Wednesday, December 24, 2008

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them; the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable; many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed into emaciated dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, "sick and in prison;" expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox; victims, I must say not to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace.

The cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.

--John Howard (1777), The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of Some Foreign Prisons

May the return of the light this season, and this year, bring some light to our correctional policy.

Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year,


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is overcrowding the reason for the declined standard of care in prisons? More Prison Litigation

DING! Round... I can't keep track anymore. The Federal District court is, again, discussing the prison lawsuits.

Judges Karlton, Henderson, and Reinhardt are trying to assess whether prison overcrowding (see left) is the reason for the faulty level of services. And, as the L.A. Times reports, they are not sympathetic to the State.

Although the trial is only halfway over, the judges are speaking and acting as if they have already decided to take action against the state. Now they seem only to be searching for answers on precisely what action to take and have openly contemplated an order to release prisoners and impose a cap on the state prison population.

"The question from our point of view is developing an effective set of orders that will protect society . . . and ensure there is a constitutionally sufficient level of care," explained U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, who said later that the trial wouldn't be needed "if the state were to wake up and start behaving in a rational way."

If the court's decision is to release prisoners, state officials guarantee an appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, where matters, and sympathies, may go differently.

There are many interesting things here, and several merit special attention:

  • In the article, several people, and among them Jeanne Woodford, are on record stating reincarceration for parole violations as a contributing factor to overcrowding.
  • One of the witnesses, a former Florida prison medical official who has studied California's medical system, reports the situation has improved since Clark Kelso took charge of matters as a receiver.
  • James Austin, formerly of George Washington University, has questioned the link between release rates and a decline in public safety, and reports findings from various states where release has not impacted the trend of declining crime rates.

A decision is expected early next year: stay tuned.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Prop 9 Comes to Life, But Perhaps Not Entirely

In the wake of the elections, the CDCR is in the process of implementing Prop 9, which we paid some attention to here and

Prop 9 has a new webpage, detailing some of its provisions.

One of the interesting bits reported by the CDCR is as follows:

Proposition 9 also changed timelines and procedures for parole revocation hearings. However, on December 5, Judge Lawrence K. Karlton with the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, ordered those portions not be implemented in response to a motion filed by plaintiffs in the Valdivia v. Schwarzenegger class action lawsuit, which had previously challenged the constitutionality of parole revocation proceedings. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for March 9, 2009.

In an earlier post, I raised the question whether Prop 9 violated the single-subject rule, by addressing both victim participation and parole timelines. This argument, as a doctrinal argument, doesn't carry a lot of weight; as Mike Gilbert explains in a phenomenal new piece, the tests used by judges to examine single-subject rule issues are skewed against striking down propositions. However, it seems that the bit that doesn't fit, the punitive bit that relates, if at all, to a narrow and punitive aspect of victims' interests, is the one that is at question. I suggest we stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Budgetary Kills: A Bipartisan Initiative to Oppose Death Row Expansion

... and now, to something completely different.

Two legislators from opposing parties and with opposite views on the death penalty joined Tuesday to propose cutting off funding for a new $395 million Death Row at San Quentin, calling it a boondoggle that a financially strapped state can't afford.

"The Death Row expansion is a bottomless money pit," said state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater (Merced County).

"We should use this opportunity, with the state running out of cash, to step back and rethink this project," said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who joined Denham at a news conference in front of the aging Marin County prison. He referred to the project as a "Cadillac Death Row" and said many condemned inmates could be safely housed at other prisons during their decades of appeals.

A few thoughts:

1) We may have finally arrived to a place where supporters and opponents of the Death Penalty are faced with the realities of a prison system that, regardless of its moral merits, cannot be financially tolerated.

2) At a time when emergency discourse is the required preface to every public discussion, we no longer, perhaps, have the leisure to contemplate what sort of legal system produces such a huge number of people on Death Row in the first place, and the prevalence of this emergency discourse might, yet again, postpone that important discussion.

3) Compare and contrast this to the previous post about the axing of the CJC budget. Perhaps we have finally come to a point in which we can no longer have discussions about the merits of correctional initiatives, only about their costs.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Community Justice Center Budget Killed

This little morsel of information is hidden somewhere in the middle of this Chron piece about the San Francisco budget crisis:

Arguing that they cannot start new programs when existing services are being cut, a majority of the board voted Tuesday to kill nearly $1 million in funding for a pet project of the mayor's, a Tenderloin community court that will prosecute crimes like aggressive panhandling and selling drugs.

The supervisors voted 6-4 against the Community Justice Center, with supervisors Bevan Dufty, Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier and Carmen Chu pushing to keep it. Outgoing Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who was elected to be a Superior Court judge, abstained. The mayor can veto the measure; it would take eight votes to override his veto.

This, coupled with the defeat of Prop L, may very well be the end of something that could be a very promising solution to a problem of large magnitude. Granted, there is not a lot of independent research examining recidivism rates in community justice programs (and more research should be generated, because programs like Red Hook in Brooklyn have been around for a while.) However, it does not seem as if the current court system has provided such as successful answer to the mix of homelessness, poverty and drugs in the Tenderloin. Much of the critique leveled at the court by the Coalition for Homelessness stems from misunderstandings about how it is supposed to operate (see for yourselves). And, as those who followed previous posts on this may recall, the sad thing is that this court - whether Mayor Newsom vetoes the decision to kill it or not - seems to have become no more than a pawn in the power struggle between Newsom and Supervisor Chris Daly. While this bickering is going on, we are stymied in a legal system that does not address problems in a holistic way.

If we don't try progressive solutions to our sentencing system, particularly in quality-of-life issues, we'll never know for sure whether they do, indeed, reduce recidivism. There is only one way to know, and that is to give this a try. And, much as it pains me to say this as a music and dance lover, this might be worth a bit more to the city as a whole than keeping the opera, symphony, and ballet budgets intact.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Parole: An Overview, and a Personal Story

As prison population grows, the parolee population grows too. A series of pieces on the North County Times has recently highlighted the experiences of parolees and the challenges of parole agents.

One of these articles discusses the impact of a constantly growing parolee population on the ability of parole officers to supervise - and rehabilitate - their clients successfully:

This is California's parole system, an overworked, underfunded system that is ill-equipped to deal with a crushing caseload of former prisoners who leave prison with a meager $200 allowance to feed, clothe and house themselves.

