Friday, September 30, 2011

New Study: Decline in Support for the Death Penalty Among Californians

Souce: Gallup. Graph depicts national trends.
A new study conducted by Craig Haney of UC Santa Cruz finds that, while a majority of Californians still support the death penalty, there is a marked decline in the percentage of supporters compared with the previous extensive survey, conducted in 1989: Support has declined from 79% in 1989 to 66% in 2011. This trend is in step with the national trend (see Gallup graphic to the left). From the UC Santa Cruz website:

The proportion of adult Californians who view themselves as "strong" supporters of the death penalty has dropped from 50 percent in 1989 to 38 percent today. Conversely, fewer than 9 percent were "strongly opposed" to capital punishment 20 years ago, compared to 21 percent today.

"These changes appear to be related to changes in the way Californians view the system of death sentencing, rather than just the punishment itself," said Haney.

For example, the poll revealed much greater concern about the possibility of executing innocent people: 44 percent expressed concern this year, compared to only 23 percent in 1989. In addition, the number of respondents who believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder dropped from 74 percent in 1989 to only 44 percent today. Similarly, the number of people who did not believe that prisoners sentenced to life without parole would actually stay in prison until they died dropped to about 40 percent, compared to 66 percent who held that belief in 1989.

These findings suggest a series of political implications for the supporters of SB490, a voter initiative to abolish the death penalty in California expected to be placed on the ballot in 2012.

First, it appears that, as we have said before, criminal justice reform is often incremental. It is difficult to get a broad coalition of death penalty opponents on a platform of human rights, and the support of several parties, including, possibly, victim families and law enforcement personnel, depends on maintaining a strong option of life without parole. Doug Berman has recently made a strong argument that the strong push against the death penalty has the unsavory effect of bolstering life without parole. Berman's 2008 paper on the topic masterfully argues that the Supreme Court devotes a disproportionate percentage of its energy to the minutes of the "machinery of death" rather than dealing with more other important criminal justice issues on its docket.

Second, Haney's study confirms our observations about the change in persuasive anti-death-penalty rhetoric over time. Concerns about innocence and deterrence, rather than humanitarian concerns, drive much of the trend.

And third, humonetarianism has the potential of converting even more Californians to the opponents' cause. Haney found, disturbingly, that

nearly half the respondents in the 2009 survey, compared to 54 percent in 1989, thought the death penalty is cheaper to implement than life without parole, although the reverse is true.

This misconception can be easily corrected by a well-designed campaign. If costs are, indeed, a springboard to reform in California, a solid argument comparing the costs of the death penalty to life without parole would go a long way toward broadening public support for SB490.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pelican Bay Strike, Day 4: Strike Expands

The latest reports from family members, friends and supporters of inmates are that approximately 6,000 inmates in a variety of correctional institutions have joined the hunger strike. Also expressing solidarity are approximately 50 county inmates held in West Valley detention center, who are refusing jail food (but purchasing commissary food). I'm not sure whether the supporters, whose job assessing the size of the strike is admittedly difficult given the lack of data from CDCR, count county inmates among their striker numbers. If the figure is to be believed, the strike is approaching the previous strike in terms of number of participating inmates.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: CDCR Sees Strike as Disturbance

Two memoranda sent out to all CDCR inmates by Scott Kernan, Deputy Director of Adult Operations, lay out CDCR's approach to the strike.

The first of the two defines the strike as a "disturbance" and threatens serious consequences, including removal from general population and placed in the Administrative Segregation Unit. Moreover, the memo threatens "additional measures" including effective monitoring and management of "the participating inmates' involvement and their food/nutrition intake, including the possible removal of canteen items from participating inmates."

Kernan also raises the possibility that "day-to-day prison operations" may be impacted by the strike. By that he might mean visits, as it is mentioned that this might impact not only inmates, but their families.

The second memo includes a list of steps that CDCR has taken on behalf of the inmates. The "short-term items" include watch caps, wall calendars, exercise equipment, colored chalk, proctors for college examinations, and food services; the "mid-term action items" include a "comprehensive review of SHU policies".
click to enlarge

click to enlarge

It remains to be seen what the ramifications of these memos might be in terms of CDCR's actual response to the strike. During the July strike, CDCR decided not to force-feed inmates. 

As a reminder, the inmates' core demands are:

1. Eliminate group punishment. Instead, practice individual accountability.

2. Stop forcing prisoners to confess to gang membership. Prisoners are being held in isolation until they "debrief" or give information on gang activity. Whenever torture is used to force confessions, it often produces false information and can endanger the lives of prisoners and their families.

3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in prisons and end long-term solitary confinement. In 2006, the commission said isolation conditions should only be used as a last resort.

4. Provide adequate food.

5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for prisoners held in solitary.

We plan to address some of the issues pertaining to the hunger strike on our upcoming prison food panel on Food Day.

2010 CA Correctional Budget: Rehabilitation at Bottom of Priorities

Source: The Informant. Click to enlarge.
A recent KALW story examines the California correctional budget for 2010. The data does not accurately correspond to the data in CDCR's "year at a glance" report for 2010. But the picture is not dissimilar: The budget hovers around nine billion dollars, with the largest percentage spent on salaries and a staggering amount on health care and only a fraction on rehabilitative programs.

The CDCR report highlights construction projects funded by AB900 as well as heralds out-of-state incarceration as positive moves to reduce overcrowding. Parole reform is also highlighted, especially decreasing caseloads of parole agents.

But there is a positive piece of news: The total prison population in California has decreased, for the first time in quite a while. This is true for both the female and male populations. Given the trend in recent years, it is hard to tell whether this means a swingback of the incarceration pendulum or a mere anomaly. It is, however, an encouraging piece of news. The decrease is most evident in younger age groups; there is an increase in the percentage of inmates aged 40 and over (which also explains the health care expenses). The trend of decreasing incarceration for drug offenses continues. More than 50% of admissions are still comprised of parole violators; new admissions for felonies account for about a quarter of admissions.

Regionally, Southern California accounts for 65.9% of the inmate population, the San Francisco Bay Area for 11.2%, and the remainder of the state for 22.9%.

The Three Strike population consists of 32,439 2nd Strikers and 8,570 3rd Strikers. A considerable percentage of Strikers are of advanced age.

