Monday, April 30, 2012

Benefit Concert for SAFE California

Love Conquers Death: Music and Readings to Benefit Safe California

Join CCC staff and local musicians and actors in an evening of music and readings. All proceeds go to SAFE California, a ballot initiative to replace the death penalty with life without parole.

Where? San Francisco Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street
When? May 26, 8pm

Tickets $15 ($10 with student ID).

See you there!

Deterrence and the Death Penalty: New Report from National Research Council

Before the public conversation about the death penalty was all about money, and before the legal conversation was all about chemicals and devices, before the emergence of innocence projects, research tried to determine whether the death penalty deterred people from committing homicides. This was the first in a series of different discourses about the pros and cons of capital punishment.

As I explained in an earlier post, the first research project of this kind, Isaac Ehrlich's study from the 1970s, was seminal in bringing back the death penalty in 1976 after a four-year moratorium. Ehrlich found that each execution, on average, prevented eight homicides from occurring.

Throughout the years, the discussion about deterrence was relegated to a bitter feud between two research teams. In 2008, I had a chance to see a confrontation between those teams, and I wrote:

Everyone in the room was allowed to take a peek into the world of econometric studies of the death penalty, and to witness a cross between a genuine debate on the meaning of methodology and replication, and somewhat of an academic three-ring circus. As many readers may know, Ehrlich's work in the 1970s was cited in Gregg v. Georgia, leading to a reinstatement of the death penalty after a four-year moratorium; studies following Ehrlich's work have claimed to discredit their findings. The new generation of feuding parties includes Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul Rubin, who argue that their work confirms the deterrence effects of the death penalty, and Justin Wolfers (who was the discussant!), whose replication aims at discrediting the findings. Lots of good points were made. There are legitimate questions of what constitutes a faithful replication of a study; also, there's a respectable debate on the merits of controlling for certain variables and the purpose of including, or excluding, Texas from the analysis. In addition, we all got, for the price of admission, a healthy dosage of mud slinging, including critique over who chose to publish at a peer-reviewed publication and who didn't, and public exposure of the email exchange that preceded the conference. Afterwards, the two factions exited the room and went to lunch, leaving me to dig into my grilled veggie wrap and ponder other dimensions of the debate, namely, how we should improve dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, and how I wish someone studied the ideological aspect of all this, namely, whether in this sort of debate (or in the gun control/deterrence debate) methodological disagreements scrupulously follow political party lines.

My pal Dave Hoffman thought Wolfers and the dissenters won and wrote a thoughtful blog post about it.

A New York Times opinion piece is citing a National Research Council report, which once again tackles the issue of deterrence. The abstract provides in part:

This new report from the Committee on Law and Justice concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide rates is not useful in determining whether the death penalty increases, decreases, or has no effect on these rates. The key question is whether capital punishment is less or more effective as a deterrent than alternative punishments, such as a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Yet none of the research that has been done accounted for the possible effect of noncapital punishments on homicide rates. The report recommends new avenues of research that may provide broader insight into any deterrent effects from both capital and noncapital punishments.

This is an interesting addition to the discussion. It seemed to me that the deterrence argument became stale somewhere in the 1980s and remained of interest to a small number of researchers, whose ideological interest in the substance was secondary to their econometric methods. But this NRC report may be the last nail in the deterrence argument coffin.

It also speaks directly to the way SAFE California has been framing its campaign. The website is very careful, you'll notice, to avoid the words "abolition" and "end"; it does not make humanitarian arguments; rather, it speaks of "replacing" the death penalty with life without parole. I realize this is a political necessity, as not all people on board with the abolition agenda are bleeding-heart rehabilitation enthusiasts (SAFE California has victims and law enforcers on board.) But what I want to point out is that this is not merely a conversation about what needs to go away, but also about what will come in its place. It's impossible to have a conversation about the death penalty that is not comparative.

Many years after we do the right thing, we will need to have the conversation that European industrialized countries had a long time ago, about the merits of life without parole. By then, coalitions and priorities might shift. But, as Aragorn would say, while that day will inevitably come, it is not this day.

