Are Criminals Getting Worse? Why?

Years ago, I was given the opportunity to share my hard won insights about why criminals are getting worse with a graduating class of freshly minted peace officers.

As most of my readers know, I left my “life of crime” after a number of years of service in order to honor my creative and civic pursuits. I had served in the capacity of an Assistant Public Defender in the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office – headquartered in Oakland, California – as trial lawyer, appellate lawyer, training director, branch office supervisor, and so on, for most of my career since law school.


One day, when I was in the middle of a very long murder trial, the County Board of Supervisors picked me to succeed chief Public Defender James Jenner, the Sixth Public Defender, who had just retired. I became the county’s  Seventh Public Defender, inheriting a legacy that began in 1927 when the Chief Prosecuting Attorney, Earl Warren, recommended that the county start a public defender’s office.  As he put it, poor defendants get the shaft, while a million dollars can buy an acquittal.  Warren was no bleeding heart but he had a passion for fairness.

As a result, the second oldest official Public Defense institution in the world came into being, born of the conscience of a prosecutor. This was the same Earl Warren who later was California Governor, then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The first Public Defender was one of Warren’s top trial lawyers, reassigned to guarantee a strong defense.

Decades later, I made it my goal to make certain that my office provided  poor defendants with the most professional ethical, hard hitting and ethical defense team in the country. Early on, I made alliances with the District Attorney, the Sheriff and the Chief Probation Officer on funding issues. We were, as I argued, essential parts of a large interacting justice system, one that would benefit from a common front, especially during tough fiscal times. I also made it a goal to further mutual trust relationships within the adversarial system in the service of justice.

Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) is the official gold standard of law enforcement training and education. Not every police agency is able to run a POST  training facility.

But the Alameda County Sheriff did and does.


A legendary County Sheriff, Charles Plummer, served during my Public Defender career, and it was an honor to know this tough, ethical law enforcement official.

So it was a special honor when I was the first Public Defender invited to give an commencement address to the Sheriff’s POST Graduation event. The event was attended by the County Board of Supervisors, the Sheriff’s Command Staff, the POST graduates and their families.  The full text of that speech follows:

An  Address to the Alameda County Sheriff’s 102nd Graduating Academy by Jay B, Gaskill, Alameda County Defender.


Congratulations on completing POST training and entering law enforcement.  It was an honor to be invited to speak here this morning and a pleasure to be able to accept.


Over the last twenty years, I have had the privilege of working with some really exemplary law enforcement officers employed by this sheriff’s Department, men and women from the deputy level through every rank and posting.  And I can tell you without reservation that you are entering the finest sheriff’s Department in the State of California, serving under the finest Sheriff in Alameda County’s history.


Your learning curve has just begun.  Whether you are assigned to patrol, to a jail, to transportation, or to a courtroom, you will immediately discover that you need to know more than you ever thought you would about the courts, the law, and the criminal justice system.  Remember this – the criminal justice departments form an interacting system, a system that is no healthier than its weakest component.  It is, in effect, a huge sorting mechanism which is tasked to separate the criminals from the victims, the guilty from the not so guilty, the bad cases from the good cases, the heavy cases from the cheap cases, the manageable prisoners from the unmanageable, the deserving from the undeserving, and the short timers from the long timers.


You will quickly learn that the judges and the prosecuting attorneys you will deal with tend to spend comparatively little time in close contact with the county inmate population.  You will also quickly learn that there is one department, one group of county employees, more than any other besides your own, that spend comparable face to face, quality time with the same inmate population that you see day in and day out  – the attorneys of the Public Defender’s office.


Over time, you will see many of these jailed defendants as interesting and sometimes complicated people.  You will be hassled, cajoled, assaulted, complemented, bullshitted, begged, amused, aggravated by them.  You will find some of them to be appealing characters, just regular men and women who are caught up in a large impersonal machine, and others to be classic assholes for whom flunking the attitude test was just the first in a series of life’s lessons ignored.


And I can tell you from personal experience.  Been there.  Done that.  I’ve defended them all, the druggie, the killers, the petty nuisance, the third time drunk driver with a job and a family to support, the combat veteran with a massive addiction, the pregnant prostitute, the nineteen year old kid who got caught in something that got out of hand, and the hardened sociopathic crazy who puts me, you, and everybody in the system at risk.


Hopefully, you will come to see, as I have, that the value of punishment and the possibility of redemption are linked with each other.  Almost everybody you meet in custody has a story.  Some of these people can be saved, and some of them will never find their way out.


When I was first a Public Defender attorney, twenty six years ago, it was our practice to conduct client interviews inside the old Santa Rita.  You may have heard the stories about East Graystone and West Graystone which were sub standard maximum security cellblocks, and the Compound, an open area where housing units contained military style barracks.  We would show up in the morning with a stack of blank interview files, be admitted to the Compound by ourselves, and the prisoners would line up and talk to us in the living units or outside in the open.  This practice wouldn’t be acceptable today.  Moreover, it now would be more dangerous.  Have times changed that much?  Yes, they have.


