Sunday, November 29, 2009

Death Row Expansion Halted!

California Treasurer Bill Lockyer is halting the issuance of bonds to pay for the Death Row expansion endorsed earlier this year by Governor Schwarzenegger. The delay is due to the efforts of Assemblyman Jared Huffman and Senator Mark Leno. The Marin Independent Journal reports:

Huffman and Leno. . . sent a letter to Lockyer on Wednesday asserting that sale of the bonds would be illegal until resolution of litigation challenging Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto of budget language on conditions for financing of the project.

The language prohibited issuance of bonds until the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation determined that it could lawfully double-cell condemned inmates; federal court litigation on prison overcrowding currently before a three-judge panel was resolved; and the correction department completed California Environmental Quality Act analyses for any modifications to the project.

Huffman said the governor had no authority to use the line-item veto on policy language.

This delay may be good news for death penalty activists, but its long term impact on the death penalty will depend, to a large extent, on the next administration and on the 2010 elections.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Understanding the Punitive White Male

As the chronology of California correctional policies shows, many of the punitive measures in sentencing, corrections, and risk management, emerged from voter initiatives. Whether or not the public is punitive, or is being pushed in that direction by politicians and the media, and what can be done to change public opinion, are complex and delicate questions that we discussed in a previous post. Today, I'd like to turn to the findings of some recent work, pointing to the fact that some potential voters and jurors, namely, white males, are more punitive than others.

In a recent piece, Michael Costelloe, Ted Chiricos and Marc Gertz measure public punitivism as a factor of various worldviews, among them what they call "economic insecurity." As it turns out, people tend to be more punitive, and their belief in rehabilitation and second chances declines, when they feel that their own economic situation will worsen over time. This effect is particularly salient among white males; Costelloe et al attribute this connection to a sentiment that welfare policies, and giving people a break, rewards the underserving and comes at one's own expense, a sentiment which they find overrepresented among white males.

This weekend I received more confirmation for this finding, albeit in a different context. Mona Lynch and Craig Haney's recent study, presented at the Conference for Empirical Legal Studies, used mock juries of 4 to 7 jurors, who were shown a video of a death penalty trial and asked to deliberate the case. The study was masterfully done, providing the jurors with two identical versions of the video - except for the races of the offender and the victim. The clothing and acting of the different witnesses was exactly the same; the only thing manipulated was race. As Lynch and Haney found, white male jurors were significantly more likely to sentence the black defendant to death. These findings had ripple effects. White males were overrepresented as elected forepersons, and they exhibited the power to sway the other jurors in a punitive direction. As the following chart depicts, juries with a higher concentration of white male jurors tend to differentiate more between white and black defendants when deliberating and deciding on the death penalty.

What is going on? Lynch and Haney explain the findings by arguing that white male jurors tend to exhibit less empathy toward black defendants. This echoes the argument by Costelloe et al, according to which economic anxiety and lack of empathy are related.

What are we to do, though? Exclude white males from voting on initiatives and serving on juries? Of course, not all white males lack empathy and are punitive. But the next time the propositions come around, or the next time we serve on a jury, we should ask ourselves how our demographics, experiences, and biases, impact our opinions about crime.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Unintended Consequences of Population Reduction Orders

I've just returned from the Fourth Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, held at University of Southern California. The whole thing was absolutely fascinating, and the papers were top notch. I will probably refer to some of these in the days to come, but the one most pertinent to our blog is Richard Boylan and Naci Mocan's interesting paper Intended and Unintended Consequences of Prison Reform. Analyzing data from many states (predominantly in the south) that were ordered by federal courts to reduce prison population, Boylan and Mocan find that complying with these orders required an increase in correctional expenditures. The graph in this post depicts the "jump" in expenditures after court orders, compared to states that were not subject to such orders.

Now, where did that money come from? Unfortunately, from welfare. The increase in expenditures on prison improved condition within walls, but outside, it led to cuts in welfare programs. Worse, after the period of court supervision is over, the money is not returned to welfare. The irony, of course, is that prison reform and welfare target mostly people of the same social class, and once conditions improve and the population is released, folks come out to a world that offers them little in the way of help and assistance.

