As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, July 20, 2009

More Toughy Toughness From Chris Kelly

Chris Kelly, who thinks he's running for Attorney General next year, has responded to my criticism of his perpetuation of fearmongering "tough on crime" policies with an email to supporters:

The politics-as-usual crowd is attacking my opposition to the early release plan -- even saying that "Chris Kelly is making a fool out of himself" for standing up for safe California communities. Well, releasing 20,000 convicted felons early might be Sacramento's idea of prison reform, but it isn't one that will keep California safe -- and it won't save a single dollar in the process, which was the whole rationale for doing it in the first place!

I'm apparently part of the "politics-as-usual" crowd for arguing against the mentality that has produced 1,000 sentencing laws in the last thirty years that increased sentences. But some facts throughout this would help. First of all, the 20,000 number from the Governor came in part from releasing all imprisoned undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a provision that was long ago scaled back, since ICE showed no interest in taking the responsibility, and the Governor circumscribed that proposal with so many caveats that only 1,400 of the more than 18,000 undocumented qualified. In reality, the scale of release will be lower than initially proposed. So Kelly is engaging in the familiar tactic of arguing against something that won't happen so he can post a "win" after the fact.

But the real danger of Kelly whipping up opposition to this is how it impacts any sensible sentencing or parole reform. Here, Kelly shows that he has no idea what he's talking about with respect to criminal justice policy:

Instead of protecting California communities, the politics-as-usual crowd ignores the fact that early release of more than 10% of the state prison population won't just include "terminally ill, nonviolent drug offenders and people returned to prison for the crime of technical parole violations" -- many dangerous felons will be back on the streets too.

The critics seem to have forgotten that a man with a technical parole violation shot and killed four officers in Oakland just months ago, and they also conveniently ignore that releasing 20,000 prisoners will disproportionally impact some of California's most vulnerable communities.

The ignorance of this comment is stunning. As Berkeley law professor and parole policy expert Jonathan Simon illustrated a couple months back, the Lovelle Mixon shooting was an example of what's WRONG with our parole system, not what's right. The incident has been used to raise the fear of crime and the dangers of releasing felons. What is not mentioned is that Mixon's violation of ridiculously stringent parole policy, which meant a sure trip back to jail, arguably CAUSED the shooting, as Mixon vowed not to return to prison and chose to shoot his way out of the problem. That's aberrant behavior, and using it to make any larger point about how frightening it is to release prisoners is Willie Horton-izing to the extreme. But it's a function of the extreme pressure of three years of supervisory parole on everyone who walks out of California prisons.

But unlike many other states that also eliminated early release through parole, California continued to require parole supervision in the community for all released prisoners. And that, I think, is a big part of what's broken. People are sent to California prisons for a determinate amount of time, based upon the seriousness of their crime. After they've served this sentence, it's neither justified nor effective to add up to three years of parole supervision for each and every ex-offender - without making any distinction between those whose criminal record or psychological profile suggest they'll commit a crime that will harm the community, and those who pose no such threat.

So the parole system has little real capacity to monitor and protect us from those who pose a danger of committing serious new crimes. And it exposes ex-offenders - many of whom pose little threat of committing such crimes - to the likelihood of being sent back to prison. (This is a really big problem, when you think of our prison overcrowding and our budget crisis).

Parolees are required to consent to searches of their person and property. If officers stop a car in Oakland, and somebody in that car is on parole, police have a lot of leeway to disregard normal constitutional limits on search-and-seizure authority. They can use any evidence collected in this situation against the parolee - and also, of course, can attempt to use the coercion of plea bargaining to get evidence against other people in the car.

In recent years, as many as 70 percent of those on parole in California have been sent back to prison - only a small percentage of whom have committed a new crime (14 percent in 2007); more than half were sent back for what are called "technical" parole violations. These parolees are "returned to custody" by the Board of Prison Terms, very often for conduct that would not earn them (or other California citizens) prison time in a court. Turning in a positive drug test is an example; even missing an appointment with parole staff can result in re-imprisonment.

Kelly asked his fans of the Protect California Communities Facebook cause to comment on my post about him, which has yielded a whopping 0 negative comments. Maybe that's because his Cause has attracted an almost-as-whopping 225 members, clearly a social networking firestorm rippling through the state. Actually that number wouldn't be so bad if it didn't come from a Cause promoted by THE FORMER EXECUTIVE FROM FACEBOOK. The $175 raised on Facebook shows massive Web 2.0 acumen as well.

It's also hilarious that Kelly thinks stopping release of nonviolent offenders harms public safety, not eliminating drug treatment and vocational training in prisons, or forcibly taking local government monies so they have to slash their public safety budgets, but that's for another time.

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