Friday, April 23, 2010

Film Review: La Mission

We don't often recommend films or books that are not directly related to corrections, but Peter Bratt's film La Mission will be an exception for two reasons. First, it is a phenomenal film, which receives its promotion by word of mouth and is fast becoming a Bay Area phenomenon; and second, it is an excellent example of how mass incarceration in California, and the pervasiveness of law enforcement, permeate all aspects of life, especially in neighborhoods such as San Francisco's Mission District.

An independent, modestly-funded, gorgeously-filmed movie, La Mission tells the story of Che (Benjamin Bratt), a man who has lived in the Mission District his whole life, and who has singlehandedly raised his son, Jes, in the neighborhood. He is a Muni driver who devotes much of his spare time to fixing up lowrider cars, an interest he has always shared with his son. Jes has been admitted to UCLA, but has a big secret from his father: He is gay. When Che finds out, he finds the culture he grew up in hard to reconcile with his love for his son. It sounds like a predictable, clich├ęd story, but when authentically told by the Bratt brothers and a set of first-time actors from the neighborhood, it is anything but. Erica Alexander co-stars in a fantastic, thought-provoking role.

Everyone should see this film, but folks interested in corrections and in the interrelation between crime and other social problems will find it particularly illuminating. Che's background includes a stint in prison, and this fact shapes and defines him in deeper ways than his neighborhood connections. It is strongly hinted that his homophobia and rigidity have much to do with the incarceration experience, and that this powerful experience frames his experiences with his son. Prison and alcoholism become a master status for Che, a definitive feature of his life, and while the movie almost never explicitly discusses prison, it introduces its deep effects in a subtle and effective way. The viewer is left thinking, in light of mass incarceration, how many "men of their times" share this background, and how deeply it has affected their relationships with family members and loved ones.

The other interesting feature is the realistic depiction of the police's presence in the film. The police is not there when Jes, Che's son, needs them to be; however, much of the footage of the Mission High School includes police cars. The police is an active, ever-present feature in high school life, and their readiness to intervene, while sometimes a blessing, is a prime example of Governing Through Crime.

The film has not been marketed by major commercial means, and gets its publicity mostly by word of mouth. It will open next week in several locations in South and East Bay and is playing in several locations in San Francisco. I can't recommend it enough.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gender and Incarceration in California: Event at UC Davis

This is a bit last-minute, but better late than never: The Consortium for Women and Research at UC Davis is putting up a terrific one-day symposium titled Gender and Incarceration in California.

This annual symposium brings together scholars, community members, and policy makers around issues of gender and poverty in California. The theme for 2010 is gender and incarceration. Discussion will focus on reproductive rights for women in prison, the consequences of parents’ incarceration for children and families, styles of masculinity promoted by prison culture and sexual violence.

Friday, 9am-5:30pm
Historic City Hall at Bistro 33
226 "F" Street, Davis

The event requires RSVP; the terrific list of speakers, including Valerie Jenness and Lateefah Simon, is on the program (click the link above).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CDCR Partners with FTB to Collect Victim Restitution

The CDCR website features a story about its initiative to collect victim restitution fees from inmates.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matthew Cate today announced CDCR is on pace to set a record for collection of victim restitution orders from inmates and parolees, due to an innovative relationship with the state’s Franchise Tax Board (FTB).

California is world-leading in the collection of restitution orders on behalf of crime victims. These collections are sent to victims and survivors of crimes as restitution. The first month of CDCR’s new partnership with FTB resulted in the collection of more than $155,000 from among the 3,100 initial cases sent to FTB.

. . .

A number of reforms and changes were made since the CDCR reorganization that strengthens the Department's responsiveness to victims and survivors of violent crimes.

The most significant change occurred earlier this year when CDCR and FTB entered into an interagency agreement which states that FTB will act as an agent for the CDCR in collection of victim restitution from adult parolees and discharged adult offenders.

The Interagency Agreement, signed in December, was spurred by the passage of AB2928 earlier in 2009. Victims suffer staggering economic costs as a result of crime. This agreement encompasses over $2 billion owed to more than 100,000 victims of crime. Crime victim compensation programs reimburse victims for part of this loss.

Yesterday, Jonathan Simon came to talk to my class about Governing Through Crime, and one of my students asked him how he saw the optimal role of the victim. An interesting discussion ensued: To what extent do we want to frame victims as passive citizens, expecting the state to act on their behalf? To what extent can we empower victims to act on their own behalf without crossing the line toward blaming them for their situation? Seems to me that, of all the victim-oriented policies, collecting restitution for them makes a lot of sense. It doesn't raise the same concerns that punitive legislation and participation in the criminal process raise. It does, however, raise some questions: Can money really make up for crime or harm? What role does class and money play in equalizing the leveling field and righting the wrong that occurred? And, finally, would a process of restorative justice (possibly fostered by CDCR after trial is over) do more for victims than monetary compensation?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Truancy Courts: Problem-Solving or Criminalization?

A weekend story on the Chron provides a peek into Oakland's truancy court, where parents are charged for their children's absences from school. The consequences include arrest and fines, but also stern lectures from the judge about the need to reduce truancy. This is not the first time we have noted this indirect mechanism for crime control: In San Francisco, Kamala Harris has often drawn attention to the link between truancy and crime, both in op-eds and in her book Smart on Crime. Harris' website boasts a 23% decline in truancy as a result of these policies (no statistics for recidivism reduction are offered, however).

