Reframing how we think/talk about criminal justice & prison reform

Attention to mass incarceration and criminal (in)justices has increased greatly in recent years. Criminal justice and prison reform movements are gaining currency across the political spectrum, but there remains a problematic dichotomy among violent vs. non-violent offenders in determining who deserves the benefit of such reform efforts. This is a mistake for several reasons. By focusing on the low-hanging fruit of non-violent offenders, we reify the incorrect meta-narrative that the War on Drugs is to blame for this era of hyper incarceration. The majority of people in CA & American prisons are not locked up for drug possession or drug dealing. Figures vary, but safe estimates conclude that less than 17% of offenders in state prisons are incarcerated on drug charges.

For those who seek to transcend the superficial tides of understanding that beseech narratives about mass incarceration, it’s strikingly obvious that reducing prison populations means releasing a whole lot of violent offenders. But here is where our conceptualizations about prison reform fail us. The vocabulary we use to discuss violent offenders is so impoverished that it fails to adequately convey the types of behaviors that lead to incarceration. When one hears the term ‘violent offender’ it immediately conjures visceral fears of murder, rape, and other heinous acts. But the nature of violent offenses differs between states (and counties) so broadly that most would be quite surprised to learn the charges that classify as violent offenses. In Washington, D.C., yelling at a police officer is a violent offense. Until Prop 47 in CA, robbing an empty house was considered a violent act. This characterization of violent offenders goes beyond rhetoric, it’s reflected in policy.

By using the term ‘violence’ imprecisely, it’s easier to relegate criminals to the fringes of society for the rest of their lives. For example, let’s say a drug addict shares some of his heroin with a friend. The friend accidentally overdoses and dies. Is the addict a murderer or a non-violent offender? Or let’s say a group of three young men decide to burglarize an empty home. Two go in, while one stays outside as a get away driver. Unbeknownst to them, the home is not empty and the two men fatally shoot the resident. Is the get away driver a violent criminal in this dynamic?

Some of the most urgent questions we can ask about violent offenders are more aligned with philosophy than policy. Is violence a permanent and immutable human condition? Is violence only physical? How much does intention matter? Is violence more violent if one wear a certain color of clothing or is friends with certain people? If one is a certain race? Do violent offenders deserve second chances? Or, do they deserve to be condemned forever wasting away in cages non-deserving of mercy?

These questions may strike observers as abstract, but it’s a luxury to not spend time pondering them. It can be virtually impossible for someone with a violent offense on their record to rebuild their life, granted they even get released from prison. How long should they have to pay?

They call us monsters

Curious about what CA’s juvenile justice system looks like in action? Look no futher than They call us monsters, a new documentary that is available on Netflix and other streaming platforms. The film follows three adolescent boys as they cope with their current incarceration and hope for second chances. The young men begin to write a screenplay with an outside filmmaker that slowly reveals the traumas they’ve been through & how they’ve normalized profound live events. The stories that brought them to juvenile detention are familiar – poverty, drugs, gangs – but their ability to retain the essence of their carefree spirits in the face of lengthy prison sentences is anything but familiar to viewers. The boys laugh and joke constantly, even while disclosling the life altering dynamics that led them to their incarceration. It becomes increasingly difficult to reckon with their violent crimes as we get to know them and see them as brothers, friends, and not so unlike other teenagers we may know. This remarkable documentary leaves one floored and is a well-needed exercise in empathy and solidarity.

The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In recent years, CA’s Juvenile Justice system has been the site of a robust reform movement. Senate Bill 260, passed by the CA legislature in 2014, allows juvenile offenders tried as adults for their crimes the possibility of parole after 15 years of incarceration. SB 260 still holds individuals responsible for their actions, but recognizes the urgent need to distinguish adolescents with still-forming brains from adults (over 7,000 CA prisoners were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime). It’s not inflammatory to claim SB 260 tremendously altered the landscape of both the juvenile and adult justice systems. Prop 57, passed by CA voters in November 2016, is most commonly know for its provision of expaning credits to incentivize early releases through the completion of educational milestones, but tucked in the language of the Prop was a significant change to the modus operandi of Juvenile Courts. Since the inception of Juvenile Courts, judges held the most authority in dictating the legal fate of young offenders.  But in response to growing social fears of young super predators in the late twentieth century, charging authority was transferred to prosecutors. This realignemt took power from the diversionary minded judges into the hands of interventionist minded prosecutors. This move punctuated the mission of juvenile justice and was responsible for the explosion of juvenile offenders being charged and sentenced as adults. Prop 57 restored the power of the judges, and will hopefully mitiagte the proliferation of juveniles tried as adults.

Juvenile Courts could be said to be one the greatest legal exports in history. First established in the US in the early 20th century, juvenile courts have since spread to almost every country in the world. The ethos of juvenile jursidictions in treating youngsters differently than adults is precisely because they are different. Kids do dumb stuff and make mistakes, but deserve second chances because, well, they are kids. Rehabilitation & diversion is more of a focus in juvenile correctional settings, instead of, say, a force of unrelenting and inhumane incapacitation that we see at play in the criminal justice system.

Professor Franklin Zimring at UC Berkeley is perhaps the world’s leading author on juvenile justice (among other criminological topics). To inculcate a deeper understanding of the legacy of juvenile justice reference his literature:

American Juvenile Justice

– An American Travesty

– A Century of Juvenile Justice

– One More Chance: The Pursuit of Promising Intervention Strategies for Chronic Juvenile Offenders

Good books to read Part IV

Part I

Part II

Part III

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic — Sam Quinones

  • In this book Quinones helps readers understand how the opiate epidemic spawned heroin addiction across the country. More than half a million Americans are addicted to heroin, and many of users’ addictions can be traced to opiate prescriptions like OxyContin. The book provides a condemnation of the role of Big Pharma in mainstreaming and normalizing the use of opiate pills. OxyContin was framed as a risk-free wonder drug by salespersons and doctors, but the reality has proven to be far more sinister in nature. Quinones also examines the sprawling black tar heroin trafficking rings that trace back to small villages in Mexico. Heroin crosses the border and is delivered on demand to pill addicts in midsize cities and suburbs across the country. The addiction crisis has grown in places many wouldn’t initially expect, namely Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. The drug trade and addiction crisis has had significant ripple effects on the criminal justice system and doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. A must read for anyone concerned about the growing Opiate crisis in America.

