Department of Justice Jim McDonnell Juvenile Justice Kamala Harris LA County Jail Medical Care Prison Realignment Reentry Trauma

“Back on Track LA,” Sheriff and Doctor Duo Fight Trauma, How to Defend Kids Facing Life, and ending CA Prison Healthcare Oversight


On Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and Probation Chief Jerry Powers announced the launch of “Back on Track LA,” an innovative recidivism reduction pilot program that has been launched as a collaborative effort between the LASD, Probation, the AG’s Office, the LA County Child Support Services Dept., several foundations, and schools.

Back on Track provides participating inmates with education and job training, cognitive behavior training, and life skills and customized re-entry coaching.

“Instead of only reacting to crime, we must also focus on prevention to shut the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” says AG Harris. “Back on Track LA will hold offenders accountable to their communities, their families and themselves. This initiative will give participants the skills to become contributing and law-abiding members of society, which enhances public safety.”

Both Harris and McDonnell stressed the urgent need for such a program in California’s various counties, especially Los Angeles.

“At this very moment, 20,000 individuals are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jails,” said Jim McDonnell. “Too many of those in our jail and justice system come from broken homes and challenging life circumstances.”

McDonnell listed some of the challenges that the program will need to address, like early childhood trauma and the fact that a high percentage of jail inmates finished school.

“Very few of those filling our jails today have the needed tools to give them a good shot,” he said.

Ninety non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders, who are now the county’s responsibility post-realignment, are enrolled in the pilot program, which began mid-February.

Once the initial 90 inmates are released from jail, they will receive transitional housing, help with employment, and continued mentoring the entire year after their release. In addition, the college credits they earn through the program during their incarceration can be transferred to any community college in the state.

In order to ensure that the program is actually working, researchers will be part of the process from the very beginning, tracking participants and their outcomes along the way and in the long-term, and measuring them against the outcomes of inmates not involved in the program.

The program is funded through a $750,000 grant through the US Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act (Back on Track was one of just four recipients nationwide), and grants from the California Wellness Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.

Back on Track is intended to become a model for California, and hopefully for the nation, McDonnell said on Wednesday:

“What we are announcing today is not merely an experiment. We know we have too many people in jail who can and should be contributing members of society. Many of those in jail regret the decisions of their youth that landed them where they are today.”

Such programs contribute to public safety, McDonnell said:

“It is tempting to believe that by being tough on criminals by depriving them of education and skills training, we are being tough on crime. But that’s simply not the case.

We can reduce crime by reducing criminals, and we can reduce criminals by giving people the skills they need to get Back On Track.”


Laura Starecheski has another excellent story for NPR about childhood trauma as a critical health issue. This latest story follows a doctor and a sheriff who join forces to combat childhood trauma in poverty-stricken, and high-crime areas in Gainesville, FL.

When the University of Florida’s Dr. Nancy Hardt, a pathologist and OB-GYN, and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell realized that their respective hotspot maps (Hardt’s a map of children born into poverty, and the sheriff’s a crime map) were nearly identical, the unlikely pair knew they had to take action.

Here are some clips from Starecheski’s story:

The research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.

“I want to prevent what I’m seeing on the autopsy table,” Hardt says. “I’ve got to say, a lot of times, I’m standing there, going, ‘I don’t think this person had a very nice early childhood.’ ”

Back in 2008, Hardt was obsessing about this problem. She wanted to do something to intervene in the lives of vulnerable kids on a large scale, not just patient by patient.

So, by looking at Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Block by block.

Right away she noticed something that surprised her: In the previous few years, in a 1-square-mile area in southwest Gainesville, as many as 450 babies were born to parents living below the poverty line.

It just didn’t make sense to her — that was an area she thought was all fancy developments and mansions.

So Hardt took her map of Gainesville, with the poverty “hotspot” marked in deep blue, and started showing it to people. She’d ask them, “What is this place? What’s going on over there?”

Eventually she brought the map to the CEO of her hospital, who told her she just had to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell.

So Hardt did.

And, to Hardt’s surprise, Sheriff Darnell had a very interesting map of her own.

Darnell had a thermal map of high crime incidence. It showed that the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.

