Nonhumans Suffer In Our Conflicts

There is a gorgeous ritual, devised by John Seed and Joanna Macy, known as the Council of All Beings. Participants embody a nonhuman entity or species and speak for it. There are lots of ways to participate, ranging from mask-making and embodiment to speech; the idea is to offer, in a humanly understandable form, some insight into the ways in which human activities are affecting nonhuman life.

With so much human suffering embroiled in my work–prison suffering, plague suffering, fire suffering, protest suffering–it is easy to get caught up and forget that the conflicts that now seem vitally important to us are completely irrelevant to most of the natural world, and yet they affect it in horrendous ways. In many ways, the upcoming election is a desperate fight for the future of the planet by the one species with the power to destroy it all. But sometimes my attention is drawn to the suffering of nonhumans swept–as victims, as unwilling participants–in our all-too-human brawls.

Last week, my heart broke about the dead chicks caught in the war to preserve the post office. True, the chicks were destined to go to farms, where their lot in life would be miserable, but can you, for just one second, let your heart beat like the heart of a suffocating chick, terrified and overpowered and without any understanding of what is happening?

Today, I hear from my parents and friends about how the Israeli police has been using police horses to tame and overpower the protesters against Netanyahu. There’s a lawsuit arguing that the horses–wild, free, beautiful–are extremely stressed and frightened in these roles, and that driving them into crowds, noise, and violence is anathema to their nature. The very use of horses by police is sickening to me. What are police doing with horses anyway? Are we in the 1300s? What in the world is this medieval shite?

Nonhuman animals should never be used as pawns in the hellish situations we humans devise for each other. Animals should not be coerced into servitude, especially not in the service of these horrific institutions/situations.

Brief on Behalf of Amici Curiae Filed in Von Staich, and an Extra Helping of Cruelty

Today I submitted an Amicus Curiae brief on behalf of the ACLU of Northern California and eighteen criminal justice scholars in In re Von Staich, another San Quentin-related COVID-19 relief case pending before the Court of Appeal. You can find the brief here:

AmiciCuriaeBriefVonStaich.pdf by hadaraviram on Scribd

Part of what I discuss in the brief has to do with CDCR’s evasive maneuvers. There are now three COVID-19 prison cases pending before the courts: Plata v. Newsom in federal court, the Marin County consolidated cases, and Von Staich. In each of these cases, the Attorney General representatives are claiming that the court is not the appropriate forum for handling the matter. Not only does this argument lack legal merit–judicial review is part and parcel of the struggle in prison conditions cases, and people are expected to exhaust state remedies before going federal–it is also a cynical evasive maneuver, designed to put off resolution in these cases until people either get well on their own or die. Indeed, at a status conference I attended last week, the AG representative led with the argument that there’s no longer a problem at San Quentin because the rates of new cases are slowing down. I cannot emphasize enough how misguided this line of argument is. San Quentin is not winning the battle against COVID-19. The virus has won–it’s infected almost all the available hosts, two thirds of the prison population, and killed 26 people–and will win again if there’s a repeat outbreak and no measures are taken to prevent it, as it has in five other prisons so far: Avenal, CIW, Corcoran, LAC, and ISP.

It may be that I’m feeling especially livid about this having read Jason Fagone’s story in yesterday’s Chron, according to which grieving relatives of incarcerated people who die of COVID get, in addition to their grief and anger, a cremation bill for $900:

Since the start of the pandemic, 54 incarcerated people have died of COVID-19 in California’s 35 prisons, and even though the deceased were in state custody until they drew their last breaths, the state expects their loved ones to pay burial costs, which can run into the thousands of dollars.

Families and advocates for incarcerated people say the policy is not only cruel, it discriminates against those without means to pay the sudden expenses. And with death numbers rising in the state prisons, the issue isn’t likely to go away.

“It’s a pretty disgusting policy,” said attorney Michael Bien, who represents tens of thousands of California prisoners and knows families struggling to scrape up money to bury incarcerated loved ones felled by the virus. He said the state has a moral duty to pay for a basic burial or cremation of people who die in their custody.

“This is basic human decency here,” Bien said, emphasizing that the financial burden is falling not on those convicted of crimes but on their “children and wives and moms.”