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces — Radley Balko

  • Balko relies on history to launch a spirited critique of domestic policing that mirrors warfare tactics more than communal supervision. The colonial days taught the Founders that soldiers in the streets beget conflict and tyranny, so in turn there was a focused effort to keep the military out of law enforcement. When we fast forward to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s however, it seems this lesson was lost on politicians. When rampant instances of police brutality provoked race riots, the coordinated responses from law enforcement agencies was the creation of SWAT units. Balko also points a critical finger at the role of the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, Clinton’s COPS program, and the post 9-11 security State under Bush and Obama, as expanding and empowering police forces at the expense of civil liberties. Balko concludes his book with suggestions for sensible reform efforts; treating drug addiction with rehabilitation, not policing, drastically scaling back the use of SWAT units, and emphasizing transparency to change the police culture. This book provides readers with a historical overview of how American policing came to be the unrelenting force that it is today.

Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice — Adam Benforado

  • Benforado takes readers on a journey to unearth the fundamental inequalities on which our criminal justice system is based. Many of us uncritically accept the notion that the law is impartial, but this book tosses that premise out of the window by illustrating that our system is based on injustice. Instead of arguing that the system is broken, Benforado convincingly demonstrates that the system is operating just as it was designed to by targeting undesirable defendants for extra punishment that goes far beyond constitutional blocks on arbitrary and capricious treatment. Benforado also dives into the psychological underpinnings of the criminal justice system to show the enduring role of implicit bias in the criminal justice system. Defendants with certain facial features are more likely to receive longer sentences. Judges are more likely to grant parole early in the morning.  The undeniable conclusion from this powerful book is that the roots of injustice don’t lie in the hearts of racist police officers or malicious prosecutors, but rather in the minds of all of us in society.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy — Heather Ann Thompson

  • The Attica prison riot is one of the most notorious prison uprisings in global history. The true events of the saga were shrouded in mystery, but Thompson has sifted through it all to provide readers with a grueling re-telling of the events. Nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protests years of mistreatment on September 9, 1971. After four days of negotiations while holding guards and employees hostage, the state suddenly sent hundreds of heavily armed officers to retake the prison by force. Thirty-nine men were killed in the ensuing gunfire (including nine hostages killed by friendly fire), and over one hundred were severely wounded. Following the uprising prison conditions rapidly deteriorated for inmates as they were brutally retaliated against on site and in the courtroom. The Governor at the time, Rockefeller, refused to come meet the prisoners during negotiations, and plainly lied to the media that the prisoners had slashed the hostages’ throats. This vivid account of the events at Attica allows the reader to travel back in time and experience the hysteria from the inside, and the attempt at controlled responses on the outside.

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison — Shaka Senghor

  • Shaka Senghor bears his soul for readers in a gripping account of his life events that led to his incarceration, and his attempts at making amends in his post-incarceration life. Senghor was raised in Detroit’s east side during the height of the crack epidemic of the 1980’s. A good student with hopes of becoming a doctor, Senghor’s life took an unpredictable turn after his parents’ divorce. He ran away from home, turned to drug dealing to get by, and ended up in prison for murder at the age of 19. Battling his anger and despair during his nineteen year incarceration, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement, Senghor discovered literature and the value of human kindness. He learned tools to battle his demons by accepting accountability for his actions and forgiving all those who hurt him growing up. After his release at age thirty-eight, Senghor became a mentor and activist helping young men and women avoid the life path he went down. Writing My Wrongs is a portrait of life in the American ghetto and teaches us that our worst deeds don’t define us as a whole.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform — Catherine Y. Kim

  • Increasing attention to the school-to-prison pipeline has animated responses to confronting the issue on the front line. Kim’s book attacks the narrative of at-risk youth — particularly children of color — that pushes students out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. The entry points to this pipeline are myriad; underfunded and under-resourced K-12 public schools, the increasing reliance on zero-tolerance disciplinary actions, and the emergence of police in schools, to name a few. The intersection of these practices threatens to prepare an entire generation of children for future incarceration. This comprehensive work attempts to study the relationship between the law at each entry point of the pipeline. By proposing legal theories and remedies to challenge the existing entry points, this book offers the hope of structuring meaningful legal reform.

CDCR wants to hear feedback about Prop 57

CDCR will be accepting comments about the implementation of Prop 57 for the next 45 days. Overhauling the culture of CA prisons is not going to happen overnight, but Prop 57 has the potential to be a really, really good piece of legislation. Feel strongly about the need for more education programs for inmates? Let CDCR know. This our time to flex our civic discourse muscles and engage in a productive dialogue.


Inmates at San Quentin State Prison have launched a new Podcast called “Ear Hustle”. (Ear Hustle is prison slang for eavesdropping). Possibly the first podcast published from inside a prison, Ear Hustle is a groundbreaking glimpse of how the other half lives in CA. This podcast takes listeners inside prison walls and peels back the shroud of invisibility that surrounds prisons. The stories melt the stereotypes that are used to vilify prisoners. As one listens to these stories it strikes observers that the men speaking are not much different from us on the outside.

Take some time to listen to these stories, folks.