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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 »

LA to Get a Conviction Integrity Unit, LA’s Judge Michael Nash is Back, Bridging the Gap Between Homelessness and Employment, and Crime Victims

April 24th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA COUNTY DA JACKIE LACEY TO LAUNCH UNIT TO HUNT FOR WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey is establishing a conviction integrity unit to investigate innocence claims, following a wave of recent exonerations in Los Angeles and across the nation.

The team will consist of three prosecutors, a senior investigator, and a paralegal. DA Lacey has asked the Board of Supervisors for around $1 million in funding.

(Read about conviction integrity units elsewhere in the US: here and here.)

The LA Times’ Marisa Gerber has more on the new unit. Here’s a clip:

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he expects that a new conviction review unit would particularly help people of color, who he said are wrongfully convicted at disproportionately high rates.

“It sends the message to law enforcement officers that trumped-up charges will not work,” he said. “It’s another dimension of checks and balances in the criminal justice system, which I think is sorely needed.”

The units have already had an effect in other places in California.

On Wednesday, at the request of the Ventura County district attorney’s office, a judge dismissed a murder case against Michael Ray Hanline, who was convicted in 1980. The office said it made the request after an investigation by its conviction integrity unit, along with the California Innocence Project, which turned up new evidence casting doubt on Hanline’s guilt.

[SNIP]

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, said that setting up a unit won’t necessarily translate into meaningful change or exonerations.

“There are lots of people who can say, ‘Oh gee, I have a conviction integrity unit,’ because that’s now the necessary fashion accessory,” he said.

To be successful, Scheck said, Los Angeles County should search for someone with “a different way of looking at the cases” —- like a former defense attorney — to lead the unit. The other key, he said, is fostering robust relationships between prosecutors and defense lawyers in which neither side expects to be “sandbagged.”

“It’s no longer an adversarial relationship,” he said. “It’s a joint search for the truth.”


FORMER HEAD OF LA JUVIE COURT, JUDGE MICHAEL NASH, OUT OF RETIREMENT AND INTO DELINQUENCY COURT

Judge Michael Nash retired in January after serving for nearly 30 years as the presiding judge of LA County’s juvenile court. Fortunately, he did not remain retired for long. Judge Nash is back, and working as a sitting judge in a Compton delinquency court.

Prior to Nash heading the entirety of the 43-courtroom juvenile system, he served as a dependency court judge. (Read about Nash’s efforts to bring transparency and accountability to the children’s court system, here, and the Department of Children and Family Services, here.)

Holden Slattery interviews Nash for the Chronicle of Social Change.

Nash discusses the differences (and commonalities) between delinquency and dependency courts, and the kids he strives to protect. Here’s a clip:

He had shown interest in taking a lead as the county’s Director of Child Protection, a new office created after recommendations by a blue ribbon commission established to overhaul L.A.’s child protection system. But when the Board of Supervisors dithered on hiring him, he recalibrated his sights.

For a couple of months, he enjoyed relaxing at home with his puppy, doing projects, and watching TV shows that had never fit his schedule in years past.

But Nash wanted more than a cozy seat on the couch. He applied for California’s Assigned Judges Program, which assigns retired judges to benches where they are needed. Nash was appointed to the Juvenile Court in Compton. He now sits in Judge Donna Groman’s courtroom on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays while Groman does administrative work.

As presiding judge, Nash was responsible for all of the delinquency courts and dependency courts in Los Angeles County—more than 40 courtrooms in total. In delinquency courts such as Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court, a judge determines whether children have broken laws and takes corrective action. In dependency courts, a judge decides whether children have been victims of maltreatment. Before being elected as presiding judge, Nash worked in a dependency court. This is his first time working on the delinquency side of the county’s vast judicial system for minors.

“This is a new experience for me, and it’s great,” Nash says in Groman’s office during a break. “This court is really a hybrid between two systems.”

“On the front end of this process, it’s like a criminal court because kids are charged with crimes and you have to deal with that. But once you get to resolve that issue, it’s the same thing we do on the dependency side. We have to work with these kids and their families to ensure that they’re in stable settings and getting the services they need to become productive members of the community.”


LA TRADE TECH PROGRAM COMBATS SOUTH LA UNEMPLOYMENT RATE, HELPS THOSE IN NEED LAND JOBS

Los Angeles Trade Tech’s nonprofit WorkSource Center, which opened in November, makes finding work an attainable goal for low-income men and women in the eastern part of South LA, where the unemployment rate is more than twice as high as the state average. The center serves as a hub, providing everything from employment training and job fairs, to work clothes and tools, and connecting participants to housing assistance and other indispensable services.

