Sheriff Lee Baca has a reputation as a compassionate intellectual, which makes it hard to understand how he could run a brutal jail system. This week's L.A. Weekly cover story
attempts to make sense of that disconnect by getting inside his unusual mind.
To do that, the Weekly tracked down Baca's doctoral thesis. It is sitting on a shelf at USC's Doheny Memorial Library. Much of Baca's intellectual reputation rests on his Ph.D., yet his dissertation appears never to have been opened. Some of the pages are still bound together.
Baca is known as an unconventional thinker, but the conclusion of his thesis may be the strangest one he ever had. After 20 years, it still seems shocking: Incest should be decriminalized.
Baca was a 50-year-old sheriff's captain when he did the project. He believed then -- and likely still believes -- that the criminal justice system did a poor job of handling incest cases. That much is hard to dispute. He cites a statistic indicating that 15% of reported crimes resulted in prosecution.
But from there, his mind wanders into uncharted terrain: "Incest should be optionally decriminalized to facilitate treatment of victims and perpetrators," he writes.
He acknowledges that this is not the prevailing view. In fact, he does not cite anyone else who thinks it's a good idea. But he argues that treating incest as a crime "poses a significant problem" because it makes it harder to repair damaged families.
"The law considers incest a felony and, when someone is arrested for a felonious crime, the criminal justice system does its best to convict and incarcerate the offender," Baca writes. "This usually compromises the perpetrators who need treatment for their problem and who some day will return to their homes."
Having gone that far, Baca plunges even further ahead, suggesting that decriminalization would be better for victims, too. Criminal investigations, he says, "have created more problems for the daughter-victim than the abuse itself."
Baca also contends that a new approach is required because perpetrators are rarely able to admit what they have done.
"Once exposed, fathers appear to be unable to face the consequences of their incestuous behavior under the criminal justice model of accountability," Baca argues. "Perhaps a non-penal institution form punishment-therapy (sic) is more appropriate for offenders."
In the above paragraph, he seems to suggest that incarceration is primarily intended to benefit the incarcerated. If it doesn't, he suggests trying something else. Any other societal benefits -- deterrence, justice, protection -- are discounted or ignored. While elsewhere he does show genuine empathy for victims, it's his empathy for the perpetrators that stands out.
Catherine Burke, a USC professor who sat on Baca's dissertation committee, says he was motivated to study incest by traumatic situations he had witnessed during his police career.
"He's an outside-the-box thinker," Burke says. "These are probably the most hated people there are. He was trying to see if you could start working with people like that, that are utterly despised, could you save families?"
Baca originally set out to research the issue by sending questionnaires to incest victims, asking them to reflect upon their experiences and share their emotional reactions. Baca drew up a form letter, which began "Dear Incest Survivor," urging the subjects to participate.
The survey itself asked intensely personal questions of the kind that researchers typically ask face-to-face in a clinical setting. Participants were given three lines to answer this one: "During the period in your life when the sexual activity with your father -- including intercourse -- was happening, what kind of feelings were you experiencing?"
If that proved insufficient, the next question gave a range of feelings to choose from: "ashamed," "good," "helpless," "powerful," "happy," "unhappy," "hated," "loved," "angry," "impaired."
Participants were also invited to explain how the abuse had affected their "total person," with suggestions including, "I am a passive agent," "It brought me closer to my father" and "It makes me cry a lot."
One question alluded to Baca's hypothesis: "Do you believe that your father should be punished for having engaged with you in sexual activities, including intercourse?"
The survey was never sent because the Sheriff's Department did not provide Baca access to victims' identities and contact information. Instead, Baca was allowed to analyze 100 police reports.
Baca's research has little to do with his conclusion. He does find that only 34% of suspects confessed, while 56% of victims are placed in foster care or sent to juvenile hall. He does not find any evidence suggesting a therapeutic approach would be more successful and less traumatic. That does not, however, undermine his confidence in it.
"The emphasis should be shifted from a criminal-punishment approach to one of treating sick fathers, treating severely damaged victim-daughters, and salvaging shattered families that have experienced incest," he writes in summation. He also suggests setting up "halfway houses" for accused fathers.
Baca does not address any objections to his proposed policy. For instance, the law treats child abuse as a crime regardless of whether the defendant is related to the victim. Baca's proposal would set up two systems for addressing the same crime, with fathers getting treatment and all other molesters getting prison time.
It's also not clear why Baca believes that it would be easier to commit fathers to treatment facilities than to state prison. Both approaches would require evidence and proof.
Despite its shortcomings, the thesis does provide a window into Baca's mind. What it shows is an abundance of empathy and a lack of practical judgment.
Baca declined to discuss his thesis with the Weekly.
He completed the dissertation and was awarded his Ph.D. in 1992. Once he was elected sheriff, 6 years later, he did not make any attempt to implement his ideas about incest cases. Some ideas are too far outside the box, even for him.
Some highlights from the dissertation: