Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Preview of Cheap on Crime - and talk today!

Points, the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs Historical Society, ran an interview with me about Cheap on Crime. 

If you're in San Francisco today and want to learn more, I'll be giving a talk about the book at the American Sociological Association meeting, at the Hilton in Union Square, on a panel about Law in Hard Times, between 12:30 and 2:10. I'll be very happy to meet blog readers there!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson Coverage

Just a reminder that I'm blogging about Ferguson and other related law enforcement matters over at Iron in War.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Offshoot Sister Blog: Iron in War

Friends and readers - I have a new sister blog to CCC called Iron in War, in which I blog about matters pertaining to the front end of the criminal process: policing and law enforcement. I'm blogging extensively there about Ferguson and will blog about other issues, such as private policing, criminalization, neighborhood watches, search and seizure, interrogations, and investigations. Come check us out.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Happening Right Now: CA Assembly Vote on Crack/Cocaine Disparity

As we speak, the California Assembly is voting on SB 1010, which, if passed, will eliminate the sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine in California. The rest of the agenda is here and you'll be able to watch this historical vote live here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More Death Penalty News: Robert Justice Comes to the Rescue

On Monday morning, I drove to Sacramento and submitted this petition, calling on Gov. Brown and Attorney General Harris not to appeal the decision in Jones v. Chappell, in which Judge Carney of the U.S. District Court found the death penalty in California unconstitutional. It started as a small plea on Facebook, and without any pushing or prompting from me found its way to the Daily Kos and to the Daily Journal (twice). By the time I submitted the petition, it was 2,198 signatures strong. That's me on the left with the gubernatorial bear.

There are still 12 days left for the Attorney General to appeal the decision, and as I explained here, if her office does not do so, it doesn't mean the death penalty in California is effectively abolished, but it would be a great start of a series of legal and political moves that could spell its demise. I'm beginning to think that the death penalty can't be executed; rather, it has to die a slow death from a chronic disease (delays, costs, malfunctions)--much like the vast majority of the inmates on death row.

I think everyone understands this, even if they don't like it, and that includes death penalty proponents, who seem to be freaking out about the prospect of $130 million annually in savings and folks being put in general population serving life without parole (which they do anyway, just without the expenditure.) And it seems that death row supporters in California are beginning to freak out at the not-unlikely possibility that the Attorney General is going to leave this decision alone. First was this post on Crime and Consequences, inviting district attorneys to risk their jobs and eat up their lives by appealing a decision their boss might not appeal against her officer's discretion (really?). But then, the decision was actually appealed. Yesterday. Not by the Attorney General. By a guy named Robert Justice.

Don't believe it? Here's the notice of appeal.


I bet you're wondering who these mysterious appellants are, and what gives them standing, given that they are not Jones OR Chappell OR the Attorney General. Well, the signatures on the petition give away their interest in seeing the death penalty continue its slow limp into the sunset. Mr. Soos and Mr. Justice are "citizens of the State of California".
First thing's first: this is obviously not going to work. Unless Mssrs. Soos and Justice have some truly acrobatic standing argument up their sleeve, the issue of standing in a case like this has already been decided by the Supreme Court. If the Attorney General does not support our 1978 voter initiative to reinstate the death penalty, citizens have no standing to do so in her stead, not even if they're the ones who fundraised and pushed the initiative in the first place. This is going to be thrown out of court for lack of standing faster than I can say "Hollingsworth v. Perry."

I will give Dr. Justice credit for his enthusiasm regarding the political and legal process. It's good to see citizens of California spend energy and resources on vital matters of public importance, such as his previous legal endeavor, which involved trying to get the State of Hawaii to reveal President Obama's birth certificate (yes, it's the same guy. He's a birther).

The Hawaii court said, "while Dr. Justice may have a strong desire to personally verify President Obama's eligibility, pursuant to article II, section 1 of the United States Constitution, to serve as President of the United States, such desire does not constitute compelling circumstances within the meaning of HRS ÿÿ 92F-12(b)(3). Dr. Justice does not have the power or authority to determine President Obama's eligibility. Only the Congress of the United States has the power to remove a sitting president. Indeed, Dr. Justice has not alleged any factual basis for his implicit contention that President Obama may not be a natural-born citizen of the United States. Dr. Justice has not stated an overpowering or urgent need for the records to protect the life or safety of an individual in a medical or other emergency." I expect Dr. Justice's newest foray into the exciting world of legal standing will meet with similar success.

But let's get serious for a bit. I want to give Robert Justice the credit that he doesn't seriously think he has standing, and that this might be his attempt to persuade, or shame, our elected officials into doing his bidding. Anticipating some arguments from death penalty supporters, here goes:

The Attorney General has to do what the people want.