California Should Regain Its Lead in Setting National Trends and Stop Building New Prisons and Jails

from California Progress Report

By Emily Harris and Isaac Ontiveros

Across the country, headlines show a new trend of nationwide prison closure. A recent report by the Sentencing Project notes that, to date, 13 states in the US have closed or are considering closing some of their correctional facilities, reversing a 40-year trend of prison expansion. States initiating prison closures include New York, Texas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. Michigan, for example, has closed 21 facilities and has prioritized re-entry services for people returning to their communities from prison.
Fiscal crises have definitely fueled the trend, but reforms in sentencing and parole policies have also resulted in less demand for prison space. In turn, the closures have freed up millions and millions of dollars that could be used into rebuilding programs and services proven to keep people out of prison and in their communities.
California, unfortunately, is moving in the opposite direction. Despite an ongoing fiscal crisis in California, there are currently 13 costly prison and jail expansion projects moving forward using our states scarce resources, and we anticipate more construction to roll out under phase II of the notorious AB 900 legislation. AB 900 was signed into law in May of 2007, authorizing at least $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds for the construction or expansion of our State’s prisons, jails and re-entry centers and marks the largest prison construction scheme in human history.
In May the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in a lawsuit against the state involving deadly prison overcrowding. Specifically, the court upheld the ruling of a federal three-judge panel requiring California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons from nearly 200% to 137.5 % of its "design capacity" within two years. The court's decision will almost certainly result in some of the most dramatic changes to the state's prison system in decades. So far, the state's plan for reducing the prison population relies heavily on shifting prisoners from state lockups to county jails, transferring more people to out-of-state private prisons, and building thousands more prison and jail cells.
As we see it, we could continue down this scary, shortsighted path and waste billions of dollars on prison and jail construction to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. But where will this end? How will we pay for the long-term operating costs? And what about the social costs? Will education, health and human services and our shrinking social safety net continue to be jeopardized to cover the bill for mass imprisonment?
The Supreme Court order and our growing budget crisis provide our state with a unique opportunity to change our approach to public safety. Instead of continuing to push forward these unnecessary and costly prison and jail expansion projects, now is the time to look to these other states that have safely reduced their prison populations by implementing basic and modest parole and sentencing reform. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office bolstered that argument after releasing a report recommending that California reconsider its costly construction program.
A place to start would include amending or repealing three strikes law, expanding medical parole, utilizing compassionate release, paroling elderly prisoners and reforming non-violent property and drug sentencing laws. Recent polls show the majority of Californians support these simple solutions. However out of touch our Governor and other lawmakers seem to be, we’d wager that Californians would be willing to take even greater steps against further prison crisis. If we want the safe and healthy California we all deserve, we need to make smart, long-lasting decisions that put our state back in a position of national leadership.
Emily Harris is the Statewide Coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Isaac Ontiveros is the Communications Director for Critical Resistance.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, Day 2: Parole, Snitch, or Die

Yesterday's panel on the Pelican Bay hunger strike featured, among other speakers, the impressive and insightful Keramet Reiter, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley whose dissertation examines the history and development of the supermax. Reiter's piece Parole, Snitch, or Die, is a concise history and thorough analysis of California's supermax prisons and their discontents. It makes for an excellent read and I can't recommend it enough. Using a combination of quantitative data and interviews with CDCR officials, Reiter lays out the process against which the inmates are protesting: the little-studied process of paroling through "snitching" and debriefing.

While, initially, at inception the idea behind the supermax was to handle prison violence by removing gang leaders from general population, this design has gone wrong. There is no evidence of a decline in violence as a result of using supermax incarceration and/or SHU units. Moreover, the isolation was never intended to become indefinite. However, Reiter's data suggests that "many supermax terms are indefinite, providing few ways out, and. . . the average term is longer than eighteen months at Pelican Bay." While the maximum lengths of stay in the SHU have declined between 2005 and 2007, the average length has steadily increased.

From its inception, Pelican Bay raised concerns that it would be excessively used. Today, inmates with gang ties are indefinitely assigned to the SHU units. The definition of gang membership is loose and vague, and therefore "the validation process is rather discretionary; any documentation of potentially illegal group activity could lead to gang validation." Disciplinary offenses, leading to definite terms at the SHU, can range from attempted murder to spitting on an officer.

Has lockup at the SHU reduced violence? Not necessarily, as the data suggests. In fact, comparing levels of violence in Pelican Bay and Corcoran with that of other high-security institutions without supermax units suggests that "the supermax units might actually be aggravating problems with violence."

There's a lot more in the piece and I recommend reading it in its entirety. We will continue reporting on the supermax, solitary confinement, and the strike, for the weeks to come.

Pelican Bay Strike, Day 2

This morning's Democracy Now (full show above) covered the Pelican Bay hunger strike; coverage begins at approx. 8:25.

Food and Nutrition in Correctional Institutions

You're all invited to join us for a special event on Food Day, Oct. 24, 2011, at UC Hastings. If you're interested in food and social justice, especially in the context of prisons, that's the place to be!

The UCSF / UC Hastings Consortium on Law, Science & Health Policy is sponsoring a conference entitled “Food Deserts: Legal, Social and Public Health Challenges” on Food Day, October 24, 2011 with keynote speech by Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA. The conference will bring together scholars from the health sciences and the law, as well as policymakers, activists, and food industry members, to discuss two important aspects of “food deserts,” places where access to a nutritionally-adequate diet is severely restricted.

One panel, "Nourishing Our Neighborhoods: Insights from Law, Planning, and Industry," will cover the broad issue of geographical food deserts, usually urban areas inhabited by mostly-poor people whose transportation and finances are limited, where food sellers are predominantly small stores that cannot stock a wide variety of fresh food items, and where full-service grocery stores hesitate to locate. Are there policies (such as those in zoning rules) that could be changed to enable oases in these food deserts? What impact does, for example, the addition of a full-service grocery store have on the health of the neighboring area?

Another panel, "Food and Nutrition in Correctional Institutions," will consider issues relevant to prisons and jails. While food offerings must meet certain basic caloric and nutritional requirements, the institutional nature of food preparation and food service might make that food less than appealing, and the healthier elements of meals might well be those not regularly or fully consumed. The supplemental food offerings – those for sale in these institutions – are not likely to be nutritious. Some research suggests that improved nutrition in prisons leads to improved penal outcomes. If that is so, what policy changes should be implemented? Would such changes be cost-beneficial, considering penal outcomes and the government’s responsibility for health care of prisoners?

Our panelists for the prison panel will include doctors, legal scholars, CDCR personnel, and people running organic garden programs in prison. It's going to be a fascinating panel.

At 5 pm, Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration and Professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology and Biostatistics, UCSF, will give the keynote address on The End of Overeating.

The event is free and open to the public, but requires registration. We will be offering CME and CLE credits for attending doctors and lawyers, respectively.