I wonder if CDCR also charges the families for the burial of incarcerated firefighters who are risking their lives to save my life and yours as I type this.

Nov. 2020 Ballot Endorsement: Yes on 25

Once upon a time, I was at a quantitative research conference, in which I was assigned to comment on a paper by two economist colleagues, Frank McIntyre and Shima Baradaran. They ran the numbers on bail, detention, and pretrial release, and found that, when controlling for severity of the offense and for criminal history, there was no racial discrimination in these pretrial decisions. The math was impeccable–far above my paygrade–because Frank and Shima are excellent at what they do. Their findings were deeply demoralizing: because race is so deeply baked into the American way of life, it turns out that people of color commit more of the kinds of offenses that land them in jail pretrial–either because of pretrial detention or because of bail amounts they can’t pay. It’s one of many examples in which well-intended efforts to scrub out race fail because of its protean quality: you hide it here, it pops up there. Yes, people of color do commit homicides and other violent crimes with more frequency than white people, and this happens for the same reason that they get more frequently arrested for the drug crimes they do not commit with more frequency: systemic racism. If we can’t address basic issues of deprivation, neglect, intergenerational poverty, and lack of opportunities for people of color and in low-income neighborhoods–crime will persist for the same reasons that criminalization persists.

This is the basic issue undergirding the debate about Prop. 25: In a world plagued by systemic classism and racism there are no good choices, but some are better than others. Prop. 25 invites us to affirm a reform adopted by the California legislature two years ago, which has not yet gone into effect: the elimination of cash bail. Lest you be confused, know that a “yes” vote affirms the reform and rejects cash bail; a “no” vote rejects the reform and keeps cash bail in place.

Under a cash bail system, the judge typically looks at a bail schedule–a “price list” that attaches monetary amounts to offenses based on a crude severity scale. The price listed for the offense with which you were charged is your bail amount. Since this is not the kind of money most people have available, there’s a workaround: the bail bonds industry. The defendant or their family pay the bail bondsman a nonrefundable amount, typically a tenth of the bail amount, and the bail bondsman essentially assumes the risk of absconding (“jumping bail”) or reoffending vis-á-vis the court. The existence of this industry negates any risk-based element that the cash bail system might have, because the person doesn’t actually bear the risk of their own pretrial behavior. Worse, as per this amazing exposé by my colleague Josh Page, the predatory bail bonds industry essentially feeds off the sacrifices and risks of women of color, who pay the premiums and co-sign the bonds. Even the amount owed to the bail bondsman is far more than many families can afford, which is why poor people who are at low risk of absconding or reoffending remain behind bars, as my colleagues Hank Fradella and Christine Scott-Hayward explain in their book Punishing Poverty.

The 2018 reform sought to replace this unfair system, which explicitly locks people up pretrial because they are poor, with a risk-based, no-cash model. The judge would use a risk-assessment tool to calculate the risk of absconding and reoffending and decide on release and limiting conditions accordingly.

Because cash bail is so atrocious, it is difficult to find a “no on 25” argument that isn’t equally atrocious (“people have a right to pay bail” takes the cake–I swear it’s in the voter brochure), but there is one that has superficial appeal: risk-assessment algorithms, even when they don’t explicitly factor in race, can factor in variables that closely correlate with race (including, for example, one’s arrest history) and thus exacerbate racially discriminatory outcomes. In other words, we are replacing the existing system with something that might be just as discriminatory, made worse by the facade of statistical/actuarial neutrality.

The problem with this seemingly appealing argument is that it completely misses the point of why race correlates with these race-neutral variables in the first place. My colleague Sandy Mayson has a fantastic paper, aptly titled “Bias In-Bias Out”, in which she explains:

[T]he source of racial inequality in risk assessment lies neither in the input data, nor in a particular algorithm, nor in algorithmic methodology. The deep problem is the nature of prediction itself. All prediction looks to the past to make guesses about future events. In a racially stratified world, any method of prediction will project the inequalities of the past into the future. This is as true of the subjective prediction that has long pervaded criminal justice as of the algorithmic tools now replacing it. What algorithmic risk assessment has done is reveal the inequality inherent in all prediction, forcing us to confront a much larger problem than the challenges of a new technology. Algorithms shed new light on an old problem.

