Friday, February 23, 2007

Gov to Consider Early Release...Not

To get a feeling for how dangerous it is in California politics to even appear to be talking about releasing inmates from our impossibly swollen prisons, just consider that by the time I went upstairs this morning to show my wife the front page of the SF Chronicle (I like to get up early and read the paper) with a headline above the fold "GOVERNOR TO CONSIDER EARLY INMATE RELEASE", the morning public radio news was already reporting that the Governor's spokesperson denied there was any possibility at all of a release. The Chronicle story was itself based on little more than that the Governor had "said at a news conference that he was open to discussing early release for some inmates without violent histories..." (read Mark Martin's article).
Apparently interest in this possibility has been bolstered by federal studies showing a vanishing small recidivism rate for inmates over 55 (of whom California has 9,000). Yet in a state that has built its political consensus over the last quarter century through a commitment to the long term warehousing of even the most marginally dangerous felons, it is a big political risk to even be heard to contemplate release. For now, at least, too much of a risk for Governor Schwarzenegger.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gov's "Emergency" Prison Plan Stumbles in Sacramento Superior Court

When Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian blocked Governor Schwarnegger's emergency plan to transfer thousands of inmates out of state to private prisons, her ruling and the responses it triggered revealed a great deal about California prisons and the political order they help sustain (read the SF Chronicle story). At the outset it is worth noting that her judgment came in a lawsuit brought not by inmates but by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (the state's powerful union of prison guards and parole agents). It is widely appreciated that the CCPOA is one of the most influential players in the state capital, but it may be more surprising to see them in the judicial field where we are used to seeing as the refuge of the politically weak (like e.g., prisoners). Next Judge Ohanesian's ruling was based on the theory that Governor Schwarzenegger's plan exceeded his reach under emergency powers because these are intended to allow state aid to local government, not to allow the governor to ignore the legislative process. Whether this ruling is upheld on appeal will be resolved relatively soon, but the theory itself helps trace the convoluted dynamics through which local prosecutors in county based state courts have packed the prison system with more than 70 thousand inmates more than the mammoth 100 thousand its 33 prisons were "designed" for. Legislatures and governors over the last 30 years have "authorized" and encouraged this runaway train of incarceration, but have sometimes balked at continuing to pay or borrow for the prison construction to keep up with it (they've done so enough to add more or less 30 prisons during those years). Governor Schwarzenegger's watch corresponds to a moment when federal (rather than state courts) may well order this massive transfer of county level problem actors to state prisons halted. Even the possibility of that constitutes a political "emergency" in California because it challenges the political consensus around which California government has been based for 30 years, i.e., the promise by the state to "disappear social problems" (in Angela Y. Davis' evocative phrase) while keeping taxes as low as possible for as long as possible.

Meanwhile, the Governor responded in the tried and true method of war on crime court bashing, he accused the court in effect of being a kind of criminal (by putting public safety at risk):

"Our prison system is in desperate need of repair, and the transferring of inmates out of state is a prudent alternative to the risk of court-ordered early release of felons,'' ....

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fixing Broken Windows or Breaking Fragile Networks: Dilemmas of Fighting Violence in New Orleans

The terrible suffering of New Orlean's during the flood of 2005 and its difficult path to recovery are now edged in a frame of red, a raging murder rate that continues to produce corposes and headlines (well summarized in a NYT story by Adam Nossiter and Christopher Drew). The driving forces are a familiar litany of urban problems, churning drug markets, impoverished neighborhoods where the division of labor has been replaced by a volatile honor ethos among angry young men, a history of mistrust between police and same neighborhoods, a faulty and now crippled criminal justice sytem, etc. One feature, highlighted by Nossiter and Drew, is particularly germane to any discussion of solutions. The one thing police do lots of and well and in N.O., apparently, is arrest drug users and dealers. This focus on low level street crime is consistent with the reighing gospel of urban crime control, i.e. the broken windows theory of Kelling and Wilson, which encourages strict enforcement against routine crimes as a way of effectively deterring more serious ones and producing public confidence. In New Orleans, at least, this logic seems to be backfiring. The constant arrests have added to the chaos of a justice system that cannot solve or punish serious crimes, and has heightened the alienation of exposed community members from the police. It is probably also raising the violence by further churning drug markets and their suppliers.