BPH, Parole Hearing Transcripts Are Public. Give Researchers Access Immediately

*** UPDATE: I just heard from the researchers that they won the lawsuit and got their data. They shared that “[t]he judge told off CDCR in no uncertain terms.” I’m leaving the post up because some of you may need it to get data from CDCR in the future.***

I just found out something that upset me greatly: Back in May, the Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) refused to provide a team of researchers access to parole hearing transcripts because they didn’t like their findings from a previous study. Nichoas Iovino from the Courthouse News Service reported:

In April 2018, four researchers requested 15 years of parole board hearing transcripts and race and ethnicity data for parole candidates from 2002 through 2017, later expanding their request to cover records through Nov. 1, 2019. The researchers from the University of Oregon and Stanford University intend to develop a machine-learning platform to help analyze and detect patterns of bias in California parole decisions.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released the hearing transcripts but refused to disclose records on race and ethnicity, arguing state law does not require it to turn over information that “would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The department also refused to release the data through a separate “research review” process after a Board of Parole Hearings (BPH) administrator said she disagreed with University of Oregon researcher Kristen Bell’s prior findings of racial bias in parole decisions for people sentenced to life as juveniles.

In October 2019, the board’s executive officer Jennifer Shaffer said she disagreed with Bell’s conclusions and objected to her research being used in legal filings to oppose CDCR’s positions in court cases, according to the lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court on Wednesday. Shaffer also reportedly said she would only release the requested records if Bell was no longer involved in the project.

Before going into the problem of viewpoint discrimination and how it chills correctional research, I want to point out the simple fact that, under the California Public Records Act, parole hearing transcripts are public. In fact, on its very webpage, CDCR states that they provide free electronic transcripts upon request, and printed copies for a reasonable fee, as they should, because there’s no need for a FOIA request for parole transcripts.

In Yesterday’s Monsters I qualitatively analyzed parole hearing transcripts for seven people, spanning almost 50 years.

I contacted CDCR and requested all hearings for all original members of the Manson Family who have been incarcerated at CDCR. For a reasonable fee, and without giving me any grief at all, CDCR, to their credit, did exactly what they should have done: they put everything I needed on a CD and mailed it to my office address. Within two weeks, I had all the archival materials I needed for transcript analysis.

The complaint is worth reading in its entirety (here it is) and the notion of censoring a particular researcher because their previous findings are not to your liking is outrageous. But, as someone who has worked with the very materials the Oregon and Stanford researchers are trying to obtain, my question is this: If you’re heading an agency and qualified, capable, expensive people tell you that they have the capability to apply machine learning to your agency’s output and find whether you guys are discriminating on the basis of race, wouldn’t you want to take them up on it?

First, even if one believes that race is “irrelevant,” as Ms. Shaffer does, to parole decisionmaking, aggregate analysis can reveal a different picture. My book did not include quantitative linguistic analysis, and it only examined the cases of seven people, all of whom were white, but even so, the interviews and the transcripts raised racial concerns. One of the lawyers I interviewed–Keith Wattley, executive director of UnCommon Law, pointed out that when he represents a client who is a large African American man the Board often says, “you look angry.” Keith, who is himself a large African American man, finds himself often trying to educate the Board about racial stereotypes (this, by the way, is exactly the sort of thing that a machine learning method can help flag.) In addition, I found out that mischaracterization of fights between racial groups/gangs was also a theme. Year after year, the Board denied parole to someone who was the victim of the Aryan Brotherhood because of his “involvement in a fight with a baseball bat” (he was attacked with the baseball bat.) This sort of commentary comes from Board members of various races and ethnicities, and there’s a plausible explanation: even though the Board is diverse in terms of gender and race, it is not diverse in terms of professional background. Almost all BPH commissioners come from a law enforcement background, either in a police or sheriff’s department or in corrections. That racial biases exist among law enforcement officers of color is not exactly news, and for the history of this, read James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own or this wonderful review by Devon Carbado and Song Richardson. Why would law enforcement officers with decades of experience in Petri dishes of implicit bias not take the bias with them into the parole hearing room?

Second, if your agency does not racially discriminate, why wouldn’t you want to prove it via a quantitative, empirical study? You can always dispute the methods, but you’ll have more control over how the algorithm is used if you cooperate. If you deny the information, doesn’t that tell all of us that you’re concerned about what the team may find?

And third, if the study happens to find that there is racial discrimination in parole grants, wouldn’t you want to know this, so that you can do better? It makes me heartsick to consider all the situations in which agencies–particularly correctional agencies–that don’t want to look bad sandbag research projects that can help them actually be less bad. As one example, recently I was struck by the complete absence of any attitudinal research about correctional officers. Last week I sat through a long case management conference in which the judge, CDCR lawyers, prison lawyers, and CCPOA lawyers all wondered, how could it possibly be that the guards are not wearing masks, getting tested, or agreeing to get vaccinated. Judge Tigar asked, “does anyone have thoughts on this?” Crickets. Sheesh, amigos, wouldn’t it come in handy, for example, to have a survey of Trump support among correctional officers? Or a survey about the prevalence of COVID denialism among correctional officers? Don’t you think that would help craft the strategy for gaining compliance, and in the future, guide some hiring decisions? Don’t you think that reluctance to follow science-based healthcare guidelines is a relevant consideration in hiring, retaining, and promoting personnel who work in congregate settings with a chronic health care problem? Wouldn’t you want to include some parameters measuring racism and support for autocracy in your interviews, surveys, or other recruitment tools?

I very much hope the EFF prevails in this case and the research team receives the information they are legally entitled to. My hope with Yesterday’s Monsters was to start a public conversation about parole–especially when we’re faced with big questions about the exit door of prisons in times of crisis, this conversation must continue.

Series Review: Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer

Netflix’s new docuseries about the hunt for Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, comes to our computer screens at an interesting cultural moment, in which national and state responses to heinous crimes are in flux. As the bicameral Democratic legislature of the Biden administration prepares to get rid of the federal death penalty, the Trump administration finishes its four-year tour of gratuitous cruelty with gratuitous executions happening at the eleventh hour with the blessing of SCOTUS and to the horror of the court’s progressive minority; several people have observed the irony of lethal injections happening at the federal level just as death row people here in CA get the first injection of the COVID vaccine. This throwback to bloodthirstier decades comes as a majority of Americans, for the first time since the sixties, now support life imprisonment over the death penalty. Half the states retain the death penalty and half (growing since the recession) have abolished it or placed moratoria upon its use; if Virginia moves forward with abolition, not only will it be the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment, but also a majority of states will have abolished/sunset the death penalty. Here in California, more people have died on death row from COVID-19 under Gov. Newsom’s moratorium than we have executed since the return of the death penalty in 1978. Ramirez himself–the subject of the new docuseries–was the 85th person to die on California’s death row of natural causes in 2013. And just recently, Joseph DeAngelo, whose horrific crimes as the Golden State Killer are eerily similar to Ramirez’s, was sentenced to life imprisonment, raising the fair question–if not him, then who?

