Gov. Newsom’s prison-release plan is not enough
Opinion // Open Forum
San Francisco Chronicle
July 15, 2020
On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced a plan to release about 8,000 people from California prisons, which, ravaged by COVID-19, have become a medical catastrophe.
It is encouraging that state officials are finally paying attention to advocates and activists statewide, who for months have been publicly warning authorities that, without decisive action, state prisons could become mass graves. Indeed, if this plan saves even a handful of people from illness and death, that in itself is a big blessing.
Upon closer investigation, however, the plan feels like an effort to navigate the tricky terrain between curbing the pandemic and avoiding public controversy. The basics of the plan are as follows:
• 4,800 of the candidates for release are people who have 180 days left and are not doing time for violence or domestic violence or are registered as sex offenders.
• An undetermined number of people would be released if they have a year left on their sentence and are doing time for a nonviolent, non-sexual crime at one of several prisons identified as pandemic epicenters. Those aged 30 and over are immediately eligible; younger people will be reviewed case by case by CDCR.
• CDCR is offering a 12-week programming credit to everyone not on Death Row or serving life without parole who doesn’t have a serious violation on their record since March 1. “Serious rules violations” range from murder to possession of a cellphone. This category encompasses 108,000 people, of whom 2,100 would advance to the point of being eligible for release this summer.
• CDCR defines people as medically “high risk” if they are over 65 with a chronic medical condition, or with respiratory illnesses. Those of them assessed as low risk for violence who are not on Death Row, serving life without parole, or high-risk sex offenders, will be assessed for release on an individual basis.
• CDCR also will assess for release people in hospice or pregnant, and expedite release for people who have been granted parole (including the governor’s approval).
The problems with the plan are fourfold. First, at a mere 6% of the California prison population, 8,000 releases are far too few. Less than a month ago, a medical report by UCSF and UC Berkeley experts recommended that, because of San Quentin’s age and decrepitude, the population there specifically be reduced to 50% of current capacity. Systemwide, according to the latest population count from last Wednesday, 26 facilities are overcrowded, 19 of them at above 120% of their design capacity. Under these conditions, the planned releases will not be nearly sufficient to guarantee basic social-distancing protocols.
Second, it is far too late to use a case-by-case release approach. The time to carefully go over individual files was in early March; at this point, such review is a luxury, and CDCR will have to consider more categorical releases.
Third, the plan is too timid and reactive.
The list of pandemic-epicenter prisons in the plan is already dated; CDCR’s own data reveals new outbreaks at several places not mentioned in the plan. In addition, because of CDCR’s sluggish testing policy, it is impossible to have a true sense of where, and to what degree, the pandemic is still active. The prisons listed in the news release already have a robust outbreak, and releasing vigorously from there, though helpful in terms of treating people, would not help with prevention.
Most important, the plan is too restrictive. It seems to aim to avoid public controversy by focusing on a familiar target population for reform: those serving time for nonviolent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses. Instead of trimming the edges of the state prison population, the governor and correctional officials should take a decisive stand and address the most obvious population from a public health perspective: aging people serving lengthy sentences. A full fourth of the prison population is aged 50 and older. Because of prison conditions and decades-long incarceration, people age faster in prison than on the outside, and therefore have health problems.
Everything we know about life-course criminology confirms that this population has long ago aged out of crime. In short, these older people pose little risk to public safety, while they themselves face enormous risk of illness and death. The public health calculus is simple — the only complication is public ignorance about so-called “violent offenders,” even in the face of a robust, unshakable body of criminal-justice research showing no correlation between the crime of commitment and the risk to public safety.
The governor and CDCR are to be commended for taking steps to mitigate what is now a full-blown human rights disaster, but their plan is far too timid to make the necessary change. Perhaps its architects hope that, by cobbling together palatable candidates for release, the numbers somehow will add up to sufficient pandemic prevention. They won’t.
Activists should be congratulated for applying the pressure that was needed to bring about this move, but must press on until our elected officials produce a real, evidence-based plan, with the potential to stop the virus in its tracks and save lives.
