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What’s Next for the SFPD After Chief’s Removal, PBS Film Follows Former Third-Strikers, and Youth Poetry from Behind Bars

May 24th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

AFTER THE RESIGNATION OF SFPD CHIEF GREG SUHR, A LOOK TO THE FUTURE

Last Thursday, hours after San Francisco police officers shot and killed a woman during an arrest, SF Mayor Ed Lee announced the removal of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr.

The move follows ongoing protests over controversial police shootings, along with a couple of scandals involving racist and homophobic text messages sent between officers.

Mayor Lee named 26-year department veteran Toney Chaplin as acting Chief of Police. The decision was supported by both the NAACP and the San Francisco Police Officers Association. Chaplin helped develop the department’s new Professional Standards and Principled Policing Bureau, which focuses on community policing, and increasing transparency and accountability.

The new Acting Chief appears to not be wasting any time (see above video), and has a list of what reforms he believes will help turn the department around.

Chaplin says he wants to focus on getting officers equipped with body cams and updating two-decades-old policies on when and how officers use force.

“Re-engineering how we use force, when and where we use force, and in what situations we use force—that’s huge, and that’s going to be a big centerpiece of a lot of our reforms,” Chaplin said.

The AP’s Paul Elias has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“Reforms, reforms, reforms,” acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin said Friday when asked about his priorities.

Chaplin, who is black, is a 26-year veteran of the department. Until Thursday, he was a deputy chief in charge of implementing Suhr’s reforms. Previously, Chaplin was a lieutenant in charge of homicide investigations.

The 47-year-old Oklahoma native says he intends to carry on with plans to equip officers with body cameras.

“It’s not going to solve everything, but it will give us another look at what’s happening, hopefully from the officer’s perspective,” Chaplin said.

He said he will also continue to push for several reforms aimed at cutting down on the number of officer shootings, such as giving suspects armed with knives “time and distance” to surrender rather than having officers pull their guns and shoot.

Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said Chaplin “is not going to skip a step” in implementing changes because of his position before he was appointed chief.

Chaplin’s appointment is on an interim basis. The commission is in charge of forwarding a short list of three candidates to the mayor.

CHAPLIN IS ONLY CHIEF ON AN INTERIM BASIS

Chaplin says he hasn’t yet thought about seeking a permanent position as chief.

In an interview with KQED’s Devin Katayama, SF Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus explains what the commission will look for as it conducts a national search for the next police chief.

DeJesus says the biggest concern will be the candidate’s ability to re-establish trust between the department and the community it serves. Here’s a clip from the interview:

KQED: You were part of the commissions that hired both police chiefs George Gascón and Greg Suhr. What lessons have you learned that will be applied to the next chief?

DeJesus: We need someone who can embrace the policies that we’re putting in place, embrace the body cameras. But we also need someone who can enforce changes in terms of changing that culture, rooting out people who make homophobic and racist comments. And how do we select our officers, going all the way down to the bottom process in terms of recruitment or training.

KQED: Is hiring the next police chief under these recent controversies make it harder for the commission to hire the best person for the job?

DeJesus: No. I think we owe it to the citizens to conduct a national search. I think we really need to find the best person for the job and not only someone who agrees with all the policy changes but that can actually implement the changes and get it done. And that means looking in house as well as looking outside.

Go read the rest.


A RANK AND FILE PERSPECTIVE

Vice’s Max Cherney spoke with a 20-year department veteran on the condition of anonymity about how the rank and file are responding to Suhr’s ousting (they are not pleased) and how they feel about the public perception of their department in light of the recent high-profile shootings and racist text messages. Here’s a clip:

VICE: Chief Greg Suhr resigned after the mayor asked him to. What’s going on there, and what are regular cops saying about it?

SFPD Officer: The rank and file are not pleased, particularly with the circumstances in which the chief was asked to resign. He was well-liked. He was honorable. I think everybody recognizes that this is a political move by the mayor because he was getting pressure from a small segment of the community and city officials. It’s unfortunate.

But the chief knew, as well as every single cop, that soon after the shooting Thursday we were going to have protests and the potential for riots. And the chief could have said, “No, I’m not resigning,” which is what a lot of cops said they wanted him to do. But he doesn’t fight it. He is an honorable man. He realizes that if he falls on this sword, he is going to help the city move forward. Plus, he’s going to be taking care of all the cops out there in riot gear, getting hit with anything from insults to beer bottles, and maybe worse. So he fell on the sword.

[SNIP]

What about the racist text messages and claims that there’s a culture of racism in the SFPD?

I don’t believe, nor have I seen, anything that made me think that there is a culture of racism within this police department. On any given day, your coworkers come from all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds. These are the people that you work with, and in a job like being a police officer in San Francisco, these are the people you count on to have your back. These are your friends.

I will acknowledge that sometimes conversations can be wide open. It’s like how players talk shit to one another when they’re on their field. There is absolutely trash talk, and it’s a culture that I would call gallows humor. It’s humor much more harsh—because of the nature of the job— than I think mainstream individuals could necessarily understand. But we’ve been accused of having institutional biases and racist undertones. Come on, this San Francisco, are you kidding me? Who has time for that?

When I hear about text messages, the first thing you have to remember is these things are taken out of context. That gallows humor is a very hard thing to explain. But it’s not institutional racism. Having said that, I have read some of the text messages that have been made public. Some of them, yeah, I thought they were extremely distasteful. And this is from a cop with twenty years of experience. So maybe there are some individuals, because I can’t say across the board—I know it makes for a much better story in the media if you make it sound like we’re all a bunch of racist cops. We’re not. But the bottom line is that even if society doesn’t or can’t understand cop culture, we still shouldn’t be talking to one another or about one another like that.

Interestingly, the cop also says he and his fellow SF officers are worried that if Donald Trump becomes president, he will shut down sanctuary cities. If SF lost it’s sanctuary status, undocumented immigrants would likely no longer feel safe contacting the police. Or, if the city chose not to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the feds may yank much-needed funding.

We work in a sanctuary city. I think most cops believe that there are a lot of hard-working immigrants families in San Francisco, and sometimes they need the police. And we don’t want them to be afraid of calling the police. But if San Francisco doesn’t go along with the feds [and start enforcing national immigration policies], we’re afraid that they will pull a lot of money; it’s financial support not only for law enforcement but also for mental health and homelessness. That could be a big problem for San Francisco.


UNIQUE DOCUMENTARY CHRONICLES THE RE-ENTRY OF FORMER THIRD-STRIKE LIFERS IN CALIFORNIA

The Return—a PBS POV documentary about the men and women released from prison due to California’s 2012 three-strikes reform law—aired Monday night.

The PBS documentary follows former lifers Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson and their loved-ones and attorneys as the two men re-enter their communities.

Since the 2012 passage of Prop. 36 (the Three Strikes Reform Act), thousands inmates serving life-sentences for low-level “third-strike” offenses have been resentenced and released in California.

“Many of those we interviewed came from families struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, said directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway. “Because African-Americans and Latinos receive disproportionately longer sentences than whites, most were people of color, people who needed support, not incarceration—people who were locked up due to bad policy based on fear, without any understanding of structural barriers they faced.”

The film won the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

The Return aired last night, but you can check the PBS schedule for additional broadcast times. (You may also be able to stream the full documentary online soon.)


MUST-LISTEN: KIDS IN JUVIE LOCK-UPS SHARE THEIR POETRY VIA PODCASTS

The non-profit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS) put together a not-to-be-missed podcast that features poetry, discussions, and interviews with incarcerated kids at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, CA, and Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility in Logansport, IN.

The Words Unlocked podcast series was made in partnership with teachers at both facilities, who guided students through a writing curriculum and gave students a safe space to heal their trauma and process their emotions through poetry.

Here’s a poem from a girl locked up at LA County’s Las Padrinos Juvenile Hall.


And here’s a poem from one of the boys:

Listen to the rest of the poems, discussions, and workshops: here.

Posted in Police | No Comments »

When Calif. Closes Its Problematic Group Homes Will LA’s Neediest Foster Kids Have Somewhere Better to Go? – by Sara Tiano & Brittany Reid

May 23rd, 2016 by witnessla

FINDING FAMILY

A New California Law Will Soon Close the State’s Scandal-Plagued Group Homes.
So Where Will That Leave LA County’s Most Vulnerable Foster Kids?


by Sara Tiano and Brittany Reid


SCARY GROUP HOMES

Katrina Alston wasn’t trained as a therapist, social worker or anything of that nature when she worked at a Pasadena, California, group home for emotionally troubled teenage girls in the Los Angeles County foster care system. She simply went through a weeklong training process and two weeks of job shadowing.

With that scant preparation, Alston was charged with the care of at least six of the home’s 19 adolescents at a time when she was on shift.

Now, Alston is a social worker with the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). It’s her job to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and remove children from their parents if need be.

In the year and a half she has been working for DCFS, she’s needed to remove dozens of children from their parents. But she’s only brought one child to a group home.

