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Death row abolition bill yanked, bound for ballot

State Sen. Loni Hancock today abandoned her bill that would’ve abolished California’s death penalty, even as a coalition supporting it vowed to take it to voters as a ballot measure instead.

Hancock, D-Berkeley, withdrew SB 490 from consideration by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which was scheduled to vote on the bill today.

“The votes were not there to support reforming California’s expensive and dysfunctional death penalty system,” she said in her news release. “I had hoped we would take the opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to support our schools and universities, keep police on our streets and fund essential public institutions like the courts.”

SB 490 would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment without possibility of parole for those already condemned and for the future. Hancock chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as the Budget subcommittee that oversees the criminal justice system’s funding. The bill had been opposed by groups including Crime Victims United of California and the California District Attorneys Association.

But California Taxpayers for Justice, which had been backing Hancock’s bill, said it’s far from done.

“If the California Legislature will not act to put an end to California’s death penalty debacle, and to keep California families safe, then we will. We will take immediate steps to file a ballot initiative for the November 2012 general election,” the group said in a news release; more information will be released at a news conference Monday morning in Sacramento.

Stefanie Faucher, a member of California Taxpayers for Justice and associate director of San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus, said she and her colleagues “are confident that Californians are ready to replace the death penalty.”

Well… maybe.

A July 2010 Field Poll found 70 percent of California voters support capital punishment, up from 67 percent in 2006; this support cut across age, gender, racial, religious and party lines. The survey had a 2.8 percentage point margin of error.

However, a subsample of that same poll found that if given a choice, about as many voters would personally opt to impose a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole — 42 percent — as would choose the death penalty — 41 percent — for someone convicted of first-degree murder. This subsample had a 4.6 percentage point margin of error.

The state Senate Public Safety Committee heard testimony Tuesday from 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Arthur Alarcón and Loyola Law Professor Paula Mitchell, co-authors of the study, “Executing the Will of the Voters? – A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion Dollar Death Penalty Debacle,” published in June. The study had concluded California has “the most expensive and least effective death penalty law in the nation.”

And last week, former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson testified in support of the bill to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Van de Kamp chaired the California Commission of the Fair Administration of Justice, which produced a 2008 report that called the state’s death penalty system dysfunctional and a waste of money.

Posted on Thursday, August 25th, 2011
Under: ballot measures, California State Senate, Loni Hancock, Public safety, state budget, State Prisons | 4 Comments »

Hearing tomorrow on California prison SHUs

The Assembly Public Safety Committee will hold an informational hearing tomorrow on the state prison system’s “Secure Housing Units,” which were targeted by inmates’ recent hunger strike at Pelican Bay State Prison and other sites around California.

The hearing at the State Capitol, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., will be streamed live on the Assembly’s website.

After an introduction by chairman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francsico, the committee will hear from SHU inmates and their supporters: Earl Fears, a former Corcoran SHU inmate; Glenda Rojas, a family member of an inmate at Pelican Bay; and the Rev. William McGarvey from the Bay Area Religious Campaign Against Torture.

After that come the legal and research experts: prisoner-rights lawyer Charles Carbone; American Friends Service Committee Regional Director Laura Magnani; Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and All of Us or None; Dr. Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute; and University of California, Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney.

Then the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will have its say for about half an hour, with testimony from Undersecretary of Operations Scott Kernan and Chief of Correctional Safety Anthony Chaus. There’ll be some time for public comment at the end.

UPDATE @ 1:51 P.M.: “This is an important opportunity for the California Legislature and the people of California to hold the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation accountable for upholding the basic needs and human rights of prisoners,” Carol Strickman, a lawyer at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said in a news release. “The hunger strike opened the eyes of many people in California and around the world to the reprehensible conditions that exist within the SHU and now it’s time to start making some lasting changes.”

Posted on Monday, August 22nd, 2011
Under: Assembly, State Prisons, Tom Ammiano | 2 Comments »

The prison hunger strike is over… or is it?

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matthew Cate issued a statement this morning saying inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison had ended their hunger strike.

Pelican Bay State Prison“Hunger strikes are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate,” Cate said in his news release. “This strike was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians, and so it was with significant and appropriate caution that CDCR worked to end the strike. We will now seek to stabilize operations for all inmates and continue our work to improve the safety and security of our prison system statewide.”

Cate said the strikers, who began their protest July 1, stopped yesterday “after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management. These changes, to date, include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”

But this came as news to the prison activists who have been relating the strike to the outside world; lawyers and mediators haven’t heard from the hunger strikers that they’ve quit their protest.

“We would like to hear directly from the men at Pelican Bay that they have resumed eating and what demands, if any, have been met,” Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said in a news release this afternoon. “At this point, we have not been able to ascertain what concessions may have been granted.”

