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LAPD Discipline Survey, the Marshall Project Launch: Missed Habeas Corpus Deadlines, and CA Ordered to Start Paroling Second-Strikers,

November 17th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

LAPD SURVEY SHOWS OFFICERS FEEL THEY ARE UNFAIRLY, INCONSISTENTLY DISCIPLINED

An LA Police Department discipline survey of 500 officers and civilian workers in response to former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner’s rampage over his alleged biased termination from the department. While the department found the firing of Dorner justified upon review, it opened up a discussion among other officers who felt they had experienced discriminatory or otherwise unfair discipline.

The survey indicated that officers and other employees commonly feel the LAPD discriminates based on gender, ethnicity, and rank. But the results were mixed, in some cases. For instance, some survey-takers said they believed minorities were treated unfairly in the disciplinary process, while others said they believed minorities received better treatment from the disciplinary process because the department feared potential lawsuits. Similar contradictory opinions were given regarding female officers.

A considerable number of officers felt the department takes too many complaints made against officers, particularly ones that are “obviously false.” According to the survey, a yearly average of 28% of LAPD employees have at least one complaint filed against them.

The survey recommends updating and distributing complaint, discipline, and penalty guides, as well as regularly gathering and analyzing department data on these issues.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has more on the report. Here’s a clip:

The survey was done shortly after former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner was killed in February. The disgruntled ex-officer murdered four people and prompted a massive manhunt before fatally shooting himself during a standoff in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Though officers expressed disgust with Dorner’s actions, some said his grievances about disciplinary bias within the police department sounded legitimate. After a review of Dorner’s disciplinary hearing, the department declared his firing was justified.

The LAPD asked focus groups of employees to give anonymous feedback using a computer system. A group of academics and human relations consultants analyzed the feedback to look for trends.

Below is a sampling of some of the comments published in the survey report.

“Females are held to a lesser standard due to fear of lawsuits or claims of bias.”

“Race is a factor in the discipline system.”

“The media and public pressure have a direct impact on how discipline investigations are handled.”

“Discipline is not imposed when it involves managers and supervisors.”

L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck has been criticized for inconsistent discipline for several years now. It surged in the last year or so when a few LAPD captains filed lawsuits alleging unfair discipline and retaliation, saying Beck did not follow top brass recommendations for disciplining other officers. It has been one of the complaints of the L.A. police union that represents the rank-and-file.

The LA Times’ Joel Rubin and Jack Leonard also reported on the survey. Here’s a small clip:

The report…contained data that raised doubts about some of those perceptions of bias. Statistics compiled by the LAPD show that the ethnic, gender and rank breakdown of officers sent to disciplinary panels for suspensions or termination roughly matches the demographics of the LAPD as a whole. White officers, for example, make up 36% of the department and 35% of officers sent to a Board of Rights disciplinary hearing for a lengthy suspension or termination. Black officers account for 12% of officers and 14% of those sent to such hearings.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck ordered the report more than 20 months ago after Dorner, an ex-LAPD officer, went on a shooting rampage across Southern California, killing police officers as well as the daughter of an LAPD captain and her boyfriend. In a rambling online document, Dorner claimed that he was seeking retribution after being unfairly fired and was the victim of racial discrimination within the department.

The civilian Police Commission is expected to review the report at a meeting next week.


NON-PROFIT PUBLICATION, THE MARSHALL PROJECT, LAUNCHES WITH TWO-PART SERIES ABOUT DEATH ROW ATTORNEYS MISSING LAST-CHANCE APPEAL DEADLINES

Ken Armstrong, of the new non-profit news organization launched over the weekend, the Marshall Project, has an excellent two-part series in the Sunday Washington Post about what happens when lawyers miss the final deadline for their death row clients’ last-chance appeal.

The first story tells of the 80 death penalty cases in which lawyers miss the final appeal deadline, by an average of nearly two and a half years (but in several cases by a single day). Of these 80 death row inmates thus denied habeas corpus, 16 have been executed. The reasons attorneys miss the cut off run the gamut from failing to overnight documents, to misunderstanding the complicated habeas law, to neglect. Here are some clips:

An investigation by The Marshall Project shows that since President Bill Clinton signed the one-year statute of limitations into law — enacting a tough-on-crime provision that emerged in the Republicans’ Contract with America — the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases. Sixteen of those inmates have since been executed — the most recent was on Thursday, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida.​

By missing the filing deadline, those inmates have usually lost access to habeas corpus, arguably the most critical safeguard in the United States’ system of capital punishment. “The Great Writ,” as it is often called (in Latin it means “you have the body”), habeas corpus allows prisoners to argue in federal court that the conviction or sentence they received in a state court violates federal law.

For example, of the 12 condemned prisoners who have left death row in Texas after being exonerated since 1987, five of them were spared in federal habeas corpus proceedings. In California, 49 of the 81 inmates who had completed their federal habeas appeals by earlier this year have had their death sentences vacated.

The prisoners who missed their habeas deadlines have sometimes forfeited powerful claims. Some of them challenged the evidence of their guilt, and others the fairness of their sentences. One Mississippi inmate was found guilty partly on the basis of a forensic hair analysis that the FBI now admits was flawed. A prisoner in Florida was convicted with a type of ballistics evidence that has long since been discredited.

[SNIP]

Some of the lawyers’ mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help.

The right of condemned inmates to habeas review “should not depend upon whether their court-appointed counsel is competent enough to comply with [the] statute of limitations,” one federal appeals judge, Beverly B. Martin, wrote in an opinion earlier this year. She added that allowing some inmates into the court system while turning others away because of how their lawyers missed filing deadlines was making the federal appeals process “simply arbitrary,” she added.

In the second story, Armstrong explains how only the death penalty inmates suffer the consequences of these lawyers’ missed deadlines. Here’s a clip:

Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found. And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession’s lowest forms of punishment.

The lack of oversight or accountability has left many of the lawyers who missed the habeas deadlines free to seek appointment by the federal courts to new death-penalty appeals….

In 17 of the country’s 94 federal judicial districts, special teams of government-funded lawyers and investigators monitor the capital cases coming out of their state courts to make sure deadlines are recognized and met. In some other districts, the federal defender’s office helps to evaluate the private attorneys who might be appointed to handle those appeals.

But for lawyers outside the government, the work is difficult and often unpopular, with limited funds available for investigators and experts. And in most districts, where judges screen candidates themselves or with the help of review committees, the quality of legal counsel varies widely.

Federal judges sometimes appoint lawyers “who are not good enough to handle these cases,” says habeas expert Randy A. Hertz, a professor at the New York University School of Law.

However well-meaning, such lawyers may be inexperienced or overmatched. Some may know the judges who make the appointments, but not the voluminous and complex law surrounding habeas corpus. Others have been found to have mental-health problems, substance-abuse issues or other complications that were missed in their screening.

In about one-third of the 80 cases where habeas deadlines were missed, the federal courts eventually allowed prisoners to go forward with their appeals, often because their attorneys’ failures went beyond what the courts would categorize as mere negligence.

Yet even when attorneys have been chastised in federal court rulings for work described as “inexcusable” or “deeply unprofessional,” they have managed to evade any discipline from bar associations or other agencies. One lawyer castigated by the U.S. Supreme Court for “serious instances of attorney misconduct” still has an unblemished disciplinary record.

A prominent death-penalty defense lawyer, Gretchen Engel of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina, offered a simple reason for the discrepancy between the magnitude of some lawyers’ mistakes and the paltry consequences they face: “The people who were hurt by it are prisoners.”

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone speaks with Marshall Project founder Neil Barksy and editor Bill Keller (formerly NY Times editor-in-chief) about the Marshall Project, its mission, and what we can expect from the new publication. Here are some clips:

Neil Barsky has taken on varied roles over the years, from Wall Street Journal reporter to Wall Street analyst, hedge fund manager to documentary filmmaker. Now he has returned to the newsroom as founder and chairman of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice and edited by New York Times veteran Bill Keller.

Barsky’s interest in criminal justice and the inequities of the U.S. system was ignited in recent years by two books: The New Jim Crow, which tackles mass incarceration and the over-representation of African-Americans in prison, and Devil in the Grove, which focuses on a 1949 rape case fought by Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later the first black Supreme Court justice. The project gets its name from Marshall — and for Barsky, its inspiration.

In an interview at The Marshall Project’s midtown New York offices before Sunday’s launch, Barsky said he wants to push criminal justice issues into the national spotlight. There’s a lack of urgency in dealing with the system’s flaws, he said, despite “how abysmal the status quo is.”

[SNIP]

Keller said he likes coming out of the gate with Armstrong’s piece because it shows readers that The Marshall Project won’t expose flaws in the system only when they concern the wrongly convicted.

“The easiest way to get reader sympathy is to write about people who are innocent,” Keller said. “Everybody feels a sense of unfairness if the law sends somebody away to jail for something they didn’t commit.”

Keller recalled how early on, he and Barsky visited different advocacy organizations, including the Innocence Project, which fights to exonerate those wrongly convicted through DNA evidence. After their meeting, Keller recalled that Barsky said, “You know, we’re sort of the Guilt Project.”

“Most of what we’re going to write about is people who are not innocent,” Keller said. “But people who are not innocent are entitled to a fair trial. They’re entitled to not being raped when they get to prison. They’re entitled to competent defense. They’re entitled to prosecutors who don’t withhold exonerating information. They’re entitled to cops who follow Miranda. All these things that are built into our criminal justice system are there for the guilty as well as the innocent. That’s one of the reasons I particularly liked this piece as a debut.”


