Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What is Wrong with Santa Clara? Fear and Loathing at Yahoo?

The murder suicide of six people by a Santa Clara software engineer, who killed members of his family in their upscale neighborhood, before shooting himself with his legally purchased weapon has left neighbors shocked and alarmed. The native of southern India who immigrated to the US 15 years ago had recently moved from a more modest Sunnyvale to the more upscale

Rivermark, a 7-year-old planned community about seven miles northwest of San Jose with a shopping center, playgrounds and a mix of town houses, condominiums and Spanish-style houses that go for $1 million. His children had been enrolled in a nearby private school.
(read the full SFChron coverage)

But while neighbors, and no doubt Yahoo co-workers of Devan Kalathat, are horrified, there is little public anguish about of the morals of upscale Santa Clara neighborhoods, or assuming that software workers are a hidden danger among us. Instead, most people probably assume Devan Kalathat's terrible violence against his own family members belongs to his own personal demons, the immediate stresses of the situation (his brother-in-law had recently moved on work assignment from India) and say little about his community or occupation.

Contrast that with the heavy handed moral judgments on Oakland and on Oakland's parolee population in the aftermath of Lovelle Mixon's murder/suicide of four Oakland police officers. In a resolutely color-blind column supporting the OPD's ritual exclusion of Mayor Ron Dellums (the only black man among the top political leadership attending the Saturday memorial service at the Oakland arena), SFChron columnist Chip Johnson quotes Sgt. Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association:

"What the hell are we going to do about these parolees in our town?"

"Parolees have been killing people forever in this town. For-ever," he said with emphasis.

Granted, the the approximately 1600 Oakland residents who were on parole in Oakland, either in good status, or fugitives like Lovelle Mixon, had all been convicted of a California felony and sent to state prison, but our grossly distended prison system is full of felons who have not posed a serious risk of violence to their communities. Of the five to ten thousand individual men and women who have been under parole supervision in Oakland over the last decade how many parolees have killed police officers in Oakland in the past 10 years? How many software engineers have killed their families in the same time period? A pint to the first comment with the correct answer. Too many Oakland Police officers view themselves as at war with Oakland residents on, or who have been on parole. That includes a big portion of all the young black men in town.

We do not yet understand the demons that drove either Lovelle Mixon or Devan Kalathat to murderous rampages that were ultimately suicidal as well. Thousands of Americans surrender to police every week knowing they face a prison term without killing anyone (let alone four officers) just as millions of husbands ride out tough economic and family times without massacring their families (until once in a terrible while they don't). Let us bury the dead, comfort the anguished, redouble our efforts to get smarter about the profiles of lethal violence, but let us stop treating Oakland as if the community caused the tragedy, and stop assuming that parolees are an armed insurgency seeking to kill police officers. In a different moment, any one of them, and even Mixon and Kalathat (on other days) might have been pulling you out of the rubble of your home following a fatal earthquake in the Bay Area.

Friday, March 27, 2009


That is what the California Department of Corrections officials estimated the prison population would be in 2000, back in 1991 according to a government documented cited by Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the prescient 1992 monograph Prison Population and Criminal Justice Policy in California. Instead, the population was 161,401, down slightly from the previous year, the first such drop in 23 years. But growth would continue, peaking at around 180,000 in 2006 before declining modestly in the last two years to 171,000.

While CDCR officials were boasting of the decline at the UC Hastings conference on the California Correctional crisis last week, this is still nearly 200 percent of capacity system wide and the costs of which have outstripped higher education (while billions more are being ordered by federal courts). Still, it is sobering how much growth the system itself anticipated in the early 1990s as the strategy of warehousing tens of thousands more Californians convicted of crimes in state prisons at state expense reached its peak. If we have been spared that additional growth, and the additional half dozen or so prisons we would have had to build (to remain on double that designed capacity), it was not because our politicians stopped pandering on crime (the 1990s saw three-strikes and scores of sentence enhancements) but as Frank Zimring has argued, because crime went down quite dramatically (as it did all over the country).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

After Oakland Police Deaths: Fixing Parole

California's state correctional system, its prisons and parole system, have been on a path toward demographic crisis for years, with massively overcrowded and dysfunctionally designed prisons, and a parole system that regularly sent most of them back to prison after initial release for indiscriminate reasons. So long as the state's long economic boom continued (or wasn't interrupted for too long), this structural threat to the state's fiscal and public health remained under the radar for most Californians; no longer.

