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New Approach to Juvie Crime is Working in Red Hook….Should Taxpayers Pay the LASD’s Punitive Damages?…..Paul Tanaka Says Sheriff Baca Shut Down Narco Investigation…..Insane Justice ….and More

November 18th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon



A HUMANE, COMMUNITY-ORIENTED APPROACH TO JUVIE & ADULT CRIME IS WORKING IN RED HOOK, SAYS NEW REPORT

In April 2000, a new courthouse called the Red Hook Community Justice Center opened its doors in a vacant schoolhouse in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Over the previous few decades, Red Hook had declined from a vibrant, working-class waterfront community into crime and drug-ridden place that residents fled when they could.

The Justice Center hoped to change all that by “halting the revolving door” of the traditional criminal justice system. Justice Center planners believed that “community courts foster stronger relationships between courts and communities and restore public confidence in the justice system.”

It was a bravely optimistic concept.

Yet, according to a fascinating report released last Tuesday by the National Center for State Courts, evaluating the program’s outcomes, the approach that launched 13 years ago, is working impressively well.

The report found, among other things, that juvenile defendants were 20 percent less likely to re-offend when their cases had been heard at the Justice Center—instead of at the Kings County Family Court, where cases would have normally been heard.

After reading the report, the New York Daily News described the Center as “a success for defendants and taxpayers.”

(The Center hears adult cases as well. For adults, thus far recidivism has dropped by 10 percent.)

Roxanna Asgarian of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has more on the Justice Center-–and the report. Here’re some clips:

On a recent afternoon in a Red Hook courtroom, a disheveled young woman in a baggy blue sweatshirt was being sentenced for a drug-related offense. The judge had seen her in court before, always for arrests related to her heroin addiction.

Judge Alex Calabrese, a paternal-looking middle-aged man, asked her to approach the bench.

“Are you ready?” he asked her, looking into her eyes. “Yes,” she responded.

He reached out and took her hand.

“Are you gonna get on the bus? Are you gonna stay on the bus?” he asked, and she nodded. “Yes.”

Calabrese signed the paperwork for her to enter a mandatory detox and rehabilitation center, and she was to leave on a bus from the courtroom to the rehab facility in ten minutes.

“She got picked up last night at 6:30 p.m., and she’ll be on a bus to rehab at 3:30 today,” Calabrese said. “That’s good work.”

[SNIP]

Where in traditional courts, the defendant may meet with their public attorney just minutes before their trial, at the Justice Center, onsite social workers can meet with the defendant and come up with alternatives to incarceration, like mandated community service or treatment, before the offender meets with a judge.

For young residents of Red Hook, where 70 percent of the neighborhood lives in public housing, the chance to keep their record clean, or clear it, can make a world of difference in the opportunities they’ll have for their future.

“It’s not that complicated an idea,” said Julian Adler, the Justice Center’s director. “It’s just something that you don’t typically see in the criminal justice system.”


THE LA TIMES ASKS IF COUNTY TAXPAYERS SHOULD HAVE TO PAY FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES AGAINST THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT SUPERVISORS

In Monday’s editorial, the LA Times asks what a lot of people have been asking of late: Should Sheriff Baca and others in the department have to personally pay injured inmates?

It’s a question that has two sides to it, as the Times points out.

The arguments on indemnification can cut both ways. On the one hand, if those held liable were just doing their jobs, or if they had no way of knowing they behaved wrongly or if they were following orders, perhaps they shouldn’t have to pay. It doesn’t make sense to punish a few rank-and-file deputies if the culture of the department is what’s really to blame. Nor does it make sense to create a environment in which officers feel they must act with excessive caution….

On the other hand…..

Here’s another snip from the end of the editorial:

….at the very least, we’d like to see the county Board of Supervisors hold a public discussion and a public vote on the subject. No doubt some on the board will argue that they need to make such decisions behind closed doors, because they will require confidential advice from their lawyers as they consider whether to pay the awards and whether to appeal the verdicts. But the truth is that the supervisors routinely get legal advice in closed session on matters such as whether to transfer inmates out of the county, and then go on to hold a robust public debate on the same subject.

The decision of whether to indemnify these defendants isn’t merely a legal matter. It’s a public policy issue that requires the supervisors to explain why taxpayers should continue to pay out millions of dollars for public officials who break the law. Perhaps declining to indemnify the deputies and the sheriff who leads the department would help reform this deeply troubled agency.

Oh, Board of Supes…? Are you listening…?


FORMER UNDERSHERIFF PAUL TANAKA ACCUSES SHERIFF LEE BACA OF SQUASHING A NARCOTICS INVESTIGATION AIMED AT BACA’S FRIEND BISHOP TURNER

On Thursday of last week, KABC-TV reported on LA County Sheriff Baca’s senior civilian aide, Bishop Edward Turner—who was making $105,000, per year plus percs—but who had recently been relieved of duty by the sheriff in response to a series of decidedly curious issues that the ABC-TV folks uncovered in their reporting.

The most startling of those issues had to do with a mystery package addressed to Turner’s church that was intercepted in 2005 by an LASD narcotics squad. After the squad’s drug-and-money sniffing dog (whose name was Jake) did everything but point a paw at the package in question, investigators opened the thing and found, among other things, more than $84,000 in shrink wrapped cash inside. The narcotics squad believed the cash was part of a drug transaction.

An investigation ensued but went nowhere, according to Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore.

Then on Friday, former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, put out a statement saying that back in 2005, while he had personally pressed for the Turner/cash incident to be vigorously investigated, the sheriff had ordered the probe to be squashed.

“In 2005, I was made aware that detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotics Bureau had intercepted a parcel package destined for Bishop Edward Turner’s church. The package contained in excess of $80,000 in cash. The detectives believed that the money was a direct result of selling and distributing illegal narcotics,” said former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. “Although I did not have chain-of-command responsibility for Detective Division in 2005, I directed my aide to advise the detectives that they needed to conduct a full investigation, despite the fact that Bishop Turner was a Field Deputy to Sheriff Lee Baca. Subsequent to this direction, I was advised that Sheriff Baca had personally ordered the investigation terminated. This is appalling, unacceptable, and just another reason why the Sheriff’s Department needs new leadership.”

On Friday night, Tanaka appeared on KABC to reiterate these charges. However, Steve Whitmore—who was also interviewed—asked why Tanaka, as a law enforcement officer, had not made sure the investigation went forward anyway.

Reporter Marc Brown posed that very question to the former undersheriff—at which time Mr. Tanaka paused conspicuously, then phumphered something about how “you won’t last long” if you go against the sheriff.

Meanwhile, knowledgeable sources inside the department told us that someone at the LASD squashed the investigation.

There is also much speculation among department members about who might have leaked the internal LASD documents showing the existence of the narcotics investigation against Turner, to KABC, and why? (The suggestion is that there may have been a political agenda behind the leak.)

With all this competitive finger-pointing going on, one cannot help but hope that some outside law enforcement agency—like, say, the FBI—has taken an interest in the case of Bishop Turner, the mystery box-of-cash, and the possibly-aborted narcotics investigation.


SPEAKING OF THE LASD & ELECTIONS….

We reported a few weeks ago on the battle for control of the board of one of the LASD unions, PPOA. On Friday, the ballots were counted and it appears that the slate of candidates rumored to be aligned with Paul Tanaka were defeated by the incumbent board members.


INSANE JUSTICE: DO WE REALLY WANT THESE PEOPLE TO BE SERVING LIFE SENTENCES?

