My Chesa Recall Punditry: The View from Bayview-Hunter’s Point

Last night provided me a unique vantage point on the Boudin recall effort: I was an inspector at a polling station in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, which is a neighborhood with a long history of neglect and criminalization. It is also unique in its demographics: 33.7% African American in a city that is just under 6% African American as a whole. There were approximately 650 registered voters in our precinct. 18 voted by mail and 17 voted in person, for a grand total of 35 voters. That’s 5% of the electorate. Things were somewhat better, but not by much, elsewhere in the city. By stark contrast to the 2020 Presidential election, pre-election mail-in voting in this local election–the third in 2022!–was very low. Our Federal Election Deputy (FED), who came to visit us throughout the day, reported that the polls were quiet and dormant throughout the whole day, pretty much everywhere.

Why does this matter? Take a look at a map published in today’s Chron of the neighborhoods that voted against Boudin:

At first glance, the story appears to be that neighborhoods associated with Asian-American populations tended to support the recall more fervently. This is unsurprising, and only talked about in hushed tones even though I think it is a big part of the story. In the last few weeks I saw concerted, fervent activism in support of the recall from very similar crowds to the ones who drove the SFUSD recall from a few months ago: it’s not all about out-of-town Republican millionaires conning unsuspecting masses into false consciousness. These are pretty much the same parents who resented the performative woketalk from the Board about school renaming and lottery admissions to Lowell. I suspect that some residual energy poured over from the previous recall (which I think was 100% justified) to this one (which I think was not.) The superficial narrative might be that a permissive and forgiving attitude toward prosecuting some people (read: presumably, young African American men) incentivizes crime and victimization (read: toward, presumably, Asian American victims) in the same way that lowering standards and talking about reparations and abolitionism (read: a narrative that supports, presumably, a monolithic African American interest) harms the pursuit of hard work and excellence in education (read: the purview, presumably, of Asian American students and parents.)

This story, which suggests the fomenting of racial animus between these two groups, building on the racial conflict undertones of the previous recall, is not completely preposterous. Most of the people who came to vote in person yesterday at our precinct were African American, and from their conversations, I gathered they all came motivated to vote against the recall. But this assumes that we can understand and generalize trends from a pretty minuscule percentage of San Franciscans. It’s not that the people who live in my beautiful city don’t care about criminal justice administration. NextDoor and other social media outlets are full of people chewing each other’s heads off about whether this or that wave of smash-and-grab, retail theft, or other incident is Chesa’s fault. But how many people care enough about this to put work into reading a hefty booklet and considering their positions on a three-page ballot, in which Prop H was the very last voting issue on the back side of the third page, for the third time in a row in the same year?

Over the years, I’ve returned again and again to Vanessa Barker’s excellent book The Politics of Imprisonment. Barker conducts a three-way comparison of penal politics in three states: California, Washington, and New York, finding that California’s political culture more easily lends itself to punitive experiments because of its polarization and populism. I write about this culture in Yesterday’s Monsters, when I show how politicized and emotion-driven the issue of parole is. In this kind of political environment, where money and strong interests can push something into the ballot as well as foment a well-oiled promotion machine (complete with all the tricks and deceptions we’ve come to expect from the initiative process), it is not difficult to swing the pendulum back and forth, from big reforms to big cancellations, from experiments in jurisdictional shifts to draconian policies masquerading as victim’s rights policies, and everything in between.

Ultimately, I think that what we saw here was just an exercise in manipulating this big machine and effectuating huge change through a relatively small number of voters. Direct democracy can be, and is, too direct when it imposes this burden thrice a year on already exhausted, grieving, anguished, and ticked off people with an empathy deficit from three years of awfulness that followed four years of a different kind of awfulness. In sum, whether or not the small minority who bothered to show up at the polls has false or true consciousness matters much less, sadly, than the forces exploiting the initiative process far beyond the Bay Area.

Would it have made a difference if the entire Bayview-Hunter’s Point electorate showed up en masse and voted against this recall? Of course it would. But after everything we’ve all been through–the impoverished folks in the neglected parts of town disproportionately suffering–we just didn’t have it in us to make yesterday a proud, sparkling moment for people-powered government, and even though it’s not our fault, we will all have to live with the consequences. Increased incarceration and the return of cash bail will not deter violent crime (but people’s attention will wander, and those who supported the recall will stop paying attention). Crime might go up (despite the recall, the supporters will say, or because of the recall, the opponents will say) or it might go down (because of the recall, supporters will say, or despite it, opponents will say) and we will continue to delude ourselves that dumbing down complicated policy decisions, deceiving people with oversimplified campaigns, and seasoning everything with some piquant interracial conflict, is how democracy should work.

The truth is that crime rates are like the weather. They rise and fall for a variety of reasons, only a few of which we can measure, and most of which have nothing to do with who is in charge. They have very little to do with big punishment trends (though, in localized situations, they do depend on effective police work in solving crime, which is a damn difficult thing to do when the community doesn’t trust the police enough to help.) It takes a real sea change in policy to effectuate changes in criminality patterns. But our megalomanic assumption that we can control crime rates through tinkering with policies will persist, and we will keep tinkering, until no one has any energy left to vote.

I offered a few more thoughts on KCRW here.

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied on the Appellate Level: Eisenberg vs. the Third District Court of Appeal

Not being on Twitter, while glorious, has its drawbacks; I would not have found out about this story if not for my colleague Paul Belonick, who came upon it through this thread. The story, in essence, is this:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees anyone the right to a speedy trial. What’s unique about this right, as the Supreme Court explained in Barker v. Wingo, is that it is often (though by no means always) in the interest of the defendant to delay matters in court: witnesses could forget and disappear, evidence could be mislaid, etc. But if someone is in pretrial detention, the clock ticks while the person’s ability to plan their defense is hampered. At the same time, speedy trial saves time and makes courts more efficient, and in that respect, it is as much a “right” of the government and the public coffers as it is of the defendant. For this reason, when someone brings a speedy trial motion, the court tallies the delays that are the government’s fault versus those that lie at the door of the defendant. There are official limitations on the time that can pass before a case is brought to trial at both the federal and state levels.

But speedy trial problems can happen at the appellate level, too–especially true for defendants languishing in prison while their appeals are pending. In 2021, well-known appellate attorney Jon Eisenberg decided on an unusual course of action: he sued the Third District Court of Appeal for the delays, framing them as the Court’s failure to comply with ministerial duties. In his petition for a mandamus writ, Eisenberg wrote:

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Since 2018, the court has denied calendar preference for at least 278 criminal appeals, with cases languishing from 12 to 99 months after being fully briefed. In some cases, the defendants had already served part or all of a reversed prison term or sentence enhancement—an egregious failure of the appellate process. Systemic inordinate delay in adjudicating criminal appeals is unconstitutional—a denial of due process. Where a right of appeal is afforded, the adjudicatory process must be timely. Currently, the Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District has yet to calendar at least 66 criminal appeals that have been fully briefed for 12 to 41 months. Expeditious action by this Court is essential to protect dozens of inmates who are threatened with irreparable injury—or the worsening of irreparable injury already suffered—from denial of their constitutional right to timely appellate review. This systemic denial of statutory and constitutional rights is a stain on the integrity of California’s appellate process. This Court should not condone it by inaction.

I. CODE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE SECTION 44 GIVES CALENDAR PREFERENCE TO CRIMINAL APPEALS. Code of Civil Procedure section 44 prescribes two forms of priority in calendaring appeals—among civil appeals, and between civil and criminal appeals. First, the statute requires “preference in hearing in the courts of appeal” for probate, contested election and certain defamation cases. Second, prioritized civil appeals must be placed on the calendar “next after cases in which the people of the state are parties.” These provisions have the effect of mandating calendar preference for all criminal appeals. “Adult criminal appeals receive priority because they are cases ‘in which the people of the state are parties.’” Thus, once a criminal appeal is fully briefed, it must be placed on the next available oral argument calendar—which in most Courts of Appeal usually means three or four months later.

II. SYSTEMIC DELAY IN THE CRIMINAL APPELLATE PROCESS IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Although there is no federal constitutional right of appeal, “if a State has created appellate courts as ‘an integral part of the … system for finally adjudicating the guilt or innocence of a defendant,’ [citation], the procedures used in deciding appeals must comport with the demands of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the [U.S.] Constitution.” This means a state’s criminal appellate process must be timely. “[F]ederal courts have held that undue delay in processing an appeal may rise to the level of a violation of due process.”  “[A]n appeal that is inordinately delayed is … a ‘meaningless ritual.’”

The Tenth Circuit has enunciated a general rule that delay in adjudicating a noncapital criminal appeal for more than two years after filing of the notice of appeal—including more than 11 months from the completion of briefing to the filing of the opinion—“gives rise to a presumption that the state appellate process is ineffective.” This “rebuttable presumption of prejudice” is applied where “such delays are chronic and systemic and have resulted in the wholesale denial of the right to a reasonably timely appeal.” “Delays of such magnitude produce an unacceptable threat to the integrity of the appellate process.” The most obvious and egregious prejudice from inordinate delay in a criminal appeal occurs when the defendant has already served part or all of a reversed prison term or sentence enhancement—which has happened more than a few times in the Third District. In such instances, the right of appeal is wholly subverted. Prejudice can also occur when delay impairs the defendant’s right to a retrial or resentencing after reversal—for example, due to faded memories or lost evidence. And harm can occur even if a long-delayed appeal eventually proves to be unsuccessful—in the form of emotional damage from the “increased anxiety, mistrust, hopelessness, fear, and depression” that “results from the very thwarting of the hope that liberty will be restored through a right that the State has guaranteed—the appellate process.” The rule should be no different under article I, section 7 of the California Constitution. “[T]he proper and efficient administration of the penal laws of the state, due regard being had to established procedure, demands a speedy resolution of all appeals taken in criminal cases.”