It's a caseload that stands to get much worse if a panel of federal judges conducting a trial in San Francisco to address overcrowding orders the early release of nearly 40,000 men and women now behind bars to ease prison overcrowding.

"California's parole population is now so large and its parole agents so overburdened that parolees who represent a serious public safety threat are not watched closely and those who wish to go straight cannot get the help they need," said a federally funded report released last month by three experts on the criminal justice system.

Interestingly, the article sees imprisonment and parole as inversely impacting each other. Naturally, the ecology of imprisonment, release, and reimprisonment, is something that merits attention; but is the problem really the growing rate of release, and if so, is the solution for parole officers' caseload simply to release less people? Curious to hear your thoughts.

Another piece recounts the optimistic story of George Loving, a parolee who managed a group home in Vista. Among other things, he says:

"I didn't think I was ever gonna change. I was either gonna die on the streets or die in prison. I didn't grow up with a whole lot of schooling, so I basically only knew one thing: how to steal. I really didn't know nothing else.

"You know, the (parole) department can make all the changes they want, but if you're not ready to change, it really doesn't matter. And then a lot of us don't be ready to change. And when you basically been spending your life out and in, out and in, you don't have no education and all that, you only really know that one way. A lot of people, you get my age and you don't wanna be talking about going back to school and all that. So you just, like, feel hopeless, like maybe this is all I will ever do.

"And then I took a few programs in prison. After sitting there and listening to people tell their stories, I'd sit back and be thinking, 'Damn, I did some (stuff) like that,' and 'Damn, am I that (messed) up and don't know about it?' The programs have a lot to do with me wanting to change, because I thought that there was nothing wrong with me. But there was a whole lot wrong with me.

"It just clicked. I was tired. I was tired, I was getting older, my kids was getting bigger. I just got tired. I been doing this since I was 11.

"This job (at a sheet metal company) don't pay a whole lot of money, but it beats 10 cents an hour or whatever I was getting in prison.

"I just feel good where I'm out now. Sometimes I think about what took me so long to realize that it's actually not hard to do that right thing. You know, and I really don't even get all them old thoughts of doing this and doing that no more, you know. Life has just been good. Just living it the best I can."

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fiscal Meaning of Prison Explosion

Sunday's editorial in the Sacramento Bee provided a critical take on the impact of prison overcrowding on state expenditures. The emphasis is particular on the aging prison population and the costs associated with medical care.

Those in prison aren't eligible for Medicare, the federal health program for the nation's elderly. Nor are they eligible for Medi-Cal, the health program for the poor in which costs are shared between the state and the federal government. So the entire cost of health care for older, sick prisoners falls on the state.

All of this is now in the federal courts because the state has refused to create alternatives for dealing with feeble, chronically ill prisoners to reduce prison population – or to pay for building facilities to house these prisoners.

One court is examining whether to cap prison population. Another is looking at whether to force the state to pay for seven 1,500-bed facilities. Both courts could make decisions as early as January.

However, a recent empirical study by John Pfaff from Fordham University suggests that prison overcrowding seems to stem more from masses of parole violators being returned to prison for short periods of time, than from people "housed" in correctional institutions for a lengthy period of time. How much of those sentences translate to more prison expenses remains unclear. I strongly recommend reading the full article; beyond the important implications, the study is beautifully done and is a great example of good quality empirical scholarship.

(The Sac Bee piece brought to my attention via the fabulous Sentencing Law and Policy blog. Thanks!)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Women Defenders Fall Seminar on Prisons

For those interested, here's the program for this coming Saturday's Women Defenders Fall Seminar, which will focus on prisons. It seems a great program.

And, while we're at it, do not forget to save the date for our upcoming California Corrections Crisis Conference at UC Hastings, on March 19-20. More details will be posted to the blog very soon.

Court of Appeal Strikes Down Voter-Approved Restrictions on Released Sex Offenders

(image from Megan's Law website)

As many readers may know, many states have implemented laws that meticulously regulate the lives of released sex offenders after imprisonment. These restrictions often include a requirement to register on a sex offender database, which can be searched online, and a requirement to notify the community about a paroled sex offender who has moved in. In addition, some states impose residence restrictions on sex offenders.

In 2006, CA voters approved Prop 83 ("Jessica's Law"), which included a series of such restrictions. Yesterday, the 4th District Court of Appeal found the residence restrictions to be unconstitutional. Per Prop 83, sex offenders were prohibited from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a park; the court, according to the Chronicle, has ruled that Prop 83 is "banishment by another name".

This ruling is quite interesting, because, as the good folks blogging on the Criminal Appeal blog astutely observe, CA district courts have interpreted other pieces of sex offender related legislation in deference to, and consideration of, the perceived voters' wishes. For example, the court has interpreted a discrepancy between laws regarding the two-year-commitment of sexually violent predators in favor of the voters' perceived wishes. It seems, though, that the residency requirements in particular were more controversial and more "ripe for constitutional attack", as per the other team of good folks blogging on CrimProf Blog.

To get a sense of the extent of the limitations, I recommend you click on the Family Watchdog link, which will provide you with a map of registered sex offenders in your area, as well as information on each and every one of the registered sex offenders. As you'll see in the maps, which include school locations, residence restrictions might rule out many areas for living, including much of San Francisco.

The Chronicle reports that the 4th District Court ruling will not change the situation for new offenders, but will only impact limitations imposed on people whose crimes were committed prior to Prop 83's passage.

A couple of other interesting things regarding sex offender registration, which probably would merit posts of their own: The UC Irvine Center for Evidence-Based Corrections' report on the implementation of GPS tracking of sex offenders, and a fascinating study by J.J. Prescott and Jonah E. Rockoff, which finds that notification and registration laws might have a much different effect on reoffending than lawmakers intended.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bogeymen? The CDCR's "Operation Boo"

This story comes in a bit too late for Halloween, but I think it merits some reflection. The CDCR parole department conducted a special operation on Halloween, called "Operation Boo".

The plan, according to the CDCR, was for parole officers to make sure all sex offenders spend Halloween with their lights out and their doors locked. The reason, according to Tom Hoffman, CDCR Director of Parole, is to "ensure kids are free to have fun without added worries about potential predators and that communities are safe from potential contacts with sex offenders".

I should probably mention that CA is not the only state to have taken such measures. ABC news report similar measures taken in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, where parole departments sometimes even require all sex offenders to be present for a special counseling program on Halloween night to make sure they are not on the street. Here's another interesting report from Rochester.

