What a day of good news! First, we hear winds of reform at San Quentin. Then, Chad Goerzen and I receive word that FESTER has been approved for publication by the UC Press Editorial Committee (and coming to a bookstore near you in January 2024.) And then, I hear the verdict in the Foster Farms trial: NOT GUILTY!
As explained in this Los Angeles Times story by Christian Martinez, two activists, Alexandra Paul and Alicia Santurio, faced misdemeanor charges for rescuing two chickens, Ethan and Jax, from a truck, moments before they were brought to a slaughterhouse. This video depicts the rescue:
This is the second time that activists rescuing animals prevail in criminal courts. I’ll know more about the trial later next week, though I do know that a legal opinion I wrote in 2018 played a role. When I learn more about the legal issues, I’ll post a follow-up. For now, good news all around. Saving animals is not a crime!
Big news regarding San Quentin today: Gov. Newsom announced a complete reorganization of San Quentin as a rehabilitation and training center, along the lines of Scandinavian prisons. Nigel Duara of CalMatters reports:
Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to say that the state will spend $20 million to begin the reorganization of San Quentin State Prison from an institution that houses 3,300 incarcerated people at a high-security site on the San Francisco Bay to a “center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime.”
The new plan would complete the closing of death row and shut a Prison Industry Authority warehouse. The facility would be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
Some of the larger questions about the reorganization will remain unanswered until the prison’s advisory committee decides them, including which imprisoned people are eligible for the rehabilitation center.
The new facility will also offer job training, according to the governor’s office, though the advisory committee will have to decide for which jobs inmates will be trained. In prisons in other states that emphasize vocational training, the jobs include plumbing and long-haul trucking.
The plan for the new facility is modeled on prisons in Scandinavian countries, including Norway, which significantly improved its rate of recidivism from 60%-70% in the 1980s to about 20% today when it began to allow prisoners more freedom and focused its prisons on rehabilitation.
In those prisons, incarcerated people can wear their own clothes, cook their own food and have relative freedom of movement within the prison walls. That model has taken root in states as disparate as deep-blue Connecticut and deep-red North Dakota.
Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian facilities is nothing new, and in fact, continues a trend that AMEND SF have begun in partnership with Norwegian prisons. Here’s an interesting report on the CDCR website about a trip some custodial staff took to Norway and what they learned from it. They’ve also brought Norwegian custodial staff to CDCR and to prisons in Washington State to inspire improvements in correctional culture.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all is peachy in Scandinavian criminal justice. In her book Nordic Nationalism, Vanessa Barker highlights the price of preserving a humanist welfare state–gatekeeping against immigrants. Keramet Reiter, Lori Sexton and Jennifer Sumner also wonder about the extent to which the humane and rehabilitative treatment of prisoners in Denmark can be imported to the United States given the difference in political cultures. And, in their fieldwork, they ask and answer some complicated questions about the Danish prison experience:
First, we find that harsh punishment can and does exist in Danish prisons.They are not, after all, uniformly humane; there are scratches in the “polished glass” and certainly reasons to resent the system. Second, the “responsibilization,”which Larson describes (and which, we argue, is fundamental to modern incarceration), can only be enacted through staff and institutional frameworks, which necessarily impose limits on individual freedoms. The particular ways that prisoners and staff describe the negotiation of limits—in the context of both open and closed prisons in Denmark—sheds light on the shortcomings of ScandinavianExceptionalism as both a substantive explanatory model as an ideological agenda that other countries might emulate.
A possible answer to this might be–duh, it’s prison. If it takes you out of your ordinary life against your will, it will involve *some* form of suffering. But I think there’s something else we have to ask ourselves.
I suspect that the energy behind the proposed Quentin overhaul–which, if it comes to fruition, will be overall a welcome development–has a lot to do with the Quentin COVID-19 disaster that we cover in FESTER. Yes, the physical plant at Quentin requires special attention because it is dilapidated and almost 200 years old, and basically allows disease to run rampant. But at the same time, it was no wonder that when CDCR tried to address COVID with transfer policies many people fretted and objected. As we explain in the book, Quentin benefits immensely from its location in the Bay Area, near nonprofits, universities, and a plethora of progressive do-gooders. Which means that, if you want to make parole, this is the place that will offer you the kind of programming and positive reports (“chronos”) that the parole board wants to see. People from all over the state jostle to try and get to Quentin. Investing even more in making Quentin a jewel of enlightened incarceration will make these disparities even worse.
This is not a good reason, of course, not to change things. But it is a good reason to rethink how things are going in the system as a whole. Given what we know about the practicality of population reduction–namely, that you could release 50% of CA’s prison population tomorrow without an appreciable rise in crime if the political good will was there–shouldn’t we try to spread the love toward Susanville and Central Valley, where lifers are parched for programming? And wouldn’t it do wonders for everything prison related–health-care, rehabilitation, the works–if there were overall fewer people in the system? If each prison, individually, were populated to 50% of design capacity, and this were the norm, wouldn’t that free up resources and professional attention to invest in Denmark-izing other prisons beyond the Bay Area?
In the last few months, due to a combination of insomnia and long workouts, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, many of which are true-crime themed. Some of these are long-form podcasts, which follow an individual case, and some feature numerous cases, devoting an episode or two to each. This has led me to rethink about the victims’ rights movement and consider how the new landscape of crime podcasting has changed its focus.
The criminological literature tends to paint the emergence of the victims’ rights movement in the U.S. as a monolith: comprised primarily of white, middle- or upper-class people whose relatives were victims of stranger homicide, pioneers in victim advocacy have tended to advocate for harsher punishments, the death penalty, abolition of parole, harsher prison conditions, etc. In some cases, as Josh Page documents in The Toughest Beat, they partnered with California’s prison guards union. In other cases, as I documented in Yesterday’s Monsters, they pioneered victim presence at parole hearings, with the only possible approach being clamoring for parole denial. Our harsh habitual offender laws were largely the product of Mark Klaas’ advocacy, in the aftermath of the murder of his daughter Polly.
