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Protecting Foster Kids, Gov. Brown’s Veto Message, John Oliver on Mental Illness…and More

October 7th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a new center—a philanthropy liaison—within the still developing Office of Child Protection. The new liaison effort will fill in a problematic gap in the child welfare system: collaboration with philanthropic groups on initiatives to better protect and serve foster kids.

The new Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships will have three staff members who will be tasked with securing funding assistance from philanthropic groups. Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion with Supe Sheila Kuehl said she sees the money going toward keeping kids safe from abuse, addressing trauma in foster children, and other critical safety and wellbeing efforts.

“The power of public-private partnerships has been under-utilized within the County. This motion changes that unfortunate dynamic,” Supervisor Solis said. “With this new Center in place, we will be far better positioned to combine the best thinking and resources of government and philanthropy into programs that work for children. That is why this initiative is a priority for me.”

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Christie Renick has more on the new center. Here’s a clip:

“We believe it will be a game-changer and lead to a more effective and collaborative relationship between government and philanthropy as we work together toward a better future for our children,” said Chris Essel, SCG’s president and CEO, in a press release.

Twelve philanthropic groups have already endorsed the center, according to a press release from Solis’ office: The Ahmanson Foundation; Annenberg Foundation; Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation/Pritzker Foster Care Initiative; Blue Shield of California Foundation; California Community Foundation; The California Endowment; David Bohnett Foundation; Hilton Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation; UniHealth Foundation; and Weingart Foundation.

“Improving our child welfare system requires the kind of innovative solutions that result from cross-sector collaboration. This is a very important example of government and philanthropy working together on behalf of our children and families,” said Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, in a press release.

The board also passed a motion by Supe Kuehl to hire a consultant to focus specifically on the finding areas in which the county departments are failing LGBTQ foster kids, who are over-represented in the child welfare system. The consultant will gather data and present recommendations to the board on how to better care for the vulnerable LGBTQ foster population, including recommendations on training for those in contact with the kids (like social workers, mental health professionals, and foster parents).

“All the young people in our foster care system face incredible challenges, but the nearly 20% who identify as LGBTQ are in great need of targeted support to ensure they’re properly cared for, valued and respected, said Kuehl. “This is an important first step in improving outcomes for these kids and I’m proud to have the opportunity to champion them today.”

Here’s a clip from Kuehl’s website:

These youth face unique challenges and barriers to finding positive outcomes and permanent homes—challenges stemming from discrimination due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.

Not only are LGBTQ youth over-represented in the foster care population, there are also significant disparities in experience between LGBTQ youth and their non-LGBTQ counterparts. These disparities could be mitigated if we develop and utilize accurate data and enhanced training efforts to more fully address their needs, including identifying and re-mediating the effects of bullying and trauma.

As part of a five-year, federal grant awarded to the LGBT Center in Los Angeles, the Williams Institute at UCLA and Holarchy Consulting conducted a landmark study of 786 randomly sampled foster youth ages 12 to 21. The findings show that 19 percent – nearly one in five – foster youth in Los Angeles County identify as LGBTQ. This means that there are almost four times more LGBTQ youth as a percentage of young people in foster care than those identifying as LGBTQ outside foster care.

Given this over-representation of LGBTQ youth among foster children, it is even more problematic that there has been very little focus on this population. According to the Williams-Holarchy study, LGBTQ youth have a higher than average number of foster care placements and a greater likelihood of being in a group home, hospitalized or homeless at some point in their lives. More stable placements and stronger reunification efforts could lead to improved educational and permanency outcomes.

Costly group home and hospital stays could be avoided with a more targeted approach in serving this unique population. While many of our departments have made very good efforts to develop specialized LGBTQ programs, now is the time for the County to systematically address the needs of LGBTQ youth in our child welfare system.

Also on Tuesday, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids. San Jose Mercury News’ Karen De Sá has more on the three bills authored by Senators Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). (If you haven’t, be sure to read De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)


Over the weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a pile of bills that would have created new crimes (and put more people behind bars for longer). In his veto message the governor urged caution, pointing out that the state already has a whopping 5,000 criminal laws. “I think we should pause and reflect how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just, and more cost-effective,” said Brown.

An LA Times editorial lauds the governor’s message, and calls for a sentencing commission to review the criminal statutes and give meaningful reform recommendations to responsive lawmakers. Here’s a clip:

We take that statement not as merely a wise admonition but as a call to action. California needs a comprehensive review of its 5,000 criminal statutes. It needs a sentencing commission to provide a holistic view of crimes and penalties, to recommend needed changes — what to roll back, what to toughen up — and to critique legislative proposals. It needs lawmakers who take such recommendations seriously and are prepared to inject some sense into our criminal justice framework.

The Legislature too often proves itself inadequate to the task. Senators and Assembly members carry bills as one-offs that respond to current tragedies, outrages or headlines, or that cater to the needs of particular advocacy groups, even when there is little or no evidence that greater safety or savings will result. There is an entire crime bill industry that measures effectiveness by the number of infractions turned into misdemeanors and misdemeanors turned into felonies. Results have included, for example, more serious charges and stiffer criminal sanctions for the theft of avocados or crustaceans than other goods of similar value, and long sentences for relatively minor nonviolent crimes such as drug possession.


John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, continues to hammer away at important social and criminal justice issues. This week, Oliver takes on the issue of mental health in the United States, including the inadequate treatment, the never-ending cycle of fatal encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill, and the horrifying fact that there are ten times more people with mental illness behind bars than in psychiatric hospitals. Watch the segment above.


FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik has a very helpful analysis of the major bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill announced last week. (Backstory here.)

Here’s a clip:

The crimes that would have new mandatory minimums produce few convictions. They are interstate domestic violence — involving travel across state lines by an offender or victim — resulting in death or serious injury, or committed with a dangerous weapon; and providing goods or services to terrorists or proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Just 44 people were sentenced for interstate domestic violence last year, according to the Sentencing Commission’s 2014 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. And 162 people were sentenced for the category of crimes that includes arming or aiding terrorists.

The commission’s numbers include some people whose crimes wouldn’t have been covered by the new mandatory minimums proposed in the Senate bill. That’s because the legislation doesn’t cover everyone who has violated the relevant federal statutes; it covers only a subset of the most serious offenders. For instance, not all interstate domestic violence results in death or serious injury or is committed with a dangerous weapon.

For that reason, the number of people who would have been affected by the bill if it were in effect in 2014 is smaller — far smaller, according to Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports the bill but opposes the new mandatory minimums. She estimates that if the mandatory minimums were in place last year, they would have affected just 22 people for interstate domestic violence and just eight people for aiding or arming terrorists.

By contrast, thousands more people could benefit from a different provision of the bill. It retroactively applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the gap in sentencing guidelines between offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine. (Crack sentences, which disproportionately affect black prisoners, were significantly higher than those for powder.) Making the 2010 law retroactive would give approximately 6,500 people convicted of crack offenses who remain in prison the right to file a motion for a reduced sentence — although the bill doesn’t mandate that courts grant the motion and some of the prisoners already are near the end of their sentences.


And in the coming weeks, the US Department of Justice is scheduled to release around 6,000 drug offenders from federal prison, reducing prison overcrowding and shortening old, harsh drug-related sentences.

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz has the story. Here’s a clip:

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. About two-thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release. About one-third are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported, officials said.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — that reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

The commission’s action is separate from an effort by President Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative that has resulted in the early release of 89 inmates.

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform.

The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

The releases are part of a shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing that has been driven by a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration has failed and should be reversed.

Along with the commission’s action, the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.

Posted in Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, mental health, War on Drugs | No Comments »

The Power of “The Cartel” – When Headlines Imitate Art….& Fiction Tells the Real Truth About the Drug Wars

July 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


After it was released on June 23, Southern California writer Don Winslow’s new novel The Cartel had already gathered a string of head-explodingly good reviews.

“A magnum opus . . .” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. “Don Winslow is to the Mexican drug wars what James Ellroy is the L.A. Noir.”

“One of the best thriller writers on the planet. . . .” wrote Benjamin Percy for Esquire. “Winslow has written an epic, gritty south-of-the-border Godfather for our time.”

The rest of the reviews went on in that vein.

Yet all this critical enthusiasm did not put The Cartel on the best seller list. After all, what with its blood-drenched drug wars subject matter—it was not exactly the ideal upbeat beach read that vacationers were most likely to download to their iPads and Kindles.

Then on July 11, the news broke that the near mythic head of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, Joaquin Guzmán, known as “El Chapo,” had escaped in an extravagantly dramatic fashion (and with lots of paid help) from Mexico’s most secure prison, Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1—more commonly called Altiplano.

For those of us who’d read The Cartel, the story the made headlines around he world was unnervingly familiar. On pages 67 and 68 of the novel, to be exact, Adan Barrera, the fictional head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and one of the book’s primary characters, escapes from one of Mexico’s highest security prisons (with lots of paid help). In addition, Winslow had disclosed during post-publication interviews that he’d based the Barrera character on Guzmán.

As luck would have it, the collision of life and art did what all the stellar reviews had not yet accomplished. It put Winslow’s novel on the LA Times and NY Times best seller lists.

And now that more people are noticing the book, they seem also to be discovering that Winslow’s lengthy work of fiction contains not only a startling amount of disturbing truths about the narco drug wars, but also paints a stark, fact-laden picture of the costly failure of the USA’s 45-year war on drugs.


Prior to The Cartel, Winslow had amassed an ardent cult following for his 16 mystery/thrillers set in and around the beaches of San Diego county—books like, The Winter of Frankie Machine, Savages and The Dawn Patrol.

In 1998, however, while he was turning out surfing-related mysteries, Winslow—who lives in the San Diego area—got caught up in researching the drug war, which was growing increasingly macabre in its level of violence, some of which was occurring not far over the border from where Winslow and his family have a home. The result of the research was The Power of the Dog, published in 2005, which follows a Spanish-speaking DEA agent named Art Keller, and a rising star of the Mexican drug cartels named Anan Barrera, over a 30 year period.

After The Power of the Dog Winslow insisted he had no intention of writing about the drug war again. But it turned out he was unable to turn away from it either. His years of research for the 2005 book had given him knowledge, contacts and an emotional investment that he had trouble shaking. So for the next several years he continued to gather string, telling himself it was merely out of personal interest. Then the escalation of violence by the narcos convinced Winslow that he needed to do another book.

