I recently came across an interesting Fourth Circuit case dealing with a situation that is probably quite common: what sort of constitutional protection do people have when their living situation is not clear-cut?
According to Fourth Amendment case law, the police need an arrest warrant in order to arrest A at home (Payton v. New York, 1980), but no warrant is necessary to arrest A in public (U.S. v. Watson, 1976). But there is a third situation: what to do when A is in B’s home? Under Steagald v. United States (1981), an arrest warrant is necessary but not sufficient in this situation: the warrant protects A against unreasonable deprivations of freedom, but does not protect B against the invasion of their premises. So, to arrest A at B’s home, the police need to have two documents in hand: an arrest warrant for A and a search warrant for B’s home (with A listed as the person to be seized therein.)
This is all fine. But it turns out that some people’s situations do not map neatly unto this framework. Enter U.S. v. Brinkley (2020), a 4th Circuit case dealing with a not uncommon person with an outstanding warrant: the international man of mystery with a woman at every port.
Law enforcement agents formed a federal-state task force to execute an outstanding arrest warrant against Brinkley. ATF Agent Murphy received intelligence of two possible addresses for Brinkley, one on, let’s say, Oak Street, and one on, let’s say, Elm Street. Because the water bill for the Oak Street address was in Brinkley’s name, Agent Murphy initially believed that address was Brinkley’s most likely residence.
Detective Stark from the local police force looked on the state law enforcement database and found that Brinkley’s many traffic citations were associated with several addresses. The newest citations referenced the Elm Street address, and Detective Stark reasoned that the older addresses were “probably family addresses” where Brinkley did not reside. He looked up Brinkley’s Facebook page and found pictures of Brinkley’s girlfriend, Marnie, who was also associated with the Elm Street address. Based on this information, Detective Stark concluded that Brinkley and Marnie lived together on Elm Street.
Detective Stark reported his conclusion to Agent Murphy, who came to agree that Brinkley probably resided in the Elm Street apartment. Neither officer was certain that they had uncovered Brinkley’s address, and Agent Murphy later testified that, in his experience, it was “common for someone like Brinkley… to have more than one place where they will stay the night.”
The next morning, Agent Murphy and Detective Stark went to the Elm Street apartment to conduct what both Agent Murphy and Detective Stark characterized as a “knock-and-talk” to “start [their] search for Brinkley.” The officers intended to “interview the occupants to find out if [he] was indeed there,” and to arrest him if he was. Agent Murphy acknowledged that he “had no idea if Brinkley was going to be there that morning,” but thought the Stoney Trace apartment was the “most likely address” to “find Brinkley or evidence of his whereabouts.”
Detective Stark knocked and announced, and after a few minutes Marnie, wearing pajamas, slowly opened the door. The officers could hear movement in the background. Detective Stark informed Marnie that the officers were looking for Brinkley and asked to enter the apartment. Marnie denied that Brinkley was there, and according to Detective Stark, she grew “very nervous”; her “body tensed” and her “breathing quickened,” and she looked back over her shoulder into the apartment. Detective Stark asked for consent to search the apartment and Marnie said she did not consent and asked to see a search warrant.The entire exchange with Marnie lasted a few minutes. Both officers testified that, based on Marnie’s demeanor, the movement they heard in the apartment, and the morning hour, they believed Brinkley was inside.
At this point, the officers decided not to follow the original plan to secure the area and wait to see if Brinkley left the home. Instead, Agent Murphy told Marnie that he believed she was hiding Brinkley and that the officers were going to enter the apartment to serve an arrest warrant on him. They walked around the apartment, found Brinkley in the bedroom, and arrested him. The officers proceeded to conduct a protective sweep to check for others hiding in the apartment. They did not find anyone else, but they did find several firearms and seized them.
On appeal from a conditional guilty plea, Brinkley argued that he did not reside on Elm Street and was there as Marnie’s guest, and that the officers’ warrantless entry was unconstitutional.
The Fourth Circuit sets up the problem as if it is about classifying Brinkley’s situation as a Peyton or a Steagald scenario. But what they actually end up doing is asking two questions that differ from each other. The first one is: how certain do the cops have to be that Brinkley both resides, and is currently present, at Elm Street to walk in there without a warrant? The Fourth Circuit panel concludes that the cops would need to have more than they did in order to walk into the Elm Street address with only an arrest warrant.
But the second question has to do with a different set of concerns: for a guy like Brinkley, who has four or five cribs in town, and lives an unsettled life, where is home? Do you forego the special protection that the Fourth Amendment awards to the home if you have several places you call sort-of-home? Do you have standing in each of these places? What makes home home?
Today, the High Court of Justice published its 697-page decision (!), in which it granted the Movement for Quality Government and numerous other civil rights organizations a resounding victory against the Knesset and, especially, the Netanyahu government’s agenda to curb judicial review. By a 8-7 majority, the Court found that the amendment to the Basic Law, canceling the reasonableness ground for judicial review (a powerful tool for curbing government behavior that is technically lawful but makes no sense or excessively infringes on people’s rights), is invalid.
In a couple of days, I promise to provide a précis of the decision in English. For now, you can peruse the entire decision verbatim below.
On Monday, Israel’s Knesset approved a basic law that prohibits judicial review of administrative and executive actions on the basis of “extreme unreasonableness.” In anticipation of this legislation, and the general plan to weaken basic democratic protections and civil rights guarantees, hundreds of thousands of Israelis walked, in high-90s temperatures, all the way to Jerusalem to protest. They were met with violent oppression by the police (high pressure hoses, horses trampling them) and some were injured. The protest continues, with millions of people out in the streets on an ongoing basis for the last 28 weeks.
How come I haven’t even heard about this?
Mainstream U.S. reporting on Israel is scant and of low quality, and most of what you hear would suggest that Netanyahu enjoys consensus and that all Israelis are in favor of this. The opposite is true–even people who voted right-wing are opposed to this governmental overhaul, and people have been in the streets nonstop for years now, and almost daily since this government assumed power.
Why are all these people so worried?
They know this is merely the opening shot in this government’s battle to weaken democratic protections. The planned judicial overhaul would also politicize judicial elections; undermine judicial tenure and independence; make governmental legal advisors into, essentially, personal assistants to their ministers; etc. This basic law is there to help usher in the rest of these reforms, as well as other outrageous legislation that is already in the pipeline. As Internal Security Minister, terrorist, and convicted criminal Itamar Ben Gvir tweeted on Monday, “the salad bar is open.”
Wait, back up for a minute. What is a basic law?
