Fighting Ridiculous Court Fees – One Piece at a Time

I’m attending the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology and finding many of the talks illuminating and refreshing. It could be that the overall quality of work has improved, or that I make better choices about which panels to attend. Either way, this morning I’m following a series of panels about improving indigent representation, and have just come out of a conversation with the folks who run the campaign to End Justice Fees.

Those who followed the report on Ferguson are not strangers to the problem, but the public at large is likely ignorant of the immense (to the tune of billions of dollars!) toll of court fees and warrants. Even to me–who thought nothing would surprise me after learning about pay-to-stay and the resulting lawsuits–some of the details were shocking. The campaign’s website offers a wealth of information on the different things people get charged for: electronic monitoring, probation (yes, you pay for the pleasure of being monitored!), and–much to my horror–legal defense. Remember Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Warren Court case that required states to fund the defense of the indigent? Well, it turns out that, in 42 states, free representation means free for those who pay the fees (three figure amounts that many defendants cannot afford.)

Just like I found out in Cheap on Crime about pay-to-stay schemes, the absurdity of padding the pockets of municipalities and counties by charging the poor, rather than the rich, is in plain evidence. The fees are rarely recouped, resulting in crushing debt that kills the spirit of countless families and does not make up for the deficits. Figuring out the expense of keeping this ridiculous system in place is difficult (I wish someone took this on! I would, but my plate is full), but even though the numbers are elusive, I don’t think it’s outlandish to assume that pursuing lawsuits against hundreds of thousands of people for not paying what, for them, is a lot of money, but for the system is pennies, is not an economically efficient scheme. That this is costly beyond the obvious is evident from yet another horrible data point: in the Alabama Appleseed survey of people with court debt, they found that 38% of respondents had to resort to actually committing a crime in order to be able to pay the court fees (which are sometimes imposed for mere infractions or traffic violations.)

The good folks from End Justice Fees have come to the conclusion that advocacy works better than litigation for eliminating these fees. Here are some of the ground that they’ve made in California, per their website:

  • CA AB 199 makes the balance of any court-imposed costs assessed prior to July 1, 2022 unenforceable and uncollectible and vacates any portion of a judgment imposing civil assessments charged by traffic courts
  • Eliminated 17 additional criminal administrative fees and vacated $534 million in outstanding debt (2021).
  • California’s Families Over Fees Act repealed 23 criminal administrative fees and vacated $16 billion in outstanding debt (2020)
  • California ended the assessment of new juvenile fees (2017) and discharged outstanding fees (2020)
  • Ordinance eliminated local criminal administrative fees imposed in San Francisco (2018)
  • San Francisco made all jail phone calls free for incarcerated people and ended commissary markups (2020)
  • San Diego eliminated fees for phone calls and video visits (2022)

I’m also happy to report that, per their presentation, we are among the minority of states that do not charge people for their own representation which, under Gideon, indigent folks should pay for free.

The crux of the problem, with litigation, is that Bearden v. Georgia, the case often used to argue against punishing the poor for being poor, requires an investigation of means before incarceration–but the practice in many places is to arrest people for the purpose of assessing their means, which is technically a violation of Bearden but municipalities and courts claim is the only practical way to get ahold of the person.

This strikes me as the sort of initiative that decent people of all political stripes can and should get behind. It should yield the sort of coalitions I covered in Cheap on Crime and bring about more justice on an everyday level without slogans. Want to “dismantle” “abolish” “repeal” “defund” stuff? Here’s a good place to start on the ground and deliver immediate relief to people struggling with financial craziness.

More Good News: Bonta Drops State Appeal in Quentin Cases

While I was focus on witness prep for the #SmithfieldTrial, my friend Allison Villegas shared a piece of good news: on Thursday, the Attorney General filed a notice that he is dropping the state’s appeal in In re Hall et al.

To recap what happened: Since the outbreak at San Quentin erupted in late May/early June 2020, hundreds of people incarcerated there litigated, asking to be delivered from the environment of infection, hospitalization, fear, misinformation, neglect, ineptitude, and death that characterized the prison’s response to the outbreak. Our litigation led to the landmark decision In re Von Staich, in which the Court of Appeal ordered that the population at Quentin be reduced to 50% of design capacity (as the physician group AMEND SF recommended.) We later had a reversal of fortune at the hands of the CA Supreme Court, which ordered an evidentiary hearing (a year after the fact, but waves of COVID continued to ravage the prison.) At the evidentiary hearing, things looked even bleaker for the states, as witnesses testifying from Quentin via Zoom revealed layer after layer of what they suffered at the hands of nincompoops, COVID denialists, and a prison administrative system in which the custodial and the medical sides have no understanding of each other. In October 2021, Judge Howard issued a tentative ruling in which he accepted every claim we made about the horrific and unconstitutional abuse that the men were subjected to, and wrote that the Eighth Amendment was violated in no uncertain terms, but… did not give us any relief, because presumably the whole case was “moot” as “the vaccine changed the game for COVID-19 at San Quentin. With a nearly 80 percent inmate vaccination rate, COVID-19 has all but disappeared from inside the prison. Although COVID-19 remains a risk within San Quentin, it appears at present no more than, and perhaps even less than, the risk faced by the community at large.”

