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Freedom of Information


Sheriff says Extra $61 Million Needed to Keep LASD Jails Safe…Supremes Contemplate FOIA Restrictions…and More

February 21st, 2013 by Celeste Fremon



LOS ANGELES SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT NEEDS ANOTHER $61 MILLION TO KEEP ITS JAILS SAFE

According to a report issued Tuesday by Richard Drooyan, the lead attorney for the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, progress is being made in reforming the department’s jails, but a pile of money—namely $61 million—is needed to keep the scandal-plagued facilities safe.

Since the LASD’s budget it, at present $2.7 billion, that means that an additional 23 percent is needed solely for the jails to make such improvements as having an adequate number of supervisors in the facilities and creating an investigative process that works.

While it’s genuinely heartening that force inside the jails has dropped, particularly “significant force,” and it’s understandable that more supervisors are needed, but $61 million worth?

We have other questions about the matter, but they can wait.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Marcellino from the City News Service has more on the story. Here’s a clip:

….One major change was hiring of an assistant sheriff responsible for the custody division.

Terri McDonald, formerly the undersecretary of operations for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is set to start work on March 18, sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said. McDonald will report directly to Baca.

“What we saw was a real gap in accountability between the jail facility and the sheriff. Now they’ve taken the first step,” Drooyan said. “I think things are moving in the right direction.”

Several of the people running the jails during the time frame reviewed by the commission are no longer with the department, including Daniel Cruz, formerly a captain at Men’s Central Jail, and former Assistant Sheriff Marvin Cavanaugh, once responsible for overseeing the jail system.

Both Cruz and Cavanaugh retired Jan. 1.

Drooyan said the sheriff and his department have been responsive to his requests, and that all of the recommendations that do not require significant funding should be implemented in 30-60 days.

But “in many ways, the toughest ones to implement” are still under way, Drooyan told the board. They include hiring additional supervisors, finalizing enhanced penalties for excessive force and revising the investigative process.


SUPREME COURT WRESTLES WITH STATE RESTRICTIONS ON FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

Robert Barnes at the Washington Post has the story.

Here’s a clip:

Virginia is virtually alone among the states in blocking those from beyond its borders from using its Freedom of Information Act to get state documents and records.

The question before the Supreme Court on Wednesday was: So what?

The court spent a spirited hour debating whether Virginia had a good reason for making a distinction between its residents and out-of-staters, or whether the state even needed one.

Two men — Mark McBurney of Rhode Island, who wanted to examine records from the state child support enforcement division, and Californian Roger Hurlbert, who operates a business obtaining real estate tax assessments — challenged what their Washington attorney, Deepak Gupta, called Virginia’s “discriminatory access policy.”

Gupta said it violated a provision of the Constitution meant to put residents of the states on equal footing, and also the dormant-commerce clause, which guards against economic protectionism.

But Gupta ran straight into Justice Antonin Scalia, who coincidentally is one of four justices who live in Virginia. Scalia said he remembered the advent of “government in the sunshine” laws that popped up around the country, starting in Florida, during the 1960s.

“It seems to me entirely in accord with that purpose of these laws to say it’s only Virginia citizens who are concerned about the functioning of Virginia government, and ought to be able to get whatever records Virginia agencies have,” Scalia said. “What’s wrong with that reasoning?”…

Read on.


RETHINKING AMERICA’S PRISON POLICIES

A bunch of new NPR reports about how states are reconsidering their prison and sentencing policies as out of whack from a cost/benefit perspective.

Here’s the introduction to the an excellent overview on WBUR’s ON the Point. (The program itself deserves a listen.

The USA is number one in the world when it comes to the number of people in prison. Bigger than China. Bigger than Russia. America’s prison population is tops. 2.2 million. Bigger than fifteen American states. And its incarceration rate is number one. Three times – triple – any other nation’s. All that American imprisonment is very expensive. And very debatable when it comes to effectiveness, fairness – to justice itself. Now states across the country are reconsidering the mandatory sentencing policies and more that filled those cells. This hour, On Point: slimming down American prisons.

