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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Yesterday’s Monsters

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.

Getting Rid of No-Knock Warrants Isn’t Enough

Yesterday we received the news that only one of the police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor was to be indicted–and not for homicide, but for “wanton endangerment” involving shooting toward the neighbors’ homes. Because of the obvious point made by my colleague Frank Zimring in When Police Kill–that the hope to save more lives from police brutality should not be pinned on the criminal process–I want to focus on the question of saving lives, specifically in the context of knock-and-announce. A good starting point is this valuable commentary by my colleague Natalie Todak, who studies policing:

I agree and want to add a few words about how this is not only the fault of police officers, but of the Supreme Court.

You’ve all seen the knock-and-announce rule in action on your TV screens, every time a cop in a police drama loudly yells: “Police! Open up!” What you might not know is that the knock-and-announce rule has ancient roots in common law. In Miller v. United States, officers without a warrant knocked on the door of Miller’s apartment and, upon his inquiry, “Who’s there?” replied in a low voice, “Police.” Miller opened the door, but quickly tried to close it, whereupon the officers broke the door, entered, arrested petitioner and seized marked bills which were later admitted as evidence against Miller in a drug case. The Supreme Court held that “[t]he common-law principle of announcement is embedded in Anglo-American Law” and that Miller’s arrest was unlawful because the police broke in without first giving him notice of their authority and purpose.

The reason for this is obvious. In Wilson v. Arkansas, the court explains: “[A]nnouncement generally would avoid ‘the destruction or breaking of any house … by which great damage and inconvenience might ensue’.” And in Hudson v. Michigan, Justice Scalia expands:

One of [the interests protected by the knock-and-announce requirement] is the protection of human life and limb, because an unannounced entry may provoke violence in supposed self-defense by the surprised resident. Another interest is the protection of property. Breaking a house (as the old cases typically put it) absent an announcement would penalize someone who “ ‘did not know of the process, of which, if he had notice, it is to be presumed that he would obey it … .’ ” The knock-and-announce rule gives individuals “the opportunity to comply with the law and to avoid the destruction of property occasioned by a forcible entry.” And thirdly, the knock-and-announce rule protects those elements of privacy and dignity that can be destroyed by a sudden entrance. It gives residents the “opportunity to prepare themselves for” the entry of the police. “The brief interlude between announcement and entry with a warrant may be the opportunity that an individual has to pull on clothes or get out of bed.” In other words, it assures the opportunity to collect oneself before answering the door.

J. Scalia (Op. Ct.), Hudson v. Michigan (2006)

Granted, in some cases there may be an advantage in hurrying in, because otherwise the police knock on the door can prompt the people inside to destroy evidence–especially in drug cases. But this advantage needs to be weighed against the drawbacks of violence: to mention just two possible scenarios, the police could be making a mistake and trashing the wrong person’s house, or the people inside might mistake them for a rival drug crew and shoot them. Because of these drawbacks, in Richards v. Wisconsin, the Court hesitated to create a special “felony drug exception”, exempting officers from the knock-and-announce rule in all drug cases. They explained:

We recognized in Wilson that the knock and announce requirement could give way “under circumstances presenting a threat of physical violence,” or “where police officers have reason to believe that evidence would likely be destroyed if advance notice were given . It is indisputable that felony drug investigations may frequently involve both of these circumstances. . . But creating exceptions to the knock and announce rule based on the “culture” surrounding a general category of criminal behavior presents at least two serious concerns.

First, the exception contains considerable over generalization. . . not every drug investigation will pose these risks to a substantial degree. For example, a search could be conducted at a time when the only individuals present in a residence have no connection with the drug activity and thus will be unlikely to threaten officers or destroy evidence.

Second. . . the reasons for creating an exception in one category can, relatively easily, be applied to others. . . If a per se exception were allowed for each category of criminal investigation that included a considerable–albeit hypothetical–risk of danger to officers or destruction of evidence, the knock and announce element of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement would be meaningless.

J. Stevens (Op. Ct.) Richards v. Wisconsin (1997)

But it’s unclear who the real winner in Richards was. Even though the Court refused to create a blanket exception, the opinion did open the door to special circumstances in which the police might decide not to knock (because of exigent circumstances.) Many of these situations overlap with the exception that the state of Wisconsin sought (and didn’t get.) So we were left with police discretion as to whether to knock and announce or not.

Soon enough, this developed into a practice in which officers anticipated the need to enter without knocking and asked for a carte blanche from the magistrate signing the warrant to do so (so as to cover their asses in case their judgment is questioned at a later date)–and that in itself invited all kinds of shenanigans, such as inventing nonexistent informants to obtain the warrants.

