Friday, December 9, 2016
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts




How Will the Supremes Rule on CA’s Prison Pop Case?

November 30th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard the much anticipated arguments
on the case that will decide whether a very fed up three-judge panel has the authority to order California officials to lower the state’s prison population by 30,000 or 40,000 inmates—as the panel did early last year.

Those of us reading tea leaves based on the nature of the questions asked by the 9 justices, think that the Supreme just might let the judges’ ruling stand.

In case you haven’t read any of my natterings on the matter over the past three years, here is a bit of back story on the case from a well-written article in USA today.

The case, drawing broad interest from public health and psychiatric health groups, civil libertarians and law enforcement, brings to the fore the power of U.S. judges to intervene in social problems that are traditionally the domain of elected state officials.

California officials, backed by 18 states, are appealing an order by a special three-judge U.S. district court that would require the state to reduce prison overcrowding significantly to improve conditions. California says the court order could mean the release of about 40,000 inmates to the streets.

The three-judge panel said earlier measures, including those aimed at increasing staff and improving care, had failed to improve the system sufficiently. The judges concluded that overcrowding was the primary cause of the health problems and ordered the state to get the system down to 137.5% of prison capacity over the next two years.

The order came in a pair of class-action lawsuits challenging mental health and medical conditions, one that began in 1990, the other 2001.

Prisoners’ lawyers describe horrific conditions in their filings, saying that “mentally ill prisoners have been found hanged to death in holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces, and discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights in locked cages.” They stress that such conditions have been ongoing.

In decades past, federal judges often got involved to speed school desegregation, solve environmental problems and remedy conditions in mental health facilities and prisons. That era has faded for many reasons, including that the increasingly conservative Supreme Court has reversed lower court judges who delved in recent decades into social needs.

If the order is upheld, the state has two years to reduce the prison population by the required 40,000-ish inmates. This does ncontrary to the knee-jerk characterization of the problem— mean simply dumping 40,000 inmates on to the streets. But that kind of population reduction will take some meaningful changes in policy—among them, further overhauls in parole policy, more transfers of prisoners to out of state facilities and, frankly, an new look at sentencing. And, yes, there will also likely be some prisoners getting out a bit early for “good time” behavior, meaning that they have participated in rehabilitative programs.

As the Supremes asked questions of the two groups of lawyers, the four liberal justices seemed clear in their leanings toward letting the 3-judge ruling stand. Justice Roberts and Alito seem especially prone to overturn the panel’s demand.

As is usual, however, it was Justice Kennedy—the swing vote—whom everyone watched.

Kennedy asked sharp questions of both the inmates’ lawyer and of the state’s attorneys. But then all at once Kennedy said with exasperation, “At some point the court has to say: You have been given enough time. The constitutional violation still persists, as the state itself acknowledges.”

It was hard not to see the remark as telling.

A ruling is expected in June 2011.

POST SCRIPT: Before SCOTUS rules, of course, California will have a new top cop, namely the AG-elect, Kamala Harris. With this in mind, it is interesting to note (as the Sac Bee does) some lines from her book, “Smart on Crime,” in which Harris describes the larger human cost of the state’s ever-ballooning prison population, particularly to nonviolent offenders who just get further broken by the hideously dysfunctional system:

“For several decades, the passage of tough laws and long sentences has created an illusion in the public’s mind that public safety is best served when we treat all offenders pretty much the same way: arrest, convict, imprison, parole. …

“What the numbers say loud and clear, however, is that most nonviolent offenders are learning the wrong lesson … are becoming better and more hardened criminals during their prison stays.”

Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, taken at the California Institution for Men, at Chino, August 7, 2006.

(Weirdly enough, as I was doing my usual scribbles, I noticed that I know someone in this photo. He’s the bald guy at the upper center who is sort of lounging on one elbow. Once a hard core gang member, he’s out of prison now and doing phenomenally well, a truly excellent man who found himself belatedly with the help of others who told him he was worth something—no thanks to the CDCR, which needs to drop the “R” from its title, or start living up to it.)