Here’s a link to two more stories on NPR’s All Things Considered as part of their series, “The Legacy And Future Of Mass Incarceration.”

Posted in Freedom of Information, jail, LA County Jail, LASD, prison, prison policy, Sentencing, Sheriff Lee Baca, Supreme Court | 7 Comments »

Prosecutorial Overreach and Why We Have to Care About the Life & Death of Aaron Swartz

January 15th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon


Ever since the news leaked out that cyber wunderkind and activist, Aaron Swartz,
had hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment this past Friday, a growing number of people have felt compelled to write about the series of events that may have led the phenomenally gifted 26-year-old to end his life.

We know from friends and family that Swartz struggled with depression.. We also know that Swartz was facing federal trial on charges that he illegally downloaded millions of research papers from the scholarly database, JSTOR.

There’s no doubt that Swartz, who helped invent the RSS feed when he was 14, and who co-founded Reddit—among a longer list of accomplishments—did indeed download the millions of articles from JSTOR. No one questions those facts.

What many do question, however, is whether what was basicially an act of cyber civil disobedience that even JSTOR asked the feds not to pursue legally, should have led to criminal charges so severe that, had Swartz been convicted at the trial that was to have begun next month, he could have served 35 years in prison, and paid millions of dollars in fines. Even before the trial, the legal fight had pretty much drained him, financially.

And then, two days before he died, Swartz was offered a plea deal. The 35 years would come off the table, but he must go to jail for six months and plead guilty to 13 felony counts.

This is, of course, business as usual in today’s criminal justice world in which everything is dealt out. This almost always means that, to hammer home the biggest, baddest possible plea deal, prosecutors routinely pile on a mountain of questionable charges, so that the defendant takes the deal—guilty or not—because the downside risk of not taking it is so terrifying.

Aaron Swartz, however, selected neither of the two options the prosecutor offered. Instead, the staggeringly brilliant young man with a mile-a-millisecond mind, and an idealist’s heart, chose door number three: He killed himself.

Yet there’s more to the story.


“SWARTZ WAS A PASSIONATE ECCENTRIC WHO COULD HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE GREAT INNOVATORS AND CREATORS OF OUR FUTURE”

Among the essays and stories that have been written about Aaron Swartz in the last few days, some are particularly worth reading—both for people who already know who Swartz is, and for those who are wondering why so many believed he mattered so much:

A good place to start is with the New Yorker essay by Columbia law school prof, Tim Wu. Among other things, it explains in very clear terms exactly what Swartz did—and why it did not merit the prosecutorial response he got.

Here’s a relevant clip:

Tomorrow is the funeral for Aaron Swartz, the programmer and sometime activist who killed himself last Friday, while facing federal trial. No one knows, or will ever really know, what caused Swartz to take his own life. But his suicide, in the face of possible bankruptcy and serious prison time, has created a moment of clarity. We can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses—and by that measure, we have utterly failed.

I knew Swartz, although not well. And while he was special on account of his programming abilities, in another way he was not special at all: he was just another young man compelled to act rashly when he felt strongly, regardless of the rules. In another time, a man with Swartz’s dark drive would have headed to the frontier. Perhaps he would have ventured out into the wilderness, like T. E. Lawrence or John Muir, or to the top of something death-defying, like Reinhold Messner or Philippe Petit. Swartz possessed a self-destructive drive toward actions that felt right to him, but that were also defiant and, potentially, law-breaking. Like Henry David Thoreau, he chased his own dreams, and he was willing to disobey laws he considered unjust.