FEDS ORDER CALIFORNIA TO START PAROLE HEARINGS OF INMATES WITH NON-VIOLENT SECOND-STRIKE FELONIES

On Friday, federal judges ordered California to begin early parole hearings for non-violent second-strike felons by January, overriding the state’s projected hearing launch time-frame of July 2015. The state has been meeting mini-goals set toward a two-year population reduction goal by expanding parole and sentence reduction programs and policies. But because the prison population is still expected to grow, the federal judges are pushing for more lasting solutions. (For backstory on California’s prison population problems, go here, and here.)

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has more on the topic. Here’s a clip:

In February, California officials were ordered to take a number of steps to reduce inmate numbers. At the same time, federal judges agreed to the state’s request for a two-year extension to meet population caps the courts had been trying to enforce for years.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s corrections department did move thousands of inmates out of state-owned prisons while expanding parole programs for frail and elderly inmates. Corrections officials also increased the sentence reductions some nonviolent felons could earn.

Those moves cut California’s prison population by 1,000 inmates, meeting short-term goals even though state projections show inmate numbers will continue to rise. Judges had sought additional actions to produce a “durable” long-term solution.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed to adopt those steps, including the granting of early parole to second-strikers, the judges noted. In October, prison officials told judges that creating such a parole program was “a time-consuming process” and moving faster would “endanger the public.” They did not expect to finish until July 2015.

In an order several weeks ago, the judges said they were “skeptical” of such a delay. On Friday, they gave the state until Dec. 1 to finish plans for the parole program and ordered it in place by January.

Posted in Charlie Beck, criminal justice, Death Penalty, journalism, LAPD, The Feds | No Comments »

$3M Proposal to Give Legal Aid to Unaccompanied Immigrant Kids, the Problem of Prosecutorial Abuse, Social Workers to Get Criminal History of Foster Providers, and CA Attorney General Appealing Death Penalty Ruling

August 22nd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

GOV. BROWN AND LAWMAKERS’ $3 MILLION LEGISLATIVE PROPOSAL TO PROVIDE LEGAL REPRESENTATION TO UNACCOMPANIED IMMIGRANT KIDS

On Tuesday, Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers announced a proposal to allocate $3 million to non-profits providing legal aid to unaccompanied children in immigration court proceedings who are otherwise left to navigate the court system alone.

The LA Times’ Melanie Mason has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Helping these young people navigate our legal system is the decent thing to do and it’s consistent with the progressive spirit of California,” Brown said in a statement.

The legislative proposal would give $3 million to qualified nonprofit organizations that provide legal assistance to unaccompanied minors. There are an estimated 3,900 Central American children currently in the state who have come to the country without a parent or other relative.

“These kids face a daunting immigration process and any failures in our justice system that lead to deportation can be a death sentence,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and members of the Latino Caucus paid a visit this summer to a temporary detention center in Ventura County where some children were being housed. Atkins said that visit was a catalyst for the legislative action.

“We all came away with a feeling that these kids needed our support — that it was about their safety, their due process, the ability to look beyond bigger political considerations and deal with a humanitarian crisis,” she said.


$10 MIL SETTLEMENT TO WRONGFULLY CONVICTED MAN DOES NOT ADDRESS THE PROBLEM OF UNCHECKED PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT

New York City will pay a $10 million settlement to Jabbar Collins who was wrongfully convicted of murder for which he spent 15 years in prison.

Collins’ battle with the city also helped to bring down Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, whose top aide Michael Vecchione prosecuted Collins, allegedly withholding evidence and coercing witnesses to win a conviction. Collins and his lawyer, Joel Rudin, exposed extensive prosecutorial misconduct emanating from the DA’s office.

In an editorial co-published with the NY Daily News, ProPublica’s Joe Sexton says Collins’ win does not mean that the system worked: Vecchione paid no consequences for misconduct, and it’s likely that he never will. Instead, tax payers will foot the bill for Vecchione’s misdeeds in the Collins case. Prosecutorial misconduct goes largely unchecked, thanks, in part, to laws protecting prosecutors from liability. Here’s a clip:

So many shortcomings spotlighted by the Collins case remain unresolved.

Michael Vecchione, the prosecutor who gained a murder conviction against Collins in the 1990s and who was later accused of having committed an array of misconduct in the case, has to date faced no sanction.

And history suggests he won’t. He even managed to cash out a couple hundred days of vacation as he quietly left the Brooklyn district attorney’s office last year.

The taxpayers who paid for those vacation days are now on the hook for $10 million more, footing the bill for Collins’ wrongful conviction.

The lack of consequences for Vecchione — who was accused by Collins and his lawyer of intimidating witnesses, suborning perjury and lying about it all for years while Collins sat in prison — get at larger problems with the system of prosecutorial oversight.

Two federal judges ultimately came to damning conclusions about Vecchione’s conduct. They upbraided him in open court. But there’s no evidence they reported him to the state disciplinary committees appointed to investigate complaints of attorney misconduct.

The fact that it is not clear whether any state panel charged with policing attorneys has or will take up Vecchione’s history underscores what many have complained about for years: The state’s disciplinary system operates almost entirely in secret. Its rare disciplining of prosecutors, then, often remains unknown to the public, including the men and women later facing those prosecutors in court.

The system offers the innocent and the damaged only one meaningful recourse for exposing prosecutorial misconduct: a civil lawsuit. But such suits require years of expensive effort, and, of course, are only even theoretically available to those who have managed to win their freedom.


SOCIAL WORKERS GAIN MORE ACCESS TO CRIMINAL HISTORY OF FOSTER PARENTS AND PROVIDERS TO KEEP KIDS SAFE

On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed an important bill, SB 1136, to allow social workers to access foster care parents and providers criminal history data before placing kids in their care. Foster care providers have to receive a criminal record clearance or exemption from the state, according to existing law.

To help them better protect vulnerable foster kids, social workers will now be able to see if (and why) parents or providers have received a suspension, probation, or a revoked license.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has more on the bill. Here’s a clip:

The legislation, SB 1136, comes in response to Times reports documenting instances when children were harmed and taxpayer money was allegedly misspent by people with criminal backgrounds who had been granted special waivers from the state to receive foster children.

In the past, county social workers, who have the responsibility to place at-risk children in safe homes, were unable to view criminal records of foster parents or workers at agencies that help find and train foster families.

The law takes effect on Jan. 1.


CALIFORNIA AG KAMALA HARRIS TO APPEAL RULING AGAINST CALIFORNIA DEATH PENALTY

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has decided to appeal a federal judge’s ruling against California’s death penalty.

U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled last month that delays keeping inmates on death row for decades amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Here’s what AG Harris had to say about her decision: “I am appealing the court’s decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants. This flawed ruling requires appellate review.”

KPCC’s Nathan McIntire has the story.

Posted in DCFS, Death Penalty, Foster Care, immigration, Prosecutors | 1 Comment »

Gov. Signs Bill to Curb Deportations for Misdemeanors….Federal Judge Argues in Favor of Firing Squads….Representation for 46K Affected by Retroactive Sentencing Guidelines

July 23rd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

GOV. BROWN SIGNS BILL TO KEEP LEGAL IMMIGRANTS CONVICTED OF LOW-LEVEL CRIMES FROM BEING DEPORTED

On Monday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a piece of legislation that aims to reduce the number of deportations of legal immigrants for non-felony crimes.

Federal law allows for deportation of permanent legal residents who commit crimes carrying a one year sentence (or more). The measure, authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) lowers the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor from one year to 364 days. The bill garnered bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has the story. Here’s a clip:

As of Jan. 1, SB1310 will reduce the maximum penalty for misdemeanors to 364 days to conform to the federal law.

“Amazingly, the fact that it’s 364 means it’s not an aggravated felony under federal law,” said Steven Rease, a criminal defense attorney in Monterey County. “It’s a very small change in terms of 365, 364, but it’s going to make all the difference in the world to a legal immigrant…whose chances of deportation are greatly reduced.”

Rease is co-chairman of the legislative committee of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which represents defense attorneys and sought the change in state law.

He estimated the change could affect thousands of people in California, based on the scores of cases he has seen mainly among farm workers in his county who have been convicted of misdemeanors for things like writing bad checks.

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles also projected the change could affect thousands of immigrants in California. It estimated that more than 100,000 children legally residing in the United States had a parent deported for a misdemeanor crime between 1997 and 2007. It said similar legal changes have been adopted by Nevada and Washington state.

“While the federal government continues to turn a blind eye to our broken immigration system, California continues to advance state legislation to ensure aspiring citizens are integrated into our fabric instead of being in the shadows,” the group’s policy and advocacy director, Joseph Villela, said in a statement.


9TH CIRCUIT CHIEF JUDGE KOZINSKI TELLS STATES TO BRING BACK FIRING SQUADS

In a dissent criticizing execution by lethal injection, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge, Alex Kozinski, called for states to go back to using firing squads.

The judge’s dissent came in the case of an Arizona man seeking a stay of execution after the state refused to release information on the drugs to be used in his lethal injection. (The death row inmate, Joseph Rudolph Wood, won the stay, but the Supreme Court promptly reversed the lower court’s ruling and lifted the stay.) The ruling followed five days after U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney declared California’s death penalty unconstitutional.

Kozinski, a supporter of the death penalty, called lethal injections a “misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions.”

KPCC’s Rina Palta has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Legal scholars say the judge’s splashy approach is aimed less at shocking the public than asking it to confront its own relationship with the death penalty.

