Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Correctional Madness: Realigment on the Right Track in LA

The California Report and The Center for Investigative Reporting posted another excellent report on Realignment this morning (broadcast on many NPR stations and available online after a delay here) this one focused on the vital issue of how counties, who get both resources and discretion over post-prison supervision for many California prisoners, are working with former-prisoners who live with mental illness.  This is crucial.  As the Supreme Court highlighted in Brown v. Plata, California's overcrowded reception center prisons were machines of madness, taking parolees already suffering from lack of adequate treatment in the community, and typically thrown back in prison in response to their deteriorating behavior.  Once in prison, an inadequate mental health care system, paralyzed by near 300% capacity population at many reception center, led these prisoners to deteriorate further, in time to be released on parole again in even worst shape.

LA County, which has been struggling with the criminalization of mental illness since the 1970s, appears from the report to be taking a very strong approach with an emphasis on wrap around services, housing (because many of parolees with mental illness end up on the street), and a clear intent to avoid unnecessary incarcerations in response to minor violations.  Much of the program is being operated by an NGO specializing in delivering services to people with mental illness, rather than a law enforcement agency focused on punishment and control, and deeply hostile to the idea of mental illness after decades of official anti-medicine in California.  Paradoxically this approach seems to actually produce valuable intelligence about real crime and the ability to distinguish between truly emerging threats and simple set backs or relapses (say on drug use), just the kind of intelligence that contemporary corrections and law enforcement has largely lost the capacity to produce over the past 40 years.

This was highlighted in the episode by an interview with an LAPD officer assigned to a special re-entry unit.  While one might hope that such a unit would benefit from the kind of individualized thinking emerging from the NGO side of the re-entry enterprise, it was not apparent from the interview.  Instead, the officer suggested that many parolees might be hiding out in mental hospitals to avoid arrest for serious crimes.  This suggests a basic lack of awareness of mental health hospitalization opportunities in California (it is quite hard even for people with florid symptoms to get hospitalized) as well as a skepticism about the reality of mental illness that unfortunately is pervasive in law enforcement.

As good as the realignment approach in LA with regard to former prisoners with mental illnesses sounds, it begs another question.  Why are we letting so many people with mental illness drift into our criminal justice system as our primary way of getting them needed treatment?

Friday, August 17, 2012

How Long is Long Enough?

It is hard to say whether they are the worst crimes.  They are the crimes that horrify the most.  A baby-sitter, for no apparent reason, strangles the 15-month old child she has been hired to protect.  A professional thief shoots a young police officer in his face, while the victim is on his knees in a farm field pleading for his life.  The baby-sitter is only 19, and has lived in abusive foster and adoptive families all her life, but her past troubles do not excuse an unprovoked murder of a helpless person she has been left in trust with.  The thief wrongly believed that under the state's "Baby Lindbergh" law he faced the death penalty already for kidnapping the officer (who had interrupted escape from a crime quite by accident), but that understandable failure of deterrence to operate perfectly hardly excuses the crime.  Both offenders deserve serious punishment,  the most serious available.  Assuming the death penalty is off the table, how long should they serve in prison?

The baby-sitter, Betty Smithey, just recently received parole from the state of Arizona, earning the title of the longest serving to be released alive from prison, having been imprisoned for 49 years for the crime she committed in 1963 (read about her parole in the LATimes here). The thief, Gregory Powell, died last week after serving the same length of time, coincidentally also for a crime committed in 1963 (read his obituary in the NYTimes here).  Powell's crime became the subject of a famous book and movie (Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field), a fact which along with the fierce opposition of the LAPD may have accounted for the fact that he never did receive parole (although his crime partner did in 1983).

No doubt many would say that, at least as compared to the death penalty, or being murdered, fifty years in prison is not unacceptable. I find myself in total disagreement.  These sentences are too long, way too long.  Am I just incapable of imagining the victims perspective?  Do I just intuitively sympathize with the living soul in prison while my imagination departs unjustly from the departed?  Perhaps (at least that's my brother's theory), but I have two thoughts to share, one as a penologist (a student of prisons), the other as a criminal law teacher.

