The Call Is Coming from Inside the House

The image above, captured by movement photographer Gal Mosenson, comes from a protest held yesterday in Tel Aviv in support of the Arab-Israeli population. As some commentators have mentioned, Arab-Israelis are conspicuously and understandably absent from the pro-democracy, anti-government protests; the proliferation of Israeli flag and the coalition with centrist movements, obscuring the occupation of Palestinian land and the horrors visited not only on Palestinian refugees but on Israeli citizens who are ethnically Palestinian, are huge hindrances to collaboration. Yesterday’s protest organizers asked their Jewish allies to show up without protest t-shirts or Israeli flags.

I’ve previously posted about rising crime rates amongst Arab-Israelis, and things have grown even more dire since then: the number of murder victims is skyrocketing. The confusion among civil rights organizations whether to support the Arab-Israeli demand for assistance from a police force that oppresses and uses violence echoes some of the dilemmas that James Forman spelled out in Locking Up Our Own. But there’s something deeply patronizing about downplaying calls from thoughtful citizens who have realized that they simply cannot have their kids leave the house out of fear of shoot-outs and family vendettas gone wrong.

Meanwhile, in the New World, similar calls are being heard regarding crime rates in Oakland and San Francisco. The Oakland call comes from no other than the NAACP:

Oakland residents are sick and tired of our intolerable public safety crisis that overwhelmingly impacts minority communities. Murders, shootings, violent armed robberies, home invasions, car break-ins, sideshows, and highway shootouts have become a pervasive fixture of life in Oakland. We call on all elected leaders to unite and declare a state of emergency and bring together massive resources to address our public safety crisis.

African Americans are disproportionately hit the hardest by crime in East Oakland and other parts of the city. But residents from all parts of the city report that they do not feel safe. Women are targeted by young mobs and viciously beaten and robbed in downtown and uptown neighborhoods. Asians are assaulted in Chinatown. Street vendors are robbed in Fruitvale. News crews have their cameras stolen while they report on crime. PG&E workers are robbed and now require private security when they are out working. Everyone is in danger.

Failed leadership, including the movement to defund the police, our District Attorney’s unwillingness to charge and prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes, and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals. If there are no consequences for committing crime in Oakland, crime will continue to soar.

People are moving out of Oakland in droves. They are afraid to venture out of their homes to go to work, shop, or dine in Oakland and this is destroying economic activity. Businesses, small and large, struggle and close, tax revenues vanish, and we are creating the notorious doom-loop where life in our city continues to spiral downward. As economic pain increases, the conditions that help create crime and criminals are exacerbated by desperate people with no employment opportunities.

Notably, their call to action recognizes the progressive shaming that hinders action, and they call out the relevant communities without mincing words:

We urge African Americans to speak out and demand improved public safety. We also encourage Oakland’s White, Asian, and Latino communities to speak out against crime and stop allowing themselves to be shamed into silence.
There is nothing compassionate or progressive about allowing criminal behavior to fester and rob Oakland residents of their basic rights to public safety. It is not racist or unkind to want to be safe from crime. No one should live in fear in our city.

A somewhat more tepid call, but still important, comes from San Francisco’s NAACP President:

It can be difficult to exercise compassion when the situation is this dire. In one of the wealthiest cities in the world, poverty remains a significant problem, made worse by ever-increasing income inequality. Too often, our reaction to this suffering is to call for it to be removed in sweeps that only create more suffering by moving the problem to a new place in the city.  We have seen regrettable responses, such as the owner of a North Beach art gallery who sprayed an unhoused woman with a hose when she refused to move from the sidewalk in front of his business. I understand his frustration, but as difficult as it is, we must exercise compassion; today, I am working with the gallery owner to help him through this challenge.

But compassion must be accompanied by responsibility.

First and foremost is for people in this city to take personal responsibility, even in the most difficult of circumstances of being unhoused.

Setting up an encampment underneath an occupied building and setting open fires, as has happened recently in the Haight, is utterly unacceptable. So is erecting a tent city that prevents others from safely walking in their neighborhoods or makes it dangerous for them to come and go from their own homes. Engaging in open drug use, committing violence and carelessly creating unsanitary conditions are all the outcome of a lack of personal responsibility.

We also must practice community responsibility. Those who need help should be able to receive it, and we need to take the steps to streamline the creation of safe, affordable housing to get people off the streets permanently. At the same time, there must be consequences for those who refuse help yet continue to refuse to take personal responsibility for their actions.

Perhaps the most important thing we need, however, is accountability — by the city, by the array of agencies and organizations that serve the unhoused and those dealing with addiction, and by the larger community. Too much money is spent without effective oversight, coordination and collaboration. We can provide an individual with some of the help they need but fail to connect them with other essential resources. Organizations duplicate efforts, work at odds with one another, and in the end, fail to solve the problem they all profess to be fighting.

I assume the culture wars will now lead to an argument that the NAACP has sold out to white supremacy or whatever (the term “personal accountability” in particular, as my friend Paul Belonick notes, will be read by some as a right-wing dog whistle), but that would be reductive, disappointing, and mostly disrespectful. At some point, this movement will have to contend with the fact that the call is coming from inside the house, and that the big talk about “lived experience” means we should believe people who tell us they can’t live with crime around them.