Swartz’s frontier was not geographic like Thoreau’s, but defined by other barriers unique to our times. His form of civil disobedience consisted of heading into an M.I.T. closet with a laptop, hooking it up to the Internet, and downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, an academic database. Swartz thought information should be free. It wasn’t a major coup, but it counts as a defiant act—and one that made its point, for it was, and remains, absurdly hard for the public to gain access to what academics supposedly write for it.

The act was harmless—not in the sense of hypothetical damages or the circular logic of deterrence theory (that’s lawyerly logic), but in John Stuart Mill’s sense, meaning that there was no actual physical harm, nor actual economic harm. The leak was found and plugged; JSTOR suffered no actual economic loss. It did not press charges. Like a pie in the face, Swartz’s act was annoying to its victim, but of no lasting consequence.

In this sense, Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s….


THE PRODIGY/ACTIVIST

And then, for a quick, smart, interesting summary of who Swartz was and his importance inside the digital community, listen to this NPR interview with Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent with CNET.


WHEN THE LAW IS WORSE THAN THE CRIME

Emily Bazalon of Slate also has a very interesting and informative essay on the legal side of the matter.

Here are a couple of quick clips:

…..Swartz was charged with fully 13 counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which meant he faced millions of dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison. This law is notoriously capacious. Prosecutors can stretch it to cover misdeeds that would otherwise barely qualify as illegal. To illustrate just how much overreach the act allows, law professor Orin Kerr, who writes at Volokh Conspiracy, once posted a ridiculous new terms of service for the blog and then wrote, “If you post an abusive comment; you are an employee of the U.S. government; your middle name is Ralph; you’re not super nice, as judged by me; or you have visited Alaska, I have kinda bad news for you: You are a criminal, as you have just violated 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2)(C) by accessing the Volokh Conspiracy’s service without authorization or in excess of authorization.”

You can argue with Swartz’s tactics—as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who knew and clearly loved Swartz, writes: “The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.” As Lessig emphasizes, however, not every miscreant deserves to have the full weight of the U.S. government come crashing down on him. JSTOR said Swartz did not sell or give away the articles he’d downloaded and declined to take any action against him. (MIT, by contrast, lamely remained silent throughout his prosecution—only now are administrators investigating the university’s involvement in Swartz’s case and promising a public accounting.)

[BIG SNIP]

I’d like to tell you that the prosecutorial overreach that took place in Swartz’s case rarely happens. But that’s not true. There are many principled prosecutors who only bring charges they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. But there are also some who bring any charge they can think of to induce a defendant who may be guilty of a minor crime to plead guilty to a major one. These cases usually are hard to call attention to: They’re not about innocence, easy and pure. They’re about the muddier concept of proportionality. If any good at all can come from Swartz’s unspeakably sorrowful death, maybe it will be how this case makes prosecutors—and the rest of us—think about the space between guilt and innocence.


“THE WORLD IS A POORER PLACE…” BUT THIS TIME IT’S LITERALLY TRUE

This emotional essay from WIRED Magazine’s Threat Level section by Kevin Poulsen shows how colleagues viewed Aaron Swartz

Here’s a clip:

We often say, upon the passing of a friend or loved one, that the world is a poorer place for the loss. But with the untimely death of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz, this isn’t just a sentiment; it’s literally true. Worthy, important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.

Aaron Swartz committed suicide Friday in New York. He was 26 years old.

When he was 14 years old, Aaron helped develop the RSS standard; he went on to found Infogami, which became part of Reddit. But more than anything Aaron was a coder with a conscience: a tireless and talented hacker who poured his energy into issues like network neutrality, copyright reform and information freedom. Among countless causes, he worked with Larry Lessig at the launch of the Creative Commons, architected the Internet Archive’s free public catalog of books, OpenLibrary.org, and in 2010 founded Demand Progress, a non-profit group that helped drive successful grassroots opposition to SOPA last year.

“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world,” writes Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. “He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.”


