated with the world as it existed just prior to their coming into it. Thus the popularity of the 1960s in ’00s, while in the 1960s themselves it was the 1920s that was hot. There is a secondary fascination with one’s teenage years that leads to 20 year cultural pull (the 1970s saw a cultural fascination with the 1950s).
I think a similar generational logic can help explain the power of this moment as a “hope and change” season on our penal policies (and perhaps our broader “culture of control”). Consider the death penalty repeal. The measure would amend the state constitution, repealing another ballot-measure constitutional amendment that was adopted by the voters in 1978, some 34 years ago; but that initiative was intended to expand the death penalty that had already been brought back to life through popular initiative in 1972, exactly forty years ago this coming Fall.
Likewise, Three-Strikes was put in the state’s constitution by voter initiative in 1994, 18 years ago (close enough to 20). Here, however, it is not so much nostalgia, but the perhaps counter-balancing possibility of letting go that may be at work. The leading edge Baby Boomers were entering their adulthood in the early 1970s (Bill Clinton turned 30 in 1975). Then Californians were reeling from years marked by the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968, and the Manson family murders a year later in the same city.
When the California Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, a few months ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Furman v. Georgia decision, the homicide rate was still escalating in California and nationwide. Shocked by the violent crime of that time, which had not much bothered them in the 1960s when they were in their teens and twenties, Baby Boomers became the core of the tough-on-crime shift in American politics and life. In the early 1990s, Boomers were at the peak of their parenting years when people may feel most vulnerable to predatory crime, and violent crime was once again — after something of a trough in late 1970s and early to mid-1980s — reached a peak at the start of the decade, and seemed alarmingly highlighted by events like the Los Angeles riot of 1992 and 1994 Polly Klaas kidnapping murder.
Today leading-edge Boomers are edging into retirement (those that can) and are shifting focus to their legacy and the economic prospects of their grandchildren. The grip that the fear years of the 1970s, and its echo in the 1990s had on the Boomers is diminishing as time and mortality work their healing.
In the meantime younger voters, Generation X’ers and since, are coming into their power years without the same psychic response to violent crime that Boomers carried. True, many of them were young when violent crime was at its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, but young people are not put off in the same way. By the time X’ers began having children in the 1990s and ’00s, violent crime was dropping. Some of these new parents were also rebelling against the boring securitized residential communities they had grown up in (a trend gaining even more momentum since the collapse of the housing bubble).
It is possible that 2012 will see an electoral alliance of Boomers (re-balancing their hopes and fears) and younger voters (more worried about the economy and climate weirdness than whether Charles Manson will get paroled), who together will make this a real “hope and change” election on crime policy. I’m hoping for a tidal vote, one that opens the door not just to incremental modification of our public policies, but to a fundamental reimagining of justice and public safety in California.
Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.