My extensive, though unsystematic, course of listening to true-crime podcasts suggest that today’s true-crime media lends its voice to multiple victim perspectives, incorporating some critiques of punitiveness, excessive policing, and mass incarceration, and rejecting the victim/offender dichotomy that characterized so much of the early days of the movement. Many episodes include frank descriptions of victims’ lives, including their criminal records, drug abuse, and mental illness–not to blame them, or cast a negative light on them, but rather to point out that even people who struggled in their lives deserve to be found and for their fate to be discovered. Many episodes explicitly feature victims of color, victims who worked in the sex industry close to their demise, and victims who had complicated relationships with their suspected killers or abusers. In many of these episodes, the podcasters explicitly point out that they are looking to bring attention to these left-behind cases.
I’m also noticing that the podcasts feature plenty of rage over inappropriate policing, such as the forceful extraction of confessions or sloppy forensic works. This falls in line with much of what I’ve been thinking about recently: that the problem is not so much overpolicing or underpolicing, but rather the wrong kind of policing altogether (more focus on stop-and-frisk harassment and humiliation than on, well, solving crimes.) Podcasters’ voices become emotional not only when describing the victims’ plight, but also when describing harsh incarceration conditions suffered by wrongly convicted suspects. Notably, podcasters feature ambivalence toward family members who (wrongly) maintain that someone cleared of all connection to the crime (through DNA and, say, proof that a confession was coerced) is guilty: they offer empathy but, plainly and politely, state that they disagree.
Because podcasters have to provide what their public is interested in hearing, one can tell that criminal justice issues percolate from public debate into these programs–first among which is the issue of racial justice. I’ve seen extensive coverage of hate crimes, complete with fundraisers for racial justice organizations, and in cases that involve black perpetrators and victims the focus is on getting justice and attention for the victim, rather than punishment for the offender.
Relatedly, these podcasts also choose to feature a variety of different victim voices. Some families, you’ll hear, are staunch supporters of the death penalty, wishing for the murderers of their loved ones to suffer. Others say that they don’t much care about the punishment, but rather about solving the crime. Many podcasts offer no judgment, letting the victims be themselves rather than the world curators of criminal justice. I really appreciate this perspective.
Much of this pluralistic, multifaceted approach relates to the fact that many true crime podcasts focus on unsolved crimes. The main question driving the narrative is what happened, rather than what the sentence will be. This, to a great degree, depoliticizes the content, focusing it on something we presumably all want: to solve serious crime cases.
This change of focus reminds me of something different, but related. In a really interesting, clear-eyed piece, Keith Findley argues that the emergence of innocence as a topic of conversation has, to some extent, broken the impasse between crime control and due process enthusiasts. Even the staunchest crime control proponent would not like to see an innocent person behind bars; even the scrappiest due process advocate wants solid proof of a crime at trial. I think a similar maneuver happens with these podcasts. The idea that we need to find out what happened eclipses the focus on retribution, just deserts, and what happens later, breaking the impasse and finding some depolicitized commonality among victims of unsolved crime.
I may write something about this at a later date; I think that these podcasts offer an interesting counterpart to the usual crime daytime TV, reviewed by Danny LaChance and Paul Kaplan in their book Crimesploitation. Let there be no mistake: true-crime podcasts crimesploit to the Nth degree. But I think they do it in a different way that is worth exploring.
It’s been a month since I posted here! Life is thick with responsibilities and joys–family, athletics, spirituality, the daily grind of work–and so I haven’t had a chance to come up for air. But I wanted to briefly comment on a recent Chron story that one of my students (thank you!) sent me. It involves an unusual request by San Francisco’s D.A., Brooke Jenkins, to solicit federal cooperation in a matter involving two men accused of (unrelated) heinous crimes who are currently abroad, having fled our jurisdiction: she wants them extradited and tried here in San Francisco.
The simple and accurate response to this is exactly the one that Supervisor Aaron Peskin, often the voice of reason on the Board, voices in the article:
[T]he waiver Jenkins is pressing for is unnecessary, because nothing in San Francisco’s sanctuary city law prevents Homeland Security from apprehending and extraditing the two fugitives so that they can be prosecuted in San Francisco. He added, moreover, that the board would have to approve an ordinance to grant the exception, which means it would have to be debated in committee, subjected to two board hearings, signed by the mayor and set on the books for 30 days before taking effect, in late March at the earliest.
By contrast, he said, “the feds can apprehend these people tomorrow.”
I feel like I need to highlight this because, in my circles and more generally, there seems to be an exaggerated sense of the protections that sanctuary cities or states can afford undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens. It seems we have forgotten the Trump days in which ICE personnel roamed the streets of the Mission looking for potential people to deport and we all had our cellphones at the ready in case someone was nabbed off the streets and needed help. They were not doing anything unlawful; they were doing something meanspirited and cruel, which is a completely different problem. While the federal government and the state of California are two separate sovereigns, they do operate in the same physical territory, a little bit like China Miéville’s book The City and the City. We don’t have to cooperate with them, but we can’t stop them from operating throughout the same geographic space on their own accord.
This has a few important corollaries. First, it is one more example in which the concept of geographic space needs to enter the criminal justice conversation. I have high expectations of carceral geography as a field of study, but I worry that it’s become basically like sociology of punishment with more abstruse jargon and a lot of metaphor, when there’s lots to be said about the practicalities of physical space. In that respect, our forthcoming book FESTER espouses a really pedestrian understanding of geography with immediate practical implications: you can’t treat prisons as if they exist apart from their surrounding counties when a deadly pandemic is on the loose. The same spatial problem, also with eminently practical implications, is present in the sanctuary city context: if you operate in the same space as someone you don’t cooperate with, at some point you will collide, and you’ll have to figure out how to work out the collision (in Miéville’s book, by the way, these situations require a third police force, called “breach.”)
