5:00pm

Mon December 12, 2011
Cops & Courts

What to expect from the criminal justice system in 2012

It’s been a significant year for criminal justice in the Bay Area, but many of the challenges have come late in the year.

In October, Oakland lost Police Chief Anthony Batts, who resigned saying he couldn’t work in the current political climate. Days later, Oakland’s police department plunged into scandal after a raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment turned violent. Meanwhile, the state had its own share of controversy, as it planned to shift responsibility for thousands of inmates to the local level, what’s known as realignment. KALW’s criminal justice editor Rina Palta joined Holly Kernan to discuss what we can expect over the next year from the local and state criminal justice system.

HOLLY KERNAN: Alight Rina, let’s start with the local. It was a tumultuous year for Oakland. We lost a police chief, and then we saw repeated clashes between police and protestors, and now we have a petition to recall the mayor based largely on public safety issues. So how is this going to work itself out in 2012?

RINA PALTA: The first thing they’re going to have to deal with right off the bat is the federal district court. They’re going to be called in in January to account for all the issues that the police departments had over the years. And Judge Thelton Henderson is really looking to see if Oakland is able to meet its requirements under its settlement agreement. And they haven’t been able to do that so far. He’s kind of given them January as a last deadline to make things work, and he’ll undoubtedly be looking at what happened at the end of this year with Occupy Oakland, with crowd control. And I’m not sure he’s going to like what he sees.

KERNAN: And the context of this is going back to the Riders’ case?

PALTA: Right, exactly. There were some issues that were resolved between people who were bringing these accusations against the police department, and the police department itself. They agreed to basically change the way they handle crowd control, change the way they interview suspects, change the way they deal with firearms, and the district court basically said they don’t have enough progress on this issue.

KERNAN: And so what happens?

PALTA: So if they can’t display that they’ve come up to code basically by January, the judge has threatened to put them under federal supervision, direct federal supervision, which means having a receiver in charge of the department, not the police chief, not the city. And he’s threatened to do this. It’s unclear if he’ll actually follow through on that. But that’s what they’ll be talking about in January.

KERNAN: And in 2012 Oakland will certainly choose a new police chief, since former Chief Anthony Batts left in October.

PALTA: Right, so we’ll see who is mayor in 2012, if the current mayor Jean Quan can stave off this recall petition. It sounds like the people who are bringing this recall petition are people who did not like her from the beginning. I’m not sure how much support there is in her group of former supporters for recalling her. But undoubtedly, whoever is the mayor will pick whoever is police chief. I just started talking to the mayor’s office yesterday, and they’re going to stick with Howard Jordan, who is the current interim chief indefinitely. They can do that indefinitely. They don’t have to appoint a new police chief. It’s not clear what his relationship is with Mayor Quan at this point. It’s probably not great. But they will stick with him for the foreseeable future. 

KERNAN: So let’s talk about the situation at the state level where there are a lot of things going on right now. Primarily, obviously, a massive economic crisis that’s resulting in cuts to education, mental health care, and a lot of social programs. How is the budgetary system going to play out in the criminal justice arena?

PALTA: Well, there’s a lot of hope that this budgetary crisis will bring criminal justice reform in a state that’s ramping up its criminal justice system in the past few decades.

KERNAN: You mean incarcerating more people, building more prisons?

PALTA: Incarcerating more people, building more prisons, tougher sentences, people in jail for longer. And so Sacramento insiders are really saying now this is a window for change. This budget crisis is a window for change. I spoke with Sasha Abramsky, who has covered California politics for decades. And here’s what he had to say about now being the time for reform:  

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Well, there certainly is a window at the moment. People have talked about the moral inequity of a law like Three Strikes, and the arbitrary nature of these laws. A lot of people have looked at the racially disproportionate impact of many criminal justice policies. But it hasn’t generally gained a lot of traction. But you know, there’s been a willingness to give legislators the benefit of the doubt on criminal justice policies. And now what’s happening is people are no longer giving them the benefit of the doubt. Not because there’s been a moral sea change – it’s because there’s been a financial sea change. There just isn’t the money in the system anymore. So people are looking at a bankrupted, or near bankrupted California. They’re looking at the cost of the prison system, which is about $10 billion a year.

KERNAN: Rina, how big is that window, so to speak?

PALTA: Well, one thing we talked about is the fact that this window will only involve things that involve money. So there’s going to be a lot of ballot initiatives on the ballot in 2012, probably one to end the death penalty, probably one to reform three strikes. And he predicts these ballot initiatives will be successful only to the point that people can see them as fiscal issues, not moral issues. So with the death penalty, that’s probably really tough. It’s not a big money suck. It is expensive, but it’s not on the $10 billion range that the whole prison system is. You know, the other big issue that’s going to have a lot of impact in 2012 is how we elect our legislators is going to change a lot. Some people call it an open primary – it’s not really an open primary, but what will happen in 2012 is Proposition 14 will go into effect. That means that primaries will involve all kinds of people and the top two vote-getters from the primary will go on to compete in the general election for Assembly and for State Senate. So it could be two Democrats competing in the final election; it could be two Republicans. But the idea is probably we’ll find more moderates at the state level. And so we’ll see how that will play out in criminal justice, how it will play out in the budget, and how lobbyists will deal with this new situation at the state level.   

KERNAN: The other big issue on a state level is what’s called realignment, which is counties have more responsibility for inmates. They’re not sending as many inmates to state prison. So what are people watching to see if realignment is successful?

PALTA: Sure, we’ll obviously be looking at the crime levels and whether or not those go up post-realignment. We’ll also be looking to see what each county does with the money it’s been given from the state to deal with these inmates. So there’s some problems already. We’re hearing about some counties not putting people in jail for violating their parole so there’s no consequences for violating your parole. We’re hearing about a lot of counties that are just going to take a lot of state money and build new jails instead of putting it into rehabilitation. So there’s all kinds of things happening all over the state, and we’re going to be watching to see what the final consequence is, if recidivism rates go down. If incarceration rates go up at the local level, there’s a lot of different things that could happen. This is what Sasha Abramsky had to say about realignment.

ABRAMSKY: If it’s done well, it will be an exercise in creative thinking at its best. It will shrink a bloated system. It will result in a more accountable system. It might result in a low recidivism rates. It might result in better drug treatments. If it’s done badly, just as a cost-cutting maneuver, then we’re going to a whole bunch of people essentially left out on the sidelines. And that comes with a host of problems. We saw that with the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill a generation ago. The money didn’t accompany it, and it resulted in a series of rolling problems and disasters. So we have to look at where the money goes in the realignment process.

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