RSVP through the UCSF/UC Hastings Consortium or
RSVP through the Food Day website

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pelican Bay Strike Panel Opening Remarks

Today's panel on the Pelican Bay hunger strike was well attended and prompted some interesting discussion. A few people emailed asking me to post my opening remarks on the blog.

Good afternoon,

Don’t you know? Talking about a revolution, it starts like a whisper. But this panel is much more than a whisper. It is a strong, loud cry against a dehumanizing, cruel incarceration regime that demeans our society in its entirety. To shed light on these practices, a number of Hastings student organizations have invited former inmates, family members of inmates, and legal professionals, who will discuss this afternoon one of the most exciting and electrifying instances of protest against the evils and inadequacies in our correctional system.

The strike started, and is resuming, at a momentous time in American criminal justice and in California in particular. The State of California is still reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata, affirming a federal three-judge panel decision that population reduction is the only way to combat a prison medical system beneath minimal constitutional standards.

As impressive as the Plata decision is, I suspect several broader developments created the fertile ground upon which it sprouted. For many years, it would be very hard to envision a Supreme Court with this political composition approving such an order. Prisons have been, for decades, invisible cities, out of the public mind and eye, and what happened within them, be it cumbersome ineffective rehabilitation programs or plantation-style farms rife with racial cruelties, interested very few people beyond practitioners and scholars. Supermax institutions and SHU units were particularly immune to critique, because for very long—too long—the public was kept in the dark about the realities within walls, and when these institutions did make headlines, the public was told that the people held there for 22 and a half- hour days in isolation were subhuman, violent beings who deserved such treatment. Ironically, solitary confinement was one of the first incarceration practices used in the early penitentiaries of the 18th and 19th centuries. The solitude was designed to make inmates engage in penitence and reflection. The practice has remained as extreme and harmful as it ever was, but it changed in two important ways. First, the rationale for solitary confinement is no longer penitence and rehabilitation, but mere incapacitation and risk management. And prison sentences today are exponentially longer than they were in the early days of prisons. These two factors – the growing disinterest in reform and change, and the extended periods of time in which people are subjected to solitary confinement – make this practice even more perverse now than it was at its inception. Social scientists researching the effects of such regimes are on agreement regarding the immense harm of placing humans in
solitary confinement.

In reigniting the fire of protest against the deplorable conditions at SHU units, about which you will soon hear from our panelists who have experienced them as inmates, supporters, and family members, Pelican Bay inmates join an honorable tradition of inmate-initiated struggle and reform. A month ago we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Attica uprising, a defining moment in criminal justice politics. In the 1960s, Fred Cruz and his friends in Texas penitentiaries brought the Texan correctional giant to its knees and dismantled a cruel, dark system through habeas writs written on smuggled toilet paper. And in California, the radical prison movement, beginning with Caryl Chessman’s writings and continuing with Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and George Jackson, has generated attention to the cause of inmates. Most recently, inmates in Georgia engaged in a strike against cruel, inhumane correctional practices; the system they raised their voices against is the same system that, last week, executed a probably innocent man. The execution of Troy Davis made millions of people rise in support and decry an outrageous miscarriage of justice. It is possible to make allies against inhumane regimes that exceed what is psychologically and humanly tolerable. The strength of nonviolent protest coming from people whom the public has been accustomed to read about as subhuman, violent beings engaged in rioting and cruelty, is overwhelming.

Some feel that the time for such activism has passed; that the 1960s and 1970s presented a unique moment in American history, in which civil rights movements and the Warren Court created the perfect storm for radical prison movement. For many decades since, the combination of law-and-order political rhetoric from actors across the entire political spectrum, and managerial warehousing practices infected with rampant profiteering and privatization, created a reform-resistant wall. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is changing before our very eyes. We live in extremely difficult financial times. The public is attentive to the message that our out-of-control correctional monster is financially unsustainable. The practices that Pelican Bay inmates are protesting are the product of a hungry, ever-expanding carceral world that we can no longer afford—morally, organizationally and financially. Public opinion is changing and, have no doubt, decisionmakers are listening and responding. The state is currently engaged in a process of realignment, shifting much of its prison population from state prisons to county jails. The parole system is under revision. And, for the first time in forty years, last year the U.S. prison population decreased. These dramatic changes cannot be underestimated.

This act of protest is, therefore, occurring at a unique historical moment in which taxpayers, practitioners and officials may be more open to the possibility of reform advocated for through nonviolent means. It is, therefore, lamentable that the July hunger strike received so little media coverage in mainstream newspapers. But we are here to change that. Our hosts this afternoon are taking an important step to change this and break the silence.

Audience members may disagree about the dangers of violent crime and the means to fight it. If you are agnostic about the merits of this hunger strike, thank you for coming here this afternoon with an open mind willing to become informed aboutthis side of the debate. Listening to the people who are the most disenfranchised and the least listened to in the American political arena is an important experience. And if you are convinced that this way of doing things must be abolished, that solitary confinement and debriefing should end, thank you for coming here today to do something about it. Finally, the tables are starting to turn.

I wish you all an interesting and informative afternoon.

if only

Our friends in New York are "reporting" that
California to Allow Prisoners to Serve Sentences Online

Today! Panel on the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

This afternoon we will hold a panel at UC Hastings, organized by numerous student associations, on the Pelican Bay hunger strike, which resumes today. The panel is free and open to the public.

Where: UC Hastings, 198 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA - at the LBM lounge in the ground floor

When: Monday, 3:30pm-5:30pm


  • Marilyn McMahon (Prison Focus)
  • Keramet Reiter from UC Berkeley, whose dissertation examined the emergence of the superman
  • Marie Levin, family member of SHU inmate
  • Dorsey Nunn (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None)

Caitlin Henry will moderate and I'll make opening remarks. We hope to see you there. If you're a blog reader, come by and say hi.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis and the Civilizing Process

What could possibly be left to say on the aftermath of Troy Davis' execution? Words on the evil of the death penalty? On innocence and guilt and doubt? On the inability of the law enforcement mechanism to accept the possibility of mistake? Just in case you missed some of the commentary, here were my favorite picks:

Yesterday, my  criminology students and I discussed Norbert Elias' The Civilizing Process. Written in 1939, the book was forgotten for several years as Elias' career was derailed by the second World War. A Jewish European scholar, Elias worked in exile and relative obscurity until he arrived in England, where he resumed an important place in the sociological universe. Still woefully undeacknowledged among the pantheon of sociological giants, Elias' work deserves much praise and recognition.

