Film Review: Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s new documentary Into the Abyss takes us on a nightmarish trip into the lives of criminals and victims in the aftermath of a triple murder that happened in Texas ten years ago. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, teenagers at the time, were convicted of murdering Sandra Stotler and tied to two more homicides of teenage boys. The murders, according to the police and some witnesses, were committed with the sole objective to steal cars.

Eight days before his execution, Perry speaks to Werner Herzog in prison about his faith and his life behind bars. Also included in the documentary are Stotler’s daughter (sister of Adam Stotler, another one of the victims), Jason Burkett who did not get the death penalty, and Burkett’s father, who, incredibly, is also serving a forty-year sentence and who was handcuffed to his own son on the way from court. Witnesses and death row personnel speak about the meaning of life and death for them. And Burkett’s wife, who met him after he was imprisoned, speaks of their life together.

To me, the film was not a heavy-handed, idealistic or pragmatic critique of the death penalty. Instead, it presented a much subtler argument based on the futility of death — of law, really — to truly ever encompass and address the abyss of sadness and dysfunction that permeates the lives of all the people involved. Strikingly, everyone featured in the documentary — victims and defendants — is surrounded by imprisonment and death. Jail is a fact of life, as is victimization in dreadful accidents and violent altercations. So much loss and grief, to which more loss and grief is added through the crime and, subsequently, through the punishment.

I found Ms. Stotler’s words at the end to be absolutely fascinating. She says she would be satisfied with life without parole, and nonetheless, she got something out of attending the execution. It brought her some closure and relief. As Herzog invites her to reflect on the source of the closure and relief, she says, “he was just a boy. I had made him into that monster, and then I saw him, and he was just a boy.” Who knows how much relief, mercy, and grace would have been attained had Perry reached out to the family of his victims.

A subtle, profound, and thought-provoking piece, Into the Abyss is highly recommended to those who want to think about the death penalty, victimization, and criminality beyond crude partisan abstractions.

Did the Victim Participation Bill Increase Victim Participation?

Yesterday my students and I were talking about legislation initiatives. One of the insights of our discussion, prompted by the experiences of some of them in drafting bills, was bringing up the question whether legislation was always designed to achieve its stated goals, or to serve some other enforcement goal. Some examples we floated around were the San Francisco sit-lie ordinance, which aims not at criminalizing sitting on the sidewalk per se, but rather to provide the police with an easy enforcement tool against undesirable urban elements without having to spell out the problem. This gap between proclaimed legislative intent and actual intent to enforce is something Dan Portman and I refer to in this piece as “inequitable enforcement.”

As has often been the case since the mid-1990, our example this morning comes from the world of pro-victim legislation. The 1990s, as Jonathan Simon convincingly argues in Governing Through Crime, were the decade of the victim, who became the symbolic citizen, occupying the role previously occupied by the yeoman farmer and the small business owner. In 2008, California citizens voted for Prop 9, also known as Marsy’s Law. Ostensibly a victim rights proposal (pretty much granting the same rights victims already had before the law passed), the big changes made by the proposal included lengthening the period before a given inmate is entitled to a parole hearing. At the time, we floated around the question whether Prop 9 violated the single subject rule, and some aspects of it were challenged at the 9th Circuit.

But the real question, which we could not answer at the time, was of course whether a legislative initiative ostensibly designed to increase victim participation in the criminal process really does so. And we now have an empirical answer, from a study by Laura Richardson: No, but it sure impacted the process in other ways.

Here is what the black-letter law purported to do:

Marsy’s Law has made major changes to many aspects of parole. Section 3041.5 of the California Penal Code was the most significantly altered by the adoption of Marsy’s Law. Marsy’s Law changed the default time for the date of the next parole hearing from a single year to fifteen years. It changed the amount of time that could be set between parole hearings from 1-5 years to 3-15 years. It altered the standard for deciding when to set the next hearing, shifting the burden from the state on justifying why the inmate continued to be a threat to public safety necessitating a longer time before the next hearing, to the inmate in showing the non- existence of reasons why he or she continues to be a threat to public safety. It also gave the board less discretion in setting parole hearings only allowing parole hearings to be initially set at either 3, 7, 10 or 15 years.

