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.


Lawmakers to probe state prison conditions

The Bay Area lawmakers who chair the Legislature’s public safety committees announced Friday that they’ll hold public hearings on state prison conditions that have lead to a months-long inmate hunger strike.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the hearings might begin this fall and continue into 2014, focused upon confinement conditions in maximum-security prisons and long-term solitary confinement as both a prison-management strategy and a human-rights issue.

Tom Ammiano“The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed,” Ammiano said in a joint news release. “The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns. We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the US. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.

“California continues to be an outlier in its use of solitary confinement, which has been recognized internationally and by other states to be an extreme form of punishment that leads to mental illness if used for prolonged periods of time,” Hancock said in the release. “Since many of these inmates will eventually have served their sentences and will be released, it is in all our best interest to offer hope of rehabilitation while they are incarcerated – not further deterioration.”

Hancock and Ammiano urged an immediate end to the hunger strike so that energy and attention can be focused on the issues that have been raised. The inmates have succeeded in bringing the issues to the public eye, they said, and there’s no need for further sacrifice or risk.

Dolores Canales, a member of the inmate strikers’ mediation team and mother of a convicted murderer in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State, said the prison activists appreciate the lawmakers’ action.

“Ultimately it is up to the hunger strikers’ themselves as to when and how they will end their protest,” she said. “But as their advocates on the outside, we feel positive about today’s developments.”


Skinner, Ammiano undecided on prison plans

Don’t mistake the Assembly Budget Committee’s unanimous passage of Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison plan Thursday for a clear sail through that chamber.

Committee chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said Friday that the committee acted largely in order to beat the deadline for fiscal committees to move bills to the floor – not because every member agrees completely with the plan put forth by Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway.

She demurred when asked whether she prefers this plan to the alternative put forth by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. “All of this stuff is still being discussed and negotiated,” she said.

She’s not the only Bay Area liberal lawmaker who’s undecided on which plan to side with.

Aug. 16 was the last day for policy committees to meet and report bills, so the Brown/Perez/Huff/Conway plan doesn’t have to go through the Public Safety Committee, chaired by Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

I asked whether Ammiano would care to discuss the competing prison plans as chairman of the committee that would’ve had to hear them had they come earlier. “I think he’d rather stay away from the hypotheticals, and has yet to make a decision on how to vote when the Brown/Perez bill gets to the floor,” spokesman Carlos Alcala replied late Thursday afternoon.


Steinberg’s prison plan seeks 3-year extension

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s alternative to Gov. Jerry Brown’s state-prison plan involves relies on asking for three more years to solve the overcrowding problem.

Steinberg, D-Sacramento, unveiled Senate Democrats’ plan this morning in a letter to Brown and to the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuits that led a three-judge panel to order California to further reduce its inmate population by this year’s end.

Darrell Steinberg“The federal courts have put us in the untenable position of either releasing thousands of inmates from our prisons early, or putting our prison capacity on steroids by renting new prison beds at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars for years to come,” Steinberg said today. “Neither option makes any sense. We can do far better, and would be wrong to give up now.”

Steinberg said his plan would “achieve a durable solution” to prison overcrowding by reducing crime through performance-based grant programs. These grants would incentivize counties to expand proven rehabilitation, drug and mental health treatment programs for criminal offenders. This is modeled after a 2009 effort which, in just two years, reduced new prison admissions by more than 9,500, with $536 million in state savings over three years.

Also, the state would create an Advisory Commission on Public Safety to analyze and recommend changes in California’s sentencing laws.

But that won’t do the trick by Dec. 31, so Steinberg is asking the plaintiffs to agree to extend the deadline by three years. He wants all parties to the lawsuit to agree to let an independent state panel evaluate and determine proper population levels for California’s prisons based on standards and practices employed by correctional administrators across the country.

The state is under a federal court’s order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of this year. California already has reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 since 2006 – more than half of which was via 2011’s “realignment,” which spun some offenders out to county jails instead of state prisons.

The one thing on which all the leaders in Sacramento agree is that granting early release to thousands of inmates in order to meet the deadline isn’t an option. Brown, joined by Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, yesterday unveiled a plan that calls for quickly leasing in-state and out-of-state prison capacity, including county jails, and contracting with community corrections facilities; suspending the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco; and spending up to $315 million to make it all happen.