The final blow to the knock-and-announce rule came in Hudson v. Michigan. The main remedy in cases in which the police obtain evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment is, typically, the suppression of the evidence under the exclusionary rule: the prosecution can’t use it in their case-in-chief. But gradually, the post-Warren courts saw this as a steep price to pay: “the criminal goes free because the constable has blundered.” Because of that, in Hudson, the Court introduced a cost-benefit analysis: The evidence will only be suppressed if the benefit of deterring the police from the undesired behavior exceeds the cost of allowing a guilty defendant to “walk away on a technicality.” Hudson involved a situation in which the police did not knock and announce, and Justice Scalia took the exclusionary rule of the table, arguing that it was not the right fit. While the knock-and announce rule, he said, protected the right of people to be calm and collected when answering the door, it had “never protected. . . one’s interest in preventing the government from seeing or taking evidence described in a warrant. Since the interests that were violated in this case have nothing to do with the seizure of the evidence, the exclusionary rule is inapplicable.” Justice Scalia proceeded to say that the exclusionary rule is no longer necessary:

Another development over the past half-century that deters civil-rights violations is the increasing professionalism of police forces, including a new emphasis on internal police discipline. Even as long ago as 1980 we felt it proper to “assume” that unlawful police behavior would “be dealt with appropriately” by the authorities, but we now have increasing evidence that police forces across the United States take the constitutional rights of citizens seriously. There have been “wide-ranging reforms in the education, training, and supervision of police officers.” Numerous sources are now available to teach officers and their supervisors what is required of them under this Court’s cases, how to respect constitutional guarantees in various situations, and how to craft an effective regime for internal discipline. Failure to teach and enforce constitutional requirements exposes municipalities to financial liability. Moreover, modern police forces are staffed with professionals; it is not credible to assert that internal discipline, which can limit successful careers, will not have a deterrent effect. There is also evidence that the increasing use of various forms of citizen review can enhance police accountability.

This turns out to be untrue. Not only do structural police reforms have mixed outcomes at best, monetary damages are completely meaningless because police officers are indemnified and police departments insured to the hilt. But the real outrage about this decision is the logic that the exclusionary rule has excelled so much in educating police officers about the rights and wrongs of the Fourth Amendment that it’s not necessary anymore. To support this argument, Scalia cited Samuel Walker’s book Taming the System, which showed that the exclusionary rule was an essential component in the reduction of constitutional violations. When Walker heard that Scalia cited his book, he was incensed, and wrote a hilarious-but-irate op-ed in the L.A. Times, titled, “Thanks for Nothing, Nino.” Walker explains:

[Scalila] twisted my main argument to reach a conclusion the exact opposite of what I spelled out in this and other studies.

My argument, based on the historical evidence of the last 40 years, is that the Warren court in the 1960s played a pivotal role in stimulating these reforms. For more than 100 years, police departments had failed to curb misuse of authority by officers on the street while the courts took a hands-off attitude. The Warren court’s interventions (Mapp and Miranda being the most famous) set new standards for lawful conduct, forcing the police to reform and strengthening community demands for curbs on abuse.

Scalia’s opinion suggests that the results I highlighted have sufficiently removed the need for an exclusionary rule to act as a judicial-branch watchdog over the police. I have never said or even suggested such a thing. To the contrary, I have argued that the results reinforce the Supreme Court’s continuing importance in defining constitutional protections for individual rights and requiring the appropriate remedies for violations, including the exclusion of evidence.

The ideal approach is for the court to join the other branches of government in a multipronged mix of remedies for police misconduct: judicially mandated exclusionary rules, legislation to give citizens oversight of police and administrative reforms in training and supervision. No single remedy is sufficient to this very important task. Hudson marks a dangerous step backward in removing a crucial component of that mix.

Samuel Walker, “Thanks for Nothing, Nino,” Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2006

There are now numerous efforts, through litigation and legislation, to outlaw no-knock warrants at the state level. But doing this will not remove the problem. All it will do is forbid the judge from kosherizing the police decision to enter without knocking–a decision that they will still be allowed to make, with no consequences, under Hudson v. Michigan. As long as the Supreme Court does not overturn this decision, the discretion in the field will still be available–and given the post-Warren Courts’ tendency to give officers in the field, making decisions based on “totality of the circumstances”, the benefit of the doubt, the problem will not go away. Not only is Breonna Taylor’s death the fault of the entire policing profession, it is also the fault of the Supreme Court’s lopsided cost-benefit analysis, and I dread to think about the people who will continue to pay the price for these misguided practices.