Granted, there are a few things that are difficult to control for even in a project as tightly designed as this one. One of these is the content of the court order. We know that population reduction methods vary according to their costs. Good credits will probably not cost as much as, say, out-of-state incarceration. These things make a lot of difference. Perhaps the policymaking lesson to be learned is that courts can and should leave states less free reign when ordering population reduction, and in the planning stage, consider the possible effects of these methods on the remaining state budget.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


A Baha'i friend has shared the following video with me.

I have been following stories of the Baha'i persecution in Iran for quite some time. It is an abominable situation, and one which we have very few tools to improve through international negotiation and pressure.

On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the relative transparency of the California prison system. I am grateful for public court documents and for the CDCR website. I am grateful for public fiscal reports, which inform Californians of the effects our prison population has on their wallets. I am grateful for the Senate and Assembly websites, where we can learn how our legislature thinks about these matters. I am grateful for National Public Radio and for newspapers. I am grateful for my colleagues in the research community who write about criminal justice, prisons, and the death penalty; they work hard to obtain access to databases and information, which we can later find, analyzed and discussed, in their illuminated books and articles (several of these excellent sources will be reviewed here over the next few weeks). I am grateful for organizations like NOBLE, NACDL, and Books Not Bars, for their efforts to produce external reports on police proceedings, courts, and juvenile institutions. I am grateful for the ability to pick up the phone, or send an email, so I can get accurate information from its source that can be shared with our readers. I am grateful for you, our readers, for emailing us with information that can only be obtained from you.

We have a big problem on our hands. A very big problem. But we have ways of obtaining information about the situation, and ways to communicate with policymakers, officials, activists, inmates, and their families. These are important tools and they are not to be taken for granted.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Movie Review: The Released

The Released, a Frontline production, examines how mentally ill inmates fare after their release from prison. Filmed in Ohio, the film follows up on five men who are being let out of prison and their trials and tribulations in homeless shelters, group homes, and state mental institutions.

These experiences are shadowed by the "Great Decarcerations" of the 1970s. Following the invention of Thorazine, and under a philosophy highlighting free choice and freedom, various U.S. states began closing down their mental institutions. Some readers may recall Ken Kesey's One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest as a cultural harbinger and representative of this ideology.

The problem was that no viable alternatives were created. Medication is a suitable alternative to prison only if one is sure to take one's medication. And, in many such cases, the organization and cognitive presence required for consistently taking medication is lacking.

Several of the people interviewed in The Released manage shelters and group homes, and while they have plenty of good will and energy to help, their powers are limited if one of their residents decides to take off. These places are ill-equipped to supervise medication; the only place who does a decent job at it is the mental institution, and therein lies the paradox; once medicated, the inmate is functioning well, and therefore released, whereupon he ceases taking medication again, leading to a new incarceration or hospitalization.

According to the movie, a million inmates in the U.S. are mentally ill. Thinking about our local problems, one can only guess what the incarceration experience is like when surrounded with so much dysfunctionality. Is it possible that the Plata/Coleman descriptions of flawed mental health treatment are actually better than what the inmates are to expect on the outside?

An aspect portrayed, though not deeply explored, in the movie, is race. We see a white man -- the only uplifting, redemptive story in the film -- obtaining a placement at an excellent group home, Bridgeview Manor, with great facilities and conditions. All other residents are also white. At the end of the movie we see him doing well. The other people portrayed in the film -- black inmates -- are not so fortunate; the shuttle from shelters to jail and back, and some face further tragedies. The extent to which race and class play a part in placements, and as a result, in the hope of a regulated, supervised life, is disturbing. But more disturbing is our notion of what counts as "good". There has to be a point of balance between unnecessary paternalism and laissez-faire abandonment of people to their fate. I fear we are not there yet.

You can watch the full movie right here on the PBS website.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Privatization - the answer to rights violations?

San Diego Correctional Facility image courtesy

The state's willingness to rely on privatized institutions as a partial contribution to population reduction might be a questionable choice when the final aim is improving medical and mental health in prisons. This is especially true when considering complaints regarding health care and improperly unreported deaths in privately-run institutions. The August 20 New York Times article raises important questions about record keeping, treatment, staff qualifications and staff presence at a Corrections Corporation of America institution designed to keep undocumented immigrants.