Section 3043 of the California Penal Code was significantly changed by the adoption of Marsy’s Law as well; allowing for victims, victims’ families and up to two representatives to have greater input during the parole hearing. Victims’ [sic] are now entitled to have their “entire and uninterrupted statements” heard by the Parole Board. Additionally, the inmate does not have the right to cross-examine the victim at the parole hearing.

After coding and analyzing 211 randomly-selected parole hearings both before and after the implementation of Marsy’s Law, Richardson’s findings are twofold: First, the time between parole hearings has nearly doubled, and the law is a strong determining factor of parole setting. 

Controlling for the factors described in Part II, the coefficient for Marsy’s Law in the regression shows a positive increase in the amount of time set by the Parole Board until the next hearing by 2.06 years (+/-0.72) for full parole hearings . . .  No other variable showed an equal positive increase in the amount of time set between parole hearings by the Parole Board. Marsy’s Law had a more significant impact on the time set until the next parole hearing by the Parole Board than any of the factors that the board must utilize in making their parole decisions or the inmate’s activity. 

And, the analysis fails to find any increase in victim participation in the process:

Using least squares regression to test the validity of my model I was unable to find any impact of Marsy’s Law on victim participation at the parole hearing. The only variable that was significant was whether the hearing was an initial or subsequent hearing. When the hearing was a subsequent hearing victim participation decreased by 1.219 (+/1 .46). 

Wait – Decreased?

This raises an open-ended question: In light of these findings, is Marsy’s law a failure or a success?

Props to our friends at the Prison Law Blog and at Crim Prof Blog for the link.

SB9, Review of Juvenile LWOP: A Few Misperceptions Corrected

Our posts about SB9 yielded several reader comments, some of which I had to refrain from publishing because of their incendiary tone. I thought it might be worthwhile to tackle some of the misapprehensions regarding SB9. While I think SB9 is a great idea and endorse it wholeheartedly, I am not officially affiliated, politically or financially, with Senator Yee or anyone else involved. Therefore, consider this an academic’s opinion, rather than political propaganda.

This proposal sets dangerous people loose in the streets.

The proposal addresses only two hundred inmates or so, and none of them is being set loose in the street quite yet. What the bill does is allow a judge to review again the case of juveniles sentenced to LWOP after they have already served at least a fifteen-year sentence. And even then, the judge will only have the ability to modify the sentence to twenty-five to life. Overall, it’s a fairly mild proposition.

Aren’t these people dangerous?

Well, some of them might be, and some of them might not. It will be up to the judge to review their history, when petitioned to do so, and to assess whether it is risky to make them eligible for parole. There will be discretion about this. What we know about the trajectory of criminal careers tends to suggest that, for many folks who committed crime in their teens, age tends to “mellow people out” and they become less dangerous as they age.

If it’s only a few hundred people, why is this such a big deal?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal at all. A handful of inmates will be serving a very long prison term, rather than an even longer one. But the difference to the individual, in terms of offering a ray of hope, is immense.

Doesn’t that teach juveniles that it’s okay to murder?

Not at all. Twenty-five to life is a very long time for a young person. And that’s assuming that juveniles even think about the repercussions when committing crimes, many of which are expressive crimes rather than cold, calculated ones.

We’re not really saving a lot of money by letting these people out earlier than expected, are we?

That’s impossible to answer accurately without proper data. However, it stands to reason that the older our inmate population is, the more we’ll be spending on its health care, which is already approximately one third of our correctional budget. Letting someone out when he or she is in his or her fifties, rather than letting him or her die behind bars, might spare us some of the costlier inmates and allow us to focus resources on others who need urgent care.

They committed murder and deserve never to see the light of day again.