First came the mega prison lawsuits known as Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger and the special three judge panel that in a recent preliminary ruling suggested that systemic failures to deliver basic medical care and mental health treatment as required by the Constitution can only be remedied through a significant reduction in California's prison population and signaled that they are ready to order such a reduction soon.

Now comes the murder of four Oakland police officers by Lovelle Mixon, an Oakland resident who was on parole and wanted for parole violations at the time Oakland police attempted to apprehend him last Saturday (as well we have more recently learned, a suspect in the rape of at least one girl).

Both shocks to the normally complacent attitude about mass incarceration in California have led to a focus on parole. Governor Schwarzenegger has described the parole system as broken and based his plans for reducing the prison overcrowding problem in large part on better use of parole to reduce recidivism. The three judge panel has indicated that changing the practice of indiscriminately returning parolees with technical violations to state prisons, inevitably for short terms (12 months is the statutory maximum) is one way to begin reducing the prison population. Now politicians, especially AG and likely candidate for governor Jerry Brown, are highlighting the failed practice of parole in California as responsible for the Oakland police deaths.

As the author of a dissertation, and later a book on parole that was largely based on the California case I fear that this focus on parole, is potentially misleading even though there are lots of ways to improve parole (none of them cheap either fiscally or politically).

I will address these opportunities in posts over the next few days. For now I want to offer one very skeptical point. The implication that California's correctional crisis can be resolved by administrative adjustments in parole or even statutory modifications is dead wrong. We send too many people to state prison indiscriminately. Parole (which has no power to release prisoners, it is strictly a system of post-release supervision and revocation) is part of that problem but only about half, the other half is the county level power structure topped by DAs, aided by judges, and facilitated and encouraged by opportunistic politicians from both parties and both branches of government in Sacramento. California counties, some of them, send far too many of their community members to state prison rather than attempting to punish and reform them in at home in their county (through jail and probation). The reasons for this run deep and have as much to do with state finance as with penal policy. For now I would just urge all readers to question any expert who claims our correctional crisis can be solved by reforming parole.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Monsters and Metaphors: Crime Does Not Define Us

Lovelle Mixon

" He's not a monster"
Enjoli Mixon 24, Oakland resident, of her brother Lovelle Mixon

The violence itself, and now even the medical after story are over, but the deaths of four Oakland police officers Saturday continues to work its way into the emotional lives and imagination of Oakland and the Bay Area (as many as 20,000 are expected to attend a memorial service 11 am this coming Friday at the Oracle Arena at 7000 Coliseum Way in Oakland). Two important narratives are forming around this event. One is coming largely from ordinary people who see in the tragedy a reflection of a community which has lost its moral bearings and that seems to be heading into ever worsening violence(read Carolyn Jones and Leslie Fulbright reporting in the SFChron). The second is coming from politicians, especially Attorney General Jerry Brown, who sees the deaths as result of a parole system in which thousands of felons are released with minimal law technology surveillance and programming. Both narratives are dangerously flawed.

We may never know precisely why Lovelle Mixon shot two arresting officers and then two SWAT team officers who burst into his sister's apartment behind stun grenades. It has been suggested that the parolee knew was wanted for missing parole appointments (a violation of parole) and that he may have known he was a suspect in a rape case (the latest twist being reports that his DNA was tested and found matching the DNA evidence in a rape case from January, read Jaxon Van Derbeken's reporting in the SFChron). The assumption is that he did not want to go back to prison and perhaps knew he might face a very long sentence (as a second strike sentence among others things). Yet tens of thousands of Californians go to prison every year, many of them from the same parts of Oakland that Mixon lived in, some of them for long sentences, and all but a handful of aberrational cases do so with no violent resistance. (This should not surprise us. People are resilient. They live in prison, or fighting chronic illnesses that keep them hospitalized, or in war zones. Most people want to live. Why Lovelle Mixon was not one of them has not been explained and cannot be from his legal situation alone.)

