Civics and Corrections: A Reminder

As we get ready to watch the momentous transfer of power on Capitol Hill tomorrow, I thought we’d ponder for a moment about the rationale behind excluding prisoners, and in some cases ex-felons, from the right to vote.

Four years ago, released prisoners on parole, and probationers, were surprised to find out that they had a right to vote in California. Activists have been working on raising awareness of the right to vote among those who have been, for a while, excluded from the civic process. In other states, such as Florida, in some cases voting rights can only be restored after a hearing.

In their excellent book Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen uncover some of the reasons why the American system does not award voting rights to its prisoners. Disturbingly, they draw links between felon disenfranchisement and racism, which go beyond a mere coincidence. Even more interestingly, they marshall empirical data, meticulously collected and analyzed, to prove that, had felons been allowed to vote, two presidential elections (1960 and 2000), and several Senatorial elections, would have been reversed.

Some change has already occurred after the publication of the book, as some states loosened restrictions on voting rights. And, as some readers may know, many countries around the world see no problem in allowing prisoners (current and released) to participate in voting.

This weekend, Parade Magazine published a letter from President-Elect Obama to his daughters and to every child in the country. Obviously, our children, whose future we hold so dear and care so much about, did not vote in the last elections. The Presidential stewardship, as Obama so movingly said in his acceptance speech, transcends those who voted for him; it extends to those who voted for other candidates, and hopefully will also extend to other groups who did not have the privilege to vote at all. As many of us hope for change in many ways, we can hope that our future paths and endeavors also direct us to re-entry, restoration and reintegration after punishment.

Prison and Parole Cuts: Lean Years, Lean Budget

Yesterday’s Sacramento Bee reported Governor Schwarzenegger’s new budget plan, which has direct implications for corrections policy. The gist of it is as follows:

Parole would be eliminated for all nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders. The proposal would cut the parole population by about 65,000 by June 30, 2010, or more than half of the Christmas Eve count of 123,144.

At the same time, the corrections plan calls for increasing good-time credits for inmates who obey the rules and complete rehabilitation programs. Combined with the new parole policies that would result in fewer violators forced back into custody, the proposal would reduce the prison population by 15,000 by June 30, 2010. It stood at 171,542 on Dec. 24.

The California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, who has previously opposed the Governor’s plan for state employees to go on one-day furloughs, opposes this plan as well. This letter from their Executive Vice President, Chuck Alexander, has bits and pieces of the proposed budget in it.

A careful read of the budget will reveal cuts not only in the prison and parole systems, but also in the medical system’s Receiver’s budget. Some rehabilitative re-entry programs might actually see an increase in funding.

Desperate times, apparently, call for desperate measures. These steps echo what I commented on here and here: we no longer care about the merits of a correctional institution or project. We only care about how much it costs.

But wait: isn’t de-crowding our prisons, and cutting our parole system, a good thing on the merits as well? This is a bit more complex than it might seem. A credit accumulation system is certainly a good thing, and it helps focus the release decision on factors having to do with actual behavior and change, rather than on a regurgitation of issues concerning the offense itself (a bit more on that, from a broader doctrinal perspective, in this piece by W. David Ball). But rather than eliminating mandatory parole, if we had the leisure of giving this reform careful thought, we would perhaps be better off retooling parole to act as an institution encouraging and supporting ex-felons in re-entry, rather than supervising them and returning them to jails for technicalities? A reformed parole system could be an invaluable resource for people seeking housing and work upon their return from prison. As is becoming plainly obvious, this is not about common sense, even if, in some cases, it seems to make sense as a policy. This is strictly about the money.

It remains to be seen whether the legislator will approve these changes. To Be Continued.

Parole: An Overview, and a Personal Story

As prison population grows, the parolee population grows too. A series of pieces on the North County Times has recently highlighted the experiences of parolees and the challenges of parole agents.

