Three UC Hastings journals are coming together to organize an important symposium on incarceration and healthcare, focusing on the COVID-19 prison crisis. We are excited to invite you–details will follow. For now, please SAVE THE DATES!
Feb. 5, 12-4pm: California Correctional Crisis, Meet COVID-19
Feb. 12, 12-4pm: Focus on reproductive justice, trans incarcerated people, and special populations
Feb. 19, 12-4pm: Focus on immigration detention and healthcare
The results of the election did not bring me immediate solace. I’m sure this has been the case for many folks who found it difficult to take off the psychological backpack we have been carrying for so long. In my case, the psychological weight is the product of daily engagement with this administration on various public forums, including having to spend least thrice a week, WEEKLY, for the last four years, in TV stations and radio studios talking about this. In November 2016, when I lost the fight for death penalty abolition and my beloved cat Spade on the week of the election, I made it my mission to be an expert in everything these cartoon villains were cooking up, and every morning I sat up abruptly in my bed, with my first thought being, “it’s already morning in D.C., what has he done today?” Every time I saw an unrecognized number on my phone it was a TV producer or journalist asking me things that I had to cram on. I’ve crawled through information on abominable, underhanded things that I could not have even imagined possible before the last four years. Engaging with this sewer of an administration every day, including weekends, has brought exhaustion and stress into our family life, soured my good humor and my patience at work, and taken a real, measurable toll on my health. Doing upbeat explainers, volunteering, and taking abuse via phone and text from voters has felt like wading through a swamp, and even though I wore my psychological hip waders, I resent and revile this administration for demanding that I set aside my own grief, decency, and decorum, and be constantly on-call to respond to venal, opportunistic excrement. After I gave the explainer on Justice Ginsburg’s replacement process, I could barely get out of bed for a few days.
But the miasma in my soul is slowly dissipating. The first time I felt truly rapturous was when I got a letter from Traci Felt Love, the organizer of Lawyers for Good Government. The letter reminded me of when we started L4GG and brought back the incredible week in which we shut down San Francisco International Airport in reaction to the Muslim ban. It was only then that the magnitude of our success in dethroning this monster started to hit me, and I’ve been slowly digesting it.
One thing that has greatly helped is ignoring the legal pageant of the absurd that Trump is mounting in various courts around the country. I have given myself permission to disengage from all his frivolous lawsuits, antics, last-minute personnel juggling, and desperate cries for attention. In January, no matter what happens in the interim, Joe Biden will be President of the United States. Whether Trump concedes (ya think?), resigns (hmmmm), flees to the Cayman Islands to a mansion with golden toilets (on brand) or is dragged out of the White House in handcuffs (appealing but dangerous), the outcome will be a change in administrations.
It’s useful to keep in mind the story of the scorpion and the frog. A scorpion, which cannot swim, asks a frog to carry it across a river on the frog’s back. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion assures the frog he won’t do that: “If I sting you, we’ll both drown, right?” This argument convinces the frog, which agrees to transport the scorpion. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
Trumps are going to Trump. Giulianis are going to Giuliani. McConnells are going to McConnell, with or without us as their audience. It’s far more productive to focus our attention on the upcoming races in Georgia.
Throughout the country, drug law reform gained more momentum. This wonderful post on the Drug Policy Alliance blog summarizes some of the main reforms, the most impressive of which was Oregon’s approval of Measure 110. The next step in procuring a truce on drugs was always going to be branching beyond marijuana, and for various political reasons that are difficult to explain to people outside California, I expected another state to move in that direction first.
What I find especially thrilling about the passage of Measure 110 is that it could open the door to an important dialogue about the value and benefits of psychedelics. MAPS has been leading the charge on declassifying these important substances and acknowledging their potential to help people with depression and trauma, as well as foster spiritual growth. Little by little, the hypocrisy is dissipating, but it’s going to happen on the state and local level first.
When the Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
Amidst my joy about the passage of Prop 17 and the failure of Prop 20–a reactionary law-and-order package–the demise of Prop. 25 brought me some anguish. As I explained elsewhere, all the arguments against the abolition of cash bail were ridiculous except for one, which had superficial appeal: the idea that “algorithms are racist” and that we would end up with “something worse” than cash bail. Aside from the fact that it’s hard to imagine how risk assessment is “worse” than debtor prisons straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, there’s a basic misunderstanding of how algorithms work. I have been explaining and explaining, but for some reason am not getting through to people captivated by woke rhetoric: ALGORITHMS ARE NOT RACIST. They predict the future on the basis of the past. If they have racially disparate outcomes, it’s because they reflect a racist reality in which, for a variety of systemic, sad, and infuriating reasons, people who are treated like second-class citizens in their own country commit more violent crime. The overrepresentation of people of color in homicide offenses and other violent crime categories is not something that progressives like to talk about, but it is unfortunately true–not just a mirage caused by stop-and-frisk in low-income communities. The reasons why more African American people commit more homicides than white people are the same reasons why they are arrested more frequently for the drug offenses they don’t actually commit more than white people: deprivation, neglect, lack of opportunities, dehumanization and marginalization on a daily basis. Solving these problems requires an administration committed to treating its citizenry fairly, not sweeping them under the rug by ignoring predictive tools that show what is actually going on. So powerful is the progressive self-deception that the ACLU, initially a supporter of eliminating cash bail, opted not to have a position on the ballot, because of the optics. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I like and respect opposed Prop 25 using organizations’ positions as proxy, as if they couldn’t think for themselves. These organizations’ and people’s fears of being perceived as racists by supporting “algorithms,” the bogeymen of the left, was so overpowering that it hijacked the very real possibility to get rid of an actual, real, on-the-ground, in-the-open perversity: the only-in-America notion that people should pay money for their pretrial release.
