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Prop. 47 Applications County by County…the Takeaway from LA County’s Jail Scandal…and SFPD’s New Community Policing Bureau

February 23rd, 2016 by Taylor Walker

A LOOK AT WHICH CA COUNTIES ARE GATHERING THE MOST PROP. 47 APPLICATIONS

As of September 2015, a total of 193,865 Proposition 47 applications for resentencing and reclassification have been filed in California, according to updated numbers released by the California Judicial Council. (If you’re unfamiliar, in November 2014, Prop. 47 reduced six non-serious drug and property felonies to misdemeanors. The law’s retroactivity allows current and former offenders to apply to have their qualifying felonies reclassified.)

Los Angeles, which has the highest population of people who stand to benefit from Prop. 47, received 32,153 applications for resentencing and/or reclassification. But San Diego County, with its hardline District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has received 47,880 applications—around 15,000 more applications than the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore has had a far more positive response to Prop. 47 than LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Sheriff Gore says thanks to the new law, San Diego has been able to do away with early releases (caused by jail overcrowding). The vacant jail beds have also allowed the county to book people for misdemeanor offenses, rather than handing out citations to people accused of misdemeanors. In LA, officers have stopped booking people on these reduced offenses. In a series of video op-eds, LASD Sheriff Jim McDonnell says low-level offenders are receiving citations instead, because Prop. 47 did away with consequences for those crimes.


JUSTICE SYSTEM REFORMER VINCENT SCHIRALDI FAULTS SYSTEMIC FAILURES IN LA COUNTY JAIL SCANDAL

On February 10, former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty to one felony count of lying to federal authorities when he was interviewed in 2013 by the FBI as part of an investigation into LASD corruption and civil rights violations.

The LA jail scandal provides an example of how “institutionalization systematically erodes the moral code of jail employees,” says Vincent Schiraldi, who was director of juvenile corrections in Washington DC, prior to his current post as head of a criminal justice think tank at Harvard Kennedy School.

In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Schiraldi, talks about the bureaucracy, code of silence, and indifference he came up against when working to reform the scandal-plagued DC juvenile justice system. The injustices Schiraldi tells of are so extravagant, his story reads like fiction. Here are some clips (but read the whole thing):

The juvenile justice agency I took over in our Nation’s Capital in 2005 was a Dickensian nightmare, despite 19 years of court oversight. In the previous year, two scathing reports by the District’s Inspector General and plaintiff’s experts detailed appalling conditions in the department’s facilities. Kids reported stuffing their clothing around the toilets to prevent rats and cockroaches from biting them at night. The boilers were so dysfunctional that youth who slept in rooms close to them experienced scalding heat, while those far away endured numbing cold. Young people were locked in their cells for so long that they often defecated or urinated in them. Drugs were so prevalent in the facility that some youth who came into custody clean tested positive for marijuana after 30 days. Beatings of children in custody were commonplace. The year before I arrived, things got so bad that the city went through four department heads and the youths’ lawyers asked the court to place the entire department into receivership.

We later discovered that staff were also sexually harassing the kids and one another. New female staff learned that if they didn’t perform sexually for their supervisors, they might find themselves in dangerous situations with the facility’s inmates with no aid forthcoming. A teacher who had been confined in our facility when she was a teenager told us that she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member who still worked for us. One correctional officer actually married a youth shortly after his release from custody.

Cleaning this up was no mean feat. The story of one staff member — allegedly part of a goon squad that routinely beat up recalcitrant youth — is illustrative. Robert (not his real name) was accused of savagely beating two residents in front of dozens of youth and staff. To compound the humiliation, the youth were handcuffed and dragged through a mud puddle. Medical staff reported that the boys’ bruising was consistent with their account of abuse. A single correctional officer came forward as a witness. a rarity due to the strong correctional staff taboo against “snitching”.

[SNIP]

Despite my experiences, I actually liked many of my staff more that I would have ever expected. I charged into my job with an air of moral superiority. Surely, I thought, such conditions could only be created by ethically bankrupt characters who would wear their depravity on their sleeves.

But things in the real world were far more complicated than I originally believed. It was obvious that just about everyone in my facility knew who was beating up the kids, sexually assaulting them and selling them drugs. After all, the facility only housed about 200 young people, roughly the size of a small middle school. Even in a system as large as the L.A.’s, I’m confident that far more people knew of, and participated in, the abuses and cover up than will ever be held to account.

Yet many of my church-going, hail-fellow-well-met staff were ostensibly quite friendly people who believed they were advancing public safety. They were the good guys – attending football games and plays and cheering the youth on alongside their parents. You’d never dream that most of them would knowingly allow a grown man to brutally beat children or sell them drugs.

Yet, there they were, doing just that.


SFPD’S NEW BUREAU TO IMPLEMENT REFORMS, BOOST COMMUNITY POLICING

The San Francisco Police Department is forming a new Bureau of Professional Standards and Principled Policing that will be tasked with implementing reform recommendations from the US Department of Justice and building up the SFPD’s community policing efforts.

The news follows two months after the controversial officer-involved shooting of Mario Woods and several weeks after the DOJ announced it would review the SFPD’s policies and practices.

The San Francisco Examiner’s Michael Barba has more on the new bureau. Here’s a clip:

“This will be new territory for an old and proud department,” Chaplin said during a news conference at City Hall on Monday.

The creation of the new bureau is part of what Mayor Ed Lee dubbed at the same news conference a “comprehensive package of police reforms,” which amount to a cultural shift in the way San Francisco police use force.

The reforms, which were made following the killing of Mario Woods last December, include changes to Police Department policies, procedures and training. The fatal police shooting has prompted outrage and raised questions about whether police in The City use excessive force.

“We need to figure out a way to re-engineer force,” Suhr said at the news conference. “The main goal in everything that we’ve been talking about is the sanctity of life, and the sanctity of life for everybody — that everybody walks away whenever that can be possible.”

The San Francisco Police Department also announced new guidelines that include training officers to pause to reevaluate a threat after every two rounds shot at a suspect. The San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints will also be required to investigate every police shooting resulting in injury or death.

Courthouse News Service’s Nicholas Iovino has more on the new guidelines.

Posted in District Attorney | 1 Comment »

Independent Report on OC DA Scandal, Santa Clara’s Nonexistent Inpatient Psych Care for Kids, CA Foster Care…and More

January 5th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

HIGHLY CRITICAL INDEPENDENT REPORT INTO ORANGE COUNTY DA’S OFFICE SCANDAL CALLS FOR STATE OR FEDS TO INVESTIGATE

In the newest twist in the ongoing Orange County District Attorney jailhouse snitch scandal, an independent panel issued a report calling the OC DA’s Office “a ship without a rudder” suffering from a “failure of leadership.” (Here’s the backstory on the OCDA and the OC Sheriff’s Department’s use of jailhouse informants and withholding of evidence from defendants.)

The 24-page report, which followed a six-month probe by the Informant Policy & Practices Evaluation Committee, a panel comprised of a retired judge and attorneys hand-selected by DA Tony Rackauckas, calls for a state or federal investigation of the DA’s Office.

The report recommends reorganizing the DA’s Office, creating a Confidential Informant Review Committee to oversee the use of informants, and a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate innocence claims. The report also calls for the appointment a retired judge to monitor and publicly report on how the OCDA is complying with the panel’s findings.

Following the release of the independent report, embattled OC DA Tony Rackauckas publicly agreed to most of the recommendations, saying some were already being implemented. Rackauckas also sent a letter to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch welcoming a Department of Justice to initiate any review deemed “appropriate in regard to the OCDA Informant Polices and Practices.”

The Voice of OC’s Rex Dalton has more on the panel’s findings. Here’s a clip:

The Informant Policy & Practices Evaluation Committee supported calls by national legal authorities for an investigation by either the U.S. Department of Justice or the California Attorney General’s Office. At minimum, a grand jury should look into the issue. Such an investigating agency should have subpoena power and the ability to call witnesses to testify, said the report dated Dec. 30, 2015.

“The confidence of various constituencies in the prosecution of criminal cases in Orange County that involve the use of jailhouse informants has eroded,” the report continued, noting constituencies included private attorneys, prosecutors, judges, and families of both victims and the accused.

“What also became clear during the evaluation was that, in many ways, the OCDA’s office functions as a ship without a rudder. This failure appears to have contributed to the jailhouse informant controversy.”

At a press conference this afternoon, Rackauckas and his staff largely greeted the report with acceptance, agreeing to most recommendations and/or noting such enhancements already were under way.

He said he as open to an federal investigation, but that he believed his office and done nothing wrong and such a probe would confirm that.

When asked directly if he plans to resign he said: “As far as resignation is concerned, certainly I am responsible, but no I don’t intend to resign.”

[SNIP]

The evaluation panel interviewed some 75 members of the DA’s office, defense attorneys, and law enforcement, along with reviewing multiple case briefs and documents on informant probes in other regions.

