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California DOJ’s New Recidivism Branch, New Report on Juvenile Isolation, and Ohio’s False Confession Saga

November 22nd, 2013 by Taylor Walker


California AG Kamala Harris announced Wednesday that she will be spearheading a new division of the California DOJ to research the state’s sky-high recidivism rates and to bring in grant money to expand effective programs across county lines. (Way to go, Kamala!)

KPCC’s Rina Palta has the story. Here’s a clip:

Her overall message was that, thus far, the system has been more focused on tradition than outcomes. She pointed out the state’s notoriously high incidence of former prisoners committing new crimes within three years of release – referred to as the “recidivism” rate. Recidivism in California has hovered above 60 percent, sometimes reaching as high as 67 percent in recent years.

“If we were talking about a business that had a failure rate of that number, we would reorganize, we would reexamine and we would guide our approach by a well proven method which asks us to think about what is the return on our investment,” Harris said.

Instead, she said, the system’s been all about “business as usual,” meaning that it is dependent on imprisoning repeat wrongdoers, at a cost of about $47,000-per-year, per prison inmate. Harris said cutting the recidivism rate by just 10 percent could save the state $233 million annually.

The attorney general said that a new division of the state’s DOJ – which will be paid for with current resources – will act as a clearing house for aggregating data and reports on innovative, successful programs around the state. DOJ staff will also help local law enforcement agencies find grants to fund such projects and develop technology to bring law enforcement into the digital age.

“You’d be shocked at how obsolete we are,” Harris said.

Rina Palta also reported Harris’ new initiative in Thursday’s California Report episode, linking it to realignment. Here’s a clip from the transcript:

When realignment rolled out two years ago, the hope was that counties would develop innovative ways of handling such offenders. The problem, Harris said, is no one’s been tracking any of that progress.

[Harris:] Why not take advantage of what we can do—look at the issues statewide, and then highlight the best practices capable of replication?

Harris said her first task will be creating a way of measuring recidivism rates in each county.

Even the seemingly minor task of establishing a state-wide definition of recidivism will be an important undertaking for the division. Here’s a small clip from the Associated Press:

“We have a huge state with 58 counties with 58 different ways of doing things,” said Dean Flippo, president of the California District Attorneys Association, who added there may be 58 definitions of recidivism.

“How do we measure if every one of us are measuring under something different?” he asked.


The ACLU released a new report on juvenile solitary confinement this week detailing the crushing mental, physical, and developmental effects isolation has on young people, in particular. Here’s a clip from the report’s accompanying article:

“I developed techniques to survive. I’ve learned to play chess with other [kids] through a six-inch wall to keep myself occupied. But for others, it breaks them, makes them either violent or suicidal.”

These are the words of Lino Silva, who had been incarcerated in a juvenile facility for over seven years when she wrote them. The “it” she mentions is solitary confinement, a practice that juvenile facilities routinely use on the approximately 70,000 kids in this country who are in their care on any given day.

For Lino, the conditions of solitary were so devastating she believes many of the kids subjected to it will not be able to “function anywhere other than adult prison.” She writes:

Being in a room over 21 hours a day is like a waking nightmare, like you want to scream but you can’t. You want to stretch your legs, walk for more than a few feet. You feel trapped. Life becomes distorted. You shower, eat, sleep, and defecate in the same tiny room. In the same small sink, you “shower,” quench your thirst, wash your hands after using the toilet, and warm your cold dinner in a bag.

For children, a short time alone may sometimes be necessary to defuse a moment of crisis. But this does not give license to juvenile facilities to hide their practice of subjecting kids to prolonged isolation behind seemingly innocuous euphemisms like “time out,” “room confinement,” “restricted engagement,” or a trip to the “reflection cottage.” These terms mask the fact that hours of isolation can be extremely damaging to young people.

The report also calls on lawmakers and detention facilities to ban solitary confinement of minors and to collect meaningful data on use of isolation practices. Here’s a clip from the report:

Solitary confinement of children under 18 should be banned. This practice can be ended by state legislators, local officials, and juvenile facility administrators. Other, shorter-term isolation practices should be strictly limited and regulated because of their harmful and traumatic effect on children and because they are often accompanied by other serious deprivations (like denial of education).Children should never be subjected to any practice that involves significant levels or durations of physical or social isolation. Isolation should only be used as an emergency measure and for as short a duration as necessary. Separation practices to protect, manage, or discipline youth should be used sparingly and should never rise to the level of solitary confinement…

Governments rarely systematically collect data on the use of solitary confinement or other isolation on young people in juvenile detention facilities—or make public what is available. Reforms to solitary confinement and isolation practices must be accompanied by monitoring of isolation practices, recording of data, and public reporting about policies and practices as well as data about their use. Such transparency is necessary to give public and elected officials, and the general public, the information required to meaningfully engage in debate and appropriate oversight.


Cook County, Illinois—Chicago, in particular—has the most proven false confessions in the entire United States. (For our previous post on 60 Minutes’ “false confession capital” story, go here.)

Steve Drizen, a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern, and his colleagues, turned up 18 shockingly detailed contaminated confessions from juveniles from 1986 to 1999 in Cook County. In a story for the Huffington Post, Drizen says his prior assumption that all false confessions were accidental, resulting from shoddy police-work, is long-gone. Here are some clips:

Many of Cook County’s false confessions have involved juvenile offenders. My colleagues and I at Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth have documented at least 18 false confessions from children under the age of 18 between 1986 and 1999. All of these false confessions were to murders, rape-murders, or rapes. All of the false confessors were black.

Most of these false confessions were highly detailed, often containing facts of the crime that had not been released to the public and thus could only have been known by the true perpetrators. The fact that these juveniles supposedly knew this “inside information” became the centerpiece of the State’s cases and the main reason why most of the defendants who took their cases to trial were wrongfully convicted.

Because DNA and other evidence has proven them innocent, we now know that these defendants did not have specialized knowledge of the crimes to which they confessed. Police officers and prosecutors contaminated their confessions by feeding the details to them.

Law professors who have studied false confession cases, including me, have suggested that contamination is inadvertent, the result of sloppy police interrogation practices like using leading questions, showing suspects crime scene photos, or taking them to visit crime scenes. Such tactics leak details to innocent suspects who use them to cobble together seemingly credible confessions after their wills have been broken by hours of coercive questioning. But after reviewing the content of some of Cook County’s juvenile false confessions, I am no longer persuaded that all such contamination is accidental.

In Cook County’s juvenile false confession cases, police officers and prosecutors have taken confession contamination to a new level. Not only did they feed facts to suspects, they scripted entire narratives for them. These story lines often contained false characterizations of the crimes, the defendants and their motives and even made-up bits of dialogue between the defendants that were clearly designed to demonize the juvenile defendants, inflame the passions of jurors, and ensure that jurors would convict them.

And here are two disturbing accounts of kids’ contaminated confessions (but do go read the others):

In April 1997, 14-year-old Don Olmetti confessed to shooting to death a Chicago school teacher in the school’s parking lot — a confession later proven false when evidence showed that Olmetti was sitting in class at the time of the crime. At Olmetti’s bond hearing, a Cook County prosecutor, pointing to Olmetti’s confession, urged the court to deny him bond, arguing that Olmetti lacked remorse because he “took the bus home afterward to take a nap and watch cartoons.”

This same cartoon-watching callousness appeared again a year or so later in August 1998 in perhaps Chicago’s most infamous juvenile false confession case. In that case, a Chicago detective obtained a confession from a 7-year-old boy in which implicated himself and his 8-year-old friend in the murder and sexual assault of 11-year-old Ryan Harris. According to the detective, the boy said that after killing her, he “rode his bike home and watched cartoons.”

But Illinois is working to prevent future false confessions:

The good news is that Illinois has taken steps to fix the problem of confession contamination. Laws requiring the electronic recording of the entire interrogation of all homicides and other serious felonies will now expose contamination if it exists and allow judges and jurors to see what, if any, details were fed to unknowing suspects.

Posted in ACLU, CDCR, Innocence, juvenile justice, Realignment, Reentry, solitary | 1 Comment »

New LA Weekly Bob Olmsted Profile…LA’s Foster Care-Involved Teen Moms Passing on Abuse…Shocking LWOP Sentences…and SCOTUS Looks at Warrantless Search Case

November 15th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


LA Weekly’s Gene Maddaus, one of LA’s best political writers, has an excellent profile on LA County Sheriff contender Bob Olmsted. Maddaus explains all the complexities of Olmsted’s situation—the new guy, the whistleblower, the long-shot, and arguably the only viable opponent—and the impending “palace bloodbath,” as Maddaus once termed it.