Israel does not have a written constitution. In the 1950s, efforts to establish one failed due to the irreconcilable differences between religious and secular legislators. A compromise was reached, according to which the Knesset would, from time to time, enact “basic laws” with an enhanced majority. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court awarded these laws a special, quasi-constitutional status, allowing the judiciary to strike down regular laws that contradicted basic laws. All laws that violate or undermine a principle in a basic law must entail minimal injury and be legislated “for an appropriate purpose.”
So what’s up with this “extreme unreasonableness” basic law?
Because Israel does not have the level of democratic control–through checks and balances, or through the constitutional review structures in places like the US–that other countries have, its courts could strike down executive decisions and actions that appear to be purely malicious or don’t make any sense. Now that this amendment is in the books, and enshrined as a basic law, supposedly any government action will be immune to judicial review provided that it is done under proper authority. For example, if a government minister chooses to uproot a Palestinian village, require all women in the office to dress a certain way and earn a quarter of what men earn, award jobs to unqualified people based on whims, etc., courts would not be able to do anything as long as the minister acts within their authority
Why would Netanyahu ram this amendment through? Does he not care at all about what the public wants?
Not even a little bit.
What does this government care about?
Israel has a coalition-based governance, which means that governments are put together out of various political parties that have different, and sometimes contradictory, values and interests, but they all benefit from being in power. In this particular case, what they all have in common is that they don’t care at all about the democratic culture of the country or its citizens (and certainly not the Palestinians.) Netanyahu chose this adventure for a simple reason: he is facing multiple charges of corruption. The offenses are serious and there’s plenty of evidence, and he could be serving years, or even decades, in prison. He will do anything and sell out to anyone to avoid that. These amendments will provide loopholes for him to escape criminal accountability. His partners, to whom he has sold out, are an assortment of convicted criminals (Arye Der’i, bribery; Itamar Ben-Gvir, terrorism); known homophobes (Smotrich, organizer of the Pride counterprotest “the beast march”); and theocracy-bound bureaucrats taking orders from the religious think-tank Kohelet Policy Forum (Yariv Levin, Simha Rothman.) What they want is a theocracy, consisting of Jewish supremacy; an annexation of the West Bank and elimination of any hope or reality of Palestinian independence; the denial of rights to Israel’s Arab citizens and other non-Jews; taking away rights from women and unconventional families; and shifting mountains of money from the tax-paying, military-service-performing secular people to the Ultra-Orthodox, who neither serve nor work or pay taxes.
How do we know that’s what they want?
They have been open about it since day one. Folks like Ben Gvir and Smotrich came into power explicitly to annex the West Bank, obliterate any hope of Palestinian independence, and grind to dust any hope of upward mobility for Arab Israeli citizens. All you need to do is look at the list of laws presented to the Knesset for approval yesterday, the day after they stripped judicial review: a law requiring compensation for “Torah students” to match that of people serving in the army, sometimes at great risk and sacrifice; a law that ministers or legislators suspected of criminal activity can only be removed from office by the coalition’s agreement, not through judicial review; new criminal penalties–three years in prison to anyone blocking roads (i.e., the nonviolent protesters); extensions to the criminal immunity of parliament members; affirmative defenses for rabbis publishing their opinions in religious pamphlets (including incitement to racism, murder, etc.); recognizing rabbinical certificates as the equivalent of academic degrees for all public jobs. And that’s just yesterday. This will not be a democracy for long.
Was Israel ever a democracy, you colonialist monsters?
The occupation of Palestine, whose tragic roots date back to 1948 and arguably, before that, to the British Mandate, is indeed an ugly and horrifying aspect that is inexorable from the rest of this mess. It is arguably the root of much of the problem, and inhumane policies and practices have been a fact of life in Palestinian territories since they were conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. Many people live in horrid conditions, under a military regime that controls even minute aspects of their lives and accords these lives little to no value. At the same time, all Israeli governments, right and left alike, have allowed Jewish settlers to occupy and expand these territories, and often given them free rein in acts of agricultural vandalism, sabotage, and horrific violence against Palestinians with no consequences. Courts have offered precious little protection to Palestinians in these matters.
So why would Palestinians even care about judicial overhaul?
Even though the situation in Palestine has always been dire, any person who believes things cannot be worse is seriously deluded. With the de-facto elimination of Judicial review, people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich can run unchecked and unfettered in Palestine. Since their explicit goal is to burn down Palestinian villages–and they’ve been acting on it–you can expect worse. At the same time, it’s understandable that people who have been through so much are cynical about the protest and not participating as the Jewish protesters would hope.
Isn’t there any merit to the claim that this government is trying to disempower the old, oppressive Ashkenazi elites and bring about more equality?
No, this is a cynical ploy that persuades people who have been neglected and kept in ignorance by Netanyahu et al.–the epitome of an oppressive Ashkenazi elite–so that they can be duped into supporting this nonsense. It is true that long-festering resentments have lingered since the 1950s, when immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries were treated condescendingly and appallingly by the local Ashkenazi authorities and residents. Ethnic tensions still exist. But many, many talented, hardworking people who came from nothing are utterly disgusted with the effort to make ethnic tension into a cudgel to foment hatred and schadenfreude and have spoken out publicly about this farce.
Is there nothing that can be done to change course?
Some of the more effective pressure has already been deployed: reservist pilots, military intelligence chiefs, and cyber unit specialists have withdrawn their commitment to volunteer for military service. This has considerably weakened Israel’s security situation and it’s not unlikely that the army is unfit to protect the country at this point. Iranian leadership, who now has nuclear weaponry that can reach Israel, won’t even have to use it. Yoav Galant, the security minister, has announced that, with these retreats, we must pause and reverse course before it’s too late. Similarly, the shekel is in free fall, investors are pulling out of tech companies, and bright minds are fleeing the country on the daily. Both of these things should have given anyone with an iota of public concern some pause (when you think about it, Israel’s survival in the Middle East is largely thanks to a few hundred pilots, some cyber defense systems, and robust scientific invention) but these government ministers are ruthless, unprincipled, and out for whatever they can get, and Netanyahu himself could not care less as long as it keeps his own ass out of the slammer.
Can the U.S. do something?
Emphatically, yes. The U.S. government generously and without asking any questions supports Israel with massive funds (these are sort of a reverse subsidy to American contractors, because the money purchases American weaponry and military equipment.) President Biden’s message to Netanyahu was an opening shot in this direction, and he can and should make it clear that the support is not unwavering or unconditional. Ben Gvir seems to think this is a bluff. Biden can call his bluff.
What can we do?
For heaven’s sake, speak out. It is inconceivable that the only U.S. Jewish voices heard on this topic come from nutty right-wingers or namby-pamby lefties mumbling DEI platitudes. If you don’t like fascism and want Biden to stop funding it, for heaven’s sake, pressure your rabbi, your Jewish organization, your nonprofit, your company, AIPAC, to say something.