PROSECUTOR AS BULLY

3. Finally there is the essay Swartz’s friend and mentor, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law prof and the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Lessig’s essay should be read in its totality. But here’s a random clip, to give you an idea of the content and tone:

…First, of course, Aaron brought Aaron here. As I said when I wrote about the case (when obligations required I say something publicly), if what the government alleged was true — and I say “if” because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then — then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?

Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.


AND PERHAPS THE VERY LAST WORD SHOULD TO SIR TIM BERNERS-LEE WHO, AFTER ALL INVENTED THE INTERNET AND WHO, ON JANUARY 12 TWEETED IN EXACTLY 139 CHARACTERS:

Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.



Photo: Aaron Swartz in 2008, with former Red Hat CEO Bob Young in the background. (CreativeCommons)

Posted in Freedom of Information, Life in general, Sentencing | 4 Comments »

Baca Must Fork Over Unredacted Ruben Salazar Files….and More

December 7th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon



MALDEF PRIES UNREDACTED RUBEN SALAZAR RECORDS AWAY FROM BACA AFTER 2 YEARS OF POINTLESS LEGAL WRANGLING

ON Tuesday, MALDEF settled its lawsuit against Sheriff Lee Baca and LA County, in which they had challenged the sheriff’s two-year attempt to withhold unredacted records regarding the 1970 death of Rubén Salazar, the former Times colum­nist and KMEX-TV news dir­ect­or who was killed on the day of the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War under circumstances that have left in their wake a cloud of questions for more than four decades.

In the lawsuit, MALDEF represented award-winning documentary filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, who is in the midst of making a film on the life of Salazar and the controvesy around his death. With this settlement, Rodriguez—and others—can finally have full access to things like unredacted autopsy reports, and coroner’s photos taken at the scene, plus unredacted investigative documents.

Here’s a clip from MALDEF’s Thursday press release:

Salazar was a KMEX-TV 34 journalist killed by a Sheriff’s deputy during the national Chicano Moratorium March in 1970. He was best known as the first Mexican American journalist to cover the Chicano community from the mainstream media. Despite the truth-seeking and investigative nature of his journalistic work, Salazar’s own death has been surrounded in secrecy for over 40 years.

“This settlement ensures that the Sheriff can no longer attempt to control the use of critical historical records on the killing of iconic journalist Rubén Salazar. The public, through the forthcoming documentary film, will immediately benefit from the availability of these unredacted records in assessing Salazar’s death 42 years ago,” stated Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel.

On December 4, 2012, the Sheriff and the County agreed to disclose unredacted autopsy and investigative documents, and coroner’s photos regarding Salazar’s death on August 29, 1970, enabling Phillip Rodriguez to reproduce copies of the documents, and use them in his film.

MALDEF began requesting the information in 2010, under the California Public Records Act, but the LASD folks refused to turn anything over claiming the documents were exempt from public records requests. However, with increasing legal prodding, a shove or two from Supervisor Gloria Molina (plus a lot of negative publicity surrounding the stonewalling), Sheriff Baca agreed to let Rodriguez and company look at the docs in March 2011, but only under strict conditions. For one thing, nobody could make copies of the reports.

According to Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, the sheriff de facto admitted that the documents were not exempted as public records by allowing partial access to them, thus rendering the rest of the control-freaky conditions that he and the LASD placed on them, to be legally unsupportable.

Nevertheless, the sheriff and his lawyers managed to drag the whole thing out for an additional nine months—for no appreciable reason (save, one supposes, Because They Can).

Of course, for the Sheriff there is no fiscal downside to engaging in two years of basically useless and rights-hindering legal wrangling since we, as taxpayers, were footing the attorneys’ bills to help the LASD try to keep the crucial material about the 42-year-old Salazar case OUT of the public domain.

(And, what’s up with the County Counsel attorneys who gave the sheriff the swell advice that allowed him to think that he could continue all this legal foot-dragging?)

Vexing. Very Vexing.

Congratulations to Phillip Rodriquez and MALDEF for prevailing in the public interest.