The counterargument, made by some thoughtful folks, was that rejecting Prop. 25 would lead to a better proposal to abolish cash bail. But this argument exhibits deep ignorance of how political gains are made. Part of why I’m so upset about this is that I’ve already lived through a horrible round of the Perfect-Is-the-Enemy-of-the-Good game. Back in 2016, when we campaigned for death penalty abolition, I had to respond to arguments by progressives who thought that abolishing the death penalty was going to somehow “retrench” life without parole. The preciousness of this view infuriates me. As I explained until I was blue in the face, political progress is made incrementally. You can’t get to LWOP abolition without death penalty abolition. Expecting ballot propositions, which have to rely on broad coalitions, to be tailor-made to one’s exquisitely purist views about the public good is a recipe for disappointment. And, as Gov. Newsom said, the demise of Prop 25 essentially eliminates any possibility, motivation, or energy for getting together the “more perfect” solution to the bail problem that activists are yearning for. So, instead of celebrating the end of cash bail, progressives have yet again been duped into failing their own cause because the compromise wasn’t photogenic enough for them, and the big winner has been the bail bonds industry–you can see in this piece how effectively these scoundrels have coopted wokespeak to keep Victorian debt prisons alive.
Got a Sane Idea? Great! Wrap It in Sane Packaging
Just read a terrific Mother Jones article, which highlights the success of various local initiatives to divert resources from policing to less confrontational alternatives. Beyond my satisfaction with this outcome, I’m pleased with the rhetorical strategy used in these initiatives.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, many advocates were making proposals that sounded scary, because they were wrapped in odious movement jargon (defund! abolish! dismantle!). Thing is, the proposals themselves were not radical or insane; they were sane enough that even people who were victimized in scary ways could see the logic in them–if they had the background to understand them. Alternatives to policing are not earth-shattering discoveries. Anyone, not just hyperprogressives, who walks around the Tenderloin these days can sense the palpable shift in energy since the arrival of the wise and conciliatory Urban Alchemy folks. All these propositions are doing is rolling back the Nixonian logic, according to which you somehow get more justice if there are more cops, riot gear, and weapons on the streets. We were sucked into this insanity in the 1970s with the LEAA funding scheme, and later in the 1980s with civil asset forfeiture. You could be forgiven for thinking that “defunding the police” is an extreme proposal if you’re not familiar with how police departments used to be run before they became bloated paramilitary organizations.
But the success of this measures was not only rooted in their inherent reasonableness (and cost-effectiveness.) It was rooted in wise, matter-of-factly packaging, which offered positive alternatives to policing that people could get behind. There is an important lesson here for progressives looking for referendum victories, which I very much hope will be learned: packaging matters. Offering people a realistic vision of humane, therapeutic, preventative public safety works better than wrapping sane, totally plausible ideas in flurries of self-righteous performativity. And that means resisting the cultural zeitgeist, which pushes the movement to flood social media with the most preposterous, off-putting jargon, even when proposing things that would appeal to a broad swath of the population.
When incendiary terminology is used to explain sane, effective reform, more time is spent debating the terminology and performatively defending it than discussing the policies themselves. People who are put off by the rhetoric are exhorted to “check the website,” “do the work,” and “educate themselves” by folks who do not inspire any desire to engage any further with them or with their ideas. Indeed, one of the dumbest aphorisms of this movement is the classic “it’s not my job to educate you.” It’s nobody’s job to educate anyone else (except, in the case of teachers, their actual students.) But hurling insults and disdain on people, piling nonrequired homework on their backs, hiding good ideas behind performative nonsense, and finding fault in people asking to know what they’re expected to support and vote for, is not particularly likely to induce them to take the trouble to learn somewhere else. Decrying the burden of “unpaid emotional labor,” another unfortunate classic, is also not particularly persuasive. Not everyone needs to dance through their revolution like Emma Goldman, but very few people want to get flogged through it. Corollary: If you call yourself an activist, and you want to bring people to your coalition, yes, it is part of your job to educate them. I’m so pleased that the advocacy for these proposals took a different approach, one that voters could get behind. The result will be safer and happier streets in many U.S. cities.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides assistance to hospitals, nonprofits, individuals, and businesses. Among other provisions, the CARES Act provides individuals who earn less than $75,000 annually with a direct payment of $1,200, plus an additional $500 for every qualifying child age 16 or under. Married couples who file a joint return and earn less than $150,000 are eligible for up to $2,400 plus an additional $500 for every qualifying child age 16 or under.
On September 24, 2020, Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an Order certifying a nationwide class of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and granting the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction requiring the U.S. Department of Treasury, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and the United States of America to stop withholding CARES Act stimulus funds from plaintiffs or any class member on the sole basis of their incarcerated status.
The Judge’s preliminary injunction further ordered the defendants to reconsider their prior denial of advance refund payments to any person based on incarcerated status within 30 days, whether the denial was based on a 2018 or 2019 tax return, or on claims filed through the IRS’s online “Non-Filer” portal.