In The Civilizing Process, Elias argues that the 18th century was a "watershed" time that saw a profound top-down change in European society: From a society of knights to one of courtiers. This change, the reaction to the formation of the modern centralized state, was accompanied by a profound change in etiquette and social sensibilities, including the development of various subtleties in interpersonal interaction, table manners, bodily functions, and the like. Among other things, says Elias, our bloodthirstiness and daily exposure to violence have decreased. While life in the middle ages included a daily unmitigated experience of violence and a relishing of violence, we came later to see it as distasteful.

Much of Elias' theory has been confirmed by later studies. Indeed, the rate of violent crime, especially homicide, has been repeatedly proven to have declined in the last few centuries. One explanation for the decline of violence is that the centralized state came to resume the functions of violence usage as proxy for citizens, and those, in turn, became more sublimated, more docile, and more amenable to its power and thus less violent on their own initiative (the increased regulation and decrease in the use of duels is a case in point.)

But the state changed its practices, too. Following Elias, excellent Dutch historian Pieter Spierenburg's The Spectacle of Suffering points out the change in how executions were carried out in Europe. The "watershed" years, and the years to follow, saw fewer and fewer executions, and a marked toning-down of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded them. According to Spierenburg, the society of courtiers increasingly lost its taste for public corporal rituals and moved away from them.

So, what do we have now? Perhaps the ultimate sublimation: An execution that is nothing more than a sad coda to years of quiet confinement and increasingly technical litigation. Conducted away from the public eye, its only witnesses are those closest to the case--the offender's family and the victim's family--arguably the parties who retain some of that pre-civilizing, raw connection to the act and the social connection. The story is mitigated by its sanitized media coverage. As Austin Sarat argues in When the State Kills, the coverage removes our visceral connection to the violence we delegated to the state; and as Frank Zimring argues in The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, it masks its origins in lynching and public relishing of violence.

The true strength of the protest in Troy Davis' case was in breaking this boundary of sublimation and sanitation. Millions of people around the world were moved by Davis as a symbol of human suffering. They did not fail to recognize this act for what it is, even when carried out away from the public eye and using advanced chemicals, needles and machines. They saw the racial overtones and origins of the practice and the way they played out in this particular case; and they did not shy away from expressing their utmost distaste with it and the deep ways in which it offended their sense of justice. Distressing as this was--an unsatisfying coda to the tragic death of Mark McPhail, who deserved a better police force and a better inquiry as to his slaying--the public reaction, a vehement expression of our distaste for the modern "machinery of death" and ability to see it for what it is, was an important moment in American history, whose ramifications may bear fruit in the ballot box and in the courtroom.

Props to my Theoretical Criminology students, whose commentary yesterday prompted much of this post. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: No Reprieve for Troy Davis

The Supreme Court rejected Troy Davis' last minute appeal for a delay. The New York Times reports:

The United States Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch request to step in late Wednesday to stay the Georgia execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of gunning down a Savannah police officer 22 years ago, after Mr. Davis filed an eleventh-hour plea Wednesday with the high court.
His execution, by lethal injection, had been set to begin at 7 p.m., but Georgia prison officials waited for the court’s decision late into the evening. It took the court more than four hours to issue its one-sentence order.

This is a dark day for truth, justice, mercy, and the appellate process. Thank you to everyone who signed petitions, emailed, shared information about the case on social networks, and offered help through Amnesty, the NAACP, and other organizations. May this be the last time a probably innocent person is put to death.

Prison Hunger Strike Panel at UC Hastings

The Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, with Hastings Prisoner Outreach, La Raza Law Students Association, Black Law Students Association, Hastings National Lawyers Guild, Hastings Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Hastings Criminal Law Society are organizing a panel on the upcoming Pelican Bay hunger strike.

When: Monday, September 26, 3:30-5:30pm
Where: UC Hastings, the LBM Lounge, 198 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA (ground floor)

Speakers will include attorneys that have been working with the Solidarity Coalition to support the strikers, family members, and formerly incarcerated people. Yours truly will give opening remarks.

The event is free and open to the public.

BREAKING NEWS: Last Minute Appeal in Troy Davis Case

In a last minute appeal that many did not think possible under post-conviction remedy law, Troy Davis has just filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.

Lyle Denniston from SCOTUSBlog comments:

Six months after the Supreme Court previously refused all attempts to stop the execution of Georgia inmate Troy Anthony Davis, his lawyers on Wednesday filed a new plea seeking to head off the state schedule to put him to death Wednesday evening. . . [i]n urging the Justices not to delay execution any further, the state Wednesday evening said that Davis’s lawyers had waited too long to challenge an execution that had been scheduled 15 days ago.

The brief (read it in full here) asks for a delay so that a writ of certiorary can be filed that will point out "substantial constitutional errors." It argues that "newly available evidence reveals that false, misleading and materially inaccurate information was presented at his capital trial in 1989, rendering the convictions and death sentence fundamentally unreliable."

The state's reply (read it in full here) is that Davis' appeal "presents no new evidence or argument."

Props to Billy Minshall for alerting me to this development.

CCC'S 3rd Birthday

This week, the CCC Blog celebrates its third birthday. Inaugurated in Fall 2008 anticipating our 2009 California Correctional Crisis Conference, we started covering the then-in-progress litigation in Plata v. Schwarzenegger, which this year became Brown v. Plata. We provided a full analysis of the Supreme Court decision here and here.

This year was a momentous occasion in California corrections. The state is struggling to comply with the Plata decision and is behind schedule. It has also been a momentous year in terms of humonetarianism (the practice of leniency and moderation in corrections initiated by budgetary cuts). Humonetarian discourse is characterized by a bipartisan focus on costs and financial prudence as a reason to promote criminal justice reform. To battle overcrowding as well as comply with Plata, the state is actively pursuing realignment, shifting inmates from state prisons to county jails, thus ending what Frank Zimring refers to as the "correctional free lunch" (county sentencing, state budget). Different counties are adjusting to the change in different ways, and realignment has important implications for juvenile offenders and for female inmates. Oh, and we followed several legislation initiatives: Prop 19, "control, regulate and tax marijuana", which failed at the ballot, and the San Francisco sit/lie ordinance, which passed. We've just started covering this year's crop, complete with a death penalty abolition proposition, a proposition to amend Three Strikes, and SB9.

We also occasionally looked beyond the California border. This year we examined out-of-state incarceration in Hawai'i, CCA's complicity in the passage of deplorable SB1070 in Arizona, some other fresh Arizona horrors,  and we tried to stop the upcoming execution of probably-innocent Troy Davis in Georgia.

