In the Aftermath of Plata: Wrong Releases and Declining Crime

Two big stories, coming in the heels of Brown v. Plata, present a spectrum of issues that should have us occupied in the next few years as California struggles to find its way out of mass incarceration.

The first story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on the very next morning. Apparently, due to a computer error, hundreds of parolees were wrongfully released. The timing of this story is rather peculiar; it coincides not only with the decision, but also with the budget cuts to CDCR and to parole departments in particular. Apropos parole, a proposal for medical parole has begun making the rounds in the legislature.

The second story, featured in yesterday’s Chron, is about the decline in violent crime in California, which, in accordance with the national trend, has fallen to a 44-year low. As many experts have demonstrated, this decline has very little to do with incarceration, and is the outcome of various longitudinal developments unrelated to the administration of justice.

Shame on You, Justice Scalia

Our previous post was devoted to Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Plata, and discerning readers may have noticed we did not discuss the dissents. I didn’t comment on those because, to me, they represent the worst kind of populist alarmism and rhetoric of fear, and pretty much the last thing we need now. But I have to say something about the rhetoric in Justice Scalia’s dissent, because being silent about such matters is tantamount to letting them happen without outrage in the public sphere.

Justice Scalia writes:

One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result.

Uhmmmm, no.

The “outrageous result” is having human beings caged and soiled in their feces and urine for want of medical treatment, Nino. The “outrageous result” is that people needlessly die waiting to be examined and diagnosed. Your comments about the lack of standing of inmates are disenfranchising and dehumanizing. It’s fairly obvious that the thought that there, by the grace of God, goes you, has never crossed your mind. Clearly, because during the oral argument, when Justice Sotomayor was horrified and heartbroken to hear about these inflictions of needless suffering, you told her off, saying “don’t be rhetorical.”

Your cruel mockery of human beings like you and complete lack of human empathy really shine through in this remarkable passage:

Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions orsevere mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.

This has to be one of the most backwards, Lombrosian, objectifying, smug paragraphs ever written by a judge about inmates, or really, about anyone. It recalls Justice Holmes’ infamous comment in Buck v. Bell, that “three generations of imbeciles is enough”, ironically shattering the life of someone who was not mentally defective.

These are shameful words, but Justice Scalia is not the only one who needs to be ashamed. We all share in the shame. Because the bottom line is that all the horrific abuses in the California correctional system would not have occurred, despite alarmist politics, fear-mongering media, redball cases, and a powerful prison guard union, had it not been for our collective lack of empathy for our fellow Californians behind bars. We have “othered” crime long enough. Empathy has been a long time coming. Fortunately, five out of nine Supreme Court Justices were able to find some within their hearts. Here’s hoping that many taxpayers and policymakers follow their example.

Brown v. Plata Decision Analysis: Justice Kennedy’s Opinion of the Court

As per legal requirements, the Supreme Court reviewed the factual findings of the three judge panel using a standard of “clear error”, which allows them less leeway for intervention than in the legal findings, which are reviewed de novo. For this reason, the factual basis for the decision is quite familiar to those who read the original three-judge-panel order, but the legal analysis is rather extensive.

The decision outright rejects the state’s contention that the three judge panel was convened incorrectly, stating that the time that passed and the lack of relief necessitated this step. Documenting the standard of care, the abundant vacancies for medical and mental health staff, and the shortfall of resources, Justice Kennedy states that the court had waited long enough before recurring to this admittedly drastic step. Justice Kennedy supports and affirms the three-judge-panel conclusions that overcrowding was the dominant reason for the violations, as well as their conclusion, after considering many other options, that other remedial efforts had not borne fruit and therefore the only recourse would have to be reducing the population.

While the population reduction is of “unprecedented sweep and extent”, writes Justice Kennedy, “yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.” Justice Kennedy devotes a large portion of the opinion to a detailed description of the overcrowded conditions, mentioning the San Quentin converted gym (the very first picture we posted on this blog.) He provides details of numerous incidents in which inmates received appalling mental and physical care. He also provides details of the history of both cases, Coleman and Plata, and how the various measures to which the state resorted throughout the years (including a special master for the mental health system and a federal receiver for the medical system) failed to improve conditions. In this part he relies extensively on data from the receiver and the special master, as well as in the three-judge-panel decision. His description of how overcrowding is a direct and indirect cause for the abysmal health care follows closely the original panel order, citing, among other factors, the unsanitary conditions and the reliance on lockdowns, both discussed extensively in the original order.

“To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates ‘may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death’.’. . . Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. . . [i]f the government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”

As far as its practical implications, the decision is a mixed blessing. Readers looking for an unequivocal statement on behalf of decarceration will find its bottom line a bit more disappointing than it leads to believe. Justice Kennedy is cautious to mention, in the very opening paragraphs, that “[t]he order leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials. But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means–or modification of the order upon a further showing by the State–the State will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.” By framing the issue in this way, Justice Kennedy sets the stage for the state to avoid early releases by recurring to damaging, malignant techniques, which will only increase mass incarceration in the long run.

