Monday, April 27, 2009

Baby Steps Away from Mass Imprisonment

As Matthew Yi reported in the SFChronicle over the weekend, California's mammoth correctional system has announced some first steps toward reducing its prison population. Faced with a mammoth federal lawsuit that may soon lead to court orders for population reductions, and the worst state fiscal situation in several decades, California's traditionally cautious correctional leadership has identified a series of steps it will take to reduce the prison population. These include:

Matt Cate, Schwarzenegger's prison secretary, said his proposal centers around drastic changes to the state's parole system - including releasing a quarter of the lower-risk parolees.

He also wants to cut the prison population by expanding good-behavior credits for inmates who take education and job-training classes, and shorter prison sentences by increasing the dollar-value threshold for grand theft.

Make no mistake, these are baby steps. Reducing the prison population by 8,000 persons will leave most of state's prisons dangerously overcrowded and only marginally improve the chances that the remaining prisoners will get access to education and other rehabilitation programs. The federal court considering California's prison population has indicated that a reduction of 20 to 50 thousand prisoners is in order. Reducing parolees will indirectly reduce the prison population by reducing the number of parolees returned to prison for technical parole violations, but the low risk prisoners who are going to be eliminated from parole are also less likely to produce technical violations, so the reduction will be minimal.

Nonetheless, all of these changes are in the right direction and can be carried out with no loss of public safety. They are already generating resistance from organizations representing correctional officers and some crime victims. This will be a good test of the ability of state leadership to respond to such resistance and ultimately for whether these groups can come to terms with the reality that California's era of ever-growing prisons is over.

In short order, however, we will need bolder steps. We should aim to reduce the prison population by at least 50 thousand over the next five years. We should consider eliminating parole in favor of a voucher based system to help released prisoners access drug treatment and other rehabilitative assistance and a modest expansion of the state police with a commitment to monitor a limited number of released prisoners with a track record for violent crime. We should reform the penal code to dramatically reduce the number of crimes for which prison terms are the presumptive sentence.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Threats of Danger: How Far Does the Culture of Control Extend

Today's Supreme Court arguments on whether strip searching a 13 year old girl on suspicion that she was carrying prescription strength ibuprofen on her person violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution provides another window into how deeply fear of violent crime reaches into the institutional structures of American government.

School district lawyer Matthew Wright told NPR's Nina Totenberg (read her report):

"With hindsight and with calm reflection, we can look back and say, 'OK, what kind of danger really was there on campus?' " Wright says. "But when you're on the ground making on-the-spot decisions, you don't have that luxury. School administrators are not pharmacologically trained in being able to assess the relative dangers any one drug might present, but what they are charged with is to make sure that students are kept safe from such threats of danger."

So school officials can't be expected to exercise any kind of professional judgment, instead they are duty bound to be suspicion following automatons, all in the name of keeping kids safe.

Unless of course you are the kid getting searched, in which case the fact that you are an honor student who has never been in trouble at school only means that you are a criminal who hasn't been caught yet, whose right to privacy must yield in the face of the prime directive to keep everyone safe (huh).

In its brief, the school says the fact that Redding was an honors student who had never been in trouble before is not evidence of good conduct, but only evidence that she had never been caught.

The school views itself as a protector of its students' health and safety, which includes protecting students from both illegal and over-the-counter drugs. From the school's viewpoint, any suspicion that a student possesses drugs may be justification for a strip search.

Read chapter seven of my Governing through Crime for a fuller treatment of schools.

On the culture of control, See David Garland, The Culture of Control (2001)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fear, Grief and Death

Demian Bulwa and Kevin Fagan report in Thursday morning's SFChron on the first statements issued by the Tracey, California family of eight year old Sandra Cantu, whose body was recovered from a suitcase in a farm pond earlier this week after days of frantic searching for the girl.

The horrifying case of the little girl who had gone outside to play near her home has once again confronted California with one of its (and America's) predominant late modern fears, the brutal and possibly sexual murder of a very young girl by an unknown possible stranger.

It also reminds us why California's dysfunctional and hugely expensive death penalty continues to limp on despite costing the state a billion dollars a year to execute approximately a dozen prisoners since 1992.

"There's a monster out there," Sandra's grandfather, Jose Chavez, said as he faced reporters at the entrance to the mobile home park where the 8-year-old girl lived. "He's got to be apprehended; he's got to be put away."

Sandra's uncle, Joe Chavez, added: "It's against my religion, but for me - (I ask for) the death penalty."

"there is a monster out there": Well yes, there is a logic to saying that. A monstrous act for sure.

"It's against my religion, but for me": There is a kind of resignation in that. Not only in the strain with his religion, but a sense that catching and putting away the person who murdered Sandra is the really important thing. The death penalty is put as a point of personal privilege (I ask for).