Here are some clips (but we urge you to read the piece in its entirety):

On a recent Monday, Olmsted has an appointment at the Jonathan Club, the downtown refuge for the city’s most fortunate. He’s addressing about 30 men — mostly retirees — who belong to a service organization called the Vikings…

It’s all new to Olmsted…and he’s still trying to get the hang of it. As the Vikings dig into their pork chops, he tries to tell his story in a way that will connect.

“Have you ever had to go outside your organization to accomplish goodness?” he asks.

Apparently no one has.

“That’s a hard thing to do,” he continues. “I lost about three days of sleep before I decided to go to the feds.”


Battered by scandals, for the first time ever Baca faces serious competition. His former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, announced his candidacy over the summer. Olmsted also is in the hunt, as are two lesser-known candidates, Lou Vince and Patrick Gomez.

Looked at individually, none of these candidates should be able to win. But one of them will have to, unless someone else joins the race.

Baca is still the favorite, if only by default. Inside the department and out, there is a growing sentiment that his time has come and gone.


There is one wild card — a possible additional candidate who could provide another alternative to Baca and Tanaka. Over the summer, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell announced that he would not be a candidate. McDonnell, who served on the jails commission and was once an LAPD assistant chief, was widely seen as the most serious threat to Baca. Though he has no political background, he does have the credentials.

McDonnell’s supporters are urging him to reconsider, and the filing deadline is not until March. If he were to change his mind, that would shake up the race…

But for now, Olmsted is the only halfway viable contender who is untarnished by scandal. In other words — as unlikely as it seems — he just might be the next sheriff.

Thomas, Olmsted’s strategist, says the campaign will have to make a strong case that Baca and Tanaka have both failed, and neither should be given four more years.

“The real challenge for us is going to be to make sure that voters and the media understand that Paul Tanaka and Lee Baca are one and the same,” Thomas says. “They’ve created the mess together.”

As Olmsted puts it: “I don’t have a hole to dig myself out of.”

(Great illustration, by the way.)

NOTE: On Thursday, KCRW’s Warren Olney, on his show Which Way, LA?, talked with Gene Maddaus and SoCal ACLU’s legal director Peter Eliasberg…about Bob Olmsted and his “dark horse” sheriff’s race.


In LA County, kids with teen mothers involved with the child welfare system experienced a rate of abuse and neglect, themselves, two to three times higher than kids born to teen moms with no DCFS-involvement, according to a new report funded by the Hilton Foundation and authored by USC professor Emily Putnam-Hornstein and other researchers.

The alarming statistics point beyond themselves to the need for trauma-informed policies and intervention in the foster care system, schools, and the juvenile justice system—not just in LA County, but in California and across the nation.

Foster care journalist/advocate Daniel Heimpel, has more on the report and its implications regarding the foster care system in his publication, The Chronicle of Social Change. Here are some clips:

Putnam-Hornstein identified 24,767 teen mothers ages 15-19, who had a child during 2006 or 2007 in Los Angeles County. They then traced the child maltreatment histories of those mothers back to their tenth birthdays, while tracking the instances of child maltreatment for their children up to age five.

…For babies born to teen moms who were victims of alleged abuse or neglect while they were children, 30.7 percent went on to be alleged victims of abuse themselves, while nearly 12 percent were victims of substantiated abuse or neglect.

When accounting for mothers who had been victims of substantiated abuse or neglect the numbers shoot up further, with almost 40 percent of their children linked to reported maltreatment while 18 percent suffered substantiated maltreatment.

Amy Lemley, policy director of the John Burton Foundation, was tapped by the Hilton Foundation to present a series of policy recommendations to complement the release of the research. Among Lemley’s six bullets was a call to increase child care for pregnant and parenting foster youth.

“According to the report, the rates of substantiated abuse and neglect among children born to teen mothers with a history of reported or substantiated maltreatment were a full two to three times higher than the rates of children whose teen mothers had no history of involvement with Child Protective Services,” Lemley wrote in the short memo circulated at the convening. ”This dramatic effect highlights the need to provide intensive support services to parenting dependents… One such support is access to affordable high-quality child care.”


The ACLU has a new report out identifying 3,278 people in federal prison (and nine states) serving life without parole for non-violent offenses. Because of three-strike rules, penalty enhancements, and other mandatory minimum-triggering laws, people are spending the rest of their lives in prison for non-violent drug and property crimes.

The NY Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof, in his biweekly op-ed column, says mass incarceration is a “monstrous injustice,” and points out some preposterous examples of LWOP for non-violent offenses. Here’s a clip:

So you’re a judge, and Sharanda P. Jones comes before you for sentencing for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

She’s a 32-year-old mom with a 9-year-old daughter and no prior arrests, but she has been caught up in a drug sweep that has led to 105 arrests in her Texas town. Everyone arrested is black.

There are no drugs found on Jones, but her supposed co-conspirators testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences. The whole case is dubious, but she has been convicted. What’s your sentence?

You have little choice. Given the presumptions of the case, she gets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jump to today and already Jones has spent 14 years in prison and is expected to die behind bars — for a first offense…

Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here’s what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former F.B.I. informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.”

But federal law on mandatory minimums left Judge Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”


On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on whether law enforcement officers have the right to search a house without a warrant when two people disagree about letting officers in, after the person refusing the search leaves the house. Normally, when two people disagree about a search without a warrant, the objecting occupant has the final say. But what happens when that person is arrested and no longer at the residence in question?

The Associated Press’ Mark Sherman has more on the case and hearing. Here’s a clip:

The court took up the case of Walter Fernandez, who is serving a 14-year prison term on robbery and guns charges. Police found a shotgun, ammunition and a knife when they searched the Los Angeles apartment Fernandez shared with his girlfriend, Roxanne Rojas.

Fernandez told police they could not enter his apartment. But about an hour after his arrest, officers returned to the apartment and persuaded Rojas to let them in.

When Rojas first answered the door for police, she was crying and holding her 2-month-old baby. She had a fresh bump on her nose, and blood on her hands and shirt. She said she had been in a fight.

At that point Fernandez appeared and ordered the police to get out, telling them he knew his constitutional rights. The police believed the couple had just been in a fight and removed Fernandez from the apartment in handcuffs. An officer noticed a tattoo on Fernandez’ shaved head that matched the description of a robbery suspect. Fernandez soon was arrested.

When officers went back to the apartment, they had sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant, California Deputy Attorney General Louis Karlin told the court. But, “Rojas had the authority, as the sole present tenant, to call the shots…and to consent to a search,” Karlin said.

Would that be so even if Fernandez had stepped out to make a quick trip to the drugstore, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked.

Yes, Karlin said, a departure for any reason, dramatically changes the situation.

Justice Samuel Alito seemed angry in his questioning of Fisher. “You have a woman who has been beaten up. She’s got bruises. She’s standing on the doorstep of her house. And she says to the police: I’d like you to come into the house and see evidence of what my husband has been doing to me. And you say she can’t do that…It’s her house, but she can’t invite the police in?” Alito said.

In response, Fisher said Rojas and Fernandez both have rights in that situation. “And what the Constitution says is that searches of homes presumably have to be done under warrant,” he said.

There are likely going to be very interesting arguments on both sides of the case. (We’ll be tracking the proceedings as they unfold.) The NY Times has an interesting editorial that comes down strongly on the side of Fernandez. Here’s a small clip:

A tenant’s right to object to a warrantless search should not depend on whether he can permanently stand guard at his front door. If the police have probable cause to make an arrest, they will almost surely have the basis for a warrant as well. Warrants can be issued in a matter of minutes, and, in the meantime, the police can secure the home if they are concerned that evidence may be destroyed.

The state contends that obtaining consent is “simpler, faster and less burdensome” than getting a warrant. But that is precisely the point. By forcing the government to get a judge’s approval before intruding into a private home, the warrant requirement ensures oversight of law enforcement and informs citizens that the search has been authorized by a neutral arbiter.

Posted in ACLU, crime and punishment, DCFS, Foster Care, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 15 Comments »

A Mind Shattered by Solitary, A California Problem School Overhauled, and the Death Penalty’s Core Defect

November 14th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen has a worthwhile long read article about Sam Mandez, a Colorado man grievously failed by the Colorado justice system at every turn. After a slipshod trial and a murder conviction at eighteen (for a crime that occurred when he was fourteen), Mandez landed in solitary confinement where he spent sixteen years developing severe mental illness without adequate treatment.

Here are some clips:

On July 26, 1992, an elderly woman named Frida Winter was murdered in her home in Greeley, Colorado. The police recovered fingerprints from the scene and later found some of Winter’s things in a culvert near her home. But for years the investigation went nowhere in large part because it was flawed in nearly every way. Other fingerprints from Winter’s home were not recovered. Leads were not adequately pursued. Logical suspects were not properly questioned. At the time of Winter’s death, Sam Mandez was 14 years old.

