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Freedom For Sale: An Important San Francisco Bail Lawsuit Hits a Bump in the Road

January 27th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

In the past year, Equal Justice Under Law,
a Washington DC based civil rights group, has filed nine class action challenges in seven states hoping against cities’ money bail systems that, in the simplest terms, allow the affluent to go free when charged with the same crimes that keep poor defendants in jail when awaiting trial.

With their filings, the group has, thus far, gotten cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana to reform their practices of using of secured money bail for new arrestees.

The organization’s most recent battle site is in San Francisco, CA, where, on Tuesday, the class action lawsuit hit an unexpected snag in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of Oakland, who denied the lawsuit class action status and gave the plaintiffs and their lawyers 30 days to “think of a legal avenue” to continue their efforts to force reform of the SF bail system.

The plaintiffs filed the suit with the help of San Francisco’s refreshingly reform-minded public defender, Jeff Adachi, who also filed a court declaration in support of the suit, writing, “A fair system of pretrial justice would not rely on monetary conditions, as such conditions penalize arrestees solely based on their wealth status.”

Bail reform supporters call the judge’s ruling “discouraging,” since the class action lawsuit has produced tangible results, with no such judicial roadblocks in at least four other states.

Meanwhile, Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland and Mary Lou Fulton, a senior program manager at the California Endowment, have written an excellent Op-Ed for the LA Times detailing exactly why this lawsuit is so important.

Here’s a clip:

On any given day, two-thirds of the people sitting in California jails haven’t been convicted of anything. These 42,000 people are simply awaiting their day in court, many of them incarcerated for no reason other than being too poor to post bail.

That fundamental unfairness is at the center of a federal case getting underway Tuesday in San Francisco. The class action suit asserts that California’s bail system allows rich people to buy their freedom while awaiting trial, but assumes poor people endanger community safety and can’t be trusted to show up on their court date.

The Washington D.C. group was helped with its local filing by the SF Public Defender’s Office and public defender Jeff Adachi who, in the declaration he filed in support of the class action suit wrote, “A fair system of pretrial justice would not rely on monetary conditions, as such conditions penalize arrestees solely based on their wealth status.”

One of the lead plaintiffs is Riana Buffin, who was arrested in San Francisco on suspicion of theft and conspiracy, and jailed when she couldn’t produce $30,000 in bail money. The 19-year-old Oakland resident was given no opportunity to tell a court officer that she had a job, lived with her mom and three younger brothers, and posed no flight risk or danger to the community. A few days later, the charges against her were dropped. But because Buffin missed work while being jailed for a crime she didn’t commit, she lost her job as an airport baggage handler.

In California, the bail process varies depending on where you’re arrested. In some counties, judges can quickly release people to await their court date at home. But in others, like San Francisco County where Buffin was arrested, those without bail money are stuck.

Bail isn’t pocket change either. The median amount in California is $50,000 — five times higher than the national median. Most people don’t have anything close to that kind of cash available; a survey last year found 37% of Americans couldn’t cover even a $500 car repair bill. Many wind up turning to a bond company to get released. But bail bondsmen charge about 10% of the bail amount, money people don’t get back if charges are dropped. Still, people agree to that debt because a short stay in jail can cause major struggles, such as losing a job or custody of children.

Bail compounds the already substantial race and class discrimination problems rampant in the justice system. People of color experience higher arrest rates to begin with. Then they are charged with crimes that carry heavier sentences and in turn face higher bail amounts. Finally, those who can’t afford bail are more likely to give in to pressure to plead guilty. Research shows that those jailed while awaiting trial end up receiving longer sentences than people facing similar charges who are able to wait for their court dates at home.

Norris and Fulton point out that the County of Napa has already instituted a well-thought-out system of bail reform and amazingly the sky hasn’t fallen. “In Napa County,” they write, “more than 90% of those released pending trial show up for court and stay out of trouble in the meantime.”

Posted in criminal justice | 1 Comment »

Active Shooters Take Over Building in San Bernardino, 14 Wounded, 17 Dead

December 2nd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

On Wednesday morning at around 11:30 AM, news of an active shooter situation began leaking out of San Bernardino. By noon, the San Bernardino Police Department confirmed from 1 to 3 suspects in an active shooter situation inside San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center, with 20 believed injured, and an unclear number of dead.

The Inland Regional Center provides services to the disabled, and other high needs people.

By 2 PM Wednesday, the numbers had risen to 14 dead, another 17 wounded.

At an afternoon news conference, SBPD officials said the motive for the attack remains unclear, and investigators were not sure at all about the motive for the shooting. Sources told reporters that the assailants were dressed in camouflage and wearing masks and police think the attackers were carrying rifles or other long guns, not handguns.

By the afternoon, it was also believed that three or more suspects had fled the building in a dark colored SUV.

Hours later still, police found the SUV they believed to be the getaway car. SWAT team members exchanged in gunfire with the suspects. Two suspects were killed, a man and a woman. Authorities believe a third suspect may be on the run.

Wednesday night, the SB Sheriff announced that a person of interest had been detained.

Posted in criminal justice | 1 Comment »

Reports on Body Cams and Education in Juvie Detention….Who’s Right About Whether Prop. 47 Increased Crime?…and John Oliver Talks Re-Entry

November 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Law enforcement agencies across the nation are rolling out new body camera programs to increase transparency and accountability to the public. And as the debate about the positives and negatives of officer-worn body cameras heats up, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, have released an examination of 25 police departments’ body cam policies that looks at whether those policies are adequately protecting citizens’ civil rights.

Included on the scorecard were the Los Angeles Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department, and the Oakland Police Department. Researchers evaluated the departments on eight criteria, including whether the body cam policy was made available to the public, whether officers could view video before filing reports or statements, and whether officers were given discretion on when to start recording.

The LAPD received positive marks for limiting officers’ discretion, and releasing the body-worn camera policy to the public, but negative marks in other areas. For instance, the department requires officers to review footage before writing reports. (In contrast, the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. requires the officers to provide statements before viewing footage.) The LAPD does not generally make footage available to people filing complaints and has not publicly addressed how long the department will retain footage.

Back in July, WLA attended a panel at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum to discuss these very issues, with particular emphasis on how much access the public should have to the body cam videos. And in September, the US Department of Justice gave $1.1 million to the LAPD to purchase the cameras, despite ACLU of Southern California protests about the department’s policy to keep most video footage of officer-involved shootings under wraps.

In absence of comprehensive civil rights safeguards sewn into body cam policies, “these devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools of accountability,” said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We hope that our scorecard will encourage reform and help departments develop body camera policies that promote accountability and protect the rights of those being recorded.”


Only thirteen states actually provide education services (including credit recovery programs, GED preparation, and postsecondary classes) for incarcerated kids that equal the quality of education-related services that kids receive at public schools in their communities, according to a first-of-its-kind study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

“Educationally, these kids have fallen way behind their peers,” said Kent McGuire, head of the Southern Education Foundation. “It’s hard to think of a group of youth more acutely in need of educational services.”

Even fewer states—just nine—ensure locked-up kids have access to the same quality vocational services as their peers on the outside.

And states generally don’t collect enough data on education in juvenile detention facilities, either, according to the report. Less than a third of states were tracking how many kids released from detention facilities went on to finish high school.

In nearly half of states, kids were not automatically enrolled at a public school, once released, the re-enrollment responsibility was left up to parents. Kids were enrolled in (generally underperforming) alternative schools upon their release, in a third of states.

One particularly interesting recommendation to fix some of these issues, was to designate a single entity to oversee kids’ transition back into public schools or into vocational programs, once they exit lock-up.

The study data came from a survey of agencies in all 50 states.


In a video message that was part of a series of Prop. 47-related editorials in the LA Times, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the year-old California law is responsible for higher crime rates. (link) Many law enforcement officials agree.