Ultimately. . . redressing racial disparity in prediction will require more fundamental changes in the way the criminal justice system conceives of and responds to risk. [C]riminal law and policy should, first, more clearly delineate the risks that matter, and, second, acknowledge that some kinds of risk may be beyond our ability to measure without racial distortion—in which case they cannot justify state coercion. To the extent that we can reliably assess risk, on the other hand, criminal system actors should strive to respond to risk with support rather than restraint whenever possible. Counterintuitively, algorithmic risk assessment could be a valuable tool in a system that targets the risky for support.

In other words, the algorithm is not “racist” in itself, and it can’t “scrub” racism out of the system. It reflects a racist reality in which, for a variety of systemic, sad, and infuriating reasons, people who are treated like second-class citizens in their own country commit more violent crime. In fact, the same problem is baked into Frank and Shima’s findings about the existing cash bail system: At the conference, our colleague W. David Ball, who was in the audience, astutely pointed out that the outcome was pretty much to be expected given the fact that, in California as in many other states, judges make pretrial release decisions on the basis of bail schedules–“price lists” that attach monetary amounts to offenses based on a crude severity scale. The overrepresentation of people of color in homicide offenses and other violent crime categories is an inconvenient truth for progressives–look at the report of the National Academy of Sciences on mass incarceration and at the evasive rhetorical maneuvers they use when they talk about this. Unfortunately, it is true, and as I explained above–the reasons why more African American people commit more homicides than white people are the same reasons why they are arrested more frequently for the drug offenses they don’t actually commit more than white people: deprivation, neglect, lack of opportunities, dehumanization and marginalization on a daily basis.

When you vote yes on 25, you are not exacerbating potentially racist outcomes from the algorithm. I can already tell you that the outcome will be racist, because it will reflect the reality, which is racist also. What you would do is eliminate the existing approach, which removes risk from the equation (because of the bail bondsman as the middleman) and lands people in jail simply because they cannot pay the bail amount. It won’t fix what is already wrong in the world, but it will take one slice of it–screwing people over because they are poor–and make it better. Vote Yes on 25.

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.

Between COVID and Fires

This is a hard post to write, because quite honestly, with today’s news, I’m just not sure how much more calamity human beings can take. The intersection between the pandemic and the frightening fires in California has created a perfect storm around our prison population, and some of the reporting about it is so horridly inadequate that someone has to say something. What I’m seeing is such a poisonous cocktail of moralistic duplicity, naked opportunism, and sheer indifference to human suffering, that it cannot go unremarked upon.

The horrific fires that have devastated a million acres in the state have engulfed the areas close to at least two prisons: the California Medical Facility and Solano State Prison. CMF, in particular, has a population especially sensitive to smoke: older, vulnerable people. As you can see in the Vacaville police map above, the prisons are located smack dab in the middle of the evacuation zone. Nevertheless, the prisons have not been evacuated, nor have preparations been made–not even bringing, say, a bus nearby for transportation. Incarcerated people and family members who spoke with the Guardian’s Sam Levin report heavy smoke, ash, and an inability to escape toxic fumes.The people inside are reporting that prison guards arrive into the facility covered in ash. In case you’re wondering what CDCR has done, Levin reports:

“They are breathing in fire and smoke, and they have nowhere to run,” said Sophia Murillo, 39, whose brother is incarcerated at CMF in Vacaville. “Everyone has evacuated but they were left there in prison. Are they going to wait until the last minute to get them out?”

To increase social distancing and limit the spread of Covid, CMF had moved 80 people to sleep in outdoor tents instead of indoor cells, but with the fire approaching and air pollution rising, the prison moved them back indoors. Murillo said she now fears a major Covid outbreak inside the prison, and noted that mass evacuations could also spread the virus if people are packed in buses together.

Unfortunately, the New York Times’ Thomas Fuller does not share Levin’s basic humanity. In his story about the intersection of fire, disease, and incarceration, he gives you, gentle reader, the following take: our vast compassion in releasing people or in holding them confined due to COVID is hurting our firefighting efforts. But his interviewee Mike Hampton, a former corrections officer who worked at a firecamp, truly takes the cake:

“The inmates should have been put on the fire lines, fighting fires . . . How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season with all these fires going on?”