Well, that is a legitimate opinion, but what someone “deserves” depends on your definition of just desert. Spending twenty-five to life behind bars, subject to violence, overcrowding, and prisons devoid of rehabilitative programming is very far from being a walk in the park.

What about the victims’ families?
That is very much a matter of personal feeling. Many families of murder victims feel immense amounts of rage and sadness and translate those to a wish that the perpetrator of their tragedy rot behind bars. That is understandable. But it doesn’t mean that the state has to grant these wishes to the letter. Moreover, there are plenty of families of victims who do not derive satisfaction from revenge or retribution, and would much rather the money spent on incarceration be spent on more and better homicide investigation, to prevent future tragedies. There are many people who feel this way; the media exposes you to the vocal, angry ones, and they do not necessarily represent everyone.

If the legislators think LWOP sentences should be reviewed, why not abolish LWOP for juveniles altogether?

At this point, Supreme Court case law regards LWOP for juveniles as constitutional for murder (not for other offenses.) Maybe future cases will follow the rationale of Roper v. Simmons and extend the abolition of LWOP to murder as well. But this is an opportunity to do something, now.

For a matter pertaining to so few people, this is eating up plenty of public energy and discourse. Why are we dealing with this, rather than with death penalty abolition and fighting mass incarceration?

Because this is easier to achieve, and these folks need some attention, too. But there is a bill on the CA ballot to abolish the death penalty. There’s also a bill to reform the Three Strikes Law. And it’s about time.

Rise of the Non-Punitive Victim

An op-ed in the local San Gabriel Valley tribune is a strong testament to the changing sentiments of victims’ families, a growing number of whom are not adequately represented by punitive organizations such as Crime Victims United of California and the like. Judy Kerr’s op-ed eloquently provides a humonetarian critique of the death penalty from the perspective of the family of a murder victim.

In California, in the last ten years, 46 percent of murders went unsolved. This means over 25,000 murders remain unsolved, and 25,000 other families are waiting, like mine, to know who killed their loved ones. And it means as many as 25,000 killers roam freely on our streets. In the midst of this crisis of unsolved murders, we are also facing the biggest budget crisis in our state’s history. While people literally get away with murder, the public safety network in California has unraveled. Police officers in every county in the state are being laid off. And, in every county, we are cutting back on homicide investigations and eliminating victims’ services.

As thousands of family members wait for justice only to be told there is not enough money to fund an investigation, we watch as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on the death penalty each year. Death penalty appeals, special housing for death row inmates, additional corrections officers to monitor them, a double-trial system which separates guilt and penalty phases – the costs associated with the death penalty are endless.

Many hear this and ask: Can’t we just speed up the execution process? Reports from respected judges and criminal justice experts, both for and against the death penalty, have shown that the only way to make the system move faster while still preventing the execution of an innocent person is to spend even more money.

This local op-ed is notable for various reasons – its invocation of a humonetarian discourse, its disavowal of the traditional victim sentiments – but it is particularly important because a legislative proposal to abolish the death penalty in California is on the agenda, advanced and advertised for humonetarian reasons.