Currently, CCA runs two private correctional facilities in California: the low security California City Correctional Center and the minimum/medium security San Diego Correctional Facility. The former is advertised, in a Ventura County brochure, as a source of employment for 551 locals and a source of affordable land. The latter institution--just like the one featured in the New York Times piece--was recently sued over lack of medical care, as reported on the ACLU website.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

CA Still Needs Sentencing Commission

I'm at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where today Assemblymember Tom Ammiano mentioned his support for a California Sentencing Commission ("We will have a sentencing commission"), and said that our state could have a sentencing commission already if not for opposition from "conservative Democrats."

Friday, November 13, 2009

State Plan a Mix of Releases and Correctional Expansion

I've just finished going over the CDCR population reduction plan in all its more-than-100 page glory (including the depositions). For those who rejoiced in the original August order to reduce population, the plan will be a disappointment; but even those who found the panel's reasoning problematic will find little cause for rejoice.

Here are the essentials: The state stands behind the measures it proposed previously, in the noncompliant plan submitted September 18. Those included credit enhancements for good behavior, a certain quota of inmates housed in out-of-state facilities, more reliance on community corrections, sentence commutation, and parole reform (including the recently approved summary parole for nonviolent offenders).

In addition, the state proposes to seek changes to legislation that impedes broader use of the out-of-state option, privatization, shifting jurisdiction to county jails, and accelerated construction of prisons. It does so while expressing doubts about the federal panel's authority to require violation of state laws; according to the state, therefore, these measures are necessary to bring the plan to the 137.5% reduction level.

The depositions provide concrete numbers regarding the reduction rates.

Jay Atkinson (Chief of Offender Information Services Branch) estimates that the California Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act of 2009 generates a system of rewards for probation success. Implementing it will achieve an approximate reduction of 1,915 inmates. In addition, releases based on good behavior credits will yield 2,921 reduction; raising the threshold of grand theft from $400 to $950 will yield a 2,152 reduction; and programs for alternative custody for low-risk offenders will achieve a 4,800 reduction. My summary: 11,788 total reductions. Atkinson cannot provide estimates for the reductions resulting from parole reform, but those may yield additional reductions.

Scott Kernan (Undersecretary of Operations) states that, by approximately January 2011, CDCR anticipates housing a total of 10,468 inmates at out-of-state facilities. In addition, it will push to remove an existing clause that mandates termination of the out-of-state program. Changing this clause will allow the state to expand its out-of-state program by 1,500 beds by December 31, 2011. In addition, the state plans to pursue privatization options more aggressively (the out-of-state options themselves are privatized.) Contracting with private facilities will provide an additional 5,000 beds for inmates removed from state institutions. Finally, CDCR will engage in a complicated game of musical chairs, which will involve shifting inmates around, switching between male and female inmates in some institutions, closing down 3 male facilities, and creating more community correctional facilities. This option will yield no more than a 800 inmate reduction. Total seems to be 17,768. Combining the two statements, the grand total seems to be a 29,556 reduction.

I haven't checked up the math on the additional 10,000 reduction, but the plan suggests that this will be achieved through a combination of programs: commutation sentences, changes in juvenile facilities, and other measures that were mentioned in the original plan.


As can be seen by these two contrasting depositions, the state is pursuing two "prongs" of overcrowding solutions: the type that the court wished to encourage - namely, early releases, parole reform, and sentencing reform - and the type that the court will be very disappointed in, such as increasing prison construction and shipping more inmates out of state. Interestingly, these measures are predicted to yield more reductions than shuffling people within the existing incarceration options. The plan has, therefore, a bit of a "split personality". Some of it expands the penal monster and some of it works to decrease it (in the spirit of humonetarianism.) I assume the court will be rather dismayed by this. Leaving the reduction methods up to the state opened the door for the state to cling to the old solutions of expansion, contraction, and exporting Californians to other states; but since the panel was convened for the sole purpose of solving the problem of constitutional violations in health care, its ability to have a general say regarding the system’s size is rather limited.


