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Archive for October, 2009

Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.

Hurricane

by Bob Dylan

Judge H. Chittick

The hero in our story, Fresno Superior Court Judge Hilary A. Chittick.

Congratulations to California Superior Court Judge Hilary A. Chittick. She had the courage to smack down one of the toughest gangs in Fresno County. The leader of that gang, County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, sent one of her soldiers into court to destroy the lives of 26–year-old Enrique Gonzalez and his friend Travis Gorman. For putting a grape-sized tattoo on the seven-year-old son of Gonzalez, Egan tried to send both of them to prison for the rest of their lives. Justice? Don’t expect justice from a gang shot-caller.

You may be confused because the county District Attorney in stories like this is not usually labeled the head of a gang. But in this case, Egan leads a gang every bit as nasty and immoral as the local Fresno street gang that calls itself “Bulldogs.” If we can believe the local police, Gonzalez and Gorman are members of the Bulldogs. And what Judge Chittick faced was nothing less than one small battle between the Bulldogs and the district attorney office gang run by Egan. But this time Egan overreached, and her soldier, prosecutor William Lacy left the courtroom with his tail between his legs, too embarrassed to even say anything. “Prosecutor William Lacy declined to comment as he left the courtroom,” is how all the news stories carried it.

Villian E. Egan

The villian in our story, Fresno District Attorney Elizabeth Egan.

I’ve heard this story a thousand times from prisoners, and the injustice of it is repugnant. Here’s how I believe this story unfolded. Gonzalez, who appears to be estranged from his child’s mother, was hanging around with his seven-year-old son one day. That’s what a father should be doing. Wanting to be just like his dad, the son said he wanted a tattoo; father Gonzalez has lots of tattoos. Gorman applies tattoos, although he is not licensed to do so, and judging from his work, he is also not very good at it. So Gonzalez made the mistake of having his friend Gorman tattoo his son. His second mistake was to have the tattoo apparently look like the Bulldog gang logo – a dog paw print. Again, Gorman’s work is pretty poor so this is a matter of interpretation.

Most of us are disgusted by Gonzalez giving his seven-year-old son a gang tattoo. It’s a stupid thing to do. But being in a street gang is perhaps the most stupid thing any human can do to begin with so Gonzalez already doesn’t exhibit the best judgment. But, he is a father, and he has a son who looks up to him and needs him. As the story continues, next the boy’s mom sees the tattoo and calls the cops. They take Gonzalez and Gorman to jail. The police tell the District Attorney that Gonzalez and Gorman belong to the Bulldogs street gang. Egan and her gang decide she can protect the public by putting these guys in prison for a long time. Never mind that the act of tattooing a minor is a misdemeanor offense that might get you up to six months in county jail. In the Egan gang, justice is decided solely by her.

Defendant E. Gonzalez

The hapless father Enrique Gonzalez. Poor parenting and a street gang affiliation had him facing life in prison.

The prosecutor offers Gorman and Gonzalez a deal. (This is where I’m speculating based on what I know usually happens.) They can plead out (admit guilt) and take a 10 or 15 year sentence or else they will go to trial on a charge of aggravated mayhem, not simple mayhem, but aggravated mayhem and face life in prison. Most defendants in these situations are so scared of the possible consequences they take the deal. They know if they go into a courtroom, they will be labeled vicious street gang members and career criminals. The jury will see their tattoos and intimidating demeanor, and they’ll end up as lifers on a maximum security yard of some state prison. And the public defenders, known as “public pretenders” by prisoners, almost always advise taking the deal; they have heavy caseloads and they don’t need the aggravation of a trial taking up a lot of their time.

This story however took a different turn from the normal “take the deal” case. It didn’t go quite the way the Egan gang had it mapped out. Either Gonzalez and Gorman had some rare good sense or they had public defenders who recognized Egan had gone too far, and they advised the defendants to challenge the outrageous charge. Gonzalez and Gorman went to court, and they challenged the charge. Judge Chittick, after appropriate political maneuvering, (She took a few days to “think” about it.) told Egan to take a hike. The aggravated mayhem charge was dismissed. That took a lot of courage. That’s what a judge is supposed to have, few of them actually do. Chittick did what a good Judge is supposed to do, and she prevented one more terrible injustice that puts so many people in prison in this state.

