Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fresno County Jail Frees Parole Violators
Fresno & Valley News
No room in Fresno Co. Jail for parole violators
Posted: 11/26/2011 10:29 PM

In another sign that Fresno County is struggling to manage more criminals, the sheriff has ordered that state parole violators no longer will be held at the county jail.

The parolees, who were once sent to state prison if they got into trouble, are now sent to local jails instead – part of the state's recent realignment of the penal system. But in Fresno County, where the jail already is crowded, the Sheriff's Office has determined there's no room for the former convicts.

State parole officials, acknowledging counties are being asked to do more under the realignment, say they'll try to find other ways to deal with problem parolees.

Orders to not lock them up began Thanksgiving Day. While the jail has long been releasing inmates early because of the lack of space, the directive to turn away parolees only reinforces concerns that criminals aren't serving the time they should.

"They're out in the community and they're violating their parole, and when there's no consequence for violating, that's going to be a public safety issue," said Kelly Keenan, chief assistant district attorney for Fresno County.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: Inside This Place, Not Of It

A new title from Voice of Witness, Inside This Place, Not Of It, provides a series of narratives based on interviews with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. The book personalizes the background stories of women in prison, their experiences within walls, and their difficulties upon release.

The editing is graceful, light-handed, and almost invisible, making the stories ring true and fresh, as if the reader is sitting in the room with the speaker. Most of the time, the editors' hand is only seen in a helpful introductory paragraph, and the quality and sensitivity of the interviews themselves shines through the stories. There is something very genuine about some women's willingness to discuss the offense that brought them to prison, and others' reluctance to elaborate on the more difficult parts.

A few common themes emerge. So many of these stories begin with familial neglect and abuse, set in a general environment of deprivation and discrimination. The balance between being a product of one's environment and having personal responsibility for one's actions is delicate, but many of the interviewed women are very thoughtful and reflective, and provide a nuanced understanding of their actions in the context in which they were committed.

The two most alarming aspects of the narratives, for me, involved seldom-highlighted aspects of women's imprisonment. The first is the truly shoddy health care system. Shocking stories of giving birth while shackled and being separated from one's baby, receiving a mistaken HIV diagnosis that remained uncorrected for years (and treatment for it), having one's diabetes untreated and undiagnosed, callous carelessness about the possibility that an inmate might lose all her teeth, repeat themselves throughout the book.

The other aspect is the frequency with which sexual abuse by guards occurs in the prison environment. Many women report sex with guards under physical coercion or lack of choices, and for many of them, speaking up and complaining entails harsh retaliation and isolation from the prison staff as well as the inmates. Popular culture tends to focus on rape and sexual assault among inmates. It would appear that assault and exploitation on the part of staff requires much more serious and urgent attention.

The book also includes a series of great appendices, providing solid, readable information about topics such as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), health care issues, and the incidence of prison rape. I can't recommend this enough as a great, honest window into lives seldom discussed publicly.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Prison plan sways prosecutors in filing charges

Check out yesterday's piece in the Chronicle about prosecutors' reactions to realignment. In particular, this scary quote:

"After all, it doesn't matter what prosecutors charge a person with if they don't have the evidence to win a conviction, said California District Attorneys Association Chief Executive Officer Scott Thorpe."

Whole article:

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley's office handles about one-third of California's felony convictions, making this single county critical to the success of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce prison overcrowding by sentencing nonviolent felony offenders to county jails.

Cooley, however, is a Republican who adamantly opposes the Democratic governor's plan and is training his staffers to do everything they can to work around it - including pushing for the most serious charges to ensure that as many offenders as possible are sentenced to state prison. In a recent interview, Cooley said he is trying to mitigate the "public safety nightmare" that realignment will bring - particularly in a county like Los Angeles, where the jails are overcrowded and the sheriff regularly releases offenders early.

"It is going to lead to an increase in crime, which is unfortunate, because Los Angeles is at a 60-year low," he said. "There is no place for them to serve their sentences."

Cooley and his senior staff said the office may take this training to other counties as well.

A greater stake

Brown's realignment plan, which took effect Oct. 1, changes the way California locks up criminals: Those convicted of nonviolent felonies - such as drug possession and auto theft - serve time in county jail instead of state prison, and will be supervised by county probation departments rather than state parole officers. The program is a response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the state's prison population by 33,000 inmates by 2013.

