In high school I had a teacher, Sister Mary, who tucked me under her wing, took me to migrant camps and encouraged me to learn about the plight of the farm workers in California. I don’t think Americans can even visualize the conditions that existed at that time. Because I didn’t speak Spanish, I looked on as the woman, standing on her dirt floor, cried to Sister Mary, and fingered through her child’s hair. Back in the car, I learned the woman’s children had gotten lice at their school (it happens in California) but that, absent any running water, the woman felt helpless to get rid of the bugs.
I soon hooked up with the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, and volunteered in their offices. The grape boycott was underway, and I spent time learning about organizing principles, networking, and what it took to motivate people to consider the plight of people they didn’t know, as important as their own plight. The boycott/strike lasted five years, and at the end there were union contracts in place. (They were sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters instead of the UFW but they guaranteed better conditions. I was shocked when I came to Colorado and saw workers using short hoes; they’ve been illegal in California for 42 years).
Then, in my last year of law school, I happened into an internship with Inmate Legal Services, an experimental program to determine whether assisting inmates with other legal problems might reduce the recidivism rate. I spent several hours daily in the jails and prisons of Northern California. These experiences have been invaluable to me in broadening my understanding of the reality versus the sound bites regarding issues of the day.
I truly believe no county judge should be allowed to impose more than two weeks in county jail unless they’ve been in there themselves for a prolonged period of time. We are reaping a horrible harvest as a result of our “tough on crime sentencing” including having the highest incarceration rate in all developed nations, surpassing dictatorships such as China and Russia. I am far from a snowflake, and think consequences are necessary, but as sentences have gotten longer, formerly “stiff” sentences have been seen as too lenient, acting as an endless feedback loop of bad information.
Recently, I have watched, horrified, as people try to destroy the career of judges who impose sentences that are different than what the unknowing general public think is right. Their information is based on a combination of sensational reporting, and the endless ginning up of stories by social media. I can guarantee that the judges have far more information available to them while making sentencing decisions than does the general public. This desire to impose our base impulses as sentences on miscreants is what led to lynching here in the West; someone suspected of cattle rustling or horse thievery was often hung before the traveling judge could get back to the area.
The problem, I think, is that we think we know. The self-righteous anger roils and bubbles to the top of our senses, and, swept away in what is essentially mob mentality, we join the crowd with the rope and the torch. Only the experiences I had in the safety of Sister Mary’s mentorship keep me from jumping right on the bandwagon. It is, I believe, not a good idea to use our base impulses as a basis for public policy.