Enter The Cartel, which, while it still makes good use of many of the conventions of the thriller, is an ambitious work that–quite apart from its newly acquired best seller status—is arguably one of the year’s most important novels, even if, for some, it will be a hard one to read.

The Cartel, which weighs in at 640 pages, is filled with ghastly violence, none of it gratuitous. Instead, it reads like a deeply researched work of nonfiction that declines to pull its punches.

In fact, Winslow has said that, as bad as some of the incidents were that he portrayed in the book, that he didn’t write the worst of what he learned. There were times, he said “when I backed off…didn’t have the heart, or I thought [the incidents] were unbelievable, though I read them in two or three sources, but I didn’t think the reader could cope with it.”

Yet, by the book’s end, it isn’t the violence that lingers. Instead, it is Winslow’s portrayal of the terrible human cost of the drug wars to ordinary people with whom the reader can identify. For instance, Winslow introduces us to a group of journalists, writers and artists living in Juarez, to whom we become very attached–even as we watch as Juarez became the deadliest city in Mexico, as it in 2009.

We become similarly attached to other characters such as a woman physician who, after several unsatisfying years of catering to rich people in Mexico City, moves back to her hometown in the Juarez Valley to open a community clinic. There is her friend the famous woman baker, turned activist mayor and therapist-like advisor to the residents of the town in which the doctor has her clinic, located in the stretch of the Chihuahuan desert that became—in the novel as in life—the Valley of Death from 2009 to 2011. And there was the young woman who volunteered to be the town’s only police officer after the rest of the police had other been killed or had fled.

And so on.

After finishing the book, it was difficult not to want to google these unusually vivid characters to find out if they had real life counterparts. As it happens, in most cases, there was a counterpart that was close to what Winslow had written. Googling also caused one to learn that some of the people on whom Winslow based his characters were still alive. Others had been killed by the narcos.


Among the vivid impressions The Cartel leaves in its wake, is the fact that the cost of the war on drugs has been horrifically high, in terms of blood and treasure, on both the Mexican side of the fence and our own, and yet little or nothing has been accomplished. The Cartels are better organized than ever.

That impression is not accidental. It is precisely what Winslow intends.

After the publication of the book, Winslow went so far as to take out full page ads in several U.S. newspapers, including the NY Times, urging an end to the war on drugs.

Last Thursday, Winslow explained to Jeffrey Brown on the PBS NewsHour why he felt the need to place the ads.

And in an interview last Wednesday on NPR’s Fresh Air, host Terry Gross calls The Cartel a “grand tale of Mexico’s drug wars,” and talks to Winslow about a wide array of topics, including the real Guzman’s escape, and what Winslow thinks about the destructive futility of more than four decades of trying to shut down the cartels. Here are a couple of clips:

On El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel

This is a very smart man, a survivor, a man with billions of dollars at his command, a man who can reach out and kill almost anybody he wants to kill, to have killed, and a man who knows secrets about high levels of the Mexican government. There’s a reason why they didn’t extradite him to the United States — principally because he could afford high-level lawyers to block that. He could afford bribes to block that. But also because if he were extradited to the United States, his only deal-making ability now is to start telling those secrets and telling those stories.

On how America’s drug problem relates to Mexico’s drug problem

We are the largest drug market in the world. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population — we consume 25 percent of the world’s illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2,000 mile border with the largest drug market in the world. … At the end of the day, they’ll run out of products. It’s the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there’s no recourse to law, there’s only recourse to violence. That’s created the cartels. It’s our simultaneous appetite for — and prohibition of — drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.

On the effect legalizing marijuana (just in Washington and Colorado) has had on Mexican trafficking

Just two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what’s happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports, they’ve been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa, where most of the marijuana is grown, they’ve almost stopped growing it now, because they can’t compete with the American quality and the American market. … I’m not making this up; you get this from Customs and from DEA, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border and judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize, and what they’re telling us is it’s down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting, just two states stopping fighting the war on that drug, it has been effective.

You can listen to the rest of the interview below.

And then read the book. It’s well worth the ride.

Posted in American voices, Drugs and drug treatment, War on Drugs, writers and writing | No Comments »

Private Prison Medicine, Foster Care Benefits for Dual Status Kids, Presidential Pot Pardons, Sheriff Jim McDonnell on WWLA? …and More

July 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


The private medical company, California Forensic Medical Group, is the largest prison health care provider in CA. And, not unlike the largest prison health care company in the nation, Corizon Correctional Health Care, CFMG continues to rake in money despite being mired in scandals and lawsuits alleging mistreatment, neglect, and short-staffing.

CFMG holds medical care contracts for 64 detention facilities in 27 of California’s 58 counties. Most of the counties are rural, like Imperial and Yolo, but CFMG is also responsible for thousands of inmates in counties like San Diego, Ventura, Santa Cruz, and it’s hometown, Monterey.

Around 200 inmates have died in the last decade under CFMG medical care, and more than 80 lawsuits have been filed against the company in the last 15 years, according to an investigation by FairWarning.

FairWarning’s Brian Joseph takes an in depth look at CMFG’s history (which is not unlike many other private prison companies), as well as the stories of inmates who died seemingly preventable deaths while under the care of CFMG. Here are some clips:

The outsourcing of medical care in jails and prisons reflects a nationwide push for privatizing government duties. The private sector, outsourcing advocates say, offers better services at a lower cost. But while other government services have outspoken constituencies, jails and prisons do not. Inmates usually have little clout to demand change if they believe they are receiving poor health care.

“Society doesn’t really care about prisoners,” said Neville Johnson, a Beverly Hills lawyer. Johnson sued CFMG and Yolo County, near Sacramento, over the August 2000 jailhouse suicide of Stephen Achen. A drug addict, Achen warned some jail staffers that he could become self-destructive but promised another that he wouldn’t hurt himself. “As we got into it, we were astonished at what we felt [was] the deliberate indifference of the jail staff and especially CFMG, which is nothing but a money-making machine,” Johnson said. CFMG settled with the Achen family for $825,000 after a judge found evidence of medical understaffing, according to media reports.

The private sector started providing health services to jails and prisons in the 1970s, when negligent medical care became a foremost prisoners’ rights issue. Inmates across the country filed lawsuits alleging inadequate care. Courts ruled that depriving prisoners of competent medical services was unconstitutional and in some cases ordered states and counties to take corrective action. Wardens and sheriffs, lacking backgrounds in medicine, turned to outside contractors for help.


Ryan George, age 22, was serving time for domestic violence in 2007 when he experienced the onset of a sickle cell crisis, a painful, but treatable, condition where blood vessels become clogged by the misshapen cells. For days, Valerie says, Ryan called her from jail in obvious pain, complaining that he was being neglected.

Finally, when he was found “unresponsive” in his bed, Ryan was taken to the hospital, according to court records. But after a couple of days, of treatment, doctors there decided Ryan was exaggerating some of his symptoms and sent him back to jail. Shortly thereafter, Valerie said, a CFMG doctor called her, saying Ryan was getting worse. She says she demanded that the doctor take him to the hospital, but he said “that’s not a possibility.”

The company doctor acknowledged in court papers that he spoke with Valerie George, but disputed her version of what was said. CFMG executives also acknowledged that the company would have incurred more costs if Ryan was sent back to the hospital, but denied that financial concerns had anything to do with his death.

A few days later, Ryan George was found dead in his cell, with dark green fluid oozing from his mouth and eyes, according to the civil complaint. A subsequent Sonoma County Grand Jury investigation found that the “Sheriff’s (department) and CFMG medical staff failed to fully intervene” when Ryan’s condition worsened. “He was not re-hospitalized, despite exhibiting symptoms of jaundice, severe dehydration, bone pain, altered level of consciousness and loss of urinary and bowel control,” the grand jury found. Said Valerie George, whose family settled with CFMG: “They let him die like a dog in a cage because this company would not pay for him to get proper medical treatment.”


“Why wasn’t an ambulance called?” a guard later recalled someone asking when he wheeled a pale Dau into El Centro Regional Medical Center at about 9:30 a.m. on July 23, 2011. A doctor rushed to her side and felt her neck. “She has no pulse!” the doctor yelled, according to a deposition given later by the physician. Hospital staff cut off her jumpsuit and attempted CPR, but it was no use: at 9:56 a.m. Dau was declared dead.

A subsequent autopsy by Imperial County Chief Forensic Pathologist Darryl Garber determined Dau died of heart disease with a contributing factor being acute drug intoxication from the multiple medications she was prescribed. Garber also discovered Dau had a bed sore on her lower back, suggesting that she had been unable to move for some time.

Later, according to the minutes from a meeting about Dau’s death, CFMG and jail staff decided that an ambulance should have been called and that Dau was “probably” going through Valium withdrawal.


A CA bill to give foster kids involved in the juvenile justice system (often called “dual status” or “crossover” youth) extended foster care benefits was approved unanimously by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

SB 12, authored by Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), would close a loophole in existing law, and ensure kids who turn 18 while in juvenile detention receive extended benefits like their non-justice-system-involved peers.

Sawsan Morrar has more on the bill and its progress for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

DeAngelo Cortijo, an intern at the National Center for Youth Law, spoke at Tuesday’s hearing about his firsthand experience as a crossover youth. Cortijo was removed from his home when he was two after his mother attempted suicide. He was placed with family members, and at one point returned to his mother, before he was sent to foster care amid reports of abuse. Since then, he was in over four detention facilities, and ran away from group home placements several times.

“When I was released, I faced many challenges,” Cortijo said. “I now have to fend for myself as an adult. I had to find stable and clean housing. I didn’t have an income to support myself.”

Cortijo was left depending on others for the most basic needs like purchasing a toothbrush or borrowing socks.

“Do you know what that does to a person’s confidence? It completely destroys it,” he said.

With extended benefits in place, Cortijo would have received about $800 a month, just like other transition-age foster youth, to help pay for food, housing and school.

Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, said these probation youth in transition are exactly who extended foster care aims to support.

“We know that the rates of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration for young people who cross from dependency to delinquency are double to triple the rates for youth who are just in dependency or delinquency,” she said.

According to the Youth Law Center there are approximately 4,000 probation-supervised foster youth in California. There are over 50,000 foster youth in the state.


On Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, bringing the total number of approved commutation petitions up to 89. While this is a good step in the right direction, there are 95,265 federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.