The plan is supposed to give local officials, including prosecutors, a greater stake in the outcome of criminal cases in their counties. For prosecutors, that could mean more incentive to pursue probation and other alternatives to incarceration in low-level cases, because the cost of caring for that inmate now falls to the county, rather that state.

But even in liberal cities such as San Francisco, some defense attorneys say they are not seeing changes in the way prosecutors handle low-level cases. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón supports realignment but argues that some offenders are not good candidates for staying in local jails or serving probation because of past crimes.

Prosecutor reaction

Though most of the attention surrounding realignment has focused on how sheriffs' departments, which run jails, and probation agencies, which will be supervising far more offenders, will handle that workload, experts say the way prosecutors react to the change in law could have a huge impact on the program's ability to reduce the state prison population and curb the state's 67 percent recidivism rate.

UC Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg noted that offenders convicted in Southern California counties make up the majority of the state prison population, and leaders there tend to be the most skeptical of the realignment plan. If prosecutors in those counties do not change the way they approach and charge cases, he said, the state prison population will continue to rise.

"The heart of the matter is, 'Is there any commitment to use realignment as a way to advance rehabilitation?' Clearly some places are doing that - Santa Clara and Alameda, and San Francisco will make a good effort," he said. "But the larger question is, once you get to the jurisdictions that are dubious about realignment, that have not bought into rehabilitation as the main goal of the justice system, are we just going to see people gaming the system?"

'Scouring' records

Cooley said his office is teaching its lawyers to "scour" criminal records to make sure they note any prior offenses when they file new charges, and to make sure that new charges include offenses categorized as serious, violent or sexual when possible.

"We are trying to create awareness among law enforcement," he said. "They don't all realize how devastating and disastrous this will be."

It's unclear how much impact these charging decisions will have on convictions, and ultimately, the prison population. After all, it doesn't matter what prosecutors charge a person with if they don't have the evidence to win a conviction, said California District Attorneys Association Chief Executive Officer Scott Thorpe.

"It goes back to an individual district attorney's philosophy (and) charging decisions," he said. "There are certain things that obviously disqualify you from realignment, but if you look at a case and say, 'Here are our charging choices,' there is discretion and clearly counties will apply it differently. But discretion is only as broad as the evidence."

Some prosecutors have publicly embraced the goals of realignment, including Gascón. He is sponsoring legislation to create a San Francisco sentencing commission, is in the process of hiring a sentencing analyst to work with prosecutors, and said he has been "talking to staff for months now about how we can do everything we can to actually make this work, and to do it in a way that that creates better outcomes for the community."

Making it work

"My philosophy is that we want to be creative, we want to work within the system and we want to make it work - but obviously, we are always looking out for public safety," Gascón said. "But there are some people that are not going to qualify for realignment, because they have a history of violence or sex crimes."

One of those people, he said, is Jason Collins, a 30-year-old man who will be sentenced Monday for selling 0.19 grams of crack to a police officer. He is facing up to 11 years in state prison.

Qiana Washington, Collins' public defender, said he has a long history of drug abuse but has never been offered treatment. Washington said Collins was offered a plea deal of three years in state prison in the most recent case, but elected to go to trial because he denied selling the drugs and claimed he was beaten by the arresting officers.

"To me, it seems like prosecutors are going for more state prison - I have another case where the offer before realignment took effect was one year in county jail, and now, after realignment, they want three years in state prison. It's not like the case has changed in any way," she said. "It doesn't seem to be in line with what the citizens of the state want to happen (to drug offenders), and it doesn't seem like it will do a lot of good."

But Gascón spokeswoman Stephanie Lee said Collins was convicted of robbing an 83-year-old man in 2007 - a violent offense that automatically disqualifies him from a county-jail sentence. Washington argued that prosecutors could have moved to strike the prior offense from his record. The district attorney's office disagrees.

"Mr. Collins had the chance to accept responsibility and plead guilty and he chose not to and went to trial," Lee said. "He attacked an 83-year-old man ... that is not a nonviolent offense."

Gascon said that his office is "looking at one case at a time," to determine what is best for both an offender and the community.

"We really are trying to look very globally at an offender as opposed to just their offense," he said. "Safety is always the overarching concern."

E-mail Marisa Lagos at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco ChroniclE.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Juvenile Curfews?

Recently, the Oakland City Council degerred voting on a proposed juvenile curfew, titled the "Juvenile Protection Act". Is it a good idea to enact such curfews,and what is their effect on crime?