Second, and related, people tend to forget the many points of contact between local and federal justice that cannot be avoided even with the most assiduous sanctuary city laws, and even if everyone on the local level religiously complies with them (some don’t.) Anytime someone is arrested, their fingerprints find their way into a federal database, where they are matched with the people who are here lawfully. If they are not, it’s not particularly challenging to figure out where they are. If local jail authorities will not allow ICE into their facilities (which, under sanctuary state/city laws, is okay), ICE officers can ambush noncitizens who are heading to meet their probation officers and arrest them in the parking lot. ICE holds on people serving state sentences are lawful and, the minute the person exits the state facility, they will end up in the feds’ hands.
The only thing limiting federal intervention is the extent to which the feds are interested in intervening, which is a direct function of presidential policy. Removal rates in the Biden era were much lower than in the Trump era. During the Obama era, they were fairly high, but federal policy emphasized people convicted of serious crimes, whereas under Trump there was the deliberately inflammatory persecution of DACA recipients (some of the most upstanding Americans I know.) Who gets targeted, and how many get targeted, is purely the function of who is president and what they (or their constituents) care about. This is stuff that local authorities can do very little about, given the many interfaces these systems share.
Legal historian Karl Shoemaker, an acclaimed Medieval historian and fellow JSP alum, wrote a fantastic book about the legal and moral rationales behind sanctuary in the Middle Ages and its decline toward the Early Modern period. As Shoemaker explains in the book, during these times, in which ecclesiastic authorities governed the legal universe, claiming sanctuary truly meant escaping any legal responsibility for one’s crime. It is no coincidence that these rationales, which seeped into British common law from ecclesiastic law, faded in the Sixteenth century, with the advent of the idea of a secular state.
The key to understanding the feeble protection that sanctuary state laws offer our noncitizen friends and neighbors is to remember that, back in the Middle Ages (and certainly in Biblical times, whence the idea of sanctuary emerged,) there were no competing secular jurisdictions jockeying for position. What we call “sanctuary” is a far cry from the ironclad religious protection of yore, and would be better described as “noncooperation” with a legitimate sovereign occupying the same physical space. Can the feds find these two men who are accused of heinous crimes, see to their extradition, and hand them over to Brooke Jenkins? Sure. The question is whether they want to.
A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.
In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.”
Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.
Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.
Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.
Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.
What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.
One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?
The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.
As many regular readers know, I’ve been constantly rankled by the well-meant, but shortsighted, push to divest from private prisons. I don’t think private prisons are the ultimate evil in U.S. incarceration (though they are definitely a nauseating symptom); all the horrors Chad Goerzen and I talk about in our new book FESTER occurred in public prisons and jails. More importantly, in reality, whoever pushes for divestment has too naive a perspective on how the market works. Public prisons are all but privatized on the inside. The utilities are privatized. Healthcare is provided by private contractors. Commissary is often essential as supplementation because the food is inedible. Anything beyond “bare life”, as Agamben called it, is monetized. In Cheap on Crime I spent a whole chapter explaining how this came to be: in the last few decades, and increasingly since the financial crisis, the basic conceptualization of incarcerated people has shifted from wards of the state to consumers of services. Accordingly, everything, including the actual stay in jail, is monetized, and costs are rolled onto the “customers.”
This has been especially notorious in the context of phone call. There is a long and atrocious history of litigation surrounding the dirty deals between government agencies and phone companies, and anyone who has been incarcerated, or who has called someone who is incarcerated, knows what the upshot was. There’s a lot of cumbersome bureaucracy one has to deal with to even create an account with the phone company (I personally spent hours on the phone with GTL trying to set up my account. Their robocalls are not customer friendly, and I can only imagine people despairing of them if they try to call from work or while they try to survive in some other way.) And that’s if people want to be able to accept collect calls from prison. For those who don’t, there’s the issue of accounts of the people inside. While having the conversation, both parties can hear the “dings” charging the money every few minutes (ka-Ching!). The phone calls get disconnected and one has to call again (ka-Ching!) And if it turns out the phone call was disconnected because the account is depleted, you have to deal with that right away (ka-Ching!) True to the logic I explained in Cheap on Crime and elsewhere, singling out the private sector is making a naive mistake. It takes two for tango, and you bet the only reason this extortive system existed for as long as it did was that sheriffs AND phone companies both stood to gain.
Beyond the obvious issue that people in prison don’t tend to be flush in terms of personal wealth, and therefore there’s a class justice aspect to the new legislation, there are a few more, which expand the conversation. The first is that, beyond phone calls, California’s plant is not conducive to keeping contact with families. Our prisons are located in remote, rural counties, and many people’s families live in dense urban areas. If an Oakland family wants to visit their relative, who is incarcerated in, say, Pelican Bay, they have to plan for an 8-hour trip and a night at a hotel. Public transit is nonexistent and hotels jack up the prices. We also don’t offer vacations at home, which many prison systems in the world do. Until recently, when tablets were provided to people for video visits (partly to simplify complex in-person visitation protocols during the pandemic) it was very difficult for people to stay in touch with their families. The phone call costs were just part of this problem.
There is also the fact that contact with one’s family is known to be the main factor in recidivism prevention. One of my main conclusions in Cheap on Crime was that saving money by eliminating rehabilitation programs, reentry efforts, and the like–what I called “tough ‘n’ cheap”–ends up costing more money by driving the “revolving door” phenomenon. When we talk about “justice reinvestment” it really should be exactly that: in order to save, we have to spend in the right places. Whatever we spend in phone bills we will recoup in people who come home to a supportive family and a helpful community and get the help and love they need during the first few years after release, when the risk of recidivism is at its highest point.
