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The USC Hit and Run…. Sorrow and a Search

March 31st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


The grief-stricken woman above is Carmen Bachan, the mother of a lovely USC student,
18-year-old Adrianna Bachan. Adrianna was killed Sunday by a hit and run driver at the intersection of Jefferson and Hoover when she was on her way home from a fraternity party at around 3 a.m.

The driver blew through the intersection fast
and slammed into the pretty, soccer-playing freshman and her friend, another USC student, Marcus Garfinkle, 19. Adrianna was thrown over the car by the force of the blow.

Marcus remained on the hood of the car, his body partially inside the smashed windshield
, as the driver kept on going for almost a full block, maybe more.

“Nearly to the Shrine,” said LAPD Sergeant Jon Aufdemberg of the South Traffic division. He meant the old and beautiful Shrine Auditorium located close to Figueroa. I spoke to Aufdemberg late last night. He was one of the first officers on the scene.

When the driver finally stopped, Aufdemberg said, it was the passenger who got out. But neither driver nor passenger helped the kids. Instead the passenger shoved Marcus Garfinkle’s body out of the windshield, off the hood of car and to the pavement. Then he got back inside the vehicle and the driver sped off.

Adrianna died from her injuries. Marcus was rushed to the hospital and is now stable. “I’m telling you, that boy was cut up really badly,” said Aufdemberg. “He’s lucky he’s alive.”

Here’s the LA Times story on the hit-and-run, written by Ari Bloomekatz.

And here is a heartbreaking video report produced by my talented former student, Matt Mendez, for Annenberg TV News. (It was Matt who found an additional witness who had yet to talk to police, and broke the news that the traffic light, at first thought for certain to be red, may have been green. Witness’s accounts conflict.)

“Either way, the guy was going way too fast,”
said Aufdemberg.

Aufdemberg said that police investigators
were looking for a black sedan— an older model Lexus, a Honda Accord or a Toyota Corolla. The car would have a lot of damage to its front end and a smashed windshield. Officers are going to auto repair shops but they are hoping that someone who has seen the vehicle will call in the information.

I hope so too.

“We’re also going through the videos of any of the businesses
in the area in case one of the cameras might have caught the car as it was going down the street,” said Aufdemberg. He admitted the video strategy was a long shot.

“But we might find something.”

I asked Aufdemberg if he had kids. “Yeah, I do,” he said. “So this kind of thing hits close to home.” He paused. “Even if they catch the guy, it’s not going to bring her back. That’s the truth. We’re working hard to catch him. But it won’t make anybody feel better.”

No. Unfortunately it won’t. Nothing will.


Anyone with information is asked to call South Traffic at (323) 290-6063


Photo by Lawrence K. Ho for the Los Angeles Times

Posted in criminal justice, Life in general | 25 Comments »

What Mario Rocha’s Story Really Means

March 31st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


(NOTE: FOR RECENT UPDATES on Mario’s life, click here.)


I see that Mario’s Story, the documentary film,
about Mario Rocha’s struggle to have his wrongful conviction for murder overturned, has several more showings on Showtime this week and next.

I watched the movie a week ago
and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

The film is gripping, harrowing and, in its own way, inspiring; Mario’s courage and calm in the face of his ghastly circumstances is astonishing. Watching the film I got frightened all over again for his fragile bravery—even though I know him, so I know how his story turned out, and how well he’s doing now, that his life is good, that he is healing, that the nightmare is over.

For me the film was deeply disturbing for a complex set of reasons
—some having to do with Mario, some not.

But before I get to all that, at the risk of being repetitive, let me once again give you at least an outline of Mario’s story.

On February 16, 1996, sixteen-year-old Mario Rocha
went to a keg party in Highland Park where a bunch of high school kids were celebrating a win for Cathedral High School’s basketball team. Mario was invited to the party. He did not crash it. However, as is often true with these affairs, a bunch of other kids did.

Not surprisingly, there was drinking at the party.
Eventually a fist fight broke out between some of the Cathedral kids and the party crashers. An extremely well-liked 17-year-old college-bound honors student named Martin Aceves, tried to break up the fight, but matters escalated fast. Two kids had guns. Aceves was shot and killed. Another kid was shot in the hand.

A week later, police burst into Mario’s bedroom,
guns drawn, and arrested him. He was not accused of killing Aceves. But an eyewitness had said there was a third kid with a gun who fired it, hitting no one. The party-goer witness picked Mario out of a photo line-up as the third guy with a gun.