What purposes are served by such long sentences?  At Betty Smithey's final parole hearing one of the Board members was quoted as saying: "I really see no value in keeping you in prison any longer. I really see no value in keeping strings on you any longer.."  But at Gregory Powell's final parole denial (some years ago), or when the state of California denied him even compassionate release so he could die outside a prison, what value would they have cited?

No doubt the Chief of the LAPD would say deterrence in Powell's case.  Every potential cop-killer ought to know that if they kill a cop they are going to die in prison, either by lethal injection or old age.  Really? That's been pretty much the case for years but I would place my money on Kevlar and better training for having reduced officer deaths over the years.  If deterrence works at all in the mental illness, or drug, or fear addled brains of an armed individual coming into shooting range of a police officer (and Powell seems to be one of the few criminals in history who knew about a special law aimed at a particular crime, too bad he remembered it wrong) there is zero evidence that anywhere near fifty years is required to maximize deterrence.  There is shockingly little empirical evidence on what lengths of time in prison are necessary to achieve deterrence, but from what we know about the equivalent (but opposite) cognitive function, from research on how much people will pay to protect themselves against large but remote risks, it appears most of us respond far more to likely but relatively minor risks and ignore catastrophic but unlikely ones.  My own intuition is that whatever deterrent value there is in a threat to be sent to prison probably maxes out at a credible threat to be locked up for some years, probably less than ten.

Incapacitation is the major rationale behind California's uber long prison sentences.  But from everything we know about criminal careers, Smithey and Powell could have been released years earlier than the ages at which they paroled (69), or died (79).  Most criminal careers flat line after 40 (one hopes that is less true of other kinds of careers).  Neither Smithey or Powell were disciplinary problems during the last decades of their imprisonment.

Many readers will cite retribution, the punishment offenders deserve for the crimes they have committed.  Research suggests that retribution corresponds to the moral intuitions of many people about crime and punishment, and that people mostly agree on which crimes deserve more serious punishment than others; but there is no agreement or objective moral basis for determining how long is long enough.  Once you abandon the metaphoric relationship between the life taken in a murder, and the life of the offender, which is the appeal of the death penalty and whole life terms, there is no particular reason to choose any term of years (although I think ten has some metaphoric value because of the strong role of decades in our own narratives about life).  Nothing like that metaphoric relationship exists for other crimes like robbery, rape, or kidnapping.

This is where penological thought kicks in.  My own exposure to long serving prisoners over the years convinces me of two things.  First, people change.  The men I meet when I speak to classes at San Quentin, describe the men they were when they arrived at prison as profoundly different and I believe them and can see with my own eyes who they are now.  Second, it takes time to change but for most people it does not take more then ten years.  This makes the decades stacked on after ten or twenty years devoid of any meaningful value.  To the prisoner facing them, stretching into the future toward death, this is "cruel and unusual."  To the rest of us who will likely pay many times the average per year costs for incarcerating them during their old age (when medical costs cause the overall cost of imprisonment to skyrocket), this is a useless excess.

My own view is that the only reason to hold someone more than ten year is either specific information to believe that they are likely to remain a threat when released (like continued involvement in criminal gangs while in prison) or the need to mark the public condemnation of the crime (as in the case of multiple or mass killings), and even then another decade and a half ought to mark our true maximum (twenty-five years).  My views, of course are extreme.  Consider that legislation just passed after years of efforts by San Francisco's wonderful Assembly Member Leland Yee, designed to comply with the Supreme Court's mandate in 2010 that some juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP) be resentenced, would establish twenty-five years as the minimum before a prisoner sentenced for such a crime could be released (read about it in the Sacto Bee here).  Assembly member Yee's measure barely passed by one vote and it is not clear that Governor Brown will sign it.  I hope he does. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Realignment Time: The prison crisis comes home

Norimitsu Onishi takes a sobering look at California's emerging "realigment" policy in this morning's NYTimes (read it here). The state's major response to the humanitarian disaster in its state prisons and the Supreme Court confirmed order to reduce the prison population by approximately 40,000 prisoners, has been to channel many people convicted of less serious felonies or found to have violated their parole from state prison to counties who have the legal authority to incarcerate them in jail or to impose alternative sanctions. Along with this mandate came a stream of state revenue allocated to counties in proportion to their prisoner burden and open ended in terms of what it can be spent on.