Earlier, on August 1, 2020, Lieff Cabraser and the Equal Justice Society filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the United States Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service on behalf of a nationwide class of people who were incarcerated at any time from March 27, 2020 to the present—that is, people serving a sentence in state or federal prison. The lawsuit seeks to have a court order the Defendants to issue CARES Act stimulus relief to all eligible incarcerated people, or up to $1,200 per eligible person plus $500 per qualifying child.
Lieff Cabraser have put together an easy-to-follow FAQ for you, explaining who is eligible and how to file a claim.
I’m very happy to share a great review of Yesterday’s Monsters written by Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Review: ‘Yesterday’s Monsters’ shows parole system’s flaws in Manson cases
Bob Egelko September 30, 2020 Updated: September 30, 2020, 7:28 am
Susan Atkins, convicted of eight murders as a member of Charles Manson’s “family,” was dying of cancer when she made her 18th appearance before the California parole board in September 2009, after nearly 40 years in prison. Bedridden for 18 months and barely able to speak or move, she remained largely silent while her husband and attorney, James Whitehouse, asked the board to release her to a hospice, which he said he would pay for.
In response, relatives of Manson’s victims recalled the horrors of the 1969 killings. A Los Angeles prosecutor, Patrick Sequeira, called the family a “criminal terrorist organization” and said Atkins “has tried to minimize her involvement in the crime.” The board swiftly decided Atkins “poses an unreasonable risk if released” and denied parole for at least three more years. Atkins, 61, died of brain cancer 22 days later.
The incident is the most graphic but far from the only illustration of a malfunctioning system in “Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole” by Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who specializes in criminal law and civil rights.
The state Board of Parole Hearings shows “a clear preference for looking back and discussing the past (rather) than for the future, sometimes astonishingly ignoring terminal illness and old age when discussing future risk,” Aviram writes. And that, she notes, is the opposite of its assigned task of determining whether a prisoner who has served many years for past wrongdoing can now be safely released.
The book is a study, not an exposé — there are nearly 800 footnotes — but its language is everyday and accessible. Discussing inmates’ need to display “insight” into their crimes to be found suitable for parole, for example, Aviram writes, “the Board continuously moves the goal posts.” It’s aimed at two sets of readers, those who care about the workings of the criminal justice system and those with enduring memories of the Manson nightmare (this reviewer fits both categories).
It may not be fair to judge any criminal justice process by its response to extremes, and the Manson cases are about as extreme as they come. For reasons that remain unclear — some say Manson wanted to start a race war, others simply describe a cult obsessed with drugs, sex and violence — he ordered seven of his followers, including Atkins and two other young women, to kill nine people in three gruesome attacks in the Los Angeles area in July and August 1969. After the fatal stabbing of actress Sharon Tate, Atkins scrawled “PIG” in Tate’s blood on the front door of the home.
Manson, Atkins and three others were sentenced to death in 1971. But the state Supreme Court overturned California’s death penalty law in 1972, and all death sentences were reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole; only under the subsequent law, passed by legislators in 1977 and expanded by the voters in 1978, were capital cases made punishable solely by death or life without parole.
Meanwhile, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown, serving the first of his four terms in office, were remaking California’s sentencing and parole structure.
Previously, nearly all crimes were punishable by a range of terms — 1 to 5 years, for example, or 5 to 20 — and a parole board that included psychologists and other professionals decided when a prisoner was fit for release. The system came under attack from both the left, as racially prejudiced, and the right, as unduly lenient, and was replaced in 1977 by “determinate” sentences for most crimes — two, four or six years, for example, with the sentencing judge making the choice.
Only “lifers,” those convicted of murder or a few other crimes, such as kidnapping, would now appear before the parole board, after a designated period, to seek their release. And board members were appointed by the governor, who generally chose law enforcement professionals skeptical of claims of rehabilitation.
The parole board’s occasional decisions to approve release were made subject to the governor’s veto by a 1988 initiative. A 2008 initiative called Marsy’s Law requires inmates who are denied parole to wait 15 years for their next hearing — five times the previous interval — unless the board finds “clear and convincing evidence” to justify an earlier hearing.
“Yesterday’s Monsters” focuses on a Board of Parole Hearings that is supposed to look forward, not backward. The state Supreme Court underscored that mission in a 2008 ruling that prohibited both the board and the governor from denying parole based solely on the gruesome nature of the crime — though, in a frequently cited exception, the court said the board could consider an inmate’s lack of “insight” into the offense.
Participants in the Manson family hearings, in transcripts quoted in the book, have focused largely on the past — understandably, in light of the events that gave rise to the hearings.
At one hearing for Patricia Krenwinkel, Aviram says, prosecutor Sequeira declared, “I think if she had true remorse and she truly understood her crimes and the horrific nature of it, she wouldn’t be here at a parole hearing. She would just accept a punishment.”
Relatives of the victims were equally unforgiving.
“There are eight people that lie in their graves who remain unchanged, unrehabilitated, unparoled,” Anthony Demaria, a nephew of murder victim Jay Sebring, said at Krenwinkel’s 2011 hearing. “I beg the board to consider parole for Patricia Krenwinkel only when her victims are paroled from their graves.”
At another hearing, board members asked Krenwinkel why she wasn’t attending drug-treatment programs and shrugged off her explanation that her high-security custody barred her from the nighttime classes.
At a 1981 hearing, the board was unimpressed by ex-Mansonite Bruce Davis’ leadership position with a Christian counseling group in prison. One board member, Aviram notes, said Davis had merely switched his allegiance from “one god-like figure to another.”