Against this backdrop, the choice to focus now on Ramirez and his heinous crimes is a curious one, and the series does not offer a lot in the sense of narrative or cinematic innovation to justify the subject. The story is told from the perspective of two intelligent and sympathetic LAPD detectives–then-newcomer Gil Carrillo and veteran Frank Salerno–and several retired crime scene technicians, who in four episodes follow through the trail of horrific murders. The still shots from the various murder scenes are enhanced through cinematography that somewhat brings them to life and accompanied by chilling music. Thankfully, at least the victims themselves–both those deceased and those who survived–are portrayed with restraint and respect, and on occasion (albeit not always, which struck me as somewhat distasteful) their relatives comment on their lives, evoking sympathy and humanity. These graceful interview scenes lift the series from a sequence of excessive gore, and I wish there were more of them.

As to Ramirez himself, the show does not delve much into his own mind beyond short, clichéd quotes about the “inherent evil in all human kind” and “Satan [as] a stabilizing presence” displayed between scenes. Having read and watched a lot of the Manson literary and cinematic canon, I think a deliberate choice was made here not to glorify Ramirez in a similar way. At some point, one of the detectives even said that they considered whether Ramirez was a Manson copycat, which strengthens my belief that this approach was carefully considered. The choice not to follow the legacy of Mansonist efforts to delve into the minds of heinous murderers a-la Dahmer, only recently continued with Aquarius and Mindhunter, means the focus of the show is mostly on the police investigation.

But even here, the show’s coverage of the LAPD’s eponymous “hunt” offers some contradictions. Carrillo and Salerno are sympathetic, interesting interviewees; Carrillo’s background is explored in depth, including his early prescient conclusion that seemingly unrelated crimes were perpetrated by the same person. He attributes this insight to a class he had taken, in which Robert Morneau referred to “a deviancy that says, ‘I like to see the frightened look on your face.'” Rather than digging into the motivation, this illuminated Carrillo’s crime scene analyses and explained why the murders were perpetrate in a particular way (i.e., why the killer had waited for the victims to see him, rather than kill them from behind or in their cars.) But at the same time, we get glimpses into what appears to be epic incompetence in interagency collaboration. A golden opportunity to zone in on the killer through a distinctive sneaker shoeprint was wasted, even though only one pair of black sneakers of that brand had been shipped to Los Angeles. Similarly, the opportunity to fingerprint a car that the suspect had touched in the course of a traffic stop was squandered. And amazingly, a clever trap at Ramirez’s dentist’s office did not function. Eventually, Ramirez was caught not by police officers, who allowed him to walk before them unnoticed after his appearance was already well known, but by alert members of the public. The focus on Carrillo and Salerno’s solid crime scene investigation draws attention from the sad conclusion that, had the LAPD had their act together and collaborated, Ramirez would have been caught earlier and lives would have been saved. Having studied the Manson murders in detail, it seems that little was learned since the fiascos of the Tate-LaBianca investigations, which were also characterized by department siloing and insularity (Bugliosi is full of braggadocio about his own heroic role in the case and very eager to throw blame onto the LAPD, but at least in that instance the objective facts seem to support his perspective.)

Even as the focus on audacity, deductive work, and targeted legwork draws attention away from omissions and organizational hurdles, Night Stalker is a reminder of what good policing should be. It is poignant to watch an investigation in the 1980s, with 1980s technology, as the FBI pieces together last week’s insurrection at the Capitol and attempts to track down the perpetrators, a job much easier than Carrillo and Salerno’s because of the plethora of social media evidence and the availability of facial recognition technology. It is also poignant to think about the most recent example of excellence in policing: Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman’s clever, creative, and courageous act of baiting and tricking the mob away from the unguarded door behind which the legislators hid, armed only with a nightstick and facing dozens of angry insurrectionists yelling racial epithets at him. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t think the problem is too little or two much policing; it’s the wrong kind of policing altogether, which relies on crude, humiliating, and ineffective methods like stop-and-frisk at the direct expense of the classic crime solving work features in the Night Stalker. Give me a police force full of Eugene Goodmans, Gil Carrillos, and Frank Salernos, and I’ll be a happy camper. If the show reminds us (and the FBI, and the LAPD) that good policing is valuable and scarce, then it has been a worthwhile endeavor.

Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available on Netflix.

The California COVID-19 Prison Tragedy, in Four Snapshots

Something is rotten in the state of California. Rotten throughout, from top to bottom. In today’s post I juxtapose for you four pieces from the last couple of days, which illuminate just how much trouble we’re in.

Scene 1: The SATF Horror and the Geography of Prison Remoteness

Throughout the summer, the public gaze was laser focused on San Quentin. There was a good reason for this; at 2,239 cases and 29 deaths, the outbreak at Quentin was the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the nation and the worst medical prison disaster in the country’s history. But as has been the case throughout this ordeal, once attention turns somewhere, the government’s or anyone else’s, the virus has already found opportunities elsewhere. By the time the litigation surrounding the Quentin catastrophe matured into an order and started moving toward fashioning remedies, the pestilence metastasized elsewhere–whether through a careless employee or a botched transfer, we won’t know. The CDCR population infection count shows numerous large outbreaks, to the tunes of hundreds of people, in prisons located in rural areas. Jason Fagone’s recent Chron story turns the focus to the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in Kings County, the largest prison in the state, which is operating at 128% of capacity. Not only is the outbreak there horrible, and has already claimed lives, but the conduct of prison authorities there seems absolutely appalling:

In just the past two weeks, 713 men in custody at SATF [now 851 – H.A.] have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to CDCR’s web tracker, and as of last week, 150 staff members were infected. Half of the facility’s 4,400 prisoners have caught the virus since August. Three have died.

One day last week, when prison staff tried to move a new man into an empty spot in Meyer’s eight-man cell, he got nervous, he said in an interview via JPay, a prison email service. Days earlier, another man sleeping mere feet away from Meyer had developed COVID-19 symptoms and was removed by staff, and Meyer suspected that his new cellmate might also be infectious. Meyer approached the officers’ station and complained, saying he didn’t want to be housed with a potentially contagious person. That’s when he was handcuffed, Meyer said.

Two days ago I talked with Sam Lewis of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition about the possibility of a vaccine for incarcerated populations, and one of the points he brought up was the proximity of San Quentin to white, wealthy Marin County. I think Sam was right to say that Quentin receives an inordinate amount of attention, but I suspect race and class play into this situation in ways that have more to do with political culture, proximity, and opportunity. Quentin is extremely close to the Bay Area, where all kinds of do-gooders like me have easy daily access to the prison; if there’s no traffic, it takes approximately 35 minutes to drive to Quentin from my house. Given that, for decades, prison programming has been slashed–most recently, this was one of the negative effects of the recession–the availability of a cadre of academics and activists as volunteers produces a rich array of programming (go ahead, click on each link, and I could offer more.) Because parole hearings emphasize programming and encourage people to talk in “programspeak”, and because of the paucity of programming elsewhere in the system, people are desperate to come to Quentin and avail themselves of these opportunities as much as they can if they ever want to be approved for parole.