This false dualism echoes a similarly horrible, opportunistic perspective about incarcerated firefighters that came a few years ago out of Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office. In a 2014 legal proceeding regarding Plata releases, the AG representative wrote:

“if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.” Those prisoners, the Times reported, earn wages that range from “8 cents to 37 cents per hour.”

In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

CDCR is apparently still embracing this mentality–on one hand, decrying how releases would presumably harm public safety and on the other hand treating the people in prison like expendable machines at the service of the state. It does not seem to matter that the folks slotted for release–older, medically vulnerable folks–are obviously not the folks working at the firecamps.

Much less monstrous, but equally misguided, is the idea that in order to stop relying on “slave labor” we must stop relying on incarcerated people to put out fires in California. This is the sort of lazy take that comes from self-perceived enlightenment but has nothing to do with what incarcerated people actually want. You don’t have to guess–you could read my colleague Phil Goodman’s research about the firecamps. People who serve their sentences at the firecamps feel an enormous amount of dignity and pride at being able to contribute in this heroic manner and save lives. They experience firecamp placement as “another second chance.” Moreover, CDCR is the only place in which the racial animosities within prison–some self-imposed and some institutionally-directed–simply do not exist and people befriend folks of other races and ethnicities and of other gangs.

These two takes are presenting Californians with a false dichotomy: either you exploit people and risk their lives for a pittance OR you keep them behind bars. The obvious solution to this conundrum is not on the menu, even though it should be: (1) pay people commensurately with their skills and the risks they take, and (2) remove the criminal record limitations on firefighting work. I’m going to venture a wild guess that this would also be a terrific recidivism reduction strategy, because someone who acquires unique skills in a field essential to preserving our state and saving human and nonhuman lives is going to feel proud putting those skills to use, getting fairly paid for them, and getting the social respect that is rightly owed to those doing the job. Anyone who is suggesting that the solution to our problem is more reductive or more complex is simply lying to you.

OIG Report Criticizes CDCR’s COVID-19 Screening Practices

Today, the Office of the Inspector General published the first installment in a series of three reports about CDCR’s (mis)handling of the COVID-19 crisis in prisons. The report was commissioned by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and you can read it here, in its 47-page glory. For those of you unfamiliar with the Inspector General, the Office’s authority to review CDCR’s policies and practices comes from the California Penal Code and serves as an important control over correctional operations.

The first report examines CDCR’s screening practices for staff and visitors. Heeding warnings from the WHO and CDC, Governor Newsom instructed CDCR to take preventative measures to prevent the pread of COVID-19 in prisons. As early as March 11, CDCR suspended all visits to the prison–the suspension remains in effect–but continued to allow some essential visitors, including contracted workers, attorneys, and OIG staff, to enter prisons, in addition to thousands of the department’s staff who did so each day. On March 14, the suspension policy was supplemented by a directive to verbally screen all staff and visitors by querying them about signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Later in March, CDCR added required temperature checks to the verbal queries.

Here’s where it’s important to explain something. Every morning when I drop my son off at preschool, and every afternoon when I pick him up, a staff member checks both our temperatures, and asks us screening questions about symptoms, travel, and contact with known COVID-19 carriers. Even though this screening procedure does not detect asymptomatic carriers, it is hugely important, and it is doable, because the preschool only has one entrance. But prisons are more complicated than preschools. As the report explains, most prisons have multiple gates and entrance points, ranging in security level. Administrative offices, warehouses, industries, and other areas are often behind the main gate, but outside of an internal, secured entrance point. Take a look, for example, at this aerial photo of San Quentin. On the top right, you can see structures that are not part of the inner perimeter of the prison, and you can also see that, within the complex, there are multiple buildings with their own secured gates.

People mill about through these multiple gates on a daily basis. The staff, of course, and the essential visitors, come in and out of the prison on a daily basis. In addition, incarcerated people at San Quentin frequently work in the buildings outside the secure perimeter. This brings people across security entrances in daily contact with each other, and requires careful screening at the entrance to each correctional complex.