When Manson follower Leslie Van Houten appeared before the board in 2013, Aviram says, she had a strong record of participation in prison rehabilitation programs, with a few minor violations, the last one in 1981. The board denied parole on the grounds that she lacked insight into her life before imprisonment: “You need to demonstrate what made you that person to engage in those acts so long ago.”
Three years later, with Van Houten’s record substantially the same, the board recommended her release but was overridden by Brown’s veto, events replicated under Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019. Steve “Clem” Grogan, a relatively minor participant in the crimes, was paroled in 1985. Manson, denied parole at 12 hearings, died in prison in 2017 at age 83. His other co-defendants remain behind bars.
In one sense, the timing of the 1969 murders spared Manson and his cohorts from more severe punishment. Had they committed their crimes a decade later, some of the Family almost certainly would have been executed, and others would have had no opportunity for parole. And it seems safe to say that few Californians who remember the killings will shed tears at the prospect that Manson’s followers who are still in prison will probably die there.
But that doesn’t contradict the message that Aviram convincingly presents: If the parole system had worked as it was supposed to, based on the law and the policies underlying it, most of the participants in the murders, other than Manson himself, eventually would have been released.
The Board of Parole Hearings, the author concludes, “should not be the arbiter of moral goodness.”
I’d like to have seen a bit more context, comparing these parole decisions to others here and elsewhere, and perhaps some background on the parole board members, sometimes identified only by last names in the book. But as California rethinks the roles of imprisonment and parole in this COVID-19, post-Three Strikes era, “Yesterday’s Monsters” has some lessons for today.
“Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole” By Hadar Aviram (University of California Press; 294 pages; 29.95)
Bob Egelko Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BobEgelko
Your weekly guide to Bay Area arts & entertainment.
In my previous writings about the COVID-19 prison disaster (especially here and here), I relied on Ben Bernanke’s famous “triggers and vulnerabilities” model. I explained that the virus happened on a fertile Petri dish of neglect, both preceding and following the Plata litigation. But it’s just occurred to me that there’s a better way of explaining why the problem lies not only with the prison healthcare crisis that preceded Plata, but also with the Plata remedy itself: Criminal justice reforms in CA (through litigation as well as legislation) are often like homeopathic remedies: a low-concentration of the exact problem they purport to solve. The crisis we are facing now is merely an exaggerated example of the futility of homeopathic criminal justice reform.
Homeopathy, the creation of Eighteenth-century physician Samuel Hahnemann, follows an idea known as the Law of Similars – the idea that, if exposure to substance X causes symptom Y in a healthy person, substance X can cure symptom Y in a person where they occur naturally as part of a disease process. For example, exposure to onions causes an itchy, stinging sensation in the eyes; therefore, the homeopathic remedy for hay fevers or head colds accompanied by such sensation is a low-concentration formula of onion.
I’ve come to see criminal justice reform initiatives in California as low-concentration forms of the underlying problems they purport to solve. The COVID-19 “relief” policies sold to us by the Governor and CDCR are a case in point.
The problem we had to solve was a giant, bureaucratic correctional monster, which we could not wrangle. The Plata solution: we made it more complicated by breaking it into 59 monsters that have an equally unwieldy, though different, structure. We’re now dealing with the ramifications of this homeopathic preparation: inscrutable BSCC reports on jails alongside journalistic exposés of serious outbreaks; four months of delay before numbers were even available; traffic between jails and prisons that is unpredictable and difficult to regulate.
The problem we had to solve was the rate (and percentage of the general prison population) of aging, infirm people serving interminable sentences. The Plata solution, the Prop 47 solution, the Prop 57 solution: reinforce the notion that these people belong in prison by designing all releases around the issue of nonviolent offenders. While removing people from prison (diluting them) this, ironically, increases the concentration of aging and infirm people in prison so that they are the ones exposed to healthcare scandals.
The problem we had to solve was a bloated correctional apparatus, whose provenance was decades-long oversensitivity to victim pressure groups advancing a monolithic vision for alleviating their plight: Monstrous sentencing policies. The solution we’ve devised for COVID-19? Anticipate the sensitivity and address it by avoiding releases of people convicted of violent crime.
The problem we had to solve was a “correctional free lunch”, in which people in the community were largely unaware of the costs of our correctional system because these were concentrated in large facilities in rural and remote areas. The solution? Now we encourage community-prison alienation through jurisdictional jockeying for position between county health officers and the prisons that are literally located amidst these counties and irrational fears that releasing people will infect the community (the opposite is true: incubating the disease in prisons is much more risky for communities.)
As we’ve seen in the COVID-19 release plan (before and after its implementation), and just like homeopathic formulas, diluting the problem results in obtaining a placebo at best, and a worsening of the problem at worst. The logic of the Law of Similars is supposedly an appeal to the idea of a “natural law” principle, but actual science refutes this: what makes sense is to treat an ailment with an antidote, not with a diluted version of the same ailment. The antidotes are obvious to me: Thin out the monster by locking fewer people up in fewer places. Do not lock up aging, sick people. Give victims/survivors better roles than the world curators of what should happen to offenders.
Which brings me to why I think the analogy matters. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think this is some evil, sadistic ploy at work here. I think what’s stopping state and prison officials from applying the antidotes is institutional intransigence and fear. Homeopathy itself was borne of Hahnemann’s disgust with the medicine practiced during his era: bloodletting, leeching, purging, etc. By contrast to these harmful measures, the delicacy of the diluted solutions was mellow and reassuring. Here, too, there’s immense fear of what would happen if drastic measures were taken. I saw this logic at the recent federal Plata hearing (though, admittedly, the PLRA plays an important role here, too) and also at the two state courts. We don’t like drastic solutions and purging; better to drink a Bach Flower distillation.