CDCR “has used deceptive tactics throughout this strike to try to overcome prisoner resistance,” Taeva Shefler, a member of Prison Activist Resource Center and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, said in the same release. “In order to break the strike, the CDCR has regularly underestimated strike participation and withheld information regarding the health of striking prisoners. Prisoners not yet in solitary have been placed in Administrative Segregation or Security Housing Units as punishment for protesting. These are the very issues this strike aims to change in the first place.”

Pelican Bay SHU cellThe activists say hundreds of inmates refused food in order to protest conditions that international human rights groups have called torturous and inhumane. Inmates in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) – who have been classified as the prison system’s most dangerous and violent offenders – are kept in windowless, 6-foot-by-10-foot cells for about 23 and a half hours per day, sometimes for years. Their demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement, collective punishment, and forced interrogation on gang affiliation.

UPDATE @ 4:43 P.M.: The LA Times reports the inmates at Pelican Bay are eating again, but some inmates at Corcoran, Tehachapi and Calipatria – who’d started striking in sympathy with the Pelican Bay guys – are continuing to refuse meals.

Posted on Thursday, July 21st, 2011
Under: State Prisons | 1 Comment »

Audit finds lousy bookkeeping in Calif. prisons

Lousy internal control policies in California’s prison system puts millions of taxpayers’ dollars at risk of fraud and abuse, according to an audit released today by state Controller John Chiang.

“My auditors found the CDCR has grossly inadequate procedures in place for collecting overpayment of salaries and travel advances made through the agency’s office revolving fund,” Chiang said in a news release. “This is the latest in a series of agency audits conducted by my staff that point to the waste and abuse of state funds due to the lack of attention to collecting overpayments. Gov. Brown and I are working together to identify the causes of these problems and to protect public funds.”

The audit comes amid increasing inclination on both sides of the political aisle to find fiscal savings in the prison system, which accounts for 11.4 percent of the state’s general-fund spending in the current budget; in comparison, about 11.9 percent of general-fund spending goes to higher education.

Chang’s auditors reviewed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation records from July 1, 2009 through July, 31, 2010, and found that inadequate collection efforts resulted in delays in collecting millions of dollars in overpayments for employee salary and travel advances. Of more than $6 million in outstanding receivables related to salary and travel advances, more than $4 million, or 65.6 percent, remained outstanding for more than 60 days, and $465,000, or 7.5%, had been outstanding for more than three years.

For example, an employee terminated in May 2010 got a lump-sum check for $14,950 from the office’s revolving fund to meet the timeline for paying employees separating from state service, auditors found. But CDCR didn’t take the steps necessary to offset the employee’s final check, resulting in the former employee receiving both a salary advance and a full, final check. And six months later, there had been no effort to recoup the $14,950 overpayment.

In another case, an employee got a salary advance of more than $8,000 in January 2008, plus a regular payroll check; as of Nov. 1, 2010, almost three years later, the advance still hadn’t been collected, even though the employee still works for CDCR.

The audit also found serious internal control deficiencies put CDCR at risk for fraud and abuse. For example, CDCR was tardy or noncompliant in trying to “reconcile bank accounts to ensure the accuracy and completeness of recorded transactions,” the controller’s office said – what you and I would call balancing our checkbooks. As of June 30, 2010, the bank reconciliation of CDCR’s major account showed $27 million in unresolved funds on their bank balance, while CDCR’s records showed unresolved funds totaling more than $31 million on their book balance. Without reconciling these funds, anyone with access to the fund’s check stock could issue bogus checks with little chance of getting caught.

Also, state accounting procedures require two authorized signatures for payments of more than $15,000, yet the audit found two separate checks exceeding that amount without dual signatures.

And the audit found CDCR used its revolving fund to spend more than the department’s appropriation under the state budget. That those payments appeared to be for legitimate purposes isn’t the issue, the audit said: CDCR has no legal authority to make such payments without an appropriation from the Legislature. As of last Nov. 30, CDCR still hadn’t received reimbursement for more than $3.5 million in payments made from its revolving fund prior to June 30, 2010.

Martin Hoshino, CDCR Undersecretary for Administration and Offender Services, said the agency agrees with the findings and already has implemented 22 of the 36 recommendations made by Chiang’s office. In his formal response, Hoshino said CDCR has now “prioritized the vigorous collection of outstanding debts,” succeeding in decreasing the outstanding balance by $2.2 million since November 1, 2010. “We will continue in our efforts until we have surmounted the issues identified in this audit.”

Chiang’s auditors will revisit CDCR a year from now to gauge its progress in correcting the problems.