It’s Not Over: Alarming Rise in New Cases in CDCR

To read CDCR’s response briefs in the Marin cases and in Von Staich, you could think that the pandemic is dwindling in prison. The opposite is true: the last two weeks have seen a spike in new COVID-19 cases in CDCR. The graph above is based on the daily CDCR data (Chad Goerzen and I code them daily.)

Here are a few other things we’ve learned:

  • Overall number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic stands now at 13,155 – nearly 14% of the total institution population, which as of Wednesday of last week was 95,886. This is a bit misleading, as some of the people who became infected have been released. But even with the higher population before the releases, this is a shocking percentage. By comparison, the rate of all-time infections for the entire state is 2009 per 100,000 people (approximately 2%). People in prison have been seven times as likely as people in the state to contract COVID.
  • COVID-19 is more lethal in prison than outside prison. Statewide, we’ve had 38 deaths per 100,000 people; in CDCR, more than twice that: 60 deaths for slightly less than 100,000 people. And this is before adjusting for age.
  • If you look only at the new spike in cases in the last 14 days, infection rates are even worse in prison. In CDCR facilities, it’s 17.6 per 1,000 people; in CA, it’s 1.3 per 1,000. For reference, at its peak, the CA infection rate was 3.3 per 1,000.
  • Generally speaking: My mentor and friend Malcolm Feeley made a shocking rough calculation. If we totaled up the population in archipelago of America’s prisons and considered them a country, both the number and rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths would place this “prison country” in the top twenty five percent of all countries in the world in terms of both absolute number of cases and deaths, and rate of deaths.  By Malcolm’s rough count, this would put the “prison country” at around number 53 in over 200 countries.

We’ve also learned where the worst new outbreaks are:

  • FSP (Sacramento) – 585 new cases in 14 days
  • ASP (Kings) – 260 new cases in 14 days
  • CRC (Riverside) – 269 new cases in 14 days
  • CVSP (Riverside) – 182 new cases in 14 days
  • SATF (Kings) – 148 new cases in 14 days
  • VSP (Madera) – 77 new cases in 14 days

As you can see, this clusters mostly around Kings and Riverside Counties, which are, respectively, #2 and #14 in new cases per the L.A. Times counter (whether there’s a correlation, and what the timing is like, is a complicated question.) The biggest spike in new cases is in Imperial county; we should note that Riverside County prisons are located almost on the border with Imperial county.

This trend is more generalizable. Here’s a snapshot of our coded data, in order of outbreak seriousness in counties. You’ll see a correlation, to the tune of 0.588 (pretty good!) between outbreak in the county and an outbreak at a prison located either in the county or in a neighboring county near the county border.

As I’ve explained before, we’re not telling an airtight causal story here. All we are doing is dispelling the notion that locking people up is somehow keeping the surrounding county safe.

Explainer on Politics of Replacing Justice Ginsburg

Millions of people grieve the loss of legal giant Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg today and appreciate her enormous contributions to fairness and equality. I would have loved to discuss Justice Ginsburg’s legacy in criminal justice decisions (I’m planning to do that in class on Monday) but apparently we don’t get a second to mourn and respect, because we’ve already been thrown into an imbroglio of political machinations and cost-benefit tactics. Today I did an explainer with Manny Yekutiel of Manny’s, which I’m happy to share in case it is useful.

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.

How Bar Applicants with Criminal Records Experience the Moral Character Determination

My paper “Moral Character: Making Sense of the Experiences of Bar Applicants with Criminal Records” is out from the Manitoba Law Journal. It is an interview-based study of bar applicants, bar officials, and ethics attorneys, and the way they experience and process their pasts and presents via the California Bar’s moral character determination. The journal is open source, so you’re all welcome to read the full thing (which mostly speaks through my interviewees’ voices) but for those pressed for time, here are just a few of my findings:

  1. The most dominant emotion that arose in the interviews was shame, stemming from the juxtaposition of my interviewee’s pasts and their elite professional futures. My interviewees, most of whom had managed to
    morph their self-identity to conform to their new status as candidates for the legal profession, were reduced by the process into their former shoes as convicts and/or prisoners.
  2. The bar process exacerbated the shame. The stringent requirements of accuracy in disclosure are obtuse to the difficulties of recreating unsettled adolescent pasts, and the choreography of the hearings (no support for the applicants, cross examination styles, etc.) was described by six of my interviewees, without any prompting from me, as “the worst experience of my life.” This, mind you, included people who had done time in jail and/or juvie.
  3. There was a striking contrast between the Bar’s framing of remorse as monolithic and absolute and the much more complex ways in which people described their feelings about their past crimes. The certainty that bar officials can detect insincerity is not borne by empirical science, which casts very serious doubt on anyone’s ability to tell true from false remorse. Moreover, the mediocre community theater aspect of the hearings does not leave room for people to discuss their experiences with true insight and nuance, and they know this, and it frustrates them. Moreover, cultural performance/presentation stands in the way of communicating remorse in a way that will be properly “read” by officers of a largely white, elite, male profession.
  4. The demographic effects of professional exclusion from the bar are largely unknown because, until recently, the bar didn’t even collect data on the race/class of people and how they fared in the moral character process (we do have evidence that black male lawyers are significantly discriminated against in disciplinary proceedings.) White applicants felt that their deviance and alienation was unseen because it wasn’t part of the usual demographics boxes; applicants of color felt that they were doubly deviant and “otherized.”
  5. There is a lot of hubris, which echoes the hubris I found when I studied parole hearing, in the assumption that the key to rehabilitation is the performance of psychic excavation in front of a panel of strangers. This is nonsense from a research standpoint. We know that rehabilitation is what rehabilitation does: people who are holding down jobs and going through law school in good standing are great prospects for professional success–and they don’t necessarily overlap with people who give a convincingly weepy performance in front of 4-7 people in suits. Specifically, the bar ignores established, robust findings from life-course criminology according to which just going through and finishing law school is in itself a strong indicator of desistance.
  6. The bar frequently diagnoses substance abuse issues and forces people through substance abuse programs. The interviewees themselves report that they found some value in the programs even though they didn’t actually have a substance abuse problem. I don’t know whether this reflects people in denial about their problems, overcautiousness on the part of the bar, or both.
  7. Even as people experience joy and relief at their eventual admission to the bar, the experience continues to haunt them and adds stress to their professional and personal lives. The extent to which people are open about their backgrounds after their successful admission to the bar varies widely, with public interest lawyers much more open and corporate lawyers much more circumspect.
  8. What the bar views as uniformly negative baggage is actually a rich and important asset to the profession. My interviewees talked about their experiences as a catalyst for their decision to pursue justice for clients and about their deep understandings of injustice and oppression. But treating criminal records as liabilities, rather than resources, we are missing on an important opportunity to make the bar more receptive and service-oriented to clients who would greatly benefit from their lawyers’ empathy and compassion, through professional diversification beyond the usual census boxes and through education of the profession as a whole.
  9. Even though my interviewees regarded their law schools–and especially their faculty–as sources of empowerment and good advice, there’s more law schools can do. We can alert people, in law school application forms, that accuracy in describing their backgrounds is key to being regarded as honest and forthright later, in the bar admission process. We can give people access to their admissions package when they prep for the moral character. And we can devote a smidgeon of the immense energy we’ve devoted to lowering the bar passage rate to advocating for our students with criminal records.

Uncomfortable Telling your Child that Meat Comes from Animals? Don’t Eat Animals

I try to be patient with the travails of parenting. Trust me, I have plenty of my own. But massive hypocrisies get my last nerve. See this parenting column from Slate:

Our sweet, funny, VERY sensitive just-turned 4-year-old daughter loves animals—and is right on the verge of figuring out where the meat we eat comes from. To be clear, we have never deliberately hidden this from her, but she has never expressly asked about it, and there’s no good way to randomly segue into “By the way, your dinner used to be alive.” She avoids eating chicken and turkey, and we’ve realized this might be because they’re called “chicken” and “turkey.” She does eat (with great joy) meats that don’t have the same name as their source animals, such as bacon, steak, and pot roast, but it’s clear from her comments that she doesn’t have a lock on what they’re made of. (“Dad, wouldn’t it be funny if bacon came from a pig like the ones that oink?!”) At some point soon, the jig will surely be up, and it is not unlikely there will be a lot of tears, some deep existential horror, and feelings of betrayal directed at us. If that’s the case, she’s also going to feel sad and mad about her conflicting feelings about whether to eat some of her favorite foods or not. How can we address this honestly while minimizing her distress? It seems like we should be preemptive about it, but how do we bring it up? For the record, we will tell her about vegetarianism and would be happy to stop feeding her meat if she asked (while ensuring that she gets enough protein and other nutrients, of course). We also do make an effort to purchase cruelty-free meat whenever possible, but I’m not sure that “Hey, the pig had a pretty nice life until someone killed it so we could have it for breakfast” is going to impress her.