Knowing what Alston knows about the way such facilities work, having seen what she’s seen as an employee at a group home she called “well-run, relatively,” is partly what stops her from bringing more kids to any similar facility, she said.

“It was wild,” she said. And not in a good way.

Sometimes, Alston said, she wondered how much the placements she was involved in were actually helping kids. “Are they getting better, or are they getting worse here?” She also often doubted how capable the system was of safely handling the many crises that arise for already traumatized children who enter foster care. “It was scary,” she said.

SHUTTERING DUMPING GROUNDS

In 2017, California’s group homes will be shutting down— or changing, at the very least — in the wake of new legislation passed in September 2015. The measure aims to move the state’s foster care system toward encouraging family-based placements for all foster children.

AB 403 “would provide for the reclassification of treatment facilities and the transition from the use of group homes for children in foster care to the use of short-term residential treatment centers,” according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest appended to the bill.

This, in effect, would mean that children would have to exhibit a “clinical need” in order to be placed in a non-home residences, and that any such placement would be temporary.

Critics of the bill argue that closing group homes will hurt kids in a system that already suffers from too few foster care beds, and that tough-to-place kids who may have behavioral issues but don’t meet the “clinical need” qualifications will be especially affected.

Supporters of the bill argue that group homes often serve as dumping grounds for those same hard-to-place kids, who wind up still further underserved and developmentally disadvantaged.

Group homes are community-style residential settings where anywhere from six to more than 60 kids and teens live in a facility staffed 24 hours per day by a rotating crew of shift
workers, like Katrina Alston. The homes are categorized on a scale of 1-14 based on the level of behavioral, emotional and medical challenges among the residents.

Residents at a Level 14 home would be those kids who were the most “emotionally disturbed,” and prone to behaviors such as violence, running away and inflicting self-injury. Alston describes these acute care facilities in even harsher terms. “Level 14 is a juvenile psych ward,” she said.

Kids placed in lower-level group homes, though, may be just as hard to place for other reasons, such as age, lack of extended family to lean on or low chance of permanent placement. The rating of group homes also dictates the staff-to-resident ratio. At the Level 12 where Alston worked, the ratio was 1-6.

The staff of these homes are not required by law to have any sort of education or degree related to working with their resident populations — namely children suffering neglect, abuse and trauma. Their preparation includes 24 hours of classroom training they receive upon being hired and 20 hours annually of supplemental instruction, as required by California’s Department of Social Services.

The proposed replacement for group homes, short-term residential treatment centers (STRTC), would require a child be assessed with a “clinical need” for a more restrictive and differently equipped environment than a family home setting can provide, as judged by either the DCFS or a physician.

The duration of stays in STRTCs would be time-limited. Once residents are on a treatment plan and stable enough to live in a less restrictive environment, they will be placed in foster homes deemed equipped to handle their needs and set up with in-home services to further their treatment.

Group homes in California came under national scrutiny in recent years after a series of very public closures that included reports of abuse and neglect, along with harrowing tales of children missing from the home for days at a time. While this worst-case scenario of supposed protectors abusing the already abused was being highlighted in the media, a report came out suggesting that, even in the best-case scenario, group living situations aren’t an adequate option for kids who are separated from their families.



KIDS NEED FAMILIES

In January 2015, the California Department of Social Services sent a foster care reform report to the state Legislature recommending that the state mandate the closure of group homes and build out support for a family-centric foster care system.

Among the evidence provided against group homes in this report were allegations that children who go through reunification with their families after a stint in a group home are more likely to re-enter the foster care system than are those who are placed solely with families.

Further, the report cited studies showing that placement in a group home is correlated with significantly higher rates of arrest, as well as among the lowest rates of high school graduation when compared to other kids in the foster system. The report also said that many of the kids who’d come out of group homes had “articulated the need for permanency, normal childhood and teenage experiences, and caregivers who understand their needs.”

The latter sentiment was echoed by Alston, the group home staffer turned DCFS social worker. Her superior, Kelly Schreiner, who is the assistant director for the Metro North division of the department, also bullishly advocates for the need to prioritize keeping children with their family, if at all possible, when developing interventions in cases of abuse or neglect. She has made it the directive for her staff.

“Most of my cases, I don’t open,” said Alston, illustrating Schreiner’s position. “Most of my cases, we don’t detain, we don’t get involved. Or if we do, we get involved in the least restrictive way possible. Which might be, ‘This kid could benefit from therapy, let’s get him into therapy. What is this immediate need? How do we address that so we don’t have to be involved?’”

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, expressed a similar point of view on what he describes as the most beneficial kind of environment for foster youth.

“Non-family environments are the worst kind of care for children,” he said with emphasis. While Wexler believes group homes can’t be eradicated entirely, explaining they are truly the only option in a small number of dire cases, Wexler thinks closing down as many group facilities as possible would be a “vast improvement for the children.” He added that, in Chicago, children “have gotten safer” since group homes started closing.

Like many critics of AB 403 who are concerned that closing group homes will leave kids with nowhere to go, Wexler expressed similar worries about the shortage of foster care beds, though he doesn’t consider the legislation to be the root of that issue. “It’s not that LA has too few foster parents, LA has too many foster children.” Wexler points to figures indicating that LA has the third-highest rate of removal among America’s 10 largest cities.

The family-focused intervention plans codified in the new legislation certainly aim to decrease the rate of removal. But the drop in bed count associated with eliminating group homes as an option for placement may force social workers to opt for removing kids in fewer cases — which worries some child advocates who point to horror stories like that of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez who was killed after DCFS workers failed to remove him from an extremely abusive household quickly enough.

Still, Schreiner said 75 percent of the cases that come through her office are closed without a detention — the term used when a child is removed from his or her parent. But, she said, LA County “still takes too many kids without trying to give them adequate services in the home.”



WRAP AROUND

Schreiner and Wexler both think the best way to work with kids struggling at home is to work with the family by bringing in the services necessary to facilitate functional relationships between parents and children, rather than removing kids, in both biological families and foster families.

This is called the “wraparound method,” in which the family unit is the focal point of an intervention, with community and social services “wrapped around” the home in support. This method was also recommended in the Department of Social Services’ foster reform report. All three — Schreiner, Wexler and the report — suggest that the successful application of wraparound services will reduce the overall need for group homes and even perhaps foster homes in general.

The sentiments toward the short-term residential treatment centers that are designated as the replacement for group homes hasn’t yet crystallized. In general, it seems even the biggest decriers of group homes recognize that, for some children in the system, there is a very real need for treatment more intensive than what can be provided through wraparound services, at least for a time. In that regard, there doesn’t seem to be much pushback on maintaining that service in some form.

Wexler is concerned that the mandate of “clinical need” and categorization as a “treatment center” essentially make the STRTCs an in-house psychiatric ward for the foster care system.

“I worry that as you say you’re closing group homes, you’re institutionalizing institutionalization with this designation,” he said of the new legislation.

Schreiner, for her part, is even more wary of the new centers. According to her, the same organizations that operated the group homes will be operating the new STRTCs.

She’s got a point.


SAME PLAYERS DIFFERENT LABELS?

The text of the bill details the way existing group homes transfer to STRTC status when the law goes into effect in 2017. Though the methods outlined in the legislation don’t guarantee compliance, and some even argue that the burden and cost of retraining and reclassification would be too much for some centers, there’s no denying that existing centers do have the infrastructure and, now, the incentive to provide this new service.

“And if it’s the same people, how much better is it really going to be?” Schreiner asks.
In the final Senate analysis of the bill, the authors point out the need for counties to increase the number of foster families quickly to maintain enough beds for all the kids in the system. The law does allocate $17 million to fund recruitment and retention of foster parents and funding services for foster families.

Alston thinks it will take more than that, financially speaking, to really support the foster system the way it requires. She thinks foster parenting should be a profession, and salaried as such, if people are being asked to play this crucial role in the welfare and development of at-risk, in-need children. As it stands, foster parents make $657 to $820 monthly for each child in their care.

The eradication of the group home system seems to have significant support from those working in child welfare, according to those quoted here. And AB 430 indicates that lawmakers in California are serious about reforming the foster care system.

What remains to be seen is how the execution of STRTCs will turn out when the transition does take place. If the funding allocated isn’t enough to build a foster family stock sufficient to fill the gap created by the shuttered group homes, the shortage of options for kids in the system could be intensified. If inadequate group home organizations revamp themselves into the STRTCs without taking necessary steps to improve, they run the risk of continuing to be the toxic environment Alston described, or worse.

Hopefully, given the stakes and the catalysts for change, enough oversight will be in place this time around to prevent the latter, and to troubleshoot any other problems as they arise. In the meantime, LA County’s leadership has their work cut out for them: They’ve got foster families to recruit.



This story is the 5th in a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.


Photos by Sara Tiano, audio by Brittany Reid

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

SFPD Chief Ousted, LAPD Union Sues Over Discipline Practices, Prison Admissions up Nationwide, and Blocking Sunshine in Child Death Records

May 20th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

SF MAYOR BOOTS EMBATTLED SFPD CHIEF AFTER FATAL SHOOTING

On Thursday, just a few short hours after San Francisco police officers shot and killed a woman during an arrest, SF Mayor Ed Lee announced the removal of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr.

