BSCC to Consider Offering $15 Million in COVID-19 Assistance to CDCR

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the “known unknowns”: the situation in county jails. I don’t think that the cloud of ignorance over infections, illnesses, and deaths in hundreds of facilities (some as big as prisons) is coincidental. I’ve already mentioned the concept of agnotology–the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data–and I think that, when problems are prioritized, knowledge about them is also gathered and shared.

We have an opportunity to press the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) for some answers, because they have just announced an emergency meeting scheduled for this Thursday, July 16 at 10:00 a.m. At the meeting they plan to decide whether to give $15 million of the total $58.6 million of federal Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding (CESF) to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to “quickly leverage existing contracts that can provide emergency housing” for individuals being released from state prison due to COVID-19. You can find the full proposal here; the gist of it is as follows:

In May, the BSCC’s CESF application for $58.5 million was approved. In June, the BSCC launched a dedicated CESF email address to seek input on how the funds should be used, established a 30-day public comment period that concluded July 12, and staff committed to sharing those results with the Board at the September Board meeting. In the weeks following the June Board meeting, however, the Administration identified an urgent need to provide housing to individuals being released from CDCR due to COVID-19. As many as 8,000 individuals with less than a year left on their sentences could be eligible for release by the end of August. There is an immediate need for housing to help these people with successful reentry. The Administration has requested a portion of the federal grant to meet those emergency needs.

A CESF award would allow CDCR to immediately leverage existing contracts through the Specialized Treatment for Optimized Programming (STOP) to help with emergency housing needs. The STOP system operates in six regional areas statewide, with offices in LA, San Diego, Sacramento, Marin, San Bernardino and Fresno. Each provider contracts to provide step-down services ranging from residential treatment to recovery and reentry housing at the local level. The proposed funding would provide emergency housing and could cover costs associated with increasing housing capacity and providing quality assurance of housing to ensure safe housing standards are implemented.

The Board will have the opportunity to consider the public comment received to determine priorities for the remaining $41.7 million and take further action at the September meeting. Sixty-seven public comments have been received to date from community based organizations, local governments (both city and county), concerned citizens, public and private organizations, law enforcement, and the faith-based community.

This, in itself, might be a good thing–the money will be sorely needed to cushion the path of so many folks who have been incarcerated in an environment that is an anathema to rehabilitation as they make their first steps in a horrible economy. But we must also be mindful of the fact that we don’t actually know what the situation is in jails, and to what extent these funds are needed to put out local COVID fires on the county level. In any case, if you want to chime in and make your opinions known at the meeting tomorrow, here’s all the info you need to attend the emergency meeting. I’m not sure I can make it, but if I could, my priority would be to comment on the fact that BSCC must be the “responsible adult” and liaise between the counties to create a uniform, informative reporting platform for all the jails in California. We cannot solve a problem we know so little about.

Important postscript: The last few weeks have made the question of school reopening into yet another partisan screeching war lacking any nuance. While we have proof (not unambiguous, because this virus is a shapeshifter when it comes to data) that indiscriminate school reopening without social distancing measures can be dangerous, we also have proof that early education centers (daycares and preschools) that have rigorous sanitation and distancing protocols in place have not contributed to the spikes we are seeing (in fact, many of them were operating for months, for children of first responders, without seeing positive infections.) The most shrill, uncompromising voices for not opening schools come from what some might consider “my” side of the political map, and almost without exception from people who (1) don’t have kids (2) don’t teach kids and (3) don’t work in K-12 school administration. I’m noticing that these posts, invariably strewn with expletives about the selfishness of opening schools, are harvesting “likes” aplenty, because apparently wanting children to be properly educated and socialized, regardless of their class or wealth, is suddenly no longer a progressive priority, and wanting abuse, neglect, and household poverty to be detected and addressed is tantamount to being a loathsome Trumper. There are many good and knowledgeable people in school administration–some of them are good friends of mine–and they report so much uncertainty and efforts to do the right thing, precisely because they are exposed to the downsides of multiple options. There’s complicated choreography and architecture and proper messaging that needs to be done. I don’t have the answer to the difficult questions (and anyone who claims they have the perfect solution is either lying or ignorant), but I will tell you this: everything you’ve seen from me in the last three weeksTV appearances, radio appearances, newspaper stories, dozens of posts with primary data analysis, this morning’s op-ed in the Chronicle, the open letter, the press conference speech–everything that I have done to try and save lives behind bars–has been brought to you by my son’s preschool, which has been open now for three weeks, and thank goodness for that. To their great credit, they took on an enormous amount of work and created sanitation protocols, symptom checking lines, pick-up and drop-off routines, and rigorous cohorting, so that I can write this post and you can read it. Working parents are part of the economy and part of the community. When we are full-time caregivers for our children, we are excluded from contributing to our communities in other ways. You might want to think of that and square the struggle to stop the prison outbreak with other progressive sensibilities before you exhort your local government to make decisions that lack nuance, ignore externalities (to teachers as well as students and families.) For more on why it is important to say this, read here.