The Atlantic’s Zach Hindin makes the case for presidential pardons for all marijuana offenders in federal prison. Former President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences and pardoned 189 during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton commuted 61 sentences and pardoned 396. Our current president has granted just 64 pardons, thus far. (If you are fuzzy on the difference between the two, a pardon wipes a person’s criminal record and restores rights, a commutation shortens a person’s sentence, but does not offer a clean slate.) Obama’s latest move seems far less historically meaningful when compared to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thousands of post-prohibition acts of clemency for alcohol offenses, says Hindin.

Here’s a clip:

…Compared with the last few administrations, commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders may seem historic. But history sets the bar higher still.

In May 1919, Woodrow Wilson was in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. It’s hard to think of a moment when any president had a better reason to shelve domestic affairs, but on Monday, May 12, Wilson telegraphed his secretary in Washington: “Please ask the Attorney General to advise me what action I can take with regard to removing the ban from the manufacture of drink.” A week later Wilson sent another cable, this time to Congress: “It seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers.”

Congress declined, and instead introduced a bill to shore up the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Volstead Act. Wilson vetoed the Act. Congress overrode his veto. With no legislative recourse, Wilson chipped away at Prohibition using the executive power that Congress could not check: his pardon. By the end of his second term, alcohol offenders accounted for more than one-fifth of Wilson’s clemency recipients.

Unlike Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been ambivalent about Prohibition. During his time in the New York State Senate, the powerful Anti-Saloon League had praised Roosevelt’s “perfect voting record.” Even after the repeal of Prohibition became central to his presidential platform, according to one biographer, “the story persisted that whatever Roosevelt might say, there was a voting record to prove he was ‘dry’ at heart.” But when Prohibition was repealed by popular demand in 1933, FDR went on a pardoning spree that outclassed his predecessors, approving alcohol offenders who had been previously rejected or otherwise hadn’t even applied.

Wilson used his pardon to protest an impossible law. Roosevelt used his to acknowledge the change in social norms.

The time when most Americans condoned alcohol consumption despite Prohibition rhymes with our own, when 53 percent of the country supports the legalization of marijuana, and pot laws have been curtailed in 23 states and the nation’s capital. And just as Prohibition offered a legal apparatus for racism, today, the racial imbalances in marijuana arrests and sentencing are so stark that many in this country consider them a proxy for racial control. In 49 states, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana—in the worst offending counties, by a factor of eight. The limit of this analogy is scale—together, Wilson and Roosevelt issued some 2,000 alcohol-related acts of clemency. In 2012 alone, almost 7,000 people were convicted in federal courts for marijuana offenses, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than for any other type of drug.


After 10 jail employees were relieved of duty this past weekend in connection with alleged jail abuse, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell appeared on KCRW’s Which Way, LA? with Warren Olney to discuss jail abuse, transparency, mental illness, and his hopes for the facility that will replace the crumbling Men’s Central Jail.

Take a listen.

In another segment, investigative reporter Jeffrey Sharlet talks about his in-depth GQ story about the March LAPD shooting of Charly Keunang, an unarmed homeless man in Skid Row, and the unreleased officer body cam videos he was able to watch of the incident.


In 2013, three Gardena police officers fatally shot Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, an unarmed man they mistook for a robbery suspect. According to officers involved, Diaz Zeferino appeared to be reaching for a weapon. The city settled the resulting lawsuit to the tune of $4.7 million, but refused to release videos of the shooting, because of privacy concerns.

On Tuesday, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city of Gardena to release the videos. And at a press conference on Wednesday, an attorney representing Diaz Zeferino’s family called for a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting.

Here’s a clip from the KPCC update:

Mercardo said the videos allow the public to see for themselves what took place shortly after police stopped Diaz Zeferino and two others suspected of stealing a bike.

“The public can be the judge of what really happened that night,” she said, adding the family had been searching for justice, not money.

Diaz Zeferino’s brother, Augustine Reynoso, holding aloft a picture of the two of them embracing, said he wanted to bring the Gardena police department to account for the death of his brother.

“Money is not what’s important in life. Life is what’s important in life,” he said through Mercado, who translated his comments. “I want justice to be done. I want the Gardena Police Department to be investigated more deeply. That’s why I’m here.”

Posted in Crossover Youth, DCFS, Foster Care, jail, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LAPD, LASD, Marijuana laws, medical care, Mental Illness, Obama, Sentencing, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Project Fatherhood on Fresh Air, Paul Tanaka’s Defense Move, Bails Lowered in SF, Mass Incarceration’s Slow Death

June 26th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Filling in for NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Dave Davies speaks with Jorja Leap and Mike Cummings about Project Fatherhood, the program through which men from the Jordan Downs housing project (and beyond), meet every week to teach each other, and younger men in the community, how to be fathers.

“Big Mike,” as he is known, tells the story of his journey from getting straight A’s in a private school and getting letters from universities to play football, to drug-dealing and incarceration, and finally to activism and Project Fatherhood.

Leap’s book, Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities (which we wrote about here), came out earlier this month, and she talks about how the program originally got fathers to attend the meetings, about disciplining children and child abuse, and some of the challenges these dads face as they try to improve their lives and their children’s lives.

Here are some highlights from Fresh Air‘s write-up of the interview:

DAVIES: So let’s talk about how this worked. There was an incentive to get people to come to these fatherhood sessions regularly. Who wants to explain how that developed?

CUMMINGS: Well, the incentive is for the fathers to come – actually, it’s a $25 gift card. But the incentive is given to the fathers for them to actually take their son out to either McDonald’s, Burger King or Subway or even to the ice cream parlor so the father would have some change in his pocket to be able to go out and spend the day, you know, at the ice cream parlor or get a hamburger or something and spend time with the kids. So that’s what the incentive was actually meant to be when we first started.

DAVIES: And if I read this right, you had to attend four sessions to get the card, the $25 gift card, right?


DAVIES: So you wanted some consistency to it.

CUMMINGS: We wanted some consistency to it. They had to attend four of the Project Fatherhoods there to actually receive the card. What we wanted to do is to make sure that they could be consistent, to come if they wanted to use that change there to go out and be able to entertain their kid. It’s not much, but it’s something that they can do to be one-on-one with the kid.

LEAP: And I would add that initially those gift cards were the focus of a lot of interest and attention. But as the group became more and more important, the gift cards almost became incidental. They were part of the program but they – the focus of the men truly shifted.

DAVIES: Now, as you describe it in the book, you addressed some pretty sensitive topics about these men’s lives. One of them, for example, is when and whether it is acceptable to hit their kids. Jorja, you want to tell us some of what you heard from the men.

LEAP: Mike and I are looking at each other and nodding our heads and smiling because that was one of the sessions where I just got hung out to dry. And it was quite a discussion because all of the men began by saying, you know, my mama whooped me and I turned out OK. And there was sort of a moment where I said really because most of them had been incarcerated. Most of them had been involved in criminal activity at some time. And then there was this tremendous breakthrough when one of the men in the group talked about witnessing another child being beaten. And the child was beaten so brutally that he eventually died. And you literally could hear the sound of change happening in the room. And I don’t want to make it sound like it occurred literally overnight because we did a lot of arguing about this issue, but the men slowly changed. And one of them who was the most dug in about it, named Donald James, later came back and talked about not hitting his nephew who he took care of who he really did want to hit.

DAVIES: And, Jorja Leap, you know, you had this background in social science and this point of view about what’s healthy behavior based on research and data. And I’m interested in how you brought that to bear in the conversation. I mean, you know, you can sort of sense – one, you could imagine that here you are, this person with a lot of degrees, telling people in the neighborhood what’s right and they’re coming at you from their own experience.

LEAP: Well, and add on to that that I am mandated to report any instance of child abuse that I hear about; I’m a mandated reporter. So the men in the room also knew that legally I could get them into a lot of trouble, and they were very skittish about talking openly about this. What got to them was not saying it’s bad to hit your children. What got to them was when I talked to them about the statistics that overwhelmingly over 90 percent of the people on death row in the United States of America were victims of child abuse. And these are men that do not want their children to go to prison. They do not want their children to be part of the, you know, the cradle to prison pipeline. And when I said this kind of abuse teaches violence and it’s part of that cradle-to-prison pipeline, because of their love and concern for their children and their children’s futures, that’s how they began to hear the message. It’s not the message of discipline. You know, hitting your child is bad. The message was this is where it might lead.

Be sure to listen to the rest.


Former LA County Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, indicted on obstruction of justice and other charges, has filed a motion saying he will use a “public authority defense.” Tanaka will assert that he was just following then-Sheriff Lee Baca’s orders to hide an FBI informant inmate from the feds.

Prosecutors have dismissed Tanaka’s move and asked the judge to block the public authority defense, arguing that no law enforcement agent or organization (aside from the feds) can authorize violations of federal law.

LASD-watchers wonder if this move is simply pro forma on the part of Tanaka and his attorneys, or if they believe it might be a workable defense, and if so, whether it will point a legal spotlight on Baca.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“The defendant acted on behalf of order(s) issued by Sheriff Leroy Baca, who was Mr. Tanaka’s ranking superior officer,” the motion states. “Tanaka will assert the defense of actual or believed exercise of public authority.”


Federal prosecutors are asking the judge to prohibit Tanaka from using a public authority defense.

The argument “fails as a matter of law because no agent of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, not even then-Sheriff Leroy Baca, may authorize an individual to commit a federal crime,” states a motion signed by Stephanie Yonekura, who is the acting United States Attorney in Los Angeles.

“Only a federal agent may authorize a violation of federal law,” the motion states.


On Wednesday, San Francisco Superior Court judges lowered the county’s bail amounts after finding them to be significantly higher than those in surrounding counties, including Los Angeles.

SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who supports the judges’ decision, says it doesn’t make sense to have bails two or three times larger than in other counties.

Critics, however, say lowering bails will mean more pedophiles and violent offenders will be able to post bail, which will lead to higher crime rates. Further, critics, argue that there is no need to change the bail schedule if judges have discretion over bail amounts anyway. For example, judges also have the ability to declare a high-risk rapist a “no-bail” candidate.

As the judges reexamine the bail schedule every year, they will look closely at how (and whether) the crime rates change over the next year.

In WLA’s most recent bail-related post, we pointed to an excellent John Oliver segment on the horrors of the bail system, which disproportionately affects the poor.

