By Thomas McEnery
It was just about a year ago that Gregory Bickham stood on the sidewalk on East Santa Clara Street near the Medico-Dental Building. He had just returned from Oakland on BART and transferred to the County Transit bus. The near balmy summer night encouraged more than a few people to be outside even though it was nearly midnight. It had been a long day and he was anxious to get home.
In movies and books, blades flash in the night, but I scarcely think it was so for young Greg. He probably barely saw the knife; he was probably horribly oblivious. Raised as most of us to be gentle and passive, he bled to death on the street shortly before midnight. Gregory Bickham was just 27.
San Jose is coming to expect high crime rates and random violence as easily as our morning paper. In our city the rate of violent crime accelerates at an astronomical rate. In the last year, we have had 78 murders, a record of dubious and disturbing distinction. It prompts endless talk. Reforms and modifications to our criminal justice system are the rage of all the politicians and columnists. Our jail, like all jails across the nation, is overcrowded. Crime has replaced the weather as being the thing everyone talks about, but nobody does anything about.
The moral equivalent of war on crime is being lost on many fronts. It is lost when conscientious people advocate parks instead of police, in an environment where many of our parks are unsafe and unusable. It is lost by recent controversies over rehabilitation programs, where child molesters, rapists and murderers have more statistical chance of repeating their offenses than if they had received prison terms. It is lost in the nuances of a criminal justice system where the truth is often suppressed by “exclusionary rules” and sundry other machinations and delays that guarantee anything but swift justice to accused or victim.
The new laws that arise from Sacramento sound good, read well, and get excellent if fleeting media coverage. Yet the goal is missed. The idyll of a time when citizens could walk the streets without Guardian Angels or engage in the ultimate civility of sitting on their front porch, watching the world go by, is gone. I fear forever gone. I miss those days. This is an era of pistols under pillows. We take Draconian actions against the Libyans, but at home we lack resolve against our own terrorists. Billions for defense, but little for real security. I believe we lack the will to be safe.
A Gulag Archipelago has been created in California centered in cities like San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Under the guise of “community care” and “rehabilitation in the mainstream”, politicians and administrators have released violent criminals and helpless victims to live amongst us, unseparate and unequal. We join the latter category. General mayhem results.
There never has been a coherent philosophy. There is none now. A comprehensive program would entail more police, more district attorneys, and public defenders, and, yes, more jails – many more. Money must be provided and priorities reset – now.
The complex solutions have been attempted, and in this imperfect world, they have failed dismally. Perhaps the simple approach is needed. An approach that removes violent people from our streets. Goethe said that youth is a disease that time cures. Perhaps the one thing statistics prove about criminals is that age tempers them. Criminals should stay a long time in prison. Cruel and unusual punishment? I think not. What do the courts think of the cruel and unusual punishment of a Gregory Bickham? Our society is failing in the primary responsibility of allowing our citizens to live in security and without fear. The modern Cossacks are sacking our cities as surely as they did any village of Europe, and the stench of fear is everywhere in the air. This responsibility, not any questionable rehabilitation, must take precedence in the minds of public officials and jurists.
In San Jose, I want to correlate additional policemen to the response time for violent crimes. I want to eliminate the politics of public safety while supplying the resources to provide real security. This “policing by objectives” should be applied elsewhere in the criminal justice system. District attorneys, probation officers, and parole boards should be judges on accomplishments, an accountability for their actions. It seems a reasonable request. Violent repeat offenders are irresponsible. Let us at long last hold parole boards and others responsible. Some people belong in jail. They should not live with gentle people, people who enjoy sitting on their front porches and talking about the future or young men who stand at bus stops. A coherent philosophy must protect the future. Greg Bickham was that future and he is gone.
Last month Anthony Ruiz was sentenced in Superior Court building on North Market Street. He was convicted previously for armed robbery and released a year ago in the spring. A malignant fate placed him at the bus stop on East Santa Clara Street last summer, four months after his release. Perhaps the blade flashed for his eyes. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder; he will probably receive another sojourn at a correctional institution. There are thousands of Anthonys in our institutions. Many more wander our streets. Anthony Ruiz is just 17 years old. He is complex. I feel very helpless. I have often stood on that bus stop. I do not want to avoid the simple answers any more.
I am sorry for Anthony Ruiz, I grieve for Gregory Bickham.
Thomas McEnery is a San Jose city councilman.