Monday, August 31, 2009

The Fear Lobby Puts the Brake on Prison Reform in Sacramento

California's Assembly today voted out a weakened version of the plan for reducing prison spending and population in California that the Senate approved earlier this month and which Governor Schwarzenegger has said he would sign. The differences are not large in terms of dollars (200 million short of the overall 1.2 billion cut promised in July), and parole reforms adopted by both houses may help the state meet the population cap described by the Federal courts. [Read the Sacbee coverage by Jim Sanders]. More worrisome is the success of the law enforcement lobby (correctional officers, prosecutors, some police and sheriffs) in terrifying Assembly Democrats (who have the votes to carry reform with no Republican help) against supporting a sentencing commission, or further effort to encourage alternatives to incarceration. No real reform in this state is possible unless we revisit the incoherent and fragmented sentencing system that has grown up since 1976. The current system, which was designed by no one, allows prosecutors freedom to spend the state's money on future imprisonment costs at will, while providing little or no power for the state to exercise judgment about who goes to prison for how long, and no incentives for counties to solve local problems at home.

The Federal courts are not our problem. They are only an alarm seeking to awaken us to our desperate need to revisit our public safety strategy. For over three decades we have acted as if prison = public safety, no matter who goes there, for how long, or to what end. As our fellow citizens in LA choke from the smoke of the spreading wildfire in the mountains, we must confront the emerging new threats that confront all Californians from the catastrophic combination of environmental risks and infrastructure failure (remember Katrina, 5 years ago this week!). Unless we unlock the resources locked in our golden fortresses, we simply cannot pay for the public safety we need. We have built prisons while ignoring police, sheriffs, first responders, probation officers, mental health workers, child welfare workers (who might well have discovered the stealthy kidnapper Philip Garrido if neighbors had called them rather than the police to complain of mistreated or neglected children). All of those resources can be moved around flexibly to deal with emerging threats of all kinds, criminal, environmental, or infrastructural (or all three). Prisons can do nothing to help protect us against these threats.

Again, the courts are an alarm clock ringing, and our political leaders, if given the chance, will hit the slumber button. Don't let them!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Garrido, Parole, and the Criminological Fallacy

Police and parole authorities in Northern California are wracked with guilt and self doubt today as they struggle to understand and explain how a registered sex offender who had been on continuous federal and then state parole for decades could have kept a girl he kidnapped in 1991, and later the two daughters she bore him in captivity, undiscovered for 18 years. The horrifying saga began when eleven year old Jaycee Dugard was dragged into a car from a Lake Tahoe school bus stop in 1991 (as her stepfather watched helplessly from their hill top home a block away). Garrido apparently brought her to his Antioch, California house, where he kept her, secreted in a walled off section of his heavily treed backyard in the semi-rural neighborhood 25 miles or so from San Francisco (an area recently known for methamphetamine and foreclosures). As Maria L. LaGanga and My-Thuan Tran report in the LA Times, the Gothic horror of the story is giving way to anguished search for an answer as to how such a monstrous plot could be carried out by someone under the surveillance of multiple law enforcement agencies. The oversight is especially embarrassing to the state's parole service which had full powers to search without a warrant, and was charged with visiting Garrido at least twice monthly in his home. How could they have missed this?

[Read the rest of this post at Prawfsblawg]

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Can More Cops Equal Less Prisons?

Eric Bailey reports on an intriguing conundrum in today's LATimes, will federal stimulus money channeled to state law enforcement frustrate the state's declared policy of reducing its prison population by sending yet more low level offenders to prison? Of course the law professor's answer is "it depends." It depends on how those police officers view their job.

[Read the rest of this post on Prawfsblawg]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is Mass Incarceration the New SUV

How fast things can change in American. One day you feel punked not to have an Expedition or Sequoia to drive to the mall in, and a couple of years later, you wonder who left that unsightly gas guzzler in your garage. Is mass incarceration about to flip? I've posted on its legal problems, but consider its cultural profile.

[read the rest of this post at Prawfsblawg]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Race Riot in Chino Prison: Racism as Default Government

Sometimes it seems as if mass incarceration is magical mirror in which we Californians see ourselves not as we might hope to be, but in our ugliest and scariest forms. That is particularly true of race in California prisons where news of one of the most serious US prison riots in recent years emerged from Chino California, where a prison dormitory was burned down and 55 prisoners treated for injuries inflicted after hours of fighting, some serious enough to require continued hospitalization. The news coverage (read the LATimes) suggests that the conflict broke out across racial lines.

