Category Archives: Criminal Justice Reform

Down-Ballot Races That Matter

Tomorrow, June 5, is primary day here in California, and this year there has been an unusual focus on county-level races for District Attorney and Sheriff, positions with critical impact on the criminal justice system that have historically often been uncontested or un-noticed. The District Attorney races in Alameda and Sacramento have drawn a particular amount of attention, with progressive candidates putting on strong challenges to the establishment candidates. In Los Angeles, with less public attention, there is a similar progressive challenge to the incumbent Sheriff from inside the Sheriff’s department. Lt. Alex Villanueva is challenging incumbent Jim McDonnell on a reform campaign highlighting  community policing and civilian oversight:

“Of all the pressing needs of the community and the LASD, here is a short list of the most critical:

  • Rebuilding the LASD from the ground up based on community policing principles and ethical standards of conduct.
  • Clean house of all sources of corruption, both past and present.
  • Develop a long term strategic plan for the organization that includes adding 3,000 patrol deputies and shrinking a massive bureaucracy
  • A coordinated recruitment drive targetting the County’s most under-represented communities
  • Meaningful civilian oversight

My priorities are straight forward:

  • Implement community policing countywide
  • Develop a new generation of leadership built on public service
  • Promote transparency, accountability, and meaningful civilian oversight
  • Demand fiscal responsibility and live within our budget
  • Improve the morale of the organization
  • Restore the reputation of the LASD as the premier law enforcement organization it can be”

“First Step” Prison Reform Passes House

The FIRST STEP Act, which includes a number of substantive changes to the federal prison and reentry system, was approved yesterday in the House by a vote of 360-59. Among other things, FIRST STEP would

  • allow inmates to accrue up to 54 days of good time credit a year. The changes would apply retroactively, resulting in the release of approximately 4,000 federal inmates, according to the U.S. Justice Action Network, a criminal justice advocacy group.
  • ban the shackling of pregnant inmates, including while giving birth and postpartum. It would also require Bureau of Prison facilities to provide female hygiene products free of charge and increase available phone and in-person visitations for new mothers.
  • require the Bureau of Prisons to place inmates in facilities within 500 driving miles of their families.
  • increase the use of compassionate release for terminally ill inmates, and require new reporting on how many applications for compassionate release are accepted or denied.

The bill has sharply divided criminal reform advocates. Some, such as Rep. Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the bill’s co-sponsor, say it would provide better conditions and the possibility of earlier release for the roughly 180,000 inmates serving time in federal prison. “Any objective reading of this bill is that it will improve inmates’ quality of life,” Jeffries said on the House floor prior to the vote.

Others contend the good provisions in the bill are outweighed by core concerns over how the overcrowded, underfunded Bureau of Prisons system would handle the new programs and changes.  Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.), and Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-Tx.) have written a joint letter saying that the reforms would fail without broader sentencing reforms.

Unlawful Voter Purges in…California?

All Of Us or None, a California a California-based grassroots organization fighting for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people, has sent demand letters to ten California county registrar’s offices –including Butte, Contra Costa, Kings, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, Solano, Tulare, Ventura and Orange — asking them to reinstate the voter registrations of thousands of people with conviction histories that AOUON believes were unlawfully purged from electoral rolls. According to AOUON, there are at least 3,000 such eligible voters removed in 2017 in Los Angeles County alone.

In 2011, a major California criminal justice reform — commonly known as “Realignment” — changed the law to require that people with non-serious, non-violent, or non-sexual felonies be sentenced to county jail or probation, instead of state prison. Since the California Constitution disenfranchises only those who are “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony,” the voting eligibility of those serving felony sentences in county jail under Realignment was unclear for several years. Following a successful legal battle brought by AOUON and other community allies against the Secretary of State, the State Legislature ultimately passed AB 2466 to clarify that Californians who are convicted of county Realignment felonies retain their right to vote. As of January 1, 2017, state elections law requires local courts to provide to the county registrar a monthly list of people “committed to state prison.” The registrar is then required to cancel the registrations of people currently in prison or on parole. According to AOUON, county clerks appear to still be purging voters sentenced to county jail or probation on felonies.