The program runs on a $1.1 million grant from the City of Los Angeles.

KPCC’s Brian Watt has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Job seekers take online classes, and complete resumes and job applications at the center’s computer terminals. Private meeting rooms are available for job interviews. The center will host a job fair on May 7.

Carlon Manuel, who works at the WorkSource center, said many of the people who come for help are homeless and hungry.

“We can help them find housing, food banks, rental assistance,” Manuel said, standing in a large closet full of donated suits, ties, dress shoes and business-casual sweaters. “We can give you everything but underwear and a T-shirt and socks. The underwear, T-shirts and socks you work on your own.”

Manuel’s colleague, John Wilson, added: “We’ve put gas in someone’s car so they could get to an interview.”

On a recent Thursday, Manuel, Wilson and other staffers at the center helped a group of men sign up for a construction apprenticeship program. Some were military veterans. Others were what Manuel called “veterans of the streets,” who were referred to the center by representatives at Homeboy Industries, a local nonprofit that helps current and former gang members.

Applications and training are the first steps for job seekers. As they near the end of that process, and are at the cusp of getting hired, other needs can get in the way. Construction work might require tools and boots that the employer doesn’t pay for. The same goes for culinary knives for line cooks in restaurants. If the aspiring worker doesn’t have the cash to cover those items, the center tries to find a way.


CRIME VICTIMS’ RIGHTS WEEK: POLICE WIDOW AND ADVOCATE CALLS FOR EQUAL ACCESS TO VICTIM SERVICES

In the summer of 2005, Dionne Wilson’s police officer husband, Dan, was talking with three drunken young men outside of an apartment building when one of them pulled out a gun and shot him.

In an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee in honor of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, Dionne Wilson explains how her husband’s murder led her to become a member of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Wilson says that while she received excellent support as a victim of crime, her experience did not fall within the norm. Not all crime survivors are treated the same by the criminal justice system, and many do not have easy access to support and resources. Wilson helped secure funds for one-stop-shop trauma recovery centers in California to combat these problems. Currently, there are just three centers in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. Wilson says more are needed, and lauds the allocation of anticipated Prop 47 funds for future trauma recovery centers.

Here’s a clip:

Responding to a minor disturbance outside an apartment complex, Dan spoke with some young, very intoxicated men. One man, who had been in jail for drugs and feared a return trip, drew his gun and shot Dan. The man was caught, convicted and received the death penalty. But the healing I expected did not come. I was angry, depressed and broken.

As a police widow, I had all the support you could want: Friends brought me food, Dan’s colleagues helped me navigate the justice system and everyone always saw me as a victim. Without this support, I would not have made it.

However, the entire experience led me to view the system itself as broken…

This endless cycle of incarceration is largely driven by mental health and drug addiction issues that continue to be punished instead of healed. This is exactly what happened with the man who shot my husband.

The current approach is not working; it’s expensive and not making us safer. This realization led me to work with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a statewide network whose members were in Sacramento on Monday and Tuesday to call for new priorities that better aid survivors.

For example, the support I received after Dan’s death is the exception, not the rule. After meeting with survivors, I realize that the justice system does not respond to victims equally. Equally troubling is that a vast majority of crime survivors don’t know about, or have access to, services for victims.

Posted in DCFS, District Attorney, Foster Care, Innocence, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, law enforcement | 2 Comments »

LA Drug Court Reboot, $100 Million on Homelessness, DOJ to Monitor Calexico’s Police Dept., and the Struggle to Free the Innocent

April 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

GIVING LA’S DRUG COURTS NEW LIFE BY OPENING THEM UP TO MORE SERIOUS DRUG OFFENDERS

A new proposal from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office would expand the scope of the county’s half-empty drug courts to help people accused of more serious drug-related crimes.

Before Proposition 47 reduced many low-level property and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors, drug courts were a place where people charged with certain drug crimes could avoid a felony conviction and time behind bars if they completed a rehabilitation process.

But these drug courts were intended for those who committed felony drug offenses. Because the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is one year, there is currently not as much incentive to apply for drug court, or to finish it out, once enrolled.

KPCC’s Rina Palta has more on the proposal and how it would work. Here’s a clip:

Treatment programs used for drug court participants have dropped from 85 percent full to about 65 percent full, Satriano said.