Book Review: Josh Page, The Toughest Beat

California has often been proclaimed ungovernable, its politics described either as too dense to fathom or, in an oversimplified fashion, as a mess generated by unfettered direct democracy and shortsighted financial policies. But some astute political actors have accrued the knowledge and skills to navigate these complex political seas, and the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association (CCPOA) is one of them.  Joshua Page’s new book The Toughest Beat  clearly and intelligently transcends theoretical abstractions and simplistic clichés to provide a sobering, thorough analysis of the CCPOA’s role in shaping California’s penal policies, and in doing so, provides an excellent primer to the entire landscape of California politics and decisionmaking.
The book begins with a detailed, fascinating history of the rise of the CCPOA from an “old boys’ club” providing social opportunities and camaraderie for its members to a powerful player in state legislation and policy. Using a myriad of sources, in the tradition of “old-school,” well-done ethnographies, the book cleverly tells this story oscillating between the macro world of the state and national contexts and the microcosm of specific personalities. Don Novey‘s role as the architect of the CCPOA’s lobbying and influence strategy is particularly highlighted. Emphasis is placed on the CCPOA’s bipartisan alliances with Democracts (with respect to union concerns) and Republicans (with respect to punitiveness concerns).
This account is followed by two somber chapters, which illuminate the role played by CCPOA in shaping penal policies. The first reveals the complex interdependency between the CCPOA and a few victim organizations, such as the Crime Victims United of California; the latter organizations, representing the interest of specific demographics and a particularly punitive and vengeful victim perspective, were effectively created, managed, and puppeteered by CCPOA. Rather than flinging radical accusations and conspiracy theories, Page’s careful analysis of this web of interdependency and coalitions is understated and backed with hard evidence, including a personnel and finances analysis and ethnographic data. The CCPOA’s wisdom in fostering such mutually beneficial coalitions with victim organizations, district attorneys, sheriffs, and wealthy private citizens, is grimly shown to prove itself in the following chapter, which analyzes, blow-by-blow, the passage of the Three Strikes Law, California’s pioneering piece of punitive legislation. While the story behind California’s return to determinate sentencing, and the subsequent story of its romance with an ultrapunitive sentencing regime, are a larger story than that of the CCPOA, the union played a pivotal role in selected phases, and was a dominant factor in swinging the punitive pendulum. This account is an indictment not only against CCPOA, but against a system in which the idea of direct democracy is marred by a reality of unregulated funding, misleading advertisements and abundant disinformation and ignorance.
But Page’s book cannot be reduced to a good guy/bad guy formula. His masterful account of the CCPOA’s epic fight against prison privatization shows the different strategies employed by CCPOA and the private prison corporations, and relies on a deep, intuitive understanding of how the state works to explain how, despite resorting to nefarious techniques such as building a prison on speculation, the private companies did not prevail.
The book reads like a fascinating political thriller. It does not resort to extremism or unfounded proclamations, is concisely written, and is refreshingly free of jargon. Page’s reliance on Pierre Bordieu’s field analysis as his theoretical framework is light-handed and nimble; the theory facilitates, rather than obscures, the book’s clear narrative. It is a book that professionals and laypeople alike would appreciate and enjoy.
I take issue with two minor aspects of Page’s analysis. Firstly, in presenting the punitive background for the rise of the CCPOA, Page paints the “era of rehabilitation” and indeterminate sentencing in nostalgic, overly rosy colors. While the rhetoric and logic of rehabilitation and positivism governed the penal field in California, studies of actual incarceration practice and conditions reveal a grim picture of cruelty, hard labor in the guise of correction at the time, not to mention the arbitrary sentencing practices which dramatically disfavored minority and poor inmates. Determinate sentencing led to a great many evils in California’s correctional system, but it was preceded by a great many evils in its prior regime, which many activists and legal professionals fought to eradicate for all the right reasons.
Second, Page portrays the CCPOA in two somewhat contradictory ways: As an astute political player, who will choose alliances according to what suits its members’ narrow interests, and as an ideologically-committed “law and order” player. I am curious as to which of these frameworks he finds to be a better descriptor. When presenting the CCPOA’s involvement in the creation of Three Strikes, Page refers to it as an “exception” to the “nonintervention rule” regarding sentencing matters, adopted by the union, but his analysis of the involvement and ideological choices made could also regard Three Strikes as a pivotal moment in CCPOA policy, in which it morphed into an ideological player. As Page grimly reminds us at the end of the book, despite CCPOA’s support of sentencing commissions and seemingly more reasonable positions, its powerful, debilitating shadow still looms large over any attempt to reform the correctional system, and its interests in hindering such reforms go beyond its union objectives.
Notwithstanding these minor critiques, The Toughest Beat is a terrific read, and I highly recommend it not only to readers interested in penal policies, but to anyone interested in the inner workings of the political system in the Golden State.