Finally, there is the serious problem of knowing what is happening behind bars. Phone calls are essential not only for keeping in touch with the outside, but also for notifying supporters, lawyers, advocates, and journalists about things that happen away from the public eye, where negligence, incompetence, and sometimes downright cruelty and sadism can produce terrible civil rights violations. In the early months of the San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak, prison authorities prevented people from making phone calls, assuming they would infect each other through the phone (we now know COVID-19 is airborne, but at the time, as some of you might remember, this was not yet widely known and lots of folks were obsessing about cleaning surfaces.) Consequently, for several weeks we didn’t know what was going on, and concerns about housing, food, adherence to masking protocols, etc., were high (and, as it turned out, justified.) Chad Goerzen and I talk about this in FESTER (which comes out from UC Press in 2024.)
For all these reasons, I think this is a terrific initiative. I really hope people use it in ways that are beneficial to their reentry and nourishing for their relationships.
It all started, for me, with this Atlantic article, which portended the death of college essays. Everyone around me is playing with AI playgrounds such as this one or this one, asking it to write essays, haikus, recipes, ads, and whatnot. The results are often amusing and quite shocking in how superficially okay they are. My colleague Brian Frye even produced this valiant attempt to get the thing to do a meta-discussion of its own inherent dishonesty. And here I am, about to grade twelve seminar papers (in addition to 90 exams, thank you very much), wondering if I should even bother running them through Turnitin to detect plagiarism. It appears that the new plagiarism tools have birthed new plagiarism detection tools unique to AI, and this is surely not the last move in this game, as the arms race to artificially produce text indistinguishable from a human thought product is bound to get more and more sophisticated.
My first reaction to all this was utter despair and the sense that the human race–or, at least, the subsection of it that includes educators like me–has become obsolete. The singularity is nigh! Our flimsy protections are Asimov’s three laws of robotics! Then I got to thinking and chatting with a few friends.
My point of departure is that I hate plagiarism and all that is related to it in academic work. I can see people borrowing from themselves in the course of closely related projects (kind of like Mozart or Beethoven), but generally speaking, the concept of plagiarism should not be confusing or morally gray. As a colleague defines it, there are two types of ideas in any academic work: those that come from your head and those that come from other places. The latter set has to be properly attributed. That’s basically it.
At the same time, I have serious doubts about the utility of aggressive anti-plagiarism enforcement in law schools, for three main reasons. First, given what we know about the development of adolescent brains, most of the folks we encounter are in their early twenties, when their prefrontal cortex is still growing and developing. That, as we know from a trilogy of Supreme Court cases interpreting innovations in developmental psychology and neuroimaging, is the part of the brain responsible for weighing consequences, resisting peer pressure, and delaying gratification. In my almost twenty years of academic teaching, I’ve seen some people truly change and mature just in the course of the three or four years that I’ve been exposed to them. In one case, I testified on behalf of a recent graduate at the State Bar Court. This guy was involved in a pretty serious case of academic dishonesty in his first year of law school, and when I met him–at the beginning of his second year–he was still rather immature compared to others. But I got to teach him throughout his law school career and was profoundly impressed by how much he had changed during that time. In his last semester with me he was not only contrite about what he had done (y’all already know what I think about expressions of remorse) but also much more mature; had produced a superb piece of original, empirical work for one of my courses; and developed much more sophisticated thinking about social problems. A lot of these cases, even when severe, reflect the sort of immaturity that people can put behind them if the process is sufficiently educational and rehabilitative.
Relatedly, my second concern about aggressive enforcement against plagiarists in law school has to do with the bar’s reaction to law school sanctions for academic dishonesty. A couple of years ago i conducted and published an interview-based study of the moral character determination of the California State Bar. For this project, I interviewed ten people with criminal records who succeeded in becoming licensed California attorneys, a few ethics lawyers that represent people in moral character cases, and the bar officials responsible for these determinations. What I learned (and I’m not sure this is still true, but it was true as of 2020), was that bar officials look at the candidates’ disclosures and their official records, including their law school records, and classify their personal histories into one of four groups according to their severity. Law school dishonesties are generally classified as Level Four, partly because they are relatively recent and partly because they reflect misbehavior that the bar officials think is directly representative of what kind of lawyers these folks will be, ethics-wise. Much as I think that consequences are important, I’m not sure that every plagiarism case merits the complete destruction of a future that a person poured considerable funds, intellectual and emotional effort into, certainly not without very serious forewarning in the law school admissions process and in the first year.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think that our approach to originality, scholarly sparkle, and the use of AI as well as most conventional sources raises serious questions about what law schools are even supposed to be. Many of us in legal academia are realizing, as we make our first steps in education, that our students, overall, are very different from us, and that most of us teach in very different institutions than the ones we ourselves studied in. New faculty hires tend to prioritize people from very few select institutions, with additional prestige-granting characteristics such as advanced degrees, clerkships, or visiting professorships. This means that most of us will be teaching people who want to be lawyers, not scholars. While many of my students are smart, quick thinkers, I rarely encounter people who I think would be a great fit for grad school. Moreover, even those who are well suited for doctoral pursuits are not that excited to incur more debt after three years of law school; rather, they’re pretty eager to enter the job market and start working off their colossal debt. For the most part, these folks are entering a profession in which producing highfalutin’ scholarly works is utterly unnecessary. Yes, they need to be able to write a persuasive brief and a punchy motion to suppress, but they don’t really need to compose lengthy law review articles. For the few that are inclined to do this, we can create a special honors track that requires a scholarly product. We don’t need to demand this of everyone, certainly not at the many schools that don’t feed into legal academia.
So, if I were Queen of the World, these would be my recommendations:
Completely change law school pedagogy away from producing descriptive/critical scholarship to lawyerly problem-solving. Focus the entire curriculum on hypotheticals, simulations, and the like. Forget about conventional lecturing and Socratic inquisitions and spend your time, instead, solving problems in class. I already do this in my big lecture courses. My students receive all the material in the form of readings and lecturettes, such as this one:
When the students show up for class, I spend minimal time explaining the doctrine and lead a quick discussion of critiques and finer points. Most of our time is spent working through simulations in small groups. Often, but not always, this consists of a series of hypothetical problems. Sometimes the students have to negotiate plea deals, write motions to suppress, pick a jury, or use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to sentence a defendant. I think we get a lot more lawyerly bang for our buck this way. I started using this pedagogy during the pandemic, to liven up the Zoom situation, and have transitioned to in-person flipped classroom, because I truly think this is the optimal way to teach law to people who aspire to be actual lawyers.