Monday, April 23, 2012

MORE BREAKING NEWS: CDCR Announces $1.5 Billion Cuts By Doing the Right Things

This is shaping up to be quite a dramatic day here at CCC! CDCR has a brand new report out in which it announces plans to cut $1.5 billion out of its budget, doing things that seem eminently sensible. Here are some of the main propositions:

CDCR's projected population for state institution is quite a dramatic decline between 2012 and 2017. Their graphs predict a gradual decrease in inmate population from the current level of approximately 139,000 to 124,000. This decline, however, will be accompanied by an increase in the total numbers (and percentage) of elderly and infirm inmates.

Some of the changes will include changing security classification, including graduated housing and privileges, as well as a step-down program and support for inmates seeking to disengage from gangs.

CDCR also plans to increase the reach of its rehabilitation programs to 70% of the inmates, as well as various re-entry hubs complete with employment training, which will be primarily available during the last six months of prison time.

By 2015-2016, all out-of-state inmates will be returned to California, thus eliminating completely our reliance on contract beds with private corporations.

Serious changes are made to the mental health bed plan and to medical and dental care.

Read the report in its entirety; the charts and floor plans are instructive and helpful.

This is truly a day of hope for change in the correctional system, and one I see as the silver lining of our fiscal crisis. The need to be fiscally prudent is finally pushing us to do the right thing by our fellow Californians.

BREAKING NEWS: Bill to Replace Death Penalty with LWOP Qualifies for Ballot

SAFE California's bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole has officially qualified for the 2012 Ballot, having easily surpassed the number of signatures required.

CCC will throw a fundraising house party for SAFE California in late May. Watch this space for details.

UPDATE: We are organizing a benefit concert for SAFE California on Sat, May 26. Click here for details and ticket reservations!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

Earlier this week, the Public Safety Committee killed SB 1363, a bill that would disallow subjecting any minors, whether in prison or in jail, to solitary confinement, unless they pose an immediate and substantial risk or harm to others and other options have been exhausted. Even in the latter case, the juvenile would have to be constantly evaluated.

Activists are making one more push for it this coming Tuesday. Linda Roldan's post on the Ella Baker Center blog, A Mother's Nightmare, offers a personal perspective on the immense harms of solitary confinement for minors.

My son is not a tough kid and wasn’t ready for the gladiator school called DJJ. On his very first day, he was beat up. He’s seen things he should never see, like kids fighting each other and guards assaulting and pepper-spraying kids on a daily basis. After experiencing solitary confinement, violence, and humiliation by guards, he now suffers from severe depression and hallucinations. He never had serious mental health issues before. Now he is suicidal.

We'll keep you posted as to the status of the bill.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tomorrow: Protest Day Against Mass Incarceration

Tomorrow is a national day of action to stop mass incarceration.

Events in Southern and Northern CA:

Los Angeles
Convergence at 4pm, Pershing Square, downtown LA, 5th and Olive
March at 5pm to LAPD Headquarters

San Francisco
California State Building, Van Ness and McAllister, 12 Noon

more information here.

New Bill Proposal to CIrcumvent Wholesale Strip Seaches in CA

This recent post discussed the Supreme Court's decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, in which strip searches were allowed for all those entering general population in jail. A new proposed California bill would bypass this process by creating more hurdles in the path of placing people in general population in the first place.

SB 1536, proposed by Senator Mark Leno -

would prohibit a person arrested and held in custody on a misdemeanor or infraction offense not involving weapons, controlled substances, or violence, from being confined in the general jail population unless a judge or magistrate has determined that the person does not qualify to be released on his or her own recognizance and that, after being given a chance to post bail, the person is not able to do so within a reasonable time. By changing the definition of a crime, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

The California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state. Statutory provisions establish procedures for making that reimbursement.
This bill would provide that no reimbursement is required by this act for a specified reason.