III. THE THIRD DISTRICT IS SYSTEMICALLY DENYING STATUTORY CALENDAR PREFERENCE FOR MANY CRIMINAL APPEALS.

A. Hundreds of Criminal Appeals Have Been Denied

Calendar Preference, With Dozens Yet to be Calendared. Justice Raye was appointed to the Third District in 1991 and became its Administrative Presiding Justice in 2010. His predecessor as Administrative Presiding Justice retired in September 2010. That same month, the Third District commenced a decade-long practice of failing to accord calendar preference to many criminal appeals.1 From September 2010 to March 2012, Justice Raye authored four decisions in criminal appeals with lapses of 17 to 25 months from fully briefed to submission for decision. Thereafter, the number of substantially delayed. Third District criminal appeals steadily rose, 1 Previously, such delay was rare. Petitioner has found only two Third District criminal appeals that were prejudicially delayed during the two years preceding Justice Raye’s appointment as Administrative Presiding Justice. (People v. Petit [18 months from fully briefed to submission for decision; adding 112 days conduct credit after sentence completed]; People v. Garcia [14 months from fully briefed to submission for decision; striking 8-month sentence enhancement after sentence completed].) 19 with longer delays. In 2012–2013, Justice Raye authored 17 decisions in criminal appeals with lapses of 13 to 36 months from fully briefed to submission for decision. By 2018, in cases authored by Justice Raye and other Third District justices, the court was failing to accord calendar preference to dozens of criminal appeals annually, some with extraordinary delays. From 2018 to the present, at least 212 criminal appeals had lapses of 12 to 99 months from fully briefed to submission for decision. Each was calendared months or years after the calendaring of civil appeals that were fully briefed long after those criminal appeals were fully briefed.

Other Third District criminal appeals, however, have been accorded calendar preference. As of this writing, at least 66 fully briefed Third District criminal appeals have yet to be calendared, with lapses of 12 to 41 months from fully briefed to submission for decision. (Eisenberg 2 Petitioner determined the numbers of delayed criminal appeals recounted in this petition by manually reviewing online docket entries for some 20,000 Third District filings. Given the limitations of that methodology, the true numbers are likely higher. The Third District’s internal records can complete the picture. Meanwhile, the Third District continues to calendar civil appeals that have been fully briefed for as few as four to eight months. 

B. Calendar Preference Failures Have Prejudiced Many Defendants.

Each of the 278 delayed criminal appeals referenced in this petition exceeds the Harris threshold for the rebuttable presumption of prejudice from unconstitutional delay—more than two years from notice of appeal to filing of opinion, including more than 11 months after completion of briefing. In some of those cases, actual prejudice is demonstrated by the fact that the defendant had already served part or all of a reversed prison term or sentence enhancement by the time of adjudication. For example: This despite the fact that, according to the Third District’s clerk/executive officer, “‘tentative opinions have already been prepared’” in many of those cases.

The Third District has also failed to accord calendar preference to some probate appeals, as Code of Civil Procedure section 44 also requires. [docket entries for four probate appeals with 17 to 21 months from case fully briefed to submission for decision].)

• In People v. Kalac [16 months from fully briefed to submission for decision], the Third District struck a one-year sentence enhancement only after it had been served. The People had conceded the point from the outset.

• In People v. Speegle [53 months from fully briefed to dismissal of appeal], the Third District dismissed as moot the defendant’s appeal from an order denying his transfer out of Napa State Hospital for outpatient treatment—because he had completed his seven-year commitment pending the appeal. 

• In People v. Weathers [41 months from fully briefed to submission for decision], the Third District struck a partially served 10-year sentence enhancement. Again, the People had conceded the point. Weathers is especially noteworthy because, by contrast, in an almost simultaneously filed appeal presenting the same conceded issue, a different Third District panel ruled just 81 days after the concession, thus giving that defendant the benefit of the court’s decision.

• In People v. Wrobel [52 months from fully briefed to submission for decision], the Third District reversed a 44-month prison sentence and remanded for misdemeanor sentencing only after the defendant had completed the sentence.

• In People v. Johnson [24 months from fully briefed to submission for decision], the Third District struck an already served five-year sentence enhancement.

• In People v. Kent [78 months from fully briefed to submission for decision], the Third District struck an already served eight-month sentence enhancement.

The extraordinary delay in these cases, resulting in defendants having served part or all of a wrongly imposed sentence, is an egregious failure of the appellate process.

C. These Systemic Failures Were Presaged.

These systemic failures of calendar preference for Third District criminal appeals may lack bad intent, but they have effectively operated to implement a proposal the Legislature 23 rejected four decades ago—that in criminal cases there should be no absolute right of appeal at all, much less calendar preference. In 1979, this Court held that the Court of Appeal may not summarily affirm a criminal conviction without full briefing and the right to oral argument, as guaranteed by statute and the California Constitution. In 1981, Justice Raye, at the time Senior Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs, urged the Legislature to supersede Brigham, testifying in support of a bill the Attorney General’s office was sponsoring—Senate Bill No. 1197—which would have eliminated appeals as a matter of right in criminal cases and made criminal appellate review conditioned on the trial judge’s discretionary issuance of a “certificate of appeal.” The bill failed. Immediately before Justice Raye’s testimony, Court of Appeal Justice Winslow Christian testified in opposition to summary affirmance of criminal convictions and urged the Legislature not to alter the statutory calendar preference for criminal appeals, stating: “[T]hat’s a priority that I think is sound. It should not be changed.” Justice Raye then testified:

• “[W]e think there should be some limitation on the right to appeal in consideration of the fact that over 90 percent of criminal appeals result in affirmance and a substantial number of that 90 percent could be characterized as frivolous appeals.”

• Under proposed Senate Bill No. 1197, “[a]ppeal would be only by a certificate of appeal granted by a trial court… Another proposal that we’re considering is vesting discretion not with the trial court but with the court of appeal to decide whether an appeal, on its face, presents substantial issues that warrant consideration by a panel [of] the court of appeal … and the court of appeal would have discretion to refuse to entertain an appeal.”

• “We think this Committee should consider a procedure whereby our office on behalf of the people can move for [summary affirmance] of appeals filed with the court of appeal. We attempted to do this under existing law about three years ago and regrettably the Supreme Court ruled the procedure … improper as not being authorized and in fact being at odds with court rules and with statute … The case name is People v. Brigham.”

A month before this legislative hearing, Justice Raye wrote to members of the Senate opposing an ultimately successful bill to increase the number of Court of Appeal justices statewide. Justice Raye argued that “the more appropriate remedy is to curtail the filing of the frivolous appeal” and “[t]he Courts of Appeal must also become selective in the cases they hear.” During Justice Raye’s tenure as Administrative Presiding Justice, the Third District has only selectively complied with Code of Civil Procedure section 44, thus effectively undermining Brigham by withholding meaningful appellate review in many criminal appeals—sometimes with serious consequences.

IV. MANDATE LIES TO COMPEL STATUTORY COMPLIANCE.

This Court has original jurisdiction to adjudicate this petition. Under such jurisdiction, mandate lies to compel public entities and officers to perform ministerial duties. A ministerial duty may be created “either by statute or by constitutional compulsion.” “A ministerial act is an act that a public officer is required to perform in a prescribed manner in obedience to the mandate of legal authority and without regard to his own judgment or opinion concerning such act’s propriety or impropriety, when a 26 given state of facts exists.’” The statutory duty of appellate courts to accord calendar preference to every criminal appeal is plainly ministerial. The “act” they are “required to perform in a prescribed manner” is to put fully briefed criminal appeals on the next available calendar. The “given state of facts” (ibid.) is a criminal appeal having become fully briefed. Code of Civil Procedure section 44 affords no discretion “concerning such act’s propriety or impropriety.” The gravity of the Third District’s mismanagement of its criminal docket amply justifies exercise of this Court’s original jurisdiction to compel compliance with Code of Civil Procedure section 44. Expeditious restoration of statutorily mandated calendar preference for all Third District criminal appeals is essential to protect dozens of inmates currently facing irreparable injury—or the worsening of irreparable injury already suffered— from denial of their constitutional right to timely appellate review. 

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The California Supreme Court formally denied Eisenberg’s petition, but wrote: 

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We recommend that within 180 days of this order, the Judicial Council complete an investigation of alleged delays in the Third District Court of Appeal’s disposition of criminal appeals and, if appropriate, propose measures that the Judicial Council and the Court of Appeal should employ to address any problems that are identified.

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As a consequence of the investigation, three appellate judges resigned (see herehere, and here.)

