Tuesday, May 17, 2011
May 13th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon
Last week two dozen California reporters—myself included—met with state and local officials and criminal justice experts on the USC campus to talk about California’s Three Strikes law. The idea of the symposium was to encourage more informed and nuanced reporting on criminal justice issues in general, and the Three Strikes law in particular.
The event was sponsored by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice and conceived by Stephen Handelman, the Center’s director, and my pal Joe Domanick, who is the center’s associate director and an expert on the Three Strikes law, since he wrote the most authoritative book on the topic.
For two full days straight, there were panels and Q & A sessions with such people as Matthew Cate, the head of the California Department of Corrections, LA District Attorney, Steve Cooley, Civil Rights lawyer Connie Rice, San Francisco DA, George Gascon, LA’s new head Public Defender Ron Brown, former state senators Tom Hayden and Gloria Romero, plus a pile of academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. There were also two men who had been put away for life by the law, but who had managed to get their cases reconsidered.
Unlike with most such gatherings, many of the officials and experts who came to be on panels, stayed on to become part of the small intense audience.
In broad strokes, the discussion focused on what good or harm the law had done, and what ought to be done about it now. Should it be left as is? Modified? Or should it be done away with?
Most who came seemed eager to share what they knew and the opinions among those who have dealt the most closely with the law were often surprising.
But, before we get to that, a little history on the law itself:
MORE:WitnessLA.com » Blog Archive » Is CA’s 3-Strikes Good or Bad Law? State & Local Officials Contemplate the Question
Sunday, May 15, 2011
By Julia Negron
Posted: 05/07/2011 04:00:00 PM PDT
IMAGINE a world without the scourge of our current punitive drug policies. Imagine a world where we mothers no longer wait teary eyed in prison visiting lines, where our daughters live to gift us with happy grandchildren.
Imagine our sons getting in trouble with drugs and getting saved because they are worth saving. Imagine borders where tourists bask in the sun without fear, and drug cartels' gunshots are replaced with lilting music. Imagine passionately wanting a better future for our children and grandchildren so that all humanity is treated with dignity and kindness. Imagine that billions in funding is funneled into education. Imagine that we stop fighting a war with ourselves.
It may seem odd for a mother to make a case for decriminalizing illegal drugs. But I can give you a grandmother's/drug counselor's/prison visiting mom's take on how we have turned on our own - how the "War on Drugs" has generated more victims than successes.
We turned on our own when we stopped helping people who need help; when we attacked the most marginalized of us; when we lost our compassion for the suffering; and when we handed over the treatment of our sick kids to men with badges, not stethoscopes.
It happened when we stood silently while criminalizing a whole class of people. When we made smuggling and killing profitable. And, we pay for this by cutting education and programs that lift people out of poverty and vulnerability, guaranteeing that nothing changes.
In real -time there is little available to help the afflicted, so we lock them up out of sight and out of mind. In my world that means "prison churning." My own son developed drug dependence early -on and has now given years to a corrections system that can not "correct" him.
His chances to make a better life for his children dim with each prison term. My life is better than my mother's, but my grandkid'sgrandkids' lives will not be better than mine. The cost of the failed War on Drugs is more than just the $40 billion we waste each year.
Think of the families torn apart by harsh prison sentences. How could we let this hopelessness happen to half a million children with a parent in prison!
As a nation we've spent billions year after year for 40 years trying to incarcerate our way out of a health issue. Gun boats and border patrols have been unsuccessful in keeping drugs out of this country, with the result that it just made them more costly. Harsh prison terms have handed us back a hollow-eyed generation of anti-social unemployable felons.
We've been encouraged to let our kids "hit bottom," and we've dutifully kicked our kids to the curb. Consequently we've buried a generation of overdosed kids who could not get it right, could not get past the stigma, could not find help, feared jail and found no rational agent of change. We tried to "just say no to drugs" yet today things are worse than ever.
Imagine that there are no more excuses and that there are solutions.
I am no different than you. Our tax dollars paid more than $250,000 to incarcerate my non-violent drug offender son in California prisons so far.
This waste must change. We can do this together. We have a way; we can start by reclassifying personal possession of small amounts of illegal drugs as misdemeanors. We can give our kids a chance to not be labeled a felon for life.
The group Moms United to End the War on Drugs has a simple mission: end the waste of the War on Drugs; end the failed policies; end the mass incarceration, the overdose deaths, and the border violence. Start by getting into action and join us in our solutions. Join us in protest on the 40 th anniversary of this most damaging war - June 17 - and "just say NO" to the War on Drugs.
Julia Negron of North Hills is director of the Los Angeles regional chapter of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) and a co-founder of Moms United to end the War on Drugs.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
CA's Corrections Officers Need to Let Some of Their Charges Go
by Joshua Page
California’s prisons provide an apt metaphor for the state’s broken politics. Almost everyone knows the $10 billion correctional system is unsustainable and must be cut, and yet the issue is so controlled by vested interests that nothing much changes. It’s a case study in how political disengagement – the “why bother” syndrome that afflicts Californians when confronted with any number of daunting issues – tends to carry the day.