This was, in itself, outrageous, and not exactly true even when it was written: the Delta variant began making its way through the prison. Shortly after, we saw the shortsightedness of not getting relief when Omicron swept through the system. To add insult to injury, while the petitioners chose not to appeal the decision (a choice I still feel quite crummy about), a surprising thing happened: the state appealed, even though we actually received no relief!

Back in summer 2020, Rob Bonta, then an Assemblymember from San Mateo, stood shoulder to shoulder with us at the press conference, speaking so movingly about the preventable disaster at Quentin that he was quoted in the guardian. But by March 2021, when he was appointed Attorney General, he apparently forgot all this. At the time, thinking the same person would keep the same conscience, I made a list of all the things he could do to help, and I confess that “refraining from appealing a decision in which the prisoners got no relief only to save the honor of CDCR at the taxpayers’ expense” was not something that even occurred to me needed to be said! But lo and behold, the AG office did appeal the ruling, God knows why, which prompted me to ask what I still think is an excellent question: What, actually, is the Attorney General’s job? Does the Attorney General work for all Californians all the time–including Californians behind bars–or does he become a hired gun when he’s in litigation? Does it make sense to posture as a science-forward, vaccine-forward AG when the time comes to require vaccines in schools, while at the same time becoming the Tom Hagan of the prison guard’s union when they don’t want a vaccine mandate because they are “his client”?

Thursday’s decision to pull this tasteless, tone-deft, and frankly, disgusting appeal, comes two years too late, when it doesn’t make news or waves, but it at least gives back a modicum of decency to an office that showed absolutely none throughout this entire crisis. We write extensively about the AG’s role in curtailing releases and supporting COVID denialists in uniform in Chapter 7 of #FESTER.

Understanding Newsom as a Politician following Injection Site Bill Veto

The harm reduction community is deeply dispirited over Gov. Newsom’s rejection of the proposed safe drug injection/overdose prevention site in Oakland. Marisa Kendall reports for the Mercury News:

Senate Bill 57 would have allowed the two Bay Area cities to become among the first in the country to open facilities where users could bring drugs and consume them in a safe, supervised setting. The bill passed the state legislature this month. But after rejecting the bill, Newsom expressed worry that the law could actually make the drug crisis worse in those three cities.

“The unlimited number of safe injection sites that this bill would authorize — facilities which could exist well into the later part of this decade — could induce a world of unintended consequences,” he wrote in a veto message. “It is possible that these sites would help improve the safety and health of our urban areas, but if done without a strong plan, they could work against this purpose.”

Newsom added that he is instructing the secretary of Health and Human Services to convene a group of city and county officials to discuss overdose prevention strategies and how to implement a more limited pilot program.

This is a great disappointment, but not a big surprise. Kendall ties this position to Newsom’s possible presidential candidacy:

The move comes amid mounting speculation that Newsom might be eyeing a presidential run. And while it’s unclear whether those ambitions played into his decision, rejecting the bill likely will only help him on the national stage, where the majority of voters would likely balk at the idea of facilitating drug use, said Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney.

“There’s a solid policy rationale for the veto,” Pitney said, “but politically, he’s dodged a potentially big problem.”

I have a few thoughts to offer about this observation. For many years–since my graduate school days in the early 2000s–I liked Newsom and believed in him, though I always knew that a politician is a politician, not the messiah (some of the Obama disappointees fell into that trap.) I admired his administration’s bold moves to the point that I was delighted to be considered for his penal code revision commission and sorely disappointed not to have been picked. In hindsight, though, not working for this administration was a blessing. I can’t imagine being able to help the people at San Quentin as much or in the ways that I did if I felt bound by loyalty to the Newsom administration.

