Judicial Overhaul in Israel – The End of Democracy?

The news from Israel are unprecedented – the whole country is ablaze with protests against Netanyahu’s government’s plan to reform the judicial system. Netanyahu announced a pause, but the bill is still on the Knesset’s agenda for after the High Holidays, and this is a good time for English-speaking folks to figure out what is happening. So, I’ve uploaded a lecturette I created that walks you through the basics of this serious civil conflict.

I’m also organizing two events: a lecture at UCLSF on Thursday at 12:30 and a public event with colleagues and friends at Manny’s on Monday, 4/3, at 7:30. If you want to learn more about the situation.

Please, treat the Israelis and Palestinians around you with extra kindness this week. It is hard to be away from family and friends when hundreds of thousands of people are out in the streets, facing violent government-sponsored goons and Ben Gvir’s oppressive police (the cops are throwing stun grenades on protesters and hosing them from trucks.) It is also very hard for our Palestinian friends who face even more violent provocations under this horrendous government (anyone who thinks their situation is already at its worst and the government makes no difference is seriously deluded.) And please consider how you can help the fight against U.S.-based think tank Kohelet Policy Forum, which is puppeteering and funding this illiberal government from here.

Lifting at Home

A few months ago I mentioned my new commitment to strength training, which has since taken shape with the help of my fantastic coach, Celeste St. Pierre. Celeste knows a lot about triathlons and about swimming, and, like me, she is a disciple of the excellent Stacy Sims. Sims’ work on perimenopausal and menopausal athletes emphasizes the importance of building muscle and bone at an age in which we start losing both very quickly, and offers no-nonsense advice on diet, supplements, and training, which focuses on shorter and more explosive workouts, including sprints, plyometrics, and lifting heavy. Celeste and I have been working on a weekly schedule that combines my love for endurance/cardio things with my newfound passion for lifting, so this is what my week looks like, fitness-wise:

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays: I lift, swim, and roll/stretch. On Mondays and Wednesdays I typically use the Berkeley facilities – their weight room is terrific and the Spieker Pool brings back grad school memories. If I really want a treat, I swim at the Golden Bear pool. On Fridays I lift at home and swim at Balboa Pool or at Garfield Pool and, if I have time, I take a yoga class at Yoga Flow.

Tuesdays and Thursdays: I do some form of strength (typically abs and a leg series that includes plyometrics and jump-rope) at home, followed by a sprint/interval run/walk.

On Saturday, which is my official recovery day, I take a pilates class at Synced Pilates with the fantastic Sue Free.

On Sunday I do something long – either a long run followed by boot camp in my neighborhood or a brick workout (swim followed by run.)

On all these days I also commute on my cargo e-bike, which adds some cardio to my day.

For more than half my week, several of my workouts happen at home, and over the years, with Chad’s help, I’ve constructed a fabulous little workout corner that has pretty much everything I need. I have a yoga wall, which I bought used during my days of teaching fitness at Elevate Group Fitness; I can use it with springs or with TRX straps, and I have a belt that allows me to go upside down and remember my Antigravity days (it’s also great for those of us with back afflictions.) I also have quite a collection of dumbbells, some of them adjustable, a little barbell that fits my space with some plates, and a foldable bench for bench pressing. The weighted balls are nice to use, as are a few kettlebells that I swing around when I do high-intensity interval work. I have some resistance bands around, which I also take with me if I’m at a hotel for a few days. Music is always an essential part of this routine.

I may outgrow the weights I have at some point, but I’m coming to realize that gaining muscle is a function of various different types of lifting: powerlifting heavy weights through compound lifts and burnout exercises with more moderate weights. I’m already seeing some success (newbie gains are so encouraging!) and plan to continue gain as much muscle as I can to combat perimenopause and its insidious effects on fitness. Honestly, I’m not sure whether workouts are becoming more ferocious or I’m getting older or both. But this approach of shorter, more intense and more varied workouts, combined with a lot of stretching, rolling, and recovery, is working quite well for me at this point, and it might fit those of you who are entering your forties, fifties, and beyond.

Not Guilty Verdict in Foster Farms Trial!

What a day of good news! First, we hear winds of reform at San Quentin. Then, Chad Goerzen and I receive word that FESTER has been approved for publication by the UC Press Editorial Committee (and coming to a bookstore near you in January 2024.) And then, I hear the verdict in the Foster Farms trial: NOT GUILTY!

As explained in this Los Angeles Times story by Christian Martinez, two activists, Alexandra Paul and Alicia Santurio, faced misdemeanor charges for rescuing two chickens, Ethan and Jax, from a truck, moments before they were brought to a slaughterhouse. This video depicts the rescue:

This is the second time that activists rescuing animals prevail in criminal courts. I’ll know more about the trial later next week, though I do know that a legal opinion I wrote in 2018 played a role. When I learn more about the legal issues, I’ll post a follow-up. For now, good news all around. Saving animals is not a crime!