Rodriguez’s documentary is eagerly awaited as what it is hoped will be the first independent and thorough investigation of the mysterious and controversial events surrounding Salazar’s death. “The film will illuminate an often neglected and misrepresented chapter of American history that was foundational in the development of the Latino cultural and political identity,” stated Rodriguez.

Rodriguez’s film, “Rubén Salazar: The Man in the Middle,” will air in the fall of 2013 on PBS primetime to national audiences.

You can read the full settlement here.


LAPD UNION USES FBI MOST WANTED ARREST TO SLAM REALIGNMENT

On Tuesday, the LAPPL LAPPL put out a statement that, in a peculiar loop-de-loop of logic, attempted to discredit the state’s realignment policy because, the recently arrested fugitive from the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, Jose Luis Saenz, was—for entirely bureaucratic reasons—taken off parole.

Yes, I know it sounds weird. But Saenz was taken off the parole rolls because he no longer qualified, so removing him was simply bureaucratic clean up. “Having him on parole was essentially useless,” said CDCR spokesman, Luis Patino. “It was just gumming up the system, so we removed him.” They knew Saenz had warrants on him for four murders, Patino said. “He didn’t need another parole warrant in order to be arrested.”

The LAPPL writes on its blog:

The Los Angeles Police Protective League has warned the community that realignment would result in mass discharges of very dangerous felons and the deaths of innocent individuals. While realignment was enacted years after Saenz was first wanted, what justification does the Parole Department have for discharging Saenz in August, when he’s still wanted for killing four people?

It sounds sexy and like a delicious gotcha to say that the CDCR is SO out-of-it that they took the FBI’s most wanted guy off parole.

Yet, it is a cheap trick, loaded with falsehoods-–yet it is one that continues to be repeated in various guises.

Certainly, there are ways that realignment can—and should— be improved. But it is irresponsible and profoundly distorting of the issue to take big bad, high profile murder cases that have zero to do with the state’s new policy, and try to hold them up as bogeymen to scare people into counterfactually believing the state’s realignment program is damaging public safety.

Worse, such theatrics stand in the way of a genuine discussion about how to make realignment better.


OBAMA ADMINISTRATION STILL LAGGING ON APPOINTING HEAD OF YOUTH JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

There is a big push to get the Senate to force the Obama administration into getting off the dime and appointing a head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which oversees and coordinates juvenile justice reforms around the country. This administration is the first since the OJJDP was created in 1974 to fail to make the appointment.

This essay from Campaign for Youth Justice head, Liz Ryan, makes clear the importance of the issue.


Posted in Freedom of Information, LASD, Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca, Uncategorized | 10 Comments »

The Sheriff Back-Pedals, FBI Has to Pay Up on FOIA Screw up…& Voter Fraud

October 22nd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


BACA SAYS THAT THE JAILS COMMISSIONS RECS ARE FINE, BUT THE HARSH FINDINGS BEHIND THEM….UH…WELL, MAYBE NOT SO MUCH

Sheriff Lee Baca gave an interview to KPCC’s Larry Mantel on Thursday. The transcript is worth reading carefully. And….it’s not heartening.

In answer to questions from Mantle Baca characterizes the proposed Inspector General as basically someone who does little more than ferry communication back between the department and the Board of Supervisors, but certainly not any one with any…you know…. real power.

The most alarming moment of the interview is the sheriff’s contention that while the Jails Commissions recommendations are very swell, the findings underlying recommendations were “accusations” not fact.

Here’s a clip from a couple of the most relevant exchanges:

Did you [err] in trusting those under you to manage the jails?

“No, I think the findings of the commission were accusations but there were no probative investigations of the accusations. I have investigated some of them and I’m getting contradictive evidence.”

So are you taking issue with the findings of these commissions?

