With apologies to those readers who will be appalled that CityBeat is wasting valuable newsprint discussing a vapid, talentless, poor little rich girl, party-heiress Paris Hilton's recent head-on collision with the criminal-justice system is fascinating stuff. Relatively speaking, of course.
At its simplest level, it's a clear case of schadenfreude. Many Americans no doubt delighted in hearing the news of Hilton wailing for her mother upon learning that she was heading back to jail to serve more time for violating terms of her probation. She reacted to the judge's ruling as if he'd sentenced her to several years behind bars, rather than the several weeks she'll have to endure, and many of us reacted with satisfaction that the spoiled brat finally realized that she has to suffer the same consequences as the rest of us poor slobs when the rules are broken.
Also, as always happens with stories like this, the press has been forced to look at itself in the mirror and ask a hard question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? Do the media run with endless coverage of Paris Hilton because their viewers and readers crave it? Or do people watch just because it's on TV? The Union-Tribune actually published a decent piece about that on Saturday. On Friday morning, MSNBC's Chris Jansing seemed disgusted with her network's coverage of the event while she was anchoring it.
Some media have rightly pounced on a weightier side issue-the separation of powers between the Los Angeles County sheriff and the court. Thanks to Ms. Hilton, we now know that some judges haven't been happy about Sheriff Lee Baca's practice of letting some convicts out of jail long before their sentences are up. That's good stuff, worthy of spirited debate over cocktails, as is whose bias is stronger-Judge Michael Sauer's disdain for celebrities or Baca's admiration of them. Not to mention whether or not Hilton and others like her are, themselves, products of their inexplicable fame, which perpetually feeds upon itself.
But far more interesting are the related matters of jail (and prison) overcrowding and healthcare-physical and, especially, mental.
Baca routinely sets inmates free prematurely because L.A. County jails are bursting at the seams, as are jails nationwide. It would be nice if the Hilton story were to spark more conversation about whom we incarcerate, for what offenses and for how long. There are far too many people locked behind bars for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession. These folks are costing taxpayers millions of dollars every day. Why not sentence them to community service? Some of them could be working-paying sales and income taxes, contributing to the economy and lessening the demand for costly new jails and prisons. Sadly, rare is the politician brave enough to champion alternative forms of sentencing, even though there's a fiscally conservative case to be made.
But overcrowding is not the reason Baca cited for shifting Hilton to home detention. He said it was due to the celebrity's deteriorating mental condition, which should prompt another public conversation about the plight of mentally ill inmates and the sorry state of care in our bloated correctional facilities.
Los Angeles activist and author Earl Ofari Hutchison is doing his best to start that conversation, attempting as he did to get a letter to Hilton in the clink asking her to become a poster person for mentally ill inmates everywhere. We're not sure we'd want such a superficial, eye-roll-inspiring spokesperson for such a serious matter, but we certainly agree with Hutchison's motivation.
Hilton might really have severe anxiety problems, as do millions of other people, or she might have suffered from a debilitating case of fish-out-of-water-itis. Forcing her to live without her cell phone, her body wash and her late-night hamburger-stand runs might have been like giving a halibut a pair of lungs and forcing it to live in a cabana on the beach. But that's not the point; the point is that our jails long ago became de facto institutions for the mentally ill, who'll never be offered the opportunity to serve their sentences in more comfortable environments, let alone get the psychiatric help they need to exit the criminal-justice system's circular conveyor belt.
'The Federal Bureau of Justice estimates that more than a quarter-million offenders are warehoused in America's jails and prisons that suffer acute mental problems,' Hutchison writes in a June 9 blog post. 'That's about sixteen percent of the total jail population in America. In California's jails alone, an estimated 85,000 prisoners suffer mental ailments.'
Hutchison goes on to note that, like Hilton, the majority of these people are low-level, nonviolent offenders and increasingly female, and that, unlike Hilton, they are overwhelmingly poor and minority.
These are the issues we should be discussing, but, unfortunately, the conversation has already spiraled southward, to whether it was Hilton or her publicist speaking when she told Barbara Walters that she wants to dabble in breast cancer and multiple sclerosis and that she's through pretending she's a dumb-dumb.
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