“The progress we’ve made has been meaningful, but it hasn’t been fast enough—not for me, not for Greg, said Mayor Lee in a statement Thursday. “That’s why I have asked Chief Suhr for his resignation.”

The move follows months of protests over other controversial police shootings along with racist (and homophobic) text messages sent between officers. And then there has been the ongoing feud between Suhr and SF District Attorney George Gascón.

Last week, four out of eleven San Francisco Supervisors called for SF Police Chief Greg Suhr to be fired.

Earlier this month, five San Francisco protesters went on a hunger strike, calling for Suhr’s resignation, and decrying police brutality and the fatal shootings of Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, and other San Francisco residents of color.

Before Thursday’s fatal shooting of a reportedly unarmed 27-year-old black woman, officers were trying to remove from a stolen car, Mayor Lee said he was not planning on firing Suhr.

“I have previously expressed confidence in Chief Suhr because I know he agrees with and understands the need for reform,” Lee said. “Today I have arrived at a different conclusion to the question of how best to move forward.”

Citing the importance of improving trust between the department and community, Lee named 26-year department veteran Toney Chaplin as acting Chief of Police. “He’s established a record of commitment to the City’s diverse communities, serving at Mission and Taraval Stations, in the Gang Task Force, and running the Homicide division,” Lee said. “Toney has most recently helped establish our new Professional Standards and Principled Policing bureau, the arm of the department that focuses on accountability and transparency.”


LAPD UNION SUES DEPARTMENT, CHIEF, AND CITY OVER DISCIPLINE ISSUES

The Los Angeles Police Protective League-–the LAPD rank and file union—has filed a 57-page federal lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD, and Chief Charlie Beck over the department’s discipline process.

The LAPPL says Chief Beck has had a “corrupt influence” over the three-member discipline panel—the Board of Rights—that handles the more serious discipline cases in which officers may be fired or given a long-term suspension. The police union’s lawsuit accuses Beck of pressuring the board members to find officers guilty.

Chief Beck appeared on KNX 1070, and argued that in over half of the Board of Rights discipline hearings, the panel did not follow his discipline recommendations to fire officers.

“In 26 of those 184 cases, the board found the officers not guilty. And in 67 of them, they found them guilty, but then applied a penalty that’s less than firing,” Beck said. “…If that’s a system that I’m corrupting, then I’m not doing a very good job of it.”

Beck continued, telling KNX he felt the lawsuit was a personal attack.

The lawsuit also calls for the Board of Rights—which is currently comprised of two LAPD officials and one civilian—to change to an all-civilian board. Having two high-ranking officials on the board is a violation of officers’ 14th Amendment right to due process, according to the lawsuit, because the officials “owe their rank to the chief.”

The LA Times’ James Queally and Kate Mather have more on the lawsuit and the issues it raises. Here’s a clip:

The union rejected that it was seeking more favorable outcomes by having more civilians on the boards. Craig Lally, the union president, said the disciplinary statistics raised by Beck were invalid because many officers reach settlements with the board, pleading guilty to lesser misconduct charges in fear that the command officers will fire them at Beck’s behest.

Lally alleged that Beck often will urge Board of Rights members to terminate officers involved in high-profile misconduct cases as a way of placating the public following controversial incidents.

He pointed to the firing of former LAPD Det. Frank Lyga, who was caught on tape making racially charged remarks about a prominent black civil rights attorney and insulting comments about a female LAPD captain. Lyga, who is white, also made insensitive comments about a black officer, Kevin Gaines, whom he fatally shot during a 1997 traffic dispute. Lyga was working in an undercover narcotics detail when he became involved in the argument with Gaines, who was off duty. Neither knew the other was a police officer.

Lally said that Lyga should not have been fired, but argued that his case was one of several in which Beck pushed for a termination in order to gain a public relations victory.

“They just think it’s easier for them to terminate the officer and basically wash their hands of it. … They can say that they’ve done something to fix the problem,” Lally said.

During a news conference, Lally said the union had nearly reached an agreement with the mayor and city attorney’s office this month to alter the disciplinary process and replace uniformed Board of Rights members with civilians.

But the deal fell apart, according to Lally, who said the city attorney’s office suggested the proposed changes might not be legal but did not explain why when asked by the union.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, said the union was never in negotiations with his office. The union spoke with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, which may have requested advice from the city attorney, Wilcox said.

“While I cannot discuss advice we provided, L.A. voters adopted a clear and legally-sound charter provision prescribing the composition of the LAPD Board of Rights,” Wilcox said in an email. “Of course, policy leaders and voters could amend the charter to alter that provision as early as November.”


STUDY: WHILE STATES’ PRISON POPULATIONS ARE LOWER THAN IN 2010, THERE ARE MORE PEOPLE ACTUALLY GOING TO PRISON

Looking at national incarceration data, criminologist John Pfaff found that if you exclude California—which has significantly reduced its prison population via a federal court order—incarceration rates are actually rising, not declining.

Pfaff found that while sentences have gotten shorter, and the conversation about ending mass incarceration has grown louder, there were actually more people admitted into prison in 2014 than in 2010. Yes, overall prison population numbers dropped by 1.9% during that time frame, but that seems to have overshadowed the fact that more people were sent to prison—an increase of about 6,225 in state prison admissions (or 1.2%), excluding California.

“…Somehow this has completely fallen thru the cracks of our reform discussion. MORE ppl harmed by prison, but LESS visibly so,” Pfaff wrote in a series of tweets about his findings.

Pfaff says the data he compared “only emphasizes again how vitally important regulating prosecutors is, and how shocking it is that NO ONE is doing this.”

Vox’s German Lopez has more on the data. Here’s a clip:

…although fewer people are in prison on any given day, more people are still dealing with the terrible consequences of getting caught up in the justice system, particularly a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job, vote, get housing, and much more.

What’s worse, admissions into prison seem to be going up even as the country goes through a nationwide crime drop — and the research shows that mass incarceration has only played a small role, if any, in the crime drop over the past several years.

The research, drop in crime, and heavy financial and social costs of mass incarceration have pushed political leaders and activists from both parties to call for criminal justice reform. But Pfaff’s analysis shows that it’s not enough, as most reform has only focused on shortening prison sentences. The actors in the criminal justice system — especially prosecutors — also need to start sending fewer people to prison, especially for crimes that don’t warrant such a serious punishment. And if they aren’t willing to do it, maybe lawmakers and the public should take steps to force them to be less aggressive.


YET ANOTHER UNDER-THE-RADAR CALIFORNIA “TRAILER BILL” TO CONCEAL RECORDS WHEN KIDS ARE KILLED

A “trailer bill” attached to the latest California budget proposal would close off public access to records regarding the deaths of children involved in the child welfare system.

The bill, introduced by the California Department of Social Services Director Will Lightbourne would ease deadlines for releasing the child death records and keep social workers’ identities secret in such cases. Information on the family’s history within the child welfare system would be limited, and info provided by witnesses would be removed from the record.

A similar bill was tacked onto the May budget revision last year, too. By attaching the measure as a budget “trailer bill” the measure can skip review in committees and take a short cup to the vote.

According to state officials, the bill would protect the children and adults in the family who were not responsible for the death. Listening to proponents and opponents debate the issue at a hearing, State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said “This is an item that has…impassioned support and heated opposition. Clearly it is not cooked enough.”

A vote on the bill is expected within the week.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has more on the trailer bill. Here’s a clip:

Since the state implemented the law to increase transparency in 2008, reporters have accessed social worker case notes and other files that revealed inadequacies in the state’s child welfare system, including instances of social workers disregarding policies and allowing children to remain in conditions that proved fatal.

In response to news stories based on those reports, state and county officials implemented a battery of child protection reforms that child welfare advocates credit with reducing the number of children who die because of abuse and neglect.

Earlier this year, Los Angeles County prosecutors filed criminal charges against four social workers who handled the case of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in the months before he was tortured and killed. The case was first reported in The Times based on information that included documents released through the disclosure law.

The social workers union has staged protests against the criminal charges and worked with the administration to craft the bill that would reduce public scrutiny of the case files for child fatalities. The state child welfare directors association also supports the administration’s bill.

The bill currently under consideration would relax deadlines for the release of records and keep the names of social workers secret. It would deny the public access to original case notes, instead providing abbreviated summaries of how the government attempted to protect vulnerable children.

Posted in LAPD | 4 Comments »

California Budget Highlights: Prop. 47 Savings, $$ for Combatting Homelessness, and More

May 19th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

BROWN’S CALCULATED PROP. 47 SAVINGS INCREASES BY $10 MILLION

California Governor Jerry Brown has increased the estimated savings from Proposition 47 by $10 million—from $29.4 million to $39.4 million—in the latest budget revision for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

If you’ll remember, voter-approved Prop. 47 reduced six non-serious property and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors, and was supposed to save the state more than $100 million each year.

