Tuesday, August 9, 2011

So how many people in South Los Angeles have a criminal history?

It's a simple question, but, as with many simple questions, there is no straight answer.

First, how do we define "South Los Angeles"?  Some social science researchers go with the boundary drawn by the LA County Department of Public Health for their service area, SPA-6.  But SPA-6 does not include Inglewood, which most would consider part of South LA.  By congressional district, District 35 includes Inglewood, Hawthorne, and surrounding areas, but it does not include the quintessential city, Compton, which is included in District 37, along with Long Beach.  On the Los Angeles County Board, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas represents District 2, which includes Copmton, Inglewood, and Lynwood (though excluding South Gate, Bell, and Vernon).  So that district looks like a good approximation, except it also includes Westwood, where my alma mater (UCLA) is located.  UCLA is a lot of things, but it ain't South LA.

Also, how do we define a person with a criminal history in South LA?  Do juvenile records count?  Arrest records?  And what about transient residents?  Answers to these questions actually don't matter much, for the simple reason that we lack official data on them.  And this brings me to a clearly unsatisfactory answer to the simple question posed in the title of this post: how many people in South Los Angeles have a criminal history?

As far as I know, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is the only government agency keeping track of data that can help us answer this question.  They divide up California into 4 regions for the purpose of keeping track of those released from state prisons on parole.  Los Angeles is its own region (Region 3), and there are several "parole units" in Region 3--though Long Beach (with a very sizable population of people released on parole) is part of Region 4.  Of the Region 3 Parole Units, Compton and Inglewood would account for many, though not all, people released on parole in South Los Angeles--again, excluding Long Beach.

According to their data covering the month of July 2011, a total of 21,937 people were released on parole in Region 3, excluding those on a non-revocable parole and those being deported by the immigration.  Of those, Compton received 1,307 and Inglewood received 3,120 for a total of 4,427.  So just between Compton and Inglewood, we can account for 1 in 5 people released into Region 3.  And that's 1 in 20 of people released on parole across the State of California (total: 87,125).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Fine physical specimens"

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision upholding the lower court's order to reduce by 40,000 the population in California state prisons.  See Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233.  There are 2 points I find worth making.

(1) This (another) 5-4 split is being defined by Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion as a fight about the scope of the power of the Judiciary.  Despite the explicitly-enabling statute, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), Justice Scalia reminds the Court of the lack of expertise that the Court has to fashion policy changes and, on the basis of that institutional lack of expertise, questions the Court's rationale for the order to reduce the prison population.
Structural injunctions depart from that historical practice, turning judges into long-term administrators of complex social institutions such as schools, prisons, and police departments. Indeed, they require judges to play a role essentially indistinguishable from the role ordinarily played by executive officials.
True.  Structural injunctions of the type discussed in Brown v. Plata are to be avoided if possible.  However, this is hardly the first time that the judiciary got involved in structural reforms of "complex social institutions."  Of the categories Justice Scalia cites, one can easily think of specific examples.  For schools, Brown v. Board of Education II, along with a number of local consent decrees pursuant to the landmark cases, engaged in a structural reform of the magnitude over and beyond just the school setting.  It was about integrating segregated America, a highly ambitious project of Court-led structural reform.  For police departments, here locally, we have the example of the consent decree against the Los Angeles Police Department that is still in effect today.  I believe it reasonable to infer here that Justice Scalia disapproves of these "structural injunctions" as he refers to them.  I won't go into it too much here, but I am somewhat sympathetic to his position.  It's crazy to ask an inexperienced judge (or judges) to make complex policy decisions.  However, the reason that I ultimately disagree with him and find Plata, Brown v. Board of Education, and the consent decree against the LAPD all perfectly useful and integral part of our system of government, is that we have the Court get involved only when all else has failed.  The Court, to put it simply, is the only one that can check the executive and the legislative failure to govern.  When the majority fails to abide by the Constitution, then the Court's job is to protect the minority under the Constitution.  That is the role of the Court in our checks-and-balances system of representative democracy.  And that is the role of the Court that Justice Scalia feels uncomfortable filling.  I'm glad that the Court, despite his and other conservative justices' misgivings, stepped up.

