Pelican Bay Class Action Suit, Madrid v. Gomez, Comes to an End

This week, Madrid v. Gomez, a massive class-action lawsuit on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates filed in 1995, came to an end. KQED reports:

In a sweeping decision with national implications, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco ruled in 1995 that Pelican Bay inmates had been subjected to excessive violence and cruel and unusual punishment. That followed harrowing courtroom testimony of prison staff routinely beating, burning and even shooting inmates and getting away with it. Mentally ill inmates were locked away in isolation units with almost no contact with doctors or other staff.

The trial also included evidence that Pelican Bay guards had staged an inmate riot while Henderson was visiting the facility.

Federal prosecutors alleged the guards were trying “to show Judge Henderson that Pelican Bay is a dangerous place, and that he should not interfere with the guards in running the prison.” Henderson ordered the prison to remove any seriously mentally ill or retarded inmates from the security housing unit. He also appointed a federal monitor to oversee changes in the way California deploys force in prison and how it investigates and disciplines prison staff.

Henderson ended the case with a final three-page written order after the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pledged to keep the reforms even without court supervision. His order was made public Monday.

“The Court is proud of the work done during Advertisement the life of this case. Pelican Bay was once a place where prison officials used force ‘for the very purpose of inflicting punishment and pain,'” Henderson wrote, quoting from previous findings in the case.

The judge said he is concerned the department could revert to its previous unconstitutional practices but said he is satisfied that attorneys representing inmates will sue again if the department regresses.

And CDCR expands on the measures taken:

“CDCR has complied with the Madrid mandates and successfully created a model internal affairs investigation and employee disciplinary process. Investigations are consistent, thorough, fair and transparent. The Madrid mandates also provided oversight of employee investigations by the formation of the Bureau of Independent Review in 2004, part of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In its last report, the OIG noted that CDCR has substantially complied with the policies and procedures mandated by the Madrid court,” Cate said.

As Michael Montgomery says in the recorded portion, the broad issue of SHU and isolation practices remains unanswered.

On a day in which I was shocked and appalled to read about SCOTUS’ rejection of Troy Davis’s appeal, this was a bit of welcome news.

The New CCPOA? Victimhood, Citizenhood, and Political Gain

(image from Crime Victims United of California website)

Joshua Page‘s recent post on the California Progress Report about the CCPOA raises interesting and important questions about the extent to which the union that shaped so much of California’s punitive landscape has morphed into a more realistic factor in policymaking. In recent years, the CCPOA has periodically spoken out against overcrowding (in our conference, too) and issued its fairly sensible blueprints for reform. “Despite these signs of a softened stance,” writes Page, “the CCPOA’s actions question the extent of its transformation.” He cites sad examples such as the CCPOA’s objection to the now-forgotten Prop 5 and its support of Prop 9, the punitive proposal masquerading as a victim rights proposition, which voters in CA approved under the name Marsy’s Law.

There are other important aspects in Page’s post, but the one I found most intriguing has to do with the CCPOA’s deliberately political use of victim rights.

In the early 1990s, the union effectively created Crime Victims United of California (CVUC), the most influential crime victims’ organization in California, if not the entire United States. (The union also helped establish another influential group, the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, but now works primarily with CVUC). The CCPOA committed extensive resources to the development of the CVUC, providing office space, lobbying staff, attorneys, and seed money. Harriet Salarno, president of CVUC, says forthrightly, “I could not do this without CCPOA, because we didn’t have the money to do it.” Beyond material resources, the CCPOA also taught CVUC how to play the political game.

The union developed CVUC for strategic purposes. This is not to say that CCPOA’s leaders do not genuinely care for and want to assist victims and their families; they do. But, CVUC helps the CCPOA achieve its goals from outside its ranks in three main ways. First, it validates the CCPOA’s public claims that prison officers are uniquely skilled professionals who work the “toughest beat in the state.” Second, it legitimates the CCPOA’s assertions that the union serves universal purposes (rather than its individual, pecuniary interests) by supporting crime victims and bolstering public safety. Just as families of schoolchildren promote teachers and the California Teachers Association, crime victims’ advocates endorse prison officers and the CCPOA. Third, CVUC helps the union achieve policy objectives, often providing a sympathetic face to campaigns that advance a “tough on crime” agenda.