This strikes me as eminently sensible. I was not one of the commentators who were shocked by the Supreme Court decision. I think security reasons when entering general population require everyone to be searched. I also think that arbitrarily searching only some inmates would give rise to ugly profiling practices and accusations. This proposal is excellent in that it makes sure that non-dangerous folks don't get committed to general population in the first place, if it can be avoided, thus bypassing the problem entirely. Good job, Senator Leno!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Housing People of Imperfection

The Bay Guardian features an interesting insider look at correctional policy and realignment by Eugene Alexander Day, a three-striker in Soledad Prison. It's worth a read in its entirety. Here's a short excerpt:

It took some of the sting off my life sentence when the Supreme Court smashed the CDCR in 2011. Systemic mismanagement corrupted a generation of salvageable prisoners. As someone who lives, breathes, and sleeps the politics of justice, the Legislature didn't simply kick the can down the road – it pushed the state closer to the precipice. State leaders have set a poor example. By failing to follow the evidence in 2007, all 58 counties had Realignment shoved down their throats in 2011.

This lens through which I see the world is depicted as “synchronized drowning” by Attorney General Kamala Harris. For the last 13 years, I've struggled to keep my wits in this sea of despair. Deviants need structured treatment, not more of the same. Shifting the responsibility of tens of thousands of offenders away from CDCR is an idea of brilliant simplicity.

Local law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts are better suited to solve local problems. These offenders are members of your community. The next time the task force stomps through the ghetto snatching up people of color, they must think about how to house all of these people of imperfection. Good. Most need help, not a jackboot.

. . .

The counties might hate Realignment, but I hate the fact it took so long. Marking a happy day in this collaborator's miserable life, a whole class of offenders have been diverted away from the Monster Factory. Excellent. Realignment is not some hug-a-thug program. It's basic math. So used to being treated like shit, I will die before I advocate for mollycoddling prisoners. Using offenders as earmarks to maintain an unsustainable status quo is a feeling worse than death. Fix the problem.

My dreams are skewed. In my way of thinking, prisons should become factories that turn monsters into advocates for social justice. Offenders need to learn the difference between pro-social and antisocial behavior, not how to shove dope up their asses or participate in a riot.

I'm not sure whether Day will be pleased or disappointment with the results of the realignment experiment. The intent, to produce jails as instruments of rehabilitation, is laudable, but only if the jails really are up to the task. So far, some initiatives look promising, while others, such as jail building initiatives, absurd cost-rolling measures, and health care fiascos, do not. I guess time will tell.

Gun Production and Gun Murder Rates? An Exercise in Data Interpretation

Today's Prison Law Blog, an outfit I like and respect, features a guest post by Peter Wagner from the Prison Policy Initiative. Wagner tries to make an anti-gun argument based on a graph depicting gun homicide and gun production.

Here's what Wagner would have you conclude from this:

The gun lobby would rather not talk about the correlation between the production of handguns and dying. The evidence there is clear. So the question, then, is whether the gun lobby is trying to distract from the problems that guns cause, or are they trying to create them?

I'm no big lover of guns, believe me, and I firmly believe in strict regulation to prevent deadly weapons from being in the wrong hands (of course, sometimes that can't be helped, unfortunately.) But I do believe that if one wants to make a serious argument based on data, one should read data accurately and honestly.

Take another look at the graph. If Wagner would have you believe that gun production causes gun homicides, wouldn't gun production have to precede gun homicides? The graph shows quite the contrary. Homicide rates peak before production rates rise. If so, the graph tells us the implausible story that gun manufacturers are responding to the demands of homicidal maniacs. Since only a fraction of all guns sold are used for homicide, that's not only nefarious, but also rather unlikely. Also, note that for the last five years in the graph, gun production goes up and gun homicides decline. The decline probably has to do with various factors that have nothing to do with gun production (read more about this in Frank Zimring's new book). This bivariate correlation is close to meaningless.

Accusing the right of alarmism, panic-mongering and inaccuracy doesn't really work if one resorts to the same tactics. And if you want to make a serious argument for gun control (and there is one to be argued), take the care and diligence to argue it properly.

Props to Chad Goerzen for shooting the breeze about this with me this morning.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Connecticut Becomes 17th State to Abolish the Death Penalty

The Los Angeles Times reports that the vote was 86-62. And here's Governor Malloy's "I'm not soft on crime" reaction to the vote:

Malloy praised the vote, which came at 10:57 p.m., saying it would let the state "throw away the key" and put away the worst criminals for life. "For decades we have not had a workable death penalty,'' Malloy said in a statement. "Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience."

