Monday, August 31, 2009

Return to Crime as Political Capital

The story of the California girl who was kidnapped and held hostage for 18 years has legs mainly because it contains the three ingredients necessary for a crime story to become a media sensation: randomness of the crime (kidnapping, abduction), virtuousness of the victim (11 year old white girl w/blond hair), and perpetrator with a previous record (even better if out on parole).

Throw those three things together, and the politicians start pouring out of the woodwork like so many termites.

California Officials Fear Abduction Case May Hurt Efforts on Parole:

SAN FRANCISCO — The case of Phillip Garrido, a parolee and registered sex offender accused of abducting an 11-year-old girl and holding her hostage for 18 years, has become embroiled in the debate over legislation intended to reduce California’s inmate population.

“This demonstrates the problems that we’re going to have if we release thousands of prisoners into our local communities,” State Senator Tom Harman, a Republican from Huntington Beach, told The Sacramento Bee.

“If we let someone out early, and that man commits a crime, the Assembly members are worried that that will come back to haunt them like the old famous Willie Horton ads,” said a prominent state politician, who asked not to be identified because of concerns about undermining legislative negotiations.
While the fear is understandable, it's not justified by the facts or numbers.

But Scott Kernan, a deputy secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that a man who had committed crimes like those that sent Mr. Garrido to prison initially would never have been released early from prison under the proposed law.

“The bill doesn’t reduce supervision on sex offenders,” Mr. Kernan said. “It would affect nonviolent, low-risk, non-sex offenders.”

In fact, the bill would have made it possible to supervise sex offenders like Mr. Garrido even more closely, Mr. Kernan said, since the state’s 2,100 parole agents would monitor some nonviolent offenders less and focus more resources on more dangerous parolees.
But these stories are rarely about facts or numbers; instead they are about political capital and the politics of fear. Like sharks drawn to blood, a politician can sense a vote-getter story from miles away.

And while this may be isolated to California and its unique set of budgetary problems, I have my doubts. As the 1990s' taught us, a good crime story in one state can easily be exploited by the other 49 for political capital (see also: Three Strikes laws). One would hope this kind of thing would be outmoded and irrelevant in 2009, but facts suggest otherwise.

Real facts, that is.

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