Onishi's reporting suggests that counties are breaking in one of two ways in their dominant response; either expanding jails in anticipation of having to permanently incarcerate a far larger population than in the past, or investing in re-entry programs to help released state prisoners avoid future crime and arrests, and enhanced programming to make probation more successful as an alternative to incarceration for felony offenses. The divide is largely between coastal urban counties which are focusing on re-entry and alternatives, and rural counties, especially in the state's sprawling central valley, which is investing in reopening jail space.

The stakes are high, many county jails are already under court order for over crowding which means that incoming prisoners must be balanced with early release for current inmates in jails (although low hanging fruit through better pre-trial release procedures is an obvious partial solution). Others are not under order but are already approaching unconstitutional conditions which are likely to occur with added inmates. Moreover, even new jails are likely create severe human rights problems if used for prolonged incarceration. The great lesson of California's correctional health care crisis is the toxic relationship between incarceration and chronic illnesses (including importantly mental illness). If counties try to reproduce mass incarceration policies at the local level, the results could be even worst (especially in rural counties which are already suffering from high levels of chronic illness and poor medical service).

On the other side, the revitalization of rehabilitation as a legitimate penal objective (as opposed to California's extreme model of total incapacitation) is being pressed into early service by realignment and may find itself unfairly discredited and de-legitimized. The urban counties taking the biggest strides in experimenting with alternatives are also those most vulnerable to upward swings in violent crimes (homicides, aggravated assaults, armed robberies) that have historically altered not only the view people in that county, but in the whole state.

The best thing about re-alignment is that it will (and is) incentivizing a serious stake-holder conversation at the county level, one which sounds likely to be more purple than red or blue (to channel our President here). I have faith that this local conversation will be less toxic than the state level one we have had for forty years. However, we cannot afford to let the state actors off the hook just yet. Not only must the federal courts keep the focus (and the ultimate legal responsibility) on the state of California, citizens must both get involved at the county level and begin to demand accountability (as well as money) from the state. Counties and citizens alike have a stake in making sure that the policies which led to industrial scale torture through deliberate indifference to medical and mental health in California's prisons and to a deeply entrenched racist prison gang system which continues to menace communities throughout the state, are fully aired. Don't let state leaders get away with leaving the blame for both the ongoing crisis and the next crime wave on county sheriffs and re-entry workers.

How to stop them?  I believe there are two steps necessary to prevent a recurrence of the present disaster. First, create a truth and reconciliation commission to study the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in California. Second, create a California Commission for the Prevention of Torture, or Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, modeled after the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture, or Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the UN Committee against Torture with the power to enter and inspect any prison, jail, or re-entry facility (as well as any other state funded place of detention) in the state of California, at any time, day or night, without prior notice, and with authority to report to the Governor and the legislature on the proximity of current conditions to torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

From the House of Fear to the Home of Care: The Future of Imprisonment

The future of imprisonment in California, and likely much of the nation, was described in some detail this morning on KQED's California report. The California Report's Julie Small toured the construction site for the new California Health Care Facility near Stockton, where contractors are building a specialized prison for more 1700 prisoners in need of long term health care. These prisoners, currently tying down care beds and staff in prisons all over the state, will be centralized here to optimize the efficiency and success of providing them the continuous health care they need, and which California must pay for.