Twenty years ago, when I studied radical/critical criminology, it struck me that the biggest weakness of Marxist/critical race theories were that, for all the political incentives of the oppressed to fight against the machine, the vast majority of poor people of color do not commit crime. And the fact that crime, especially violent crime, tends to operate intraracially. The radical rhetoric was intoxicating, but after years in the military defense, seeing how the haves and the have-nots fared, I realized that left realism was the best framework for understanding what I saw around me. What is novel and worthwhile about the calls for help from the Arab-Israeli community and from the Bay Area NAACP chapters is that it’s not just about oppression: they realize that enforcement must come hand in hand with opportunities for youth, otherwise there is no hope for the community. The Oakland NAACP writes:

Our youth must be given alternatives to the crippling desperation that leads to crime, drugs, and prison. They need quality education, mentorship, and, most importantly, real economic opportunities. Oakland should focus on creating skilled industrial and logistics jobs that pay family sustaining wages, and vocational training so Oakland residents can perform those jobs. With this focus we can produce hundreds, if not thousands, of the types of jobs desperately needed to stem economic despair. Unfortunately, progressive policies and failed leadership have chased away or delayed significant blue collar job development in the city, the Port of Oakland, and the former Army Base. That must change!

We also must continue with mentoring programs like the Oakland branch of the national OK Program that steers youth away from criminal activity. We believe that young people currently in the criminal life will choose another path if they are shown a way.

The idea that improving opportunities reduces crime is not new. It comes from Cloward and Ohlin, architects of Opportunities Theory. Even in the late 1950s it was evident that young people treated as second-class citizens make use of the opportunities available to them, and those tend to be illegitimate opportunities. This is common sense, but what I see all around me (Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime is a prime example, but there are others for sure) is derision of Cloward and Ohlin as white, top-down do-gooders who are almost (if not absolutely) worse than rightwingers. The appeal of Hinton’s argument is that it is clever and counterintuitive, and it is just perverse enough to appeal to academics who don’t have to actually deal with the people victimized by crime in dilapidated neighborhoods. Margo Schlanger presents this critique against another one of these lefties-are-worse-than-conservatives books, Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right.

The secret truth–the thing that happens to best reflect reality, but does not fill auditoriums or gets you coffee with the cool people at socio-legal conferences and punishment workshops–is that Cloward and Ohlin were right. It’s not sexy to talk about namby-pamby proposals for reform, but Lyndon Johnson had the right idea initially, as did Kennedy, and the reason it didn’t work is related to a lot of things, but not to the fact that crime was just a figment of the conservative imagination. Crime was real in the 1950s, and it was real in the 1980s, when lots of people had to live in environments saturated with lethal violence brought about by the crack epidemic. That the CIA is now widely, and rightfully, acknowledged as having at least negligently brought that about by turning a blind eye from midlevel drug dealers, doesn’t mean those years did not exist. It does not mean that thousands of people did not die from addiction or addiction-adjacent violence, and many more ended up incarcerated for the same reasons. Reality is not spicy, but it’s an essential ingredient in cooking up criminal justice policy. And who best to obtain a reality check from than the people who have to live with the outcomes?

If I’m going to be truly respectful–listening to people’s “lived experience” in crime-ravaged zones not only when it fits my politics, but whenever they opine about something they actually know best–I have to respect that the call for crime control is coming from inside the house, from unimpeachable, reliable sources, and that the wave of pretending that crime doesn’t exist either has crested or is very close to cresting. Criminal justice professionals like Pamela Price might realize that her constituents don’t actually want the sort of nonjustice her office is doling out (I read that scenario as different from Chesa’s recall, but there are parallels.) Whoever brings about nonjustice ends up with Nancy O’Malley or Brooke Jenkins as DAs, and that is not a scenario in which anyone, right to left, can thrive.


Hat-tip to Paul Belonick and Emily Murphy for the NAACP links.

Cooperation and Disruption in True-Crime Podcasting: Your Own Backyard

As some of you know, I’m beginning to work on a new project that sits at the intersection of new media, victimology, and law enforcement. I’m interested in the true crime podcast community, especially in podcasts targeting unsolved crimes. One of the questions I’m deeply interested in is the give-and-take between official law enforcement and podcasters (whether family members of the victim or third parties), which seems to range from hostility, through begrudging acceptance, all the way to pretty warm cooperation.

One notable example is Chris Lambert‘s excellent podcast Your Own Backyard, which is a thorough investigation of the disappearance of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart in May 1996. Lambert, who started off as an absolute stranger but established a warm collaborative relationship with the Smart family, has produced a true investigative masterpiece, chock-full of resources, first-hand testimony, circumstantial evidence examination, and intelligent inquiry into various forensic science disciplines (including human remains dogs and ground-penetrating radar). Most remarkably, Lambert’s podcast not only reawakened public interest in Smart’s disappearance, but also brought in new witnesses from the woodwork. Lambert’s dogged perseverance, intelligent analysis, and commitment to finding out the truth earned him the trust of the surrounding community and of law enforcement, and it looks like the police greatly benefitted from his work.

Throughout the entire lifespan of the case, there was only one viable suspect in Smart’s disappearance: fellow student Paul Flores, who helped an inebriated Smart get home from a party and was the last person to see her alive. Flores and his parents acted evasively and suspiciously over the years; Lambert’s investigation revealed that Flores was a predator who made women uncomfortable before Smart’s disappearance and, years after the event, a prolific rapist of multiple women. As Lambert provocatively posited in the podcast, Flores would have to be the unluckiest man alive for Smart’s disappearance to have been a coincidence.

Smart’s body was never found, but there was some evidence of human remains at Flores’ father’s house. The San Luis Obispo DA decided (thanks in great part to Lambert’s work and the evidence unearthed by the podcast) to charge Flores with murder and his father with being an accessory after the fact (to solve the confrontation problems in trials with codefendants, there were two different juries attending the same trial; I can talk more about this method, and how effective it is in solving Bruton/Gray/Cruz confrontation problems, in a future post). In March, the jury convicted Flores of the first-degree murder of Smart, and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison. This is a remarkable result given the passage of time and the hurdles in prosecuting no-body homicides.