One of these articles discusses the impact of a constantly growing parolee population on the ability of parole officers to supervise – and rehabilitate – their clients successfully:

This is California’s parole system, an overworked, underfunded system that is ill-equipped to deal with a crushing caseload of former prisoners who leave prison with a meager $200 allowance to feed, clothe and house themselves.

It’s a caseload that stands to get much worse if a panel of federal judges conducting a trial in San Francisco to address overcrowding orders the early release of nearly 40,000 men and women now behind bars to ease prison overcrowding.

“California’s parole population is now so large and its parole agents so overburdened that parolees who represent a serious public safety threat are not watched closely and those who wish to go straight cannot get the help they need,” said a federally funded report released last month by three experts on the criminal justice system.

Interestingly, the article sees imprisonment and parole as inversely impacting each other. Naturally, the ecology of imprisonment, release, and reimprisonment, is something that merits attention; but is the problem really the growing rate of release, and if so, is the solution for parole officers’ caseload simply to release less people? Curious to hear your thoughts.

Another piece recounts the optimistic story of George Loving, a parolee who managed a group home in Vista. Among other things, he says:

“I didn’t think I was ever gonna change. I was either gonna die on the streets or die in prison. I didn’t grow up with a whole lot of schooling, so I basically only knew one thing: how to steal. I really didn’t know nothing else.

“You know, the (parole) department can make all the changes they want, but if you’re not ready to change, it really doesn’t matter. And then a lot of us don’t be ready to change. And when you basically been spending your life out and in, out and in, you don’t have no education and all that, you only really know that one way. A lot of people, you get my age and you don’t wanna be talking about going back to school and all that. So you just, like, feel hopeless, like maybe this is all I will ever do.

“And then I took a few programs in prison. After sitting there and listening to people tell their stories, I’d sit back and be thinking, ‘Damn, I did some (stuff) like that,’ and ‘Damn, am I that (messed) up and don’t know about it?’ The programs have a lot to do with me wanting to change, because I thought that there was nothing wrong with me. But there was a whole lot wrong with me.

“It just clicked. I was tired. I was tired, I was getting older, my kids was getting bigger. I just got tired. I been doing this since I was 11.

“This job (at a sheet metal company) don’t pay a whole lot of money, but it beats 10 cents an hour or whatever I was getting in prison.

“I just feel good where I’m out now. Sometimes I think about what took me so long to realize that it’s actually not hard to do that right thing. You know, and I really don’t even get all them old thoughts of doing this and doing that no more, you know. Life has just been good. Just living it the best I can.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

Focus on Proposition 6: How To Deal With Gangs and Other Matters

Proposition 6, or the Safe Neighborhood Act, proposes a variety of changes to the CA criminal justice policy. The main idea behind it is addressing street crime from a “war on crime” perspective.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when considering Prop 6 is its financial implications. Currently, CA is allocating $600,000 to law enforcement, and this proposition will raise this amount by $350,000 (a 50% increase). One source provides the breakdown of these additional funds by topic. The question, therefore, is twofold: whether, as voters, you agree with the philosophy that has driven the proposition, and, if so, whether you are comfortable with its costs.

Some of the major and substantive proposed changes include changing evidence rules to allow hearsay, i.e. a victim’s testimony at the police station, in cases in which the victim is later unavailable to testify. “Unavailability” is broadly defined to include situations in which the victim refuses to testify due to trauma. This idea is not as innovative as it might seem in the American context; other countries have broad exceptions to the hearsay rule, brought about in the conservative 1980s as a response to concerns about organized crime and victim intimidation. It seems that this rationale is also behind the proposed new offense, penalizing any activity of preventing or dissuading victims from testifying and complaining to the police, as well as acts of retaliation against victims.

Prop 6 includes several other new offenses; all of these acts seem to be punishable under current criminal laws, and I expect their proposed criminalization is more of a proclamation than a practical change. These include tampering with one’s electronic monitor; driving or taking away other person’s vehicle (year in jail or fine); and graffiti (year in jail or fine). A point of interest about this last one: if juveniles are unable to pay fines for graffiti, their parents may be responsible.