Just a few days before McDonnell’s video editorial messages, Stanford released a controversial report suggesting that because there was only a 5% recidivism rate among those who were released under Prop. 47, rising crime rates in California should not be attributed to the 2014 law. (link)

Who is right about the outcome (so far) of Prop. 47? Maybe both, or maybe neither.

LA Times editorial board member Rob Greene says that the opposing arguments are missing key components and some context. Here’s a clip:

Of the 4,454 state prisoners who were able to leave prison early because they had felonies reclassified as misdemeanors, 159 have returned to prison for committing new crimes in the last year. That’s a return-to-prison rate of less than 5%. And yes, that’s incredibly low, especially when compared with the pre-Proposition 47 general return-to-prison rate of 42%.

And that’s important, because much of the criticism of Proposition 47, as with many criminal justice reform measures, is that it endangers the public by releasing serious and violent criminals “early” – or at least earlier than they would have been released without the reform. These numbers point to a weakness in that argument. The more serious and violent offenders often have a fairly low recidivism rate compared with the general jail and prison population.

As the report notes, though, recidivism has necessarily been measured only for the one year since Proposition 47 passed, not the three years that’s become the standard for recidivism measurements.

And it counts only offenders who left prison within the last year because of Proposition 47 and already have gone back – to prison — after having committed new crimes. It doesn’t count new convictions that might have resulted in jail or probation. Nor does it count arrests. That’s a big deal, because if a meth addict who got out of prison continues to take meth and steals in increments of less than $950 to support his habit, now he’s not going to be arrested for it. Or else he’s going to go to jail — but because he’s not going to state prison, this study doesn’t include him as a recidivist. More time and more study will be needed for a fuller picture.

McDonnell says Proposition 47 has increased crime, but he’s not blaming those people referred to in the Stanford study. He’s got a different population on his mind — the drug and theft offenders who used to get arrested and held in jail pending trial. Instead of getting arrested, those people are now just getting citations and orders to appear in court. Few actually show up for their court dates…

Since the measure passed a year ago, up to the time when these videos were shot in mid-October, according to the sheriff’s numbers, 43,062 people in Los Angeles County were arrested for crimes that used to be felonies but now, because of Proposition 47, are misdemeanors. Of those, 21,030, or nearly half, have been arrested again for an additional 39,939 crimes, including 26 murders, 14 rapes and 83 robberies.

Those numbers would appear to support the critics’ basic argument: When you don’t jail these people on drug and other relatively minor charges, they are free to commit all manner of more serious crimes, including murder, rape and robbery, and they do.

But there are some problems with that argument. Before Proposition 47, many of those accused criminals would have been arrested and jailed, but then would have bailed out — so they’d have been on the street anyway, still able to commit those more serious crimes. A complete study would compare McDonnell’s numbers with a similar group that got arrested, jailed and bailed out.


John Oliver has been on a roll on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, featuring areas of the criminal justice system desperately in need of reform, from cash bail to civil asset forfeiture to mandatory minimums.

This Sunday, Oliver shined a light on the incredible odds stacked against people exiting prison and re-entering their communities. Former felony offenders face tons of roadblocks to education, housing, employment, public assistance, and more. And many former offenders are carted right back into the prison system because of minor parole violations.

Oliver ends the show in conversation with Bilal Chatman, a man who beat the odds after being released from prison, landing a good job and starting a new life. “I’m not that prisoner today,” Bilal told Oliver. “I’m a taxpayer. I work. I’m a citizen. I’m a voter. That’s who I want to be. Those are the things that define me today.”

Watch the full segment above.

Posted in criminal justice | 1 Comment »

Mark Zuckerberg Goes to Prison…..Koch Brothers Explain Criminal Justice in 60 Secs….Dems Debate Justice Reform…SCOTUS Looks Again at Juvie Life

October 15th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Since its release in 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has been one of the go to texts for those interested in criminal justice reform. In her book, Alexander, a former litigator-turned-legal-scholar, uses a blizzard of statistics and legal citations to argue that we have not ended Jim Crow in America, we have simply redesigned it. Alexander goes on to describe how the tough on crime legislation of the last fifty years, along with the war on drugs, has had a calamitous effect on black America.

We have just learned, via Facebook, that Mark Zuckerberg is one of the latest converts to Alexander’s thesis. At the beginning of the year, it seems that Zuckerberg challenged himself to read a new book every other week; The New Jim Crow wound up on his list and ignited an interest in criminal justice.

This week the new-found interest precipitated a visit by Zuckerberg and his wife to California’s San Quentin prison. The couple was particularly interested in the 1852-built San Quentin in that, while it is the oldest lock-up in the state, it is also often an incubator for model programs that later are franchised elsewhere in the system. There is, for instance, a program in which selected inmates spend a four-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day for six months learning to write computer code, including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The code class is part of a broader program called The Last Mile (that we reported on here), which aims to prepare prisoners for a successful reentry through training and instruction in business and tech.

Naturally Zuckerberg made a point of visiting the coding prisoners.

Here’s a clip from what he wrote after his visit to the Q.

US jails hold around 2.4 million people — about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to be arrested for possession and sale of marijuana and to receive a conviction and criminal record, even though the majority of marijuana users are non-Hispanic whites. Almost 40 percent of prisoners are black. More than half the people entering prison live below the poverty line. Our entire society pays the price for an unfair, broken system.

San Quentin has one of the best track records of people not returning to jail in the country. They run programs to teach valuable skills to help inmates find jobs and avoid criminal activity.

In this photo [see above], I’m talking with inmates who are taking a coding course. I was impressed by their spirit to return to their communities and provide for their families, as well as the dedication of the staff to help them reclaim their lives.

Making our criminal justice system fairer and more effective is a huge challenge for our country. I’m going to keep learning about this topic, but some things are already clear. We can’t jail our way to a just society, and our current system isn’t working….

Welcome aboard, Mark. It’s good to see you. We hope you stick around awhile.


The Charles Koch Institute has produced a series of six one-minute videos to explain different aspects of the world of criminal justice that the Kochs think could use some reform. And, while brief, the videos are really remarkably good.

There’s one each on the topics of:

Collateral Consequence in 60 Sec.

The Role of Policing in 60 Seconds

Civil Asset Forfeiture in 60 Seconds

Overcriminalization in 60 Seconds

Mandatory Minimums in 60 Seconds

Mens Rea in 60 Seconds

In the past, the Koch brothers have been best known for donating gargantuan amounts of money to conservative political candidates and causes, claiming, for example, that they will spend nearly a billion dollars to elect conservatives to office during the 2016 election season But, more recently, (as we’ve reported in several instances) they have also thrown some of their considerable funds behind the growing effort to take a long hard look at the pattern of what they describe as an over criminalization, which results in the over-incarceration for which the U.S. has become infamous.

The Kochs now donate money to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) to combat prosecutorial abuses, and to help make sure that lower income defendants have adequate legal representation. They have teamed with the ACLU and other liberal leaning organizations like George Soros’s Open Society Foundation on such topics as mass incarceration and a “Ban the Box” push, which aims to eliminate the dreaded box that job applicants must check on if they have a criminal record.

And now the one-minute video explainer videos.



The Republican presidential candidates danced only briefly around marijuana use and the war on drugs in their 2nd debate. On Tuesday night the Democratic candidates talked more about the issue but, as Reason Magazine points out, they didn’t have much in the way of solutions for the problems they brought up.

The Washington Examiner helpfully lays out who said what on various justice topics.

They observed that Bernie Sanders talked most about the issue, noting that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country. He also said “that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe — just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids.”

As for Hillary:

Clinton raised criminal justice reform a couple of times, noting that she has talked at length about tackling mass incarceration. She spoke out in support of police officers using body cameras and was the only candidate to note that criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue.

(Advocates, however, are not quick to forgive Hil and Bill’s support of catastrophically damaging tough-on-crime legislation in the 1990s.)