Unfortunately, the screening policy has not worked out at CDCR. The report summarizes:

Despite the department’s statewide directives that staff and visitors be screened for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 upon entry to prisons, we found that the department’s vague screening directives resulted in inconsistent implementation among the prisons, which left some staff and visitors entering prisons unscreened. Specifically, we found prisons took different approaches to implementing the same departmentwide directive. Some prisons funneled every car to a single screening location, where prison staff conducted verbal and temperature screenings of the cars’ occupants. Other prisons screened staff at certain pedestrian entrances to the prisons. We found that this second approach increased the risk that staff or visitors may have walked into or through other workspaces without having been screened.

OIG staff viewed and experienced these inconsistencies firsthand. During multiple visits by our staff between May 19, 2020, and June 26, 2020, prisons did not screen some of them for the disease’s known signs and symptoms. For example, California State Prison, Sacramento, conducted screenings at an area that cannot be seen from
the prison’s main entrance. In one example at this prison, two OIG staff experienced no delays when walking onto prison grounds; no one screened them as they parked their cars and then walked into the prison’s administration building.

OIG staff’s observations were also supported by staff whom we surveyed at several prisons. To obtain prison employees’ perspectives, we surveyed all staff at seven prisons—more than 12,000 staff members. Staff responding to that survey indicated that the vast majority of them, but not all, had always been screened upon prison entry. Specifically, 5 percent of the survey’s respondents indicated that they had not always been screened as required by the department’s directive. We also learned that the results derived from some staff and visitor screenings may have been flawed. In response to a separate survey that we administered to screeners at five prisons, numerous screeners also identified multiple instances of thermometers malfunctioning during screenings. However, the screeners’ survey responses did not indicate how they proceeded to conduct screenings when they could not accurately obtain temperatures; consequently, it is unclear whether they allowed entry to those individuals. Nevertheless, because the department’s directive lacks instructions on what screeners were supposed to do in those instances, it was possible that screeners allowed some staff and visitors entry without obtaining accurate temperature readings. In addition, according to our review of a sample of screeners’ training records and our survey of screeners themselves, many screeners apparently received no formal training at all concerning their prisons’ screening processes, thus increasing the risk of allowing infected individuals to walk into prison facilities and expose others to the disease.

Much of the media reportage on CDCR’s failures to properly act has focused on issues of testing and cohorting, but screening is a fairly doable preventative policy, especially in places designed to prevent people from escaping. It’s dismaying to see how haphazardly it has been implemented. And, as the report points out, it’s especially distressing when you keep in mind that the testing fails to give anything close to a complete picture: because of the delays in receiving result, a person might contract the disease after taking the test, experience symptoms, and a few days later receive a “negative” result. These gaps can and should be stopped through screening, among other measures, and it is not to CDCR’s credit that they were not.

In Memoriam: Prof. Ruth Gavison

On my first day of law school, Ruthie Gavison taught us a 1964 case, The AG vs. Bash. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was not uncommon for people to toss old refrigerators in their back yards, and in those days, there was no way to unlatch a refrigerator door from the inside. You can guess how tragedy ensued: children found their way to Bash’s yard, locked themselves in a fridge and died. Bash was convicted of manslaughter and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. His argument was that many reasonable people did the same thing, so his behavior did not fall beneath the standard expected from the “reasonable man.” The Israel Supreme Court denied him relief: the reasonable man, they said, was not a statistical creature, but a creation of the Court, sometimes behaving better than actual people–in order to use the law (at Bash’s expense) to raise standards of caution and prudence. As Prof. Gavison pithily summarized it, on our very first jurisprudence class, “justice and law are two separate things.”