Ashley Rubin’s forthcoming book The Deviant Prison looks at why the Pennsylvania incarceration model, practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, persisted long after it was proven not to work. I see the same form of institutional obstinance at work here. And, by contrast to Eastern State, this is perpetuated because homeopathic criminal justice reform has become the habitual, accepted mode of doing things. It might be sobering to realize that homeopathic preparations are the only category of alternative medicine products legally marketable as drugs. Quackwatch explains that this situation is the result of two circumstances. First, the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which was shepherded through Congress by a homeopathic physician who was a senator, recognizes as drugs all substances included in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States. Second, the FDA has not held homeopathic products to the same standards as other drugs. Today they are marketed in health-food stores, in pharmacies, in practitioner offices, by multilevel distributors, through the mail, and on the Internet. I think that our habituation to homeopathic criminal justice reform has created a similar situation, where we are willing to accept these placebo solutions because the ideas that drive both the problems and the solutions have been so hammered in, that we can’t imagine anything else.
Today I submitted an Amicus Curiae brief on behalf of the ACLU of Northern California and eighteen criminal justice scholars in In re Von Staich, another San Quentin-related COVID-19 relief case pending before the Court of Appeal. You can find the brief here:
Part of what I discuss in the brief has to do with CDCR’s evasive maneuvers. There are now three COVID-19 prison cases pending before the courts: Plata v. Newsom in federal court, the Marin County consolidated cases, and Von Staich. In each of these cases, the Attorney General representatives are claiming that the court is not the appropriate forum for handling the matter. Not only does this argument lack legal merit–judicial review is part and parcel of the struggle in prison conditions cases, and people are expected to exhaust state remedies before going federal–it is also a cynical evasive maneuver, designed to put off resolution in these cases until people either get well on their own or die. Indeed, at a status conference I attended last week, the AG representative led with the argument that there’s no longer a problem at San Quentin because the rates of new cases are slowing down. I cannot emphasize enough how misguided this line of argument is. San Quentin is not winning the battle against COVID-19. The virus has won–it’s infected almost all the available hosts, two thirds of the prison population, and killed 26 people–and will win again if there’s a repeat outbreak and no measures are taken to prevent it, as it has in five other prisons so far: Avenal, CIW, Corcoran, LAC, and ISP.
It may be that I’m feeling especially livid about this having read Jason Fagone’s story in yesterday’s Chron, according to which grieving relatives of incarcerated people who die of COVID get, in addition to their grief and anger, a cremation bill for $900:
Since the start of the pandemic, 54 incarcerated people have died of COVID-19 in California’s 35 prisons, and even though the deceased were in state custody until they drew their last breaths, the state expects their loved ones to pay burial costs, which can run into the thousands of dollars.
Families and advocates for incarcerated people say the policy is not only cruel, it discriminates against those without means to pay the sudden expenses. And with death numbers rising in the state prisons, the issue isn’t likely to go away.
“It’s a pretty disgusting policy,” said attorney Michael Bien, who represents tens of thousands of California prisoners and knows families struggling to scrape up money to bury incarcerated loved ones felled by the virus. He said the state has a moral duty to pay for a basic burial or cremation of people who die in their custody.
“This is basic human decency here,” Bien said, emphasizing that the financial burden is falling not on those convicted of crimes but on their “children and wives and moms.”
I wonder if CDCR also charges the families for the burial of incarcerated firefighters who are risking their lives to save my life and yours as I type this.
Today’s Chronicle features a great article by Bob Egelko, which tries to parse out who is responsible for the San Quentin catastrophe. Getting into the chain of command that made the botched transfer decision might come in handy at a later date, I think, when the time comes to file the inevitable (and more than justified) lawsuit. But, as I said in the article, the time to squabble over who’s at fault has not come yet. Right now we must have all hands on deck, including Gov. Newsom, Mr. Kelso, and Mr. Diaz, making prison releases their absolute top priority.
The #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition, and the Prison Advocacy Network (PAN) have useful, well-researched answers, which are encapsulated in the lovely infographic above. Here are the coalition’s demands, and here’s the PAN page offering legal resources and pathways to release. I want to spend this post getting into the particulars. Before doing so, though, I need to explain a few important things.The Prisoner Advocacy Network has a list of pathways to release.
A lot of the categories in Newsom’s current release plan make sense and show evidence of public health thinking. They are considering age, medical condition, and time left on people’s sentences. The problem with the categories is that they are unnecessarily restrictive, and I think the restrictions can be attributed to two hangups that many people, including well-meaning, educated folks, share about prison releases: the fear that releasing a lot of people is going to be hugely expensive and the hangup around the violent/nonviolent distinction. So let’s tackle these two first.
Get over the hangup of re-entry costs. You may have read that BSCC is considering offering $15 million to CDCR, and might wonder how we can possibly pay for housing, temporary or permanent, of tens of thousands of people. Of course this is going to cost money; the question is, compared to what. It may shock you to learn that, in the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that the average cost to incarcerate one person in California for a year was $81,502 – more than a $30k increase since our recession-era prison population reduction in 2010-2011. How much does it cost to help such a person for a year, when their healthcare is funded by Obamacare, rather than by CDCR? Here’s a PPIC report from 2015 detailing alternatives to incarceration. Specifically with regard to COVID-19-related reentries, here’s another great infographic detailing what the needs are going to be. The big one is housing, and there are organizations on the ground that are set up to help with that. Even with transitional housing costs, this does not add up to $80k per person per year.