“Governor Brown has a well-earned reputation as a good steward of the public purse; throwing this expensive Band-Aid on a hemorrhage threatens to undermine our hard work,” Steinberg said Wednesday. “We cannot build or rent our way out of overcrowded prisons.”

UPDATE @ 10:37 A.M.: The plaintiffs say they might be willing to grant the extension Steinberg seeks. Here’s the statement they just released:

“We are ready and willing to sit down with the Governor and his counsel to discuss ways to end federal court oversight. Senator Steinberg’s substantive proposals are acceptable to us and we are open to an extension of the date for compliance with the three judge court’s order if an agreement produces an effective and sustainable approach that will resolve the chronic overcrowding problem in the state’s prisons. The actual amount of time must be arrived at through these discussions.

“We strongly support Senator Steinberg’s proposal to provide local governments with resources to reduce and prevent crime by treating offenders in the community, and to establish a public safety commission. That commission will be charged with making recommendations based on solid evidence to reduce recidivism by holding individuals accountable in the most effective and least costly way. His solution demonstrates that the state can achieve a real, sustainable approach to safely reducing and managing the inmate population without further federal intervention and wasteful spending on more prisons.

“The Governor’s plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the prison system for low risk prisoners will not make the public any safer. Without reform of the sentencing laws California’s prison population will continue to grow, making it only a matter of time before the prisons will once again exceed the population cap and prompt a renewed Court order requiring further reductions in the prison population.”

UPDATE @ 12:00 P.M.: Brown says it wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.

“It would not be responsible to turn over California’s criminal justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people,” the governor said in a statement issued a few moments ago. “My plan avoids early releases of thousands of prisoners and lays the foundation for longer-term changes, and that’s why local officials and law enforcement support it.”


Brown, some lawmakers unveil state prison plan

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle – most of them, anyway – rolled out a plan today to satisfy a federal court order to limit the state’s prison population while avoiding the early release of thousands of prisoners.

In the short term, the plan is: Lock ‘em up somewhere else.

The plan unveiled by Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway calls for quickly leasing in-state and out-of-state prison capacity, including county jails, and contracting with community corrections facilities; suspending the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco; and spending up to $315 million to make it all happen.

“This legislation will protect public safety and give us time to work with public officials and interested parties to make thoughtful changes in the overall criminal justice system,” Brown said in a news release.

But while state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he agrees with preventing any early inmate releases, he said Brown’s plan has “no promise and no hope.”

“As the population of California grows, it’s only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow and the Court demands mass releases again,” Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in his own news release. “For every 10 prisoners finishing their sentences, nearly seven of them will commit another crime after release and end up back behind bars.”

“More money for more prison cells alone is not a durable solution; it is not a fiscally responsible solution; and it is not a safe solution,” he said, announcing he’ll unveil Senate Democrats’ alternative plan at 10 a.m. Wednesday. “We must invest in a durable criminal justice strategy, which reduces both crime and prison overcrowding.”

The state is under a federal court’s order to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of this year. California already has reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 since 2006 – more than half of which was via 2011’s “realignment,” which spun some offenders out to county jails instead of state prisons.

Brown, Perez, Huff and Conway said they’re also seeking long-term solutions.

“This process will leave no stone unturned as we investigate what can work to make improvements,” Perez, D-Los Angeles, said in the news release. “We will consider every option from updating sentencing laws; to giving local governments and law enforcement the necessary tools. And certainly we will examine broader policy questions that prevent crime, like improving education from preschool to higher education and on programs that break the cycle of poverty.”

Huff, R-Brea, said Senate Republicans will support the plan “because we believe the safety of California families should be our first and foremost priority” and allowing the early release of so many inmates “is simply unacceptable.”

Conway, R-Visalia, said today’s plan incorporates some ideas that Republican lawmakers had put forward. “We will continue to work with the Governor and the Speaker to find sustainable solutions that will honor the court’s demands, while keeping Californians safe.”

Activists who’d like to see the prison population reduced, not just moved around, are disappointed.

“Gov. Brown has turned his back on his own earlier proposals to the court, which detailed smart, sustainable alternatives for California to reach the court order,” said Courage Campaign executive chairman Dr. Paul Song. “Instead, the Governor is choosing to throw hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars down the black hole that is California’s broken prison system. This wasteful spending will prevent the restoration of funding to education and other vital services, which continue to suffer from devastating cuts made during the Great Recession. Funding those services would do more to keep Californians safe than further expansion of the prison-industrial complex.”


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.