Spin Sells: The Fresno Bee’s Yellow Journalism
The front page of today’s Fresno Bee — I almost always still read the print edition — is mostly occupied with the sensational headline: “FRESNO COUNTY JAIL VIOLENCE ON THE UPSWING: Clashes blamed on realignment.”
The article then goes on to do just that: blame the clashes on realignment.
There are just a few problems, beginning with the opening.
As we join (online version) our intrepid reporter, Kurtis Alexander, we learn:
Fresno County Jail inmate Jose Cuevas last week drove a pencil into the neck of cellmate Troy Phillips 22 times, according to Sheriff’s Office reports.
While sheriff’s officials still are searching for a motive in the attack, it’s the latest in an uptick of jail violence that they say is likely tied to new responsibilities handed down by the state.
“This is a rougher crowd in the jail,” said Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie, who runs the Fresno County Jail. “There’s more gang involvement. There’s more criminal sophistication.”
There’s more bullshit.
For starters, it would appear that neither Jose Cuevas nor Troy Phillips — both of whom are still in custody — are in jail as part of the realignment program. I’m not going to provide the link, but it is possible to check on any jail inmate via the Internet. Both men are currently showing up as being in custody for burglary charges: Cuevas for first-degree burglary; Phillips for second-degree burglary. Cuevas now also has a pending charge for “attempted murder (jail only).”
Since both are showing up as eligible for bail, neither would appear to be there as part of realignment. It may be that I’ve missed something, but the last time I heard, inmates on local prison commitments are not eligible for bail.
This farce is carried forward by a quote from Sheriff Mims. Sharing the Fresno Bee’s lack of concern for the truth, Mims allegedly states:
Our inmates have more violent histories. … Before, they would have moved on to prison. Now they’re staying here.
Yes, they’re staying here. This is especially true where, as with Cuevas and Phillips, their cases are apparently not yet resolved and there is nothing to send them to prison for.
The story goes on to claim that “Jail records” indicate “during the first three months of realignment, an increase of nearly 20%” over violence for the rest of the year. Mims then states that it’s too soon to know how much of this is due to realignment. “But they’re a likely factor.”
Why? Because she said so.
The Fresno Bee is happy to continue spinning from there.
Somehow, a few actual facts leaked through, however. For example, at one point, the story states:
Under the realignment, counties are handling non-violent felons, not just the lower-level convicts they had previously managed.
Later, we learn:
Violent inmates and sex offenders remain under the purview of the state.
As I said, those are actual factually-correct statements. Under the rules for sentencing colloquially known as “AB 109,” anyone convicted of a violent crime — and some non-violent ones — will still be sent away to prison. Even under realignment, people who commit violent crimes go away. They do not stay in local custody. Thus, realignment is not causing violent criminals to be kept in Fresno any longer than they were kept in Fresno before realignment.
Despite this, we’re told — under the sectional heading “Fears playing out” — that things are getting so bad that,
Inmates have taken note of the propensity for violence at the jail, too.
So terrible is it, the Fresno Bee tells us, that four inmates have sued saying they’re subjected to violence due to the jail’s layout and staffing issues.
Sort of. The lawsuit appears primarily to do with inadequacies alleged in the health and mental health systems at the jail. The “needless dangers” mentioned in the sensationalized headline appear, based on the actual story, to relate to not receiving adequate healthcare.
And, of course,
The lawsuit cites problems with the jail before the realignment kicked in.
Toward the end of today’s story, after having used their clash as an example of “FRESNO COUNTY JAIL VIOLENCE ON THE UPSWING: [with] Clashes blamed on realignment,” the Bee reporter finally tells you what I told you at the beginning. Phillips was in jail “on suspicion of burglary.”
Well, yeah, but, but, but, but, but…
[I]f convicted he would be eligible for staying in the county jail and serving his sentence there instead of going to prison, per the realignment. (Emphasis added.)
How terrible! He’s the victim of violent crime. He is suspected of a non-violent crime himself.
Clearly realignment is screwing everything up. It’s increasing violence in the jail. We’re keeping too many dangerous people here.
Oh, and Cuevas — who is also currently in jail on suspicion of charges which have not yet been proven — if he is convicted, will serve his time in prison.
In short, Kurtis Alexander wrote a bullshit story about an alleged increase in violence at the jail brought about by the misguided efforts of the State of California to comply with the terms of the United States Constitution and a system which is breaking the financial back of the State. The closest thing — the only thing — that might actually count as evidence of this claim is “Jail records” that Alexander says show “an increase of nearly 20% over the rest of the year” for a short three-month period. (He also states that “[i]t’s a 34% bump over the same period the prior year.
Given the numerous other problems with the story, I have my doubts about that claim as well.
The reason we cannot resolve these problems, though, all comes down to money. Bullshit, spun properly, sells papers. This is true whether we’re talking about medical marijuana, AB 109, sexual offenders, the need for stricter laws, and just about anything else related to social issues or the legal system. Actually telling the truth just isn’t as sensational as blowing things out of proportion and scaring the shit out of people.
If we allow medical marijuana patients to get their marijuana, people might start to wonder why we have come to view this “gateway drug” as so dangerous to society. If we accept the thinking behind AB 109, we might begin to wonder why we’re incarcerating so many non-violent offenders anyway. If we recognize the truth about sexual offenders, there will be fewer boogeymen and more productive citizens, which will reduce the number of probation officers needed in our state. If we don’t have stricter laws, we might find that it’s actually possible to reduce the number of prisons “needed” in California.
We might actually start to hear more common sense statements from those who know what they’re talking about, like this:
Whatever else we do, we must remember prisons are important in the fight against crime. As a prosecutor long ago, I looked into the heart of darkness, the evil that drives the most hard-core of criminals. There is no doubt that serious violent offenders need to be locked up for a long time to protect law-abiding citizens, and the money we spend to put them behind bars is money well spent. However, approximately two-thirds of those admitted to prison in Georgia have been convicted of non-violent offenses and more than half have never before been to prison. The percentage of sentence served for offenders in prison has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Turning even a small percentage of non-violent offenders from tax burdens in prison to tax payers in community based corrections, and reinvestment of a portion of the cost of prison into programs that have proven effective elsewhere, could help both public safety and public budgets.
We might learn that in states where more funding is going towards rehabilitation, millions of dollars — let alone hundreds and possibly thousands of lives — are being saved:
The percentage of Michigan parolees who end up back in the slam within three years has fallen dramatically, and is now far below the national average.
We might start to wonder about things like this:
Crime rates dropped sharply in the past twenty years, according to FBI data, a trend that continues despite the recession and a recent decrease in prison populations.
Instead of a knee-jerk reaction of fear to decreasing prison populations, maybe we’ll even start to look for real answers.
But until the public starts getting truthful and accurate information, things are only going to get worse.
In other words, as long as the Fresno Bee has papers to sell, we’re screwed.