The SF Chronicle’s CW Nevius has more on the complex issue. Here’s a clip:

Kevin Ryan, who was the Superior Court’s presiding judge in 1999, says the higher bails were a result of a controversy in the late ’90s, when San Francisco had the lowest bail amounts in the Bay Area. At the time it was suggested that drug dealers, for example, were more likely to sell in San Francisco because it was easier to make bail.


“It was apparent that the bail schedule here was substantially lower,” Ryan said. “We were experiencing a lot of commuter crime. Say bail (for some felonies) was $15,000 in Alameda and $5,000 here. It was apparent to the judges and law enforcement that we were, in a sense, encouraging people to come to San Francisco and commit crimes.”

With that in mind, and after some contentious city hearings, bail amounts were raised. (It should be noted, however, that higher bails haven’t stopped “commuter crime.” Drug dealers still come to the city from other counties.)

Now there is an effort to bring at least some bail amounts into compliance with nearby counties. Public Defender Jeff Adachi is actively supporting the changes.

“We’ve been complaining for years that the bails are sky-high in San Francisco compared to other counties,” Adachi said. “It’s one reason why the bail laws need to be reformed. It makes no sense that in San Francisco we’ve got bails that are double and triple bails in other counties.”


Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson takes a look at reasons why, despite considerable bipartisan efforts, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of mass incarceration reduction happening on the national (and even state) level. Here’s how it opens:

In this era of hyperpartisanship, the liberal-libertarian convergence on criminal-justice reform is, frankly, astonishing. Everyone from the Koch brothers to George Soros, from Tea Party Texan Sen. Ted Cruz to Democrat Hillary Clinton are singing from the same hymnal: “Today, far too many young men — and in particular African-American young men . . . find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor, nonviolent drug infractions,” Cruz told reporters in February, before implausibly invoking French literature. “We should not live in a world of Les Misérables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.” In one of her first major policy speeches of the 2016 campaign, Clinton decried “inequities” in our system that undermine American ideals of justice and declared, “It is time to end the era of mass incarceration.”

But as unusual as the setup is, the punchline, in Washington, remains the same. Outside of limited executive actions by the Obama administration, durable reform is stymied. Entrenched interests from prosecutors to private prisons remain a roadblock to change. Meaningful bills are tied up by law-and-order ideologues like Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, the 81-year-old who brands his adversaries as belonging to “the leniency industrial complex.”

Progress in the states, meanwhile, is modest at best. “Nobody’s trying to hit home runs,” admits Grover Norquist, the GOP’s anti-tax czar and a leading conservative advocate for reform. “This is all about singles and not yet any doubles.”

Posted in families, Gangs, LASD, Paul Tanaka, Public Defender, Sheriff Lee Baca, War on Drugs | 6 Comments »

Shuttering LA’s Troubled Youth Welcome Center, Reforming LASD’s Antelope Valley Stations, For-Profit Policing in CA, and Pat Nolan

June 23rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


A new report headed to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors says the county must shut down operation at its Youth Welcome Center, which has become an ill-equipped warehouse for kids, thanks, in large part, to a lack of available homes for foster kids.

The Youth Welcome Center, opened in 2012 (video above), originally intended as a place to house kids new to the system for 24 hours while social workers found them foster parents or group homes. Instead, the center, located at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, has come to serve as a sort of purgatory for hard-to-place kids, the ones who caregivers send back, like older teens, LGBTQ kids, and those suffering from mental illness.

The report, which will come from a committee formed by the Supes, recommends creating a 30-day emergency shelter for these kids, while also beefing up the number of group homes.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf, who has been reporting on the ongoing troubles at the Youth Welcome Center, has the story. Here are some clips:

The centers are allowed to keep children for only 24 hours and are not licensed for the lengthy stays some of the youths endured. They lack sufficient bedding, bathrooms and showers, as well as mental health and the education professionals necessary to meet their needs.

Over time, the number of youths without a proper foster home grew. It the last year, there were 800 violations of the 24-hour rule at both welcome centers, a county commissioner said.

Following The Times report, state officials in April took a harder line and sued the county, pushing the centers to comply to the letter of state law. The county and state reached a settlement agreement the same month and agreed to begin the licensing process to bring the existing facilities up to the state’s standards.

These changes would include establishing facilities at the centers that provided the required amenities and opportunities so young people could be legally housed there for up to three days.


Leslie Starr Heimov, who leads the court-appointed law firm for foster youths, said that the DCFS plan to solve the centers’ problems by establishing a three-day facility is insufficient.

“For the hardest-to-place youth, I’m skeptical that we will do much better in 72 hours than what we do in 24. We will once again be in the position where we are just looking for a bed — any bed” to move a child out of a welcome center, she said.

Both she and the commission’s report recommend more sweeping change, including vast improvement in the inventory of foster homes and a 30-day emergency shelter. Only more ambitious reforms such as those, she said, “will ever solve the revolving door” of children failing to find lasting foster homes and repeatedly returning to the welcome centers.


Advocates say the Los Angeles Sheriff’s stations in Lancaster and Palmdale are making huge strides to eliminate racially discriminatory practices that led to federal intervention.

In April, the US Department of Justice and LA County agreed on a court-enforceable settlement to reform the Lancaster and Palmdale stations. The settlement followed two years behind a 46-page “findings” letter from the DOJ detailing systemic discrimination against black (and to a lesser extent, Latino) Antelope Valley residents. There are 150 requirements that the department must meet to fulfill the terms of the settlement.

One of the advocates who brought allegations to the feds, Miguel Coronado, says discriminatory drug raids on people receiving subsidized housing assistance and other racially biased practices have all but vanished.

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

Coronado, who sits on Lancaster’s planning commission, was among those who brought allegations of racially biased policing in the area to federal authorities. He now has the cellphone numbers of high-ranking sheriff’s officials on his speed dial — and he says they pick up when he calls.

Residents rarely call him anymore to complain about the department, when he used to get several complaints a day, he said.

The settlement approved in April came less than two years after federal prosecutors identified a pattern of discrimination that included unconstitutional stops, searches, seizures and excessive force against blacks and Hispanics in Palmdale and Lancaster.

Deputies harassed and intimidated blacks and others in public housing, showing up for inspections with as many as nine officers, sometimes with guns drawn, the Justice Department said in its June 2013 report.

The LA Times’ Cindy Chang broke this story.


A San Diego Union-Tribune editorial says California Highway Patrol’s monthly goals regarding the number of “enforcement contacts” made seem dangerously similar to quotas. For California law enforcement agencies, implementing quotas for arrests and citations is illegal.

It’s not just a CHP problem. LAPD motorcycle officers have successfully sued the city over arrest quotas. Law enforcement agencies should look closely at practices and policies, like quotas and civil asset forfeiture, that value profit and punishment over public safety, says the editorial board. Here’s a clip:

Under questioning from attorneys for Harrison Orr – a Citrus Heights man who won a $125,000 judgment – CHP motorcycle Officer Jay Brame testified that he has for years been admonished by his CHP superiors to have at least “100 enforcement contacts” a month while on patrol duty. This testimony has been backed up by Brame’s formal performance reviews, which criticized him for “enforcement contacts” that were “well below the shift average.”

It is illegal under state law for law-enforcement officers to be given quotas for arrests and/or citations. The CHP flatly denies it has quotas for its Sacramento bureau or anywhere in the state. But pressing officers to meet numerical goals on “enforcement contacts” certainly seems problematic. And the fact that it is far from the first time that police agencies in California have faced such allegations provides crucial context. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has repeatedly been successfully sued by its motorcycle officers over arrest quotas set by their superiors.

This practice is dubious in many ways, starting with the fact that it creates incentives that make an officer’s job more about punishing drivers and collecting fines than about maintaining highway safety…


The New Yorker has an excellent longread profile on Pat Nolan, a former California Republican Assemblymember who, after being busted in a federal racketeering sting, had a very personal wake up call about the state of the nation’s criminal justice system. Nolan’s whole world (and perspective) was turned upside down. He spent 25 months behind bars, and then four months in a halfway house, during and after which, he became a vehement advocate for reform. Nolan is now the Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Project at the American Conservative UnionFoundation, and partners with the Texas-based Right on Crime group, and has had a hand in the passage of Prop 47, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and the reetry-focused Second Chance Act.

Here are some clips from the New Yorker story:

“I went to the legislature very pro cop and with a get-tough-on-crime attitude,” Nolan told me. He wanted to reinstate the death penalty, which the Supreme Court had temporarily suspended. He believed that the exclusionary rule, which disallows evidence improperly obtained by the police, had become a loophole that lawyers exploited to allow guilty clients to go free. He excoriated a colleague in the assembly for proposing a law that would extend workers’ compensation to inmates injured in prison labor programs. And he was a leading sponsor of a prison-building boom in the state, which included, to his eventual regret, the Pelican Bay supermax facility, where inmates are kept in long-term solitary.

The F.B.I. sting, he says, dispelled his unconditional faith in law enforcement. In Nolan’s telling of it, trophy-hunting agents browbeat his aides and his campaign supporters to build a case against him, leaking tidbits to the press in the hope of breaking his resolve. The prosecutor loaded the charge sheet so heavily that Nolan concluded that he couldn’t risk going before a jury. Like roughly ninety-five per cent of people convicted in America, he pleaded guilty and took a lesser sentence rather than take his chances at trial. He began to wonder how many of the people he had dismissed as bad guys had simply succumbed to prosecutorial bullying. He said, “I saw that the F.B.I. and the government prosecutors weren’t interested in the truth, and that was a shock to me.”

By the standards of American incarceration, Nolan had it easy. He served twenty-five months in two prisons that housed the least menacing felons. The Federal Prison Camp at Dublin, near San Francisco, was a compound of former Army barracks surrounded by landscaped flower gardens. There was a small coterie of white-collar criminals, but the majority of the inmates were blacks and Latinos serving time for relatively minor drug convictions. Nolan helped organize religious-study groups, and—to judge by his accounts in an unpublished memoir—he treated his fellow-inmates as a constituency to be charmed. (He still corresponds with some of them.) From prison, Nolan produced a chatty newsletter that his wife, Gail, distributed to some two thousand supporters. He had regular visits from his family and a loyal band of political friends. After ten months, he was transferred to Geiger Corrections Center, near Spokane, where the supervision was even less oppressive. Still, his time in prison exposed him to what he came to see as the cynical cycle of American justice: sweep up young men, mostly from broken families in underprivileged neighborhoods, put them away for a while, send them back onto the streets with no skills, and repeat. To call this a “corrections” system seemed a sour joke.