Given the recent emphasis on creating fact-based parole proceedings, one would expect some factual basis for these broad operations; I have searched the internet for statistics on sex offenses related to Halloween trick-or-treating and have yet to find one such incident. In fact, the only isolated violent Halloween incident I managed to find from recent years was this tragedy in South Carolina, which had nothing whatsoever to do with sex offenders (note, though, the fact that the shooter is described as an ex-felon in the headline).

Moreover, and contrary to public opinion, sex offender recidivism is actually quite low. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a 5.3% recidivism rate, and that statistic does not distinguish between child abuse and such things as public exposure or statutory rape. Also, as Chrysanthi Leon, from University of Delaware, has found, punitive measures against sex offenders in California have risen with no connection to actual sex offense rates.

Parental concern on Halloween, while not entirely justified by the facts, is nevertheless understandable. But there is something else at operation here. Halloween is by nature a holiday that makes the veil between our daily lives and their dark side particularly thin. Its Pagan origins can be traced to seasonal memorials of the dead, both in Celtic culture and, as we know, in the widely observed Latin American Dia de los Muertos. As such, it has always been a magnet for dark myths, such as the infamous poisoned candy myths. As the Chicago Tribune explains, these stem from a very small number of incidents, which were, for the most part, committed by relatives of the children. Incidentally, this is similar to the heightened concern about sexual assaults committed by strangers, when most rapes are in fact committed by a person known to the victim.

So, the Halloween policies regarding sex offenders could be the combined product of two powerful cultural narratives: the Halloween mythology and our communities' fears and concerns about sex offenses, which have not followed factual evidence, but which cannot be discounted. Fear of crime is a very real phenomenon, and in recent years has proven to be a very powerful narrative driving policies that extend much beyond law enforcement. For more on that, I strongly recommend Jonathan Simon's recent, and excellent, Governing Through Crime, and his fabulous blog.

It is, of course, also difficult to discount the trauma and horrors of victimization. For those looking for a more emotional - possibly even visceral - understanding of the complexities of these multi-sided dynamics, I've recently seen the magnificent, and masterfully acted, 2006 movie Little Children, based on Tom Perrotta's excellent book, which provides some frameworks for understanding the multiple perspectives on sex offender release. My intention in this post is not to argue that these horrors do not exist; I would, however, like us to be more aware of the power of cultural myth and of the differences between facts and fear.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

CJC Update: The Aftermath of Prop L's Failure


One of the less reported developments following the elections was the failure of Prop L, which aimed to provide more financial support to the Community Justice Center. As reported this morning, Opponents of the new court, led by Supervisor Chris Daly, are gathering some momentum, encouraged by Prop L's failure. Others, however, point to the broad consensus behind a court that aims to solve social problems in the Tenderloin, and to the flaws in the opponents' position. The CJC is still scheduled to open in February; stay tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fixing the Prison Medical System: More Hurdles?

The Chron reported yesterday that Governor Schwarzenegger won a reprieve from the 9th Circuit Court, after failing to come up with the money required for fixing the medical system.

As some may recall, last month Clark Kelso, the receiver appointed by Henderson to fix the prison's broken health system, filed this motion against the Governor, arguing that the State's financial crisis could not be used as an excuse not to turn in the 8 billion dollars required for the plan. Judge Thelton Henderson stopped short of finding the Governor in contempt for refusing to turn in the money.

As the Chron reports, after a break in the proceedings before the 9th Circuit, which granted the stay, Kelso expressed more willingness to work with the Governor to find a solution.

Incidentally, while the paper suggests that part of the problem is the secretive nature of Kelso's plan, there are actually abundant materials about it readily online. Kelso's full reports on the plan, his projects (such as the prison pharmacy project and the construction projects), are all on the California Prison Health Care Services website.

So, is Kelso running a "parallel government", or should the government cooperate with the plan and produce the necessary funds? You be the judges of that.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The “Othering” of Crime: A Call for Empathy in Corrections Policies

In his 2001 book The Culture of Control, David Garland tries to make sense of the many contradictions in current criminal justice policy. As part of his “history of the present”, he argues that we seem to have somewhat of a split personality, believing simultaneously in two narratives: the “criminologies of the self” and the “criminologies of the other”. On one hand, we buy into a narrative that tells us that crime is a phenomenon that affects “others” – the underclass, minorities, drug fiends – and on the other hand, we are very involved in situational crime prevention and avoidance, crafting preventive strategies based on the premise that criminals are “just like us”, that is, rational, free agents, who need to be correctly incentivized in order for deterrence to work.

I have been reflecting on Garland’s analysis for a long time, and today it spoke volumes to me, when I tried to make sense of some of the great contradictions of the latest election results; on one hand, a presidential choice that promises a dramatic paradigm change, and on the other hand, the passage of Prop 8, the passage of Prop 9, and the rejection of Prop 5. What really drove things home for me was not just Garland’s terminology, but also reading these powerful words on this very blog this morning:

I was always under the impression that prison was something that happened to other people. Bad people, that did bad things; not people like me. When members of our social milieu had problems with the law, it was almost always of the sort that could be dealt with via payments and, when someone did on occasion end up in jail, it was only spoken of by adults in hushed tones and treated as some sort of mistake or aberration. All the way through my early twenties, even once I should have known better, prison just seemed like somebody else's problem.

This is exactly what we have done in passing Prop 9 and, by doing so, keeping the “others” in prisons for longer, and making it more difficult for them, representation-wise, to leave. And this is exactly what we have done in defeating Prop 5 and, by doing so, extinguishing the flame of hope and possibility, in the form of drug treatment, for “others”. We would not have done so had we not been trained to think of criminals, drug dealers, drug fiends, corner loiterers, as “others”. We would not have done so had we had some empathy. We would not have done so had we felt that we are all in this mess together.

In many ways – and this may be surprising for some – I have come to see the rejection of Prop 5 and the passage of Prop 9 as the product of the same sort of social disconnect that produced the passage of Prop 8. Granted, Prop 8 is mostly a product of religious zealotry, while Prop 9 is more a product of fear; but both religion and fear have acted in this election as convenient vehicles for lack of empathy, and of separation from others. Indeed, the shared philosophy seems to be that others’ plight does not affect “us”, except in a way that harms us; that the only way to appropriate some of our limited resources is at the expense of someone else; that if the “other” is granted a right, or a window of hope, I am consequently deprived of something meaningful. That regardless of fact and empirical evidence, if the “other” leaves one of California’s correctional facilities, I and the likes of me are put in danger. That if the “other” gets drug relief unaccompanied by a conviction and imprisonment, I and the likes of me lose resources. And, yes, that if the “other” gets married, my marriage becomes less stable, and my children are at peril.

