Can public apathy be a good thing? Jamelle Bouie says maybe yes. He points out that in recent years, numerous states, facing the skyrocketing costs of high incarceration rates, have made reforms that will reduce the number of people behind bars. They’re finding non-prison options for non-violent offenders, placing juveniles in social services programs instead of prisons, and increasing drug treatment and mental health programs. Bouie asks, would these changes have happened if the public was paying attention?
…[A]ctual criminal victimization is at its lowest level in a generation, and crime barely registers as an issue of national concern. …On crime, in other words, the broad public just isn’t that interested. And as such, there isn’t a strong incentive for “tough on crime” rhetoric, crime-focused politicians, or punitive anti-crime policies. But for those on the other side of the issue—for politicians who want fewer prisons and less incarceration—there’s an opportunity to push reform without fear of attack. And slowly, lawmakers are taking it.
Thanks in part to public apathy, the country is beginning to make progress on one of our most important problems.
This is a rather depressing commentary, and not one we agree with. Wouldn’t an informed and engaged citizenry be better? Then maybe we could avoid one of the damaging consequences of the current wave of criminal justice reforms—a new kind of debtors’ prisons. Alexandra Natapoff of Loyola Law School explains in an interview with Slate:
The great promise of decriminalization is that it will stop putting people in jail for minor offenses, right? And most states, when they decriminalize an offense, they eliminate jail as a potential punishment for it: The statute might say, for example, that the maximum penalty for marijuana possession is a $250 fine. However, if someone then fails to pay that $250, the courts can and often do take measures that result in incarceration anyway. For example, they can issue a failure-to-pay warrant. Or they can use the power of contempt to incarcerate people for failure to pay. In other words, they’re in contempt of the order to pay $250 and are jailed—not for the original marijuana offense but for being in contempt of that order. So, as a result, we see people all over the country being jailed for decriminalized offenses because they cannot afford to pay the fines and fees associated with them.
In fact, in Ferguson, MO, civil rights attorneys are suing the city over the way people are jailed when they fail to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor offenses.
We’ve got to believe that bringing together a diverse group of people from a community, state or nation to examine problems and develop policies will bring about much better results than public apathy.