The last day to register to vote in this June’s California primary election is May 21. For people who are currently in county jail, the deadline to request mail-in ballots is May 29.

Sending a Message

The Kansas City Star reports on new legislation in that state compensating wrongfully convicted individuals financially for time spent in prison. The bill, passed Friday, awards $65,000 per year for every year an exoneree was wrongfully imprisoned. Initial payments would be up to $100,000 or 25 percent of what is owed. Subsequent annual payments would be $80,000. The payment schedule plan is telling: several Kansas prisoners were wrongfully imprisoned for so long that legislators felt it would take too many years to fairly compensate them without the higher yearly payouts.

In addition to the financial payments based on years imprisoned, the compromise measure also would provide free college or vocational training and health insurance. The educational benefits include books, fees and housing. And mental health coverage would be a part of their medical care.

For the exonerates themselves, it is about much more than the money: “It hasn’t been about the money only, ever since I got home,” said one man who served 17 years for a robbery he did not commit. “This is about bringing change, sending a message.”

What justice will entail: holding accountable those who had a role in wrongfully convicting them.

Legislators appeared to agree. State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, worked on the compromise and noted that legislators are aware of that objective:

“Compensation is another court saying you were wronged,” she said. “It will give even more weight to the process of going after those who had a direct hand in that wrongful conviction.”

 

Reducing Barriers to Professional Licensing

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center recently reported on a  new Indiana law regulating consideration of conviction in occupational and professional licensure in that state.  This is part of a trend, with eight additional states recently enacting or about to  enact similarly progressive occupational licensing schemes.  New general laws regulating licensure are in place in Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.  Similar bills have been enrolled and are on the governor’s desk for signature in Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, and Tennessee.  Arizona’s new 2018 licensing law follows on another law passed in that state in 2017 that authorized provisional licenses for individuals with a criminal record.  Massachusett’s new licensing law is part of a more general criminal justice reform bill.   Delaware and Connecticut have also recently loosened restrictions on licensing for cosmetology and related professions.

In California, AB 2138 is currently making its way through the legislature. The bill would reduce barriers to professional licensure for individuals with prior criminal convictions by limiting a regulatory board’s discretion to deny a new license application, or suspend or revoke an existing license, to cases where the applicant or licensee was formally convicted of a substantially related crime or subjected to formal discipline by a licensing board, with offenses older than five years no longer eligible for license denial or suspension or revocation with the exception of violent felonies, as currently established in statute. 

Study finds correlation between weak gun laws, police shootings

An analysis by vox.com suggests that weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership do, at the very least, correlate with more killings by police officers (including shootings and other incidents of lethal force). The theory is that behind virtually all police shootings is a constant fear that a gun may be present.

The police have good reason to be fearful. The US has a tremendous amount of civilian-owned guns — far more than any other country in the world. Based on recent estimates, there are more firearms in America than there are people. That presents a constant potential threat to police.

“Police officers in the United States in reality need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”

Stop what you’re doing and listen to this…

“Money respect money, thats the bottom f***ng line” says John Thompson, the Louisiana man who spent 18 years on death row after prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence in his trial. Its part of an unforgettable New Yorker Radio Hour podcast, “John Thompson vs. American Justice,” that lays out the history of the original case and the resulting Supreme Court case that overturned Thompson’s $14,000,000 verdict against the NOLA District Attorney’s Office for their actions in his case. As Thompson says, “the highest court in the land reached out and said ‘f**k you!'”

In the original case, Thompson was convicted of murder in a high-profile case where New Orleans prosecutors wanted a conviction and were not scrupulous about how they got it. After 18 years on death row at Angola State Prison, just weeks before his scheduled execution, his lawyers discovered that a prosecutor had hidden exculpatory evidence from the defense. It was a clear and purposeful violation of the Brady Rule, and ultimately Thompson was exonerated of both crimes. He sued the DA’s office for its practices and won a fourteen-million-dollar settlement, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision, declining to punish the D.A. for the Brady violation.