“I had assumed they did all they could to help prepare the guys to return to society and make a better life,” Nolan told me. “But they were just warehousing them.” There was a pervasive sense of defeat. “The implication is: you’re worthless, you come from nothing, you are nothing, you’ll never be anything.” He added that when prisoners were released the guards would say, “See you in a few months.” He was surprised, too, at the number of elderly and infirm inmates. In his memoir, he wrote that “incarcerating people who aren’t a physical threat to society is expensive and counter-productive”—something that “only a nation that is rich and vindictive” would do.

Nolan was still an inmate when he ventured into the politics of reform. In 1994, in the California Political Review, he published an attack on that year’s crime bill—President Clinton’s signature contribution to mass incarceration, which earmarked $9.7 billion for prisons, imposed tougher sentences, and, among many punitive provisions, eliminated college grants for prison inmates.


There are whole areas of policy where bipartisan consensus remains far out of reach. Guns, for starters, are untouchable. (Norquist likes to provoke liberals with the creative theory that the crime rate has fallen because more Americans have concealed-carry permits.) For most Republicans, outright legalization of drugs, even marijuana, “is one we can’t touch,” Nolan says. The idea of restoring voting rights to ex-felons, which has the support of Rand Paul and Nolan as well as Bernie Kerik, appeals to many Democrats but terrifies most Republicans. “They have this image of hordes of criminals” flocking to the polls to vote for Democrats, Nolan said. Conservatives tend to look more favorably on privatizing prisons, prison services, and probation, a scheme that liberals view with deep distrust. The death penalty, which divides the right, is not on the shared agenda.

The most significant question is whether conservatives are prepared to face the cost of the remedies, from in-prison education and job training to more robust probationary supervision and drug and mental-health treatment. Joan Petersilia, a criminologist who teaches at the Stanford Law School, points to the last great American exercise in decarceration, half a century ago: President Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act, which aimed to reduce by half the number of patients in state mental hospitals. The promised alternatives—hundreds of community care facilities—were never fully funded, and thousands of deeply troubled people were liberated into homelessness. The mentally ill now make up a substantial portion of inmates in state prisons and county jails.

“The direction forward is not really clear, because, on the one hand, the right is saying less government, less spending,” Petersilia told me. “And the left is saying we need more investment.” She offers the example of California, which for nearly five years has been under a Supreme Court order to cull the overcrowded prisons that Nolan once helped build. “The success story of downsizing prisons in California is like nothing the nation has ever experienced,” she said. “We have downsized in less than five years twenty-five per cent of all prison populations. But look what is happening at the local, community level, which is that they’ve upsized jails, and they’ve got a homeless population, they’ve got police officers complaining about the mentally ill. We didn’t answer the question: if not prisons, what?”

Nolan agrees about the cost of alternatives: “In each of the Right on Crime states, we have insisted that a large part of the savings be put back into the system.” As for his home state, Nolan says, “we were not a part of that mess.” Nolan thinks that Governor Jerry Brown failed to plan adequate prison alternatives because “he just wanted to get the court off his back.” When conservatives did venture into California, last November, to help pass Proposition 47, the measure required that two-thirds of any money saved be funnelled into alternative correctional programs. Nolan said, “Conservatives have insisted that money be plowed into services because we know that just releasing prisoners or diverting them from prisons without services would increase crime.” That is true, but it tends to be relegated to the fine print in conservative reform literature. The headlines promise tremendous savings to taxpayers.

Nolan has another worry: that one sensational crime, or a spike in the crime rate, or the distraction of more polarizing issues could send Republicans and Democrats back to their corners. “We’ve all said we’re one bad incident away from having this erode on us,” he said. But if the bipartisan movement can accomplish the things it agrees on, Nolan has a wish list of additional reforms that he will pitch to conservatives. He would like to see abusive prosecutors lose their licenses. He would require the police to videotape interrogations from beginning to end, not just a confession that may have been improperly extracted.

And, mindful of the prisoners who have been exonerated while waiting on death row, he would like to end capital punishment.

Posted in Department of Justice, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LAPD, LASD, racial justice, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Right on Crime, The Feds, War on Drugs | No Comments »

LASD Deputy to Donate Liver to Partner….a Misused Federal Sentence Enhancement…and More

June 3rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Thursday, LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Javier Tiscareno will donate part of his liver to save the life of his deputy partner, Jorge Castro, whose own liver is failing.

After numerous unsuccessful treatments, and learning that none of his family members were a match for a liver transplant, Castro was placed on a waiting list.

California is not an ideal place to live if you need a liver transplant. Once you’re on the UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) waiting list, the wait in the golden state is commonly 12-36 months. (With this in mind, Apple founder Steve Jobs got on the list in Tennessee, instead of California.)

When Castro, told his partner about his health issues, Tiscareno decided to get tested for liver donation. The two deputies were a match.

At a press conference outside Twin Towers jail, where both men are correctional officers, Tiscareno said, “He told me he would be dead by the end of the year. That was unacceptable to me.”

A partial liver transplant is considered a relatively safe procedure for the donor, but it is still a major surgery, and complications do sometimes occur. Tiscareno said, regarding his decision, “I’m not going to a funeral knowing I could have helped.”


Enacted in 1970, statute “851″ was originally intended to give federal prosecutors the ability to seek double or more the usual sentences for serious drug dealers, while exempting those with lower-level drug charges from the sentencing “enhancement” that 851 provided.

But that’s not how things turned out.

Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology, law, and society at UC Irvine, says federal prosecutors have severely misused 851, employing it, instead, as a tool to force low-level drug offenders to take plea deals.

By filing the 851 enhancement against defendants with prior convictions, prosecutors can turn what would normally be a 10-year mandatory minimum into life without parole in the most extreme cases.

Lynch says this weapon federal prosecutors use to coerce plea deals must be eliminated.

Here’s a clip from Lynch’s op-ed for the NY Times:

I have conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in four federal districts; in each, the 851 threat loomed for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words of one of my interviewees, “the 851 is the ultimate lever” used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it almost always worked: Defendants were compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse.

What happens to the defendant who doesn’t go along? The threat becomes a reality. Take the case of a former defendant whom I’ll call Brandon.

Brandon may not have been squeaky clean when he landed in federal court on drug charges, but he certainly was no drug kingpin. A week or two before his arrest, he reignited a friendship with a high school classmate — I’ll call him Frank — at the time a relatively large-scale crack dealer. After reconnecting, Brandon went for a drive with Frank and Frank’s girlfriend on a single drug-supply run, something the couple did on a weekly basis.

On the way home, a state trooper pulled over Frank’s car, searched it, retrieved the drugs and arrested them. Each was charged with conspiracy to distribute hundreds of grams of crack cocaine.

All three had prior drug convictions, so the 851 threat loomed. Frank and his girlfriend succumbed to the pressure and pleaded guilty. But Brandon had a strong case. By all accounts, including law enforcement’s, he was neither Frank’s partner nor involved in any continuing conspiracy with the couple.

So Brandon went to trial. And the prosecutor played her ace card, filing the 851 on the eve of trial. He was convicted. At sentencing, Frank received 20 years in prison and his girlfriend received probation. Brandon, who chose to exercise his right to trial, received a life sentence with no possibility of parole.


Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.


Bill Quigley, Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, put together a noteworthy list of 40 reasons why jails across the US are full of racial minorities and poor people. Here’s a clip:

One. It is not just about crime. Our jails and prisons have grown from holding about 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.2 million today. The fact is that crime rates have risen and fallen/a> independently of our growing incarceration rates.

Two. Police discriminate. The first step in putting people in jail starts with interactions between police and people. From the very beginning, Black and poor people are targeted by the police. Police departments have engaged in campaigns of stopping and frisking people who are walking, mostly poor people and people of color, without cause for decades. Recently New York City lost a federal civil rights challenge to their police stop and frisk practices by the Center for Constitutional Rights during which police stopped over 500,000 people annually without any indication that the people stopped had been involved in any crime at all. About 80 percent of those stops were of Black and Latinos who compromise 25 and 28 percent of N.Y.C.’s total population. Chicago police do the same thing stopping even more people also in a racially discriminatory way with 72 percent of the stops of Black people even though the city is 32 percent Black.

Three. Police traffic stops also racially target people in cars. Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and Hispanic drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Connecticut, in an April 2015 report, on 620,000 traffic stops which revealed widespread racial profiling, particularly during daylight hours when the race of driver was more visible.

Four. Once stopped, Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely to be given tickets than white drivers stopped for the same offenses.

Five. Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be searched. DOJ reports Black drivers at traffic stops were searched by police three times more often and Hispanic drivers two times more often than white drivers. A large research study in Kansas City found when police decided to pull over cars for investigatory stops, where officers look into the car’s interior, ask probing questions and even search the car, the race of the driver was a clear indicator of who was going to be stopped: 28 percent of young Black males twenty five or younger were stopped in a year’s time, versus white men who had 12 percent chance and white women only a seven percent chance. In fact, not until Black men reach 50 years old do their rate of police stops for this kind of treatment dip below those of white men twenty five and under.

Six. Traffic tickets are big business. And even if most people do not go directly to jail for traffic tickets, poor people are hit the worst by these ticket systems. As we saw with Ferguson where some of the towns in St. Louis receive 40 percent or more of their city revenues from traffic tickets, tickets are money makers for towns.

Posted in jail, juvenile justice, LASD, Prosecutors, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs | 8 Comments »

Inmates Write their Own Obits, Community Policing, Ferguson Reports, and #Cut50

March 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


In this exceptional multimedia Column One story by the LA Time’s Chris Megerian, San Quentin State Prison inmates share obituaries they’ve written for themselves as part of a writing assignment. The inmates designed their own demise (several chose to die protecting others) and for what they wanted to be remembered.

Here’s a clip, but definitely go over to Megerian’s story and read and watch for yourself:

Since Julian Glenn Padgett arrived in 2006, he’s enrolled in academic classes and played Shylock in a prison production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Even while sitting in a cramped storage closet during a break from his work at the inmate-run newspaper, he spoke with the intensity of an actor on stage. Asked about committing murder, he cited a Walt Whitman poem.

Padgett stabbed and killed a man he believed was a romantic rival. Therefore, his victim cannot “contribute a verse” in “the powerful play” of life.

“I don’t want to be remembered as the man to do that,” he said. Like You, he doesn’t mention his crime in his fictional obituary.