Four years later, the police caught what they considered a break. Fingerprints from Winter’s home finally found a match in a police database—and the match was Sam Mandez, who had just turned 18. They brought him in for intense questioning. But Mandez had a strong alibi. He and his grandfather had painted part of Winter’s home in 1991, a year before her death. There was good reason for his prints to have been on the window that was broken on the night of Winter’s death. Mandez had been in trouble with the law before—but never for a violent crime.

There were no eyewitnesses. There was no confession. There was no evidence of any kind that Mandez had murdered Winter. But there was one other link between them. Among the items recovered from that culvert after Winter’s death was a matchbook from a business in Henderson, Nevada. The Mandez family had relatives there. The cops said this proved that Mandez had been inside Winter’s house on the night of her death: He had burglarized her home, and thus, under a dubious extension of Colorado law, he was necessarily guilty of first-degree murder.

The trial of Sam Mandez was a travesty. Prosecutors could have processed him through the juvenile justice system—he was only 14 at the time of his alleged crime, remember—but chose instead to charge him as an adult under Colorado’s felony-murder rule…

So prosecutors did not need to prove at trial that Mandez had murdered Winter or even that he intended to murder Winter. They did not need to solve the crime for jurors. What they did need to do was observe the constitutional command of Brady v. Maryland, which forbids prosecutors from withholding evidence that could exculpate the defendant. They failed—a critical prosecution witness changed his story at the last minute, but that fact was not disclosed to Mandez’s lawyer until the witness had testified. A foul, sure, but no harm, the court ruled.

There were other fatal flaws in the trial. The judge refused to allow Mandez’s attorneys to fully cross-examine the police about other suspects. This information was not relevant, the trial judge said with no evident trace of irony, because Mandez had been charged with felony-murder. And then that same judge refused to grant the defense a continuance to obtain the presence of a material witness who was prepared to identify another suspect in the murder. The initial jury vote was 6-6. As Mandez was convicted, one of the jurors begged the defense to appeal.


If this were the extent of the injustice the law has visited upon Mandez, it would be enough, wouldn’t it? But this is a story that gets even worse. After being convicted of a crime with which he never should have been charged, Mandez went to prison and was promptly placed into solitary—”administrative segregation,” is what bureaucrats call it—for institutional offenses so petty that they almost beggar belief. He made a three-way phone call he wasn’t supposed to make. He put his key in a bathroom lock after it was closed for the evening. Even Kafka, even Hugo, did not memorialize such diabolical perversions of law and justice.

For that, Colorado prison officials in 1998 put Mandez away, in lockdown, where he more or less has remained for nearly 16 years. What happens when you take a young man and confine him in such conditions for such a long period? The young man becomes severely mentally ill. And his illness causes him to act out. And in acting out he gets in more trouble, which justifies his continuing placement in solitary confinement which in turn causes him to act out more.

The ACLU has put out a video (above) documenting Sam Mandez’s story. And Mandez is far from the only person visibly harmed by shoddy trials and solitary confinement. Here (and here, and here) are similar stories by Cohen and others that WLA has pointed to.


The LA Times’ Paloma Esquivel has a new narrative piece about a troubled middle school in Santa Ana called Spurgeon Intermediate, and Todd Irving, the new game-changing principal who is bringing Spurgeon back from the brink of failure. The chaotic school environment, described by one teacher as like “Lord of the Flies” has already seen huge improvements two months into the year, with a more than 50% drop in suspensions thanks to Irving’s alternative discipline strategies and genuine dedication to helping his middle schoolers succeed.

Here are some clips:

Spurgeon Intermediate in Santa Ana sits squarely in the center of one of the poorest ZIP Codes in Orange County. For years, it has consistently ranked one of the lowest-performing schools in the region. But early this year, things got even worse.

In March, 36 teachers and employees took the unusual step of filing a hostile work environment complaint against the administration and students. Children were accosting adults, smoking marijuana, making sexual noises in class, the complaint said. By the end of the school year, more than 40% of the students had been suspended for a total of more than 800 days.

Things were so bad, one teacher said, it was like “Lord of the Flies.”

Irving was hired over the summer to keep Spurgeon under control. The 6-foot-1 former college basketball player had two major goals: First, enforce the small rules; second, give the troublemakers some attention.

In the weeks before school began in late August, he asked his vice principals to compile a list of the school’s 50 most disruptive students and promised to be responsible for them…

Over the summer, he met with each of the 50 students and their parents. The meetings gave Irving a glimpse into the problems they faced at home.

Some have trouble waking up for school because they don’t have beds to sleep in, parents explained. There are boys whose fathers are serving life in prison. Others have mothers who are being deported. Some are not yet teenagers and already are addicted to painkillers or inhalants.

“These are not bad kids,” Irving said. “We have students … that we talk about like they’re a problem. But they come to us with problems.”


Each was asked to sign a contract promising to come to class every day and to follow small rules, like being on time. Teachers would assess their behavior on a scale of one to five during each period of each day. If they earned consistent marks, they could graduate from the program.


So far, suspensions are down — in the first two months of the year there were 24 days compared with 71 last year, Irving said. All but 12 of the 50 students identified as troublemakers have done well enough that they are no longer required to check in with teachers every period.


This month’s Criminal Justice Matter’s show put on by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (above) examined the fundamental failures of the death penalty in the United States. In the course of the program, Georgia’s former assistant AG, Dorothy Toth Beasley pointed out the bottom-line objection to capital punishment—that there is no way to ensure innocent people are not executed.

(Other guests included Evan Mandery, author and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Jesse Wegman of the NY Times editorial board.)

Here’s a clip from the program’s synopsis:

The U.S. justice system will never be able to apply the death penalty in a way that avoids the danger of convicting innocent individuals or eliminates the possibility of serious human rights abuse, says Georgia’s former assistant attorney general.

Dorothy Toth Beasley, who defended her state’s use of capital punishment in the historic 1972 Furman v Georgia case before the Supreme Court, says the checkered history of death penalty cases in the three decades since makes clear that capital punishment violates American values of equal justice…

“We’ve tried all kinds of different ways, and we can’t get it perfect enough to know that somebody is (not) being executed wrongly, or that the delay is too long—nine, ten, sixteen years.”

Although the Court ruled against Georgia in 1972, the decision was interpreted by legal observers as a nudge to the states to improve their legal procedures for putting people to death. Four years later, the ruling was reversed—and by the late 1970s, 37 states had reintroduced capital punishment with new administrative rules designed to ensure due process of law was followed.

But since then, the use of emerging DNA technology to prove wrongful convictions has illustrated that the system remains flawed—and in the process has increased public doubts about the death penalty, according to Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America.

Mandery, who appeared with Beasley on the Criminal Justice Matters program, suggested that America’s High Court would likely outlaw the death penalty today if it were presented with a similar case…

Posted in ACLU, crime and punishment, Death Penalty, Mental Illness, solitary, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

Prison Health Care Costs Skyrocket, ACLU Director Slams Baca, New Death Penalty Survey…and More

October 31st, 2013 by Taylor Walker


In 44 states, prison health care spending rose an average of 52% from 2001 to 2008, according to a new Pew study. California was one of a dozen states in which spending jumped 90% or more (102% in CA, to be exact).

Here are a few clips from the study’s overview:

– Spending increased in 42 of the 44 states, with median growth of 52 percent.

– In a dozen states, prison health expenditures grew 90 percent or more. Only Texas and Illinois experienced inflation-adjusted decreases in this spending area.

– Per-inmate health care spending rose in 35 of the 44 states, with 32 percent median growth.


…the number of Americans in prison nearly tripled from 1987 to 2007. The dramatic increase was driven in part by tougher sentencing laws and more restrictive probation and parole policies that have put more people in prison and held them there longer.

This trend, however, has recently begun to reverse in about half of the states as sentencing and corrections reforms have spurred reductions in prison populations. The sheer number of state prisoners does not explain all of the increased spending. Higher per-inmate expenses and the expanding slice of corrections budgets devoted to health care suggest that other factors are also pushing costs up,

– Aging inmate populations.

– Prevalence of infectious and chronic diseases, mental illness, and substance abuse among inmates, many of whom enter prison with these problems.

– Challenges inherent in delivering health care in prisons, such as distance from hospitals and other providers.


Two weeks ago, WLA reported on a federal jury’s decision to hold Sheriff Lee Baca liable for the beating of a Men’s Central Jail inmate, Tyler Willis.

In a sharply-worded op-ed for the LA Daily News, SoCal ACLU executive director Hector Villagra says Baca’s response to the jury’s decision and his intent to appeal it show the sheriff are consistent with a pattern of negligence and an inability to take responsibility. Here are some clips:

A federal jury’s decision earlier this month to hold Sheriff Lee Baca personally liable for the savage beating of an inmate provides yet more proof of the deep-seated culture of violence in Los Angeles County’s jails. The jury took the extremely rare — and courageous — step of finding Baca personally responsible for the actions of deputies who punched, kicked, Tasered and battered Men’s Central Jail inmate Tyler Willis with a metal flashlight in 2009, leaving him with broken bones and head injuries. The jury’s message is clear: The savage violence that has plagued L.A.’s jails is rooted in deficient leadership, and Baca must pay for his failure.