From this, the evaluators said: “It became clear that over the years some prosecutors adopted what the [panel] will refer to as a win at all costs mentality. This mentality is a problem.

“Stronger leadership, oversight, supervision and training can remedy this problem. Key to addressing the problem is changing the culture of the office by not rewarding prosecutors with the ‘must win’ mentality with promotions.”

Evaluators were also told that prosecutors were subjected to inappropriate pressure by law enforcement officers seeking prosecutions in questionable cases.

This was compounded by the fact that deputy district attorneys were “embedded” in law enforcement agencies, with deputy district attorneys and officers developing social relationships that could compromise independent prosecutions.

“[Evaluators] heard from numerous deputies that it is not uncommon for deputy [district attorneys] to be subject to inappropriate pressure from their law enforcement counterparts to file cases that the deputies were otherwise not comfortable filing,” the report states.

“The [panel] heard reports of deputies being ridiculed and even harassed by law enforcement for not being aggressive enough in filing certain gang cases.”


SANTA CLARA SCRAMBLES TO PROVIDE MUCH-NEEDED PSYCHIATRIC BEDS FOR KIDS IN CRISIS

In Santa Clara County, NorCal’s most populous county, parents seeking emergency mental health care for their children have to travel an hour or more (sometimes hundreds of miles) to the nearest cities with open psychiatric beds for kids and teens.

Santa Clara does not have one single inpatient bed for kids suffering from a mental health crisis, according to San Jose Mercury News’ Karen de Sá.

The Santa Clara Supervisors have plans to fund a desperately needed psychiatric facility by June for the county’s children, 600 of whom seek out-of-county inpatient mental health care each year.

De Sá, whose powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked use of psychotropic meds on California’s foster children sparked legislative action, has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

…as many as 20 county youths are in far-flung psychiatric hospitals on any given day suffering from deep depression, excessive anxiety, self-harming behaviors and other episodes of psychosis. More than 600 of the county’s children seek inpatient treatment outside of the county each year, since the only local facility shut down about 20 years ago.

And because hospital stays typically last about a week, parents struggle to visit while caring for other children, maintaining jobs and traveling for hours each day if they cannot afford to rent hotel rooms.

In recent months, a group of mothers has lobbied county supervisors to solve the problem, which has persisted for years but was not acted upon by county officials until Supervisor Joe Simitian took up the cause a year ago.

Proposals for an inpatient unit serving 5- to 17-year-olds will be solicited in the coming weeks, with a provider selected by May. So far, no details about possible locations or cost are available.

Sarah Gentile, of Los Altos, scrambled to get crisis care for her teenage son to get him through his severe depressive episodes. In 2014, when the 17-year-old revealed to his psychiatrist that he had a suicide plan, a doctor at El Camino Hospital’s emergency room in Mountain View had some troubling advice.

“The first thing he said to me was: ‘We need to call around and find a place that will take your son,’” Gentile recounted. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘We don’t have any psychiatric beds for children here.’”

There is one program, run by the nonprofit EMQ FamiliesFirst, offering seven emergency beds for psychiatric patients in a county that is home to more than 430,000 young people age 17 and younger. But the EMQ beds can be used for only 24 hours.

At Gunn and Palo Alto high schools alone, teens were hospitalized 50 times last year for being a threat to themselves or others. In 2014 and 2015, one former and three current students took their own lives. Those deaths followed six similar cases in 2009 and 2010 — tragedies that mostly occurred on the Caltrain tracks by the two schools and have terrified local residents.

Hoping to reach youth in crisis who display early warning signs, county officials and community-based providers say a hospital unit would enhance other prevention efforts underway. “Mental diseases and disorders” are by far the number one reason California children are hospitalized, according to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health — well above fractures, viruses, seizures and asthma. Nearly 40,000 Californians ages 5 through 19 were hospitalized for mental health reasons in 2014 alone.


CALIFORNIA’S INCREASING EFFORTS TO GIVE FOSTER KIDS BETTER OUTCOMES

KQED’s Adizah Eghan takes a look at the difficulties foster kids face as they age out of the system, and California’s new efforts to give foster children better care and hopefully, in turn, better outcomes. Here’s a clip:

In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law intended to scale back the use of group homes by the state’s foster care system. Instead of leaving foster youth to the care of the staff in a group home, Assembly Bill 403 (AB 403), will place children more quickly into foster families.

Foster youth will stay at treatment centers for a maximum of six months and group homes will be officially be phased out around 2021. These treatment centers are designed to better fuse the services of the mental health and child welfare systems.

[SNIP]

According to a 2009 Report from the Urban Institute, one in five foster care youth will become homeless after the age 18, and one in four will be involved in the justice system within two years of aging out of the child welfare system. Those numbers prompted California to extend the age foster youth receive benefits to 21.

Twenty-year-old Noel Anaya has been in foster care since he was 4 years old.

“When I was 18, I realized, that I had [this year] plus a year to go. So after high school, [I] figured out a game plan, you know go to college.”

But sticking to a game plan is difficult he says. Foster youth often have to worry about things that might not even cross the mind of a privileged youth who is the same age.

“You go through a midlife crisis at the age of 18, 19, 20, because you’re like, ‘Oh my God is my credit good, is my housing stable, [are] my funds right?”


RECENT OFFICER-INVOLVED SHOOTINGS POINT TO NEED FOR REFORMS TO LAW ENFORCEMENT PRACTICES

An LA Times editorial says that recent questionable officer-involved shootings point not only to the issue of racialized policing, but also to an overall need for changes to outdated policing practices.

Instead of asking whether a fatal officer use-of-force was “objectively reasonable”—a question that should be reserved for deciding whether an officer should be charged with murder—law enforcement and local officials should consider whether an officer could have used different tactics for a better outcome. Here’s a clip:

Fundamental problems in U.S. policing extend beyond the racial and economic patterns that make African Americans more likely to be crime victims, more likely to be arrested and more likely to be killed by police. They implicate basic nuts-and-bolts issues, such as tactics and judgment.

That fact was tacitly acknowledged Wednesday by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who promised to roll out new training in less-confrontational policing and alternatives to lethal force in the wake of the video of the McDonald shooting and continuing police violence that appears tragically unnecessary, such as the recent shooting deaths of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones.

Emanuel’s statements, while welcome, are embarrassingly tardy and shockingly inadequate. Police in large American cities ought to be setting worldwide standards for de-escalation, less-than-lethal force and cautious encounters with subjects instead of using military-style, shoot-first tactics. Emanuel should be able to draw on knowledge and best practices compiled by dozens of cities and not put so much stock in Tasers, which also can be lethal. It should be a given that people such as LeGrier’s father or the person who saw Tamir with the toy should be able to call 911 and be answered by professionals well-versed in practices geared toward the safety of suspects as well as themselves and bystanders. But Los Angeles and other cities have only recently begun embracing specialized training to help officers, for example, recognize and deal with mentally ill people and employ other, more modern response protocols.

When police encounters fail — when they result in death — the questions asked in official inquiries are too often limited to whether the officers’ actions were “objectively reasonable.”

That may be the appropriate question when determining whether the officer should stand trial for murder. But decisions not to indict officers (as in the cases of the officers who killed Tamir and Hammond) or not to convict them (as in the hung jury in the first prosecution in Gray’s death) must not be taken as statements that nothing went wrong. The appropriate question for police discipline bodies, chiefs, trainers and elected officials ought to be whether officers had, were aware of and could have used alternatives that were likely to result in better outcomes.

Posted in District Attorney | No Comments »

Trauma Lawsuit Against Compton School District, Drugging Foster Kids, the Brown Act-violating Jail Vote, and California’s New Resident Wolves

August 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

FIRST HEARING LANDMARK LAWSUIT AGAINST COMPTON SCHOOL DISTRICT OVER PUNISHING TRAUMATIZED KIDS INSTEAD OF HELPING THEM

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald heard arguments in a potentially precedent-setting suit against Compton Unified School District for failing to help severely traumatized kids struggling with learning.

The lawsuit filed by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP in May, alleges that Compton schools, instead of treating trauma as a disability, respond to traumatized kids by suspending, expelling, and sending them to different schools. The lawsuit on behalf of eight Compton students alleges these practices are in violation of federal law.

If Judge Fitzgerald grants the injunction, the school district would have to provide training for teachers, mental health services for students, and employ conflict-resolution as a first line of action before considering suspension.

A decision in favor of the young plaintiffs could also have a ripple effect on schools across the country.

Compton Unified’s attorney, David Huff, argues that the suit could have the effect giving all of Compton’s students a disability designation just because of where they live.

(Go here for WLA’s previous reporting on this lawsuit.)

NPR’s Cory Turner has the story. Here’s a clip:

Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress says exposure to violence can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Not only that, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help.

