On Sunday this week, The Washington Post published an article titled “A ‘Virtual Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card,’” referring to the reforms in sentencing made in Proposition 47 in California. The focus of the article is on a 36-year-old homeless man in San Diego named James Lewis Radenburg, a non-violent drug addict who finds himself constantly in conflict with the justice system, yet remains free because of new laws preventing prison sentences for misdemeanor offenses.
Radenburg’s star role in the article is used to highlight a criticism of the justice system not heard much since the early 90’s, the revolving door of justice. Reporter Eli Saslow peppers Radenburg’s arrest record evenly throughout the article, making sure to note the quickness of his release on each occasion. Police officers in San Diego supposedly call people like Radenburg “frequent fliers.” According to many in law enforcement, the ability of frequent arrestees to go back on the streets is removing the deterrent effect.
“How can we change behavior when they know there’s no real threat of punishment, no incentive?” -Jan Goldsmith, San Diego City Attorney
Goldsmith’s quote relates to his involvement in San Diego’s alternative drug court, which is an avenue of treatment for offenders facing potentially long prison sentences. In the past, someone like Radenburg would have to face the choice of hard time in one of California’s overcrowded prisons or an extended rehab and treatment program. That less addicts may be seeking treatment is, of course, a problem, but the idea that threat of punishment is the only solution lacks critical thinking.
Saslow’s article briefly covers some of the people affected by the justice system the most, families of the incarcerated, by speaking with Radenburg’s mother. She laments her inability to have contact with her son due to his drug addiction, describing his descent from outdoor adventurer to a hopeless addict. In her continual effort to try and maintain contact with her son, she hired a private investigator. According to Saslow:
“The private investigator had taught her how to type Rabenberg’s name into the San Diego jail database to see whether he was in custody. A few times she had seen his name in the arrest logs and felt some measure of relief. Maybe he would be forced to detox. Maybe he would get help.”
Radenburg’s placement in a jail cell may be of some comfort to his mother, but the point ignores what most families experience when their loved ones are incarcerated: fear, shame, humiliation, and financial ruin. To completely ignore the positive aspects of Proposition 47’s reforms on the families of minor drug offenders appears to be an attempt to support a single viewpoint in the struggle for reform.
While Saslow’s article shows an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of prison reform in California, recent articles in the San Diego Union Tribune and Los Angeles Times highlight the way reforms are helping individuals and families in drastic ways. According to Saslow, the only positive to come out of Prop 47 may have been the throngs of cheering supporters celebrating its passage.