Imagine yourself in a prison cell. Your new cellmate asks why you’re in prison. You tell him you allowed your seven-year-old son to have a tattoo, so now you’re doing life. After he finishes laughing, you’re cellmate then says, “Seriously, man, what you in for?” Even in prison they wouldn’t believe it. Maybe that has something to do with why California prisons are overstuffed like the Thanksgiving turkey at a fat man’s house!

I haven’t read anything that mentions father Gonzalez having a father or what part he played in his son’s life. Experience suggests his father is probably a gang member and in prison. I hope not, but it’s more often than not the case. What kind of upbringing did Gonzalez have? Did anyone teach him to be a father? This is a case where the criminal justice system could have done some actual good. Gonzalez should have been convicted of the misdemeanor tattooing charge and then sentenced to a good parenting class that fulfills the parenting education requirements of the California Welfare and Institution code. An additional touch would have been some well supervised community service in a place doing child care. That would have given him much-needed parenting education and just as importantly, kept him as a father in his son’s life instead creating one more child with a father in prison.

Egan, on the other hand, would do well to spend a little time in prison — as a prisoner; it would teach her something about the real meaning of justice.

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Our prison system in California is the social equivalent of an 18th century butter churn. You know, the wood bucket with the long wooden handle and dasher. To make butter, you put milk in the bucket, put the handle through the hole in the lid, push the lid down tight and get some low-level person in the family to push the handle up and down vigorously for hours. Here’s an enlightening definition from that period:

Churna vessel in which butter, by long and violent agitation, is separated from the serous part of milk.

“Long and violent agitation.” That’s not a bad description of the prison experience for most inmates today. As a society we churn people through the system at an alarming rate. In a typical year around 125,000 inmates are released from California prisons. If none of them came back and no one committed any more crimes, the prison population would drop to 45,000 inmates just like that. But they do come back and there are new crimes, so for each prisoner released this year there will be another person coming in to take his place. Rarely will the replacement be a person who has never been in prison; this is someone coming back again. That’s why discussions of “early release” to achieve an overall population reduction of 40,000 are so meaningless, maybe even silly.

The classic butter churn

The classic 18th Century butter churn.

At any given time, we have around 170,000 inmates in the California prisons. There are another 110,000 persons on active parole out on the streets and another 20,000 parolees at large, etc. That’s 300,000 people at some stage of supervision (or lack of it) by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That’s the size of our total churn. Oh, once in a while, a few new ones come in and a few old ones don’t come back, but our core group is pretty stable – “doing life on the installment plan” as most inmates describe it. When you look at it that way the real question begins to emerge – how do we reduce not the number of people sleeping in prison beds on any given night but the total number of people being supervised/managed/watched?

From a churn standpoint, we must either produce more butter – meaning more people get “rehabilitated” and don’t come back, or else we reduce the amount of milk in the churn. Staring this real question straight in the eyes, you come to understand we don’t know how to do either of those things that would reduce the churn. Socially and sociologically speaking we’re Neanderthals. In 1800, we were churning butter by hand in wooden buckets. Being the dawn of the industrial revolution we believed there could be faster and better ways to do this. Today, using technologies we’ve developed over those 200 years, we have machinery that quickly and consistently produces all the good butter any of us could ever want – and it seems almost effortless. We now can go to any supermarket in this country, get the highest quality butter humanity has ever known, take it home and use it in cooking, baking, whatever. Why has the “science” of corrections, penology if you like, fallen so far behind?

Today's butter churn.

This is the modern version of a butter churn.