As we noted last week, the ACLU has released a new and devastating report about Americans serving life sentences without the possible of parole for non-serious crimes, very often drug related, nearly all people with no violent crimes in their backgrounds.

Over the weekend the New York Times published an impassioned editorial that points out the utter madness of such sentencing.

Here are some clips:

If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer? For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert? For siphoning gas from a truck? The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.

And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.

As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative. It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales. Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car.

The report relies on data from the federal prison system and nine states. Four out of five prisoners were sentenced for drug crimes like possessing a crack pipe or acting as a go-between in a street drug sale. Most of the rest were sentenced for property crimes like trying to cash a stolen check or shoplifting. In more than 83 percent of the cases, the judge had no choice: federal or state law mandated a sentence of life without parole, usually under a mandatory-minimum or habitual offender statute.

[SNIP]]

It is difficult to find anyone who defends such sentencing. Even Burl Cain, the longtime warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which holds the most nonviolent lifers in the country, calls these sentences “ridiculous.” “Everybody forgets what corrections means. It means to correct deviant behavior,” Mr. Cain told the A.C.L.U. “If this person can go back and be a productive citizen and not commit crimes again,” he asked, why spend the money to keep him in prison? “I need to keep predators in these big old prisons, not dying old men…..”

There are two bills before congress that, if passed, would give judges a bit more discretion.

But as the NY Times notes, this gesture toward reform isn’t close to enough—either on a federal or a state level.

Let us remember, we incarcerate more of our fellow Americans per capita than any other country in the world. No one else even comes close. These kind of sentencing policies are a large part of why.


THE U.S. CONSTITUTION, THE SUPREME COURT, & LOCKING UP THE INNOCENT

Michael Kirkland, UPI’s Senior Legal Affairs Writer takes a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s complicated and often troubling relationship with the concept of innocence.

Here’s how his report opens:

The case of Ryan Ferguson, the Missouri man freed after spending 10 years behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t commit, shows the nation’s justice system, one of the fairest in the world, occasionally convicts the innocent, puts them in prison and throws away the key.
Does the U.S. Supreme Court give a damn?

Ferguson improbably was convicted on the “repressed memories” of a friend for the 2001 killing of Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune Sports editor Kent Heitholt in the newspaper parking lot as Heitholt was leaving work early in the morning.

The friend recanted at trial and another witness putting Ferguson at the scene also recanted. He was not connected to fingerprints, bloody footprints and hair found at the crime scene.

Ferguson, now 29, was sentenced to 40 years. He was finally freed last week.

So far the Innocence Project has freed more than 300 people based on DNA evidence, Kirkland notes.

Still other people have been freed by the dogged work of attorneys who believed that an injustice had been done, and find the evidence to prove it.

But in some of those cases, even when new evidence surfaces that indicates those convicted are likely factually innocent, lower courts fail to act. At those times, SCOTUS is split about whether innocence is a legal reason for the high court to wade in.

Here’s what Kirkland writes:

On one side, Roberts and his fellow conservatives warn at some point, judicial proceedings have to be final, and opening the floodgates of judicial review might return the justice system to the days when death row inmates and others delayed their sentences for decades with claim after claim, despite the overwhelming evidence that convicted them.

After all, Congress, fed up with endless federal appeals, enacted the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996 to limit habeas review.

On the other side, Stevens and his fellow liberals made the practical argument: If a DNA test or rape kit test can make a conviction even more certain, or expose a miscarriage of justice, why not do it?

Such divisions probably will continue. How do you effectively punish the great mass of the guilty without damning the innocent few?


And then Kirkland notes this statement from Antonin Scalia who said in his dissent in a 2009 case
in which the majority of the Supremes granted a new evidence hearing for a Georgia death row inmate.

“This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a [constitutional] court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.”

As is often the case, Scalia makes a distressing—but legally interesting—point.


Posted in Courts, crime and punishment, criminal justice, DNA, Innocence, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, Los Angeles County, Paul Tanaka, Sentencing, Sheriff Lee Baca | 42 Comments »

Exorbitant Prison Phone Calls, DNA and an Unjust Justice System, Sentencing Reform Saves $$…and More

August 1st, 2013 by Taylor Walker

CRAZILY EXPENSIVE PHONE CALLS FROM INMATES TO THEIR FAMILIES AND MUCH-NEEDED REFORM

In mid-July the Federal Communications Commission held a workshop in D.C. to explore potential reforms to the issue of preposterously expensive prison phone calls. Families wanting to have a few short phone conversations with their loved ones in prison (and even in county jail) can easily rack up hundreds of dollars a month in charges. Those who have not committed the crime—families and friends of inmates—are the ones bearing the brunt of the expense, often when they can’t afford to. And, there’s the added fact that multiple studies have shown that consistent contact with family and friends is one of the prime factors in how well (or poorly) an inmate succeeds once released.

Here are some clips from the Counsel of State Governments Justice Center’s story by Angela Tolosa:

On July 10, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a daylong workshop in Washington, D.C., to explore reforms on prison telephone calls. The first of its kind for the FCC, the workshop brought together more than 100 family members of prisoners, advocates, and state regulators from across the country while thousands more participated online.

“I believe that we must do everything we can to ensure a reasonable mechanism for families to stay in touch with their loved ones during this separation,” said FCC Acting Chairperson Mignon Clyburn. “Ensuring that the costs of prison payphone calls are reasonable will enable meaningful progress toward that goal.” Ms. Clyburn is leading the commission’s effort to lower interstate long distance rates from prisons.

The issue first came to the FCC’s attention in 2003 when a Washington, D.C.-area woman, Martha Wright, said she was paying about $200 a month for one 15-minute phone call a week with her grandson, who was in prison. Civil rights groups filed a class-action suit on her behalf; the courts dismissed the case and Wright was referred to the FCC.

[SNIP]

These high rates often prohibit low-income families from having regular contact with incarcerated loved ones. Maintaining relationships between prisoners and family members, especially their children and spouses, promotes rehabilitation and reduces recidivism. And given that 2.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison, making these calls affordable is imperative to keep families together and to help individuals successfully reintegrate into society.

We at WitnessLA have been on this topic even prior to WLA’s existence (go here for an article Celeste wrote for LA Weekly back in 2001 about prison phone calls, and here for more recent WLA coverage).


SEVENTY-YEAR-OLD COURT EMPLOYEE FIRED FOR HELPING INNOCENT MAN CONVICTED OF RAPE GET DNA TESTING

Sharon Snyder, a seventy-year-old court worker in Kansas, was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire for helping a wrongfully-convicted man properly fill out the paperwork necessary to request DNA testing on a rape conviction. The prisoner, Robert Nelson, had been denied the DNA testing twice on technicalities, but with a sample motion received from the court clerk, was approved and subsequently exonerated twenty-five years after his conviction.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explains the real significance of this story. Here are a couple of clips:

Outrage rippled across the web earlier this week as Americans heard the story of Sharon Snyder, “a 70-year-old great-grandmother who was fired nine months before she was scheduled to retire.” Her transgression? An employee of Jackson County Circuit Court, she helped a man in prison who sought to have the DNA evidence in his case tested, but had his request rejected twice on technicalities because he hadn’t managed to properly fill out the paperwork.

Robert Nelson, 49, sought DNA testing to overturn his rape conviction in 2009 and again in 2011, but Judge David Byrn denied both requests because he hadn’t crafted the motion properly. “After the second motion failed in late October 2011, Snyder gave Nelson’s sister, Sea Dunnell, a copy of a motion filed in a different case in which the judge sustained a DNA request,” AP reports. Using that public document as a guide, Nelson finally won the right to have the DNA evidence tested on February 22, 2012. Last month, that DNA test proved him innocent.