Watching Newsom, Bonta, and others handle the executive and judicial aspects of the COVID-19 crisis was sobering. In Chapter 7 of our forthcoming book FESTER (the manuscript is due with UC Press this week!) we make the following observations about Newsom:

[T]he Governor’s [paltry COVID-19 release] program was overly sensitive to public backlash, and featured the classic hallmarks of the age-violence-risk paradox. Bifurcation—applying early releases and good time credits only to nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenses—was in evidence in every category on the plan, despite the lack of correlation between the crime of commitment and risk to public safety. At first blush, such kowtowing to public outcry would seem uncharacteristic of Newsom, whose political path, from his early days as Mayor of San Francisco, featured bold, high-profile moves to advance progressive values and objectives, which he presented as doing the right thing no matter the backlash. His move to legalize same-sex marriage in California—the subject of ferocious litigation that culminated in a Supreme Court victory—was perceived by some, at the time, to be political suicide. Similarly, his moratorium on the death penalty was criticized for not reflecting the wish of a small but consistent majority of Californians. In both of these cases, Newsom correctly read the political winds, and his predictions proved true; his self-styled image of an idealistic pioneer was boosted by the fact that his executive decisions preceded wider societal shifts. But Newsom’s reluctance to release people convicted of violent crime reflected age-old wisdom in California politics that, even in the bluest of counties, it is not a wise political move to flout entrenched fears of violent crime. Reflective of the justifiability of this concern was a disparaging story in the Los Angeles Times about Newsom’s plan titled, “California is releasing some murderers due to COVID-19. Some say it should free more.” After a barrage of phone calls from Coalition members, the newspaper changed the headline, but the content, which rehearsed tired tough-on-crime tropes from the Reagan administration days, remained unaltered: the writers chose to interview crime victims who, while entitled to their personal opinions, were neither the statewide curators of victims’ perspectives nor qualified to offer broad insights on emergency healthcare policies. They also mentioned, without a shred of irony, Willie Horton.

. . .

Three examples of such aging, low-risk people drive home the extent to which age-violence-risk paradox was part of the Newsom administration’s calculus. Twice during the pandemic, the parole board recommended parole for Leslie Van Houten, born in 1950 and housed at California Institute for Women (CIW.) Van Houten had been consistently recommended for parole since 2017, but governors–first Brown, now Newsom–keep reversing the recommendation for what appear, in light of her exemplary prison record, pure political spite. Van Houten has maintained a clean disciplinary record, participated in a variety of laudable programs, and incessantly excavated her psyche to show “insight” to the Board. She participated in the Manson murders when she was 19 years old, manipulated and sexually exploited in a setting that, with today’s #MeToo sensibilities, might have shed a completely different light on her involvement.

As one of us has explained elsewhere, the Manson family cases shine a light on the question of redeemability, featuring people who have clearly done their utmost to undergo, live, and exude transformation but whose notoriety stands in their way. But van Houten’s two last hearings featured an additional consideration: the parole hopeful was over 70 years old and CIW, where she was housed, was experiencing an outbreak just as she was denied parole.

Another notorious member of the “Class of ‘72’”—the 107 people condemned to death whose sentences were commuted to life with parole after People v. Anderson—was Sirhan Sirhan, who had assassinated Robert Kennedy. At the time of his COVID parole hearing, Sirhan was 77 years old. The Chronicle’s Bob Egelko forecasted his parole bid:

“Anybody that has ever walked into my office, you have to walk by photographs of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral procession, those famous train photos,” the governor said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “The first photograph, the only photograph you will see in my office is a photo of my father and Bobby Kennedy just days before Bobby Kennedy was murdered.”

At the time of Sirhan’s parole bid, Newsom was facing a recall election in which he had everything to lose, and absolutely nothing to gain, from releasing Sirhan. As Egelko explained, Newsom’s leading opponents in the recall, all of whom were well to his right politically, would seem equally unlikely to approve Sirhan’s parole. Moreover, any decision to release Kennedy’s murderer would surely become a flash point in the 2022 governor’s election.

“I’d be shocked if Newsom didn’t reverse” the parole board’s decision, said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford criminal law professor. Although the governor would have to explain why he believed Sirhan still posed a threat of violence, Weisberg said, he would most likely be “responding to a public view that this guy’s crime was so heinous that he shouldn’t be paroled.”

Predictably, Newsom vetoed Sirhan’s parole and, perhaps hoping to win political points while facing a recall election, took the trouble to pen an op-ed about it in the Los Angeles Times:

“Kennedy’s assassination not only changed the course of this nation and robbed the world of a promising young leader, it also left his 11 children without a father and his wife without a husband. Kennedy’s family bears his loss every day. Millions of Americans lost a unifier in a time of national turmoil and grief, just nine weeks after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and four-and-a-half years after the murder of Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy.

“Yet, after decades in prison, Sirhan still lacks the insight that would prevent him from making the kind of dangerous and destructive decisions he made in the past. The most glaring proof of Sirhan’s deficient insight is his shifting narrative about his assassination of Kennedy, and his current refusal to accept responsibility for it.”