I recommend listening to the whole podcast–it’s truly one of the better exemplars of this genre. One of the many things I find interesting, though, is the extent to which the existence of the podcast and its centrality to the case played a part in the criminal trial. In an effort to remain objective, Lambert, who recounts the trial in the later podcast episodes, matter-of-factly reports courtroom mentions of his own podcast without editorializing. But the defense (as a defense attorney, I gotta give kudos to Robert Sanger for what I think is undoubtedly a pretty heroic showing of professionalism with a client who is a pure, unadulterated garbage of a human being) repeatedly refers to the podcast and its encroachment on the case. Witnesses are asked about their participation in performative support for the Smarts (such as the entire investigative and prosecutorial team wearing purple, Smart’s favorite color) and about the extent to which the podcast propelled them to step forward. I’m pretty sure there will be arguments aplenty about bias and prejudice on appeal, and I worry that the podcast’s huge contribution to the investigation will seriously backfire.

Which brings me to one of my concerns about new media and law enforcement in general: Overall, I’ve been really impressed with the power of podcasts, especially their contribution to diversifying and enriching the victims’ rights movement. But is it time to have a sit-down, perhaps at CrimeCon, and set up some ethical rules, or best practices? Not everyone is Sarah Turney or Chris Lambert, not everyone does their homework in a dogged, meticulous way, and I worry that the need to come up with provocative encounters, confront suspects, dig up drama, etc., might backfire especially when podcasts finally succeed in greasing the wheels of the criminal process. Some things I think are worth considering are:

At what point should podcasters who are not themselves related to the victim reach out to the victim’s family? Is it ever okay to produce a podcast that the victim’s family does not support? What if the podcast casts suspicion on the family itself?

What kind of relationship should podcasters foster with the police? At what point should they hand evidence over to the police? Is this relationship akin to the police’s communication with traditional journalists?

Who owns footage obtained and produced by podcasters? Is there ever some sort of evidentiary privilege akin to the one granted to traditional journalists?

How much verification is required from podcasters (say, by contrast to police detectives checking alibis or triangulating evidence)?

What are the rules of engagement when reaching out to suspects? If podcasters take risks, how, and to what extent, does the police need to support and protect them–especially when law enforcement does not think that confronting the suspects is prudent?

Do podcasters have responsibility for the public chatter generated around the podcast? Wild theories, blame casting, and garden-variety shitposting that might happen, including, for example, posts that disparage the victim and/or their family?

What are the considerations that govern the way in which the story is told? For example, is it ethical to refrain from disclosing certain incidents/developments out of artistic concerns, or to make the narrative more dramatic and engaging? And what about the tone of reportage? Some of these podcasts (emphatically, NOT Lambert’s or Turney’s) have a humorous, flippant tone–is that something that should be frowned upon, especially if the victims’ families are not on board?

I’m interested to hear from you what other concerns/thoughts you have about these podcasts. And let’s keep tabs on the appellate process in the Flores case.

Comment: I’m still in Israel by my dad’s bedside – I write just to have a placeholder for ideas that pop in my head during my morning run before I head to the hospital every day. Please, no cumbersome professional requests during this trying time for me and my family.

How True Crime Podcasts Diversify and Decentralize the Victims’ Rights Movement

In the last few months, due to a combination of insomnia and long workouts, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, many of which are true-crime themed. Some of these are long-form podcasts, which follow an individual case, and some feature numerous cases, devoting an episode or two to each. This has led me to rethink about the victims’ rights movement and consider how the new landscape of crime podcasting has changed its focus.

The criminological literature tends to paint the emergence of the victims’ rights movement in the U.S. as a monolith: comprised primarily of white, middle- or upper-class people whose relatives were victims of stranger homicide, pioneers in victim advocacy have tended to advocate for harsher punishments, the death penalty, abolition of parole, harsher prison conditions, etc. In some cases, as Josh Page documents in The Toughest Beat, they partnered with California’s prison guards union. In other cases, as I documented in Yesterday’s Monsters, they pioneered victim presence at parole hearings, with the only possible approach being clamoring for parole denial. Our harsh habitual offender laws were largely the product of Mark Klaas’ advocacy, in the aftermath of the murder of his daughter Polly.

And yet, evidence abounds to the fact that victims are not, actually, a monolith. In my partnership with violence prevention coalitions, I’ve met many victims’ families–mostly black, working-class people–who don’t feel at home with this punitive approach, and call for social change instead. We’ve seen some stunning examples of victim forgiveness (even as know-it-alls on the Internet tell them how to mourn their relatives.) It looks like victims of acquaintance homicide, rather than stranger homicide, are less punitive, and that punitiveness declines when victims and offenders encounter each other.

My extensive, though unsystematic, course of listening to true-crime podcasts suggest that today’s true-crime media lends its voice to multiple victim perspectives, incorporating some critiques of punitiveness, excessive policing, and mass incarceration, and rejecting the victim/offender dichotomy that characterized so much of the early days of the movement. Many episodes include frank descriptions of victims’ lives, including their criminal records, drug abuse, and mental illness–not to blame them, or cast a negative light on them, but rather to point out that even people who struggled in their lives deserve to be found and for their fate to be discovered. Many episodes explicitly feature victims of color, victims who worked in the sex industry close to their demise, and victims who had complicated relationships with their suspected killers or abusers. In many of these episodes, the podcasters explicitly point out that they are looking to bring attention to these left-behind cases.