I don’t want to seem antisemitic or offend anyone.
You know what’s worse than “seeming antisemitic” or “saying something offensive?” actually ushering in bigotry, discrimination, hatred, and animosity toward Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans by lending credibility to the government that has taken Israel hostage. The more Israel devolves into a decrepit, impoverished backward, theocratic, violent cesspool, the more credibility the bigots will have and the more difficult it will be for Israeli or Jewish people, businesses, and organizations to defend themselves against these noxious phenomena. It is your patriotic duty to both Israel and the U.S. to speak out.
As I write this, hundreds of thousands of friends are protesting in Jerusalem, being beaten up by police thugs, as Israel’s theocratic, messianic government celebrates their massive success in eroding democracy. The first step was curtailing the type of discretion courts may apply when reviewing executive/administrative actions, by ruling out the use of “reasonability” as a standard. It should go without saying that whoever does not want their actions to be reviewed through a lens of reasonability is planning on doing unreasonable things, and given who is in government now and what their aims are–theocracy, annexation of Palestinian territories, etc.–it’s not a secret what these acts will be. After the new law passed, internal security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a convicted terrorist who assaulted Palestinians and police officers and who never did a day of military service, tweeted, “the salad bar is open.” What more do you need to get a sense of where this is going?
I was going to write a long post, explaining the American implications, but Thomas Friedman did my job for me. Here he lists some ways in which the Israeli catastrophe can affect U.S. interests in the Middle East:
It should be obvious to every U.S. policymaker by now that Netanyahu’s cabinet, one that you described as one of the most “extreme” you’ve ever encountered, has its mind set on two dismantling projects.
One is to dismantle the power of the Supreme Court to rein in this government’s extreme agenda, and the other is to dismantle the Oslo peace process and its road map for a two-state solution, in order to pave the way for a unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Oslo has been a cornerstone of America’s Middle East policy since 1993.
These twin dismantlings are interconnected: the Jewish supremacists in Netanyahu’s cabinet need to get the Supreme Court out of the way in order to carry out their plans to annex the West Bank. Such a move could easily destabilize Jordan, as it would likely push more and more Palestinians there and change its fragile demographic balance. Jordan is the most important buffer state in the region for the U.S., which operates from Jordanian territory, in collaboration with Jordan, to deal with U.S. security threats from Syria and western Iraq, where ISIS forces continue to operate.
At the same time, Mr. President, you are wrestling with one of the biggest decisions ever involving U.S. strategy in the Middle East: whether to meet Saudi Arabia’s requests for a formal security guarantee from America, for a U.S.-overseen civilian nuclear program and for access to some of the most advanced U.S. arms. In return for this, Saudi Arabia would normalize its relations with Israel (provided that Israel makes some concessions to the Palestinians) and limit its collaboration with China.
It would be both difficult and unfortunate to get such a deal through Congress without strong support from Democrats in the Senate. As you know, Mr. President, Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are two of the least popular world leaders among progressive Democrats, especially considering the way Netanyahu, over the past decade, moved to make support for Israel a Republican cause and spurned the embrace of secular American Jews for that of Christian evangelicals instead.
In short, winning enough support among Democrats to forge this complex deal with Saudi Arabia will be a huge lift on a good day; it will be even harder if Netanyahu neuters the Israeli Supreme Court — undermining our shared values of an independent judiciary — and moves ahead with plans to annex the West Bank. And without you as president, such a deal would be virtually impossible, because very few Democrats in the Senate would support it if it was pushed by a Republican president. In short, the window for this deal is small.
Moreover, in 2016 you and President Barack Obama signed a 10-year, $38 billion agreement to enhance Israel’s military. Are we supposed to just sit back and watch silently while that military — which we have made such a huge investment in to amplify our power projection in the Middle East — fractures over efforts to restrict the power of the Israeli Supreme Court? That would be a disaster for us and for Israel, which has real enemies like Iran and Hezbollah on its doorstep.
Also, we can already see that the extreme behavior of this Israeli government in expanding settlements in the West Bank is beginning to damage the historic relations forged by President Donald Trump between Israel and the U.A.E., Bahrain and Morocco with the Abraham Accords. All three Arab countries have been forced to cool their diplomatic ties with Israel.
Which leaves me to make a more minor comment, but important to me, anyway. I see a glaring failure on the part of U.S. Jewish authorities here. I suspect that Biden’s move to pick Friedman as his (able and well respected) messenger was calculated to reach the ears and minds of U.S. Jewry, especially those who are too apathetic or too hoodwinked by Netanyahu and Kohelet to reduce their ideological and financial support for this mess. It might have also been calculated for the benefit of the Jewish left (or, really, any left) that just waits to hear of more scandals to tarnish Israel completely, failing to distinguish between the government and its massive opposition.
This is not solely the audience’s fault: Before Friedman’s important reporting on this, U.S. coverage of recent Israel affairs tended to equate Israel’s 37th government with Israel itself. Generally speaking, U.S. media is very domestically focused compared to, well, every other country in the world, and on the rare occasions it reports on foreign affairs, it does so in an infantilizing and paternalistic way. To be fair, Netanyahu has been in government for so long that, for the ill-informed U.S. populace, it’s easy to identify him with the country he’s hijacked. Coverage of this mess has really diverged: U.S. newspapers extensively cover harm to Palestinian towns and villages (with good reason! Israeli media grossly and criminally downplays these horrors!) but remains mostly silent about the size and courage of the anti-government protest movement. To get a better idea of what is not being properly reported, imagine that half the U.S. had marched in the anti-Trump protests and risked serious violence by police and right-wing goons. The temperatures here are in the high 90s and, nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of people have walked by foot to Jerusalem, for days, to protest, and have taken over a park near the Knesset to continue their operations. Some have been injured, seriously even, by police water hoses and horses (poor, sensitive, gregarious creatures, again dragged into the depravity of homo sapiens.)
The outcome of all this is all too obvious to me, having lived in the United States for more than two decades. Pretty much every Israeli American has coped with hostile sentiments from both the right and the left. I won’t tire you with my “lived experience” of bigotry and ugliness, in some cases seriously career harming, because we don’t really need more earnest, whiny confessionals, nor will I get dragged into the tiresome and intractable problem of whether these noxious sentiments are antisemitic, anti-Zionist, or anti-Israeli (this is open to interpretation, and the sentiment is misguided and its expression sickening either way.) The bottom line is this: the more unconscionable governmental behavior takes place unchecked and unchallenged by Jewish authorities abroad, and the more Israeli consulates throughout the U.S. parrot it and defend it, the more justified and less objectionable these bigotries will be.
