Friday, April 19, 2013

California Prison Reform

Governor Brown challenges California prison reform

For decades, California’s prison system has been out of compliance with basic human rights requirements. Over the last 10 years, the system has been operating near 200% of its design capacity. This severe overcrowding has led to a litany of abuses from grossly inadequate healthcare, to the virulent spread of infectious disease, to a stunningly high suicide rate among inmates. Long under Federal receivership, California’s inmate mental health system is an abject failure. Combined with the rampant use of constitutionally questionable variations on solitary confinement, these failures have played a significant role in California’s inmate suicide rate. With an average of 24 suicides per 100,000 prisoners, the State sits well ahead of the national average of 16 suicides per 100,000 prisoners.

Solitary confinement

Amnesty international released a report in September of 2012 describing California’s practice of caging inmates in solitary housing units (SHUs) as a blatant violation of both the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and international laws on the treatment of humanity. Mental health experts warn that SHUs should be an option only of last resort because even a few days under such conditions cause severe trauma. In 2011, California was host to over 500 inmates housed in solitary confinement for over 10 years; some of them only children when first incarcerated others with significant and well known mental health problems.

Slow legal response

In response to these, and many other issues, a number of human rights organizations filed suit on behalf of prisoners seeking federal intervention. In 2011, after a tortuous legal battle spanning many years, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137% of capacity by June 2013. This ruling lead to the current realignment crisis under which the state has been shifting prisoners from state facilities to county jails and borrowing from county funds to cover state prison costs. Political backlash last year stalled this effort and put pressure on Governor Brown to challenge the court order. In March, a Federal judge denied the Governor’s petition to have the prison order terminated; leading Brown to publicly state that he would again take the case all the way to the Supreme Court rather than continue to comply with the 2011 order.

What you can do now

In the meantime, California’s prison population continues to suffer under difficult conditions, sometimes in violation of the Constitution, international law, and a direct Supreme Court order. While the legal wrangling continues at the state and national level, I am working hard to secure remedies for individuals. By filing Petitions for Writ of Habeas Corpus, I can sometimes challenge an inmate’s confinement in state or federal prison.

If you or a loved one is currently incarcerated in California’s broken system, do not wait on a political solution for reform. While I remain optimistic that reform will be implemented, legal rights should not be kept on hold in the meantime. Please, contact my office immediately to determine whether you can seek post-conviction relief. As Justice Kennedy stated in his 2011 opinion, even convicted criminals have basic rights to their humanity. I can help fight for yours.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Trial Process and Rights

Right to a Speedy Trial

Many people are aware of at least some of their constitutional rights during a criminal investigation. They know less, however, about the trial process. This is partly because a large portion of suspects are either released or take a plea-deal long before a trial ever gets under way. It is also because the trial process can be very different depending on the defendant, the crime, or the legal strategy employed. I will attempt to cover the basics in this article, but you should always talk to a competent attorney about specific strategies for your case.

6th Amendment Guarantees

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that every person accused of a crime has a right to a jury trial, along with a right to confront witnesses, obtain his/her own witnesses, and have competent representation. This may be one of the most important parts of the Constitution from a criminal perspective because it is the foundation of our system of justice. Without the protections afforded in the Sixth Amendment it would be hard to place much faith in a conviction.

Judge or Jury?

A trial is an opportunity for a defendant’s guilt to be judged by a neutral party. Prosecutors and law enforcement have a duty to seek guilt. This does not mean that they are doing unfair things, but their role in the process necessarily gives them a stake in the outcome and thus disqualifies them as finders of fact. While the Sixth Amendment creates a right to a trial before a jury, defendants have a related right to waive the jury process and have their case decided by a judge.

There are times when the specific facts of a case point towards a judge, whom may have many years of legal experience, as the most neutral party. For example, the two teens recently convicted for the now infamous Steubenville rape incident chose to have their case tried to a judge. I suspect that their decision was based on a fear that the wild media fervor surrounding the case would make selection of a fair and impartial jury nearly impossible. Those defendants were ultimately convicted, and in hindsight it is not clear whether their choice of waiving their right to a jury was a wise decision, but defendants usually have a choice.

Presenting Evidence

Regardless of whether a case is tried to a jury or a judge, the trial will proceed in a similar fashion. Both sides, the defense and the prosecution, will have an opportunity to present evidence. The prosecution will go first and the defense last.  Prior to the trial, the prosecution and defense will always attempt to limit the admissible evidence by way of pre-trial motions. During a trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt – the highest burden in the law. Theoretically, a defendant faced with a weak case, could sit silently throughout the entire process and merely trust in the finder of fact to see through the holes in the prosecution’s evidence. This, however, is very unwise in most situations.

Confronting Witnesses

In practice, defendants will usually want to present the best evidence in their favor, and to attack the evidence presented by the other side. Here again, the Sixth Amendment comes into play. The amendment gives defendants a right to do several important things. First, defendants have a general right to demand that witnesses against them testify in court. There are some limitations, such as children in sexual abuse cases, but generally the prosecution has to bring witnesses into court. This is critical because if helps to ensure that witnesses give a true account of events. It also gives a defendant the right to cross-examine those witnesses to probe for errors, biases, or coercion.

Presenting Witnesses

The Constitution also guarantees defendants the right to present witnesses in their defense.  This means that defendants can bring in people who might tell a story more favorable to their explanation of the facts. Such witnesses, if available, are critical because they will help a defendant tell his/her story to the fact finder. Without this piece of the puzzle, the judge or jury would hear only about a persons supposed guilt, nothing more. This right also gives defendants the power to compel witnesses to appear on their behalf, such as with a subpoena.

Closing Arguments

Once all witnesses have had a chance to testify in court, both sides will give closing arguments which are essentially short summations of the evidence as seen by that side. Once this is done, the finder of fact will make a determination and the trial is over. While all of this seems fairly straight forward, and often it is there are many important considerations along the way which are best made with the help of a qualified attorney.

Defendant Testimony

One very important decision every defendant must make is whether or not to personally testify. Defendants have a right to speak on their own behalf, but this is not always wise. The Fifth Amendment gives suspects and defendants a right to refuse to answer questions - the answer to which may further incriminate the defendant. In other words, you cannot be compelled to admit a crime. There are times when a defendant will absolutely want to get on the stand and tell their story, but often doing so exposes a defendant to unpleasant questions on cross-examination. For example, it may open the door for evidence of the defendant’s past convictions.

You need an attorney!

Because of the complexities of the many other nuances and choices present in every trial, you should absolutely discuss these options with your own attorney. Choosing unwisely can potentially destroy your case. If you have been charged with a crime please contact me right away so that we can work together to make sure you make best use of your critical Constitutional rights.