June 2022 Election: Blog Endorsements

Back when hadaraviram.com was California Correctional Crisis, I used to offer election endorsements for your consideration, focusing on the criminal justice propositions. This election has offered a grim opportunity to contemplate the probable victory of two seasoned and experienced politicians, whose management of the COVID-19 crisis in prisons has reflected an astounding moral eclipse.

A while ago, I posted an endorsement against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall. We were all experiencing collective distress over his reluctance to do anything useful to save lives behind bars from COVID. My reasoning was this: the rest of the ballot was a list of egomaniacal clowns with no political experience, many of whom could not even spell their statements. And, as I said there:

I’m not an idiot, and I do understand the concept of the lesser evil. If you are so warped in single-issue agitation that you can’t see the qualitative differences between Newsom–an experienced and capable politician–and the rest of the lot, you need better glasses.

I wrote that post in August. in November, we found out that Newsom, the champion of science-forward, vaccine-forward policies in schools and everywhere else, thinks that unvaccinated guards are a-ok, and goes as far as to support them in their (devastatingly) successful appeal against a vaccine mandate. It was one of the ugliest examples of justice delayed becoming justice denied, can easily be attributed to the fact that the prison guards contributed $1.75 million to his anti-recall campaign, and has disillusioned me. I’ve come a long way from cheering for the then-Mayor of San Francisco who spoke at my 2005 PhD ceremony, and I’m feeling so full of bitterness and bile over the unnecessary loss of life that, this time around, I offer no endorsement for the gubernatorial position. Vote for whoever you want; Newsom will likely win.

The other person to resent is Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is the darling of all the progressive voting guides. Bonta and his employees are the architects of the prison system’s defense against the COVID lawsuits, both regarding San Quentin and more generally in federal court. Their bad-faith in court appearances and representations, ugly games, and shocking lack of regard for human life has soured me on Bonta to the point that I make no endorsement, even though on paper he is the better candidate of the lot and will likely win. I explain my position in detail here. The short version is this: Bonta thinks that he works for us only when he legislates or creates policy, and that when his office litigates, he is the Tom Hagen of the prison guards. That’s an unacceptable perspective for a public servant.

I try not to be a one-issue voter, but having experienced the COVID-19 prison catastrophe up close it is very difficult to justify voting for Newsom and Bonta. Follow your conscience/calculus.

By contrast to these two, one public official shines as a person of profound understanding and conscientious behavior, and that is Phil Ting. I endorsed Phil’s assembly campaign in 2018 and am happy and proud to endorse him again; his conduct during the COVID-19 crisis was nothing short of exemplary. As Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, Ting presided over a hearing in which, finally, Kathleen Allison was being asked hard questions about her policies and the way CDCR was handling itself. He has also been very sensitive to issues of parole and one of the only politicians with enough guts and public responsibility to realize that long-term aging prisoners are the best release prospects from both a medical and a public safety standpoint. Vote for him again.

There are two criminal justice issues on the ballot. One of them is the ridiculous Prop D, likely thrown into the ballot to add a prong to the Chesa Boudin recall effort by creating the (false!) impression that the D.A.’s office is not responsive to victims’ needs. There is a long tradition in CA of deceiving the voters to believe that there is a need for a victims’ bill of rights and services, when one has existed since 1982 (I explain all this in Chapter 3 of Yesterday’s Monsters.) Just like Marsy’s Law and other deceptive initiative tricks, this is money allocated to no good cause, creating duplicative services that already exist. The Chron is far too gentle on this. Don’t be swindled – vote NO on D.

Finally, speaking of swindling, you already know my position on the Boudin recall effort. There’s a well-oiled, well-funded machine here trying to roll back important reforms, and exploiting people’s exasperation at the misery and turmoil in town, which are NOT Boudin’s fault by a longshot. Don’t be deceived! Vote NO on H.

Impending Closure of Death Row

A couple of days ago I spoke on KCRW about the announced closure of death row at San Quentin. Here’s the story as it appeared on the KCRW website, followed by some additional thoughts from me:

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Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week a plan to shut down the notorious death row at San Quentin State Prison. The plan would move the prison’s most condemned inmates to other maximum security prisons over the next two years, in an effort to create what Newsom calls a “positive and healing environment” at the Northern California prison. 

San Quentin has the largest death row population in the nation — nearly 700 total. And while California hasn’t executed anyone in more than 15 years, Newsom also signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on executions in 2019. 

The facility was originally a ship, and in the mid 19th century, prisoners themselves built the prison, explains UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram. “It’s a dilapidated facility, there are no solid doors, there are bars on the doors, ventilation is terrible. So it’s a facility that was built for 19th century standards. And just because of inertia, we are still incarcerating people in the same condition.”

She points out that the facility is located in a geographically beautiful area surrounded by expensive real estate. “In many ways, [it’s] a waste to have a prison there where people don’t enjoy the seaview and are incarcerated in terrible conditions.”

However, she notes that people currently aren’t being executed due to the moratorium, and since 1978, the state executed only 13 people, and more than 100 died of natural causes during that time. 

“Just during this moratorium that Governor Newsom introduced, more people died on death row from COVID during the horrific outbreak at Quentin than we executed since 1978. So I’m sure that is giving some pause about the utility of the exercise of keeping people there,” Aviram says. 

Because San Quentin is so old, inmates there suffered from coronavirus more than those at modern and well-ventilated facilities like the state prison at Corcoran, she says. Plus, it houses lots of people who are aging and infirm, who were thus already immuno-compromised and vulnerable to the virus.  

Emotional and political reasons may be driving votes

California voters approved a ballot measure in 2016 to speed up executions, and the measure included a provision allowing death row inmates to be relocated to other prisons where they could work and pay restitution to their victims.

Aviram says over the years, there have been several attempts to abolish the death penalty through voter initiaties, but they always lost by small majorities. 

Through inquiries, polls, and conversations with people, she says she realizes: “People are voting for the death penalty largely for emotional, sentimental, political reasons. They are more in love with a fantasy of having a sentence that’s reserved for the worst of the worst, and can deter people.” 

She describes death row in California as “basically a more expensive version of life without parole that costs us $150 million a year.”

She adds, “It’s probably a good idea to think of the death penalty as undergoing the same process as some of the people who have been sentenced to death, which is rather than an execution, the death penalty is going to die a slow natural death itself, just from disuse and from this gradual dismantling.” 

However, some district attorneys continue asking for the death penalty in capital cases, though the state doesn’t execute people anymore, as they hope the governor might revive the policy, Aviram points out. However, she says, “I think that because of the national trends … it is extremely unlikely that it’s going to come back.”

Newsom’s reimagining of prisons and what’s missing

When the governor says a “positive and healing environment,” Aviram says this means a life where inmates find meaning and usefulness (do some jobs). 

But this doesn’t completely eliminate the death penalty, she says. “Because there is still one very big and expensive piece of the death penalty that is still with us — and that’s death penalty litigation.”

“We have this facility where people are sentenced to death and are still litigating themselves post-conviction, and that litigation is actually the lion’s share of the expense. So it’s only really going to go away if and when all of those sentences are commuted, and these people are no longer litigating their death sentences at the state’s expense. So that is the missing piece.”

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Some more thoughts: First, it’s been interesting to follow the fanciful, but often idle, talk about the real estate potential of Quentin. Readers who have been to Quentin know how beautiful the village is and how glorious the waterfront vistas are. There are plans to close four prisons, but no definite plans for Quentin. Any prospects of selling that land are to be viewed with ambivalence. On one hand, what a waste to have a prison so close to the water, without windows to enjoy the view – a place that combines suffering with beauty. On the other hand, it would be a terrible loss for the folks housed at Quentin, dilapidated and dangerous as it is, to be strewn about prisons in remote locations in the state, far away from the progressive energy of volunteers and rehabilitative programming richness of the Bay Area that people so desperately need for making parole. In my wildest fantasies, we close Quentin down, transform it into a resort/retreat for nonviolent communication and community healing, rebuild with huge ceiling-to-floor glass walls overlooking the ocean and gorgeous walking trails, and offer all the men well-paying jobs running the resort.

About the money: I predicted much of this demise, based on national trends, in Cheap on Crime, and still think that the deep decline of the death penalty is in no small part due to the financial crisis of 2008. The fact that we still spend a sizable pile of money on death row, despite the moratorium, is not surprising, and shows that the disingenuous efforts to save money via Prop 66 didn’t fulfill their purported purpose. In 2016, when giving talks about this, I used to draw the triangle of home improvement; write in its three corners: good, fast, and cheap; and tell people, “you can have two.” We can’t compromise on having a “good” death penalty (one in which there are no constitutional violations and factual mistakes), and so, it cannot be fast or cheap. The big savings will only roll in when we get rid of the litigation piece.

There’s no better proof that the death penalty is on its last leg than the fact that Joseph Diangelo, the Golden State Killer, was sentenced to life without parole. If not the most notorious and heinous criminal in the history of California, then who? And the logic in Diangelo’s case applies to everyone else–why the death penalty? So they can continue litigating at the state’s expense and die a natural death? Whose interests does this serve?