My concern is that, in our worry and our fear about the dangers of the “other”, we have created an impermeable and false boundary between “us” and “them”, whoever we take “them” to be. And it speaks volumes about the sense of alienation and partisanship that many have felt for a long time.

In his presidential acceptance speech, Barack Obama said:

To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn -- I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.

Let us hope that this sort of empathy, which transcends political, economic and religious boundaries, will reflect itself in how we treat one another and in our willingness to hear each other’s voices in the years to come. Let us hope that we will not be deaf to the plight of addicts - even when they fall off the wagon once, and perhaps even twice - as well as to the no less real plight of victims; to the happiness and support of families of all kinds and sorts; to the converted, overcrowded gym at San Quentin as we sleep in our comfortable beds. Let us hope that we can open our eyes, ears, and hearts, to acknowledge that, really, there is no “other”. Can we?

New Parole Violation Approach

In early October, CDCR announced that it was "moving forward with a new evidence-based system for dealing with parole violations." The new model is designed to rationalize CDCR's use of prison as a punishment for parole violations, by focusing "custody resources on higher risk offenders while targeting less serious offenders with proven treatment programs that seek to address the root of their problems."

This sounds like an important development and certainly one worth monitoring. If anything needs rationalization, it's California's broken parole system.

For more information on the new parole instrument, see:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Personal Perspective

Growing up in rural Northern California, in a middle to upper-middle class white household, I was always under the impression that prison was something that happened to other people. Bad people, that did bad things; not people like me. When members of our social milieu had problems with the law, it was almost always of the sort that could be dealt with via payments and, when someone did on occasion end up in jail, it was only spoken of by adults in hushed tones and treated as some sort of mistake or aberration. All the way through my early twenties, even once I should have known better, prison just seemed like somebody else's problem.

I mention all of this because I believe that my experience isn't an uncommon one. Our prisons aren't filled with people from privileged middle-class backgrounds, so many of us come of age never having known someone who has spent time in prison. Without that first-hand knowledge, it's only too easy to forget that the people in prison are real people too, with hopes, dreams, fears, and so on. I imagine that anyone who has taken the time to find this site and read our entries is already aware, at least on some level, of all that I've said. I mention it not to inform you, but to remind you- many people aren't concerned about the problems in our prison system, or aren't interested in prisoners' rights, not because they're cruel but because they're uninformed. Not because they're callous but because they don't understand what's really happening.

When I met John*, I simply knew that he was a friend of a friend, that he was decent looking, and that he was interested in me. It was only after we had gone out on several dates that I learned that he was also an ex-convict, recently off parole. He had been in San Quentin not once, but two or three times, for both violent and non-violent offenses, for several years at a time. He had two strikes and was paranoid about going back to prison- afraid he'd get a third strike and be stuck there for the rest of his life.

John was a troubled man in many ways: a rough childhood, followed by a stint in the military that had left scars both physical and psychological, hadn't given him much of a foundation to build on. My friends and family thought I was crazy to keep dating him once I learned all of this but for one reason or another, I did. The really sad thing for me was that it was clear to anyone who cared to look that John was a smart guy with a good heart. Even his violent crimes had been the result of caring too much and not knowing how else to protect someone he cared about. He was also sporadically homeless, unemployed, and prone to outbursts of verbal rage. I thought that maybe if he had some help from someone who cared, he could make a better life for himself. I thought maybe I could be that person.

While we were dating, I was never sure how much I could ask him about what prison was like. I realized then that I really had no idea what life in prison was like. Sure, I'd seen television shows and movies set in prisons but never before had I known someone who had actually been inside and I thought this was my chance to finally know. Whenever I asked, though, he was evasive, shunting my questions aside or laughing them off. Finally, one day he just looked at me and told me that he really didn't want to talk about it. That it wasn't like I'd seen on tv, but that it was terrible and that he'd rather die than go back. I still remember the troubled look he had when he told me he didn't want me to see him that way; I think we both knew that wasn't really possible. One of the most defining experiences of his life was one that was so foreign to me that even in trying to understand, I offended.

In the end, I had to end the relationship. Not because he had been in prison, but because of what prison had done to him. At 34, he was a broken man. He had constant health problems, due in part to the years he had spent with inadequate medical attention, making him seem much older sometimes. Socially, on the other hand, he was stunted. I was the younger by a good ten years but when we went out in public, I was the one that ended up embarrassed by his inappropriate words and actions. When people tried to help him or be friendly, half the time he'd scare them off or drive them away with preemptive rudeness. All those years behind bars had taught him how to fight, but they hadn't taught him how to interact with people. He couldn't keep a job, or a housing situation, or even friends. At some point, he just gave up. I don't know whether it happened while he was in San Quentin, or when he got turned down for job after job because of his record; more likely it happened gradually, as the defeats accumulated and he decided there was nothing he could do to stem the tide. He decided that the system had given up on him, so he gave up on it.

These days I'm a little bit more educated regarding our prison system, a little bit more aware of its many flaws, but I still see men like John on the streets around Hastings every day and I wonder: how many of them have a similar story? How many of them started life with hope and decent prospects, made a few foolish decisions in their youth, and ended up so distrustful of our society, so broken by the system, that they too just gave up? The other day I saw John himself, walking down the street in the Tenderloin. He didn't see me, and I let him walk by without saying anything. I hate to be one more thing that failed him, but I'm only one woman and I realized years ago that the wounds he had were far beyond my lone ability to heal.

*For reasons of privacy, the name has been changed

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Greening of Prisons?

(image from Chronicle article)
The Chronicle reports today of an interesting trend in some prisons, albeit not in CA: greening, composting and recycling. In Indiana, North Carolina, and Oregon, prisons are installing solar panels, using energy-saving equipment, and composting food scraps.

While this is, in principle, a cost-saving measure, it has had some heartwarming "side effects." The Chron reports:

The responsibility of caring for the prison's three hives of Italian honey bees falls mostly to Daniel Travatte, 36, a soft-spoken former drug addict who is serving 10 years for attempted armed robbery.

Under the supervision of prison counselor Vicki Briggs, Travatte has learned to harvest honey - which inmates occasionally eat with breakfast biscuits - and use beeswax to make lotions. He's become an expert on their habits.