UPDATE @ 3:16 P.M.: “The situation here is terrible, but the great thing is that we have acknowledgement and action – it’s a new day in Sacramento,” Chiang told me this afternoon, noting Brown issued an executive order April 20 addressing some of the issues this audit found. “We think they’re making the efforts to do so. We’re going to go back a year from now and make sure they’re implementing as promised.”

Chiang said amid the state’s fiscal crisis, administrators must find every opportunity large and small to conserve money.

He blamed the sloppiness on “a lack of focus. What we’ve heard in prior instances is that it (proper bookkeeping) is not their core function, but they have to understand they’re not going to be able to perform those core functions unless they have financial controls.”

Posted on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
Under: John Chiang, state budget, State Prisons | 1 Comment »

Death penalty author to argue for its abolition

An author of California’s death-penalty law as it exists today will testify for its abolition tomorrow, an East Bay lawmaker announced.

Don HellerDon Heller, a former prosecutor who authored the successful Proposition 7 of 1978 to broaden the capital punishment California had just reinstated the previous year, will testify to the Assembly Public Safety Committee in favor of SB 490, state Sen. Loni Hancock’s bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. The bill would convert the sentences of all those now on California’s death row to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Witnesses previously scheduled to testify for the bill include Hancock, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee as well as the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Corrections; Judy Kerr, sister of a murder victim and spokeswoman for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty; and Death Penalty Focus Executive Director Jeanne Woodford, who as San Quentin State Prison’s warden oversaw four executions before becoming director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Among those scheduled to testify against the bill are Crime Victims United of California lobbyist Dawn Sanders-Koepke and a representative from the California District Attorneys Association.

Posted on Wednesday, July 6th, 2011
Under: Assembly, California State Senate, Loni Hancock, Public safety, State Prisons | No Comments »

Hancock to introduce death-penalty bill today

As she promised a week ago, state Sen. Loni Hancock today will introduce a bill to abolish California’s death penalty.

The bill would replace capital punishment with life without possibility of parole. Hancock, D-Berkeley, who chairs both the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Budget subcommittee overseeing prison spending, will gut and amend her SB 490 to carry the language. It’s expected to have its first hearing at 9:30 a.m. next Tuesday, July 5, in the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the bill would still require voters’ approval as a Legislature-sponsored initiative in November 2012. That coincide with the high-turnout presidential general election; the state’s significant Democratic voter registration edge means a somewhat more liberal electorate would decide the issue.

Hancock will discuss the bill in a live interview with host Jeffrey Callison on Capitol Public Radio’s “Insight” at 10 a.m. this morning.

“Capital punishment is an expensive failure and an example of the dysfunction of our prisons,” Hancock said in a news release issued late last night. “California’s death row is the largest and most costly in the United States. It is not helping to protect our state; it is helping to bankrupt us.”

Hancock announced her legislation after the Los Angeles Times reported last week on a new study highlighting capital punishment’s high cost in California: $4 billion since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, although only 13 executions have occurred since then while the number of condemned inmates has swelled to 714. The report, “Executing the Will of the Voters: A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Death Penalty Debacle,” was written by U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon, a former prosecutor, and Loyola Law School professor Paula Mitchell. It will be published this week in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review.

Posted on Monday, June 27th, 2011
Under: California State Senate, Loni Hancock, Public safety, State Prisons | 2 Comments »

Oakland group decries 24-hr youth prison lockups

An Oakland-based human rights nonprofit is waging an online drive urging California’s Division of Juvenile Justice to immediately stop extensive isolation of youth prisoners.

A declaration filed May 24 in an Alameda County Superior Court lawsuit regarding conditions at DJJ prisons included documentation that some youth inmates aren’t receiving the minimum three hours per day of out-of-room time that they should.

“(T)he most frequent failure to meet out-of-room requirements has occurred at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility,” Nancy Campbell, a court-appointed special master in the case, wrote in a May 20 memo. “In the 14 weeks documented, there were 173 out of 1,453 incidents during which youth on TD (temporary detention) or TIP (temporary intervention plans) spent more than 21 of 24 hours confined to his or her rooms. Other DJJ facilities struggle to meet mandated services requirements as well.”

More than a dozen members of Books Not Bars, a campaign of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, have children who have spent 23-plus hours a day locked up in cold cells with little human contact and zero programming.

“The DJJ abuses my son by keeping him in solitary confinement. The last time I saw him, he had bruises on his face and he couldn’t hold a conversation with me. How could they do this to our children?” Books Not Bars member Maria Sanchaz said in a news release; her son is locked up in the Ventura facility.