Here is the Radio Hour summary:

“Thompson’s case revealed fundamental imbalances that undermine the very notion of a fair trial.  Under the Brady Rule, prosecutors must share with the defense any evidence that could be favorable to the defendant.  But there is essentially no practical enforcement of this rule. In most states, prosecutors are the ones who hold the evidence and choose what to share, and disclosing exculpatory evidence makes their cases harder to win. We have absolutely no idea how many criminal trials are flawed by these violations.The staff writer Andrew Marantz, his wife, Sarah Lustbader, of the Fair Punishment Project, and the producer Katherine Wells reported on John Thompson’s story and its implications. They spoke with the late John Thompson (who died in 2017), with his lawyers, and with Harry Connick, Sr., the retired New Orleans D.A. who, despite having tried very hard to have Thompson killed, remains unrepentant.”

 

Evaluating “Correctional Education”

In 2013 the Rand Corporation completed a meta-analysis of studies examining “correctional education” – basically, any sort of vocational or academic educational program for prisoners. The study (Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, Davis, Lois M., Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N. V. Miles,. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013) asked these questions:

  1. How effective are correctional education programs in reducing recidivism?
  2. How effective are correctional education programs in improving one’s chances of obtaining employment upon release from prison?
  3. Is correctional education cost effective?
  4. What types of educational programs are most effective?
  5. What additional information is needed to understand the characteristics of effective programs and further build the research evidence base?

The answers:

  • Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.
  • It may improve their chances of obtaining employment after release. The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not participate in correctional education.
  • Inmates exposed to computer-assisted instruction learned slightly more in reading and substantially more in math in the same amount of instructional time.
  • Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism.

Underground Scholars at UCLA

(Paul Seeman is an advisor to the Underground Scholars Initiative at UCLA)

In its latest issue dedicated to incarceration issues, the UCLA student magazine “La Gente” has two articles on the Underground Scholars Initiative, the support and advocacy group for formerly incarcerated students. There is a profile of the group by one member, Humberto Flores:

“When I was introduced to the Underground Scholars, it gave me a space where I felt comfortable with people from my background and upbringing, prior to that, walking around campus, I felt like I didn’t belong.”

…and an individual profile of Daniel Cisneros,one of the founding members:

“I always try to promote higher education, like, Ay, if i could do it, then you could do it, man. You know, I’m not any smarter than you are.”

Check it out!

27 Years On Death Row…

On Monday the California Supreme Court granted the habeas corpus petition of  Vicente Benavides Figuero, a former farmworker who spent 27 years on death row, finding that medical testimony and an autopsy result used to convict him had been inaccurate. Most of the experts who testified against him have since recanted. “The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The outcome results directly from SB 694 (Leno), passed in 2015, which added as grounds for a writ of habeas corpus, new evidence exists which would raise a reasonable probability of a different outcome if a new trial were granted. This is a substantially different and easier burden to meet than the old standard, before 2015, when in order to prevail on a new evidence claim, a petitioner had to show that the new evidence undermined the prosecution’s entire case and “point[ed] unerringly to innocence with evidence no reasonable jury could reject” (In re Lawley (2008) 42 Cal.4th 1231, 1239). The California Supreme Court had stated that this standard was very high, much higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard that governs other habeas claims.

As the bill analysis for SB 694 explains, the old standard was: “nearly impossible to meet absent DNA evidence, which exists only in a tiny portion of prosecutions and exonerations. For example, if a petitioner has newly discovered evidence that completely undermines all evidence of guilt and shows that the original jury would likely not have convicted, but the new evidence does not “point unerringly to innocence” the petitioner will not have met the standard and will have no chance at a new trial. Thus, someone who would likely never have been convicted if the newly discovered evidence had been available in their original trial is almost guaranteed to remain in prison under SB 694 (Leno ) Page 4 of 6 the status quo in California. The proposed new standard in SB 694 addresses this anomaly. Our criminal justice system was built on the understanding that even innocent people cannot always affirmatively prove innocence, which is why the burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt when a charge is brought to trial, and absent evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, innocence is presumed. The new standard contained in this bill ensures that innocent men and women do not remain in prison even after new evidence shows that a conviction never would have occurred had it been available.”