But just as telling as the jury’s decision was Baca’s response, as expressed by Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore. “We respect juries, but they made a mistake,” Whitmore said. Baca plans to appeal.


In holding Baca liable for punitive damages, the jury had to meet an extremely high bar, finding that Baca’s actions were “malicious, oppressive, or in reckless disregard” of Willis’ rights. Moreover, unlike ordinary damages, which compensate the victim for his or her injuries, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant.

Peeling back the curtain on L.A.’s jails has brought profound, but long overdue, change to the system. LASD has implemented some new policies, and use of force against inmates has declined. Until Baca remembers and acknowledges the past, it is unlikely that the full scope of reform necessary in the jails will occur. And we will all lose out.


A Gallup poll of 1028 random adults across the country was released Tuesday regarding support of capital punishment in the United States.

The survey found that support is at its lowest since 1972. The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen said this is heartening news (we agree), however, two other particularly interesting results from the poll had quite the opposite effect on Cohen.

The first, was that 52% of those surveyed believed that the death penalty is applied fairly (60% overall favor it). Here’s what Cohen had to say about the statistic:

This means that more than half of those surveyed are—let me be delicate—still tragically misinformed about the nature of capital punishment in America in 2013. The truth is that race plays an enormous role in determining who is and who is not sentenced to death in America. If you are black you stand a far higher chance of getting the death penalty, especially if your victim is white. The evidence and analysis of this fact are so pervasive that it should be beyond debate: 52 percent of Americans are dead wrong in their perception of the fairness of the application of capital punishment.

We can applaud the fact that nine percent of those surveyed—from 61 percent to 52 percent—evidently have changed their minds about this since 2004. That’s also some good news. And we can speculate about why the rest haven’t. Some people simply haven’t taken the time to study the matter and are content to take the easy path and say that the criminal justice system is fair. Some people probably think that it is fair that more blacks are sentenced to death when they kill whites than whites are when they kill blacks. And what about those addled folks—eight percent, according to Gallup—who believe that the death penalty is unfairly applied but who still support it? Yikes.

The second, was that 44% of the surveyed group felt that the death penalty was not imposed often enough, and just 22% believe it is imposed too often.

So twice as many Americans believe the death penalty should be imposed more often than those who believe it should be applied less often. It seems to me these people—let’s call them the “40 percent”— represent the core of support for capital punishment today. These folks are likely never going to be dissuaded that current capital punishment regimes, in states like Texas or Florida or Alabama, violate core constitutional values of due process and equal protection. For them, the frustration is not that judges and juries and prosecutors tip the scales of justice against capital defendants but that they don’t tip the scales enough.

In a perfect world, the United States Supreme Court years ago would have conducted a searing review of the core of capital punishment laws. The justices would have moved to end (or limit) racial disparities in capital sentencing and ensured that murder suspects were given competent defense counsel…

(Read on.)


The LA County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday on Supe Gloria Molina’s motion to end a formerly agreed upon contract to move 500 LA County inmates to a correctional facility in Taft, CA. (Here’s the backstory.)

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has the story. Here’s a clip:

The supervisors voted last month to approve a $75-million, five-year plan to send about 500 county inmates serving lengthy sentences to the correctional facility run by the city of Taft. The plan was touted as a cost-effective way to free up local jail beds and increase time served by the most serious offenders.

Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the three who initially voted in favor of the contract, said last week that she had changed her mind after learning that there is ongoing litigation between Taft and the state’s Department of Corrections.

The Taft facility housed state prison inmates until the corrections department terminated its lease in 2011. Taft sued last year, saying the state should reimburse the city for unemployment benefits paid to former employees after the facility closed. The city also sought to bar the state from exercising a contract clause that would have given it the right to lease the facility for $1 a year after 2017.

Molina said in an interview that she did not want the county to get dragged into the dispute and was concerned that the state might have sought to stop the county from leasing the beds or try to take the facility over in 2017.

The vote was 3-2 with Supes Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe dissenting. Here’s what Antonivich had to say:

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who — along with Supervisor Don Knabe — voted against halting the county’s deal with Taft, said lawyers had found that the county was on “strong legal grounds” to lease the beds at least through 2017.

In the meantime, Antonovich said, it would help relieve overcrowding in the county’s jails and increase time served by serious and violent offenders.


The LAPD pilot program to test 60 officer body cameras will officially begin in November and run for 90 days. The hope is that the cameras will bring about increased accountability on the part of officers during encounters and lower the number of civilian complaints.

Newly appointed Police Commission President Steve Soboroff raised almost $900,000 of the $1M necessary to fund 500 lapel cameras after the initial trial. (Read one of our previous posts on the cameras here.)

The Associated Press’ Tami Abdollah has the story. Here’s a clip:

The Los Angeles Police Department’s chief information officer, Maggie Goodrich, provided the update Tuesday to the Police Commission, the LAPD’s civilian oversight board.

Goodrich said the department will receive different styles of cameras on loan from two companies — Arizona-based Taser International Inc. and Coban Technologies Inc. of Houston. After 90 days, the department will recommend one type of camera and draft policies to govern its use.

The department plans to meet with the union that represents police officers, which supports the use of the on-body cameras, the American Civil Liberties Union, city councilmembers and the Police Commission’s inspector general in creating its policies. Sgt. Dan Gomez said he’s been filling a binder with “best practices” and manuals from other departments using the technology to help inform the LAPD’s plans.

Posted in ACLU, Death Penalty, health care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LAPD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 6 Comments »

LA Supes Postpone LASD Commission Vote…4 Jail Scandal Supervisors Retire Before Repercussions…and More

September 18th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


The LA Board of Supervisors were expected to vote Tuesday on the creation of a permanent LASD citizen’s oversight panel, but postponed the vote after a heated debate about the efficacy of a sheriff’s dept. civilian commission. The supes are now scheduled to vote on the issue on October 8th.

KPCC’s Rina Palta has the story. Here’s a clip:

The sheriff’s department has been plagued by accusations of excessive force by deputies in the county jails. A blue ribbon panel tasked with investigating the allegations found that high level officials in the department failed to correct deputy behavior and tolerated a culture of violence in the jails. The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice both have open investigations into the agency.

Ridley-Thomas said the board of supervisors lacks the time to effectively take the sheriff to task on such allegations – something a civilian commission devoted to the department could more easily do.

But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who opposes the plan, said any commission would be too weak to accomplish anything real. Unlike police chiefs in L.A. County, the sheriff is an elected official, constitutionally accountable to the voters, but not other elected or appointed officials.

A civilian commission, Yaroslavsky said, would be nothing more than a “soap box.”

“Ultimately, it’s the board of supervisor’s job to hold the sheriff accountable,” Yaroslavsky said. “Even we have trouble.”

The board is also in the process of hiring an inspector general to monitor the sheriff’s department and issue reports to the board – a task some supervisors believe should be completed before launching an additional oversight mechanism.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell and Seema Mehta also reported on the LASD oversight commish dispute.


The lead attorney for the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence Richard Drooyan presented the Board of Supervisors with a report showing that four high-level supervisors retired with full pensions before they had to face discipline or demotion for alleged involvement in the Men’s Central Jail abuse debacle.

The LA Daily News’ Christina Villacorte has the story. Here’s a clip:

…the independent monitor tracking reforms at the department said options for punishing those who once supervised the jails are limited, even though recently concluded internal investigations confirmed at least some of their alleged misconduct.

Richard Drooyan said four high-level managers — whom he could not name publicly, because of legal protections for employees — were able to pre-empt disciplinary action by retiring between March 2012 and August 2013.

“Because of the sheriff’s management changes, the results of the administrative investigations, and the timing of the retirements, it is generally perceived in the department that these managers retired, at least in part, due to their failures to address adequately the use of force problems in the jails,” Drooyan wrote.

“At this point, there is nothing further for the department to do in order to hold these managers accountable,” he added in the report.

Interviewed on the phone, Drooyan added, “The (department) can’t discipline them, or demote, transfer or suspend them, because they’ve retired.”

WLA’s Matt Fleischer previously reported on the preemptive retirement of MCJ Captain Daniel Cruz from working in the jails, and of Captain Bernice Abram, both of whom were allowed to retire ahead of sanctions.

And when WLA did the math on what kind of money was actually coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets for these captains’ pensions, this is what we found:

…Bernice Abrams will get a yearly pension of approximately: $106,407—plus full medical coverage for life.

Dan Cruz’s yearly pension will be approximately: $147,704-–plus full medical coverage for life.


