Lots of Big News

I’m hard at work on book revisions and other projects, and updates have been scarce. But there are lots of big news, so here is a roundup of links:

A new lawsuit by civil rights organizations tackles the voting rights of people who, post-Realignment, are under a regime of Mandatory Supervision.

There’s more talk of creating a California sentencing commission.

The Brown administration has received a two-year reprieve from the three-judge panel on the decrowding timeline.

More on these in the days to come.

Ban the Box Needs Your Help!

Cheauvon, and other honest and accountable formerly incarcerated people who are looking for work and want to take responsibility for their lives, need YOUR help!

AB 218, otherwise known as the Ban the Box initiative, would prohibit state or local agencies from asking an applicant to disclose information regarding a criminal conviction until the agency has determined the applicant meets the minimum qualifications for the position. From the reentry perspective, it is a laudable initiative that gives formerly incarcerated people a fair shot at being considered for a position on their merits and qualifications.

The bill failed on the Senate Floor yesterday by a vote of 20 to 16, but was granted reconsideration. Which means there is something you can do to make things right. It’s the last day of the Senate session and this is an opportunity to pass this important bill.

Call one of these senators (highest priority are Senators Pavley and Roth):

Fran Pavley: Phone: (916) 651-4027 District 27 incorporates and maintains the eastern portion of Ventura County, which includes the cities of Simi Valley, Moorpark, Thousand Oaks, Agoura Hills, and Westlake Village. It also includes the coastal area extending from Leo Carrillo State Beach to Malibu and on to Topanga Canyon. Additionally, it captures the communities of Calabasas, West Hills and a portion of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County. It maintains the coastal mountain range and watershed. This district reunites the cities in Eastern Ventura County above the Conejo Grade and combines them with communities in the greater Santa Monica Mountain area and the western San Fernando Valley along the Highway 101 and 118 corridors.

Richard Roth: Phone: (916) 651-4031; District 31: Riverside County including the Cities of Corona, Eastvale, Jurupa Valley, Moreno Valley, Norco, Perris and Riverside, Fax: (916) 651-4931

Hannah-Beth Jackson: Phone: (916) 651-4019; District 19 Santa Barbara County and a portion of Ventura County.Santa Maria, Buellton, Solvang, Goleta, Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura, the Santa Clara Valley (Santa Paula, Fillmore, Piru) and Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo on the southeastern border. Agricultural nexus between the Santa Clara Valley, Oxnard plains, and the Santa Maria area.

Jerry Hill: Phone: (916) 651-4013; District 13; Atherton, Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Hillsborough, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Menlo Park, Millbrae, Mountain View, Pacifica, Palo Alto, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Mateo, South San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Woodside and parts of unincorporated San Mateo County and unincorporated Santa Clara County.

Here’s a suggested script for your call:

“I live in the Senator’s district and I support AB 218. I want to urge the Senator to pass this bill. This bill is important to our community because … ”
• “it will help reduce recidivism.”
• “it will increase public safety by making sure people with records have a chance at being employed.”
Use your own words and reasons.
If the idea is to make folks with criminal records contributors, rather than burdens, on the economy, the way to do it is to at least not make it impossible for them to find work. DO SOMETHING TODAY to help them.

Riverside Jail Sends Inmates to Fire Camps

Image courtesy prisontalk.com.

This Wednesday, Riverside County Jail became the first county institution to send inmates to California’s fire camps, in which state prisoners help put out fires. Richard de Atley of P.E. bloggers reports:

The 20 inmates were sent Wednesday, June 5 to the CDCR’s Sierra Conservation Camp training facility, in Jamestown. CDCR has agreed to place the trained county inmates in Riverside County fire camps, whenever possible.

. . .

County Supervisors in April approved a Sheriff’s Department proposal to supply county inmates to the fire camp program. More inmates will be sent every two weeks until the program reaches capacity of 200 Riverside County inmates at any time during the next five years.

Riverside County’s five jails have been at capacity shortly after realignment began. More than 10,000 inmates have been released early due to realignment, jail officials have said.

. . .

Riverside County will pay $46.19 daily per inmate. The funds were set aside from realignment money controlled by the Community Corrections Partnership, a joint local agency that includes the probation, sheriff, mental health department and district attorney and public defender’s offices.