It would come to light later that there were other witnesses at the party who definitively placed Mario well away from the shooting. Yet when Mario’s case was tried in adult court, neither his attorney, nor the prosecution bothered to find and question those witnesses. Nor did they challenge the existing eyewitness’s fuzzy and contradictory recollections.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice | 18 Comments »

The Breathtaking Courage of Senator Jim Webb

March 30th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Over the weekend, I finally read the stunning speech—remarkably for its political bravery—-
that Jim Webb made to the Senate this past Thursday, when he introduced his bill calling for a blue ribbon commission to reform the nation’s criminal justice system, which he calls “a national disgrace.” The bill, titled the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009, is what many of us with an eye on criminal justice issues have been eagerly awaiting since late last year.

I knew that criminal justice advocates like Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project
had been working with Webb and his staff. But even so, his presentation was more intelligent more articulate, more informed—and more courageous—than most had dared to hope for. Here are some clips:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of.
We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. I would ask my fellow senators and my fellow citizens to think about the challenges that attend these kinds of numbers when we are looking at people who have been released from prison and are reentering American society. We have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who are reentering American society without the transition necessary
to allow them to again become productive citizens.


The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has written about Webb’s bill in a manner that illuminates both the man and the issue.

Here’s how Glenn’s article opens:

There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that. Webb’s interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession. After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”

What’s most notable about Webb’s decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is. He isn’t just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America’s oppressive prison state. His critique of what we’re doing is fundamental, not incremental.


Webb himself had an article in Parade Magazine on Sunday in which he explains and campaigns for his bill.

On Sunday, he was also interviewed for NPR


Posted in National politics, parole policy, prison policy, race and class, racial justice | 15 Comments »

Commentary on Solitary

March 30th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

I see that the New Yorker article by surgeon/author/professor Atul Gawande about the morality—and legality—of solitary confinement in American prisons has picked up a lot of notice over the weekend.

For instance, Gawande was interviewed by NPR here.

And attorney Doug Berman over at Sentencing, Law and Policy wonders
why there have not been more Constitutional challenges about the Segregated Housing Units—the SHUs—in the nation’s prisons. He writes:

The article’s efforts to draw parallels in this last paragraph
to segregation and GTMO help spotlight my own belief that constitutional lawyers and policy policy groups have been complicit, at least indirectly, in the growth of solitary confinement in prison nation. A generation ago, many civil rights lawyers and policy policy groups attacked segregation through constitutional court battles. And, in modern times, many lawyers and public policy groups have be actively attacking GTMO, as well as just about every aspect of the death penalty. But, while a few hundred accused terrorists and murderers have lots and lots of constitutional lawyers and activists running to court on their behalf, many thousands of lesser criminals confined to the hellhole of supermax prisons languish with very few persons even thinking about their plight, let alone fighting in court on their behalf.

Excellent point.

Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments »

LAPD and the LA Times Discover Parole Reform

March 29th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


LA Times columnist Sandy Banks, whom I like personally,
and whose writing I generally value and enjoy, wrote a column over the weekend that made my teeth ache.

In it she wrote of her conversation with LAPD Commander Kyle Jackson (another very decent person) about the fact that we have a hideous recidivism rate in California and that maybe in order to combat said awful revolving door rate something other than the punitive and counterproductive strategies that have characterized California prison and parole policy for the past two and a half decades might be called for.

More than 85% of the people we send to prison serve
their terms and are paroled back to the streets. And more than 70% of them will return to crime and wind up behind bars again.

That makes ex-convicts the prison system’s most dangerous product.

Yeah, well, our prisons produce more badly broken people, than dangerous people. But whatever. We agree on the concept. (And lock-up certainly doesn’t make people less dangerous, that’s for damn sure.)

Sandy reported that Commander Jackson had taken over the program that the late and sorely missed Deputy Chief Kenny Garner started.

For the last six months, Jackson has headed an LAPD project
aimed at revamping parole practices to cut crime and reduce recidivism. The program will combine a network of education, drug treatment and job training with psychological therapy for prisoners returning to the streets.

It was proposed last fall by Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner,
who died unexpectedly last month, leaving Jackson to carry it out. More than 60 community agencies are involved. The program will be rolled out in June, with about 50 parolees in Watts.


Jackson holds degrees in public policy and criminal justice
and has put them to use researching this project. “This could not only cut crime in Los Angeles,” he told me, “but help us rethink parole around the country.”