Posted in prison, prison policy, Supreme Court | 3 Comments »

The New Homelessness: Rodger Jacobs & The Myth of Solid Ground

November 30th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

It was late September when we last checked with LA journalist/author/essayist Rodger Jacobs
who, together with his girlfriend, freelance editor Lela Michael, has been battling homelessness.

He wrote very candidly and painfully about his experience in two long essays in the Las Vegas Sun during the early fall.  At the end of this week the sun will publish installment #3.

In the meantime, Rodger told me that he has received a pile of emails, Facebook messages, and the like, from other writer friends who are facing similar fiscal disasters and who praise him for his courage in “coming out” about his homelessness. They are afraid to tell anyone about their own situations, they say. Many mention the dauntingly vicious online commentary that his homeless essays engendered.

Frustrated at being cast as the point man for a new class of “starving artists,” Rodger has written on his blog, Carnytown, about what he’d been hearing from others.

Here are some snippets:

Since my New Homeless series began running in the Las Vegas Sun in September I have received literally dozens of e-mails, letters, and private messages on social networks (Facebook, Twitter) from colleagues in the creative sector – many of them complete strangers – who are all drifting in the same leaky boat, writing to thank me for my “courage” in telling my story as a writer whose income and sheer survival has been challenged by these hard economic times. These letters are coming from your friends and neighbors who wish to remain anonymous, for the most part.

“I’m encouraged by your bravery in being ‘out’ as a homeless person,” an east coast political columnist wrote me in October. “I am not out — I get enough hate mail for writing op-eds in the local paper. I haven’t been willing to deal with the kind of responses you received after your first piece in the LV Sun. I’ve made bad decisions along the way, but does that mean I should get put out on an ice floe?”

Citing the media attention that I have received from TV4 Sweden, Belgian Public Television, and La Presse in Montreal, she goes on to say: “It’s interesting that European and Canadian media aren’t afraid of your story, but U.S. media are avoiding it like the plague. I know from listening to NPR that Wall Street is good, therefore the economy is recovering. Very little of real life is reflected anywhere in the U.S. media. It’s disheartening, to say the least.”

The story that this talented writer is afraid to go public with is one that I am reading more and more often in my e-mail inbox:

“I’m having my own homeless experience here in —,” she explains. “It’s a long story that includes me spending 2009 as a caregiver to my husband who was dying of cancer. I’ve been out of full time work for almost three years. I recently moved to a trailer on a friend’s property, but I don’t get cell phone reception there, and it’s taking a while to get an internet hookup. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

Meanwhile Rodger is still balancing on his own financial tightrope. He writes,

As of this evening we have less than $20 to our name, most of those funds on Pay Pal; tomorrow morning Lela has to take the bus to the welfare office on Rancho to sign paperwork to complete her application for SNAP benefits (this proactive move instigated by her superiors at the Threesquare food bank where she volunteers once a week in an effort to “pay it forward” to the Vegas Valley residents who have assisted us this far); after that trip to the welfare office there will be no funds left for her monthly bus pass so we have no idea how she will get to Threesquare on Friday or how I will pick up my prescription from my doctor’s office on Tuesday.

“If we don’t have $208 for rent on Wednesday,” I snapped at Lela this evening in a mild explosion of repressed stress, “it won’t matter about the goddamn bus pass because we will be locked out of our room and sleeping on the sidewalk.”

We are flat broke. We are the proverbial “starving artists” that the Otis Report hoped to debunk. We’re out there and there are thousands and thousands more like us in the night.

More soon.

And more posts on other topics later this morning.

Photo by Sam Morris, Las Vegas Sun

Posted in American artists, art and culture, Homelessness, writers and writing | 5 Comments »

Monday Must Reads

November 29th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


December marks the tenth anniversary of Bush v. Gore. (Ah, but how time flies!) The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin…um…celebrates by mulling over what the decision means, now that we have a decade of space and time with which to regard it.