That savings is earmarked for mental health and drug rehab programs for criminal justice system-involved people, efforts to reduce truancy and help at-risk students, and for victims services.

The governor’s January budget calculated those Prop. 47 savings to be $29.3 million. A report from California’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that Brown’s budget under-counted the dollar amount Proposition 47 saved the state by about $100 million, overestimated costs, and diverted money from the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund—where all the Prop. 47 savings is supposed to end up—to send it back into the prison system. The ACLU and other advocates have also criticized Gov. Brown for trying to put Prop. 47 money back into prisons by subtracting certain supervision and court costs from the Prop. 47 savings total.

This latest budget draft now heads to the California Legislature, where it will go through a period of negotiations, during which time lawmakers will have to step in and decide what savings Prop. 47 is actually responsible for producing.

The LA Times editorial board says that Gov. Brown may still be undercounting the savings. The Times board points out that the LA City Council, LA County Board of Supervisors, and others have urged Gov. Brown to go with the savings calculated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and calls on lawmakers to hold the governor’s bureaucrats accountable, and make sure the dollars go to the rehabilitation and anti-recidivism efforts, as voters intended. Here’s a clip:

…Proposition 47 is right on schedule, and local leaders know it. The state calculates prison savings on an annual basis, and the first full year under the ballot measure does not end until June 30. Counties and cities will then submit their requests, and funds will begin flowing later this year.

The problem is not that the money is late — it’s not — but rather that Gov. Jerry Brown may be lowballing the actual savings figure. Instead of the $150 million that the state legislative analyst projected would be saved, the governor identified only a small fraction of that in his January spending plan. In the revised budget he released last week, he upped the figure — but only to $40 million, well short of the mark.

There are many ways to crunch numbers. Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles, for example, used to be an L.A. City Hall bureaucrat and learned to cover up savings in order to keep it on hand for other projects.

“I know how to hide money,” he told a gathering of residents and activists at the Community Coalition in South Los Angeles recently. “I know how to block budgets.”

Jones-Sawyer promised to use that savvy to press the governor’s bureaucrats for a larger, more realistic savings figure to be distributed under Proposition 47.

We take him at his word — and hold him to it. The same goes for other members of the Legislature, whose home counties and cities need the funding guaranteed under the ballot measure. It falls to them, in the few weeks before the budget is finalized, to go to bat for California voters who have demanded a fundamental shift in criminal justice spending from prison expansions to locally based crime prevention and anti-recidivism programs.


MONEY FOR REDUCING HOMELESSNESS

In the May budget revision, Gov. Brown has also endorsed a $2 billion bond plan to tackle chronic homelessness among California’s mentally ill population.

“Homelessness plagues communities across our state so I’m very pleased Governor Brown has embraced the Senate’s bipartisan ‘No Place Like Home’ proposal to direct $2 billion from the Prop 63 bond to bolster local efforts to tackle this crisis,” said California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

The plan would have to win a two-thirds majority vote in the state Legislature to pass. Then, the state would use money from the bonds to fund affordable housing and homelessness services—via a Mental Health Services Act Supportive Housing Program and Tenant-Based Rental Assistance Program. Brown’s May budget revision calculates a first year funding for these programs of $267 million in bond revenue.


ADVOCATE GROUPS’ RESPONSES TO THE REVISED BUDGET

Gov. Brown also wants to add $2 billion to the state’s rainy day fund, with an eye toward an expected economic slowdown in California’s future. “The surging tide of revenue has begun to turn,” Brown said. “Quoting Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper: ‘It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.’”

Instead of putting that $2 billion toward the rainy day fund, Alex Johnson, Executive Director of Children’s Defense Fund-California, says that money should be spent on important programs for children and families that suffered during the recession.

“During the recession, Governor Brown and the California Legislature balanced the budget on the backs of the state’s most vulnerable children and families, by cutting basic needs CalWORKs grants for families, eliminating child care slots, and ending successful children’s health programs,” said Johnson. “Now is the time to use the state’s budget surplus to protect and invest in essential programs to level the playing field for California’s children…”

The revised budget does a disservice to poor communities of color by not increasing funding for “prevention-based services and early education,” according to the Advancement Project.

“The May Revise proposes to abolish transitional kindergarten, thereby eliminating early learning opportunities – rather than expanding them,” the Advancement Project said in a statement. “This is especially wrong headed in the light of the growing science supporting early learning as well as the recent polling showing that Californians overwhelming support greater early learning spending, not less.”

Posted in California budget, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Formerly Incarcerated Berkeley Grads, Supes Seek “Millionaires Tax” to Fight Homelessness, the 4th District Supe Candidates, LA Mag’s Charlie Beck Interview, and Exoneration in San Diego

May 18th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

BERKELEY STUDENTS’ PATH FROM LOCK-UP TO COLLEGE GRADUATION

On Sunday, UC Berkeley held its first ever graduation ceremony honoring 14 formerly incarcerated Berkeley graduates.

The ceremony was organized by the Underground Scholars Initiative, founded by two former Pelican Bay State Prison inmates, Danny Murillo and Steven Czifra, who made it out of solitary confinement and into UC Berkeley. The group’s focus is on supporting fellow former offenders-turned-Berkeley-students through their college years.

One of the graduates, David Maldonado earned his master’s degree in education this year, and hopes to continue on at Berkeley and earn a PhD in social and cultural studies. Maldonado earned his GED while in prison, then went to Berkeley City College before transferring to UC Berkeley.

CA Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) delivered the keynote speech, praising USI’s work to “build a new pipeline, the prison-to-school pipeline.”

The Daily Californian’s Logan Goldberg has the story. Here’s a clip:

Pride was a central theme for the 14 formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley graduates who were honored at a special ceremony held Sunday afternoon in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. The ceremony — organized by the the Underground Scholars Initiative, a campus student group that advocates for current and prospective students affected by the prison system — was the first of its kind.

The USI was founded in 2013 by Danny Murillo and graduate Steven Czifra, who met at UC Berkeley and quickly realized that they had both been incarcerated at the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison. The pair has since worked tirelessly, alongside other formerly incarcerated students, to assist, support and “provide a safe space” for those with similar backgrounds, according to Murillo.

“We’re resilient overachievers,” Murillo said at the ceremony, adding that for the USI, “this is just the beginning.”

The ceremony’s keynote speaker, state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, said the state plans to have community college and degree programs in every California prison by year’s end. She noted that such efforts to reform the prison system are driven by success stories like those of the graduates.

“Having spent so much time trying to break a pipeline, the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s amazing now to work with the USI to build a new pipeline, the prison-to-school pipeline,” Hancock said at the ceremony.


THE LA COUNTY SUPERVISORS TO SEEK A “MILLIONAIRES TAX” TO HELP HOMELESS

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to seek—via state legislation—a new “millionaires tax” that would fund housing and other crucial services for the county’s homeless population.

LA County and the City of LA are working on a collaborative plan to help and house homeless residents, but much of the funding is still in limbo.

Through the motion, proposed by Supes Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the board would lobby the capitol for a law—likely a budget trailer bill—to give the county the power to tax millionaires’ income. The board unanimously approved a related motion by Supes Don Knabe and Hilda Solis to take a closer look at the county’s spending on homeless adults using mental health treatment, public assistance, emergency medical services, as well as how much the county spends locking homeless people up in jail.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl proposed lobbying the state for legislation that would give the county authority to impose a new tax on personal income over $1 million a year to fund efforts on homelessness.

The question would still need to go to voters and receive two-thirds approval before it could take effect, but because the county does not have authority to increase income taxes, it would first require a change in state law.

A recent county-commissioned poll that looked at various possible funding measures for the November ballot found that likely voters were most supportive of the millionaires tax option, which would raise an estimated $243 million a year, with 76% of those surveyed being supportive.

The city and county of Los Angeles passed plans earlier this year aimed at reducing the region’s growing problem of homelessness, and the county has approved $150 million in initial funding, but the source of ongoing funding to build housing and provide services remains in question. County analysts say almost $500 million a year would be needed to make significant reductions in the countywide homeless population, which currently stands at nearly 47,000.

But Supervisor Hilda Solis last week put the brakes on the proposal to move toward a millionaires tax, raising questions about the methodology of the polling and of the most recent homeless count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

She said Tuesday that the majority of her concerns had been addressed and joined Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl in voting to pursue authority for counties to impose a millionaires tax for homeless services, probably through a budget trailer bill that would take effect in July.


SPEAKING OF THE SUPERVISORS…HERE ARE THE 4TH DISTRICT CANDIDATES’ VIEWS ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUES

LA Daily News’ Brenda Gazzar has a helpful guide on the contenders for LA County Supervisor Don Knabe’s 4th District seat, including background information and their thoughts on criminal justice and other relevant issues.

The candidates are Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), Steve Napolitano, Knabe’s senior deputy, and Ralph Pacheco, a minister and board member of the Whittier Union High School District.

