Friday, January 30, 2009

Zen and the Art of Prison Maintenance

California’s prison health care imbroglio received a lot of press this week:  Gov. Schwarzenegger and AG Brown filed a motion before federal district judge Thelton Henderson, asking him to remove Clark Kelso, the receiver he appointed to oversee reform of the state’s troubled prison health care system, and return control to the state. The motion, likely directed at higher courts who may be more sympathetic than Henderson, is the latest in what is becoming an increasingly nasty political struggle between the state and Kelso.  

The debate between the two has focused recently on the ability of the state to manage the department of corrections (see Aaron’s post below about the receiver’s most recent tri-annual report), but has relegated the proposed reforms themselves to the sidelines.  Tucked near the end of articles are lines like the following:   

LA Times: State officials estimate that the facilities would cost up to $2.3 billion a year to operate, and draft plans have included exercise rooms, music and art therapy areas, natural light and landscaping. "The environment should be 'holistic,'" Kelso's plan says.

SF Chronicle: An early draft of plans for new construction includes space for activities such as yoga and gymnasiums with basketball courts, among other amenities. [Kelso] said that his office did not propose the yoga space but that it was required under state mental health standards. 

It’s easy to characterize any spending on inmates that isn’t strictly orange jumpsuits and cells as frivolous, especially in times of economic crisis when people are more averse than ever to seemingly unnecessary expenditure. But sentences like “the environment should be ‘holistic’” give the impression that we are spending $2.3 billion to turn our prisons into Zen gardens, and, perhaps more than the political posturing, do a disservice to our attempts at substantive debate about what the problems in the prisons actually are, and whether Kelso’s proposed reforms are the right way to address them. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Dark Side of Gideon

It is universally acknowledged that the 1960s were good years for criminal defendants. The Warren court, subscribing to a philosophy of constitutional incorporation, bright-line rules and prioritizing accuracy over efficiency, provided defendants with a series of constitutional rights which would be chipped at by the post-Warren courts for many years afterwards. The right of rights - a right as well as a tool to achieve other constitutional rights - was the right to counsel, affirmed in Gideon v. Wainwright, and later (in Argersinger v. Hamlin and in Scott v. Illinois) more narrowly defined as to include any situation of "actual imprisonment". Those of you seeking some of the story behind the monumental Gideon decision, will find it in Anthony Lewis' fantastic Gideon's Trumpet

By making the decision applicable against the States, the Warren court did more than intervene in State systems of values; it intervened with their budget. It required the states to come up with good strategies to provide subsidized representation for indigent defendants. An important rationale behind this decision was the wish to generate more equality between defendants of different classes. One way of doing so was through creating Public Defender offices around the country, though not all states did so, and some chose to work with contracting and retainer systems. 

The dark side of providing broad, free legal services has to do with the quality of service. Research in the 1960s and 1970s was not oblivious to this fact, and was notably skeptic about the quality of representation offered by public defenders to indigent clients. Abraham Blumberg compared such representation to "a confidence game", in which the public defender, in cahoots with other members of the "courtroom workgroup", "cons" the client into agreeing to plea bargains, thus making the system run more soothly and efficiently. The recently and sadly deceased David Sudnow, in a no-less classic and more systematic study, shows how defense attorneys assess the extent to which a specific case is a "normal crime", which can be "sold" as such to the prosecution for a preset tariff. Newer studies, such as Debra Emmelman's 1996 article and her subsequent book, Justice for the Poor, had a more positive and less cynical perspective on legal services to indigents; however, Emmelman points out to the lack of resources faced by lawyers in these situations.

And, indeed, with no resources, institutions that provide ample representation cannot guarantee quality representation. Just a few months ago, the New York Times reported on several Public Defender offices around the nation who had refused to take on new cases, being unable to properly and adequately handle the load they faced. 

These budgetary problems have come to haunt the Bay Area as well. As reported in today's Chronicle, the San Francisco Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, is reporting a dire lack of resources, and arguing that if the office does not get two more paralegals, some cases will need to be referred to firms outside the office. This bothers me profoundly not only as someone who cares about the criminal justice system, but also as an educator who prepares public-interest-minded students for, among other vocations, careers in public defense. This year, scores of bright, talented, and hardworking students will graduate from top law schools, and many of those who seek public defender careers will find themselves working temporary hourly-paid jobs, or, worse, unpaid clerkships. 