I’m also noticing that the podcasts feature plenty of rage over inappropriate policing, such as the forceful extraction of confessions or sloppy forensic works. This falls in line with much of what I’ve been thinking about recently: that the problem is not so much overpolicing or underpolicing, but rather the wrong kind of policing altogether (more focus on stop-and-frisk harassment and humiliation than on, well, solving crimes.) Podcasters’ voices become emotional not only when describing the victims’ plight, but also when describing harsh incarceration conditions suffered by wrongly convicted suspects. Notably, podcasters feature ambivalence toward family members who (wrongly) maintain that someone cleared of all connection to the crime (through DNA and, say, proof that a confession was coerced) is guilty: they offer empathy but, plainly and politely, state that they disagree.

Because podcasters have to provide what their public is interested in hearing, one can tell that criminal justice issues percolate from public debate into these programs–first among which is the issue of racial justice. I’ve seen extensive coverage of hate crimes, complete with fundraisers for racial justice organizations, and in cases that involve black perpetrators and victims the focus is on getting justice and attention for the victim, rather than punishment for the offender.

Relatedly, these podcasts also choose to feature a variety of different victim voices. Some families, you’ll hear, are staunch supporters of the death penalty, wishing for the murderers of their loved ones to suffer. Others say that they don’t much care about the punishment, but rather about solving the crime. Many podcasts offer no judgment, letting the victims be themselves rather than the world curators of criminal justice. I really appreciate this perspective.

Much of this pluralistic, multifaceted approach relates to the fact that many true crime podcasts focus on unsolved crimes. The main question driving the narrative is what happened, rather than what the sentence will be. This, to a great degree, depoliticizes the content, focusing it on something we presumably all want: to solve serious crime cases.

This change of focus reminds me of something different, but related. In a really interesting, clear-eyed piece, Keith Findley argues that the emergence of innocence as a topic of conversation has, to some extent, broken the impasse between crime control and due process enthusiasts. Even the staunchest crime control proponent would not like to see an innocent person behind bars; even the scrappiest due process advocate wants solid proof of a crime at trial. I think a similar maneuver happens with these podcasts. The idea that we need to find out what happened eclipses the focus on retribution, just deserts, and what happens later, breaking the impasse and finding some depolicitized commonality among victims of unsolved crime.

I may write something about this at a later date; I think that these podcasts offer an interesting counterpart to the usual crime daytime TV, reviewed by Danny LaChance and Paul Kaplan in their book Crimesploitation. Let there be no mistake: true-crime podcasts crimesploit to the Nth degree. But I think they do it in a different way that is worth exploring.

Rise of the Innocence Podcast

A short while ago, I chaired a panel to celebrate Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s new book Crimesploitation, which examines the lowbrow and middlebrow shows that shed glamorous and lurid light on crime: Cops, To Catch a Predator, etc. As I wrote in my review of the book, this read coincided with the week in which Adnan Syed, whose case was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial, was set free by a Baltimore court after serving 23 years of incarceration. Here is a timeline of Syed’s case, which clearly indicates that the push to exonerate him came from the investigation in the podcast. Following in Serial’s footsteps was Undisclosed, a more pro-defense oriented podcast, which highlighted more discoveries.

In the book, Kaplan and LaChance examine a TV show that came out more or less when Serial emerged on the scene: Making a Murderer, which followed the murder case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s hard to argue against anything that creates a push for justice, and the authors don’t do that, but they do voice a critique against these wrongful conviction media products: by singling out specific cases of injustice, Kaplan and LaChance argue, they “fail[] to achieve the goal of critiquing the substance and structure of the criminal justice system and the bigger picture of hegemonic power relations in the United States that supports it” (94). In other words, “the protection of factually innocent people from the devastation of incarceration. . . becomes the most pressing criminal justice policy imperative, leaving untouched the question of why such a devastating punishment is so easily and readily meted out.” 

Kaplan and LaChance’s critique is well taken. The concern is that the focus on innocence will gloss over the fact that guilty people, as well as the innocent ones, don’t deserve neglect, sadism, cruelty, incompetence, and other cruel and, sadly, not unusual aspects of incarceration. I saw some of this play out in the conversation about vaccines, when jail vaccine advocates referred to the presumption of innocence to make a bid for vaccines that everyone, guilty and innocent alike, should have received immediately simply by virtue of being human and in a congregate setting with little control over their surroundings (and said so here.) But wrongful convictions are their own genre of awfulness, and while we need to support everyone who is incarcerated, I don’t think that infighting between innocence projects and prison advocacy projects helps the overall goal of making the world a better place.

Moreover, I think I am more optimistic than Kaplan and LaChance about these shows. For every person who might watch them and think, “wow, this is a unique instance of miscarriage of justice” there must be several who walk away from it thinking “if this atrocity happened in a case that was highlighted by a podcast, imagine how many more people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit who haven’t been featured in podcasts yet.” I said as much in my commentary on the podcast and on the radio.

Happily, the high-profile success of the vanguard shows of this genre led to a whole slew of podcasts seeking justice for the wrongfully convicted. Just recently, the podcast Proof led to the exoneration of two men in Georgia. At the same time, a seemingly contradictory trend is visible: podcasts that reopen cold cases and present theories of the case can help revive interest in unsolved murders and sometimes put terrifyingly violent people behind bars, as well as highlight atrocious behavior that might or might not be criminally defined in an effort to get justice for the victims. I say “seemingly” because, in both cases, the underlying assumption seems to be: podcasters can grease and speed up the wheels of justice faster and better than, say, Innocence Project lawyers.

Why is that? Consider what might be the first example of this genre: Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, the documentaries about the murders of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the convictions of Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley and Jason Baldwin. The documentaries evoked enormous interest in the cases, and with the weight of celebrities and advocates, within a few years, everyone who knew something about these cases became convinced that the three were wrongly convicted. This newly fueled interest led to some movement in the case, ending in a new trial for Echols and, eventually, in an Alford plea for all defendants that set them free. Shortly after the plea, understanding the power of media, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis produced a documentary of their own in 2012, which featured better forensics and more novel analyses of the evidence.