By contrast, California’s other large prisons are located in rural areas, mostly in poor towns that were persuaded to accept prison siting and become a “company town” because of the promise of jobs. These places are not squeaky wheels, and for Bay Area or Los Angeles do-gooders they are difficult to access. For example, during the Pelican Bay hunger strike, my students had to drive 8-9 hours to visit the strikers, which implies huge barriers for visitors without the means to drive or stay at a hotel. These places are not “squeaky wheels”, and it’s quite difficult to get the programming “grease” there. Also, it means that the voices raising serious concerns about the outrages that happen in these rural prisons are far less amplified by voices of high-profile, concerned progressive politicians.

Scene 2: Inaction Figures

The Chronicle is on a roll, continuing with a hard-hitting, data-intensive piece by Nora Mishanec. Mishanec managed to obtain a demographic breakdown of the thousands of people who were released by CDCR since Newsom promised 8,000 releases by the end of the summer. It’s not summer anymore, of course, and even when the plan was proposed it was already underwhelming–too little, too late, too piecemeal, and too restrictive. I am sorry to say that this sad excuse for pandemic relief played out exactly as I had predicted, and please believe me that I take no pleasure in having been 100% right.

This graphic from the Chron story gives you an idea of who was released and who was not. Take a look at the circle in the top left. The vast majority of people who have been released had only months left on their sentence back in early July. It is now early December, and these folks would have gotten out by now anyway–they just got a wee push on the way out the door to hasten their release. This is something that happens all the time in California prisons, pandemic or no pandemic: every month thousands of people churn in and out of the system, the folks whose sentences have ended to be exchanged for folks coming in from jails (The population reduction here is artificial, and stems from the halt of transfers from jails–but the carceral apparatus as a whole is bursting at the seams, and of course now the jails are seeing their own COVID-19 horrors and are grossly over-capacity. Something’s gotta give, and there are already jail lawsuits.) Only 0.8% of the people who were released were deemed “COVID high-risk medical”, when a full quarter of the population on the eve of the pandemic was people aged 50 and over.

Why, you might wonder, are so few of the people who got released in the over-50 bracket (1,390 out of 7483)? The answer is in the bottom right. People convicted of violent crime who, unsurprisingly, serve longer sentences and, also unsurprisingly, are older because of it, are underrepresented. Those are also the folks at highest risk of contagion and serious complications. But this plan was not designed with public health in mind–it was designed to avoid headlines like “Newsom Releases Murderers, Yikes.” And so here we are.

Scene 3: Insult to Injury

If they’re not laboriously and efficiently going over people’s files and releasing grandparents back to their families, what, pray tell, are state officials busy doing? I’m so glad you asked: The best and brightest at the California Attorney General’s Office are busy not only petitioning the California Supreme Court to review the population reduction order in Von Staich and jamming the wheels on hundreds of habeas petitions, they are petitioning the court to depublish the decision itself. Yes, you heard it right. Dozens dead, tens of thousands infected, and the most pressing order of business is to obliterate from bureaucratic memory that there were compassionate, humane, knowledgeable judges, who recognized a human rights crime when they saw one, and acted accordingly.

You are incredulous? I get it. So was I. Here’s the whole thing for you to read.

VON STAICH Request for DePublication by hadaraviram on Scribd

What more is there to say about this? At every junction, when the opportunity emerges to do the right thing, these folks are doing the exact opposite. We are going to pay dearly for this concerted cruelty when the time comes to get buy-in for vaccination (that is, if anyone there might ever see prisons for what they are, which is confined, crowded spaces, and actually prioritize “murderers, yikes.” Want to know why it is important to vaccinate? here’s my op-ed in the Chron about this.) By the time the vaccine comes to the prison gate, people will not believe CDCR that it is in their benefit to take it, and while I find this awful and deeply disappointing, I deeply understand where the suspicion and resentment come from.

Scene 4: No Bad Deed Goes Unrewarded

What is going to happen to all these folks, who have worked so hard for months to keep aging, infirm people languishing behind bars, vulnerable to the pandemic? Gosh, I’m so glad you asked, because California’s AG Xavier Becerra, whose signature decorates everything you’ve seen defending CDCR in courts since March, is being tapped for a position in the Biden cabinet.

Look, I’m not a member of the no-lesser-evil brigade, and in November I cheerfully and without reservations voted for Democrats, even Democrats who have deeply disappointed me, because the alternative was to keep a despotic, sociopathic, semiliterate career criminal in office. For four years I was a vortex of disdain for the repertoire of cruelties of the Trump Administration, and I’m thrilled the people I voted for won. Elections are a buffet at a roadside motel, not a personalized meal. But when you’re handling what we call a “Big Bad” in TV tropes, the other side automatically becomes “the good guys,” and critique of them is muted, or at least softened–even when the courageous leaders of La Résistance forget about the burden of proof or flip-flop about the death penalty. I suspect it won’t be long before we forget how Monsieur et Madame Blanchisserie Française, the delectable taste of Yountville gastronomy still fresh in their mouths, proceeded to close our children’s playgrounds with not a shred of medical evidence connecting them to outbreaks. I get it. We’re grownups, politicians are politicians even when they are generally on the right side, and people should not be expected to be perfect. But I’m frustrated that the nature of California politics creates the illusion that we are a blue, progressive state, in the face of everything that has been going on.

Why is it that we appear so blue when our prisons are such a horror show? My colleague Vanessa Barker offers a convincing explanation. By contrast to the East Coast, or even the Pacific Northwest, California’s political culture is both deeply polarized and populistic. Our red counties, which are, after all, where most of our prisons are, are deeply red; jails there are run by red sheriffs and prisons by red CDCR officers. A lot of decisionmaking happens on a local level. Even when a prison is located in a blue county, such as San Quentin in Marin, prison officials refuse to collaborate with county health officials, citing jurisdiction. Moreover, we tend to legislate our criminal justice arena via referendum, which creates a lot of the horrors that I recount in Chapter 2 of Yesterday’s Monsters: a salience of a particular class of victims as the moral interlocutors of criminal justice, inflammatory rhetoric, and a lot of money backing up fear and hate.

The consequence of this is that our elected officials, who are so right on so many things (immigration, healthcare, climate action) are so often so wrong about criminal justice. Some of what we have going on is so deeply ridiculous–to name just one example, moratorium on a death penalty that should have been abolished eons ago, and because of populist stubbornness we can’t reap the huge economic benefits of abolition–and it is difficult to explain to lefty friends on the opposite coast how come people who appear to be such heroes on the national stage act in such villainous ways on the local stage.

This week, I recommend that you keep your gaze on some of the newest outbreak sites. Beyond SATF, there are also serious outbreaks in PVSP (643 new cases), HVDP (473), MCSP (416), CTF (284), and VSP (298). Dozens of other facilities have “only” dozens of cases. The only CDCR facility with no cases at present is RJD. The death toll systemwide has risen to 90.