No. No, she doesn't. Not when the people's will goes against what's fair and just and makes sense. Remember Jack Conway, Attorney General of Kentucky? This is him, courageously saying that he is going to do the right thing and refrain from appealing a decision that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional "even if some disagree."


The people want the death penalty to remain.

What we know from the last election is that the percentage of people who want the law to remain is the lowest it's been in decades: 53 percent. And it will continue to go down, in the same way that support for same-sex marriage went up. The population is getting younger. And, as a French student reminded me this week, France abolished the death penalty before most of the public agreed with abolition.

The Attorney General should uphold the law.

Well, of course she does. But what counts as "law" is a changing, evolving thing. The death penalty was constitutional until 1972. That was "the law". Then it stopped being "the law", and became "the law" again in 1976. When Jack Conway declined to defend a bigoted, homophobic law, he expressed his opinion--that the court's decision was law now. Similarly, a decline to appeal Judge Carney's decision makes it "law", and opens the door to more changes and processes that may make abolition "law" in the entire state of California.

The Attorney General owes it to us to see this through, so we can have a Ninth Circuit decision up or down. 

That's an interesting one, and I've heard it from several people I respect. But I think we all understand that litigation involves strategy. Appeals are discretionary for a reason, and it is a legitimate opportunity to employ strategy and shape the law of the future--whether by appealing or by refraining from appealing.

This is the end of the death penalty. Isn't it healthier if it comes about by means of extensive public debate?

First of all, this is not the end of the death penalty, for reasons I explain in detail here. There is still plenty to be done and plenty of room for extensive public debate to take place. But public debate about this has been going on for centuries, and many arguments have been made on the pro and con sides for the last forty years in particular. We've discussed deterrence, racial discrimination, innocence, botched executions, ad nauseam. In some ways, it's befitting that the death penalty perish in the same way that most of its subjects perish--namely, slowly, quietly, of natural causes, exhaustion and dysfunction.

________
Props to the anonymous kind soul who provided some of the sources for this post.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Today: Herman's House at the New Parkway



This evening, Uncommon Law is hosting a special screening and discussion of Herman's House.

 In 1972, New Orleans native Herman Joshua Wallace (b. 1941) was serving a 25-year sentence for bank robbery when he was accused of murdering an Angola Prison guard and thrown into solitary confinement. Many believed him wrongfully convicted. Appeals were made but Herman remained in jail and—to increasingly widespread outrage—in solitary. Years passed with one day much like the next. Then in 2001 Herman received a perspectiveshifting letter from a Jackie Sumell, a young art student, who posed the provocative question:

“WHAT KIND OF HOUSE DOES A MAN WHO HAS LIVED IN A SIX-FOOT-BY-NINE-FOOT CELL FOR OVER 30 YEARS DREAM OF?”

Thus began an inspired creative dialogue, unfolding over hundreds of letters and phone calls and yielding a multi-faceted collaborative project that includes the exhibition “The House That Herman Built.” The revelatory art installation—featuring a full-scale wooden model of Herman’s cell and detailed plans of his dream home—has brought thousands of gallery visitors around the world face-to-face with the harsh realities of the American prison system.

But as Herman’s House reveals, the exhibition is just the first step.

When: 6:45
Where: The New Parkway Theater, Oakland
Admission is $10. See you there!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Jones v. Chappell and the Road to Abolition

Today's Daily Journal story about our petition. Please click to enlarge.
On July 16, US District Court Judge Cormac Carney issued a decision in Jones v. Chappell (2014), vacating Ernest Dewayne Jones’ death sentence. But this was far from a decision in a particular case: Judge Carney declared the death penalty in California unconstitutional, citing the lengthy delays in its administration.

As the decision notes, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in California in 1978, only 13 people have been executed. Meanwhile, 95 inmates have died of natural causes or suicide, 39 were granted relief from their sentence, and the remaining 748 are languishing on Death Row, some of them for decades. More than 40% of the condemned population has been on death row for more than 19 years, and nearly all of them are still engaged in expensive, lengthy litigation—direct and collateral review proceedings—funded by the state. The arbitrariness in the administration of executions, according to Judge Carney, echoes the historical concerns in Furman v. Georgia (1972), and undermines any deterrence arguments, to the extent that these are still credible.

But while Judge Carney believes that these delays have made the promise of capital punishment an empty one to California citizens, to jurors, to victims and their loved ones, he does not believe that these defects can be remedied simply by streamlining the death penalty and executing inmates faster. He convincingly argues that much of the delay in litigation is the state’s fault, but points out that all efforts to reform post-conviction remedies have failed, and that cutting them would increase the grave risk of mistakes and wrongful executions. While the order pertains only to Mr. Jones, generalizing Judge Carney’s conclusions to all those affected by a system that “serves no penological service” is unavoidable.