Some of the biggest news are occurring this summer. The inmates at Pelican Bay started a hunger strike in July, protesting their dubious profiling as gang members and cruel isolation confinement conditions. They will renew their hunger strike as of September 26 and need your support. Vigils are planned for Thursdays at 5-7pm, in the following locations:

- Sep. 29th: 14th & Broadway, OAK
- Oct. 6th: UN Plaza, SF
- Oct 13th: 24th&Mission, SF
- Oct. 20th: Fruitvale, OAK

Also, Prison Focus will be holding a special event about the strike at UC Hastings, which we will advertise separately.

Finally, we covered a much-hoped-for release of three innocent men, rogue meth-dealing motorcyclist professors, and the distressing news that statistical analysis suggests that the victim participation law did not increase victim participation.

The CCC blog thanks you for your continued support and readership. Please continue reading us, writing to us, following us on Facebook and Twitter, and keeping abreast of the impact of the financial crisis on the American and Californian correctional landscape. What we are is up to you!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are Gang Members Special? From the California Supreme Court to Pelican Bay

This month the California Supreme Court, presiding at UC Hastings, heard oral arguments in People v. Vang, an assault case involving gang expert testimony. Under California sentencing laws, a gang sentencing enhancement requires the jury to decide whether the defendant committed the offense to benefit the gang. Evidence to this effect is often presented through the testimony of gang experts, usually police officers, who testify as to the norms and practices of gangs in general and the gang in question, to show whether a given defendant’s behavior falls in line with gang-related behavior. In Vang, the prosecutor asked the cop/expert two detailed hypothetical questions based on the facts of the assault according to the evidence, then asking the expert whether an assault under such facts would be gang related. By doing so, argued the defense, the prosecutor thinly disguised questions regarding the actual defendants’ behavior as hypothetical scenarios, effectively substituting the testifying cop/expert’s logic and common sense for the jury’s. The government, on the other hand, argued that it would be difficult to define permissible questions that are abstract enough to require the jury to make a “logical leap” and independently assess the perpetrator’s mens rea, while only being provided with guidelines from the cop/expert about the impact of gang membership on the development of such mens rea.

Setting aside the important criminal justice question of the merits and pitfalls of treating police officers as supposedly impartial ethnographers and gang experts—this practice is, by now, modus operandi in California courts—I would like to suggest that there is an even more fundamental issue at the root of Vang: The assumption that gang members are fundamentally different from other people; that their behavior is governed by special rules inaccessible through common personal experience; and, therefore, special knowledge is required to make sense of them and interpret their lifestyle to the ordinary jury member. This assumption did not originate with modern gangs; it is approximately 150 years old.

In 1865, a doctor named Cesare Lombroso wrote the first medical criminology book, titled L’Uomo Delinquente (“The Criminal Man”). Lombroso’s premise, a novelty at the time, was that criminals were innately different from law-abiding citizens, and predisposed to commit crime by virtue of being “atavistic”, that is, “stuck” in a less-developed evolutionary phase. Lombroso gleaned this predisposition from a series of medical findings involving the measurements of inmates’ skulls (based on the then-popular science of phrenology), their bodily and facial features, tattoos, handwriting, and laughter patterns. Pages upon pages of the book included photographs showing the common features of criminals and distinguishing these “special” features from those of ordinary people.

In the years since 1865, we have come to reject Lombroso’s “science”, both in itself and as a measure for establishing criminality (not before making a lamentable detour into the territory of eugenics for several tragic decades). However, the idea that criminals were special, or somehow different from law-abiding citizens, persisted. Much of the criminology of the early 20th century consisted of ethnographies and observations of criminal groups under the assumption that lack of privilege, living in a given neighborhood, or having a certain subset of role models shapes a unique human being, predisposed to commit crime. This literature—much of which was, admittedly, incredibly helpful for understanding phenomena such as juvenile gangs—suggests that, while some human beings are within the realm of the knowable through common sense and life experience, others cannot be understood without the benefit of special expertise.

Today’s California gang members are the new Lombrosian criminals. To curb criminal gang activity, we have adopted special sentencing rules and uniquely oppressive correctional practices. This special treatment goes beyond the mere development of special investigation practices, evidentiary rules and penal technologies; it includes the development of a new body of knowledge that regards gang members as special, their lives and behavior beyond the reach of ordinary human common sense. But we have done more: By examining gang practices as special and unique, through the lens of clinical expertise, we have relegated gang members to the status of incorrigible specimens, who can only be studied, controlled, governed, and suppressed through special, dehumanizing technologies.

The perversity of this approach is evident these days, as the Pelican Bay inmates plan on renewing their hunger strike on September 26th. The hunger strike, which lasted for 21 days in July and received woefully little media coverage, aimed at changing the correctional policies involved in incarceration at the Security Housing Units (SHU) in Pelican Bay. When inmates are identified as gang members, they are subject to a penal regime that consists of complete isolation for 22 ½ hours a day in tiny cells, their only companion often the blearing sound of a television set. Their daily respite from years of solitary confinement is a 90-minute outing in a barren exercise pen surrounded by 15-foot-high concrete walls and a limited sky view. The entrance ticket into the SHU consists of being identified by prison authorities as a gang member, placing the burden of “debriefing”—disavowing and disproving gang membership—on the inmates themselves, most of whom never find their way out of the SHU. Despite consistent findings by social psychologists about the immense, irrevocable harms of subjecting human beings to a regime of isolation, and despite a federal judge’s comment in 1995 according to which such practices “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable”, courts have consistently found SHU incarceration practices constitutional.

To add insult to injury, during the July Pelican Bay hunger strike CDCR officials went on record discrediting the strike because it is “led by gang leaders.” This argument is the epitome of Lombrosian thinking. It implies that the public is to disregard the merit in the striking inmates’ claims against the dreadful conditions of their confinement merely because they are (suspected to be) gang members or led by gang authorities. Why would the arguments against solitary confinement and its devastating effects on the human psyche be any less valid just because the humans making them, and subject to them, happen to be (suspected of) belonging to gangs?

Indeed, gangs are unique organizations. So are corporations, hedge funds, motorcycle clubs, cults, schools, military units, and academic departments. Crime has occurred in each and every one of these contexts, and while criminal decisionmaking has required an explication of the social setting for the crime, it has not deprived us of the sense that juries are capable of understanding these microcosms of human experience. Nor has it implied that any of these settings rightfully denies its participants of human status. While belonging to a subculture has important implications as to a person’s behavior, social context, and range of choices, it does not deny the person’s humanity, relegate his or her behavior to a place beyond the realm of the logically accessible, or make him or her less worthy of basic necessities and rights. Gang members may be more difficult to explicate—and empathize with—than people whose lives more closely resemble that of the average jury member, but they are people, just like prosecutors, jurors, and prison officials. As such, their lives are not completely beyond the realm of reasoning, understanding, and empathy. As we follow up on the upcoming hunger strike, we would do well to educate ourselves on the merits of the inmates’ demands and remember that the measure of a society is the dignity with which it treats its weakest members.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Early Releases for Female Inmates

As reported on Forbes online (by the Associated Press):

More than 4,000 female inmates in California could qualify to serve the rest of their sentences at home, as state officials begin complying with a law designed to keep children from following their parents into a life of crime.