Newsom Announces Quentin “Scandinavian” Revamp

Big news regarding San Quentin today: Gov. Newsom announced a complete reorganization of San Quentin as a rehabilitation and training center, along the lines of Scandinavian prisons. Nigel Duara of CalMatters reports:

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to say that the state will spend $20 million to begin the reorganization of San Quentin State Prison from an institution that houses 3,300 incarcerated people at a high-security site on the San Francisco Bay to a “center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime.”  

The new plan would complete the closing of death row and shut a Prison Industry Authority warehouse. The facility would be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. 

Some of the larger questions about the reorganization will remain unanswered until the prison’s advisory committee decides them, including which imprisoned people are eligible for the rehabilitation center. 

The new facility will also offer job training, according to the governor’s office, though the advisory committee will have to decide for which jobs inmates will be trained. In prisons in other states that emphasize vocational training, the jobs include plumbing and long-haul trucking. 

The plan for the new facility is modeled on prisons in Scandinavian countries, including Norway, which significantly improved its rate of recidivism from 60%-70% in the 1980s to about 20% today when it began to allow prisoners more freedom and focused its prisons on rehabilitation. 

In those prisons, incarcerated people can wear their own clothes, cook their own food and have relative freedom of movement within the prison walls. That model has taken root in states as disparate as deep-blue Connecticut and deep-red North Dakota. 

Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian facilities is nothing new, and in fact, continues a trend that AMEND SF have begun in partnership with Norwegian prisons. Here’s an interesting report on the CDCR website about a trip some custodial staff took to Norway and what they learned from it. They’ve also brought Norwegian custodial staff to CDCR and to prisons in Washington State to inspire improvements in correctional culture.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all is peachy in Scandinavian criminal justice. In her book Nordic Nationalism, Vanessa Barker highlights the price of preserving a humanist welfare state–gatekeeping against immigrants. Keramet Reiter, Lori Sexton and Jennifer Sumner also wonder about the extent to which the humane and rehabilitative treatment of prisoners in Denmark can be imported to the United States given the difference in political cultures. And, in their fieldwork, they ask and answer some complicated questions about the Danish prison experience:

First, we find that harsh punishment can and does exist in Danish prisons.They are not, after all, uniformly humane; there are scratches in the “polished glass” and certainly reasons to resent the system. Second, the “responsibilization,”which Larson describes (and which, we argue, is fundamental to modern incarceration), can only be enacted through staff and institutional frameworks, which necessarily impose limits on individual freedoms. The particular ways that prisoners and staff describe the negotiation of limits—in the context of both open and closed prisons in Denmark—sheds light on the shortcomings of ScandinavianExceptionalism as both a substantive explanatory model as an ideological agenda that other countries might emulate.

A possible answer to this might be–duh, it’s prison. If it takes you out of your ordinary life against your will, it will involve *some* form of suffering. But I think there’s something else we have to ask ourselves.

I suspect that the energy behind the proposed Quentin overhaul–which, if it comes to fruition, will be overall a welcome development–has a lot to do with the Quentin COVID-19 disaster that we cover in FESTER. Yes, the physical plant at Quentin requires special attention because it is dilapidated and almost 200 years old, and basically allows disease to run rampant. But at the same time, it was no wonder that when CDCR tried to address COVID with transfer policies many people fretted and objected. As we explain in the book, Quentin benefits immensely from its location in the Bay Area, near nonprofits, universities, and a plethora of progressive do-gooders. Which means that, if you want to make parole, this is the place that will offer you the kind of programming and positive reports (“chronos”) that the parole board wants to see. People from all over the state jostle to try and get to Quentin. Investing even more in making Quentin a jewel of enlightened incarceration will make these disparities even worse.

This is not a good reason, of course, not to change things. But it is a good reason to rethink how things are going in the system as a whole. Given what we know about the practicality of population reduction–namely, that you could release 50% of CA’s prison population tomorrow without an appreciable rise in crime if the political good will was there–shouldn’t we try to spread the love toward Susanville and Central Valley, where lifers are parched for programming? And wouldn’t it do wonders for everything prison related–health-care, rehabilitation, the works–if there were overall fewer people in the system? If each prison, individually, were populated to 50% of design capacity, and this were the norm, wouldn’t that free up resources and professional attention to invest in Denmark-izing other prisons beyond the Bay Area?