To many, the fact that African Americans and Latinos are highly over-represented in our prison system is evidence of the continuing existence of racist governance in a state with a long history of white voter fear and animus toward Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. To others, riots like the ones at Chino highlight an underlying violence in California's prisoner population that underscores the danger of reforms aimed at shrinking the prison system. But the truth may be less dramatic on both counts, more the product of institutional failure than deep seated racial animus.

My observations (limited) of California corrections in recent years suggest that race operates as a default way to manage risk (for both the prison system and the prisoners) in a system of mass incarceration which has both lost any semblance of traditional prisoner community, and has failed to provide a secure and dignified life within a penal complex to which hundreds of thousands are consigned for years and many tens of thousands for decades of their lives. This basic lack of planning for anything but warehousing bodies has been exacerbated by the systemic overcrowding that has brought the system under federal court control. Lacking a meaningful set of norms that unify all prisoners in a common society, or a prison program that assures a secure and tolerable common existence, prisoners fall back on easily mobilized alliances of race, geography, and immigration status. Lacking a political mandate to develop a meaningful correctional vision, the prison system falls back on race based classifications (a lawyer recently recounted seeing a "no black visitors today" sign on a prison he recently entered that was under a lockdown).

The problem is not racism itself but racism as a default replacement for decent governance.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Federal Court Orders California to Reduce its Prison Population

In a historic ruling certain to move quickly to the Supreme Court, the 3 Judge court of the Northern and Eastern districts of California, operating under the Prison Litigation Reform Act in the consolidated cases of Coleman v. Schwarzenegger (NO. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P) and Plata v. Schwarzenegger (NO. C01-1351 TEH ), has found that only substantial reductions in the present prison population can allow remedies in the underlying cases (involving health care and mental health) to move forward. Stating that a reduction to 130 percent of design capacity (currently at about 200 percent) was reasonable, the court nonetheless settled on 137 percent as in keeping with the PLRA's demands for least intrusive remedies. That means a reduction of approximately 45,000 inmates. I will post a lengthier analysis when I can get through 184 page opinion.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Parole Manson?

Film maker John Waters makes a great case in a post on Huffington Post for why "Manson girl" Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted with Manson for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca forty years ago, should be paroled. Waters argues that Van Houten, like the other tools of Manson's insane meglomaniac plan to become the supreme leader following an apocalyptic race war (or Helter Skelter) which he hoped the Tate and LaBianca murders would create,was brainwashed by the heavy drugs and cult like practices the family engaged in. She long ago broke with Manson, and accepted responsibility for her part in the terrible killings. During decades in prison since (and one short stint free after her conviction was overturned) Van Houton has transformed herself. Waters notes that other women on death row at the time the penalty was struck down and all such sentences converted to life were all parole after nine or ten years. Why is Van Houten (and the others) still in prison? Because no crime has ever generated as much popular fear as the Manson family killings, and fear of crime governs in California.

I second Water's proposal that we parole Van Houten. She is a threat to no one and by the standards of most of the rest of the planet, forty years, even for a brutal murder, is excessive punishment. I would go one further. Maybe, and I say this without having had a chance to review his prison records, we should consider paroling the man himself.

I have come to believe that our state's commitment to mass imprisonment is anchored in a deep fear of violent crime that may well have crystallized first around the Manson murders. Our out of control fear of violent strangers, leads to over-punish both the violent and the non-violent (who we fear may turn violent). We need to purge ourselves of this fear in the most potent proven way; by facing it. Paroling Van Houton in a way is too easy. We really aren't afraid of her. But if Manson himself, now 74, were released, albeit under heavy supervision, and he lived out his days without harming anyone, it would be a dramatic experience akin to a person with a spider phobia allowing a tarantula to walk over their naked body.

Is it absurd to consider paroling Manson? Again, I don't know what his prison record is like and I doubt he has ever accepted responsibility for the crimes. Still, at 74 he is unlikely to develop another group of LDS popping disciples around him. Of course the families of Sharon Tate and other victims will feel outraged, but really how much punishment is warranted? In much of the world even mass murderers get out of prison eventually. Indeed, most of the Nazi high command that was not executed, was imprisoned for less than 25 years. Perhaps Manson should never be paroled, but a parole process that gave him real consideration would be step in the right direction. In the meantime lets parole Van Houton and the rest of that sad and misguided group of former devotees for whom "creepy crawling" for Manson was the ultimate "bad trip."