“I questions the facts that make the findings…I will go out and find out whether the facts support the finding… but the recommendations are sensible sound many are things I had been trying to do but I need support and funding to do them. The raggedness of the findings is not my biggest concern, but no I’m not convinced that the individuals being blamed for the problems are the cause of the problems….

Read the rest.


FBI ORDERED TO PAY S.F. JOURNALIST $470,000 AFTER WITHHOLDING FOIA-REQUESTED RECORDS

What a cheering bit of news, after the incredibly vexing Public Records Act-related judgement by the CA Fed Judge earlier this month.

Vivian Ho at the SF Chron has the story. Here’s the opening clip:

A federal judge this week ordered the FBI to pay a San Francisco journalist almost half a million dollars for withholding records he requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Seth Rosenfeld, a former reporter at The Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, won $470,459 in attorneys’ fees for two lawsuits he filed – one in 1990 and another in 2007 – while researching the 1960s protest movement in Berkeley.

The lawsuits were two of five he filed against the FBI and the Justice Department starting in 1985. He requested a variety of records pertaining to the FBI’s covert operations at UC Berkeley and its secret relationship with former President Ronald Reagan.

Rosenfeld used the information he received from the FBI in articles for The Chronicle and the Examiner, as well as in his book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” which was released in August.

Rosenfeld said the FBI had failed to turn over all of the documents he requested, and that it wasn’t until he engaged them in a series of legal battles that the agency released thousands of pages.

Justice Department attorneys, who represented the FBI, argued that the agency would have released the documents even if Rosenfeld hadn’t filed suit. They said “bureaucratic difficulty, not recalcitrant behavior” slowed the releases.

Oh, poor, poor FBI. The dog ate its ability to adequately search.

As it happens, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen was not in the least sympathetic. The awarded $$ will go to the First Amendment Project of Oakland, and two the law firm of Bryan Cave, which represented Rosenfeld pro bono.


THE NEW YORKER WRITES ABOUT THE MYTH OF VOTER FRAUD

This New Yorker story by award winning-investigative journalist Jane Mayer about the issue of voter fraud, is one step away from our usual criminal justice subject matter, but in the current elections season, it is very much worth your time.

Here’s how it opens:

Teresa Sharp is fifty-three years old and has lived in a modest single-family house on Millsdale Street, in a suburb of Cincinnati, for nearly thirty-three years. A lifelong Democrat, she has voted in every Presidential election since she turned eighteen. So she was agitated when an official summons from the Hamilton County Board of Elections arrived in the mail last month. Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, is one of the most populous regions of the most fiercely contested state in the 2012 election. No Republican candidate has ever won the Presidency without carrying Ohio, and recent polls show Barack Obama and Mitt Romney almost even in the state. Every vote may matter, including those cast by the seven members of the Sharp family—Teresa, her husband, four grown children, and an elderly aunt—living in the Millsdale Street house.

The letter, which cited arcane legal statutes and was printed on government letterhead, was dated September 4th. “You are hereby notified that your right to vote has been challenged by a qualified elector,” it said. “The Hamilton County Board of Elections has scheduled a hearing regarding your right to vote on Monday, September 10th, 2012, at 8:30 a.m. . . . You have the right to appear and testify, call witnesses and be represented by counsel.”

“My first thought was, Oh, no!” Sharp, who is African-American, said. “They ain’t messing with us poor black folks! Who is challenging my right to vote?”

The answer to Sharp’s question is that a new watchdog group, the Ohio Voter Integrity Project, which polices voter-registration rolls in search of “electoral irregularities,” raised questions about her eligibility after consulting a government-compiled list of local properties and mistakenly identifying her house as a vacant lot…

Posted in Civil Liberties, Freedom of Information, How Appealing, jail, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, media, Sheriff Lee Baca | 8 Comments »

Public Records Act at Risk, Anti-Bullying Program Slammed as Gay Plot, Juvie LWOP from 2 POVs

October 15th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon



A CALIF JUDGE’S DECISION THREATENS THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT

The LA Times’ Jim Newton has a column that is an absolutely essential read —unless you trust every single one of our government agencies and public officials to scrupulously and without fail behave in a right and good and true manner all of the time.

