Monday, April 30, 2012

California's Slide Into the Fiscal Ocean

Warren Zevon was a talented singer / songwriter who didn’t flinch from the macabre or even the apocalypse.

Two years ago, I posted about “Prison Grove,” a song on the last album he released before dying of cancer.

Tonight, I’m thinking of “Desperadoes Under The Eaves,” from thirty years before that.

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will . . .

Zevon’s song was nominally talking about the consequences of not paying a bar bill, as his thirst extended to “all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles.”

Figuratively, however, I’m struck by how Zevon’s mid-70s song was written at a time when the affluent but overextended California of the postwar years was on the verge of buckling.

By the decade of the aughts, the fiscal slide into the ocean of insolvency was nearly complete.

The factors were many and various. Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property taxes. The end of the Cold War, and the subsequent downsizing of aerospace jobs, such as the one Michael Douglas’s character once had in the film "Falling Down."

And then there was the fiscal drain of a gargantuan state corrections system. A system that expanded so grotesquely that federal courts had to take over control of the system.

The feds did not seek out this responsibility; it came about because California’s prison healthcare was so deficient that it killed people through medication errors and drove others crazy amid the constant claustrophobia of triple bunking.

Zevon is gone. But the bizarre story of the once-golden state’s prisons continues to unfold, as this Los Angeles Times article describes.

A Sweet Sentence?

Outside of the realm of grammar, the word “sentence” has, to American ears, become virtually synonymous with sending someone to jail or prison. It could scarcely be otherwise, in a culture that puts as many people behind bars as ours.

Black’s Law Dictionary summarizes this meaning adequately enough. A sentence, according to Black’s, is “[the judgment formally pronounced by the court or judge upon the defendant after his conviction in a criminal prosecution, imposing the punishment to be inflicted.”

To be sure, the punishment doesn’t inevitably have to incarceration. It could, for example, be to a period of supervision or monitoring with conditions known as probation. We certainly impose plenty of that in our criminal justice culture as well.

But whether a criminal sentence involves prison, probation, fines or a mandated treatment program, its essence includes elements of punishment and pain.

How odd, then, are the lyrics of the first line of the venerable Christian hymn "I Know That My Redeemer Lives."

I know that my Redeemer lives!
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!

What a surprising sentence, to all those convicted of sin! Which is all of us.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jesus Wore a Hoodie, Indeed

A friend of mine, Michael Reinhart, is a Lutheran bishop in the deep South. The Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, to be exact.

I know  Mike through my wife, Diane, who served on a music ministry team with him after college. Though we don’t see him often, Facebook is a remarkable platform for bridging time and tide.

Tonight, I saw a picture in my FB feed of Mike wearing a hoodie — as thousands of people across the country have done to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon, of course, was the unarmed African American teenager who was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was fatally shot by 28-year-old man named George Zimmerman in Sarasota, Florida, six weeks ago.

Zimmerman’s race has been the subject of quite a bit of dispute in the media. He has a white father and a Latina mother.

Today Zimmerman surrendered to the police, after being charged with second-degree murder for killing Trayvon. HIs claim of self-defense will test the legal parameters of Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” laws.

How ironic it is how many of America's unresolved racial issues have come to be symbolized by a "hoodie," which covers so much of the skin.

And how curious it is that the furor comes twenty years after the Rodney King riots of 1992. Los Angeles then, Florida now. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in a country still in need of racial reconcilation.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Strip Searches and Jail Admissions

About 13 million people are admitted to American jails each year.

Some of them don’t stay long; they may only be booked and released prior to trial. Others may stay for a long time because prison space in some states is at a premium.

All of them, however, may now be strip searched. No matter how minor the offense for which they were arrested.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court decided by a vote of 5 to 4 yesterday.

I’m reminded of what former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said years ago. “We are not final because we are infallible,” he said, “but we are infallible only because we are final.”