About the actual job of relocating death row people to other prisons/general population: this is going to be a complicated and delicate job, and my fear is that it will be entrusted to folks who are not tuned in to the complexities. They would be moving people who have been effectively “at home” in solitary confinement in unique conditions, many of them for several decades, into facilities with much younger people and a very different energy. There could be animosities and alliances that are difficult to predict and go beyond crude racial/gang affiliations. This is true, generally speaking, for every prison transfer (long time readers remember the fears and concerns surrounding CDCR’s plan to comply with the landmark decision in Von Staich through transfers to other facilities); in the case of the death penalty, there are other factors, not the least of which is the unique combination of notoriety and frailness of the people to be transferred.

There’s also the question whether dismantling death row, what with its symbolic hold over the Californian imagination, slows down the dismantling of the death penalty itself. Without the physical reminder of the remnants of this archaic punishment, and with the growing resemblance of the death penalty to the two other members of the “extreme punishment trifecta” (life with and without parole), does the effort to abolish the death penalty lose its steam? The uphill battle for activists will be to spin this development to argue that the death penalty has been defanged beyond its utility; now that we’re left with only its negative aspects (to the extent that some people think it has advantages) it’s time to stop hemorrhaging state funds for incessant litigation.

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Today I’m at the Annual Meeting of the Western Society of Criminology, speaking about FESTER. My panel starts at 8:15am island time in the Waianae room – come say hi!

The Hidden Side of the Prison Labor Economy on Marketplace

This morning I spoke with David Brancaccio of Marketplace Morning Report about the perversions and frustrations of the job market for formerly and currently incarcerated workers. The broadcast version is above – here’s the longer version from Marketplace:

This interview is part of our series Econ Extra Credit with David Brancaccio: Documentary Studiesa conversation about the economics lessons we can learn from documentary films. We’re watching and discussing a new documentary each month. To watch along with us, sign up for our newsletter.


There’s a striking scene in Brett Story’s documentary “The Prison in 12 Landscapes” that captures the complicated and exploitative aspect of rehabilitative prison labor programs: An incarcerated firefighter, explaining how they’re not allowed to talk to others on the job, adds that — because of their criminal record — they have a slim chance of becoming a firefighter upon leaving prison.

It’s an experience that’s common not just for prison firefighters, but for people who work making telemarketing calls, care for elderly or infirm people in prison, and more, according to UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram.

“There are many limitations on people working in these occupations, and because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people,” Aviram said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio. 

While there are laws in place to protect formerly incarcerated people from hiring discrimination, Aviram noted that many barriers to employment remain, including the scarcity of rehabilitative work programs and their stringent terms and conditions.

“The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based,” Aviram said, “so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside.”

Below is an edited transcript of Brancaccio’s conversation with Aviram on the other jobs prisoners commonly do, the challenges facing formerly incarcerated people who are trying to find work and what Aviram thinks can be done to increase their chances of finding meaningful jobs that take advantage of skills learned while in prison.

David Brancaccio: In this film, we see a California wildfire at first. It turns out that one of those working on the fireline, to keep it from spreading, is a person in prison, in a special prison work program. Would a program like that be common or fairly rare?

Hadar Aviram: Here in California, it’s extremely common. And among the people who saved probably thousands of lives in the last summer, when we had the wildfires, were many, many incarcerated people working as firefighters.

“The range of occupations that people have in prison”

David Brancaccio: It’s interesting, right? Because often people don’t know that, in fact, there’s a ban on people who are incarcerated speaking with members of the public while out there fighting the fire.

Aviram: Yes, there are many limitations on people working in these occupations and, because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people. A lot of the customer service on the phone, a lot of the furniture, things that are being manufactured — sweatshirts for dozens of Ivy League universities are made in a prison in Kansas, where people are getting paid 50 cents a day. It’s really astounding, the range of occupations that people have in prison. And I think that firefighting is an especially interesting example, because they are saving lives and they are working shoulder to shoulder with professional, non-incarcerated firefighters. The big irony, of course, is that then they get out and, at least until recently, they couldn’t get a job as firefighters, despite being trained, because they have a criminal record.

When formerly incarcerated people are unable to get jobs

Brancaccio: I mean, that’s the thing. There’s, of course, a move that we’ve spent some time covering on this program to ban employers from, for the first initial part of a job application, asking if you have a criminal record, but employers have a way finding out anyway, or it comes up during the background check.

Hadar Aviram

Aviram: Absolutely. I was one of the big pushers for this kind of, we call it “ban the box” initiatives, to screen people without knowing their criminal record. But, it turns out, colleagues of mine at the Urban Institute did a study and they found out that rather than employers discriminating on the basis of criminal records, they have started discriminating on the basis of race as a proxy for criminal records. So, for example, they’ll get job applications, and they don’t know which of the people have a criminal record, but they will interview the person called “Brad” rather than the person called “Jamal,” under the assumption that they are using this as a proxy for the criminal record that they don’t have an access to. It’s very frustrating, because you’re trying to create equal opportunities for everybody, but these things have such a protean quality that they pop up no matter what kind of protections you introduce in the workplace.

“Oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself.”

Hadar Aviram, UC Hastings law professor

Brancaccio: What do you do about that? I mean, you know, there’s an ongoing national discussion, at some level, about what we’re addressing here. But, in part, when people have worked alongside people that they find out have criminal records, and they see firsthand that they’re like the rest of us, sometimes that can help break down these stereotypes?

Aviram: Absolutely. And this is a truth that has been found in studies all over. I mean, people have done studies, for example, of members of fundamentalist churches that, you know, will be railing against single mothers and gay people, but then they have a gay uncle or a niece who’s a single mom and they love them to bits, and that softens, a little bit, this approach.

And the same thing holds for people with criminal records. I just saw a study done at a college where there was a strong correlation between students who personally knew fellow students who were formerly incarcerated and their opinions about: Would they befriend somebody with a criminal record? Would they be willing to date somebody who had been in prison? So, truly, personal acquaintances and education and exposure is the most important thing that we can do to break down these barriers.

Brancaccio: Back to this notion of labor done by people in prison: When the phone rings at our house, it could be someone who is incarcerated at the other end of the line?

Aviram: Yes, absolutely. This is just one of many, many, many occupations that people engage in in prisons. Phone solicitation, customer service, a lot of manufacturing of everyday items that you wouldn’t even have an idea come from prison. And, of course, a lot of the work inside prisons. I don’t know that a lot of people know this: We have a high population of people who are aging and infirm in prison. And oftentimes the people taking care of them are trained caregivers who are incarcerated themselves. So a lot of the things that we think the state is providing, it’s actually people from inside the prison who are incarcerated themselves who are doing it.

Is prison labor, by definition, exploitative?

Brancaccio: What’s your sense, having studied this — I mean, is it, by definition, prison labor, exploitative? I mean, no one’s paid market rates for that labor.

Aviram: This is a complicated question, because there’s the world that we would want to live in, in which everybody gets minimum wage and in which you are actually trained for the reality of the marketplace. And there’s the realities of the world we’re in, in which prison labor, to different extents, is exploitative, and we therefore try to sort of improve people’s lot within the conditions that they’re in.

We have to keep in mind the fact that, to some extent, prison labor is training people for conditions in the market on the outside. But the problem is that oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself. The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based, so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside. Up until recently, the firefighting was one such example, but there are many other examples. The programs that do have occupations where people can work on the outside, like marine technology or carpentry, are highly selective; very, very few people can get in. Overall, a more realistic prospect for people coming out is to become independent contractors and work for themselves.

The kind of work formerly incarcerated people end up doing

Brancaccio: That’s what people end up doing? Working for themselves?

Aviram: Exactly. For example, you’ll find people that are putting together landscaping companies, house work companies. And there are some examples that are really amazing, of nonprofits that people have put on the outside, where they’re working in the marketplace and just doing amazing things. Right next to Hastings, which is where I teach, is a neighborhood called the Tenderloin in San Francisco, which, during the pandemic, became pretty much an open-air drug market — lots of homeless people, lots of misery, mental health, substance abuse, oftentimes people overdosing. And the mayor was upset by this, and a couple of times they sent the police to clean up the neighborhood with everything that stems from that. That was extremely difficult, because there were no solutions for people other than just sort of cleaning up the aesthetics.

And then a nonprofit stepped in called Urban Alchemy. They operate public restrooms, which is incredibly important in these kinds of neighborhoods. They operated safe sleeping sites during COVID. They calmed down violence, they actually revived people with Naloxone who had overdosed multiple times every week. They did amazing things. And what enables them to do this work more effectively and more peacefully than the police, and almost without any show of force, is the fact that they are former lifers, that the people who work at Urban Alchemy acquired these peacemaking and mentoring skills that they use every day on the job in decades in prison. They were elders and mentors on the yard when they were inside, and they retain this kind of calm mentorship role on the outside. And they have done such an amazing job that the change in energy in the neighborhood is palpable.

Brancaccio: Those are special skills that are in demand. It’s a shame that some employers don’t fully recognize this.

Aviram: Exactly. There are many ways in which we look at a criminal record or a previous prison stay as a liability. This is of course difficult, because at any given moment, 1% of the entire population of the United States is incarcerated. So we have a lot of people who actually have acquired skills and strengths where they were that we can use in the marketplace. I’m not just thinking about occupations that are entry-level jobs, I’m thinking even about entry into, say, the California bar, as lawyers. Think about what somebody brings in, coming in with an insider perspective on a criminal justice system, reassuring their clients about what’s going to happen to them, you know, being able to present a realistic perspective. There are so many strengths that you acquire.