Padgett, a 51-year-old Ethiopian Jew who wears a knit kippa over his dreadlocks, was convicted in 1997 in Sacramento and isn’t eligible for parole until 2023.

His obituary is brimming with passion for outdoor activities that are out of reach.

“Julian loved everything to do with nature,” he writes, “and often took trips with many of his friends on the weekends where they would go camping, horse back riding, snow and water skiing and his favorite mountain climbing.”

Padgett describes an epic death from an earthquake striking the Bay Area. It was the first thing that came to mind, he said.

“Earthquakes are memorable. They’re forces of nature,” he said. “To take me out, it would take something like that.”


The day after Sunday’s LAPD Skid Row shooting of an unarmed homeless man, the White House released an interim report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (established after the controversial deaths in Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland at the hands of officers). The report lauded the LAPD’s Watts and East LA community policing teams as well as its civilian oversight commission.

However, the shooting highlights how important it is that Los Angeles law enforcement agencies continue working toward better community relations through training, new programs, and policy changes.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

“Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community,” the report states.

The task force was formed in December in response to the national debate on policing after officers in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland killed young African-American men.

In the federal report, the Los Angeles Police department’s community policing teams in Watts and East Los Angeles were highlighted for building on-the-ground relationships with public housing residents. Officers there are assigned to community policing teams for five years and are offered more pay, according to the federal report.

Los Angeles also earned a mention for its civilian oversight board.

But shootings like the one on Skid Row expose the remaining rifts between police and communities.

Criminology professor Elliot Currie of the University of California, Irvine said having multiple policing programs is a good start, but the goal is for police departments to implement relationship-based policing across the board.

“What we want is for these not to be considered as scattered programs that we implement within a police department that’s otherwise unchanged,” Currie said. “But that we slowly shift the whole conception of what a police department is.”

Here is a clip from Los Angele Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s statement to the task force late last month about the challenges the sheriff’s department faces with regard to ensuring better interactions with the mentally ill:

We are…ill equipped to address the challenges of this population in patrol. Patrol personnel lack the requisite mental health training and we have a dearth of Mental Evaluation (or ”MET”) Teams and community supports to help deputies properly handle and deescalate contacts with mentally ill persons. In 2013, nearly 40% of all use of force incidents involved individuals suffering from mental illness and in too many cases we “arrest” our way out of these encounters rather than diverting individuals to the community treatment and care they need.

The strategies that can enable us to change this paradigm exist and are in place in pieces around the nation, but have yet to be brought to scale throughout the country. We need:

1. Resources to support crisis intervention (“CIT”) training so deputies working the streets (as well as within Custody) know how to identify and respond to individuals with mental disorders and, wherever possible, divert entry into the justice system.

2. Support for MET teams where we pair deputies with mental health clinicians and create a comprehensive response to those in crisis. In LA these teams are few and far between – often they operate only during business hours and can be as much as an hour away from a critical incident.

3. Support for community-based resource centers with multidisciplinary treatment in a therapeutic environment that avoids incarceration. These models exist elsewhere and, in the long run, result in improved outcomes as well as fiscal savings.

4. A new paradigm with strategies that focus on alternatives to incarceration – including mental health courts and other diversion strategies.


In an 86-page report released Wednesday, the US Department of Justice cleared Ferguson officer Darren Wilson of “prosecutable [civil rights] violations” in the death of Michael Brown.

A separate DOJ investigation found systemic racial bias and policing-for-profit within Ferguson’s police force and court system. Among other findings in the scathing 100-page report, black residents accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% percent of arrests. The report calls for….

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery have a helpful cliff-notes list of the report’s highlights.

(And here’s a WaPo list of alarming statistics from the report.)


The Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein explores what it would take to fulfill the goal of the #Cut50 movement to reduce the nation’s jail population by 50% within 10 years. That would mean more than a million fewer people would be locked up, through things like changing sentencing laws, bolstering diversion and reentry programs, and split-sentencing.

This figure is not attainable even by giving up the war on drugs and completely eradicating incarceration for non-serious/non-violent/non-sex offenses. Those convicted of violent crimes would have to be part of the population reduction equation.

This has criminal justice reform advocates on both sides of party lines disagreeing about the 50% goal, whether it’s feasible and inline with public safety, and what it would take to get there.

Goldstein’s story includes an interactive section that allows you to move sliders for offender groups and make your own 50%. (Go try it.) Here’s a clip:

Vikrant Reddy, coordinator of the Right on Crime campaign, agreed. “The focus among conservatives is the low-level nonviolent offenders.” As for Cut50, “I just don’t like the name of this organization. The reason is because I see this issue, and most conservatives see this issue, in terms of public safety. If I felt confident the levels of incarceration we have in the United States made us a safer society, I would begrudgingly say, ‘So be it.’”

“I really admire what Cut50 is trying to do, but I am concerned that people are going to misunderstand it,” Reddy added. “The bottom line is not just getting the levels of incarceration down. The end point is that crime rates are still too high.” (Crime is currently at a four-decade low, although rates remain high in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.)

Civil rights activist Van Jones is co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, the organization promoting the “Cut50” tagline. Jones and Gingrich are co-hosting a March 26 conference in Washington, D.C. to bring criminal justice reformers together across party lines. Jones acknowledges that conservatives have not signed onto the Cut50 goal. But he points out that many people convicted of violent crimes have, in fact, not hurt anyone physically, such as offenders picked up for theft or burglary and discovered to have a gun on them.

“We might want to look at whether someone who had a gun but didn’t use it should be considered violent,” Jones said. “People will say that’s gun crime and you can’t talk about them. Well, I think that’s ridiculous.”

That might discomfit some liberals who favor stricter gun controls. Meanwhile, the idea of the home as a castle has been popular on the right, resulting in laws that rank burglary alongside violent bodily assault. So on both sides of the political spectrum there is lingering support for the tough sentences that would have to be reduced in order to cut the prison population by 50 percent.

Jones and other reformers, both progressive and conservative, say it is not yet time to focus on the hot-button question of whether to redefine violent crime. “We’re not heavily leaning into that part of the conversation yet, because there is so much common ground on the nonviolent offenders, the indigent population, and the mental health population. We think we can get some momentum going,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, some scholars point out just how modest — by international and historic standards — a 50 percent reduction in the prison population would be.

“When does mass incarceration become regular incarceration?” asked Michael Jacobson, a former New York City corrections and probation commissioner and director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. To bring the United States to a prison incarceration rate equal to that of European nations — or to our own rate in the early 1970s — we would have to slash our incarceration rate from 623 per every 100,000 adults to about 150 per 100,000. That would be a reduction of approximately 80 percent.

Posted in Jim McDonnell, journalism, LAPD, LASD, mental health, prison, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs, writers and writing | 4 Comments »

Ezell Ford, LA County Crime Rates, Flashbang Grenades, and Kids’ Perceptions of Incarceration

January 15th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Going beyond Ezell Ford’s controversial death at the hands of LAPD officers last August, KPCC’s Sharon McNary shares important pieces of the young man’s history—from his promising childhood (one filled with not so far-fetched dreams of playing pro basketball), to getting hit by a bullet during a gang-related shooting in 2008, to his battle with mental illness. Here are some clips:

“To his aunt December 25, 2004. My goals in life. What do I want to be when I am 20 years old? I would like to be a pro basketball player. I would like to be in college studying to be a doctor.”

Ford, at 16, filled the page with his careful, neat printing. He imagined each decade of his future life: practicing medicine during his pro-basketball off-season, retiring from the game, owning a nice home.

At age 50, Ford wrote, “I would be relaxing with my wife. I would still like to be a doctor.”


In September 2007 Ford was arrested on felony charges of possession of marijuana with intent to sell and carrying a loaded firearm. He was 19.


Two days after that conviction he was shot in his own neighborhood.

66th Street is home to a subset of a street gang known as the East Coast Crips. It got the name because it’s just east of the 110 freeway. Walls in the vicinity are prominently tagged with the gang initials, ECC.

Ezell Ford was one of the early casualties in a gang war that took at least four lives and wounded at least 13 people….

Neighbor Vanessa Santory lives on the Fords’ block. As she watches her granddaughter play on a skateboard in an apartment house driveway, she recalled that shooting.

“Oh, yes, I remember a little bit vaguely about it when they shot Little E in the foot, I think, or the leg? He got shot.”

But she said Ford was an innocent bystander.

“I would say so, because I never seen him gang bang or anything like that, none of [Tritobia Ford's] boys, really, none of them,” she said.

She said that after he was shot, his mental illness became more noticeable.

Clark said his mother took him to doctors. “They diagnosed him as being bipolar, and they put him on medication.”

Ford walked for hours at a time to clear his mind, she said.

Clark says that’s what he was most likely doing on the day of his fatal encounter with two gang police officers last Aug. 11.


On Wednesday, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced that the number of homicides in LASD territory last year went down 10.5% from 2013—the lowest recorded number of murders (149), since 1970. McDonnell also shared the county’s 5-year statistics. Homicides fell 26% from the number recorded in 2009.

Major violent crimes dropped 4.9% from 2013, and 20.7% between 2009 and 2014. And despite law enforcement predictions that realignment (and more recently, Prop 47) would increase property crimes, the number, in fact, decreased 6.2% from 2013, and 5.8% from 2009.

LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell says the overall decline can be attributed, in part, to fewer gang crimes (although, he said, the majority of the county’s homicides were still gang-related), improved policing, and building better community relations.

The LA Daily News’ David Montero has the story. Here’s a clip:

In 2013, there were 164 homicides, compared to 149 in 2014. By comparison, the high-water mark for homicides in Los Angeles County dating back to 1960 was 424 in 1992.

But he acknowledged most homicides are rooted in gangs. Last year, 63 percent of the 149 homicides in the county were gang-related. He said the department will continue to push youth-based activities to keep kids off the streets.

“The gangs drive our violent crime rates and particularly the homicide rate,” [LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell] said. “We know most of our gangs are young kids that grew up in an environment that was often dysfunctional. The opportunities that are there for kids in some of our neighborhoods weren’t there for them and they went down the wrong track.”

KPCC’s Frank Stolze also reported on the sheriff’s announcement. Here’s a clip:

While McDonnell credited better policing, he also said improving community relations as one reason crime is down. Those relationships have gotten better over time, he argued, despite news of corrupt and brutal deputies inside the jails.