Vanir Construction Management Inc. brought follow-up information to the Supes’ Tuesday meeting from the consultant’s previous jail presentation, as requested.

Southern California ACLU Legal Director Peter Eliasberg sent out a statement strongly opposing the proposed construction of a new jail facility as a way to address overcrowding and mental health care issues. (For the backstory, go here.)

Vanir’s massive reconstruction plan also ignores the needs of the thousands of mentally ill inmates currently in Los Angeles County. Current problems surrounding the abuse of mentally ill inmates and the appalling recidivism rates for inmates with mental illness are not solved through the construction of a massive jail facility but by dramatically reducing the number of people with mental illness in jail and moving them to community treatment facilities best suited to their individual needs. Diversion will not only reduce the likelihood for future instances of abuse in our jails, but will also provide better mental health outcomes, and slow down the merry go round of people with mental illness going from jail to the streets and back again. The result will save the taxpayers millions in construction and operating costs and better serve our community.

Twin Towers Jail was once advertised as the new state-of-the-art solution to the Men’s Central Jail that was overcrowded and unequipped to serve its mentally ill inmates. I have in my hand an LAT article from 1998 in which the Sheriff Department boasted that Twin Towers would be the solution to the Department of Justice’s 1997 scathing critique of the treatment of the mentally ill in the jails.


The LA Times’ Abby Sewell reported that over 500 inmates serving lengthy jail sentences would be transferred to firefighting camps to ease overcrowding without having to release inmates early. Here are some clips:

The $27-million, three-year deal will send 528 county inmates serving long-term sentences to five fire camps, jointly operated with the state prison system, that are scattered across the county.

Supervisors acted after some complained about the increasing number of criminals — including some serving time for violent offenses — who are being released after serving a fraction of their sentences.


The county also is developing plans to rebuild its aging Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Consultant Vanir Construction estimated that adding enough beds to increase the average time served by traditional jail inmates to at least 50% of their sentences would boost the new jail’s price tag by $359.7 million — on top of the current $1 billion-plus cost estimate.

Other options examined included adding 500 beds at fire camps at a cost of $8.4 million a year, and spending $20.4 million a year to reopen shuttered housing units at the county’s Pitchess Detention Center East.

Contracting with a correctional facility in Taft, Calif., for similar bed space would cost about $11.3 million a year, the report found.


The newly appointed LAPD commission president, Steve Soboroff, says he has already raised half of the $1M needed to put lapel cameras on 1,500 LAPD officers, and that the department will likely test a small number of the cameras in the upcoming weeks. (For WLA’s previous post on the issue, go here.)

The Associated Press’ Tami Abdollah has the story. Here’s a clip:

A week after taking the helm of the LAPD civilian oversight board, Soboroff said he has promises of $250,000 from media giant Casey Wasserman and an undisclosed sum from DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Soboroff said he hopes the department will adopt the lapel cameras within a year.

“We don’t want to be a low-tech department in a high-tech world,” Soboroff said. “That technology saves lives and money.”

The effort to add on-body cameras is in addition to a longtime city goal of equipping the department’s 1,200 patrol cars with video recorders. Since the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the LAPD has worked to bring in-car cameras to its vehicles but has only managed to equip 300 cars with the technology.


On Tuesday, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander submitted a motion to the City Council directing the LAPD to work with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International Inc. to start field-testing 25 on-body cameras and identify different styles that can be used.

Testing will likely start in a couple weeks, Englander said, and he has requested the LAPD report back on its findings to the commission and the city’s Public Safety Committee in 90 days. By then, Englander said, he and Soboroff aim to purchase a minimum of 500 cameras to start putting them in the field right away.


The LA Times’ Anthony York writes about film producer/juvenile justice activist Scott Budnick (the exec producer of the Hangover movie franchise), without whose efforts SB 260 would likely not have been passed and signed into law on Monday night.

Here’s a clip:

Just after 9 on Monday night, Gov. Jerry Brown’s legislative secretary Gareth Elliot picked up the phone and called a Hollywood studio executive.

Elliot wasn’t pitching a new movie. He was calling to tell Scott Budnick, an executive producer of “The Hangover” film franchise, that the governor had signed a bill giving juvenile offenders serving long sentences the right to parole after 15 years — a measure that Budnick had been pushing in the Capitol halls in the final week of the legislative session.

In between producing Hollywood films, Budnick serves as head of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit group that was born out of Budnick’s volunteer work with young people serving long prison sentences….

Read the rest. We at WLA know Budnick and he’s the real deal.

Posted in ACLU, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, Mental Illness, Realignment, Sheriff Lee Baca, Uncategorized | No Comments »

New Probe of Jails Could Result in Fed Consent Decree, 2 Sheriff’s Challengers say Bring it On

September 9th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon

Late last week, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice notified LA County
that the feds were opening a “pattern and practice” investigation into allegations of abusive use of force against jail inmates by LA County Sheriff’s deputies.

In response to the news, at least two of the challengers for the office of sheriff said over the weekend that they would welcome a federal consent decree, which is one of the possible outcomes of this newest federal investigation into alleged wrongdoing inside the scandal plagued LASD.


According to the LA Times, federal authorities opened the probe after becoming “‘…increasingly concerned about use of force and alleged abuse by jail deputies and staff.’”

This new round of federal scrutiny follows the FBI’s already existing criminal investigation into brutality and corruption in the jails, and comes almost exactly a year after the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence issued its final report on September 28, 2012, describing:

“…a troubling culture in Custody that resulted in the excessive use of force in the jails...” The commissioners wrote that while many deputies working in the jails were hardworking, dedicated professionals, other deputies’ behavior toward their charges was “…reflective of a disturbing mindset that promotes a lack of respect for inmates, an aggressive view that force is best used early and often to control the inmate population, and a disdain for those supervisors who have endeavored to enforce contrary principles.”

And then at the end of this past June, the feds released a report that documented, among oher problems, “a pattern of unreasonable force, including a pattern of the use of force against handcuffed individuals” by sheriff’s deputies out in Antelope Valley.

“I think the people of Los Angeles should be very concerned when the sheriff’s department is the subject of not one, not two, but three different investigations by the federal government,”said Peter Eliasberg, the Legal Director for the Southern California ACLU. “I’d love to know if there’s any other law enforcement agency in the country that’s ever been the subjects of three different federal investigations.”

It is not at all clear whether the LA County Sheriff’s Department holds any kind of ignominious title, but the existence of three federal investigations—one of them known to be multi-pronged and wide-ranging—is not any kind of positive sign.


A DOJ “pattern and practice” investigation could produce any one of a range of possible outcomes. At the lowest end, it could determine that everything is mostly fine and dandy, with perhaps a few improvements suggested. At the low-to mid range, it could require a Memorandum of Agreement in which certain reforms are agreed upon, which are then nominally monitored by the feds until all the necessary boxes are checked. The most stringent outcome would be a federal consent decree, which is essentially like a plea bargain. It is a highly detailed and legally binding agreement to eliminate the troubling “pattern and/or practice,” all of which is enforced by a federal judge. (The LAPD’s post-Rampart consent decree lasted from 2001 to 2013.)

Robert Olmsted, the retired LASD commander who is challenging Baca for the office of sheriff, told WLA that he was not at all surprised by the new investigation, and said that he would welcome a federal consent decree.

“At this particular point, I think it’s absolutely necessary. The only way we’re going to create transparency is by having somebody else come in and monitor exactly what we do until such time as we can say okay, everything is running smoothly and we have a fresh clean ship.”

While there has been improvement in the jails, Olmsted said, he believes the root causes of the longtime problems have remained inadequately examined by the sheriff.

“In fact, I understand they’re still doing a bunch of dumb stuff in the jails right now,” Olmsted said, “that they’re lying about some of the force that is occurring.” He then related an instance, he said occurred in the past month in which a sergeant allegedly told a deputy to write up a use of force case in such a way that the force would not appear to be excessive—when in fact it was. Olmsted said that the deputy was troubled by this instruction.

“This gets to my point that if you don’t drill down and find the cancerous cells and determine what the causal factors were, then you’re bound to repeat the problem.”

Lou Vince, the LAPD detective who is running for sheriff, is the other candidate who said he “unequivocally” favored the idea of a consent decree.

“I don’t see a downside to it,” he explained in an email. “I would see the federal intervention as a welcome helping hand, not troublesome meddling. I lived/worked through a consent decree at the LAPD. Everyone bristled at first, but as it progressed, it became very positive and simply the way of doing business- and still is even after being released from it.” [It would hold] “the Sheriff, and the LASD as a whole, accountable for actually implementing the reforms needed and sets goals and measures of effectiveness. No more hand-wringing or political two-steps.”

When asked about the possibility of a federal consent decree, sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore said it was “presumptuous” for the department to comment on the issue. “That’s a decision that is not ours to make.” he said, but added that while the department was “cooperating fully with the investigation,” the sheriff did not agree that there were big causes for concern. “The use of force is down dramatically,” he said, and that any use of force was immediately “reported and investigated.”


