Wednesday, January 27, 2016

More on Governor Brown's Sentencing Initiative

This is a follow-up to my initial comments on the proposed initiative, titled The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016,  I've had a chance to read the text, and also to peruse my rockstar colleague David Ball's terrific comments.

There are basically two parts to the reform. One of them, which I covered in my previous commentary, is the move away from determinate sentencing and toward parole hearings--and as I said in my previous post, this is only a good thing insofar as we believe that parole commissioners will make better decisions than prosecutors. Granted, any decision that takes into account the particular individual's situation is better than a rubber stamp based on severity of the offense, one's rap sheet, and these two factors alone, but I have come to see the way parole boards exercise unfettered discretion regarding lifers as something to worry about, and would like to see some supervision and standards (not to mention more training) for commissioners.

The other part is the abolition of direct filing and placing the decision whether to try a juvenile as an adult in the hands of the court, not the prosecutor. As Ball points out, the numbers are pretty small, but for the individual, how discretion is applied could matter a great deal.

I remain overall optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this--but only to the extent that we're not merely transferring the exercise of unfettered discretion from one actor to another without thinking about effective guidelines and supervision for its application.

BREAKING NEWS: Brown's Proposed Sentencing Reform Pulls Us Back to the Future

Just two days after the Supreme Court's encouraging decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana and President Obama's announcement of a solitary confinement overhaul in the federal system, comes this astounding piece of news from Governor Brown:

Forty years after signing strict, fixed-term sentencing standards into law – and more than a decade after panning them as an “abysmal failure” – Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday proposed a ballot measure to make it easier for nonviolent offenders to gain parole.
In a rebuke of criminal enhancements that can dramatically extend prison terms, the measure would let felons convicted of nonviolent offenses seek parole after serving only their base sentences. It would also restructure what Brown called a “crazy quilt” of credits for good behavior, benefiting prisoners who demonstrate evidence of rehabilitation. 
The initiative language would also undo provisions of Proposition 21, the measure approved by voters in 2000 that allows prosecutors rather than judges to decide when teenagers are tried as adults. Brown will need valid signatures from 585,407 registered voters to qualify the measure for the November ballot. 
Brown, announcing the measure in a conference call with reporters, said the “determinate sentencing” law he signed when he was governor before “had unintended consequences." 
"Unintended consequences" is right. The original pioneering California move in the late 1970s to determinate sentencing was a bipartisan collaboration between conservatives, who were concerned that light sentences amounted to coddling offenders, and progressives, who were concerned about the arbitrariness of parole powers and about its disparate impact on poor people and minorities. The last forty years in California, if seven years' worth of posts on this blog haven't made it clear, have been a very, very bad idea.
“And one of the key unintended consequences was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves,” he said, “because they had a certain date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward for turning their lives around.”
Though his measure would not change sentencing standards, Brown said “it does recognize the virtue of having a certain measure of indeterminacy in the prison system.”
“The driver of individual incentive, recognizing that there are credits to be earned and there’s parole to be attained, is quite a driver,” he said. 
The announcement of the initiative was the first specific sign of how Brown plans to involve himself in the November ballot measure campaigns. The fourth-term governor holds a campaign war chest of about $24 million.
Asked if he would finance the initiative, Brown said he will do “whatever it takes to get this done.” 
Brown will enjoy a relatively favorable electorate, with high turnout for a presidential election typically benefiting Democratic politicians and their causes. 
California voters in recent years have demonstrated a willingness to move away from tough-on-crime policies. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for some drug and property crimes. Two years earlier, voters passed Proposition 36, revising “three strikes” to require that the third strike be a violent or serious felony. 
The initiative is likely to face opposition from some conservatives. State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a prepared statement that “weakening the criminal justice system will only increase the victimization of California citizens.” 
Brown said the ballot measure’s proposal followed “intense conversation” with law enforcement groups, representatives of which joined him on his conference call.
Brown said he considered including violent offenders in the initiative but that it “met with, I would say, near-universal disinterest” from law enforcement. 
“It became a nonstarter,” he said. 
Brown, who helped create the state’s “determinate sentencing” system when he was governor before, has said for years that it should be revisited. In a speech to judges in Sacramento in November, Brown said he didn’t foresee the dramatic impact determinate sentencing would have on the growth of California’s prison population. The policy scaled back judicial discretion in prison sentences.
I haven't seen the full text yet [UPDATE: I just read it--here it is--and am posting a follow-up], and will of course comment in depth when I do, but I think some preliminary remarks are in order:


  1. In many ways, the last forty years made us smarter than we were in 1977. We know that Martinson's somber prediction that "nothing works" in rehabilitation was not true, and that doing rehabilitation properly can reduce recidivism. And we also know that determinate sentencing, and that treating kids as adults, achieves little in the way of equality and streamlining and plenty in the way of packing prisons.
  2. Another way in which we're smarter now is that we understand that discretion doesn't go away--it merely moves around. What we did in 1977 was shift it from the hands of judges and parole boars to the hands of prosecutors and legislatures--to the point that some commentators, like John Pfaff and the always fabulous Grits for Breakfast, attribute mass incarceration primarily to prosecutorial charging decisions gone amok.
  3. But let's not throw the baby with the bathwater. One of the reasons California moved away from determinate sentencing in the first place was concern about unfettered discretion by judges and parole boards. Even now, when parole hearings are relegated to lifers, the board enjoys a lot of discretion and very little transparency. My research for my book in progress about the parole hearings of the Manson family members, Yesterday's Monsters, shows the very limited responsiveness of the parole board to the California Supreme Court's supervision, and if we want to get the good stuff (incentives to rehabilitate, shorter sentences) without the bad stuff (discrimination and arbitrariness) we need to design parole in a smarter way. With great power, Spiderman's uncle reminds us, comes great responsibility, and there are no guarantees that parole boards are much better than prosecutors in the discretion department.
  4. Note the humonetarianism theme throughout the proposal. Just like in the initiative on juvenile justice, the language relies heavily on the issue of cost.
  5. So, what happens to the California Penal Code if this passes? Do we rewrite felony sentencing to eliminate the "triad" and affix broad ranges to allow judges discretion? This is going to be a massive redrafting job, but quite an interesting one, and how successful it is depends on how  controlled it might be by partisan politics.
  6. Finally, the article talks about the possible broad support by California voters--the same ones that voted, by large majority, to make lots of punitive changes that we regret to this day. And it may well be that, beyond cost, one of the major reasons that the Republican lawmaker's it's-a-scary-world retort falls flat is that crime rates are low. Very low compared to what our predecessors in 1977 were facing. It may be the case that it's time to put aside the hubris and conclude that crime rates, like the weather, happen for a variety of causes, of which sentencing reform is only one, and that our decisionmaking process should not sway to and fro every time the pendulum swings.



Monday, January 25, 2016

SCOTUS Offers Hope for Lifers Without Parole Sentenced When They Were Juveniles

In 1963, Henry Montgomery killed a police officer. His murder conviction in Louisiana, for "guilty without capital punishment", carried a mandatory life without parole sentence. That is, under Louisiana law, Montgomery could not present mitigating evidence--he was automatically sentenced to life without parole. At the time the crime was committed, Montgomery was 17 years old. Today he is 70 years old, and he's been in prison ever since.

In 2009, decades after Montgomery's sentence, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, which rendered mandatory life without parole statutes unconstitutional insofar as they apply to juveniles. The decision was one of several decisions, starting with Roper v. Simmons, which incorporated insights from developmental psychology into criminal justice. We now know that the brain continues developing well into our mid-twenties, and that impulse control, resistance to peer pressure, and the ability to consider long-term goals  are not quite there yet for juveniles. So, sentencing them to a lengthy period of time, without option to reconsider, now seems unjust in light of what we know of their cognitive capabilities.