To turn the trend around, she said, the committee is considering a proposal to repurpose drug courts to service higher risk, higher need offenders who’s crimes are tied to their addictions. Things like theft and being a middle man in a drug deal could qualify, along with any non-violent, non-serious felony.

“We’re looking to broaden the eligibility to get into drug court, but at the same time, realizing that what we would also need to do is intensify the program,” said Mark Delgado, director of the county’s criminal justice coordinating committee.

He said the new program, if adopted, would involve three months of jail time for people accused of more serious crimes – as well as more rigorous drug treatment and testing requirements.


HOW MUCH LA CITY AGENCIES SPEND EACH YEAR INTERACTING WITH THE HOMELESS

Los Angeles spends more than $100 million on homelessness each year, an estimated $54-$87 million of which is spent on police interaction with the homeless, according to a report released Wednesday by City Ad­min­is­trat­ive Of­ficer Miguel A. Santana. And of the money spent on law enforcement contact with the homeless population, arrests cost $46-$80 million.

Santana included sixteen different city agencies and departments in his study. One problem, according to the report, is that the departments rely heavily on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 19-person Emergency Response Team which only receives $330,000 from the city and serves the whole county.

The LA Times’ Gale Holland has more on the report. Here’s a clip:

“There appears to be no consistent process across city departments for dealing with the homeless or with homeless encampments,” he said.

The report said it was not possible now “to get a full measure of the costs” of homelessness for the city, or to monitor the effects of changes in homelessness over time in L.A.

[SNIP]

Responses by city departments are not designed to end homelessness by systematically connecting the homeless to assessment, services and housing, the report said.

In many departments, the report said, responses are ad hoc, designed to respond to a very specific challenge rather than working toward ending homelessness as a whole.

Santana recommended that the city increase funding for homeless outreach and case management, create a new homeless office and set up neighborhood hubs to support existing efforts to house and care for homeless people.


DOJ TO MONITOR AND MAKEOVER CALEXICO’S POLICE DEPARTMENT

The US Department of Justice announced this week that it will train and monitor Calexico, CA’s troubled police department. Last fall, the FBI launched an investigation into alleged officer misconduct. In October, the city fired its police chief and replaced him with former LAPD Assistant Chief Michael Bostic. The new chief said he quickly found that the investigations unit was not conducting any investigations, officers were not bothering to obtain search warrants, the department was spying on the City Council, and that department members were using assets seized from citizens to buy things like spy glasses.

Chief Bostic has asked the DOJ to step in and help him turn the Calexico Police Department around. The DOJ, via its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, will provide extensive training and will help build a community policing unit over the next three years.

KPBS’ Jean Guerrero has the story. Here’s a clip:

Bostic has fired six police officers since his arrival in Calexico last fall. He was appointed police chief as the FBI started its investigation.

Previously, Bostic was assistant police chief at the Los Angeles Police Department, where he led internal cleanups after police scandals such as the Rodney King beating. During his time there, the Department of Justice and US Attorney’s Office monitored the LAPD for seven years in response to a court order.

“In my mind it was a very beneficial process,” Bostic said. “So when I got to Calexico… I on my own called the DOJ and asked them to come in and assist me in rebuilding the police department.”

The Department of Justice will help the Calexico Police Department through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, bringing in a group of police chief consultants from major U.S. cities to share their expertise.

The training will be focused on the proper handling of evidence, booking procedures and improving community outreach.

In January, NPR’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath talked with reporter Jill Replogle, who had been covering the FBI investigation, about the corruption allegations and about the city’s outspoken and proactive new chief, Michael Bostic. (He was so vocal, in fact, that the police union decided to sue him.)

JILL REPLOGLE: The new police chief, who started in October, says that when he got there, there was no real police work going on. He says the investigations unit didn’t have any investigations going on. He found internal investigations scattered all over the place – a safe, in desk drawers, in somebody’s car. He found that the department had used a lot of money from seized assets to buy spy equipment like spy glasses and, you know, lapel cameras, things like that. And then when they’re looking through the footage, they find that they’re spying on City Council members. They also found that they had bought a bunch of equipment to break into buildings and cars, but they have no search warrants for those searches.

RATH: Now, that new police chief, Michael Bostic, who took over in October after his predecessor was fired - some of the most damning public allegations have actually come from him. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BOSTIC: They’re recording City Council members, and they’re using it for extortion. I can say that. That’s just true. That’s what they were doing.