Here’s how Toobin’s essay opens:

Momentous Supreme Court cases tend to move quickly into the slipstream of the Court’s history. In the first ten years after Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that ended the doctrine of separate but equal in public education, the Justices cited the case more than twenty-five times. In the ten years after Roe v. Wade, the abortion-rights decision of 1973, there were more than sixty-five references to that landmark. This month marks ten years since the Court, by a vote of five-to-four, terminated the election of 2000 and delivered the Presidency to George W. Bush. Over that decade, the Justices have provided a verdict of sorts on Bush v. Gore by the number of times they have cited it: zero.

Read the rest


On Tuesday, the US Supreme court will begin hearing Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the case that will decide if a three-judge ruling back in January demanding that California cut its prison population by 40,000 inmates, is in fact legal.

Monday’s Wall Street Journal has a story that looks at some of the issues and the players.

The San Jose Mercury News gives a good rundown on the history of the case.


In the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, recently retired SCOTUS Justice John Paul Stevens explains why he came to oppose the death penalty as unconstitutional in 2008, so late in his judicial career.

The NY Times’ Adam Liptak has a related story in which he considers Steven’s sudden and refreshing loquaciousness on a great many topics.


Over the weekend, the LA Times’ Maura Dolan wrote about the staggeringly long waiting list for inmates on death row to get a lawyer.

Here’s how it opens:

Thirteen years ago, Edward Patrick Morgan asked the California Supreme Court for a lawyer to investigate and challenge his 1996 death sentence for a murder in Orange County. The court has yet to find Morgan an attorney.

The inability of the state to recruit lawyers for post-conviction challenges, or habeas corpus petitions, has caused a major bottleneck in the state’s criminal justice system. Nearly half of those condemned to die in California are awaiting appointment of counsel for these challenges.

Read on.

Yep. We’re back to puppy pictures. (The cat, having formerly been featured in many of these “Must Reads,” doesn’t know whether to be relieved, miffed, or to call his agent.)

Posted in Must Reads | 9 Comments »

Of Ethics & WikiLeaks: “The Job of the Media is Not to Protect Power From Embarrassment”

November 28th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

What everyone now knows
(or ought to know) is that, on Sunday five newspapers—The New York Times, the Guardian of the U.K., Germany’s Der Spiegel, France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Pais—began publishing carefully vetted excerpts from 250,000 diplomatic cables leaked to the publications by the now infamous website WikiLeaks.

It is, as WikiLeaks itself puts it, the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.

The U.S. government is—surprise, surprise— mighty upset by the leaks, and loudly condemned them as “reckless.”

So what are the ethics of such leaks in general and these leaks in particular?

On this topic many are opining like crazy. Among those most worth reading are the following:

1. Simon Jenkins writing for The Guardian. (Jenkins is a columnist/author/BBC commentator who has previously been the editor for both the Evening Standard and the London Times. In other words, he’s a not a trifler in the world of British journalism.)

Here are some clips:

Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.

In this light, two backup checks were applied. The US government was told in advance the areas or themes covered, and “representations” were invited in return. These were considered. Details of “redactions” were then shared with the other four media recipients of the material and sent to WikiLeaks itself, to establish, albeit voluntarily, some common standard.

The state department knew of the leak several months ago and had ample time to alert staff in sensitive locations. Its pre-emptive scaremongering over the weekend stupidly contrived to hint at material not in fact being published. Nor is the material classified top secret, being at a level that more than 3 million US government employees are cleared to see, and available on the defense department’s internal Siprnet…..


The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment. If American spies are breaking United Nations rules by seeking the DNA biometrics of the UN director general, he is entitled to hear of it. British voters should know what Afghan leaders thought of British troops. American (and British) taxpayers might question, too, how most of the billions of dollars going in aid to Afghanistan simply exits the country at Kabul airport.