What happened with the West Memphis Three case is instructive. The media can bring to the public voices form the scene. Unbound by technicalities and rules of evidence and of legal ethics, they can reinterview witnesses, examine forensic evidence with improved technologies, and have candid conversations with legal actors (some of whom might be retired at that point.) They can tell a story in emotionally artful ways that can persuade the public that an injustice has been done. I’m beginning to think that the Innocence Project might want to invest a considerable part of its budget in podcasting.

One argument against the use of podcasts in this way might be that they draw arbitrary, sporadic attention to certain cases at the expense of others. That is surely a problem. But isn’t sporadic, arbitrary attention that corrects injustice better than no attention at all?

The other challenge might be that the proliferation of these podcasts, with every fresh journalist or journalism aspirant hoping to be the one to stand on the courtroom stairs and celebrate, their impact will become marginally smaller, to the point that we will stop paying attention. I don’t think we’re at that inflection point yet. Moreover, the exoneration technologies (primarily the improvement and lower costs of DNA testing) are exposing more and more of these cases (there are also stark racial patterns) and I think we still need all the podcasts we can get.

In Memoriam: Leslie Sebba

It’s been more than a week since we lost Leslie Sebba, my beloved mentor and teacher at Hebrew University’s Institute of Criminology, and only now have I found the time to write. I spent the entire week at the Law and Society Association’s Annual Meeting in Lisbon, amidst a heatwave, and throughout the week my heart was heavy with the palpable absence of Leslie, who attended the meeting almost every year as a member of our Punishment and Society CRN. And at the same time, there was the uncanny feeling that Leslie was there, because the conversation revolved around ideas that he helped develop and interrogate throughout his professional life. We paid tribute to Leslie at some of the panels, though I was restless with grief because I was unable to attend the funeral and the Shiv’a and tell his family a bit about how inspiring, kind, and special he was.

My first encounter with Leslie’s work was as a law student at HUJI, where I took his course “rights of prisoners and residents of closed institutions.” HUJI’s law curriculum, at the time, was very German, in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of critical theory and empiricism; we sat in big hallways, 150 or even 300 of us, and were essentially lectured at by some of the era’s civil rights luminaries (Ruthie Gavison, Mota Kremnitzer, David Kretzmer.) Occasionally, they asked us a question; sometimes I managed to shine, which made me feel an inch taller, but I wouldn’t go as far as to actually ask a question myself, or (heaven forbid) bring myself to attend office hours. And here was something completely different: an elective course taught by a gentle, absentminded soul, a kind smile perpetually on his lips, a preemptive forgiveness for student laziness or poor behavior, and a gentle door always open for those interested in learning more. The whole thing was bathed in a quiet, gentlemanlike, and at the same time fervent care for the human rights of the most vulnerable people in society, and in big part planted the seed for my later decision to change affiliations and move over to the criminology side of the building. No longer a law student at a formalist, traditional institution, but rather a grad student at a small, rigorous empirical department, I proceeded to take more classes with Leslie throughout my master’s, and his penology course, in particular, was an exquisite tour de force. Leslie was one of the most knowledgeable and well-read people I ever met. It is thanks to him that my education included not just the American classics (though they were certainly there – the entire Johnston, Savitz, and Wolfgang prison canon) but also a lot of European and Pacific materials. I still credit my unorthodox approach to the American abolitionism movement to the fact that, thanks to Leslie, I’m well read on Scandinavian abolitionism from the 1970s. And it is greatly thanks to him that my own students learn a lot about New Zealand’s approach to restorative circles; he had us read primary research about that system when it was hot off the press.

Leslie’s own work, which he assigned with a light, humble hand (he could’ve easily had us read everything he wrote, which was just so, so good) touched on many of these subjects that came to interest me. For one thing, he was a true pioneer of victimology. While his HUJI colleague Menachem Amir published an extremely controversial book examining the concept of “victim precipitation” in sexual assault (and was skewered by feminists), Leslie’s interest in victims was far more humane. In his groundbreaking book Third Parties he tries to piece together the various theoretical legal and criminological strands underpinning the victims’ rights revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, it all seems super lucid and obvious, but when it had just come out in 1996 it was a novel and well balanced effort to critically assess how much of the “victim bills of rights” that were cropping up like mushrooms after the rain was empty rhetoric and how much it would actually improve the lot of victims, especially of violent crime. His pioneering contributions to victimology were also in, basically, making room for the field as its own criminological school; he was the founding editor of the International Review of Victimology and taught a fascinating and popular course on the subject.

Third Parties was emblematic of Leslie’s approach, which straddled the worlds of law and criminology. Leslie possessed the rare and useful mix of someone who could analyze doctrine with unrivaled clarity and sharpness and, at the same time, entertain curiosity about how it plays out in the field and open-mindedly examine critiques. His vast international interests meant that he was preoccupied with international and comparative questions quite a bit; he looked at the worrisome trend of importing American punitivism such as Third Strikes laws and the notion of solitary confinement as an international human rights crime. He also had a crystal clear and lucid approach to Israeli penology, tracing the arc of punitivism back to the amnesties of the 1950s and constantly making the tie between domestic crime control and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Leslie, who had a keen nose for bright and innovative minds like his own, introduced us to the writings of Malcolm Feeley, Jonathan Simon, and David Garland. It was thanks to his gentle encouragement and prodding that I mustered the cojones to attend a concentrated class, in English, from a visiting Malcolm Feeley, leading to intellectual connections that would chart the rest of my professional life. Leslie saw something in me, even as I was a night school grad student in a special master’s program for cops and prison guards (the only hours I could make while working full time as a military public defender), and it is no exaggeration to say that, if I’ve achieved a modicum of success, it is truly thanks to him. While still at the Institute, I was his research assistant as well as his teaching assistant; I was green behind the ears and truly knew nothing, and he gave me responsibilities and kudos far beyond what someone at my age and experience level merited.

