Friday, April 19, 2019

Congratulations, HJCP! And, Moratorium Event

In all the excitement and fury about the Mueller report, I completely forgot to congratulate our new student-run journal at UC Hastings - the Hastings Journal of Crime and Punishment (HCJP) - which held its inaugural event this Tuesday, titled Extreme Punishment in the Age of Moratorium. The event was a big success. We were very proud and happy to host a range of panelists with different life experiences and perspectives to reflect on Newsom's announcement. Kevin Cooper called in from Death Row. Kelly Savage, from the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, provided the perspective of a recently released lifer, identifying long life sentences as "walking death." Alex Post of the State Public Defender's office discussed the continuing litigation on behalf of death penalty inmates. Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo District Attorney, discussed the need for extreme punishment and his interactions with victims. And David Crawford of Death Penalty Focus talked about the political aspect of Newsom's announcement.

The first issue of HCJP, which is forthcoming, will feature, among other wonderful things, a summary and/or transcript of the panel.

Not Your Typical Mueller Report Opinion Piece

Let's start with the obvious: Like all the other opinion pieces said, we're dealing with a corrupt mob boss, a culture of lying and obfuscation, a paranoid president who was saved from himself by aides who, selfishly or selflessly, stopped short of doing his bidding. We're dealing with an administration of enthusiastic recipients of information and illegalities from a foreign power. And, Mueller explicitly places the ball in the court of Congress: I won't indict, but you can impeach, and you can certainly indict once he's out of office (the report twice reminds us, explicitly, that Trump's supposed immunity while in office--which, by the way, is a topic hotly debated by constitutional scholars--ends when he is no longer president.)

All of these things are true.

It takes a bit of time for the emotional dust from reading the report to settle (I spent about nine hours, give or take, on providing summaries of Volume 1 and Volume 2 yesterday.) Some of what I read was news to me, such as the phonemail Trump received while en route to the airport with Rick Gates
and the direct hacking of the election systems in an unnamed Florida county)

I was also somewhat surprised by Assange's partisanship. I had been under the impression that he was a "chaotic neutral", who was just about nonpartisan free access to everything, but in fact he acted because he was interested in a GOP election win.

But I have to say, the moment I will most remember from this tweeting enterprise is the brainwave I had when I read about Paul Manafort's dealings with Kilimnik and, through Kilimnik, with Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president. This came into clearer focus when I read about Petr Aven, and especially about Kyrill Dmitriev, and their efforts to insinuate themselves into the Trump transition team.

The whole thing reminded me, in a nauseating way, of a post I wrote here a while ago, about one of my favorite TV shows as a child: Mission: Impossible. Gentle reader, if you're a person of a certain age, you probably remember the show not as a flashy Tom Cruise movie, but as a series of episodes involving sophisticated U.S. interventions abroad. At the time, I wrote that the show--
evoke[d] a feeling of nostalgia for a past that never was; a past in which good and evil are clearly delineated in the opening sequence, and in which our secret service works for the undisputed good while we all sleep soundly in our beds. A past in which power is never abused, but tempered with talent and an old-fashioned gentlemanly code. A past in which the United States is a benevolent patriarch, deftly and subtly governing its childlike counterparts. A past in which women and people of color play cameo roles in the world of secret service, and women are praised and utilized for their sexual appeal without complain or critique. 
The problem is that this past never existed. In the late sixties, when this show aired on American television, the US was already angling toward a questionable and destructive elective war in Vietnam, and was already involved in fixing (not unfixing!) the elections in various foreign countries, not to mention the ones it was yet to fix. Involvement in attempted and successful assassinations of foreign politicians and dignitaries has been, since then, clearly documented. And let's not even start discussing foreign military interventions. 
How comforting it was to live in the Mission: Impossible world, in which these developments could be either disbelieved or explained away as benevolent and necessary. Which just makes the courage of people like Daniel Ellsberg, who actually saw what was what and brought it into the realm of public consciousness, all the more impressive.
How the tables have turned! Mueller's investigation reveals a sophisticated, ruthless Russian machinery, consisting of both the GRU and private corporations, that is able to manipulate American social and technological vulnerabilities to an astounding degree. The reason I felt comfortable writing in my tweet thread that Russia "procured" and not just "sought to procure" is because, when you put together Mueller's findings about the direct interference in Florida and the calculations done by Nate Silver et al. a clear picture of successful intervention emerges. The surges and declines in public support for Trump and Clinton map neatly onto the leaked emails, and the leaked emails were obtained via the well-oiled Russian machine.

