Special to the Post
Richard Johnson, who is currently serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for a third, non-violent felony conviction, is qualified for resentencing and release under the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012.
The 2012 Act amended the law to impose life sentences only for violent crimes, and to impose lesser punishments for those who have previously been convicted of serious crimes but currently face less serious third felony convictions. This means that those convicted of a third felony, which does not involve violence, will no longer be given life sentences.
Under the 2012 Act, prisoners such as Johnson may petition the court to have their life sentences modified. In ruling upon his petition, the court conducted a “dangerousness hearing” to assess the threat that Johnson might pose if released.
On September 4, Alameda County Judge Larry Goodman denied Johnson’s petition, ruling that resentencing would “pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” His findings appear to be based entirely on insubstantial evidence and unjustified opinion.
Much of the basis for the denial of Johnson’s petition focused on his criminal history. Johnson has a criminal history and has been in prison for a long time. The facts of this history before his most recent (1997) sentencing are irrelevant when considering the threat that he might pose to society today, if released.
If the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) intends to be at all effective in its work, it should be correcting and rehabilitating people who have been convicted of crimes.
Does the Superior Court have such little faith in the ability of the CDCR to perform this intended function that it assumes that a prisoner is as dangerous after 19 years of “correction and rehabilitation” as he was before?
If so, that’s another issue.
Johnson has spent a majority of his lifetime in the prison system and the past 19 years in solitary confinement (SHU), and doesn’t have a single violation on file since 2001 (a harmless mail violation). This means Johnson has spent 13 years acting as a “model prisoner.”
A CDCR success? According to Judge Goodman, Johnson has been in the system so long that he has learned how to manipulate the system. Johnson supposedly knows how to trick the prison guards, the court, and even the court-ordered psychologist.
When Dr. Daisy Switzer conducted a Psychological Risk Assessment, she concluded that Johnson does not pose a threat. Instead of accepting this opinion, Judge Goodman shut it down and even questioned the qualifications of Dr. Switzer, whom he had appointed, seemingly because her findings did not support what he had already concluded.
Other evidence being used against Johnson was his alleged involvement with the Black Guerilla Family (BGF), a political community of black prisoners that has been labeled a “gang.”
The majority of the information regarding the BGF that affected the court’s opinion was presented by a so-called “expert” on black prison gangs, a white police officer who appeared to have never had significant interactions with any so-called “prison gang members.” Even with his interest in framing BGF members in a bad light, this officer was entirely unable to come up with any instances of violence, or even threats of violence, related to the BGF since the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the BGF was considered by the Court to be a “threat to institutional security.” In addition to a lack of evidence in the hearing indicating that the BGF poses a real threat within the prison system, there was no discussion as to how Johnson’s involvement with the BGF would pose a threat outside of the system if he were to be released.
Without this discussion, the use of Johnson’s involvement with the BGF as an indication that he is “dangerous” is not supported by any real evidence and only serves as another example of Judge Goodman’s marked bias.
Goodman goes on to declare that Johnson, who is now in his 60s, has not taken advantage of programming opportunities that would prepare him to be self-sufficient after release. He notes, however, that “the court is aware SHU inmates are not afforded the opportunity for programming as are inmates in the general population,” thus limiting any possibility of Johnson’s involvement in such programming.
Goodman contends that Johnson should have engaged in “self-programming,” though he offers no indication as to what this might be. Goodman cites Johnson’s “lack of marketable skills” as proof that Johnson continues to pose “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”
If “marketable skills” are such an important factor in reducing risk, why are SHU inmates not afforded this opportunity?
Furthermore, Johnson is a writer; he writes political essays and poetry and has been offered a job working for Paul Cobb at the Post News Group if and when he is released. Is writing no longer considered a marketable skill, even though it has already secured Johnson a job?
In addition to having a job lined up, Johnson’s sister Yvonne has said that she would invite him to live with her and that payment would not be necessary. Goodman shuts this down as a weak plan, as well.
It is unclear what Goodman would consider to be a valid plan for life after prison, but it is clear that any plan presented by Johnson or his supporters has little to no chance of fitting into that vision.
Goodman’s conclusion is that “there is nothing in Johnson’s court file or prison records, Johnson’s activity while in prison, or in the testimony presented at the ‘dangerousness hearing’ to indicate that Johnson would not return to his life of crime.”
What information could possibly be presented in Johnson’s court file or prison records that would serve as evidence to the contrary? Given that Johnson’s good behavior in SHU these past two decades has elicited no acknowledgement – nor is such acknowledgement common practice at Pelican Bay State Prison – this seems like an absurd assertion.
Further, under the 2012 law the burden is on the District Attorney to prove that Johnson’s release would pose a danger to the community rather than on Johnson to prove that his release would not.
Judge Goodman stated that he does not believe in the Three Strikes Reform Act. Goodman’s resolve to keep Johnson in prison is a blatant disregard for the law and a human rights violation.