The alternative custody program is for less serious offenders. Qualifying inmates must have less than two years left on their sentences, which would be completed while they are tracked by GPS-linked ankle bracelets and report to a parole officer.

. . .

About two-thirds of the 9,484 female inmates in California's prison system are mothers whose children are currently with relatives or in foster care, though many of those women won't qualify for alternative custody.

About 45 percent of the state's female inmates potentially qualify for the program under the law former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed last year.

Those convicted of sexual offenses are not eligible. To win release, inmates also must compete for a limited number of rehabilitation programs offered by nonprofit and community organizations.

That will sharply reduce the number of women actually freed, said Dana Toyama, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. With no state money for the program, the community organizations are offering services to as many inmates as they can handle for free.

Case managers will determine if qualified inmates have family support, a suitable home and transportation, and are enrolled in drug rehabilitation, anger management or other programs, Toyama said.

""It's not like we're just putting them out in the community and saying good luck," she said.

The inmates can go to a home, a residential substance-abuse treatment program or a transitional-care facility. Those who complete rehabilitation programs can earn extra time off their sentences.

Women account for less than 6 percent of the nearly 161,000 adults in California prisons. Toyama said men could one day be included in the early release program as the department looks for ways to save money and seeks to comply with the federal court order to reduce its prison population.

The program could save the state $6 million in reduced prison costs next year. No inmates are likely to be released for at least 30 days because the department must first notify local law enforcement.

However, Toyama said the entire program could be short-lived because of a more sweeping law that takes effect Oct. 1.

Under Gov. Jerry Brown's prison realignment plan, tens of thousands of lower-level criminals who otherwise would go to state prisons will instead be sentenced to county jails and rehabilitation programs if they are convicted after that date.

Six Days Till Troy Davis is Executed

Today, CNN features the excellent video above on Troy Davis' case, including interviews with the victim's family and with a juror from the original trial. It also provides a rich background on the racial overtones of the case. The plot is thicker and murkier than it appeared on the newspaper coverage, and this piece does a good job of exposing it.

Do something:

NAACP petition to the original prosecutor
NAACP petition to the Georgia Department of Parole
Legal Professionals petition
Religious Leaders petition

As a coda, I want to offer a thought experiment. Having read plenty about this case, I am fairly convinced that Davis is factually innocent. But if he were guilty - and he's been in prison for the last two decades, scheduled for execution four times - does all that not count as punishment for homicide? The problem with our administration of the death penalty is that it is not merely execution; it's life imprisonment under atrocious conditions with an execution thrown in at the end as a coup-de-grace for good measure. It is an unconscionable system.

So, fight for Troy if you believe, as I do, that he is innocent; and I do hope you come to that conclusion upon learning more about the case. But think on whether this system makes sense for guilty people, too.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tomorrow: Open House and Petition for Troy Davis, My Office

An execution date has been set for Troy Davis: September 21 at 7:00pm EST.

Davis has repeatedly said he did not kill MacPhail, and seven out of nine witnesses who gave evidence at his trial in 1991 have recanted or changed their testimony.

No murder weapon was ever found, no DNA evidence or fingerprints tie him to the crime, and other witnesses have since said the murder was committed by another man -- a state's witness who testified against him.

The case has became internationally famous as the face of what critics call a corrupted justice system in the US deep south, with an innocent black man wrongly and hastily convicted of killing a white officer.

Tomorrow I will be holding an open house for Troy Davis at my UC Hastings office, Room #328, at 200 McAllister Street, San Francisco. I'll be in 9:00am-12:00 noon and 1:00pm to 5:00pm. Step in and we can chat about the case. Sign petitions to the Georgia Parole Board and to the Governor of Georgia. Talk about wrongful convictions in general and what they mean for the struggle against the death penalty. Everyone is invited.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Today: Attica Uprising Anniversary

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. The New York Times features a nice opinion piece by Heather Ann Thompson highlighting the importance of this event.

In 1997, the inmates were awarded damages for the many violations of their civil rights and, though the state fought that judgment, in 2000 it had to pay out a settlement of $8 million. In 2005, the state reached a settlement with the guards and other workers for $12 million. The vast majority of the inmates and guards got far less than they deserved.

Despite having to pay damages, 40 years later, the State of New York still has not taken responsibility for Attica. It has never admitted that it used excessive force. It has never acknowledged that its troopers killed inmates and guards. It has never admitted that those who surrendered were tortured, nor that employees were misled.

We have all paid a very high price for the state’s lies and half-truths and its refusal to investigate and prosecute its own. The portrayal of prisoners as incorrigible animals contributed to a distrust of prisoners; the erosion of hard-won prison reforms; and the modern era of mass incarceration. Not coincidentally, it was Rockefeller who, in 1973, signed the law establishing mandatory prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, which became a model for similar legislation elsewhere.

This is particularly timely and poignant in light of the renewal of the Pelican Bay hunger strike.

And today at 7pm, a restored version of the 1974 film Attica will be shown at 518 Valencia St.

More details here.

Pelican Bay Hunger Strike: Volunteers Needed

As we reported a short while ago, plans are in place for the Pelican Bay inmate hunger strike to resume as of September 26. Volunteers are needed to travel to Pelican Bay (in Crescent City, CA) to visit hunger strikers in the coming weeks. The trip takes three days- and legal visits are conducted between Tuesday and Friday.

More background on the strike here.

If you are interested contact Marilyn McMahon, at, for an email with details.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fees for Inmate Visits in Arizona?

Here's a twist on the cost savings angle that left me stunned and speechless this morning: The Arizona Department of Corrections plans on charging $25 for visiting inmates in its correctional institutions.

Yes, I know. I had to do a double-take as well. But here it is, large as life, in the New York Times:

New legislation allows the department to impose a $25 fee on adults who wish to visit inmates at any of the 15 prison complexes that house state prisoners. The one-time “background check fee” for visitors, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, has angered prisoner advocacy groups and family members of inmates, who in many cases already shoulder the expense of traveling long distances to the remote areas where many prisons are located.