I can tell that the nature of the jail population has changed.  This, on average, is a more dangerous group of people.  It is important to ask ourselves — Why?  Are conditions that much worse?  What in the world is going on?


Not so long ago, I was walking back from the North County jail where I had seen a murder client.  Just behind me on the sidewalk was a woman in her twenties and her child, a girl about nine or ten.  The pair had obviously just visited a prisoner charged with felony assault.  “See,” the mother was saying to her girl, “if you cut somebody, you can end up in there.”   Now I want you to stop and think about that exchange, which, to me, spoke volumes about the deteriorating condition of our society.  The tone of the remark was flat, conversational.  There was no sense at all that the woman was communicating an event of moral significance.  It was as if she had said, “See those weeds, if you don’t cut the grass, that’s what your lawn will look like.”  The content of the remark was cooly practical, without moral judgement, something of the order – “If you go 45 on that street you will get a ticket.”


Now put yourself in that conversation.  You are talking to your own kid.  Someone you both know has knifed somebody and is in jail for felony 245.  Imagine what you would say and how you would probably say it.  First, consider your tone.  You would feel a gut reaction to the event, a sense perhaps captured in the “My God, how could John have done that?” or “I hope you never hang out with him!”  Every part of you would tend to communicate to your child that the act of assault itself was wrong.  Whatever your words, you would be speaking in a context in which the given was  –   We don’t do that. It is wrong.  What disturbed me about that mother’s remark is the context that it revealed, a context in which basic morality was simply absent, just as if you were talking about color to a blind man.


I contend that this was not an isolated sample from an atypical population.  This is like finding dry rot and a termite in your kitchen floor, then finding telltale powder along the bedroom walls, and in the bathroom.  There never is just one termite.  And make no mistake, this is our house we’re talking about.  My contention is that the foundations of civilization are being eaten away by something very sinister, something, that, in modern terms, is very much like a computer virus.  Let me explain.


It has been frequently argued that the continued existence of civilization depends on the rule of law.  That is true.  It is like saying that a house requires a foundation.  But that is not the whole story.  The rule of law itself stands on two pillars –  ultimate right and wrong, and legal integrity.  If either of these pillars is seriously weakened, then the whole structure tends to collapse.  These pillars are the general popular acceptance of two propositions:


(1) Ultimate right and wrong:  This is the idea that there is a higher source of morality, of right and wrong, that comes from an ultimate authority, a more objective, more powerful and more permanent basis for morality than mere human convention or invention.


(2) Legal integrity: This is the idea that the law, however imperfect it may be in detail and application, is based –  at least in its core content – on the ultimate right and wrong, and that the law, as such,  is as binding on the people who administer it as it is on the population at large.


Ultimate right and wrong and legal integrity.  These are the two pillars of law and civilization.  If they fully ever give way, civilization is over.  And you, the graduates of the Alameda County Sheriff’s one hundred and second Basic Academy, are on the front lines in a struggle to save civilization.  So, maybe a word of explanation about the value of civilization is in order.


First, some history.  There were two distinct times in this century when these twin pillars of civilization were profoundly weakened.  In 1917, in World War I pre-Communist Russia, the old order fell apart, the Tzar was removed from power.  Exhausted troops returned from the front.  Civil authorities tried to make democracy work, but they were irresolute.  Basic ideas of right and wrong were called into question and the law was ignored by those who were charged with its administration.  In 1932 pre-Nazi Weimar Germany, similar conditions occurred. The poisonous idea that morality was just a convenient fiction invented to keep the masses in line ran through intellectual circles like a computer virus.  The democratic authorities were confused, weak in their convictions and irresolute in action.  In both societies, Russian and Germany, homicidal tyranny followed.  Stalin and Hitler killed millions.  The horrendous negative consequences lasted generations.


Second, let’s fast forward to the present.  I believe we are at war.  We are facing a threat to the protecting web of traditions, relationships and institutions that provides order and predictability, that sustain the very environment necessary to allow our children and their children to live safe and productive lives.  Civilization is history and respect for history.  It is future and the respect for future. Protecting civilization is what you do.


When I talked about the twin pillars of civilization, the universal nature of morality and the integrity of law and justice, I did not mention money, and I did not mention jobs either.  I did not mention economic poverty.  That omission was intentional and I’ll return to that idea in a moment.


Those of us who have been paying attention to the history of the last thirty years have reason to be worried.  We have good reason to be concerned about the future of civilization and particularly concerned about the future of our local corner of civilization, the part that impacts our loved ones, our neighborhoods, our communities.


In large parts of this society, the moral compass is broken, in others, people wouldn’t know north from south because their compasses point only in one direction — immediate, predatory self advantage.