The dissenting opinion came in the case of an Arizona inmate scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Thursday. Joseph Rudolph Wood, convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend and her father, sought a delay on the grounds that Arizona has refused to disclose details of their execution protocol. Wood won the stay, and the 9th Circuit decided not to review his case–a decision Judge Kozinski disagreed with on the cases’ legal merits.

Kozinski used his dissenting opinion, however, to launch into a bit of a tangent on lethal injection—the preferred execution method of all state’s that have the death penalty. Firing squads may be disturbing, he said, but unlike lethal injection, they’re relatively fool-proof.

The judge wrote:

“Whatever the hopes and reasons for the switch to drugs, they proved to be misguided. Subverting medicines meant to heal the human body to the opposite purpose was an enterprise doomed to failure. Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments.

But executions are, in fact, nothing like that…They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf…

Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”

Kozinski, it should be noted, is not a death penalty opponent.

Read the rest.


NO RIGHT TO LEGAL AID FOR 46,000 FEDERAL DRUG OFFENDERS ELIGIBLE FOR SENTENCE REDUCTIONS

On Friday, the US Sentencing Commission voted to make retroactive drug sentencing guidelines that reduced sentences for most drug trafficking offenses by an average of two years.

The decision is expected to affect more than 46,000 federal prisoners who will be able to seek sentence reductions.

Law professor and sentencing expert, Doug Berman, in his blog Sentencing Law and Policy points out that federal prisoners do not have a right to legal counsel in sentence modification court proceedings. Berman explains that normally, public defender offices try to provide legal help to those seeking sentence reductions, but will not be able to handle the influx of nearly 50,000 inmates seeking aid.

Experts like Berman point out the necessity to find some solution to the problem because, as Berman says, ” …the proper application of new reduced drug offense guidelines can involve various legal issues that may really need to be addressed by sophisticated legal professionals.”

Here’s a clip:

As hard-core federal sentencing fans likely already know, most lower federal courts have ruled that federal prisoners do not have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel applicable at the sentence modification proceedings judges must conduct to implement reduced retroactive sentencing guidelines. Consequently, none of the nearly 50,000 federal drug offense prisoners who may soon become eligible for a reduced sentence have any right to legal assistance in seeking this reduced sentence.

Fortunately for many federal prisoners seeking to benefit from previous guideline reductions, many federal public defender offices have traditionally made considerable efforts to provide representation to those seeking reduced sentences. But even the broadest guideline reductions applied retroactively in the past (which were crack guideline reductions) applied only to less than 1/3 of the number of federal prisoners now potentially eligible for reductions under the new reduced drug guidelines. I suspect that pubic defenders are unlikely to be able to provide significant legal help to a significant number of drug offenders who will be seeking modified sentences under the new reduced drug guidelines.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC…

An NY Times editorial praises the US Sentencing Commission’s vote in favor of retroactivity, and calls on Congress to let the decision stand. Here’s a clip:

The commission’s bold step, which will ease overcrowding in federal prisons, stands in stark relief to the mind-numbing failure of Congress to make meaningful progress on criminal justice reform. At the same time, it is consistent with a healthy trend among state governments that are finding innovative ways of shrinking prison populations while also reducing crime.


Posted in Death Penalty, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), immigration, Sentencing | No Comments »

Fed Judge Rules CA Death Penalty Unconstitutional

July 16th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon



U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney
ruled on Wednesday that California’s death penalty process is so absurdly long and drawn out—and ultimately arbitrary as a result—that it violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

In his ruling Carney wrote:

“….the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.

As for the random few who actually are executed, Carney wrote, “they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

Carney, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, overturned the death sentence of Ernest Dewayne Jones, a man sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother.

The judge noted that more than 900 people have received a death sentence in California since 1978, yet only 13 have been executed.

The ruling will likely be appealed by the state to the 9th Circuit and could go as far as the US Supreme Court. Some legal scholars are already betting that the Supremes will not side with Carney, and likely that is true, given the leanings of the present court. Yet, a full reading of Carney’s ruling (which you can find here) is interesting, in terms of the SCOTUS precedents he cites.

Another intriguing part of Carney’s findings is his flat contention that the interminable delays in arriving at a decision as to whether someone sentenced to death in the state of California is to be executed, are caused entirely by the state, not the inmate:

Most Death Row inmates wait between three and five years for counsel to be appointed for their direct appeal. After the issues are briefed on direct appeal, another two to three years are spent waiting for oral argument to be scheduled before the California Supreme Court. On state habeas review, far from meeting the ideal goal of appointing state habeas counsel shortly after the death verdict, at least eight to ten years elapse between the death verdict and appointment of habeas counsel. When that counsel is appointed by the State, investigation of potential claims is hampered by underfunding, which in turn slows down the federal habeas review process…..” And so it goes.

And just to be clear, Carney is in no way arguing against the appeal process, which he sees as essential—-because “…as the American tradition of law has long recognized, death is a punishment different in kind from any other”—-but to its utter dysfunction in California.

Ultimately, Judge Carney concludes:

Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. IIt has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.

As mentioned above, this ruling will most likely be appealed to the 9th Circuit. (Kamala Harris is reportedly reviewing the ruling.) Carney did not, however, issue a statewide order with his ruling, but only overturned Jones’ death sentence, converting it to life without the possibility of parole.

Executions in California have been on hold since February 2006, when federal Judge Jeremy Fogel, then of San Jose, ruled that unsolved problems with the state’s lethal injection procedures, along with poor staff training, meant that the condemned were exposed to a botched and extremely painful execution, which was in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Posted in Death Penalty, How Appealing | 1 Comment »

CA Mandatory Minimum Juvie Bill Delayed….$$ for Foster Kids’ Lawyers Cut from CA Budget….and More

June 19th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

BILL TO CREATE MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCE FOR CERTAIN JUVENILE SEX OFFENSES DELAYED IN ASSEMBLY (AND WHY THIS BILL IS SUCH A TERRIBLE IDEA)

A California bill that would impose the first mandatory minimum sentences in the state’s juvenile justice system, SB 838, has stalled in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. If passed, SB 838 would impose a two-year minimum out-of-home sentence on kids convicted of sexually assaulting someone who is unconscious or disabled.

The vote was delayed until next week in hopes of coming to a compromise after a number of Democratic Assemblymembers said they would oppose the bill.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Melody Gutierrez has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

SB838 would increase sentences to a two-years minimum at an out-of-home placement like juvenile hall, reduces confidentiality protections for juveniles accused of sex crimes involving unconscious or disabled victims and increases fines in cases when social media is used to share photos of the crime.

However, the bill has been met with significant opposition from juvenile justice advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union, California Alliance for Youth and Community Justice and the California Public Defenders Association. Many opponents said the mandatory minimum sentences create a “one-size fits all” model that emulates broken adult court sentencing laws.

“The mandatory minimum laws have been applied so broadly (in adult court) that it has driven up the prison population,” said Patricia Lee of the San Francisco Public Defenders Office. “Now we are poised to apply the same failed experiment with children. I think this is a grave mistake.”

The bill cleared the Senate unanimously, but faced a tough vote in the Assembly public safety committee on Tuesday. The Pott family’s attorney, Robert Allard, said they were prepared for the bill to be defeated.

Many Democratic Assembly members said they could not support the bill because of the mandatory minimum requirements, prompting committee chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, to call for Audrie’s Law to be brought back next week with amendments that could garner more broad support.

Jeff Adachi, the Public Defender of San Francisco, explains in an op-ed for the Huffington Post why SB 838 is an ill-conceived response to a tragic crime. Here’s how it opens:

There is an old adage among judges: Hard cases make bad law. Often, when a terrible crime happens, there is a rush to pass a new criminal law to redress the tragedy. The case of Audrie Potts, the impetus for Senator Jim Beall’s Senate Bill 838, is indeed tragic. But SB 838, which creates a mandatory minimum term of confinement that is unprecedented in California’s juvenile justice system, is not the answer.

Mandatory minimum sentences are one-size-fits-all sentencing schemes common in adult criminal systems. Designed to prosecute kingpins and crime bosses, they are inherently punitive and intended to exact retribution for crimes committed by an adult. We know from science and from real life, however, that youth are different than adults, and are more amenable to treatment. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “[F]rom a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

(The op-ed was co-authored by Roger Chan, executive director of the East Bay Children’s Law Offices.)


KIDS IN THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM MAY LOSE OUT ON MUCH-NEEDED STATE FUNDING FOR LEGAL REPRESENTATION

Millions of dollars earmarked for reducing caseloads in child dependency courts has been removed from the final draft of the state budget sent to Gov. Brown’s desk. In Los Angeles alone, lawyers appointed to foster children are responsible for an average of 308 cases—nearly double the 188 case maximum, and quadruple the recommended 77 cases.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback has the story. Here’s a clip:

The California State Assembly and Senate had both signed off on a modest pot of money earmarked to help children’s legal representatives reduce caseloads that have grown to more than 400 children per lawyer in some counties.

The state would have doled out $11 million in funding over the next year to help lower caseloads in child-welfare courts, followed by $22 million in the second year and $33 million in the third year.

However, that money vanished in the final version of the budget that was sent to the Gov. Jerry Brown (D) for approval on Sunday.

Negotiations over the budget will commence this week, and the San Francisco Chronicle is among the voices urging the governor and legislature to provide relief to lawyers that face sky-high caseloads and frequent turnover

According to Kendall Marlowe, executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, the situation in California is not unique. Though caseloads and support vary from state to state, funding for legal counsel for foster children across the nation is frequently threatened by the budgetary process and the perception of legal representation for foster youth as less important than other parts of the judicial system.