Some evidence, including this paper by Patrick Kline, suggest that youth curfews overall are effective in reducing crime for the juveniles below curfew age, but have no spillover effects above the curfew age. The study's population was that of cities with a 1990 population greater than 180,000, and compared cities with municipal codes that included youth curfews. The focus was on serious felonies, as other offenses could be attributed to police behavior rather than to youth criminality. The arrest data, he says--

suggest that being subject to a curfew reduces the number of violent and property crimes committed by juveniles below the curfew age by approximately 10% in the year after enactment, with the effects intensifying substantially in subsequent years for violent crimes.

The magnitude of any biases in the estimates due to spillover effects is difficult to assess. The data do not provide evidence of any spillovers, though given the imprecision of the estimates we also cannot reject modest sized effects. It does seem safe to say that there are probably not any large spillover effects, meaning that curfews do not seem to reduce crime in general, but rather only for the targeted age-groups. This suggests that cities designing curfew legislation should choose the statutory curfew age carefully according to which age-groups are in greatest need of intervention.

However, for Oakland and San Francisco specifically, there are reasons to be skeptical. A recent piece by Mike Males in the Chron was a good reminder of the fact that the US seems to be the only country that its citizens "can shop happily only when everyone under 18 is under house arrest. Not even in London during recent riots - and certainly not in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto or other major cities - do police forcibly sweep young people off the streets."

Today's op-ed by Selena Teji makes similar arguments. Examining curfews and incarceration, she notes that the plummeting rates of juvenile crime in California are not due to incarceration-driven policy. In fact, she says, "over the last 15 years, California’s youth prisons and local youth jails have released more than 10,000 formerly incarcerated youths onto the streets and in 2010, California youth crime stands at an all-time low."

Incarcerating, therefore, is not a great idea. Would judicious use of curfews minimize our reliance on incarceration? That's unclear. But it would seem that, before making a decision about such steps, we should pay attention to actual crime rates, rather than to our perception of crime.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Review: Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog's new documentary Into the Abyss takes us on a nightmarish trip into the lives of criminals and victims in the aftermath of a triple murder that happened in Texas ten years ago. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, teenagers at the time, were convicted of murdering Sandra Stotler and tied to two more homicides of teenage boys. The murders, according to the police and some witnesses, were committed with the sole objective to steal cars.

Eight days before his execution, Perry speaks to Werner Herzog in prison about his faith and his life behind bars. Also included in the documentary are Stotler's daughter (sister of Adam Stotler, another one of the victims), Jason Burkett who did not get the death penalty, and Burkett's father, who, incredibly, is also serving a forty-year sentence and who was handcuffed to his own son on the way from court. Witnesses and death row personnel speak about the meaning of life and death for them. And Burkett's wife, who met him after he was imprisoned, speaks of their life together.

To me, the film was not a heavy-handed, idealistic or pragmatic critique of the death penalty. Instead, it presented a much subtler argument based on the futility of death -- of law, really -- to truly ever encompass and address the abyss of sadness and dysfunction that permeates the lives of all the people involved. Strikingly, everyone featured in the documentary -- victims and defendants -- is surrounded by imprisonment and death. Jail is a fact of life, as is victimization in dreadful accidents and violent altercations. So much loss and grief, to which more loss and grief is added through the crime and, subsequently, through the punishment.

I found Ms. Stotler's words at the end to be absolutely fascinating. She says she would be satisfied with life without parole, and nonetheless, she got something out of attending the execution. It brought her some closure and relief. As Herzog invites her to reflect on the source of the closure and relief, she says, "he was just a boy. I had made him into that monster, and then I saw him, and he was just a boy." Who knows how much relief, mercy, and grace would have been attained had Perry reached out to the family of his victims.

A subtle, profound, and thought-provoking piece, Into the Abyss is highly recommended to those who want to think about the death penalty, victimization, and criminality beyond crude partisan abstractions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

RIVERSIDE COUNTY: Supervisors approve plan to charge inmates

(from The Press-Enterprise)



Published: 09 November 2011 04:08 PM

Riverside County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to introduce a law requiring those convicted of crimes and sentenced to county jail to pay for their stays.

It costs an average of $142.42 per day to house someone in a jail. In order to collect the money, the board must have a formal ordinance in place.

The measure, sponsored by Supervisor Jeff Stone, is expected to come back before the board next week for final adoption.