Hadar Aviram is a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
Alameda County DA promises not to accept police union money, advocacy group says
Bay Area News Group
The Mercury News
July 9, 2020, updated July 10, 2020
OAKLAND — An advocacy coalition says that Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has agreed she will no longer accept campaign money from police unions, something she was heavily criticized for doing during her last re-election.
O’Malley met with organizers of the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County on June 17 in a virtual meeting, as part of ongoing conversations about her office’s discretion regarding charging decisions, plea bargains and alternatives to incarceration.
“I don’t have anything from the police unions, and I’m not going to take anything from them,” O’Malley said in the virtual meeting, a recording of which was obtained by this news organization.
The coalition presented O’Malley with a list of recommendations it called a “bold statement” to the community following the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matters protests. The recommendations included: no longer accepting funds from police unions; support reinvestment of police budgets to alternatives to incarceration; and to consider supporting the de-militarization of police.
After the coalition sent the district attorney a letter to complete the recommendations following the June 17 meeting, she gave a short reply saying she would review the letter, but was unable to discuss the recommendations, said E.J. Pavia lead organizer at the Urban Peace Movement, which is part of the coalition.
“Prosecutors wield tremendous power in holding police accountable to our families and communities for misconduct, including police brutality and murder,” said Pavia. “We are glad that DA O’Malley has joined district attorneys in the Bay Area and California in pledging to no longer accept campaign financial support from police unions.”
Several state prosecutors sent a letter to the State Bar in June, asking for a ban on allowing prosecutors to accept police union campaign funds, citing possible conflicts of interest. Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton was one of those signing the letter.
“How can we trust that district attorneys are holding police to the same level of accountability when they’re accepting this money? This seems like bribe money, like hush money,” said Pavia in an interview.
O’Malley was criticized during her 2018 re-election campaign after she accepted a $10,000 donation from the Fremont Police Association on Nov. 8, 2017, while her office was investigating two separate police shootings within that department. Less than a month later, on Dec. 6, 2017, O’Malley’s office cleared Fremont Officer James Taylor of any wrongdoing in the fatal shooting death of Nana Adomako in February of that year.
Then on Feb. 13, 2018, her office cleared Sgt. Jeremy Miskella, president of the Fremont police union, and Fremont Detective Joel Hernandez in the killing of a 16-year-old pregnant Antioch girl, Elena Mondragon, on March 14, 2017.
At the time, O’Malley defended her position in accepting the donation and said she asked for an external review of the confrontation in which Mondragon was killed. She later donated the funds to Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments, a Fremont nonprofit that offers services and treatment for domestic abuse victims.
“Under no circumstances was the decision regarding the Fremont police officers influenced in any way by any politics,” she said in an email to this news organization in March 2018. “Nevertheless, I have asked for an independent review of the case from the state attorney general to remove even the slightest appearance of impropriety.”
In an editorial board interview with this news organization in 2018, O’Malley said, “I stand behind the decisions we made.”
She said that money from law enforcement makes up less than 5% of her total campaign donations. In 2018, she spent at least $1.07 million on her campaign, according to campaign finance forms. This was the first time she faced a challenger in her time as DA.
During the June 17 meeting, O’Malley said she is interested in diverting funds into alternative programs. Twice she repeats that she doesn’t have any money from police unions and is “not taking any money from police unions,” and does not have any money to divert to programs.
O’Malley could not be reached for comment.
The coalition, which is made up of at least 15 community organizations, is expected to meet with O’Malley again on Friday.
Besides the $10,000 from Fremont, O’Malley also accepted at least $30,000 in funds from other police unions, including: $9,500 from the Oakland Police Officers Association; $8,500 from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Alameda County PAC; $2,500 each from the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the Livermore Police Officers Association; $2,000 from the Newark Police Association; and $1,000 each from Emeryville Police Union, Berkeley Police Officers Association, San Francisco Police Association, the San Leandro Police Officers Association and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Santa Clara County.
O’Malley was appointed by Alameda County Board of Supervisors in 2009 and re-elected in 2010, 2014 and 2018. She is up for re-election in 2022.
Staff Writer Joseph Geha contributed to this report.