(Earlier this month, we posted a story about the top five candidates for Supe. Michael Antonovich’s seat, and their views on child welfare and juvenile justice.)

Here’s a clip:

Hahn, who has served as a congresswoman since 2011, said she wants more sheriff’s deputies hired to keep up with rising crime. She also wants more community policing efforts in the wake of the highly publicized jail abuse scandal that has the county “reeling right now.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to prevent crime if we don’t have real trust between the Sheriff’s Department and the people they serve,” she said in a phone interview.

While serving as a member of the Los Angeles City Council, Hahn created in 2005 the Watts Gang Task Force, which included law enforcement, clergy and community activists who met each week in her office. That group was credited with building trust between police and the community and helping to reduce gang-related crime, she said.

Napolitano said he would also work to put more sheriff’s deputies on the streets, and he’d like to work with the Sheriff’s Department and Veteran’s Affairs to launch a veterans hiring initiative to help fill as many vacant Sheriff’s Deputy positions as possible. The Sheriff’s Department has funding for nearly 500 deputy vacancies, according to a department spokeswoman.

“We’ve got troops coming back from overseas who needs jobs,” Napolitano said in an interview. “We need sheriff’s (deputies). They make great public safety officers.”

Napolitano, a former Manhattan Beach mayor and councilman, said the county also needs better diversion programs with “measured outcomes” for the mentally ill and addicts as well as probation programs that end recidivism. The Board of Supervisors recently created an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates who are low-level offenders, he said, but it’s the next board “that will really determine how that looks … and what the outcomes are going to be.”

Pacheco, an ordained minister and chairman and CEO of the Whittier-based nonprofit LC Foundation, said he wants the newly authorized civilian oversight commission to empower Sheriff Jim McDonnell “to take action to eradicate corruption in the department.”

While much of the jail abuse scandal has been adjudicated and resolved, “there are still pockets within the department that need to be addressed,” he said in an interview.

“The commission needs to be empaneled, needs to be given teeth with the addition of subpoena power to assist the sheriff in helping to restore accountability and confidence in the Sheriff’s Department,” Pacheco said.

By the way, the LA Times has officially endorsed Janice Hahn for the position.


RECOMMENDED READING: LA MAG INTERVIEW WITH LAPD CHIEF CHARLIE BECK COVERS HIS LAW ENFORCEMENT HISTORY, PROP. 47, CRIME RATES, COMMUNITY POLICING, AND MORE

In an LA Magazine interview with Gabriel Kahn, a USC Annenberg Journalism professor, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck discusses his time as an police officer in the ’80s and ’90s, through the crack epidemic, the Rodney King beating, and the LA riots, and how the LAPD’s policing strategies have evolved since then.

Chief Beck also talks about the impact he believes California’s Proposition 47 has had on crime rates and rehabilitation services, as well as discusses racism and officers’ use of deadly force, community policing, and the legacy the Beck wants to leave behind. Here’s a clip:

Your first big challenges as an officer were dealing with the PCP craze in the late 1970s and then the crack epidemic of the ’80s. How did those periods shape your experience?

It was a frenetic time. I worked in South Los Angeles, and we would routinely have these huge battles with people on PCP because they were so violent. As we went into the ’80s, the crack epidemic started to take hold. The crime rate was about three times what it is now. Homicide rate, too. You could just watch lives disappear on the street. People would succumb to the addiction, and families would break up and life became very cheap.

How did the LAPD combat that?

This was in the time of rock houses. There was major gang influence. People would take over a home and set up retail cocaine or crack sales. They’d put up an armed gate with one guy inside with the product and a gun, and he’d sell all day. We would hit five or six of those houses a day—send in an undercover, do a buy, pry the door off, and make the arrest. We would do that over and over; our arrest rate was about 1,000 a month. We had phone lines set up for people in the neighborhood to tell us where the crack houses were, and the tips would just flood in. We would start work at around noon, and we would work off our list and do the raids. The next day we’d come back in, and there would be a new list.

Did it feel as if you were on the losing side of a war?

Oh, yeah. All of that led up to Rodney King and then the riots, when we were having 1,100 murders a year. My conclusion as a police officer up through the late ’90s was that it would always get worse. And it always did. It was kind of idyllic when I was a young cop, and then it got more violent, more dangerous. The infrastructure of the city was deteriorating. So that was my conclusion. I was a lieutenant in the mid-’90s. And that’s when I began to see that there were ways to work this. I began to go in the opposite direction and think that we could do better and more effective policing.

What changed?

The first thing you have to accept is that you can make a difference. You have to accept that crime is not inevitable. That was Bratton’s litmus test for police management: “Do you think crime is a given?” I moved firmly onto the side where I thought, “If you put in the right pieces in the landscape, you could change a neighborhood.”

Read the rest.


A NOT-TO-BE-MISSED SAN DIEGO EXONERATION SERIES

The San Diego Union-Tribune has an excellent series on exonerations in San Diego County that we didn’t want you to miss. SD District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ recently launched a task force to investigate wrongful convictions. The conviction integrity unit’s two full-time prosecutors work in conjunction with the SD Public Defender’s Office and the California Innocence Project to right justice system wrongs.

Between 1989 and 2015, in San Diego County, there were 15 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The Union-Tribune’s series tells those exonerees stories.

One of those exonerees, Kevin Baruxes spent 7 years behind bars, and survived a near-fatal stabbing, after a neighbor falsely accused him of raping her when he was 18 years old. Here’s a clip from Baruxes’ story:

Despite discrepancies in Mahaffy’s changing story, a lack of physical evidence and Baruxes’ alibi that he was home with family, the jury convicted him.

Baruxes said he had to keep most of the other inmates from finding out his charges.

“I didn’t go to the bathroom for like four days,” he recently recalled of his first nights behind bars. “That’s how scared I was.”

Baruxes managed to stay out of harm’s way until about five years into his sentence.

He said he got a new cellmate, who, unlike the others, wasn’t willing to keep quiet about why Baruxes was in prison. Later that day, he was stabbed twice with a seven-inch knife made out of a cookie pan from the kitchen. The blade nicked his lung and his kidney, almost killing him.

As courts denied appeal after appeal, Baruxes decided to go into protective custody.

“I was thinking, man, I might have to do 20 years. I wouldn’t make it without them killing me,” he said.

In 2002, the district attorney’s office received an email from Mike Chaney, Mahaffy’s ex-fiance, according to court documents. Chaney said that Mahaffy confessed to him that Baruxes did not rape her. He also said she was a chronic liar.

Baruxes’ lawyer hired an investigator to find others who could corroborate Chaney’s statements. He found an ex-boyfriend, a former roommate and her ex-husband. They all talked about fake illness and injury stories that she used to get attention and told the different versions they’d heard of her rape.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor tracked down Mahaffy, who admitted over the phone that she didn’t think Baruxes had raped her.

Baruxes went free soon after. He received $258,000 in compensation.

Posted in Education | 3 Comments »

Fed Jury Takes Less Than 90 Min to Convict Two Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies in Latest Jail Brutality Trial

May 16th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


After three days of dramatic testimony
in the trial of two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies accused of brutalizing a mentally ill jail inmate, the seven woman, five man jury deliberated for just over an hour.

The jury was given the case for deliberation at 2:40 p.m. on Monday, after nearly four hours of lengthy and contentious closing arguments.

Then, once they left the courtroom, the jurors had to settle down in the jury room, elect a jury foreperson, and hit the restrooms. After that, arriving at a unanimous decision reportedly took surprisingly little time.

Still, the lawyers from both sides of the case were startled when they got word just before 4 p.m. that the federal jury had a verdict on the charges against deputies Bryan Brunsting, 31 and Jason Branum, 35, who were accused of beating, kicking and pepper spraying an allegedly unresisting schizophrenic inmate named Philip Jones, and then falsifying reports about the incident by portraying Jones as the out-of control aggressor who should be criminally prosecuted.

The jury panel found Brunsting and Branum guilty on all three counts, which were, conspiracy to violate jail inmate Philip Jones’s civil rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, and falsification of records.


TWO LESSONS

The jurors arrived at their verdict after closing arguments—with the prosecution going first: Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox told jurors that the heart of the case was “about the defendants teaching two lessons.”

The first lesson was for mentally ill inmate Philip Jones, said Fox, who would be taught the lesson that “disrespect will be met with physical violence.” Jones had talked back, brief, to a female custody assistant.

And when we’re done, “we’ll have you charged” for a felony “you didn’t commit.”

The second lesson, according to Fox, was for the benefit of “honor recruit,” Joshua Sather, “the future of this sheriff’s department.” For Sather, said Fox, “it was Training Day.” The message was, he said, “we’re going to teach you how it’s done at Twin Towers.”

As part of the lesson, said Fox, Brunsting and Branum decided to test the new deputy “to see if he could be trusted” not to be a snitch. And so it was that Sather became part of the group teaching inmate Jones his lesson.

“For one day Joshua Sather passed their test with flying colors.” said Fox. But then a few days later, the promising deputy became troubled and “decided to walk away from his promising career. He decided to come forward.”