Contracting the prison population requires shortening prison and parole terms, increasing alternatives to imprisonment, and reserving costly prison beds for the most serious offenders. Sophisticated research and the recent experiences of other states (like New York, which decreased its prison population by 20 percent) show that these measures can be implemented without jeopardizing public safety.
The time is ripe to downsize California’s correctional system. For starters, the state is over $26 billion in debt – it simply can’t afford its prison system. Moreover, federal judges have ruled that the Golden State must cut about 40,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons. Public opinion polls indicate that Californians are tiring of their state’s über-tough approach to crime and drug addiction. So who stands in the way of the mighty alliance of fiscal necessity, the federal bench and public opinion?
Enter the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, known as CCPOA. Established in 1982, this prison officers’ union became an influential political player in the 1990s. Now, alongside crime victims’ groups it helped create and continues to fund, the CCPOA greatly influences the fate of major penal policy proposals. The union has defeated critical sentencing reform initiatives that might shrink California’s bloated correctional system.
In 2004, the CCPOA organized and helped finance the opposition to Proposition 66, which would have softened the edges of the state’s extremely sharp “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. In 2008, it bankrolled the successful effort to defeat Proposition 5, a wide-ranging initiative meant to reduce the number of drug offenders behind bars. Most recently, the union helped torpedo a legislative initiative to establish an independent commission with the authority to change sentencing laws. When it comes to serious sentencing reform, the CCPOA and its allies remain major obstacles.
As odd as it might seem for prison officers to play a decisive role in shaping the criminal justice system of a state of some 35 million people, policymakers have no choice but to deal with the CCPOA. But they should do so in a more adept manner.
First, policymakers should address the union’s legitimate concerns. Prison officers understandably worry that downsizing the correctional system will put them out of work. Thanks largely to their effective union, these officers have solid, middle-class jobs with good pay, good benefits, and good retirement packages. California officers make between $45,000 and $73,000 a year before overtime and other incentives. As the manufacturing sector declines, “prison officer” is one of the few remaining occupations providing upward social mobility for people who lack advanced degrees. This is especially true in the rural areas in which many prisons are located. Officers and their families, then, are justified in thinking that major reforms might close one of the few remaining paths they have into the middle class.
Policymakers must make good faith efforts to protect these workers as they reshape the correctional system. Prison workforces should be decreased by natural attrition whenever possible; positions should be shed through retirement or voluntary termination. Because the prisons are currently understaffed, the closing of some facilities needn’t translate into widespread layoffs. The state might set up retraining programs to help officers find new work within or outside of the prison system. The CCPOA would be much more likely to support reform measures if it could protect its members’ jobs along the way, or at least be persuaded that its worst-case fears are unfounded.
Securing jobs won’t be enough. Another important point to consider is that the union’s support for laws like “Three Strikes” is not just about gaining members and job security. It’s also ideological. Union leaders and many members believe in these policies. Therefore, policymakers (particularly the governor) must negotiate aggressively but productively, not only on wages and benefits, but also on substantive issues. California’s leaders should make implicit or explicit deals, using wages, benefits, and work-related rules and practices as bargaining chips with the CCPOA during collective bargaining. Unless the union agrees not to oppose major sentencing and prison reforms (and that includes not financing its allied organizations’ efforts to quash the reforms), the state should not support the union’s contract or legislative proposals.
If the CCPOA refrains from opposing sentencing reforms, it should be rewarded with fair contracts that further professionalize prison officer work, improve wages and benefits, and strengthen job security. Put simply, there should be incentives for cooperation—not just disincentives for non-cooperation.
Evidently, the Brown administration used this strategy in its recent negotiations with the CCPOA. As has been widely reported, the governor and the union have reached a tentative contract agreement. Republican legislators and newspaper editorial boards have argued that this deal will not save enough money or return enough workplace control to management – some have even called it a “sweetheart deal.” In response to the criticism, Brown has claimed that he did not seek more drastic concessions from the union, at least in part, because the CCPOA did not actively oppose his criminal justice realignment plan to make counties (rather than the state) responsible for incarcerating low-level offenders and supervising most parolees. (The policy will not go into effect unless Brown gets his tax measures approved.) If implemented, the plan will decrease the number of prison officers and parole agents – hence, it’s not surprising that union leaders are taking heat for not opposing the plan. Nevertheless, the CCPOA finally has a contract, and, given the current economic environment, budget shortfalls, and rampant anti-union sentiment, it’s a solid one.
In a perfect world, taxpayers wouldn’t need to offer carrots to a public employee union to reform a state’s criminal justice system. But California politics, to put it mildly, is not quite a perfect world, and unless campaign financing and plenty of other structural matters are radically altered, the governor must get the CCPOA’s buy-in to downsize prisons.