This has several corrosive implications. First, it means far fewer business opportunities, especially in tech, for Israeli companies. Second, it means that the unspoken but quite obvious sentiment that there seem to be “too many of us” in intelligentsia will strengthen and become spoken (back to the “quota system” in university admissions?) Third, it will unfairly and counterproductively target precisely the demographics that are doing what they can to oppose these travesties (this is why I’ve always thought BDS incredibly foolish when applied to academics and/or journalists. And yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of that nonsense as well.)
There are a few things Jewish leadership in the U.S. should be doing right now:
Speak out against all this. Yes, your congregation can and should have at least as much of an opinion about this as it does about Ukraine and Iran. You have a voice. Some of you have Biden’s ear. Sure, your lefty, scrappy, civil-rightsy temple/shul/congregation can marinate in the same advocacy that any progressive organization in the U.S. does–the usual DEI talking points and capitalizing on domestic controversies. Your duty is to expand your congregation’s parochial concerns and figure out how to talk to and about Israel.
Put your money where your mouth is. If you are funding think tanks like Kohelet, stop it immediately. Even Kohelet’s nauseating captains are horrified by the monster they helped create. Instead, put your money, openly and explicitly, in the service of the protest organizations. My friends are being brutalized by cops and fascist goons to cultivate a safe, democratic haven for you and yours. Help them.
Israel is not a fun summer camp for your kids. Stop sending them to Birthright which, at best, sickens them about the settler and antimiscegenation propaganda they are subjected to, and at worst, converts them to be Netanyahu supporters.
Dissent, even abroad, is patriotic. Join a local protest. I’ve seen people express precious qualms about how they don’t have a “right” or a “say” in Israel. And yet, when horrors happen elsewhere in the world you speak up and donate. What I keep hearing from my friends in Israel is how heartened they are when they see pictures from protests around the world.
I’m attending the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology and finding many of the talks illuminating and refreshing. It could be that the overall quality of work has improved, or that I make better choices about which panels to attend. Either way, this morning I’m following a series of panels about improving indigent representation, and have just come out of a conversation with the folks who run the campaign to End Justice Fees.
Those who followed the report on Ferguson are not strangers to the problem, but the public at large is likely ignorant of the immense (to the tune of billions of dollars!) toll of court fees and warrants. Even to me–who thought nothing would surprise me after learning about pay-to-stay and the resulting lawsuits–some of the details were shocking. The campaign’s website offers a wealth of information on the different things people get charged for: electronic monitoring, probation (yes, you pay for the pleasure of being monitored!), and–much to my horror–legal defense. Remember Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Warren Court case that required states to fund the defense of the indigent? Well, it turns out that, in 42 states, free representation means free for those who pay the fees (three figure amounts that many defendants cannot afford.)
Just like I found out in Cheap on Crime about pay-to-stay schemes, the absurdity of padding the pockets of municipalities and counties by charging the poor, rather than the rich, is in plain evidence. The fees are rarely recouped, resulting in crushing debt that kills the spirit of countless families and does not make up for the deficits. Figuring out the expense of keeping this ridiculous system in place is difficult (I wish someone took this on! I would, but my plate is full), but even though the numbers are elusive, I don’t think it’s outlandish to assume that pursuing lawsuits against hundreds of thousands of people for not paying what, for them, is a lot of money, but for the system is pennies, is not an economically efficient scheme. That this is costly beyond the obvious is evident from yet another horrible data point: in the Alabama Appleseed survey of people with court debt, they found that 38% of respondents had to resort to actually committing a crime in order to be able to pay the court fees (which are sometimes imposed for mere infractions or traffic violations.)
The good folks from End Justice Fees have come to the conclusion that advocacy works better than litigation for eliminating these fees. Here are some of the ground that they’ve made in California, per their website:
CA AB 199 makes the balance of any court-imposed costs assessed prior to July 1, 2022 unenforceable and uncollectible and vacates any portion of a judgment imposing civil assessments charged by traffic courts
Eliminated 17 additional criminal administrative fees and vacated $534 million in outstanding debt (2021).
California’s Families Over Fees Act repealed 23 criminal administrative fees and vacated $16 billion in outstanding debt (2020)
California ended the assessment of new juvenile fees (2017) and discharged outstanding fees (2020)
Ordinance eliminated local criminal administrative fees imposed in San Francisco (2018)
San Francisco made all jail phone calls free for incarcerated people and ended commissary markups (2020)
San Diego eliminated fees for phone calls and video visits (2022)
I’m also happy to report that, per their presentation, we are among the minority of states that do not charge people for their own representation which, under Gideon, indigent folks should pay for free.
The crux of the problem, with litigation, is that Bearden v. Georgia, the case often used to argue against punishing the poor for being poor, requires an investigation of means before incarceration–but the practice in many places is to arrest people for the purpose of assessing their means, which is technically a violation of Bearden but municipalities and courts claim is the only practical way to get ahold of the person.
This strikes me as the sort of initiative that decent people of all political stripes can and should get behind. It should yield the sort of coalitions I covered in Cheap on Crime and bring about more justice on an everyday level without slogans. Want to “dismantle” “abolish” “repeal” “defund” stuff? Here’s a good place to start on the ground and deliver immediate relief to people struggling with financial craziness.
So much has been said and written about the Supreme Court’s leaked majority opinion draft overruling Roe v. Wade that I hardly need to elaborate the basics. I’m not a reproductive justice expert, nor am I particularly surprised that this has happened–they are simply doing precisely what they were hired to do, which is to promulgate a theocratic, sex-negative worldview. The reason I add my voice to the cacophony is that I have a somewhat unorthodox, nuanced position on this debate, which hasn’t (I think) been aired yet–that of an adoptive mom.
We adopted our beloved son as an infant from a state that frowns upon abortions. My son’s amazing birthparents’ struggles, dilemmas, and decisions are their private business and I will not air it here or anywhere else. What I can share is that, throughout our happy life together, I have been beyond ecstatic that the world has been blessed with my son, a sparkling star of a boy–bright, empathetic, loving, friendly, kind, athletic, funny, multitalented, spirited, lively. And at the same time, every adoption involves a huge leap of love and empathy, and much pain, grief, and loss adjacent to the joy. There are no hard or fast rules about the roads taken or not taken with pregnancies. The deep regrets of placing a child for adoption, the sometimes unsurmountable hardships of parenting, and the deep regrets of terminating a pregnancy all float in a realm of possibility that I can only imagine, having been raised in a welfare state with excellent sex education and easily available contraceptives. No assumption can be made, as the right makes, that abortion invariably leads to shame and regret (see this remarkable amicus brief on behalf of law professors who underwent abortions and “believe that, like themselves, the next generation of lawyers should have the ability to control their reproductive lives and thus the opportunity to fully participate in the ‘economic and social life of the Nation’.”) Of course, the opposite assumption–that abortion brings you your life back without a trace of regret or sorrow, is also false, and part of the reason many women can’t quite find themselves in the pro-choice milieu is that, in the fierce struggle for women’s rights, little room is left to contain these sorrows and regrets.