And five days after he was released, Synder was fired for involving herself in a case before the court.

[SNIP]

The true outrage in this case is that Nelson was twice denied a DNA test that ultimately proved his innocence. Judge Byrn may have been following the letter of the law when he denied those two DNA requests, but he wasn’t serving justice — he was keeping an innocent in jail for two extra years. Why deny any inmate a DNA test that could definitively prove that he was innocent, especially in a country where DNA evidence has led to the post-conviction exoneration of 310 people? On average, those wrongfully incarcerated men served 13.6 years in prison.


A HALF-BILLION DOLLARS SAVED THROUGH RETROACTIVE FAIR SENTENCING ACT

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 remedied, for the most part, the awful 100-1 federal sentencing discrepancy between convictions for crack cocaine sales and powder cocaine sales, bringing it down to about 18-1. New data on the applied retroactivity of 2011 amendments to the FSA shows that a little over 7,300 defendants received an average of 29 months off their original crack sentences, and thus, saved tax-payers about 500 million dollars. Better justice and better budgeting—a win-win!

Doug Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy pointed out this recent US Sentencing Commission data report on the effects of the retroactivity on applicable prison sentences. Here’s a clip:

Based on the information reflected in Tables 1 amd 8 of this data report, it appears that just over 7300 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their crack sentences thanks to the new FSA-inspired crack guidelines being made retroactive. Significantly, this average reduction merely lowered the average crack sentence from roughly 12.5 years to just over 10 years for the group receiving sentence reductions; this means that even the new-average-lowered sentence for crack offenses were still significantly higher that the average sentences imposed for any other federal drug crimes.

For those eager to gauge the potential economic impact of FSA retroactivity, it appears that the retroactive guidelines as implemented has now saved almost 16,000 cumulative years of federal imprisonment, with a consequent savings to federal taxpayers of approximately a half-billion dollars (based on a conservative estimate of a taxpayer cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner for each year of federal incarceration). And for those concerned about racial sentencing dynamics, Table 5 of this data reports that more than 85% of those benefiting from reduced crack sentences have been black prisoners, demonstrating once again the historically racialized reality of federal crack prosecutions.


WARREN OLNEY AND WWLA? TALK BLUE RIBBON FOSTER CARE COMMISSION

Wednesday’s Which Way, LA? with Warren Olney featured a discussion on the LA County Board of Supervisors-created Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection, which will hold its first meeting today, Thursday. Guests include Commission member Marilyn Flynn, the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf, and other child welfare advocates. Be sure to take a listen!



Photo taken from LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s website.

Posted in DNA, Innocence, prison, Sentencing | No Comments »

Issues with DCFS Stopping Family Services, Voluntary Isolation, and a SCOTUS DNA Swabbing Update

June 6th, 2013 by Taylor Walker

(Scroll down to the second section for the corresponding story.)



FOSTER CARE SERVICE PROVIDERS PUT THE HEAT ON DCFS

A community meeting was held in South LA last week to discuss the ramifications of the decision by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to drop what are known as “family preservation services” meant to keep kids out of the foster care system while providing troubled families help through various programs that allow them to get control of their lives while keeping kids safe.

Kelly Vassar has the story for Chronicle of Social Change. Here are some clips:

The coalition, angered by recent cuts of $14 million in cuts to family preservation services set to take effect in July, addressed three primary issues with the DCFS’ policies in SPA 6: detention strategies, dismantling the safety net, and the dismantling of partnerships that had been developed during a county-wide effort to bring down the numbers of children entering foster care.

“At our last snap shot, which was through April, we had 27,188 children under our courts’ jurisdiction,” stated Judge Nash, while reading from a report for the county’s judges. “Are there any services that will allow the child to safely remain in the home? We must force DCFS to answer this question in each and every case.”

[SNIP]

The $14 million cut to the family preservation fund for high-risk DCFS families also concerns the SPA 6 coalition, because reduced funding for family prevention strategies means the number of child detentions in South L.A. might escalate.

Indeed, as Nash pointed out, it already has.

David Green, president of the local 721 Service Employees International Union (SEIU), discussed ways to best serve the children of South L.A., he observed the “detain first, ask questions later mentality” was the not the best way to move forward.

Proponents of family preservation policies argue that reuniting families is a much more suitable priority than foster care, considering the poor life outcomes experienced by many foster children.

Obviously, family reunification requires rigorous risk assessment. We don’t want more dead kids at the hands of their families. Nor do we want more kids yanked away from parents that could’ve been helped to nurture their children. (And we don’t want them sent to frightening places like Teens Happy Homes, for that matter.)


“JUVENILE IN-JUSTICE” PHOTOGRAPHER’S 24 HOURS IN SOLITARY

Juvenile In-Justice Project photographer and advocate Richard Ross was given the opportunity to spend a day in an isolation cell at a juvenile detention facility last month. He documented his stay with a digital camera that snapped a photo every seven seconds during his twenty-four hour voluntary solitary confinement.

Wired’s Jakob Schiller has the story and photos. Here are some clips:

His incarceration started at 4:30 p.m. on May 3 and lasted until 5:00 p.m. the following day. During the entire time he had a digital camera and an intervalometer set up in the corner of the cell that took a picture every seven seconds as a way to record his stay.

Ross chose 24 hours because that’s the typical amount of time a juvenile offender spends in isolation at the facility when they’re first admitted. It’s not punishment for some aggressive or egregious behavior, just a matter of procedure while the bureaucracy “evaluates” them. Sometimes children are put in isolation because they are low-level offenders and should not be housed with the more serious offenders in the general population. Isolation can also be used for disciplinary action, however, and Ross has interviewed many kids who have spent weeks alone.

It was unbelievably dehumanizing [in the cell], and I’m an adult and I knew that I had 24 hours,” he says. “Then you have these kids who are used to sleeping in their beds, some of whom have never been away from home.”

[SNIP]

“Humane” would not be how Ross described his experience in the cell. Instead, he says it was cold and designed to take away any sense of control. There was no clock in the room and someone else decided when the lights were on or off. The food was predictably terrible, the bed was unforgiving, and the only thing he was allowed to read was the Bible. To stay sane he sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” because it reminded him of his wife.

As difficult as the experience was for Ross, he had it easy. It was on his terms. He knew when he was getting out. He had a nice hotel and dinner to go back to. He spoke with many kids who were scheduled for 24 hours but spent many days. One child in California had spent eight weeks.


SCOTUS UPDATE: BOTH SIDES MISSED THE BOTTOM LINE ON DNA SWABBING AND 4TH AMENDMENT

In a delightfully smart essay for Slate, law professor Barry Friedman explains why both the majority and the dissenting justices are wrong about Maryland v. King, Monday’s ruling on the constitutionality of DNA swabbing upon arrest for serious crimes.

Here’s an unusually large clip (and we hope Slate will forgive us), but we wanted to show you how great Friedman’s reasoning is (and definitely go read the whole thing):

What the justices seem to see only through a glass darkly is that there are two very different kinds of searches, reflecting two different kinds of policing. There are investigative searches, and there are regulatory searches. The first kind are what you see on television, like on The Closer when Brenda Leigh Johnson tries to catch a bad guy who has committed or is about to commit a crime. The second kind includes airport security or drunk driving roadblocks—or even searching arrested people for weapons. These searches aim not to catch criminals, but to deter bad things from happening in the first place. Sure, we want to find the person getting on a plane with a gun. But the real reason for airport security is to deter people from bringing weapons to airports in the first place.