The language in Newsom’s op-ed echoes the concept of “insight”, which parole researchers broadly agree is a deliberately opaque, vague term used to justify denials based on the now-prohibited consideration of the heinousness of the original crime. Kathryne Young explains that “insight” is. Kristen Bell identifies the same obfuscation with regard to juvenile parole hearings. And Rita Shah, in a review of my previous book Yesterday’s Monsters, pithily explains that “Like rehabilitation, insight seems be a bullshit term as determining whether one has gained insight or is on the road to rehabilitation appears to be the criminal legal system’s equivalent of ‘I’ll know when I see it.’”

But the absurdities in Van Houten and Sirhan’s cases pales in comparison with the continued incarceration of Gerald Albert Oates who, at the age of 94, is the oldest living person incarcerated at CDCR. After a parole denial in 2018 because, unbelievably, Oates is still categorized as “high risk” by CDCR,[8] he remained incarcerated throughout the COVID-19 crisis, apparently surviving the Newsom Administration’s project to identify priorities for release. Oates’ case highlights the extent to which the calcification of fear and loathing of so-called “violent offenders”, wrought by the age-violence-risk paradox, stood in the way of making parole decisions that made sense, practically and medically.

There you have it: a politician I used to respect and admire. Over the course of the last few years, I have come to realize that his true gift is his keen sense of smell for where public opinion will be two weeks from now, appearing as a maverick when pushing initiatives that he knows will shortly enjoy wide public support. Because he knows that people addicted to drugs in the streets and people languishing in overcrowded prisons (1) don’t vote and (2) don’t matter to voters, he can afford to continue running California as if their lives don’t matter at all.

Last comment: Whatever Newsom is doing is playing out marvelously in California, where a recent poll shows him a reelection shoe-in (long-time readers will recognize his opponent, Brian Dahle, an old-skool law and order guy who opposed the recent prison closure in Susanville.) But it might not earn him as many points as he hopes in less-blue pastures on the national stage; he’s not getting any love for this on Fox News, where they can see right through it (even a broken clock shows the right time twice a day.)

Paying for Your Time: Low-Level Financial Hassles and Criminal Justice

I spent the last week at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Los Angeles. It’s a conference I rarely attend, because I far prefer intimate workshops to gigantic venues, but I was invited to be a discussant on a panel that interested me greatly titled Paying for Your Time: Economies of Displacement in the Criminal Legal System. Seven years ago, when my book Cheap on Crime came out, I attempted to bring together two literatures that seldom interact: Public choice economics, which predict that economic downturns will lead to decreased punishment capacity and thus to decreased punishment, and Marxist social history, which predicts that economic downturns lead to loss of legitimacy and thus to increased crackdown on, and oppression of, the poor. In Chapter 7 of the book I offer a third prediction: a shift in our perception of the subjects of the criminal justice system from wards of the state to burdens on the state’s budget. This can manifest in both benign and sinister ways. Benign, when our attention is drawn to aging and infirm people in prison and we start seriously consider the utility of their incarceration given the health care expenses involved; sinister, when we decide that the way for such folks to become less burdensome is to regard them as consumers and charge them for the “services” they receive. The three papers on the panel all examined this sinister mechanism and offered grim reminders of how low-level haggling over expenses and hounding people with these outrageous debts can and does ruin lives.

A classic, nefarious aspect of this is pay-to-stay, a scheme by which people are charged for their own incarceration as if they were paying for voluntary lodging. In Cheap on Crime I wryly observed that people in prison and jail don’t really have the funds to pay the exorbitant fees (pay-to-stay in the Riverside jail at the time I wrote the book, for example, amounted to $140 per night; in Fremont, it was $155) and that the next logical conclusion–a lien on their future earnings–would do wonders for their reentry prospects. Unfortunately, it turns out that I was right, and this absurd practice has just become more popular with time. In their paper Insult to Injury, April Fernandes, Brittany Friedman and Gabriela Kirk track the litigation efforts of states who chase people with disabilities after they get out of prison or jail and sue them to receive, in arrears, the “accommodation fees” for their prison stay, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars that these people don’t have. The authors received, through FOIA requests, documentation in many such cases, and they show how physical and mental disabilities further complicate people’s ability to defend themselves against this outrage. In a heartbreaking presentation, they shared handwritten documents by pro-se defendants in these cases, who don’t understand why they are being persecuted and are not entitled to representation in these cases. I’m not surprised; I literally wrote the book about these schemes and I don’t understand either. I still vividly remember how shocked I was when I realized that courts have already examined the constitutionality of pay-to-stay and found it a-ok; seeing the real impact on real people was a shocker, and the futility of the exercise made me wonder whether states weren’t actually losing money on this litigation.