Beyond the obvious commentary - what a mind-boggling limitation on the budget of already impoverished families and friends of inmates, what an imposition on top of travel to distant locations, what a hindrance to rehabilitation and reentry by way of alienating inmates from their support system - this makes one think of Mona Lynch's excellent Sunbelt Justice, which we reviewed here a while ago. Arizona has always been big on doing things on the tough-and-cheap. Like Texas, and unlike California, Arizona prisons were originally fashioned like farms and produced revenue based on inmate labor; both Texas and Arizona correctional officials used to mock the cumbersome, expensive rehabilitative apparatus ran in California.

Of course, since those days, the Arizona apparatus has grown large and cumbersome, and as opposed to California, very much enmeshed with Correctional Corporation of America. But the heritage is still there, which explains how the legislature can even come up with such ideas. As disturbing as the state of incarceration is in California, I doubt our legislators would initiate this idea. Mass hysteria, unmitigated punitivism, case-specific sentencing laws following redball crimes, yes. Cynical savings of this ilk, no.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Activist Humonetarianism: Californians United for a Responsible Budget

More on utilizing the cost argument to fight for the cause of prison reform: Californians United for a Responsible Budget are an Oakland-based organization formed in 2003 to fight overcrowding. Among their activities is fierce opposition to AB 900 and staunch support of SB 9.

I really recommend spending some time on the CURB website. It's a prime example of marshaling the cost argument as the rhetorical spearhead in the fight against overcrowding.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hunger Strike to Resume September 26

As reported last month on KQED (click above for report), CDCR is reconsidering its isolation policy at SHU units. But according to an open letter by Pelican Bay inmate Mutope Duguma to the Bay View, plans are in place for inmates to resume their hunger strike beginning September 26.

We had our last and final meeting with Undersecretary Scott Kernan on Aug. 18, 2011. Sitawa and the rest of the negotiators were very disappointed with the outcome because the undersecretary’s horns came out for real!

All the same, we are going forward with our indefinite hunger strike, which will start on Sept. 26, 2011. We know they probably have manipulated some new attempt to deal with us, but what they fail to realize is that we were never playing. If these people think we are going to remain under this tortuous treatment, then they will get the body count that they seek or a bunch of hospitals filled up throughout the state.

This is the only way to expose to the world how racist prison guards and officials have utilized policy in order to torture us. And we have the material to expose them because many of us suffer from serious medical conditions or a lack of medical treatment, which we inherited right here in SHU.

This letter would suggest that the meeting with Kernan, held a day after the announcement about reconsidering the conditions, failed to satisfy the inmates. I wonder what piece of the puzzle we're missing; that is, whether the inmates were told different things than suggested in the media. Do any of our readers have any information about the new strike plans?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Un-Othering of Crime: The Kinzey Chronicles

Yesterday brought about a turn of events that puts Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad to shame. The newspapers yesterday and this morning were full of news about Cal State San Bernardino professor Stephen Kinzey, who is wanted in connection with meth drug dealing. The L.A. Times reports:

Photo courtesy Phil Willon, L.A. Times
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department on Thursday said Stephen J. Kinzey, a 43-year-old kinesiology professor, allegedly led a local chapter of the Devils Diciples Outlaw motorcycle gang and a methamphetamine drug operation that brought in tens of thousands of dollars.

Authorities arrested nine suspected mid- and street-level dealers involved in the drug ring shortly after raiding Kinzey's home, where they allegedly found more than a pound of methamphetamine, rifles, handguns, body armor, leather biker vests and other biker paraphernalia.

Kinzey remains a fugitive and is considered armed and dangerous, officials said.

This news story elicited quite a bit of witty commentary on my Facebook page, and after the laughs subsided a bit I started thinking about why this story piqued so much interest. I think the key to this is in Kinzey's father's words, quoted in the LA Weekly:

"My son is a Christian. He's a good father of a good little girl. My son doesn't drink. My son doesn't smoke. I don't get it. He's a Ph.D."

What the Kinzey story reveals is how culturally entrenched the stereotype of a black, urban drug dealer is;  when encountering a white one with advanced degrees and privilege we respond with incredulity. So, what do we rely on to reinforce our confirmation bias about the way the world works? Alternative markers of crime. The story, for example, emphasizes Kinzey's motorcycle club activities, seizing (perfectly legal) leather vests with the meth and guns. It also hints at the fact that Kinzey's "live-in girlfriend" (as if cohabitation were uncommon) is a Cal State San Bernardino 2005 grad, so as to imply academic improprieties as well as criminal ones (who knows what the story there is? For all we know, they could have met after she graduated, and she might not even have taken a class with him; and anyway, it's 2011 and Robinson is 33 years old.) What these details do is provide us with some information that will trigger our culturally shared notion of the gang biker, to explain why our criminal, a university professor, doesn't fit our default mode.

Where does the connection between motorcycling and organized crime come from? For those interested in background, this 1992 CNN story provides some information, but if you're pressed for time you're better off with this excellent 2005 article by William Dulaney, which provides plenty of information on the history of outlaw clubs. The "one percenters" (a term incorrectly derived from a supposed quote after a rally, implying that only "one percent" of motorcyclists were also involved in crime) have become an iconic image in American culture. Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters' historical meeting with the Hells Angels (and their apprehension of the latter, documented by Tom Wolfe in his classic The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test) is best understood on a background of violent, sexist biker culture, reinforced by a genre of biker films. Now, reality is not entirely socially constructed, of course. Motorcycle clubs have been conduits for organized crime, and their members have engaged in real violence that has caused real suffering to real victims. But make no mistake; white people commit crime not only on Harleys, but also in SUVs and Honda Civics and bicycles and public transportation. And organized crime occurs not only in clubs and gangs, but in corporations as well.

This is not to say, of course, that Kinzey is being framed, or that he is not involved in meth trafficking. At this point, he is a fugitive and we have not heard his side of the story; moreover, the evidence found so far would tend to support that. I merely try to point out the ways in which a newspaper story tries to paint an etiology of criminality that might explain the discrepancy between the cultural image of the young, black, urban drug dealer, by fleshing out the image of an alternative white drug dealer using less powerful, but still effective, ways to convey nonconformism, impropriety, and propensity.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Marin Interfaith Council Considers Death Row