“It was an amazing, ‘Aha’ moment,” says Darnell.

“We kind of blinked at each other,” Hardt says. “And — simultaneously — we said, ‘We’ve got to do something.'”

Read on.


On Wednesday, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth released a set of guidelines for providing quality defense to kids facing life imprisonment.

Gabriella Celeste, Child Policy Director at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, explains why making sure these kids have skilled and thorough representation is so critical:

“Kids are kids. They don’t stop being kids just because our criminal justice system has deemed them ‘adults’ as a matter of legal fiction to justify placing them in the adult system. Our system forgets that kids are still growing, developing, and maturing. This is wrong. Worse yet, the harm caused to a young person cannot be overstated, both due to their unique developmental stage as an adolescent and the damage that results from children inevitably facing more years in prison than adults and being at greater risk for isolation, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and trauma. Having an informed advocate can make all the difference.”

The report calls for a defense team of at least four—an attorney with experience representing kids, an attorney who has represented defendants charged with homicide, an investigator, and mitigation specialist to discuss all possible contributing factors like trauma and poverty and to stress the ways kids’ and teenagers’ brains differ from those of adults. An interpreter should also be on the defense team, if needed.

The guidelines also say defense teams must regularly meet with and maintain open communication with the kids they are representing. Defense teams are also directed to advocate for their clients to be placed in juvenile facilities, and to make sure that those detention centers have proper education, mental health care, and rehabilitation services.

The guidelines are endorsed by dozens of advocate groups, including Gideon’s Promise, the Juvenile Law Center, the NAACP, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Here are some clips from the report:

The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense. These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.

These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles:

– children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;

– children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and

– children must not be defined by a single act;

– juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation
of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation;

– juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development;

– juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally
competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner…

– juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing
determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation
to the court.


The mitigation specialist must investigate and develop a social, psychological, and genealogical history of the child client for purposes of presenting mitigating evidence at sentencing. The mitigation specialist also should work with the child client and his or her caretaker(s) to develop a reentry plan to present at sentencing.

Mitigation evidence includes, but is not limited to: the ability to make a positive adjustment to incarceration; the realities of incarceration; capacity for redemption; remorse; vulnerabilities related to mental or physical health; explanations of patterns of behavior; negation of aggravating evidence regardless of its designation as an aggravating factor; positive acts or qualities; responsible conduct in other areas of life (e.g., employment, education, as a family member, etc.); any evidence bearing on the degree of moral culpability; mercy; and any other reason for a sentence other than life…


On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson revealed a plan to end nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system.

When Judge Henderson initiated the oversight, he said the conditions inmates were living under constituted cruel and unusual punishment: California prisons were averaging one easily preventable inmate death per week due to medical neglect.

(Henderson is also part of the three-judge panel forcing California to bring the prison population down…or else.)

The federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso, says the situation is much better now: there are more medical staff members, the budget has doubled, and there are 40,000 fewer prisoners. But there are still cracks to be filled in.

Here’s a clip from a blended AP/Sacramento Bee story on the issue:

To address the issues, California over the last decade has:

Spent $2 billion on new medical facilities for prisons;

Doubled its annual budget for prison health care to about $1.7 billion; and

Reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

According to a report by court-appointed federal receiver J. Clark Kelso, the state prison system now has:

Adequate medical staff;

Processes to ensure inmates receive care; and

An oversight system to catch problems when inmates do not receive care.

However, Kelso noted in his report that that the prison system still needs to make several improvements, including:

Adequately keeping medical records;

Appropriately scheduling appointments;

Delivering care onsite rather than sending inmates to outside hospitals; and

Upgrading treatment areas.

Under Henderson’s plan, every prison will have to pass an inspection before the feds return some of the control to the state. At that time, Kelso will step back and act as a monitor, with the ability to take back the reins if the state begins to backslide.


  • But of course! One more layer of “education” especially that cognitive thing. Public schools didn’t teach these guys, or the juvenile camp schools I’m sure most of these recidivist criminals attended ,but we got the answer! Back on track LA. Why hasn’t this reform thing ever been tried before? We are so much smarter than the people who came before us. Maybe Lee Baca was a genius .

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