RATH: Jill, it was an amazing moment. The police chief actually broke down and cried at one point he was so disturbed by the corruption allegations. And this guy’s a 34-year veteran of the LAPD.


WHY EVIDENCE OF A WRONGFUL CONVICTION DOES NOT ALWAYS MEAN EXONERATION AND FREEDOM

The Marshall Project’s Andrew Cohen has a great longread about Davontae Sanford, a young man convicted of killing four people when he was fourteen. Despite an abundance of evidence pointing to Sanford’s innocence, including an air-tight confession by a hit-man, Sanford’s efforts toward exoneration have been blocked at nearly every turn, and he remains behind bars (and will likely stay there for years more). Cohen explores why exonerations are so hard-won. Here’s how it opens:

We know more every day about the ways wrongful convictions happen. An indigent defendant gets an incompetent attorney. Or prosecutors hide exculpatory information from the defense. Perhaps there is a false confession, coerced by sly detectives, or undue reliance on faulty eyewitness testimony or junk forensic science. Maybe a key witness turns out to be an unreliable informant, or the jury or judge is racially biased. Often, it is some combination of these factors that puts an innocent person behind bars, sometimes for life.

What gets far less notice, however, is how wrongful convictions stay that way, even after evidence of injustice appears to bubble to the surface. This is why the already well-chronicled saga of Davontae Sanford, a 14-year-old boy convicted of a 2007 quadruple murder in Michigan, is worth following closely again as it enters its latest and most bizarre phase.

Later today, Sanford’s lawyers will ask a Michigan judge to grant their client a new trial based on evidence and arguments that state judges and county prosecutors have never before addressed. The defense team essentially will be asking Michigan’s criminal justice system to finally make a choice between two confessions to the same crime; one by a boy whose story was contradicted by independent evidence, the other by a professional killer who accurately told the police where to find the murder weapon.

Posted in Department of Justice, District Attorney, FBI, Homelessness, Innocence, Rehabilitation, The Feds | 5 Comments »

LA County’s Proposed Budget…Feds Investigate SF Jail Abuse Allegations…CA Bill to Reduce Drivers License Suspensions…and Criminal Justice Questions for Presidential Candidates

April 14th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA COUNTY’S REFORM-MINDED BUDGET PROPOSAL ALLOCATES MORE $$ TO MENTAL HEALTH DIVERSION, JAIL SERVICES, FOSTER CARE

In a press conference Monday morning, the office of LA County interim CEO Sachi Hamai released the 2015-16 budget proposal.

A spokesman for the CEO emphasized that the new budget is focused on “major programatic reforms, with new positions and funding” going toward “improvements in the criminal justice system, child protection, and improvements in health care delivery.”

Out of $26,923 billion, only an additional 10.2 million is going to mental health diversion, but it’s a big step in the right direction. In June, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is expected to present to the Board of Supervisors her task force’s report on creating a comprehensive mental health diversion plan for the county.

An even larger step is the $66.9 million to fund 542 additional child protection positions, in order to lighten social workers’ cases loads, a crucial move in the name of child safety. Over-stressed social workers are more likely to miss things.

Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement that the proposed budget “provides critically needed resources to support ongoing efforts by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) to ensure the compassionate treatment of inmates in the nation’s largest jail system, while also continuing to develop smarter justice system approaches to those in our community suffering from mental illness.”

Public budget hearings are slated to begin in mid-May.

The LA County Supervisors are also scheduled to vote today on a motion to institute some additional oversight for probation in the form of an audit.


FBI JOINS THE GROUP OF AGENCIES PROBING REPORTS OF SF DEPUTIES FORCING INMATES TO FIGHT AND BETTING ON THEM

The FBI has initiated an investigation into allegations that four San Francisco deputies forced jail inmates to brawl in gladiator-style fights and placed bets on them. SF District Attorney George Gascon, the SF Police Department, and the sheriff’s department have also launched investigations into the matter. (WLA will continue to track this story.)

KQED’s Alex Emslie has the updated story. Here are some clips:

The four deputies named at the center of an independent investigation initiated by [San Francisco Public Defender] Jeff Adachi remain on paid leave, [SF Sheriff Ross] Mirkarimi said. Their names are Scott Neu, Eugene Jones, Clifford Chiba and Evan Staehely. The law firm representing the deputies did not return a call seeking comment.

The federal inquiry officially started April 3. Special Agent Greg Wuthrich said the FBI investigation is at a very early stage.

