Report: California condemns many, executes few

The death penalty is a very local affair, with most condemnations and executions occurring in just a tiny handful of the nation’s counties, according to a new report from a group opposing capital punishment.

The Death Penalty Information Center’s study found no California counties rank among the top 15 among the two percent of counties responsible for
over half of the executions since 1976; Texas boasts nine. The Golden State went from conducting executions at a glacial pace to conducting none at all after being stymied by a court order.

But five California counties – Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, Alameda and San Diego – make the top 10 among the 2 percent responsible for more than half of the nation’s current death row population. California voters – despite no executions having occurred here since 2006 – keeps condemning inmates to death and last year rejected a ballot measure to abolish capital punishment. California now has 742 death-row inmates.


Brown signs Campos’ three domestic-violence bills

Three bills authored by a South Bay assemblywoman to protect domestic-violence victims were signed into law Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Nora CamposAB 157 will make false impersonation via social media like Facebook and Twitter a trigger for restraining orders. Abusers have been known to take over their victims’ online identities to humiliate and harass their victims all over again, often isolating victims and and damaging their relationships with friends and families.

AB 161 lets courts include in restraining orders a prohibition on domestic violence abusers dropping spouses from their joint health, auto, life and disability insurance policies – something abusers often use as an intimidation tactic.

And AB 176 provides domestic violence victims the highest level of protection possible by ensuring that police enforce no-contact restraining orders even if other orders have been issued more recently.

The Assembly and state Senate both passed all three bills unanimously.

“As much as we’ve done to help women escape the horror of domestic violence, much work needs to be done,” Assemblywoman Nora Campos, the bills’ author, said in her news release. “Too many women continue to get beaten by their partners, and they suffer even further pain when their abuser exploits social media to target their victims or cancels joint insurance policies.”

“These bills will add protections to women who face abuse in their homes and hopefully begin to turn the tide around on domestic violence,” said Campos, D-San Jose.


Assembly passes drug sentencing reform bill

The Assembly approved a bill Wednesday that would reform California’s sentencing laws for simple drug possession, a move supporters say would reduce costly jail populations, get more people into rehab and let authorities focus on more serious crimes.

SB 649 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would give county prosecutors flexibility to charge low-level, nonviolent drug crimes either as misdemeanors or felonies – making them what’s known as “wobblers.” It also would give judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record.

This wouldn’t apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. SB 649 now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading for Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mark Leno“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite,” Leno said in a news release Wednesday.

“We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they’re incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education,” he said. “SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reduced penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million per year. Leno notes that 13 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor, but don’t have higher drug-crime rates.

Though introduced earlier, the bill moves California in the same direction as the new federal policy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month in San Francisco: Federal prosecutors will stop seeking longer mandatory sentences for many nonviolent drug offenders, part of a broad new effort to focus on violent crimes and national security while reducing the nation’s gigantic prison population.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli – senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California, which is among the bill’s sponsors – said Wednesday that SB 649 “is just the kind of common sense solution to California’s incarceration crisis that voters have been demanding, and the legislature deserves credit for choosing to be smart on crime.”

“Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, another sponsor of the bill. “I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common sense solution.”


Oakland & Sac mayors met with Obama today

Oakland’s Jean Quan and Sacramento’s Kevin Johnson were among 18 U.S. mayors who met with President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today at the White House to discuss strategies to reduce youth violence.

According to the White House’s readout of the meeting, Obama “reiterated that government alone can never fill the void that causes a child to turn to violence, but that we all have a responsibility to do our part to create safe communities and save lives.”

“The President applauded the mayors for their local efforts to combat violence, solicited their input about proven methods, and pledged his Administration’s partnership,” the White House reported. “He also vowed to continue doing everything in his power to combat gun violence through executive action and to press Congress to pass common-sense reforms like expanding the background check system and cracking down on gun trafficking.”

For the complete list of mayors at today’s meeting, follow after the jump.
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Surveillance: Drones, drugs & ‘Domain Awareness’

On the domestic surveillance news front today: The Assembly Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing tomorrow, Tuesday, Aug. 6, on domestic use of drones.

Among those scheduled to testify are Professor YangQuan Chen of the UC Merced School of Engineering; Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean; CalFire Deputy Director Andy McMurry; TerrAvion founder and CEO Robert Morris; Professor Elizabeth Joh of the UC Davis School of Law; Linda Lye, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California; and Jennifer Lynch, attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to noon, and the public can listen online.

“The Public Safety Committee has been called upon this session to evaluate some bills involving the use of drones,” committee chairman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said in a news release. “However, it’s such a new subject; we need to develop a base of knowledge and a context for making decisions on these important bills.”

Also, Reuters reports today that a secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit – operating in tandem with the FBI, CIA, NSA, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security – is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.

And, I was on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California” on Friday night to discuss Oakland’s controversial decision to expand its public video surveillance:

It was a lively discussion, but I wish I’d had a chance to delve into other topics such as how Oakland and other cities share the intelligence they gather with a regional “fusion center” located in a federal building in San Francisco; varying policies on how long such video footage is retained; and how easy it is for cities with extensive video surveillance networks to later add in software such as facial-recognition programs. I touched on some of these topics in a story I co-authored in June.


April 30 hearing on bills to speed death penalty

Hot from having successfully opposed last year’s ballot measure to abolish California’s death penalty, prosecutors now are pushing legislation to put condemned inmates to death faster.

The two bills by state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, and sponsored by the California District Attorneys Association, will be heard next Tuesday, April 30 by the state Senate Public Safety Committee.

San Quentin's death chamber“Removing unnecessary impediments to carrying out the punishment meted out by judges and juries will ensure timely justice,” Anderson said in a news release. “It is clear that the death penalty needs reforming when condemned inmates are often living longer on death row than their victims did their entire lives.”

SB 779 makes various reforms including speeding up the appointment of appellate counsel and certification of the record, which under current law can take years. SCA 13 would let California’s appellate courts hear death penalty appeals; for now, only the state Supreme Court hears them, creating a legal bottleneck.

CDAA last year opposed Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty; the initiative was rejected by 52 percent of voters in November. The initiative’s supporters had argued in part that capital punishment is too costly for the state to afford, given the many years of legal wrangling and special incarceration that it requires.

“Prosecutors seek justice and stand for victims,” CDAA president Carl Adams said in the news release. “Regardless of the fate of these two bills, CDAA will continue to carry this banner and hold the state to its promise to appropriately punish the worst offenders.”

California now has 733 condemned inmates. It has executed 14 since reinstating the death penalty in 1978, with the last of those in January 2006. A federal judge later that year found the state’s lethal-injection procedure was unconstitutional because it might cause the inmate pain; new regulations were enacted in 2010 but have never been used.