Wonderful Review of Yesterday’s Monsters in the SF Chronicle

I’m very happy to share a great review of Yesterday’s Monsters written by Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Review: ‘Yesterday’s Monsters’ shows parole system’s flaws in Manson cases

Bob Egelko September 30, 2020 Updated: September 30, 2020, 7:28 am

Susan Atkins, convicted of eight murders as a member of Charles Manson’s “family,” was dying of cancer when she made her 18th appearance before the California parole board in September 2009, after nearly 40 years in prison. Bedridden for 18 months and barely able to speak or move, she remained largely silent while her husband and attorney, James Whitehouse, asked the board to release her to a hospice, which he said he would pay for.

In response, relatives of Manson’s victims recalled the horrors of the 1969 killings. A Los Angeles prosecutor, Patrick Sequeira, called the family a “criminal terrorist organization” and said Atkins “has tried to minimize her involvement in the crime.” The board swiftly decided Atkins “poses an unreasonable risk if released” and denied parole for at least three more years. Atkins, 61, died of brain cancer 22 days later.

The incident is the most graphic but far from the only illustration of a malfunctioning system in “Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole” by Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who specializes in criminal law and civil rights.

The state Board of Parole Hearings shows “a clear preference for looking back and discussing the past (rather) than for the future, sometimes astonishingly ignoring terminal illness and old age when discussing future risk,” Aviram writes. And that, she notes, is the opposite of its assigned task of determining whether a prisoner who has served many years for past wrongdoing can now be safely released.

The book is a study, not an exposé — there are nearly 800 footnotes — but its language is everyday and accessible. Discussing inmates’ need to display “insight” into their crimes to be found suitable for parole, for example, Aviram writes, “the Board continuously moves the goal posts.” It’s aimed at two sets of readers, those who care about the workings of the criminal justice system and those with enduring memories of the Manson nightmare (this reviewer fits both categories).

Convicted mass murderer Charles Manson listens to the panel at his 1986 parole hearing in San Quentin prison.Photo: Eric Risberg, Associated Press 1986

It may not be fair to judge any criminal justice process by its response to extremes, and the Manson cases are about as extreme as they come. For reasons that remain unclear — some say Manson wanted to start a race war, others simply describe a cult obsessed with drugs, sex and violence — he ordered seven of his followers, including Atkins and two other young women, to kill nine people in three gruesome attacks in the Los Angeles area in July and August 1969. After the fatal stabbing of actress Sharon Tate, Atkins scrawled “PIG” in Tate’s blood on the front door of the home.

Manson, Atkins and three others were sentenced to death in 1971. But the state Supreme Court overturned California’s death penalty law in 1972, and all death sentences were reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole; only under the subsequent law, passed by legislators in 1977 and expanded by the voters in 1978, were capital cases made punishable solely by death or life without parole.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown, serving the first of his four terms in office, were remaking California’s sentencing and parole structure.

Discussing inmates’ need to display “insight” into their crimes to be found suitable for parole, for example, Hadar Aviram writes, “the Board continuously moves the goal posts.”Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova

Previously, nearly all crimes were punishable by a range of terms — 1 to 5 years, for example, or 5 to 20 — and a parole board that included psychologists and other professionals decided when a prisoner was fit for release. The system came under attack from both the left, as racially prejudiced, and the right, as unduly lenient, and was replaced in 1977 by “determinate” sentences for most crimes — two, four or six years, for example, with the sentencing judge making the choice.

Only “lifers,” those convicted of murder or a few other crimes, such as kidnapping, would now appear before the parole board, after a designated period, to seek their release. And board members were appointed by the governor, who generally chose law enforcement professionals skeptical of claims of rehabilitation.

The parole board’s occasional decisions to approve release were made subject to the governor’s veto by a 1988 initiative. A 2008 initiative called Marsy’s Law requires inmates who are denied parole to wait 15 years for their next hearing — five times the previous interval — unless the board finds “clear and convincing evidence” to justify an earlier hearing.

“Yesterday’s Monsters” focuses on a Board of Parole Hearings that is supposed to look forward, not backward. The state Supreme Court underscored that mission in a 2008 ruling that prohibited both the board and the governor from denying parole based solely on the gruesome nature of the crime — though, in a frequently cited exception, the court said the board could consider an inmate’s lack of “insight” into the offense.

Participants in the Manson family hearings, in transcripts quoted in the book, have focused largely on the past — understandably, in light of the events that gave rise to the hearings.

In 2013, Debra Tate speaks about her sister, actress Sharon Tate, who was killed by the Manson family, during a parole hearing for former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten at the California Institution for Women in Chino.Photo: Nick Ut, Associated Press 2013

At one hearing for Patricia Krenwinkel, Aviram says, prosecutor Sequeira declared, “I think if she had true remorse and she truly understood her crimes and the horrific nature of it, she wouldn’t be here at a parole hearing. She would just accept a punishment.”

Relatives of the victims were equally unforgiving.

“There are eight people that lie in their graves who remain unchanged, unrehabilitated, unparoled,” Anthony Demaria, a nephew of murder victim Jay Sebring, said at Krenwinkel’s 2011 hearing. “I beg the board to consider parole for Patricia Krenwinkel only when her victims are paroled from their graves.”

At another hearing, board members asked Krenwinkel why she wasn’t attending drug-treatment programs and shrugged off her explanation that her high-security custody barred her from the nighttime classes.

At a 1981 hearing, the board was unimpressed by ex-Mansonite Bruce Davis’ leadership position with a Christian counseling group in prison. One board member, Aviram notes, said Davis had merely switched his allegiance from “one god-like figure to another.”

When Manson follower Leslie Van Houten appeared before the board in 2013, Aviram says, she had a strong record of participation in prison rehabilitation programs, with a few minor violations, the last one in 1981. The board denied parole on the grounds that she lacked insight into her life before imprisonment: “You need to demonstrate what made you that person to engage in those acts so long ago.”

Three years later, with Van Houten’s record substantially the same, the board recommended her release but was overridden by Brown’s veto, events replicated under Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019. Steve “Clem” Grogan, a relatively minor participant in the crimes, was paroled in 1985. Manson, denied parole at 12 hearings, died in prison in 2017 at age 83. His other co-defendants remain behind bars.

In 2013, Leslie Van Houten appears during her parole hearing, with her attorney, Michael Satris (left). Parole was denied.Photo: Nick Ut, Associated Press 2013

In one sense, the timing of the 1969 murders spared Manson and his cohorts from more severe punishment. Had they committed their crimes a decade later, some of the Family almost certainly would have been executed, and others would have had no opportunity for parole. And it seems safe to say that few Californians who remember the killings will shed tears at the prospect that Manson’s followers who are still in prison will probably die there.

But that doesn’t contradict the message that Aviram convincingly presents: If the parole system had worked as it was supposed to, based on the law and the policies underlying it, most of the participants in the murders, other than Manson himself, eventually would have been released.