Jeanne Woodford, former Undersecretary and Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), Warden of San Quentin State Prison, and current Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, spoke about capital punishment at Marin Interfaith Council's August clergy luncheon.
By way of background, Jeanne grew up on a ranch in western Sonoma County and went to school in West Marin. So she’s a local gal. Daughter of an Italian Catholic father, she “grew up believing you took care of each other.” In 1970, within two weeks of having been graduated from Sonoma State College, she began working at San Quentin. She loved the work; she felt she was doing something positive. She remained for 26 years.
Over the course of her tenure at San Quentin, she found that the prevailing philosophy and practice of imprisoning criminals became punitive rather than rehabilitative, in spite of addition, in 2005, of the words “and Rehabilitation” to the name of the institution: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She contends that changing prison policy to one of punishment for crimes led to more recidivism and more violence.
Inmates’ chances of turning their lives around depend in large part upon their remaining a part of their family and community outside of prison. Religious communities provide some of this support, and in the case of San Quentin, its location in Marin County brings about more religious support than is available at other prisons, particularly those in more remote locations.
Although she has personally opposed capital punishment all her life, and that as an authority she was taught not to judge, as Warden of San Quentin, which houses California’s Death Row, Ms. Woodford presided over four executions. This involved leading the prison staff through preparations and rehearsals for those executions. Among other things, she went to every single cellblock – those sentenced to death each has a cell to him or herself, adding to costs associated with capital punishment – on the day of the execution.
Ms. Woodford told of us an inmate named Massey, who, tired after years of “living” in the miserable place that is Death Row with his imminent execution looming, sought a speedier execution as a form of suicide.
Each death sentence requires two costly trials: one trial is to prove guilt or innocence; the other is to determine the penalty. Jurors who serve in cases where the death penalty is being sought must not oppose capital punishment. This limits and skews the pool of potential jurors.
Capital convictions entail further expense because they carry an automatic appeal. It is these appeals that cost the state thousands of dollars. In fact, capital cases cost twenty times more than non-capital cases to pursue and bring to conclusion.
In addition, there is the possibility of a wrongful conviction. One of those so sentenced, a man named Carillo, who was convicted by no fewer than 16 eyewitnesses, later was exonerated by DNA evidence in testing that was not available at the time of sentencing. However, DNA exists in only 20% of homicide cases. How many other innocent people may have been executed? Is there any justification for executing an innocent person, no matter how convincing the evidence? No.
Eventually Ms. Woodford came to believe she could do more to effect change from without the prison system than she could from within. She now works with Death Penalty Focus for the repeal of the capital punishment.
One of the several approaches DPF is taking, under her direction, is that of identifying law enforcement personnel who oppose the death penalty. This may be easier than it would seem at first consideration. DPF will soon release a list of more than 100 names.
Another project is getting 1,400 religious congregations to publicly support the goals of DPF, the abolition of capital punishment.[1]
DPF also seeks to raise awareness of victims to seek more than retributions. Further, funds not expended on perpetuating this irreversible punishment can be put to better use in solving the 46% of homicides that currently go unsolved. I suspect that victims’ families would find some sense of relief when their loved one’s murder is solved. Then trial and the pursuit of justice for the wrong can proceed.
In her work, Ms. Woodford never encountered a family member who advocated, and witnessed, the execution of the person who murdered their loved one who achieved any sense of relief, retribution, or restoration of balance. Killing the perpetrator, which I consider to be state-sanctioned homicide, does not bring back the dead loved one. In the words of the San Diego County District Attorney, the death penalty is “a hollow promise to victims.”
I would like to see some of the people involved in this effort, particularly those who survive the murder of a loved one, come into contact with the good folks at the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance. I know that forgiveness can be difficult to achieve. I know it’s easy for me to advocate forgiveness when I do not have the experience of having lost a loved one to homicide. But there are others who have. I know that forgiveness is not for the benefit of the forgiven, although they may benefit. Rather, it unburdens the wronged party(ies) and liberates them to go on with their lives, still honoring the memory of those they’ve lost.
Then there is the matter of exonerees. Besides the case of Mr. Carillo mentioned above, Ms. Woodford told of another inmate, a woman named Gloria Killum, who was convicted as a result of false evidence and prosecutorial misconduct. Of the more than 200 men and women in California who were convicted of serious crimes, then subsequently found to have been wrongfully convicted, six had been sentenced to death. Such groups as the Innocence Project are finding innocent people every day. The recent release of the West Memphis Three is a prime example.
Further, many studies have shown, and experts agree, that the threat of capital punishment doesn’t deter people from committing murder and other violent crimes.
Worse still, the death penalty is inequitably applied: far more minorities are sentenced to death than are Euro-Americans. When the color of the convict determines the sentence, this is not blind justice. It is not justice at all.
The recent Alarcon study concluded that the death penalty costs California $184 million a year. It costs $100,000 more per inmate to house those sentenced to death than it does for non-capital inmates. There are presently 714 people, 15 of whom are women, living on Death Row. A psychiatric social worker has to visit each inmate every day, which increases the cost.
Funding of the DoCR accounts for 11% of the state’s General Fund; it used to be only 5%. By abolishing the death penalty, California could save a billion dollars in only five years. Think of the many ways that kind of money could be used. It could put more cops on the streets. It could be used to solve crimes. It could be used for education and after-school programs, giving at-risk youth knowledge and skills so they have a better chance at success in their lives. Accomplished, learned, self-assured people have more hope and less despair, and are less likely to be lured into lives of violence.
I would prefer that we as a society explore the notion of restorative justice. Although an exploration of the concept and application of restorative justice is beyond the scope of this entry, I encourage readers to consider it.
After Ms. Woodford’s talk, we engaged in conversation at our tables. One of the topics at my table was the matter of justice, fairness, and retribution. We discussed the differences, what each meant. I see crime as a rent in the fabric of society, one that needs to be mended. We need to rebalance “wrong” with “right,” to reweave the cloth into a whole again.
To be fair, MIC provided the opportunity for a member who supports the death penalty to rebut Ms. Woodford’s claims. The Rev. Rob Geiselmann, brave soul that he was in that company, spoke of freedom, of liberty being on a part with life. He contended that society needs to feel a sense of public justice.
Although last week a bill proposed by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) to put the death penalty on the California ballot was defeated, we should not take this as a final defeat. We need to keep putting forth measures to abolish capital punishment in the State of California until they are approved. Then voters, the majority of whom polls show do not support the death penalty, can put this shameful and dishonorable practice in our past.
It is programs such as this put on by my local interfaith council that inform, enrich, and provoke us to think and rethink previously held opinions that make interfaith work so satisfying and worthwhile. I encourage other groups, whether they are interfaith organizations or any other kind, as well as individuals, to consider sponsoring such talks. I’m confident that Jeanne Woodford would make time for you in her busy schedule.
* * * * *
Aline O’Brien, aka Macha NightMare, is a Pagan presence in Marin Interfaith Council, where she serves on the Justice Advocacy Team.

[1] If I had a formal congregation of my own, I’d gladly sign such a statement. As it is, the Covenant of the Goddess, the religious organization of groups and individuals I represent in the interfaith arena, is too diverse to achieve unanimity on this issue.