Like a journalistic blast of fresh air as TMZ migrates to TV and O.J. mania pollutes newsrooms, Ted Koppel tackles the unforeseen consequences of California’s “three strikes” law on overcrowded prisons. The bracing two hours that follow are not pretty, raising fundamental questions about punishment vs. rehabilitation and a penal system that overtly employs segregation as a method to help maintain order. While Dan Rather blasts away at CBS in court, Koppel continues to distinguish himself as the last fully functioning practitioner among the elite anchors ushered in during the ’80s, providing Discovery with TV’s gold standard.
Koppel begins by talking to victims advocate Marc Klaas, whose daughter’s murder prompted his push for toughing sentencing. “As far as I’m concerned, you can stack these guys like cordwood, and you can keep them locked away forever,” Klaas says.
Yet as Koppel meticulously illustrates, no, you really can’t. The cost of incarcerating 173,000 men in facilities meant to accommodate 100,000 — at a cost of $43,000 annually per inmate — has repercussions not only for the convicts but also for a society that, in California, will soon spend more on prisons than on all its public colleges and universities.
The most jarring segment, however, deals with race. Almost out of sheer desperation given the overwhelming numbers involved, prisoners are divided into racial gangs as a form of controlling their behavior.
While well intended, “three strikes” has clearly helped clog the system, blunting or eliminating programs meant to thwart recidivism. The prevailing sense as Koppel speaks to prison officials, guards and inmates is one of profound depression, including several instances in which released cons transgress again almost immediately, unable to cope in the outside world.
As Koppel concedes near the end, potential solutions are “neither easy nor cheap,” and public hostility toward criminals hardly provides an incentive for office seekers or holders to improve the lot of the incarcerated.
Having explored a variety of undercovered topics — what’s really going on inside Iran, the unending terror war, the diagnosis of terminal cancer — Koppel is really generating longer versions of what he once regularly produced on “Nightline,” exhibiting a thoughtful quality that that program has long since abandoned with its irritating anchor trio and segmented format.
Each time “Koppel on Discovery” rears its head is good news for TV news, but with Rather so conspicuously on the sidelines, it’s especially nice to be reminded that Koppel not only escaped broadcast news but found a new home that keeps him on the inside looking out, not the other way around.