“….help us rethink parole around the country…?” Seriously?
Um….you’re a little late to the party, my dears. One or two people before you have been working on the issue—screaming desperately about the issue—for the past ten or twenty years. But, y’all steadfastly refused to listen.

Okay, look. On one hand, it is wonderful that Kenny Garner
started this program and that Jackson is putting it into action. (I even mentioned it glowingly in the remembrance I wrote about Chief Garner.) Both men’s hearts are/were in the right place. Kyle Jackson has a son who is locked up, so he gets it on a very personal level.

But it is just a teensy weensy bit vexing that we are nearly collapsing in awe and wonder
over the news that the Los Angeles Police Department has decided to reinvent the wheel by involving 60 agencies (Sixty!!!) to serve a mere 50 guys—because some kind of critical mass on command staff finally snapped awake to the fact that wrap-around reentry programs actually… know….work. And that—SURPRISE!— they’re a cheaper strategy than locking people up over and over again.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in LAPD, parole policy, prison policy | 3 Comments »

You Know the Economy is Bad When…..

March 29th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


As I was returning from an idyllic outdoor birthday brunch for a friend early on Sunday afternoon in Topanga Canyon,
another friend and I drove by this small roadside business with its closed sign and figured things had REALLY come to a bad pass when a kid with a lemonade stand was so badly discouraged by the burgeoning fiscal crisis that he or she went to all the trouble to make such a sign.

Sensing a pithy story was lurking, your intrepid reporter (that would be me) backed her car up the curvy canyon side street in order to check out what kind of hard times had befallen the poor lemonade entrepreneur.

As is often true here in So Cal, things were not as they at first appeared to be. The entrepreneur, pictured above, had merely put up the closed sign while he trotted off to use the nearby facilities and, once I had taken my photo, he turned the sign around and sold my friend and me some deliciously fresh orangeade. (He was out of lemonade, or never had lemonade, or his mother would only let him pick the oranges, not the lemons. We never did get that part of the story straight.)

Yet, despite the excellence of the product, the drink business was anything but brisk. In the fifteen minutes it took us to take some photos, buy and consume the aforementioned orangeade, chat about the fact that the -ade purveyor was Irish, “So, I make a good bartender! It’s in my blood!” (Helloooo-o-o-oo, Social Services!!!), and admire the Irish orangeade seller’s stick-eating dog…..not only were there no other customers, there were no other prospective customers either.

I know this because my car completely blocked the road, which means that any and all comers would have had to honk to get me to move.

So was the lack of orangeade biz a consequence of the economic downturn or of a poorly chosen location?
It is my professional opinion that this question requires further investigation. (And additional orangeade.)

As Drudge would say: DEVELOPING….

Posted in Economy | 5 Comments »

Simon Johnson & the American Oligarchs

March 29th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


In May’s Atlantic Monthly,
there is a scary but very convincing article called The Quiet Coup, in which Simon Johnson makes the case that the U.S. finance industry has effectively captured our government.

Johnson is the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund,
a professor at MIT, the co-founder the blog The Baseline Scenario—and one of the guys who has consistently provided some of the smartest commentary as the financial crisis continues to unfold.

Agree with him or not, Johnson makes a strong case for this newest thesis.
Here are some clips:

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks,
buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand. The first AIG bailout, which was on relatively good terms for the taxpayer, was supplemented by three further bailouts whose terms were more AIG-friendly. The second Citigroup bailout and the Bank of America bailout included complex asset guarantees that provided the banks with insurance at below-market rates. The third Citigroup bailout, in late February, converted government-owned preferred stock to common stock at a price significantly higher than the market price—a subsidy that probably even most Wall Street Journal readers would miss on first reading. And the convertible preferred shares that the Treasury will buy under the new Financial Stability Plan give the conversion option (and thus the upside) to the banks, not the government.

This latest plan—which is likely to provide cheap loans
to hedge funds and others so that they can buy distressed bank assets at relatively high prices—has been heavily influenced by the financial sector, and Treasury has made no secret of that. As Neel Kashkari, a senior Treasury official under both Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner (and a Goldman alum) told Congress in March, “We had received inbound unsolicited proposals from people in the private sector saying, ‘We have capital on the sidelines; we want to go after [distressed bank] assets.’” And the plan lets them do just that: “By marrying government capital—taxpayer capital—with private-sector capital and providing financing, you can enable those investors to then go after those assets at a price that makes sense for the investors and at a price that makes sense for the banks.” Kashkari didn’t mention anything about what makes sense for the third group involved: the taxpayers.