With the ordinance, County Counsel Pamela Walls said the county does have the legal authority to seek reimbursement. But in a memo to supervisors, she said collecting the money may be difficult.

The courts must first determine whether a defendant has the ability to pay, Walls wrote. And the county isn’t first in line to get money from prisoners. Restitution to victims, state surcharges, fines and other charges are ahead of the county.

Walls said Tuesday the ordinance in no way creates a debtors jail and only applies to those convicted of crimes. Going after the money would only be done through a civil court action, she said.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Would California Be Better with Private Prisons?

The discussions around Josh Page's book The Toughest Beat, which we reviewed here, have made me think quite a bit about prison privatization. While the private prison industry thrives in other states, and actively lobbies for punitive policies - including the abominable SB 1070 in Arizona - could they possibly do a worse job than the state of California in incarceration?

A recent story on NPR was a reminder that, while state prisons are in such poor shape, allowing private institutions would be a very poor choice. The article is astonishing in that it documents the lengths to which private corporations will go to try and find inmates for prisons built on speculation. But does it at least pay off for the communities that agree to build their economies around the prison industry?

Shapiro says it's possible a town could reap some small economic benefits from a private prison, but it may not bring the larger economic boost the county is hoping for.

"That's what the empirical evidence has shown ... and there are various theories for why that may be the case," Shapiro tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.

The presence of a prison might actually squeeze out other businesses that could bring greater benefits than the prison itself, he says. Also, many of the jobs created by a private prison don't actually go to people in the community.

The bigger problem, he says, is that state and federal taxpayers — who in the end are paying for these prisons — aren't getting the most value for their money.

To cite just one example, he says, last year the Arizona auditor general found that it actually might be more expensive to hold Arizona prisoners in private, for-profit facilities than in public ones.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Grandma Goes to Prison - 15 Years After the Fact

An astonishing reversal by the Supreme Court this week of a decision regarding the guilt of a grandma who allegedly killed her grandchild by shaking him. This does not directly relate to correctional policy, but it does bring to mind the question of the futility of incarceration in such cases. I figured our readers might find it interesting, so here's a summary by my colleague Rory Little, made for the ABA Criminal justice Section. 

Supreme Court Case Summaries: Professor Rory Little’s Perspective[1]

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section,

Cavazos v. Smith (6-3 per curiam summary reversal, Oct. 31, 2011).

            Summary:  What would the opening of a new Supreme Court Term be without an early summary reversal of the Ninth Circuit?  After two prior GVRs (grant, vacate and remand) of the panel’s decision to grant habeas in a state infant-abuse-death prosecution, a majority of the Court rules (in an unsigned per curiam) that the Circuit improperly “substituted its judgment for that of a California jury” on a question of constitutional sufficiency of evidence under Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979).
            In a dissent equal in length to the majority’s opinion, Justice Ginsburg (joined by Breyer and Sotomayor) rebukes the Court for using its discretionary review authority for mere “error correction” in a case the dissenters call “tragic” as well as questionable.  A notable irony here is that had the dissenters attracted Justice Kagan’s fourth vote, they could have granted plenary certiorari review, which Justice Ginsburg says would be better than summary reversal.  Meanwhile, the case was before the Justices for twelve conferences, starting last spring.  That must be close to a record.  So some interesting behind-the-scenes Court strategy and politics appear to be in play here.

            Per Curiam opinion:  Shirley Ree Smith was convicted for the 1996 death of her 7-week-old grandson, under a California statute specifically making it a crime to assaults a child under eight (resulting in death) with “force that to a reasonable person would be likely to produce great bodily injury.”  The prosecution theory was that Smith had shaken the infant, who then died of “shaken baby syndrome” (“SBS”).  The government’s evidence was that Smith had told a social worker that she had given the baby “a little shake, a jostle,” to awaken him, and when the social worker told Smith of the coroner’s SBS conclusion, Smith said “Oh my God.  Did I do it?  Did I do it?  Oh my God.”  Smith denied these statements (which are ambiguous in any case) and denied shaking the baby.  There was no evidence of prior violence, temper, or abuse, and the evidence was apparently undisputed that Smith was a loving grandmother watching her daughter’s children while the daughter was asleep in the next room.