The second paper dealt with another top-down scheme aiming to fill municipal coffers: parking tickets. In a truly ingenious project, Kasey Hendricks and Ruben Ortiz triangulated all the parking tickets written up in the city of Chicago with the traffic regulations, weather reports, you name it, as well as neighborhood demographics and the identity of the ticket issuer (Shaw and McKay, the great criminological mappers of Chicago, would be very proud of this piece.) They discovered that more than 13% of the tickets were erroneous. They also discovered that mistakes in parking enforcement are often a function of the ticket issuer: cops don’t know parking regulations as well as parking officials, and because cops disproportionately write tickets in neighborhoods inhabited by undocumented immigrants, these folks bear the brunt of erroneous enforcement. Because not speaking English, and not wanting to voluntarily embroil oneself with the authorities, are both barriers to contesting tickets, erroneous enforcement proceeds.

The third paper, by Kate O’Neill, Tyler Smith, and Ian Kennedy, examined the extent to which incarceration based on low-level financial obligation and defaults has a gendered dynamic. They investigated which counties in Washington State rely on monetary sanctions such as fines and fees and examined the correlation between this reliance and women’s incarceration. Their reasoning behind this hypothesis (which their data support) is that women disproportionally live in poverty, and that women’s incarceration disproportionally relies on low-level financial violations. The connection between financial violations and incarceration is more complex than this: one driver of family disintegration is the criminalization of failure to pay child support (also a gendered thing) and women also disproportionately find themselves saddled with various financial obligations involving the incarcerated men in their lives, such as dealing with the bail bonds industry. But the question, “is this necessary?” permeated the conversation.

I had many thoughts to offer on these excellent papers, which revolve around three themes. The first, which I called “Blackstone wept,” had to do with the question whether the relatively new distinction between criminal and civil law still holds water in a world full of crimmigration, civil asset forfeiture, and §1983 lawsuits. Finding oneself as a civil defendant in these cases is just as daunting and soul-destroying as being a defendant in a criminal case, with the added complication of having no right to counsel and none of the due process guarantees from criminal procedure. It strengthens my view that the “Civil Gideon” initiative in San Francisco is essential, even as not doing these mean-spirited things in the first place would certainly be better.

My second thought had to do with the decreasing importance of the public-private divide. In a paper that got considerable attention at the time, I questioned the wisdom of focusing critical and reformist energy on the private prison industry, vile as it is. My thinking about this issue was shaped by three eye-opening days that I spent at a public choice economics workshop. While in the belly of that particular beast, I ate and drank at the expense of (I think) the Koch brothers and took in some libertarian perspectives on the government-versus-free-market debacle. I came to realize that the government is shaped by very similar savings-and-greed incentives to the ones of the private sector. To my workshop instructors, this was wonderful, and to me, it was horrible, but it was true nonetheless. Some of the worst atrocities of the prison system have been perpetrated in government facilities; the private prison industry hasn’t cornered the market on scrimping and saving at the expense of a minimal standard of living for its wards. That all these mean, insidious persecutions are perpetrated by local government has strengthened my belief that, if there’s a loophole that allows someone to make a quick buck at the expense of the basic humanity of someone else, it must be immediately closed, regardless of whether the Machiavellian party is a private entrepreneur or a government paper-pusher.

The third thought, and the one that really hits me in the gut, turns back to the utility of these persecutions. I honestly cannot imagine that it is a worthwhile, profitable exercise to hound people with mental disabilities for money they don’t have; to chase after tickets issued to people who do not speak English for nonexisting parking violations; or to pay for the incarceration of women who are not actually endangering public safety because of their failure to pay this or that fee. So what is the point of this cruelty? Or perhaps the cruelty is the point? And if so, it’s another reminder to my rabble-rousing friends that we must cultivate enough love in our hearts for two wars: the long-term dismantle-abolish-defund stuff we’re so fond of talking about, and the actual, short-term, emergency, person-to-person immediate help to combat this awfulness, which from a bird’s-eye view seems like small potatoes but can completely overwhelm and wreck someone’s life.

As an aside, the visit to Los Angeles was glorious, as I got to stay at the Los Angeles Athletic club, where I swam in their spectacular pool (lots of backstroke, so I could gaze at the chandelier!); chat with old and new friends about viewpoint diversity, how to encourage empowerment and resilience in our students, what religion means behind bars, etc.; enjoy the Academy Museum and the majestic Angkor exhibit at the California Science Center; take in jazz near the La Brea Tar Pits; and visit the atelier of one of my favorite designers, Jerry Jacob, the creative genius behind Ito888. I’ll be back, Angelenos!