(2) Maybe I shouldn't be by now, but I am somewhat surprised that Justice Scalia and Justice Alito appealed to the stereotype of "dangerous criminal" in making their arguments.  First, Justice Scalia writes, while describing who will be released under the Court's order:
Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Justice Scalia, along with millions of others, sees no problem with this description of incarcerated people.  There is a strong sense of disrespect and disregard for the humanity of these individuals.  They are not even people.  They are "physical specimens," though "fine" ones at that.  Another key term here is that they are said to have "intimidating muscles."  Logically, there is no reason to include such a descriptor in this statement.  He could've simply said: Many will undoubtedly be healthy individuals with no medical or mental condition.  Nope.  Leave out any reference to "severe mental illness" when describing these "fine physical specimens" with "intimidating muscles."  But do mention the muscles that are intimidating...  to whom?  And why?  Because, rhetorically, this image of "fine physical specimens" with "intimidating muscles," coupled with "severe mental illness" of having an intractably criminal mind, screams "danger" to our primitive mind.  They will kill you, rape your wife, and eat your children--these fine physical specimens with intimidating muscles and severe mental illness.  They can, because they have the muscles.  They will, because they're crazy.  I won't go so far as to suggest that the image this description is intended to conjure up in the reader's mind is that of a black man.  I don't know Justice Scalia that well, and I won't make that accusation.  But I will say that, to Justice Scalia, these "fine physical specimens" do not belong to the same category of humanity as he does.

Justice Alito, likewise, takes a telling rhetorical twist, when he writes:
The three-judge court ordered the premature release of approximately 46,000 criminals—the equivalent of three Army divisions.
Perhaps it's his military background in the army--and I hope it is--that suggested to him this particular device of comparing "criminals" to soldiers.  Even so, the message is clear: the Court is making a grave mistake in letting loose upon the populace three (3) Army divisions of criminals.  They will kill, pillage, and burn innocent civilians.  Don't forget I told you so.  It's the image of a war--where people that are in prison or "should be" in prison take one side, and the government form the other--that I find troubling.  Obviously, we're nowhere near discussing any "rehabilitative" services, if we view "them" as, well," them" and not part of "us."  To Justice Alito, as with Justice Scalia, these Army divisions of "46,000 criminals" are foreign, not of us.

In sum, if I may, I'm going to simply say: Justices Scalia and Alito perfectly demonstrate the mindset that show why the other branches of our government, ruled as they are by the majority rule, cannot effectively (and constitutionally, in this case) address this problem of segregating, alienating, dehumanizing, and repressing the population most severely impacted by mass incarceration.  Fear of the Other will almost always triumph over common sense.  In the short run, at least.  And it's the job of the Court, whether the Justices like it or not, to keep this fear from ruining us all.

Friday, May 13, 2011

In the interests of justice

Yesterday, I was in court for an expungement hearing for a client of mine, who sobered up and turned his life around in early 2010.  He's been able to find odd jobs here and there, but studies suggest that right now is a crucial period in his rehabilitation efforts.  See, e.g.,Tripodi, Kim & Bender, Relationship Between Employment and Crime Is Employment Associated With Reduced Recidivism?: The Complex Relationship Between Employment and Crime, 54 Int'l J. Offender Therapy & Comp. Crim. 706 (2010)

The study cited above makes an important (though somewhat common-sense) observation--namely, that obtaining employment within the first year after one's release from prison (1) increases his/her motivation to desist from crime and (2) leads to a change in behavior that marks an important milestone in the process of rehabilitation.

This is where the interest for "public safety" collides head-on with the interest for "reentry."  On one hand, the interest for public safety demands that we wait a long period of time before giving a person with a conviction history an equal employment opportunity.  Who knows when that person will re-offend?  A long passage of time without another contact with the criminal justice system is a common-sense (and well-researched) evidence to show that the person poses no additional risk to the safety of people and property.  On the other hand, the interest for reentry demands that we use employment as a means to motivate people with conviction history, especially in the first few months after their release, to help them commit to the long process of rehabilitation.