As in California, the safety net for abolition coalitions is life without parole. SAFE California, whose proposition advocates life without parole, relies on a coalition with victims and law enforcement officials who would not be on board with a movement to abolish life without parole as well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Plata: The County Jail Edition?

When people express support for the Realignment, it is because of the general perception that the state did such an abysmal job at housing inmates that counties would clearly do better. But is that really so?

Not according to the Prison Law Office, who has filed a health-care lawsuit in Fresno and contemplating another one in Riverside.

The nonprofit Prison Law Office and others are concerned that California's realignment of prisons and jails - which has inmates serving time in county jails for crimes that in the past would have landed them in prison - may have simply shifted the state's prison problems to the 58 counties and their jail systems. They warn there may be more suits to come.

"It's not that these jails were doing well before; it's just worse with realignment," said Don Specter, Prison Law Office director. "In some ways, counties are worse than (state prisons) ... and certainly the harm on prisoners who stay there longer is going to be greater."

And then, of course, there are the counties who are doing a better job--"particularly those that have long made treatment, not prison time, a priority." The story continues:

Marin County Sheriff Bob Doyle said not many people have been sentenced under realignment in that county, and those who have been have received relatively short, three- or four-year terms.

"The counties with the big problems with realignment, No. 1, already had space issues, and No. 2, have different sentencing practices," Doyle said.

"We're a county that since the 1980s has had a low incarceration rate," he said, adding that Marin County developed programs in the 1990s as alternatives to locking people up. "We see realignment as an opportunity."

Dr. Joe Goldenson, who directs San Francisco's Jail Health Services, said the city also hasn't seen overwhelming numbers of new inmates under realignment because it never sent many felons to state prisons in the first place. And, he said, leaders have consistently invested in jail health care "because they have always recognized the importance of providing care to this population."

The only thing certain about the realignment is that nothing is certain; the counties' different approaches will make or break this reform in terms of its impact on mass incarceration.

State Juvenile Program Profile

Photo credit Lea Suzuki for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Juvenile realignment is such a thorny issue these days, with so much talk about direct filing concerns and proper institutions. Here's one more thing to consider: Some unique state programs, which are costly, but truly make a difference for juvenile state inmates convicted of serious crimes.

These programs are the focus of a story by Marisa Lagos on yesterday's Chron (only available online as of this afternoon. Lagos visited two of these unique institutions, O.S. Close and N.A. Chaderjan, and brought back stories from the administrators and the wards.

Here's a description of one of these facilities:

The facility is oriented around Chad's sprawling central yard, a huge expanse of grass that includes football and soccer fields and an adjoining basketball court. In the early evenings, before dinner and nighttime treatment sessions, the yard fills with youths in matching outfits, playing sports and participating in other recreational activities. 

But during business hours, vocational programs are under way in the squat buildings that are the hallmark of these correctional facilities.

Inside one of those large rooms, various pieces of computer hardware rest in neat piles as five wards - dressed in polo shirts emblazoned with a "Merit Partners" logo - inspect open hard drives.
The youths are employees of the nonprofit Merit Inc., which was founded 14 years ago with the goal of training incarcerated youths in useful job skills. The Stockton facility is a registered Microsoft refurbisher, and the wards that work here are all trained in rebuilding and repairing dated equipment that is donated by corporations.

Unlike most prison jobs, they are paid well - starting at minimum wage, which is $8 an hour in California, and up to $10 an hour. They work up to 40 hours a week, money that goes toward restitution for victims of violent crimes, room and board at the facility, family support if appropriate, and a savings account in the worker's name that will help them land on their feet when they are released.
The workers also learn "soft skills," such as how to create a resume, apply for a job and dress for and conduct themselves during an interview.

"I've learned a lot - I never thought I'd be learning about fixing computers," said Terrance Turner, a 21-year-old ward who grew up in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood. "And before I was scared to talk to groups of people. Now I am trying to overcome that."