AB 2730 Proposes a Prison-Release Continuum

Good news! AB 2730 (Villapudua) is on its way to the California Senate. The gist of the proposal is:

This bill would would, subject to appropriation by the Legislature, create the California Antirecidivism and Public Safety Act pilot program for the purpose of providing opportunities for job training and work experience to individuals during incarceration to ensure their readiness for employment upon release from incarceration. The bill would require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to establish and implement a 5-year pilot program under which individuals sentenced to state prison, and scheduled to be released to parole or postrelease community supervision within 2 years, would be eligible to participate. The bill would require the pilot program to provide for the housing of the program participants in a community campus setting. The bill would require program participants to have access to evidence-based programs suitable for serving their rehabilitative, workforce training, and education needs, as specified. The bill would require the department, on or before March 1, 2027, to submit a comprehensive report to the Legislature that evaluates the effectiveness of the pilot program, as specified. The bill would repeal these provisions on January 1, 2028.

The idea is nothing new from a global perspective. As Cal Matters’ Nigel Duara explains, it is inspired by Scandinavian prisons, but I vividly recall working on precisely this sort of thing alongside Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m not sure how the program works now or how well it is funded, but back in the day the idea was this: ninety days before any incarcerated person was to be released, representatives of the Authority would meet with them and come up with a release plan that involves housing and employment. The Authority partnered with an assortment of diverse entities on the outside–agricultural enterprises in Kibbutzim, Yeshivot looking for students, big construction contractor firms, and lots more–and tailored an employment plan for each person. They made sure the person started receiving orientation and training before being released, and the prospective employers were briefed on how to make people feel welcome. They also sponsored a wide variety of housing initiatives, including subsidized housing that partnered two university students with one formerly incarcerated roommate.

It is also nothing new from an historical perspective. One of the most well-known prison reformers, Alexander Maconochie, was Warden of Norfolk Island (see image above) in the mid-19th century and introduced a points system that rewarded good behavior with gradual freedoms and skill acquisition. He transformed a horrific penal colony into a success story and ended up being a victim of his own success, removed from office by law-and-order folks who didn’t like hearing that the prisoners had toasted the Queen’s birthday with alcohol.

Here are some thoughts on what is and is not in the bill, which is a very general one-pager:

Who is in the program? The bill states that, at least during the five-year pilot period, the participants will be chosen by the warden or his/her designate. The criteria are not specified in the bill. I worry that this means that wardens concerned about optics will exclude long-term prisoners who could most benefit from a good introduction to the outside world.

How long does the program last? It looks like the prison is budgeting for the last two years of one’s sentence,

What job skills are provided? The Cal Matters article mentions truck driving, which means leaving prison with a Class A commercial driving license (a great asset on the job market.) But I wonder if CDCR shouldn’t also look at programs it already offers to very few people and consider vastly expanding them. Two examples of programs that produce a 0% recidivism rate (!) are carpentry and marine technology, and our incarcerated firefighter program could also use a considerable expansion. I’m also not entirely clear whether this is only about the provision of jobs or also about actually connecting people with openminded employers, so that they can have a guaranteed job on day one. This is how it’s done in Israel and should also be done here, given the mixed blessing of Ban the Box.

What else does someone need before they go into the outside world? According to Alessandro de Giorgi’s work–money to survive and a place to live. The main problem people face in the first few months on the outside is abject poverty. And since this program doesn’t provide any extra funding, I wonder how we can accomplish that.

If there’s no money, how can prisons make this happen? While rehabilitative prison programming, which now relies mostly on volunteers, is quite uneven in quality, some programs, such as Alliance for CHANGE, already provide useful, pragmatic training for reentry, including training on how to use smartphones and the Internet, as well as budgeting, managing outside bureaucracy, and the like. CDCR should approach this in a collaborative way, seeking to scale up what is being done in these volunteer programs for the benefit of the whole prison. What this also means is that, if the quality of incarceration has to improve, the quantity has to be decreased, and the best way to do that is to incarcerate fewer people for shorter periods. Presumably, if this program works and its graduates are less likely to get back to committing crime, it should pay for itself.

What about staff/guards? CCPOA has, perhaps surprisingly, lent its support to this project, telling CalMatters that the guards have front-row seats to everything that doesn’t work: programs that have “no correlation to the needs of the communities to which inmates will be released” and housing scenarios that produce “pressures […] from fellow inmates [that] can be too great to keep to the straight and narrow.” They know that “[p]rison politics can often be inescapable when programs and housing are delivered in the same environment as those who have no intention of improving themselves” (and one only wishes they were so enlightened when it was time to get vaccinated.) But I also think that, in separate transitional housing, CDCR should seriously consider hiring, training, and placing differently.

How to assess the success of the project? This is a very tricky issue. If the folks who enter the program are selected by the warden, rather than randomly assigned to the program, then an experiment with randomized experiment and control groups is impossible, and much of the success of the program may rely on self-selection. So, even if the pilot cohort will be successful, this will raise serious questions about the ability to scale this up to the entire prison population. Whoever is doing this evaluation study will have their work cut out for them (I don’t think it’ll be me, but we’ll see.)

