The response to a plan to move parole and probation offices to Downtown Providence has been a disappointing chapter in recent events. Angus Davis, four contenders for Democratic nominee, the Providence Chamber, and everyone else who took up the call against placing these offices in Downtown should be ashamed of themselves.
Davis’ intellectual dishonesty is especially disgusting in his use of the phrase “government-mandated criminal convention center” as though B&ECon14 and Larceny Conference 2015 will be renting space out at 40 Fountain St. with the intent of spreading best practices and instilling values. It’s representative of Davis’ clear disdain for our criminal justice system. Ostensibly, probation and parole offices are to check in on how criminal offenders are doing rehabilitating back into society. Davis views these offices as doing the opposite.
This view isn’t limited to Davis. It’s in everyone who thinks that as they walk along Fountain Street or walk by Kennedy Plaza (these are not the kind to wait for a bus in Kennedy Plaza) that they can spot a parolee or a person on probation. It’s in everyone who refuses to get out of their car in Providence because of its “high crime” (despite massive reduction in crime rates since the heyday of the “super criminal”). And its in every employer who views a criminal conviction as a scarlet letter to be carried around for the rest of one’s life.
Recently, the State of Rhode Island passed “Ban the Box” legislation that prevents employers from asking about criminal convictions on job applications (in interviews, employers are allowed to fire away). This was a positive first step aimed at dealing with the effects of our twisted prison system.
And make no mistake about it, our prison system is twisted. What was supposed to be a genuine reform from hangings, beatings, and mutilations to a reflective period has turned into a for-profit enterprise, complete with school-to-prison pipelines, mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strike laws, and a plethora of policies that add up to give the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world; possibly our only rival for this position in North Korea. Even the most policed country in the world, Russia, still manages to come in many places below.
What’s on display in the reaction to this simple relocation is a classic example of Rhode Islanders hiding their heads in the sand when it comes to genuine problems in the state. If Davis was at all concerned about reducing the number of parolees and people on probation around his offices he would be calling for serious prison reform in the state of Rhode Island. Perhaps along a Scandinavian model. Instead Davis and his partners in opposition are perfectly fine with moving the location to Cranston (a proposition which I doubt Cranston residents and businesses are particularly in love with).
The implied threat, as always, is “I will take my ball and go play with it elsewhere” the classic employer flight threat that’s used to pressure government on everything from taxes, not enough parking, the education system, etc. And lawmakers listen.
I expect, given his propensity to kowtow to parochial interests, Governor Chafee will listen to Davis rather than his own agencies which oversee this population and have said that such offices are not the sites of dangerous criminal activity. Such a give-in will be another loss in a state which refuses to take serious action against the ills which plague our state; whether it’s lack of affordable housing, high unemployment (especially long-term unemployment), our incarceration and recidivism rates, etc. Focusing on all of these would save the State money and reinvigorate our economy. Instead we focus on ill-advised band-aids, half-measures and one-off deals: creating higher-risk casinos, giving away our limited land to the expensive and tax-free “meds and eds” which can only support a weak service economy, or paying $75 million for an unproven video game company.
I’d argue that there are those in state and local government who are willing to tackle the big issues, but given the cowardice in the vast majority of the Providence mayoral candidates in their handling of this issue, I don’t have much… hope.