Would the counties be able to come up with comparable, and less expensive, rehabilitative options for their juvenile population?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Original Death Penalty Supporters Now Fight for Abolition

Several people sent me this recent New York Times story, which is the perfect example of the kind of cost-centered discourse that has come to dominate American corrections. First, here's the gist of the story.

The year was 1978, and the California ballot bristled with initiatives for everything from banning gay teachers to cracking down on indoor smoking. Both lost. But one, Proposition 7, sailed through: expanding the state’s death penalty law to make it among the toughest and most far-reaching in the country.

The campaign was run by Ron Briggs, today a farmer and Republican member of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. It was championed by his father, John V. Briggs, a state senator. And it was written by Donald J. Heller, a former prosecutor in the New York district attorney’s office who had moved to Sacramento.

Thirty-four years later, another initiative is going on the California ballot, this time to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life without parole. And two of its biggest advocates are Ron Briggs and Mr. Heller, who are trying to reverse what they have come to view as one of the biggest mistakes of their lives.

This story has all the ingredients of humonetarianism: Cost-focused concerns, bipartisanism, and change of heart under the banner of fiscal prudence.

“But it’s not working,” [Briggs] said. “My dad always says, admit the obvious. We started with 300 on death row when we did Prop 7, and we now have over 720 — and it’s cost us $4 billion. I tell my Republican friends, ‘Close your eyes for a moment. If there was a state program that was costing $185 million a year and only gave the money to lawyers and criminals, what would you do with it?’ ”

Supporters of the death penalty are also willing to concede that the cost argument is the only one that would carry weight in the death penalty debate:

Kent Scheidegger, the legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports the death penalty, said cost “is probably the only argument that has any chance. The people have heard all the other arguments for years, and it has never gotten any traction.”

Props to David Takacs, Colin Wood, and Morris Ratner, for the link.

The Religious Life of Inmates

A recent study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life surveyed prison chaplains in all 50 states.

Most of the chaplains surveyed  (71%) are Protestant Christians, so it is perhaps not surprising that Muslims top their list of concerns about religious extremism among inmates. But there are some other interesting things going on there. For example, look at the graphic to the left. Not only is there frequent change in inmates' faith, but some religions are less stable than others in terms of their membership.

Also interesting is their assessment of inmates' religious requests; requests for religious books and texts are usually approved, whereas requests for a religiously-related hairstyle are usually denied.

For a non-Christian take on the results of the survey, read Jason Pitzl-Waters' lucid commentary in his blog, or some remarks from Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum, whom we discussed here before.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Charles Manson's Parole Hearing This Wednesday

Charles Manson, 2012.
Image courtesy L.A. Times, released at CNN request.
Notorious murderer Charles Manson comes up for parole this Wednesday. The L.A. Times reports:

Manson refused to participate in his last parole hearing, in 2007, describing himself as a "prisoner of the political system." He also declined to participate in any psychological evaluations that were part of that process.

He and other members of his so-called family were convicted of killing actress Sharon Tate and six other people during a bloody rampage in the Los Angeles area during two August nights in 1969. He is housed in a special unit for inmates felt to be endangered by other inmates separated from the general prison population.

Twice in the last few years, guards at Corcoran State Prison said they found phones in the notorious killer's possession. Manson called people in California, New Jersey and Florida with an LG flip phone found under his prison bunk in March 2009, The Times reported in 2011. A second cellphone was found a year later. Thirty days were added to his sentence for the first offense, officials said.

Earlier, a homemade weapon was found in his possession.
Despite the prospect that Manson will be absent, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office said it would vigorously oppose Manson's release. "We consistently [opposed parole] and will continue to do so," spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said.

The female members of Manson's "family" have also been consistently denied parole, despite not presenting danger to the community even in the parole board's view. We previously reported on the parole denial of Patricia Krenwinkel, who was repentant and is regarded a model prisoner, and of Susan Atkins, who died in prison following a long period of illness. There seems to be little doubt that Manson's parole will also be denied.

De-Felonizing Drugs

Image courtesy ACLU of Northern CA.
SB 1506, a new bill introduced by Senator Mark Leno, aims at changing drug possession offense classification from felonies to misdemeanors.