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.”

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them.

The LA Times’ Stephen Caesar also reported on this issue.


BILL TO CREATE NURSE OVERSIGHT OF FOSTER KIDS’ PSYCHOTROPIC PRESCRIPTIONS LOSES $$$

A California bill would have mandated oversight of the prescribing of psychotropic medications to foster kids, giving current public health nurses power to monitor the kids, and paying for 38 new public health nurses across CA’s 58 counties.

The bill likely would have been a meaningful step forward in addressing a serious breakdown in foster kids’ mental health care, (uncovered in Karen de Sá’s invaluable investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids“) that is, until its author Senator Jim Beall had to strip it of nearly all of its power in the hopes of getting it past budget hawks.

Implementation would have cost $5 million in the first year, and up to $10 million per year, thereafter.

Because Sen. Beall cut the funding out of the bill to give it a chance in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, nurse oversight is no longer be mandatory: counties can choose to opt in (or not) and will have to cough up the money if they want to participate.

Unfortunately, according to National Center for Youth Law’s Anna Johnson, “If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it.”

Contra Costa Times’ Josh Richman has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Appropriations committees are usually the highest hurdle you have to jump over … second perhaps only to the governor’s signature,” Beall, D-San Jose, said later Wednesday. “We’re going to get the bill on the governor’s desk.”

Beall’s SB 319 is one of four pending bills inspired by the Bay Area News Group’s investigative series “Drugging Our Kids,” which revealed that nearly 1 in 4 foster care teens takes psychiatric drugs.

The drugs are often used to control behavior, not to treat mental illnesses. Most of those on the drugs are prescribed antipsychotics, a powerful class of medication that have the most harmful side effects.

The bill still would give public health nurses the authority to get foster youth’s medical records from social workers and prescribing doctors, Beall said, even though it won’t be required. Almost all of the state’s largest counties will do so, he predicted, and he can use his seats on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees to revisit funding for more nurses and perhaps a statewide mandate in next year’s budget talks.

Still, foster-youth advocates were disappointed.

The Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law sponsored SB 319, and center policy analyst Anna Johnson testified on its behalf Wednesday. Afterward, she said the state’s refusal to spend any money on this is especially disappointing because the federal government would pay 75 percent of the bill.

“If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it” as many other states have, she said. Refusing to do so means “we’re happy with passing that cost on to foster children’s bodies” by “taking a big risk that children will continue to not be monitored on these medications, whether they’re medically necessary or not.”


LA COUNTY SUPES’ IMPROPER JAIL PLANS VOTE IS RESCHEDULED, BUT THE BOARD CAN’T TAKE BACK THE BREACH OF PUBLIC TRUST

Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey sent a letter confronting the Board of Supervisors about violating the Ralph M. Brown Act when they voted on a proposed amendment to a large-scale plan to divert mentally ill from county jails last Tuesday.

Because the board agenda did not mention there would be a discussion or vote on the jail construction, the vote did not honor the public’s guaranteed right to attend and participate in meetings of local government bodies.

The LA Times’ editorial board says that even though the Supes remedied the improper vote by recalendaring it, the move doesn’t do anything to solve the public trust issue the first vote created. Here’s a clip:

Then, without prior notice, they proceeded to discuss and adopt a separate plan to downsize a facility to replace the dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and to move ahead with construction of a women’s jail in the Antelope Valley. They offered this ludicrous explanation: The proper jail size depended on the number of people they could divert, so the agenda item on diversion programs and funding necessarily provided the public adequate notice that they would also take up and vote on the controversial multibillion-dollar public works projects.

The true reason for trying to shoehorn in the jails vote? It might be that they had just discovered that state officials were serious about a looming deadline to apply for construction funding, and that they were going to miss it because of their inattentiveness; or that properly calendaring the item for a later meeting would interfere with their vacation plans; or that providing legally adequate notice would raise too much of a public ruckus; or all of the above.

Some county officials also reasoned, after the fact, that anyone who cared about jails also cared about diversion, and therefore was already in the room and received their (very short) notice in real time.

But the purpose of public notice requirements isn’t solely to allow people to show up at board meetings to offer comments, especially in a county of 10 million residents. Only a small slice of the public weighs in that way. Others voice their opinions by calling, emailing, organizing, lobbying or arguing in advance of a major decision affecting them — if they know, as the law entitles them to know, when that decision is to be made. And when push comes to shove, taxpayers and other members of the public have every right to know what their elected representatives are doing, whether they plan to weigh in or not.


CALIFORNIA’S NEW WOLF PACK: THE FIRST IN NEARLY A CENTURY

A new pack of gray wolves, called the Shasta Pack by wildlife officials, has appeared in California. The two adult wolves and five pups, captured on a trail camera, are the first resident pack in CA in decades.

In 2011, a lone gray wolf, OR-7, made news as the first wolf in California since 1924 when he crossed the border from Oregon. OR-7 now lives with his pack just over the Oregon border.

Here’s what the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has to say about the new pack:

Wild wolves historically inhabited California, but were extirpated. Aside from these wolves and the famous wolf OR7 who entered California in December 2011, the last confirmed wolf in the state was here in 1924. OR7 has not been in California for more than a year and is currently the breeding male of the Rogue Pack in southern Oregon.

In June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list gray wolves as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf is also listed as endangered in California, under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Gray wolves that enter California are therefore protected by the ESA making it illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect wolves, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct in California.

CDFW is completing a Draft Wolf Management Plan and will release it soon.

LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick who has been following the California wolf saga for years has the story.

Posted in District Attorney, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, mental health, Trauma, wolves | 7 Comments »

DA Jackie Lacey Delivers Her Master Plan for Diverting LA’s Mentally Ill From Lock-Up

July 23rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


After 15 months of research, including out-of-state field trips to see what other cities and counties were doing, a slew of small and large meetings, and many, many hours of careful strategizing,
on Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey delivered a comprehensive plan to the LA County Board of Supervisors that, if fully implemented, could divert a significant percentage of LA’s mentally ill lawbreakers away from jail and into treatment centers in the community.

At the August 4 board of supervisors meeting, in two weeks, Lacey is scheduled to discuss the 41-page report (which WLA has obtained, and which is really more than 100 pages with its charts and appendixes). If the detailed road map that the report lays out is to succeed, it will require considerable funding from the supes—40 million of which has already been allocated.

A comprehensive program would mean, for example, greatly beefing up the number of community-based beds to house and treat mentally ill county residents, “particularly those with criminal records.” said the report. These are the nonviolent mentally ill, many of them homeless, some veterans, who would otherwise wind up in the county jail, often on a revolving door basis.

Lacey described the genuinely impressive report as “an unprecedented collaboration of stakeholders.” And, indeed, the LA County Criminal Justice Mental Health Advisory Board, which created the plan, and which was formed and chaired by Lacey, includes a wide array of law enforcement, mental health leaders, members of the judiciary, representatives of the public defenders’ office and many more.

“This is our first comprehensive attempt to fundamentally change the way we treat mentally ill people in Los Angeles County when they come into contact with law enforcement personnel,” Lacey said. “When implemented, these recommendations will provide treatment options to safely divert nonviolent mentally ill offenders from jail, which is more costly and, at times, inhumane.”


TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING

The roadmap created by Lacy’s task force features recommendations that fall primarily into three categories. The first of those, and the most important, according to the report’s authors, is to provide what is known as Critical Incident Training (CIT) for all Los Angeles County law enforcement personnel.

The training is designed both to help law enforcement become knowledgable and to have greater sensitivity to mental health issues—but also to supply cops with concrete, usable tools to interact “more effectively and compassionately” when they run across mentally ill persons in crisis in the field.

And how often do officers encounter the mentally ill? Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell estimates that, up to 40 percent of all the LASD’s use of force incidents in the field involve people who are mentally ill.

Accordingly the sheriff’s department is already planning to institute a six-year plan to train 5,355 patrol deputies in a 40-hour CIT course. (The report recommends to the Board of Supes that they fund this training—ASAP.)

The report also endorses plans by the District Attorney’s Criminal Justice Institute to provide a 16-hour version of the training for the 48 smaller police agencies in LA County.

In addition, the task force recommends increasing the number of specially trained teams, that include a mental healthcare clinician along with a law enforcement officer, that will co-deploy with other law enforcement to defuse potentially violent situations and to avoid escalation.


THE USE OF OFFICERS’ TIME

One of the problems facing law enforcement who encounter the mentally ill during the first 24-hours of a mental health crisis, explains the report, is that while it could take less than an hour to take a mentally ill individual to jail and book him or her, thus solving any public safety issue in the short term, if the officer instead takes his charge to a local hospital emergency room, which is usually the first step down the road to treatment, rather than lock-up, he could spend six to eight hours simply waiting—his patrol shift left uncovered. As a consequence, the report requests three more Urgent Care centers where a suspect can be immediately evaluated. (The county’s Department of Mental Health currently operates four Urgent Care Centers now with one more to open in October or November.)


