DIFFICULTIES IN SELECTING THIRD-STRIKERS TO RELEASE, AND WHY PROP 47 MIGHT PLAY A ROLE IN DETERMINING FUTURE RELEASES
Since the 2012 passage of Prop 36 (the Three Strikes Reform Act), more than 1000 third-strike inmates have been resentenced and released in California.
Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan, who handles the petitions, says many of the earlier resentencings were relatively easy and obvious decisions, and they were often supported by the District Attorney’s office. But for the number of inmates who still have pending resentencing requests, things get a little more complicated. The DA opposes resentencing for the inmates in this remaining group of petitioners, and Judge Ryan is having to comb through inmate records, looking for job training and other rehabilitative efforts to ascertain whether an inmate is appropriate for release, or if they pose a threat to society.
And now, recently-passed Prop 47, may play a role in deciding the fate of these inmates, with its defining a person as a “danger to public safety” who is at risk of committing crimes such as murder, solicitation to commit murder, sexual offenses, and certain gun crimes.
The LA Times’ Marisa Gerber has more on the issue and tells the complex story of third-striker Lester Wallace, a mentally ill man whose troublesome prison record is also indicative of justice system failures. Here are some clips:
In California prison, Lester Wallace was hardly a model inmate.
He spat at a correctional officer, fought with another convict and grabbed a prison guard by the neck before punching him in the stomach.
Wallace racked up more than 20 disciplinary charges while serving a life prison term under the state’s “three strikes” sentencing law for trying to steal a car radio.
Still, he says, he deserves another chance.
Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan, who handles the cases, said many of his previous decisions were “no-brainer” calls involving inmates who prosecutors agreed deserved release. For another large group of inmates, the district attorney’s office opposed resentencing but didn’t demand hearings when Ryan indicated that he favored reducing punishments.
The latest round of cases, which include Wallace’s, are more contentious.
“I think the calls will be closer and closer,” Ryan said.
The district attorney’s oppositions have helped slow the pace of resolving resentencing requests in Los Angeles, which is well behind other counties.
In examining each case, Ryan said, he has been reviewing the criminal and prison records of the inmates, checking to see whether they have taken vocational training, substance abuse counseling or anger-management classes. The judge said he wants to make sure that people leaving prison after serving so much time have the skills to find jobs to take care of themselves and keep out of trouble.
His future decisions may well be influenced by this month’s passage of another criminal-justice ballot measure, Proposition 47, which defined “danger to public safety” as an unreasonable risk of committing specific serious or violent crimes, including murder, sexual assault and child molestation.
Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which changed the three-strikes law. They were swayed in part by tales of inmates with nonviolent histories serving life terms for the pettiest of crimes, such as stealing a pair of socks.
In some ways, however, Wallace better fits the profile of the average third-striker helped by the ballot measure. He has a lengthy rap sheet and a checkered prison record. But he also suffers from mental illness and spent more time behind bars for a petty offense than many prisoners do for child molestation, rape and other violent crimes.
Wallace’s case, like many of the others confronting Ryan, offers an inside look into the usually hidden world of prison discipline and how the state’s correctional system treats mentally ill inmates.
Wallace’s attorney said his client, who is 5 feet 4 and 120 pounds, sometimes lashed out behind bars to ward off unwanted attention from other inmates. He said Wallace was sexually assaulted during an earlier prison stint.
At a hearing on Wallace’s request for resentencing earlier this year, the inmate arrived in a downtown L.A. courtroom in a wheelchair and carrying a legal pad covered in handwritten notes. He flashed a smile at his attorney, Mike Romano, who directs the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law and helped write Proposition 36.