The column relates the experience of Tim Crews, the editor/publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror, a twice weekly newspaper that serves Glenn County. Evidently Crews believed that the local school district had used public funds to improperly influence an election. So to look further into the matter, he attempted to obtain certain documents under the Public Records Act, which is what most reporters would do under the same circumstances. The district predictably dragged its feet. Eventually, the paper and the district wound up in court over some of the documentation, and the judge decided against Crews.

Now here’s where the whole thing gets worrisome. Here are some clips from Newton’s column that explain the heart of the matter:

Up to that point, the case was fairly unremarkable, one of thousands of disputed but ultimately resolved Public Records Act requests that wind their way through public agencies and courts every year. But then the judge in Crews’ case, Peter Twede, did something extraordinary: He concluded that Crews’ request had been frivolous, and he ordered Crews to pay not only his own legal bills but those of the school district. For the privilege of obtaining documents that were his legal right to have, Crews was ordered to pay more than $100,000, an amount later reduced to $56,000.

If the judgment stands — Crews has appealed — it would have a devastating effect on the newspaper, which only has about 2,800 paid subscribers. “It would wipe us out,” Crews told me last week.

It would do more than that. If upheld by the appellate courts, the judgment would radically alter the contours of the Public Records Act in California. Imagine if every time citizens asked for records under the act, they faced the possibility of having to bear not only their own legal expenses but also those that the agency might run up defending itself. Who could afford such risk?

The consequences of Crews’ case are so far-reaching that a number of organizations have come to his defense, including the First Amendment Coalition (on whose board I serve without compensation). William T. Bagley, who wrote California’s public records law while in the Assembly in the late 1960s, has also filed an amicus brief in support of the editor.

[BIG SNIP]

All that is reason enough to be troubled by the action of the judge in the Crews case. But the potential damage to the public extends well beyond Glenn County and even beyond the Public Records Act itself.

If upheld, this ruling would fundamentally reorient the relationship between the people of California and those who represent them. It would require members of the public to put themselves at risk to learn about their own government. It would recast government agencies and elected officials as immune from public scrutiny rather than accountable through that scrutiny.

As the Public Records Act itself states: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” For that reason alone, Crews deserves to win and his paper to survive.

This issue has direct application to such things as the reporting that WitnessLA has been doing on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department. Take Matt Fleischer’s recent story about Pay-to-Play in the LASD: without the donations information and other documentation obtained through the Public Records Act, that story and others like it, could not have existed.

And because WLA and other smaller publications like it—and private individuals, for that matter—are operating without the benefit of big staffs and big budgets (and funds set aside for just such legal issues), the threat of having to pay tens of thousands in legal bills if a judge happens to whimsically decide that a government agency doesn’t have to fork over certain paperwork, cannot help to have a cooling effect. Plus, it gives public agencies who’d like to withhold documents for less than stellar reasons a nasty little tool to use against pesky reporters and members of the public who try to hold them accountable, but who don’t have deep pockets.

In any case, stay tuned. We’ll let you know when we know more.


ANTI-BULLYING PROGRAM DEEMED GAY-PROMOTING PLOT”

First the good news: 77 LA County Schools are participating in Mix It Up at Lunch Day, the most schools of any area of the nation. Mix It Up at Lunch Day, which will take place October 30, is a national pro-tolerance, anti-bullying school program that was started over a decade ago by the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here’s how their website explains it:

In our surveys, students have identified the cafeteria as the place where divisions are most clearly drawn. So on one day – October 30 this school year – we ask students to move out of their comfort zones and connect with someone new over lunch. It’s a simple act with profound implications. Studies have shown that interactions across group lines can help reduce prejudice. When students interact with those who are different from them, biases and misperceptions can fall away.