The categories matter because until you see them you can’t understand what the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure offers in each situation. Justice Scalia was right that the Fourth Amendment is categorical in requiring that the police must have a good reason before conducting investigative searches. These searches target a specific person for a specific crime, and before the government can single you out from the crowd for its special, loving attention, it has to have reason to believe you deserve to be the lucky winner. That’s probable cause.

If you think about it for all of a nanosecond, though, it makes zero sense to talk about “probable cause” as a protection against regulatory, deterrent searches. We don’t have any reason to think anyone in the airport security line did anything wrong. But does that mean airport security is unconstitutional? Surely not!

The Constitution does offer protection from invalid regulatory searches, though, in two ways. The first is generality: Search everyone, and there is a good chance the courts should uphold it. If Congress decided that everyone in the country, members of Congress included, should be in the DNA databank, lawmakers are more likely to have a good reason than if they only go after a politically vulnerable group like people who are arrested. (And yes, the chance of universal DNA collection actually getting adopted by Congress resembles that of the proverbial snowball surviving in Hades, demonstrating how general applicability is a good political check on government intrusiveness.)

The second protection is “cause,” but of a specific and heightened sort: The rule should be that the government must have a really, really good reason to subject a particular group to a regulatory search—for example to collect DNA from arrestees rather than from everyone.

Posted in DCFS, DNA, Foster Care, juvenile justice, mental health, Supreme Court | No Comments »

LASD Use Cameras to Reduce False Identifications, Federal Court Weighs in on DNA Sampling, and the Full Cost of Money Bail

September 20th, 2012 by Taylor Walker

LASD DEPUTIES SNAP PHOTOS TO HELP PREVENT MISTAKEN IDENTIFICATION

Under a new program, certain LASD deputies are now armed with cameras in an effort to lower the number of innocent people jailed as a result of mistaken identity. A December 2011 LA Times report showed that almost 1,500 wrongful incarcerations took place over the last five years, although the number has been declining.

The LA Times’ Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard have the story. Here’s a clip:

Along with his Taser, baton and handgun, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Det. David Huelsen has a new tool for meting out justice: a point-and-shoot camera.

The Malibu traffic detective is among a handful of cops the Sheriff’s Department has equipped with digital cameras as part of an effort to reduce the number of innocent people jailed after being mistaken for wanted criminals.

The reforms come after a Times investigation detailed how authorities in the county had incarcerated people mistaken for wanted criminals more than 1,480 times over five years. Some spent weeks behind bars before the errors were realized. In recent months, other law enforcement agencies around the country have also been confronted with the problem, but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is emerging as one of the leaders in attempting to solve it.

Deputies are using the cameras to take photos of people who get cited but don’t have ID. If a defendant misses court appearances and becomes the subject of an arrest warrant, officials hope having the photos on file will avoid cases of mistaken identity.


US NINTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS DISCUSSES DNA SAMPLING ON ALL FELONY ARRESTS

An eleven-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals deliberated for an hour Wednesday on whether or not the mandatory collection of DNA from anyone facing a felony charge was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, as an unreasonable search and seizure.

San Jose Mercury’s Howard Mintz has the story. Here’s a clip:

The majority of the judges expressed particular concern that the DNA is taken from people regardless of whether they are later charged or convicted of a crime. The arguments were the latest round in an American Civil Liberties Union challenge to the nine-year-old DNA collection law.

9th Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith grilled a deputy attorney general, insisting there is no reason California’s law should permit DNA collection at the point of arrest.

“I don’t see what the government loses by putting it off until conviction, or until a judge looks at it … or at least the prosecutor looks at it, rather than just the police look at it,” said Smith, a Republican appointee of former President George W. Bush.

9th Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher also expressed reservations about the government seizing a person’s genetic map at the point of arrest. The ACLU case was filed on behalf of several people who were arrested and never charged with a crime, yet were forced to provide DNA samples.

“Now if I’m arrested, I wind up leaving behind in the custody of the government the intimate details of my medical condition, my heritage, whatever is in that DNA sample,” Fisher said to Deputy Attorney General Daniel Powell.

(We’ll let you know when the court hands down a decision.)


MONEY BAIL IS A COSTLY FAILURE, SAYS REPORT

A new report from the Justice Policy Institute calls money bail a discriminatory policy that adds billions in taxpayer costs without increasing public safety. The report also outlines proven alternative pretrial detention and release services. Here’s a clip from the press release:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last year that taxpayers spend over $9 billion in jail costs alone to keep people in pretrial detention. Meanwhile, people who are held in jail while awaiting a court date may lose their job and housing. Their children and families may suffer from not having that person in the home taking care of his or her responsibilities. People who are jailed while awaiting trial are also more likely to be found guilty and go to prison than their counterparts who are free. This is for a variety of reasons, including the impact of enduring harsh jail conditions, reduced access to defense attorneys, inability to maintain the types of social and personal responsibilities, and the reality that showing up in shackles and a jail jumpsuit creates an impression of guilt on judges and juries.

“Our constitution and laws are supposed to protect the presumption of innocence,” said Dr. Melissa Neal, author of Bail Fail and senior research associate at JPI. “Yet thousands of people are held in jails before trial because they don’t have access to money for bail. This is a waste of taxpayer money and it causes tremendous collateral consequences to those being unnecessarily incarcerated.”

The report shows how the average bail amount for people who are detained has more than doubled from $39,800 in 1992 to $89,900 in 2006. This is despite evidence that higher bail amounts are not related to more public safety and that people who are unable to afford money bail are often a lower risk of dangerousness or failure to appear in court – the two legal justifications to incarcerate someone pretrial – than those who can make bail.

[SNIP]

Bail Fail points to pretrial service (PTS) agencies, in particular, as effective in protecting public safety, ensuring people appear in court, reducing jail populations and their costs, as well as, leveling the playing field so that all people, regardless of income, have their rights protected. By using validated risk assessment instruments, PTS agencies can determine if a person is high, medium or low risk for dangerousness or failing to appear in court. They also can provide appropriate services that increase a person’s likelihood of pretrial success, including supervision and monitoring, referrals to drug treatment, and referrals to social service agencies to address other issues a person may be facing.

The report notes that Washington, D.C., through effective use of its Pretrial Services Agency, has successfully moved away from money bail. In D.C., 80 percent of people charged with an offense are released on nonfinancial bail options to await resolution of their charge while 15 percent are kept in pretrial detention. Only 5 percent are released using some form of financial bail, but there is no use of for-profit bail bondsmen services. The Pretrial Services Agency has reported that 88 percent successfully complete the pretrial process by appearing in court and not being rearrested.

Posted in Courts, DNA, LASD, pretrial detention/release | 1 Comment »

Effects of Transferring Prisoners Out-of-State, What’s Next for Juvie LWOP-ers…and More

July 27th, 2012 by Taylor Walker

OUT-OF-STATE TRANSFERS OF PRISONERS POSE MORE PROBLEMS THAN SOLUTIONS, SAYS REPORT

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has released a new report on the fiscal downsides to transferring inmates to out of state prisons, and the negative effects it has on rehabilitation, prisoners’ families and children, and the community as a whole. Here are a few clips from the report:

Prior to the Supreme Court mandate, California had been addressing overcrowding concerns by utilizing out-of-state private prisons, the majority of which are operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The temporary transfer of California inmates to other states began in late 2006, rose to a peak of 10,400 in early 2011, and declined to under 10,000 by mid-2011. Continued utilization of private out-of-state facilities is slated under the 2011-2012 budget to fall by nearly half by June 2012.

