— “The state must take back control of the prison medical system, by developing a plan to work with an organization that can run the system for the State.”
— “The State must immediately take action to improve its management . . . and implement the recommendations made by this and other commissions, including expanding in-prison programs, improving prisoner reentry, and reallocating resources to communitybased alternatives.”
— “The State must re-invent parole, moving to a system of post-release supervision for certain prisoners to ensure public safety.”
— “The State should begin a comprehensive evaluation of its sentencing system by establishing an independent sentencing commission to develop guidelines for coherent and equitable sentencing guided by overarching criminal justice policy goals.
The problems with the California correctional system are so varied and so complex, one can easily become overwhelmed. Fortunately, there’s a great resource for getting a broad overview of the issues: Joan Petersilia’s recent publication for the California Policy Research Center, entitled Understanding California Corrections. Highly recommended!
On Nov. 4, Californians will not only get to decide between Obama and McCain, but also to weigh in about their priorities and values regarding law enforcement and corrections. There are three relevant propositions on the ballot, and voters will need to realize that, to a great extent, supporting each of these comes at the others’ expense. Moreover, it is important to pay attention to the fact that each of the propositions espouses a different ideology about criminal propensity and crime control.
Prop. 5: Nonviolent Drug Offenses; Sentencing, Parole and Rehabilitation
Proponents of NORA (Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act) argue that current drug laws do not allocate resources to treating the problem from the source, which is addiction. According to the proposition, the idea is to preserve resources by reserving punitive measures for violent offenders, and focusing on treating non-violent offenders through the diversionary methods set in Prop. 36. This would be accomplished through a reorganization of entities, adding special divisions at CDCR that would address substance abuse, vocation and education. For the purposes of NORA, a “non-violent drug offender” is someone convicted of “unlawful personal use, possession for personal use, or transportation for personal use, or being under the influence of any controlled substance”; the prop excludes “possession for sale, transportation for sale, production, or manufacturing of any controlled substance”.
The options for deferred entry of judgment and for supervision are ehnanced. The proposition is very much in the spirit of therapeutic justice.
Prop. 6: Police and Law Enforcement Funding; Criminal Penalties and Laws
By contrast, this proposition, also called the Safe Neighborhoods Act and the Runner Initiative, is very much in the spirit of Packer’s Crime Control model. The idea is to increase funding for more traditional law enforcement activities. The proposition identifies a few key criminal phenomena and focuses on aggressive prosecution toward them. One such focus is gang activity; under Prop 6, any youth 14 years or older convicted of a “gang-related” felony would be tried as an adult. Other “focus areas” include violence and methamphetamine trafficking.
The proposition would also criminalize tampering with monitoring devices such as electric cuffs, and would require anyone receiving public housing subsidies to undergo annual criminal background checks.
The official text also provides for strengthening police intelligence and “mapping” high risk areas.
Prop. 9: Criminal Justice System; Victims’ Rights; Parole Prop 9 advocates a third type of justice model, namely, one focusing on victims’ rights in various ways. It includes a CA constitutional amendment as well as regular legislation. Some aspects of Prop 9 include a requirement to pay restitution to victims and a prioritization of these requirements. It also expands victims’ legal rights and their impact not only throughout the adjudication process, but also in parole hearings.
The official text ttt bemoans the faulty implementation of the Victims’ Bill of Rights in 1982, and suggests to improve matters by assuring that victims are informed of developments in the case, including pre-sentence reports, plea bargains, and sentence details. Victims would be notified of bail hearings and would have the right to be heard before a bail decision is made.
In addition, Prop 9 also creates additional limitations on parole, and adds years before parole can be obtained in certain cases.
This is going to be a tough choice. As David Garland argues in The Culture of Control, our criminological “history of the present” is such that several models of criminal justice coexist, along with their contradictory premises. When pitted one against the other, as in the 2008 ballot, the conflict is not only one of ideologies but one of resources. Shifting more resources toward enforcement would come at the expense of rehabilitation and vice versa. Moreover, hiring personnel with a defined agenda, which would be a necessity under each of these propositions, would impact the spirit of criminal justice in general. So, the choice is not merely between priorities, but between paradigms.
A few months ago, the NY Times published updated statistics as to the number of prisoners per 100,000 people around the world.
The United States has, for instance, 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation, according to data maintained by the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College London.
China, which is four times more populous than the United States, is a distant second, with 1.6 million people in prison. (That number excludes hundreds of thousands of people held in administrative detention, most of them in China’s extrajudicial system of re-education through labor, which often singles out political activists who have not committed crimes.)
San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, is at the end of the long list of 218 countries compiled by the center. It has a single prisoner.
The United States comes in first, too, on a more meaningful list from the prison studies center, the one ranked in order of the incarceration rates. It has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)
The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The others have much lower rates. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.
The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate.
The piece also provides a breakdown by state, which seems to locate California somewhere in the middle between Maine (273 per 100,000) and Louisiana (1,138). I am assuming these numbers include prisons and jails.
The intriguing graphs are the ones depicting the decline in crime rates, happening simultaneously with the increase in incarceration rates. It is also interesting to note that, while most inmates in state prisons are incarcerated for violent offenses, most federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses. The article does not provide data on incarceration rates due to parole violations.
NPR has a disturbing report about the increasing overcrowding problem at San Quentin prison.
What you see to your left is a photo from the article accompanying the podcast, showing how prison authorities have had to convert the prison gym into a big cell with hundreds of beds. Beyond the obvious physical restriction of space, the podcast problematizes the impact of trying to accommodate various populations – some of them hostile to each other due to gang and ethnicity feuds – in a space previously used as a gym.