“Civil rights allegations are definitely huge for the bureau,” Wuthrich said. “These kind of things, we take very seriously.”

[SNIP]

Adachi said in a statement that he is pleased with the FBI’s involvement and commended Mirkarimi for taking the unusual step of inviting the federal probe.

“Eliminating this sort of brutal and sadistic conduct starts by leading an investigation that isn’t tainted by conflict of interest or misplaced loyalty,” Adachi said. “I look forward to a thorough and fair investigation that includes determining whether additional deputies were aware of the abuse and complicit in their silence. To ensure this never happens again, there must be accountability — not only for the perpetrators, but for those who fail to speak up.”


CA BILL WOULD CUT DOWN ON ALL-TOO-COMMON LICENSE SUSPENSIONS FOR NON-VIOLENT TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS

A new bill by CA Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) aims to reduce the number of drivers whose licenses are suspended after failing to pay (often exorbitant) fines for non-violent traffic offenses.

SB 405 follows closely behind a report condemning California’s policing-for-profit system as not unlike the situation in Ferguson, MO. In both places, fines pile on top of fines when a driver is unable to pay a ticket, burying the person (often poor to begin with) under a mountain of debt. And often failure to pay these fines results in a suspended license, which prevents the person from driving to a job to earn money to pay the fines. One in six California drivers have had their licenses suspended, and according to a separate report, nearly half of people whose licenses are suspended lose their jobs.

The bill would reinstate drivers licenses lost due to non-violent traffic infractions, as long as the licensee then paid back the debt through the state’s proposed Traffic Amnesty program.

A New Way of Life Reentry Project, the East Bay Community Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children cosponsored the bill.

Here’s a clip from Sen. Hertzberg’s website:

Hertzberg said suspended licenses can trap the working poor in an impossible situation: unable to reinstate their license without gainful employment and unable to access employment without a license.

“This is a Catch 22 that traps people in a cycle of poverty,” Hertzberg said, pointing to a recent New Jersey study that found that when a license was suspended, 42 percent of drivers lost their jobs. Of those, 45 percent were unable to find a new job. Even accounting for those that kept their job, 88 percent of people with suspended licenses reported a reduction in their income.

In California, the number of licenses suspended during an 8-year period from 2006 to 2013 exceeded 4.2 million. In that same timespan, only 71,000 driver licenses were reinstated.

Under existing law, it is virtually impossible for the driver’s license to be restored until all the unpaid fees, fines and assessments are completely paid. This jeopardizes economic stability in the state, limits the available workforce, and forces employers to bear the cost of replacing workers and finding qualified replacement workers with valid licenses.

In addition to trapping many Californians in a cycle of poverty, the sheer number of suspended licenses poses a threat to public safety. Evidence suggests that when people lose a license for reasons unrelated to safety, they take the suspensions less seriously. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 75 percent of people who have had their licenses suspended just keep driving – often without insurance.


RADLEY BALKO: CRUCIAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE QUESTIONS WE SHOULD ASK ALL PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has a “quick and dirty” list of important criminal justice reform questions for all presidential candidates.

If you are wondering who has thrown their hat in, thus far, the NY Times has a nice little chart (updated as of yesterday, April 13).

Here are four from Balko’s list, but there are … more where these came from:

The Obama administration has made heavy use of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to investigate patterns of abuse and civil rights violations by local police departments. Would you continue this policy in your administration? To what extent is the federal government obligated to step in when local police and prosecutors are either habitually violating or failing to protect the constitutional rights of citizens in their jurisdiction?

[SNIP]

Several media reports, advocacy groups and judicial opinions (including a recent opinion by Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit) have described an epidemic of prosecutor misconduct across the country. Do you believe there is a widespread problem of prosecutor misconduct in America? Do you believe the federal government has a responsibility to address it?

[SNIP]

Do you believe the criminal justice system is infected with institutional racism? I’m not asking you to assess whether individual cops, judges, or prosecutors are racist; I’m asking if you believe there is inherent bias built into the system.

[SNIP]

Do you believe the criminal justice system is infected with institutional racism? I’m not asking you to assess whether individual cops, judges, or prosecutors are racist; I’m asking if you believe there is inherent bias built into the system.


Posted in Board of Supervisors, DCFS, District Attorney, FBI, Foster Care, jail, Jim McDonnell, Juvenile Probation, LA County Board of Supervisors, mental health, Public Defender | No Comments »

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