Leslie also exposed me to the idea that first-rate theoretical games are fun, but they are completely meaningless if they don’t improve the lives of real people on the ground. The first project with which I helped him was a collaboration with Israel’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority, which had just been founded at the time. We were looking for ways to enshrine the right to meaningful labor in Israeli law. Leslie’s other work, on children’s rights, was also done in partnerships, and he was a valued and respected participant and member in initiatives of human rights organizations ACRI and Adallah.

What is truly magical about Leslie the person is that all these incredible world-improving accomplishments lived within a humble, gentle, self-effacing soul. Leslie was never driven by his ego; he supported and trumpeted his students and collaborators, worked well in groups, helped organize panels, and was happy to sit in the audience when a junior collaborator presented his work. His gentle, fatherly mannerisms belied a keen mind always devoted to improving justice. And he took great pleasure in his work – while lecturing, he always seemed to be having an interesting, enriching conversation within his own mind (it was not rare for him to pose a question and, in the same breath, answer it in two contradictory ways with a bemused face.) A great light has dimmed and the world of law, criminology, and criminal justice is impoverished for his departure. What is remembered, lives.

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.

June 2022 Election: Blog Endorsements

Back when 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.

Urban Alchemy in the News

SF-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which I discussed here and here, is in the news this week. First, there was BBC coverage, and this morning a lengthy investigative story in the Chron. Mallory Moench and Kevin Fagan’s story is interesting and informative, and offers lots of useful perspectives, but does adopt an unnecessarily skeptical emphasis and tone, which rankled me because I work in the Tenderloin and see the transformation it has undergone through Urban Alchemy’s intervention.

In the early pandemic months, the open drug market around my workplace was so brazen and violent that my students feared going out of their dorm rooms at the Hastings towers. Mayor Breed and SFPD tried to resolve the problem by doing police sweeps of the area, which only resulted in new people coming in to deal and shoot every day. At some point I was contacted by a civil rights org, which shall remain anonymous out of compassion, with a well meant, but absurd, invitation to support their lawsuit against gang injunctions with an amicus brief refuting the existence of the drug market. Refuting? I thought. Are you kidding me? Do you have eyes? Do you live or work here? It was a prime example of what I’ve come to recoil from: the refusal, by some quarters of the Bay Area’s delusional left, to concede that crime is real and has real victims and real implications (that’s why I have no patience for armchair abolitionism, by the way.)

Then, our Dean signed a contract with Urban Alchemy, which has them support the area adjacent to the school. This proved to be a complete game changer. The first morning I showed up to work with the UA practitioners surrounding the perimeter of the school I was amazed; the change in energy, the peacefulness, the friendliness, the sense of personal safety, were palpable. I started chatting with some of the practitioners around my workplace, who came from backgrounds of serious incarceration, and found that their personal experiences provided them with just the right interpersonal skills to intervene in complicated situations in the Tenderloin. Finally, someone is doing the right thing, I thought. There are so many occupations in which a background of criminal invovement and incarceration is a priceless resource – and this includes lawyering. Recently, I interviewed people with criminal records who applied to the California bar and wrote:

In the few occasions in which bar membership with criminal records are discussed, it is not in the context of diversity, but rather in the context of a public concern about “crooks” in the legal profession. Accordingly, the bar orients its policies, including the recent requirement that current members undergo periodic fingerprinting, toward the exposure and weeding out of “crooks.” Criminal experiences are seen as a liability and a warning sign about the members’ character.

My interviewees’ interpretations were diametrically opposed to those of the bar. All of them, without exception, mentioned their experiences in the criminal justice system as catalysts for their decision to become lawyers, and most specifically to help disenfranchised population. Public interest lawyers who spoke to me cited their own criminal experience as an important empathy booster with their clients. Even some of the ethics attorneys cited their personal experiences with substance abuse as a bridge between them and clients with similar histories. By contrast, commercial lawyers, especially in big firms, remained circumspect about their history. Two lawyers spoke to me in the early morning hours, when they were alone in the office, and others spoke from home, citing concern about letting their colleagues know about their history. My conclusion from this was that the interviewees’ background was a rich resource that provided them with a unique and important insider perspective on the system, which remained unvalued and tagged as uniformly negative baggage.

To Moench and Fagan’s credit, their piece does represent this view; one of their interviewees explicitly says that looking at justice involvement as an asset, rather than a barrier, is revolutionary. But overall, their reporting exceedingly amplifies the voices of the naysayers above those of the many people who live and work in the Tenderloin who are quietly grateful for Urban Alchemy’s presence in the streets. You’ll be hard pressed to find detail in their story of the many good deeds that the practitioners perform daily, ranging from lives saved with Naloxone (several times a week, I’m told) to skillfully providing my female students a sense of personal safety when walking the Tenderloin in the evening. Several students described how a practitioner subtly positioned himself between them and someone who was getting too close, and how the threatening situation evaporated before it could evolve in unsavory directions. Moench and Fagan give this a passing nod, but their piece fails to properly capture the magic.

