walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Kansas, changes in political alignments and a question

Bill James, author of _Popular Crime_, is from Kansas, and I think that fact matters.

In any event, I've reached his description of the murder of a cop in California that was the basis for Wambaugh's _The Onion Field_. James is an opinionated guy, but he feels _really_ strongly about this one and he's got an interesting take on the "meaning", shall we say, of this story.

"All generalization is dangerous." Nice to see it reiterated, and it's a good spot in the book to do it, too, because James is set to launch. "The Los Angeles police brought some of their own headaches with Smith and Powell by trying to hard to send them both to the gas chamber. ... The police were determined that they should both pay the ultimate price for this offense. That isn't justice. Smith may have fired four shots into Campbell as he died, but the prosecution couldn't prove it. I believe in protecting police officers, too, but it's not right to execute a man because his partner does something stupid. The prosecutors complicated the battle for justice by pushing for something more than justice."

That's just the beginning. James goes on to say that reading Wambaugh's book is the best explanation for understanding "the explosion in crime rates in this country between 1964 and 1976....The Supreme Court decisions of the mid-sixties, though carrying no inevitable harm, established in the minds of lower courts the idea that the primary object of the process was not to deliver justice, but to protect the rights of the accused."

This doesn't seem entirely correct to me. There were lower courts in California headed that way _before_ the Supreme Court decisions he is referring to.

My question involves this statement:

"the Rose Bird court, ruled that the police had violated the cop killers' rights by being friendly with them so as to earn their trust so that they would confess. Such "psychological devises," they ruled, were condemned by the US Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona." I'd love to know if that sentence is true, and is specifically about the onion field case.

In any event, James continues. "The dominant American attitudes about crime and criminals in the late 1950s were far more liberal than those which prevail today. _Birdman of Alcatraz_ assumes a culture that believes in the humanity of the convict. ... The book argued ... that all men are within the realm of redemption. This is admirable -- yet the book was also romanticized, vague, one-sided and false. [new paragraph] _Birdman of Alcatraz_ and numerous other movies [sic he is making the jump here not me] of that era ... portray criminals as complex personalities capable of normal emotions, and often caught in a cruel and inefficient system of justice.... there is a close connection between the worldview encapsulated in these movies and the court decisions of the mid-sixties."

James then argues that while these principles (many of the people inside are victims too and we're responsible for bad treatment of the accused and convicted) "simply stated, are undeniably true" they become "something entirely different when converted into judicial fiats." He then attacks "old liberals" as being "logically preposterous" for explaining the "explosion of violence" from the mid 60s to the mid 70s as the result of demographic shifts. "The damned foolishness of the Warren Court unleashed upon us a torrent of criminal violence which pitched the nation backward into atavistic attitudes about crime and punishment." We won't "regain our footing ... until Liberals ... accept responsibility for the tragic consequences of the Warren Court's runaway enthusiasm for essentially good ideas."

This is what I mean by not making careless generalizations. There's quite a lot of reason to believe that James made this provocative generalization and came to this not-conservative and not-liberal and possibly very-Kansan conclusion very, very carefully. To be clear, I'm _not_ agreeing with him. But I can't help but think he's onto something when he says that prison reform efforts were severely hampered in a timeframe related to cops being severely hampered. And that is a huge problem. "Since 1975 we have allowed the evolution of huge, horrific prisons rules by prison gangs. We have to move past that, and toward a vision of a punishment and reform system based on an effort to salvage those lives that can be salvaged."

I have a very different theory about what caused the problems we currently have with our prison system (I blame Just Say No, mandatory sentencing, and privatization of prisons). But I won't be forgetting Bill James' theory any time soon, and I'll be eying any information that crosses my path to see which way it pushes me.
Tags: non-fiction, not-a-book-review, politics
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