In addition to general brutality in the jail, the civil rights probe will examine the LASD’s treatment of the mentally ill specifically, a topic that has been flagged as an issue of serious concern in the past by federal officials, the ACLU and the jails commission.

In fact, as early as 2002, Sheriff Baca signed a “Memorandum of Agreement” with the Department of Justice agreeing to a series of conditions designed to improve the treatment of the mentally ill who were in jail custody. Then in 2009, the ACLU released a report authored by a nationally recognized expert on mental health issues in jails and prisons named Dr. Terry Kupers. In his report, Dr. Kupers described what he called “toxic” conditions for the mentally ill housed inside Men’s Central Jail.

When news of the latest probe broke, LA Times editorial board member, Sandra Hernandez, had some fairly harsh things to say about what the investigation implies about the sheriff’s reported ongoing failure to address the problem. She wrote:

This second investigation is extremely troubling. After all, this is the sheriff who referred to himself as a social worker in a 2010 interview with my colleague Patt Morrison, and who considers himself an advocate for the mentally ill in the jails.

If he’s an advocate, then I think he’s done a pretty poor job of it. Just consider that he agreed to implement sweeping reforms in 2002 as part of a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department. That deal called for training deputies to deal with mentally ill inmates and in suicide prevention and to make other improvements to avoid a civil rights lawsuit. And now, a decade later, the Justice Department is once again raising questions about the treatment of those inmates.

And then there was this:

….Last year, the county Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence found that more than “30% of the use-of-force incidents in custody involved individuals who have a mental history.”

That same commission also noted that although the 2002 agreement provided great promise for change, the sheriff appeared to have no memory of it. The commissioners wrote that eight years after Baca signed it, he said in a sworn deposition that “he had never seen this agreement, was unaware of any DOJ findings regarding mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in the county jails, and had no knowledge of the MOA or the DOJ findings letter underlying the agreement….”

Miriam Krinsky, the executive director for the jails commission, also seemed unsurprised by the feds’ latest move. “While the County has made significant progress in implementing many of the Commission’s recommendations,” she emailed, “the recent DOJ investigation confirms that serious challenges remain and that full implementation of the Commission’s reforms—including the creation of a new Office of Inspector General—is needed.”

Yes, that Office of the Inspector General issue is something we’ll be harping on soon.

PS: While sheriff’s challenger Pat Gomez didn’t seem to put out any new policy statements, candidate Paul Tanaka announced a new policy-to-be on “concealed carry” permits for firearms, otherwise known as CCWs, which Sheriff Baca infamously used to hand out to celebrities, judges, and other high profile pals.

NOTE: We’ll catch up on stories on a bunch of other topics tomorrow.

Posted in 2014 election, ACLU, LA County Jail, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 9 Comments »

Justice Kennedy and Prison Overcrowding, Solitary Confinement on Death Row, “Scared Straight”…and Bad LASD Luncheons

July 25th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


It’s up to US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to decide whether to grant Gov. Jerry Brown a requested stay on the three-judge panel’s order to release more than 9,000 inmates by the end of 2013 to further reduce prison overcrowding.

If Justice Kennedy approves to Gov. Brown’s request, the state will have time to file a full appeal of the order to the Supreme Court. If Kennedy denies the appeal, Brown will have to comply and begin releasing low-risk inmates or face contempt. (By the way, WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer has a story coming up on the all-but-unknown problem of serious overcrowding in women’s prisons.)

LA Times David Savage has the story. Here are some clips:

Two years ago Kennedy spoke for a 5-4 majority in upholding one of the largest prison release orders in U.S. history, affirming a three-judge panel in California that concluded prisoners were dying from a lack of decent medical care because of severe overcrowding and the state’s failure to act. Kennedy said the conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The state was ordered to reduce its prison population to 137% of capacity within two years. That could mean releasing or transferring as many as 46,000 inmates since the beginning of the current case in 2008, Kennedy said. So far 37,000 have been released.

But Kennedy also said that “if significant progress is made toward remedying the underlying constitutional violations,” that could “demonstrate that further population reductions are not necessary.”

Citing these passages, Gov. Jerry Brown is now asking Kennedy and the high court to block a pending order from a special three-judge U.S. District Court panel that calls for releasing 9,600 more inmates by the end of the year.


Lawyers representing the prisoners urged Kennedy to turn down the appeal. “This is political posturing. It’s the manufacturing of a constitutional crisis,” said Rebekah Evenson, a Berkeley lawyer.

In their brief filed with Kennedy, the lawyers said it was “truly remarkable” that the state would defy the high court’s decision requiring the prisons to meet the 137%-of-capacity limit. “Rather than redoubling their efforts” to comply this year, state officials “have adopted a stance of outright defiance,” they said.

The lower court judges also made clear this month that they were not willing to tolerate further delays. They noted that the lawsuits challenging the prison overcrowding began more than 20 years ago.


Anthony Graves, a Texas death row exoneree, describes the horrors of solitary confinement on death row as only one who has experienced it first-hand can. (Anthony’s letter was published in conjunction with a new ACLU report about the “double punishment” of isolation on death row and the mental and emotional conditions that such isolation produces in inmates.)

Here’s a clip from Anthony’s letter:

I am death row exoneree #138.

There are 12 more people like me from Texas. Twelve people who spent years of their lives locked alone in concrete cages waiting to die before they were set free, exonerated for their innocence.

Eleven people have committed suicide on Texas’ death row. All because of the conditions.

When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact, i.e. my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.

For me and the 400 other prisoners on Texas’ death row while I was there, a death sentence meant a double punishment. We spent years locked alone in a tiny, concrete cage in solitary confinement, with guys going insane, dropping their appeals, doing everything they could to check out of this place before we were ever strapped to an execution gurney. All because of the conditions.

I am writing today because the ACLU has put out an important new paper about what it does to people to lock them alone in cages on death row. They found that over 93% of states lock away their death row prisoners for over 22 hours a day. Nearly a third of death row prisoners live in cages where their toilet is an arm’s length away from their bed. Sixty-percent of people on death row have no windows or natural light.


“Scared Straight” programs, in which kids are taken to tour detention facilities where inmates try to deter them from crime with scare tactics, have been shown to actually lead to more criminal behavior in participating youth. The federal government will not fund these programs and they are widely discredited. And yet, with the fourth season of the A&E hit reality series, “Beyond Scared Straight,” the network continues to blithely promote a practice that is believed to harm children.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Maggie Lee has the story. Here are some clips:

This week, the fourth season of the A&E TV show “Beyond Scared Straight” follows two young sisters to the adult jail in Douglas County, Ga., where one inmate tells one of the sisters how she could beat her up “and make you not so pretty no more.”

Plenty of critics pan the show, saying it publicizes a discredited, harmful practice. Neither Georgia nor the feds will fund such jail tour programs, citing both evidence that it doesn’t work and the liabilities jails take on when they invite minors to meet with inmates.

“I still break the same law that sent me there,” said Pete Thomas, 27, of Atlanta, who for that reason spoke under a pseudonym. Ten years ago in central Florida’s Lake County, deputies pulled Thomas over and found him carrying less than 20 grams of marijuana. A scared straight-type visit to the county jail was part of his sentence in “Teen Court,” a diversionary program for young offenders.

“They tried to intimidate everyone in the group as much as possible, singled me out for having long hair, and the inmates acted crazed,” said Thomas, adding that he already knew people in that jail and that they were encouraged to lay it on thick.

That illustrates some of the objections to jail awareness programs detailed by Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director at the Coalition of Juvenile Justice, a network of organizations dedicated to keeping children and youth out of court.

A kid’s response to such aggressive tactics, said Hornberger, is to “harden their bravado.”


Anthony Petrosino agrees. He’s a researcher at WestEd, a research nonprofit and an author of an influential 2002 meta-analysis of scared straight studies.

“This program doesn’t have any positive effect and it may very well hurt the kids that are in the program,” he said. Petrosino and his team revisited the topic in 2012, trying to add more studies to their analysis. There were none to add and thus no new conclusions to make. Petrosino said that’s likely because scared straight is seen as a discredited program, so no one studies it anymore.

Scared straight-type programs have no effect on deterring crime, according to his research, and they actually lead to more offending behavior.

“We’ve got a real serious ethical program here,” said Professor Del Elliott, the founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We’ve got a TV production that’s promoting a program which is doing harm to our children.”


This week, a comedian named Edwin San Juan performing at a yearly law enforcement event called the Sheriff’s Day Luncheon told sexually explicit and racist jokes for thirty minutes. Matters were not helped when, at lunch’s end, although this was not an LASD event, San Juan received a gratitude plaque from Sheriff Lee Baca. (See above.) Audience members were reportedly not at all pleased. (Conservatively speaking, approximately a gazillion of our friends in law enforcement—both LASD-affiliated and not—brought the LA Times story on the matter to our attention.)