In light of California’s extensive budget crisis, in early 2012, CCA offered to purchase California state prisons and operate them through a 20-year management contract. In exchange CCA requested an assurance that the prisons would remain at least 90% capacity (CCA, 2012). California not only declined the offer, but CDCR released plans in April 2012, to return out-of-state inmates to state facilities and terminate its contracts with private out-of-state facilities by FY 2015- 16 (CDCR, 2012a). This proposal estimates savings of $318 million (CDCR, 2012a, p.28). In addition to cost savings, returning out-of-state inmates is a sound public policy decision. The purpose of this publication is to provide an overview of the effects of out-of-state transfers on inmates and families, to evaluate the potential public safety and policy merits of CDCR’s proposal.

[SNIP]

…Housing inmates in-state increases the opportunity for family reunification and community-based programmatic engagement. Ultimately these connections enable offenders to more successfully reintegrate into society upon release, and have the potential to improve conditions within the facilities themselves. Thus, the practice of sending inmates to private out-of-state facilities creates significant barriers to achieving CDCR’s rehabilitation mandate.

[SNIP]

Parental incarceration, along with the crimes and arrests that precede it, “cause chaos in the lives of these children, including traumatic separations and erratic shifts from one caregiver to another. Most children with incarcerated parents reside in poverty before, during, and after their parents’ incarceration” (Seymour & Hairston, 2001, p. 2). This in turn is an additional causative factor in delinquency. Children of incarcerated parents “experience a broad range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness, and guilt. They may exhibit low self-esteem, depression, and emotional withdrawal from friends and family” (Seymour & Hairston, 2001, p.2). As a result, many of these children struggle both socially and academically.

[SNIP]

These effects are exacerbated when a parent inmate is transferred to an out-of-state facility. In 2008, almost 1,707,000 children (2.3% of the children in the United States) had a parent in prison (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). The stress of this impact on children is not only experienced in communities, but also in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. In California, decreased reliance on both out-of-state and private prisons will reduce the geographical barriers between inmates and their families, thus reducing the numerous collateral consequences of incarceration.


CONFUSED AFTERMATH OF SUPREME COURT DECISION TO BAN MANDATORY JUVIE LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE

SCOTUS’ recent ban on mandatory LWOP for juvie offenders leaves states scrambling to interpret the change, with decidedly uneven results.

The Crime Report has the story. Here’s how it opens:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision banning mandatory life without parole for juvenile criminals gave inmates like Christine Lockheart a glimmer of hope.

In response to the Court’s ruling, the Iowa Court of Appeals earlier this month overturned Lockheart’s mandatory life sentence for a murder committed when she was 17 and ordered a judge to hold a new sentencing hearing.

But less than a week later, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of all state prisoners serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as juveniles, and instead gave them life with the possibility of parole after 60 years.

Lockheart’s lawyer says he plans to challenge Branstad’s order in court, arguing that it violates the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. That ruling said that sentencing judges should consider the individual circumstances of crimes committed by juveniles, including “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Lockheart’s case is among the first of what criminal justice experts say will be numerous and lengthy legal battles as courts and state legislatures across the country determine how to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling—and what to do with the estimated more than 2,000 prisoners currently serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

“This is very clean at the wholesale level and very messy at the retail level,” said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St.Thomas Law School, in Saint Paul, MN. “It’s very clear from 10,000 feet that children are different.”

Osler, who specializes in sentencing law, added: “But with these 2,000 cases, it’s going to be pretty messy with a lot of different outcomes.”


FED. APPEALS COURT WILL TAKE SECOND LOOK AT MANDATORY DNA SAMPLING

A federal appeals court voted Wednesday to reconsider a law requiring police to take DNA swabs from anyone facing a felony charge.

SF Gate’s Bob Egelko has the story. Here’s a clip:

A panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco voted 2-1 in February to uphold the law, saying DNA sampling is an effective crime-solving tool that is no more invasive than fingerprinting. But the court said Wednesday that a majority of its judges had voted to set the ruling aside and refer the case to an 11-judge panel for a new hearing during the week of Sept. 17.

The law, part of a 2004 ballot measure, took effect in 2009. It requires police to swab an inner cheek of all felony arrestees for DNA and enter the information into a national law enforcement database.

Those who are not convicted of the charges within three years can ask a judge to remove their DNA from the database, but prosecutors can veto the request.

Opponents say the law allows authorities to retain genetic information, indefinitely, from innocent people, a procedure they describe as both intrusive and ineffectual.

The law is “an unprecedented expansion of the government’s power to collect DNA evidence and to DNA-profile individuals who have never been convicted of any crime,” attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union said in requesting a rehearing.

Supporters, including Attorney General Kamala Harris, say DNA from arrestees has been used to reopen numerous “cold cases.”

Posted in ACLU, CDCR, criminal justice, DNA, juvenile justice, law enforcement, LWOP Kids | No Comments »

US Corrections Infographic, GA Stays Execution of Mentally Disabled Killer…and More

July 24th, 2012 by Taylor Walker

“THE HIGH COST OF CORRECTIONS IN AMERICA: INFOGRAPHIC”


Pew Center on the States has an AWESOME infographic
on the American corrections system pictured above (go to the PEW website to view the graphic in an even larger size).


GA STATE SUPREME COURT STAYS MENTALLY DISABLED MAN’S EXECUTION…BUT NOT BECAUSE HE IS DISABLED

Warren Hill found out, just two hours before he was to be put to death, that his execution was stayed—not because of his mental disability, but to figure out if changes made to the state’s lethal injection procedures are in violation of GA law.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bill Rankin has the story. Here’s a clip:

For more than a decade, Hill’s lawyers have sought to halt the execution on grounds the 52-year-old is mentally disabled. But Monday, with less than two hours to spare, the state high court unanimously granted the stay to determine whether a recent change to Georgia’s lethal-injection protocol violates state law. The court agreed to hear Hill’s appeal of a Fulton County judge’s decision issued earlier in the day.

Separately, by a 6-1 vote, the court declined to hear Hill’s appeal challenging the state’s standard to determine whether an inmate is mentally disabled and thus ineligible for execution. Justice Robert Benham, the lone dissenter, said he would not allow the execution because Hill has been found to have a mental disability.

Hill is on death row for the 1990 bludgeoning death of a fellow inmate at a southwest Georgia prison. At the time, he was serving a life sentence for killing his 18-year-old girlfriend in 1985.

Hill’s case attracted the attention of national and state advocacy groups for the developmentally disabled, who had asked for Hill to be allowed to serve the rest of his life in prison without parole. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, had made a similar plea for mercy.


MAN WHO KILLED PARENTS AS A TEENAGER IS REMORSEFUL

Greg Ousley—now 33—killed his parents at age 14, was tried as an adult, and is currently serving out two 30-year sentences. Ousley was a troubled teen, living in a discordant home not unlike other youths who commit parricide. Nineteen years later, he has had time to develop and mature, and both corrections officials and all but one family member deem him fit to reenter society. Is a man who murdered his parents in middle school ready to be released?

Scott Anderson has a beautifully written story for the NY Times Magazine. Here are a few clips:

His former work supervisor, Cindy Estes, was more explicit. “This kid has jumped through every hoop the state has put in front of him,” she told me. “He deserves to come out. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained by keeping him in there for another 10 years.”

[SNIP]

…He set out on a painful journey of self-examination, trying to understand what he had done and why. One of the crueler paradoxes of his situation is that if he had been remanded into Indiana’s juvenile justice system, Greg would have received help in this process; Indiana places an emphasis on youthful offenders’ undergoing intensive behavioral and psychological therapy as a way for them to understand their actions and, it’s hoped, correct their course in the future.