The money‑wasting is staggering. Aid payments are never followed, never audited, never evaluated. The impression is of the world’s superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the United Nations, are all perpetually off script. Washington reacts like a wounded bear, its instincts imperial but its power projection unproductive….

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

2. The New Yorker’s senior editor, Amy Davidson, essentially agrees with Jenkins

She writes:

Timothy Garton Ash, who writes that he has been taking “dives into a vast ocean” of cables for the Guardian, says of the cache,

It is the historian’s dream. It is the diplomat’s nightmare….a multi-course banquet from the history of the present.

And that sounds right: the Times, in its summary, managed to work in a “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse whom Muammar Qaddafi kept near him and a wedding in Dagestan with “drunken guests throwing $100 bills at child dancers.” (Garton Ash called that “highly entertaining” cable “almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh.”) It also has accounts of attempts to gain control the Pakistani nuclear arsenal (for insight into that matter, see Seymour M. Hersh’s 2009 piece), warnings about Iran’s plans in that direction, and contingency planning for the collapse of North Korea. (One suggested measure to prepare for that last one: help the Chinese make money there.) There are so many anecdotes and so much color that one might forget where it all tends, and what one ought to do about it.

It is, for example, intriguing to read in a cable the Times highlights, about the day Afghanistan’s vice president arrived in the United Arab Emirates carrying fifty-two million dollars in cash with him (how much luggage space would all those bills take up?); but it’s also devastating. The cable said that he “was ultimately allowed to keep [it] without revealing the money’s origin or destination.” What are the options for its “origins”? Drug money, bribes, a straight theft of American taxpayer dollars meant to support our effort there? Here as in many cables, the strong narrative only throws into relief the incoherence of our Afghan policy, which remains a story with no obvious end….


….maybe the government, if it expects the word “secret” to constitute a clear warning about the potential for danger to one’s country, should think hard about what the word means. The White House’s protests Sunday, in response to the release, that “President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal,” would be more persuasive if the Administration hadn’t, for example, recklessly invoked the states secrets privilege itself.

That brings us back to Garton Ash, and the idea that the documents present a historian’s dream but a diplomat’s nightmare. Between the two, one’s sympathy is with the former—because what historians dream of is, more often than not, what voters in a democracy require.

3. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Russell Adams and Jessica Vascellaro, don’t take a side, but give a round-up of what others have said.

Read the cables themselves here.

Pre-scribbled bucket image by Thomas Saur

Posted in media, Must Reads, National issues, National politics | 3 Comments »

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all

November 24th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

May your joys be many all day long.

Here’s a small but very cool video to cheer your day.

Posted in Life in general | 7 Comments »

Cooley Concedes: It’s Kamala

November 24th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

As fond as I am of Cooley personally
(aside from my objections to one or five professional issues with him), allow me to say:

Woooo-hoooo! Go Kamala!!

(And California voters, you rock.)

Here are some of the reports:

LA Times……SF Chron.SJ Mercury News.

During and prior to the campaign, Harris has said that prosecutors and lawmakers should attack the underlying social problems that lead to crime as well as the criminal. California needs a top cop, but it also needs a top cop who can look at the larger picture if this state is to be healed, fiscally and socially.

With any luck at all, she will be the right woman for the moment.

Photo prior to my Photoshop interference by Luke Thomas

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments »

Discarded Cigarettes, DNA and Privacy

November 24th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

No, actually this video has zero to do with the content of the post. It’s simply some good Thanksgiving sentiments coming your direction via John Lennon.


This is a really interesting decision by a California appellate court
regarding what constitutes search and seizure. (All of which is a hot topic in general this week, what with TSA doing all that new searching and, you know, seizing).