But what about people who were sentenced to automatic life without parole before Miller v. Alabama? Thousands of these folks, who were teenagers when they were sentenced, are now middle-aged or even elderly (certainly by prison standards.) Many of them have spent most of their life in jail. Should their sentences be reconsidered? In other words, does Miller apply retroactively? This morning, the Supreme Court ruled that it does--and that states who used to apply these schemes to juveniles should now award them remedial parole hearings to reconsider their possible release.

The technical question at the heart of Montgomery has to do with the retroactivity rules. Imagine a situation in which a criminal justice rule is changed in a way that could benefit defendants.
Under constitutional doctrine in a case called Teague v. Lane, defendant no. 1, whose case hasn't even started yet, will of course benefit from the new rule, which applies prospectively. Defendant no. 2's case is still alive--that is, it's undergoing an appellate process or the time to appeal hasn't run out yet--and because the case is not "final" yet, she will also benefit from the rule change. But Defendant no. 3, whose case has already become final--which is to say, she exhausted her direct appeals, or the time to appeal has run out--will not be able to benefit from the rule change. There are two exceptions to this doctrine: the new rule will apply retroactively if it is either a "substantive rule of Constitutional Law", which includes  “rules forbidding criminal punishment of certain primary conduct,” as well as “rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense” or a "watershed rule of criminal procedure", which is to say, a very momentous change (most rules are not that important; when SCOTUS thinks of such a rule, they think about things like the right to counsel and somesuch.)

According to the today's ruling, Teague v. Lane applies not only to federal defendants on habeas, but also to defendants like Montgomery, who have been using their state's collateral proceedings. Or, as Justice Kennedy stated for the majority,
The Court now holds that when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule. Teague’s conclusion establishing the retroactivity of new substantive rules is best understood as resting upon constitutional premises. That constitutional command is, like all federal law, binding on state courts.
The rule in Miller is, according to the majority, a "substantive rule of Constitutional Law", as it doesn't merely address process--it addresses the question whether a certain category of punishment (in this case, mandatory life without parole) is applicable to a certain category of people (in this case, juveniles.) It stems from the string of cases that recognized that children are different from adults in their “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” These differences mean that imposing automatic LWOP on children “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.” While the decision has a procedural component--the need to hold a hearing before imposing LWOP on juveniles--it is, in essence, a substantive statements that juveniles should simply not be subject to that category of punishment. The Court is not concerned about the extent to which this hinders finality--in this case, the state really can no longer exercise its punitive power by sending juveniles to prison for the rest of their lives without discretion, and once there is a social agreement there, finality arguments really do not apply.

The Court also gives states that used to have mandatory LWOP schemes for juveniles a corrective path: they should award people who are currently serving time under these schemes for crimes committed when they were juveniles an appropriate opportunity to be heard and to provide evidence for their rehabilitation, in which their young age at the time they committed the crime (and all we know about the implications of age to development) shall be taken into account.

Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas dissented, on the grounds that the Court had no jurisdiction to decide the case and that its classification of the Miller rule as a substantive rule was overbroad beyond the original intent in Teague.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

No New Jail in San Francisco... Now What?

The long-standing debate about the construction of an alternative to San Francisco's Jail no. 4 at 850 Bryant ended yesterday with a victory for the jail opponents. The supervisors declined to allocate funding to the new building. The advocates who fought against the new jail tooth and nail took to social media to proclaim their victory.

Unfortunately, the alternative--keeping the situation as it is--does not strike me as something to feel particularly victorious about. As I told the Chronicle the day before the vote, the outcome is dismal either way.

The anti-jail advocates are right in saying that we have been housing people that should not have been incarcerated in the first place, and that the high percentage of people with mental illness in the jail suggests that what we need is a mental institution, not a correctional one. They are also right in fearing the construction of a building with more capacity, because our collective experience with incarceration is that new beds tend to fill with new inmates.

