Victims' Rights and Public Safety? Unmasking Racial Politics in Crime Discourses Surrounding Parole Revocation for "Lifers" in California

By Beck, Julie A. | Western Criminology Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Victims' Rights and Public Safety? Unmasking Racial Politics in Crime Discourses Surrounding Parole Revocation for "Lifers" in California


Beck, Julie A., Western Criminology Review


Abstract: This paper reports on an intensive day-long symposium on Proposition 9 (also called the Victims' Bill of Rights Act, or Marsy's Law) held inside San Quentin, a maximum security prison for men in Northern California. This new law essentially ends parole for inmates serving terms of 25-years-to-life by extending the wait time between a parole denial and a new hearing to fifteen years. Its sponsors have framed it as a victims' rights bill. This paper adopts a race, gender, and critical criminology perspective to challenge dominant criminal justice language and common-sense discourse such as "victims' rights," "public safety," and "equality." Dominant framings in criminal justice are deconstructed and their multiple meanings are explored from the position of diverse actors gathered at the prison symposium -Proposition 9 proponents, prisoners, crime victims, and prisoner-rights advocates. The paper argues that rather than protecting crime victims and promoting public safety (claims by Proposition 9 proponents) power and inequality inhere in mainstream criminal justice language whose dominant discursive framings mask a racial agenda and engender new forms of victimization-that of prisoners and their families. Politicized criminal justice talk surrounding "victims' rights," and the specific dichotomies it produces, ultimately denies rights and endangers the public by indefinitely removing parole-eligible "lifers' from their communities.

Keywords: critical criminology; prisons; race; gender; discourse analysis; critical race theory; social control; critical legal theory; victims' rights; Marsy's Law

INTRODUCTION

"The law does not passively adjudicate questions of social power; rather the law is an active instance of the very power politics it purports to avoid and stand above." (Crenshaw, 1995:xxiv)

This paper analyzes how rights discourses and mainstream criminal justice language, captured in commonsense concepts such as "victims," "criminals," and "public safety," have helped to make California one of the most punitive states in the nation. The Victims' Bill of Rights Act of 2008 (also called Marsy's Law, or Proposition 9) vastly changes the way persons in prison serving life terms with the possibility of parole, are considered for parole. The severity of this new law is perhaps most clearly seen in its presumption of a fifteen-year "wait period" between parole hearings, as opposed to the usual one-year wait period, for inmates who are denied parole.1 Opponents of the Law argue that this amounts to an additional prison sentence. The following is an analysis of how The Victims' Bill of Rights Act claims to uphold equal rights and protections for California citizens-and for particular citizens. But this paper is not about the law, nor is it an instrumentalist critique of law's racially biased outcomes. Rather, it is about how laws in the liberal legalist tradition, and about how criminal justice language, construct and are constitutive of unequal social relations.

My main argument is that the justice language employed to frame the issue of crime by proponents of Proposition 9 masks and embodies racial, gender, and class power. Commonsense notions about crime, victims, and public safety belie the inherent power relations they represent and bolster a political agenda that reinforces white privilege and serves the function of excluding those not privileged. I seek to show how the Victims' Bill of Rights Act and Proposition 9 proponents have actively appropriated the very rights discourse used in the past by socially oppressed groups, and in so doing, reify white privilege into law. This paper asks: (i) who is being protected from whom through the Victims' Bill of Rights Act, (ii) who are the "victims," (iii) who are the perpetrators, and most of all, (iv) whose rights are at stake? I accomplish this analysis through a report on an unusual event - a deeply emotionally charged, day-long symposium on Proposition 9 held inside San Quentin prison, a maximum security prison for men in Northern California.

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