One of the most successful programs we have in California is called marine technologies, it’s people who work underwater fixing ships and underwater structures. And this is partly a skill where it’s a great advantage to be used to being in a very overcrowded environment. This is difficult for a lot of people. But people, unfortunately, who spent time in our grossly overcrowded prisons have acquired this skill. This is a market strength that is being undervalued and stigmatized for no good reason.

Brancaccio: I was reading about that marine program. Recidivism, going back to the ways of crime, is near zero for people who’ve gone through that program.

Aviram: Those are good jobs. If you get a job like that, there is no reason for you to commit crime, because you have gainful employment. We have to think more evidence-based about these kinds of programs and strengths in the market and prepare people for that.

Brancaccio: Those programs often can be expensive within the prison. Sometimes when budgets are tight, as you’ve written, that’s the program that gets cut.

Aviram: Exactly. It’s one of the downsides. And this is something that I wrote in my first book “Cheap on Crime,” that we, overall, saw the prison population shrink since 2009. This was a result of the the recession of 2008. But one of the side effects of that that was more sinister was that there were drastic cuts to rehabilitative programming. And that created a big difference, a big gap, between prisons that are set in urban centers, where there’s lots of volunteers and do-gooders that step in and create these programs. Here, for example, in San Quentin [State Prison], we have Silicon Valley entrepreneurs volunteering to teach people the internet, which is very difficult when you don’t have internet behind bars. So we have all of this programming because of the volunteers, because they’re stepping in to fill in the gaps that the state cannot fill. But there are many, many prisons in the United States that are located in these remote, rural locations, very, very difficult to get there, and very difficult to get quality programming that actually prepares people to get good jobs once they get released.

Not the Chauvin Trial Commentary You Expect

We’re already being inundated with commentary about Derek Chauvin’s conviction and I don’t feel the need to add to the onslaught with too much, so I’ll just say this: Yes, I think this is the correct legal outcome. But I worry very much about the extent to which we are trying to achieve social, racial, and economic equality through criminal verdicts. I worry when people direct their outrage at charge dismissals and acquittals, because having read Frank Zimring’s When Police Kill, I know that waiting for deliverance through the courts is much more of a disappointment than systematic hiring and training changes. And I also worry when people direct their joy (sometimes in questionable ways) at convicting verdicts as the be-all, end-all of achieving justice. Getting to real equality requires the kind of boring financial redistribution of wealth work that doesn’t make headlines or attractive tweets to the extent that a high-profile conviction does. And we have a long way to go.

Do Some Rich People Think Democracy is Beneath Them?

In case the horrific damage Trump and Trumpism have done to our democracy was not obvious from the horrendous crimes in plain view of the last few days (or the last four years, including human rights crimes masquerading as policies) today we have evidence on the local level of how deeply the notion that democracy can be purchased and toyed with has resonated with some Silicon Valley dolts. Not that these people needed Trump’s encouragement to think of San Francisco as window dressing for their lives, and of all of us as “local color” providing a picturesque setting for their VC deals. But today really takes the cake with an idiotic fundraiser, organized by this guy, who seems to think that his claim to virtue–being ridiculously and ostentatiously rich in a city where other members of the human race have to starve, defecate, and die in the streets–is a proper substitute for actual criminal justice expertise.

This initiative comes in the heels of a horrific tragedy–a fatal car accident that claimed the lives of two women. The man behind the wheel, Troy McAlister, was intoxicated and driving a car he had stolen from a date. Because Chesa Boudin ran on a progressive prosecutor platform, the focus is on prosecutorial missteps that led to McAlister being free: before this recent crime, he had been headed toward trial in late 2018 on two counts of second-degree robbery in connection with a 2015 holdup in a San Francisco store. Boudin’s office “referred these cases to parole because we believed there was a greater likelihood of him being held accountable and having the kind of intervention that would protect the public and break this cycle of recidivism.”

Since I know something about parole, I can explain that there are two ways in which people on parole end up back in prison: either they commit a new crime, for which they are prosecuted and tried (this can take months, if not years) or they commit a parole violation that lands them back in prison. Oftentimes, there’s an overlap. While some parole violations are technical and trivial, others amount to new crimes. It is not unreasonable to think that a parole violation route will be more efficient than a new prosecution, though things have somewhat changed in terms of the implications. Before the Schwarzenegger Administration’s parole reform, parole violators pretty much automatically ended back in prison, even for very minor violations–resulting in a prison population comprised of 50% of the people doing time not for new crimes, but for parole violations. The reform, aimed at alleviating the obscene 200% overcrowding in the system, aimed to give parole agents more discretion and a range of intermediary sanctions before throwing them back in the slammer, depending on discretion and on how severe the violation was and how risky the person was judged to be.

Like any situation involving risk prediction, when deciding whether to remand a person to CDCR or use an intermediary sanction, parole agents could be right or they could be making one of two types of mistakes. False negatives are situations when the person is assumed to not be much of a risk but then commits a new crime (such as McAlister). False positives are situations where a person is kept behind bars, mistakenly perceived as a release risk, when had they been released, they would not have committed a crime. Obviously, we only hear about false negatives, not false positives, because they appear to be penalty-free. But false positives also have a grave price. As of today, 133 people have died of COVID-19 behind bars. Most of those people were aging folks, who are largely assumed to have aged out of crime, and who would have posed no danger to the outside world had they been released (which would have saved their lives.) Their illnesses and death, in turn, resulted in infections, illnesses, and deaths in the communities surrounding the prison. It’s just that our society is not particularly inclined to value the harm and price paid by these people and their families as we value the lives on the outside. But any time we make a judgment call about risk, we might be making either mistake. And that means that some mistakes, which are horrible, and tragic, and senseless, and enraging, cannot be prevented. This is a horrible truth to live, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s something systemically wrong at the prosecutor’s office or at the parole agent’s office. It indicates that someone made a horrible mistake.

Moreover, our attention to particular instances of false negatives blur their overall context. Every fatal traffic accident that happens in San Francisco, of which there are dozens every year, leaves a deep wound of grief in its aftermath. Many of them are as preventable as this one. And the vast majority of them never make the news, because they don’t involve parolees, which is why we deal with them through initiatives such as Vision Zero, rather than through hatchet jobs against our elected officials.

So why are we making this horrific tragedy into a cause célèbre? Because there are political hatchets being forged, such as this “astroturf fundraiser” (as my friend Chris Johnson called it), about which there isn’t much to say that isn’t obvious. However, obscene wealth seems to make people impervious to the obvious, so here it is: It turns out that we have a magical and effective mechanism in the United States for holding prosecutors “accountable to the people.” It’s called voting. The people wanted a progressive prosecutor and, should they be displeased, they can elect someone else. Voting comes in pretty handy in procuring accountability, because it is available to people who have less money than Mr. Calacanis. The funny thing is that, throughout the last decades, because of aggressive fearmongering propaganda, voting regularly and reliably produced aggressive prosecutors who almost singlehandedly drove our mass incarceration crisis. Now, we’ve been through the 2008 financial crisis, and the Obama administration, and the horrors of Trump and a second recession, and the American public has apparently come to the conclusion that they are ill served by this sort of prosecutorial policy, and so they are choosing something else.

Mr. Calacanis knows this, of course. He and his ilk have been more than happy with this system as long as the hoi polloi reliably voted for the kind of prosecutors they like, but democracy doesn’t suit them quite to the same degree when the plebeians want social services, relief from cash bail, a wrongful convictions unit, and humane jails. So when he claims to speak for “the people,” he is not championing you and me–he’s championing his rich buddies, whose favorite pastime is to abuse and exploit California’s delicate democracy and treat it as a playground for their contemptible ideologies and ridiculous experimentation. This is not a particularly original move. Calacanis is merely following in the footsteps of several folks just like him, like the wealthy guy who gave us Marsy’s Law (which we have to blame for having so many old and sick people behind bars, denied parole in the face of COVID-19 for no logical reason) or the clown who wanted to split California into six states. It should also come as no surprise that these folks believe that investigative journalism, just like democracy, is something you simply buy with Silicon Valley money–even though we have excellent investigative journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle who are all over this story and are not for sale.

Look, I’m not an idiot. I know that politics-for-sale is festering throughout this great nation, and I cling to my youth in Israel, where that was not the case to this depraved degree, mostly for sentimental reasons. I know that the social democracy in the Old Country breathes no more, but its memory and ethos live on, and I have daily proof that even that faint memory works better than than the corrupt, unbridled capitalism of the U.S., in the form of people from my age cohort in Israel posting pictures of having received the vaccine I can only dream about. I remember being physically nauseated when I read the Mueller report, partly because it gave me a window into the lives of oligarchs who think nothing of buying caviar for $30,000. Mr. Calacanis and his buddies are obviously not as rich as their Russian counterparts (that must sting,) but they’re trying to play the same game. And it is universally loathsome, regardless of whether the perpetrators wear ostrich jackets or Patagonia fleece vests.