THE JAIL POPULATION REDUCTION FACTOR

Lacey has been quick to say that the report delivered this week is “not a jail reduction plan. ” per se, insisting instead that if the need for mental health jails beds is reduced, it will enable serious and violent felony offenders who are not mentally ill, to serve a long percentage of their sentences.

Okay, fair enough.

However the newly constituted board of supes voted last month, 3 to 2, to put the breaks on the go-ahead for the $2 billion jail building project that was originally approved by the old board in May 2014. The new board wisely elected stop and assess just how many jail beds the county would really need, once such strategies as mental health diversion and possibly some kind of pre-trial release system, can be taken into account.

The board has even hired a consultant for a fee of $349,500 to help determine just how much the county can downsize its jail population—with mental health diversion such as Lacey’s report recommends—while also protecting public safety.

The consultants’ findings, like Jackie Lacey’s impressive new report, are due to be presented at the August 4 Board of Supervisors meeting.

So stay tuned.


PS: We just noticed that the Daily News, which also has obtained the report, has just kindly put up a copy online, in case you want to read the 100 plus pages for yourself.

Posted in District Attorney, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, Mental Illness | 9 Comments »

LA’s Top Cop and Former CA Senate Prez Awarded for Mental Health Efforts, and NYC’s Bail Reform, and LA’s Crime Rates

July 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA DISTRICT ATTORNEY JACKIE LACEY AND FORMER SENATE PRO TEM DARRELL STEINBERG AWARDED FOR MENTAL HEALTH WORK

LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and former CA Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg were honored on Thursday by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for their efforts to decriminalize mental illness and to boost community-based support and programs available to LA and CA’s mentally ill and their families.

DA Lacey founded the Los Angeles County Criminal Justice Mental Health Project, the goal of which is to divert the mentally ill from jails, and established alternative courts for non-violent offenders. Read more about Lacey’s work.

Lacey says she is grateful for the award, but that there is still “a lot of work ahead of us to ensure that the mentally ill can receive the care they need” and called the use of jails as de facto mental health institutions “inefficient, ineffective, and…inhumane.”

On the legislative side of things, former Sen. Steinberg authored and pushed a number of bills to improve mental health services and to keep people suffering from mental illnesses off the streets and out of jail in CA:

*Passage of Proposition 63, the 1% “millionaire’s tax” that funds innovative mental health programs and has provided over a billion dollars per year for mental health initiatives.

*Establishment of the Steinberg Institute for Advancing Mental Health Policy, after leaving the legislature, to help build a comprehensive network of community services and supports.

*Provision of prevention and early intervention services through schools, community centers and faith-based organizations.

*Legislation targeting resources to people with mental illness who are at greatest risk for hospitalizations, homelessness or incarceration.


On Wednesday, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s office announced an important new citywide initiative to put people on supervised release when they can’t afford to post bail.

The program will use $17.8 million in city funds and asset forfeiture money to help 3,400 poor people waiting to be charged. The bail alternative will allow participants to remain with their families and continue to work. The mayor is requesting proposals to contract pre-trial supervision.

Kalief Browder’s tragic suicide drew public attention to the issue. Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, the majority of which he spent in solitary confinement, without a trial because his family could not post $3,000 for his release.

De Blasio says it is “unacceptable” that “people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose.”

The Marshall Project’s Alysa Santo explains why the mayor’s program would not have done anything to help Browder. Here’s a clip:

The program would more than triple the number of defendants in pretrial supervision, rather than have them languish at the city’s main jail at Rikers Island. An impetus for the change, city officials said, was the recent suicide of Kalief Browder, who was held at Rikers for three years and released at age 19, when prosecutors dropped charges. Browder, who endured abuse and long stints in solitary confinement, was initially jailed because his family could not afford his $3,000 bail. He was 22 when he killed himself last month.

But Browder would not have been eligible for the city’s new pretrial supervision program because he was charged with second-degree assault, a violent felony, among other charges, for stealing a backpack. Under the expanded pretrial program, judges can place those charged with nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors under supervised release, which monitors defendants, rather than leaving them to struggle to come up with bail, as thousands of people do every year. “If bail is not met right away, then those kids are on a bus to Rikers,” said Browder’s attorney, Paul Prestia.

The city estimated the new bail system will allow about 3,400 people to be diverted into pretrial supervision programs at any given time. “This is a huge step in the right direction,” said Peter Goldberg, executive director for the Brooklyn Bail Fund, an organization that raises money for indigent misdemeanor defendants. “But this does not fix New York’s broken bail system,” said Goldberg, because about 45,000 people are detained in New York City each year over their inability to make bail. “For those who don’t fit the city’s criteria, such as Browder, their poverty alone is still going to incarcerate them.”

In California, AB 109—also known as realignment—meant that certain convicted felons were funneled to the county jails to serve out their terms, rather than state prison. The resultant increase in jail populations should have sent counties scurrying toward bail reform, and a system of risk-informed pre-trial release. After all, statewide, unsentenced individuals comprise over 60% of the jail population (some say more like 70%).

Plus, as part of AB 109, the state legislature gave the various county boards of supervisors the power to vote to give the sheriff of their county the legal ability to do risk-based pretrial release.

Some counties, like Santa Cruz, embraced the opportunity to pair down their nonviolent non sentenced jail inmates through a well-planned system of pretrial release.

Other counties, like Los Angeles, have done…well, not much.


EDITORIAL: WHAT’S BEHIND INCREASED CRIME RATES IN LA?

LA’s crime rates shot up during the first half of 2015 following more than a decade-long decline. Aggravated assaults jumped 26.3% over 2008, there were 20.6% more violent crimes overall, and the number of shooting victims increased by 18.5%.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Mayor Eric Garcetti said that, in addition to current nationwide tension between law enforcement and communities, Prop 47—which reclassified certain non-violent drug and property-related felonies as misdemeanors—could not be ruled out as possible reasons for the unusually high crime rates.

An LA Times editorial questions whether it might be due to the fact that the county has been lagging on using state realignment funds to expand reentry and treatment services to help former offenders stay out of lock-up.

Here’s a clip:

…it’s hard to see the connection between the non-arrest of drug users and the uptick in domestic violence, rape and other violent crimes.

Asked at a news briefing Wednesday whether he believed Proposition 47 was a mistake, Garcetti answered only by saying that funding for treatment and other programs — which, under the ballot measure, is to be distributed to local governments only after a year’s time — ought to be in place before penalty reductions.

In a perfect world that might well be the case. But as the state legislative analyst noted in February, the reduction of those six felonies offers immediate savings in reduced workload to counties — to prosecutors, to public defenders, to jailers. That’s money that could be spent on treatment and other programs right away.

Garcetti’s neighbors up the street, in the county Hall of Administration, also did a notoriously poor job of making use of new funding for treatment and anti-recidivism programs when it became available under a previous law change, AB 109′s public safety realignment in 2011. They only now have begun readjusting their workload and budget to expand such programs. It would be a shame — in every sense of the word — if the increase in crime were due in part to inaction at the county level and poor coordination between the county and the city.

Posted in District Attorney, LAPD, Mental Illness, Reentry, Rehabilitation | 4 Comments »

Protecting CA’s Foster Kids….Investigating OC District Attorney and Jailhouse Informant Practices….LAPD Chief Must Answer Ezell Ford Questions….and the LA Supes Take Power from CEO

July 8th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

CA AUDITOR SEZ STATE SOCIAL SERVICES SHOULD DO MORE TO PROTECT FOSTER KIDS, AND IS HEMORRHAGING MILLIONS OF $$

The California Department of Social Services is not doing enough to protect vulnerable foster kids from sexual exploitation and may be spending millions placing kids with more expensive foster care agencies instead of licensed foster family homes, according to a report from the California State Auditor.

The report says that while Social Services has made some progress, it has not fully implemented recommendations from a 2011 Auditor report regarding the same issue. One of the major recommendations was to start comparing addresses to ensure that registered sex offenders were not living or working in foster homes.

The Auditor’s latest report said that Social Services took two years to start checking the sex offender registry against the addresses of group homes and foster families and, among other methodology problems, the department could not initially provide the Auditor with documented outcomes on 8,600 investigations out of 25,000 address matches, and 422 address matches were not investigated within a 45-day deadline.

When the addresses of sex offenders and foster kids appear to be the same, it sometimes turns out that the sex offender is actually a foster kid, or that there is no longer a foster family or group home at that address. But for the times when investigators find sex offenders among foster kids, either the sex offender is removed from the house, or the foster children are removed. Sometimes facilities lose their licenses.

The new report also said that California counties are still too often paying foster family agencies that privately recruit and certify foster homes and cost over $1000 more per month, rather than giving state-licensed foster homes and relative caregivers priority when placing kids. The report recommends revising the fee structure for agencies, and giving other foster care placements higher priority.


