|Week Online: "Hard
Time Blues" starts out with Billy Ochoa going to court in Los Angeles.
Will you tell our readers what you're doing with "Hard Time Blues" and
how Billy Ochoa fits in?
Sasha Abramsky: I wanted
to explore some of the social and political forces that led to a prison
system tripling in size in 25 years, and I wanted to humanize the consequences.
The best way to do that was to write about inmates and their families,
but I intersperse that with material on the politicians and the victims'
rights people. Billy Ochoa is 58, a heroin addict since he was 17,
and a career petty criminal. Not a particularly nice guy, but not
violent. He was arrested for welfare fraud of about $2000, but had
priors for burglary and got three-striked, got the book thrown at him.
The judge gave him 25 years for each of 13 counts of perjury in the welfare
fraud, and threw in an extra year, sentencing him to 326 years. I
wanted to show who is going to prison, who are those 1.2 million people
behind bars for nonviolent offenses, those hundreds of thousands doing
time for drug possession or dealing or crimes associated with drug addiction.
I wanted to see who was serving those draconian sentences.
WOL: This is a pretty
grim topic. How did you become interested in it?
Abramsky: I'm a journalist
and I'm interested in politics and economics and how political and social
changes intersect with people's lives. I was doing articles about
life in New York City and I began to realize that prison and the criminal
justice system was a huge unreported topic. I guess it really began
to take off when City magazine assigned me a piece on juvenile justice
in New York state. I've been at it for five years now.
WOL: What is it about
illicit drugs that makes it possible for our society to imprison for decades
or even for life someone who has neither harmed someone else nor damaged
or stolen someone else's property? Or what is it about our society?
Early on, you wrote about the Puritans and their belief that crime was
sin and vice versa. Is that still playing out?
Abramsky: For a hundred
years, America has had a war on drugs, a very punitive response to what
is primarily a medical problem. Its origins are tied into the prohibitionist
movement against alcohol. This combination of morality and legality
has created a uniquely American framework of laws to deal with millions
of drug users. It also has to do with when America was founded, and
by whom. The Puritans brought harsh moral and political views with
them across the Atlantic, ironically at the very time Europe was throwing
off that harsh, pre-Enlightenment politics. That powerful interplay
of morality and law was a unifying force for a young culture with certain
hopes and fears, and one of the main arenas of fear was crime and punishment.
You have both liberty and puritanical repression historically coexisting
in America. You have the language and trappings of liberty and political
structures that deliver liberty for the vast majority, but at the same
time laws that imprison an increasing minority. This is a country
moving in two directions: For the majority, a free country; but for
the minority, an increasingly coercive country. I wanted to explore
what happens to the minority when they run up against a coercive criminal
justice agenda imposed by the majority. Not everyone is innocent,
of course, but when the criminal justice system is used instead of investment
in the inner cities or adequate job training, when it is used as the front
line tool for social policy, that's when it starts to go wrong.
WOL: You identified
three powerful political impulses -- anti-crime, anti-welfare, anti-immigration
-- driving the prison binge, and you clearly show how these impulses can
be ridden by politicians. And there are passages in the book describing
the role of the media. What is your sense of the role of the mass
media in creating the conditions for the turn to prison?
Abramsky: I don't believe
the conspiracy theories surrounding the reporting of crime. I don't
think there are conscious decisions to misrepresent crime, no cabal of
editors saying "let's get those inner city black kids." But increasing
competition among the mass media, especially with TV, meant editors needed
quick, easy, cost-effective visuals that would draw an audience, and violent,
sensationalist images brought in an audience. They appealed to the
primal fear of victimhood. That kind of reporting doesn't account
for underlying trends, instead it covers every gory crime, and people think
the neighborhood is besieged by crime when it has in fact gone down.
In the past decade, crime has gone down in almost all categories, but that
is not being well covered by the press. Once you have an emphasis
on high-profile crime coverage, then it is easy to create a public panic.
People feel besieged by violent criminals and respond accordingly.