There is another issue which, while not directly yielding reductions, merits attention. At the panel’s request, the remaining depositions describe the impact of cuts to rehabilitative programs on prison conditions.

Sharon Aungst (Chief Deputy Secretary of the Division of Correctional Health Care) states that the decrowding will not improve treatment for the mentally ill, but the cuts in rehabilitative programs will have an adverse effect on weekly activities for mentally ill patients.

Robert Ambroselli (Acting Director, Division of Adult Parole Operations) estimates that the parole sites and programs have served a combined 18, 449 people, though some of these may be repetitive (enrolled in more than one programs). The expected $41,000,000 reduction in operational budget will lead to delays in finalizing and activating new sites.

Finally, Elizabeth Siggins (Acting Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Programs) states that the budget cuts will lead to a significant reduction in treatment slots. 4,633 inmates (a 5000 reduction) will be benefitting from community-based aftercare treatment. Substance abuse programs will be available to 1588 inmates (4000 reduction). There will not be changes to in-custody drug treatment, the parolee service network (serving 863 inmates) and the female offender treatment and employment program (serving 412 inmates). 80,000 parolees will be getting employment opportunities through California New Start.


These are grim news indeed. It would appear that, over the next few years, possible gains with regard to health care will be offset by losses in terms of rehabilitative programs. The panel’s program to reform California prisons through the opportunity to intervene in health care seems to have been frustrated by the methods adopted by the state.

A final thing to remember is that the state’s plan is not to be construed as abandonment of its appeal to the Supreme Court. The state consistently repeats, throughout its legal documentation, the right to appeal the order, which it still maintains is erroneous. Given the particulars of the current plan, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will see the panel’s attempt to fix the health care system in a favorable light. It is a sober reminder, though, that judicial review of state institutions is an imperfect and limited solution, and while it has the ability to change policies and practices in ways that are impossible through legislative and administrative channels, its narrow, case-by-case focus may have unpredictable, and disappointing, outcomes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

TODAY: Decrowding Plan Deadline

Today is the deadline for the state to submit its decrowding plan to the Plata/Coleman panel. No indication so far as to whether it will comply and what the plan will look like. As a reminder, per the October 21 order, should the state fail to submit a plan, the court will turn to the petitioners for an alternative plan. Contempt proceedings, which were stayed, are a very remote possibility (plus, one might mockingly say, prisons are already full). Stay tuned and we will provide updates by tonight or tomorrow.

Sentencing Commission to re-evaluate mandatory minimums

Today's Wall Street Journal points out that October's National Defense Authorization Act tasks the U.S. Sentencing Commission with reviewing federal mandatory minimum sentencing. Mandatory minimums, which remove judicial discretion in sentencing, are almost always for drug crimes, and have greatly contributed to the explosion in the federal prison population. This is the first issue I've seen the Fraternal Order of Police take a position aligned with Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

When I moved to California from Rhode Island, it had the highest unemployment rate of any state besides Michigan, making sentencing reform a high economic priority. Sure enough, this year the RI General Assembly voted to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession. The state legislature also decided not to return probationers to prison for violations other than the crime of which they were originally convicted. These changes, at the federal and California state level, would take a big chunk out of our corrections crisis.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book Review: Smart on Crime by Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris' new book, Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, written with Joan O'C Hamilton, is a refreshing book on prosecutorial practices, and on the need to disengage law enforcement from practices of severe sentencing and mass incarceration.

In the book, Harris, who is the San Francisco District Attorney, and running for Attorney General, speaks up about her prosecutorial philosophy, but also discusses more broadly America's criminal justice priorities.

The book opens with an examination of several "myths about crime". Harris seeks to situate the crime debate outside the partisan lines, pointing out that there is an alternative transceding the "tough/soft on crime" dichotomy. She also debunks the idea that there are no alternatives to current correctional techniques by examining a series of innovative reentry programs. The novelty of this account lies in the fact that these programs are sponsored by law enforcement - prosecution offices and sheriff's offices.