Upcoming Cheap on Crime Appearance at Manny’s

Hello Everyone,

I’m writing to invite you to an upcoming talk at Manny’s, the new café/civic engagement center in San Francisco (Valencia and 16th). 

When: April 9, 7:30pm-9pm
Where: Manny’s, 3092 16th Street, San Francisco
What: Cheap on Crime talk, with a special emphasis on the Trump Administration era. A little abstract:

Literature on “late mass incarceration” observed a contraction of the carceral state, with varying opinions as to its causes and various degrees of optimism about its potential. But even optimistic commentators were taken aback by the Trump-Sessions Administration’s criminal justice rhetoric. This paper maps out the extent to which federal, state and local actions in the age of Trump have reversed the promising trends to shrink the criminal justice apparatus, focusing on federal legislation, continued state and local reform, and the role of criminal justice in 2020 presidential campaigns. In this talk, I argue that the overall salutary trends from 2008 onward have slowed down in some respects, but continued on in others, and that advocacy concerns should focus on particular areas of the criminal justice apparatus, notably the intersection of crime and immigration and the issue of violent crime.

Come in your thousands and bring friends!

Barr v. Sessions: A Return to Cheap on Crime?

A short while ago I posted about the bipartisan enactment of the First Step Act, a bipartisan compromise bill offering evidence-based rehabilitation programming and early releases for nonviolent drug offenders. Harkening back to the pre-Trump era of cooperation, the animus behind this law is pragmatic, but I does have some important humanitarian provisions, such as the categorical prohibition of shackling pregnant women or women who have just given birth.

William Barr’s confirmation hearings yielded many interesting insights into his future as Attorney General. For me, one interesting moment was when Chuck Grassley (!!!) pressed Barr on his tough-on-crime record. The Brennan Center reports:

“Will you commit to fully implementing the FIRST STEP Act?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley, a key champion of the law. 

“Yes, senator,” Barr responded. Barr said that when he was last attorney general in the early 1990s, the violent crime rate was high and prison sentences were short. The system had broken down, he said. Barr argued that the growth of the prison population helped bring crime down since then, something the Brennan Center strongly disputes. But he acknowledged that times have changed. 

“I have no problem with the approach of reforming the prison structure and I will faithfully implement the law.”

This excerpt is a real gem. First, note that the question comes from Grassley, not usually who you’d think of as a champion for the oppressed. Second, note that Barr does not just say he’ll uphold the law, but actually goes into the merits of the law and essentially makes the argument that times have changed.

As the Brennan Center reports elsewhere, Barr is no bleeding heart prison reformer himself. The exchange between him and Grassley is an exchange between two Republicans, which confirms that much of the spirit of Cheap and Crime is alive and well.

This makes Sessions’ tenure as Attorney General even more interesting as an outlier. When touring with Cheap on Crime, I met Vikrant Reddy, an interesting and sharp-minded thinker about criminal justice reform on the right side of the political map. When we met, Reddy was working for Right on Crime, a conservative think tank about which I wrote extensively in the book. Right on Crime was making the argument that economic sustainability and small government principles required trimming the criminal justice apparatus, calling a truce on the war on drugs, and considering programs for reducing imprisonment. He has since then changed affiliations and now works for the Koch institute as a Senior Fellow. When we met, I asked Reddy what he thought about the diversity of opinion about criminal justice within the Republican Party. He said something that I found very interesting.

There was a generational gap, Reddy explained, between “old-skool” Republicans, who came of age politically during the era of high crime rates between the 1960s and 1980s, and the newer generation of conservative politicians, who were representing constituencies that experienced much safer streets and communities. The latter group was much more open to political compromise, if only for the sake of financial prudence.