The New CCPOA? Victimhood, Citizenhood, and Political Gain

(image from Crime Victims United of California website)

Joshua Page‘s recent post on the California Progress Report about the CCPOA raises interesting and important questions about the extent to which the union that shaped so much of California’s punitive landscape has morphed into a more realistic factor in policymaking. In recent years, the CCPOA has periodically spoken out against overcrowding (in our conference, too) and issued its fairly sensible blueprints for reform. “Despite these signs of a softened stance,” writes Page, “the CCPOA’s actions question the extent of its transformation.” He cites sad examples such as the CCPOA’s objection to the now-forgotten Prop 5 and its support of Prop 9, the punitive proposal masquerading as a victim rights proposition, which voters in CA approved under the name Marsy’s Law.

There are other important aspects in Page’s post, but the one I found most intriguing has to do with the CCPOA’s deliberately political use of victim rights.

In the early 1990s, the union effectively created Crime Victims United of California (CVUC), the most influential crime victims’ organization in California, if not the entire United States. (The union also helped establish another influential group, the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, but now works primarily with CVUC). The CCPOA committed extensive resources to the development of the CVUC, providing office space, lobbying staff, attorneys, and seed money. Harriet Salarno, president of CVUC, says forthrightly, “I could not do this without CCPOA, because we didn’t have the money to do it.” Beyond material resources, the CCPOA also taught CVUC how to play the political game.

The union developed CVUC for strategic purposes. This is not to say that CCPOA’s leaders do not genuinely care for and want to assist victims and their families; they do. But, CVUC helps the CCPOA achieve its goals from outside its ranks in three main ways. First, it validates the CCPOA’s public claims that prison officers are uniquely skilled professionals who work the “toughest beat in the state.” Second, it legitimates the CCPOA’s assertions that the union serves universal purposes (rather than its individual, pecuniary interests) by supporting crime victims and bolstering public safety. Just as families of schoolchildren promote teachers and the California Teachers Association, crime victims’ advocates endorse prison officers and the CCPOA. Third, CVUC helps the union achieve policy objectives, often providing a sympathetic face to campaigns that advance a “tough on crime” agenda.

In Governing Through Crime, Jonathan Simon writes about the transformation in our cultural conception of the quintessential citizen – from yeoman farmer to small business owner to victim. Our whole concept of public policy is constructed around our understanding of ourselves as potential victims. Our fetish of homeownership, the emergence of gated communities – all reflect our understanding of the home primarily as a fortress against crime (plenty of crime, of course, happens in upscale well-protected mansions, too; it’s just not the crime you would expect.) The fact that a prison guard union finds it useful to create a pet organization of victim advocacy attests to the immense symbolic power of the victim in social discourse. CCPOA, a well-seasoned player in the California political game, understands the power of the victim all too well.

Children on the Outside

This week, Justice Strategies rolled out their excellent new report, “Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration,” by Patricia Allard and Judith Greene. Read it here.

We knew that the USA’s enormous prison population has high monetary costs and even higher human costs, but this paper documents the particular costs of separating families. Parental incarceration triples the odds that children will engage in violence or drug abuse, and doubles their odds of developing serious mental health issues. There are more children of incarcerated parents than there are total incarcerated persons; nearly 25% of the 1.7 million children with incarcerated parents are under age four, and over 33% will become adults while their parents are locked up.

LA Times favors parole for youth LWOPs

Today’s LA Times carries this piece:,0,2931752.story subtitled, “Sara Kruzan’s case shows why juveniles should not sentenced to life without parole.”

The Times had previously written in favor of Sen. Yee’s narrowly-defeated SB 399 to change this policy statewide; today’s Times asks Governor Schwarzenegger to offer clemency, if only in this one extreme case.