LA Times’ Joel Rubin and Robert Faturechi have this must read.

Posted in ACLU, Death Penalty, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), LASD, prison, Sheriff Lee Baca, solitary | 26 Comments »

LA Supes Consider Jail Project, Disciplined Kern County Students Face Meager Education Alternatives…and More

July 17th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


The LA County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to consider (and revisit in four weeks time) a report from Vanir Construction Management with five options for rebuilding Men’s Central Jail and a new women’s facility ranging in price from $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion. (For WLA’s previous reporting on the jail plan go here.)

LA Times’ Seema Mehta and Abby Sewell have the story. Here’s how it opens:

Concerned that federal authorities could soon intervene in the operation of Los Angeles County’s outdated jail system, the Board of Supervisors took a significant step Tuesday toward replacing the Men’s Central Jail and renovating other facilities to reduce crowding and increase mental health services for prisoners.

The board voted unanimously to accept a report from consultants who outlined five jail renovation options.

All options included tearing down and replacing the cornerstone of the nation’s largest jail system — the Men’s Central Jail — and reconfiguring other existing facilities.

Supervisors were wary of the $1.3-billion to $1.6-billion price tag — if approved, it would be the county’s largest building project ever. But they were more concerned about jail conditions prompting the federal government to wrest away control.

They repeatedly cited a similar dilemma facing state officials, who were ordered by federal judges earlier this year to release 9,600 prisoners or find another cure for overcrowding.


The board voted to accept the consultants’ report, and to revisit the matter in four weeks. In the meantime, county officials were directed to answer questions about existing operations and to amend the agreement with Vanir so the firm can begin analyzing staffing and operational costs for the various proposals. Officials will also find out whether the county can use a $100-million state grant now earmarked for a new women’s facility at the Pitchess Detention Center to instead adapt existing facilities at Mira Loma to house female inmates.

After the Supervisors’ vote, the majority of the public commenters expressed frustration at the proposed jail plan and urged the Board to reject the costly building of new facilities in favor of community-based alternatives. Esther Lim from the ACLU pointed out the incongruity of having a construction contractor produce a study looking at whether or not the county should be building expensive new jails.

The objective of the study is to find out who is inside our jails, who will be entering our jails, and who should be in our jails. However, it was disappointing to learn that the county’s executive office hired a construction group to do that comprehensive assessment. It was not surprising that a construction company, in its report, proposed five options, all involving construction costing billions…The goal is two-fold—to reduce recidivism and increase safety and to reduce operational costs. These can be achieved [by] alternatives to incarceration, such as split-sentencing and the diversion of the mentally ill. Vanir merely listed alternatives.


The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Susan Ferriss has an excellent story about the scant education options available to kids who have been expelled from schools in Kern County due to harsh zero tolerance policies. When kids are banned from attending schools in regular districts, they are told to go to county schools. When county-operated schools are too far to attend, students have no choice but to turn to independent study programs, which means that, these kids, often already struggling in school before expulsion, only receive four-and-a-half hours of instructor time and are left to teach themselves the remainder of the week.

Here’s how it opens:

On a blistering May day in California’s Central Valley, most other 13-year-olds were in classrooms down the road. But Erick Araujo was under strict orders from his mother to stay inside with a U.S. history textbook.

Despite the orders, the seventh-grader didn’t really have much to do. Over four days, while his buddies were finishing up the school year, Erick’s only task was to read three chapters from the book and answer, briefly, a few questions per chapter.

“Pretty easy,” the boy with braces said with a shrug, leafing through pages.

He had no math. No English. No science. And no other books to engage his love of history.

But this could be how Erick gets his education for months to come, at least until he’s halfway through eighth grade in early 2014.

That’s because in February, Erick was expelled for a year from Lost Hills’ only junior high, A.M. Thomas Middle School, and told to enroll at a “community school” for kids with discipline problems that is run by Kern County. But that school is 38 miles away – so far away that staff there suggested Erick’s mom put him on independent study at home. She would have to drive him to the North Kern Community School in Delano only one day a week, so he could get in a minimum of 4½ hours of weekly face time with an actual teacher.

For Erick’s mom, Nereida Vasquez, this seems like a strange way to expect her son to fulfill his “rehabilitation plan.” Instead, she said, she thinks educators have cast Erick adrift in Lost Hills, a hardscrabble town surrounded by some of the world’s richest groves of fruit and nut trees, vineyards and vegetable crops.

“He’s already told me that he should just drop out and go to work in the fields,” an exasperated Vasquez said in Spanish, her dominant language.

Erick’s circumstances aren’t unique. Hundreds of disciplined kids his age are put on independent study in Kern County. Youth advocates say Erick’s situation typifies a troubling pattern of authorities removing students from regular school and dispatching them to alternative campuses, where plans sometimes seem disturbingly casual – including long stretches of stay-at-home independent study.

The seventh-grader’s experience also reflects national concerns about the effectiveness of harsh school discipline and about a widening school-achievement divide between affluent children and lower-income, often Latino or black students.


Sam Slovic of Mission and State has written a painful and extremely well-crafted and documented story about the awful history of abuse of kids by clergy in Santa Barbara, which for a period may actually have been a dumping ground, of sorts, for abusing priests. What unfolds in the course of the narrative—and its underlying documents and testimony—-is not some isolated instances, or one pedophile priest who did awful damage to a string of kids, but a possible “culture of abuse,” that reportedly involved one forth of the clergy at a single institution, during a 23-year span from 1964 to 1987. And that was only one of a list of local schools and churches that were allegedly affected.

The story, called Sacred Monsters, is multimedia and then some, in that there are videos, piles of documents to search, and an interactive timeline. The work is important and makes for a very engrossing—if painful—read. Here’s a clip:

St. Anthony’s Seminary held its first classes at the Garden Street property in 1901, with the mission of grooming young men for the clergy, which it did for decades before closing ignominiously in 1987. By then, it had sealed its fate as one of the charter institutions in the Catholic clergy’s emerging sex abuse crisis.

With the children now gone for the day, the birds settle back into the tall trees around the Garden Street Academy, and the afternoon turns calm. Across the street, Paul Fericano can be found in a shady patch in the back of the Mission. He is contemplating a large boulder with a bronze plaque on its face and the larger context within which it exists. The boulder, a symbol of St. Anthony’s grim legacy, carries talismanic freight for Fericano.

Fericano had been a student at St. Anthony’s in the 1960s at the height of the abuse, decades before the scope and extent of its horrors were revealed. Fericano says a Franciscan priest named Mario Cimmarrusti repeatedly assaulted him while he was studying to be a priest himself. Court documents and personnel files released under a judge’s orders in 2012 would eventually depict Cimmarrusti as a particularly prolific perpetrator.

“This is where it all began in 1992 and ’93. It all broke here. It was huge,” Fericano says.

He is referring to the national reaction when an Independent Board of Inquiry submitted its findings in November 1993 to Father Joseph P. Chinnici, provincial minister of the Province of Saint Barbara. The board, comprised of mental health professionals, lay people and clergy, had convened in January to deal with allegations of rampant abuse of minors by St. Anthony’s clergy during a 23-year span from 1964 to 1987. The board sent letters of inquiry to as many alumni and their families as it could find addresses for. Three hundred men responded.

Posted in ACLU, jail, LA County Board of Supervisors, Uncategorized, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 1 Comment »

Supes Have Closed Door LASD Meeting …Valley Fever Flares in CA Prisons….Privacy Issues…And More

May 7th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon


There was to have been no Board of Supervisors’ meeting this Tuesday, because the Supes were scheduled to take their once-a-year joint trip to Washington DC instead. However, after last week’s LA Times interview with former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka in which Tanaka engaged in what can best be described as a verbal assassination attempt against Sheriff Lee Baca, the majority of the Board—Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, and Mark Ridley-Thomas—cancelled their respective trip plans and decided maybe a meeting was called for after all.

Or at least so we’ve heard. The meeting is to take place behind closed doors, so you and I won’t be able to observe first hand.

The agenda for Tuesday’s hastily planned meeting indicates the subjects up for discussion are “department head performance evaluations,” plus ” Significant exposure to litigation” and “Allegations regarding civil rights violations in the County jails.”

However, sources close to the board suggested that, more than anything, this meeting is about what Tanaka said, what the Feds might or might not be planning to do, what it all portends for the future of the department, and what actions—if any—might soon be required of the Supes given the storm around the LASD that is rapidly quickening.

We’ll let you know as we know more.


The AP has the story on this largely-hidden epidemic that endangers inmates in certain CA lock-ups. Here’s a clip:

As many as 3,000 prison inmates in central California deemed to be at risk from a potentially lethal lung disease may need to be moved to other regions under an order from a court-appointed federal overseer.