Ruthie was a formidable person. I admired and feared her throughout law school, even when I worked with her as a teaching and research assistant. When she prepared an assignment for the students, or led us through Socratic inquiries, she was always hundreds of steps ahead, and seemed to have little patience with us for not catching up fast enough. I was under the impression she didn’t know who I was at all, but then she wrote me a gorgeous recommendation letter. It wasn’t effusive, but it showed that she saw me, and I was thrilled; I was young, and being liked was important to me. Which is another reason I admired Prof. Gavison: she did not care at all about what people thought of her. At our Dean’s List reception, she showed up wearing a ratty orange sweater, a white-and-blue striped shirt, sweatpants of an unidentified color, and neon pink sneakers. I will remember that outfit for the rest of my days. It wasn’t gender bending, it wasn’t styled to achieve some sort of androgynous effect–it was just whatever was most convenient to grab from the closet before she left, and it was obvious that, even though it was startling, it was not deliberately curated to startle. I almost fainted from admiration–whaddya mean, a person can live in the world and wear whatever the heck they wanted and not give a fig about how they looked? Prof. Gavison was the first woman I knew whose ego was not embroiled in her looks. She had seemingly gotten all that completely out of the way. The early 1990s were fairly prudish, and I arrived in law school without much awareness that a variety of sexual orientations and presentations was on the menu–these were still considered juicy details that would be whispered behind people’s backs–but Prof. Gavison just lived her life as she pleased. At the time, she had a partner (I think I met her once at their home) and her son, Doron, was 3. I was unclear on the details, but Prof. Gavison just did whatever she thought was best, without apology or embroilment in identity politics or conversations about authenticity. That someone could live like this–do whatever the hell made sense to them without minding anyone else’s opinion–was a revelation to me and had a profound impact on the shaping of my own personal life.

This basic authenticity and utter divestment from bullshit characterized Ruthie’s intellectual legacy, too. When I was still in law school, Prof. Gavison was considered part of the lefty intelligentsia; she founded Israel’s Civil Rights Association (ACRI) and was its chairperson for a long time. Later in life, she took several steps to the right, publicly espousing positions that were far from fashionable in her milieu. But Prof. Gavison was never interested in being fashionable; she didn’t even seem to take pleasure in the identity of a contrarian. The simplistic tropes du jour were like a foreign language to her; she was not on-brand or off-brand–she didn’t have a brand. She just thought deeply about her opinions, formed them, and argued for them, because she believed that was right. There was no lying, obfuscation, linguistic niceties, or any adoption of fashionable terms and tropes to belong or to avoid offending. There was also no deliberate unkindness or petty politicking. If she thought it, she said it. And even if you didn’t agree with it all, it was always memorable.

Perhaps the most important influence that Prof. Gavison’s immense public intellectual career had on my own work was something she said at a criminology conference in Jerusalem in 2000 (I listened to every word because I was doing simultaneous interpretation for two people who would later become my mentors and then my friends, Malcolm Feeley and David Nelken; they were visiting Israel and attended the conference.) We were talking about victimology and victims’ rights, and everyone was bending over backwards to acknowledge suffering and hardship and grief. Prof. Gavison took the podium, and said, “the first and foremost thing that is owed to victims is that they stop being victims as quickly as possible.” This struck me like lightning, because even twenty years ago, before the current obsession with positionality and personal biographies, victimization as an identity mattered a lot, especially in the context of casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To stand on a podium and say plainly, without meanness but without polite caveats, either, that clinging to victimization was not the way to go, was revolutionary and brave. She got skewered for comments like this later in life, as heralds of #metoo permeated public discourse and social media became “a thing”, and her comments about self sufficiency and moving on were taken as victim-blaming. But she was never unkind or disdainful. Her recent post against overcriminalization in sex offenses is the epitome of genuine compassion–truly caring about people’s best interests without weaponizing or infantilizing them or turning them into a morality tale. For her, it wasn’t about blame; it was about what made the most sense, and if anyone wanted to take it personally or make political capital off of victims or perpetrators, that was their problem.