            Thus the trial centered almost entirely on medical testimony, over seven days, with three experts for the prosecution and two for the defense.  All three prosecution experts testified that even though the medical evidence was not entirely consistent, the cause of death must have been SBS because other causes were eliminated or much less supported.  By contrast, one defense expert said the cause of death was “sudden infant death syndrome,” and while the other expert said “old brain trauma.”  (Tangentially, there is some hint that Smith’s lawyer was ineffective – Justice Ginsburg lays this out in her dissent.  The lawyer has since resigned from the Bar with disciplinary charges pending.)

        The jury returned a guilty verdict, and Smith was sentenced to 15 years to life.  The California state court affirmed the conviction, noting that “The expert opinion evidence … was conflicting.  It was for the jury to resolve the conflicts.  The credited evidence was substantial and sufficient….”  On federal habeas a Magistrate-Judge recommended denial and the district judge adopted that recommendation.  But a panel of the Ninth Circuit (Canby, Pregerson and Reed (DJ)) reversed, saying that there was “no evidence to permit an expert conclusion one way or the other” and that “Absence of evidence cannot constitute proof of reasonable doubt.”  Thus “no rational juror” could have found guilt here, and the state’s affirmance was an “unreasonable application” of Jackson v. Virginia.

            “That conclusion was plainly wrong,” the per curiam Court wrote yesterday.  A reviewing court “must presume” that the jury resolved conflicts in favor of the prosecution, “and must defer to that resolution.”  Jackson, at p. 326.  “A federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees.”

            Interestingly, it took five years of tussling to get to this point.  First the Circuit denied rehearing en banc over five dissenting votes.  Then the Supreme Court twice summarily granted the State’s cert petitions, vacated, and remanded (“GVR”) for reconsideration in light of two different Court opinions (Carey v. Musladin, 2006, and McDaniel v. Brown, 2010).  But (says the majority in a clear rebuke to CA9), “each time the panel persisted in its course, reinstating its judgment without seriously confronting … the cases called to its attention.”  [Ed. Note:  No doubt the panel would disagree with this characterization.  It did issue opinions addressing the new cases, expressly noted the “double” deference required under AEDPA, and called the case rare and “extraordinary.]  Thus, says the Court, “”the decision below cannot be allowed to stand.”

            Smith was released on bail in 2006 pending further appeal.  She will presumably now have to return to prison to serve at least the five years remaining on her minimum sentence, unless “clemency” is granted, an option the majority notes but says “it is not for the Judicial Branch” to consider.  [Ed. Note:  Interesting to consider what the new/old Calfornia Governor Jerry Brown will do with the case.]

            Ginsburg dissenting, joined by Breyer and Sotomayor:  “The Court’s summary disposition … is a misuse of discretion.”  This case is “as tragic as it is extraordinary and fact intensive.”  The Circuit undisputedly applied the “correct rule of law.”  This Court ought not engage in mere “error correction,” particularly since new scientific research since 1996 “casts grave doubt” on the prosecution’s expert testimony and theory of guilt.  [Justice Ginsburg goes over the new research and the trial evidence in some detail.]  “What does the Court achieve other than to prolong Smith’s suffering and her separation from her family?  Is this Court’s intervention really necessary?  Our routine practice counsels no.”  “The Court is bent on rebuking the Ninth Circuit….  I would not ignore Smith’s plight and choose her case as a fit opportunity to teach the Ninth Circuit a lesson.”

            Even if the Court is inclined to examine this decision, it ought not do that by a summary disposition.  “I would at least afford [Smith] a full opportunity to defend her release from a decade’s incarceration.”  [Ed. Note:  Since it takes only four Justices to grant full review, this point in a three-Justice dissent accentuates Justice Kagan’s silence here – although it is quite possible to imagine a “strategic” decision to not provide the fourth vote for plenary review in a case you feel certain you would “lose.”]  “Justice is not served by the Court’s exercise of discretion to take up this tragic, fact-bound case.”

[1]  These summaries are created by Professor Rory K. Little, U.C. Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco ( soon after the Supreme Court’s opinions are released.  They represent his quick, personal and unofficial reading of the Justices’ opinions.  Remarks in [brackets] are Professor Little’s own editorial comments.  Minor punctuation may be changed.  The original opinions should be consulted for authoritative content.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy Oakland, Policing, and Secondary Deviance

Angela Davis yesterday at Occupy Oakland.
Photo courtesy Joe Feria-Galicia, RP&E Journal 
This morning's Chronicle reports fierce encounters between  Occupy Oakland protesters and police. As was the case with the protests following Johannes Mehserle's verdict, protests in Oakland were peaceful until the evening, and then escalated into vandalism and violent clashes.