However, there are also more optimistic bits. Justice Kennedy seems fairly convinced by the evidence presented to the original panel about the possibility of reducing population without causing an increase in crime and endangering public safety. He also affirms the panel’s estimate as to the extent of the reduction. His words on that are a vote of confidence in the panel’s work, comparing their projection that a 137.5% capacity would be reasonable under the circumstances to the situation in other states and in the federal prisons.

Justice Kennedy is careful to cut the state some slack in the timing of its plan. He encourages the state to “move for modification of the . . . order to extend the deadline for the required reduction to five years from the entry of the judgment of this court, the deadline proposed in the State’s first population reduction plan. . . [t]he three-judge court, in its discretion, may also consider whether it is appropriate to order the State to begin without delay to develop a system to identify prisoners who are unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release.” For this purpose, an extension of time is encouraged. While some inmate advocates may scoff at this, it’s important to remember that, from now on, the state and the courts need to cooperate, and in the course of this long-term cooperation, many compromises will have to be made.

BREAKING NEWS: Supreme Court Affirms Plata Decision, Orders Decrowding

Today, the Supreme Court decided, 5-4, to uphold the three-judge panel decision in Plata v. Schwarzenegger (now Brown v. Plata). Justice Kennedy wrote the Opinion of the Court, which is very sensitive to the inmates’ plight, and orders the state, and CDCR, to reduce prison population by a considerable percentage (about 40,000 inmates).

A detailed analysis of the decision will follow later tonight, but for now, here are some important implications:

The majority decision gives the state a lot of leeway in the timeline of achieving the reduction. Justice Kennedy is willing to cut the state significant slack in timely reduction if there is evidence to show that efforts to decrowd are well under way. Contrary to the alarmist tone in Justice Alito’s dissent, mass early releases will not happen tomorrow.

The state has considerable discretion not just in when, but also in how, the reduction is to be achieved. Much to my dismay, Justice Kennedy explicitly offers two decrowding methods that I consider shortsighted and malignant: More prison construction (already happening) and more out of state incarceration (already happening). My hope is that the state will not make the huge mistake of relying on incarceration-increasing methods for a short-term reduction which will come back to bite us in a few years with an increased prison population, and will instead rely on benign methods: Sentencing reform, good credits, and parole reform.

More later.

Roundup: CDCR Budget Cuts, Prison and Slavery

As many of you probably noticed, we’re posting with less frequency than usual these days; CCC will be on a mini-hiatus until late July due to an immense workload. We will, however, provide short updates on criminal justice policy and sentencing.

First, the Sacramento Bee reports that most of the personnel cuts in the Brown budget will be in corrections (a full list of cuts is available here.)

Also, recently, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, surprised the audience at a public talk with the sad fact that more Black men are currently imprisoned than were originally enslaved.

Props to Eric Chase and Leslie Davis for the links.

Jeanne Woodford Joins Death Penalty Focus

Former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford is to become the executive director of Death Penalty Focus. The L.A. Times reports:

On Thursday, the abolitionist nonprofit Death Penalty Focus will announce Woodford’s appointment as executive director, a new role that will see her standing on the other side of the walls of San Quentin should any of the 713 death row inmates meet his or her end at the hands of the state.

“I never was in favor of the death penalty, but my experience at San Quentin allowed me to see it from all points of view. I had a duty to carry out, and I tried to do it with professionalism,” Woodford, 56, said in explaining how she had to put her personal abhorrence of execution aside to do her job. “The death penalty serves no one. It doesn’t serve the victims. It doesn’t serve prevention. It’s truly all about retribution.”

A California Gambling Court?

Some of the problem-solving programs are fairly old and well established. An upcoming event in Los Angeles examines the possibility of creating a gambling court, built upon the existing therapeutic program Beit T’shuvah (some of whose residents come from jail, but is not an official sentencing possibility.) It promises to be an interesting evening.

I wonder what our readers think about the potential for a gambling court. If one accepts the rather established notion that gambling, like alcoholism and narcotics, is an addiction/disease, integrating such programs into the courts falls into the problem-solving pattern rather neatly by dealing with issues holistically. Looking forward to learning more about Beit T’shuvah, particularly about any research done on the impact of the program on recidivism rates and rehabilitation.

Off the Hook playing in Redding and Belmont This Month!

The Poetic Justice Project‘s production Off the Hook – a play set entirely inside a California prison – is playing this month in Redding (May 26) and Belmont (May 28). CCC will enthusiastically attend and review, and you, gentle readers, come in your thousands!

For Tickets for the May 26 performance at United Methodist Church in Redding, call 530 243-2403.

For tickets for the May 28 performance at Notre Dame University Theatre in Belmont, click here.

BREAKING NEWS: California Will Not Resume Executions This Year

The Los Angeles Times reports:

California corrections officials have put off until at least next year any attempt to resume executions among the 713 condemned inmates on death row, according to court documents.

The request by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to delay review of newly revised lethal-injection protocols until January at the earliest follows a decision last week by Gov. Jerry Brown to scrap plans to build a new death row facility at San Quentin State Prison.

Now would be a very good time to poll the public for support of the death penalty, including controls for information about expenditure.

Props to Simon Grivet.