I probably would never have written Yesterday’s Monsters if I hadn’t been raised, intellectually, by Prof. Gavison. It is a difficult moral and personal hurdle, to speak or write publicly against the hagiography of victims, especially vocal victims of a heinous, high-profile crime. It takes guts, and I’m not as blasé as Prof. Gavison was about people’s reactions to my work. While I was working on the book, I agonized over whether I was overly harsh on the Tates. It has never been my intent to hurt victims, as it has never been Prof. Gavison’s intent to do so, but causing them anguish was not a consequence I could discount. Moreover, there was the concern that any call for compassion involving the Manson family would fall on deaf ears and draw fire for the worst reasons. Mean comments or one-starred reviews on Amazon from people who sanctify victims as the unquestioned owners of retributive discourse were always a possibility. When I was publicly speaking in support of death penalty abolition, I caught a lot of flak, including death threats, from people on this (the irony of threatening a murder while arguing for capital punishment for murderers was obviously lost.) But Prof. Gavison had taught me to look at the bigger picture. Having one’s life upended by violent crime is not a choice people make, and people will feel about it however they will feel. Their feelings are their feelings. They are valid by virtue of being part and parcel of the human experience, and they are in each of us. But it does not directly follow that public policy should enshrine these feelings as the be-all, end-all of morality, and it does not follow that the best way to honor these emotions and give them room is the criminal process. The acknowledgment that people are who they are, and that one’s policy suggestions need not coddle nor confront their basic way of being, is something I’m still learning. But as I age, I care a lot less what people think, and I see through performative games quickly enough to get to the point.

I got the news of Ruthie’s passing shortly after reading Jason Fagone’s phenomenal article in the Chron yesterday, in which he unflinchingly looks at the numbers and offers a practical roadmap to cutting half of California’s prison population. This is the first time I’ve seen a mainstream newspaper treat this eminently sensible policy suggestion seriously, and rather than present it as some sort of radical idea, wrapped in a lot of “dismantle” and “defund” and “abolish” lingo, chart a roadmap illuminated by decades of robust empirical work. It’s not nuts. It’s the way to guarantee minimal standards of care without putting public safety in peril. One of the commenters (I couldn’t resist) said something like, “next thing they’ll suggest releasing the Manson family.” It’s to Prof. Gavison’s credit that, as her student, I read this, shrugged, and thought, “funny they should mention that.” Ruthie taught me jurisprudence, law and society, and law and politics, but the most important thing she taught me was that grownups should not be afraid of monsters.

Prof. Gavison was, and will always be, a shining beacon of authenticity and truthfulness. It deeply saddens me that we have lost her clear, courageous voice, when such voices are so essential. What is remembered, lives.

Amicus Curiae Brief Filed in Support of SQ Relief Effort

Yesterday I filed a brief on behalf of the ACLU of Northern CA, and seventeen of my colleagues, in support of the consolidated habeas corpus petitions submitted by dozens of people at San Quentin to the Marin Superior Court. Petitioners are demanding that the Warden of San Quentin release them, because their incarceration is a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

You can read the brief here:

AmiciCuriaeBriefMarinConsol… by hadaraviram on Scribd

Nov. 2020 Ballot Endorsement: Yes on 17

Currently, the California Constitution, in Article II, Section 4, provides that “The Legislature shall. . . provide for the disqualification of electors while . . . imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony.”

Accordingly, people who are serving a sentence in a state or federal prison, or have been released and are on parole, cannot be registered to vote. As of 2016–after our litigation efforts to get it done sooner failed–this restriction does not include people who are doing time in jail, even for felonies, nor does it include folks on community probation. But this leaves people on parole disenfranchised. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, as of Dec. 31, 2016, there were 89,586 people on parole. This is not a big number, because after Realignment, most people with felony convictions are supervised by the counties in the community (in addition to the already existing large probation population)–as of Dec. 31, 2016, we had 235,918 on probation. According to the Yes on 17 campaign, the number of parolees now is even smaller–they estimate that 50,000 people on parole are ineligible to vote under the CA constitution.

Prop 17 would change that. It is a Constitutional amendment that would grant people who served a federal or state prison sentence the right to vote as soon as they complete their sentence. If we pass this proposition, we’ll join the following states, which allow parolees to vote: Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and D.C.

A “yes” vote on 17 has many benefits. As Jessica Willis and I wrote elsewhere, civic reengagement of people after they return home from a prison sentence is a crucial step in restoring their trust, loyalty, and sense of a stake in their community. It makes communities safer by ameliorating the already-difficult trajectory of reentry and reducing recidivism. It mitigates racial injustices (most parolees are people of color.) And it brings much-needed perspectives, with important experiences, into the democratic process, which includes voting for people like prosecutors and judges.

