One of the most astonishing contradictions of the last year has been the image of various California political leaders as Lefty Heroes of the Resistance while, on the local level, they perpetuate and worsen the COVID-19 crisis in jails. As regular readers know, I have been quite shocked by the tack that AG representatives took in the various COVID-19 cases, playing evasion games with the courts and, quite frankly, defending the indefensible. The dragging litigation in Von Staich is a case in point–after constantly jamming the wheels of the legal machine to the point that effective relief was completely thwarted, they continue to haggle over symbolic victories even as the case goes to the Marin Superior Court for an evidentiary hearing. The AG’s office was instrumental in clinging to the Court of Appeal’s flexibility, declaring upfront that they were going to do nothing until the case went to the CA Supreme Court while people were getting sick and dying, and at the same time, for ostensibly unrelated reasons, threatening (and executing some) transfers that made everything worse than if no remedy at all were available. The shamelessness of the briefs in these cases is nothing new for seasoned prison litigators, but the delay tactics in the face of rapidly changing circumstances reached new moral lows. Plenty to be appalled at on the administrative level of corrections–CDCR’s deliberate indifference, the county sheriffs’ effrontery, BSCC’s incompetence–but it has been more than matched by the heavy legal artillery the AG’s office put forth to justify and legitimize this human rights crime. I was especially appalled to see the overseer of this edifice of legal whack-a-mole, Xavier Becerra, rewarded with–irony of ironies–the health brief, of all things, in Biden’s cabinet. It has been hard to explain to out-of-state friends how these apparent “good guys,” whose appointments are being celebrated as victories for the left and diversity wins, have been architects of horrific atrocities at the state level.
But perhaps winds of change are blowing – time will tell. Yesterday, Gov. Newsom announced his new choice for Attorney General: Assemblymember Rob Bonta of Oakland. Bonta has been hailed as a progressive lawmaker and death penalty opponent. It’s a very worthy appointment for a variety of reasons. But how will this play out in the context of our prison crisis?
I hope we’ve learned enough to realize that progressiveness, in itself, does not guarantee a ticket out of this abyss. It was not that long ago that Jerry Brown, one of our mainstay progressives, fought Plata tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court as Attorney General, threatened his way throughout the Plata benchmarks, even as he finally delivered, as governor, with Realignment. Becerra himself was viewed as progressive, and during his confirmation newspapers parroted the many lawsuits he filed against Trump. Governor Newsom, who is known for his progressive agenda, is another example: he has not budged on releases, to a distressing degree. But Bonta might be different, because just a few months ago he was on stage with us at the press conference the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak Coalition held at the San Quentin gate on July 9. This means he is aware of the horror that has transpired here, and that he probably understands that, without meaningful change, the next pandemic will unfold in pretty much the same way unless we make some drastic change in how we perceive and manage prisons and jails.
Here is my advice for our new Attorney General on how to oversee the legal aspects of the prison COVID-19 crisis:
- Stop the evasion games. It is unconscionable for the AG’s office to argue, in Von Staich, that the proper forum is the Marin Superior Court; at the Marin Superior Court, that the proper forum is the Federal District Court; and at the District Court, in Plata, that the proper resolution is administrative, not judicial. There is a reason why there are multiple lawsuits against the prison: there has been deliberate indifference. You need to address them where you stand.
- Urge your clients to shape up rather than prop up their defense. If all the money spent fighting these CDCR lawsuits were, instead, spent on halfway houses, reentry options, and proper PPE equipment, as well as on attracting high-quality medical and correctional staff, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Part and parcel of being counsel is offering counsel to one’s clients.
- Stop shirking and take responsibility. It has been embarrassing to hear AG representatives argue that hanging COVID informational posters and allowing people to tear pieces of t-shirts to cover their faces has sufficiently ameliorated the risks they created by knowingly transferring sick people between facilities. The Eighth Amendment standard has been met. Taking cover under the courts’ deference to correctional facilities, in the face of the shocking devastation of COVID-19, is an embarrassment to the entire state.
- Divert legal energy to the question of vaccination mandates for correctional staff. One of the most appalling aspects of this crisis has been the reluctance of staff to wear PPE, get tested, and get vaccinated. It is a badge of shame on CDCR, CCHCS, and CCPOA. If a sliver of the energy spent on justifying their actions in court were spent putting together an airtight legal structure for requiring staff to get vaccinated (or lose their jobs–which is lawful according to experts)
- Listen to criminologists and criminal justice experts when they repeatedly explain that holding people aged 50 and older behind bars is a complete waste of money, which does not improve public safety, but rather undermine it by incubating serious diseases behind bars as well as letting people out into a world they left decades ago and for which they are unprepared. My friend Allison Villegas was horrified to learn yesterday that the oldest person in CDCR custody is 93 years old. Ninety-three?!
- Exercise some firm leadership vis-a-vis county prosecutors and county sheriffs. A big part of this problem resides with county jails. It may be time to consider a unified correctional system under state leadership, because otherwise atrocities happen throughout the state that we have no control over (and no way of knowing about.) The California District Attorney Association is a disgrace and an embarrassment, and their unrestrained advocacy on behalf of policies that do not do anything but dehumanize and alienate entire populations must be stopped.
- Demand better data collection. As I explain in Bottleneck, a big part of the problem is that we don’t actually know what is going on in most counties, nor do the county and state databases interface with each other. This is inexcusable. Imagine how much more smoothly the machine would run if we could contact-trace, follow people to track recidivism and new charges, and project changes in population on the individual and aggregate level for both state- and county-level facilities.
- Visit the prisons. Please go inside and see for yourself the disease-promoting conditions in which we hold our fellow Californians. Surely if they let Justin Bieber in (the outrage! families have not seen their loved ones in a year!) they would let in the Attorney General of California, no?
I really hope this appointment bodes well for all of us, and my door is always open to do research and offer advice.