The system is not only bankrupt where prisons are concerned; it is bursting at the seams in other stages of the criminal process. Here's hoping that things get better sooner rather than later.

Monday, January 26, 2009

CA Correctional Crisis Conference website launched!

Our conference website is up and running, and you are welcome to visit it for information on our upcoming conference on the California correctional crisis.

The conference will address and discuss many of the issues we have highlighted - and continue highlighting - on this blog: sentencing, alternative adjudication mechanisms, prison overcrowding, the prison administration, the health system crisis, budgetary issues, parole, risk, release and reentry.

You are all warmly invited to attend.

When: March 19-20
Where: CA State Building, 350 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Law Enforcement and Corrections: A Message from the New Administration

The new White House website is attracting some attraction (some of it from bloggers comparing it to the previous version which, in all fairness, was made eight years ago). Given Jonathan Simon's statement, that no American politician has ever gotten elected on a platform of being soft on crime, it is interesting to state a few things about the new administration's criminal justice policy.

First, the list of topics on the agenda does not seem to include crime control or law enforcement in any particularly visible way.

Second, these issues have been located under "civil rights".

Third, the priorities seem to have shifted toward rehabilitation and re-entry, at least on paper. An excerpt from the agenda page:

  • End Racial Profiling: President Obama and Vice President Biden will ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support: President Obama and Vice President Biden will provide job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society. Obama and Biden will also create a prison-to-work incentive program to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.
  • Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: President Obama and Vice President Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.
  • Expand Use of Drug Courts: President Obama and Vice President Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.
How much these national priorities will be reflected in California in the wake of the failed Prop 5? It may well be that the tendency to release prisoners and eliminate parole, supported by Governor Schwarzenegger as a budgetary emergency measure, may actually reflect some of these priorities.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Taking the Gloves Off

On January 15, 2009, Clark Kelso, the Federal Receiver in charge of reforming California's prison medical system, released his latest "Tri-Annual Report."

From the report's opening lines, it's clear that the fight over the prison medical system is entering a particularly bitter and contentious phase.

Kelso's anger with the State is apparent from the opening paragraph: "Since the reporting, period, the Governor and the Attorney General of the State of Calfornia executed a 'flip-flop' and 'bait and switch.' The immediate victims of the State's turnabout are the four federal courts and respect for the rule of law; the ultimate victims are the tens of thousands of class members who are waiting for constitutionally required improvements in their medical care as well as the citizens of the state of California."

Kelso proceeds to outline a list of frustrations and failings. The State has "refus[ed] to work with the federal court to develop a funding mechanism" for reform. It's response to the budget crisis has been "scattershot, unpredictable and inappropriate." It's proposals for corrective action "violate federal court orders and will, in both the short and long-term, serve only to increase existing State funding shortfalls."

The report continues: "No purpose is served attempting to prove the personal or political motivations which have led the Governor to renege on his Administration's assurances to pursue a public-private financing transaction to support the Receiver's construction program if legislation failed, or which now drive the Attorney General to attempt to rewrite the history of four federal court class action cases and wage a war against district court orders to which the State has previously agreed. However, the threat to the orderly administration of justice from their actions cannot be ignored. Court orders are not Hollywood contracts where . . . promises to perform are cheaply given and then ignored when convenient. . . . There are appropriate legal processs for challenging and reconsidering court orders; however, flat out disobedience of courts orders is not the appropriate course of action."

Hearings on the state of the prison medical system are expected to resume before a three-judge panel during the first week of February.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Civics and Corrections: A Reminder

As we get ready to watch the momentous transfer of power on Capitol Hill tomorrow, I thought we'd ponder for a moment about the rationale behind excluding prisoners, and in some cases ex-felons, from the right to vote.

Four years ago, released prisoners on parole, and probationers, were surprised to find out that they had a right to vote in California. Activists have been working on raising awareness of the right to vote among those who have been, for a while, excluded from the civic process. In other states, such as Florida, in some cases voting rights can only be restored after a hearing.

In their excellent book Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen uncover some of the reasons why the American system does not award voting rights to its prisoners. Disturbingly, they draw links between felon disenfranchisement and racism, which go beyond a mere coincidence. Even more interestingly, they marshall empirical data, meticulously collected and analyzed, to prove that, had felons been allowed to vote, two presidential elections (1960 and 2000), and several Senatorial elections, would have been reversed.

Some change has already occurred after the publication of the book, as some states loosened restrictions on voting rights. And, as some readers may know, many countries around the world see no problem in allowing prisoners (current and released) to participate in voting.