Get over the hangup of making the violent/nonviolent distinction. I am still seeing lots of well-intentioned folks who read Michelle Alexander years ago tweeting about how ending the war on drugs (with or without the hashtag), or focusing on so-called “nonviolent inmates” is the key to fighting this outbreak. I can’t really fault them for this misapprehension–what I can do is repeatedly present you with facts to correct it.
Take a look at the graph below. It comes from CDCR’s population data points from 2018. You will note that the vast majority of people in California prisons are serving time for a violent offense. Drug convictions are the smallest contributors to our prison population (this is of course not true for jails or for federal prisons; I’m talking about the state prison system.) I know we all love to say “dismantle” these days, but dismantling the war on drugs will do very little to reduce state prison population.
Now, take a look at CDCR’s Spring 2020 population projection. What you see in the diagram below are the reductions in population since 2010, and some projections for the years to come. The two big reductions were in 2011, following the Realignment, and, to a smaller extent, in 2015, following Prop. 47. Both of those propositions diverted drug offenders to the community corrections systems–jails and probation. If you care about the injustices of the war on drugs, your heart is in the right place, but this is simply not the most dire problem we are facing in the context of prison population reduction.
It is easier to talk about drugs and nonviolent offenders, because these are typically categories of people that evoke more sympathy from the press. My colleague Susan Turner at UCI has shown that risk assessment tools, when used properly and carefully, yield dependable predictive results, and these are not correlated with the crime of commitment. Because we were so married to the idea that only nonviolent folks need help and public support, our three major population reduction efforts–Realignment, Prop 47, and Prop 57–missed the mark on getting more reductions for little to no “price” of increased criminal activity. Whenever you see a headline lambasting the Governor or the Board of Parole Hearings for releasing a “murderer,” immediately ask yourself the two relevant questions: (1) How old is this person now, and (2) how long ago did they commit the crime? The answers should lead you to the robust insights of life course criminology: People age out of violent crime by their mid- to late-twenties, and at 50 they pose a negligible risk to public safety. Moreover, what a person was convicted of doesn’t tell you a full story of what their undetected criminal activity was like before they were incarcerated. Take a look at the homicide solving rates in California, as reported by the Orange County Register in 2017–a bit over 50%–and ask yourself whether the crime of conviction is telling you a story with any statistical meaning.
In short, my friend, take a breath, let go of your attachment to the violent/nonviolent distinction, and let’s find some real solutions. The #StopSanQuentin coalition has a more in-depth breakdown to offer. Generally speaking, the legal mechanisms to achieve this reduction were identified by UnCommon Law in their letter to the Governor–primarily, early releases, commutations, and parole. Section 8 of Article V of the CA Constitution vests the power to grant a “reprieve, pardon, or commutation” in the Governor. The Penal Code elaborates and explains the process. Section 8658 of the California Government Code provides an emergency release valve: “In any case in which an emergency endangering the lives of inmates of a state, county, or city penal or correctional institution has occurred or is imminent, the person in charge of the institution may remove the inmates from the institution. He shall, if possible, remove them to a safe and convenient place and there confine them as long as may be necessary to avoid the danger, or, if that is not possible, may release them. the Governor has the authority to grant mass clemencies in an emergency.”
To begin, there are some bulk populations which, if targeted for release, can deliver the kind of numbers we need to stop the epidemic. These three populations largely overlap, which might make it easier to tailor the remedies to capture the right people. About half of the CDCR population are people designated “low risk” by CDCR’s own admission. CDCR uses risk classification primarily for housing purposes, and their methodology–as well as their practice of overriding their own classification–have been found by LAO to be in dire need of overhaul. LAO and other researchers believe that CDCR’s use of the “low risk” category is too restrictive, and their exceptions to their own classification come from hangups around issues of crime of commitment. This chart from the LAO report tells a useful story: Most of our prison population is doing time for violent crime, and a quarter of it is 50 and older; given the length of sentences for violent crimes, and the fact that a quarter of CA prisoners is serving decades on one of the “extreme punishment trifecta” of sentences (death, LWOP, or life with parole), it’s not difficult to figure out where the older, lower risk people fit in.
Between a quarter to a third of the prison population, depends on how you count: People who have already served a long sentence. This is the time to question the marginal utility of serving a few more years after being in prison for decades. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, About 33,000 inmates are “second strikers,” about 9,000 of whom are released annually after serving about 3.5 years. Another 7,000 are “third strikers,” fewer than 100 of whom are released annually after serving about 17 years. Approximately 33,000 inmates are serving sentences of life or life without parole. Fewer than 1,000 of these inmates are released every year, typically after spending two or more decades behind bars.
23%: People Over 50. Not only does this population intersect with lower criminal risk and higher medical risk, it also correlated with cost. According to the Public Policy Institute of California and Pew center data they cite, in fiscal year 2015 the state spent $19,796 per inmate on health care–more than thrice the national average.