“As adults, we would never tolerate walking into our attorney’s office and being told to wait behind 50 or 60 other people,” Marlowe said. “That’s what we’re asking foster children to accept.”


EDITORIAL: DEATH ROW INMATES DO NEED PSYCH HOSPITAL, BUT MORE THAN THAT, WHY THE DEATH PENALTY SHOULD BE ABOLISHED

Earlier this month, under pressure from a federal judge, California prison officials announced a planned 40-bed psychiatric hospital for San Quentin State Prison’s death row inmates.

An LA Times editorial says it’s welcome news that the dozens of men requiring round-the-clock psychiatric care will receive treatment. But, the editorial also says the move is an ironic one—that condemned men should have their serious mental illnesses treated, only to be put to death afterward.

Here are some clips:

Why is it welcome? According to a federal court-appointed mental health monitor, 37 of more than 720 condemned men on San Quentin’s death row are so mentally ill that they require 24-hour inpatient care.

[SNIP]

Yet the ironies are also obvious in seeking to restore mentally ill death row prisoners to a minimal level of sanity in order to kill them. It may be legally necessary, because federal courts have ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who are unaware of what is happening to them, but it is a strange idea. As one death penalty expert observed, “It is a measure of American greatness and American silliness at the same time.” Besides, how sane can a man be when he is always expecting to be executed (although the sentence may not actually be carried out for 20 or 25 years, if ever)? Whose psyche wouldn’t suffer in such a house of horrors?

And so the absurdities roll on. California executions have been on hold since 2006 because the state has been unable to come up with a constitutional way to kill people. Those who would be best at it — doctors and nurses — usually refuse to take part in the system for moral reasons, and pharmaceutical companies often won’t provide the killing drugs.

The death penalty is bad public policy and should be abolished. It is inconsistently applied, subject to manipulation and error, and morally wrong. For the state to kill a person as punishment for killing someone else is a macabre inversion of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Posted in DCFS, Death Penalty, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Mental Illness | 2 Comments »

Jail Visitor Beaten by Deputies Wins Settlement, SCOTUS Moves to Protect Intellectually Disabled on Death Row, Problematic Proposed Adelanto Jail, RIP Maya Angelou…& WLA Finalist for LA Press Club Prize

May 29th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

JAIL VISITOR BEATEN BY LA COUNTY DEPUTIES WINS SEVEN-FIGURE SETTLEMENT

In February 2011, a man visiting his brother at Men’s Central Jail was reportedly violently beaten by deputies, who then covered their tracks by falsely charging the man, Gabriel Carrillo, with assault. Carrillo would have faced 14 years in prison had the District Attorney’s Office not dismissed all charges a week before his trial. The FBI and US Attorney’s Office filed charges against the deputies involved (which are currently pending).

And today, at 9:30a.m., Gabriel Carrillo, his family, and attorneys will announce a seven-figure settlement reached in Carrillo’s lawsuit against LA County.

(For the backstory on the Carrillo beating, go here.) Interestingly, the Carrillo incident occurred seven months before the Anthony Brown incident that has triggered the current trial. The FBI, at that time, was investigating brutality of inmates by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies.


SCOTUS EASES FLORIDA’S RIGID IQ REQUIREMENT FOR DEATH ROW INMATES SEEKING EXEMPTION DUE TO INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY

The US Supreme Court struck down Florida’s rule that a person on death row must have an IQ below 70 to be considered intellectually disabled enough to be spared from execution. The 5-4 ruling means that states cannot determine death row inmates’ intellectual capacity using only a fixed number on an imperfect test—that the inmates’ IQ number should instead represent a range with room for error.

The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes and Matt Zapotosky have the story. Here’s a clip:

The court ruled 5 to 4 that state laws that draw a bright line on IQ-test results are unconstitutional. Under those laws, an inmate who scores above 70 on the test does not meet the first step of proving that he or she is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty.

Florida, Virginia and Kentucky have such laws, and a handful of others have similar rules.

It was the court’s first consideration of state laws defining mental retardation in capital cases since its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia that executing the mentally retarded violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In that decision, the court left it up to states to define intellectual disability. But those state determinations must meet constitutional requirements respecting “the gravest sentence our society may impose,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the majority opinion released Tuesday. He was joined in the decision by the court’s four liberals.

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of a 70 on an IQ test,” Kennedy wrote, adding that experts agree that any number on an IQ test is an imprecise measurement. “Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.”

It is relatively rare for a death row inmate to raise intellectual disability as a bar to execution. Defense lawyers in Virginia, for instance, estimate that the ruling might aid only a couple of the eight death row inmates there.

But the decision again showed the continuing tension among the justices about how to apply the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” as the court put it more than 50 years ago, to the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.


PROPOSED ADELANTO PRIVATE JAIL FACILITY MEANS TO LEASE BEDS TO LA COUNTY

Amid LA County’s costly plans to rebuild the crumbling Men’s Central Jail and renovate another jail to make room for female inmates, the relatively small city of Adelanto (in San Bernardino County) has proposed building another detention facility. The city aims to capitalize on LA County’s overcrowding crisis by constructing a 3,280-bed jail to lease to LA for $104 million a year.

If the facility is built, LA County plans to be locked into the lease for a whopping 20 years. In addition to the double-decade, multi-million dollar commitment (on top of our $2 billion Men’s Central Jail project). Inmates moved to the Adelanto facility would also be far from their families.

And if the county enters into a new private prison contract, would the $104 million lease create yet another unholy conflict of interest that could put pressure on the county and the entrepreneurs to keep the facility filled so that everyone gets their monies worth? as we have seen in contracts across the nation with CCA and GEO Group? (Backstory here, and here.)

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

County supervisors recently voted to embark on a $2-billion plan to tear down and rebuild the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. The new facility is intended to improve conditions for inmates with physical and mental health needs, but would not add beds to the county system or address the overcrowding that has led to thousands of inmates being released early each year.

Adelanto, a city of 31,000 in San Bernardino County’s high desert region, is proposing to build a 3,280-bed jail on vacant industrial land next to a federal corrections complex. Then it would lease the beds to Los Angeles County. City Manager Jim Hart said Adelanto — via its public financing authority or another agency to be created for the project — would issue bonds to buy the property and build the jail, at an estimated cost of $332 million.

Under a proposal presented earlier this month by a pair of businessmen who are marketing the deal, Los Angeles County would not pay the upfront costs to build the jail but would agree to lease beds there for 20 years once it’s completed, at a rate of $88 per bed per day, or about $104 million a year.

Proponents say the facility could be completed in about two years and would allow the county to avoid shortening the time served by serious offenders, comply with federal requirements to reduce crowding, and save money they might otherwise spend constructing new jails.

County supervisors have not formally discussed the proposal, but three of the five — Don Knabe, Gloria Molina and Michael D. Antonovich — have said they’re willing to consider it.

Knabe said Friday that he sees the Adelanto facility as “a possible enhancement in the future” to expand the county’s jail capacity — not as an alternative to the Men’s Central Jail project.

“It would not be something I would want to pursue instead of the option we picked,” he said.

Two politically connected businessmen are making the Adelanto pitch: Doctor R. Crants, a Nashville-based businessman who cofounded Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company in the United States, and William Buck Johns, a Newport Beach-based developer and prominent Republican fundraiser who has been involved in other ventures in the Inland Empire. Johns and his company, Inland Group, have contributed to Knabe’s and Antonovich’s campaigns in the past.


REMEMBERING MAYA ANGELOU

On Wednesday, Maya Angelou, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was found dead at her home in North Carolina.

NPR’s Morning Edition does an excellent job of remembering Angelou and her legacy as a poet, author, activist, and so much more. Here are some clips from the transcript, but do go listen to the episode:

“She really believed that life was a banquet,” says Patrik Henry Bass, an editor at Essence Magazine. When he read Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, he saw parallels in his own life in a small town in North Carolina. He says everyone in the African-American community looked up to her; she was a celebrity but she was one of them. He remembers seeing her on television and hearing her speak.

“When we think of her, we often think about her books, of course, and her poems,” he says. “But in the African-American community, certainly, we heard so much of her work recited, so I think about her voice. You would hear that voice, and that voice would capture a humanity, and that voice would calm you in so many ways through some of the most significant challenges.”

[SNIP]

Joanne Braxton, a professor at the College of William and Mary, says Angelou’s willingness to reveal the sexual abuse she suffered as a child in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was unprecedented at the time. The critical acclaim and popularity of the book opened doors for both African-American and female writers.

“Maya Angelou brought about a paradigm shift in American literature and culture,” Braxton says, “so that the works, the gifts, the talents of women writers, including women writers of color, could be brought to the foreground and appreciated. She created an audience by her stunning example.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued this statement regarding Angelou’s passing:

“Maya Angelou was one of history’s great lyricists whose words and deeds opened windows that allowed the world to see and appreciate the enduring principles of freedom, equality and justice. She had an immeasurable impact on the way I view the world and my place in it. Maya Angelou’s legacy will live on not only through her extraordinary body of work, but in the efforts of all those who fight for freedom, dignity and humanity.”

Take a listen to this very empowering recording of Maya Angelou reading one of her well-known poems, “Still I Rise.”

We also recommend taking a look at Angelou’s Twitter account (trust us, it’s worth it).


ELIMINATING THE POWDER VS. CRACK COCAINE SENTENCING DISCREPANCY IN CALIFORNIA

The California Senate has passed a bill to equalize the punishment for possession (for sale) of powder and crack cocaine. Crack previously held a higher penalty of three to five years, while powder was punishable by two to four years. Both forms of cocaine will now carry a two to four year sentence.