Brown’s realignment proposal is projected to reduce the state prison population by upwards of 40,000. Although it would alleviate overcrowding and satisfy the federal courts, it would not necessarily shrink the overall correctional population (instead it would simply shift state prisoners to the counties). Truly shrinking the system still requires sentencing reform. Neither Brown nor the legislature has shown any willingness to shorten prison sentences or increase alternatives to imprisonment, but if they do take up serious sentencing reform, they will again have to deal with the CCPOA and its allies. By addressing union members’ fears, policymakers can soften their resistance. And while a smaller prison system will eventually lead to fewer officers (and union members), it will also benefit those who continue to toil on the tiers and on the yards.
Contracting the penal population will decrease tension, violence, and chaos behind the walls, making the prison beat less “tough” for officers and prisoners alike. Despite the zero-sum calculations of so many, cutting corrections and helping officers are necessary and compatible goals.
Joshua Page is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (Oxford University Press, 2011).
*Photo courtesy of Dana Gonzales.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
by recoveryhelpdesk on May 1, 2011 ·
Will your son’s arrest ultimately turn out to be a good thing? Not likely.
I certainly understand how a mother could feel a sense of relief when her son is arrested. Even her son may feel a certain sense of relief.
Finally something might actually derail the runaway train. But what about the train wreck that follows?
For the last 10 years, I’ve run an incarceration-prevention program for people living with opiate dependence. Our goal is to help people find a path to recovery that does not pass through the jailhouse door.
Not only is it possible to find a path to recovery that does not pass through the jailhouse door, but passing through the jailhouse door reduces your chances of long term recovery success.
Sure, arrest and the threat of incarceration can result in a new focus on the need for change, and provide motivation for change. But this particular path to focus and motivation risks some devastating side effects.
There are other ways to elicit focus on the need for change and build motivation for change. Ways that are more effective over the long term and less harmful.
I fear that as a society we are too ready to use the cudgel of coerced treatment. We’ve talked ourselves into believing that incarceration is a therapeutic response to addiction. But the many-forked path through the criminal justice system often leads every which way but stable, long-term recovery.
I think we would be smart to be wary of a system of coerced treatment for addiction through the threat of incarceration –just as we would be wary of a system of coerced treatment for any other health issue with a behavioral component such as obesity, smoking, diabetes or heart disease.
I think we should recognize and be wary of the “enablers” of this system:
1. Desperate parents, families and communities;
2. Lazy and unskilled treatment providers who bottom feed on coerced treatment;
3. Politicians who get more political mileage out of putting money into the criminal justice system instead of the drug treatment system; and
4. Unjustified stigma against drug users that grants social permission to incarcerate rather than provide effective treatment.
I feel no sense of relief when a client is arrested. I recognize that the job of helping that person build a safe and sustainable recovery just got a lot harder.
“I’m never coming back here again.”
“I’m never going to use again.”
“Getting arrested saved my life, if I wasn’t here I’d be dead by now.”
I hear these statements often from clients I visit in jail. I recognize the sincerity behind the statements. After many years of experience, I also recognize that these kinds of sincere statements are often not only not actually accurate, but almost the opposite of the reality of the situation.
Once in jail, more likely to be back in jail again.
Once in jail, less likely to be able to achieve the conditions of stability necessary to achieve long term recovery.
Incarceration is more likely to put a life at risk. Getting effective treatment would have been more likely to save a life.
Getting sucked into the criminal justice system most often delays recovery, complicates recovery and destabilizes recovery. Most people don’t get treatment in jail, and don’t get linked to treatment after release from jail. Instead, statistics show that a large percentage of fatal overdoses happen right after release from incarceration.
There is a basic human impulse to try to make sense of bad experiences by finding the good that might give the experience a positive meaning. We do this with war, serious illness, and even the tragic death of a loved one. It’s a healthy coping mechanism.
It’s healthy to focus on the good. It’s healthy to take the bad things that happen to us and weave them into our personal narratives in way that gives them positive and hopeful meaning. But as a society, it’s more healthy to recognize that bad things are bad.
Incarceration as a solution to addiction is BAD.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
The Failed Drug War Has Created a Human Rights Nightmare -- How Can This Happen in Our Country and Go Virtually Undiscussed?
So much about our racial reality today is little more than a mirage. The promised land of racial equality wavers, quivers just out of our reach in the barren desert of our new, "colorblind" political landscape. It looks so good from a distance: Barack Obama, our nation's first black president, standing in the Rose Garden behind a podium looking handsome, dignified, and in charge. Flip the channel and there's Michelle Obama, a brown-skinned woman, digging a garden in the backyard of the White House -- not as a servant or a maid -- but as the first lady, schooling the nation on better health and the need to be good stewards of our planet. Flip the channel again and there's the whole Obama family exiting Air Force One, waving to the crowd, descending the flight of stairs -- a gorgeous black family living in the White House, ruling America, cheered by the world.
By Michelle Alexander /Alternet / April 28, 2011