Sadly the two impulses, apprehending and putting away the killer, and seeking the death penalty, are often at cross purposes. The hunt for a monster can drive police to tactics, like coercing confessions, or relying on jail house snitches, that can result in wrongful convictions.

When Sandra's killer is caught, there is an excellent chance he will be sentenced to death, not withstanding a steady decline in death sentences handed down in California and nationwide. After he is sentenced to death in court, this person will be taken to San Quentin prison where more than two decades will go by during which the "monster" must be managed as a human being in custody, and in which millions will be spent by the state to pay for the complex legal proceedings that may well never satisfy doubts about the investigation or trial. If and when Sandra's killer is given a lethal injection, Sandra's grandfather will likely have passed on, and all who today shudder at the tragedy that unfolded in Tracey will have to search their memories to remember who Sandra Cantu was.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Governing the Border through Crime

Sunday's NYTimes carried a fascinating feature about how city governments near the border are using crime as the focal point to balance competing demands to both respect and integrate undocumented aliens and drive them out. Randy Kennedy's well researched feature follows Irving, Texas, Mayor Herbert A. Gears, as he tries to manage the resentments brought on by demographic change in what was once a white middle class bedroom community of Dallas, and has become a small "multicultural" city with no majority race or ethnicity.

It was Mayor Gears who chose a law requiring the jail to turn undocumented aliens arrested for crimes over the federal authorities. The feature does a fine job of highlighting the gross injustice this kind of a law inflicts on ordinary residents, while underscoring the attractiveness of "crime" as a category in which to bury (if only temporarily) the contradictions of our current immigration policies.

Just after sunrise one morning last summer, as his two sons hurried out the door to school, Oscar Urbina might have presented a portrait of domestic stability in this Dallas suburb, a 35-year-old man with a nice home, a thriving family and a steady contracting job.

But a few weeks earlier, after buying a Dodge Ram truck at a local dealership, he had been summoned back to deal with some paperwork problems. And shortly after he arrived, so did the police, who arrested him on charges of using a false Social Security number.

Mr. Urbina does not deny it; he has been living illegally in the Dallas area since coming to the country from Mexico in 1993. But the turn of events stunned him in a once-welcoming place where people had never paid much attention to Social Security numbers.

If the arrest had come earlier, it might have had little effect on his life. But two years ago, Irving made a decision, championed by its first-term mayor, Herbert A. Gears, to conduct immigration checks on everyone booked into the local jail. So Mr. Urbina was automatically referred to the federal authorities and now faces possible deportation, becoming one of more than 4,000 illegal immigrants here who have ended up in similar circumstances.

Mr. Gears, 46, is a big, gregarious, politically agile Texan who won re-election last May against an opponent whose campaign promised much tougher immigration measures. The mayor describes the rise of such sentiment around him as disturbing, a manifestation of “domestic extremism,” and he derides its adherents as “the crankies.”

“We defeated the crankies, and no one thought we could,” Mr. Gears said of his re-election. “We’ve defined what our responsibility is, and that’s only to allow the federal government to do its job. It’s not our responsibility to evaluate it or assess whether it’s good or not.”

Mr. Gears happened to be making these points in a booth at his favorite local bar, where he was being served by his favorite waitress, a friendly mother of five — in the country illegally — whom he has known for years and tips lavishly to help her make ends meet.

He acknowledges that Irving’s policy, whose chief goal is to get rid of dangerous criminals who are in the country illegally, has resulted in “casualties,” with many people deported as a result of lesser, nonviolent offenses like driving without a license or insurance.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Megan's Law II: Linda Sanchez Makes a Federal Crime of Cyber-Bulling

Listen to the interesting interview between NPR's Linda Wertheimer and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez of California's 39th district. The Democrat from Orange County is generally a champion of workers on economic issues. Her webpage proudly notes her support for President Obama's recovery program.

Representative Sanchez's current cause is the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named for the Missouri girl who took her own life, apparently in response to intense personal attacks placed on a social networking site by (bizarrely enough) the mother of another girl.

I haven't studied the legislation yet, but the interview indicated all the classic governing through crime symptoms.

A problem that is anchored at the level of interpersonal life and mostly resolved through informal means that don't reach the attention of parents or school authorities, let alone police and prosecutors, is brought to the level of national crime policy and offered for resolution to the FBI and federal prosecutors.

Making some a crime is the preferred path to govern at a distance, authorizing (or mandating) people to take an issue seriously ("zero tolerance").

The fact of a tragic death, little different from teen suicides provoked with less high technology involved, is turned into a veritable battery of vengeance to empower politicians.

These moves have often been associated with conservative Republican politicians, but as this example shows, governing through crime is a strategy equally open to Democrats and liberals.