Carceral Permeability, “Pandemics of the Self” and “Pandemics of the Other”

If you told me before March 2020 that the entire state of California would be atwitter about two dinner parties at a fancy restaurant on two consecutive nights, I would be very surprised–and yet, here we all are, frothing at the mouth about precisely that. First, newspapers broke the story of Gavin Newsom’s large private gathering at the French Laundry in Yountville with friends, socialites, and lobbyists. Then, it turned out that San Francisco Mayor London Breed had some French Laundry of her own to air–she was there at a large gathering the following night.

The outrage and mockery was palpable. There are already two Onion pieces–this one and this one–but perhaps the very best was written by the Chron’s food critic, Soleil Ho. This masterpiece alone is worth my annual subscription to the Chron, and you should read it in its entirety, but for our purposes, here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

You’re a good, safe person who believes in science, you think as you check your makeup in the mirror. Not like those troglodyte COVID deniers storming retail outlets, demanding to be let in without masks on, banging on glass doors and insisting that they’re important. These are the people the rules are for. You on the other hand know the rules so well — you are kind of in charge of explaining them, after all — that you know specifically, to the letter, why your situation is an exception to those rules.

A couple of days later, I realized why I had so profoundly enjoyed it, when I read John Witt’s new book American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19. Witt draws a useful distinction between “quaratinist” and “sanitationist” state approaches toward contagion and disease. Authoritarian states, he explains, adopt a quarantinist approach: they “exercise forceful controls over the bodies and lives of their subjects, locking down communities, neighborhoods, and cities and imposing broad quarantine orders, often backed by the military.” By contrast, “[a] sanitationist state employs liberal policies designed to eliminate environments that breed disease.” Witt sees the United States as an amalgam of both approaches:

On the spectrum from authoritarian quarantinism to liberal sanitationism, the United States has often occupied two positions at once: one approach for those with political clout, and another for everyone else. America has always been a divided state with a mixed tradition. For middle-class white people and elites, public health policy typically reflected liberal sanitationist values. The law has protected property rights for the wealthy and attended to the civil liberties of the powerful. At the nation’s borders, however, and for the disadvantaged and for most people of color, the United States has more often been authoritarian and quarantinist. American law has regularly displayed a combination of neglect and contempt toward the health of the powerless. But that is not all. Epidemics make visible the ways in which even the ostensibly neutral and libertarian rules of American social life contain the compounded form of discriminations and inequities, both old and new. The most basic rules of American law—from the law of private property to the law of health insurance to the law of employment—structure the social experience of disease and infection.

John Witt, American Contagions, 11-12.

The French Laundry story epitomizes the sanitation/quarantine dichotomy. Yesterday, both Breed and Newsom took to twitter to admonish San Franciscans and Californians respectively to follow our new stay-at-home regime. The response from their constituents was everything you would expect–no one missed a chance to mock the duplicity, especially this business with its exceptional sense of sardonic humor–and I think it’s because Witt’s dichotomy strikes a chord of deep unfairness and inequality with everyone.

I confess that my ire at FrenchLaundryGate does not flow so much from the hypocrisy as from the ostentatiousness–there is something deeply offensive about luxuriating in excess when one’s constituents have no food and no roof over their heads. Certainly, the thought of more than twenty thousand people infected and 88 dead in state custody should have put our elected officials off their dinner. But beyond this, there’s an important point I want to make about prisons, contagion, permeability, and opportunity.

As I think I mentioned here, Chad Goerzen and I are working on a book about the COVID-19 prison catastrophe. Our analysis introduces a concept we call carceral permeability: the idea that prisons should be viewed, analyzed, studied, and managed with a deep understanding of their spatial embeddedness in the communities surrounding them. That prisons are permeable and their gates are porous should be obvious: various people (correctional officers, prison workers, volunteers, visitors, tourists), things (money, goods, factory raw material), and intangibles (tax money, critique) pass through the membrane on a daily basis. Some of these exchanges are rooted in the basic functions of prison as an institution and an economical unit; others vary based on transparency.

This, as we explain in the book, is obvious to carceral geographers, situational crime prevention criminologists, and epidemiologists, but not to politicians: Prisons are still governed and managed through a very literal (and very mistaken) understanding of Erving Goffman’s concept of the total institution. Politicians and the public–at least, not the parts of the public that come into contact with prisons through work or through loved ones inside–think about prison at the entry (police dramas) and exit (public safety risk) points, and at no time in between. This is precisely what underpins the philosophy of incapacitation, widely regarded since the 1980s as the most accessible goal of punishment: put people behind bars and they will not endanger the community. This perspective has led to prisons being praised by some as spaces that incapacitate dangerous people by keeping them away from “the outside” and critiqued by others as spaces that remove people from participation in civil society (temporarily or permanently, with severe racial and class disenfranchisement implications.)

The problem is that prisons don’t work like that. Every day, there’s an enormous amount of boundary crossing, dynamics, and mobility within prisons, between prisons, and between prisons and the surrounding communities. The potential for disease to freely enter and exit prisons was obvious long before germ theory was developed–disease transmission to the community worried John Howard in State of the Prisons, which was written in 1777.

How is this relevant to Witt’s thesis and the French Laundry brouhaha? Because it looks like policymakers’ understanding of transmissivity, pandemic management, and restrictions–sanitation versus quarantine–differs for people behind bars and for other people. This lack of imagination is not surprising given that prisons embody the epitome of quarantine. But it is, perhaps, surprising to learn, from Witt and from prison historians Ashley Rubin and Michael Meranze, that this was not always the case. In the late 18th century, Mississippi (like a number of other states) even made special provision for removing prisoners when disease broke out in jails.

Things seem to have changed around the time of the civil war, when prisons were in the process of deep transformation. Antebellum prisons included mostly white people. Gradually–partly as prisons supplanted slavery as the main regime of racial oppression–the approach toward contagion in prisons changed from sanitation to quarantine. Witt reports that, “[w]hen smallpox broke out in Washington, D.C., in 1862, the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau blamed freedpeople. Healthy and infected freedpeople alike were forced into crowded, unsanitary prisons and tented communities, where disease raced through the population.”

You know what this reminds me of? David Garland’s distinction, in The Culture of Control, between “criminologies of the self” and “criminologies of the other.” Mainstream criminology predominantly addresses ‘criminology of the other’, which considers criminals as intrinsically different from law-abiding citizens; it focuses on particular risk groups, such as immigrants, drug users or youths in deprived neighborhoods, which it presents as threats to the existing social order. The criminology of the other aims to produce theoretical, empirical and practical knowledge that will allow better control of risk groups or render them less harmful for the average citizen. In doing so, this criminology delivers expertise that further excludes and controls the poor and marginalized; it becomes a technology of social exclusion and thus significantly advances dualisation in society.

By contrast, ‘criminology of the self’ considers those who commit crime as normal people. The person who offends is one of us, someone who, because of circumstances, has ended up in a position that caused him to act illegally and to harm others. It could have happened to any citizen. The answer to the risk that any of “us” will commit crime is to manipulate the physical environment to create rational disincentives to commit crime.

Here’s where Garland and Witt meet: Sanitationism is an epidemiological response to “criminologies of the self.” We address people as rational, like ourselves, deserving of health as well as civil liberties, and we twist and turn to procure good will and buy in, reasoning with people as much as possible. Quarantinism, on the other hand, is an epidemiological response to “criminologies of the other.” We assume that people are irrational, dangerous, impossible to reason with, so we lock them up, contain them, and assume “we” (the outside community) are safer from “them” (the people behind bars) when we lock them up.

Everything we know about how prisons work, and how contagion works, explains why quarantinism is a losing strategy. I’ve been telling TV anchors and journalists for weeks now that we are far less endangered by a 60-year-old man with a chronic condition living quietly with his family in the community, as he is wont to do (people age out of crime in their 20s) than we are by the exact same man incubating a dangerous virus behind bars. Quarantinism is not only bad for epidemic containment: it’s produces other negative outcomes, too. It’s no coincidence that it’s so popular to refer to prisons themselves as “criminogenic.” Public health scholar Ernest Drucker wrote a whole book relying on this metaphor, but I bet most of the people who use it–for example, to suggest that prisons breed criminality–don’t even realize that they’re drawing an analogy between medical contagion and criminality.

So here we are now–applying quarantinism, the epidemiological equivalent of Garland’s “criminologies of the other” because of indifference to the plight of the people we “other” and because of our laziness in understanding that “they” are actually not at all separate from “us.” The question is: Can the public outrage about FrenchLaundryGate, which, when examined closely, is all about the hypocrisy of the sanitation/quarantine duality, will wake Gov. Newsom from the prison impermeability dream and help him and his staff wake up to the fact that “the carceral” is porous and that there is no “other”?