The Board of Parole Hearings, the author concludes, “should not be the arbiter of moral goodness.”

I’d like to have seen a bit more context, comparing these parole decisions to others here and elsewhere, and perhaps some background on the parole board members, sometimes identified only by last names in the book. But as California rethinks the roles of imprisonment and parole in this COVID-19, post-Three Strikes era, “Yesterday’s Monsters” has some lessons for today.

“Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole”
By Hadar Aviram
(University of California Press; 294 pages; 29.95)

  • Bob Egelko Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BobEgelko

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Homeopathic Criminal Justice Reform and Its Discontents

In my previous writings about the COVID-19 prison disaster (especially here and here), I relied on Ben Bernanke’s famous “triggers and vulnerabilities” model. I explained that the virus happened on a fertile Petri dish of neglect, both preceding and following the Plata litigation. But it’s just occurred to me that there’s a better way of explaining why the problem lies not only with the prison healthcare crisis that preceded Plata, but also with the Plata remedy itself: Criminal justice reforms in CA (through litigation as well as legislation) are often like homeopathic remedies: a low-concentration of the exact problem they purport to solve. The crisis we are facing now is merely an exaggerated example of the futility of homeopathic criminal justice reform.

Homeopathy, the creation of Eighteenth-century physician Samuel Hahnemann, follows an idea known as the Law of Similars – the idea that, if exposure to substance X causes symptom Y in a healthy person, substance X can cure symptom Y in a person where they occur naturally as part of a disease process. For example, exposure to onions causes an itchy, stinging sensation in the eyes; therefore, the homeopathic remedy for hay fevers or head colds accompanied by such sensation is a low-concentration formula of onion.

I’ve come to see criminal justice reform initiatives in California as low-concentration forms of the underlying problems they purport to solve. The COVID-19 “relief” policies sold to us by the Governor and CDCR are a case in point.

The problem we had to solve was a giant, bureaucratic correctional monster, which we could not wrangle. The Plata solution: we made it more complicated by breaking it into 59 monsters that have an equally unwieldy, though different, structure. We’re now dealing with the ramifications of this homeopathic preparation: inscrutable BSCC reports on jails alongside journalistic exposés of serious outbreaks; four months of delay before numbers were even available; traffic between jails and prisons that is unpredictable and difficult to regulate.

The problem we had to solve was the rate (and percentage of the general prison population) of aging, infirm people serving interminable sentences. The Plata solution, the Prop 47 solution, the Prop 57 solution: reinforce the notion that these people belong in prison by designing all releases around the issue of nonviolent offenders. While removing people from prison (diluting them) this, ironically, increases the concentration of aging and infirm people in prison so that they are the ones exposed to healthcare scandals.

The problem we had to solve was a bloated correctional apparatus, whose provenance was decades-long oversensitivity to victim pressure groups advancing a monolithic vision for alleviating their plight: Monstrous sentencing policies. The solution we’ve devised for COVID-19? Anticipate the sensitivity and address it by avoiding releases of people convicted of violent crime.

The problem we had to solve was a “correctional free lunch”, in which people in the community were largely unaware of the costs of our correctional system because these were concentrated in large facilities in rural and remote areas. The solution? Now we encourage community-prison alienation through jurisdictional jockeying for position between county health officers and the prisons that are literally located amidst these counties and irrational fears that releasing people will infect the community (the opposite is true: incubating the disease in prisons is much more risky for communities.)

As we’ve seen in the COVID-19 release plan (before and after its implementation), and just like homeopathic formulas, diluting the problem results in obtaining a placebo at best, and a worsening of the problem at worst. The logic of the Law of Similars is supposedly an appeal to the idea of a “natural law” principle, but actual science refutes this: what makes sense is to treat an ailment with an antidote, not with a diluted version of the same ailment. The antidotes are obvious to me: Thin out the monster by locking fewer people up in fewer places. Do not lock up aging, sick people. Give victims/survivors better roles than the world curators of what should happen to offenders.

Which brings me to why I think the analogy matters. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think this is some evil, sadistic ploy at work here. I think what’s stopping state and prison officials from applying the antidotes is institutional intransigence and fear. Homeopathy itself was borne of Hahnemann’s disgust with the medicine practiced during his era: bloodletting, leeching, purging, etc. By contrast to these harmful measures, the delicacy of the diluted solutions was mellow and reassuring. Here, too, there’s immense fear of what would happen if drastic measures were taken. I saw this logic at the recent federal Plata hearing (though, admittedly, the PLRA plays an important role here, too) and also at the two state courts. We don’t like drastic solutions and purging; better to drink a Bach Flower distillation.

Ashley Rubin’s forthcoming book The Deviant Prison looks at why the Pennsylvania incarceration model, practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary, persisted long after it was proven not to work. I see the same form of institutional obstinance at work here. And, by contrast to Eastern State, this is perpetuated because homeopathic criminal justice reform has become the habitual, accepted mode of doing things. It might be sobering to realize that homeopathic preparations are the only category of alternative medicine products legally marketable as drugs. Quackwatch explains that this situation is the result of two circumstances. First, the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which was shepherded through Congress by a homeopathic physician who was a senator, recognizes as drugs all substances included in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States. Second, the FDA has not held homeopathic products to the same standards as other drugs. Today they are marketed in health-food stores, in pharmacies, in practitioner offices, by multilevel distributors, through the mail, and on the Internet. I think that our habituation to homeopathic criminal justice reform has created a similar situation, where we are willing to accept these placebo solutions because the ideas that drive both the problems and the solutions have been so hammered in, that we can’t imagine anything else.

Nov. 2020 Ballot Endorsement: No on 20

Many Californians don’t know that our state Constitution requires that any voter initiative have a single subject: “An initiative measure embracing more than one subject may not be submitted to the electors or have any effect.” You wouldn’t know this from looking at our convoluted, confusing, oft-misleading propositions because, as my colleague Mike Gilbert explains here, the rule is very difficult to enforce.

Prop. 20 is an example of a voter initiative that quite possibly violates the single subject rule. It bundles together four different issues under the general “tough on crime” umbrella. While I find at least two of them deeply objectionable on the merits and have serious problems with the remaining two, what really irks me is the marketing: law-and-order supporting folks are being lobbied to vote for things which are, frankly, untethered from reality, simply because they are ideologically bundled with other stuff that belongs on that side of the political map. My message to everyone, from ardent law-and-order people to rabid abolitionists: Vote no on this stupid package.

