We all know that our criminal justice system is in sorry shape. That drugs and gangs dominate many neighborhoods, that police and courts are so swamped that many charges are ignored, that our jails and prisons are overcrowded--these are virtually cliches about modern L.A.
In that sense the recent series in this paper about the deterioration of the Los Angeles criminal justice system did not say anything new, although it made the breadth and depth of the problem graphically clear.
What remains mysterious is the public reaction. Why does the public--and let’s be honest here, this involves a public failure even more than one of leadership--react with indifference? Where is our sense of outrage?
This summer I was in New York City when a rash of bystander shootings evoked cries of horror and rage throughout the metropolis. I was astonished. New York had always seemed to me the quintessential city of indifference, the place where crime flourished because no one really cared. Yet here were New Yorkers screaming about crimes that to my L.A. ears sounded all too familiar. No one here seems to care that much when young children are cut down by gang fire.
It is a frightening thought, that our city may have surpassed New York in one of the most important measures of civic deterioration.
Of course, most crime is not violent. Most crime involves illegal drugs and property violations. And it is with regard to such “minor” offenses that our growing indifference is most apparent and most dangerous. When we do not treat offenses such as fraud and burglary and the sale of crack cocaine seriously, we accede to the deterioration of city life.
How many reading this column do not know the sickening feeling of returning to a bashed-in door or forced window and a home that has been ransacked? How many have not found their car with a shattered window and a hole in the dashboard where the radio once sat? These do not feel like minor offenses when they happen to us.
We all see the graffiti that afflict our public surfaces like an incurable skin infection, spreading from building to light pole to freeway sign. We hear car alarms whooping day and night. And we take it all as a sign of the times. We do not turn our personal anguish into public effort.
We do not, in part, because the solutions are so hard to grasp. We know that crime flourishes where there is poverty and deprivation; that drugs and disordered families, poor education and lack of opportunity foster criminal dreams, and all these have long resisted remedial efforts.
Yet we must not confuse cause with responsibility.
The burglar may steal to feed a drug habit inspired by a cruel environment--and yet he has chosen to steal. Caring for him as a person, caring enough to alleviate the cruelties of his environment--these are moral mandates, but they do not change the need to punish.
The burglar chooses to violate our private space. If we care about this violation we should be angry and seek to punish it. Only in this way can we show him, and ourselves, the extent of our commitment to basic order.
Democracy is government by demand, and with regard to criminal justice, we do not demand enough. If we were truly outraged by the present situation, we would not tolerate it. We would insist upon better law enforcement--and be willing to pay for it.
If we wanted it badly enough, we could live in a place where every crime is investigated, and if there is sufficient evidence, prosecuted, and if there is sufficient proof, punished.
To the extent that we say we can’t do better, to that extent we also say, “so what.” As soon as we stop being outraged, the criminal wins. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.