Currently, the distinction between different types of drugs also yields a distinction between felonies and misdemeanors. Possession of cocaine, heroin, and Schedule III, IV and V narcotic drugs is a felony; possession of cannabis and Schedule III, IV and V nonnarcotic drugs, is a misdemeanor.

Should SB 1506 pass, possession offenses will become misdemeanors regardless of the type of drug, and moreover, they will not require registering with the police station for folks with convictions.

The ACLU of Northern California, as well as California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the California NAACP, and William C. Velásquez Institute, support the bill, arguing that it will enable a considerable shortening of prison sentences for simple possession while focusing resources on policing and drug treatment.

What do our readers think? Is there a good reason to distinguish between simple possession of different types of drugs for sentencing purposes?

Recount and Felon Disenfranchisement

Movie poster courtesy Tampa Bay Times
Last night I finally saw the 2008 HBO movie Recount. It is a docudrama about the aftermath of the 2000 Bush/Gore election, from the first reports of the results up to the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore.

I arrived in the United States in July 2001, to a shell-shocked Berkeley, where the wall-to-wall consensus was that the election was stolen by Bush supporters and that Al Gore was the President-in-exile. The confusion and rage intensified shortly after my arrival by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was a newcomer, and for the life of me, could not figure out who had voted for Bush; I was yet to realize how deep the rift was and how partisanship wrecked and hollowed American politics. So, it was a fascinating experience to see a retelling of the story of that election, with the last twelve years in mind; much of what we experience politically today can date back to that fateful election.

What stuck out for me, though, was not so much the righteousness of one side or other; I entirely believed Ted Olson's integrity when he said, with a straight face, to a room full of Bush supporters, that Bush had won each and every one of the recounts. Instead, what filled me with rage was the cynical use the Florida state apparatus made of felon disenfranchisement laws.

In the film, a Democratic party volunteer knocks on a door. A guarded, sad man opens the door. The volunteer asks for his name. "Yeah?" says the man. "You were turned away at the ballots this election, right?" The man replies in the affirmative, his face ashen and disaffected. "I'm Jeremy Bash from the Democratic party. Can we talk?" Says the volunteer, and the man lets him in.

It turns out that, in Florida's enthusiasm to deny the vote to its formerly incarcerated citizens, the list makers included many non-felons in the list. The outrage among the ranks is palpable.

But the strongest scene, for me, is the ending scene of the movie. Bush's acceptance speech is shown on TV, and as he addresses the people who did not vote for him, he promises to be their president, too, and to earn their respect. The camera moves around the room, showing the man turned away at the ballots on wrong information of his being a felon. His face is hard to read, but it seems to betray a web of complex emotions: Rage? Disbelief? The first seeds of disaffection, disengagement, dissent? The deep realization that he was locked out of his country's political process, robbed of the choice to vote for either of the candidates?

This scene speaks volumes for me as we're getting ready for a hearing before the California Court of Appeals with regard to the right to vote for post-realignment inmates in California jails, and for folks on community post-release supervision. And it is gaining importance as we begin to experience the 2012 presidential campaign. We think that the California bureaucratic apparatus has wrongly interpreted the California constitution to deny felons, whether they are in prison or in jail, the right to vote. Not only does this interpretation fly in the face of the intent behind realignment--a new world of community corrections--but by denying civic integration, it is a barrier to re-entry and a successful welcoming back to society.

Inmates have an important voice of their own and important insights into the criminal process and public expenditure. Some of you may recall a series of posts, like this one and this one, that appeared on the SF Bay Guardian by Just A Guy, an inmate with a keen eye for big-picture politics and economics. This is an important voice that needs to be heard. And, as Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen have repeatedly proven, this voice can make or break an election (and would, indeed, have reversed the 2000 election, as well as another Presidential election and eight Congressional elections.) Thinking about yesterday's film reinforced my conviction that I would fight for enfranchisement no matter what direction the projected vote would go; it's no coincidence, however, that inmates and parolees, disproportionately poor and of color, would vote against the regime that subjected them to lengthy, punitive, dehumanizing and unnecessary prison sentences under abysmal conditions.