The first item in the package is the introduction of two new theft crimes. Background: In 2014, California voters approved prop. 47, which changed the designation of several theft-related offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. This is how we’ve been able to achieve the Plata-mandated prison reduction with no increases in crime rates. Prop. 20 proponents would have you think this is a bad thing, and to remedy our apparent shortage of theft crimes, you’d now have two new wobblers: “serial theft” and “organized retail theft.” “Serial theft” would be shoplifting or petty theft for someone with two prior theft convictions (because apparently we’re hurting for habitual offender enhancements, too.) “Organized retail theft” would be shoplifting or petty theft in concert with other people two or more times within six months. Both of those crimes will be punishable either as felonies or as misdemeanors. Theft, and various theft-like offenses, are still crimes in California, as they’ve always been, and the $250 limit placed by Prop. 20 is way lower than inflation would allow for (just to give you an idea, in 2014 we raised the minimum amount for grand theft to $950.)

The second issue is another effort to fix something that isn’t broken–Prop. 57, which California voters approved in 2016. Under Prop. 57, people convicted of nonviolent offenses with “enhancements”—special provisions that add years to their basic sentences, for example, because of prior convictions—come up before the parole board at the end of their basic sentence, and the parole board may recommend their release after considering their criminal history and behavior in prison. Proposition 20 would change the designation of some offenses from “nonviolent” to “violent”, to make some people ineligible to come up before the parole board, and would create a waiting period of two years before people denied parole under prop. 57 can come up before the Board again. It would also add restrictions to parole board considerations. I’m going to humbly suggest that parole in California is something I actually know a little bit about and tell you that this is absolute nonsense. Getting out on parole in CA is extremely difficult, parole hearings are Kafkaesque, and the last thing we need is pile more difficulties in the path of people who pose low reoffending risk. To appeal to people for whom the word “victim” is a talisman for righteousness, they threw in the need to consult with victims, but guess what: victims are ALREADY NOTIFIED of Prop. 57 hearings, and if they want to get involved, they get registered with the state. This proposition would drag into the punitive rhetoric net even victims who are not registered with the state. For what purpose, if these folks themselves are not interested in participating?

The third part of Prop. 20 would expand our DNA collection practices. Currently, California collects a DNA sample from people arrested or charged with felonies. If Prop 20 passes, DNA samples will be collected from people who are under arrest for certain misdemeanors. Many people have qualms about expanding DNA databases, on account of the mistakes that can happen. I suspect that, in the aftermath of the successful DNA-based prosecution and conviction of the Golden State Killer, this is not going to be super persuasive; I also submit to you that DNA databases have the potential to clear and exonerate, not only to convict, and I would therefore be willing to entertain pros and cons of this part of Prop. 20 if it came to us on its own, without the other issues. As it is, it’s not worth the price and expense of reversing two highly beneficial initiatives that reduced incarceration without risk to public safety, so I’m still firmly on the “no” side.

Finally, Prop. 20 also involves various changes to community supervision of people released from prison or jail. Currently, people released from jail, or from prison for nonviolent or nonserious crimes, are supervised in their counties. If Prop. 20 passes, probation officers will be required to ask a judge to change the terms of supervision if the person under supervision violates them for a third time. In addition, the proposition requires state parole and county probation departments to exchange more information about the people they supervise. In community supervision matters, it’s all about the details, and these are technical issues that are unsuitable for resolution via a yes/no political referendum.

The complicated structure of Prop. 20 makes it difficult to estimate the expense involved in its implementation. Because the proposition overall would lead to more and longer incarceration—more severe crimes, less opportunity for parole—there would be cost increases associated with it. The only silver lining here, and this tells you something, is that a sane court will find that the two first aspects are unconstitutional and strike them down, which will mitigate the expense of incarceration (but require litigation.) In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Vote No on 20.

New Outbreak at CIW: Van Houten’s Fate in Gov. Newsom’s Hands

After a spike in early June and an apparent abatement, COVID-19 is once again tearing through the California Institute for Women (CIW) in Chino. In the last 14 days, the prison tested 1,200 of its 1,413 residents (housed in a facility designed to hold 1,398 people – slightly above 100% capacity.) The testing count on the tracking tool seems to suggest testing done in batches, but we don’t know how they are managing isolation in a crowded facility–hopefully not taking a page from the book of this women’s prison in Texas.

CIW is of special interest to me, because a few days ago we learned that Leslie van Houten, who is serving her sentence there, has been yet again recommended for parole. Van Houten has been consistently recommended for parole since 2017, but governors–first Brown, now Newsom–keep reversing the recommendation for what seems to me, after having pored over 50 years’ worth of her prison record, purely political reasons. 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 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.

I mention van Houten’s case because it is emblematic of the dilemma that Gov. Newsom faces with countless other cases. The right thing to do is to release older prisoners, who are more vulnerable to the virus; these people, who serve long sentences, are serving them for violent crimes they committed decades ago. Everything we know about life course criminology supports the prediction that they pose no risk to public safety–they themselves face a risk by remaining behind bars.

In Yesterday’s Monsters I explain how the Manson family cases came to shape California’s extreme punishment regime, and how these cases were impacted by this new regime in turn. This is the chance for a politician who has consistently ran, and prevailed, on a platform of doing the right thing in the face of baseless political pressures. There is no ambiguity about the right thing to do now. Van Houten is 70 years old, has been consistently found to pose very low risk to public safety by actuarial instruments and by everyone who has interacted with her, and there’s a pandemic going on.

Van Houten is not the only person at CIW facing these risks. Just a few days ago, advocates were overjoyed to welcome home Patricia Wright, a 69-year-old cancer patient who doctors say has mere months to live, after she served 23 years in prison. Wright’s release encouraged me, given the infuriating and heartbreaking scene just eleven years ago at Susan Atkins’ last hearing. Perhaps the pandemic is driving home, finally, the message that allowing an older person to die at home with their loved ones, or live out in peace the few years they have left, is not a weakness, nor a slight to the victims. Perhaps it is driving home the message that compassion is an essential component of our humanity. Will Gov. Newsom choose to do the right thing for van Houten and other women at CIW, from both public health and public safety perspectives, or will he succumb to unfounded public pressure, hysteria, and fear?

How to Reduce California’s Prison Population by 50%

Today’s Chronicle features a great article by Bob Egelko, which tries to parse out who is responsible for the San Quentin catastrophe. Getting into the chain of command that made the botched transfer decision might come in handy at a later date, I think, when the time comes to file the inevitable (and more than justified) lawsuit. But, as I said in the article, the time to squabble over who’s at fault has not come yet. Right now we must have all hands on deck, including Gov. Newsom, Mr. Kelso, and Mr. Diaz, making prison releases their absolute top priority.

By now, regular readers of my COVID-19 prison crisis posts know that Gov. Newsom’s plan to release a mere 8,000 people over the course of the summer will not suffice to curb infections, illnesses, and death in prison. You also know that, at least with regard to San Quentin–an antiquated facility that lacks proper ventilation–the physicians at AMEND recommended an immediate population reduction by 50%. But how is it to be done?

The #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition, and the Prison Advocacy Network (PAN) have useful, well-researched answers, which are encapsulated in the lovely infographic above. Here are the coalition’s demands, and here’s the PAN page offering legal resources and pathways to release. I want to spend this post getting into the particulars. Before doing so, though, I need to explain a few important things.The Prisoner Advocacy Network has a list of pathways to release.