(The cocaine sentencing discrepancy is also an issue dealt with at the federal level.)

The Associated Press has the story.


BY THE WAY…

I am very happy to report that WitnessLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, is an LA Press Club Award finalist for the “Online Journalist of the Year” category.

The winners will be announced on Sunday, June 29, at the Biltmore Hotel, in downtown LA.

You can find the rest of the categories and finalists here.

Posted in Death Penalty, LASD, Sentencing, Supreme Court, writers and writing | 5 Comments »

Suspending & Expelling Preschoolers, SF District Attorney Says to End Capital Punishment, AG Eric Holder Says Juvenile Facilities Overuse Solitary Confinement

May 15th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

SUSPENDING AND EXPELLING THREE AND FOUR-YEAR-OLDS…IN CALIFORNIA AND NATIONWIDE

Back in March, the Civil Rights division of the US Dept. of Education released a report on school discipline that revealed nearly 5,000 preschoolers were suspended in the 2011-2012 school year.

Many California school districts say they do not suspend or expel preschool-aged children, LAUSD included, but Yale professor Walter Gilliam discovered California schools are, indeed, suspending and expelling three and four-year-olds. In 2005, Gilliam conducted a national study that found California schools were expelling preschoolers at a rate of 7.5 per 1000 kids, a number higher than the national average.

KPCC’s Deepa Fernandes has the story. Here’s a clip:

In March, the U.S. Department of Education released statistics showing that 5,000 preschoolers nationwide were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year. Half of them were suspended more than once.

That’s not even the complete picture; those numbers only include children at public schools, not private preschools or home-run childcare centers…

And one national expert doubts the federal numbers are accurate, even for public-school-based programs.

Some of the largest school districts in California – Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Oakland, San Francisco – showed zero preschool expulsions in the 2011-2012 federal data, the first year the federal government required school districts to report it. The state doesn’t require school districts to break out expulsion reports by grade.

L.A. Unified school district has an unwritten policy against suspending or expelling preschoolers, said Maureen Diekman who runs the district’s early education programs.

“When there’s a child with challenging behavior, we work with the family and work to find out how best to meet that child’s individual needs,“ she said.

California Head Start officials also said they enlist the help of parents and guardians to curb behavior issues, rather than expel children.

Yale professor Walter Gilliam doesn’t believe that California’s preschools are not suspending or expelling kids. When he set out to conduct the first major national study on preschool expulsion in 2005, he said officials told him they had policies against it, too.

But when his research team surveyed teachers directly, they found that – whatever schools’ policies may be — teachers were indeed asking problem preschoolers to leave. Often.

“Pre-kindergarten children were being expelled at [a] rate well over three times that of K through 12 combined,” he said.

In California, the expulsion rate was 7.5 children per thousand preschoolers, well above the national average of 6.7 per thousand. That made it the 16th highest state in the nation for preschool expulsion rates.

And, just like in upper grades, both Gilliam’s study and the new federal data show suspension rates are higher for African-American children than students of other races – even in preschool.

For 2011-2012, the federal data shows half of the preschool children suspended were black, even though black children made up only 18 percent of all preschoolers.

Read the rest.


SF DISTRICT ATTORNEY (AND FORMER ASSISTANT CHIEF OF LAPD) SAYS TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY

In an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury, San Francisco DA George Gascon says that the death penalty should be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Gascon says the death penalty is both costly, and an ineffective crime deterrent.

And the most urgent reason to end capital punishment, he says, is the alarming percentage of death row inmates found innocent. (A recently published study by the National Academy of Sciences found that one in 25 people handed a death sentence between 1973-2004 were wrongly convicted.)

The stand is particularly significant because of Gascon’s background in law enforcement—he has served as the Assistant Chief of the LAPD, Chief of Police for Mesa, Arizona, and Chief of the SFPD.

Here is a clip from DA Gascon’s op-ed:

Arriving at my current views involved a process that was highly analytical and deeply emotional. Like many people, I have gone through an evolution in my thinking that has led me to believe the death penalty is irreparably flawed and marred by a history of incorrect information.

My journey began with the realization that in my 30 years in law enforcement, the death penalty has had no impact on public safety. Strengthening families and neighborhoods, holding criminals swiftly accountable and ensuring every child receives a quality education are more effective in deterring violent crime than remote threats of execution.

This is especially true in California, where the 745 people now on death row likely will die of old age rather than execution. The truth is that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is the most severe punishment and the most effective solution to deal with the most dangerous murderers.

The costly reality of our death penalty system also played a critical role in my evolution. Study after study in California, including the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, has concluded that replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole will save California $130 million every year. That is $130 million of precious taxpayer money that should be spent to prevent crime, to solve crime and to educate our kids.

But the most important stop on my journey was innocence. Even under the most scrupulous practices, the legal system occasionally makes mistakes. Just since 1973, more than 140 people on death rows around the country have been exonerated, thankfully before they were executed. To me, this number was evidence enough that the death penalty invites deadly mistakes.

Last week’s report escalates a disturbing situation into one that deserves public outcry. The researchers calculated that 4.1 percent of the 7,482 accused sentenced to death in the United States from 1973 to 1984 were wrongly convicted. This, according to the researchers, is a “conservative estimate.” That means there may be 30 innocent people on California’s death row right now.


US ATTORNEY GENERAL CONDEMNS OVER-USE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN JUVENILE FACILITIES

On Wednesday, US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against excessive solitary confinement of kids—especially those with disabilities—in detention centers.

Holder said, moving forward, the DOJ would work with states to rein in the use of isolation in juvenile facilities. (It should be noted that LA County Probation still uses isolation in their juvenile probation camps.)

Here is a clip of the transcript from the Dept. of Justice website:

“In a study released last year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth in some type of isolation for more than four hours at a time. We have received reports of young people who have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all. In some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive. And these episodes are all too common.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities – who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects including self-harm and even suicide. In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.

“Let me be clear, there may be times when it becomes necessary to remove a detained juvenile from others in order to protect staff, other inmates, or the juvenile himself from harm. However, this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so, and for a limited amount of time; isolated juveniles must be closely monitored, and every attempt must be made to continue educational and mental health programming while the youth is in isolation.

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities. And at the Department of Justice, we are committed to working with states to do this going forward.

Posted in Death Penalty, School to Prison Pipeline, solitary, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 1 Comment »

Supervisors on Recommended Foster Care Reform, From Prison to Campaigning for State Assembly, Federal Recidivism Study…and More

April 23rd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

BOARD OF SUPERVISORS RESPONDS TO COMMISSION’S FINAL FOSTER CARE REFORM RECOMMENDATIONS

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors responded to final recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. The Supes did not all agree on specific DCFS reforms—Supe Zev Yaroslavsky called the creation of a separate oversight panel “a non-starter”—but did agree to study the final report before acting on any recommendations.

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

Citing years of reforms, reports, and even court cases aimed at overhauling the Department of Children and Family Services, commissioner Leslie Gilbert-Lurie told the board that the county needs an oversight team to make sure the reform proposals don’t gather dust on the shelves in the county building.

“Recommendations will come and go,” Gilbert-Lurie said. “As we can all now recite in our sleep, there have been hundreds of them. The problem fundamentally is not a lack of good ideas or of good people.”

An oversight panel is the reform several commissioners called the most important. It’s also the most controversial among county leaders.

The panel has also suggested creating an Office of Child Protection to coordinate amongst the numerous agencies (DCFS, law enforcement, District Attorney, Department of Health) that touch on child welfare going forward.

“A solid structure that takes in good ideas, assesses them, funds them, implements them, and holds people accountable for better results than in the past will lead to sustainable change,” Gilbert-Lurie said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who voted against creating the blue ribbon panel in the first place, called the idea a “turkey.”

“What this issue needs is not more bureaucracy and more commissions, it needs results,” Yaroslavsky said.

The supervisor said moving resources from one under-funded department to a brand new one is hardly a solution.

“It’s a non-starter with me,” he said, though he said many of the ideas contained in the report were worth pursuing and more practical.

Board President Don Knabe has also expressed skepticism that more county agencies and commissions is that way to go.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who pushed for the blue ribbon panel, said he’s “undeterred.”


PROPHET WALKER: FROM LOCKUP TO RUNNING FOR STATE ASSEMBLY

To say that Prophet Walker had a rough beginning, would be a rather large understatement. He grew up in the projects in Watts, was abandoned as a young child by his mother, and landed himself in prison at age 16. While in prison, Prophet made impressive use of his time, getting a college education, and helping to persuade the CDCR to allow certain young offenders to pursue education in lower security prisons.

Now, ten years later, Prophet is running for a state Assembly seat with the help of some serious mentors and supporters (namely “Hangover” producer Scott Budnick and Carol Biondi, commissioner of the LA County Commission for Children and Families).

James Rainey has a very cool Column One story about Prophet. Here’s how it opens:

The kids at Compton YouthBuild can be a tough audience. Many come from broken homes, flunked out of multiple schools, even spent time in jail.

By the last day of Black History Month, some at the alternative school — which looks boarded shut from Compton Boulevard — had gotten their fill of talk about hope and perseverance.

On this late Friday afternoon, though, a tall young man strode into their big multipurpose room and flashed a flawless smile. He looked a bit like the rapper Drake. Or so said a girl near the front, giggling.