All of this has already been said, most eloquently, by others; but the right-wingers have a ready-made answer. “Not to worry!” They cheerfully squeal. “That’s what adoption is for!” Which is where, as an adoptive mom, I need to speak up and disabuse some of the truly ridiculous illusions that our right-wing politicos and fundamental Christian buddies are willing to entertain. Namely, the notion that limiting safe, legal abortion is going to result in a boon for adoption should be patently absurd to anyone who has gone through an ethical open adoption process; the opposite is true.
Adoption professionals recoil from the idea that adoption is about “selling children”, and from here flow multiple ethical and legal limitations on the kind of assistance that adoptive parents can offer birthparents and on the interactions between the party. And yet, beyond the niceties, let’s start with the obvious: in virtually every adoption, as ethical and kind and caring as it is, children pass from poor hands to more economically advantaged hands, with money moving in the opposite direction. This means that birthparents–usually birthmoms–are at a considerable socioeconomic disadvantage, often exacerbated by being typically younger than the adoptive moms.
Forcing women who would otherwise have a (legal, safe) abortion to instead carry a pregnancy to term and place their infants for adoption throws more young women and girls with no bargaining power into the mix–often women and girls who now have to hide their pregnancies from families and boyfriends. It is not difficult to predict that women who are less equipped to carry a pregnancy to term would be the ones seeking abortions, and that requiring them to forego that option will result in pregnancies that are less safe, and therefore in infants that are more difficult to place for adoption. Hiding your pregnant belly from your mom or your friends can result in experiencing your pregnancy under conditions that are bad for you (exposure to smoke, exposure to alcohol, unhealthy diets); having such a pregnancy discovered can result in being unhoused for the duration of your pregnancy; all this instability will surely result in less responsible and consistent prenatal care.
A birthmom who knows she can’t parent will then search the Internet high and low for adoption agencies, trying to find one with serious social workers and good services. She’ll then go through an intake interview with a social worker, who will ask her about her medical history, prenatal care, and use of alcohol/drugs. I’ve taken classes with other adoptive parents: the medical history is something that can be scary for prospective parents, and birthmoms can, of course, guess this. So, what happens when someone who has not had the resources to properly care for themselves and their baby tries to place said baby for adoption? Would it surprise anyone if this would result in more deceit and evasion when interviewed by adoption agency social workers?
I can see very unhealthy prospects for the adoption market under such circumstances. With the inability to verify pregnancy details, or to provide proper care to prospective moms, unscrupulous lawyers and corrupt social workers might step in with unhealthy incentives, pressure, and coercion–akin to the worrisome trends we see in the international adoption market. This means less safety and trust precisely in a situation that requires an enormous amount of empathy and mutual trust. It means less careful vetting of adoptive parents–the actual people who are to raise and nurture this precious life. And it also means that women who might withstand the pressure and try to parent their kids might have to later relinquish them by court order, or due to other awful circumstances, which throws kids into the traumatizing world of government care at an early age and creates considerable challenges even in the happy cases that end in fostering and adoption. Many people who can become fantastic parents to infants through open adoption might not have the emotional fortitude and resources to address and heal the trauma of older kids. Corollary: Throwing birthmoms into these situations ahead of time by eliminating a safe, legal option, is not a boon for adoption–the opposite is true.
Additionally, if, indeed, adoption is to be the panacea for the problem of sentient life, then we should also care about the life of the birthmom after adoption–in the form of extended services to help heal the trauma, beyond some meetings with a social worker: I’m talking college money, gym membership, grocery money, job seeking support. Of course, all this assumes that Alito et al. truly want birthmoms, after giving the gift of motherhood to someone like me, to land on their feet and “fully participate in the ‘economic and social life of the Nation.” Do they?
The truth is that none of this is really about abstract notions of sentience nor about seeing the abortion/adoption thing as a zero-sum game, because it is patently clear that neither value is being advanced by forcing women to carry pregnancies to term or risk a dangerous back-alley procedure. Friends, here’s what’s going on: Justice Alito and his buddies are simply out to penalize women (the wrong sort of women?) for having sex. That the punishment might extend to other (sentient) people in the equation–a child, adoptive parents, adoption professionals–simply does not enter into their equation. The idea that someone who receives solid, reasonable, science-based sex education should be able to just say yes to sexual activity with whoever they choose, with however many people they choose, in whatever form, in whatever frequency, so long as all are of sound body and mind and consent and respect each other, is anathema to them. They know that legal prohibitions will not deter young people who have been deliberately left ignorant about the functions of their own bodies from having sex. They don’t care. Because they don’t intend to ever pick up the price tag for the many young lives that will later end up in flux, this is a complete externality to them. And that is what is so atrocious here.
On July 9, 2020, the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition held a press conference outside the prison gate to draw attention to the medical crisis behind bars. The five weeks that preceded the conference saw the COVID-19 case count in the facility grow from zero to more than a thousand, and when we held the conference, people were already dying. Many people spoke at the conference–family members, formerly incarcerated people, doctors, experts, politicians.
The picture above is from the press conference. On the right side of the picture is then-Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who spoke very movingly and urgently about the need to have Gov. Newsom visit the prison and release people. Bonta’s speech was quoted in the Guardian:
“We are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that was created and wholly avoidable,” said the California assembly member Rob Bonta at a press conference in front of San Quentin state prison on Thursday.
“We need act with urgency fueled by compassion,” he added. “We missed the opportunity to prevent, so now we have to make things right.”
Despite some governmental hiccups, and despite the prevalence of ignorant arguments that combined deservedness with medical care, people in correctional facilities educated themselves about the benefits of vaccination and, thankfully, accepted the vaccine at rates exceeding the general population. The credit for this success goes first and foremost to the correctional residents themselves, who had to sift their way through mountains of disinformation from custodial staff and their own mistrust of anything coming out of the authority that caused the outbreak in the first place. It also goes to formerly incarcerated people who encouraged their friends to do the right thing, and to AMEND for targeting correctional populations with excellent, 100% reliable medical advice. It certainly does not go to the government, which deprioritized prisons throughout the process.
Against this backdrop–the most important and pressing measure for contagion prevention basically abandoned–the litigation battle lines have been drawn at a much more modest expectation: staff vaccination. As a legislator, Bonta called for the more thorough system fix; as part of the Newsom administration, his employees are defending indefensible arguments and making absurd excuses to shirk responsibility even for the truly modest goal of protecting the lives of staff and incarcerated people.