Books not Bars says the special master’s report also indicates DJJ is failing to provide youth inmates with the minimum education required every day and, due to high levels of institutional violence, is canceling medical appointments without rescheduling them.

“The use of solitary confinement is one of the most egregious violations we’ve seen from California Division of Juvenile Justice,” Ella Baker Center Executive Director Jakada Imani said in a news release. “Extensive isolation amounts to torture and trauma for our youth- the exact opposite of the rehabilitation the DJJ is tasked with providing. Californians should be outraged that Secretary Matthew Cate is allowing this dangerous and abusive practice to persist.”

This video posted last year by DJJ paints a rosier picture of life at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, and includes some views of the youth inmates’ rooms:

Posted on Monday, June 13th, 2011
Under: State Prisons | 7 Comments »

Assembly passes Swanson’s prison education bill

Yesterday was a banner day for Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda. Besides the human trafficking bill on which I’ve written an article, he had another unanimously passed bill that would increase educational opportunities available in state prisons.

AB 216 would create incentives and remove restrictions for community colleges to offer courses in state correctional facilities. Swanson said this is especially important in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court order requiring California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons to reduce their inmate population by 46,000.

“Education is a critical component to rehabilitating inmates and ensuring their successful transition back into society,” Swanson said in a news release. “AB 216 is part of a larger re-entry strategy that will address the Supreme Court mandate and the safety of our communities by significantly reducing the likelihood that released inmates will commit new crimes.”

California spends more than $49,000 per year to house each inmate, only to see many re-offend and cost their communities even more, he said. “It is better for our state to invest money upfront on training and educating inmates who will eventually be released into our communities, rather than have them re-enter society without the tools necessary to keep them off the streets and out of prison.”

The Assembly voted 79-0 Tuesday to pass the bill and send it on to the state Senate.

Posted on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
Under: Assembly, Sandre Swanson, State Prisons | No Comments »

Jerry Brown cuts 400 jobs at state prisons HQ

Gov. Jerry Brown brought the ax down today at the state prison system’s headquarters, eliminating 400 jobs to save $30 million.

The cut at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation‘s head office returns its bureaucratic workforce to 2005 levels, so that it now accounts for less than 5 percent of CDCR’s total workforce; 600 other headquarters positions already had been eliminated in the past 18 months.

“This is a long overdue action to make CDCR more efficient while cutting costs,” Brown said in a news release.

CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate said the “new executive structure is designed to create a leaner organization, clarify functions and responsibilities, delegate decision-making authority and eliminate duplicative functions.”

The governor’s office says this restructuring includes cutting 32 executive-level positions including the chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and five chief deputy secretaries. More than 100 manager and supervisor positions will be eliminated, increasing responsibilities in many areas for those remaining. This round of cuts affects more than 90 personnel classifications.

Posted on Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
Under: Jerry Brown, state budget, State Prisons | 4 Comments »

Reactions to SCOTUS ruling on state prisons

California is abuzz about the U.S. Supreme Court’s order this morning that the state must shed tens of thousands of inmates from its unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system.

From Gov. Jerry Brown:

Jerry Brown“The Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision that California must reduce its prison population. In its ruling, the Supreme Court recognized that the enactment of AB 109 is key to meeting this obligation. We must now secure full and constitutionally guaranteed funding to put into effect all the realignment provisions contained in AB 109. As we work to carry out the Court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”

From California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro:

Tom Del Beccaro“The reason for this unfortunate Supreme Court decision lies with those in charge of the California legislature for the last two decades. While the Democrat leadership has wasted $23,000 per Assembly and Senate bill on thousands of unnecessary bills each year, not to mention wasteful programs, they have failed in their most basic obligation to keep Californians safe by building adequate prisons. Now that neglect is taking the form of the forced release of 46,000 prisoners. It is a dereliction beyond shameful.”

From ACLU of Northern California Executive Director Abdi Soltani:

Abdi Soltani“Reduction of prison populations is necessary not only to meet the Constitutional standards required by the Supreme Court, but also to balance prison spending with other priorities as we solve the remaining $10 billion state budget deficit. Felony sentences should be for people who have committed serious crimes – not simple drug possession or writing $450 worth of bad checks.”

From Asemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber:

Jim Nielsen“The court’s decision is an egregious travesty of justice. I agree with Justice Scalia who called the decision ‘perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history’ This decision will result in hundreds of thousands of crimes being committed against our citizens as criminals are released who will then face lesser to no consequences for their continued criminality.

“California citizens must now be more concerned with the safety of their families. Their government and courts are offering less concern.”

Lots more, after the jump…
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted on Monday, May 23rd, 2011
Under: Darrell Steinberg, Jerry Brown, Public safety, State Prisons | 2 Comments »