If anything, Prop 17 does not go far enough–like everyone else, the person would need to register to vote, which is an extra step that creates a hindrance; if it passes, many people might not even know, upon release, that they are eligible to vote. But this goes to my general gripe with a system that requires registering to vote, as opposed to rendering all citizens automatically eligible to vote when they reach voting age; I’ve written before about how U.S. illogical obstinance about a simple measure–the provision of a national identity card to every American citizen when they turn 18–perpetuates a problem that is very easy to solve. But even within the constraints of the existing system (every country has tics and wrinkles–the ones here are obvious to me because I didn’t grow up here,) I can see a solution. When I became a citizen in 2015, as soon as all of us new Americans exited the beautiful Paramount Theatre where our naturalization ceremony was held, we passed through three booths: passport application, social security application, and a happy and energetic voter registration posse. Putting together a similar setup at the exit door of the prison is a piece of cake. All CDCR needs is a computer with a working Internet connection and this handy link, and everyone–EVERYONE–on the day of their release can leave CDCR facilities as a registered voter. As to the expense involved in doing all this, LAO estimates a one-time expense in updating state systems, followed by an annual expense representing the need to print and mail additional ballots and voter materials–exactly what you and I get as registered voters.

There really are no downsides, unless you’re a moralistic curmudgeon who for some reason believes that we should continue disenfranchising people after they’ve served their prison sentence. Let’s bring more people into our democracy. Vote Yes on 17.

Marin’s Top Health Official Warned SQ Warden, Was Rebuffed

If you thought the travesty of the Chino-Quentin transfer was the absolute rock bottom of prison management, prepare to dig. Today’s Chron reports that Dr. Matthew Willis, Marin County’s top health official, has written a letter to Judge Howard of the Marin Superior Court, in which he documents his efforts to get San Quentin officials to quarantine the incoming people from Chino–to no avail. Megan Cassidy reports:

Dr. Matthew Willis had learned that the 122 prisoners weren’t tested for weeks before they were transferred on May 30. Unless they were “radically sequestered” from the native population, Willis warned, the prison was setting the stage for a major outbreak.

This advice — given in a June 1 conference call with acting San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield and other high-ranking prison staffers — was the first in a series of public health recommendations to be issued and ultimately dismissed by prison officials, Willis said in a letter to a Marin County Superior Court judge and in an interview Tuesday with The Chronicle.

You’ll want to click on the article and read Dr. Willis’ letter in full, as well as the astonishing letter he received. Prison officials forwarded him a letter written by CDCR’s General Counsel, Jennifer Neill, who wrote, “The State is not an entity under local health officers’ jurisdictions, and thus local health officer orders are not valid against the State.” Neill hadn’t even written the letter to Dr. Willis: she had written it to Kings County’s health officials when they offered advice regarding the horrific outbreak in Avenal. Go ahead, read it for yourself. I put a snippet of it above, to make sure you get the gist of it, but you need to see this with your own eyes.

As the horror settles in the pit of your stomach, let’s break this down:

  1. It was always obvious that prison outbreaks are connected to outbreaks in the surrounding counties (this should be obvious to you, too, by now; the virus doesn’t read the Penal Code.) Because of this, traditionally, there was communication between county health officials and the prison on matters of public health, such as the flu vaccine and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease.
  2. There had already been an incident in which, rather than heeding advice from the people directly affected by the outbreaks in prison, CDCR decided to ignore the advice and instead jockey for position and squabble about jurisdiction. Outcome: several hundreds of people became infected and a few died.
  3. Then, months later, this occurred again. Again, the health official of the surrounding county offered advice. Again, CDCR chose to ignore the advice and instead jockey for position and squabble about jurisdiction. Indeed, they were apparently so pleased with how they had handled the previous incident that they didn’t even bother to write a new letter; instead, they simply forwarded the same letter to the health officials of the new county. Outcome: several thousands of people became infected and a few dozen died.

Friends, this is shocking. If all the previous warnings, all the alarm bells sounded by public health and criminal justice experts, did not suffice to prove that San Quentin officials, and the warden, exhibited deliberate indifference to the lives of the people under their supervision and care, this incident alone should make all of us sick to our stomachs.