Riverside County’s fire camps are located in Norco and Hemet. The county also maintains the Oak Glen camp, located in northern Riverside County inside the San Bernardino National Forest in the San Gorgonio Mountain Range, according to the Riverside County Fire Department’s web site.

In addition to helping fight wildfires, inmate camp members do public road maintenance and community service work.

For readers unfamiliar with California’s fire camps, I highly recommend Philip Goodman’s work (exhibit A, exhibit B). Not only do the fire camps alleviate prison overcrowding, they provide a much-needed public service. As an interesting aside, the strict racial divisions within the institutions blur when inmates work side by side on life-saving work.

Obtaining a job as a fireman after release from prison, however, may be tricky, as the fire departments run thorough background checks.

Props to Caitlin Henry for the blog link.

Ban the Box: Screening Job Applicants by Criminal Record

Today’s New York Times editorial is devoted to the problem of screening job applicants who have criminal records.

Sixty-five million Americans have criminal records that might cause them to be denied jobs, even for arrests or minor convictions that occurred in the distant past. Last year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reaffirmed a longstanding ruling that it was illegal to screen out employees unless the offense was directly related to the job.

The problem, however, has become so acute that a growing number of states and municipalities have explicitly prohibited public agencies — and in some cases, private businesses — from asking about an applicant’s criminal history until the applicant reaches the interview stage or receives a conditional job offer. In addition, many jurisdictions now require employers to show that the disqualifying offenses are directly related to the position in question.

The editorial links to this report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which lists states and localities that have adopted “ban the box” initiatives, which do not allow employes to inquire about prospective employees’ criminal records. Among the localities mentioned in the report are San Francisco, Oakland, East Palo Alto, Carson, Compton, Richmond, Alameda County, and Santa Clara County. As the report explains, many of the “ban the box” initiatives are fairly new (adopted within the last seven years) thanks to the work of prison and reentry activists, and some of them were adopted during the financial crisis and despite job shortages.

As far as statewide policies, a Schwarzenegger gubernatorial executive order from 2010 ordered two questions regarding conviction history removed from the State of California Employment application.  The State Personnel Board has issued a new application, and background checks will not be required for every position. For more information about the successful campaign to bring about Ban the Box in California, read how Legal Services for Prisoners with Children spearheaded the campaign or use the toolkit available on their website.

What about private employers? The California Labor Code, summarized in this report, asking employees to provide information about arrests that did not lead to a conviction is illegal. The statues do not prohibit employers from asking about arrests for which employees are out on bail, but it seems that seeking such information about applicants would be tricky, if not illegal. Asking about criminal convictions is allowed when accompanied by a statement that criminal records do not necessarily disqualify an applicant from consideration, and asking about certain marijuana convictions (more than two years old) and expunged/sealed convictions, as well as misdemeanor convictions for which probation has been completed, is illegal.

The progress made by Ban the Box activists is astounding particularly against the background of job losses in the last few years. It’s a display of fairness and equity in a setting that usually does not have much empathy for currently or formerly incarcerated people. Readers – why do you think that is? Is this a rehabilitative animus – that is, people feel more inclined to help folks who have already completed their sentences? Or is there anything else afoot?

Less Prison, Less Crime: SF Does Things Right

This evening I attended a town hall event with Senator Mark Leno and other guests. The event focused on criminal justice reform in California, but most of the time was spent discussing San Francisco’s policies and practices. It was, for the most part, a happy occasion, with plenty of opportunity to celebrate San Francisco’s sensible approach to law enforcement and corrections.

Senator Leno opened by giving some historical background. Ten years ago, when he started chairing the Public Safety Committee on the Assembly, California was spending 5.3% of its budget on corrections. That rose to 11% pre-realignment. But we’ve turned a corner. In 2014, this figure will be lowered to 7%. And, despite not incarcerating as many people (actually, being the county that incarcerates the least amount of people!), San Francisco is experiencing record low rates of violent crime. How are we doing this without recurring to mass incarceration?

There are a few things that are in the works. The unsuccessful attempt to reclassify simple possession, a misdemeanor, as an infraction, might be resuscitated. We’re beginning to make use of medical parole (trying to save $150 million dollars spent on health costs and security costs involving treatment of inmates who can’t take care of their basic needs, some of whom are actually comatose.)