Neither Chafee nor O’Malley talked much about the issue, but Webb rightly touted himself as an early champion of criminal justice reform, which he made one of his signature issues as early as 2008.


In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down an historic ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama, which held that issuing mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger convicted of homicide is unconstitutional, and that the kids’ mitigating circumstances must be considered.

What the court did not do, however, is to make clear whether Miller (which, by the way, was argued by lawyer/author Bryan Stevenson) was retroactive. In other words, if juveniles had the bad fortune to be sentenced before the 2012 decision, were they simply out of luck?

One of SCOTUS’s most closely watched cases for this term takes on precisely that question with a case known as Montgomery v. Louisiana, which was argued before the court on Tuesday.

The case in some ways is less than ideal due to the emotions attached to it. It involves Henry Montgomery, who was seventeen, and reportedly a young man coping with mental disabilities, when he shot and killed a well-liked Baton Rouge police officer whom Montgomery thought was going to arrest him for truancy.

Yet, from a legal perspective, the emotions should not matter if Miller is found to be retroactive.

On Wednesday, the LA Times editorial board wrote about Tuesday’s SCOTUS hearing and its hope that the Supremes will face the issue of retroactivity squarely, and rule in Montgomery’s favor.

We at WLA agree.

Here’s a clip from the Times’ editorial:

Montgomery vs. Louisiana involves the question of whether the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling was “substantive” (in which case it can be applied retroactively) or merely “procedural.” It is complicated by an even more technical dispute over whether the Supreme Court even has jurisdiction over this state court issue. We hope the court focuses on the big picture: that its 2012 ruling is indeed a substantive change in the law that must be applied retroactively in all proceedings.

There is no doubt, as Justice Elena Kagan put it Tuesday, that the 2012 ruling “fits on the substantive side.” Although the court in that decision stopped short of holding that juveniles could never be sentenced to life in prison without parole, it required judges and juries to consider “youth and attendant characteristics” as possible extenuating factors before imposing such a sentence. As a result, the court suggested, life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles in the future would be “uncommon.”

That was almost as significant a change in legal doctrine as the court’s 2005 decision holding that states couldn’t execute murderers who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes. Both rulings were based on the court’s recognition that juveniles have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform” — an insight that reflects recent research on how adolescent brains function. It would be an injustice if prisoners such as Montgomery were kept behind bars simply because they committed their crimes before the court saw the light.

Posted in criminal justice | 2 Comments »

Crime Victims Work to Cure for Both Grief & Violence in Los Angeles….and Beyond

September 14th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Legal Affairs journalist Mark Obbie, writing for Slate,
is on Part 5 of his exceptional series on victims of crime.

In this fifth installment, Obbie looks at a different side to victim advocacy in Los Angeles, one in which violence prevention, intervention, and treating trauma are the priority, rather than the traditional get-tough on crime movement that held sway in the state of California for decades.

But before we get to the latest chapter, here’s a rundown of Obbie’s first four installments.


Part 1 tells the story of a mother named Linda White whose daughter was raped and murdered by a pair of 15-year-olds. When White and her husband were first reeling with shock and grief at their daughters horrific death, they found some solace in groups like Parents of Murdered Children, which pushed for—among other things—tougher sentencing laws.

“Soon, though,” Obbie writes, “the meetings’ emphasis on punishment started feeling to White like a hollow promise. ‘I didn’t feel like anyone was talking to me about healing, about moving forward. It was just about getting even,’ she says.”

Obbie details how the groups the Whites joined initially were a part of the California victims’ rights movement that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s, which worked for more respect for victims, but also joined with law and order advocates to lobby for more retribution when it came to sentencing.

But being a crime victim isn’t a one-size-fits all experience. Over the next few decades, many victims of crime became uncomfortable with the traditional approach, and looked for other forms of healing and reform.

In the beginning, Obbie writes, the traditional crime victim lobbying organizations pretty much marginalized anyone who didn’t toe the party line. But, in the last decade, all that has begun to change.

Linda White representative of that wave of change. Along with her husband, she pulled away from the traditional route. Instead, White finished her college degree, got a master’s degree in psychology, and found the concept of restorative justice. This, in turn, led to her decide she wanted to meet her daughter’s killer….


In Part 2, Obbie tells of the daughter and brother of a murder victim, killed in a home break in. Both the daughter, Kelly Watts, and her uncle, John Sage, struggled painfully for years, like White, to find a method for dealing with their wounds.

Kelly got a doctorate in psychology, and now counsels patients coping with grief and trauma, including veterans.

John Sage found his own way of giving his grief purpose by starting a program called Bridges to Life, in which volunteers go into prisons and talk to inmates convicted of violent crimes to tell them of the effect of their actions, in an attempt to “awake in prisoners a sense of empathy for and accountability to their victims.”

What sets Bridges to Life apart from other inmate educational programs, writes Obbie, is its volunteer teaching staff, made up of many crime victims or, like Sage, murder victims’ survivors.

“These victim-counselors deliver a message of redemption through apology and atonement, using their own painful stories to drive home the devastating effects of crime on others.”

Bridges to Life is now one of the largest inmate program providers inside Texas’ huge prison system.


Part 3 is a story about William Otis, the very influential criminal justice expert who thinks that sentencing reform of any kind is a terrible idea. While conservatives with last names like Meese, Gingrich, and Koch are pushing hard to “pull back from the extremes that gave America its distinction as the world’s prison warden,” Otis, Obbie writes, has a simple but powerful message, “one that has held sway for four decades now.” It is this: Any retreat on harsh sentencing would be a threat to safety and an insult to victims….


In Part 4 we learn that New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has created a new executive-level post inside the NYPD that he hopes will repair the department’s broken relationship with black New Yorkers. The position is deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, and its first hand-picked occupant is Susan Herman, a longtime advocate for crime victims with a progressive approach to policing.

“Solving police departments’ race problems, Bratton has declared, is ‘the issue of our times,’ especially among citizens feeling ‘overpoliced and underprotected’—those citizens, in other words, at greatest risk of both imprisonment and victimization.”

One way to get an idea of Bratton’s view of changing police culture and making peace with citizens in a racially divided city, writes Obbie, is to revisit what he accomplished at the Los Angeles Police Department. “His experience there also hints at what Herman might accomplish in her role under Bratton….”


Finally, in Part 5 of his series on crime victims, Mark Obbie begins by telling the story of Laura Sanchez, a 34-year-old mother of four, who was killed in a drive-by gang shooting in 2007. The gangsters were aiming at somebody else. Actually, they had intended to shoot her eldest son, a 17-year-old honors student. The shooters were black, and were looking for Latino rivals. They didn’t know Sanchez’ son, but decided he would do.

Sanchez’s death had a fearful symmetry. Her own mother had been shot and killed nine years earlier in a drive-by shooting while waiting on the front porch for Sanchez and her family to arrive for Thanksgiving dinner.

Adela Barajas, Sanchez sister-in-law, a single mother, stepped in to help raise Sanchez’ children. (Barajas brother—Sanchez’ husband—was shot in yet another drive-by, but non-fatally.)

Barajas was the family member who fought with the city bureaucracy to get Sanchez’ kids and her husband family grief and trauma counseling. The services on offer were minimal—not even close to what the kids needed, especially the 17-year-old who’d watched his mother get shot in his sted.

In the hope of helping other victims get better treatment, Barajas started a community organization where she counsels grieving family members, and guides them in learning how to wrestle what they need from the victim services system, and gives teens a safe place to go after school. (At 5 a.m., Barajas goes to work in an office job. When she comes home in the afternoon, she does her volunteer work.)

She calls her organization Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts—--LAURA.

In the eight years since the murder of her sister-in-law, Barajas has focused her work for LAURA on two realities of her community’s condition: trauma and danger.