I'm sympathetic to these arguments, but they are also somewhat short-sighted. An increase in incarceration is not the only evil under the sun. Unsound, unhealthy incarceration conditions are very problematic as well. Since the existing jail is seismically unsound and dilapidated, the result of the anti-jail victory is basically a temporary return to the status quo, which is dangerous and undesirable. And in the long run, if Jail no. 4 ceases to be operative and there's no alternative, the concern is that other jails will become overcrowded and unhealthy.

This is not the first adverse incentive of the move to close down prisons. When prison budgets are cut without an equivalent reduction in prison populations, what you get is less prisons and more overcrowding in existing, inadequate facilities. 

So, what's to be done? The only way out of this maze of bad alternatives is to do the hard work of an empirical survey. Let's analyze the San Francisco jail population. How many people are there because of a sick money bail system who could otherwise be out on O.R.? How many people should be receiving medical treatment that they can better get in a medical facility? How many people are doing long, realignment-type time in an institution unsuited for a lengthy stay? A budget cut on its own does not lead to a cut in incarceration. It's time, indeed, to move to another system of rationing punishment: return on investment.

Fueling the mental health system and reforming the money bail system (hopefully by legislating the bail bonds industry out of existence) costs money. Possibly a lot of it. But it has to be properly budgeted and invested. Just saying "no" without providing, and budgeting for, a viable alternative, may be touted as a victory, but it leaves San Francisco jail inmates in the lurch.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Reiter on Solitary Confinement

Keramet Reiter of UC Irvine has recently done a Q&A with the Berkeley Human Rights Center on solitary confinement, her topic of expertise and focus of her forthcoming book.

Will the recent court settlement in California lead to any significant change in regard to solitary confinement practices?
Two big challenges with isolation in particular are that it’s been a very secretive process and there has been significant discretion over what circumstances and for how long people are sent to isolation….Now, under the recent settlement, you have to do something wrong instead of just being labeled a gang member and isolation terms are capped at five years. So that’s an improvement. But you still don’t have a right to a lawyer at the administrative hearing in which people decide whether you’ve done something wrong or not. The prison staff have a lot of control over what counts as a rule violation and who they charge with violations. Five years is a long time, and you’re under really intense scrutiny when you’re in isolation, and it’s easy to break more rules because of that.

Read the whole thing here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Podcast Review: Serial

On the last episode of the acclaimed podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig speaks to a retired police detective and asks him whether any murder case would raise the difficult questions raised by the case she focuses on. The detective replies that most cases are straightforward and few would present so many difficulties.

But is that true? It's hard to tell. After all, in his book In Doubt, Dan Simon provides a conservative estimate of the percentage of wrongful convictions: about 4-5% of all convictions. Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Adnan Syed, thinks that his conviction for the 1999 murder of his high-school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, is one of those. She enlists Sarah Koenig and the team to investigate, and they spend hours upon hours reinterviewing witnesses, digging up forensic evidence, and recreating the crime.

Indeed, Serial, and the subsequent show by Syed supporters Undisclosed, have raised considerable public interest in Syed's case, which had only provoked some local interest at the time. And the latest news are that Syed has been granted a hearing to present new evidence. Which leaves me wondering the same thing that Koenig asked the detective: how many other cases, murder or otherwise, would merit a rehearing if they received the benefit of hours of careful, NPR-quality attention?

In his famous 1965 essay Normal Crimes, David Sudnow shows how defense attorneys manage to dispose of cases in negotiation with prosecutors. Their professional expertise allows them to fit each case to an existing prototype of cases, thus facilitating the attachment of a "price list" to each case. This means that the cases don't really receive individual attention, leaving the bulk of professional time and attention for the few "abnormal" cases that go to trial. Whenever we hear about a dramatic exoneration, what we envision is someone who had been aggressively litigating and protesting for years, and who had been railroaded by the police and prosecution.