Sessions is definitely a card-carrying member of the former group of politicians. In his confirmation hearings, he referred to marijuana smokers as “bad people”, an approach woefully out of touch not only with empirical research but with public opinion across the political spectrum. In an era of reasonable Republicans invested in reform, the Trump administration had to look long and hard for the only war-on-drugs dinosaur left in the Republican Party, and in Sessions, they found this rare and dying breed, to the detriment of us all: Sessions proceeded immediately to instruct federal prosecutors  to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy, which the prosecutors themselves called him to recant.  He revoked the Obama-era moratorium on the use of private prisons and took part in various other nefarious criminal justice initiatives that could not be justified by humanism or by efficiency.

What is interesting about Barr is that he is not a younger politician. His record on criminal justice from the early days is appalling. And nonetheless, he has been able to look around him, notice that the world has changed, and assure Grassley that criminal justice reformers will find him cooperative and willing to listen to reason. I find a glimmer of hope in this. Old punitive dogs can, and do, learn new tricks sometimes.

Thanks to Jodi Short for our conversation about this.

From “Nothing Works” to “Something Works”

This morning, the Guardian is covering a great vocational program in Southern California called Manifest Works, “an immersive workforce development and job placement organization; we turn real-world experience into learning opportunities for those impacted by foster care, homelessness, and incarceration.” From the Guardian story:

One of the most common entry points into the entertainment industry is as a production assistant, or PA. The PA might get coffee, run electrical cords, or break down the set; the job’s chameleonic nature makes it a behind-the-scenes linchpin. Manifest Works, a not-for-profit based in Los Angeles, ties the hustle of a PA job to its training program for people affected by incarceration, homelessness and foster care. Some participants had been out of prison as little as three months.

Williams spoke softly and deliberately, rocking back and forth in his crisp white sneakers. He applied to the program after an alum recommended him. He was doing security before that. “Not what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “This is giving me an opportunity to pursue something closer to what I wanted for myself.”

He still wasn’t sure what on-set role he’d like most. “Everybody wants to be the director,” he said, knowingly.

California, as the country’s most populous state, has one of its highest prison populations, and the highest population of people on probation or parole. It is also home to the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry.

A 2017 study in the Economic Journal evaluated the career trajectories of 1.7 million people released from California prisons between 1993 and 2008, and concluded that, while employment curbs recidivism among the released, the quality of opportunities may be more important than the quantity available.

Sixty-three people have completed the Manifest Works program since it began in fall 2014. Many have established steady freelance careers doing production work. No alum has gone back to prison.

What do they mean by “quality of opportunities?” The study referred to in the Guardian story is by Kevin Schnepel, an economist from the University of Sydney and you can find it here. The abstract reads:

I estimate the impact of employment opportunities on recidivism among 1.7 million offenders released from a California prison between 1993 and 2008. The institutional structure of the California criminal justice system as well as location, skill, and industry-specific job accession data provide a unique framework for identifying a causal effect of job availability on criminal behaviour. I find that increases in construction and manufacturing opportunities at the time of release are associated with significant reductions in recidivism. Other types of opportunities, including those characterised by lower wages that are typically accessible to individuals with criminal records, do not influence recidivism.

This kind of careful study is exactly what we need to counter the despair of the “nothing works” legacy. Because of the dramatic cuts to rehabilitation and vocational programs, which I discuss in Cheap on Crime, opportunities in California prisons really vary. San Quentin benefits from its proximity to the Bay Area, which guarantees an influx of volunteers–but are they programs they offer really effective? More importantly, why are opportunities in construction and manufacturing more important in curbing recidivism than opportunities in other fields, such as service?

A few things come to mind: construction and manufacturing are opportunities that structure one’s day in addition to providing an income. It’s easier to stay the course when you have to be somewhere and perform a job that shows tangible improvement (i.e., putting together a kitchen or producing X gadgets.) They are also jobs that, in the right setting, can provide camaraderie, and have fairly strong unions. But who knows if this is true? To understand why some job opportunities are more effective, we’d need to interview formerly incarcerated folks who are employed in these jobs and ask them about their day and their thoughts about this.

In any case, it’s important for prisons to follow up on studies such as Schnepel’s and on the success of programs such as Manifest Works. Resources are limited, and they need to be invested where they’d yield real results.