The unavoidable question is, what next? The ball is currently in Governor Brown and Attorney General Harris’ court. They must decide whether the state will appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit. A day after Judge Carney’s decision, I started a petition on Change.Org, asking Attorney General Harris not to appeal the decision, which, as I write these words, bears 2,078 signatures. The Governor and the Attorney General are not known to be fans of capital punishment, and I believe that a refusal on their part to stand behind the death penalty can communicate an important symbolic message that has the potential to place us on the much-awaited path to abolition. It would signal that our state government is fiscally responsible, and unwilling to continue wasting $100 million annually (according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculations) on the incarceration of a few people in a dilapidated facility, paying for expensive conditions and litigation, with or without an execution at the end. It would signal an acknowledgment that consistency and fairness are important tenets of our penal policy. It would signal that the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in Arizona—and the botched executions of many others, estimated as 3% of executions every year—indicate that there is no way to divorce the infliction of death from the infliction of suffering, even behind a sanitized, medicalized window-dressing. It would signal that, like Justice Blackmun in 1980s, we have tired from “tinkering with the machinery of death” and have finally acknowledged its profound dysfunction. And it would signal that these new considerations join the old abolitionist arguments, based on ethics, racial equality, and innocence concerns—in ushering in an era of abolition.

But beyond the symbolic message, there are the practical consequences associated with the State’s decision whether to appeal. Should the Attorney General appeal the decision, the Ninth Circuit might affirm it, in which case it will apply to the entire State of California, rendering the death penalty effectively abolished. However, the current Supreme Court makeup does not seem promising to the abolitionist cause, and an appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision will, in all likelihood, reverse Judge Carney’s decision. A possible appeal of such a decision to the Supreme Court will, likely, reverse the decision. The best scenario, therefore, for abolition would be a final, affirming decision on the Circuit level, without a subsequent appeal—but that scenario depends on a favorable Ninth Circuit panel and the Attorney General’s restraint in appealing that decision.

If, on the other hand, the Attorney General decides not to appeal the decision, we will find ourselves in an interesting situation. As many California residents recall, the Governor and Attorney General did not appeal Judge Vaughn Walker’s District Court decision, according to which Proposition 8, which amended the California constitution to forbid same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. Supporters of the initiative, who appealed the decision in their stead, were found by the Supreme Court to lack standing, and Judge Walker was left as the final decision on Proposition 8’s constitutionality. Lest our short memory confound us, California’s death penalty is also the product of a voter initiative: Proposition 7, the Death Penalty Act, of 1978. Moreover, some of the original supporters of Proposition 7 have now joined the abolitionist cause, so even if they had standing, they would probably lack the motivation to fight the decision.

There is, however, an important legal difference: Judge Walker’s order was an injuctive relief against the state. Judge Carney’s decision merely vacates Mr. Jones’ death sentence. In the absence of an appeal to the Ninth Circuit, further legal and political steps would be required to move from a particular case to a de-facto abolition of the death penalty in California. 

The easiest situation would be that of inmates under sentence of death who have a pending federal habeas claim in the Central District, who could argue their case should be heard by Judge Carney, as a “related case”. The decision would be up to Judge Carney’s discretion, though it seems clear from the tenor of his decision that he meant for it to have an impact beyond Jones’ case alone. Also, the decision raises the question whether other Central District judges can ignore it in similar cases if Judge Carney does not, for some reason, find that they are “related”.

Inmates outside the jurisdiction of the Central District would face more of an uphill battle. Judge Carney’s decision, while of persuasive value, is not binding in other district, nor could they benefit from an “issue preclusion” claim, as they were not original parties to the action. This is where the good will of the Attorney General’s office and the other District Courts would come into play; surely we wouldn’t want to see the death penalty effectively ended in one California district and have other inmates on death row. Another possible scenario would be that, in order to correct the grave injustice of having some inmates benefit from a general decision while others don’t, the Governor could commute the sentences of all death row inmates to life without parole, and with the support of the California Attorney General, we could enter another period of moratorium.

The possible legal outcomes of Jones, therefore, run the gamut from one inmate’s victory to a de-facto moratorium in California. The eventual impact of the decision depends on the sound discretion and good will of many actors in the legal and political arena in the state. Last, but not least, of these actors is the public. In 1978, 71% of California voters supported the death penalty amendments. After many years of delays, mistakes, discrimination, litigation over chemicals, and expenses, support for the death penalty plummeted to 53% in 2012. Whether the courts and administration will bravely turn the tables before the public tide is completely reversed remains to be seen, but a comparative perspective shows that the road toward abolition—toward progress—is a one-way street. Let’s get this done.