While Harris treats crime and victimization very seriously, she emphasizes the fact that violent and sensational crime constitutes a small percentage of the entire crime picture. The universe of nonviolent offenders, who are not as much of a danger to society, will not be properly handled using lengthy prison sentences, which contribute to recidivism.

Harris suggests an expansion of the traditional prosecutor's role, arguing for including reentry projects and community involvment in the scope of prosecutorial responsibility. One issue in particular that she highlights is the need to address school truancy. As Harris explains in the book, she sees truancy as a major predictor of a criminal career, and therefore believes that addressing education, and making sure children are not truants, will go a long way toward preventing crime in the long run. The District Attorney's office's efforts in this regard have already yielded a decline in truancy rates in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the question is whether criminalizing the truants' parents is a truly effective measure in reducing crime. In adopting this measure, Harris may have fallen into the same trap she warns us about in the book - focusing on criminalization rather than on problem solving.

The book is meant for popular readership, and much of the rhetoric (including examples of violent, dangerous offenders whom Harris has helped remove from the streets) will soothe readers who are concerned about violent crime and victimization. These sections do not read as a fake attempt to placate the masses so that a "soft on crime" agenda will remain unnoticed. As a prosecutor, Harris comes off as committed to law enforcement and genuine in her belief that some offenders need to be removed from society for a long time. It is precisely this genuine perspective that lends credibility to her "smart on crime" argument, which comes from a concern for public safety in the broader sense rather than from pity. This decidedly not-soft-on-crime stance is enhanced by Harris' humonetarian arguments for her "smart on crime" solution, which is advocated as a means to save money as well as achieve more public safety.

Prison scholars and inmate rights' activists who read the book may be concerned that Harris does not go far enough. I do not see this as a shortcoming in the book. Harris is a prosecutor and she writes from a prosecutor's perspective. Even under a more benign, less punitive correctional regime, law enforcement officials and prison activists will not see eye to eye. The important thing is that this book opens the door for open minded prosecutors to transcend the government/offender divide, and more importantly, the right/left divide, and to agree on general solutions, the most promising of which is a focus on reentry programs such as San Francisco's Back on Track program. This program, which uses deferred entry of judgment as a "test period", under the D.A.'s office supervision, combined with vocational skills, jobs, and other support, is advocated as a method to reduce recidivism rates.

You can find more information about the book on Kamala Harris' website.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Game Is Afoot: CDCR Submits Bed Plan

... and back to California.

The 21 days are up, and today, the CDCR filed its plan for medical and mental health beds, which, it is argued, complies with the Plata/Coleman requirement.

I have not yet seen the full detailed plan, but there is a list of projects whose aggregates will provide a number of beds. Funding for the project comes from AB 900, which enables prison construction and improvement, and facilitates fund transfer for such projects.

This is an interesting CDCR move in the Plata/Coleman chess match. As you may recall, the original Plata/Coleman order was very skeptical of prison construction as a possible solution to overcrowding, but the wording in the order left a narrow opening for such a solution. In fact, it went as far as to say:

Although it might be theoretically possible for California to build its way out of its prison overcrowding problem, it is not practical to anticipate that the state will do so in a timely manner, if ever, given “the time that it takes and . . . the huge costs that it takes to do things like this.” . . . Nonetheless, because our order requires defendants to reduce the prison population to
a specified percentage of the prison system’s design capacity, any additional capacity provided by completed construction could help the state meets its obligations and might allow it to increase the number of prisoners who could constitutionally be housed in the prison system. In such case an adjustment as to the specific terms of the population reduction order, although not to the percentage cap itself, might conceivably be appropriate. We see little prospect for such an occurrence, however, in the reasonably near future, andthus no prospect of remedying the constitutional violations in a timely manner, other than in accordance with the order we issue below.

Now, it seems that CDCR is walking through that narrow opening, and to some extent frustrating the possibly broader agenda of the Plata/Coleman panel, which, as the state argued upon the issuance of the initial order, was to use the medical crisis to make some progress on the broader overcrowding problem. It is a strong, and problematic, statement to make: since you are forcing us to comply with the order, we'll comply with it in the way least convenient to you, the budget, and the prison crisis. Look at what you've made us do.