Looking just at the financial crisis (and leaving aside some problems of the larger economy), we face at least two major, interrelated problems. The first is a desperately ill banking sector that threatens to choke off any incipient recovery that the fiscal stimulus might generate. The second is a political balance of power that gives the financial sector a veto over public policy, even as that sector loses popular support.

Read the rest here.

Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters/Corbis

Posted in Economy | 7 Comments »

Does LAUSD Have a Money Pit?

March 27th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


The Los Angeles Unified School District needs to cut $718 million out of its budget.
This is why more than 4700 teachers have gotten pink slips.

But are there other places that could be cut instead?

This morning’s LA Times has an article about the draft internal audit they managed to nab. The audit points to piles of money that may have been wasted by the district’s facilities division. It is not a cheering read. At all.

For instance, there was $17 million that the audit says was spent unnecessarily on consultants
who were, in many cases, (according to the audit) unqualified, and who did jobs that district employees could have done.

(The consultant issue generally is totally out of whack at the district, as any one with only the mildest of associations with the internal workings of LAUSD will be happy to rant on about, if you but give them a chance to do so.)

Here is how the article, written by Howard Blume, begins.

Consultants working for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s
school construction program cost taxpayers 70% more than if district employees had been used to do the same work, according to a draft internal audit obtained Thursday by The Times.

The audit also found that some consultants lacked required qualifications
for their duties, and that those contractors have been improperly supervising and evaluating district employees as well as other consultants.


* Using district employees, where possible, instead of consultants could have saved $77 million in the period from July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007.

* Consultants lacking the required minimum qualifications were hired or promoted.

* Eighty-four percent of consultants had been employed
at the district for more than two years and 16% more than five years.

* One consultant, who was supervised by
an outside company he used to work for, billed the district at $189 an hour for full-time work, even though he spent only one week a month in Los Angeles.

* Consultants overstepped their proper roles,
making decisions about the hiring and compensation of district employees. Some consultants also controlled the payments of district funds to other consultants working for the same firm. In some cases, they even signed time sheets for payments to their own firm

In this same vein, a few weeks ago NBC4 broadcast some of the fruits of its own investigation into instances
of waste and possible kickbacks on a facilities division-sponsored elementary school library. The NBC4 folks have no smoking gun, exactly, but they turned up some troubling bullet holes—so to speak.

Over the years, and again recently, I have been hearing of still other cases of such waste and double dealings
myself when it comes to district building projects, but they are mighty hard to prove.

Perhaps this is the sort of thing that some nice, smart group
of investigative journalism students ought to be looking at a little more closely. Hint, hint.


PS: Yesterday’s Daily News had it’s own nicely grumpy editorial
about Cortines and his teacher slashing proposal.

Posted in Economy, LAUSD | 52 Comments »

THURSDAY: Social Justice Shorts

March 26th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon



Hmmmm. Yeah. Probably so.

Yesterday, Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson called for public hearings on whether to do away with the two-term limit for the city’s police chief. If Wesson’s idea gets legs, this means Bratton Could serve as chief until 2017.

Certainly there are other talented people who could replace the Chief, if it comes to it. But it would sure be great to hold on to Bratton.

Here are some details from the story by the LA Times’ Phil Willon and Joel Rubin:

Removing the term limits would require voter approval and revise one aspect of the police reforms that stemmed from the riots after four LAPD officers were initially acquitted of brutality in the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. Those reforms limited the police chief to two five-year terms.

Bratton is the first LAPD chief
to serve a second five-year term since voters approved the reforms in 1992. Previous chiefs Bernard C. Parks and Willie L. Williams each served one term and were not reappointed by the city’s civilian Police Commission.

“Why would you not want to have an option
to retain a person who is doing a good job?” asked Wesson, who plans to bring a motion before the City Council on Friday seeking public hearings. “I think at this point, we just want to begin the conversation.”



in a follow-up to this week’s bleak news about teacher layoffs, ex-school board member, David Tokofsky, has an opinion piece in today’s LA Times
in which he points out that LAUSD will likely get $1 billion in stimulus money. So why, Tokofsky wants to know, isn’t Roy Cortines using that money to retain—even hire—teachers, when having enough quality teachers is so crucial to giving students what they need to succeed.