And see the “great” advice to facilitate the hypocrisy:

I know I don’t have to tell you not to dismiss her feelings when she discovers the truth about her meals. I do urge you to be truthful with her about how you feel about eating meat. I think being honest with our kids, always, is foundational to being good parents.

The bottom line, though, is that you can’t really minimize her distress, and, as much as we want to protect our children from pain and sorrow and conflict, we shouldn’t protect them from all pain and sorrow and conflict. If we do, they’ll never learn the coping skills all people must develop to deal with these feelings. The best thing you can do is sympathize with her and be supportive. If she tells you she is going to be a vegetarian from now on, talk to her about how you’ll have to make sure her nutritional needs are met by finding other sources of protein that she likes eating. (This could be a fun project, trying new foods and cooking together. I know it was for us.) Your job as a loving parent in this situation, I believe, is to support her decision, whether it lasts a few days, weeks, years, or forever.

I remember this coming up, with some nervous chuckles, in parenting groups I attended when Rio was little: people embarrassed when their kids pointed out to them that they use the same word for the nuggets they are served and for the cute farm animal (“chicken.”) A breathtaking variant is the person who doesn’t like the animals on their plate to look like what they are, which is animals.

Conflicted? Embarrassed? Giggling about your own hypocrisy? Facing your child’s tears upon learning that you are participating in something horrific for animals and for the planet? Go no further! I have some advice to offer you, offered in all caps for those who need special clarity:





That’s fucking it.

A few recommendations for books to read with your child:

Essential viewing for you:

Also, enough already with the fucking protein. It’s not the struggle/challenge that people make it out to be. Kids need 1-1.5 g protein for every 2 lbs of weight. If you feed them good food, they are getting enough protein. Kids all over the world happily eat beans and tofu and their parents don’t fret about protein. Why don’t the animal eaters ever ask themselves about vitamins and fiber?

Thanks for listening to my TED talk.

Help Floridians Regain the Right to Vote

Florida is one of only four states in which people with felony convictions permanently lose their right to vote. In November 2018, Floridians sought to change this by passing Amendment 4 by a majority of %64.55. Amendment 4 would automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation.

Since the passage of Amendment 4, politicians have piled challenge upon challenge in the way of people seeking the right to vote. The latest hurdle came today, when the 11th Circuit ruled en banc that Florida may require people with a past felony conviction to pay off all fines and fees before they can get their right to vote back–even if they cannot afford to do so.

The only explanation I can find for this is an entitlement effect. I grew up in a country in which everyone, even people doing time in prison at the time of the election, can vote, and it would never occur to me that it’s possible or fair to do otherwise. But I suspect that what is at work here is an insidious version of the entitlement effect: They feel comfortable doing this because their point of departure is lifetime disenfranchisement. To them, it’s not about giving people what every citizen has and should have–it’s about gifting people a privilege they haven’t had in a long time.

We can do something about this. Hop on this website and plonk a few shekels to help your fellow Americans – Floridians who want to participate in our democracy and are being thwarted by politicians and courts – vote in the upcoming election. It’s good for Florida, it’s good for racial and economic justice, and it’s good for all of us, because you know that winning Florida is crucial in this election. According to Jeff Manza and Chris Uggen, at least one presidential election (now two, likely) and eight congressional ones would have gone the other way if people with felony convictions could vote. Prove them right by changing history and expanding democracy.

Gov. Newsom Clears Path for Incarcerated Firefighters to Work as Firefighters upon Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:Contact: Governor’s Press Office
Friday, September 11, 2020(916) 445-4571

Governor Newsom Signs Bill Eliminating Barriers that Block Former Inmate Fire Crews from Becoming Career Firefighters After Serving their Sentences

OROVILLE – At the site of the North Complex Fire today, Governor Newsom signed AB 2147, a bill that eliminates barriers that prevent former inmate fire crews from pursuing a career as a firefighter once they served their time. Authored by Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, the bill allows nonviolent offenders who have fought fires as members of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s fire camps to have their records expunged, paving the way for individuals leaving fire camps to seek meaningful employment and further training.

“This legislation rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state, and I would like to thank the Legislature for passing this bill,” said Governor Newsom.

“Signing AB 2147 into law is about giving second chances. To correct is to right a wrong;  to rehabilitate is to restore,” said Assemblymember Gomez Reyes. “Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”

Despite their experience and qualifications, many formerly incarcerated firefighters struggle to obtain licenses and employment due to their criminal records. Under AB 2147, formerly incarcerated individuals can file a petition in county court to expunge their records and waive parole time, which will open career pathways in emergency response and a variety of other disciplines.