Políticas Penales y Penitenciarias en EEUU durante la Administración Trump: Rupturas y Continuidades

  • Hola Amigos Latinoamericanos y Centroamericanos, y otros amigos que hablan español. Hoy di una plática, via Zoom, a la Facultad de Derecho en la Universidad de Buenos Aires sobre las políticas penales durante la administración Trump. Se me ocurrió que quizás hay mas gente que habla español y se interesa en el tema, y por eso aquí están mis notas para la plática. En unos dias, publicaremos la plática entera en YouTube y la ubicaré aquí.
  • Antes de discutir la política de justicia penal de la administración Trump, es importante preparar el escenario con algunas características únicas del panorama penológico estadounidense.
  • Los EE. UU. son los campeones internacionales del encarcelamiento, pero no es un campeonato que nos da orgullo: tenemos cuatro porciento de la población mundial pero veintidós porciento de la población mundial de prisionerors! Los Estados Unidos tienen setecientos treinta y siete prisioneros por cien mil de populación. En dos mil diecisiete Argentina tuvo doscientos siete.
    • En dos mil siete, uno en cien personas en los EE. UU. estaba encarcelado.
    • Este encarcelamiento masivo trasciende los muros de la prisión: uno en 33 estaba bajo alguna forma de supervisión estatal, por ejemplo libertad condicional después de servir una sentencia en la cárcel.
    • Además, los riesgos de encarcelamiento no se distribuyen de manera uniforme entre la población y varían drásticamente según la raza, la clase y el género. Para hombres jóvenes Africanos-Americanos – uno en 3 estaba encarcelado (!!!)
  • Pero Estados Unidos es un país muy grande y existe una gran variación en el encarcelamiento dentro de él. Para comprender esto, es importante tener en cuenta que no solo tenemos un sistema de justicia penal: tenemos un sistema federal, cincuenta sistemas estatales independientes y numerosos tribunales indígenas independientes.
  • Para complicar aún más las cosas, incluso el sistema estatal es una generalización excesiva. Hay dos estructuras administrativas superpuestas: el nivel municipal y el nivel de condado.
    • La policía es municipal – cada ciudad, incluso los pueblos mas pequeños, tiene su propia forza policial. Tenemos dieciocho mil diferentes departamentos de policía.
    • En cambio, nuestros tribunales y fiscalias operan en el nivel del condado.
    • Tenemos prisiones estadales y carceles mas pequenas, que llamamos “jails”, en el nivel del condado. Esto es importante porque los costos del encarcelamiento corren a cargo de diferentes niveles administrativos. En otras palabras, las fiscalías y las cortes no tienen un incentivo financiero para reducir el encarcelamiento, porque los condados no pagan por el encarcelamiento. Mi colega Frank Zimring llama esto “el almuerzo gratis correccional.”
  • Otra consecuencia de la fragmentación de Estados Unidos es que los niveles penales y los “sabores” penales se ven muy diferentes en todo el país.
    • Por ejemplo, en California, donde yo vivo, las políticas penales son una combinación de leyes y de referendos publicos, resultando en un populismo penal que es especialmente sensible a las apelaciones punitivas en nombre de las víctimas de delitos. El resultado es una maquina gigantesca de encarcelamiento, incluyendo el corredor de muerte mas grandee en los EE. UU, y muchas sentencias muy largas. Un tercio de los presos en california está cumpliendo cadena perpetua, ya sea sin posibilidad de liberación o con una posibilidad muy lejana de liberación. Mi libro nuevo Yesterday’s Monsters es sobre esta populación.
    • El noreste es gobernado de una manera menos populista y mas elitista, y por eso las sentencias son menos punitivas.
    • El noroeste es aun menos punitivo. Muchas de las reformas que mejoraron la guerra contra las drogas comenzaron en el noroeste del Pacífico.
    • El sud tiene un legado trágico de racismo y esclavitud. Muchos de los problemas politicos que todavia son reflejados en las politicas penales en el sud originan desde antes de la Guerra Civil. Durante los años sesenta, la Corte Suprema introdujo algunos estándares de derechos civiles y debido proceso que corrigieron algunos de los peores aspectos de la justicia penal del Sur. Pero todavía las condiciones en muchas prisiones en el sur imitan las plantaciones anterior de la guerra.
    • La justicia penal en el suroeste se caracteriza por la hostilidad hacia los inmigrantes de Centroamérica. Muchos de los casos de drogas en el suroeste involucran pequeñas cantidades de marihuana contrabandeadas a través de la frontera. La política fronteriza también conduce a cierta corrupción policial que implica la confiscación de dinero y objetos.
  • A pesar de estas diferencias locales, existen algunas características comunes al panorama de la justicia penal estadounidense, y es posible que le recuerden bastante la situación en varios países de América Central y del Sur.
    • Ya hablé un poco del legado nacional de colonialismo y racism, pero es importante decir que no se limita al sur del pais. ésto se manifiesta de dos formas. Primero, la policía estadounidense tiende a operar de manera racializada, lo que significa más arrestos y hostigamientos en vecindarios donde viven minorías raciales. En segundo lugar, debido a un legado de privaciones y falta de oportunidades, las minorías raciales están sobrerrepresentadas en los delitos violentos, tanto como perpetradores como víctimas.
    • Otra caracteristica es la proliferación de armas legales e ilegales. En Argentina es necesario tener CLUSE para armas, y uno tiene que presentar una solicitud y aprobar exámenes de competencia de salud física y mental. En cambio, en las EE. UU. Es muy fácil comprar armas. Para muchas personas, el derecho constitucional a portar armas alcanza proporciones míticas, algo relacionadas con el legado de la justicia fronteriza.
    • Los EE. UU. Tienen una cultura policial de violencia, entrelazada con politicas de arrestos y registros por motivos raciales. Hay un problema especial con abuso de fuerza, especialmente con matanzas.
    • Además, hay un legado difícil de corrupción política (incluso a nivel estatal, local y del condado.)
  • La trayectoria de encarcelamiento Estadounidiense continuó aumentando hasta la crisis financiera de 2008, que transformó la justicia penal estadounidense de manera importante. Este fue el tema de mi primer libro, Cheap on Crime.
    • El desarrollo más importante fue la prominencia de un discurso fiscal, centrado en los ahorros de la justicia penal. Durante décadas hubo un callejón sin salida entre el apoyo conservador a la seguridad pública y el apoyo progresivo a la descarceración. El hecho de que la crisis hiciera que el encarcelamiento masivo fuera económicamente insostenible ayudó a salvar estas diferencias con ideas sobre la parsimonia que todos pudieran considerar. Estos cambios estaban en sintonía con las lógicas neoliberales, y voy a explicar de cual manera.
    • La dependencia del discurso del ahorro también permitió la formación de coaliciones bipartidistas entre progresistas que intentaban reducir la maquinaria carcelaria y los libertarios de los gobiernos pequeños que estaban hartos de los gastos de la guerra contra las drogas y el encarcelamiento.
    • Estas coaliciones resultaron en una variedad de practicas de ahorro: muchas cárceles fueron cerradas o fusionadas con otras instituciones, muchas políticas consistieron en mas bajas sentencias, especialmente para delitos de drogas, y diez estados abolieron o suspendieron la pena de muerte. La economía de las prisiones privadas también cambiaron: Con la reducción del mercado del encarcelamiento nacional, los empresarios de prisiones comenzaron a invertir en el creciente mercado de la detención de inmigrantes.
    • Las lógicas neoliberales se manifestaron también en cambios en la percepción de los presos: en lugar de verlos como responsabilidad del estado, ellos fueron percibidos como “clientes” involuntarios del estado. Las nuevas politicas prestaron atención a categorías de presos previamente invisibles: los ancianos y los enfermos. Además, muchos costos de encarcelamiento se transfirieron a los propios reclusos, lo que en algunos casos resultó en que las personas debían pagar por su propio encarcelamiento.
  • No todas las reformas fueron puramente economicas. La indignación pública por la violencia policial, especialmente contra las minorías raciales, produjo algunas reformas de la era de Obama, como la eliminación de las sentencias mínimas obligatorias para los infractores no violentos de drogas.
    • Estas politicas federales ocurrieron junto con muchas políticas estatales que legalizaron el uso y posesión de marihuana al nivel del estado.
  • El ascenso de Donald Trump, notablemente, dejó algunas de estas reformas en su lugar, al tiempo que cambió drásticamente el ánimo detrás de otras.
  • Tengan en cuenta, como dije antes, que la mayoría de las políticas de justicia penal en los Estados Unidos se hacen a nivel local, donde la administración federal tiene un impacto muy limitado. No obstante, hubo rupturas significativas durante el mandato del primer fiscal general de Trump, Jeff Sessions, y el segundo, William Barr. Hablaremos de seis:
    • Falsa Conexión entre Inmigración y Criminalidad
    • Animando la Lucha contra las Drogas
    • Animando la Pena de Muerte
    • Interviniendo en la Justicia Local
    • Obstrucción de la Justicia contra los Poderosos
    • Y quizá la mas significantive, Cambios en la Corte Suprema
  • Falsa Conexión entre Inmigración y Criminalidad
    • Desde los primeros días de su campaña presidencial, Trump confió en reunir a sus partidarios a través de promesas xenófobas para frenar la inmigración. Una gran parte de la campaña se dedicó a promocionar una correlación entre inmigración y criminalidad.
    • Esta conexión es cien por ciento falsa. Existe un sólido cuerpo de investigación empírica, que cubre diversos tiempos y lugares, y todas las investigaciones llegan a la misma conclusión: los inmigrantes cometen menos delitos, en todas las categorías de delitos, que los nativos.
    • La falsa suposición de que los inmigrantes son un peligro para la seguridad pública se basa en inseguridades económicas profundamente arraigadas, principalmente de los hombres blancos, de que los inmigrantes aceptarán trabajos estadounidenses.
    • Una gran parte de la política de justicia penal estadounidense, como la criminalización de ciertas drogas, se creó para criminalizar los comportamientos de los inmigrantes a fin de mitigar estos temores.
    • Además de las políticas xenófobas bien publicitadas, incluida la prohibición de los viajeros de países musulmanes y las separaciones familiares, la administración Trump prosiguió los procedimientos de deportación sobre la base de condenas penales, por lo que la aplicación de la ley de inmigración es la principal preocupación del departamento de justicia.
  • Animando la Lucha contra las Drogas
    • Cuando fue elegido para el cargo, Jeff Sessions anunció públicamente que los consumidores de marihuana eran “malas personas”, una afirmación fuera de contacto con las sensibilidades bipartisanas de republicanos y demócratas, que apoyaron una tregua en la lucha contra las Drogas
    • La administración procedió a revertir las restricciones de la era de Obama y perseguir casos federales contra infractores de drogas en estados en los que el uso y posesión de drogas son legales.
    • Pero al mismo tiempo, estados y ciudades continuaron sus politicas regulatorias. Marijuana se legalizo en mas estados, y algunos estados y ciudades decriminalizaron otras drogas tambien.
  • Animando la Pena de Muerte
    • Como mencioné antes, la pena de muerte ha disminuido en los Estados Unidos debido a la política de la era de la recesión. La administración de la pena de muerte, junto con los litigios, es muy cara. Durante el crisis financiero, muchos estados abolieron la pena de muerte o dejaron de usarla.
    • Trump ha sido un admirador público de la pena de muerte desde la década de 1980, cuando publicó enormes anuncios en los periódicos pidiendo la pena de muerte en varios casos, incluyendo el célebre caso de cinco adolescentes acusados de acostar a una corredora en el Parque Central de Nueva York. Lo increíble es que los cinco fueron exonerados por evidencia de ADN, pero Trump continúa hasta el día de hoy argumentando que eran culpables y merecían la pena de muerte.
    • Aún ahora, en los últimos días de su administración, Trump y Barr continúan a ejecutar a personas condenadas a muerte en el nivel federal, incluyendo personas con discapacidades mentales y trauma personal documentado y personas que muchos expertos creen que son inocentes.
  • Interviniendo en la Justicia Local
    • A pesar de que la administración de Trump no tenía jurisdicción en asuntos estatales, Trump intervino, a través de Twitter, en los procedimientos locales cuando fueron simbólicamente útiles para él.
    • Un ejemplo fue la muerte de una joven llamada Kate Steinle en San Francisco. Un inmigrante indocumentado fue acusado del crimen. Resultó que había encontrado un arma perdida por un agente del FBI y el arma falló. El acusado fue absuelto. A lo largo del juicio, Trump atribuyó el resultado a los “valores de San Francisco” y lo utilizó para criticar las “ciudades santuario”, que tenían una política de no cooperar con las agencias federales de inmigración.
  • Obstrucción de la Justicia contra los Poderosos
    • Es instructivo comparar estas políticas punitivas hacia las comunidades marginadas con la obstrucción de la justicia orquestada por la administración Trump en lo que respecta al propio Trump y sus leales.
    • Trump usó repetidamente el poder del perdón para excusar a sus amigos y asociados, acusados ​​o condenados por crímenes atroces, más recientemente, Michael Flynn.
    • La investigación del fiscal especial Robert Mueller sobre la interferencia rusa en las elecciones de 2016 encontró que los funcionarios de la campaña de Trump eran receptores entusiastas de la inteligencia rusa y que los miembros de la campaña de Trump, incluido el propio Trump, obstruyeron la justicia en este contexto en al menos diez casos.
  • Cambios en la Corte Suprema
    • Pero quizás el efecto más duradero de la administración Trump en la justicia penal son sus tres nombramientos en la Corte Suprema.
    • Neil Gorsuch fue designado para un escaño que quedó vacante durante la era de Obama, pero fue arrebatado por los republicanos argumentando que un presidente en su ultimo año no debería nombrar a un suplente.
    • Despues, Trump tuvo otra oportunidad a nombrar a un juez supremo y nombró a Brett Kavanaugh, cuyo proceso de solicitud se vio empañado con una acusación creíble de abuso sexual. Los votos a favor y en contra de su nombramiento fueron de partidos políticos.
    • Finalmente, tres semanas antes de las elecciones, falleció la jueza ruth bader ginsburg, lo que les dio a los republicanos la oportunidad de hacer exactamente lo que impidieron hacer a los demócratas al final de la presidencia de Obama: nombrar a una jueza más, Amy Coney Barret.
    • El nuevo tribunal es incondicionalmente conservador en varios asuntos de justicia penal. Seis jueces apoyan la pena de muerte y los tres nuevos jueces tienen un historial de imponer largas penas de prisión. En asuntos relacionados con las investigaciones policiales basadas en tecnología, sin embargo, Gorsuch podría votar más a la izquierda que sus dos nuevos colegas.
  • El Futuro Penal de la Administración Biden
    • Los partidarios de la reforma de la justicia penal se sintieron aliviados con los resultados de las elecciones, aunque están mucho más cerca de lo que se esperaba y el control del Senado aún no se ha determinado.
    • Es importante recordar que la justicia penal sigue siendo principalmente un asunto local. Las reformas que apoyan la igualdad racial y erosionan la guerra contra las drogas todavía ocurrirán en los estados azules, excepto que ahora, el aspecto federal de la guerra contra las drogas probablemente volverá a la moderación que caracterizó a la administración Obama.
    • Otros cambios federales podrían involucrar recortes presupuestarios a los departamentos de policía municipales, que apoyarán muchas iniciativas locales de desviar los problemas sociales a agencias no policiales.
    • El desafío más complicado involucra cambios en la Corte Suprema. Una posibilidad, que no está prohibida por la ley, es que Biden amplíe la Corte y nombre siete jueces progresivos para equilibrar la composición conservadora de la corte. El problema con este enfoque es el riesgo de que el tribunal pierda la legitimidad que le queda, y que una futura administración republicana nombrará a 14 jueces, etc., etc. Pero los partidarios progresistas de Biden lo presionarán para que lo haga, en parte porque se han adoptado enfoques más cuidadosos se encontró con ofuscación y manipulación durante los últimos cuatro años. Sin embargo, si el Senado permanece en manos republicanas, Biden tendrá dificultades para tener éxito con estas nominaciones.