Similarly, custody assistant Porscha Singh “told the truth about what she saw” and heard.

What the defendants didn’t expect, said Fox, “was that these two people—Porscha Singh and Joshua Sather—would cross the thin blue line” to tell the truth.


JUDGE & JURY

“As long as you’re in the United States you have the right not to have excessive force used on you,” continued Fox. “You have the right not to be prosecuted with false evidence.” But for mentally ill inmate Philip Jones, said Fox, “‘he went down that hallway with deputies who were both judge and jury.”

Force was not justified, said Fox. “There was no law enforcement reason to beat Mr. Jones. He was not kicking or hitting. He could not escape. There was no place for him to go.”

The defendants wrote in their reports that Jones took a swing at deputy Sather. “Instead he was on the floor, curled up and crying and screaming” after being kicked in the groin, beaten, and sprayed in the face with pepper spray.

Fox pointed to the “nearly identical reports written by Brunsting and Sather at Brunsting’s direction,” which say “that inmate Jones clenched his fists and said, ‘Fuck you and fuck that bitch in the booth!’” And then, according to the reports, said Fox, Jones “took a swing at Joshua Sather,” but Sather stepped back and dodged the punch.

“But that never happened.”

Sather never wavered on the main facts, said Fox. For instance, “he told his uncle, internal affairs, the FBI, and the grand jury about the groin kick.”

But the defense wants the jury to think that Sather would gain by calling his uncle to “make up a story where he commits multiple felonies.”

As for Singh, said Fox, “Porscha Singh knew that lying to the FBI is a crime.” So when called to the grand jury, she was about to shut down and take the fifth. Instead, “she decided to come forward and tell the truth.”

In her testimony last week, Fox pointed out, Singh admitted that she’d lied to the LASD’s internal affairs. “Now the sheriff’s department knows about it.” But she told the truth anyway.

“The defendants are not above the law. They are part of the problem,” said prosecutor Fox. “They were ready to train new deputies in how to beat and how to lie.”


LIARS, LIARS EVERYWHERE

When it was the defense’s turn, their main thesis was that the prosecution’s primary witnesses, Sather and Singh, were clumsy liars

Of Sather, Brunsting’s attorney, Richard Hirsch, said, “His testimony was dramatic,” but “would anyone buy a house from that man? Or buy a car from him—let alone a used car?”

As for Singh, “her motivation” was to give the feds “a story that would be beneficial to me.”

“But liars ought to have good memories,” said Hirsch using a phrase that he would repeat often.

Branum’s attorney, Donald Re, continued the theme.

Sather, he said, would tell you that “two experienced deputies would commit a felony” around someone “they’d known for a day and a half.”

If he [Sather] “came to your door selling magazines, you’d probably call the police.”

In fact, Donald Re said, Sather likely made the whole story up as “an excuse to give his uncle” when, after his first encounter in the “real world” of law enforcement, “he couldn’t deal.”

Before he finished Re pulled out all the stops. He brought up the many wrongful convictions we’ve seen in the news in recent years. There’s no DNA, he said, but “what if we find out (later) that there’s a video of the whole thing?” Then, “imagine hat this is a trial of a family member of yours. How would you feel about that?”

Since prosecution has the burden of proof, prosecutors are allowed a rebuttal closing after the defense has finished.

“You can see why people don’t want to come forward,” prosecutor Fox said to the jury, almost as an aside, as he got up for the government’s final round. “They’re treated as outcasts….”


THE VERDICT

In the end it didn’t matter. The jury didn’t buy what the defense was selling.

Instead, the jurors said later, the panel believed custody assistant Porscha Singh and former deputy Joshua Sather.

Thus they came back with a verdict after a little over an hour of discussion.

US District Judge George W. Wu will sentence the two defendants on August 22. Each faces a statutory maximum penalty of 40 years in federal prison.

As a result of today’s guilty verdicts, 21 current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have now been convicted of federal charges.

Former sheriff Lee Baca is now due to be sentenced on June 27.

Former undersheriff Paul Tanaka will be sentenced a week earlier on June 20, both by U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson..

Posted in LASD | 24 Comments »

Newsletter Arriving in Your Inboxes on Tuesday This Week

May 16th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

If you’re signed up to receive our hand-picked Monday news round-up full of the week’s must read justice stories, plus the best of WitnessLA, look for this week’s edition on Tuesday morning (rather than the usual Monday).

If you are not yet on the list, there’s still time to sign up and receive this week’s California Justice Report newsletter.

(Note: Although the sign-up asks for your name, only your email is mandatory.)

If you’re unfamiliar with WitnessLA’s California Justice Report, feel free to check out last week’s newsletter.

Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Federal Jury Weighs Competing “Truths” After “Honor Recruit” Deputy Tells About Kicks to the Crotch of a Mentally Ill Inmate and Other Alleged Brutality

May 16th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


COMPETING NARRATIVES & DECIDING WHOM TO BELIEVE

The most recent jail brutality case brought by the federal government against members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is, as usual, a case of whom do you believe.

In the trial that began on Tuesday of last week in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, the prosecution’s case rides on a former sheriff’s deputy named Joshua Sather who was most outstanding recruit in his training academy graduating class in the spring of 2010. Yet, according to the government, this same deputy resigned from the department after less than two weeks on the job following an incident in which he was allegedly told to participate in the brutal beating of a mentally ill inmate at the instruction of his training officer.

Thus far, 19 current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have been convicted of federal charges resulting from a multi-year investigation into corruption, brutality and civil rights abuses in the department run LA County Jail system.

The defendants in this latest trial, are LASD deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum who are accused of beating, kicking and pepper spraying the allegedly unresisting mentally ill inmate named Philip Jones, and then falsifying reports about the incident by portraying Jones as the out-of control aggressor.

According to federal prosecutors, on March 22, 2010, both Brunsting, who was at the time the training officer for less experienced deputies, and Branum, a former military serviceman, decided to ‘teach” inmate Jones “a lesson” after the inmate mouthed off to a female custody assistant.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson also alleged in her opening statement that training officer Brunsting “set out to teach a lesson to a new deputy” about how to use and how to “get away with” excessive force. The “new deputy” was Joshua Sather.

In the course of the trial, the government produced five witnesses to support their case. But, it is Sather, and another witness named Porscha Singh, whom the prosecution most needs the jury to believe.

Conversely, for the defense to prevail, it must convince the jury that Sather and Singh are unreliable or out-and-out lying for self-serving reasons.


THE CUSTODY ASSISTANT

Porscha Singh was the first witness called by the prosecution. Singh was, at the time of the 2010 incident, a custody assistant working on the 6th floor of the Twin Towers jail. Custody assistants—or CAs—are jail workers who work for the sheriff’s department, but who are not slaw enforcement officers.

Before CA Singh began to tell her story, both she and prosecutor Dotson made clear that she did not want to be in court. “I was subpoenaed,” she said, “and I didn’t want a bench warrant to be issued.”

Singh also told the jury that had been given immunity, meaning that nothing that she said would be used to bring any kind of charges against her, “as long as my testimony is truthful.” If she lied, she said, “I could be sent to prison.”

Singh was the custody assistant whom schizophrenic inmate Philip Jones “disrespected,” thus setting the chain of events that allegedly led to his beating.

On the day in question, Singh said that she was stationed in “the control booth,” an elevated multi-windowed perch at one end of the 6th floor module where she generally worked, when at once she noticed that there was one more inmate than there should be in unit’s visiting center, the entrance to which was across the module from the control booth, thus in her direct line of sight.

In order to sort out the discrepancy, Singh keyed up the intercom in the visiting room and asked the inmates each to say their names then recite the last four digits of their booking numbers, so she could check IDs against the list of people who were supposed to have visitor passes. All but one of inmates dutifully complied. The inmate who failed to do so was Philip Jones who instead said, “Fuck that bitch.”

At that, according to her testimony, Singh came down out of the control room, unlocked the visiting area, and confronted inmate Jones.

“I told him ‘What the fuck was his problem?!” she said. Then she asked to see his wristband. He complied. She checked it, then went back to the booth.

And, no, Singh said in answer to prosecutor Dotson, “I was never afraid.”

She was, however, irritated. So, according to Singh, she then called out to deputy Branum who was standing within shouting range of the control booth, “Somebody needs to check that motherfucker because he has a bad attitude!”

Jason Branum allegedly told her not to worry about it, that he was going to handle it.

“Nobody disrespects my CA”—meaning custody assistant—Singh said that Branum said.

Singh said she told him to “leave it alone,” and additional F-Bomb laden words to that effect.

(Singh is short and curvy with a slightly pugnacious demeanor, and during the whole of her testimony and cross-examination, displayed a breezy verbal mastery of the art of F-bomb usage.)


LISTENING IN

Around five minutes after that exchange, according to Singh, deputies Brunsting and Branum asked her to “pop’ the door to the visiting area—-“pop” being slang for “unlock.” She popped the door, and moments later she saw Jones being escorted by the three deputies.