Which brings up an important question: What, actually, is the Attorney General’s job? Is the AG wearing two separate hats when supporting legislation/regulation and when litigating? Can the government speak out of two sides of its mouth on, essentially, the same matter of scientific/medical validity? When litigating in court, is the AG no more than a hired gun for a “client” (the government) with no obligations to support what’s right? Does the AG stop working for us when he works for our government? When protecting anti-masker prison guards, does the AG stop being a public official, holding office for the benefit of all Californians, and become CCPOA’s Tom Hagen?
Here are two instructive scenarios from recent CA history. In the first one, then-Governor Jerry Brown and then-AG Kamala Harris were called upon to defend a new amendment to the CA constitution, otherwise known as Prop 8 (“marriage is between one man and one woman”). You may recall their position then: Harris declined to defend Prop 8 “because it violate[d] the Constitution. The Supreme Court has described marriage as a fundamental right 14 times since 1888. The time has come for this right to be afforded to every citizen.”
Let’s recap: The Eighth Amendment guarantees freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, which in the context of prison conditions means that deliberate indifference to a serious health and safety risk is violative of the Constitution. We now have a ruling that having unvaccinated staff at CDCR facilities is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. AG Bonta, why would you defend this in federal court?
In the other instructive scenario, Harris, again as Attorney General, appealed Jones v. Chappell, a federal court decision that held the death penalty unconstitutional because of the delays. At the Ninth Circuit, they prevailed on a narrow, technical ground–the district court had applied a “new rule” at a habeas proceeding (for my explanation of this technical legal point, see here.) On principle, I still maintain that it was wrong of Harris to appeal the decision (here‘s a summary of my position on that matter.) It was an illustration of a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario: Harris walked away from that incident remembered for upholding a technical retroactivity ruling, rather than for dismantling our dysfunctional and monstrous death penalty. But at least there was some doctrinal support for that position.
This is not the case here: we have a ruling that is not only correct (and extremely narrow) on a policy level, but also on a legal level. Bonta and Newsom know full well that their position is morally and legally indefensible. Why, then, are they appealing, and is this a fulfillment of the AG’s ethical obligations?
Moreover, even accepting Bonta’s peculiar distinction between his role in legislation and in “client” representation, even the most zealous and unprincipled gun-for-hire private attorney will have situations in which it will be necessary to sit down with the client and explain that a position that the latter wants to advance in court is untenable (e.g., there’s no hope for an insanity defense because the defendant is sane; there’s no self-defense because there’s ample proof that the defendant shot someone in the back for profit with no provocation whatsoever.) In situations in which the client insists on a particular line of legal argumentation, lawyers who cannot pursue that line with a straight face need to withdraw from representation. It is long past time for Bonta and his employees to have a come-to-Jesus conversation with their “clients” and explain that vaccinating the staff is a minimal, modest expectation, barely enough to pass the already eroded Eighth Amendment standard, and that balking at it is not a move that the AG’s office can support.
This morning I spoke with David Brancaccio of Marketplace Morning Report about the perversions and frustrations of the job market for formerly and currently incarcerated workers. The broadcast version is above – here’s the longer version from Marketplace:
There’s a striking scene in Brett Story’s documentary “The Prison in 12 Landscapes” that captures the complicated and exploitative aspect of rehabilitative prison labor programs: An incarcerated firefighter, explaining how they’re not allowed to talk to others on the job, adds that — because of their criminal record — they have a slim chance of becoming a firefighter upon leaving prison.
It’s an experience that’s common not just for prison firefighters, but for people who work making telemarketing calls, care for elderly or infirm people in prison, and more, according to UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram.
“There are many limitations on people working in these occupations, and because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people,” Aviram said in an interview with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.
While there are laws in place to protect formerly incarcerated people from hiring discrimination, Aviram noted that many barriers to employment remain, including the scarcity of rehabilitative work programs and their stringent terms and conditions.
“The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based,” Aviram said, “so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside.”
Below is an edited transcript of Brancaccio’s conversation with Aviram on the other jobs prisoners commonly do, the challenges facing formerly incarcerated people who are trying to find work and what Aviram thinks can be done to increase their chances of finding meaningful jobs that take advantage of skills learned while in prison.
David Brancaccio: In this film, we see a California wildfire at first. It turns out that one of those working on the fireline, to keep it from spreading, is a person in prison, in a special prison work program. Would a program like that be common or fairly rare?
Hadar Aviram: Here in California, it’s extremely common. And among the people who saved probably thousands of lives in the last summer, when we had the wildfires, were many, many incarcerated people working as firefighters.
“The range of occupations that people have in prison”
David Brancaccio: It’s interesting, right? Because often people don’t know that, in fact, there’s a ban on people who are incarcerated speaking with members of the public while out there fighting the fire.
Aviram: Yes, there are many limitations on people working in these occupations and, because of that, the public is unaware of the fact that many of the people that they interact with every day are working as incarcerated people. A lot of the customer service on the phone, a lot of the furniture, things that are being manufactured — sweatshirts for dozens of Ivy League universities are made in a prison in Kansas, where people are getting paid 50 cents a day. It’s really astounding, the range of occupations that people have in prison. And I think that firefighting is an especially interesting example, because they are saving lives and they are working shoulder to shoulder with professional, non-incarcerated firefighters. The big irony, of course, is that then they get out and, at least until recently, they couldn’t get a job as firefighters, despite being trained, because they have a criminal record.
When formerly incarcerated people are unable to get jobs
Brancaccio: I mean, that’s the thing. There’s, of course, a move that we’ve spent some time covering on this program to ban employers from, for the first initial part of a job application, asking if you have a criminal record, but employers have a way finding out anyway, or it comes up during the background check.
Aviram: Absolutely. I was one of the big pushers for this kind of, we call it “ban the box” initiatives, to screen people without knowing their criminal record. But, it turns out, colleagues of mine at the Urban Institute did a study and they found out that rather than employers discriminating on the basis of criminal records, they have started discriminating on the basis of race as a proxy for criminal records. So, for example, they’ll get job applications, and they don’t know which of the people have a criminal record, but they will interview the person called “Brad” rather than the person called “Jamal,” under the assumption that they are using this as a proxy for the criminal record that they don’t have an access to. It’s very frustrating, because you’re trying to create equal opportunities for everybody, but these things have such a protean quality that they pop up no matter what kind of protections you introduce in the workplace.
“Oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself.”
Hadar Aviram, UC Hastings law professor
Brancaccio: What do you do about that? I mean, you know, there’s an ongoing national discussion, at some level, about what we’re addressing here. But, in part, when people have worked alongside people that they find out have criminal records, and they see firsthand that they’re like the rest of us, sometimes that can help break down these stereotypes?