When the visitor began, “How many people here are familiar with Nickerson Gardens?” some of the students stopped mugging and poking one another. They not only knew the housing project where their guest came up, they knew other young men not unlike him whose mothers struggled with addiction, who had children while still nearly children themselves, who had let violence win them over.

But his story didn’t end like most. He found a way to keep learning while behind bars, went to college, then got a job overseeing big-ticket construction projects. He told the students of knowing Kendrick Lamar from back in the day and how he recently visited the hip-hop star backstage at one of his shows. Hearing that, one boy in the audience whistled in admiration and exclaimed: “Damn!”

Not only had their visitor played fate for a fool, he had a name that seemed plucked straight from a Spike Lee drama: Prophet. Prophet Walker.

“A lot of people who came from the ‘hood don’t do anything. But he came back,” student Jonathan Chase Butler said after Walker’s talk. “He is trying to speak to us and inspire us, and I see I can actually push forward and keep going. That is huge.”

Now Walker, just 26, is trying to build on his unlikely story. With no experience in politics or government, he’s running for the California Assembly, hoping to represent a district that stretches from South L.A. to Compton, Carson and a slice of Long Beach.
Such is the power of his resurrection tale that actor Matt Damon has donated to his campaign and television pioneer Norman Lear sponsored a fundraiser.

His high-powered supporters tend to focus on Walker’s inspiring rise out of bleak beginnings. As he steps onto a bigger public stage, though, he will also have to address more directly what happened during his fall…

Read on.


NEW FEDERAL STUDY ON RECIDIVISM

Two-thirds of inmates released in 2005 were rearrested within three years, and three-quarters were rearrested within five years, according to a new study released by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The study samples former prisoner data from 30 states, including California, between 2005-2010, and is the first large-scale federal study of its kind in almost 20 years.

Here’s a clip of some of the study’s key findings from the BJS announcement:

More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year…

During the five years after release, prisoners in the study were arrested about 1.2 million times across the country. A sixth (16 percent) of released prisoners were responsible for nearly half (48 percent) of the arrests. About two in five (42 percent) released prisoners were either not arrested or were arrested no more than once in the five years after release.

The longer released prisoners went without being arrested, the less likely they were to be arrested at all during the follow-up period. For example, 43 percent of released prisoners were arrested within one year of release, compared to 13 percent of those not arrested by the end of year four who were arrested in the fifth year after release.

Among prisoners released in 2005 in 23 states with available data on inmates returned to prison, about half (50 percent) had either a parole or probation violation or an arrest for a new crime within three years that led to imprisonment, and more than half (55 percent) had a parole or probation violation or an arrest within five years that led to imprisonment.

Recidivism rates varied with the attributes of the inmate. Prisoners released after serving time for a property offense were the most likely to recidivate. Within five years of release, 82 percent of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 77 percent of drug offenders, 74 percent of public order offenders and 71 percent of violent offenders.

Released prisoners who were incarcerated for a violent, property or drug crime were more likely than other released inmates to be arrested for a similar type of crime. Regardless of the incarceration offense, the majority (58 percent) of released prisoners were arrested for a public order offense within five years of release. An estimated 39 percent of released prisoners were arrested within five years for a drug offense, 38 percent for a property offense and 29 percent for a violent offense.

Recidivism was highest among males, blacks and young adults. By the end of the fifth year after release, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of males and two-thirds (68 percent) of females were arrested, a 10 percentage point difference that remained relatively stable during the entire 5-year follow-up period.


MAN WITH ALCOHOLIC TRIAL LAWYER STILL HEADED FOR EXECUTION

In yet another example of a flawed capital punishment system, a “borderline” mentally disabled man, Robert Wayne Holsey, faces execution in Georgia—a fate he would not likely be faced with had he been provided competent counsel. Instead, Holsey was represented by Andy Prince, a lawyer who says he drank a quart of alcohol per day during the death penalty trial.

Mother Jones’ Marc Bookman has the story. Here’s a clip:

In the early hours of December 17, 1995, Robert Wayne Holsey was arrested and charged for the murder of Baldwin County Deputy Sheriff Will Robinson, who pulled over Holsey’s car following the armed robbery of a Jet Food Store in the county seat of Milledgeville. As with any killing of a police officer, it was a high-profile affair. Most of the county’s judges attended Robinson’s funeral, and many sent flowers. To ensure an impartial hearing, the trial had to be moved two counties away.

Like the great majority of people arrested for serious crimes, Holsey could not afford a lawyer; he had to depend on the court to appoint one for him. But it is reasonable to wonder why any court would have chosen Andy Prince for the job. Beyond his chronic alcohol problem and the financial judgments piling up against him, Prince did not generally handle cases in the Milledgeville area.

As it turns out, little thought was given to his suitability. The selection process in the Holsey case conjures up the old military trope about volunteering by means of everyone else taking a step backward. “Because of who the victim was, nobody within the circuit wanted to be appointed to this case,” Prince later testified. “And I told [the judge], sure, I’d take it.”

On one condition: He insisted on picking his co-counsel. Prince had handled capital cases before, and with some success, but he’d only worked on the more traditional guilt/innocence part of the representation—never the crucial sentencing phase. He contacted Rob Westin, the lawyer he’d collaborated with previously. Westin said he’d do it, but then reversed himself in short order. Westin “had gone to the solicitor’s office in Baldwin County,” Prince later explained, “and had been told that they couldn’t believe that he was representing Mr. Holsey and that if he continued to represent him he would never get another deal worked out with that office.”

His next attempt to secure co-counsel failed as well; the lawyer quit after a few months on the case and took a job with the state attorney general’s office. Seven months before the trial date, Prince finally found his “second chair” in Brenda Trammell, a lawyer who practiced in Morgan County, where the case was to be tried: “She was about the only one that would take it.”

As for Trammell, she assumed she was selected “based on proximity,” as she later testified. “I had not tried to trial a death penalty case and I waited for him to tell me what to do, and there really was not a lot of direction in that way.”

There was still one thing missing. What distinguishes capital murder trials from noncapital ones is the penalty phase, wherein the jury hears additional evidence and determines the appropriate punishment—usually choosing between death and life without parole. During this phase, a “mitigation specialist,” whom the American Bar Association (ABA) describes as “an indispensable member of the defense team throughout all capital proceedings,” gathers information that might convince jurors to spare the defendant’s life. Indeed, the court provided Holsey’s defense team with sufficient funds to hire a mitigation specialist, but no one was ever able to account for the money. Prince later said that he didn’t remember what happened to it, only that he was certain no mitigation specialist was ever hired. Which may explain Trammell’s response to this question from Holsey’s appeals lawyer.

Q: When you got into the case, was there any theory with respect to mitigation in the event that he was convicted?

A: No, sir.

Mitigation theory or not, Holsey went on trial for his life in February 1997.

Read the rest.

Posted in DCFS, Death Penalty, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, prison, Reentry, Rehabilitation | No Comments »

Fixing the “Truancy Crisis,” NYC Art Program Diverts Teen Taggers, Exonerated After 30 Years on Death Row…and More

March 12th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

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KEEPING CALIFORNIA KIDS IN SCHOOL AND ON TRACK

On Monday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and state lawmakers proposed a group of bills targeting elementary school truancy, which they describe as having reached crisis-level.

Harris’ office put together a report on the issue of “chronic” absence and truancy across California. The report found, for instance, that an alarming one out of five elementary school kids were reported as truant during the 2011-12 school year. Here’s a clip from the executive summary:

…In the 2012-2013 school year, approximately one million elementary school children in California were truant and almost 83,000 were chronically truant (missing 10% or more of the school year – calculated from the date of enrollment to the current date – due to unexcused absences).

The same sample reveals that hundreds of thousands of students in California are chronically absent from school. Over 250,000 elementary school students missed more than 10% of the school year (over 18 school days); and a shocking 20,000 elementary school children missed 36 days or more of school in a single school year.

Given these disturbing statistics, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris commissioned a study to examine the scope, causes and effects of truancy and absenteeism in California. The study also focused on what law enforcement, parents, educators, non-profits, public agencies and concerned community members can and must do about this problem. The findings are stark. We are failing our children.

Truancy, especially among elementary school students, has long-term negative effects. Students who miss school at an early age are more likely to struggle academically and, in later years, to drop out entirely. One study found that for low-income elementary students who have already missed five days of school, each additional school day missed decreased the student’s chance of graduating by 7%. Lacking an education, these children are more likely to end up unemployed and at risk of becoming involved in crime, both as victims and as offenders.

The five bills proposed by Harris and lawmakers address some of the report’s recommendations, with an overall goal of keeping kids in class without turning to harsh school discipline. Several of the bills focus on attendance data-gathering by the AG’s office, the Department of Education, and county School Attendance Review Boards (which would be made mandatory by one of the five proposed bills).

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Melody Gutierrez has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Harris said California needs to better collect student attendance data and put it to use instead of waiting for that person to be deemed a menace to society and pouring billions into the criminal justice system.

[SNIP]

“We need to try to get ahold of our young people early and make sure they end up in the classroom and not the courtroom,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, who authored one of the bills.

“With this slate of bills, we are not putting more students in the juvenile justice system, but inviting communities to intervene before they end up in the penal system.”

Harris’ report was the first statewide assessment of the truancy crisis, specifically examining elementary schools in each county and relaying the financial impact.


NEW YORK CITY NON PROFIT PARTNERS WITH PROBATION DEPT. TO GIVE YOUNG TAGGERS FORMAL ART LESSONS

In partnership with NYC Dept. of Probation, a nonprofit, “Paint Straight,” takes kids arrested for tagging and redirects them with formal painting lessons and mentorship. At the end of the 8-week program, parents, friends, and probation officers attend Paint Straight’s art show where the kids’ paintings are sold through a silent auction.