The Sac Bee has the story:

In the first case of its kind in California, a state appellate court in Sacramento ruled Monday that a suspect in a criminal investigation has no expectation of privacy in a discarded item, and a DNA test of the item is not an unconstitutional search.

The court upheld the murder conviction of a man snared 15 years after the crime by results of DNA testing on a cigarette butt he tossed on a sidewalk.

Rolando N. Gallego’s lawyer challenged the second-degree murder conviction in Sacramento Superior Court, contending his client’s constitutional shield against warrantless searches was violated by a DNA test of saliva taken from the cigarette.

But a three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal concluded that the test was for the sole purpose of identifying Gallego as a suspect in an ongoing homicide investigation, and “did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment. … (He) had no reasonable expectation of privacy in this discarded item.”


In a recent blogpost, the LAPPL advised its members not to post anything on Facebook, Twitter or the like, as they are not guaranteed privacy.

(You’re just now figuring that out? Welcome to the party guys.]


Callie Schweitzer at Neon Tommy has the story:

When the Food and Drug Administration deemed Four Loko and other caffeinated alcoholic beverages unsafe, Dennis Roberts saw a business opportunity.

The 23-year-old Roberts and two of his friends are the entrepreneurs behind, a site dedicated to selling “Legalize Loko” T-shirts and other merchandise.

The slogan plays on the popular American Apparel line “Legalize Gay” and “Legalize LA.”

Though all three Los Angeles residents have full-time jobs, Roberts said, “It’s a business, and we’re taking it very seriously.”


The AB reports:

Taking a trip during the holidays isn’t the only time that people might get a full-body scan to pass through security. People heading to court to testify, get a restraining order, pay a ticket or answer criminal charges could also face a full-body scan at courthouses.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which is in charge of protecting federal judges nationwide, is exploring their use at federal courthouses. And two state courthouses in Douglas and El Paso counties in Colorado have already deployed full-body scanners that use radio waves to detect all objects on a person, including paper

Naturally some of these scanned pictures have already been leaked and posted on the web.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Courts, criminal justice | 5 Comments »

Must Reads – Prison & Parole Version

November 23rd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

NOTE: For the rest of the Thanksgiving week, there’ll be light posting for purposes of shopping, cooking, eating, (exercising after eating) loved-one hugging and puppy patting.


You can access a copy of the CDCR report and look at all those nice pie charts yourself.

Once again, the largest group of admissions to California prisons in 2009—66,185 people—was made up of parolees who had violated the technical terms of their parole, but who had committed no new crime. When it came to parolees committing new crimes, the number drops to 18,594.

And here’s another curious set of stats:

When the CDCR looked at who was most likely to go back to prison based on their original commitment offense (the crime that landed them in prison in the first place), the top of the heap when it comes to return guests are those who…..jacked cars. It seems that California car thieves not only keep thieving, they evidently keep getting caught.

Among the other top offenses that predict returners: receiving stolen property, hashish possession (Really??? Hashish? Um, why hashish?) and petty theft with a prior.


The Ventura County Star has the story.

Here’s a clip that explains:

….That move came when lame-duck Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill called SB 1399, which may be only a start in cutting out some of the wasteful rules and practices of the state’s prison system.

In a day of budget deficits amounting to $25 billion or more, the $100 million a year or so in eventual savings here may not seem like much. But this measure can lead to much more.

Authored by Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, the new law will allow medical paroles for convicts so disabled they cannot possibly pose any public danger — except to the public pocketbook. The law specifically excludes parole for criminals with death sentences or those serving life without possibility of parole.

Nor will this measure allow financially-pressed wardens to release prisoners willy-nilly. The chief physician of any prison where a disabled convict is confined would have to OK parole and that decision would then need to be verified by the state Parole Board.

So there’s plenty of concern for public safety in this cost-cutting measure, which should see at least 32 prisoners turned out of prison hospitals or other nearby medical facilities by the middle of next year. More will follow.