A lot of the categories in Newsom’s current release plan make sense and show evidence of public health thinking. They are considering age, medical condition, and time left on people’s sentences. The problem with the categories is that they are unnecessarily restrictive, and I think the restrictions can be attributed to two hangups that many people, including well-meaning, educated folks, share about prison releases: the fear that releasing a lot of people is going to be hugely expensive and the hangup around the violent/nonviolent distinction. So let’s tackle these two first.

Get over the hangup of re-entry costs. You may have read that BSCC is considering offering $15 million to CDCR, and might wonder how we can possibly pay for housing, temporary or permanent, of tens of thousands of people. Of course this is going to cost money; the question is, compared to what. It may shock you to learn that, in the 2018/2019 fiscal year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that the average cost to incarcerate one person in California for a year was $81,502 – more than a $30k increase since our recession-era prison population reduction in 2010-2011. How much does it cost to help such a person for a year, when their healthcare is funded by Obamacare, rather than by CDCR? Here’s a PPIC report from 2015 detailing alternatives to incarceration. Specifically with regard to COVID-19-related reentries, here’s another great infographic detailing what the needs are going to be. The big one is housing, and there are organizations on the ground that are set up to help with that. Even with transitional housing costs, this does not add up to $80k per person per year.

Get over the hangup of making the violent/nonviolent distinction. I am still seeing lots of well-intentioned folks who read Michelle Alexander years ago tweeting about how ending the war on drugs (with or without the hashtag), or focusing on so-called “nonviolent inmates” is the key to fighting this outbreak. I can’t really fault them for this misapprehension–what I can do is repeatedly present you with facts to correct it.

Take a look at the graph below. It comes from CDCR’s population data points from 2018. You will note that the vast majority of people in California prisons are serving time for a violent offense. Drug convictions are the smallest contributors to our prison population (this is of course not true for jails or for federal prisons; I’m talking about the state prison system.) I know we all love to say “dismantle” these days, but dismantling the war on drugs will do very little to reduce state prison population.

Now, take a look at CDCR’s Spring 2020 population projection. What you see in the diagram below are the reductions in population since 2010, and some projections for the years to come. The two big reductions were in 2011, following the Realignment, and, to a smaller extent, in 2015, following Prop. 47. Both of those propositions diverted drug offenders to the community corrections systems–jails and probation. If you care about the injustices of the war on drugs, your heart is in the right place, but this is simply not the most dire problem we are facing in the context of prison population reduction.

It is easier to talk about drugs and nonviolent offenders, because these are typically categories of people that evoke more sympathy from the press. My colleague Susan Turner at UCI has shown that risk assessment tools, when used properly and carefully, yield dependable predictive results, and these are not correlated with the crime of commitment. Because we were so married to the idea that only nonviolent folks need help and public support, our three major population reduction efforts–Realignment, Prop 47, and Prop 57–missed the mark on getting more reductions for little to no “price” of increased criminal activity. Whenever you see a headline lambasting the Governor or the Board of Parole Hearings for releasing a “murderer,” immediately ask yourself the two relevant questions: (1) How old is this person now, and (2) how long ago did they commit the crime? The answers should lead you to the robust insights of life course criminology: People age out of violent crime by their mid- to late-twenties, and at 50 they pose a negligible risk to public safety. Moreover, what a person was convicted of doesn’t tell you a full story of what their undetected criminal activity was like before they were incarcerated. Take a look at the homicide solving rates in California, as reported by the Orange County Register in 2017–a bit over 50%–and ask yourself whether the crime of conviction is telling you a story with any statistical meaning.

In short, my friend, take a breath, let go of your attachment to the violent/nonviolent distinction, and let’s find some real solutions. The #StopSanQuentin coalition has a more in-depth breakdown to offer. Generally speaking, the legal mechanisms to achieve this reduction were identified by UnCommon Law in their letter to the Governor–primarily, early releases, commutations, and parole. Section 8 of Article V of the CA Constitution vests the power to grant a “reprieve, pardon, or commutation” in the Governor. The Penal Code elaborates and explains the process. Section 8658 of the California Government Code provides an emergency release valve: “In any case in which an emergency endangering the lives of inmates of a state, county, or city penal or correctional institution has occurred or is imminent, the person in charge of the institution may remove the inmates from the institution.  He shall, if possible, remove them to a safe and convenient place and there confine them as long as may be necessary to avoid the danger, or, if that is not possible, may release them.  the Governor has the authority to grant mass clemencies in an emergency.”

To begin, there are some bulk populations which, if targeted for release, can deliver the kind of numbers we need to stop the epidemic. These three populations largely overlap, which might make it easier to tailor the remedies to capture the right people. About half of the CDCR population are people designated “low risk” by CDCR’s own admission. CDCR uses risk classification primarily for housing purposes, and their methodology–as well as their practice of overriding their own classification–have been found by LAO to be in dire need of overhaul. LAO and other researchers believe that CDCR’s use of the “low risk” category is too restrictive, and their exceptions to their own classification come from hangups around issues of crime of commitment. This chart from the LAO report tells a useful story: Most of our prison population is doing time for violent crime, and a quarter of it is 50 and older; given the length of sentences for violent crimes, and the fact that a quarter of CA prisoners is serving decades on one of the “extreme punishment trifecta” of sentences (death, LWOP, or life with parole), it’s not difficult to figure out where the older, lower risk people fit in.

Between a quarter to a third of the prison population, depends on how you count: People who have already served a long sentence. This is the time to question the marginal utility of serving a few more years after being in prison for decades. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, About 33,000 inmates are “second strikers,” about 9,000 of whom are released annually after serving about 3.5 years. Another 7,000 are “third strikers,” fewer than 100 of whom are released annually after serving about 17 years. Approximately 33,000 inmates are serving sentences of life or life without parole. Fewer than 1,000 of these inmates are released every year, typically after spending two or more decades behind bars.

23%: People Over 50. Not only does this population intersect with lower criminal risk and higher medical risk, it also correlated with cost. According to the Public Policy Institute of California and Pew center data they cite, in fiscal year 2015 the state spent $19,796 per inmate on health care–more than thrice the national average.

To this, we can add a few smaller populations, numbering a few thousand each. Let’s start with people on death row and people on life without parole, who have been exempted from pretty much any release valve possible. The Governor has the authority to commute both of those sentences to life with parole today, and this is probably the right course of action anyway, pandemic or no pandemic. We have a moratorium on the death penalty, which means no one is getting executed but we are still paying for expensive capital punishment litigation. Cut out the middle man and shift all these folks to life with parole. I talk about how these three sentences are indistinguishable anyway in Yesterday’s Monsters, chapter 2.

There are also, apparently, a few hundred people still incarcerated who have been recommended for parole and approved by the Governor–coalition members have identified a few dozen in San Quentin alone. If these people have been given the green light to be released, why are they still behind bars? As for people who have been recommended for release and still awaiting the Governor’s authorization, now’s the time to expedite that.