But Greg entered an adult system where whatever psychological counseling existed was primarily geared toward helping an inmate cope with his incarceration, not examining how he got there in the first place. Going it alone, Greg began putting his thoughts to paper. His first effort, a 40-page handwritten essay begun when he was 19, took him 15 months to write and was titled, “Why I Killed My Parents.”

[SNIP]

Strong or not, Greg’s case is a telling one in the national debate over just what is accomplished by sentencing juveniles to long prison sentences. In the case of juvenile parricide, there is an added paradox. Because it is among the most target-specific of crimes, criminologists believe that an abused juvenile who killed a parent is likely to be at low risk of future criminality if he gets treatment and has a strong social support system when he is released. Certainly society might recoil at the notion that a child who murders his parents should be “let off” by a juvenile detention that might end at 18 or 21, but attached to this is the question of when the thirst for punishment becomes counterproductive to all concerned. After all, Greg Ousley, like 95 percent of other prison inmates, is going to come out some day, and is it better for society that he do so when he’s in his 30s and still has the potential of patching together a somewhat-normal life, or not until his 40s when his options will be far more limited?

In addition, NY Times Rachel Nolan has a Q & A with Scott Anderson (the author of the above referenced article). Here’s a small clip:

[Rachel:] What do we know about the experience of juvenile offenders after they’ve served lengthy prison terms? Are recidivism rates higher or lower than for others?

[Scott:] I don’t know what the overall recidivism rate for juveniles convicted as adults is, but for parent-killers like Greg in general (whether placed in juvie or tried as adults), almost all studies show that the recidivism rate is extremely low (although again it’s hard to state much with absolute confidence due to the low numbers of people who commit parricide). This undoubtedly has to do with the target-specific nature of their crime. I did see a study where they compared 10 parricidal juveniles with 10 who killed other family members and 10 who killed strangers. Those in the first group had the least prior history of delinquency and the lowest recidivism rate (as I recall, just 1 of the 10 engaged in later criminality), while those in the last group — who killed strangers — had the highest.

NY Times also has a photocopy of the essay Ousley wrote at age 19 titled: “Why I Killed My Parents,” along with a page written in a notebook a few days before he committed parricide in which he states, “This weekend I’m going to kill my parents.” Be sure to take a look at the post. It’s worth reading.


LAPD CUTS FINGERPRINT ANALYSIS TO 10 CASES PER MONTH, PER STATION

In an attempt to deal with an outrageous backlog of fingerprint analysis throughout the 21 stations, LAPD officials have decided to implement a new system of 10 cases per station, per month. (This isn’t the first time the issue of LAPD evidence backlog has come up, either. We’ve noted in previous years the excess of rape kits waiting to be analyzed and problems within the fingerprint analysis dept.)

The LA Times’ Joel Rubin has the story. Here’s a clip:

The LAPD’s beleaguered Latent Print Unit has failed to analyze fingerprints from about 2,200 burglaries, auto thefts and other property-related crimes, according to department figures. Detectives wait on average between two and three months to get print results back from the lab, LAPD officials said. In some cases, the delay can last more than a year and, in older cases in which the detectives have not pressed for analysis, prints are ignored altogether because the unit cannot keep up with the constant inflow of cases.

“In a perfect world, we’d get results back in a day or two,” said Michael Brausam, a detective in the LAPD’s Central Division. “The longer you leave these criminals out on the street, they’re likely going to be committing more crimes. And, if you do get a match on prints months later, it can be much harder to prove your case.”

And the prospect of the situation improving is bleak because of the city’s ongoing hiring freeze.

Since the freeze in 2009, the fingerprint unit has lost 27 of its 97 analysts. Over the next five years, 20% of the unit is expected to retire, officials said. Additionally, furloughs that are part of the city’s attempt to close a budget shortfall have exacerbated the problem, as have the neck and back injuries that analysts commonly suffer from long hours hunched over desks staring at prints through magnifying glasses.

Meanwhile, the demands on the unit continue unabated. Last year, detectives requested fingerprints to be collected at 19,000 crime scenes, and the pace so far this year is the same. As a result, LAPD officials have decided on a rationing plan that they hope will bring the workload in line with the unit’s capabilities.

Posted in Courts, crime and punishment, Death Penalty, DNA, juvenile justice, LAPD, Reentry | 2 Comments »

Protesters Greet Ringling Bros. In LA, FBI’s Largest Review of Forensic Evidence, and…Bears

July 12th, 2012 by Taylor Walker

RINGLING BROS. CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN, BUT NOT WITHOUT MUCH PROTEST FROM ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

With more than 35 municipalities in the US restricting use of animals in circuses, the Ringling Bros. residency at the Staples Center this week is not without controversy. Hundreds of activists rallied Wednesday (opening night) to protest the “Cruelest Show on Earth” PETA’s undercover investigation of Ringling’s elephant conditions produced some pretty shocking footage of treatment of the animals (some in the above video narrated by Alec Baldwin).

KPCC’s blogdowntown’s Omar Shamout has the story. Here’s a clip:

Hundreds of animal rights activists gathered outside Staples Center Wednesday at a PETA-organized rally against Ringling Bros. Circus – an organization protestors say abuses the wild animals in its traveling show.

Clad in tiger suits, paper-mache elephant heads and faux-ringleader outfits, the contingent lined both sides of Figueroa Boulevard to greet patrons with posters showing what they say is photographic evidence of the inhumane treatment of circus elephants by Ringling Bros. trainers. Most of the circus’ endangered Asian elephants are raised from captivity at the company’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Central Florida.

PETA spokesman Matt Bruce called on Angelenos to boycott [Ringling Bros.] and argued there is no such thing as a humane circus that uses animal performers. Bruce said the baby elephants on display inside Staples Center were “torn from their families, forced to perform under the threat of extreme punishment, gouged with bull hooks, and even tied to the concrete floor of a barn for up to 23 hours a day to break their spirit.”

KPCC’s Larry Mantle had Feld Entertainment’s Stephen Payne on AirTalk, along with animal rights activist Catherine Doyle. Here’s a clip from the show:

“In essence circuses are inherently cruel for wild animals, whether it’s Ringling or any other circus,” Catherine Doyle, spokesperson for In Defense of Animals, said. “These animals are separated from their families, brutally trained to perform unnatural tricks, they’re chained, confined to small cages and pens, and transported around the country in cramped train cars and trucks for months at a time.”

Doyle is opposed to any form of circus, saying that the humane treatment of animals cannot be done in those conditions.

“If you cannot meet the animals needs. If you cannot meet their physical, social and psychological needs, you should not hold those animals,” she added.

[SNIP]

“We are very, very proud of our animal care and to have the ability to showcase these animals to families around the country who really can’t see them in any other forum except ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’,” said Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. Circus.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus raises most of its animals from captivity in their Central Florida compound, according to Payne.

“Unfortunately, this idealized wild that everyone speaks of really no longer exists. Asian elephants are highly endangered, there’s only about 35,000 left in the world. And really the animals at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are ambassadors for their species,” Payne said.


FBI REVIEWS FORENSIC EVIDENCE IN THOUSANDS OF POST-CONVICTION CASES

The FBI announced that it will be conducting the largest ever review of forensic evidence in post-conviction cases–possibly reaching back past 1985–to determine if there were any wrongful convictions due to flawed evidence data.

The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu has the story. Here’s how it opens:

The Justice Department and the FBI have launched a review of thousands of criminal cases to determine whether any defendants were wrongly convicted or deserve a new trial because of flawed forensic evidence, officials said Tuesday.