Trauma, she has learned, devastates families if they fail to overcome a natural reluctance to confront their traumatic losses and fears—a process that is often difficult to do without help. The second reality, which is a twin to the first, is the “relentless conveyer belt” delivering children to gangs, drugs, hopelessness and violence unless someone intervenes.

Barajas and her fellow volunteers attempt to help traumatized families toward healing, while also being that “someone else” who intervenes with neighborhood kids in whatever way is needed.

Barajas is one of a growing number in Los Angeles who are working toward those twinned endeavors.

There is, for example, Aqeela Sherrills, a former Grape Street Crip who was one of the architects of the Blood-Crip truce of 1992. Sherrells was well-known for his violence prevention work by the time his son, Terrell Sherrills, who was home on vacation from college, was murdered in 2004 in a minor dispute at a party, where some young gangsters showed up unexpectedly. (WLA NOTE: A lot of people claim to have helped broker the 1992 truce. Aqeela is the real deal.)

Now Sherrills works for Californians for Safety and Justice, trying to bring additional intervention and prevention resources to Watts….

Along with Barajas and Sherills, Obbie profiles, The Southern California Cease Fire Committee, longtime gang interventionists who work, at times uneasily, with law enforcement; Karl Cruz, an activist in a faith-based program called Victory Outreach whose past as a gang member helps him connect with youth in his San Fernando Valley community; and Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries (who, obviously, we at WLA know very well, and value beyond measure).

Obbie describes how Boyle started the jobs and intervention program that would eventually turn into Homeboy Industries when, as a young paster at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights he had to bury so many kids who were victims of gang violence.

According to Obbie, Father Greg says that one of his biggest frustrations is explaining to skeptics why he’s making such an investment in rehabilitating gang members, when there are so many victims of their violence that need help, too. “Boyle points out that gang violence itself is the product of victimization. ‘You look at those ASPCA commercials,” he says, “and they’ll have a picture of a dog who’s quite shaken and trembling and beaten up, and it will say, “Abandoned, tortured, abused.” And there isn’t a single gang member who’s ever walked through these doors—not one in 26 years—about whom you couldn’t say all three. Abandoned, beaten, and abused. And so that’s the profile of why somebody joins a gang: trauma, despair, and mental health issues.’

Obbie also writes that Boyle has little patience for politicians who proclaim, that they “stand with the victims.”

“It’s so dumb,” Boyle says. “How is this at odds with that? It just isn’t. It’s just the least sophisticated take on crime at its sources….”

“Americans are conditioned to see the harsh punishment of offenders as the best form of justice for crime victims,” writes Obbie near the end of Chapter 5. But Barajas, Sherrills, Boyle and their allies see things differently. They focus on both victims and offenders, addressing trauma care, crime prevention, and rehabilitation of former prisoners—-instead of police crackdowns and long sentences. And more and more they work with police, not at odds with them. They “wade into the messy consequences of violence, drugs, imprisonment, and chronic poverty resolved to replace a war on crime with a quest for peace….”

Read the story.

Posted in criminal justice | 2 Comments »

What Happens When Predictive Analytics Enters the World of Child Protection?….How Do You Define a Gang Member?……The LAPD & the Guardian’s Count

June 2nd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Much has rightly been made of the unbearably tragic child deaths in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state, at the hands of those who should have kept them safe, deaths like that of 8-year old Gabriel Fernandez. To refresh your memory, when paramedics showed up at Gabriel’s mother’s home in May 2013, they found the little boy with a fractured skull, three broken ribs, bruises and burns in too many places to count, and his mouth absent two of his teeth. BB pellets were embedded in his lungs and his groin.

Both LA County’s Department of Children Services and the LA County Sheriff’s Department had received complaints that Gabriel was being abused. But somehow nobody acted. And the two-agency non-action resulted in the torture and violent death of an eight-year-old.

Yet, there are other documented cases where DCFS seems to act too quickly, yanking kids out of less-than-ideal but non-dangerous homes and putting them through encounters with the foster care system that were, at best, traumatic and, at worst, deeply damaging.

So how does one tell the difference? Certainly, in some cases, it seems that a modicum of caring attention and common sense would have helped. But in others, the lines may not be so clearly drawn.

Some counties and states around the nation think they might have found at least part of the answer in the realm of what numbers geeks call predictive analytics.

Take for example, the case of Florida’s Department of Children & Families, which had nine child deaths in the state’s Hillsborough County area between 2009 and 2012. All of the kids were under three years old, and all but one were killed by either a parent or paramour.

At the time, the region’s child protective services were contracted out, at a cost of $65.5 million a year, to private youth services agency called Hillsborough Kids.

Florida dumped Hillsborough Kids, bumped up the budget for social workers and, perhaps most significantly, Florida officials contracted to use a new decision-making tool to help the agency prioritize calls of suspected child abuse. It is called Rapid Safety Feedback.

Darian Woods, writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, takes a look at where predictive analytics has entered the world of child protection, who is involved, and what that entry could mean in terms of the future safety of kids.

Here’s a clip:

So in 2012, the department made changes. It commissioned a comprehensive analysis of the data behind the child deaths that were concentrated in Hillsborough County. Hillsborough Kids lost out on the $65.5 million contract and went into liquidation. A private youth services agency, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, was selected by the department to take care of approximately 2,900 abused children in Hillsborough County. The next year, Florida Governor Rick Scott boosted funding for new social workers. Perhaps most radically, a new decision-making tool called Rapid Safety Feedback was introduced in the county.

Rapid Safety Feedback uses — in the parlance of big data crunchers and, increasingly, social scientists — predictive analytics to prioritize calls of suspected child abuse.

Predictive analytics in child protective services means assigning suspected abuse cases to different risk levels based on characteristics that have been found to be linked with child abuse. These risk levels can automatically revise as administrative data is updated. Administrative data may be as simple as school reports or could delve deeper into other information that the state holds: the parents’ welfare checks, new criminal offenses or changing marital status.

Combining predictive analytics with more investigators seems to be producing results in Hillsborough County. According to Eckerd, who also holds contracts in Pasco and Pinellas counties, since it took over the contract in 2012, the quality of reviews has improved 30 percent. There is a significant increase in completed documentation by caseworkers. There have also been zero child homicides in the county since the handover.

LA County is one of the counties that is looking hard at the use of predictive analytics, but they are less positive that big data can solve the problem.


Holden Slattery, also writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, looks further into what LA County is doing as it “struggles to strike the right balance between human judgement and increasingly sophisticated predictive tools when determining the risk that a child will be abused.”

Here’s how Slattery’s story opens:

On weekdays, calls to Los Angeles County’s child abuse hotline reach their peak between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.—right after school. On average, 70 to 80 calls about child maltreatment in Los Angeles County reach the hotline per hour during that span, according to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the agency charged with responding to alleged abuse.

There are about 85 social workers manning the phones at any given time. They ask callers to explain how child abuse or neglect took place.

The number of calls made to the largest child welfare system in the United States creeps up each year, said Carlos Torres, an assistant regional manager for the DCFS hotline. In 2014, the hotline received 220,000 calls, he said.

After listening and marking down answers on a computer program, the social workers decide whether a situation meets the criteria for an in-person response. They also decide whether DCFS should respond by the end of their current shift, within 24 hours, or within five days, Torres said.

These decisions, based on small bits of information shared by a caller, determine where DCFS directs its limited human resources. DCFS responds with an in-person investigation to 35 percent of the calls, Torres said. In these cases, a social worker drives to the home, interviews the family, gathers information, and enters his or her findings into a web-based decision-making tool, which, like a questionnaire that an insurance company gives to prospective clients, estimates risk; in this case, risk that a child will be abused.