"I'm trying to change myself," said Travatte. "A lot of people go through prison with no intention of changing. I love working with the bees. It keeps me busy. I have a lot of responsibility to take care of."

While there isn't scientific evidence that such activities are helping inmates, Nalini Nadkarni, an environmental studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., notes anecdotal evidence that it's working.

"They were stimulating their minds and having conversations that were different than 'How much more time we have left?' " said Nadkarni.

While Cedar Creek went green out of economic necessity - it had to conserve because it didn't have the wastewater capacity to expand four years ago - it is now embracing other benefits, said Dan Pacholke, a state prison administrator who helped implement many of the practices.

What about CA, which has pioneered greening efforts in so many other arenas of public and private life?
(image from CDCR website)
Well, as per this press release from CDCR, a series of energy-saving projects, including solar plants, are beginning to be implemented in prisons. These seem to belong more in the cost-saving family of changes; no composting, not to mention no community gardens or beehives. One can only hope that someone at CDCR will see the broader perspective and involve the inmate community in greening efforts; something very good might come out of this, beyond saving money.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Funding the Community Justice Center? SF Prop L

(image taken from a great report on

Today's Chronicle reports on the controversy regarding the sources of funding for San Francisco's Community Justice Center, scheduled to open its doors on February 2009.

The article presents the following analysis of the CJC proposition:

Proposition L

What it is: The measure would guarantee funding for the Community Justice Center, a special court to prosecute misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies in the area bounded by Gough, Bush, Kearny, Third and Harrison streets. It would also grant the mayor and Superior Court power to determine which crimes are handled there and expand its jurisdiction.

Arguments in favor of it: Nobody is served by the current system, which cycles perpetrators of low-level crimes in and out of jail without addressing their underlying problems, such as drug and alcohol addictions and homelessness. The court would sentence them to social services and community service to pay back the neighborhoods.

Who supports it: Mayor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris, the Chamber of Commerce.

Arguments against it: The court would criminalize behavior that comes with being poor like illegal camping and aggressive panhandling. Also, the Board of Supervisors already funded the court, so what's the point of the ballot measure?

Who opposes it: The majority of the Board of Supervisors, advocates for homeless people.

Some inaccuracies in the report should be mentioned: while it would appear that the court is especially aimed at "quality of lifers", its jurisdiction is, in fact, more geographic than anything else. The court's jurisdiction extends over several blocks of the Tenderloin and SOMA. According to Commissioner Albers, who spoke recently at a town hall meeting about the CJC, the only offenses excluded from its jurisdiction would be violent felonies.

The other big issue is whether the court would lead to criminalization of poverty. Proponents argue that city residents will be entitled to the social services pre-conviction, and sometimes even pre-charging; this might ease the concerns on the part of community advocates. However, it does raise the more general issue of "widening the web".

The concept was first introduced by Stanley Cohen, in his masterful 1985 book Visions of Social Control. Analyzing, among other issues, the movement toward decarceration (we could all use some of that!), he suggests that the addition of non-incarceration, welfare-oriented sentencing alternatives carries the risk of dragging into the government's net people who would otherwise be left out of supervision. Cohen sees this aspect of the alternatives in a grim light, but your mileage may vary.

In any case, it is an open question whether, by voting for or against Prop L, you would be sealing the court's fate. As reported by the Chron, the court does count on grants, and other sources, for a large part of its operation over the first year.

Happy voting, and stay tuned for a final election post, on SF's Prop K.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

California Prison Disaster

California's correctional crisis is increasingly gaining national attention. In an editorial today entitled, "The California Prison Disaster," the New York Times notes that California "has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate, and a prison budget raging out of control."

What is to be done? The Times argues that "the solution for California is to shrink its vastly overcrowded prison system," by moving "away from mandatory sentencing laws" and by reforming what is "perhaps the most counterproductive and ill-conceived parole system in the United States."

The Times isn't optimistic the state can turn itself around. "State lawmakers . . . have failed to make perfectly reasonable sentencing modifications and other changes the prisons desparately need. Unless they muster some courage soon, Californians will find themselves swamped by prison costs and unable to afford just about anything else."

We couldn't have said it any better.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Focus on Proposition 9: Introducing Victims' Perspectives to Corrections

In 1964, Herbert Packer published his classic piece (later to become the centerpiece of his 1968 book), Two Models of the Criminal Process. The piece, inspired by the Warren Court changes to criminal procedure, presented two hypothetical models of criminal justice administration: the Crime Control model, whose main purpose is efficiency, and the Due Process model, which aims at reducing mistakes. In a crime control model, the process is shaped to weed out, at the earliest stages, cases in which guilt is dubious; the best way to do this is in the police investigation stage, which is not hindered by legal technicalities, and which is ideally designed for investigative truth-finding. After the problematic cases are removed from the system, we can assume a statistical, non-normative, "presumption of guilt" about the other cases, which can later be handled via plea bargaining. By contrast, a due process model is willing to sacrifice efficiency for the purpose of avoiding any chance of convicting the innocent. It therefore includes various guarantees for defendants' rights, including the normative "presumption of innocence", and indicates a preference for adversarial trials as truth-finding mechanisms over biased and overzealous police investigations. Existing legal systems, Packer suggested, could be placed along the spectrum; the Warren Court's enterprise could be explained as a shift along that continuum from crime control to due process.

Packer's analysis became a classic in the field, but was immediately the source of much criticism. Some argued that crime control and due process were not both hypothetical, normative models; while due process was a normative prescription, much empirical research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s showed that the realities of crime control subverted constitutional provisions. Others pointed out the absence of an important factor: the victim.

Soon after the publication of Packer's work, John Griffiths argued that the typology does not offer the opportunity for less adversarial, more conciliatory models, which might help victim and offender, with the help of the community, bridge their differences. A different type of victim-inclusive model was provided by Douglas Evan Beloof, who argues that a model sensitive to victims requires adding that third perspective. In his 1997 article, he argues that victims' rights are not adequately served by automatically aligning them with crime control and "war on crime" models. While sometimes victims seek more punitiveness and safety, in other settings their interests could align with the defendants (for example, if the victim and the defendant have reconciled and the government pursues the case), or could be adverse to both defendants and government (for example, if the latter parties have reached a plea agreement and the victim would like a trial).