The directive, issued on Monday, marks the latest effort to stem cases of valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, at two prisons where the disease was found to have contributed to the deaths of nearly three dozen inmates from 2006 to 2011.

But it could complicate court-ordered efforts to reduce overcrowding across California’s prison system, the nation’s largest…

And then here are a couple of clips from a more detailed story by John E. Dannenberg of The Prison Legal News:

In the past three years more than 900 of the 5,300 prisoners at California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) in Fresno County, plus 80 staff members, have contracted coccidioidomycosis, a fungus commonly known as “valley fever.” Over a dozen prisoners and one guard have died from the disease. Valley fever forms in the lungs, where inhaled fungal spores colonize.

The soil-based fungus, which is indigenous from California’s central valley down to South Texas, most often causes symptoms similar to the flu (and in the process confers lifelong immunity); however, in two to three percent of cases it metastasizes. Once it gets into the bloodstream it is often fatal.

Although valley fever has occasionally infected archaeologists digging in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument and drug-sniffing dogs along the Mexican border, its statistical prevalence in California prisons is troubling. California reported 3,000 cases of valley fever in the general population in 2006, of which 514 were diagnosed at PVSP alone. This 17% morbidity rate among prisoners is astounding. Further, from a mortality standpoint, 12 deaths in 900 prison cases equals a 1.3% fatality rate – double the community rate of 0.6% (based on 33 deaths in 5,500 infections reported in Arizona in 2006). Put another way, if the general population had the same mortality rate as prisoners, there would have been another 38 valley fever-related deaths in the community.


The high infection rate at PVSP (and to a lesser degree at other central valley prisons) has been correlated with two other factors: 1) importation of non-local prisoners and 2) prisoners with compromised immune systems. This has translated into a high rate of serious valley fever cases among HIV-infected prisoners from Los Angeles, many of whom are susceptible under both factors. As a result, prison officials have been preemptively moving such vulnerable prisoners from PVSP to other areas in the state…


Youth Today has a column by the very-smart Liz Ryan of the Campaign for Youth Justice about the sections in the president’s budget that youth advocates see as the most crucial—namely the funding it provides for the 40-year old Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) that, in this go-round, focuses on three areas:

1. Keeping “status offenders” from winding up in the juvenile justice system. Status offenders kids who’ve done things that are against the law only because of their age—things like skipping school, running away, breaking curfew and possession or use of alcohol.

2. Getting kids out of adult jails and lock ups, whenever possible

3. Reducing the disparate treatment of youth of color in the juvenile justice system.

Here are the details.


The idea that law enforcement may be compiling databases on the whereabouts of non-lawbreakers is making a lot of people jumpy, and has caused the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to demand that both the LAPD and the LASD fork over information about how the data is being used.

Both Dennis Romero of the LA Weekly and the AP’s Tami Abdollah reported on the matter.

Here’s a clip from Abdollah’s story:

Two privacy rights groups questioning law enforcement’s use of automated license plate readers asked a judge Monday to order the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to provide more details on how they use the technology.

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a writ against the city, county and its law enforcement departments after waiting more than eight months for a complete response to public records requests.

The groups are seeking one week of data collected by the readers, which are usually mounted on police cars and scan thousands of license plates in an officer’s shift. The readers – which collect the license plate numbers, the time, date, GPS location and a photo – alert law enforcement to stolen and wanted vehicles.

“If you’re not wanted for anything, it doesn’t do anything,” said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. John Gaw, who works in the advanced surveillance and protection unit. “It does collect that information, it does put it in our database, and we’re able to go back and review that information if you’re wanted in some type of criminal investigation.”

Privacy advocates are worried that about the growth of such law enforcement databases often outside the public’s eye and with little public oversight or information. They say the readers create a database that essentially tracks movements of innocent people, often long before any crime has been committed. But officials contend that the readers are a valuable piece of technology that helps solve crimes and simply speeds up and automates what would have been a slow, painstaking manual process only a few years ago.

Posted in ACLU, Board of Supervisors, Civil Liberties, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LAPD, LASD, prison, prison policy, Public Health, Sheriff Lee Baca | 46 Comments »

The Damage Inflicted by Putting Kids in Isolation, SD’s Juvenile Justice Issues Deserve Candidates’ Attention…and More

October 12th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


A new report by the Human Rights Watch and the ACLU reinforces the need for effective alternatives to the all-too-common use of solitary confinement in the youth detention setting. The report surveys over 125 kids in 19 states, including California, who have spent time in isolation, and provides first-hand accounts of the devastating effects of solitary confinement on developing youth. Here’s a clip from the Human Rights Watch article:

Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow, the groups found. Solitary confinement can exacerbate short- and long-term mental health problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop. Young people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.

The New York City Department of Corrections, for example, reported that in fiscal year 2012, which ended in June, more than 14 percent of all adolescents were held in at least one period of solitary confinement while detained. The average length of time young people spent in solitary confinement at Rikers Island was 43 days. More than 48 percent of adolescents at Rikers have diagnosed mental health problems.


The solitary confinement of young people under age 18 is itself a serious human rights violation and can constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. Conditions that compound the harm of solitary confinement, such as denial of educational programming, exercise, or family visits, often constitute independent, serious human rights violations.

A number of corrections officials have begun to recognize and speak against the use of solitary confinement, saying that it is costly, ineffective, and harmful.

There are alternative ways to address the problems – whether disciplinary, administrative, protective, or medical – that officials typically cite to justify using solitary confinement, while taking into account the rights and special needs of adolescents, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. Youth could be housed in specialized facilities organized to encourage positive behavior. And punishment should be proportional to the infraction, using any short-term isolation as a rare exception.

Here’s what some of the surveyed kids had to say about their time in isolation:

“In seg[regation] you either implode or explode; you lose touch with reality, hear voices, hallucinate and think for hours about killing yourself, others or both. The anger and hurt gets so intense that you suspect everyone and trust no one and when someone does something nice for you, you don’t understand it.” – “Douglas C.” Colorado, April 2012.

“I just felt I wanted to die, like there was no way out – I was stressed out. I hung up the first day. I took a sheet and tied it to my light and they came around … The officer when she was doing rounds found me. She was banging on the window – ‘Are you alive? Are you alive?’ I could hear her but I felt like I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe.” – “Luz M.,” New York, April 2012


As election day nears for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ open seat, neither of the two candidates have addressed the colossally important problems of youth gang violence and prescription drug abuse—in fact, these issues remain largely ignored by everyone, says San Diego CityBeat writer Dave Maass. Here’s how Dave’s story for CityBeat and the Crime Report opens:

California’s second largest county is coping with widespread gang violence and prescription drug abuse among youth. But as election day nears, juvenile justice remains a whisper in a monsoon of economic rhetoric.

According to statistics released this year by the San Diego Association of Governments, 38 percent of male juveniles arrestees— and 28 percent of female juvenile arrestees— reported gang affiliations. And last year, 37 percent of juveniles arrested acknowledged prescription drug abuse— the highest rate in four years—according to a county task force.

In the only race on any level with a direct influence over juvenile justice policy in this county of more than 3.1 million people, the challenges of dealing with troubled young people have indeed surfaced—but almost as an afterthought.

The two candidates for the five-member San Diego County Board of Supervisors have an opportunity to take the county in a new direction as they vie for the first open seat in 16 years. So far they’ve traded jabs on funding for after-school programs as part of a larger campaign quarrel over an alleged county “slush fund.”

But in general the juvenile justice problems which are preoccupying some parents and county officials barely get a close examination.

That may not be surprising in an election season that has hinged on jobs and the economy in local as well as national contests. Even in education-related races, the debate has focused squarely on financial mismanagement and labor unions, issues that put the welfare of troubled kids below the concerns of taxpayers.

We, too, wish our local and statewide candidates would focus more on juvenile justice issues which, thus far, don’t seem to be high up on the political talking points list.


A 17-year-old son of a NY law enforcement officer secretly recorded a “stop and frisk” encounter in which police officers called him a “mutt” and told him that they would “break his arm off.”

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf (who happens to live in Venice, CA) talks about how recording perceived wrong-doing can make a big difference and has the rest of the 17-year-old’s experience and its effect. Here’s a clip:

That’s how the politics of this issue will change.

What’s required is more secret recording. It’s very difficult to defend Stop and Frisk when the reality of how it’s administered is made public in a way the average person can understand. Technology is permitting the government to spy on us in unprecedented ways, but it can empower citizens too.

Any 17-year-old can record a Stop and Frisk encounter.

Any non-profit can teach people in affected areas how to inconspicuously record anytime they see one of these encounters.

Big Brother is being watched.

Posted in ACLU, Human rights, juvenile justice, National issues, racial justice, solitary | 1 Comment »

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