When everything goes right, DCFS can save a child from harm. When something goes wrong, the result can be heartbreaking. A 2011 report on recurring systemic issues that led to child deaths in Los Angeles County put the onus largely on flawed investigations and problems with the decision-making tool employed. In the search for solutions, public officials have looked toward new technologies, such as analytics software used primarily by private companies, to see if that can keep more children out of harm’s way. As public officials make these kinds of inquiries, in Los Angeles County and across the globe, they confront the conundrum of human judgement versus machine. Some say technological advances hold the answers, while others say that only savvy people are up to the task.

Slattery notes that a number of experts cite research that suggests all this predictive analytics isn’t particularly effective when it comes to assessing if a kid is safe or not.

In any case, read on.


One night in January 1988, rival gang members were shooting each other on the streets of Westwood and mistakenly hit and killed a young woman named Karen Toshiba.

The murder of Karen Toshiba became a flashpoint, as such tragic deaths often do, and 1988 became the year the so-called war on gangs was declared in Los Angeles and, in Sacramento, the state legislature passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection Act (STEP Act), Statute 186.22 of the penal code.

Among its other functions, the the STEP Act imposed greater punishment for crimes committed “for the benefit” of a criminal street gang. In the beginning, the sentencing “enhancements” were no more than a few years. But it 2000, crimes that were “serious” or “violent,” as defined by the California Penal Code, could be enhanced by five or ten or, in certain cases, a life sentence.

The STEP Act can be brought to bear even when a young man or woman is at the periphery of a gang, with a relationship that has more to do with where he or she lives, than any kind of actively committed or formalized association.

It has resulted in multi-decade sentences for juveniles tried as adults as a consequence of their proximity to violent acts in which they did not participate, even in cases when no one was injured.

If a so-called gang expert can successfully label a defendant as a gang member, even if he or she is not, then the enhancement can kick in, and conviction is also much more likely.

In a story by Daniel Alarcón in this week’s New York Times Magazine called “How Do You Define a Gang Member?” Alarcón
describes a case that shows the STEP Act in action.

The story has to do with a case in Modesto, California, where the primary gangs are variation on the theme of Norteño, or northerners, or Sureños—southerners.

Here’s a clip:

On a rainy day last December, in a courtroom in downtown Modesto, Calif., a 24-year-old white man named Jesse Sebourn, along with five co-defendants, sat accused of second-degree murder. The victim, Erick Gomez, was only 20 when he was shot to death. He was a reputed Norteño gang member who had lived just a few minutes’ drive from the working-class Modesto neighborhood where Sebourn was raised. The police estimate that there are as many as 10,000 gang members in Stanislaus County, where Modesto is, most either Norteños and Sureños, two of California’s most notorious Latino street gangs. The feud between them often turns deadly, and according to Thomas Brennan, the district attorney, this was one such instance: Sebourn and his co-defendants were Sureño gang members hunting for rivals on Valentine’s Day in 2013, when they found Gomez, out on a walk with his girlfriend.

Brennan was not saying that Sebourn had fired the gun; in fact, the accused shooter, Giovanni Barocio, had evaded arrest and is believed to be in Mexico, while witnesses and time-stamped 911 calls made it difficult to believe Sebourn had even been present at the scene when Gomez was killed. But according to the prosecution, Sebourn had set the entire chain of events in motion a few hours before the shooting, when he and two of his co-defendants tagged a mural eulogizing dead Norteños in an alley behind the building where Gomez lived. Sebourn and the others were caught in the act and beaten by Norteños, though they got away with little more than scrapes and bruises. But the prosecution argued that spray-painting over a rival’s mural was an aggressive act intended to incite violence — the equivalent of firing a shot. By this interpretation of events, the afternoon scuffle led directly to that evening’s murder: tagging, fisticuffs and finally, hours later, homicidal retaliation, each escalation following logically and inevitably from the previous. “Ask yourself,” Brennan said to the jury in his opening statement, “what are the natural and probable consequences of a gang fight?”

But this time the defense has a gang expert of its own, a former gang member turned PhD named Jesse De La Cruz…

In any case, read on.


The Guardian newspaper has launched a project it is calling The Counted, the purpose of which is to count people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015.

It’s an interactive project, which you can find here.

Over at KPCC, Aaron Mendelson writes that, according to the Guardian’s database, the Los Angeles Police Department has killed more people (10), than any other law enforcement agency in the United States this year, that’s twice as many as the four law enforcement agencies, one of which is the LASD, that are in second place.

Anyway, it’s interesting so take a look, both at what KPCC has isolated from the database, and at the Guardian database itself.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, DCFS, families, Foster Care, LAPD, LASD, Sentencing | 17 Comments »

Manifesting Justice This Week in Los Angeles

May 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


As events in Baltimore and elsewhere continue to unreel, on Saturday in Los Angeles, a unique combination pop-up art show and public discussion launched at the Baldwin Hills Theater to promote dialogue about civil rights, social and criminal justice, and activism in order to “build a healthier and more just future.”

The 10-day event, called Manifest Justice, put on by Yosi Sergant of TaskForce PR, along with the California Endowment and Amnesty International, features the work of more than 190 artists, discussions with criminal justice leaders and activists, as well as music, poetry, plays, workshops, and a lot more.

Manifest Justice opened Saturday morning with a Prop 47 Record Change Fair, organized by Californians for Safety and Justice. Attendees with felonies that qualified for reclassification under Prop 47 were offered free legal advice from LA County public defenders and volunteer attorneys, along with help in filling out required court forms. (We’ll have more on the Record Change Fair later this week.)

At 10:00a.m., US Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) chaired a community dialogue in which an array of panelists told of their personal experiences with the justice system.

There was, for example, Charity Chandler, a woman who now works as an activist at Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), founded by former film producer Scott Budnick.

Chandler’s first encounter with LA County’s juvenile justice system began in her early teens with a six-month stint in Juvenile Hall for petty theft after she stole a pack of underwear and a t-shirt.

From that point on, Chandler said she went through things “no child should have to experience,” cycling in and out of juvenile detention and foster care.

When she found out she was pregnant at 18 with a little boy, Chandler had to convince herself that she was not worthless. Chandler made a vow to herself, “I refuse to be a statistic, and I refuse to bring a black man into this world…and have him suffer like me and so many countless others.”

That decision sent Chandler down a path of transformation and redemption. Chandler became an advocate, and enrolled in school while she was pregnant. She said she finished graduate school this week.

(For more of Chandler’s story, watch her TEDx talk at Ironwood State Prison.)

Other panelists discussed their efforts toward policy change.

Dr. Paul Song, head of, Courage Campaign, spoke about the importance of funding universal pre-kindergarten as a force against poverty and crime.

Dr. Song pointed to stats indicating that kids in poor communities who didn’t participate in government-funded pre-K were 70% more likely than their peers to get arrested for violent crime by the age of 18, and that career criminals can cost the state as much as $1.3 million.

Song argues that while Governor Jerry Brown is intent on storing surplus budget money in a rainy day fund, “for many communities at risk…it has never stopped raining.”

Another panel member, Winston Peters, an LA County Assistant Public Defender, told his story of transformation. Peters said he focused only on the legal aspects of his cases, until he worked at a now-defunct juvenile center in South Los Angeles where, Peters said, he realized that, while he was a good a lawyer, his young clients faced a list of daunting issues that the law failed to adequately cover, abuse, trauma, and mental illness among them.

Peters also noted that LA’s public defender’s office has made efforts to bridge the gap he witnessed all those years ago, by creating a multidisciplinary approach that includes hiring social workers to team up with the attorneys in the juvenile justice division.

Elsewhere in the Baldwin Theater, a massive cardboard Lady Liberty holds her head in her hands. Across the room, a Ferguson police car has been turned into a garden.

Here are photos of a handful of the art installations on display (but really must be seen in person).

“The Talk,” by Michael D’Antuono:

Jordan Weber:

Yolanda Guerra:

Scheduled for later in the week are workshops, discussions, performing arts, and other not-to-be-missed experiences.