We at WLA think this is a much better way to address the issue of young people tagging, than former city attorney Carmen Trutanich’s push for gang injunctions against taggers back in 2009.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Laura Bult has the story. Here’s how it opens:

Elijah Henriques, 15, always loved to draw. He began drawing on paper, then on his schoolbooks and eventually he started making graffiti. After a neighbor witnessed Henriques tagging mailboxes in his Ozone Park, Queens, neighborhood, police officers pulled him off a city bus and arrested him and his friends.

Two months later on a Saturday afternoon, his graffiti was exhibited at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café in the East Village in Manhattan. His artwork was part of a show organized by the “Paint Straight” program, a nonprofit that’s designed to encourage teenagers who have been arrested for vandalism to express their art in safe and legal ways.

“It helps you understand that doing it illegally is a waste of time. That you can do it on canvas, too,” Henriques said at the “All-City Paint Straight Program Finale.”

Eighteen other young artists who had been arrested for graffiti displayed their work alongside Henriques. Colorful 18-by-21 canvases rested on easels throughout the small dark bar. A DJ spun hip-hop records as probation officers and family and friends of the artists streamed in to view and bid on the art in a silent auction.

Ralph Perez, 49, founded “Paint Straight” five years ago in collaboration with the New York City Department of Probation for teens who have been arrested for nonviolent crimes. The program lasts eight weeks and is often a requirement of probation or offered as an alternative to community service.

“Paint Straight” participants meet once a week at their respective borough’s family court facilities and receive art education and mentorship. Perez said that, out of the 111 kids whom he has helped in the last year, only four have been re-arrested for vandalism…

(Read the rest.)


LOUISIANA MAN EXONERATED AND FREED AFTER A STAGGERING 30 YEARS ON DEATH ROW

Glenn Ford, a man who spent 30 years on death row in Louisiana for a murder he didn’t commit, was exonerated and released Tuesday afternoon. Through a massive miscarriage of justice—by police, prosecutors, judges, “experts,” and the defense attorneys—Ford was convicted by an all-white jury in 1984. His release makes him one of the longest-serving death row exonerees, to date.

The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen has the story. Here’s a clip:

Isadore Rozeman, an elderly white man with cataracts, a man fearful of crime in his neighborhood, was murdered in his small jewelry and watch repair shop in Shreveport on November 5, 1983. Ford had done yard work for Rozeman and several witnesses placed him near the scene of the crime on the day of the murder. When he learned that the police were looking for him he went to the police station where, for days, for months, he cooperated with the investigation.

Ford told the police, for example, that a man he identified as “O.B.” had given him jewelry hoping that he, Ford, could pawn it. The police would later discover that this jewelry was similar to merchandise taken from Rozeman’s store. Ford identified one possible suspect in Rozeman’s murder, a man named Jake Robinson, and later suggested that “O.B.” was Robinson’s brother, Henry, who also may also have been up to no good.

With all signs pointing to the Robinsons, and with police under the impression that the one or both of the brothers still possessed the murder weapon, Ford was not immediately charged with Rozeman’s murder. He and the two Robinsons were instead charged three months later—only after Jake Robinson’s girlfriend, Marvella Brown, incriminated them by telling the police that Ford was with the Robinsons, and in the possession of a firearm, on the day of Rozeman’s murder.

Louisiana also relied on “experts” to build its case. The first, the parish coroner who had not personally examined Rozeman’s body, testified about the time of death and the fact that the shooter was left-handed. The second expert found a few particles unique to or characteristic of gunshot residue on Ford’s hands. The third, a police officer not certified as a fingerprint expert, concluded that a “whorl” pattern on Ford’s fingers was consistent with a single partial fingerprint lifted from a bag the police believed was used in the murder.

There was no murder weapon found. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime. There were legitimate reasons why Ford would have been around Rozeman’s store. The primary witness against Ford was a person, Brown, whose credibility and reliability were immediately challenged. Expert opinions were not definitive. The police had reason to believe that one of the Robinsons had killed Rozeman. And most of all Ford had not acted suspiciously in any way.

Ford’s murder trial was constitutionally flawed in almost every way. The two attorneys he was assigned were utterly unprepared for the job. The lead attorney was an oil and gas attorney who have never tried a case—criminal or civil—to a jury. The second attorney, two years out of law school, was working at an insurance defense firm on slip-and-fall cases. Both attorneys were selected from an alphabetical listing of lawyers at the local bar association.

During jury selection, prosecutors used their peremptory strikes to keep blacks off the jury. The reasons they gave for precluding these men and women from sitting in judgment of Ford were insulting and absurd. And leading up to and during the trial Louisiana did not share with the defense all evidence favorable to it as they were required to do under the United States Supreme Court’s constitutional command in Brady v. Maryland.

The prosecution’s case was based largely on the testimony of Brown, the girlfriend. Under cross-examination, however, she told jurors that the police had helped her make up the story she had told about Ford. When Ford’s attorneys later called her to the witness stand, she told jurors that a bullet left from an old gunshot wound to her head had affected her thinking. “I did lie to the Court… I lied about it all,” she said in court (remember, it was Brown’s story that led to Ford’s arrest).

After Brown’s credibility imploded on the stand, prosecutors turned to their “experts.” It was a case that cried out for rebuttal experts to make simple and obvious points. A coroner who did not examine the body could not accurately determine time of death or whether the shooter was left-handed. That sort of thing. But no experts testified for the defense. Why? Because Ford’s lawyers believed, mistakenly, that they would have to pay for the costs of these experts…


LA TIMES SEZ SUPE. MOLINA IS -MOSTLY- RIGHT TO BE FRUSTRATED BY COUNTY COUNSEL DENYING ACCESS TO LASD INTERNAL INVESTIGATION DOCS

Last week, LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina insisted county counsel should grant the board access to LASD internal investigation documents on questionable use of force incidents that wind up triggering lawsuits against the county. For instance, Molina wanted access to documents on one investigation in particular, regarding a deputy’s seventh shooting (after which he was placed back on patrol). Molina said, without being able to look at the files, the board could not hold the sheriff’s department accountable to the county, which last year had to pay $89 million in judgments and settlements. (We pointed to the story—here.)

An LA Times’ editorial says Molina is right to be frustrated by the county counsel’s withholding, but there’s more to it. Here are two clips:

She is correct that the county counsel prevents too much information from coming to people who need it to do their jobs. That’s in part because he must obey canons of legal ethics requiring him to protect the interests of his client — which is not simply the Board of Supervisors.

Like all municipal lawyers, the county counsel’s position is curious. His client is the county, a governmental entity consisting of elected officials such as the sheriff and the district attorney as well as the Board of Supervisors; thousands of workers; and in the case of Los Angeles County, 10 million constituents. With so many people who claim to be the client, and with so many competing legal interests to balance, the county’s lawyer can take on enormous power. He sometimes seems to be on both sides of the attorney-client privilege, directing the supervisors’ actions instead of taking directions.

The Times then points to the Supervisors’ own tendency towards secrecy in these cases:

But the supervisors have rarely hesitated to make that awkward relationship work in their favor. They frequently withhold information from the public or meet behind closed doors, then seek to excuse their actions by hiding behind legal advice that they are perfectly free to reject. The county counsel is their tool at least as often as he is their obstacle.

When it comes to obtaining confidential reports on the actions of sheriff’s deputies, members of the Board of Supervisors may have their hands tied by the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, a state law that, in the name of privacy, keeps far too much information about deputies’ use of force out of the hands not just of the supervisors but of the public. If the supervisors wanted to, they could put their not inconsiderable clout behind a legislative measure to modify that law.


REMINDER: SHERIFF CANDIDATE DEBATE

The first debate among Los Angeles County Sheriff candidates (save for Assistant Sheriff Jim Hellmold) is scheduled for tonight (Wednesday) at 7:00 pm, at the Van Nuys Civic Center (6262 Van Nuys Blvd.).

Posted in Death Penalty, Education, Innocence, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, School to Prison Pipeline, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

After Brief Sunshine, Darkness Again at LA Family Court….Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty…Alabama’s Women’s Prison Problem….& More

March 4th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


FAMILY COURT, WHERE FOSTER CARE CASES ARE DECIDED, IS CLOSED TO PRESS AGAIN IN AN APPELLATE COURT RULING MONDAY

On Monday, in a 2-1 decision, a California appeals court closed off press access to LA’s Juvenile Dependency hearings—aka where foster care cases are decided—in all but a few instances.

The ruling came more than two years after Judge Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the county’s juvenile court, issued a blanket order opening the long-shuttered court system to the press, on January 31, 2012.

In Nash’s original order, there was a fail safe system to further ensure that kids were protected. The way it worked was simple: if there was clear evidence that media presence would be harmful to the children involved in any given case, the press would be excluded. Otherwise, they would be allowed—very carefully—in.

Those who objected to the blanket order seemed to envision crowds of insensitive reporters storming the hearing rooms, but in fact very, very few reporters showed any interest.

Those few who did show up, seemed to tread very carefully and took pains to protect the privacy of the kids involved in any case they were covering.

After all, the point of opening the courts in the first place was to shed some light on a secretive system that is, in so many ways, terribly broken.

According to the appellate ruling, however, in one particularly difficult case in February 2012, the attorney of a fifteen-year-old girl—who was the eldest of five children siblings involved—objected to press presence in behalf of her client, who had allegedly been badly assaulted by her dad.