I believe that we are now and have been at war ever since the first fool who claimed to be a philosopher declared that morality was just an invention. That idea has eaten its way though the social fabric with the same effect as a computer virus corrupting an irreplaceable data base.  Those who believe in and support the pillars on which law and civilization rest are surrounded by millions of gnawing rats, of misguided intellectuals, and reckless idiots who are like the drunken sailors who build a bonfire in the hold of a wooden boat.


Let me give you eight examples of how one can light a fire in the bottom of a wooden boat:


  • Everybody does it.


  • She had it coming.


  • Hey, it was cool – they’ll never miss it.


  • Nobody’s going to find out.


  • Money can buy anything.


  • Only an idiot would tell the truth about that.


  • I had no choice.


  • Right and wrong? Get real!


Obviously this is an incomplete list, but you get the idea.


What makes a gradual moral deterioration like this dangerous is when there is nothing to stop the slide.  How many of the people under 25 in high crime areas actually believe that there is an ultimate right and wrong?  How many well-off latch key kids living in the suburbs do?  Go over the list of eight excuses, imagining you are conducting a poll.  The suburbs are a war zone, too.


This is not a pitched battle.  The lines are not clear.  You can’t walk two blocks in an core urban neighborhood or read two pages in a popular newspaper without encountering the enemy.  But apprehended and un-apprehended criminals themselves are just the sideshow.  Like the fever in the early stages of a septic infection, criminals are a consequence of the deeper sickness.  You take an aspirin, you fail to treat the disease, you feel better for a little while, then you die.  Money alone, whether given directly or in the form of free services, however important, is the aspirin.


This is a battle about the drop out of an entire moral framework.  I’m not talking about “moral compromise” here.  That implies  –  even requires  –  the existence of a moral framework in the first place, something to compromise from.  When I said earlier that I believe in the possibility of redemption, I was using the term very carefully.  Redemption requires recognition that you have committed a wrong.  If you lack the moral framework to recognize that you have committed a wrong, then redemption is technically impossible.  When we are talking about the complete absence of a meaningful moral framework, that is scary.


When I talked about a war, I wasn’t using hyperbole for effect.  I was serious.


This is, at its very root, not an economic problem, except to the extent that the abuse of large sums of money furthers the perception that all government and its system of justice is corrupt, a perception that has long lasting and tragic street consequences. No, I contend that the main cause of crime is the erosion of those two underpinnings or pillars of civilization I mentioned, which boil down to a belief in ultimate right and wrong and respect for that law and its institutions.  To blame economic poverty is to insult the honest poor.  We have always had poor folks.  The poorest parts of our society live at an economic level that by 1930’s depression standards would have counted as comfortable middle class.  And yet the crime rate  – especially of violent offenses – in the hardest hit depression areas in the United States in the 30’s was roughly comparable to our safer modern neighborhoods.  Crime breeds in an environment of poverty all right, but it is moral poverty, not economic poverty that is the fundamental issue.


So what can we do?  Sermonize at the prison population?  Not such a bad idea by itself, but I wish it were so easy.  You will find that in dealing with an inmate defendant population, as I have, the practical, low risk approach is to adopt a non-judgmental attitude.  It’s a little like the medical model.  The doctor doesn’t typically look at a gunshot victim and say – “You dumb asshole, what were you doing in that bank with a gun?”  And, frankly, Public Defender’s don’t often approach a client interview in that spirit either.


You will also learn that the easy prisoners and the difficult ones do not automatically sort out along lines of the seriousness of their cases.  That nice guy killed his wife.  That asshole stole a tire from Big O.  Go figure.


What can you do?   Be aware of the problem.  Know the nature of the war.  Be sure of your own ground.  If you conduct your life with integrity, if you believe in right and wrong, and in the essential value and soundness of our laws and legal institutions, if you are not ashamed or embarrassed by your beliefs, that will come through in a hundred ways you are not even conscious of.  If you accomplish nothing else but to do your job well and allow yourself to reveal that there is moral ground in your life and you are standing on it, you will advance the cause.  You can’t throw a lifeline if you are drowning yourself.


We are all soldiers in this war.  And our weapons are our beliefs, our integrity, the quality of our lives, and the quality of the relationships of the people we deal with.  And with your help, the good guys will win.


You have chosen an important calling at an important time in history.  Don’t let it end at the conclusion of your shift. Get involved in your community and stay in touch with the people you have sworn to serve and protect.  You owe that to your family.  You owe that to yourself.



If you lacked basic respect for the law, if you didn’t care about the future, if you thought that morality is just something some old dudes made up, you wouldn’t be in this place at this time celebrating this graduation.   Looking over this group, seeing your faces, and knowing the quality and the esprit of the institution you have joined, I know you picked the right job.  And I can tell that the Sheriff and his staff have picked the right people.


Sheriff, you have done very well with this graduating class indeed.  Congratulations and Godspeed.


I salute you.


Jay Gaskill has a major novel coming out. Read more at

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