Q: Did you see him resist at any time? A. No.

The deputies then escorted the inmate inside another door that led to a hallway connecting two modules, but where there were no cameras. Singh said that, on instinct, she pushed the intercom button allowing her to listen in on whatever went on in the camera free connecting hallway the deputies and their charge had entered, without anyone knowing she was listening.

Sign said she first heard training officer Brunting say, “Nobody disrespects my boot CA!”

Then a voice she assumed was Jones said, “Are you guys going to mess me up?”

“Then I heard a commotion.” Finally, she said, one of the deputies put out a “415” radio call, meaning deputy involved fight. Within a minute, other deputies ran into the area. A minute or two later still a “Code 4” was broadcast on the radio meaning everything’s okay.

When it was their turn, defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re did what they could to dent Singh’s credibility by pointing out some inconsistencies between her trial testimony and her grand jury testimony and noting that in an interview with the LASD’s internal affairs, she told an altogether different story.

Yet, Singh freely admitted that she had lied to internal affairs to protect herself and her deputy colleagues.


THE HONOR RECRUIT

Former deputy Joshua Sather was next. Sather is broad shouldered, on the low side of medium height, and has good bones. He did not look happy to be on the stand.

In answer to questions by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, Sather told the jury that when he joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, it was October of 2009, he was 23-years-old and had been working in Colorado as a paralegal, but felt he wanted a more meaningful career.

I wanted to do something to help people,” he said. It was this desire that led him to law enforcement.

Sather’s uncle, his father’s brother, was a gang detective at the department’s Carson station, and told his nephew he loved what he did and that the LASD was a good place to work. “My uncle had an influence,” said Sather.

Sather told how, after he was accepted into the department, he went through 19 weeks of academy training along with approximately 49 other recruits. Upon graduating in February of 2010, was selected as the “honor recruit,” which meant, he explained when Fox probed, he was the top performer in all areas in his class.

After graduation, he went through a few additional weeks of training to work in the county’s jails, where nearly all newly-minted deputies are stationed for a few years before they can transfer to patrol. In March of 2010, he started at the Twin Towers, the newer custody facility built next to the county’s decrepit and infamously troubled, Men’s Central Jail.

All new deputies are assigned to training officers. But a day or two after Sather began work, his training officer’s wife had a baby, and he took paternity leave.

Sather‘s second T.O. was Bryan Brunsting.


BAD KICKS

On March 22, 2010, when the event in question occurred, Sather said he had been on the job about seven days, and was working with some other deputies on the 4th floor of the jail when he said he received a call from Brunsting, who told him to return to the 6th floor’s 161 unit, where he was met by Brunsting, Branum and a third deputy.

It was then, according to Sather, that Brunsting talked of the necessity to teach inmate Jones “a lesson.”

Sather described how the door to the interconnecting hallway area that Singh had described earlier was opened and inmate Jones was directed by Brunsting to go down the hallway.

As the door to the hallway closed, effectively locking the group into the narrow passage, according to Sather, Jones took a few steps then turned and said, “Oh, shit. I’m going to get my ass kicked!” Or words to that general effect.

“Then he began running down the hallway toward the door at the far end.” But that door was closed and locked.

“I ran after him and tackled him,” said Sather. Then he described striking Jones in the ribs and legs “because we were teaching him a lesson.”

Jones was not resisting in any way, according to Sather. Not kicking, attempting to punch, simply going limp and attempting to protect himself with his hands.

At that point, Sather stood up, because, “the inmate wasn’t doing anything.”

But Brunsting reportedly indicated that things weren’t finished.

Sather then said he saw Brunsting spread the inmate’s legs. “And then he kicked him hard in his privates.”

Jones cried out, according to Sather, and curled sow-bug-like into a fetal position in reaction to the pain of the kick.

“He was crying like a little kid who’s hurting but is also scared.”

Sather remembers more blows being directed toward the still unresisting Jones.

Sometime after that, according to Sather, deputy Branum pepper-sprayed Jones directly into his face.

As much of this activity went on, Sather said, he heard the other deputies say, “Stop resisting, stop resisting.”

Eventually the “lesson” was over, Brunsting radioed and more deputies arrived. As they came, Sather helped to handcuff Jones.

Then the inmate was escorted to the infirmary by yet another deputy, and was treated for injuries.


REPORTS, REVISIONS & RESIGNATIONS

Next, according to Sather, Brunsting ordered the beating participants to convene in the observation booth. Once there, custody assistant Singh was asked to leave, so the rest could sort out what should appear in the various incident reports that were required after any use of force. Brunsting told Sather he was to write the primary report, so he could learn how it was done, with Brunsting and Branum writing the “supplementary reports.”

According to Sather, Brunsting gave him his own report to use as a model. After writing several rejected drafts, Sather said, he eventually wrote a report that matched Brunsting’s almost word-for-word.

The jury was able to see both reports—Brunsting’s and Sather’s—which each described a violently uncooperative Jones who verbally and physically assaulted two of the deputies and was restrained only with great difficulty and a 3-5 second blast of oleoresin capsicum spray, also known as OC spray or pepper spray.

“Was what you wrote true?” prosecutor Fox asked Sather after the deputy read multiple passages from the matching reports in front of the jury.

“No, sir,” said Sather.

“So why did you write it?”

“I was told to do it.”

Eventually, the reports were approved by Brunsting and turned in to the proper higher-ups. Yet when Sather got home, he said his involvement with the beatdown of inmate Jones and the reports that followed, “began to bother me.”

In a state of upset he called his uncle and told him what had happened.

The next day, Sather resigned. When asked to explain his reason for leaving, he said he told the jail’s then watch commander, Lt. Elisabeth Sachs, that he needed to go back to Colorado because of a family matter involving his brother, none of which was true.

So, why didn’t he tell Lt. Sachs about the beating? asked Fox.

“I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to be a snitch.”

The lieutenant told Sather to take his upcoming weekend days and think matters over, that she would hold on to the resignation paperwork until he returned on March 28, at which time he could make a final decision.

Sather’s uncle and his dad took the unhappy deputy to Las Vegas for the weekend to talk things through. (The dad lives in Colorado, so Las Vegas was considered a sort of midpoint, Sather explained.)

But, despite all the talking, after they all came home, on March 28, Sather called Lt. Sachs and asked her to put through the paperwork for his resignation.

A week later, according to Sather, his uncle persuaded him that, if he was leaving, he owed it to himself and to the department to tell some LASD higher up the truth about why he was leaving.

So on April 6, Sather gave an accounting of the events of March 22, including the beating of inmate Jones and the subsequent allegedly false reports, to Captain Anthony Ward.

A few months later, he was interviewed by internal affairs, to whom Sather said he was far less truthful.

A few months later still, the FBI contacted Sather in the course of their ongoing investigation into brutality in the jails, and interviewed him where he was, by then, living back in Colorado.


“TRUTH” VERSUS “TRUTH”

As with Singh, defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re energetically fished out any inconsistencies between the various accounts Sather gave to the LASD Captain, to the grand jury, and to internal affairs.

In closing arguments that will take place Monday morning, the defense is expect to tell the jury that Sather—perhaps together with his detective uncle—completely fabricated the account of a non-resisting Jones being viciously and unnecessarily beaten, for his own purposes.

(Uncle Michael Sather was one of the prosecution’s additional witnesses. Lt. Sachs was the defense team’s sole witness.)

The defense is also expected to argue that Singh was telling any “truth” the government wanted to hear in order to get the desired immunity. 


During closing, the prosecution will counter with its own narrative of the beating of mentally ill inmate Philip Jones.

And then, likely around noon on Monday, the case will go to the jury who will, in turn, decide whose story to believe.


POST SCRIPT:

One thing that the jury will not hear is the fact that the feds have a second case of jail brutality filed against Brunsting. The alleged incident occurred on August 20, 2009 and, it too, involved a deputy trainee who was allegedly asked to falsify incident reports, accusing the inmate of assaulting deputies, rather than the other way around. The charges are mentioned, in brief, in the original indictment, but then were severed into a separate case by the judge. One assumes that the question of whether or not the prosecutors will actually bring this additional case to trial will likely depend on the outcome of the trial that ends on Monday.

Posted in LASD | 10 Comments »

The Twin Towers Jail Inmate Abuse Trial Continues With More Courtroom Drama to Come

May 13th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon



The latest federal trial involving members of the Los Angeles Sheriff Department
accused of brutalizing jail inmates has been unfolding since Tuesday (with one day off due to an attorney’s sudden illness), and is expected to wrap up closing arguments on Monday.

As you may remember, the defendants in this newest courtroom drama are two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum, who are charged with beating, kicking, and pepper spraying a reportedly non-resistant, mentally ill inmate named Phillip Jones in order to ‘teach” Jones “a lesson” after the inmate mouthed off to a female custody assistant in the county’s Twin Towers jail facility.

