I’ve finished reading New York Times reporter Sam Dolnick’s important investigative report on New Jersey’s burgeoning system of half way houses, Unlocked — and I’m still more impressed with the power of traditional media ways of representing crime and criminal justice than I am with the power of its investigating or reporting. On the later point, the series does an important public services by introducing readers to a type of institution which is likely to play a more and more important role in the twilight of mass incarceration as state correctional systems struggle to escape the enormous fiscal and moral costs of that project without admitting to the public that they were always locking up way too many of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Such places, often operated by private contractors, are places that few Americans are familiar with and which raise novel questions about state power, private responsibility, and the objectives of criminal justice. Unfortunately this potential was largely lost because the piece was captured from the start by a series of assumptions that constitute the basic media mentality of what I call Governing through Crime.
First, never question the basic wisdom of arresting, detaining, and imprisoning people who have committed crimes (or who the police suspect in the case of arrest) no matter what crime or under what circumstances they committed them.
The two most significant victims discussed in the series — awoman detained at the Bo Robinson Center in Trenton who was raped, and a man robbed and murdered at Delaney Hall in Newark — should never have been in detention at all. Vanessa Falcone was convicted of forging prescriptions after becoming dependent on prescribed medications. Sending the 20 something stressed out single mother to prison for that was outrageous, a human rights violation (especially to her child) and an astoundingly poor act of public policy that benefited no person in New Jersey. The arrest of Derek Harris for outstanding warrants and driving an unregistered vehicle was also a highly questionable call. Harris was guilty of no more serious crime than being behind in obligations associated with his automobile, he did not deserve the humiliation and risk involved in being locked up (even at a proper county jail). The public officials responsible for these decisions are the real engineers of these tragedies but Dolnick’s reporting never questions the wisdom of locking them up in the first place. It’s like a reporter complaining that the state is doing a terrible job rescuing distressed swimmers from a river, without ever asking why the state is throwing them in the rapids to begin with.
Second, always emphasize the role of prisoners or the formerly incarcerated in discussing society’s crime problems
You would have to read the second story on Vanessa Falcone carefully to realize that she was raped by a janitor employed at the facility, someone with no previous criminal record, and not by someone locked up or formerly incarcerated. The whole key to mass incarceration as a public policy was to keep the public more focused on people locked up or formerly incarcerated people, while ignoring the fact that most crime is committed by people who are not locked up and have not been previously. If you took the latter seriously you would support effective strategies to keep people safe from crime through careful attention to organizational and environmental factors, as well as flexible and intelligent policing. All of these were and are absent in New Jersey, but you would miss that from “Unlocking” which as its title suggests, makes the main point the fact that people who could have been locked up in prisons and jails were held less secure places.
Third, use drugs as smoke and mirrors to expand the category of crime, while switching back and forth between drugs and violent crimes to create a frothy mix of anxiety that can cover the ambiguity and chaos of
The the most significant problem emphasized at Bo Robinson was the suggestion that illegal drug use was routine (especially marijuana smoke). True, if you think that locking people up because they use drugs, in order to make them stop doing so, than may be the fact that lots of drugs are in an around these half way houses would be alarming. Some of the descriptions of Bo Robinson Center reminded me of the Freshmen dorm I lived in at Berkeley in the late 1970s. Now most college dorms wouldn’t tolerate the clouds of marijuana smoke I remember, but that’s at least in part because they are all “non-smoking buildings”. There were at least two violent crimes described in the series (see the first point), but many more references to violent criminals and people committed of violent crimes. Even as we make some progress on demystifying the logic of the drug war, we continue to discuss violent crime as if it were a monolithic kind of behavior. All states treat a great many things as violent crimes that do not involve actual injury to anyone or even a significant threat of it. And many people incarcerated who are categorized as there on a violent offense may have actually violated their parole or probation on an offense like a non-armed robbery that may not have been very violent in the conventional sense to begin with.
Fourth, keep pretending mass incarceration does not exist
Dolnick’s most oft repeated finding is that today’s halfway houses are not the neighborhood centers of the past but giant institutions. This is an interesting an important point. It would be helpful to see more data on New Jersey’s many halfway houses because the Bo Robinson Center in Trenton, which receives most of the attention, is a reception center designed to receive, classify, and reassign prisoners coming out of state prison and it may be quite different at other facilities. Indeed, reception centers are always problematic sites within correctional systems as they tend to aggregate all the problems of overstretched organizations. Still, even if Bo Robinson is somewhat representative of the new halfway houses, what about the prison system to which it relates? Since the 1970s America’s correctional systems have grown massively (the national average is something like a quadrupling of the imprisonment rate between 1975 and 2005). Moreover, the prisons are not the one’s many people remember from the 1970s (and project on today), rehabilitative oriented institutions filled with educational programs and treatment. Today’s prisons are engaged in human warehousing with little or no effort at education or rehabilitation. At their worst, as in California, they are humanitarian crises in which prisoners weekly die of routine failures of medical care (like providing simple medications) and at their best they tend to be secure warehouses which is what New Jersey seems to have.
None of this is meant as a defense of the current system of halfway houses in New Jersey. As we move away from mass incarceration, it is critical that we not fall into the presumption that unless perfect rehabilitative programs for each prisoner can be deployed they need to stay locked up (which I’m afraid is the not-so-implicit message of the Times‘ series on halfway houses in New Jersey). Those prisoners were not sent their for rehabilitation and many could be released tomorrow without posing a serious threat to public safety even if no halfway house was involved. No doubt we should offer reentry help to the people we have incarcerated (hopefully fewer people in the future), but in ways that address real individual obstacles to successful survival in the community (educational, health, or employment) and do not conflate help with surveillance and control.
Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.