Kent Roach offers a richer analysis, including two different victim-inclusive models: a punitive perspective, which he likens to a rollercoaster, and a non-punitive, restorative-justice-oriented model. The first model is driven by victims and their advocates, who are heard at any step of the process, and who invariably oppose any leniency. The second model is driven by a community seeking to address, and redress, wrongs that have been done, and advocates reparation and reconciliation. For more insights on victims' role in the criminal process, see Leslie Sebba's article.

Which of these models is the one advocated by Prop 9? It seems that Prop 9 has aligned itself with the punitive version of the victim-inclusive model. By voting "yes" on Prop 9, one has not only to agree that victims could, and should, be active participants in the criminal process; one also has to agree that victims' interests require putting more limitations on parole, including representation in parole hearings. This assumes that victims' interests will always side with the government against the defendant, which seems to be a less nuanced approach to the diverse realm of victim experiences, but which aligns with various similar legislation initiatives, such as those requiring registration and notification of sex offenders. It should be pointed out, though, that Prop 9, or "Marsy's Law", is not limited to sex offenders.

Prop 9 proposes a constitutional amendment to our Bill of Victims' Rights, which would include the following rights:
o punishment and deterrence of the offender
o finality of the legal process
o public safety and protection from the defendant (bail and parole)
o fairness and respect
o confidentiality about details regarding the victims' personal lives
o notice of trial developments and conference with prosecution
o hearing at any proceedings

Among other things, the victim would be entitled to see the presentence report and to receive the scheduled release date of the offender. Prop 9 also prioritizes monetary restitution to victims.

Other main provisions of Prop 9 address parole hearings, presumably under the assumption that the victims' natural interest is in hindering them. Some of these proposed changes are summarized below:

Parole hearings
o the victim, as well as the inmate, is entitled to stenographic record of all proceedings
o the parole hearing date should be established so that suitability for parole can be established
o after denial of parole, the next hearings should be scheduled only after consultation with the victim
o a big change: parole denial postpones the next hearing by longer periods of time (ranging from 3 to 15 years for lifers). Only one request to expedite will be considered every three years. This seriously limits inmates' access to parole hearings.
o parole hearings become de novo hearings; they do not rely on findings in previous parole hearings. However, inmates do not have a right to interrogate the victims during the hearing.

Victim notification and attendance
o the victim would be notified of a parole hearing 90 days in advance, and has to notify back about his or her intention to attend 30 days in advance.
o the victim can attend with limited number of family and representatives (including victim advocates!) all of whom can provide testimony at the hearing.

Parole revocation hearings:
o inmates would only be entitled to counsel in parole revocation hearings if they are indigent and some special circumstances apply.

By linking "War on Crime" considerations with victim rights, does Prop 9 violate the single-subject rule? Your opinion is as good as mine. It is clear, however, that if it doesn't, it certainly chooses one particular type of victim model over others.

Friday, October 17, 2008

CA Prison Guards Drop their Recall Campaign

This morning's Chronicle reported that the CA Correctional Peace Officers Association, representing prison guards in CA, is dropping its recall campaign against Governor Schwarzenegger.

The CCPOA has been extremely critical of Schwarzenegger in the past, but now they have other matters on their hands, such as fighting Prop 5.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Focus on Proposition 6: How To Deal With Gangs and Other Matters

Proposition 6, or the Safe Neighborhood Act, proposes a variety of changes to the CA criminal justice policy. The main idea behind it is addressing street crime from a "war on crime" perspective.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when considering Prop 6 is its financial implications. Currently, CA is allocating $600,000 to law enforcement, and this proposition will raise this amount by $350,000 (a 50% increase). One source provides the breakdown of these additional funds by topic. The question, therefore, is twofold: whether, as voters, you agree with the philosophy that has driven the proposition, and, if so, whether you are comfortable with its costs.

Some of the major and substantive proposed changes include changing evidence rules to allow hearsay, i.e. a victim's testimony at the police station, in cases in which the victim is later unavailable to testify. "Unavailability" is broadly defined to include situations in which the victim refuses to testify due to trauma. This idea is not as innovative as it might seem in the American context; other countries have broad exceptions to the hearsay rule, brought about in the conservative 1980s as a response to concerns about organized crime and victim intimidation. It seems that this rationale is also behind the proposed new offense, penalizing any activity of preventing or dissuading victims from testifying and complaining to the police, as well as acts of retaliation against victims.

Prop 6 includes several other new offenses; all of these acts seem to be punishable under current criminal laws, and I expect their proposed criminalization is more of a proclamation than a practical change. These include tampering with one's electronic monitor; driving or taking away other person’s vehicle (year in jail or fine); and graffiti (year in jail or fine). A point of interest about this last one: if juveniles are unable to pay fines for graffiti, their parents may be responsible.

Which is where we come to one of the main focal points of Prop 6: the issue of gangs. the US in general, and CA in particular, has struggled with gang-related polices for many years now. The philosophy behind much of what we have done so far regarding gangs assumes that gang membership is conducive to crime, and that one way to fight gang-related crime is to fight the gangs themselves, before any crime has been committed.

One such early attempt to control gang-related behaviors involved using criminal law to prohibit gang members from congregating. In Chicago v. Morales, the criminal prohibition for gang members to "loiter in public places" was held to violate the Due Process clause due to its vagueness and the broad discretion it leaves to law enforcement officers. But the newer generation of gang-related policies seems to be much more targeted. My student Adam Maldonado, who has done some research on civil gang injunctions in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, found that they prohibit specific gangs from congregating in specific, carefully-defined areas. These areas include, in San Francisco, the Mission, Hunter's Point, and Western Addition, including a 3-by-4 block not far from Hastings. He has also found that, before an injunction is applied, the gang needs to be thoroughly researched by law enforcement agencies, so there is "clear and convincing evidence" that it constitutes a "public nuisance" (People v. Englebrecht (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 1236, 1256).

How does Prop 6 impact gang-related policy? To start, it adds provisions that make a gang into a legal entity. A gang can be sued, and Prop 6 adds mechanisms by which its members can be served with papers on behalf of the gang, which simplify the process of injunction and potentially other processes of legal dealings with gangs as such. It also includes a list of 33 offenses, ranging from serious violence offenses to much less serious property offenses, which, when committed by a minor in a gang context, would enable CA to try the minor as an adult. Also, the punishment for a long list of felonies is doubled if these are committed in the context of a gang.

Prop 6 also requires more research into gangs, including a registry; failure by a previously convicted gang member to register might be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the content of the original conviction.