OUTSIDE COMMITTEE WILL INVESTIGATE HOW OC DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE USES JAILHOUSE INFORMANTS

Following string of informant-related scandals that resulted in the unraveling of a series of cases, the Orange County DA’s Office announced the creation of an independent panel of retired judges and lawyers to investigate how the DA’s Office handles in-custody informants. (Here’s the backstory.)

Committee members include retired OC Superior Court Judge Jim Smith, retired LA County Assistant District Attorney Patrick Dixon, former OC Bar Association President Robert Gerard, and Blithe Leece, an attorney specializing in ethics law and professional responsibility.

The Informant Policies and Practices Evaluation Committee (IPPEC) is expected to submit their findings at the end of 2015.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has the story. Here’s a clip:

In March, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed the district attorney’s office from the Scott Dekraai murder trial after finding prosecutors failed to turn over jail records about informants to Dekraai’s public defender.

Dekraai, 45, pleaded guilty last year to killing eight people at the Salon Meritage hair boutique in 2011.

It’s not illegal for law enforcement to use informants or jailhouse snitches. But they must act as a listening post and not elicit statements or question an inmate once he has exercised his right to an attorney.

A jailhouse informant recorded conversations with Dekraai about the killings, but after Dekraai had been charged and had obtained legal representation…

[SNIP]

The DA’s office said in a statement that it has already made some changes to avoid similar abuses in the future, including updating its informant policy manual and creating an internal committee headed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to approve or disapprove the use of jailhouse informants.

In addition to those moves, “I think it’s important to have an objective and expert external committee with different points of view, to thoroughly review and analyze the issues regarding the use of in-custody informants so we can improve our procedures and avoid any future mistakes,” Rackauckas said in the statement.

The committee will issue a report by the end of this year, according to the DA’s office.

“I want everything that we do to be above board and fair,” Rackauckas told KPCC. “I want to make sure that the court, the defense bar, the individual defendant and the public have faith – that although we’re aggressively prosecuting cases – we’re doing it in a fair way.”


FED JUDGE SAYS LAPD CHIEF CHARLIE BECK MUST ANSWER QUESTIONS ABOUT EZELL FORD SHOOTING

A federal judge ruled Monday that LA Police Chief Charlie Beck will have to answer questions in a formal deposition from the family attorney for Ezell Ford, an unarmed, mentally ill man who was fatally shot by LAPD officers last year.

Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle’s ruling comes after LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the LA Police Commission came to very different conclusions regarding whether the officers acted within department policy when they shot Ford.

(If you missed it, you can read the backstory here.)

The Associated Press has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle found Ford’s shooting was conspicuous enough that Beck should speak to contradictory findings about whether it was within policy.

Last month, the Los Angeles Police Commission found that officers had no reason to stop and question Ford, and that a violation of department policy led to an altercation that ended with Ford’s death. Beck has said the officers in the shooting acted appropriately.

“This is not the ordinary case,” Nagle said. “It’s a high-profile, high-visibility case, and whether the policy of the policymaker — the police commission — is being enforced or implemented appropriately, I think is something on which Chief Beck can, and in this case should, be questioned.”

[SNIP]

In August, Los Angeles police Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas decided to stop Ford because he appeared nervous and was walking away with his hands in his pockets, according to a report by the police commission.

Wampler said he thought Ford might have been hiding drugs and told him to stop for questioning. The officers said Ford looked in their direction and walked away quickly with his hands in his waistband area.

A struggle ensued when Wampler tried to handcuff Ford, who knocked the officer to the ground and grabbed for his gun, the officers said. Villegas fired two shots, and Wampler said he pulled out a backup gun and shot Ford in the back.


LA SUPES TAKE BACK POWER FROM COUNTY CEO’S OFFICE

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to take away the county Chief Executive Office’s power to hire and fire (non-elected) county department heads, returning the power to the board. The Supes gave these powers to the CEO in 2007, along with day-to-day management of county departments, in response to complaints that the board was too involved in the minutiae of the departments it oversaw, but have spent much of those eight years clashing with the CEO.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has the story. Here’s a clip (we are giving you a bigger clip than usual because it’s an interesting tale):

The change back to a weaker executive has many wondering whether the supervisors’ new power will result in more streamlined, decisive management or simply create more meddling by the elected officials and politicize the workings of government.

“In the short term, there will be a lot less conflict between the supervisors and the CEO’s office,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “The question is what’s it going to do for the daily operations… They won’t know when they’re too involved. They’ll think their involvement is just right. The other shoe to drop is how will it affect everybody else’s ability to do their job?”

Tuesday’s vote represents a reversal for the Board of Supervisors, which in 2007 gave the unelected chief executive officer more powers, including day-to-day management responsibilities and the authority to hire and fire department heads with board approval. Those changes were sparked in part by complaints that the supervisors were micromanaging the departments and giving conflicting marching orders, and that there was no single leader to hold accountable for the success or failure of initiatives.

The results have been mixed. An assessment by a county advisory commission in 2008 found that the stronger chief executive officer structure had increased collaboration between departments, but had also slowed down work in some cases by adding another layer of bureaucracy. The commission found that it also had increased tensions between the supervisors and the top administrator. Three years later, the board took back control of the probation department and Department of Children and Family Services, criticizing the chief executive officer’s handling of the agencies after a series of scandals.

Former Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina, who had supported the stronger chief executive officer, said weakening the role now may be largely symbolic, because the board never fully gave up its hands-on role in agency operations.

“Everybody meddled. We all meddled, one way or the other,” Molina said.

Yaroslavsky agreed that board members had continued to micromanage — even going as far as having their aides ghostwrite recommendations that were supposed to be coming from department heads. He added that some initiatives were stalled because of power struggles between supervisors and the chief executive.

Yaroslavsky is now advocating for an elected county executive, a proposal that has not found support among the current board members.

“Outside of the former Soviet Union, Los Angeles County is the only … 10-million-resident government that ever ran by committee of five,” he said.

On the other hand, instead of going into micro-management, some have suggested that one alternative to taking the power away from the CEO is hire a CEO that they liked and respected a bit better than they did the former CEO William Fujioka.

Posted in Charlie Beck, District Attorney, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LAPD, Orange County | No Comments »

CA Supremes Rule on Police Privacy v. Defendants’ Rights…The Science of Unfair Justice….The Killingest Prosecutor in the Nation’s Killingest County

July 7th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

THE CAL SUPREMES PICK STATE LAW OVER CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS IN A RULING ABOUT WHO CAN ACCESS POLICE PERSONNEL FILES

On Monday, July 6, the California Supreme Court ruled that defense attorneys don’t need any extra help from prosecutors in gaining the limited access that the law allows to the disciplinary records of police officers—even if the prosecutor has firm reasons to believe that the records would likely be of exculpatory value to the defendant.

If that sounds confusing….you have apprehended the situation correctly

Okay, here’s the deal. Monday’s ruling had to do with a San Francisco man, Daryl Lee Johnson, who was charged in November 2012 in a domestic violence case with hitting a girl in the head while they were both in a private home and grabbing her cell phone. (We have no idea if Mr. Johnson is guilty or innocent of the charges. That isn’t the point here.)

As the domestic violence case ground its way through the state’s justice system, San Francisco prosecutors learned from members of the SF police department that the two arresting officers in Johnson’s case, who were quite naturally witnesses for the prosecution, had things in their personnel records that could be helpful to the defense.

In that the landmark 1963 Supreme Court ruling of Brady v. Maryland requires prosecutors to turn over to the defense team anything that could be helpful to their client, in the case of Johnson the prosecutors let the defense know that there might be some stuff in both of the cops’ files that the defense ought to know about.

And….that’s when matters got somewhat complicated.

Under state law, the personnel files of peace officers are protected from prying eyes by the Peace Officers Bill of Rights—or POBR. However, if a defense attorney needs access to a cop’s personnel records because they pertain directly to his client’s defense, he or she can request from a judge the files that pertain exactly to the issue at hand, using what is called a “Pitchess” motion (named after the 1974 California decision of Pitchess v. Superior Court that carved out this legal way to access information located in otherwise confidential peace officer personnel records.) Then it is up to the judge to decide which information, if any, should be provided to the defense.

But in the Johnson case, the defense argued that it didn’t know enough about what might be useful in the two cops’ files to be able to make the narrow cast Pitchess motion that most judges require. So could the prosecutor, under the Brady rule, take a look at the files to see if there was something of relevance in there?

Two lower courts agreed that it would be okay for a prosecutor to look at the police files, and then to turn over to the defense (under Brady rules) anything that might affect the defendant’s case, all subject to protective orders, to also preserve confidentiality.

With me so far?