These policies often raise important questions. Is there a connection between truancy and crime, and if so, is it causal or a mere correlation caused by something else? There are plenty of quantitative studies that point to the correlation, and some have included truancy in models of juvenile delinquency. Life-course criminologists, such as Sampson and Laub in their book Crime in the Making, argue that truancy is one of many "turning points" that direct one's life toward crime. It appears to be a trend that goes beyond U.S. borders: Joanne Baker, in a project by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, recognizes truancy as one of the "risk factors" for crime. But isn't the real problem lack of parental supervision, or social disorganization in the neighborhood?

Whatever the answer, it seems that attention to truancy also raises important concerns about criminalization. "Crime", after all, is what the legislator wants it to be, and over the years, the contours of parental neglect have modified and changed. Whether it is paternalism or governing through crime, it seems that focusing on early stages espouses a philosophy that addresses crime indirectly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Close the CA Division of Juvenile Justice

Daniel Macallair has made an outstanding argument in the LA Times for closing the Division of Juvenile Justice and its five state-run youth correctional facilities. "The system is broken everywhere you look." Allowing counties, instead of the state, to house juvenile offenders (currently about 1,400 of them) would save the state government $322.7 million (yes, a third of a billion dollars). County probation systems already handle 99% of juvenile cases.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Prison Spending and the CA Budget Crisis: Panel at the Goldman School of Public Policy

I've just heard of a fascinating event. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it, but I hope many of you will:


Prison Spending and the CA Budget Crisis

An expert panel discussion on what prison spending and criminal justice policy mean for CA's budget crisis and other spending priorities.

April 15, 2010
Goldman School of Public Policy
2607 Hearst Ave (Room 250)
Berkeley, CA

Moderated by Henry E. Brady, Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Jeanne Woodford, Retired Chief of Adult Probation, City and County of San Francisco, Former Undersecretary and Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Former Warden of San Quentin State Prison
Dave Lewis, Deputy Director Fiscal Services, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Lance Corcoran, Chief Spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association
John Dannenberg, Former CA Prisoner and Contributing Writer, Prison Legal News
Paul Golaszewski Lead Analyst on Adult Corrections, Legislative Analyst's Office
Aaron Edwards Lead Analyst on Correctional Health Care and Inmate Rehabilitation Programs, Legislative Analyst's Office

Light refreshments will be served.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

County-By-County Death Penalty Expenditures

Jonathan Simon, over at Governing Through Crime, directed my attention to this excellent feature of the ACLU death penalty report - an interactive map that allows you to track down how much resources have been spent on the death penalty in each county. San Francisco County, I'm proud and happy to report, has not sent anyone to death row since 2,000. But other counties certainly have. I encourage you to play with the map a bit and learn more about the variation - re our discussion of killer counties earlier this month.

Portugal Decriminalized All Drugs; Drug Use Dropped

As of this week, it's been one year since the Cato Institute published its land report "Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies," authored by Glenn Greenwald. The report examines eight years of Portugal's drug policy: decriminalization of possession of all substances.

Here in America, last week the Providence Journal (the news source of record for the state of Rhode Island) took a related stance. The editorial board called for, not decriminalization, but taxation and regulation of all substances. The editorial argues, "Even if legalization were to increase drug use, that risk is overshadowed by the benefits. Crime would drop in our streets as dealers lose their livelihood, and users don’t have to rob others to support their habit. Governments can regulate the drugs for purity and collect taxes on their sale."

However, the Cato report found that Portugal's total decriminalization actually led to declines both in drug usage rates and in HIV infection rates. People found in possession of drugs are sent to a panel of a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal adviser to consider treatment and rehabilitation options. For the short version, read the TIME Magazine summary. This usage decline suggests that the public safety and economic benefits of drug policy reform would not merely offset harms of any increase in drug use, but rather, represent independent public policy gains.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Management Board: Sex Offender Legislation Ineffective

Yesterday's Chron reported, in its print edition, on an issue we have discussed elsewhere: the effectiveness of Jessica's Law housing restrictions on recidivism.

Apparently, the California Sex Offenders Management Board has seriously critiqued the existing restrictions, pointing out several flaws in them, the most obvious one being the fact that San Francisco's abundance of state and parks excludes sex offenders, basically, from the entire city save for Lake Merced and Hunters Point. As a result, many sex offenders live in the street, a situation that, according to Jill Levenson, leads to instability and thus might actually increase recidivism.

The article also mentions the fact that the residency requirements are not retroactively enforceable, and therefore do not apply to people placed on parole or probation before the law took effect in 2007. It does, however, apply to people imprisoned before its enactment, per the recent CA Supreme Court decision on the matter.

The challenge? Changing policies to make them more effective might be perceived as being soft on sex offenders, a position politicians can hardly afford to take regardless of their party affiliation (and therefore propose laws such as this one or this one.)


Oh, and as a special bonus: We have not discussed the San Francisco Crime Lab scandal, which does not have a direct relationship to our coverage. But as it turns out, beyond lax supervision and cocaine theft from the drug lab, evidence is also in danger from an army of feral cats. I know this is a serious matter, which raises heavy concerns about due process and about the prosecutorial enterprise in general, but I could not resist: The picture below from the Sunday Chronicle is begging for a caption.