Where does "expungement" fall in the balance of these competing interests?  This isn't mere idle speculation.  Under California's "expungement" law, Cal. Pen. Code § 1203.4, a court, "in its discretion and the interests of justice," may grant a petition to expunge a conviction.  And "the interests of justice" analysis calls for precisely this balancing of competing interests.

If you were at yesterday's hearing for my client, you would've seen and heard these competing interests collide head-on.  I, of course, was emphasizing the interest of the State (and of my client) in rehabilitation.  The Court was very emphatic, however, about the fact that (1) my client suffered subsequent convictions and that (2) those convictions were very recent (in 1/2010).  In other words, too soon.  Not enough time has passed.  Come back later.  Public safety comes first.

I hope that my client's motivation for turning his life around perseveres through these difficult times.  Without stable employment, without people giving him a chance, without the forgiving acceptance from the society at large, he has his work cut out for him.  I wouldn't be surprised if he succeeds against all odds.  Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if he fails.  His life hangs on the balance, and it may fall either way.  It is clear, though, that our insistence on "public safety" tips it in one direction.  And that is just tragic.

A would-be politician with a conviction history

Thanks to Eliza from EBCLC for the pointer to this NYTimes story about a newly-elected mayor of a small town in Oklahoma, Mr. Christopher Linder, who, despite his electoral victory in that state, cannot take the office until his convictions are pardoned by the State of Arizona.  The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency decided not to recommend his pardon to Gov. Brewer.
But Mr. LaSota’s four colleagues voted no, dashing Mr. Linder’s hopes. They agreed with the chairman, Duane Belcher, who said Mr. Linder’s life of crime was not far enough in the past to merit a pardon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Going to law school with a conviction

ABA Journal reported a few weeks ago that Mr. David Powers, one of the top students at St. John's University School of Law, was let go from the school, because his disclosure of an expunged 1999 conviction for drug possession did not include the original charge of sales.  How did the school find out?  When he asked them for a letter of support to pass the NY Bar's moral character examination.  According to a comment (#26) following the story, the school's application asks:
Have you ever, either as an adult or juvenile, been cited, arrested, taken into custody, charged with, indicted, convicted or tried for, or pleaded guilty to the commission of any felony or misdemeanor, or the violation of any law, except minor parking violations, or been the subject of any juvenile delinquency or youthful offender proceeding?  If yes, please explain.  Please note: although a conviction may have been expunged or sealed by an order of a court, it nevertheless should be disclosed.
It starts out as a yes/no question.  Presumably, Mr. Powers answered it in the affirmative.  Presumably, he then indicated that he had an expunged drug possession conviction from 1999, as a way of explaining.  Mr. Powers, I'm sure, thought that this was sufficient to satisfy the call of the question.  The school, on the other hand, did not.

The traditional narrative about "a reformed criminal" says that, once a person truly reforms, s/he will freely and fully own up to his/her past mistake and be completely open about it with others.  The reality is less straightforward than that.  Sure, some will be completely open with others.  But, almost to the last one, they do so because they have since integrated their criminal past into their identity: "I am a reformed ex-felon."  They wear the stigma of a criminal conviction as a badge of experience and wisdom--and a sign of hope--as I do my identity as a former drug addict.  I hit the rock bottom, fell right through it, and then somehow, by the grace of God, made it out alive.  And, invariably, when we're sharing our stories, our audience is those that are fast approaching the bottom themselves.  And, invariably, the message is the same: Brother/sister, I hope you too make it out alive as I have.

But we don't always own up to our past mistakes.  Complete and utter transparency, i.e. surrender of privacy regarding one's past mistake, isn't a prerequisite to true rehabilitation.  Time and time again, in this line of work, I meet people who keep their darkest secrets even from their family and closest friends.  One of my first clients, when we first met, had a 40-year old murder conviction that even his wife did not know about.  Yet, ever since his release from prison, he led an exemplary life, serving others and providing for his family.  He was only the first.  Most of my clients hide their past convictions from just about everyone.  For Pete's sake, haven't we all watched Les Miserables and know the story of Jean Valjean?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Speaking of politicians with a conviction history...