It helps to know that San Francisco is one of about a dozen California counties that have established committees made up of law enforcement officers who are supposed to review officers’ confidential files in order to tell prosecutors if they contain information that might assist a defendant—things like an officer’s history of false statements, the filing of false police reports, or write ups for excessive force.

Part of the argument in the Johnson case is that it is unealistic to expect the police to be the ones who go fishing through their fellow officers’ confidential files with the same rigor that someone else might. So couldn’t the prosecutors, who are after all an arm of the law, do it as part of their Brady obligation?

Although those two lower courts said yes, the California Supremes said: Actually no. Prosecutors were just as bound by the POBR and the Pitchess rules as anybody else.

(The full ruling may be found here.)

Interestingly, according to Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle, SF District Attorney George Gascón-–who seems refreshingly to believe that one of the prime duties of his office is to seek justice—told the court prior to their ruling that his office would continue to review the police committee reports and seek disclosure of files no matter how Monday’s case turned out.

UPDATE: The LA Times Editorial Board wrote a strong, smart and extremely sensible editorial on the ruling, which appeared early Tuesday morning. It is titled “A Setback for Due Process,” which unhappily is exactly the case.

Here’s clip from the editorial:

Prosecutors are constitutionally bound to share with criminal defendants any evidence that undermines the credibility of their witnesses, including police officers. But if that evidence is locked up in confidential police personnel files — for example, in disciplinary or complaint records — how can the district attorney find out about it to turn it over?

In a disappointing decision, the California Supreme Court on Monday denied prosecutors direct access to police personnel files and, in so doing, exacerbated the continuing tug-of-war between state statutes that protect officer confidentiality and the due process rights guaranteed to the accused by the 14th Amendment and fleshed out in the landmark 1963 case of Brady vs. Maryland.

Under the ruling, police officials in many California jurisdictions will continue to be virtual gate-keepers of potentially exculpatory evidence, deciding on their own which records rise to the level of so-called Brady material that they must flag for prosecutors (who, in turn, decide whether to share it with the defense).

But the police should not be expected to be their own watchdogs. Last year, an appeals court ruled that the district attorney should be able to look through their files — without first obtaining a court order — to search for evidence of dishonesty, bias, excessive force or other factors that could undermine officers’ credibility. Only after Brady material is found would the prosecutor have to make what is known as a Pitchess motion, seeking court permission to disclose the information.

And here, really, is the heart of the matter:

The lower court ruling seemed a workable balance between Brady and Pitchess and recognized that Brady, after all, interprets a federal constitutional right and should take precedence over state statutory protections.

(The italics are mine.) It is disappointing that the otherwise mostly sensible court was so short sighted.

The LA Times board also wrote an earlier, very informative editorial on this whole topic back in late May when the case was being argued in front of the state’s Supreme Court. So be sure to take a look at that too.


UNFAIR: A SCIENTIFIC LOOK AT HUMAN BIAS AND OTHER ROOTS OF INJUSTICE

Legal scholar Adam Benforado has written a fascinating and important new book called Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice in which he uses findings from psychology and neuroscience to suggests that our criminal justice system is riddled with tragic inequities and wrongful conclusions because of our fundamental misunderstanding of human biases and how our brains work.

On Monday, Benforado was a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air with Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross where he explained how, in our flawed justice system “…good people with the best of intentions … can get things terribly, terribly wrong.”

The whole interview is more than worth your while. But here’s a clip to get you started:

DAVIES: There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about how jurors decide who they’re going to believe at trial – prosecutors, witnesses. And a lot of people would not be surprised to find that there are studies that suggest people are more likely to believe a person of their own race. There’s other fascinating stuff. Are attractive people or thin people more likely to – or confident people – more likely to be believed in court?

BENFORADO: Yeah, there is evidence that a lot of physical features play a big role in whether people treats a particular witness as credible or not credible. And that’s worrisome. But I think there’s actually a deeper problem with jurors and that is that the things that we think are determining the outcomes of cases – that is the facts and the law – are often not what determines whether someone is convicted or not convicted, how long a sentence is. What matters most are the particular backgrounds and identities of the jurors.

So I teach criminal law. One of the areas that I teach is rape law, and my casebook takes many pages, discussing all of the different nuances across the different states. And there’s a lot of emphasis on the casebook on the importance of these nuances. It really matters whether we are in a state that recognizes a defense of a reasonably mistaken belief in consent or we’re in a state that doesn’t recognize that particular defense. But when researchers looked into how important the law was to outcomes in, say, a date rape case, what they found was the particular legal nuances didn’t matter at all. What mattered were the backgrounds and experiences of the jurors. What they refer to as cultural cognition. And these subgroups of citizens didn’t break down as expected. It wasn’t that men were far more likely to let the man off in a date rape scenario. It was actually within women that the most interesting break occurred. Women who were older, who were more conservative, who adhere to more traditional gender norms, were far more likely to let the man off in this particular case than women who were liberal and younger. That’s a worry because a lot of what law professors do is emphasize the importance of legal doctrine. It may not be legal doctrine, though, in the criminal law sphere that’s really determining the trajectory of cases.

DAVIES: One of the things we see in court is jurors trying to evaluate whether a witness is testifying truthfully. And they would look for tells, you know, whether the witness appears jittery and whether they shift their eyes a lot or doesn’t make eye contact. And you write that these things – research shows these things really tell us nothing about how truthful someone’s being. In fact, they can mislead us into thinking someone is being truthful when they are not and vice versa. Do the courts encourage jurors to use these, you know, supposedly common sense evaluations of the mannerisms of both defendants and witnesses?

BENFORADO: They absolutely do. And this is one of the real challenges for reform in this area is that it’s not that our legal system just sits back and says nothing about human behavior. It actually weighs in on the side of myth. And so if you’ve ever been a juror and you are called to jury duty, you know that the starting point is this voir dire process where you’re asked a bunch of questions. I was recently called onto jury, although I didn’t make it ultimately onto the jury. And I was asked, you know, these questions of do you have any reason why you would be more or less likely to believe the testimony of a police officer? Now, on the jury pool that I was in, a number of people said yeah, they checked that box. The judge then came up and said, all right, well, let me explain to you what objectivity means. It means that, you know, we all have these feelings, but you’ve just got to put them to the side. Can you do that? Everyone in the jury pool said, yes, of course, judge I can do that. But that’s not how biases work. A lot of them are not subject to introspection and control. And so it’s not just that our legal system is sitting back on the sidelines. It’s actively promoting false notions of human behavior, and that’s really, really damaging…


A PROSECUTOR’S DESIRE FOR REVENGE KILLING IN THE NATION’S MOST DEATH PENALTY-PRONE COUNTY

Caddo Parish, Louisiana, has a population of two hundred and fifty thousand residents. Yet Caddo juries sentence more people to death per capita than juries in any other county in America, writes Rachel Aviv for the New Yorker.

Furthermore, “seventy-seven per cent of those sentenced to death in the past forty years have been black, and nearly half were convicted of killing white victims. A white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person.”

Since 2011, Cado prosecutor Dale Cox has been responsible for a third of the death sentences in Louisiana. And he seeks death from a jury, he says, because he believes that vengeance is necessary.

To wit:

Last March, a former colleague of Cox’s published a letter in the Shreveport Times apologizing for causing an innocent black man to spend thirty years on death row. “We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death,” he wrote. When a journalist with the paper, Maya Lau, asked Cox for his response, he said that he thought courts should be imposing the death penalty more, not less. “I think we need to kill more people,” he told her. “We’re not considered a society anymore—we’re a jungle.”

Cox does not believe that the death penalty works as a deterrent, but he says that it is justified as revenge. He told me that revenge was a revitalizing force that “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.” He felt that the public’s aversion to the notion had to do with the word itself. “It’s a hard word—it’s like the word ‘hate,’ the word ‘despot,’ the word ‘blood.’ ” He said, “Over time, I have come to the position that revenge is important for society as a whole. We have certain rules that you are expected to abide by, and when you don’t abide by them you have forfeited your right to live among us.”

In her detailed longread story about Cox and his prosecutorial beliefs and style, Aron follows the case of 23-year old Rodricus Crawford whose one-year-old baby, according to Aviv’s reporting, likely died suddenly of pneumonia, not by his father’s hand. By the story’s end, however, rightly or wrongly Crawford has been convicted of murdering his young son and is sentenced to death, with Cox as the prosecutor possessed of formidable Biblical fury, claiming in his closing remarks that Jesus commanded that anyone who killed a child should be killed. Then Cox misquoted Luke 17.2 to prove it.

Here’s how the story opens:

A week after his son turned one, Rodricus Crawford woke up a few minutes before 7 A.M. on the left side of his bed. His son was sleeping on the right side, facing the door. Crawford, who was twenty-three, reached over to wake him up, but the baby didn’t move. He put his ear on his son’s stomach and then began yelling for his mother. “Look at the baby!” he shouted.