Nor is this an example at all of typical Oakland violence. Oakland has a violent crime problem that it shares with certain other cities (including Los Angeles) which have experienced variable but heightened levels of violence since the 1960s. The causes of this are complex. The main reasons, in my view, are anchored in the shared experience (with many other major American cities) of having been a very successful industrial city in the first two thirds of the 20th century, followed by a sustained period of de-industrialization. The failure of American domestic policy to manage that gradual but profound economic catastrophe explains most of the criminogenic patterns that have followed that regularly manifest in the kind of shooting incidents that often result in what the media will call a "senseless killing." We should view this legacy of violence as the human parallel to the toxic waste residue that the same successful industrialism has left in these cities (indeed the combination of these social pathologies and toxic chemicals in the brains of young children growing up in the afflicted neighborhoods is where the answer to much violent crime lies in my view). But the kind of violence that Lovelle Mixon unleashed Saturday night was quite different as indicated by the fact that it is probably the worst police killing the city's history and one of the worst in California history. It has more in common with other "mass" murders whether Columbine or the domestic violence group killings that occur periodically. These incidents all share a common theme which is that the shooter has no expectation of surviving the encounter, it is a kind of homicide/suicide.

More briefly on Attorney General Brown's vision of curfews and high technology bracelets on Oakland parolees (read the reporting of Andrew Blankstein and Maria LaGanga in the LATimes). My objections will take several more posts to outline but here is the main one. Most Oakland parolees pose no risk of killing police officers or anyone else. Many will go back to prison (70 percent) for technical violations like missing an appointment or persistent drug use. As Brown acknowledges, prisons do not prepare most prisons for release. What the vast majority of those parole need are services like drug treatment,education and job training. Right now we cannot finding the money to pay for such services is a huge conundrum (it should come ultimately from closing whole prisons but that will take a while). Brown's plan would cost millions of additional dollars that we do not have to pay for technology and police/parole overtime to enforce rules that will mostly be irrelevant to public safety.

Brown also stated that parole officials should be more selective in who they release, but as he well knows (having signed the Determinate Sentencing Act into law in 1976) that is not an option for correctional officials under current law.

With his experience and intelligence Jerry Brown should know better, but all the indications are that he intends to crime politic his way back to the governor's office in 2010.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Oakland Police Deaths Require Public Investigation

The deaths this past Saturday of four Oakland police officers at the hands of Oakland resident Lovell Mixon has shocked our community (read the coverage in the SF Chron). Literally thousands of people in our community knew these officers personally as family members, friends, and neighbors. It will take a long time to process such a dramatic loss. In time, however, it is vital that the public learn more about what happened to produce this astonishing tragedy. Here are a few thoughts toward that goal.

As all the media coverage has emphasized, Mixon was on parole, but this provides little insight into why he responded to police with lethal violence. Some 60,000 people a year enter parole in California after the completion of their prison sentence. While nearly 70 percent will be returned to prison before the completion of their time on parole, only a tiny minority are sent back for crimes of violence.

Rodney King was also on parole when he was stopped and beaten after a car chase with the LAPD. Can you imagine how differently that story might have played out had the media labeled him "parolee Rodney King" rather than "motorist Rodney King"?

We still do not know why police stopped Mixon. He had apparently missed a parole appointment, a minor violation of parole that regularly occurs without resulting in an arrest. If Mixon was targeted for arrest because of his perceived risk to the community, the police should have been much better prepared for possible violence.

We may never know why Mixon responded with such violence. He had spent six years in one of California's toughest prisons, and his family suggests he did not want to return, but the most he could have faced for a parole revocation was one year, was he really willing to kill and die just to avoid what more likely would have been six months or less back in prison?

His sister movingly told the press that Mixon was "not a monster", but the real question is why did he have an AK47 assault weapon in his personal armory.

More than 60,000 California prisoners come back to the community on parole every year. More than 70 percent return within three years, most for minor crimes and parole violations. Would we be better off leaving the vast majority of released prisoners to seek services if they choose to (perhaps with state vouchers) while concentrating California's professional parole agents on a small portion of prisoners whose profiles suggest a sustained risk of violence?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Organized for Vengeance: Police Unions and Parole

The imminent parole release of former SLA member Sara Jane Olson (aka Kathleen Soliah) and plans for her to serve her parole term (maximum three years with annual reviews) in Minnesota, her home state as a fugitive for nearly twenty years, has stirred opposition from police unions. Olson is not being released early. California law provides for parole supervision in the community at the completion of a prison sentence. The purpose of parole is not to further punishment, which is satisfied by the prison term, but to assure public safety and facilitate the successful reintegration of the former prisoner into the community. In Olson's case both of these goals would be well served by returning her to Minnesota where she lived crime free for years and where she has a family and extensive support network.