The interesting thing about Serial is that it doesn't try to tell one of those stories. I wouldn't go as far as to call it a "normal crime", but the show drags into the limelight what would appear to be fairly run-of-the-mill in terms of criminal trials. It is not a defense-oriented, the-government-is-the-worst-criminal sort of narrative that we're used to hearing in cases of serious miscarriage of justice, such as the West Memphis Three and so many others. No one is particularly at their best, but no one seems to be at their absolute worst, either. Yes, there's some racism; there's some unexplained defense behavior (this is important, because habeas review is almost impossible without proof of ineffective assistance of counsel); but none of it rises to the level of shock we've been used to experience when reading Innocence Project stories.

To me, that's the strength of Serial: showing the banality of a situation in which the factual disposition remains unclear. And it does so through Koenig's persona, who remains agnostic about the facts. In a way, Koenig is a stand-in for a diligent juror; she repeatedly refers to procedural and technical details as "boring", and classifies the evidence into "bad for Adnan" and "good for Adnan". Her congenial, soft manner never pushes the witnesses to the point of big revelations (to the extent that those are even possible, fifteen years after the crime.) When she says, at the end of the series, that she feels like shaking up the witnesses "like an aggravated cop", you almost wish she had done that in the previous eleven episodes.

And yet, it is precisely this softness and indecisiveness that lends the show its charm and magic. I haven't yet listened to Undisclosed, and I'm hesitant to do so, because Koenig's agnosticism makes me feel more respected and active than an enraged partisan party trying to enlist me to Syed's defense. Which brings me to another thought: what Koenig is trying to accomplish resembles the role of the inquisitor judge in a civil law country: impartial, out there to find out What Happened. The adversarial system calls for partisanship under the assumption that the competition between the parties will yield the best evidence. But the resulting games of obfuscation result in anything but, and Koenig's interviews with the jurors reveal just how much they were manipulated by the parties throughout the trial--regardless of whether they reached the factually correct answer.

I don't know what will happen to Syed now that his case has been picked up. But I wish that many more seemingly simple, run-of-the-mill cases received this careful attention--if not from investigative journalists then from more active jurors and with less partisan manipulation.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Film Review: Ant-Man




Future posts will definitely feature some of these interesting things, but today I want to talk about the movie I saw on the flight to DC: Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man. This is not an indie documentary for bleeding-heart progressives who can wax poetic about the prison industrial complex. It’s a mainstream movie, featuring CGI animation, superpowers, gloom, doom, and beautiful people, and as such it is remarkable, because it represents what the filmmakers think the mainstream is open to seeing and accepting onscreen. And what it shows them is a skewed and flawed, and yet refreshing, slice of incarceration and reentry in the Bay Area.

Set in San Francisco, the film’s hero, Scott Lang, starts his journey in prison—notably, not a generic, imagined institution, but an imagined version of the very real San Quentin. And it’s a very different cinematic San Quentin than the one in which Oscar Grant spends an important scene in Fruitvale Station; one that resembles Justice Scalia's dark fantasies more than it resembles the actual prison we know. Scott’s first scene in Ant-Man sees him engage in a violent fight with another inmate. The many spectators, as well as Scott’s adversary, are large, black, muscular men. But then, the tension breaks, and it becomes obvious that Scott is on friendly terms with his adversary; we are told that this is some sort of rite of passage in honor of Scott’s impending release. Smiling, Scott says to his fellow inmates, “you have strange rituals.”

“You”, not “us”; because early on it is fairly clear that Scott is a special sort of inmate, one for which filmgoers will feel sympathy: he is a conventionally good-looking white man, armed with graduate education (a master’s degree in electric engineering), and his criminal history is that of a high-level hack for the morally allowable purpose of redistributing wealth. In short, Scott is a non-non-non if there ever was one, and we all root for him as he is released—be it because he terms out or because of Realignment.