The Chron piece documents serious debates within the protesting community regarding violence, as well as about the appropriateness of police response. We have no data yet as to the identity of the arrestees, but if this is anything like the Oscar Grant protests of yesteryear, at least some of them might be out-of-towners taking advantage of the protest to engage in vandalism.

What is going on in Oakland? The ferocious animosity between communities of color and the city police force have been long noted in literature, the latest example being Victor Rios' recent book Punished. The book is an ethnography of Black and Latino youth in Oakland, documenting their constant criminalization by their surroundings, including police, the schools, and their own families. Rios argues that the pervasive perception that these young men are either actual or potential criminals, to be constantly monitored, addressed, and oppressed, provokes some of them to actually live up to the label and join street gangs. While Rios does not explicitly pay homage to labeling theory, his interviews and observations seem to support Edwin Lemert's theory of secondary deviance, according to which young people who are constantly labeled as deviants eventually internalize the label:

When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary. Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization.(1951: 76)

Lemert's theory, and Rios' findings among Oakland youth, may go a long way toward explaining why protest events in Oakland have such potential to deteriorate, while similar events in San Francisco go by more peacefully. Encounters between police and community in San Francisco simply do not carry the same baggage that they do in Oakland. And, while it would be absurd to argue that vandalism does not really exist and is solely the product of a label, it is important to acknowledge the role of police and government expectations in encouraging/discouraging violence. In San Francisco, supervisors urged police to treat protesters peacefully. At our District Attorney debate at Hastings, all four candidates present vehemently stated that they would never treat Occupy protesters using violent means, nor would they seek charges against them. The role of environment and charged past encounters in generating violence cannot be ignored, and the Oakland police force, constantly sitting atop a keg of resentment on the part of racialized and criminalized communities, should not be surprised at its prophecies coming true.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Myth of Free Health Care for Inmates

In the last weeks I have been giving talks about various aspects of California corrections in universities all over the Bay Area. Interactions with college students are refreshing and interesting, especially as local elections are rolling in.

One argument I've heard a few times now in these discussions has to do with bitterness about the fact that inmates receive free health care, while those of us on the outside pay for our health care out of pocket. That this argument persists in the face of the Brown v. Plata aftermath is a grim reminder of the misinformation out there. For the benefit of those of our readers who hear this argument made in their immediate vicinity, or who have made this argument, here are some ways to answer it.

First, any complaint about inmates'  "free health care" begs the question whether what they receive in prison is, in fact, health care. The medical system in California prisons is so broken and inept that it was handed, several years ago, to a federal receiver. The budgetary woes have consistently hindered the receivership's efforts to reform the system. And, eventually, the Supreme Court affirmed a three-judge federal panel decision to release tens of thousands of inmates because health care could not be provided given the overcrowding status of the prison. The bottom line, according to Jeanne Woodford, is that short-term inmates receive exams and an intake, and little beyond that. The Supreme Court decision and the brief appendices cite numerous examples of unnecessary disease and preventable death in California institutions. No, this is not comparable, by any standard, to whatever health care you might be receiving on the outside.

Second, the requirement to provide inmates with health care in prison stems from the fact that the government put them there. Warehousing people against their will is one thing. Doing so without caring for their basic needs is quite another. Some argue, of course, that this could be done more cheaply and efficiently. Much of the expense stems from the fact that we insist on imprisoning elderly, infirm inmates. The financial crisis is finally making us rethink this policy. And, by the way, check out Legal Services for Prisoners with Children's initiative on behalf of old prisoners.

Third, apparently the free health care for inmates idea is no longer the universal rule. Much to my horror, I find that in some places, apparently, this is no longer the case.

As a coda, ever since I relocated to the United States I have been perpetually astonished at how little people in this country expect from their government. The argument against free health care for inmates is saddening because of its focus not on what you deserve to have, but on what someone else does not deserve to have. We talked about this "othering" of criminals before. Why not insist on being provided national health care at low or no cost, as is the case for every other industrialized democracy? The spite and bitterness against inmates is a distraction from a common goal, which is to be treated decently and fairly and being taken care of by one's government, and it is proof that just and reasonable citizen expectations can be confounded if people are presented with an enemy to hate. I urge Californians to look beyond these divisive mechanisms and really think about their expectations from their leaders.