But, if you only choose one day to visit the Manifest Justice exhibit, consider making it Wednesday, May 6. At 6:30p.m., Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mom, and Dr. Robert Ross, head of the California Endowment, will discuss “resilience,” followed by a play from Patrisse Cullors of Dignity and Power Now and #BlackLivesMatter.

There are a ton of other great events and reasons to take in Manifest Justice before it’s over, so check out the website and calendar for yourself.

Note: Watch artist Max Rippon paint overlapping NY Times headlines to create “The True Is a Moment of the False” in the above video.

Posted in American artists, American voices, art and culture, Civil Rights, criminal justice, Foster Care, juvenile justice, prison, Public Defender, racial justice, School to Prison Pipeline | 15 Comments »

Prop 47 Town Hall Talks $$$ Use…. Hillary on Criminal Justice…More Thoughts on Violence & Non-Violence Baltimore….

April 30th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


In an absolutely packed town hall meeting held Wednesday night at Hollman United Methodist Church on West Adams, close to 800 So Cal community members, clergy, office holders, and advocates came from as far as San Diego, Orange County, and the Inland Empire to talk about the implementation of Proposition 47, the initiative passed last November that reduced a number of low level felonies to misdemeanors.

The string of speakers that included LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, A New Way of Life’s Susan Burton, LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers, Father Greg Boyle and other representatives from Homeboy Industries, and more, talked about the need to make sure that the biggest piece of the projected millions in savings generated by the law is directed toward reentry services, drug treatment, and other programs that either help prevent a return to jail or prison, and/or provide healthy alternatives to incarceration.

Supervisor Solis talked about increasing county funding for community programs “that work,” and about how the newly configured LA county board of supes “is realizing it’s wiser to reduce incarceration for community safety.”

Hillary Blout of Californians for Safety and Justice, one of Prop 47′s sponsors, gave a rundown on the statewide implementation to date of the still new law, and talked about the “need to treat health problems with health solutions,” rather than incarceration.

“Drug addiction is a disease that needs treatment…untreated it gets worse behind bars”

Susan Burton, who founded An New Way of Life to give women coming out of prison a new start. said that she had supported Prop. 47 “because it recognizes the promise in all of us.”

The overarching purpose of the night was to seek commitments to support programs that “create opportunities for redemption and success” from members of the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which is the group that will administer 65% of the savings from the Proposition 47 Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.”

The two-plus hour event was cosponsored by PICO California, LA Voice, Californians for Safety and Justice, Homeboy Industries, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Community Coalition, All of Us or None, and A New Way of Life. And, as the night reached its end, most participants seemed to come away with inspiration.

“People make the deepest of transformations with even the slimmest of support,” said Minister Zachary Hoover, LA Voice’s Executive Director. “Imagine what would happen if we continue to invest in ourselves, our neighbors, our fellow Californians as if we were family…. We are calling on state and local officials to do more,” he said, “because we the people are ready for boldness.”

Wednesday’s town hall was the third of four events in a series of town hall forums organized by PICO California and affiliates, along with the Board of State and Community Corrections, to discuss “local, regional and state priorities for violence reduction, expanding alternatives to incarceration, and reducing recidivism.”

The final town hall will be held in Sacramento on May 19, 2015


On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton gave what was billed as a major speech on criminal justice at Columbia University. But did she say anything of substance?

The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan felt that Clinton called for an overhaul of her husband’s criminal justice policies. (Although this was reportedly somewhat refuted later by Clintonites.) Here’s a clip:

Tough-on-crime policies that emphasized arrests and convictions for relatively minor offenses have failed the country, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday, leading to overcrowded prisons and too many black men “missing” from their families and communities.

“We need to restore balance to our criminal justice system,” Clinton told an audience at Columbia University in New York.

Calling for an “end to the era of mass incarceration,” Clinton endorsed body cameras for police nationwide to record interactions between officers and potential suspects. Making her most specific policy proposals since launching her campaign earlier this month, Clinton said it’s time for a nationwide overhaul of what she called misguided and failed policing and prison strategies.

In effect, she was saying that policies put in place when her husband Bill Clinton was president have not worked. Clinton did not mention her husband or identify exactly which laws and sentencing policies she thought had gone wrong. But many of those policies grew out of the crackdown on drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses that took place before and during Bill Clinton’s presidency 20 years ago….

Jacob Sollem of Reason magazine was less than thrilled. Here’s a clip:

Speaking at Columbia University, Clinton said several true things: The use of unnecessary force by police is bad, but so is looting and rioting. Our “out-of-balance” criminal justice system punishes people too harshly, imprisons too many “low-level offenders,” and disproportionately hurts black men. As Clinton noted, there is by now bipartisan agreement on these points. “It is not enough just to agree and give speeches about it,” she said. “We need to deliver real reforms.”

Such as? The one new and specific reform Clinton recommended was equipping police officers with body cameras, which she called “a common-sense step.” She also reiterated her support for “alternative punishments,” “specialized drug courts,” and “drug diversion programs.” Body cameras are a good idea with broad support. I am less keen on forcing people into “treatment” they do not want by threatening to lock them in cages. I would tell you what I think about Clinton’s other ideas if she had offered any.

“It’s time to change our approach,” Clinton said. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.” I agree. Presumably the solution involves 1) locking fewer people up, 2) imposing shorter sentences, and 3) letting current prisoners out. But Clinton did not move beyond platitudes on any of those points. “I don’t know all the answers,” she confessed.

Sollem lists a number of reformist bills that Hillary could back that would give her stand some heft—-many of them already backed by some of the Republicans who would run for president against her.

For instance, he says, she could easily get behind making retroactive the lowering of the disproportionately high sentences for crack cocaine, which was approved by Congress almost unanimously in 2010. And he has other ideas after that one.

[The crack sentencing retroactivity] reform, which could help thousands of federal prisoners and should be a no-brainer for Clinton, is part of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was reintroduced in February by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). The bill’s 12 cosponsors include four Republicans, two of whom, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are vying to oppose Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in next year’s presidential election. The House version of the bill was introduced by a Republican and has 30 cosponsors, including seven Republicans. In addition to making shorter crack sentences retroactive, the bill would cut mandatory minimums for various drug offenses in half, eliminate the mandatory life sentence for a third drug offense, and expand the “safety valve” for low-level, nonviolent offenders.

Is this the sort of bipartisan reform Clinton has in mind? What about the Justice Safety Valve Act, a more ambitious bill sponsored by Paul that would effectively repeal mandatory minimums by allowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice? Is that too radical for Clinton? If so, why?

Here’s the text of Hillary’s speech.


And while Hillary was at Columbia, after the most intense of Baltimore’s demonstrations quieted, Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this conversation-provoking essay about the fury in the streets. It is called ‘Nonviolence as Compliance.” Take a look.

Here are some clips:

Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.

The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:


….tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?

The people now calling for nonviolence are not prepared to answer these questions. Many of them are charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray’s death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm. But there was no official appeal for calm when Gray was being arrested….

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Drugs and drug treatment, law enforcement, Propositions, race, race and class, racial justice, Reentry | 2 Comments »

Crime, Justice & Pulitzers….& the LA Times Books Prizes

April 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


The winners of the LA Times Book Awards were announced Saturday night on the USC campus. It was a grand and glorious night devoted to the celebration of good literature.

(You can find the complete list of winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize here.)

But for those of you who, like me, are criminal justice junkies, (and also reading junkies) the Current Interest nonfiction list of finalists for the LAT prize is one that you should definitely check out.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I was one of the judges for the Current Interest prize.)

We found all five of the books we chose as finalists to be stellar, which meant we struggled to settle on a winner, with several of the books holding the top spot at one point in the judging or other.

The five were:

Atul Gawande,Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End”

Jeff Hobbs, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap”

Héctor Tobar, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

These are all important books that each read with the narrative urgency of a novel. Yet, obviously, not all deal with justice issues:

Atul Gwande’s essential “Being Mortal,” is about the limits of medicine and how well or poorly we deal with aging and dying.

