Sunday, March 15, 2009

Special Edition: Punishment Beyond Borders: California Corrections and Criminal Deportation

(image courtesy of Brian Concannon's excellent Haiti Justice Blog)

I have just returned from a week in Jeremie, Haiti, with the Hastings to Haiti Partnership (HHP). The program is based on a collaboration between UC Hastings and the Ecole Superieure Catholique de Droit de Jeremie (ESCDROJ), a law school operating under difficult conditions and devoted to public interest. The two law schools hold a joint conference in Jeremie, in which students and faculty present topics of interest. This year, we had a chance to conduct a criminal case simulation, as well as meet with individual law students to discuss their research interests and help them out with comparative materials.

The experience was rather interesting given our California Corrections Conference coming up next week. As disturbing and problematic as our prison overcrowding issues are, the prison conditions in Haiti in general, and in Jeremie in particular, are so much worse. Our students, who visited the prison to interview inmates, as well as local activists, church figures, and professionals, tell of conditions so dire they can hardly be imagined, which seem to have worsened over the last few years. With the number of inmates per cell sometimes exceeding forty, the men have no room to sleep, and have to sleep standing up, like farm animals. This sometimes takes months, as the legal system is highly corrupted and it takes months before a given prisoner gets to see a judge for the first time. Sometimes, people are held in these dire circumstances with only very flimsy evidence against them. As we were told by the local assistant prosecutors, the Haitian civil law system is not conducive to plea bargaining, so even pleading guilty to alleviate or shorten this misery is not an option. There are good people, both in Haiti and abroad, who are working hard to change this situation, such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, but things at this point look very grim. While at Haiti, I gave a talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment, and some of the local students reflected on the lessons from the study as they apply to local prison conditions; if social situations create a prisoner's master status and self image, there is no hope for rehabilitation for any of the Jérémie inmates.

One of the Haitian students I met is writing his memoir (a research project required for graduation, akin to a Master's thesis) on the causes of crime in Haiti, and is focusing on the issue of criminal deportees from the United States. He points out that the deportees are treated horribly upon arrival, which is not conducive to rehabilitation. Michelle Karshan from Alternative Chance/Chans Alternatif, who advocates for Haitian criminal deportees, reports that they are often held in horrifying health conditions and do not receive food.

What does this have to do with our correctional system here in California? I have been thinking about two main issues. The first is the change in CDCR policies regarding criminal deportees who return to the US. As reported on the CDCR website:

In 2007, CDCR turned over approximately 12,000 paroled criminal aliens, who committed a crime in our state while here illegally, to the federal government for deportation upon completion of their state prison sentence. Of those 12,000, nearly 1,600 deported parolees illegally returned to California. California’s only recourse was to further clog our prisons by imposing short revocation terms – usually four to eight months – for a parole violation on these repeat offenders.

In the spirit of creative solutions for overcrowding, from now on, such returning deportees will not be under parole supervision in California. Instead, they will be turned over to the Federal government. This is not to say that law enforcement will not continue to track them down;

The motivation for the change in policy is, to a great extent, fiscal:

The policy is expected to reduce California’s average daily prison population by up to 1,000 inmates annually, resulting in up to $10 million savings per year from the state’s prison and parole budgets. CDCR expects to spend approximately $970.1 million in total in 2008-09 for the incarceration of undocumented persons. The state expects to receive $110.9 million in federal State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) funding for 2008-09.

My second reflection on the situation sprang from the proximity of our Haiti visit to the CCC conference. If inmates in developing countries are held under much worse conditions than our own, does this mean we should direct our efforts to help those people before working to improve conditions closer to home? Or is the case that, paraphrasing Rashi, "the poor people of your own town come first"?

I've already pondered these questions elsewhere, and Patrick O'Donnell's excellent comment there directed me to some readings on global distributive justice. As Patric argues in his comment, quite convincingly, "[i]n fact, given the enormous global disparaties of welfare and well-being or respective points on 'quality of life' indices, there's much that can be done to help out those in emerging polities and so-called developing countries even if the bulk of our efforts are focused on what's close at hand." In addition, I think that our hightened sensitivity to the fate of the weaker links in society will, in time, also increase our empathy to people in dire conditions across the globe.

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