This brings me to another observation: There hasn’t yet been a project evaluation for Urban Alchemy’s Tenderloin intervention. Executing such a study would be a daunting task for several methodological reasons. First, there’s no comparative baseline for the intervention. The situation before their intervention was so abnormal that it would be hard to use it as a control, even if data were available. If the comparison is geographic, it would suffer from the usual problems with situational crime prevention: focusing an intervention in a particular geographical zone means that criminal activity is displaced onto adjacent zones, so the two comparators are not independent of each other. If the study is structured as an in-depth phenomenological project (which is what I would do if I were to do this–and a colleague and I are thinking about this), there’s the Star Trek problem of the Prime Directive: researchers or students hanging out in the Tenderloin to conduct observations would, themselves, change the dynamics in the area that they study. A big part of Urban Alchemy’s success lies in the fact that they do things differently than SFPD. They do not rely on surveillance cameras; in fact, they eschew them, and having any sort of documentation would be detrimental to their working model. And people standing in the corner for hours and taking notes would chill everyone’s behavior. Fieldwork here has to be conducted with care.

I have one more observation to offer: I now work in a service profession that requires crowd management and interpersonal intervention (as a city pool lifeguard) and also have multiple years of experience managing crowds in rowdy, inebriated, unusual situations (as a Dykes on Bikes registration volunteer at Pride and at Folsom Street Fair, for example.) The vast majority of people you encounter at these settings are lovely and a delight to be with. But the one or two percent who are decidedly not lovely can really test anyone’s self control. I’m talking about the driver who insists on driving the car into the area you’re trying to cordone off, the slow dude who insists on swimming in the lane with faster people and not letting them pass, or the people repeatedly told (politely) to move to the sidewalk so that they are not run over by trucks who don’t go where they’re told. My experiences are nothing compared to what the Urban Alchemy practitioners encounter every day on the Tenderloin streets. I really wish our reporting on this were sympathetic to the enormous challenges of interpersonal interactions in this very rough patch of our city and more appreciative of how much conflict and anxiety are spared when people who know what they’re doing take the lead.

At SFPD, All the Double Coils Go in the Same Box

Last week I received a call from a journalist following up an astonishing story: the San Francisco police apparently used DNA evidence collected from a sexual assault survivor years ago to identify and arrest her in connection with a recent, unrelated property crime. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was horrified and proceeded to dismiss the charges, but the case continues to make headlines. It turns out that local DNA databases are less heavily regulated than the federal ones, and it is regular practice for the police to upload rape kit DNA to the database–both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s.

My initial reaction to this story was astonishment; it is extremely jarring to consider that someone consents to an invasive and extremely unpleasant forensic examination following one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through, persevering with it so that the police can catch the person who did this to them, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a criminal prosecution for an unrelated incident. I was also quite astonished at the juxtaposition between the shameful backlog in testing rape kits for the sake of arresting the perpetrators and this overzealous haste to do something with the victim’s DNA. There’s no question in my mind that this is appallingly unethical, but is it also a constitutional violation?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures; the first question in every Fourth Amendment analysis is always whether the police activity in question is, indeed, a search. Since Katz v. United States (1967), courts use a subjective and an objective test to answer this question: (1) Has police behavior infringed on the person’s expectation of privacy? and, (2) is this expectation of privacy something that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable?

Until recently, the concept of privacy was practically nonexistent in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence whenever a person disclosed or exposed something to a third party: anything you discard, expose, or share, is fair game, and the risk that the third party will share it with the police is on you. This is true for things you say to a friend (whether or not the friend testifies against you later), the numbers you ring from your home phone, information you share with the bank, the garbage you leave on the curb and, as we recently learned, DNA you share with ancestry websites (which can be used for familial identification, too.) While the collection of forensics for a rape kit is done by a nurse, not by police personnel, under the pre-2018 Third Party Doctrine this should technically not matter; moreover, Sameena Mulla‘s excellent book The Violence of Care shows how much this agonizing process feels forensic rather than medical (and is done by nurses who fully identify with the forensic mission of the rape kit collection.)

But in 2018, the Supreme Court decided Carpenter v. United States, in which Justice Gorsuch expressed discontent with the breadth of the Third Party Doctrine. The Court limited their decision to the exhaustive collection of cell-site location information (CSLI), and explicitly declined to overturn the entire doctrine, but it certainly signals less enthusiasm for the doctrine. The same considerations–extensive collection, intimate information, access to holistic information about the person–are present in the context of DNA use for different purposes than the ones it was collected for, as Annabelle Wilmott explains here. While I don’t think that, at present, the Fourth Amendment forbids what SFPD has done here, I don’t think it will take long for the Justices to curb the Third Party Doctrine in the context of DNA collection–a few additional high-profile scandals like this one, particularly in unsavory, unconscionable contexts such as this one, and there will be massive public distaste for this (consider that the US population is particularly concerned about privacy.)

I do want to push on a few aspects of this narrative, though. When friends told me how appalled they were that charges were filed, I asked them, “would you be as appalled if you found out that the victim’s DNA linked them to a heinous crime, such as a homicide or a sexual assault?” This is not merely a parlor game. We know that many people who commit heinous crimes were themselves victims of serious physical and sexual violence in the past. For some of my colleagues, this possibility would dampen the outrage. The other thing I wondered about was, given that SFPD claims this is standard practice, whether they have a significant yield of crimes solved as a consequence of this practice (and possible other practices of tossing into the crime database DNA collected for other purposes.)

Another policy consideration–that this perverse use of DNA will dissuade victims from submitting to forensic examinations–does not sound serious to me. The exam itself is already daunting and unpleasant enough in itself that any effect this additional story might have on people’s considerations whether or not to submit to it seems to me marginal (this is not a good thing, but it seems nevertheless to make sense.) I also think that this policy argument has the potential to suggest that collecting rape kits is an unqualified good, when Mulla’s excellent book shows that the overzealous enthusiasm about forensics leads to collecting them when they are completely immaterial to the investigation, such as in the many cases in which the rapist is known to the victim and sex itself is not in dispute (but consent is.)