Hector Tobar’s brilliant “Deep, Down, Dark” tells the remarkable tale of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, their rescue and the aftermath.

But then there is Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide, which lays out, in relentlessly reported detail, stories of investment banks, hedge funds and short-sellers, many of whom commit extravagant crimes without being held to account, juxtaposed with the poor, whom Taibbi shows being locked up on the flimsiest of pretexts.

And there is Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which recounts-–with stories that come from Stevenson’s own experience as a public interest lawyer—the many different and devastating ways that brutality, unfairness, and racial bias continue to infect criminal law in the United States

And finally there is the winner: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs.

Although the issue of race and justice is one of the many threads that wind through Hobbes’ haunting narrative about his near-genius Yale roommate who is shot to death in a marijuana deal gone bad, it is merely one thread in a complex and unforgettable interweave.

Here’s what we judges wrote when we turned our selection in to the Times.

We know the ending of the story before we open The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, yet when we arrive at the moment foretold by this important book’s title, author Hobbs has engaged us so completely that we wish to reach inside the narrative and roll back time, to make the finale play out differently, to force the spectacularly gifted, charismatic, courageous and painfully conflicted Peace to walk quickly in another direction. Hobbs’ deeply reported and mesmerizing work of literary journalism avoids easy assumptions, while offering us many satisfying gifts and troubling questions.

So read it. Hell, read ‘em all. You won’t be sorry.


LA Times book prizes were on Saturday, then the Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday and, among the winners and finalists, there were some works of extraordinarily fine journalism pertaining to the world of crime, justice, and juvenile welfare that you shouldn’t miss. To wit:


The Pulitzer’s top journalism prize for Public Service was awarded to the staff members of the Charleston Post-Courier for their shattering series, Till Death Do Us Part, about South Carolina’s murder rate for women, which is twice that of the nation’s.

Here’s a clip from Part I:

More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.

More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

It’s a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.

Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse, a Post and Courier investigation has found.

Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows “till death do us part” take on a sinister tone.

Consider 25-year-old Erica Olsen of Anderson, who was two months pregnant when her boyfriend stabbed her 25 times in front of her young daughter in October 2006. Or Andrenna Butler, 72, whose estranged husband drove from Pennsylvania to gun her down in her Newberry home in December. Or 30-year-old Dara Watson, whose fiancé shot her in the head at their Mount Pleasant home and dumped her in a Lowcountry forest in February 2012 before killing himself.

Interviews with more than 100 victims, counselors, police, prosecutors and judges reveal an ingrained, multi-generational problem in South Carolina, where abusive behavior is passed down from parents to their children. Yet the problem essentially remains a silent epidemic, a private matter that is seldom discussed outside the home until someone is seriously hurt.

“We have the notion that what goes on between a couple is just between the couple and is none of our business,” said 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties. “Where that analysis goes wrong is we have to remember that couple is training their little boy that this is how he treats women and training their little girl that this is what she should expect from her man. The cycle is just perpetual.”


One of the co-winners of the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting was Eric Lipton of the New York Times for his very disturbing stories showing how the influence of congressional lobbyists can slant justice toward the wealthy and connected—which is a definite must read.

The other co-winner was the Wall Street Journal staff for “Medicare Unmasked,” a remarkable project “that gave Americans unprecedented access to previously confidential data on the motivations and practices of their health care providers.”

But it is the runner-up for Investigative Reporting that we want to draw to your attention. It is a searing investigative report by Chicago Tribune journalists David Jackson, Gary Marx and Duaa Eldeib, about Illinois residential treatment centers for juveniles where kids are mistreated in ghastly ways.

Here’s a clip:

In residential treatment centers across Illinois, children are assaulted, sexually abused and running away by the thousands — yet state officials fail to act on reports of harm and continue sending waves of youths to the most troubled and violent facilities, a Tribune investigation found.

At a cost to taxpayers of well over $200 million per year, the residential centers promise round-the-clock supervision and therapy to state wards with histories of abuse and neglect, as well as other disadvantaged youths with mental health and behavioral problems. On any given day, about 1,400 wards live in the centers, although far more cycle through each year.

In the best cases, the facilities rebuild and even save young lives. But the Tribune found that many underprivileged youths — most of them African-American — are shuttled for years from one grim institution to another before emerging more damaged than when they went in.

Reports of patient-on-patient sexual assault are commonplace at some of Illinois’ largest and most relied-on facilities. Child prostitution schemes take root. Vulnerable children are terrorized by older ones and taught a life of crime. Some are preyed on sexually by the adults paid to care for them. And staggering numbers of wards, some as young as 10, flee to the streets.


In the category of Features, the winner was Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times for her compassionate and piercing dispatches from California’s Central Valley as its residents cope with the drought.

But it is the work of finalist Jennifer Gonnerman writing for the New Yorker, that we want to direct you toward. Her story about 16-year-old Kalief Browder who was accused of taking a backpack, a crime he maintained in the face enormous pressure, that he didn’t commit. As a consequence, Browder spent more than a thousand days at Rikers Island—many of them in solitary confinement—with no conviction before the district attorney simply dismissed the case.

With much of his adolescence simply lost to the system, Browder is working to make something of his life as he battles the ever-present emotional wounds of those frightening years inside Rikers.

Here’s a clip:

Browder’s brother…noticed a growing tendency toward despair. When Browder talked about his case, he was “strong, adamant: ‘No, they can’t do this to me!’ ” But, when the conversation turned to life in jail, “it’s a totally different personality, which is depressed. He’s, like, ‘I don’t know how long I can take this.’ ”

Browder got out of the Bing [solitary] in the fall of 2011, but by the end of the year he was back—after yet another fight, he says. On the night of February 8, 2012—his six-hundred-and-thirty-fourth day on Rikers—he said to himself, “I can’t take it anymore. I give up.” That night, he tore his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture, and tried to hang himself. He was taken to the clinic, then returned to solitary. Browder told me that his sheets, magazines, and clothes were removed—everything except his white plastic bucket.

On February 17th, he was shuttled to the courthouse once again, but this time he was not brought up from the court pen in time to hear his case called. (“I’ll waive his appearance for today’s purposes,” his lawyer told the judge.) For more than a year, he had heard various excuses about why his trial had to be delayed, among them that the prosecutor assigned to the case was on trial elsewhere, was on jury duty, or, as he once told the judge, had “conflicts in my schedule.” If Browder had been in the courtroom on this day, he would have heard a prosecutor offer a new excuse: “Your Honor, the assigned assistant is currently on vacation.” The prosecutor asked for a five-day adjournment; Browder’s lawyer requested March 16th, and the judge scheduled the next court date for then.

The following night, in his solitary cell on Rikers, Browder shattered his plastic bucket by stomping on it, then picked up a piece, sharpened it, and began sawing his wrist. He was stopped after an officer saw him through the cell window and intervened.

Browder was still on Rikers Island in June of 2012, when his high-school classmates collected their diplomas, and in September, when some of them enrolled in college. In the fall, prosecutors offered him a new deal: if he pleaded guilty, he’d get two and a half years in prison, which meant that, with time served, he could go home soon. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred would take the offer that gets you out of jail,” O’Meara told me. “He just said, ‘Nah, I’m not taking it.’ He didn’t flinch. Never talked about it. He was not taking a plea.”


And, we don’t want to forget, in the category of Breaking News, the LA Times staff was a finalist for their quick and excellent coverage of the Isla Vista shooting rampage. “The staff mobilized reporters in the middle of the night to cover a deadly spree near the campus of UC Santa Barbara that left seven dead, including the killer, and wounding 13,” said the Times in announcing the honor.