Here’s the heart of it:

My fifth-grade daughter, Rebecca, came home the other day with the news that her dedicated, talented teacher had received a pink slip. Ms. Stanco’s notice that she might be laid off — a Xeroxed form letter with her name filled in at the top — arrived just two weeks after the team of kids she coached brought home the gold medal from the Los Angeles County Science Olympiad.

I know from experience how she feels. In 1992, during another of California’s fiscal crises, I received a pink slip shortly after winning the California Teacher of the Year award. Like my daughter’s teacher, I also had put in countless hours of my own time to coach a team of students. That team became the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District to win the national Academic Decathlon.


It’s all the sadder because this time the pink slips
were sent out at the very same time President Obama came to town to deliver a message of hope. His plan to stimulate the economy includes education funding, and the LAUSD could receive more than $1 billion from the package.

Now is the time for Supt. Ramon C. Cortines t
o think about creating jobs and improving education. Instead, he wants to slash, not because he has to, one has to suspect, but because it’s a way of accomplishing his vision of a decentralized district.

The money is intended as a stimulus, not as a hedge against future needs. It needs to be spent quickly, and it needs to be spent saving jobs

reporter, Alex Caputo-Pearl, gives us a look at teacher organizing around the pink slip issue.



Here’s the SF Chronicle’s story on the slapdown Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
received from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals around the issue of the state’s prison healthcare system:

A federal appeals court reinstated contempt-of-court proceedings Wednesday against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for defying a judge’s order to pay the first $250 million of a multibillion-dollar plan to rebuild the state prison health care system.

The ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
in San Francisco was the second rebuff in two days for state officials challenging federal authority over medical care in California prisons.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson
of San Francisco rejected the state’s attempt to regain control of the prison health system. Henderson appointed a receiver to manage the system in 2006 after finding that one inmate a week was dying because of inadequate health care and that the state was unable to meet constitutional standards. Schwarzenegger said he would appeal.

Whatta mess! It would have been helpful if Schwarzenegger
and the state leg had managed to fix the problem earlier, then we wouldn’t be in the fix.

Posted in Social Justice Shorts | 27 Comments »

LAUSD Teacher Layoffs: Pink Slips and Bad Math

March 25th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


When I teach at either USC or UC Irvine,
class size is a big deal. In the workshops I teach at Irvine, my class size varies between 15 and 20 students, depending upon how many other workshops are offered at any given time. (When there are more workshops, we can spread the students out.)

The difference between teaching 15 students
in a workshop setting, and teaching 20 …. is huge. Fifteen is fine. Good actually. With just five more, I have to run every class with an egg timer right beside me, meaning each student gets a ridgedly controlled amount of time to get his project critiqued in class—even if he or she needs more. And I simply can’t fit in many of the things that I am able to teach when the class is smaller.

Even the difference between 18 students and 20, is a big deal.
It may sound crazy but, I know this from experience. We all agree that 12 is the ideal number of students in these workshops. But 15 is okay. Any more than that, and the students suffer measurably.

I bring up the issue because of the because of the news about the newest totals of teacher pink slips
that came out of yesterday’s meeting of the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

At the meeting, superintendent Ray Cortines laid out the cuts he proposes to make in the LAUSD budget—now that he’s figured it what the district will get from the stimulous package. They include 8400 staff layoffs, 4700 of those layoffs are teachers.

According to Cortines and his office,
the teacher layoffs will change student-to-teacher ratio in the classroom in the following way:

In elementary school, which will be hardest hit by the cutbacks,
the ratio for kindergarten through third grade would go from 20 to 1 to 24 to 1.

In middle schools, the ratio would change from 36 to 1 to 38 to 1
in middle school. In some high schools, it will be a change from 40 to 1, to 42 to 1.

The class size reductions down to 20 students per teacher that were mandated for 9th grade math and English classes—the two subjects that students most need to master in order to graduate—will evaporate.

If adding five more students is such a big deal in my classes
—and I teach college seniors—what kind of difference will it make for first graders? Or third graders?

Plus, I’ve observed that LAUSD doesn’t keep to its stated numbers anyway.
When the district says 40 in a classroom, the real number is often 45 or, as in the case of one ESL class I saw listed at Jefferson High School, a jaw-dropping 56. (That can’t be legal, right?)

We all understand that the district must make draconian cuts
given our present economic situation. But student teacher ratio must be last on the chopping block.

And when i say last, I mean, that we cannot let it happen.

Posted in Education, LAUSD | 46 Comments »

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