Other miscellaneous changes included in Prop 6:
o allocating $10,000,000 for conducting background checks on public housing recipients
o excluding the possibility of bail for illegal aliens charged with violence or gang-related crimes (of particular interest in light of San Francisco's recent "sanctuary city" expose);
o banning O.R. release for violent offenders without a hearing, and placing limitations on OR for violent offenses in the context of guns, parole violations, and others;
o tightening notification to parole authorities of any parolee behavior, ranging from offenses to technicalities (contrast with Prop 5, which advocates a softening of parole revocation based on technical violations);
o allocating funds for reentry programs; however, by contrast to Prop 5, the emphasis is on monitoring and supervision (through GPS devices, etc).

Stay tuned for the last post in the series, discussing some aspects of Prop 9.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Focus on Proposition 5: The Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act

In a previous post, I briefly presented the three criminal-justice-related propositions on the California ballot. In this post, and two more posts to follow, I'll expand about each of these, starting today with Proposition 5.

NORA, or the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, builds on the ruins of Prop 36, which was passed in 2000. Prop 36 promised drug abuse treatments for offenders charged with simple possession. Since 2000, the plan received praise as well as critique. Some point to a reduction in recidivism, and others highlight that less than half of the offenders complete treatment. Recently, Prop 36 lost close to half its allocated budget through gubernatorial fund cuts (and here's what the critics think about the cuts).

NORA aims to propose a modified version of Prop 36, and it might affect drug offenders in a variety of ways. It emphasizes rehabilitation as an answer to the prison overcrowding crisis, and provides mechanisms that exist in a variety of countries, such as drug treatment which is not accompanied by an official conviction. In this post, I'd like to highlight some aspects of Prop 5, some of which have not been emphasized on other web discussions.

As mentioned in an earlier post, "nonviolent drug offenses", for the purposes of Prop 5, include simple possession of drugs or paraphernalia, as well as being under the influence. Any such scenario that includes trafficking purposes is excluded from this definition.

The drug treatment programs offered by Prop 5 follow a principle of "harm reduction", and would be personalized to fit the particular offender and his or her circumstances. They could include science-based instruction, outpatient services, residential treatment, medication, mental health, and aftercare.

The proposition offers three tracks of diversion and treatment, which are left to the court's discretion:
• Track I: treatment diversion with deferred entry of judgment (carrying no criminal conviction)
• Track II: treatment diversion after a conviction, as a probation requirement, including sealing of records after probation
• Track III: treatment diversion after a conviction for possession of controlled substances: other nonviolent offenses: judicial discretion (for people who failed Track II and continue to have a problem). I should point out that "second chances" are a crucial component of drug programs, because it is unrealistic to expect addicts not to "fall off the wagon".

Placement is established upon clinical evaluation and is quite flexible.

Prop 5 also addresses the meaning of drug treatments in prison. Successful completion of drug programs in prison would provide "good behavior" credits, equivalent to those earned through work, which add up and might lead to one's early release. Another important and often neglected aspect of Prop 5 is its emphasis on reentry. Under the proposed legislation, contact with the offender is established 90 days before release from prison, in an attempt to create a good support network, workwise and treatmentwise, upon release.

In addition to these, Prop 5 also includes provisions that make it more difficult to return offenders to prison due to technical parole violations. When the violation is a misdemeanor, non-incarceration options are prioritized.

Prop 5 would require a reorganization of the CDCR, adding a Secretary of Rehabilitation and Parole with increased resources devoted to parole, probation, and rehabilitative programs in prison. There are also a variety of fact-based assessment mechanisms, built to examine the success of Prop 5 programs, including academic evaluation studies and research conferences.

How much money will this cost? The answer to that question is uncertain, as expenses on programs may be offset by savings in prisons. The amount of savings would depend on the success of drug programs in reducing recidivism. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Recidivism Reduction in Mental Health Courts?

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of hosting Dale McNiel from UCSF, who gave a talk about his work with Renée Binder evaluating the effects of the San Francisco Mental Health Court on recidivism. The court offers various programs and close supervision; the defendants' progress is monitored and, at some point, they graduate from the program. Participation in the mental health court is voluntary. Here's a pretty positive take on the program.

McNiel and Binder's study is a great example of an evaluation project on problem-solving courts. One of the problems in measuring the success of sentencing alternatives is that you really need to compare your program to the traditional sentencing and correctional methods. Due to the fact that the mental health court population is self selected (participation in the program is voluntary), the study and control groups are, obviously, not formed through random allocation. Therefore, various pretreatment variables, which might explain why some people might choose to attend mental health court, might also explain differences in recidivism rates. To partially offset this problem, McNiel and Binder use propensity weighting; they select the control group based on criteria that would make them resemble the population that does choose to go to mental health court, as much as possible.

McNiel and Binder's findings clearly indicate a reduction in recidivism for both violent and nonviolent offenses, which grows over time. They control for a variety of demographic and clinical variables. The nuances are important; the court seems to be better for people with certain disorders, and I'm not sure I fully understand its interaction with substance abuse and homelessness, which many people in the study group experience. Also, as they point out in their discussion, this is only one study of one court; recidivism rates may differ across mental health courts, and may be a function not only of the programs themselves, but of the sanctions imposed by the court. Fascinating stuff, and I hope the followup yields more generalizable results.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Problem Solving Courts

San Francisco's new Community Justice Center, and its existing Drug Court, follow a general model of problem-solving courts. The National Center for State Courts produces this toolkit for States seeking to implement this model; the nice thing about the toolkit is that it contains not only success stories, but also different perspectives on the enterprise from within the system.

Those interested in a broader theoretical introduction to problem solving courts and to therapeutic justice in general will enjoy Candace McCoy's The Politics of Problem-Solving: An Overview of the Origins and Development of Therapeutic Courts, 40 American Criminal Law Review (2003). Laurie O. Robinson's comment on the paper (published on the same volume) is equally interesting, and provides a more optimistic practitioner's perspective.

Are problem-solving courts a good answer to the correctional crisis? What do you think?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Another valuable resource

The Little Hoover Commission is an independent state oversight agency that has published a number of important studies on California Corrections.

Particularly notable is its 2007 Report, "Solving California's Correction's Problems: Time is Running Out."

Among the Report's key recommendations:

-- "The state must take back control of the prison medical
system, by developing a plan to work with an organization that can run the system for the State."