An LA Times attorney, who was present with a Times reporter, pushed back against the objection.

A lengthy legal battle ensued, and Monday’s ruling was the result.

In reading the court’s opinion, it is unclear why the LA Times chose to go to the mat on this one case, where there was such a virulent objection. It is also unclear whether it was really the 15-year-old girl who objected or merely her attorney.

In any case, whatever the individual motives of the adults, the result is that the press is once again excluded from child dependency court. Thus a much-needed check-and-balance to the functioning of LA’s foster care system in its dealings with our county’s most vulnerable kids….is no more. Which is very, very unfortunate.

The LA Times Garrett Therolf has written a story about the decision too, and reports that Judge Nash said Monday he would soon issue a new order complying with the appellate court decision and laying out a new procedure for journalists and members of the public seeking access to dependency hearings.

(This is very good news.)

“Over the last two years, I’m somewhat disappointed that there were not [more] visits to the court by the media. Other than that, I think the old order went well,” Nash said.

POST SCRIPT: A hat tip to the Chronicle of Social Change for alerting us to the fact that the ruling had come down.


WHEN IT COMES TO THE DEATH PENALTY WHO IS MENTALLY DISABLED?

In 2002 the U.S.Supreme Court ruled that those suffering from mental retardation should be excluded from execution. However, in the case known as Atkins v. Virginia, the court failed to actually set down guidelines to help determine exactly what amounted to the kind of mental disability that the justices intended with their ruling.

On Monday, March 3, SCOTUS heard a case that may force the Supremes to lay down such guidelines—or leave the matter to the states.

The excellent Irwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine School of Law explains the case and what it could mean for the issue in an essay for the ABA Journal.

Here’s a clip:

Freddie Lee Hall was tried and convicted for a murder that occurred in 1978. At a hearing on whether to impose the death penalty, Hall’s lawyers presented evidence that he is mentally retarded. His teachers had identified his mental disabilities and labeled him “mentally retarded.” Doctors who examined him concluded that Hall was “extremely impaired psychiatrically, neurologically and intellectually,” that he showed signs of “serious brain impairment,” and that he “is probably incapable of even the most … basic living skills which incorporate math and reading.” On intelligence tests, his IQ measured at 60, 76, 79, and 80, all in the range of being mentally retarded. Nonetheless, the Florida trial court sentenced him to death.

In 2001, Florida enacted a statute that prohibits the execution of persons with mental retardation. The law defines mental retardation as “significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning” as measured by a “performance that is two or more standard deviations from the mean score on a standardized intelligence test specified in the rules.” In 2007, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted this law to mean that only those with an I.Q. score of 70 or below qualify as mentally retarded. Cherry v. State.

In 2009, a hearing was held on whether Hall was mentally retarded. An expert testified that he had administered an IQ test to Hall–the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III–and Hall scored 71. Another expert testified that Hall’s IQ was 73. The trial court concluded that Hall could be executed by Florida because his IQ was above 70.

Florida is one of 10 states with laws that define mental retardation solely based on whether a person has an IQ score of 70 or lower. Two other states set a cutoff of an IQ of 75 or lower. The question before the Supreme Court is whether this approach to defining who is mentally retarded is consistent with the Eighth Amendment.

This is an issue that the Supreme Court has avoided since its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that the “mentally retarded should be categorically excluded from execution.”

Read the rest here.

And for NPR, Nina Totenberg also has an explanatory story on the Monday’s case.

AND….Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog has a terrific and prognosticative analysis of the Supremes attitudes as they heard the case on Monday morning.

Here’s a clip:

If a state, trying to make it simple to decide who can be given a death sentence, opts for a choice that looks arbitrary, it is likely to have a difficult time in a Supreme Court that worries about the chances of error. That was demonstrated anew on Monday, when Florida found itself in deep Eighth Amendment trouble with a rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 can be executed if convicted of murder.

A quite definite majority of the Justices — perhaps, notably, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — left little doubt that Florida and six other states will not be allowed to maintain an automatic test-score-based cutoff for those who could qualify as mentally retarded and thus can escape the death penalty.

Kennedy’s role is central because he has most often led the Court in narrowing the category of those eligible to be executed, to take account of reduced capacity to be held responsible for their criminal behavior. He was among the most active in questioning Florida’s approach to mental retardation among those on death row. And, on Monday, he added in some strongly implied criticism of a system that allows some inmates to remain on death row for decades….


HOW WILL ALABAMA HANDLE ITS CRISIS IN ITS WOMEN’S PRISONS?

Investigative reports into conditions at Alabama’s Tutwiler prison for women have described a damning situation in which “officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years,” writes Kim Severson for the NY Times.

An official in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice points to “a very strong case of constitutional violations.”

There is a toxic, highly sexualized environment that has been met with “deliberate indifference on the part of prison officials and prison management,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the acting DOJ assistant attorney general for civil rights, of Tutwiler.

Yet, in Severson’s straight-talking story she reports that it is unclear if the state’s elected officials have the political will to actually solve the mess in which conditions are allegedly substandard and sex is a traded commodity.

Here’s a clip:

“No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.

Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal.

The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.

The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner. He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers.

The odds of approval for that much new money are not great, but they are better this year than they have been in a long while, said Stephen Stetson, a policy analyst with Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a liberal policy group.

Even so, “for the average legislator, it’s still, ‘These bodies don’t matter,’ ” he said.

For some of the prisoners’ accounts, read the rest.


THE STORY OF THE FOUR PRISON GANGSTERS WHO LAUNCHED A 30,000 INMATE HUNGER STRIKE FROM PELICAN BAY’S SHU

I wondered when someone would tell this story and now reporter Benjamin Wallace-Wells has written a very smart account for New York Magazine. (But why did it take an out-of-state media outlet to publish it?)

In any case, this is a well-reported, intelligently-written story that neither advocates nor judges. We didn’t want you to miss it

Here’re some clips:

In July 8 of last year, a 50-year-old man named Todd Ashker, an inmate at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, began a hunger strike. He had compiled a list of demands, but the essential one was that the policy that dictated the terms of his imprisonment be abolished. Ashker was housed in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, the most restrictive prison unit in California and a place of extreme isolation. Convicts stay in their cells 23 hours a day and leave only to exercise in a concrete room, alone; their meals are fed into their cell through a slot. Other than an awareness that they are staring at the same blank wall as seven other men kept in their “pod,” they are completely alone. Ashker has been there since 1990; in his view, he has been subject to nearly a quarter-­century of continuous torture. “I have not had a normal face-to-face conversation with another human being in 23 years,” he told me recently, speaking from the other side of a thick plate of glass.

The sheer length of time inmates spend here has made Pelican Bay a novel experiment in social control. The California prison system allows any confirmed gang member to be kept in the SHU indefinitely, with a review of his status only every six years. (Prisoners who kill a guard or another inmate, by contrast, are given a five-year term in the SHU.) This policy has filled Pelican Bay with men considered the most influential and dangerous gang leaders in California. Ashker, allegedly a senior member of the Aryan Brotherhood, had for years shared a pod with Sitawa Jamaa, allegedly the minister of education of the Black Guerrilla Family, and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly an important leader of the Mexican Mafia. In the next pod over was Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of three “generals” of Nuestra Familia. According to the state, these men have spent much of their lives running rival, racially aligned criminal organizations dedicated, often, to killing one another. But over a period of years, through an elaborate and extremely patient series of conversations yelled across the pod and through the concrete walls of the exercise room, the four men had formed a political alliance. They had a shared interest in protesting the conditions of their confinement and, eventually, a shared strategy. They became collaborators.

[BIG SNIP]

[UC Santa Cruz professor Craig] Haney visited Pelican Bay three years after it opened and surveyed 100 SHU inmates as an expert consultant to a prisoner lawsuit challenging the unit’s constitutionality. On his first day at the prison, the psychologist saw such florid psychosis that he called the attorneys and urged them to emphasize the confinement of the mentally ill. Once Haney began his interviews, he found serious psychological disturbances in nearly every prisoner. More than 70 percent exhibited symptoms of “impending nervous breakdown”; more than 40 percent suffered from hallucinations; 27 percent had suicidal thoughts. Haney noticed something subtler, too: A pervasive asociality, a distancing. More than three-quarters of the prisoners exhibited symptoms of social withdrawal. Even longtime prisoners reported feeling a profound loss of control when they entered the SHU, in part because they weren’t sure whether they’d ever be released. Many reported waking up with a rolling, nonspecific anxiety. The SHU “hovers on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” wrote Thelton Henderson, the federal judge who decided the prisoner lawsuit in 1995. You can sense a vast uncertainty in that first word, hovers. The judge ordered major reforms—the seriously mentally ill, for instance, could no longer be housed there—but he let the SHU stand.

That was more than 18 years ago. Some of the same prisoners are still there. Haney returned to Pelican Bay last year, for a ­follow-up study, and found that these ­patterns of self-isolation had deepened. Many inmates had discouraged family members from visiting, and some seemed to consider all social interactions a nuisance. “They have systematically extinguished all of the social skills they need to survive,” Haney says. Those inmates who do comparatively well tend to replace the social networks outside the SHU with those within it—which, in a society composed of alleged gang members, often means gangs. “In isolation,” he says, “gang activity is the only contact that is possible; it is the only loyalty that is possible; it is the only connection that is possible.”

Read the whole, if you have the time. Clipping this story doesn’t do it justice.

Posted in CDCR, criminal justice, Death Penalty, Foster Care, How Appealing, Human rights, prison, prison policy, solitary, Supreme Court | No Comments »

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