But what is most shocking about this is that all of this efficiency and technological acumen was put to work not in the service of politics. Or, I should say--not ultimately in the service of politics. And this is what I realized: Gaming the U.S. election was perhaps a step toward solidifying a peace agreement that guarantees Russian control of the Ukraine, but even that's not the endgame.

Ask yourself: What are the oligarchs in this for? Why so much public-private cooperation? Why are Russian billionaires in bed with American businessmen/politicians?

Because the political aspects of this, friend, are all a sideshow. The things you and I care about--vanishing civil rights, children in cages, starving Central American nations, planetary destruction--all of this is a sideshow. Manafort, with his deep connections in Russia and the Ukraine, is the key to understanding all of this. He is not a stepping stool toward Trump. He, and Kilimnik, and Yanukovych, and Aven, and Dmitriev, they are the lynchpin of the whole thing. This is all about making money. Obscene amounts of money that you and I cannot even imagine. The U.S. election, which has enormous importance for you and me, is just a means to an end. The real game is not played in D.C., no matter how great or influential Trump thinks he is. The real game is played in Moscow, and probably not even by Putin, but by the oligarchs.

And this is the big shocker. That you and I might devote our lives to public policy, to incarceration and criminalization and confinement conditions and all sorts of things like that, which are the whole world to the people caught in the clutches of the system, but ultimately, they, you, and I, are merely playthings in the lives of the obscenely rich. Just pawns to be moved along in order to make money. Their economic hold on the world is so vast that winning the U.S. election is just a means to an end for them.

And this makes me profoundly sad, and angry, and fearful for our future.

Mueller Report, Redux

Yesterday I read the Mueller Report in preparation for a few TV appearances and created a Twitter thread condensing the entire report into about 180 tweets. Many people emailed and said they found it very useful. Here are the links to the thread:

Volume 1 - contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign

Volume 2 - obstruction of justice

I will provide analysis in a separate post.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

On Populism in Criminal Justice Policy, and the Death Penalty Moratorium

Gavin Newsom's recent announcement of a death penalty moratorium drew critique from supporters of capital punishment who argued that Newsom employed his executive power in a way that flies in the face of what the people of California want (which is, by a small majority, the death penalty to stay.) In the last week I've had to debate this issue on TV and on the radio with a few commentators, some more erudite than others, and even though the pace of public appearances was rather frantic, I made a mental note that I need to take the counterargument more seriously and think about populism more deeply.

Thankfully, life provided a really interesting opportunity to do so: I'm just returning home from a beautiful day in New York City, which I spent as Author-in-Residence at St. John School of Law's Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development. I spent the day discussing various implications of a piece I wrote for the journal, which was loosely based on this blog post.The schedule for the day was beautifully student-centered and my gracious hosts made sure that their students got the most out of an informal conversation about writing in the morning, a great lunch conversation, and a more formal presentation with Q&A in the afternoon. 

We talked about lots of things: the perniciousness of social media mobbing, whether rage was exhaustive or generative, whether reputations soiled by formal or informal social control can be redeemed (and at what cost), whether there’s any hope for bipartisan civil discourse—in short, the things that ail and worry us all. Among the students’ excellent comments was a polite-but-passionate disagreement a student had with my position on Judge Persky’s recall. As regular blog readers know, I think the recall was a vile example of the scorched earth mentality that drives a lot of lefty activism nowadays and a terrible message for judges to be harsh. The student who disagreed with me saw it quite differently. He saw it as an important message to the judge (and other judges) that he should respect the will of the people.