The police union opposing her transfer to Minnesota, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, claims that Minnesota cannot be trusted to keep as close an eye on her as California (read the LATimes story by Andrew Blankstein). But Olso never was a crime threat. After her involvement with radical group, Olson apparently lived a normal life centered on family and community. Every study of parole has shown that the odds of re-offending are reduced when former prisoners return to a supportive family environment. The real reason the Police Protective League wants to keep her in the Golden State is vengeance. Prison time is supposed to repay one's debt to society. For LAPPL however, crimes against police can never be repaid, and those that have threatened police no matter how long ago or how different the circumstances, must be hunted and haunted to their graves.

This may reflect the actual sentiment of police officers, but let us be clear, it has nothing to do with public safety, and everything to do with a desire for vengeance.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Promise of Police

Some of the smartest people I know who think hard about criminal justice from academic posts think that police offer a promising alternative to mass incarceration as a way to address crime in American communities (Bill Stuntz, David Sklansky, Frank Zimring, Justin McCrary among many others). A well reported article by Chip Johnson in today's SFChron offers an intriguing picture of that promise.

Crimes reported to the police are dramatically lower than for the first quarter of last year.

Since Jan. 1, felony crimes against people and property have dropped 23 percent, according to the Oakland Police Department.

Homicides alone decreased by 50 percent, to 14 slayings from 29 over the same period a year ago. Robberies fell by 16 percent during the same period, while auto theft dropped by one-third.

Although, as Johnson is careful to note, a quarter, is hardly a trend in the world of crime stats, its not too early for Oakland's politically shaky police department to take some credits for new tactics (take a bow from the wings, Chief Tucker). Especially after an alarming pattern of armed robberies last year, and fears that the economic depression would drive up crime, this is good news.

Some of these new tactics do sound different and intriguing (not a repeat of Bratton/Giuliani style policing which, whatever its crime repressing effectiveness would ultimately be unacceptable to the Bay Area).

From the article it appears that the major tactics are more beat cops walking commercial streets and the creation of a new police linked (but not managed) "outreach" initiative aimed at stalling conlicts in Oakland neighborhoods before it turns lethal.

No doubt the beat cops are reassuring, especially to business people like the furniture store owner interviewed by Chip Johnson:

"We had homeless people sleeping in our doorways, people wandering up and down the block, but when he came, that all vanished," said Ford, 68. "I would say about four out of six days a week, he will stick his head inside the door and say hi. It's been a great relief."

Whether a strategy of chasing homeless people away is constitutional or sustainable in the Bay Area (especially when many of our neighbors may soon be joining their ranks) we will leave for another post, let alone whether it has any effect on violent crime.

More intriguing is the outreach initiative which Johnson credits to Mayor Ron Dellums:

Toribio said outreach workers paid for through the city's Measure Y program have established a "strong working relationship" with some street toughs. The workers regularly target areas with patterns of violence.

"We send them in when we've determined there may be trouble brewing, and they work to try and let calmer heads prevail," Toribio said.

"Most of these guys (outreach workers) grew up in some of these neighborhoods. They recognize guys from the street," he said. "Some of them have been to prison and battled their demons, and they have a lot of credibility on the street."

Leave aside the interesting constitutional questions of an apparatus that "work with police", but "they aren't agents of the police and don't share information." The approach sounds promising to me.

Ironically it underscores some of the problems that shadow the promise of the police. Why do the police lack so much credibility in neighborhoods suffering from violence that they need a parallel apparatus to provide them information as needed to stop or solve violent crimes? When we put more police offices on the streets how might their conduct actually exacerbate violent crime?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mr. Jones Goes to Washington

For readers of this blog who share this blogger's obsession with whether Dr. Obama will move us from a culture of fear based on "stranger danger" to a culture of hope based on collective action to overcome infrastructure danger, this morning's papers bring very good news indeed. Van Jones, lawyer, community organizer, and author of a best selling book on green jobs is doing to DC to serve as a special green jobs adviser to President Obama. (Read the NYT story). As a community organizer here in the East Bay, Jones has struggled against mass incarceration and its reconstruction of minority communities. His vision of greening the ghetto is a direct challenge to the carceral ghetto that the war on crime has produced. This means at least one voice in the administration who can help the President identify ways to help dismantle the culture of fear that past White Houses have helped to construct.