“Taxpayers should not be forced to bear the high cost of caring for prisoners who no longer threaten public safety,” Leno said in one legislative hearing. “Rather than continue wasting millions incarcerating these individuals, we could use the funds to keep our schoolteachers employed.”


Berkely’s Center for Criminal Justice has just released a report that tells us that 60% to 80% of the tens of thousands of California residents who will be paroled from prison this year will be out of work a year later.

Fortunately, the report also looks at how we can better help parolees succeed in the job market after release—for our well being as well as theirs.

Among their suggestions are to emphasize skill development while men and women are locked up. (Duh! It saves money and heartache in the long run, people)

Most prisoners are less educated than the general public and have fewer marketable skills. Adult basic education, secondary education, and vocational training programs have proven effective if well-designed and led by properly trained staff, according to the report. Recommendations include:

* Remove barriers to educational and training programs in prisons and jails to allow more individuals to participate. Only 16% of prisoners are accepted into these programs; 23,000 are on a waiting list.

* Include both classroom learning and actual work experience to help prisoners transition from cell blocks to communities.

* Monitor and track the performance of state-funded education and training programs.

The Berkeley report has a whole section on job creation too.


The photo above is from one of the Pups and Wards programs (PAWS), which allows So Cal juvenile offenders to rehabilitated rescue dogs that are just short of being euthanized, readying the critters for adoption.

Here’s an article from earlier in the fall from the OC Register about the program.



Posted in CDCR, Must Reads | 2 Comments »

Posting Later This Morning

November 22nd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Check back.

Posted in Life in general | No Comments »

Sunday-Monday Must Reads

November 22nd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


The always interesting Lt. Sunil Dutta offers his thoughts on the issue of racial profiling in Monday’s LA Times.

Here’s how it opens:

I was accused of racial profiling on the first traffic stop I made as a rookie LAPD officer in 1998. I had spotted a reckless driver speeding through the streets of Van Nuys in a large pickup truck, so I flipped on my lights and took up the chase. The driver eventually pulled over, but as I walked up to his car, he began shouting at me, accusing me of having stopped him because he was black.

I could not sleep that night. A liberal academic before becoming a police officer, I had joined the Los Angeles Police Department hoping to make a difference. Yet here I was, on my first traffic stop, being accused of racism.

I thought of that incident again last week, when the LAPD was accused yet again of not adequately guarding against racial profiling by its officers…..


My pal the wonderful LA Times book critic and author, David Ulin, will be reading from his new book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, on Monday night, 7 p.m., at Doheny Library on the USC Campus.

The book’s smart and very good, and David is smart and a terrific speaker. So go. I”ll be there, of course.

Wouldn’t miss it.


Yes, amazingly, the Florida recount was ten years ago. For the occasion, the NY Times has gathered a bunch of memories from people on all sides of the experience in a section called “My Florida Recount Memory.

Read it and weep. (Literally.)

Not one of Texas’ better moments, in my opinion. It isn’t that California’s doing an better.

The Austin American-Statesman has the story.


Shanice McKinley hoped to be crowned Miss America, but instead came home with a shiney new dose of pride for her home town of Compton.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell wrote the lovely story.


The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has the story.
Here’s a clip:

….Along with huge doses of encouragement, the organization also provides free job training, employment counseling, work support strategies, coaching in financial literacy and other workforce development opportunities.

This year, the organization received $40,000 from the United Way of Greater Milwaukee toward its job training and placement program.

“Studies show that people who have received additional, job-specific training make more money per hour than their counterparts,” said Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. “This program helps people develop the skills to gain and sustain employment and earn enough income to meet daily expenses and basic needs.”

Of the 254 people enrolled in employment counseling, at least 90% have been convicted of a felony at some point, said Vanessa M. White, the organization’s director of workforce development.

NOTE: Yes I probably will eventually stop constantly posting cute puppy photos, but I’m not there yet.

Posted in Must Reads | 20 Comments »

« Previous Entries