Aviram: Absolutely. And this is a truth that has been found in studies all over. I mean, people have done studies, for example, of members of fundamentalist churches that, you know, will be railing against single mothers and gay people, but then they have a gay uncle or a niece who’s a single mom and they love them to bits, and that softens, a little bit, this approach.
And the same thing holds for people with criminal records. I just saw a study done at a college where there was a strong correlation between students who personally knew fellow students who were formerly incarcerated and their opinions about: Would they befriend somebody with a criminal record? Would they be willing to date somebody who had been in prison? So, truly, personal acquaintances and education and exposure is the most important thing that we can do to break down these barriers.
Brancaccio: Back to this notion of labor done by people in prison: When the phone rings at our house, it could be someone who is incarcerated at the other end of the line?
Aviram: Yes, absolutely. This is just one of many, many, many occupations that people engage in in prisons. Phone solicitation, customer service, a lot of manufacturing of everyday items that you wouldn’t even have an idea come from prison. And, of course, a lot of the work inside prisons. I don’t know that a lot of people know this: We have a high population of people who are aging and infirm in prison. And oftentimes the people taking care of them are trained caregivers who are incarcerated themselves. So a lot of the things that we think the state is providing, it’s actually people from inside the prison who are incarcerated themselves who are doing it.
Is prison labor, by definition, exploitative?
Brancaccio: What’s your sense, having studied this — I mean, is it, by definition, prison labor, exploitative? I mean, no one’s paid market rates for that labor.
Aviram: This is a complicated question, because there’s the world that we would want to live in, in which everybody gets minimum wage and in which you are actually trained for the reality of the marketplace. And there’s the realities of the world we’re in, in which prison labor, to different extents, is exploitative, and we therefore try to sort of improve people’s lot within the conditions that they’re in.
We have to keep in mind the fact that, to some extent, prison labor is training people for conditions in the market on the outside. But the problem is that oftentimes prisons turn to these work programs because they think they’re going to be rehabilitative or whatever. But for the most part it’s economic considerations of the prison itself. The programs themselves are very selective, it’s difficult to get into them, not all of them are evidence-based, so oftentimes they will train people to do jobs that they can’t actually get on the outside. Up until recently, the firefighting was one such example, but there are many other examples. The programs that do have occupations where people can work on the outside, like marine technology or carpentry, are highly selective; very, very few people can get in. Overall, a more realistic prospect for people coming out is to become independent contractors and work for themselves.
The kind of work formerly incarcerated people end up doing
Brancaccio: That’s what people end up doing? Working for themselves?
Aviram: Exactly. For example, you’ll find people that are putting together landscaping companies, house work companies. And there are some examples that are really amazing, of nonprofits that people have put on the outside, where they’re working in the marketplace and just doing amazing things. Right next to Hastings, which is where I teach, is a neighborhood called the Tenderloin in San Francisco, which, during the pandemic, became pretty much an open-air drug market — lots of homeless people, lots of misery, mental health, substance abuse, oftentimes people overdosing. And the mayor was upset by this, and a couple of times they sent the police to clean up the neighborhood with everything that stems from that. That was extremely difficult, because there were no solutions for people other than just sort of cleaning up the aesthetics.
And then a nonprofit stepped in called Urban Alchemy. They operate public restrooms, which is incredibly important in these kinds of neighborhoods. They operated safe sleeping sites during COVID. They calmed down violence, they actually revived people with Naloxone who had overdosed multiple times every week. They did amazing things. And what enables them to do this work more effectively and more peacefully than the police, and almost without any show of force, is the fact that they are former lifers, that the people who work at Urban Alchemy acquired these peacemaking and mentoring skills that they use every day on the job in decades in prison. They were elders and mentors on the yard when they were inside, and they retain this kind of calm mentorship role on the outside. And they have done such an amazing job that the change in energy in the neighborhood is palpable.
Brancaccio: Those are special skills that are in demand. It’s a shame that some employers don’t fully recognize this.
Aviram: Exactly. There are many ways in which we look at a criminal record or a previous prison stay as a liability. This is of course difficult, because at any given moment, 1% of the entire population of the United States is incarcerated. So we have a lot of people who actually have acquired skills and strengths where they were that we can use in the marketplace. I’m not just thinking about occupations that are entry-level jobs, I’m thinking even about entry into, say, the California bar, as lawyers. Think about what somebody brings in, coming in with an insider perspective on a criminal justice system, reassuring their clients about what’s going to happen to them, you know, being able to present a realistic perspective. There are so many strengths that you acquire.
One of the most successful programs we have in California is called marine technologies, it’s people who work underwater fixing ships and underwater structures. And this is partly a skill where it’s a great advantage to be used to being in a very overcrowded environment. This is difficult for a lot of people. But people, unfortunately, who spent time in our grossly overcrowded prisons have acquired this skill. This is a market strength that is being undervalued and stigmatized for no good reason.
Brancaccio: I was reading about that marine program. Recidivism, going back to the ways of crime, is near zero for people who’ve gone through that program.
Aviram: Those are good jobs. If you get a job like that, there is no reason for you to commit crime, because you have gainful employment. We have to think more evidence-based about these kinds of programs and strengths in the market and prepare people for that.
Brancaccio: Those programs often can be expensive within the prison. Sometimes when budgets are tight, as you’ve written, that’s the program that gets cut.
Aviram: Exactly. It’s one of the downsides. And this is something that I wrote in my first book “Cheap on Crime,” that we, overall, saw the prison population shrink since 2009. This was a result of the the recession of 2008. But one of the side effects of that that was more sinister was that there were drastic cuts to rehabilitative programming. And that created a big difference, a big gap, between prisons that are set in urban centers, where there’s lots of volunteers and do-gooders that step in and create these programs. Here, for example, in San Quentin [State Prison], we have Silicon Valley entrepreneurs volunteering to teach people the internet, which is very difficult when you don’t have internet behind bars. So we have all of this programming because of the volunteers, because they’re stepping in to fill in the gaps that the state cannot fill. But there are many, many prisons in the United States that are located in these remote, rural locations, very, very difficult to get there, and very difficult to get quality programming that actually prepares people to get good jobs once they get released.
This morning I’m scheduled to testify before the Senate Public Safety Committee in support of AB 1210 (Ting). The proposition is to diversify the parole board by including commissioners with a variety of professional backgrounds, including therapeutic backgrounds.
Those of you who read Yesterday’s Monsters may recall that, while the Board is diverse in terms of race and gender, it is not diverse in terms of professional background. The vast majority of commissioners come from law enforcement backgrounds: former sheriffs, police chiefs, and correctional officers. This has far-reaching implications as to the nature and result of the hearings.
