Thursday, April 14, 2016

BREAKING NEWS: Parole Board Recommends Leslie Van Houten's Release

In her book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, Karlene Faith provides a contextual account of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders by members of the notorious Manson Family. Faith tutored and befriended the Manson girls in prison shortly after their sentences were commuted, and provides a sympathetic and complex account of cult life, brainwashing, and sexual exploitation that places the heinous murders in context.

Faith, and others, like John Waters, have long argued that van Houten should be paroled.

Today, the California parole board agreed with them. For the first time since 1978, and forty-seven years after the commission of the murders, the board has recommended her release. The Los Angeles Times reports:

In prior bids for parole, Van Houten's attorneys have characterized her as a model inmate who has obtained a college degree behind bars and has been active in self-help groups.
At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: "I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson."

This quote from Van Houten represents the operating principle in California parole hearings: inmates can only prevail if they take full personal accountability. The board does not listen to contextual issues, and bringing out the cult context did not do any favors for Van Houten in her second trial in 1979 or at her parole hearings. Nor has the parole board been persuaded by her clean disciplinary record, academic degree, and rehabilitative work in prison groups. This decision represents a dramatic departure, and one which other long-term inmates, such as Patricia Krenwinkel, are surely watching closely. 

Now, all eyes are on the Governor's office in Sacramento, where Governor Brown will have four months to decide whether to uphold the parole board's decision. Brown's office departed from the police during his predecessors' tenure, by which no paroles were granted, and this contributed to the kind of optimism that Nancy Mullane describes in Life After Murder. But this optimism has not, so far, included members of the Manson family; most notably, Governor Brown has declined to parole 73-year-old Bruce Davis, whose clean prison record and advanced degrees led to a parole recommendation. Moreoever, Van Houten and the others face formidable opponents in the L.A. District Attorney's office, who doggedly pursued their continued incarceration for more than forty years. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports, 

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey expressed disapproval after the decision was announced: "We disagree with the board's decision and will evaluate how we plan to proceed."

As some old-timer readers know, I'm currently working on a University of California Press book about the parole hearings of the Manson Family, and this development took me by surprise. I'll be watching the Governor's office closely for the next few months. It'll sure be interesting.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Elections 2016: Does It Matter Who's President?

As in every election cycle, CCC will be releasing endorsements once the propositions are on the ballot. We will also release an official endorsement for president for the Republican and Democratic primaries before June 3. But let's stay focused on what actually matters: from the criminal justice perspective--from policing to incarceration and beyond--while it somewhat matters who the President of the United States will be, what happens in California matters a lot more.

As I argued in Cheap on Crime, 2008 was the first year in more than three decades in which criminal justice was not a fundamental part of the conversation. Obama and McCain, and in 2012 Obama and Romney, discussed the economy, immigration, and foreign policy (albeit to a lesser extent), but did not much address mass incarceration. With the advent of the financial crisis, and the state and local frantic scramble for funds, the political scene was a fertile Petri dish for bipartisan collaborations.

Indeed, the Obama administration did a lot of important things--some merely symbolic, some practical--to reverse the mass incarceration trend. They reduced the crack/powder cocaine disparity, scaled back mandatory minimums, proclaimed a federal intention to stay away from marijuana-legalizing states, made changes to solitary confinement in the federal system, created the conditions for the DEA to consider descheduling marijuana, and it is rumored that some death row pardons might be in the works. Obama's personal decency, deep humanity and presidential demeanor contributed to the perception of this administration as more committed to fairness and moderation: among other things, he visited a federal prison in Oklahoma and spoke there of reform, and recently he had lunch with a group of nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences he commuted.

This is wonderful stuff, and the Obama administration should be lauded for all this. Sadly, none of the candidates on offer for 2016, with no exception, match his eloquence, dignity, integrity, and good sense. And indeed, even though the federal system is small in scope, it does have some impact on criminal justice reform.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics data, in 2014 there were 1,561,525 federal and state prisoners in the United States. 1,350,958 (86.5%) of them were held in state prisons and 210,567 (13.5%) in federal prisons. The 1% decline in prison population between 2013 and 2014 is attributable in part to the federal system, which saw a decline of 2.5%, compared to the 0.7% in the states. So, yes--some change can be made at the federal level, but its impact on the overall system is fairly limited.

An example that has recently been in the news is the confrontation between Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, and the Black Lives Matters activists. As John Pfaff argues in the New York Times, the 1994 Crime Bill--lauded by Clinton for its effects on public safety and excoriated by the activists for its effects on incarceration--did neither of these things. Pfaff writes:

We know the act didn’t cause mass incarceration: Prison populations started rising around 1974, and by 1994 they had roughly tripled, from 300,000 to over one million. It’s almost surely the case that America was the world’s largest jailer well before the act was passed. So if the act didn’t cause mass incarceration, the question becomes: Did it help continue to drive it? The answer, by and large, is no.
For one thing, most of the act’s provisions applied only to federal crimes. The tough new anti-gang laws, the expanded death-penalty provisions, the three-strikes laws: All applied only to those tried in federal court. And those, over all, are fairly minor players, with the federal prison system holding about only 13 percent of all prisoners. The other 87 percent of inmates are in state systems — and none of the act’s new criminal laws affected what happened in state systems.
But, the Act's role in reducing crime was also marginal at best:

The most obvious thing to consider is that rates of violent crimes and property crime began to decline in 1992, three years before the law’s various provisions started going into effect. There’s no real perceptible change in the rate of that decline after the act. If you want to claim that the law did much to stop crime, this alone is a pretty significant problem. It’s not the only one, either.
For one thing, if the law had very little impact on prison populations (despite all the claims to the contrary), then it can’t take credit for however much crime was reduced by rising incarceration. And while the act authorized almost $10 billion over six years to hire up to 100,000 additional police officers — a provision that could have reduced crime — the data suggest any impact was fairly slight. (Once again, $10 billion seems like a lot, but local governments spent over $250 billion on policing during the six years the program was in effect.) All told, the policing program seems to have pushed crime rates down by perhaps an additional 1 percent. And a government review of the included assault-weapons ban found that its effect was minimal, if only because people shifted to non-assault weapons with large-capacity magazines.
There are important things that a conscientious federal administration can affect. It can make it easier for inmates to review their cases through habeas corpus, thus perhaps correcting some of the horrific miscarriages of justice in cases of exnoerees. It can make it easier to litigate prison conditions in federal courts. It can make important symbolic gains in the fight against the death penalty and the war on drugs.

But the bottom line is that, if you want to see criminal justice reform with substantial consequences, you are better off focusing on the state and local arena. Among the propositions battling for your attention are Justice That Works, a death penalty repeal measure; Gov. Brown's initiative to abolish direct filing of juvenile cases in adult courts and to bring back some early releases; and an initiative to legalize marijuana in California. This is a remarkable year that could generate massive improvements where they matter, so don't let the Drumpf circus throw off your focus.

Has Prop 47 Led to Increased Crime Rates? (Hint: No)

Since the enactment of Proposition 47, which reclassified numerous California felonies as misdemeanors and led to a relief in jail population, cops near and far have been bemoaning a subsequent rise in crime rates. But that a police officer tells a journalist something doesn't mean that it is necessarily true, or that the correlation holds. Which raises the question: Have crime rates increased? If so, is the increase correlated with Prop 47? If it is, may we assume causality?

In general, whenever a question like this pops up, there are two places to check first: the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ). PPIC, notably, studied crime rates after Realignment, with Steven Raphael and Magnus Lofstrom concluding that the only category in which there was a subsequent correlated increase was, oddly, auto theft - by 14.8 percent. But other crime categories, including violent crime, were not affected by Realignment. With regard to Prop. 47, Lofstrom advises caution:

Upticks in violent and property crime rates during the first year of realignment caused similar concerns, Lofstrom said. With the exception of a boost in auto thefts, however, the spike was in line with increases in states that did not undergo realignment, and crime rates have since dropped again.
With a surge of releases under Proposition 47, “it’s fair to say it puts an upward pressure on crime rates” for the types of low-level offenses those inmates committed, he added. But he said it’s very difficult to attribute a particular change in law to a change in crime rates. Cities and counties vary in their staffing levels, law enforcement priorities and reentry services for released offenders.
There is, however, an early effort to figure out what is going on, and it is a new report by CJCJ. A mere observation of crime rates in January-June suggests a rise in several crime categories, though the numbers for other years appear too inconsistent to draw any pattern.

But the question is, if there is an increase, is it related to Prop. 47? The report reads:
If the reduction in local jail populations after Proposition 47 passed in November 2014 is responsible for the urban crime increase in early 2015, as some sources are arguing, then cities in counties with the largest reductions in jail populations in 2015 would show the biggest increases in crime. However, the data suggest this is not the case. 
In fact, the cities in 11 counties with the largest decreases in both total jail populations and felony jail populations showed equivalent changes in violent crime, and smaller increases in property and total crime, than the cities in 10 counties with the smallest decreases in jail populations. In these 11 counties (total urban population 7.4 million) with larger jail population decreases (total average jail ADPs decreased 15 percent, average felony ADP dropped 18 percent), the overall crime rate increased by only 1 percent. In the 10 counties (urban population 5.3 million) with smaller jail population decreases (total average jail ADP decreased 7 percent, average felony ADPs dropped 11 percent), overall crime increased by 6 percent. Both sets of counties experienced violent crime increases of 9 percent, while the 11 large jail population decrease counties saw no increase in property crime. Significantly, the 10 smaller jail population decrease counties experienced a six percent increase in property crime. Los Angeles County (shown separately due to the unreliability of its 2014 crime statistics) had a lesser decrease in total jail ADP and an average decrease in felony jail ADP, while the city of Los Angeles saw more unfavorable crime trends than the state as a whole.
The report concludes that "[t]here are no obvious effects associated with Proposition 47 that would be expected if the reform had a significant and consistent impact on crime," and that "[i]t is too early to conclusively measure the effects of Proposition 47 on crime rates just one year after the law took effect." Indeed, early 2016 data from Davis and West Sacramento shows a decline in crime rates.

The real source of concern, then, has to do not with compromising public safety, but with the savings that were supposed to be cycled back into local communities for reentry purposes. One of my initial worries about Prop. 47 was that the funds, which were to be allocated by the Board of State and Community Corrections, would trail a year behind the early releases, effectively having people reenter into nothing. It seems that these concerns are warranted, and that supporters are petitioning Governor Brown to increase the fund allocation for reentry programs.