Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cop killers, Baby killers, Serial killers? Did Steve Cooley Just Lie on the KQED?

In a debate on KQED's California Report about Proposition 34, LA DA Steve Cooley told a statewide listening audience that only "cop killers, baby killers, and serial killers" get sent to death row from LA County.  Really?  That sounds false to me.  There are well over 700 people on death row and a clear minority of them meet that description, in fact, very few are.  From LA?  In 2009, LA County produced more death sentences then the state of Texas, were there really that many baby killers, cop killers, and serial killers convicted in that year?  I'm in the middle of my teaching week (yes this really is like a job) and don't have time to run this down, but some one reading this, student, reporter, active citizen, nail this down because I don't think its fit for a District Attorney to lie on an important issue of public policy on the radio to the citizens of this state.

Why does Steve Cooley really want the death penalty?  In part, I would guess, because the death penalty is a large weapon in plea bargaining that can force many murder defendants with a credible issue, to plead guilty to a non-capital murder and disappear for life (perhaps for a crime they did not commit).  In Governing through Crime I offered a more political view.  Prosecutors became vengeance-seekers-in-chief during the era of mass incarceration and used that stature to get elected statewide.  The death penalty debate fuels the vengeance end of the crime policy debate (distorting the entire criminal justice system) but providing great fuel for prosecutors to rise to power.  Steve Cooley lost narrowly for AG in 2010 to the current incumbent, a very quiet opponent of the death penalty.  One suspects he would rather be talking about the death penalty in next statewide election too.  Proposition 34 would end that death debate and move Californians on the the serious work of reframing our overheated underperforming penal system.

Monday, October 1, 2012

No Governor Brown, Thank God we Have Federal Courts

The most amazing quote in Marisa Lagos' front page story on realignment in this morning's SF Chron (read the story here) comes from Governor Brown:

"It's on schedule, and it's in practice in all 58 counties, which are quite diverse," Brown said in a phone interview last week. "I think all in all, we made a solid transition, and thank God for the fact we had the realignment plan - or we would have been forced by judges to let felons out of prison or to build new cells, which we can ill afford.
Now I'm generally inclined to give Governor Brown time to redress the prison crisis.  When he left office in 1983 the prison population had already begun its disastrous rise, but it was still modest and was driven mostly by county level prosecutors and judges (although his Determinate Sentence Law, adopted for other reasons, had effectively cut off the state's ability to reduce prison population on the other end).  To my knowledge he was not a supporter of the many laws passed since, including Thee Strikes, that helped supersize California's prison population beyond any rational or humane limits.  Although he appealed the Plata case to the Supreme Court as California's Attorney General, that is the usual routine for AGs and it takes an exceptional act of courage to do something different.  But the contempt for the courts in Governor Brown's statement at a time when only because of the courts are we beginning to remedy a human rights disaster that has blighted our state for over a decade is appalling, beneath him, must be called out.

The statement is so wrong on every level that it must be deconstructed and addressed point by point, but this is college, so first a pop quiz

  • Question.  When did every governor start sounding like Ross Barnett of Mississippi?
  • Answer. When the war on crime made it patriotic to trash courts for defending the human rights of people in prison.

"thank God for the fact that we had the realignment plan"
At least now we know where it came from and when we can expect it to be revealed (at the end of time?).  In fact, most of the ideas in the plan come from (or are mysteriously similar to) the proposals presented to the three-judge court in Plata which had been developed for the court by the state's best criminologists, people generally ignored by the state's political leadership.

"or we would have been forced by judges to let felons out of prison or to build new cells"
The court ordered not a single prisoner to be released.  They gave the state two years to reduce its population crisis from a steady state of over 200% of capacity to 137% of capacity and then outlined numerous ways the state could do that.  As the court documented many of these prison sentences were actually reducing public safety.

The court was forced to set a population cap because the state continued to pack minor offenders and parole violators into prisons where a prisoner a week was dying of unmet medical needs.  In their zeal to sell us our own fear, California's politicians presided over a system of industrial scale torture in which inmates suffering severe mental illness were left untreated in the horrifying conditions of overcrowding and insecurity, and in which prisoners suffering manifest symptoms of heart attacks, and cancerous invasions of their organs without treatment or even sympathy for their suffering.

let felons out of prison
Felon is a euphemism for denying the humanity of a human being.  In a state which has lost touch with the humanity of its prisoners on a such a vast scale it is appalling for the chief executive still responsible for returning our prisons to some semblance of constitutional order to use that euphemism.  Prisons are not containment zones for zombies.  They are legal institutions for the punishment and rehabilitation of human beings.  Our state has proven itself incapable of operating such legal places.  Our leaders should be holding the officials responsible accountable, not swaggering and criticizing our courts.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in Brown v. Plata, the case that will carry Governor Brown's name into history along with governors like George Wallace and Ross Barnett:
A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. 
I say, thank God for the "concept of human dignity," and thank our federal courts for enforcing it in this sorry state.