What about the politics of this? Will it pass through the Senate? I don’t know. Everything is policitized these days, even things that shouldn’t be. It should be everyone’s goal, from the staunchest law and order fanatic to the bleedingest of progressive hearts, that less recidivism is good for everyone: taxpayers, potential victims, you name it. There is no reason this should get anything less than enthusiastic support from all quarters; the question is only whether the reallocation of CDCR’s budget will be done in a way that sets this up for success.

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.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Guard Vaccine Mandate

In an unfortunate, albeit not unexpected, decision, the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Tigar’s vaccine mandate. You can read the decision in full here.

The reasons, in short, are as follows: the judges considered CDCR’s efforts in “making vaccines and booster doses available to prisoners and correctional staff, enacting policies to encourage and facilitate staff and prisoner vaccination, requiring staff to wear personal protective equipment, and ensuring unvaccinated staff members regularly test for COVID-19. . . symptom screening for all individuals entering the prisons; enhanced cleaning in the facilities; adopting an outbreak action plan; upgrading ventilation; establishing quarantine protocols for medically vulnerable patients; and testing, masking, and physical distancing among inmates” sufficiently ameliorative to reduce their misdeed below the threshold for an Eighth Amendment violation and “[a] decision to adopt an approach that is not the most medically efficacious does not itself establish deliberate indifference.”

Chapter 6 of our book, which discusses COVID prison litigation, is called “The House Always Wins.” This decision is a textbook example of the pathologies of prison litigation and why it fails to address problems in real time. It doesn’t even matter whether the litigation is happening on the federal or state level, because the basic problems are the same: the courts focus on the prison setting more than on the law, continuously contort the Eighth Amendment to defend prison administration, and ignore the basic regulatory requirements in the free world, assuming the prison is so different that they don’t apply. In addition, there is an interagency “game of chicken” that stalemates any efforts at providing timely help during an emergency: the natural actors that should quickly intervene in such situations are the governor and the prison authorities. Since neither has any incentive to do anything helpful, and since the people entrusted with the immediate care of the inmates are in a union that has been completely politically captured, the courts have to make noises of stepping in, but dragging their feet means that dynamic situations change and transform long before they have a chance to intervene.

I think that what happened with this Ninth Circuit decision mirrors what happened with the San Quentin litigation. Recall that, back in November, Judge Howard found that the botched transfer from Chino constituted an Eighth Amendment violation, but the vaccines changed the game and rendered relief moot. I suspect that the Ninth Circuit judges were affected by the fact that, due to the new variants and new endemic realities of COVID, the diminishing returns of vaccination mean that the urgency behind vaccinating the guards (which had already begun to fade by the time Judge Tigar decided to act) is far less salient than it was in winter 2021, when their opposition to vaccination was at its strongest and their compliance could have made a real difference. In other words, this is a classic demonstration of how justice delayed is justice denied.

The other issue is the inherent limitation of litigation, which is backwards-looking. In the Quentin case, Judge Howard explicitly said that he did not look to the next variant or to the next pandemic; his job was just to assess the violations of the past. As we see again in the Plata case, this fundamental trait of litigation is unfortunate for dynamic situations because, as Wes Venteicher reports in this morning’s SacBee:

Now another wave could be coming. The corrections depnartment reported its largest week-over-week increase in new cases, measured as a percentage, in the last week of April. New cases increased by 820%, reaching 322 infections from the prior week’s low figure of 35. About 97,000 people are incarcerated in the state’s 34 prisons. The biggest increases in the last two weeks have been at San Quentin State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison, California Health Care Facility in Stockton, California Medical Facility in Vacaville and Ironwood State Prison in the southeast corner of the state, according to a corrections department infection tracker.

Ultimately, the only way to learn lessons for the next variant, the next pandemic, the next health crisis, is to conclude the obvious: it is impossible to save lives and provide decent healthcare to 100,000 people in California if the people entrusted with their care do not prioritize their wellbeing. Given that we do not seem to be able to attract people who have the prisoners’ best interests in mind to fulfill custodial positions, from the top, through the unions, to the rank-and-file, the only tenable conclusion is that we cannot and should not incarcerate nearly as many people as we do now. This will be the main conclusion of Fester, though we do make many other recommendations.

Worried about Vaccine Mandates Potentially Causing Prison Understaffing? Guess What Actually Causes Prison Understaffing: COVID-19.