You get Three Strikes laws, the abolition of parole, all these very, very
expensive and counterproductive policy choices. It's about retribution,
not rehabilitation. No perks for criminals sounds good, but you have
a policy that doesn't deal with the underlying problems that lead to crime,
nor the need for rehabilitation that most offenders have. You're
just stockpiling problems for when these people get out of prison.
WOL: Former California
Gov. Pete Wilson is the second main figure in your book. What does
he represent? Is he merely emblematic of a certain class of political
entrepreneur or is he the epitome of the breed?
Abramsky: I focus on
Wilson because he's a particularly opportunistic politician in a time of
opportunistic politicians. Wilson is fascinating because, like his
mentor Nixon, he very skillfully pandered to the silent majority.
He played to certain fears, and he stoked those fears. He created
a sense of "us against them," which is generally a very good way to energize
an angry lower middle-class electorate who vote and read newspapers, but
aren't necessarily completely informed. He pitted the fearful middle
class against the poor, against those who commit crimes, but who aren't
necessarily the murderers and rapists they fear. Wilson simplified
the argument: If you aren't for Three Strikes, you're soft on crime.
He framed the argument so it was assumed to be about murderers, rapists,
and armed criminals, but lost in the roar is the fact that the law snared
huge numbers of petty criminals, people who are nuisances, dropouts.
Wilson's policy was very expensive, very counterproductive, and lowered
the terms of the political discourse on crime. He was a very skillful
demagogue, and his policies ended up having such a detrimental effect on
criminal justice that he deserves the focus.
WOL: A few weeks ago,
DRCNet interviewed Noam Chomsky, and he described the war on drugs as largely
a form of social control, a way to deal with "superfluous" populations
by mass incarceration and intimidation. He described social and economic
policies from the Reagan era onward that I think he would call class warfare,
with the drug war as essentially a police action to hold down the dangerous
classes. Does your research lead to you subscribe to that view?
Abramsky: Chomsky is
generally right on this issue. The increase in poverty, the increase
in the ghetto-ization of poverty is undeniable. We abandoned the
inner city and moved from a war on poverty to very punitive policies directed
at people who were poor. But is the war on drugs entirely about that?
No, I don't think so. It's not that deliberate. There were
extreme social problems emerging, you had spikes in violent crime, you
had an increase in drug sales, and all that led to popular panic.
It would be naive to deny that there had been some collapse in social structures.
So the war on drugs is also about regaining some semblance of normality.
That's where I would part with Chomsky. The war on drugs is not a
deliberate effort to repress the dangerous classes, but is an unintended
consequence of using the criminal justice system to deal with these underlying
WOL: Has the politics
of tough on crime been neutered by the Clinton-era Democrats' toughness,
falling crime rates, and the cost of all those prisons and prisoners?
We're starting to see the prison population leveling off across the country
for various reasons. Is it the beginning of the end for the prison
Abramsky: I don't think
we'll see the same stampede toward increased incarceration that we saw
in the 1980s and 1990s; this era of extraordinary growth in the US prison
population is very possibly at an end, but that doesn't mean the appeal
of being tough on crime is over. Clinton, like Wilson, essentially
pandered to the crowd, and the prison population doubled. But now,
questions are being faced. Will budget crunches mean we can't afford
to build new prisons? We're seeing that even in the South, places
like Louisiana and Alabama are having to contemplate sentencing reforms.
But beyond the economic impact, people are beginning to think about the
moral impact of putting people in prison for life. In California,
we just had a court ruling striking down certain provisions of the Three
Strikes law, specifically that people whose third strike was shoplifting
cannot be sentenced to life in prison. It's cruel and unusual punishment.
But if we are looking for a more balanced criminal justice system, we still
have a very long way to go.
WOL: Do you take a
position on drug legalization?
Abramsky: The question
of legalization is complicated and a little bit outside the rubric of what
I was writing about, but I am prepared to recognize differences between
soft and hard drugs. Hard drugs are socially destructive and should
not be condoned. That said, it is not sensible to just cycle someone
in and out of prison and not provide treatment. There are probably
850,000 prisoners who need it and only 150,000 beds. We're only spending
four cents of our drug war dollars on rehabilitation. It doesn't
make sense. Are the priorities of the drug war correct? No.
Our priorities are wrong.