Which is where we come to one of the main focal points of Prop 6: the issue of gangs. the US in general, and CA in particular, has struggled with gang-related polices for many years now. The philosophy behind much of what we have done so far regarding gangs assumes that gang membership is conducive to crime, and that one way to fight gang-related crime is to fight the gangs themselves, before any crime has been committed.

One such early attempt to control gang-related behaviors involved using criminal law to prohibit gang members from congregating. In Chicago v. Morales, the criminal prohibition for gang members to “loiter in public places” was held to violate the Due Process clause due to its vagueness and the broad discretion it leaves to law enforcement officers. But the newer generation of gang-related policies seems to be much more targeted. My student Adam Maldonado, who has done some research on civil gang injunctions in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, found that they prohibit specific gangs from congregating in specific, carefully-defined areas. These areas include, in San Francisco, the Mission, Hunter’s Point, and Western Addition, including a 3-by-4 block not far from Hastings. He has also found that, before an injunction is applied, the gang needs to be thoroughly researched by law enforcement agencies, so there is “clear and convincing evidence” that it constitutes a “public nuisance” (People v. Englebrecht (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 1236, 1256).

How does Prop 6 impact gang-related policy? To start, it adds provisions that make a gang into a legal entity. A gang can be sued, and Prop 6 adds mechanisms by which its members can be served with papers on behalf of the gang, which simplify the process of injunction and potentially other processes of legal dealings with gangs as such. It also includes a list of 33 offenses, ranging from serious violence offenses to much less serious property offenses, which, when committed by a minor in a gang context, would enable CA to try the minor as an adult. Also, the punishment for a long list of felonies is doubled if these are committed in the context of a gang.

Prop 6 also requires more research into gangs, including a registry; failure by a previously convicted gang member to register might be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the content of the original conviction.

Other miscellaneous changes included in Prop 6:
o allocating $10,000,000 for conducting background checks on public housing recipients
o excluding the possibility of bail for illegal aliens charged with violence or gang-related crimes (of particular interest in light of San Francisco’s recent “sanctuary city” expose);
o banning O.R. release for violent offenders without a hearing, and placing limitations on OR for violent offenses in the context of guns, parole violations, and others;
o tightening notification to parole authorities of any parolee behavior, ranging from offenses to technicalities (contrast with Prop 5, which advocates a softening of parole revocation based on technical violations);
o allocating funds for reentry programs; however, by contrast to Prop 5, the emphasis is on monitoring and supervision (through GPS devices, etc).

Stay tuned for the last post in the series, discussing some aspects of Prop 9.

The Importance of Re-Entry

My student Billy Minshall has just directed my attention to a short piece by Jeff Adachi, the public defender for San Francisco, on today’s Examiner. Adachi is referring to a special event on re-entry today. Among other things, he writes:

Every year, more than 137,000 parolees are released in California, including 2,400 who return to San Francisco. Of these, only 21 percent are expected to successfully complete parole. Most, like Jesse, have low levels of education, reside in poor neighborhoods and lack basic marketable job skills. With the advent of online criminal background checks, many are eliminated before they are even considered for employment.

Employers are understandably reluctant to hire offenders. Some jobs — such as transport, teaching, and child or patient care — automatically bar offenders. Employers may also fear legal liability if an offender commits a crime while employed. In a recent survey of employers, less than 40 percent said that they would consider hiring an offender.

So, what can be done to help a formerly incarcerated man or woman who wants to work and avoid the revolving prison doors?

The answer is stunningly simple: convince employers to hire offenders.

Not an easy task, but one that can be facilitated through Supervisor Mirkarimi’s plan to insure employers prepared to participate. Given the rates of incarceration, this should really be a top priority.

On the same topic, Jennifer Gonnerman’s new book Life on the Outside documents the re-entry challenges faced by Elaine Bartlett upon her release from prison. The book’s website is a good resources for those of us seeking to connect the broad re-entry issue with a particular human face and story.