The main achievement has been the enactment of SB 678, the counterpart to AB 109, which creates community corrections. Shifting the responsibility for the post-sentence phase to the counties was accompanied by a shift in approach. Wendy Still, the Chief Probational Officer, spoke of her 26 years of experience in corrections and of moving to the counties to make a difference before people come to state prison. New admissions to prison are now down 37% statewide, and 47% in San Francisco, which always held the lowest prison rates and has reduced them now even further. The probationers, now addressed as clients, are no longer perceived to require surveillance and supervision, but rather services to help them get their lives on track. The system of incentives has been modified so that reduction in recidivism makes a difference. The money that counties received upfront to set up SB 678 – $45 million in federal stimulus grants – yielded &180 in correctional savings.

David Onek from UC Berkeley’s center on criminal justice mentioned the unique nature of San Francisco’s criminal justice apparatus and the remarkable collaboration between its different agencies. While it is, he said, too early for a realignment report card, it seems that San Francisco was well ahead of the curve for a long time.

Jeff Adachi talked about the work that still needed doing: Fixing the racial disparity in San Francisco’s correctional institutions and seriously improving our reentry services. One measure taken toward the latter is Clean Slate, which helps folks with convictions start anew and put their lives on track.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said that San Francisco jails are remarkable in that they are undercrowded. He also spoke of his wish to be the first sheriff to request less beds, or to rebuild dilapidated institutions with less beds than they had in the first place.

Commander John Murphy of the SFPD talked about the collaboration between the city’s different agencies, and of the effective reduction in violent crime (16% less shootings.) The focus is on Anthony Braga‘s hot spots – apparently, 50% of all violent crime in the city happens in 2% of its geographical area, which allows the police to focus their efforts in this area, involve community organizations, and shift the attention away from low-level drug offending (arrests for drug offenses have gone down from 50-100 a day to less than 10.)

It was a self-congratulatory evening, but rightly so; San Francisco has much to take pride in. And, as a side note, it was rather delightful to see a large contingent of the awesome United Playaz in the audience. So glad to see young people politically involved.

Recount and Felon Disenfranchisement

Movie poster courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Last night I finally saw the 2008 HBO movie Recount. It is a docudrama about the aftermath of the 2000 Bush/Gore election, from the first reports of the results up to the Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore.

I arrived in the United States in July 2001, to a shell-shocked Berkeley, where the wall-to-wall consensus was that the election was stolen by Bush supporters and that Al Gore was the President-in-exile. The confusion and rage intensified shortly after my arrival by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was a newcomer, and for the life of me, could not figure out who had voted for Bush; I was yet to realize how deep the rift was and how partisanship wrecked and hollowed American politics. So, it was a fascinating experience to see a retelling of the story of that election, with the last twelve years in mind; much of what we experience politically today can date back to that fateful election.

What stuck out for me, though, was not so much the righteousness of one side or other; I entirely believed Ted Olson’s integrity when he said, with a straight face, to a room full of Bush supporters, that Bush had won each and every one of the recounts. Instead, what filled me with rage was the cynical use the Florida state apparatus made of felon disenfranchisement laws.

In the film, a Democratic party volunteer knocks on a door. A guarded, sad man opens the door. The volunteer asks for his name. “Yeah?” says the man. “You were turned away at the ballots this election, right?” The man replies in the affirmative, his face ashen and disaffected. “I’m Jeremy Bash from the Democratic party. Can we talk?” Says the volunteer, and the man lets him in.

It turns out that, in Florida’s enthusiasm to deny the vote to its formerly incarcerated citizens, the list makers included many non-felons in the list. The outrage among the ranks is palpable.

But the strongest scene, for me, is the ending scene of the movie. Bush’s acceptance speech is shown on TV, and as he addresses the people who did not vote for him, he promises to be their president, too, and to earn their respect. The camera moves around the room, showing the man turned away at the ballots on wrong information of his being a felon. His face is hard to read, but it seems to betray a web of complex emotions: Rage? Disbelief? The first seeds of disaffection, disengagement, dissent? The deep realization that he was locked out of his country’s political process, robbed of the choice to vote for either of the candidates?

This scene speaks volumes for me as we’re getting ready for a hearing before the California Court of Appeals with regard to the right to vote for post-realignment inmates in California jails, and for folks on community post-release supervision. And it is gaining importance as we begin to experience the 2012 presidential campaign. We think that the California bureaucratic apparatus has wrongly interpreted the California constitution to deny felons, whether they are in prison or in jail, the right to vote. Not only does this interpretation fly in the face of the intent behind realignment–a new world of community corrections–but by denying civic integration, it is a barrier to re-entry and a successful welcoming back to society.