But even with this relatively privileged starting point, Scott finds it difficult to cope outside. We see him shack up with friends, all of whom are formally incarcerated, and expressing hope of finding a suitable job soon. But his hopes are shattered: he manages to obtain an entry-level job at Baskin Robbins, where he is summarily fired by an unfeeling boss. Not for smart-mouthing a client (which he does, and which would be unthinkable to, say, an uneducated man of color competing for unskilled labor positions); for having a criminal history. Ban the Box, apparently, only gets one through the door; it doesn’t keep him there. And this is a crisis for Scott, who has to provide for, and win back the right to visit, his young daughter. His ex-wife is engaged to a cop, and both of them think of Scott as the deadbeat dad he is. We, however, know better; we’re rooting for Scott, and that’s partly because we haven’t been exposed to his ex-wife’s travails through his trial and incarceration. But we also learn a lesson: when someone is saddled with a criminal record and a history of incarceration, all the whiteness and the education in the world won’t help. It almost goes without saying that this message is deeply flawed. Race, class, and education make a big difference in reentry—as does another thing Scott has going for him, a supportive family. But it drives home the heavy penalty of incarceration and a criminal history with regard to someone with whom some middle-class moviegoers might identify.

It is this economic desperation, rather than a personality flaw, that leads Scott back into crime with his housemates—all of whom, except for him, are either men of color or immigrants with heavy accents. The film plays fast and loose with stereotypes, which is par for the course for sidekicks in a comic book. They are capable men, but they are capable in limited ways, and only as assistants to Scott, whose competence and ability are played up in the sophisticated heist they plan. The film occasionally takes pleasure in breaking these stereotypes; Luis’s unfocused chatter and confused narratives include references to his visits to a museum and enjoyment of Mark Rothko oils. But even when doing so, the Bay Area scenes that fly before our eyes as Luis describes the potential heist place him squarely within the imagined East Bay working class colorful subculture of dive bars, bikers, chicks and shady contacts. Luis has the info and the contacts, but he is not the brain of the operation.

The scenes depicting the heist planning elevate Scott and his accomplices to the coveted status of garage startup techies, and it is this subtle analogy that portrays them at their most competent and heroic. This nod to Silicon Valley reminded me of The Last Mile and other programs encouraging the involvement of folks of low income and education in the tech world upon their release. The film makes it clear, though, that reentry is not kind to any of our heroes, and if they are to make their way in the world, they must do so themselves. And so, their entrepreneurship is modeled after the “innovate first, ask questions later” model of South Bay, and sold as admirable and competent.

As viewers of the film know, the heist goes awry, and a chain of events is set in motion that sets Scott up to becoming “ant man”: a superhero capable of shrinking to the size of an ant. The adventure, villains, goals, and betrayals, are fairly predictable for the genre. What is less predictable, and surprisingly touching, is the ant metaphor, and how it connects to the incarceration and reentry theme from the movie.

Ants are eusocial insects. They are indistinguishable from each other. The inventor who employs Scott refers to them by numbers, not by names. When Scott complains, the inventor explains, “they are just numbers; do you have any idea how many ants they are?” We treat ants, apparently, the way we treat people in total institutions; we see them as a population, not as individuals deserving of life, health, and happiness. But Scott, reduced to the size of an ant, sees them as individuals, and names one of them Anthony. He learns from the inventor’s daughter how to control the ants with his mind by becoming part of the eusocial structure. Thus, the ants’ impersonality and collective organization is their great advantage. When one is struck down, ten rise in its stead (in fact, Anthony is struck in one of the final raids; Scott regrets it, but hops over and rides another ant in its stead). And together, because of their commitment to the collective wellbeing of the community, they are invincible.

It is notable that the penultimate scene in the movie marshals some of the laughable stereotypes for the beginning to marshal the ant metaphor of community and apply it to the formerly incarcerated. Luis tells a convoluted story yet again; but the bottom line of the story is that an indirect contact wants Scott to join the Avengers: “We need a guy that shrinks”. It is through this informal Bay Area network that an opportunity awaits our superhero. Because, like ants, the people who exit our prisons may look to policymakers, jailers, and employers all the same, and it might be easy to discount them—but when they look out for each other and act collectively, that is the source of their strength.