There’s an old saying about weather – everybody talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Corrections is sort of like that. Ask any person you meet, they’ll instantly offer an opinion about what’s wrong with the prison system and what it will take to make it work. These range from the basest know-nothings who say lock them all up and throw away the key to knowledgeable, experienced folks who have contributed to reports of the Little Hoover Commissions, Dr. Joan Petersilia who has offered so much good direction the last few years, and other credible observers. Yet we never seem to get past that old wooden bucket and the never-ending churn. Why is this? Here are my favorite probabilities:

1. We’re too ignorant to figure out how to be better at butter. When it comes to human behavior – what makes some people do hurtful things versus doing helpful things, we are dumb as dirt clods. Look at the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) of the American Psychiatric Association, and you would think we knew something about human behavior. But obviously we have at least 300,000 people in California we don’t know how to “fix.” For the most part, we throw up our hands at their behavior and just give up. We do know enough about chemistry to keep a lot of them semi-permanently sedated, but that doesn’t make any butter for us. We made some advances in the nineteenth century, (Osborne, Brockway, MacCormack, et.al.) but in many ways we seem worse now than 100 years ago. I was in San Francisco a couple of years ago and the social workers were in town having their annual conventions – literally tens of thousands of social workers. I talked to one as we looked over a menu posted outside a prospective restaurant, and I asked him, “If we have so many social workers, why do we still have so many social problems?” He sneered at me, said “That’s a ridiculous question,” and walked off. I do have a lot of questions. The answers don’t seem to be that great.

2. We don’t care about getting better at butter. There appears ample evidence that we’ve become a narcissistic bunch; we don’t really care much about one another. As long as my buds can come over on Sunday and watch the game on my big screen and somebody brings the beer, who cares! Until something happens to interrupt the fun, we don’t take an interest in much outside ourselves. That’s bleak, but the facts are there. We don’t care enough to take homeless women and children off the dangerous streets; our infant mortality rates approach third world status; the education system falls farther behind other countries each year. Prisons are always low priority in social services, and if we don’t care if many of our fellow citizens live or die, why would we care about a few desperados in prison?

3. Great politics is pragmatically more useful than getting better at butter. Richard Nixon got himself elected president in 1968 by scaring people about crime and civil unrest. There were riots in the streets and he promised “law and order.” Politicians ever since have been getting themselves into elected office claiming to be “tough on crime.” And if some tough-on-crime is good, more must surely be better. To look tougher than the other guy, we passed ever more draconian laws and built more prisons – essentially making our churn bigger and adding more and more milk with no expectation we’d ever get any butter. Pragmatically, it’s more productive to fight about it than fix it. Rising costs may be making this less politically effective than in the past, and politicians are now hiding from it every chance they get. Maybe that’s progress.

4. Being bad at butter has simply become a deeply entrenched aspect of the U.S. economic system and changing it would be too disruptive. In a capitalistic system, you must either produce or you must consume. If you produce, you must have the means to produce (capital, work skills, raw materials, production machinery, transport capacity, etc.), if you consume, you must have the means to consume (money). If you have no work skills or you don’t want to work, or if you’re mentally or physically defective, a capitalistic system sees you as unnecessary at best and a detriment to good economy at worst. The system does not want to expend production resources on you and since you haven’t the means (money) to consume, you don’t fit; you really aren’t wanted. But we can’t have you out there making life unpleasant for the producers and consumers either. So prison is a convenient alternative. And the movement from helping people (mental institutions, vocational training, physical rehabilitation, etc.) to the crass warehousing of humans has taken place very effectively over the last 30 or 40 years and, in fact, been institutionalized in itself. So successful has it been, we now have a flourishing private prison industry to provide efficient warehousing. Recently I read a business forecast that suggested buying stock in companies providing private prison capacity would be good, sound investing. That’s capitalism for you.

If you think our current system of so-called criminal justice is good, I suggest next time you want butter, travel back in time to 1750. Just grab that churn handle and sit down for a good, long session of hard work. And hope you had good milk to start with and the butter you end up with is actually edible. If we want a better system for treating people, we better get to work. We’re a long, long way behind.

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