Crawford was lanky, with delicate features, high cheekbones, and a patchy goatee. He lived in a small three-bedroom house with his mother, grandmother, uncle, sister, and a younger brother in Mooretown, a neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, bordered by a stretch of factories and next to the airport. His mother, Abbie, a housekeeper at the Quality Inn, rushed into the room and picked up the baby, who was named Roderius, after his father. He looked as if he were asleep, but his forehead felt cool.

Crawford’s uncle called 911, and an operator instructed him to try CPR while they waited for an ambulance. Crawford’s mother and sister took turns pumping the baby’s chest.

“I’m doing it, Ma’am, but he ain’t doing nothing!” Abbie said, out of breath.

The ambulance seemed to be taking too long, so Crawford’s younger brother called 911 on another line. “The baby’s not talking, not breathing, not saying anything,” he said. “Can you get an ambulance?”

They were used to waiting a long time for city services; the alarm could go off at their pastor’s church and ring all night, and the fire department would never come. There was a saying in the neighborhood that the police were never there when you needed them, only when you didn’t. The community was populated almost entirely by black families, many of whom had grown up together. After a few more minutes, Crawford’s brother called 911 again. “We need an ambulance, Ma’am,” he said. “It’s been twenty minutes!”

Not long afterward, another 911 operator called a dispatcher and asked what was happening at the address. “They probably slept on the damn baby,” the dispatcher said. “There’s a hundred folks in that damn house.”

When the ambulance arrived, moments later, Crawford ran out of the house with the baby in his arms. The paramedics put a breathing mask over Roderius’s face, and Crawford thought he saw his son’s eyes open. He tried to climb into the back of the ambulance, but the paramedics shut the doors and told him to stay outside. They couldn’t find a pulse. Roderius’s jaw was stiff and his eyes were milky, a sign that he had been dead for more than an hour. They decided to wait in the ambulance until the police arrived before telling the family….

Read on for the rest of the story that will help you make up your own mind about what you believe happened.

Posted in District Attorney, FBI, How Appealing, law enforcement, Prosecutors, Public Defender | 5 Comments »

Conviction Review Unit for LA, Stun-Cuffs, SCOTUS’ Lethal Injection Ruling and CA’s Death Penalty, and More

June 30th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S NEW CONVICTION REVIEW TEAM

On Monday, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced a new Conviction Review Unit to investigate innocence claims, following a wave of recent exonerations in Los Angeles and across the nation.

The LA County Board of Supervisors approved $1 million to fund the unit, which will consist of three deputy district attorneys, a senior investigator, and a paralegal.

When the DA’s office is presented with potentially exculpatory information, Lacey says, “The responsibility is on us, as prosecutors, to re-examine the facts and…to seek to vacate a wrongful conviction.”

The DA’s office prosecuted a whopping 71,000 felony cases last year. This unit is meant to cover prosecutors’ “margin of error” according to DA Lacey, who told Warren Olney, on his KCRW show Which Way, LA?, that she expects the unit to review around a dozen cases per year.

In 2012, California led the nation in innocence cases, with 119 exonerations since 1989. LA County will join other CA counties with similar units including San Diego, Contra Costa, and Santa Clara.

Here’s how it will work, according to DA Lacey’s website:

The unit will review claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence. These claims may originate from inmates, attorneys or innocence projects. The requests will be made in writing to the District Attorney’s Office. This process will not require the filing of any formal court documents.

If an initial review determines that the claim appears to have merit, a formal investigation will be opened. A prosecutor and investigator will be assigned to review trial transcripts and interview witnesses. If warranted, the case will be presented to the Conviction Review Committee composed of managers similar to the group that reviews death penalty cases.

If the committee decides the office has lost faith in the conviction, prosecutors will seek to have the conviction vacated.


STUN-CUFFS: 80,000 VOLTS OF INSTANTANEOUS DISCIPLINARY CONTROL OVER INMATES

A pair of “stun-cuffs” wrapped around wrists or legs allow officers to send 80,000 volts of electricity through an inmate’s body, remotely. In the video above, an officer at a National Sheriff’s Association meeting eagerly straps his ankles into the cuffs for a demonstration. When the button is pushed, the officer immediately drops to the ground screaming and writhing while his friends laugh and joke about his reaction.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has more on the painful cuffs, and why the officers’ reaction to the demonstration is troubling. Here’s a clip:

The way that the man taking the video laughs as the other man writhes on the ground in uncontrollable spasms and painful screams adeptly captures the part of human nature that leads me to believe that these devices will spread with terrible results.

They’re already used on prisoners in some jurisdictions. The company itself lists some testimonials on its web site. A detention center in San Juan County, New Mexico, demonstrated the device on a prison guard back in 2012. A Missouri sheriff’s department tested a similar device from a different manufacturer in 2013. They too found it extremely amusing to debilitate colleagues with painful shocks. Lots of young men would react similarly, hence my reluctance to let them put devices they approach with jocularity rather than seriousness on people that they disdain.

I am hardly alone in finding stun-cuffs creepy and suggestive of evil––for goodness sakes, Darth Vader seems to have pioneered their use on the Death Star.

Back in the real world, there are a depressing number of news articles about parents arrested for putting shock collars intended for dogs on their children. Of course, no one would equate kids with prisoners acting up in custody. But the stories are narrowly relevant for two reasons: they’re written as though the shocks are self-evidently cruel, though they’re far weaker and less painful than what stun-cuffs deliver; and in at least one instance, a man was arrested for putting a shock collar on his kid that he never used, suggesting that on some level, even law enforcement understands that it isn’t just being shocked that matters in these situations––the burden of knowing that someone has a finger on a button that could deliver a shock at any moment matters too. When these stun-cuffs are preemptively placed on prisoners, those who don’t misbehave will still suffer that psychological trauma; and recall that many prisoners have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Those problems would give pause even if America’s police officers and prison guards were not prone to excessive force and prisoner abuse.


WILL SCOTUS RULING IN FAVOR OF OKLAHOMA’S LETHAL INJECTIONS TRIGGER LONG-DORMANT CALIFORNIA EXECUTIONS?

On Monday, in a 5-4 ruling, the US Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s three-drug execution method challenged by three OK death row inmates after three lethal injections were botched last year.

This ruling has particular significance in California, where executions on hold for almost ten years may soon resume. California recently agreed to develop a single drug execution method to replace the three-drug cocktail, pending the SCOTUS ruling.

San Jose Mercury’s Howard Mintz has more on the ruling and why it brings CA closer to carrying out executions. (And for more on the issue, read WLA’s pre-SCOTUS-ruling backstory on the original OK case that went before the high court.) Here’s a clip:

Under a recent settlement with families of murder victims, California prison officials agreed to propose a new single-drug execution method within 120 days of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Oklahoma legal challenge. It would mark the first progress in years toward devising a new execution procedure at San Quentin, where California has not executed a condemned killer in nearly a decade.

By upholding Oklahoma’s controversial three-drug lethal injection method in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court appears to have removed a key legal hurdle for California to rely on some form of lethal drug.

“(It is) a pretty strong green light for California to go forward with whatever lethal injection protocol fits their own regulations and interests,” said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Death penalty opponents expressed alarm that California might resume executions, with one leading group, Death Penalty Focus, sending out an email seeking donations to back efforts to continue legal challenges to lethal injection.

“Today’s decision … starts off a very long, costly and wasteful process in California,” said Ana Zamora, criminal justice policy director for the Northern California ACLU.

The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, rejected the arguments of death penalty foes that drugs such as those used in Oklahoma risk violating an inmate’s right to a humane execution. “Holding that the 8th Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether,” the court’s conservative majority wrote.


NPR SERIES FACILITATES MEANINGFUL CONVERSATION AMONG LA COPS, COMMUNITY, AND CREATIVES

NPR’s Michel Martin hosted an event called “Street and Beats: Personal stories of cops and community from across L.A.” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to open up communication between former gang members, local law enforcement, artists, and other community figures.

Panelists included actor Richard Cabral, LAPD Captain Ruby Flores Malachi, Yasmeen Muqtasid, the resident of Black Women Matter Inc., LASD senior deputy, Rafer Owens, Grammy-winning East LA rock group, Quetzal, author and journalist, Sam Quinones, and LA Poet Laureate, Luis J. Rodriguez.

Street and Beats is part of an ongoing NPR live event series.

Here are a couple of the discussion topics clipped from KPCC’s write-up of the event:

1. Most cops sign up to serve

L.A. Police Captain Ruby Malachi said she wanted to join the force after a bad personal experience with the police as a teenager. “I wanted to become an officer and make a difference, treat people right. Your first encounter with an officer is a lasting, lifelong impression,” she said.

“Many police officers come on for the right reasons,” Malachi continued. “As tough as it is to police in this day and age, we are extremely proud to wear the badge. And that’s one of the things we’re campaigning at LAPD: let’s show what’s behind the badge.”