How True Crime Podcasts Diversify and Decentralize the Victims’ Rights Movement

In the last few months, due to a combination of insomnia and long workouts, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, many of which are true-crime themed. Some of these are long-form podcasts, which follow an individual case, and some feature numerous cases, devoting an episode or two to each. This has led me to rethink about the victims’ rights movement and consider how the new landscape of crime podcasting has changed its focus.

The criminological literature tends to paint the emergence of the victims’ rights movement in the U.S. as a monolith: comprised primarily of white, middle- or upper-class people whose relatives were victims of stranger homicide, pioneers in victim advocacy have tended to advocate for harsher punishments, the death penalty, abolition of parole, harsher prison conditions, etc. In some cases, as Josh Page documents in The Toughest Beat, they partnered with California’s prison guards union. In other cases, as I documented in Yesterday’s Monsters, they pioneered victim presence at parole hearings, with the only possible approach being clamoring for parole denial. Our harsh habitual offender laws were largely the product of Mark Klaas’ advocacy, in the aftermath of the murder of his daughter Polly.

And yet, evidence abounds to the fact that victims are not, actually, a monolith. In my partnership with violence prevention coalitions, I’ve met many victims’ families–mostly black, working-class people–who don’t feel at home with this punitive approach, and call for social change instead. We’ve seen some stunning examples of victim forgiveness (even as know-it-alls on the Internet tell them how to mourn their relatives.) It looks like victims of acquaintance homicide, rather than stranger homicide, are less punitive, and that punitiveness declines when victims and offenders encounter each other.

My extensive, though unsystematic, course of listening to true-crime podcasts suggest that today’s true-crime media lends its voice to multiple victim perspectives, incorporating some critiques of punitiveness, excessive policing, and mass incarceration, and rejecting the victim/offender dichotomy that characterized so much of the early days of the movement. Many episodes include frank descriptions of victims’ lives, including their criminal records, drug abuse, and mental illness–not to blame them, or cast a negative light on them, but rather to point out that even people who struggled in their lives deserve to be found and for their fate to be discovered. Many episodes explicitly feature victims of color, victims who worked in the sex industry close to their demise, and victims who had complicated relationships with their suspected killers or abusers. In many of these episodes, the podcasters explicitly point out that they are looking to bring attention to these left-behind cases.

I’m also noticing that the podcasts feature plenty of rage over inappropriate policing, such as the forceful extraction of confessions or sloppy forensic works. This falls in line with much of what I’ve been thinking about recently: that the problem is not so much overpolicing or underpolicing, but rather the wrong kind of policing altogether (more focus on stop-and-frisk harassment and humiliation than on, well, solving crimes.) Podcasters’ voices become emotional not only when describing the victims’ plight, but also when describing harsh incarceration conditions suffered by wrongly convicted suspects. Notably, podcasters feature ambivalence toward family members who (wrongly) maintain that someone cleared of all connection to the crime (through DNA and, say, proof that a confession was coerced) is guilty: they offer empathy but, plainly and politely, state that they disagree.

Because podcasters have to provide what their public is interested in hearing, one can tell that criminal justice issues percolate from public debate into these programs–first among which is the issue of racial justice. I’ve seen extensive coverage of hate crimes, complete with fundraisers for racial justice organizations, and in cases that involve black perpetrators and victims the focus is on getting justice and attention for the victim, rather than punishment for the offender.

Relatedly, these podcasts also choose to feature a variety of different victim voices. Some families, you’ll hear, are staunch supporters of the death penalty, wishing for the murderers of their loved ones to suffer. Others say that they don’t much care about the punishment, but rather about solving the crime. Many podcasts offer no judgment, letting the victims be themselves rather than the world curators of criminal justice. I really appreciate this perspective.

Much of this pluralistic, multifaceted approach relates to the fact that many true crime podcasts focus on unsolved crimes. The main question driving the narrative is what happened, rather than what the sentence will be. This, to a great degree, depoliticizes the content, focusing it on something we presumably all want: to solve serious crime cases.

This change of focus reminds me of something different, but related. In a really interesting, clear-eyed piece, Keith Findley argues that the emergence of innocence as a topic of conversation has, to some extent, broken the impasse between crime control and due process enthusiasts. Even the staunchest crime control proponent would not like to see an innocent person behind bars; even the scrappiest due process advocate wants solid proof of a crime at trial. I think a similar maneuver happens with these podcasts. The idea that we need to find out what happened eclipses the focus on retribution, just deserts, and what happens later, breaking the impasse and finding some depolicitized commonality among victims of unsolved crime.

I may write something about this at a later date; I think that these podcasts offer an interesting counterpart to the usual crime daytime TV, reviewed by Danny LaChance and Paul Kaplan in their book Crimesploitation. Let there be no mistake: true-crime podcasts crimesploit to the Nth degree. But I think they do it in a different way that is worth exploring.