Restructure the role of law review editorial staff (that is, if we choose not to get rid of law journals altogether, which I think would be a pretty good thing to do for various reasons.) Students who are not interested in writing notes for the sole purpose of writing notes should not have to write them. They have their hands full editing the submitted works of other folks, which is, after all, what the law journal market is for.
Shift the definition of the writing requirement. Why is it that we ask people who have no scholarly aspirations to produce original scholarship? Yes, lawyers should definitely know how to write–they must learn to write lawyerly work product: briefs, motions, letters to clients, etc. Why not define a few of these basic forms of legal writing and require that, throughout people’s legal education, they tick each box? It doesn’t have to be independent, shapeless work: these products can be assigned as part of lecture courses, clinics, externships, and the like. The added benefit of this strategy is that, when workplaces invariably ask their applicants (our students) to provide a writing sample, the sample will actually mirror what the job expects.
Create an honors track for aspiring academics or, even better, shift aspiring academics to a JSD degree. Sure, there will still be folks who want to be academics, and that’s great. I’ve always thought it outrageous that people can seek academic careers with an educational record that is basically identical to that of their students; that is, that your only qualification for being a teacher is having been a good student yourself (sometimes quite recently.) No other legal academic system in the world works like this, and no other U.S. disciplinary department works like this: students everywhere EXCEPT American law schools are taught by people who have a far more extensive higher education background, far more practice background, or both, than they do. It seems to me that in order to not be “those who can’t do, teach,” each of us in pedagogy needs to bring something very substantial to the table, either in the scholarship or in the practice realms. Given that legal scholars are expected to produce legal scholarship, it’s worthwhile signaling as early as law school that people who aspire to academic careers will be well served by receiving some training in scholarly writing (not what lawyers do for a living! what academics do for a living) and that can be provided, at minimum, through an honors track that requires a piece of traditional scholarship. By making this track both self-selected and selective, we ensure that we don’t have to scan a boatload of papers for plagiarism, because presumably whoever is interested in working in the business of original thinking wants to do original thinking (or perhaps not? but at least detection should be easy with fewer suspects.) Alternatively, let’s encourage people who want to be scholars to pursue a bona fides Ph.D. program (as a joint degree with their J.D.) or get a JSD from their law school (requiring a written dissertation, which could also feed their first few articles and possibly their first book.)
Yes, the singularity heralds some unwelcome news to legal education. But it is a good opportunity to consider what we’re here for and to reinvent ourselves in more relevant ways.
And now I really need to stop bloviating and put a dent in this exam pile. Godspeed!
 I’m especially grateful to Paul Belonick, Hadar Dancig-Rosenberg, and Emily Murphy for our conversations about this.
 I’m grateful to David Takacs for this crystal clear formulation
Living in San Francisco can be wonderful. Despite the many problems and challenges we face—namely, how to ensure we all of us, not just billionaires, can live here—the city’s magical heart still beats deep and strong. And then, there are moments like yesterday, when I was horrified to read that the San Francisco Elections Commission has not renewed John Arntz’s contract as Director of Elections. The reason? The color of his skin. Joe Eskenazi reports:
“Our decision wasn’t about your performance, but after twenty years we wanted to take action on the City’s racial equity plan and give people an opportunity to compete for a leadership position,” reads an email sent from commission president Chris Jerdonek to Arntz. “We also wanted to allow enough time for a fair and equitable process and conduct as broad a search as possible.”
I am a law professor at UC Hastings, specializing in criminal justice and civil rights. I thought I’d seen it all, but when I read the Commission’s explanation, I had to do a double take. Have the commissioners not heard about the United States Constitution’s prohibition of discrimination based on the color of one’s skin? Are they begging to get sued? What on Earth were they thinking?
Beyond the legal inanity, this decision deeply hurt my civic pride. I have worked as a precinct inspector in San Francisco elections multiple times. I’ve served in the Excelsior, in Bayview, and in the City Hall headquarters. Each time I was blown away by the marvel that is the San Francisco election. Worker recruitment is superb. The training is thorough and complete, and provided in multiple accessible formats. The technology works without fail. There are hordes of professional, competent people at the beck and call of each precinct to solve problems (which are extremely rare and easy to sort out.) Drivers drop poll workers at the doorstep of where they need to go. Everything is packed and labeled to perfection. The COVID-19 guidelines are eminently sensible and geared toward facilitating voting in every possible situation. Even through the madness of last year’s four elections, the election ship sailed smoothly, with Arntz at the helm. I am proud to work in the SF election, and volunteer time after time, because it is the only thing in the city that works like a Swiss clock.
It was especially appalling to see this cruel and outrageous decision justified by an ignorant, twisted understanding of “inclusivity” when, thanks to Arntz, San Francisco’s election is precisely the DEI victory that other cities can only aspire to. Under Arntz’s competent and professional leadership, the city offers tree, fair, and functional voting to everyone, rich or poor, young or old, abled or facing difficulty. Our election is the most inclusive one, language-wise, that I am familiar with. A high percentage of poll workers are proficient in multiple languages and assist voters in the way they need. Our vote-by-mail option runs without a hitch. When I participated in a litigation effort to restore voting rights to people incarcerated in jails, Arntz’s one page brief supported us without reservation. Against a backdrop of nationwide concerns of voter suppression and exclusion, San Francisco elections have never raised a whisper of concern. If there is anyone who has majorly contributed to equity in the city and county of San Francisco, it is John Arntz.