At first glance, today’s COVID-19 numbers for California prisons appear to be a grim reprise of the two previous outbreak waves: thousands of cases, with major outbreaks in several facilities. Clearly, we have learned nothing from the last two years, which led to infections among more than half of the prison population and to 246 deaths; Governor Newsom’s recent reversal of 80-year-old Sirhan Sirhan’s parole bid indicates that politics and optics, rather than pragmatic public health and public safety considerations, are standing in the way of sensible choices. But upon closer inspection, this third wave features another cause for alarm: in addition to the 4,069 active cases among incarcerated people, there are currently 4,570 active cases among prison staff, and in 20 prisons, more than 100 staff members are currently infected.

The reason is not particularly mysterious. Throughout the last two years, California’s prison guards’ union (the CCPOA) led a dogged fight against mandatory vaccination for its members. For many months, the federal district court hearing the case adopted a conciliatory, welcoming approach, appeasing the guards and turning to gentle persuasion methods; these have proven useless in raising the vaccination rates among the staff. Finally, after the COVID catastrophe ravaged prisons (and several months too late to save lives) Judge Tigar ordered a vaccine mandate; the guards, the prison authorities, and Governor Newsom are opposing the mandate and their appeal is pending before the Ninth Circuit.

Whether prison guards refuse to get vaccinated due to indifference, COVID-19 denialism, or misguided politicization of healthcare, is pure speculation. But in their appeal, opponents of the mandate raise concerns that requiring vaccinations might lead to mass resignations of prison guards, which in turn would result in understaffed prisons. This scenario was feared, but failed to realize, in many other employment sectors with mandates, where vocal protestations and threats of resignation gave way to vaccination compliance. Indeed, the opponents’ stance is generating precisely the scenario they worry about: it turns out that, when thousands of people are sick at home, prisons become understaffed.

The irony of the situation might be completely lost on prison authorities, but it has an even darker side. Even if the threat of correctional officers’ resignations were real, and graver than the very real understaffing generated by the spike in staff cases, we must ask ourselves why courts and government officials so stubbornly cling to the idea of overcrowded prisons as a public good. If it is impossible to hire and retain correctional staff who can provide a standard of care that complies with minimal Eighth Amendment requirements, then it is impossible to incarcerate as many people as we do. We must reckon with the fact that we cannot, lawfully and constitutionally, house, clothe, and feed more than 100,000 people—a quarter of whom are over 50 years old—if the staff entrusted with their care cannot be bothered to take minimal precautions to protect their captive wards from disease.

A Visit to Tulane

For the first time since Fall 2019, I got on a plane on Monday and flew to New Orleans; Professor Adam Feibelman very graciously invited me to participate in the Workshop on Law and the Economy, and I had the opportunity to present Fester to people who read big chunks of it, including the introduction and Chapter 4.

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The Staff Is the Problem, Contd.

I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s not me–it’s the news. Not only are the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s employees threatening resignation over the vaccine mandates, but CCPOA, possibly the most bad-faith actor in the whole COVID-19 prison crisis, is now fighting the state vaccine mandate in Sacramento. The UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project summarized this problem in a data-rich blog post, and the danger is plain and evident from this modeling piece in the Lancet. I’ve already spent considerable time discussing this here and here among many other places. My newest take on this is on KCBS. My position on this can be summarized in seven points:

  1. Adopting exactly the opposite position than the one they should on vaccination is part and parcel of the pandemic approach of custodial staff and their approach stinks from the top. It harmonizes with their failure to mask, mockery of the residents’ fears, and disgusting fomentation of fear and disinformation.
  2. The problem is dual: CCPOA’s political capture as well as the COVID denialism of the rank and file. We can only speculate about Trumpism among the ranks based on what we know from other law enforcement agencies.
  3. As the dismaying San Francisco story demonstrates, what happens at CDCR mirrors what happens in the counties, where things are even worse b/c the incarcerated incarcerated population’s vaccine rates are considerably lower than in state prisons (a more transient and considerably younger group).
  4. Neither the governor’s office nor the courts have done enough to bring about acceptable staff vaccination rates, and have instead focused their energy on giving bonuses, consulting with gentle persuasion experts, and lavishly complimenting CCPOA for even deigning to show their faces in federal courts. Our executive and judicial branches must share in this shame.
  5. Take it from my colleague, Dorit Reiss, who specializes in vaccine law: There is no valid legal or constitutional argument correctional officers can lob against the vaccine mandate. CCPOA and the Sheriff’s Department have not got a leg to stand on.
  6. Anyone unwilling to do their part to prevent a medical catastrophe among the people they are in charge of is not a good fit for a custodial job.
  7. Finally, I’ve heard countless variations on the theme of “it’s complicated”, “we have to remunerate/reward them instead”, and “how can we attract people to work for us/avoid dangerous vacancies if we impose a vaccine mandate”: If correctional institutions find it impossible to recruit enough people who can be conscientious about the vaccine, the conclusion to draw is that we should not incarcerate as many people as we do.