In Governing Through Crime, Jonathan Simon writes about the transformation in our cultural conception of the quintessential citizen – from yeoman farmer to small business owner to victim. Our whole concept of public policy is constructed around our understanding of ourselves as potential victims. Our fetish of homeownership, the emergence of gated communities – all reflect our understanding of the home primarily as a fortress against crime (plenty of crime, of course, happens in upscale well-protected mansions, too; it’s just not the crime you would expect.) The fact that a prison guard union finds it useful to create a pet organization of victim advocacy attests to the immense symbolic power of the victim in social discourse. CCPOA, a well-seasoned player in the California political game, understands the power of the victim all too well.

Bastardizing “Problem Solving”

Drug courts, heavily promoted as a novel way to holistically resolve issues concerning addiction, have generated a fair amount of data on their clients (findings on recidivism rates are still sorely lacking despite the acknowledged need to examine this angle). They have also generated a substantial amount of critique from defense attorneys. But yesterday’s This American Life broadcast shed light on something quite different: A drug court in Georgia that seems to operate under very different basic premises than the general problem-solving paradigm. Here’s the abstract of Part One:

Ira reports from Glynn County Georgia on Superior Court Judge Amanda Williams and how she runs the drug courts in Glynn, Camden and Wayne counties. We hear the story of Lindsey Dills, who forges two checks on her parents’ checking account when she’s 17, one for $40 and one for $60, and ends up in drug court for five and a half years, including 14 months behind bars, and then she serves another five years after that—six months of it in Arrendale State Prison, the other four and a half on probation. The average drug court program in the U.S. lasts 15 months. But one main way that Judge Williams’ drug court is different from most is how punitive it is. Such long jail sentences are contrary to the philosophy of drug court, as well as the guidelines of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. For violating drug court rules, Lindsey not only does jail terms of 51 days, 90 days and 104 days, Judge Williams sends her on what she calls an “indefinite sentence,” where she did not specify when Lindsey would get out.
The full broadcast will be available here on Sunday.
Props to Susan Dennehy for the link.

Debtors’ Prisons in California?


Americans are in more debt than ever before, and the banks are going to new extremes to squeeze us for every last penny: If you can’t pay up, they’ll try to get you locked up.

The Wall Street Journal has been investigating the disturbing resurgence of debtors’ prisons throughout America — here’s one especially infuriating example of what the banks are up to: AIG got a $122.8 billion bailout from taxpayers — that’s $4,000 per American. Jeffrey Stearns happened to owe AIG $4,000 on a loan for his pickup truck. How’d the mega-corporation handle his debt? Did they forgive him because of the public’s recent largess? No way: They had him arrested in front of his family.

Will you urge California’s lawmakers to shut down the debtors’ prisons? Just click here to automatically email your state legislators.

Here’s more on Stearns:

After being handcuffed in front of his four children, Mr. Stearns, 29 years old, spent two nights in jail, where he said he was strip-searched and sprayed for lice. “I didn’t even know I was being sued….It’s the scariest thing that ever happened to me.”

The Wall Street Journal’s data reveals that across the country, banks are having tens of thousands of Americans arrested over their debts. What happened to Stearns could happen to almost anybody.

Some state legislators are moving to outlaw the practice. Will you urge your lawmakers to join them?

Support SB9 – the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act

(image courtesy the Fair Sentencing of Youth website)

CCC has been asked, and readily agreed, to endorse SB9, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act. The bill, introduced by Senator Leland Yee, battles the evil of LWOP sentences for juveniles by making them subject to judicial review:

Existing law provides that the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or the Board of Parole Hearings, or both, may, for specified reasons, recommend to the court that a prisoner’s sentence be recalled, and that a court may recall a prisoner’s sentence.