This weekend, Parade Magazine published a letter from President-Elect Obama to his daughters and to every child in the country. Obviously, our children, whose future we hold so dear and care so much about, did not vote in the last elections. The Presidential stewardship, as Obama so movingly said in his acceptance speech, transcends those who voted for him; it extends to those who voted for other candidates, and hopefully will also extend to other groups who did not have the privilege to vote at all. As many of us hope for change in many ways, we can hope that our future paths and endeavors also direct us to re-entry, restoration and reintegration after punishment.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More sources on budget proposal

The full budget proposal can be found here and the CDCR summary of the proposal's impact on corrections is here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dickens in Alabama

I know this post has nothing to do with California Corrections, but I could not resist the temptation to write a few words about this NY Times piece, which tells a tale best relegated to Dickens novels.

DECATUR, Ala. — The prisoners in the Morgan County jail here were always hungry. The sheriff, meanwhile, was getting a little richer. Alabama law allowed it: the chief lawman could go light on prisoners’ meals and pocket the leftover change.

And that is just what the sheriff, Greg Bartlett, did, to the tune of $212,000 over the last three years, despite a state food allowance of only $1.75 per prisoner per day.

In the view of a federal judge, who heard testimony from the hungry inmates, the sheriff was in “blatant” violation of past agreements that his prisoners be properly cared for.

“There was undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight,” the judge, U. W. Clemon of Federal District Court in Birmingham, said Thursday in an interview. “I could not ignore them.”

So this week, Judge Clemon ordered Sheriff Bartlett himself jailed until he came up with a plan to adequately feed prisoners more, anyway, than a few spoonfuls of grits, part of an egg and a piece of toast at breakfast, and bits of undercooked, bloody chicken at supper.

The really shocking bit, though, is that this travesty is supported by Alabama law:

An unusual statute here dating from the early decades of the 20th century allows the state’s sheriffs to keep for themselves whatever money is left over after they feed their prisoners. The money allotted by the state is little enough — $1.75 a day per prisoner — but the incentive to skimp is obvious.

What can I say? Words fail me. Hard, Bleak times.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Gangs in San Quentin

A short look at gangs and prison hierarchy:

Criminologists have been studying gangs and their contribution to crime since the early 20th century; one of the classics in the field is Frederic Thrasher's The Gang. For an updated discussion of gangs, I recommend seeking Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson's recent Street Gang Patterns and Policies.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Prison and Parole Cuts: Lean Years, Lean Budget

Yesterday's Sacramento Bee reported Governor Schwarzenegger's new budget plan, which has direct implications for corrections policy. The gist of it is as follows:

Parole would be eliminated for all nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders. The proposal would cut the parole population by about 65,000 by June 30, 2010, or more than half of the Christmas Eve count of 123,144.

At the same time, the corrections plan calls for increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation programs. Combined with the new parole policies that would result in fewer violators forced back into custody, the proposal would reduce the prison population by 15,000 by June 30, 2010. It stood at 171,542 on Dec. 24.

The California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, who has previously opposed the Governor's plan for state employees to go on one-day furloughs, opposes this plan as well. This letter from their Executive Vice President, Chuck Alexander, has bits and pieces of the proposed budget in it.

A careful read of the budget will reveal cuts not only in the prison and parole systems, but also in the medical system's Receiver's budget. Some rehabilitative re-entry programs might actually see an increase in funding.

Desperate times, apparently, call for desperate measures. These steps echo what I commented on here and here: we no longer care about the merits of a correctional institution or project. We only care about how much it costs.

But wait: isn't de-crowding our prisons, and cutting our parole system, a good thing on the merits as well? This is a bit more complex than it might seem. A credit accumulation system is certainly a good thing, and it helps focus the release decision on factors having to do with actual behavior and change, rather than on a regurgitation of issues concerning the offense itself (a bit more on that, from a broader doctrinal perspective, in this piece by W. David Ball). But rather than eliminating mandatory parole, if we had the leisure of giving this reform careful thought, we would perhaps be better off retooling parole to act as an institution encouraging and supporting ex-felons in re-entry, rather than supervising them and returning them to jails for technicalities? A reformed parole system could be an invaluable resource for people seeking housing and work upon their return from prison. As is becoming plainly obvious, this is not about common sense, even if, in some cases, it seems to make sense as a policy. This is strictly about the money.

It remains to be seen whether the legislator will approve these changes. To Be Continued.