On Wednesday night, I walked two blocks from my midtown Sacramento house to a favorite watering hole, to have a post-vaccination celebration drink with a friend visiting from out of town. We sat till late, and then, shortly after 11, a fight erupted at a bar a couple doors down from the one we were sitting outside of. As we got up to leave, one group of the combatants, two young men and a young woman, walked away from the confrontation. Behind them, at the bar, the other side in the fight continued to taunt them, shouting insults as they left.
Early on Thursday morning, I walked past the street on which the bars were located. It was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape; there were police everywhere, and television camera crews craned in to get a view in through the confusion. It turns out that, barely an hour after we left, two people were shot in the bar near the one we were at. One of the two died.
I don’t know if my friend and I witnessed a precursor to a shooting, or whether the people we saw fighting had nothing to do with what transpired an hour later. But I do know this: This country, even in a relatively tough-on-guns state like California, continues to make it insanely easy for people to purchase guns and ammunition, and we continue to bear the consequences with homicide rates that dwarf those of other industrial democracies.
During the pandemic, with all the stresses and societal dislocations that has involved, murder rates have spiked throughout the country. In city after city, the number of gun crimes rose in 2020, and that violent trend has continued into 2021. While violent crimes remain far, far lower than they were prior to the decades-long drop in crime rates that began in the early 1990s, the trends are, clearly, heading in the wrong direction. In terms of year-on-year jumps in murder rates, 2020 stands out as among the worst in US history, with the FBI estimating that an additional 4,000 to 5,000 murders occurred last year.
Fatal drug overdoses, too, already at catastrophic levels, soared during the pandemic. While comprehensive data from recent months isn’t yet available, the CDC has already released data that includes the early months of the Covid crisis. Researchers found that from May 2019 through May 2020, more than 81,000 Americans died from overdoses.
More generally, throughout our society we treat life as scandalously cheap. We saw that in Minneapolis, with police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd. While a jury found Chauvin guilty earlier this week, that verdict alone, though so desperately needed, was woefully insufficient. One verdict won’t end the pervasive violence that police, highway patrols, border and immigration enforcement agencies, and other arms of the state inflict disproportionately on poor and nonwhite people.
During Chauvin’s trial, at least 64 Americans died at the hands of police, including 20-year-old Daunte Wright, shot, after a two-bit traffic stop, by a veteran police officer who mistook her gun for a Taser. Year in, year out, roughly 1,000 Americans are killed by law enforcement officers. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, where I grew up, over the past 20 years the police have never shot dead more than six people in any given year; in several years, they killed not a single person.
But the violence inflicted by state agencies isn’t just about trigger-happy police officers; it’s also about a casual acceptance of the incarceration systems of this country that take already damaged people and aim to fully break them. A few years back, the Sentencing Project released data on the length of the sentences being served by the roughly 1.5 million Americans doing time in state or federal prisons. They found that by 2016 more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences, including many with no prospect of parole. Another 45,000 were serving sentences that in practice amounted to life behind bars. There are roughly five times as many people in the United States currently serving life sentences as the total number of prisoners in Germany. By contrast, in 1984, during the early years of what would turn into a multi-decade push to mass-incarcerate poorer Americans, 34,000 were serving life terms.
And it’s not just the traditionally conservative states that have racked up these awful numbers. In fact, the Sentencing Project found that no state in the country had a higher percentage than California of prisoners serving life sentences. In the Golden State, more than 30 percent of inmates were serving life sentences or virtual life sentences. And that’s not because California only incarcerates serious offenders: In 2016, when the Sentencing Project calculated this statistic, the state had more than 130,000 prison inmates.
Five years on, after years of legislative efforts and gubernatorial actions to roll back mass incarceration, that number has declined significantly; but it’s still more than 94,000—far, far higher as a percentage of the state’s population than the historical norm.
But at least California, along with Washington state, is finally making an effort to limit the number of crimes that qualify a person for life without parole and other high-end sentences. In Olympia, Wash., earlier this month, state legislators passed a bill (SB 5164) that allows for the resentencing of inmates serving life sentences under the state’s three-strikes law for robberies in which the victims weren’t physically hurt. More than a hundred current inmates will, as a result, be eligible for resentencing.
Far more numerically significant: In California, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Governor Newsom recently proposed wholesale sentencing reforms aimed at dramatically reducing sentence length for many inmates, including limiting the numbers who end up serving life sentences. If the recommendations are implemented, California might, just might, finally be able to turn a corner on its 40-year experiment with mass incarceration.
At the end of last month, President Biden signed an order proclaiming April to be “Second Change Month,” and pledging that the federal government will strive to reduce America’s incarceration numbers, send more people to drug treatment than to prison, invest in community infrastructure, and do the other hard work needed to lower the rates of both crime and incarceration.
Whether the proclamation will amount to anything beyond mere rhetoric remains to be seen. But the fact that the federal government, along with state governments, is finally recognizing that it can’t simply incarcerate its way out of social problems is a positive step. In too many ways, we hold lives to be cheap in the United States. We all have an obligation—private citizens picking bar fights, police officers patrolling the streets, or politicians crafting criminal justice legislation—to understand the damage that flows from seeing others as disposable.