To this, we can add a few smaller populations, numbering a few thousand each. Let’s start with people on death row and people on life without parole, who have been exempted from pretty much any release valve possible. The Governor has the authority to commute both of those sentences to life with parole today, and this is probably the right course of action anyway, pandemic or no pandemic. We have a moratorium on the death penalty, which means no one is getting executed but we are still paying for expensive capital punishment litigation. Cut out the middle man and shift all these folks to life with parole. I talk about how these three sentences are indistinguishable anyway in Yesterday’s Monsters, chapter 2.
There are also, apparently, a few hundred people still incarcerated who have been recommended for parole and approved by the Governor–coalition members have identified a few dozen in San Quentin alone. If these people have been given the green light to be released, why are they still behind bars? As for people who have been recommended for release and still awaiting the Governor’s authorization, now’s the time to expedite that.
Finally, lifting the offense limitations on people from outbreak epicenters, people with medical conditions, and the like, should expand those numbers considerably, given the significant overlap between crime of commitment, length of sentence, age, and health condition.
My point is that all of this is eminently doable, and there would hardly be any downsides. If we can just let go of the tendency to view only one side of the cost equation, and of our hangup about the nonviolent/violent distinction, we can scale up the proposed release plan to the point that it will be effective. Let me end with this thought: Gov. Newsom announced that the goal is to reduce San Quentin population to close to 100% of design capacity. In a sane world, prisons that are at 100% occupancy are not a goal. They are a starting point.
August 14 Update: Jason Fagone has a gorgeous piece in today’s Chron explaining how we could achieve a 50% reduction today, with negligible impact on public safety.
A couple of weeks ago I posted about the “known unknowns”: the situation in county jails. I don’t think that the cloud of ignorance over infections, illnesses, and deaths in hundreds of facilities (some as big as prisons) is coincidental. I’ve already mentioned the concept of agnotology–the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data–and I think that, when problems are prioritized, knowledge about them is also gathered and shared.
We have an opportunity to press the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) for some answers, because they have just announced an emergency meeting scheduled for this Thursday, July 16 at 10:00 a.m. At the meeting they plan to decide whether to give $15 million of the total $58.6 million of federal Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding (CESF) to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to “quickly leverage existing contracts that can provide emergency housing” for individuals being released from state prison due to COVID-19. You can find the full proposal here; the gist of it is as follows:
In May, the BSCC’s CESF application for $58.5 million was approved. In June, the BSCC launched a dedicated CESF email address to seek input on how the funds should be used, established a 30-day public comment period that concluded July 12, and staff committed to sharing those results with the Board at the September Board meeting. In the weeks following the June Board meeting, however, the Administration identified an urgent need to provide housing to individuals being released from CDCR due to COVID-19. As many as 8,000 individuals with less than a year left on their sentences could be eligible for release by the end of August. There is an immediate need for housing to help these people with successful reentry. The Administration has requested a portion of the federal grant to meet those emergency needs.
A CESF award would allow CDCR to immediately leverage existing contracts through the Specialized Treatment for Optimized Programming (STOP) to help with emergency housing needs. The STOP system operates in six regional areas statewide, with offices in LA, San Diego, Sacramento, Marin, San Bernardino and Fresno. Each provider contracts to provide step-down services ranging from residential treatment to recovery and reentry housing at the local level. The proposed funding would provide emergency housing and could cover costs associated with increasing housing capacity and providing quality assurance of housing to ensure safe housing standards are implemented.
The Board will have the opportunity to consider the public comment received to determine priorities for the remaining $41.7 million and take further action at the September meeting. Sixty-seven public comments have been received to date from community based organizations, local governments (both city and county), concerned citizens, public and private organizations, law enforcement, and the faith-based community.
This, in itself, might be a good thing–the money will be sorely needed to cushion the path of so many folks who have been incarcerated in an environment that is an anathema to rehabilitation as they make their first steps in a horrible economy. But we must also be mindful of the fact that we don’t actually know what the situation is in jails, and to what extent these funds are needed to put out local COVID fires on the county level. In any case, if you want to chime in and make your opinions known at the meeting tomorrow, here’s all the info you need to attend the emergency meeting. I’m not sure I can make it, but if I could, my priority would be to comment on the fact that BSCC must be the “responsible adult” and liaise between the counties to create a uniform, informative reporting platform for all the jails in California. We cannot solve a problem we know so little about.
Important postscript: The last few weeks have made the question of school reopening into yet another partisan screeching war lacking any nuance. While we have proof (not unambiguous, because this virus is a shapeshifter when it comes to data) that indiscriminate school reopening without social distancing measures can be dangerous, we also have proof that early education centers (daycares and preschools) that have rigorous sanitation and distancing protocols in place have not contributed to the spikes we are seeing (in fact, many of them were operating for months, for children of first responders, without seeing positive infections.) The most shrill, uncompromising voices for not opening schools come from what some might consider “my” side of the political map, and almost without exception from people who (1) don’t have kids (2) don’t teach kids and (3) don’t work in K-12 school administration. I’m noticing that these posts, invariably strewn with expletives about the selfishness of opening schools, are harvesting “likes” aplenty, because apparently wanting children to be properly educated and socialized, regardless of their class or wealth, is suddenly no longer a progressive priority, and wanting abuse, neglect, and household poverty to be detected and addressed is tantamount to being a loathsome Trumper. There are many good and knowledgeable people in school administration–some of them are good friends of mine–and they report so much uncertainty and efforts to do the right thing, precisely because they are exposed to the downsides of multiple options. There’s complicated choreography and architecture and proper messaging that needs to be done. I don’t have the answer to the difficult questions (and anyone who claims they have the perfect solution is either lying or ignorant), but I will tell you this: everything you’ve seen from me in the last three weeks—TV appearances, radio appearances, newspaper stories, dozens of posts with primary data analysis, this morning’s op-ed in the Chronicle, the open letter, the press conference speech–everything that I have done to try and save lives behind bars–has been brought to you by my son’s preschool, which has been open now for three weeks, and thank goodness for that. To their great credit, they took on an enormous amount of work and created sanitation protocols, symptom checking lines, pick-up and drop-off routines, and rigorous cohorting, so that I can write this post and you can read it. Working parents are part of the economy and part of the community. When we are full-time caregivers for our children, we are excluded from contributing to our communities in other ways. You might want to think of that and square the struggle to stop the prison outbreak with other progressive sensibilities before you exhort your local government to make decisions that lack nuance, ignore externalities (to teachers as well as students and families.) For more on why it is important to say this, read here.