Finally, lifting the offense limitations on people from outbreak epicenters, people with medical conditions, and the like, should expand those numbers considerably, given the significant overlap between crime of commitment, length of sentence, age, and health condition.

My point is that all of this is eminently doable, and there would hardly be any downsides. If we can just let go of the tendency to view only one side of the cost equation, and of our hangup about the nonviolent/violent distinction, we can scale up the proposed release plan to the point that it will be effective. Let me end with this thought: Gov. Newsom announced that the goal is to reduce San Quentin population to close to 100% of design capacity. In a sane world, prisons that are at 100% occupancy are not a goal. They are a starting point.

August 14 Update: Jason Fagone has a gorgeous piece in today’s Chron explaining how we could achieve a 50% reduction today, with negligible impact on public safety.

Yes, We *Have* to Release People Originally Convicted of Violent Crime: The Last Hearing of Susan Atkins

Manson follower Susan Atkins loses 13th attempt at freedom -- and ...
Susan Atkins wheeled into her last parole hearing in 2009, accompanied by her husband,
James Whitehouse. Photo credit: Ben Margot for the Associated Press.

Latest news on prisoner release: A couple of days ago, the three-judge Plata panel denied relief for procedural reasons (TL;DR “we are not the appropriate forum for this – go to the original courts.”) As good people are scrambling to put together writs for those courts, I wanted to address something that I *thought* would be obvious, but apparently isn’t.

In the aftermath of putting up my petition to release prisoners, I’ve been hearing commentary that we should limit the releases to “nonviolent criminals.” I use the quotation marks because the definitions of what is and is not “violent” and “nonviolent” is not as clear as people think, and because someone’s crime of commitment is not necessarily an indication of their violent tendencies at present, nor does it predict their recidivism.

In Cheap on Crime and elsewhere I described the post-recession efforts to shrink prison population, which targeted only nonviolent people; reformers understandably thought that such reforms would be more palatable to the public. The problem with this kind of policy, though–as this excellent Prison Policy report explains–is that these kind of reforms ignore the majority of people in prison, who happen to be doing time for violent crime.

In addition to this, if we are looking at releases to address a public health crisis, we have to release the people who are vulnerable to the public health threat. And who, in prison, is most vulnerable? Aging and infirm prisoners.

The math is simple. Out of the prison population, folks who were sentenced for a violent crime are the ones most likely to be (1) aging and (2) infirm. Aging, because the sentences are much longer; and infirm, because spending decades in a hotbed of contagion, with poor food and poor exercise options, does not improve one’s health. We know that a considerable portion of the health crisis in California prison is iatrogenic; not so long ago, Supreme Court Justices were horrified to learn that a person was dying behind bars every six days fo a preventable disease. So, a person who has spent decades in prison is more likely to be vulnerable to health threats. Such a person is also more likely to be older (by virtue of having been in prison for 20, 30, 40 years!) and therefore far less of a public risk of reoffending than a younger person who’s been inside for a few months for some nonviolent offense.

So, if there’s any reluctance to release people who are (1) old, (2) sick, and (3) more likely to contract a serious form of disease that will (4) cause more suffering and (5) cost more money, it’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves – why?

Is it really because of a mission to protect the public? Because old, sick people are not a safety risk to the public.

So, is it perhaps because we think of these releases not as an essential public health action, but as some kind of “reward” for people who we think are “worthy” or “deserving”?

The correctional system’s ignorance of old age and sickness is a topic I know something about. In Chapter 6 of my book Yesterday’s Monsters I describe the 2009 parole hearing for Susan Atkins, one of the Manson Family members who participated in the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969. Forty years later, in her early sixties and ravaged by an inoperable brain tumor, Atkins–a devout Christian with a clean disciplinary record for decades–was wheeled into her hearing on a gurney. At her side was her 17-year husband, lawyer James Whitehouse, who represented her in the hope that she be allowed to spend the last few months of her life by his side.

The Parole Commissioners’ treatment of the case was shockingly obtuse. They started by offering the barely conscious Atkins a hearing aid (as if she could hear them), analyzed old psychological reports from her file, and addressed her educational and rehabilitation “prospect.” They even mocked her husband for being able to afford palliative care for his wife. Incensed by this facetiousness, Whitehouse exploded:

For the record, she’s lying in her gurney here. She is paralyzed over 85 percent of her body. She can move her head up and down. She can move it to the side. She used to have partial use of her left arm, partial limited use, meaning she can’t wave to you. She can’t give you a thumbs up. She no longer can point at you, I believe. She can’t snap her fingers. And this is the evidence. . . . We haven’t been able to get her in a wheelchair for well over a year. Permanent speech impairment—“does not communicate, speaking or writing”—complex medical needs, assistance needed eating, bathing, grooming, moving, cleaning, permanent speech and comprehension impairment due to underlying medical problems. . . . That’s the only evidence regarding her medical condition. And all those things have to do with what we are supposed to be looking for the future of behavior. In light of that, is there anything that her commitment offense has to do that’s probative to what she’s going to be doing in the future as far as you know? That’s a question.

The Parole Board refused to release Atkins, arguing that “these Manson killings and the rampage that went on is almost iconic and they have the ability to influence many other people, and she still has that ability as part of that group.” Atkins, who had no ability to do anything at all, died alone in prison a few months later.

If this outcome feels okay to you, ask yourself: what’s it to you? Do you have an idea of deservedness, of a price to pay, of just deserts? Do you think your idea of an appropriate time spent behind bars bows to no one, to nothing, not even to old age, sickness, and death?

Do you feel comfortable sentencing thousands of California prisoners to death because of these ideas of deservedness, or appropriate retribution, that you have? Will these ideas give you comfort when CDCR has to reckon with thousands of preventable deaths of human beings, just like you?

And if your answer is, “well, they didn’t consider that when they killed their victims, right?”, I have news for you: The victims are not coming back. They’ve been gone for decades. It’s horrible, and tragic, and we can’t fix that. Certainly not with another tragedy.

Get in touch with our common humanity. Write to the Governor. Sign my petition. Do something.

Release Party for Yesterday’s Monsters

Hi, Dear Readers! My new book Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole is out from UC Press and I am inviting you to celebrate!

When: Wednesday, March 11

Where: Manny’s, Valencia & 16th

What:

In 1969, the world was shocked by a series of murders committed by Charles Manson and his “family” of followers. Although the defendants were sentenced to death in 1971, their sentences were commuted to life with parole in 1972; since 1978, they have been regularly attending parole hearings. Today all of the living defendants remain behind bars.

Relying on nearly fifty years of parole hearing transcripts, as well as interviews and archival materials, Hadar Aviram invites readers into the opaque world of the California parole process—a realm of almost unfettered administrative discretion, prison programming inadequacies, high-pitched emotions, and political pressures. Yesterday’s Monsters offers a fresh longitudinal perspective on extreme punishment.

Book reading, signing, parole reform, food, drink!

RSVP HERE!