Posted in art and culture, arts, Books, children and adolescents, Civil Rights, criminal justice, journalism, writers and writing | No Comments »

A New Complaint by the Texas State Bar Suggests That Prosecutorial Misconduct May Have Caused the Execution of an Innocent Man

March 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


In a startling and painfully belated turn of events, the State Bar of Texas has filed a formal complaint alleging misconduct against John Jackson, the prosecutor who tried one of the most controversial death penalty cases in recent American history, that of Cameron Todd Willingham.

It reads in part:

“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, Respondent [aka prosecutor Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel. Specifically, Respondent failed to make timely disclosure to the defense details of an agreement of favorable treatment for Webb, an inmate, in exchange for Webb’s testimony at trial for the State.”

“Webb” is a jailhouse informant named Johnny Webb, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Bar then went on to tic off several very nice things Jackson allegedly did for informant Webb, namely to get the charge of which he was convicted reduced substantially, to push for his early parole, and to get him transferred out of prison to county jail. (The Bar did not mention that Jackson also allegedly introduced Johnny Webb to a wealthy rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., who gave Webb a job, money, and various other forms of help.)

The Bar also noted that Jackson told the court that he had no evidence that was favorable to Willingham. “That statement was false,” wrote Linda Acevedo, the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the State Bar of Texas with terse brevity.

The complaint is a welcome and very unusual instance of a prosecutor being held to answer by the legal profession. Yet it is more than a decade too late.

On February 17, 2004, Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for deliberately setting the fire that killed his three young daughters.

Maurice Possely of the Marshall Project, who is the latest smart reporter to get hooked by the Willingham case, has more on the events behind the Texas Bar’s decision to propose sanctions against prosecutor Jackson. And in reports co-sponsored by the Washington Post, Possely wrote of previous evidence of Jackson’s misconduct, and other irregularities pertaining to the case.

But, for those of you unfamiliar with the whole troubling Willingham matter, a little back story.


On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Corsicana, Texas, home that Cameron Todd Willingham, then twenty-three, shared with his twenty-two-year-old wife and three young daughters. The girls’ mother was not home at the time of the fire, but was at the Salvation Army buying Christmas gifts for the kids. Willingham was asleep when the fire broke out and was able to burst out of the house nearly unscathed, but screaming to the neighbors that his “babies,’ were still inside. By that time, however, the house was engulfed inflames. All three girls died in the fire.

At Willingham’s 1992 trial, prosecutor Jackson told the jury that Willingham had set the fire to kill his children, although no convincing motive for the arson murders was ever established. Willingham, a man with many less than likable traits, was sentenced to death on October 29, 1992.

Willingham maintained his innocence to the end. Prior to his trial, he refused the state’s plea bargain offer that would have saved his life. Rather than seeing this as the action of an innocent man, however, the prosecution viewed his refusal as the arrogance of an unrepentant killer.

Jackson’s primary evidence against Willingham was, as he put it, held up by “two pillars.” First there was the analysis of the state’s leading arson investigator, a deputy fire marshal named Manuel Vasquez, whom David Grann of the New Yorker described as having cultivated a Sherlock Holmsian aura of invincibility.

Vasquez concluded that the deaths of the three little girls were the a result of a clear and deliberate act of arson. Willingham, the only other person in the house, had poured liquid accelerant around the children’s room, even under their beds. Fire sleuth Vasquez described a heinous crime about which he maintained there could be no doubt.

The other primary evidence against Willingham was the testimony of the jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who had been in the same county jail as Willingham when the latter was awaiting trial. Webb said that Willingham had confessed to him that he took “some kind of lighter fluid, squirting [it] around the walls and the floor, and set a fire.”

This supposed confession matched the analysis of Vasquez, who claimed to have found more than “twenty indicators” of arson. With these two “pillars” holding his prosecutorial theory aloft, Jackson concluded that his case was impregnable.

In March 2000, however—four years before Willingham’s execution—Webb sent prosecutor Jackson a Motion to Recant Testimony, stating that “Mr. Willingham is innocent of all charges.”

No one in the prosecutor’s office thought to mention this recantation to Willingham’s attorney.

Nor did Jackson mention the legal favors he gave Webb in what appeared to be a quid pro quo exchange for testimony. In fact, he maintained there were no favors.

Shortly after his reversal, Webb recanted his recantation, with timing that seemed to correspond with some of Jackson’s written assurances of help for Webb.

For instance, in an August 2014 story for the Marshall Project and the Washington Post, Possely reported that “…letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line:”

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness was threatening to recant. (Jackson misspelled the rancher’s last name.) “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”

When questioned about the flip-flops half a decade after the fact by the New Yorker’s David Granny, Webb, who had by that time been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, first claimed a bad memory, then asked, “The statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn’t it?”

Earlier this month, the Marshall Report’s Possely published the most detailed account to date of how Webb came to testify against Willingham, based on two days of interview with the former informant:

“I did not want to see Willingham go to death row and die for something I damn well knew was a lie and something I didn’t initiate,” Webb said. “I lied on the man because I was being forced by John Jackson to do so,” Webb said. “I succumbed to pressure when I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was told, ‘You’re either going to get a life sentence or you’re going to testify.’ He coerced me to do it.

In 2010 Webb similarly described threats and coercion by Jackson on camera to reporters from PBS’s Frontline.

“During Willingham’s three-day trial in August 1992, Jackson pointedly asked Webb on the witness stand whether he had been promised a lighter sentence or some other benefit for his cooperation. Webb told the judge and jury that he had not.

Documents published last year by the Marshall Project and The Washington Post showed that during and after Webb was in state prison, he received thousands of dollars in aid from a wealthy local businessman, Charles S. Pearce Jr. Webb said in interviews that Pearce had helped him at the behest of Jackson, Patrick C. Batchelor, the district attorney, and the county sheriff. Jackson later denied that claim, saying that any support Pearce gave “had no connection” to Webb’s testimony in the Willingham case.


In January 2004, a few weeks before Willingham was to be executed, the other pillar of Willingham’s guilt began to crumble when Willingham’s lawyer, along with a pen-pal turned platonic friend named Elizabeth Gilbert, talked acclaimed scientist and fire investigator, Dr. Gerald Hurst, into reexamining the case file pro bono.

When Hurst subjected Vasquez’ prior report to exhaustive examination and testing, he concluded that the analysis of the Willingham fire on which the prosecution based its case did not conform at all with scientific knowledge about fire behavior. Based on the evidence, Hurst concluded that there was no indication at all of arson, that the fire was accidental and likely caused by a space heater in the house or faulty electrical wiring. Not a single article of physical evidence supported the conclusion of Arson, Hurst wrote. A man was about to be executed based on “junk science.”

The analysis did no good. Although it was sent to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and also to Governor Rick Perry, either of whom could have issued a stay so that the countervailing evidence could be presented in court. The requests for a stay were denied. Willingham’s execution went forward as scheduled.

Not content to let the matter drop, a few years later, the Innocence Project assembled five of the nation’s leading independent arson experts to again review the evidence in the case. In 2006, the group issued a 48-page report finding that none of the scientific analysis used to convict Willingham was valid. He was convicted, they wrote, “using what is now known to be bad science (or no science.,”

Three years later still, on August 25, 2009, a team of Texas state-hired experts released their own findings in a 64-page report on the Willingham fire. The team, headed by Dr. Craig L. Beyler, found the same thing that Hurst had found in 2004, and the Innocence team had found in 2006. No evidence of arson.

In a scathing analysis, Beyler wrote that original fire investigator Vasquez’s conclusions seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and were more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.”

“Vasquez’s opinions are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

And now we have the complaint against prosecutor Jackson filed by the State Bar of Texas.

In 2006, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion that in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Perhaps it is time to start shouting.

NOTE: Even though it is dated, if you’d like to know more about this complex and alarming case, the best account is still to be found in the 2009 New Yorker story, “Trial by Fire” by David Grann.

Photo courtesy of Willingham Family

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Innocence, Prosecutors | 6 Comments »

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