There’s a newsworthy going on right now that seems to be slowly picking up steam in the press. A bipartisan summit is going on in Washington D.C. featuring a number of “unlikely bedfellows,” as the media is apparently fond of describing them– individuals like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, activist Van Jones, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (who is speaking as I type this; you can listen to the livestream of the event here. I admit, I’m a bit of a multi-tasker.) The topic is reforming the criminal justice system. The summit is sponsored by groups like the Koch Brothers and the ACLU. Yes, that’s right.
As I type, Governor Deal– a deep-South Republican– is talking about drawing distinctions between criminals “you’re afraid of” and criminals “you’re just mad at.” He’s talking about trying to ensure that those who are non-violent, who we’re just “mad at,” are not locked up just for the sake of locking them up. Interesting stuff all around.
However, there’s one bit of news that I found especially interesting. Senator Cory Booker reportedly discussed tackling some of the incredibly confusing, counter-intuitive, and puzzling way we define certain crimes. We often classify things as “violent” crimes which, according to any common sense understanding of that idea, would simply not seem to be “violent.” At least one reporter is saying that Newt Gingrich expressed his agreement with Senator Booker. This is an important idea, and if we can approach these questions seriously here in the state of California, we will go a long way to meaningfully reforming the criminal justice system.
In Torrance and the rest of California, the law certainly has some odd definitions, all of which are overly expansive; you never find a crime defined in such a way to make it under-inclusive (you never see something defined as “non-violent” which might intuitively seem violent.) One example is the way California defines “gang crimes” and the “gang enhancement.” Anything which law enforcement claims was done in association with, for the benefit of, or at the direction of a criminal street gang– a term that is itself defined in an extremely broad fashion– can be charged with a special “gang enhancement.” That enhancement turns just about any crime into a very serious crime. If you consider that definition for a moment, it will become clear that it can (and often does) get used to ensure that a whole swath of crimes which nobody would intuitively think of as “gang related” into serious “gang crimes.” When you understand that many people grow up in neighborhoods where they simply know current, former, or future gang members as friends, as kids from school, as people they used to simply hang out with (and maybe still do, but not in any gang-related capacity)– you can begin to understand the scope of the problem this creates.
If we as a society are able to begin to approach this subject seriously, where we really can roll back some wildly over-written, over-inclusive, “tough on crime” laws in order to make our criminal justice system more sane and fair, we will all benefit.
As I finish writing, Governor Deal is speaking tearfully of the extraordinary power of “drug courts”– alternative diversion programs which help people get clean, rather than incarcerating them. I am amazed, and hopeful.
As always, if you or your loved one is accused of a violent crime, a gang-related crime, or any other offense, please feel free to give our office a call at (310) 633-4612.