The undertaking is the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It will include cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available, people familiar with the process said. Such FBI examinations have taken place in federal and local cases across the country, often in violent crimes, such as rape, murder and robbery.

The review comes after The Washington Post reported in April that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but had not performed a thorough review of the cases. In addition, prosecutors did not notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.


OH-SO MANY BEAR SIGHTINGS

Bears have been spotted in and around LA County quite a bit this summer–looking for food, swimming in pools, and getting trapped in garages.

LA Weekly’s Dennis Romero has the story on some of the recent bear sightings in the area. Here’s a clip (and a video!):

Fish and Game officials announced they’ve captured one of the black bears suspected of going domestic in Duarte Monday.

It was a little one:

City News Service reports the 150 pounder was tranquilized in Duarte late yesterday by Fish and Game officials. It was captured in the 900 block of Swiss Trail Road about 3:30 p.m., according to CNS.

Fish and Game officials were triumphant, tweeting, “Bear captured!” yesterday.

It was believed to have been the juvenile, who was travelling with his mom and a sibling, that got into a garage in the 200 block of Greenbank Avenue in Duarte Monday. The same day a bear sighting was reported outside a home near Mount Olive Drive and Mount Olive Lane in neighboring Bradbury. Yet another sighting was reported near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena Tuesday.

Here’s a very cool video clip of a mama bear rescuing a cub from a South Lake Tahoe garage (no known relation to the Duarte bear):

By the way, the Department of Fish and Game has some helpful pointers for avoiding (and, if necessary handling) bear encounters.

Posted in bears and alligators, criminal justice, DNA, FBI, Innocence | 2 Comments »

Elderly Prisoners Cost States Double, Evidence Lost in Murder Case…and More

June 14th, 2012 by Taylor Walker

HOUSING AGING PRISONERS COSTS TWICE AS MUCH, SAYS REPORT

A newly released ACLU report says that the average cost to states of housing elderly inmates amounts to twice as much as housing inmates under the age of 50. The report suggests that the growing number of feeble, elderly prisoners, most of whom, who no longer pose a threat to society should be released and turned over to their families for their remaining days.

Here is a clip from the report, which you can download and read here:

This increasing warehousing of aging prisoners for low-level crimes and longer sentences is a nefarious outgrowth of the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Given the nation’s current overincarceration epidemic and persistent economic crisis, lawmakers should consider implementing parole reforms to release those elderly prisoners who no longer pose sufficient safety threats to justify their continued incarceration.

State and federal governments spend approximately $77 billion annually to run our penal system. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending. These corrections costs are mainly spent on incarceration, and incarcerating aging prisoners costs far more than younger ones. specifically, this report
finds that it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per
year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. To put that number into context, the average
American household makes about $40,000 a year in income.

States can implement mechanisms to determine which aging prisoners pose little safety
risk
and can be released. Releasing many of these individuals will ease the burden on
taxpayers and reunite prisoners with their families to care for them. This report conducts
a fiscal impact analysis detailing the cost savings to states in releasing the average aging
prisoner. While some of these prisoners may turn to the government for their healthcare or
other needs, government expenditures on released aging prisoners will be far cheaper than
the costs of incarcerating them. Based on statistical analyses of available data, this report
estimates that releasing an aging prisoner will save states, on average, $66,294 per year per
prisoner, including healthcare, other public benefits, parole, and any housing costs or tax
revenue.


CRUCIAL EVIDENCE MISSING IN TEXAS DEATH ROW CASE

The state of Texas finally granted death row inmate, Hank Skinner, a hard-won post-conviction DNA test to include over 40 previously untested items from his 1993 murder case. One of the most important pieces of evidence in the case, a jacket that was photographed exhibiting blood and sweat and that Skinner had always maintained would exonerate him, was lost with no explanation from the state or law enforcement officials.

The Austin Chronicle’s Jordan Smith has the story. Here are some clips:

Among the key pieces of evidence never before tested, and that Skinner has sought access to for more than a decade, is a blood- and sweat-stained windbreaker found near the body of his girlfriend Twila Busby. The windbreaker is now apparently missing. “We are pleased to have reached an agreement that finally secures DNA testing in this case, but there remains reason for grave concern,” Skinner’s attorney Rob Owen said in a press statement. “According to the State, every other piece of evidence in this case has been preserved. It is difficult to understand how the State has managed to maintain custody of items as small as fingernail clippings, while apparently losing something as large as a man’s windbreaker. To date, the State has offered no explanation for its failure to safeguard the evidence in this case.”

[Snip]

…The state had objected to the post-conviction DNA testing, arguing before the Court of Criminal Appeals last month that to allow the DNA testing now would be to incentivize defendants charged with capital murder, and facing the death penalty, to delay DNA testing at trial in order to have grounds for a post-conviction death row appeal. That argument did not seem to impress the generally state-friendly CCA and less than a month after the hearing the state reversed its course to agree that, in the interest of justice, Skinner should be allowed access to DNA testing.


CA INMATES GRADUATE CDCR SUBSTANCE ABUSE PEER MENTOR PROGRAM

Twenty-seven inmates at CA State Prison, Solano, received certification to work as substance abuse counselors for other inmates. The Offender Mentor Certification Program, which is a collaboration between the CDCR and the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, in an effort to cost-effectively expand treatment to more California prisoners.

The CDCR Star’s Bill Sessa has the story. Here’s a clip:

All of the inmates chosen for the program had previously addressed their own problems with drug and alcohol use, problems shared by 58 percent of male inmates and 64 percent of females, by completing a Substance Abuse Treatment Program administered by CDCR.

“By addressing their own problems with substance abuse, these inmates are role models and a source of hope for other inmates who also struggle with addiction,” said CDCR Undersecretary Terri McDonald. “When they become fully certified professionals, these graduates will enable the department to expand substance-abuse treatment to more inmates in a cost-effective way, which is especially valuable during these times of lean budgets.”

(WitnessLA reported on an earlier incarnation of this program here.)

Posted in ACLU, CDCR, Courts, criminal justice, Death Penalty, DNA, prison policy | 2 Comments »

Anatomy of Injustice: Ray Bonner Talks About His “Labor of Outrage”

March 19th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


People often ask Pulitzer-winning journalist turned author, Raymond Bonner,
if his new book, Anatomy of Injustice: a Murder Case Gone Wrong—which took nearly twelve years to reserch and write—is a labor of love.

“Actually, it’s a labor of outrage,” Bonner said, when he spoke on Sunday afternoon at a LA book party given in his honor.

Outrage is only one of the array of emotions evoked by Bonner’s riveting account of the case of Edward Lee Elmore, a 23-year old, dirt-poor black handyman with an IQ of 61, who was arrested, tried and convicted of killing a 76-year-old white woman, a murder he almost certainly did not commit, then sentenced to death for the crime.

Every form of injustice seems to be present in the true crime tale of Ellmore’s legal railroading: prosecutorial misconduct, racial prejudice, planted and withheld evidence, staggeringly callous and disinterested defense attorneys, a lying jailhouse snitch coached by the prosecution (but who years later suffered an attack of conscience and confessed to his perjury)… and more.

In choosing this particular case to deconstruct, Bonner got a cast of great characters that give the story near-novelistic richness. Most prominent among them is a remarkable heroine in the form of Diana Holt, a law student working as an intern for the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center (who had her own traumatic personal story) who took up Elmore’s cause after several failed appeals by other attorneys, and whose obsession with seeing justice done for Elmore never wavered after she passed the bar and became a crack appeals lawyer. It was Holt’s dogged work and determination that eventually got him off death row.