This Chron story suggests that SF Supervisors are contemplating legislation that would prohibit this particular mishap from happening again, and I worry that, in the haste to react to an unpleasant high-profile incident, the opportunity for a more thorough investigation and regulation of the entire local DNA database business will be missed.

Meaningful Ways to Support Animal Liberation through Criminal Law

Happy Return of the Light to all my readers! I hope the lengthening days and multifaith holidays of light are giving you some hope, even in the face of some difficult challenges we face (I’ll talk about some of the newest developments regarding COVID in prisons in my next post.)

I’m using this post as a way to organize my ideas for a new chapter in an anthology about animals as victims of crime. One of the most common advocacy paths in animal rights has been an effort to enhance the statutory structure of cruelty to animal laws: creating more offenses, raising sentences, and pursuing prosecutions. As Justin Marceau explains in Beyond Cages, this agenda–which hopes to change the lives of nonhuman animals for the better–tends to target, most of the time, a demographic that is already suffering in serious ways: impoverished people trying to take care of their pets (as I explained elsewhere, the landmark decision State v. Newcomb, in which the Oregon Supreme Court found that removing a dog from the household and testing his blood is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, involved precisely that scenario.)

My views on the punitive animus behind so-called progressive movements are well known; in the last few years, I have been alarmed by the amount of mobbing, vindictiveness, and shrill calls for Draconian punishment in the guise of seeking social justice, and this regrettable phenomenon shows no sign of abating, even as more and more people are vocal about how fed up they are with it and how, again and again, it targets the wrong people. More prosecutions deployed against the low-hanging fruit of poor people, as opposed to against the vile factory farm industry, are not the way to go. But there are several ways in which we can support animal liberation through criminal law tools.

The first thing we should consider is what “victim status” actually means–legally, culturally, and symbolically–when said victims don’t actually “use their voice.” Rather, a variety of spokespersons try to assume the role of speaking for the animals. This reminds me, to some extent, the ways in which the parties in a homicide trial try to bring forth the decedent’s perspective, which is of course tragically missing from the trial–but at least there they can rely on the decedent’s history, what they might have said or done when alive. This is not something we can do for animals, though we can and should be enlightened about the extent to which animals can and do suffer, physically and psychologically. Nonetheless, I don’t think that it’s useful to think of the problem of serious crimes against animals through the common formulation of criminal law’s importance for victims–getting “justice for A” by “punishing B.” What would “justice” mean to a nonhuman victim? In one of the most recent conversations about crime survivors and criminal justice, the high-profile trial of Brock Turner, much of the conversation revolved around Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement. What would be the equivalent of such a statement on behalf of an animal? And, more importantly, what would it mean to a nonhuman animal if there were ways to present their perspectives in court?

As you can tell, I have serious doubts about using the “justice for A by punishing B” framework even for human animals, but it seems pretty clear for me that, for nonhumans, symbolic victories of this nature are meaningless. It seems to me that the goal of pro-nonhuman-animal criminal law reform should be making actual, practical headway in animal liberation as well as in animal protectionism. Because of this, I propose the following avenues for reform:

If seeking status for animals in criminal law, we should emphasize ways in which this status actually promotes welfare for animals–such as recognizing harm to animals as “harm to someone” to provide animal rights activists and open rescuers the necessity defense. I think that the common law definition of necessity already supports this interpretation and urge courts to clarify it.

We need to develop better ways to help folks who participate in animal exploitation and abuse as part of a cultural tradition that is important to them (I’m thinking of Katie Young’s ethnography of Hawaiian cockfighters, but Passover lamb slaughter rituals and the U.S. traditional consumption of turkey during Thanksgiving would also count) interrogate their own assumptions about the personhood/sentience of the animals. These questions can be very difficult to explore and we need to find ways to make inroads in these sorts of situations. This also matters when looking at criminal defendants clearly suffering from mental illness, such as animal hoarders, who often believe they are caring for the animals they abuse. Insights that go against the grain of cultural traditions and mental health landscape are very difficult to develop in the context of an adversarial trial, where one is already antagonized by the very fact of being a criminal defendant.

In the area of companion animals, one way to prevent prosecutions before they even happen is to provide people who live in poverty dignified ways to care for their animals, which would be good for the humans as well as the nonhumans. Expanding on the work of Paw Fund and Pets of the Homeless is crucial, as is the financial assistance program of the San Francisco SPCA.

It is surprising how little attention is given in conversations about animals in criminal law to the exploitation of animals in law enforcement. We talk about the racial symbolism of using horses to quell protests for humans (see here also) but not nearly enough about the appalling aspect of involving these horses in human conflicts in this brutal manner (so much of human warfare has relied on animals–you’d think this would be a topic of conversation already.) Contrary to what activists may think, one conversation here does not have to come at the expense of another. This conversation has to go beyond labor rights for police animals (a great example of animal personhood that actually has practical importance!) to questioning their use in the first place.

In Beyond Cages, Marceau proposes shifting the prosecutorial focus from impoverished individuals to corporations; I understand where he’s coming from and empathize with his perspective, though I think that this proposal suffers from the same problems as many anti-carceral proposals: they don’t go far enough–merely expanding the population of “defendants we care about” and leaving the last bastions of carcerality (corporations, rich people, white supremacists, cops) in place. Instead, I think it is wiser to let go of the criminal framework even for corporations, choosing instead to pursue civil liability strategies involving monetary damages, which can potentially incentivize changes in industry standards. The threat of civil action can go hand in hand with the kind of business incentives that Leah Garcés discusses in her book Grilled and Bruce Friedrich promotes at the Good Food Institute.

Does any of you have other ideas for ways in which criminal law can promote animal liberation without the punitive/carceral focus?