Inmates have an important voice of their own and important insights into the criminal process and public expenditure. Some of you may recall a series of posts, like this one and this one, that appeared on the SF Bay Guardian by Just A Guy, an inmate with a keen eye for big-picture politics and economics. This is an important voice that needs to be heard. And, as Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen have repeatedly proven, this voice can make or break an election (and would, indeed, have reversed the 2000 election, as well as another Presidential election and eight Congressional elections.) Thinking about yesterday’s film reinforced my conviction that I would fight for enfranchisement no matter what direction the projected vote would go; it’s no coincidence, however, that inmates and parolees, disproportionately poor and of color, would vote against the regime that subjected them to lengthy, punitive, dehumanizing and unnecessary prison sentences under abysmal conditions.

Florida no longer uses the flawed list that played such an important part in 2000, and that had such disturbing racial implications.

The movie, regardless of your political stance and sentiments about the 2000 elections, is terrific and highly recommended.

BREAKING NEWS: Amicus Brief Submitted in Felon Disenfranchisement Case

“Vote” by Anthony Papa,

Today I filed an amicus brief on behalf of a list of leading criminal justice scholars, supporting petitioners in All Of Us Or None v. Bowen. AOUON and other organizations have filed a petition asking that the Secretary of State allow people serving their sentences in jails post-realignment, or under community post-release supervision, to vote in the elections. In doing so, they rely on the California Constitution, which grants the vote to everyone except those “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony”. The Secretary of State, however, guides inmates not to vote if they are felons, even if they are serving their sentence in jail.

Here’s the summary of our argument in support of the petition:

Following the California Criminal Justice Realignment, inmates convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenses will serve their sentence in county jails, rather than in state prisons. The legislative history of AB 109, as well as its language and the practices it directs and encourages, suggest that the legislature intended to use local facilities not merely as a cost-saving measure, but rather as a tool in recidivism reduction through community corrections, reentry and rehabilitative programming. Amici posit that the local setting of jails is an ideal locus for implementing community reintegration goals, and that civic involvement, including enfranchisement, is paramount to these goals. A broad interpretation of the right to vote as including all population in local jails—convicted of non-serious, non-sexual, non-violent offenses, felonies and misdemeanors alike—is fully congruent with these goals. Moreover, enfranchising a broader population, as a result of AB 109, would increase democracy and encourage participation of underserved low-income communities and communities of color in the political and civic process. Finally, Amici rely on empirical research findings to suggest that enfranchisement of all jailed and formerly jailed individuals can positively contribute to recidivism reduction, a socially and economically desirable outcome.

The full brief can be downloaded from Dropbox.

BREAKING NEWS: Felon Disenfranchisement Policy Challenged

Today, several Californian civil rights organizations filed a new lawsuit with the First District Appellate Court, arguing against Secretary of State Deborah Bowen’s policy of disenfranchising all felons, including those who, after realignment, serve time in jail.

And… CCC is involved! A group of criminal justice scholars, represented by yours truly, will be filing an amicus brief shortly in support of the lawsuit.

Here’s what is going on: As some readers may know, Californians imprisoned in state institutions, or on parole, are disenfranchised, but jail inmates and probationers have a right to vote. The realignment, as we know, puts many formerly imprisoned felons in county jails, for part or all of their sentence.

The legal language gives the right to vote to all inmates who are not “imprisoned”. Nonetheless, the California Secretary of State interprets the law as if the felons who will be doing time in jail should remain disenfranchised, and instructs the inmates accordingly. Several inmate rights organizations are now petitioning the Court of Appeals for an original writ, asking that voting rights be extended to everyone serving time in jail or on post-jail community supervision, whether felon or misdemeanant.

We are putting together an amicus brief on behalf of criminal justice scholars to support the petition. The main argument in the brief is that the Realignment was informed by a perspective of reentry and community-based corrections, and as such should encourage civic engagement. We also argue that jails, especially post-Realignment, are the ideal setting for encouraging reintegration through civic rights. The Realignment gives us the opportunity to make that argument on sound legal ground at least with regard to non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders doing time in (or out on supervision from) county jails.

I will post the finished brief after filing. For now, here’s a link to the petition.