Yet still he remained in prison That took a withering ruling by the 4th circuit court of appeals vacating his conviction, along with the publication of Bonner’s book to finally persuade a prosecutor to cut a deal that allowed Elmore his freedom earlier this month, after 30 years behind bars, most of those years spent fighting the threat of execution.

As the reader follows Elmore’s almost unbearably painful journey through the justice system, Bonner gives us an informative and deeply disturbing look at the issue of capital punishment in general by taking us deep into the workings of the legal machinery to see all the ways matters can and do go awry, then showing us how nearly impossible it is to set things right, once an injustice has been rendered—even in the face of factual innocence.

The event for Bonner was hosted by Laurie Becklund, and her husband Henry Weinstein, both former reporters for the LA Times. (Beckland is now an author and Internet publisher, while Weinstein, who is also an attorney, is teaching at UC Irvine’s law school. )

Guests who had come to meet Bonner included such criminal justice types as Judge Arthur Alarcon, formerly of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the co-author of last year’s study looking at the yearly cost of the death penalty in California, and .

There were also two exonerees at the book party, Thomas Goldstein, who served 24 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and Gloria Killian, who served 17 years before her conviction was set aside, and who now runs, The Action Committee for Women in Prison and who has her own book coming out soon.

Other guests included LA Times columnist and editor at large, Jim Newton, and his wife, LA Times legal counsel, Karlene Goller, along with Geneva Overholser, the director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, and actor Mike Farrell who is also president of Death Penalty Focus and his wife, actress, Shelley Fabares.

As luck would have it, on Sunday Bonner’s book was reviewed glowingly on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Here’s a clip:

This much we know to be true: On a cold winter weekend in early 1982, somebody murdered 76-year-old Dorothy Edwards. Apparently she knew the perpetrator, since she let him into her handsome home on a quiet side street in Greenwood, S.C. The crime itself was horrific. She was beaten with a blunt object, stabbed repeatedly — one ear was almost severed — probably sexually assaulted; her body was stuffed into a bedroom closet, where it was discovered on Monday afternoon, Jan. 18. The next day the police arrested Edward Lee Elmore, a 23-year-old handyman whom Edwards had recently hired to do a few odd jobs around the house. He was formally charged with first-degree murder on Jan. 21, tried in the second week of April, found guilty by a jury that deliberated for two and a half hours, and sentenced to death.

We know this as well: As of this writing, there have been 1,283 executions in the United States since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended its four-year moratorium on capital punishment. There have also been 134 death row exonerations, almost half of them since 1999. In his mesmerizing new book, “Anatomy of Injustice,” Raymond Bonner, a onetime prosecutor and a former investigative reporter and foreign correspondent at The New York Times, makes a persuasive case that Elmore ought to be added to the list of the innocent. Instead, he spent nearly 30 years in the South Carolina state penitentiary, most of that time on death row, trapped by a complex of forces that too often warp the legal process, even when a man’s life hangs in the balance.

I raced through Bonner’s un-put-down-able book about Elmore in less than 48-hours, slowed down only by such pesky needs as working, eating, running with the dog, and sleep.



LATER THIS WEEK I’LL HAVE NEWS ABOUT OTHER MUST-READ BOOK, JUMPED IN BY JORJA LEAP.

Jumped In is part memoir, part an academic researcher’s journey that takes us deep into the causes of—and solutions to—gang violence, with with highly-regarded-researcher and violence reduction expert Leap as our guide.

In the meantime, you can hear Jorja discuss her important new analysis of Los Angeles gang life on Tuesday night 7:30 at Skylight books.

See you there!

PS: All Leap’s proceeds from the book will be donated to Homeboy Industries.

Skylight Books
7:30 pm
1818 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, California 90027

PPS: Here’s Leap talking with Larry Mantle at KPPC.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, DNA, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk About Life, Justice, & Having Permission to Kill

March 6th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

A few days ago, human rights lawyer Bryan Stevensen gave a talk at TED’s yearly spring event in Long Beach.

For those of you not terribly familiar, TED is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.

Since then it’s expanded to be an international brand for brilliance, innovation and inspiration.

Last week TEDs spring talks took place and Stevensen—who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders and others whose trials are marked by racism and misconduct—was one of the much-ballyhooed speakers.

At the end of the his 24-minute talk, Stevensen received what was reportedly one of the longest and loudest ovations from the audience in TEDs history.

And it wasn’t just that they stood and clapped and clapped and clapped. They wouldn’t sit down.

“That’s never happened before at TED,” said several of the observers.

In any case, just watch it.


WHEN FACTUAL INNOCENCE DOESN’T MATTER

One of the cases that Stevenson’s group, the Equal Justice initiative, is presently representing is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who has been on death row in Alabama for more than 25 years.

It seems the whole case against Hinton rests on four bullets. No one saw Hinton at the crime scenes, there’s no other evidence linking him, and there is compelling reason to believe he was at work at the time the shootings took place.

The state said the bullets, recovered at the two crime scenes, matched the gun that was recovered at Hinton’s mother’s house. During the appeal, three different forensic experts—including the FBI’s main expert on firearms markings—said that the bullets did NOT come from Hinton’s gun….

Anyway, there’s more on the story plus links to multiple newspaper articles on the case here.


ANOTHER CASE OF INNOCENCE DISREGARDED WITH EDWARD LEE ELMORE…

The case of Edward Lee Elmore, which was hideously mishandled by police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the judiciary, is documented with riveting precision in Pulitzer Prize–winner Raymond Bonner’s brand new book, Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

Then less than a month after Bonner’s book was published Elmore was released from prison but, as Bonner writes in this NY times op ed, the victory was bittersweet. Here’s how his essay opens:

EDWARD LEE ELMORE turned 53 in January. For more than half his life, the soft-spoken African-American who doesn’t understand the concept of north, south, east and west, or of summer, fall, winter and spring, was in a South Carolina prison, most of it on death row.

On Friday, Mr. Elmore walked out of the courthouse in Greenwood, S.C., a free man, as part of an agreement with the state whereby he denied any involvement in the crime but pleaded guilty in exchange for his freedom. This was his 11,000th day in jail.

Mr. Elmore was convicted in 1982 for the sexual assault and murder of an elderly white widow in Greenwood. His trial lasted only eight days, including two spent picking the jury. The state concealed evidence that strongly pointed to Mr. Elmore’s innocence and introduced damning evidence that appears to have been planted by the police. For three decades lawyers for Mr. Elmore, who were convinced of his innocence, sought to get him a fair trial.

Headlines and news stories about men being released from death row based on DNA testing suggest that this happens often. But it doesn’t. Once a person has been convicted, even on unimaginably shaky grounds, an almost inexorable process — one that can end in execution — is set in motion. On appeal, gone is the presumption of innocence; the presumption is that the defendant had a fair trial. Not even overwhelming evidence that the defendant is innocent is necessarily enough to get a new trial. “Due process does not require that every conceivable step be taken, at whatever cost, to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person,” Justice Byron R. White wrote for the majority in a 1977 case, Patterson v. New York.

In other words, innocence is not enough….


RACIAL DISCREPANCIES FOUND IN SCHOOL DISCIPLINE

According to new data from the Department of Education, black students are far more likely to be disciplined harshly in public schools. Tuesday’s New York Times has the story. Here’s how it opens.

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection’s 2009-10 statistics from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation’s students. The data covered students from kindergarten age through high school.

One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. …

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, DNA, How Appealing, juvenile justice, Sentencing | 3 Comments »

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