This bill would authorize a prisoner who was under 18 years of age at the time of committing an offense for which the prisoner was sentenced to life without parole to submit a petition for recall and resentencing to the sentencing court, and to the prosecuting agency, as specified. The bill would establish certain criteria, at least one of which shall be asserted in the petition, to be considered when a court decides whether to conduct a hearing on the petition for recall and resentencing and additional criteria to be considered by the court when deciding whether to grant the petition. The bill would require the court to hold a hearing if the court finds that the statements in the defendant’s petition are true, as specified. The bill would apply retroactively, as specified.
Some FAQs provided by us:
What is this about?
Fancy name aside, this bill would allow the court to consider a petition for “recall and resentencing” by a person on LWOP who was a juvenile when he or she committed the crime. The court would look at the person’s arguments first, then, when appropriate, hold a hearing.
Why does this make sense?
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that juveniles differ from adults in how they cognitively perceive their actions and the repercussions of those actions. This was the reason why, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles. There is something profoundly cruel and unfair about locking up a young person for the rest of their life, which could be a very, very long time, without offering him or her any glimmer of hope, given the differences in how juveniles and adults process information.
Doesn’t this violate the Supreme Court’s position that LWOP for juveniles is constitutional?
The Supreme Court has not, so far, had an opportunity to decide that juveniles cannot be sentenced to LWOP. Therefore, at this point, we do not know what the Supreme Court would decide if confronted with the constitutionality question of LWOP for all juveniles. It is important to note that under Graham v. Florida (2010), it is not permitted to sentence juvenile offenders to LWOP for nonhomicide crimes. And, whatever the federal position on this may be, it is merely a bottom threshold; states can always guarantee more rights than the constitution allows. In fact, six jurisdictions do not allow LWOP for juveniles at all. Should SB9 pass, CA sentencing structure would be more reasonable and humane, but still more severe than in those six jurisdictions, because it would leave LWOP to judicial discretion.
So, are all juveniles on LWOP going to go free? Wouldn’t this hurt public safety?
Of course not. First, the final decision on resentencing is up to the judge, who will consider the circumstances and person in question. Second, someone who is resentenced could still end up spending a substantial period in prison. And third, the risk to public safety greatly depends upon the particular person. As a general statement, criminality dramatically decreases with age; we know that most criminals “grow out of it” as they mature. The lengthy incarceration until their death, therefore, burdens California’s correctional budget with no demonstrable detrimental effect on public safety.
What does it mean that the bill applies retroactively? Is that fair?
In this case, retroactive application is the fairest policy possible. It would allow the courts to reevaluate the sentences of California inmates who are currently on LWOP. It would have been very unfair to allow this option only to future juveniles sentenced by the system, because there is no material difference between their situation and that of present inmates.
CCC is happy to answer more questions. Please, feel free to add your own questions in the comment section, so that we are all better informed.

The Community Justice Center and Recidivism Studies

(image by Lea Suzuki, courtesy the Chronicle)

Our point of departure is a new article by the Chron’s Will Kane, which has great news for the Community Justice Center fans. The court continues to operate, closely supervise the progress of its defendants, and assign them to helpful mental health, vocational, and addiction-related programs.

Two years after a bitter fight over its creation, more than 3,200 people have come before the court, which is now lauded by its early critics. Unlike jail, supporters say, the program gives San Francisco’s underserved residents the support they need to clean up and avoid trouble.

“Those are things we can do faster than most and do more effectively than most,” said Commissioner Everett Hewlett Jr., who has overseen the court since January.

Each day, Hewlett hears from as many as 75 people such as Hicks who have agreed to enter the center’s program. Seventy percent of program participants have abused drugs or alcohol, and 36 percent are homeless. An additional 38 percent live in residential hotels.

Two questions remain unanswered in the article. The first is whether the Public Defender’s Office, once a staunch antagonist of the CJC (and of problem-solving courts in general), has come around (I hope it has). The other one, which will occupy us today, is whether any research team is following the defendants after their involvement with the court ends, so that recidivism can be measured.

A few words about recidivism studies: Merely following the defendants and calculating their recidivism rates is not enough. Whenever presented with recidivism rates, unless the rates are zero, the question is, “compared to what?”. Different offenses and offenders have different recidivism rates, and if a program is measured for its success, it has to be compared to the alternative — in this case, an ordinary criminal process.

The ideal time to have started a project like this would have been when the court was operating under a pilot model, because then many defendants committing comparable offenses were being sent to the Hall of Justice. Of course, the best setting for such a thing would be random allocation of defendants to the CJC and the Hall of Justice, but I hardly need to explain why that would be extremely problematic from an ethics perspective; while random allocation creates a natural experiment that is good for science, it is ethically questionable to condition people’s fate upon their random allocation to this proceeding or the other (which is not to say that there aren’t research teams doing it out there). But even if such random allocation is impossible or undesirable, you still want to match the experiment group, CJC clients, to a control group of criminally-processed people. As Mark Mitchell and Janina Jolley explain so well in their book Research Design Explained, matched pairs technique requires rigorous adherence to detail, because each member of the experiment group needs to be matched to a member of the control group in terms of all the important variables. In our case, the fact that people voluntarily decide whether to go to the CJC or to trial is a problem. The matching should take into account not only information about the offense (severity, circumstances, type) and the offender (demographics, criminal history) but also the proceeding. Are people who opt for the Hall of Justice for a jury trial different in an important way to people who opt for the CJC? They probably are, in important ways. This is a very difficult thing to do, and the critique is often that matching is not perfect because this variable or another was not taken into account. The statistical test for matched pairs comparison assumes that the pairing was effective and rigorously done. There are some ways to control for this, but they are not perfect.