Stay tuned. There will be more.

**** updated to add: I counted days again. It seems that the 21 days aren't up yet; they end on Nov. 11. The state might still come up with a population reduction plan irrespective of the prison construction plans in this proposal. ****

Friday, November 6, 2009

CCC Field Trip: Past, Present and Future Prisons in Philadelphia

This week I have been away from California, at the American Society of Criminology annual meeting, which took place in Philadelphia. The conference itself was very dense and there were many interesting papers and roundtables (including an excellent panel devoted to David Johnson and Frank Zimring's new book on the death penalty in Asia); however, what really moved and excited me was my morning visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary, the oldest modern prison in the United States, and possibly in the world.

As readers versed in penological history probably know, Eastern State Penitentiary owes its unique design to Quaker reformers. Quakers had always been interested in issues of criminal justice and corrections (among other things, their publication Struggle for Justice is credited for fueling the left-wing prong of the determinate sentencing movement); in this case, they aimed to reform previous correctional institutions, which kept prisoners together in large cells with abundant violence and very little in the way of sanitation or basic living conditions.

The alternative was to be a true penitentiary; a place that would turn the inmate's attention inward and encourage reflection and true remorse. For this purpose, prisoners would be placed in solitary cells and in absolute silence. They would have no contact with the outside world, no books to read save for the Bible, and no communal work to be done. Their brief exercise break would be enjoyed in a solitary yard surrounded by tall walls.

The irony is, of course, that today's Quakers have come to see solitary confinement as an evil, taxing the prisoners' well-being and sanity, and are strongly advocating against it. Here is their shocking and sad report on the effects of solitary confinement in California prisons.

The architecture designed to ensure these conditions, designed by John Haviland, is truly a marvelous feat, considering that construction took place in the early Nineteenth century. Its imposing facade, complete with gargoyles, reveals little of the interesting features within. The prison is built as a panopticon, with a central area from which one can see into each and every one of the cellblocks. The panoptic design, enabling efficient and immediate surveillance, was later adopted in many prisons around the world.

There were, of course, many documented violations of the silence requirement; prisoners did attempt to speak to each other through holes and pipes. Such transgressions were severely punished. At the same time, a rivaling system in New York had prisoners working in communal areas, but in complete silence. This innovative perspective delighted visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville, but horrified others, like Charles Dickens, who considered it worse than any form of physical torture.

In later years, the Penitentiary abandoned the solitude requirement, relaxing the conditions somewhat and creating a communal exercise yard, complete with a baseball diamond.

Some of the more notable inmates' stories are presented in the excellent audioguide; for example, that of a brave inmate - a free Black man - who helped free his wife from slavery and was convicted and imprisoned in Pennsylvania for doing so (incidentally: cell blocks were segregated until 1961). Al Capone's cell, complete with luxury items he was allowed to keep by the grace of the guards, is also restored.

After this fantastic visit, I had an excellent meal at Mugshots, a cafe across the street, where I found Grid magazine. Among various uplifting reports on sustainability initiatives in Philly, I found a delightful piece about City Harvest, a project which enables Philadelphia inmates to grow vegetables and feed the city's poor and hungry citizens. Beyond the project's practical benefits to the city, it provides a healthy, growth-oriented environment for the inmates, who learn some work skills and some basics of agriculture and nutrition. I was very moved by the fact that, as one of the people interviewed in the article mentioned, many of these imprisoned men and women had never had a chance to work in a green environment or be in close proximity to nature before.

Thinking about these projects, after visiting the prison, made me hope that we will do a better job learning from the mistakes of the past to envision a better future, and that we never let a grand program steer us away from basic human concern for society's weakest link.

CA pot arrest increases beat national average

Today's SF Chron has a story on page C-4 about Dr. Jon Gettman's new report on Marijuana Arrests in the US. Marijuana arrests from 2003-2007 increased nationally by less than 3% annually, but in California increased by over 5% per year. Also, Californian African Americans are now arrested for marijuana possession at a rate of 270% over Caucasians, versus about 75% nationally.