My favorite quotes: “She has volunteered for dozens of rehabilitation programs and won awards for her participation and attitude. … The CYA felt that she should have been prosecuted as a juvenile rather than as an adult, which would have put her into a rehabilitation program from which she could have been freed by age 25 — seven years ago.”

Sentenced a minor to life behind bars with no chance of parole is a ghastly, inhumane, cruel practice.

Retributivism and Restorative Justice

The afternoon panels at CELS also featured wonderful work. First I heard Dena Gromet and John Darley’s paper Gut reactions to Criminal Wrongdoing: The Role of Political ideology. In the paper, Gromet and Darley examine whether people’s support for a retributive or restorative framework depends on reason considerations, or whether it is a gut reaction. To measure that, they conducted a survey in which they asked respondents’ opinions on victims and on offenders, assessing their support for each framework. They also inquired about their political opinion (on a conservative to liberal scale). To measure gut reactions, rather than calm reasoning, they asked respondents these questions under cognitive load (made them memorize an 8-digit number while they responded). They found that the satisfaction with restoration, whether on its own or as added to satisfaction with retributivism, goes up for liberals and down for conservatives with cognitive load. Their conclusion was, therefore, that liberals and conservatives have different intuitive reactions to serious crime: Liberals endorse restoration while conservatives favor retribution.

This paper was followed by Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and N.T. Feather’s paper Conceptualizing Retributive and Restorative Justice. Drawing on differences in conception of justice, Okimoto, Wenzel and Feather administered a survey in which they asked respondents a series of question to establish the extent to which they subscribed to two alternative views of justice: the need to empower the victim and degrade the offender, versus the need to heal relationships and reassert consensual social values. They generated a scale that allows measuring where respondents lie along a spectrum of retributive to restorative justice.

The “Un-Othering” of Crime: A New and Impressive Anti-Rape Campaign

Election season always brings with it an intensified focus on the quintessential modern American citizen according to Jonathan Simon: The victim. The Attorney General race, and the candidates’ websites, are full of references to contacts with the “community”, defining “community” as one of potential victims. This approach, supposedly, is the antithesis to a “soft on crime” approach focusing on coddling the offender and absolving him or her of all responsibility for the crime. This approach is often accused of “blaming the victim”.

Reality is a bit more complicated than that.

There is something that brings together the stereotypical “blame the victim” and “tough on crime” approaches, even though they appear to be antithetical, and that is a sense that crime, as well as victimization, is a phenomenon that only occurs to “others”. Victims of rape, for example, are either complicit in their own victimization through scandalous sexual behavior, or angelic creatures whose tragic fate calls for dramatic displays of legislative punitiveness. Rapists, on the other hand, are either predetermined biological beasts, or evil, conniving men. None of these people–assailants and victims–are real, and none of these scenarios go to the heart of what happens in most rape scenarios, in which the victim and the perpetrator know each other.

Which is why I absolutely love the new anti-rape campaign under the slogan “my strength is not for hurting”. Propagated by Men Can Stop Rape, the campaign addresses common scenarios and offering directives for sensible, considerate behavior. Here are some examples:

Here is some of what I like about this campaign:

1. These posters are full of realistic scenarios in which any man, not just some pathological monster, could be raping a woman. Since we think of rape as a heinous crime, some may find it difficult to identify sleeping with an intoxicated woman, or choosing to ignore lack of full consent, as rape. These posters bring it home.
2. For once, full responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the potential assailants, as those in the best position to stop the bad situation from happening.
3. This campaign is a reminder that rape does not happen in some far away parallel universe, but in dates, and parties, and various other everyday circumstances.
4. Note how the posters endorse an image of masculinity which fosters responsibility, communication, and regard for the other person’s feelings, instead of glorifying violence and humiliation.

In some ways, this is the natural complement to self defense programs such as Impact Bay Area, which empower people with the knowledge they need to get out of bad situations without placing blame or responsibility upon them. Impact, and MyStrength, are a successful pitch because they speak to real people about real phenomena and avoid the trap of stereotypes and cliches.