Nevertheless, following up on the recidivism rates of CJC graduates will provide helpful information, because it will at least allow some comparisons to the general recidivism rates, or to similar studies done in comparable cities. If such a study is currently being done that the CCC blog does not know about, I invite the CJC personnel or the research team to tell us about their design and progress.

SF Chronicle: CA New Budget Includes Early Releases and Jurisdictional Changes

Today’s Chron reports on the passage of a new California budget, which features deep cuts and aims at reducing the state’s deficit to $14 billion. In the humonetarian tradition, correctional costs make up a big chunk of the article:

Both the Assembly and Senate had contentious debates over a major element of the budget plan – the proposal to move thousands of state prisoners to local jails, which Republicans warned would result in a public safety nightmare.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber (Tehama County) a former state parole board member, said counties will be overwhelmed, and thousands of criminals will go free.

“The inmates in state prison will be cheering,” he said. “This is not about the budget, this is about an egregious injustice to the people of California.”

But Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier (Los Angeles County), noted the state’s dismal 70 percent recidivism rate and said the bill will actually make California’s streets safer.

“These people are being released from prison … and they haven’t been rehabilitated, because our prisons are overcrowded, and there’s no money to rehabilitate them,” he said. “This realignment will not cause prisoners to go free – they will serve their time, in a new prison called jail.”

The full budget can be found here, and we will provide information about the correctional provisions in a post in the near future.

Numbers of Parolees at Large: An Exercise in Data Presentation

(image courtesy CDCR website)

The CDCR website features a story about the Division of Adult Parole Operations’ success in bringing about a decline in the numbers of parole absconders in California since the formation of the new Parole Apprehension Team. That, in itself, could be good news (provided that these people should’ve been under parole supervision in the first place). We’ll set aside for the moment the heftier discussion of the growing resemblance between parole operations and policing, and the erosion of the concept of parole as an instrument of hope (read Mona Lynch‘s terrific ethnography of parole agents for more insight on this mentality). We’ll also set aside the question whether reporting a decline in absolute numbers makes sense in an era of supposed parole reform, a regime that ostensibly should focus on high risk parolees and thus produce less parolees in the first place. And we’ll even set aside the question of how many of these apprehended absconders were the high risk, violent, dangerous parolees that the public should really be concerned about (hint: the answer is “not many”, as many of the absconders are GPS noncompliant sex offenders, whose recidivism rates are among the lowest). Instead, I challenge my readers to take a look at this graph from the story and come up with at least three different faulty things in the data presentation.

Out-of-State Incarceration and Recidivism

With more Californians sent out of state to be incarcerated in privatized institutions, one of the key questions is whether such institutions work better or worse in the long run. We recently wrote about the corruption and harm involved in privatized institutions, but what happens after people are released?

A new report for the Hawai’i Attorney General’s office (dear colleague David Johnson is the PI for the report) examines how Hawai’ian parolees incarcerated on the mainland do by comparison to those kept on the island. The many problems about this arrangement notwithstanding, the issue of recidivism is an important one.
Johnson and his colleagues find no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of Hawai’i-incarcerated and mainland-incarcerated parolees. While the study is not perfect, and the two inmate populations differ substantially in their criminal profiles, it is a reminder to question the wisdom of sending inmates away. While cost is a consideration, it is only one of many considerations. The report relies on the concept of humonetarianism to explain that “lean justice” does not always equal “lenient justice” and is not without its discontents. As the report states,

States and their leaders have a responsibility to care not only about crime control and the costs of incarceration but also about the present welfare and future well- being of criminal offenders and the communities from which they come. The vast majority of offenders will come home one day, and they will be our neighbors.

William Stuntz, 1958-2011

Criminal justice scholars everywhere are, I’m sure, very sad to hear about the passing of William Stuntz. Stuntz, a criminal procedure scholar at Harvard Law school, was a strong, influential and original voice in support of humane police procedures, sane sentencing regimes, and nondiscriminatory correctional practices. As an example of his unique perspective on justice, read this wonderful post he wrote about the irony of racial discrimination in a supposed era of enlightenment about race and civil rights.