I am in Seattle, WA, for the West Coast Law and Society Retreat, where we just finished a panel examining various perspectives on the criminal justice realignment. The panel featured several folks doing work on criminal justice reform from various perspectives: W. David Ball from Santa Clara University, Mona Lynch from UC Irvine, Jonathan Simon from UC Berkeley, and Katherine Beckett from University of Washington. We all talked about the research that is being done, the research that should be done, how the research community can be relevant and influential in making healthy decisions about corrections in California, and the impediments and challenges that lie ahead.
David Ball spoke about the importance of communicating with decisionmakers in the field. His fieldwork (with Bob Weisberg) involves prosecutorial decisionmaking after realignment. They interview prosecutors about the existence, or lack thereof, of consistent prosecutorial guidelines. In presenting prosecutors with a series of hypotheticals, which they ask prosecutors to rate on a seriousness scale, they expose the discretionary nature of realignment prosecution: The choice what to charge a person with could impact whether s/he will be regarded as a “non-non-non” and therefore housed in a jail. They have also uncovered the subtle interactions between prosecutors and the police, primarily areas of non-enforcement and non-prosecution.
Mona Lynch mentioned that the two types of realignment research done most frequently are policy evaluation, which is the only thing that can be funded (and has been done by several organizations, notably CJCJ and the ACLU of Northern CA), and legal research that focuses on Eighth Amendment arguments. The challenges ahead lie in the “hydra risk” of bad conditions in many jails in lieu of a few prisons. She suggested two socio-legal avenues for research: returning to, and revisiting, the classic courtroom ethnographies in a way that would uncover the framing and understanding of offenders (think David Sudnow’s Normal Crimes – first deciding what a person deserves based on a typology and then putting it together via the existing sentencing enhancements), and a study of the experience of jail incarceration (jails have been understudied; one great counterexample is Sharon Dolovich’s study of the Los Angeles County Jail.) This research may entail access issues we should overcome.
Jonathan Simon reminded us that realignment cannot be framed as an improvement on the system, but rather as a cover-up for a human rights crime that we will some day grow to regret: “torture on the installment plan.”He also encouraged us to challenge the assumption that rehabilitation and risk reduction programs need to be in place to combat the threat to public safety, problematizing the correlation CDCR draws between public safety and incarceration (with the drug war in the throes of death, are we reaffirming our commitment to locking up violent offenders for disproportionately long periods of time?).
Katherine Beckett provided a much-needed comparative context. She reminded us that other states are also punting their responsibilities to the county level. Also, many states have wobbler legislation, nonprosecutorial policies that yield county variation, and parole/probation reforms (as in Kansas), as well as drug law reform (New York State is an example). Her current project, reviewing prison admission data from 29 states, indicates that many states have seen a reduction in prison admission through these reforms, but these gains are offset by admissions for violence, public order, and property offenses, which are surprising given that arrest rates are falling. Beckett and other panelists highlighted the problem of entrenching the notion of “dangerous offenders”, whose mass incarceration is being
kosherized via the decarceration of the presumably less-dangerous drug offenders.
We had a very lively discussion with audience members:
Are there opportunities for graduate students who want to do empirical qualitative analysis of the realignment? We should know what other people are studying, and maybe throw in some questions in questionnaires (the Federal Sentencing Reporter issue on realignment is a great example.)
What are the interactions with, and effect on, immigration law? Has realignment changed charging practices with offenses that may or may not trigger deportation?
How do institutional pressures – courtroom workgroups, profiteers, unions, the market – play a role? Nobody wants their organization to shrink, and therefore prosecutors have a vested interest in keeping mass incarceration at its current level.
What role does impact litigation and critical resistance play in the process of realignment? We should keep in mind that a third of the jails already have population cap orders.
With regard to policy evaluation studies, those are difficult to do, because realignment is not the only thing that has changed. Some panelists suggested longitudinal studies (following up on cohorts of offenders) and comparative between counties. But there is also a concern about how to frame the dependent variable: What would it mean for realignment to “work”? And from whose perspective? What do we want or expect from our criminal justice policy? And, how to measure recidivism?
One suggestion made on the panel was to look at home detention and GPS as a possible alternative for mass incarceration. While the prison is unique as an institution producing what we now know as a human rights disaster, replacing it by home detention would also have adverse and alienating effects.
We also discussed the problematic aspect of thinking that mass incarceration is “normal”, and that we won’t be able to really think outside the box given the stake so many institutions and organizations have in the existence of mass incarceration.
Finally, a workshop on realignment is being planned for October 2014, and we hope to be there and be able to say more about how realignment works.
I’d very much like to invite the panelists and audience to send over links to research on realignment, so we can have a repository of resources here at the CCC blog.