The decision not to renew Arntz’s contract—to essentially reject one of the city’s most competent, talented, and efficient managers, in charge of a crucial civic function, for an absurdly unfair consideration—echoes the school renaming scandal from the pandemic days, which sent scores of parents of all social classes and financial abilities fleeing from our school district—because apparently the best way to achieve “equity” for children of color was through meaningless pageantry, rather than through actually educating them. Throughout the city, people who care deeply about actual inclusivity—not its performative mirage—stood up and rejected incompetence. It is time for all these people, and for every San Francisco voter, to rise in support of Arntz’s proven professionalism and excellence. The crown jewel of city administration and of civil rights is at stake.
In the last few weeks I’ve been making big changes to my nutrition and fitness routine, which call for some careful reflection. The whole thing started when a colleague–a badass athlete in her own right–lent me her copy of Stacy Sims’ new. book Next Level, the first (as far as I know) book about perimenopausal and menopausal athlete. Just a few days later, I attended an open water swim camp in Hawaii, where my wonderful and knowledgeable coach, Celeste St. Pierre, recommended the same book, and impressed upon me the vital importance of Lifting Heavy Shit.
Up to this point, my athletic endeavors were almost squarely in the endurance world. I swam long (and slow) in open waters, transitioning then to multisport to protect myself from injury. In the heyday of my marathon swimming days, I did no cross training whatsoever – only swimming. Later, I added on calisthenics, in the form of fusion classes (which I took and taught) and antigravity fitness (using silky hammocks.) I’m not quite sure whether I was fully aware of the importance of doing all these things at the same time, and I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t told to increase the resistance and challenge or to eat more. Generally speaking, and relatedly, my weight has been almost entirely the product of my diet: when I eat more and poorly, I gain weight; when, with great control and care, I eat less and well, I lose weight. Going in the former direction is easier than the latter.
For many important biological reasons that Sims explains in a lucid, straightforward way in her book, the wellbeing and athletic priority during perimenopause and beyond should be building lean muscle and bone. For many of us, this means changing our body composition, which is not an easy thing to do and not one that can be accomplished merely with dietary changes. The building block for muscle is protein, which has to be consumed in adequate amounts, and the muscles must be used in a progressively challenging fashion for them to grow stronger.
I read the book cover to cover and then, through the recommendation of another wonderful athletic colleague, was introduced to lifter Casey Johnston and her excellent couch-to-barbell program. Two weeks ago, for the first time, I mounted plates on my barbell, and am quite fascinating with this transformation, though I still have many questions and uncertainties. Here is some of what has been happening:
I am lifting three times a week – twice at the school gym with my colleague, once or twice at home. This has required a certain change to my routine. I lift on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday; I now swim on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I also kept up my pilates on Saturday and my boot camp (which includes lifting) on Sunday. On lifting days I also do a short plyometric set (quick, HIIT-type jumping). Monday is somewhat of a lighter day, though I do ride the cargo e-bike, as I do every weekday, to drop my son off at school. That means shorter but more intense workouts, which is what Sims recommends. It does feel weird, as someone used to endurance workouts, that there’s none of the prolonged suffering that we marathoning people tend to glorify. Hilariously, I am finding the mantra “I can take anything for twenty seconds” useful for both HIIT and lifting.
I am already experiencing improvement in my strength. Last week I flew to Atlanta for a conference (ASC was very good this year, and I’ve already posted about some of what I learned–on court fees and on extradition) with a big, heavy backpack containing everything I needed for four days. When I got to my airplane seat, I lifted my bag into the overhead compartment–and was immediately struck by a big difference. Reader, it was child’s play. Not that it wasn’t heavy; I was stronger, noticeably so, and it was very gratifying. Same story with groceries. My partner was astonished yesterday when I came back from the co-op with a gigantic box of produce, oat milk cartons, and the like, and carried it myself as if it was nothing despite its weird shape. All of this is very good news and provides ample motivation to keep going.
The progress arc at the beginning is very satisfying. Every time I lift I think to myself, there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to lift five pounds more in two days. And then the next workout arrives, and to my astonishment, I can! I’m sure this fast progress will slow down as I progress, but for now, this linear improvement (2.5-lb increments for upper body, 5-lb increments for lower body) is providing a huge motivation boost. This is a good thing. Throughout my life, I’ve often see-sawed between two good sensations: growth (picking up a sport or a skill I know nothing about and getting through the uncomfortable months/years that it takes to become “good enough” to enjoy it) and relishing skill (making small improvements in a sport I’m already quite proficient at.) Sometimes it feels like I need to stay in my comfort zone (as with, say, swimming or flute.) Sometimes I pick up something new (such as tai chi or the handpan.) Now is a time for the latter, and I feel excitement building for when I get “good enough” to know what I’m doing.
I’ve also introduced some changes to my swimming. At the open water swim camp, Celeste taught us to activate our muscles through dryland practice before getting into the water. I’m finding this highly effective, and I’ve made one more adjustment–my sets are shorter and sprintier now. I cover fewer yards overall, but the intensity of the practice has increased, which is exhilarating. I’m also hitting some surprising times with my 50s and 100s – times I hadn’t seen in the pool since I was training for Tampa Bay in 2012. At 48, this is gratifying and makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.
I’m still not 100% sure what I’m doing, nutrition-wise, despite having gotten excellent advice. Sims’ book, the coaching figures in my life, and my awesome new acquaintance, vegan fitness coach Karina Inkster, have all emphasized two principles: I have to eat a lot more than I’ve been eating, and I have to prioritize protein. These things go hand in hand, because it is a pretty impossible job to double one’s protein intake (especially on a vegan diet) and keep the caloric situation low. Sims discusses the common problem of low energy availability, or LEA, and stresses how crucial it is to fuel properly before, during, and after workouts. We vegans love to scoff at ignorant meat eaters who ask us “where do you get your protein?” and, indeed, one can get a lot of protein on a plant-based diet, but it does require more planning, as the things one should eat (good, plant based food with fiber and phytonutrients) don’t tend to come in easy protein-rich packages. On Karina’s website, one can find lots of excellent resources for protein and other nutrition strategies for vegan athletes. She even has a handy vegan protein calculator, which instructed me to eat twice as much protein as I had been eating. This means I’m chasing protein throughout the day (tofu scramble; adding vegan protein powder to green smoothies; adding hemp, flax, and chia to my morning oatmeal) and all the other calories sort of work themselves out.