After the talk, the student came over and we continued our conversation. It turned out that the student was a community organizer who was appalled by the New York State legislature’s imperviousness to impassioned public calls to change the statute of limitations in a way that would allow prosecuting prominent Catholic Church priests involved in the massive sexual abuse scandal. He expressed regret that New York had so little referendum-based legislation, because he suspected that, had the statute-of-limitations issue come up on referendum, about 80% of state voters would support eliminating barriers for prosecution. 

As the student was explaining his position, I realized something important. My hosts and I live in states that are very different, respectively, in terms of their political culture. New York is governed largely through professional, elitist bureaucracy, whereas California is governed through political and emotional populism. As Vanessa Barker argues in The Politics of Imprisonment, these divergent political cultures have shaped two very different criminal justice systems, with California’s characterized by much more punitive excess in terms of legislation and policy. Of course, the criminal process in New York is not clean of problems—the NYPD scandals and the conditions at Rikers are but two notable examples—but the sheer size of the California apparatus and its patchwork of aggressive sentencing laws reflect the punitive animus stoked in a public that votes for criminal justice policies via referendum. Because of these different cultures, our respective natural tendencies are to see the blemishes in our own environment and perceive the other system in a more favorable light. In other words, while I’m used to seeing the serious problems, excesses, and miscarriages of justice that come from a money-flooded direct democracy rife with oversimplification and disinformation, the student who came to speak to me was used to seeing the legislative elite turn a cold shoulder to the values and expectations of their constituents. 

Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on how much direct democracy is appropriate for a particular political culture. But it’s important to make this call on the basis of facts. Does the public tend to be punitive? And how punitive, and in what contexts? There is rich literature on this, which I reviewed extensively in Chapter 7 of Cheap on Crime. The gist of it is that, while the public holds complicated views on punishment and rehabilitation, it is possible (and easy) to craft questions and provide information in a way that yields punitive outcomes. For example, surveys reveal that people are significantly less likely to support lengthy incarceration when they are provided with real data about how much it costs. The problem is that, in a partisan—indeed, polarized—legislative atmosphere, there’s very little guarantee that the public will actually get credible, dependable facts; instead, supporters and opponents of a particular bill will provide a lot of noise and spin, leaving people with good will, but with little background in public policy and economics, to make their own decisions. 

One example is the idea that someone might support the death penalty in good faith because they believe that capital punishment is good for victims and that victims want it. But we know that different people process tragedy in different ways, and that not everyone sees the death penalty as conducive to their healing from a devastating loss. I can say that, in my visits to the violence prevention coalitions in Santa Rosa and in Sacramento, I heard victims’ family members espouse exactly the opposite—and those are, typically, poor people of color, whose voices do not usually ring very loud in the policymaking arena. Is it elitist, or undemocratic, to consider the possibility that the public has been systematically misinformed about what victims want, and therefore lacks valuable and relevant knowledge?

Similarly, consider this horrifying piece of news I read this morning. The violence, the sheer amount of defense required for mere survival, the blood and bodily secretions at all places... a friend posted today on Facebook that if the public knew just a little of what happens in these institutions, we would not have them. It's not malice--it's ignorance. Is it elitist, or undemocratic, to suggest that people who call for lengthy incarceration terms have never been inside a prison, have no idea what it looks and feels like, and cannot imagine themselves or their loved ones go through it?

Theoretically, a good compromise between my position and that of the student might be a referendum system that also delivers nonpartisan information about the bills (particularly the budget) and limits expenditure and propaganda to a minimum. How that is to be achieved in a country in love with an absolute First Amendment is a difficult question. What leads me to despair is the fact that, in general, we're experiencing a fairly shaky hold on the truth in the last few years, intensifying the already existing problem of voter ignorance and campaign misinformation that plagues referendum systems.

It's pretty distressing to end up with this position, which seems to dovetail with Tom Lehrer's introduction to one of his songs, where he says that "the reason folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people." An old friend who grew up in Saudi Arabia told me of going to public executions at the ripe age of 9 and seeing the crowds cheer. Sometimes we need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from a site of an atrocity by a responsible adult. I think what Newsom is trying to do is be that adult for us. 

Oh, and let's talk more about this on April 9 at 7:30pm at Manny's. Here's the link to the event--I hope to see many of you there.