“It really comes down to a great partnership with the community,” the sheriff said.

That partnership has improved in part because of the declining influence of street gangs, according to Captain Rod Kusch, who heads the Sheriff Homicide Bureau.

“Their strangleholds on neighborhoods is weaker,” Kusch told KPCC. “In the past, that’s driven people away from cooperating with us. They’ve been afraid of retaliation.”

Illegal drug transactions occur mostly behind closed doors now and gangs are less visible in many neighborhoods, Kusch said. “If you have confidence you can talk to police without repercussion, you’re more likely to talk to them.”


Diversionary grenades that issue a blinding light and deafening noise, flashbangs, have become a common tool, valuable for uses in extreme situations, like stopping an active shooter, by SWAT teams in big cities.

But in raids across the US, undertrained police officers (many in small municipalities) deploy flashbang grenades, with minimal oversight, often during drug raids that turn up little or no contraband. The unchecked use of flashbangs has resulted in grievous injuries to citizens and officers, including severed limbs and severe burns.

An ACLU report released last June found that SWAT teams were 14 times more likely to use flashbangs during drug raids than any other type of raid (like, you know, hostage, barricade, or shooter situations).

Propublica’s Julia Angwin and Abbie Nehring have more on the issue. Here are some clips:

Police argue that flashbangs save lives because they stun criminals who might otherwise shoot. But flashbangs have also severed hands and fingers, induced heart attacks, burned down homes and killed pets. A ProPublica investigation has found that at least 50 Americans, including police officers, have been seriously injured, maimed or killed by flashbangs since 2000. That is likely a fraction of the total since there are few records kept on flashbang deployment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit wrote in 2000 that “police cannot automatically throw bombs into drug dealers’ houses, even if the bomb goes by the euphemism ‘flash-bang device.’” In practice, however, there are few checks on officers who want to use them. Once a police department registers its inventory with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it is accountable only to itself for how it uses the stockpile. ProPublica’s review of flashbang injuries found no criminal convictions against police officers who injured citizens with the devices.


If there was ever a flashbang injury that might have warranted criminal charges against an officer, it would be the case of Bou Bou Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old baby who last May was nearly killed by a flashbang during a drug raid in Georgia. The case garnered national attention.

Bou Bou was sleeping in a portable playpen at the foot of his parents’ bed when the Habersham County Special Response Team broke down the door to the room and threw a flashbang. The grenade landed on a pillow next to Bou Bou’s face. The blast blew a hole in his chest, severed his nose, and tore apart his lips and mouth. The SWAT team was looking for the boy’s cousin, Wanis Thonetheva, who a day earlier had allegedly sold a bag of methamphetamine to a confidential informant on the property. But Thonetheva wasn’t there, and no drugs or weapons were found. Hours later, Thonetheva surrendered peacefully when officers knocked on the door at a nearby house where he was staying.

At the hospital, Bou Bou was placed in a medically induced coma for almost a month. He has had eight reconstructive surgeries, including skin grafts, and racked up $1.6 million of medical bills that his family cannot afford to pay. In the next few months, he will need surgery to remove black flashbang powder that embedded in his face, arms and chest before it gets infected. And because his skin grafts won’t grow as he grows, Bou Bou will need reconstructive surgery every two years for the next 20 years. His mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, said that she and her husband plan to donate their own skin for the future grafts. Bou Bou often wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and shaking and holding his mouth. “It almost seems like he’s remembering what happened,” said Alecia Phonesavanh, who has been unable to hold down a job since the accident because of the demands of caring for her son.

In October, a Habersham County grand jury declined to indict the officers involved. “Some of what contributed to this tragedy can be attributed to well-intentioned people getting in too big a hurry,” the grand jury wrote in its findings.

Angwin and Nehring spoke with one of the first men to build flashbangs for police use, who stopped selling the grenades when he realized the scope of officers’ misuse and resulting injuries. Here’s a clip:

But, as flashbangs became ubiquitous, Nixon worried that departments weren’t training officers to use them properly. Reports of accidents started to trickle in. A prison guard in Nevada lost her hand when a flashbang exploded during a training exercise. And then, in 2002, an officer closer to Nixon’s home in Arkansas was injured. An Omni Blast exploded in the hand of Brandt Carmical, a North Little Rock police officer, as he conducted a flashbang demonstration for a local Boy Scout troop. It pulverized his right hand, blew out his right eardrum and perforated his left eardrum. “I saw all this flesh,” Carmical recalled. “I couldn’t hear anything.” At the hospital, Carmical’s hand was amputated at the wrist. Later, he had to go back for further surgery because black powder from the flashbang was causing his skin to rot.

Carmical sued Nixon, arguing that the Omni Blast was defective and exploded too quickly. Nixon said that although it is possible that his device was faulty, he suspects that the accident occurred because the spoon was prematurely released. The dispute was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (which Carmical said allows him to forgo a second job), and no judicial determination was made about the cause of the accident.

Nixon said he stopped selling flashbangs two years after Carmical’s accident, concerned that police officers are not sufficiently trained to use them. “I realized that, let’s say this is the perfect device,” Nixon said, “it’s still going to hurt people.” In Nixon’s opinion, the police are wrong to treat flashbangs like less destructive weapons such as tear gas and sound cannons. “It boggles my mind,” he said.


A new first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice takes a look at what at-risk kids understand and perceive about parents’ incarceration.

The study analyzed responses from the interviews of 106 kids between ages 8 and 14: 42.5% with parents who had been arrested before, and 32.4% with parents who had been incarcerated.

The majority of kids believed that jails and prisons are violent, unsafe places. Many kids believed that only bad people get locked up, and more than 12% believed parents were not allowed to see their kids while incarcerated.

Kids’ beliefs about incarceration, researchers said, could induce anxiety about their moms and dads’ safety and health while locked up.

Here’s a clip from the study:

Of note, many youth described jail as a violent place where offenders are not safe. Particularly for youth with incarcerated parents, these perceptions may provoke anxiety about the parent’s well being during the separation. A subset of youth indicated that incarcerated parents could not see their children during their incarceration.

Although this is true in some situations (e.g., long distance between the youths’ home and the facility), it may be disturbing for youth to believe they will not be able to see their parent if he or she is incarcerated. Of additional concern is the belief that individuals who go to jail are “bad people,” which was prevalent in the current sample. These perceptions, when held by the peers of youth with incarcerated parents, may lead to stigmatization of the youth, who might be regarded in a similar way (Hagen & Myers, 2003). Similarly, if youth with incarcerated parents believe their parent is a “bad” person, they may in turn internalize that belief about themselves, which may lead to psychological maladjustment.

Youths’ understanding of incarceration and perceptions of offenders may be shaped by a variety of sources of information, including the media, school, and discussions with others. In the current sample, viewing jail-related media was the most common source of information, with youth watching shows such as Cops. Although the media has the opportunity to provide realistic depictions of incarceration and offenders, it more often portrays these subjects in a sensational light that likely leads to distorted perceptions, particularly among youth who may not be critical consumers. In contrast, youth described learning largely factual information about incarceration and offenders in school and receiving warnings (e.g., parents warning their child, “you really don’t want to go there”) when discussing these subjects with adults in their lives. Although about half of the youth reported learning about incarceration in school and a quarter had discussed it with someone, a large number only received information from the media. This finding in particular highlights a gap in the communication of knowledge about incarceration.

Posted in children and adolescents, Gangs, Jim McDonnell, LAPD, LASD, Mental Illness, prison, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Choosing Third-Strikers to Release, AG Eric Holder Interview, Child Welfare Post-2014 Elections, and a Newt Gingrich Op-Ed

November 18th, 2014 by Taylor Walker


Since the 2012 passage of Prop 36 (the Three Strikes Reform Act), more than 1000 third-strike inmates have been resentenced and released in California.

Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan, who handles the petitions, says many of the earlier resentencings were relatively easy and obvious decisions, and they were often supported by the District Attorney’s office. But for the number of inmates who still have pending resentencing requests, things get a little more complicated. The DA opposes resentencing for the inmates in this remaining group of petitioners, and Judge Ryan is having to comb through inmate records, looking for job training and other rehabilitative efforts to ascertain whether an inmate is appropriate for release, or if they pose a threat to society.

And now, recently-passed Prop 47, may play a role in deciding the fate of these inmates, with its defining a person as a “danger to public safety” who is at risk of committing crimes such as murder, solicitation to commit murder, sexual offenses, and certain gun crimes.

The LA Times’ Marisa Gerber has more on the issue and tells the complex story of third-striker Lester Wallace, a mentally ill man whose troublesome prison record is also indicative of justice system failures. Here are some clips:

In California prison, Lester Wallace was hardly a model inmate.

He spat at a correctional officer, fought with another convict and grabbed a prison guard by the neck before punching him in the stomach.

Wallace racked up more than 20 disciplinary charges while serving a life prison term under the state’s “three strikes” sentencing law for trying to steal a car radio.

Still, he says, he deserves another chance.


Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan, who handles the cases, said many of his previous decisions were “no-brainer” calls involving inmates who prosecutors agreed deserved release. For another large group of inmates, the district attorney’s office opposed resentencing but didn’t demand hearings when Ryan indicated that he favored reducing punishments.

The latest round of cases, which include Wallace’s, are more contentious.

“I think the calls will be closer and closer,” Ryan said.

The district attorney’s oppositions have helped slow the pace of resolving resentencing requests in Los Angeles, which is well behind other counties.

In examining each case, Ryan said, he has been reviewing the criminal and prison records of the inmates, checking to see whether they have taken vocational training, substance abuse counseling or anger-management classes. The judge said he wants to make sure that people leaving prison after serving so much time have the skills to find jobs to take care of themselves and keep out of trouble.

His future decisions may well be influenced by this month’s passage of another criminal-justice ballot measure, Proposition 47, which defined “danger to public safety” as an unreasonable risk of committing specific serious or violent crimes, including murder, sexual assault and child molestation.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which changed the three-strikes law. They were swayed in part by tales of inmates with nonviolent histories serving life terms for the pettiest of crimes, such as stealing a pair of socks.

In some ways, however, Wallace better fits the profile of the average third-striker helped by the ballot measure. He has a lengthy rap sheet and a checkered prison record. But he also suffers from mental illness and spent more time behind bars for a petty offense than many prisoners do for child molestation, rape and other violent crimes.

