They gathered outside the courthouse in November for a celebration on Election Day, dozens of people wearing fake handcuffs and carrying handwritten signs. “End mass incarceration!” read one. “Justice not jail,” read another. California voters had just approved a historic measure that would reduce punishments for more than 1 million nonviolent offenders, most of whom had been arrested on drug charges. “No more drug war,” people chanted that night, as the vote became official.
“The ideal example of a Prop 47 case,” a public defender had written in a motion to delay sentencing, because Rabenberg had no history of violence and had never been convicted of selling drugs. He had moved to California a decade earlier from Illinois, lost his job in construction, become addicted to meth, lost his house and then been caught several times with drugs. He was sick and sometimes trying to get better, and a few months earlier he had posted a message on his Facebook page. “Saving money, working, going to meetings, clean over 100 days and feeling good,” he had written. “Time for James to do James.”
The new consensus in California and beyond was that it was the role of the criminal justice system to give him that chance.
“This is about putting compassion first,” San Diego’s recently retired police chief said when Prop 47 passed. “We cannot solve crime by warehousing people.”
“Releasing some nonviolent offenders is the smart thing to do,” said Newt Gingrich, a 2012 GOP presidential candidate, explaining the conservative perspective.
“We cannot incarcerate our way out of a drug problem,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), explaining the libertarian perspective.
“It is abundantly clear that America needs a new strategy,” President Obama had said, in a speech about the failures of mass incarceration, and now California was beginning the country’s largest experiment yet as the judge decided Rabenberg’s sentence.
A $700 fine and three years probation, the judge announced at Rabenberg’s rescheduled hearing in early December.
“You’re free to go, Mr. Rabenberg,” he said. “Please consider this an opportunity. Good luck. I hope we don’t see each other again.”