The Marshall Project Survey and “Programspeak”

The Marshall Project has published the results of a political survey of incarcerated people, and they are extremely interesting. In a previous installment, they refuted the widely-held belief in broad support for Democrats behind bars; the majority of white prisoners would vote for Trump if they could. The current installment, in which the respondents were invited to opine on criminal justice policy, is just as interesting. Among other findings, even though there was a marked racial divide on questions about police violence and support for Black Lives Matter, 64% of incarcerated Republicans supported transferring funds from policing to social programs, by contrast to only 5% of incarcerate Republicans.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, and have just one comment to make. In the survey, respondents were invited to comment on the kinds of interventions that would have kept them from prison, and they did list some of the “usual suspects”:

But the article then comments that many respondents ascribed the responsibility for their incarceration solely to their own behavior.

This is worth commenting on, because it dovetails with one of my findings fromYesterday’s Monsters, namely, the insidiousness and proliferation of “programspeak.” Programspeak is more than a jargon–it’s a worldview that is propagated in prison rehabilitative programming, all of which is geared toward telling the parole board a story of personal responsibility. At parole hearings, where the concept of “insight” is kind, there is a constant pressure on people to attribute their incarceration only to their own failings, without any allowance for environmental factors.

Now, there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to be accountable, and I think Marxist theories of crime take things too far when they divorce criminality from anything involving personal autonomy; even when choices are very constrained, we see evidence of agency (and to say otherwise is incredibly insulting to the large majority of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t commit crime.) But adults with complex worldviews should be able to account for criminality in a way that does not discount the robust evidence of environmental factors, including poverty, difficult family lives, lead exposure, governmental neglect, lack of educational and vocational opportunities, and understandable, class- and race-based resentments. Unfortunately, this is not how it plays out on parole, where any effort to contextualize one’s personal history prior to the crime of commitment can be interpreted as “minimizing” or “lack of insight.”

This “programspeak” of personal accountability bleeds over to almost all other prison programming. I should know; I volunteered with, and visited, many of them. But it also bleeds out of the prison experience and accompanies people in their lives on the outside. In his ethnographic study of reentry, Alessandro de Giorgi found this self-attribution is so insidious that even after reentry, people blame themselves for not having a roof over their heads or basic groceries to feed their families.

Given the pervasiveness of programspeak, I’m not surprised to find that the folks surveyed by the Marshall Project emphasized their own responsibility. It’s being drilled into them throughout their incarceration. If anything, it’s a miracle that despite this aggressive, programmatic indoctrination, they articulate environmental factors as well. And to the extent that, after everything we know, people still subsribe to this heavyhanded partly-false consciousness, much of it is going to crumble because of the contrast between the consistent pressure on individuals to take responsibility for their actions and the equally consistent reluctance of prison systems to take even a shred of responsibility for what is being done to them, especially in the context of COVID-19.