Florida no longer uses the flawed list that played such an important part in 2000, and that had such disturbing racial implications.

The movie, regardless of your political stance and sentiments about the 2000 elections, is terrific and highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sending the Incarceration Bill to Inmates

Image courtesy 
The most marked feature of the fiscal crisis on the correctional landscape has been a decline in the overall punitive discourse, policies, and technologies. States are giving up the death penalty; California is realigning justice with a focus on the community; and issues that were not considered viable, such as drug legalization, are now on the public agenda.

But the fiscal crisis didn't only bring punitivism reversals and silver linings. With the good, we got some bad and ugly. And the ugly is the topic of tonight's post.

Three recent bills on the Assembly and Senate Public Safety Committee agendas are all about rolling the costs of incarceration on... you guessed it... the inmates themselves. Here are some of the particulars.

SB 1124 (Canella) Cost of Incarceration

Remember the little theatre of the absurd from Riverside County, expecting inmates to pay $140 per night for their incarceration? Well, this beauty is in the same vein. Penal Code section 1203.1m currently authorizes the court to order reimbursement for the cost of incarceration if it finds the defendant has the ability to pay. This new bill would require the court hold a hearing for each and every defendant sentenced to state prison to determine his or her ability to pay all or some of the costs of incarceration.

Keep in mind that defendants make very little money, if any, during incarceration, have very little by way of financial support from friends and family members, and most if not all lose their jobs as a consequence of incarceration. It is exceedingly difficult for a formerly incarcerated person to find a job after release. It's therefore likely that many of these hearings would result in the unsurprising determination that a defendant would not be able to pay for his or her incarceration. This process then would result in an unnecessary expenditure of funds.

AB 2261 (Valadao) Cost of Medical Visits

Remember Brown v. Plata? Why didn't all these wise judges think of the simple solution for the medical crisis in California prisons--charging the inmates themselves for their care? This bill removes the cap of the $3 fee a sheriff is allowed to charge for an inmate-initiated medical visit and would authorize a sheriff to establish an unlimited standardized fee. As opposed to the other travesties, this bill would require the defendants to pay while they're in prison, where they make the princely sum of between 8 cents and 95 cents an hour. It's rather likely, therefore, that this bill would discourage inmates from reporting illness, which has a number of costly and dangerous ramifications.
First, this bill is likely to provoke a lawsuit, and I'll be first in line to volunteer my help. Readers from Prison Law Office or from Rosen, Bien and Galvan: If this becomes reality I'm happy to put together an amicus brief. This, of course, means that additional resources will be spent on a costly, lengthy lawsuit, which will undoubtedly end in a federal court finding this travesty unconstitutional. Why not save us all the cost and hassle?

Second, this bill poses an immediate public health danger to inmates, correctional staff, and the communities that will receive formerly incarcerated people upon their release. There is currently an epidemic (WC) of AIDS and Hepatitis C infections in state prisons and in poor communities to which formerly incarcerated people often return. California prisons have a Hepatitis C Virus infection rate of 40%.

Third, this bill may disproportionally impact people with chronic health conditions or mentally challenged inmates.

incidentally, if you're wondering why you have to pay for health care and have your health care questioned by the Supreme Court while inmates enjoy free health services, you might want to read this

AB 2357 (Galgiani) Cost of Assisting Law Enforcement Investigation

Finally, this bill would authorize CDCR to require an inmate be temporarily removed from a facility to assist with the gathering of evidence and impose a fee for the removal. Current law allows for inmates to be temporarily removed from their cells to attend college classes, but this bill would replace that opportunity for mandatory assistance with an investigation.

The scenario in which an inmate may be assisting law enforcement with the unveiling of potential suspects could put an inmate at risk of retaliation. This is a significant burden to place on inmates, who will likely not be willing to participate, let alone contribute their own meager funds to the investigation.

Incidentally, the CCPOA is all over this already. 

These are all exceedingly disturbing scenarios. There can be a debate about which aspects of incarceration constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but asking you to pay for punishment, even if it's kind and usual, is absurd.