I know nothing about Jackson City, Tennessee or the laws of that state regarding political rights of people with conviction history.  According to an article in The Jackson Sun, however, "a state law [requires] felons to petition a circuit court for their citizenship rights to be restored before they can hold elected office."  A former Jackson City Councilman Johnny Dodd, who also worked as a substitute teacher with the Jackson-Madison County school system until very recently, is in trouble for giving what seems to be a false answer on his applications for the substitute teacher job, as well as for not having his citizenship rights restored before running for his City Councilman position.

In response to these revelations, the school district terminated Mr. Dodd's employment and changed their policy to "prohibit[] people with felony records from working in the district."

There are 2 separate issues here.  One is that of his "dishonest" answer.  Again, I know nothing about Tennessee laws, but I note that, if it were in California, Mr. Dodd would've been entitled to answer "no" to those questions regarding his convictions if he had set aside and dismissed under Cal. Pen. Code § 1203.4 or 1203.4a.  The other is the matter of his convictions themselves.  The articles linked to above refer to a 1987 felony conviction for grand larceny and a 1999 misdemeanor conviction for disorderly conduct.

The 1987 grand larceny conviction, according to one of the articles, stems from an accusation that he stole various items from the store he was working at, including "a basketball goal, a television, a VCR, and two radar detectors."  The 1999 disorderly conduct conviction involves an incident where he "told a crowd of 100 to 150 people to ignore police orders to disperse" at a night club where he was the disc jockey.

After this lengthy description of the facts as reported in the articles, I have a couple of thought.  The first is that the school district's policy change likely runs afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, according to EEOC, makes "an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record... unlawful."  This particular jurisprudence on Title VII disparate impact theory mandates that an employer show "business necessity" for using a conviction record before making an adverse employment decision based on it.

The second point is more of a general observation--something I've noted before but bears repeating here--that a long history of rehabilitation seems to count for naught.  Granted, we have what appears to be an act of dishonesty on Mr. Dodd's part, if in fact it turns out that he really lied on his applications.  Even so, it is understandable why he would feel it necessary to deny his past convictions.  As Mr. Dodd himself put, "What do I have to do to put this behind me?"  The answer that the Jackson-Madison School District gave him is: there's nothing you can do.

I'll end this post with a statement from a former superintendent of the school district, Roy Weaver: "Weaver said Dodd's community activism, his work with the Boys and Girls Club, serving as a city councilman and his support of education made him a good role model for students. Dodd had served on the council since 1999."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Politicians with a conviction history?

According to Wikipedia, the town of Rehoboth in the State of Massachusetts has an open town meeting run by a board of selectmen.  This Monday night, 384 of its 10,172 residents attended and voted down a petition proposed by the board to do a criminal background check on candidates running for a local office.  And I am pleasantly surprised (though "surprised" may be too mild a term here) to read that:
[A selectman arguing for doing a criminal background check on political candidates] was booed for his statement while several residents and other town officials who spoke against the article received hoots and hollers of approval.
Seriously, what is going on here?  I suspect some unusual local politics going on here, not reported in the news article above.  Why did the board of selectmen propose the article?  Was there someone running for office in the recent election that they didn't like and had a criminal record?  Was this person well-liked by the citizens of Rehoboth?  What's going on here?  It's not every day that we see "booing" for those tough background-check-everybody-and-their-cousin folks.  And it's certainly unheard of that we see those working to limit background checks receive "hoots and hollers of approval."

But this episode dovetails well with what a "guest" at the All of Us or None meeting last night mentioned, i.e. that we need a champion for our cause.  We need to work to elect into a political position an individual(s) with personal experiences of facing barriers due to his/her conviction history.  It's an obvious point.  And it should be done.  When I heard it, however, I thought it unlikely that it'll happen in my lifetime.  Well, then again, something like this thing at Rehoboth comes around to make me think.... Maybe it will.