Romano argued that many of his client’s prison rule violations were for small things, such as sticking a paper clip into a socket to light a cigarette. Wallace’s prison behavior, he said, vastly improved seven years ago after he was diagnosed with kidney disease and he started getting improved treatment for his hallucinations and mood disorder.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER ON HIS LEGACY, BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT AND DISAPPOINTMENT, AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE
In an interview with Bill Keller and Tim Golden of the Marshall Project, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder discusses his biggest criminal justice win and loss, issues that are bringing the right and left together, drug sentencing reform, and mass incarceration, among other issues. Here are some clips:
The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?
Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.
And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.
And the biggest disappointment?
I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder ratio, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.
Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?
That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.
Looking at the Realignment process in California and other experiments that are out there in reducing incarceration, do you worry at all about the danger of a race to the bottom, in which states and counties are much more eager to get people out of prison and stop paying for it than they are to pay for the housing and social services that will assure a lower crime rate in the future?
If this is done correctly you not only save money, you keep the American people safe by cutting down on the recidivism rate.
But this cannot be seen as simply something that is cost-saving, because that would potentially lead to states’ doing exactly what you say: racing to the bottom, and just trying to push people out of prison.
I think people who have responsibility for the criminal justice systems around the country understand that if you do that you’re really only putting people out for some short period of time before they ultimately come back. So there has to be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation while people are in prison, and then reentry efforts to prepare them to exit prison.
HOW WILL CHILD WELFARE EFFORTS BE AFFECTED BY A REPUBLICAN-LED CONGRESS?
The Chronicle of Social Change’s Sean Hughes examines what effects on child welfare policy we might expect from our new Republican-led Congress. For example, funding for crucial child welfare and juvenile justice services would be at risk. And Hughes says that if Republicans succeed in gutting, or repealing the Affordable Care Act, foster kids will lose out on having Medicaid until they are 26. Hughes spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer, and is a Social Change Partners policy consultant. Here’s a clip from his story:
When fully implemented, the mental health parity provisions of the law should ensure that all children who have experienced trauma and are suffering from mental health challenges – especially children who have been abused or neglected – will receive better treatment. Repeal, replacement, or interference with the ACA, for which Republicans continue to advocate, would jeopardize these hard-won victories for children and families.
We should also expect a return to budget brinksmanship. As they didn’t suffer any long-term political repercussions for shutting down the government last year, the Republican Party will surely be further emboldened to play budgetary hardball.
Congress will almost certainly seek further federal spending reductions and could very well try to replace the defense cuts scheduled to go into effect next year via sequestration with increased cuts to social service programs.
Critical programs supporting child welfare services will be in the crosshairs and could see their funding levels cut, including:
Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), which House Republicans have already tried to eliminate
Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act programs (CAPTA)
Title IV-B Child Welfare Services
Promoting Safe and Stable Families
Juvenile Justice Programs
NEWT GINGRICH TELLS MICHIGAN TO REBUILD THEIR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
In an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, Newt Gingrich, who, along with some of his other Right on Crime colleagues, was instrumental in getting both Prop 47 and Prop 36 passed, calls for a complete reconstruction of Michigan’s criminal justice system. Here’s a clip:
The state’s correctional system churns through $2 billion each year, and now consumes $1 out of every $5 of the general fund. And because of broad parole board discretion and complicated sentencing guidelines, people incarcerated in Michigan serve longer prison terms, on average, than any other state in the nation.
This approach might be justified if it was making us safer, but that’s not the case. Recidivism rates remain unacceptably high and, at a time when most American communities are safer than they’ve been in decades, several Michigan cities are experiencing alarmingly high crime rates — up to five times the national average.
I’ve never hesitated to support long prison sentences for violent and repeat offenders, and I will continue to be hard on violent criminals. But I’m also convinced that, given the discouraging track record of our current criminal justice system, we can no longer cling to expensive, business-as-usual approaches when better options exist.
Many other conservatives — from Ed Meese, former attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and anti-tax champion Grover Norquist — share my view and have joined me in a national movement called Right On Crime. United by our refusal to accept the status quo, we support a criminal justice system that reflects fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, support for crime victims and a reliance on proven strategies that make the best use of taxpayer dollars.