The current composition of the board dates back to several transformations in California punishment that happened throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Over the years, the time before the initial hearing and between hearings increased; actuarial risk assessment replaced correctional counselors and psychologists; the role of prosecutors and victim supporters vastly increased; and voters approved a gubernatorial veto on parole board decisions to release. Despite repeated instruction from the California Supreme Court to focus on future prospects and risks, the Board acts defensively, finding ways to bypass this requirement and deny parole on the basis of crimes that happened decades ago—even to people who, according to vast criminological research, have long ago aged out of crime. As a consequence, recommendations for release are rare, accounting for only 16-17% of all hearings.
It is unsurprising that a group comprised almost exclusively of law enforcement officers is professionally and culturally predisposed to accept court records and disciplinary write-ups as incontrovertible truth, makes biased assumptions about people from their demeanor and body language, and tends to accept simplistic narratives at the expense of more complicated stories involving people’s environment and circumstances. The commissioners also exhibit complacency regarding the woeful inadequacies of our prison programming system, laying the blame for inaccessible or nonexisting rehabilitation programs on the parole applicants themselves. Despite some continuing education workshops, the commissioners as a group do not possess deep professional knowledge on issues such as substance abuse and mental health.
The commissioners regularly pride themselves for being able to detect false remorse or lack of insight. Unfortunately, this self-assessment claim is contradicted by robust empirical research. In experiments, law enforcement officers regularly express significantly more certainty about their ability to detect lies–and regularly do significantly WORSE than general population in telling truth and lies apart.
We are at a unique moment in history, in which we acknowledge that multiple forms of wisdom and expertise—not only the expertise of law enforcement officers—are essential to solve social problems and offer hope to families and communities. Tune in to the hearing today and make your voice heard in support of this important change.
One of the things mindfulness has taught me is that disappointment depends on expectations. In that respect, to say that correctional policies during COVID-19 have been a disappointment reflects, perhaps, unrealistic expectations from institutions that have been unwieldy and incredibly resistant to change even at the best of times. Perhaps it’s not that unexpected that the giant machine that protects the correctional colossus from reform was overall characterized by delays, evasive maneuvers, reversals of fortune and too-little-too-late gestures. So, if one expected mass releases, the disappointment would be commensurate with the expectations.
Still, there is an objective benchmark against which to measure my disappointment: the problem is not that the releases fell short of being what I hoped they’d be–it’s that they fell short of what was needed to curb the spread of the pandemic. We don’t have to wonder what that number would be; we had assessments of individual institutions with recommendations from physicians specializing in pandemic spread. I think that now, in mid-April 2021, we can safely say that, with respect to releases, courts have failed to provide the relief they should have provided.
We have two great nationwide summaries that support this conclusion. Brandon Garrett and Lee Kovarsky’s new piece Viral Injustice is a survey of COVID-19 correctional litigation outcomes. Garrett and Kovarsky conclude:
Judges avoided constitutional holdings whenever they could, rejected requests for ongoing supervision, and resisted collective discharge—limiting such relief to vulnerable subpopulations. The most successful litigants were detainees in custody pending immigration proceedings, and the least successful were those convicted of crimes.
We draw three conclusions that bear on subsequent pandemic responses—including vaccination efforts—and incarceration more generally. First, courts avoided robust relief by re-calibrating rights and remedies, particularly those relating to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Second, court intervention was especially limited by the behavior of bureaucracies responsible for the detention function. Third, the judicial activity reflected entrenched assumptions about the danger and moral worth of prisoners that are widespread but difficult to defend. Before judges can effectively respond to pandemic risk, nonjudicial institutions will have to treat it differently than other health-and-safety threats, and judges will have to overcome their empirically dubious resistance to decarceration.
However, some individual state and local policymakers took steps that stand as an example of how to release a large number of people from prison — a necessary step to ending mass incarceration. And some policy changes made during the pandemic — like eliminating cruel copays for incarcerated people — are ones we need to remember and demand that they be extended permanently.
I want to throw in a few additional issues that illuminate aspects of these legal responses:
The PLRA, while greatly responsible for suffocating prison litigation, is not the be-all, end-all of the problem. Following Plata v. Newsom closely, I’m not sure how much of the inaction is Judge Tigar’s allegiance to the PLRA framework and how much of it is a culture of conciliatory, deferent approach and valuing “bringing everyone to the table” rather than ordering a solution. Some of this could be down to individual judicial personalities and some of this could be attributed to litigation cultures in different states or even in different counties. I think that our good fortune in the first round of Von Staich was because we were fortunate to get a panel that was deeply responsive to both the humanitarian emergency behind bars and to the geographical argument that the threat would extend to outside communities.
Relatedly, I don’t think that the state vs. federal litigation was the important distinction. Nor was it class action vs. habeas corpus. I think the defining feature of the litigation is the aggressive deference to correctional authorities–giving vague, modest relief knowing that correctional officers and their lawyers can sabotage it.
Generally speaking, and beyond CA, the staff has been the problem–from dragging their feet to actual frustration of purpose (by not testing, not reporting symptoms, and not getting vaccinated.) There has been precious little done to hold correctional officer unions accountable for their colossal leadership failures.
In the absence of releases, there’s been a lot of reliance on bottleneck provisions–stopping admissions from jails, which put the onus on jails to handle their own pandemic issues, often without data and without accountability. The counties have been left to figure things on their own, with dramatically varying degrees of success (see my analysis of this here.)
The advent of the vaccine made a difference, both in terms of state enthusiasm to help incarcerated populations and in the courage of courts. How vaccines played into advocacy and litigation is a complicated story, which Chad and I will analyze more thoroughly in our book-in-progress, #FESTER: Carceral Permeability and the California COVID-19 Correctional Disaster (under contract, UC Press.) In a nutshell, vaccines opened an avenue that allowed courts to avoid grappling with their paralysis regarding releases and recur to a short-term strategy to provide immediate relief from the current pandemic. And even this was not always necessary, given that many states got ahead of the courts and gave the vaccines.
The most notable aspect of the deference/reluctance to do more for prison and jail populations was the prevalence of zero-sum games of deservedness (“grandma before inmates!”), which ignored obvious implications of geography and epidemiology: the idea that people in congregate settings, no matter who they are, face more risk, and that spaces that are jurisdictionally/institutionally set apart from society at large are, in fact, permeable to disease. This is going to be the main premise of #FESTER.
The deservedness argument posed some difficulties in advocacy and organizing: does making the argument that jail populations are largely presumed innocent introduce the deservedness scale, which as Kovarsky and Garrett show was at play in the overall picture of relief? And, how to advocate short-term for vaccination while advocating long-term for releases?