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Three criminal justice issues to watch in 2012

Rachel Towne

The previous year was a huge one for criminal justice in California, and 2012 promises to be just as dramatic. This year we’ll see the continued fallout of California’s prison overcrowding crisis, which coupled with the state’s financial crisis, is opening the doors to reforms never thought possible in our state. Here are three big issues to watch this coming year. Capital punishment A piece in Time Magazine today suggests that capital punishment is “slowly dying” in the United States. Rather than a broad, sweeping abolition at the constitutional level, Time predicts that states will continue down an Illinois-and-New-Jersey-forged path of ending the practice locally and unceremoniously. California, the piece says, seems like it’s next. A stalled Eight Amendment case, claiming California’s method of execution can cause extreme pain during death, remains unresolved in federal court. Meanwhile, a state judge recently found that California violated its own rule-writing procedures by not adequately considering public input when it developed its current lethal injection protocol. Still, it’s hard to imagine the death penalty will simply dribble out without a major fight. This year may see what’s been a mostly an obscure legal battle enter into the realm of public opinion (and public opinion-makers like lobbyists, politicians, and interest groups). Opponents of the death penalty in California are currently gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would replace the punishment with life without parole. Look for the proposal–and its corresponding ad campaigns and heightened rhetoric–to come before voters in 2012. Juvenile justice This year will see renewed calls for the end of youth prisons in California. The Division of Juvenile Justice, which replaced the notorious California Youth Authority, has been steadily shrinking over the past decade. Since its peak of over 10,000 youth in 1996, the system shrunk to 1,118 at the end of 2010. Nevertheless, counties beat back a proposal last year by Governor Jerry Brown that would have essentially shuttered the DJJ and returned the remaining inmates to county juvenile halls. With California’s ever-deteriorating financial predicament, however, counties may have no choice. The Bay Citizen reports that among the “trigger cuts” necessitated by the state’s revenue shortfall are changes to juvenile justice subsidies. In other words, “instead of receiving state financing, the counties may have to pay the Division of Juvenile Justice $125,000 annually for each offender, more than 10 times the current rate. For Alameda County, the tab could reach $6.25 million. Contra Costa County faces a $5.25 million bill.” That kind of tab might just induce counties to stop sending these remaining juvenile offenders to the state, and develop a means of keeping those kids locally. Parole Of the many, many changes that’ll rock California’s criminal justice world as realignment rolls out, parole promises to see the biggest shift. California’s recidivism rate is among the highest in the country, with 65 percent of those released from prison returning within three years. What’s hidden in that figure is that 45 percent of those who were released and then returned to prison between 2007-2010 were returned on parole violations–and over half of those parole violators (54 percent) were sent back to prison on technical violations. Realignment essentially put an end to prison for parole violations. Post-realignment, only a handful of these parole violators will be sent to prison. Counties will now have to charge parolees with a new crime, or else deliver any sanctions for violations locally. Some counties (like Fresno) are simply releasing them. Historically, parole has acted as both a security blanket and as a black hole–while it has allowed the state to keep tabs on people coming out of prison, the revolving door to prison in California often (45 percent of the time) goes through the parole office. Whether this drawdown of surveillance and eliminating the ease of re-incarcerating released prisoners is good or bad will come down to the crime rate. But that three-year period of parole, now effectively eliminated for many released prisoners, has traditionally been a strenuous, stressful time and much of the developing thinking on prisoner “reentry” will be put to the test by California’s reforms.

Rina Palta reports on criminal justice for KALW News. Through stories of those affected by the system, she hopes to bring insight to an often misunderstood, polarizing, and politicized issue. Rina came to KALW from a print background, having worked in magazines for a number of years before being pulled into broadcast while earning a masters degree at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism. Along with KALW, her work has been published in Mother Jones magazine, the San Francisco Weekly, and Hyphen magazine. Rina edits and writes for KALW's criminal justice blog, The Informant, where you can find news and analysis on all aspects of California's criminal justice world.