The government’s star witness is a third deputy named Joshua Sather who had been out of the sheriff’s academy and on the job at the jail for only a week, with Brunting was his training officer. According to Sather, he was told by Brunting to participate in the beating, and then directed afterward to write a false report blaming the inmate as the out-of-control aggressor.

But then the night after the beating, according to prosecutors Brandon Fox and Lindsey Greer Dotson, Sather “developed a conscience.”

According to the defense, it wasn’t a conscience that Sather developed, but “a fabrication,” for self-serving reasons of his own.

Another crucial witness is Porscha Singh, the custody assistant who was the object of the inmate’s insult. Singh was compelled to testify by U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, and given immunity by the feds, as long as she testified truthfully. When on the stand, she told the jury the did not want to be in court. “I was subpoenaed and I didn’t want a bench warrant to be issued.”

She said she had also been given immunity, meaning that nothing that she said would be used to bring charges against her, “…as long as my testimony is truthful.”

Defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re maintained that Singh was telling any “truth” the government wanted to hear in order to get the desired immunity.

Witness testimony continues on Friday, and we’ll have a full report for you on Monday, so….stay tuned.

Posted in LASD | 8 Comments »

Pretrial Detention and the Poor, an Asset Forfeiture Bill, Steve Lopez on Homelessness, and LA Supe. Candidates on Child Welfare

May 12th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

CASH BAIL KEEPS POOR PEOPLE LOCKED UP (UNNECESSARILY) AND IMPOVERISHED

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative sheds light on the all-too-common practice of locking up poor defendants while they await trial, via unattainable bail bonds.

There are nearly 500,000 pretrial detainees crowding jails across the nation, according to Department of Justice estimates. Despite the fact that it is illegal to lock people up for being poor, cash bail as it is used today creates a punishment-until-proven-innocent system that keeps indigent defendants behind bars, while rich defendants walk free.

PPI researchers found that, according to US Bureau of Justice numbers, jail inmates had an annual income of $15,109 before their incarceration—less than half the median income for their non-incarcerated peers. People in jail are even poorer than people in prison. For black men, the differences are even more extreme. Jailed black men had an annual pre-lockup income that was 64% lower than their non-incarcerated peers.

To put it in context, if a typical bail bond is $10,000, it equates to eight months of income for the average detainee. Even paying a portion to bail bondsmen is often impossible for defendants and their families living below the poverty line.

In New York, Kalief Browder’s inability to post $3,000 for his release led to a three-year stint at Rikers Island, most of which was spent in solitary confinement—without ever being tried. Browder came out of Rikers and isolation and struggled for three years with mental illness and the aftereffects of prolonged isolation. Browder tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of last year. He was 22-years-old.

Some lawmakers are taking note. US Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation earlier this year that would end the controversial use of money bail at the federal level, and block access to Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants for states that keep their money bail systems in place. (In 2012, California received the largest Byrne JAG sum: $32 million.)

The PPI report closes with six recommendations for stamping out the disproportionate and needless incarceration of poor Americans in the nation’s jails. The recommendations include abolishing cash bail, increasing diversion programs, no longer locking poor defendants up for their inability to pay usurious fines and fees, boosting funding for public defense, and ending pay-to-stay programs that charge people for their incarceration.

Read the recommendations: here.


OPINION: APPROVE BILL TO CURB ASSET FORFEITURE PRACTICES IN CALIFORNIA

Civil asset forfeiture laws allow government entities to seize (and keep) money, cars, real estate, and other property that may be associated with a crime—no conviction necessary. In California and across the nation, local law enforcement agencies are using asset forfeiture as a cash cow.

Last month, the US Department of Justice revived its Equitable Sharing Program, which authorizes local law enforcement agencies to bring feds into an investigation, and thus be able to skirt state restrictions against using seized money as revenue, with only “probable cause” that laws have been broken, not actual convictions. The federal program was suspended in December due to budget cuts, but was brought back to life last month.

California Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Mike Hadley (R-Torrance) hope to rein in this controversial practice with a bill that would require a conviction for law enforcement to permanently take money or property from someone. The bill passed out of the Senate with almost unanimous support, but faces opposition in the Assembly from law enforcement agencies and others that are funded by forfeited money.

In an op-ed for Voice of San Diego, Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the ACLU of California’s criminal justice and drug policy director, calls on legislature to pass the bill, saying, “We oew it to every single hardworking Californian who has ever been forced to pay the price of this rampant abuse and injustice.” Here’s a clip:

…California law enforcement agencies can take and keep innocent people’s money and property, because federal law does not require a conviction and actually lets California agencies keep a larger cut of the proceeds than is allowed under state law.

California police are exploiting this lucrative loophole that incentivizes department profits over justice. As with any abusive police practice, policing for profit has taken an especially hard toll on low-income people of color. According to a Washington Post review of federal court records, the vast majority of people who challenged seizures and received some money back were black, Latino or another minority. Other investigations, including those in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, found similar results.

Right here in San Diego, the city police departments with the fastest-growing seizures are communities made up predominantly of people of color. Between 2013 and 2015, Chula Vista Police Department has increased its haul of asset forfeiture funds by 60 percent, and National City Police Department by a whopping 112 percent. Of the two San Diegans profiled above, one was Latina, the other black.

It is easy to see why vulnerable Californians are deemed easy targets: They are less likely to come forward and fight the government because doing so is expensive and has been known to morph from asset forfeiture into deportation investigations of relatives and IRS involvement. What’s more, this practice, which throws the Constitution and state law out the window, can drive already struggling families deeper into poverty.


STEVE LOPEZ ON THE STATE OF HOMELESSNESS IN LOS ANGELES, AND CONCRETE WAYS WE CAN START ADDRESSING THE ISSUE

Homelessness is still on the rise in Los Angeles County, according to the latest homeless count—up 5.7% over the previous year (to 47,000), which is less than half of the 12% increase experienced in 2014, but still disappointing. LA County and the City of LA are working on a collaborative plan to help and house homeless residents, but much of the funding is still in limbo.

In his column, the LA Times’ Steve Lopez says he doesn’t have all the answers to LA’s homelessness crisis, but he lays out five thoughts on where city and county officials and non-profit partners can take action. Here’s a clip:

First: Someone has to step up.

“We can bring these numbers down,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said of the increase in homelessness. “This could be the year we begin to turn the tide.”

Not at the rate we’re going.

The city, like the county, has a solid plan to deliver more services and housing. And Councilman Mike Bonin gets credit for pushing hard on creative solutions like making use of a senior center as a shelter and erecting housing on city-owned lots.

But the $138 million budgeted by Garcetti this year is more goal than guarantee, with roughly half of it still something of a mirage.

L.A. County has a more solid $150-million budget for homelessness, and even at that, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl warned that modest sums won’t counter economic trends that are “forcing people out of their houses.”

Translation: The steady advance of tent cities and rolling homes is headed soon to your neighborhood, if it’s not already there.

It’s time for Garcetti, and Kuehl, and other city and county officials, to start campaigning for a reliable source of funding — a sales tax, a bond measure, or fees on new development.

Come on, somebody has to take this on. We’re going to become the next Calcutta unless some 21st-century hero steps up.


LA COUNTY SUPERVISOR HOPEFULS SQUARE OFF ON CHILD WELFARE ISSUES

At a forum held in Pasadena on Tuesday, five candidates looking to replace outgoing LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich shared their views on improving the county’s child welfare system.

During the discussion, which was hosted by Daniel Heimpel’s Fostering Media Connections, contenders LA City Councilmember Mitchell Englander and Kathryn Barger, Antonovich’s chief of staff, highlighted the importance of collaboration between the county and the private sector to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Prosecutor Elan Carr discussed public education as a crime deterrent. State Senator Bob Huff talked about the serious need for lighter caseloads for social workers.

Entrepreneur Darrell Park said that social workers could handle high caseloads if they were driven in sheriff’s deputies’ patrol cars, and if they dictated their reports to administrative employees with blazing fast typing fingers.

The LA Daily News’ Brenda Gazzar has a good round up of their main talking points. Here’s a clip:

Elan Carr, a criminal gang prosecutor, stressed the importance of education to prevent child abuse. Parents, especially young ones, need to be educated on raising children and dealing with normal stresses, such as anger management. Carr said he has forced defendants to undergo anger management counseling under penalty of jail.

“We’ve got to start really getting serious with education,” Carr said. “The only way really to fight crime and abusive homes is to provide nurturing education for all parties involved.”

Children must also be taught that violence is not the answer so that they don’t carry the practice into adulthood, he said.

Mitchell Englander, a Los Angeles city councilman, argued the county should adopt a public awareness campaign called “See something, say something.” Abuse happens behind closed doors and people should be encouraged to report friends, neighbors and loved ones to stop it, he said.

Englander also noted that he’s dedicated his life to public-private partnerships and said parents need to be brought into programs that benefit children and stay engaged.

“Government can’t do this alone,” he said. “This is a partnership. It’s a collaboration. That’s where philanthropic dollars come in but we’ve got to be accountable as well and work together.”

Posted in pretrial detention/release, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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