Wallace’s case, like many of the others confronting Ryan, offers an inside look into the usually hidden world of prison discipline and how the state’s correctional system treats mentally ill inmates.


Wallace’s attorney said his client, who is 5 feet 4 and 120 pounds, sometimes lashed out behind bars to ward off unwanted attention from other inmates. He said Wallace was sexually assaulted during an earlier prison stint.

At a hearing on Wallace’s request for resentencing earlier this year, the inmate arrived in a downtown L.A. courtroom in a wheelchair and carrying a legal pad covered in handwritten notes. He flashed a smile at his attorney, Mike Romano, who directs the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law and helped write Proposition 36.

Romano argued that many of his client’s prison rule violations were for small things, such as sticking a paper clip into a socket to light a cigarette. Wallace’s prison behavior, he said, vastly improved seven years ago after he was diagnosed with kidney disease and he started getting improved treatment for his hallucinations and mood disorder.


In an interview with Bill Keller and Tim Golden of the Marshall Project, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder discusses his biggest criminal justice win and loss, issues that are bringing the right and left together, drug sentencing reform, and mass incarceration, among other issues. Here are some clips:

The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?

Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.

And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.

And the biggest disappointment?

I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder ratio, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.

Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?

That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.


Looking at the Realignment process in California and other experiments that are out there in reducing incarceration, do you worry at all about the danger of a race to the bottom, in which states and counties are much more eager to get people out of prison and stop paying for it than they are to pay for the housing and social services that will assure a lower crime rate in the future?

If this is done correctly you not only save money, you keep the American people safe by cutting down on the recidivism rate.

But this cannot be seen as simply something that is cost-saving, because that would potentially lead to states’ doing exactly what you say: racing to the bottom, and just trying to push people out of prison.

I think people who have responsibility for the criminal justice systems around the country understand that if you do that you’re really only putting people out for some short period of time before they ultimately come back. So there has to be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation while people are in prison, and then reentry efforts to prepare them to exit prison.


The Chronicle of Social Change’s Sean Hughes examines what effects on child welfare policy we might expect from our new Republican-led Congress. For example, funding for crucial child welfare and juvenile justice services would be at risk. And Hughes says that if Republicans succeed in gutting, or repealing the Affordable Care Act, foster kids will lose out on having Medicaid until they are 26. Hughes spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer, and is a Social Change Partners policy consultant. Here’s a clip from his story:

When fully implemented, the mental health parity provisions of the law should ensure that all children who have experienced trauma and are suffering from mental health challenges – especially children who have been abused or neglected – will receive better treatment. Repeal, replacement, or interference with the ACA, for which Republicans continue to advocate, would jeopardize these hard-won victories for children and families.

We should also expect a return to budget brinksmanship. As they didn’t suffer any long-term political repercussions for shutting down the government last year, the Republican Party will surely be further emboldened to play budgetary hardball.

Congress will almost certainly seek further federal spending reductions and could very well try to replace the defense cuts scheduled to go into effect next year via sequestration with increased cuts to social service programs.

Critical programs supporting child welfare services will be in the crosshairs and could see their funding levels cut, including:

Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), which House Republicans have already tried to eliminate

Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act programs (CAPTA)

Title IV-B Child Welfare Services

Promoting Safe and Stable Families

Juvenile Justice Programs


In an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, Newt Gingrich, who, along with some of his other Right on Crime colleagues, was instrumental in getting both Prop 47 and Prop 36 passed, calls for a complete reconstruction of Michigan’s criminal justice system. Here’s a clip:

The state’s correctional system churns through $2 billion each year, and now consumes $1 out of every $5 of the general fund. And because of broad parole board discretion and complicated sentencing guidelines, people incarcerated in Michigan serve longer prison terms, on average, than any other state in the nation.

This approach might be justified if it was making us safer, but that’s not the case. Recidivism rates remain unacceptably high and, at a time when most American communities are safer than they’ve been in decades, several Michigan cities are experiencing alarmingly high crime rates — up to five times the national average.

I’ve never hesitated to support long prison sentences for violent and repeat offenders, and I will continue to be hard on violent criminals. But I’m also convinced that, given the discouraging track record of our current criminal justice system, we can no longer cling to expensive, business-as-usual approaches when better options exist.

Many other conservatives — from Ed Meese, former attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and anti-tax champion Grover Norquist — share my view and have joined me in a national movement called Right On Crime. United by our refusal to accept the status quo, we support a criminal justice system that reflects fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, support for crime victims and a reliance on proven strategies that make the best use of taxpayer dollars.

Posted in 2014 election, Mental Illness, Sentencing, War on Drugs | 2 Comments »

Alternative Sentencing Program LA Graduation Feat. AG Eric Holder, a SWAT Convention, Prosecutorial Power, and Ezell Ford

October 24th, 2014 by Taylor Walker


SoCal graduates of a unique alternative-to-prison program will celebrate their success with the help of US Attorney General Eric Holder today (Friday). Holder will be speaking at the Conviction and Sentence Alternatives (CASA) Los Angeles graduation ceremony, as part of his “Smart on Crime” tour.

CASA gives a second chance to certain federal defendants charged with low-level felonies in Southern California. Participants are assigned a special CASA judge and must agree to enter a guilty plea, then they must satisfy a number of requirements, including regularly appearing before a CASA panel and engaging in assigned programs. When participants complete the CASA program, they will either have their charges dismissed or will receive a reduced sentence that does not include prison time, depending on their criminal history.

Although there are state programs of a similar nature, CASA was brought to life by former US Attorney André Birotte who saw the need for such a program at the federal level.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, when asked about the program’s success rate, said that it’s going “very well.” Also, when WLA talked to Birotte about the program last year, he was visibly enthusiastic.

For more reading on CASA, we suggest Jill Cowan’s October 2013 story for the LA Times.

By the way, André Birotte’s formal investiture as a federal judge will take place Friday afternoon.


Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer attended the September 2014 Urban Shield conference, a Department of Homeland Security-funded event for domestic and international SWAT teams. The convention showcases cutting edge military gear, vehicles, and prototypes, as well as things like t-shirts bearing an AR-15 sight that reads, “This is my peace sign.”

Here’s a clip from Bauer’s story:

The event felt surprisingly open at first—vendors talked to me freely and I could sit in on workshops—but by the second day, I started noticing cops whispering to each other while looking in my direction. Some came over to feel me out, asking what I thought of the term “militarization.” One of them worked for the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a Homeland Security project to coordinate intelligence from local cops and federal agencies like the FBI. As I flipped through the counterterrorism handbook at his booth, he snatched it away. “That’s for law enforcement only,” he said. He told me he knew who I was.

Bauer explains that SWAT teams were originally created by the LAPD to respond to things like hostage situations and mass shootings, but now the majority of SWAT deployments are to serve search warrants, mostly for drugs, and (surprise) disproportionately affecting minorities.

Special weapons and tactics teams were created in the late 1960s for extreme scenarios like saving hostages and taking down active shooters. But police departments soon began deploying them in more mundane situations. In 1984, just 40 percent of SWAT teams were serving warrants. By 2012, the number was 79 percent. In all, the number of SWAT raids across the country has increased 20-fold since the 1980s, going from 3,000 per year to at least 60,000. And SWAT teams are no longer limited to large cities: In the mid-1980s, only 20 percent of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had such teams. By 2007, 80 percent did.

Much of the increase has been driven by the drug war, says David Klinger, a former Los Angeles cop and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “If we didn’t think that drugs were the most evilest thing in the history of God’s green earth,” he says, “and weren’t running hither and yon trying to catch people with dope in their house, none of this would have happened.”

Today, 85 percent of SWAT operations are for “choice-driven raids on people’s private residences,” Peter Kraska, an Eastern Kentucky University researcher who studies tactical policing, said in a recent Senate hearing. According to a study released by the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year, 62 percent of SWAT deployments were for drug raids. The study found that in these raids, drugs were found only half of the time. When weapons were “believed to be present,” they were not found in half of the cases for which the outcome was known.

Besides the gear, the convention included a two-day training in which SWAT teams completed 35 scenarios in 48 hours. The winning SWAT team would receive a trophy.

Bauer was able to film a UC Berkeley SWAT hostage rescue session (click over to Mother Jones for the video) before he was banned from the conference.

I left the training site feeling unsettled. If you were the hostage in a real-life version of one of these scenarios, would you want someone to come and save you? Of course you would. If you were a cop, would you want to be protected against anything that might come your way? Of course. And yet, nearly every SWAT cop I talked to at Urban Shield was spending most of his time doing drug busts, searching houses, and serving warrants.

“When equipment is requested for SWAT teams, it’s common to talk about the threat of terrorism [and] other rare but highly dangerous situations like hostage taking, barricaded suspects, and riots,” David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford law professor who studies criminal law and policing, told me. “But the majority of times that SWAT teams have been deployed, it’s been for more conventional kinds of operations.”

“SWAT teams definitely have legitimate uses,” he added. “But like lots of other things, when they are sitting around they can wind up getting used when they are not required and may do more harm than good.”


Washington Post’s Radley Balko shared two noteworthy videos depicting an unjust criminal justice system.

The first video, by Reason’s Anthony Fischer, tells of a drug raid on a smoke shop in Alpine, TX. While federal charges against the owner, Ilana Lipsen, were eventually dropped, she faced a coercive bond deal, prosecutorial misconduct, and, of course, a violent police raid that resulted in the arrest of her sister and mother.

The second video is from the folks at Right on Crime, a Texas-based, conservative criminal justice reform group. The video tells the story of a retired couple, Jack and Jill Barron, who were handed four felony charges for building on a wetland (that actually was found to be a site just plagued by poor drainage). While the Jack was found not guilty, they sunk their entire life-savings into the legal fees and are still prohibited from building on their own land.


According a court filing by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, LAPD officers acted in self defense when they shot and killed Ezell Ford in August. The filing says that the mentally ill man knew what he was doing when he allegedly tried to grab one of the officer’s guns, and caused a necessary use of force by the officers involved.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has the story. Here’s a clip:

The two officers shot Ezell Ford, who was unarmed, after he tried to grab one of their guns, according to LAPD officials and the court filing.

The shooting occurred August 11 on West 65th Street in South LA. Ford was 25.

Ford “knew and understood the degree of risk, and voluntarily assumed such risk,” according to documents the city filed in response to a lawsuit by the family. “The forced used…was caused and necessitated by the actions of the decedent, and was reasonable and necessary for self-defense.”

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