I’m also not sure what’s happening with my body size-wise. Despite eating almost twice what I ate during the Big Weight Loss and Health Restoring Project, and despite putting on about 12 lbs or so, my size doesn’t feel significantly different. My measurements are almost the same. The scale is unhelpful, as its body composition readings are inconsistent and bizarre. Parts of me feel more muscular, other parts softer, and, in general, I feel more like a work in progress than like the chiseled ancient Greek statue my mind imprinted on as the picture of health and strength. I can’t argue with the functional improvement, but there is definitely a part of me that is terrified of regaining all the weight I lost through so much effort–if only because I have wonderful clothes and would like to continue wearing them. This is a really interesting and juicy place to explore in meditation–attachment to body, attachment to clothes, the possibility that I purchased my current wardrobe as a protective talisman against weight gain, lots of new things to learn about myself and my relationship to my body.
Spiritually, the whole thing is weird, fun, and a bit discombobulating. One of my favorite teachers, Pema Chödrön, speaks of “positive groundlessness“: coming to a sense of tentative, floating peace with the idea that nothing is permanent and there is really nothing to hold on to:
The idea of letting go of fear and becoming comfortable with groundlessness has been a recurring theme for me in the last few weeks, pretty much since I participated in the Smithfield Trial and experienced the elation of its aftermath. Recently, Wayne Hsiung and I recorded our third podcast together, in which I espoused a theory about the judge’s closed fist where it came to affirmative defenses and evidence in the trial. I’m increasingly convinced that what drives these aggressive judicial court-management maneuvers is the fear that the trial will evolve and bloat into some landmark political moment beyond the judge’s ability to handle. Fear of uncertainty, of having nothing to hold on to, no buffer or protection, drives a lot of behavior, including very bad behavior. This includes my own fear: during the trial, as Wayne and I discuss in the podcast, I was sure that taking a mistrial was the right choice for him, but he decided to take the chance and see what the jury would decide. Happily, he was proven right. It was a moment that taught me that Wayne has more guts than me, and that I need to develop my relationship with positive groundlessness.
In his book Becoming a Man, one of my favorite authors, Paul Monette, wrote: “When you finally come out, there’s a pain that stops, and you know it will never hurt like that again, no matter how much you lose or how bad you die.” I think this is true for virtually anything worth being brave about: animal rights, helping incarcerated people, fighting against an unjust regime, resisting orthodoxies (from the right and from the left), and changing something as solid and fundamental as one’s relationship with one’s body. Let’s just say this lifting journey is a wonderful opportunity to explore my own bravery in picking up something new, and it’s a spiritual journey as well.
While at the American Society of Criminology conference, I had the good luck to run into a colleague I really like and admire–Dirk Van Zyl Smit from the University of Nottingham. Dirk shared with me two recent decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in cases that he worked on (the ECHR allows professors to submit written briefs as “intervenors”, akin to what we do with amicus briefs here in the US), which illuminate the strange contortions that European countries go through in an effort to determine just how much they are willing to passively cooperate with USian punitive barbarism.
A little bit of background: Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In 1985, Protocol 6 to the Convention, which abolished the death penalty for all members, entered into effect. In accordance with the Protocol and with Article 3, all European Council members have abolished the death penalty (Belarus is not and has never been a member; Russia was recently expelled.) Moreover, the Council of Europe fights the death penalty within and outside its borders in numerous ways, including the well-documented refusal of its members to provide the U.S. with chemicals used in American execution protocols. One important aspect of this abolition-beyond-borders policy is a European Court of Human Rights case from decades ago, Soering v. United Kingdom (1989), which forbids extradition of people to the U.S. if they might face the death penalty there (virtually all European countries have extradition treaties with the US, as you can see in the above map.) Dirk tells me that the practice in these cases is to ask the U.S. to provide a guarantee that the death penalty will not be sought against the extradited person.
But what about life without parole, another form of USian extreme punishment? In Vinter and Others (2013) the ECHR found that “irreducible” life sentences were inhumane; this was applied in Trabelsi v. Belgium (2014) to the extradition setting. But later, in Harkins v. Home Secretary (2014), England’s High Court of Justice narrowly interpreted Trabelsi as applying only to life sentences that were grossly disproportionate or completely lacking in any mitigation mechanisms (such as commutation or parole.) Harkins and other cases (Wellington and Haffiz) treated Trabelsi as somewhat of an extreme aberration.
The Council of Europe’s hesitation to wage a war against LWOP makes more sense when you consider the LWOP situation in the European countries themselves, who also seem to interpret Trabelsi rather narrowly. Only Croatia, Bosnia and Herzgovina, and Portugal have abolished all forms of indefinite imprisonment. So did Spain, in 1928, but it brought the penalty back in 2015. By contrast, many countries have legally prescribed LWOP sentences: England and Wales, the Netherlands, Moldova, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Malta, Cyprus, Albania, Ukraine, Serbia, and the Republic of Ireland. In some of these countries, evidentiary findings of dangerousness can prevent life prisoners to be released. In Austria and in Ukraine, the only way out of life imprisonment is presidential clemency or a finding that the person will not commit further crimes. As a consequence of Trabelsi, the Netherlands has recently allowed resentencing of life prisoners who have served at least 25 years. Even in LWOP-retentionist European countries, courts retain judicial discretion to decide whether a sentence of life should include parole or not.