Hello Everyone, I’m writing to invite you to an upcoming talk at Manny’s, the new café/civic engagement center in San Francisco (Valencia and 16th). When: April 9, 7:30pm-9pm Where: Manny’s, 3092 16th Street, San Francisco What: Cheap on Crime talk, with a special emphasis on the Trump Administration era. A little abstract: Literature on “late mass incarceration” observed a contraction of the carceral state, with varying opinions as to its causes and various degrees of optimism about its potential. But even optimistic commentators were taken aback by the Trump-Sessions Administration’s criminal justice rhetoric. This paper maps out the extent to which federal, state and local actions in the age of Trump have reversed the promising trends to shrink the criminal justice apparatus, focusing on federal legislation, continued state and local reform, and the role of criminal justice in 2020 presidential campaigns. In this talk, I argue that the overall salutary trends from 2008 onward have slowed down in some respects, but continued on in others, and that advocacy concerns should focus on particular areas of the criminal justice apparatus, notably the intersection of crime and immigration and the issue of violent crime. Come in your thousands and bring friends!
A short while ago I posted about the bipartisan enactment of the First Step Act, a bipartisan compromise bill offering evidence-based rehabilitation programming and early releases for nonviolent drug offenders. Harkening back to the pre-Trump era of cooperation, the animus behind this law is pragmatic, but I does have some important humanitarian provisions, such as the categorical prohibition of shackling pregnant women or women who have just given birth.
William Barr’s confirmation hearings yielded many interesting insights into his future as Attorney General. For me, one interesting moment was when Chuck Grassley (!!!) pressed Barr on his tough-on-crime record. The Brennan Center reports:
“Will you commit to fully implementing the FIRST STEP Act?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley, a key champion of the law.
“Yes, senator,” Barr responded. Barr said that when he was last attorney general in the early 1990s, the violent crime rate was high and prison sentences were short. The system had broken down, he said. Barr argued that the growth of the prison population helped bring crime down since then, something the Brennan Center strongly disputes. But he acknowledged that times have changed.
“I have no problem with the approach of reforming the prison structure and I will faithfully implement the law.”
This excerpt is a real gem. First, note that the question comes from Grassley, not usually who you’d think of as a champion for the oppressed. Second, note that Barr does not just say he’ll uphold the law, but actually goes into the merits of the law and essentially makes the argument that times have changed.
As the Brennan Center reports elsewhere, Barr is no bleeding heart prison reformer himself. The exchange between him and Grassley is an exchange between two Republicans, which confirms that much of the spirit of Cheap and Crime is alive and well.
This makes Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General even more interesting as an outlier. When touring with Cheap on Crime, I met Vikrant Reddy, an interesting and sharp-minded thinker about criminal justice reform on the right side of the political map. When we met, Reddy was working for Right on Crime, a conservative think tank about which I wrote extensively in the book. Right on Crime was making the argument that economic sustainability and small government principles required trimming the criminal justice apparatus, calling a truce on the war on drugs, and considering programs for reducing imprisonment. He has since then changed affiliations and now works for the Koch institute as a Senior Fellow. When we met, I asked Reddy what he thought about the diversity of opinion about criminal justice within the Republican Party. He said something that I found very interesting.
There was a generational gap, Reddy explained, between “old-skool” Republicans, who came of age politically during the era of high crime rates between the 1960s and 1980s, and the newer generation of conservative politicians, who were representing constituencies that experienced much safer streets and communities. The latter group was much more open to political compromise, if only for the sake of financial prudence.
Sessions is definitely a card-carrying member of the former group of politicians. In his confirmation hearings, he referred to marijuana smokers as “bad people”, an approach woefully out of touch not only with empirical research but with public opinion across the political spectrum. In an era of reasonable Republicans invested in reform, the Trump administration had to look long and hard for the only war-on-drugs dinosaur left in the Republican Party, and in Sessions, they found this rare and dying breed, to the detriment of us all: Sessions proceeded immediately to instruct federal prosecutors to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy, which the prosecutors themselves called him to recant. He revoked the Obama-era moratorium on the use of private prisons and took part in various other nefarious criminal justice initiatives that could not be justified by humanism or by efficiency.
What is interesting about Barr is that he is not a younger politician. His record on criminal justice from the early days is appalling. And nonetheless, he has been able to look around him, notice that the world has changed, and assure Grassley that criminal justice reformers will find him cooperative and willing to listen to reason. I find a glimmer of hope in this. Old punitive dogs can, and do, learn new tricks sometimes.
—– Thanks to Jodi Short for our conversation about this.