Gruel and Unusual Punishment

Photo courtesy Andy Duback for the Associated Press
The curious item in the picture to the left is Nutraloaf, a meal served in prisons and jails around the nation. Time Ideas has a piece today about a recent 7th Circuit case, in which Judge Posner thought that a Milwaukee inmate might have an 8th Amendment claim based on this meal.

A culinary review in Chicago Magazine reads as follows:

The mushy, disturbingly uniform innards recalled the thick, pulpy aftermath of something you dissected in biology class: so intrinsically disagreeable that my throat nearly closed up reflexively. But the funny thing about Nutraloaf is the taste. It’s not awful, nor is it especially good. I kept trying to detect any individual element—carrot? egg?—and failing. Nutraloaf tastes blank, as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor. “That’s the goal,” says Mike Anderson, Aramark’s district manager. “Not to make it taste bad but to make it taste neutral.” By those standards, Nutraloaf is a culinary triumph; any recipe that renders all 13 of its ingredients completely mute is some kind of miracle.

I ate two-thirds and gave up, longing for any hint of flavor, even a bad one. That night, my stomach’s rebellion against the loaf was anything but neutral. I felt so full and lethargic that I skipped dinner and the following breakfast. And let’s just say I finally had a lot of time alone to catch up on my New Yorker reading.

In the fall, we hosted a day about food deserts, and our panel included a CDCR nutritionist. The meals we were shown on the slide show looked a lot better than Nutraloaf, albeit our guest admitted they might not be representative meals. We also had a chance to talk about the importance of food for pleasure and comfort, not just a requisite for health. Have incarcerated Californians experienced Nutraloaf or anything like it? Tell us.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reversing the Punitive Pendulum?

A while ago we discussed the question whether Californians were punitive, and offered a slew of sources that suggested that, when people are aware of the costs involved in the correctional monster, their level of punitivism decreases considerably.

Pew Center on the States' new report offers encouraging news to anyone who, like me, believes that the financial crisis has changed the landscape of American corrections in fundamental ways.

Some key findings:
  1. American voters believe too many people are in prison and the nation spends too much on imprisonment.
  2. Voters overwhelmingly support a variety of policy changes that shift non-violent offenders from prison to more effective, less expensive alternatives.
  3. Support for sentencing and corrections reforms (including reduced prison terms) is strong across political parties, regions, age, gender, and racial/ethnic groups. 
These is no coincidence. I maintain that the financial crisis, and the growing public attention to fiscal prudence, is impacting public opinion like never before. Brown v. Plata and an increased media focus on prison expenditures increased the visibility of prisons, who had been invisible to the public eye prior to the crisis. The discourse is changing; policies are changing; and now, public opinion is changing, too.

Arrested? Your Naked Glory is Fair Game

Comic courtesy 
Today's Supreme Court decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington authorizes correctional personnel to strip-search each and every detainee, regardless of any actual suspicion that he or she might have contraband on his or her person. It was, unsurprisingly, a 5-4 decision, with Justice Kennedy as the author of the Opinion of the Court and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor in the dissent. Classifying such searches as "special needs" searches, Justice Kennedy relies on prior decisions that allow constitutional violations of inmates when these are "reasonably related to legitimate penological reasons." The risks for safety, staff, and inmates who might need medical treatment, requires allowing such strip searches; also, at the booking stage it might be difficult to tell what the inmate had been arrested for.

This decision comes as no dramatic surprise to anyone who's read Samson v. California (2006), which allows suspicionless searches of parolees. In keeping with the general crime control rationales, to treat the presumably guilty harshly and set innocent people free, people who are already in the claws of the correctional apparatus may be searched and seized with no suspicion.

As an aside, the facts in the cases are a great example of judicial storytelling. To justify the penological interests behind such searches, Justice Kennedy paints a picture of jail as a dangerous, gang-infested place, where according inmates their privacy is a luxury we can scarcely afford. Justice Breyer, in his turn, paints an invasive and unpleasant picture of the strip search. You can easily predict which way an opinion is going to go by carefully reading the words Justices use to frame the facts.