-- "The State must immediately take action to improve its management . . . and implement the recommendations made by this and other commissions, including expanding in-prison programs, improving prisoner reentry, and reallocating resources to communitybased alternatives."

-- "The State must re-invent parole, moving to a system of post-release supervision for certain prisoners to ensure public safety."

-- "The State should begin a comprehensive evaluation of its sentencing system by establishing an independent sentencing commission to develop guidelines for coherent and equitable sentencing guided by overarching criminal justice policy goals.

Another must read!

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Importance of Re-Entry

My student Billy Minshall has just directed my attention to a short piece by Jeff Adachi, the public defender for San Francisco, on today's Examiner. Adachi is referring to a special event on re-entry today. Among other things, he writes:

Every year, more than 137,000 parolees are released in California, including 2,400 who return to San Francisco. Of these, only 21 percent are expected to successfully complete parole. Most, like Jesse, have low levels of education, reside in poor neighborhoods and lack basic marketable job skills. With the advent of online criminal background checks, many are eliminated before they are even considered for employment.

Employers are understandably reluctant to hire offenders. Some jobs — such as transport, teaching, and child or patient care — automatically bar offenders. Employers may also fear legal liability if an offender commits a crime while employed. In a recent survey of employers, less than 40 percent said that they would consider hiring an offender.

So, what can be done to help a formerly incarcerated man or woman who wants to work and avoid the revolving prison doors?

The answer is stunningly simple: convince employers to hire offenders.

Not an easy task, but one that can be facilitated through Supervisor Mirkarimi's plan to insure employers prepared to participate. Given the rates of incarceration, this should really be a top priority.

On the same topic, Jennifer Gonnerman's new book Life on the Outside documents the re-entry challenges faced by Elaine Bartlett upon her release from prison. The book's website is a good resources for those of us seeking to connect the broad re-entry issue with a particular human face and story.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Education at San Quentin

Today I came across a Chronicle piece from 2002 about Jeanne Woodford, the previous warden at San Quentin, and her commitment to GED programs and prison education in particular. The CDCR page on San Quentin suggests that the current warden, Robert Ayers, has kept the educational programs in place.

In the article, Woodford points out that many of these programs can be carried out without additional expenses to taxpayers. I wonder if that is still feasible given the increase in prison population.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Understanding California Corrections

The problems with the California correctional system are so varied and so complex, one can easily become overwhelmed. Fortunately, there's a great resource for getting a broad overview of the issues: Joan Petersilia's recent publication for the California Policy Research Center, entitled Understanding California Corrections. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On the Ballot: Propositions 5, 6, and 9

On Nov. 4, Californians will not only get to decide between Obama and McCain, but also to weigh in about their priorities and values regarding law enforcement and corrections. There are three relevant propositions on the ballot, and voters will need to realize that, to a great extent, supporting each of these comes at the others' expense. Moreover, it is important to pay attention to the fact that each of the propositions espouses a different ideology about criminal propensity and crime control.

Prop. 5: Nonviolent Drug Offenses; Sentencing, Parole and Rehabilitation

Proponents of NORA (Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act) argue that current drug laws do not allocate resources to treating the problem from the source, which is addiction. According to the proposition, the idea is to preserve resources by reserving punitive measures for violent offenders, and focusing on treating non-violent offenders through the diversionary methods set in Prop. 36. This would be accomplished through a reorganization of entities, adding special divisions at CDCR that would address substance abuse, vocation and education. For the purposes of NORA, a "non-violent drug offender" is someone convicted of "unlawful personal use, possession for personal use, or transportation for personal use, or being under the influence of any controlled substance"; the prop excludes "possession for sale, transportation for sale, production, or manufacturing of any controlled substance".

The options for deferred entry of judgment and for supervision are ehnanced. The proposition is very much in the spirit of therapeutic justice.

Prop. 6: Police and Law Enforcement Funding; Criminal Penalties and Laws

By contrast, this proposition, also called the Safe Neighborhoods Act and the Runner Initiative, is very much in the spirit of Packer's Crime Control model. The idea is to increase funding for more traditional law enforcement activities. The proposition identifies a few key criminal phenomena and focuses on aggressive prosecution toward them. One such focus is gang activity; under Prop 6, any youth 14 years or older convicted of a "gang-related" felony would be tried as an adult. Other "focus areas" include violence and methamphetamine trafficking.

The proposition would also criminalize tampering with monitoring devices such as electric cuffs, and would require anyone receiving public housing subsidies to undergo annual criminal background checks.

The official text also provides for strengthening police intelligence and "mapping" high risk areas.

Prop. 9: Criminal Justice System; Victims’ Rights; Parole
Prop 9 advocates a third type of justice model, namely, one focusing on victims' rights in various ways. It includes a CA constitutional amendment as well as regular legislation. Some aspects of Prop 9 include a requirement to pay restitution to victims and a prioritization of these requirements. It also expands victims' legal rights and their impact not only throughout the adjudication process, but also in parole hearings.

The official text ttt bemoans the faulty implementation of the Victims' Bill of Rights in 1982, and suggests to improve matters by assuring that victims are informed of developments in the case, including pre-sentence reports, plea bargains, and sentence details. Victims would be notified of bail hearings and would have the right to be heard before a bail decision is made.

In addition, Prop 9 also creates additional limitations on parole, and adds years before parole can be obtained in certain cases.


This is going to be a tough choice. As David Garland argues in The Culture of Control, our criminological "history of the present" is such that several models of criminal justice coexist, along with their contradictory premises. When pitted one against the other, as in the 2008 ballot, the conflict is not only one of ideologies but one of resources. Shifting more resources toward enforcement would come at the expense of rehabilitation and vice versa. Moreover, hiring personnel with a defined agenda, which would be a necessity under each of these propositions, would impact the spirit of criminal justice in general. So, the choice is not merely between priorities, but between paradigms.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Comparative Look at Prison Overcrowding

A few months ago, the NY Times published updated statistics as to the number of prisoners per 100,000 people around the world.

The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.

China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)

San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.

The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.

The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.

The piece also provides a breakdown by state, which seems to locate California somewhere in the middle between Maine (273 per 100,000) and Louisiana (1,138). I am assuming these numbers include prisons and jails.

The intriguing graphs are the ones depicting the decline in crime rates, happening simultaneously with the increase in incarceration rates. It is also interesting to note that, while most inmates in state prisons are incarcerated for violent offenses, most federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses. The article does not provide data on incarceration rates due to parole violations.