One of the two recent cases before the ECHR involved Ismail Sanchez-Sanchez, who was arrested in the UK for his role in a conspiracy to ship more than 2600 kgs of Mexican marijuana to Atlanta, GA. At his extradition hearing, Sanchez-Sanchez argued that there was “a real risk that he would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.” The British judge, following the logic of Harkins, tried to assess the likelihood that Sanchez-Sanchez would receive LWOP at his federal trial. For the drug conspiracy alone, Sanchez-Sanchez was unlikely to receive a life sentence on any count, and it was even less likely that he would be serving his sentences consecutively. The fact that one of his co-conspirators died of a fentanyl overdose made it more likely that they prosecution would request a life sentence; such a sentence, however, would not be “irreducible”, as Sanchez Sanchez could appeal, apply for executive clemency, and/or request compassionate release.
The ECHR looked at the case through the lens of both Trabelsi and the British cases, and also received some information from the U.S. federal government that addressed both the prevalence of LWOP in the federal system and the particulars of Sanchez-Sanchez’s case. As to the latter, the U.S. Attorney specified that the prosecution recommended a life sentence for each of Sanchez-Sanchez’s conspirators, but they pled guilty and so avoided that sentence. The ECHR highlights the distinction between acknowledging that LWOP is inhumane as an institution within member countries and applying it to extradition to the US:
Within the domestic context, the applicant’s legal position, having already been convicted and sentenced, is known. Moreover, the domestic system of review of the sentence is likewise known, both to the domestic authorities and the Court. In the extradition context, on the other hand, in a case such as the present where the applicant has not yet been convicted, a complex risk assessment is called for, a tentative prognosis that will inevitably be characterised by a very different level of uncertainty when compared to the domestic context. This calls – as a matter of principle, but also out of practical concerns – for caution in applying the principles flowing from Vinter and Others, which were intended to apply within the domestic context, to their fullest extent in the extradition context. . . Therefore, while the principles set out in Vinter and Others must be applied in domestic cases, an adapted approach is called for in the extradition context.
The first step in this “adapted approach”, according to the ECHR, is an inquiry into the “real risk” that the particular person facing extradition will receive LWOP after extradition. If so, we move on to the second step – an inquiry whether “there exists in the requesting state a mechanism of sentence review which allows the competent authorities there to consider whether any changes in the life prisoner are so significant, and such progress towards rehabilitation has been made in the course of the sentence, as to mean that continued detention can no longer be justified on legitimate penological grounds.” Because of the uncertainty surrounding Sanchez-Sanchez’s odds of LWOP, as well as the sentences of his co-conspirators, the ECHR concludes that “the applicant cannot be said to have adduced evidence capable of showing that his extradition to the US would expose him to a real risk of treatment reaching the Article 3 threshold”, which renders the second step of the analysis unnecessary.
In the second case, Beverly Ann McCallum, suspected of involvement in the brutal murder of her husband in Michigan, was apprehended in Italy (the murder was a cold case from 2004, solved only in 2015.) During her years of absence from the U.S., her daughter and a friend were charged with first degree murder (the friend pled to second-degree murder; the daughter pled not guilty, was tried, and received LWOP.) The Italian court found that the extradition could go forward given the sentence mitigation options under Michigan law, and McCallum appealed. While awaiting the decision (under home arrest due to ill health), McCallum received a diplomatic note from the Eaton County district attorney, promising that if extradited she would only face second-degree murder charges (no conspiracy charges, only disinterment and mutilation of a dead body), taking LWOP off the table and resulting in a maximum sentence of life with parole. Under Michigan law, lifers are eligible for parole after 15 years, and may also petition the governor for clemency. The Italian authorities, animated by this communique, extradited McCallum to the United States.
Before the ECHR, McCallum argued that the diplomatic note contained insufficient assurances that the Eaton County DA would not revert to the serious charges (note: they did keep their promise despite the brutality of McCallum’s involvement in the murder – H.A.) The ECHR disagreed: Diplomatic notes, they wrote–
are a standard means for the requesting State to provide any assurances which the requested State considers necessary for its consent to extradition. … [T]he Court also recognised that, in international relations, Diplomatic Notes carry a presumption of good faith and that, in extradition cases, it was appropriate that that presumption be applied to a requesting State which has a long history of respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and which has longstanding extradition arrangements with Contracting States. … [I]t seems to the Court that if, following her extradition, the original charges against the applicant were to be revived, that would not be compatible with the duty of good faith performance of treaty obligations.
The ECHR also proceeded to dismiss McCallum’s argument that her eventual release on parole depended on the unchecked discretion of the Governor of Michigan in granting clemency and was therefore “irreducible.” The Court again disagreed, highlighting the fact that the clemency power was procedural, rather than legislated, and had nothing to do with parole, which in Michigan is the sole purview of the parole board:
[T]he Court is not persuaded that the applicant’s understanding of the Michigan system is correct. It observes that. . . a prisoner’s release on parole is at the discretion of the parole board. While the Governor of Michigan indeed enjoys a broad power of executive clemency, he or she is not involved in the parole procedure. Nor do the relevant legal provisions empower the Governor to overrule the grant of parole to a prisoner. As indicated above, appeal against the grant of parole lies to the competent circuit court.
An applicant who alleges that their extradition would expose them to a risk of a sentence that would constitute inhuman or degrading punishment bears the burden of proving the reality of that risk. In light of all of the above-mentioned factors, the Court considers that the applicant has not discharged that burden. Contrary to her claim, it appears that there is no real risk of the applicant receiving an irreducible life sentence, i.e., life imprisonment without eligibility for parole, in the event of conviction of the charges now pending against her in Michigan.
I find two important takeaways here. The first is that the ECHR draws a real line between the death penalty–now widely outside of the acceptable margin of reasonable state behavior for Council of Europe members–and LWOP which, unless absolutely mandatory, remains within the realm of the reasonable. The second is that, among the members of the “extreme punishment trifecta”, life with parole–even with everything we know about the slim odds of obtaining parole–is not in the same league as LWOP, and assurances that the sentence will be the former fully satisfy the requirements of Article 3. What this teaches me is that American exceptionalism seems to have been relegated only to the world of the death penalty, and that Europe isn’t that far ahead of us in fully recognizing the possibility of LWOP as barbaric.