“We’re real people,” she said. “We care about the job and came onto the job to serve and protect. That’s what we’re sworn to do.”

“[Serving on LASD] is coming out of yourself and serving the community, people who need you,” said Rafer Owens, Senior Deputy, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “We are obligated and obliged to serve our community.”

Malachi said that police and the community they serve have to work to solve problems together and that there need to be more positive contacts with police officers. “We should be teaching kids to run towards us for help, not from us.”

2. Communities often don’t see the concern

Yasmeen Muqtasid, President of Black Women Matter Inc., said the good intentions Malachi and Owens described oftentimes aren’t seen by the community.

“For myself as a black woman, for our organization Black Women Matter, and for black people, the ‘Officer Friendly’ doesn’t exist. It never has,” she said.

“When I think about my first interactions with police, it’s seeing family members being beaten to a pulp,” said Muqtasid. “There’s a huge disconnect between what officers say and what the community feels and experiences.”

[BIG SNIP]

5. Cops are human and they’re needed by the community

Growing up, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles Luis J. Rodriguez said he felt he and his San Gabriel community were at war with the police. Now, he wants police to be part of the community.

“When I was a crime reporter I learned that cops are under the gun of society that says crime is their problem, and I don’t think that’s true. I think crime is a social, political, and justice issue. I do think police are given the short end of the stick when it comes to that and that they should not be in charge of everything we can’t resolve,” he said.

Posted in Death Penalty, District Attorney, law enforcement | 1 Comment »

SF District Attorney Reviewing 3,000 Cases for Racial Bias

May 8th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

UNDER REVIEW: A WHOPPING 3,000 CASES INVOLVING SFPD COPS WHO ALLEDGEDLY ENGAGED IN DISCRIMINATORY TEXT MESSAGING

On Thursday, SF District Attorney George Gascón said that a team of prosecutors was in the process of reviewing 3,000 arrests—1,600 of which resulted in convictions—made by 14 officers who are the subjects of an ongoing investigation.

The 14 cops, some of whom were SFPD veterans, allegedly sent racist and homophobic text messages to each other. (Read the back story—here, and here.)

Gascon said that even only one person had been wrongfully convicted “because of bias on the part of these officers, that’s one too many.”

The NY Times’ Timothy Williams has the story. Here’s a clip:

African-Americans in San Francisco have complained for years about harassment and the use of excessive force by the police. And while African-Americans make up about 5 percent of the city’s population, they account for half of its arrests and jail inmates, and more than 60 percent of the children in juvenile detention, according to city statistics.

In Baltimore on Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged a “fractured relationship between the police and the community” in her predominantly black city and asked the Justice Department to conduct a civil rights investigation of the Police Department to determine whether officers had engaged in unconstitutional patterns of abuse or discrimination.

At a news conference in San Francisco announcing the expanded inquiry, the district attorney, George Gascón, acknowledged that the racist text messages had particularly undermined public confidence in both his office and the local criminal justice system…

Mr. Gascón, a former San Francisco police chief, said Thursday that a task force of prosecutors had already been scrutinizing some 3,000 cases — including about 1,600 convictions — related to contacts or arrests made by the 14 police officers during the last decade to determine if biases had led to any unlawful arrests or wrongful prosecutions.

The investigation by the panel, which will add three former judges as investigators, will now be broadened to include an examination of whether entrenched biases exist in the 2,000-member department.

“If just one individual was wrongly imprisoned because of bias on the part of these officers, that’s one too many,” Mr. Gascón said. “What is the potential impact in our justice system when a juror in a criminal trial questions the credibility of the arresting officer on the evidence that is being presented because they believe that this process may have been influenced by racial or homophobic bias? Can justice prevail under such conditions? Probably not.”

Posted in District Attorney, law enforcement, racial justice | 2 Comments »

CA Counties “Step Up” for Mental Health Diversion…Jazz Therapy in Jail…and Preschool Savings

May 8th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA, OC, OTHER COUNTIES JOIN UNIQUE MENTAL HEALTH DIVERSION INITIATIVE

A new national initiative to divert people with mental illness from jails will connect counties with resources to create concrete action plans and track results.

On Tuesday, the National Association of Counties (NACo), the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, and the American Psychiatric Foundation (APF) launched the initiative, which will use money from Department of Justice’s Bureau
of Justice Assistance (BJA).

Sheriff’s departments in California counties and across the nation are signing up to participate in the “Stepping Up” initiative, which is intended to be “a long-term, national movement—not a moment in time,” according to organizers.

Here are a few of the areas sheriff’s departments participating in the initiative will focus on:

- Learning from a group of criminal justice, mental health, and substance abuse experts, as well as people with mental illnesses and their families

- Collecting data and using it to assess needs of (and to better serve) people who are both mentally ill and justice system-involved

- Developing, implementing, and thoroughly tracking the progress of a diversion plan involving research-based approaches

Counties that see progress over the next year will be eligible to attend a national summit in the Spring of 2016, after which certain counties with the best diversion results will be selected to receive grant money to expand their efforts.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the initiative, and what the LA and OC sheriffs have to say about it. Here’s a clip:

“You will not find a sheriff in this state or this nation who is not struggling with the growing number of people who are mentally ill in our jails,” Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at a kickoff event for the initiative in Sacramento….

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell was not present Thursday at the Sacramento event, but said in a previous interview, “Absolutely, we want to be a participant.”

“Jails were not built as treatment facilities with long-term treatment in mind,” McDonnell said. “When you think about a jail environment, it’s probably the worst possible place to house or attempt to treat the mentally ill.”

LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey has been researching and working on a comprehensive mental health diversion program, and is expected to present the full plan to the Board of Supervisors next month.


A JAZZ SINGER’S MUSIC THERAPY CLASS LIFTS SPIRITS OF WOMEN LOCKED IN SAN FRANCISCO JAIL

After singing three songs to an extremely appreciative crowd of women housed in the San Francisco County Jail last year, cultural anthropologist and jazz singer, Naima Shalhoub, formed a weekly music therapy class to bring a little happiness and hope to the inmates.

The SF Chronicle’s Carolyne Zinko has the story. It’s behind a paywall, but here are some clips:

You don’t need a master’s degree to know that jail inmates are lonely, but during the past year, cultural anthropologist Naima Shalhoub has seen it doesn’t take much, or cost much, to make them feel less isolated and sad.

The difference between happy and unhappy just might be eight minutes. That’s the time it took for Shalhoub, also a jazz artist, to sing three songs on her first visit to a women’s unit at the San Francisco County Jail a year ago, right around Mother’s Day.

“One woman said, ‘I’ve been here two years and this is the happiest I’ve felt,’” she recalled during a visit to the women’s unit on Tuesday. With feedback so powerful, she had to come back, and has taught music therapy classes almost every Friday since.

For this Mother’s Day, Shalhoub went further: She and a four-piece band performed a 45-minute concert in the jail’s E pod on Tuesday, and recorded it before a captive audience of 50 female inmates, a first in the jail’s history.

[SNIP]

“Even though it’s not much to bring music on the inside, it’s a way to learn the day-in, day-out on the inside in the lives of women, and to intervene in their isolation and confinement,” Shalhoub said. “Dreaming about other systems that are restorative is what fuels my passion for this work.”


HOW MUCH COULD CALIFORNIA SAVE BY EXPANDING ACCESS TO PRE-K?

There are 31,500 4-year-olds from low-income households in California that don’t have access to public preschool.

Providing preschool to 31,500 kids—which was included in Governor Jerry Brown’s 2014-15 Budget Act—could save California $820 million per year (at $26,000 per child), according to a new report by ReadyNation.

Heres a clip from ReadyNation:

Long-term savings are substantial. An independent cost-benefit analysis of more than 20 different studies of high-quality state and local preschool programs by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that providing high-quality early childhood education can have, on average, a net return of over $26,000 for every child served.

These savings result from fewer placements in special education, less grade repetition, increased lifetime earnings thanks to higher graduation rates, more income taxes collected from those earnings, reduced health care costs, and decreased crime.

In keeping with the promise in the 2014-15 Budget Act, an estimated additional 31,500 preschool slots are needed in order to provide early learning for all low-income 4-year-olds in California. Applying the estimated $26,000 in lifetime net savings per child served by preschool means that serving these children in California would result in savings to our state of close to $820 million for each graduating preschool class.

“When it comes to early education for at-risk youth, the research is clear: investing in our youngest learners now will pay big dividends in the future,” said Moreen Lane, Deputy Director of READYNATION California. “Hopefully, our state legislators and the Governor will agree and fulfill the promise of least year’s Budget Act to make early education available for all low-income 4-year-olds. Smart investments in preschool would be a solid step for our state economy.”

Posted in District Attorney, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Education, Innocence, LA County Board of Supervisors, LAPD, LASD, mental health, racial justice | 5 Comments »

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