The new facility (notice it does not call itself a prison) may operate as a paradigm shifting model for prisons in a society where currently some 40 percent of state inmates suffer from one or more chronic illness (including mental illnesses). It is designed to hold all prisoners in single story structures (most prisons built over the past 2 centuries have multiple tiers or floors with typically no elevators (prisoners were supposed to be young, healthy, and capable of mayhem, they don't need an elevator). The cells are specially designed to bring natural light into rooms to make life there more sustainable for prisoners whose disability and medical needs, rather than risk and security threats, determine that they must remain most or all of the time. The walls will are wide to hold the arrays of complex medical technologies necessary to monitor and sustain them not to assure they do not assault their neighbors or correctional officers. These cells will surround a control center staffed primarily with nurses.

While the state of the art facility is estimate to cost close to a billion (and will no doubt really cost twice or thrice that), the spokesperson for California's court appointed correctional health care receiver estimates that it will ultimately save the state millions in annual health care costs (a rapidly growing sector of the correctional budget). That is because of the nature of the chronic illness burden facing the state's prisoners and prisons. Chronic illnesses, slow developing diseases that get steadily worse unless efforts are continuously made to monitor and check them, conditions like diabetes, hypertension, HIV, and importantly, mental illnesses, represent a fundamentally new kind of health care challenge, one that is facing our whole society as it ages. Incarceration as traditionally practiced with a generic healthy young inmate as its one-sized fits all model of prisoners is poorly configured to handle this threat. Mass incarceration, with its overcrowding, and long prison sentences that assure more prisoners will spend their chronic illness years incarcerated, made things far worse, leading to the correctional health care crisis and the Supreme Court's Brown v. Plata decision.

The new prison represents a remarkable departure (but a necessary consequence) of a state whose extreme sentencing laws and vast warehouse prisons have made it the Mississippi of mass incarceration. The account of its construction, the scale, technology, and sense of a new order being born, call to mind a parallel prison constructed roughly thirty years ago in the mid-1980s as California built the first wave of its massive prison boom. Pelican Bay's notorious supermax style SHU (for Secure Housing Unit) was also seen as a distinctive new style of prison whose use of architecture and technology would allow California to control the most dangerous of a vast new population of inmates the state's correctional planners were clearly told to anticipate. As Keramet Reiter shows in her brilliant dissertation on Pelican Bay, The Most Retrictive Alternative: The Origins, Functions, Control, and Ethical Implications of the Supermax Prison, 1976 - 2010 (Berkeley, JSP, 2012) these mid-level correctional bureaucrats, their vision shaped by the nightmarish but largely unrepeated incidents of violence from the early 1970s, wanted prisons where they could potentially thousands of prisoners so dangerous that they needed to be locked down permanently. Pelican Bay's huge costs and supersize were justified on the belief that it would ultimately hold down violence and permit the much expanded general population to operate more successfully and at lower cost. In the name of security, the prison was designed to encase the prisoner either in a their cell, or in a cell like exercise or shower room, with no programming and virtually no contact with staff or other prisoners (unless double-celled in the same conditions). Instead of measures to counteract the inevitable assault such an environment would make on mental and physical health, the designers chose to allow no natural light and no colors into the environment and designed routines without any consideration of the humanity of the bodies they were locking up. The atrocious and degrading results (frequent cell extractions using tasers and chemical weapons on often deranged inmates) were documented in the historic Madrid v. Gomez decison in 1995 but California continue to rely heavily on the SHU even today.

Pelican Bay was the house that fear built. Shaped in nightmares it became a monster factory turning its inmates and correctional officers into threatening simulacra of human beings. Ultimately it helped set the tone for an overall correctional regime that engaged in industrial scale torture through deliberate indifference to the health care needs of its mass incarcerated and chronically ill population. The California Health Care Facility reflects a care based model rather than a fear based model. Not completely. Despite the fact that most of its patients will be prisoners in need of longterm care it will have electrified fencing just like any other prison in California. Indeed, serious questions should be raised about why anyone who needs that much care, poses that little risk, and has served enough time in prison to meet a modicum of penitence should be in prison at all. Still, just like the ethics of fear amplified in Pelican Bay helped define the culture and character of California prisons in the torture years, an ethic of care may be pointing us to a more legitimate correctional model for the future of imprisonment.