Gettman concludes that the overall national marijuana arrest rate (between 3%-6%) is too insignificant to deter crime. So what public policy goal is served by using my tax dollars on incarceration?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Arizona Privatizes Prisons

Last night Stephen Colbert hilariously reported that our neighbor Arizona will sell off nine of its prisons and privatize incarceration, check it out:

Perhaps these newly private Arizonan prisons will end up housing some exported Californian inmates... Belgium is to the Netherlands as California is to Arizona.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Netherlands Closing Prisons

The Netherlands is closing 8 prisons, eliminating 1,200 corrections jobs -- -- due to declining crime rates(!) and the economic crisis.

If crime continues to decline, the nation will have to choose between closing even more prisons, versus housing imported Belgian prisoners. California is to Belgium as Arizona is to the Netherlands?!

Monday, November 2, 2009

More Out-of-State Inmates

More prison privatization is occurring, with the added complication of out-of-state imprisonment. The press release reads:

Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE: CXW) ("CCA"), the nation's largest provider of corrections management services to government agencies, announced today that it has amended its agreement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ("CDCR") to allow for the housing of 2,336 additional offenders from the state of California. Under the amended agreement California will have the ability to house additional inmates at CCA's North Fork Correctional Facility in Oklahoma and its Red Rock Correctional Center in Arizona. The 2,336 additional beds provide the CDCR the ability to house up to 10,468 offenders in five CCA owned facilities located in the states of Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. CCA currently houses approximately 7,900 offenders from the state of California.
CCA is America's largest private jailer, housing 75,000 inmates in its institutions.
Props to Jerry Jarvis for alerting me to this.

Jerry Brown and Prisons

With Gavin Newsom's departure from the gubernatorial race, the serious Democrat candidate left standing is Jerry Brown, former Governor and current Attorney General. While the options may still be open, Brown's recent record with regard to the prison crisis merits some attention.

Brown is familiar with the correctional crisis, which has existed throughout his career as a public official in the state. The number of prisoners per capita increased throughout his previous gubernatorial positions, and his current position as Attorney General has required paying close attention to CDCR, particularly in the context of the Plata/Coleman ruling. Immediately after the original order in August 4, Brown declared his intent to appeal it, and he was closely involved in devising the state's plan for submission to the panel, a job which exposed him to petitions from rights organizations to comply with the order.

Brown's vast experience in the political system has solidified his array of friends and foes. In his position as Attorney General, Brown has worked to terminate Kelso's receivership of the prison health system, calling his plans "wildly excessive" :

“The court should terminate this unaccountable prison receivership and its $8 billion construction plan, restoring a dose of fiscal reality to the provision of inmate medical care in California,” Brown said in a prepared release. “The federal receivership has turned into its own autonomous government operating outside the normal checks and balances of state and federal law.”

On the other hand, the CCPOA's relationship with Governor Schwarzenegger, which was rife with animosity, is likely to be considerably better with Jerry Brown as governor. Like the CCPOA, he strongly opposed Proposition 5, which advocated treatment options for nonviolent drug offenders.

Californians are already familiar with Brown, and will take into account his position on a variety of matters. As one example of many, Brown considered Proposition 8 constitutionally indefensible and urged the court to void it. Nevertheless, we should be attentive to the way the prison crisis will be presented by the different gubernatorial candidates. This situation should exit the invisible realm and be confronted with practical, creative plans by whoever will be at the state's helm.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Partisan Politics

The difficulties in creating sentencing reform in California are better understood when considering the big picture. Yesterday's Sac Bee included a fascinating piece analyzing lawmakers' voting patterns, which demonstrates that they are extremely likely to vote with their party. The polarization, argues the piece, has increased in comparison with recent years.

What would be the best strategy to achieve prison decrowding under these circumstances? One possibility, which has yielded some success, is framing the question in terms of savings. Another one would be to implement Governor Schwarzenegger's decrowding plan as a response to the recent Plata/Coleman court order - a solution that the court has alluded to.

The future may depend on the outcome of the gubernatorial race. Let's hope that the next governor understands that California's future depends, to a large extent, on the state -- and cost -- of its prisons.