.

Around 2500 schools participate nationally

But then here’s the bad news: A conservative evangelical group called American Family Association, has whipped itself into a frenzy over Mix-It-Up-at Lunch Day, which it calls a “nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools.”

Naturally AFA has told its followers to inform school administrators that they will be keeping their kids home on Oct. 30 in the hope of getting schools to cancel all this ghastly Mixing-it-up.

According to a New York Times story by Kim Severson, after the AFA began pressuring, 200 schools cancelled the program,. Here’s a clip from Severson’s story:

The program, started 11 years ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center and now in more than 2,500 schools, was intended as a way to break up cliques and prevent bullying.

But this year, the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical group, has called the project “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools” and is urging parents to keep their children home from school on Oct. 30, the day most of the schools plan to participate this year.

The charges, raised in an e-mail to supporters earlier this month, have caused a handful of schools to cancel this year’s event and has caught organizers off guard.

“I was surprised that they completely lied about what Mix It Up Day is,” said Maureen Costello, the director of the center’s Teaching Tolerance project, which organizes the program. “It was a cynical, fear-mongering tactic.”


WHEN KILLERs ARE KIDS, A CASE FROM THE POV OF A VICTIM’S FAMILY

Sunday’s NY Times features a story by Ethan Bronner that looks at a case in which a 15-year-old boy killed his 15-year-old girlfriend who was pregnant with his child. The article explores the point of view of the once-young killer and also looks at the tragedy from the perspective of the sister of the victim, each of whom could be affected by the SCOTUS decision handed down this past June that found the mandatory sentencing of juvenile murderers to term of Life without the possiblity of parole to be unconstitutional. To be clear, the Suprmes didn’t find Juvie LWOP to be cruel and unusual as a whole, only the mandatory handing down of the sentence without considering the individual killer and his or her circumstances, state of mind, et al.

The decision, which is being treated as retroactive by some states, could mean that a lot of LWOP cases will be reconsidered to see if there should have been an examination of the murderer’s actions, background and circumstances, rather than having a sentence simply applied automatically.

Here’s a clip from the story, which talks about how painful opening such cases could be for families of the victims.

“I go over it pretty much every night,” said Mr. Bailey, now 34, sitting in his brown jumpsuit here at the Fayette State Correctional Institution in western Pennsylvania, where he is serving a sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder. “I don’t want to make excuses. It’s a horrible act I committed. But as you get older, your conscience and insight develop. I’m not the same person.”

Every night, Bobbi Jamriska tries to avoid going over that same event. Ms. Jamriska, Kristina’s sister, was a 22-year-old out for a drink with friends when she got the news. Ten months later, their inconsolable mother died of complications from pneumonia. Weeks later, their grandmother died.

“During that year, I buried four generations of my family,” Ms. Jamriska said at the dining room table of her Pittsburgh house, taking note of her sister’s unborn child. “This wrecked my whole life. It completely changed the person I was.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: I found it a bit distressing that the reporter wrote that the Supremes outlawed Juvenile LWOP altogether and no editor managed to catch the fairly large error, which would seem to be something one might fact check if one is writing about the affect of the freaking case. The story is still worth reading, but really, New York times.


Posted in Education, Freedom of Information, Future of Journalism, journalism, juvenile justice, LGBT, LWOP Kids, media | 7 Comments »

R.I.P. Rodney King, the G-Dog Movie, Gov. Christie’s Rich Halfway House Pals & More

June 17th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

RODNEY KING: 1965 – 2012

He wasn’t a very strong person, and maybe not even a particularly good person. Certainly he was a man who battled with wounds of the psyche. Nevertheless Rodney King has a place of significance in Los Angeles history that makes his death oddly startling and saddening. King understood his importance, and seemed to be in genuine pain about his inability to fully rise to its occasion—to be the hero some people wanted him to be. Instead he seemed, on his best days, be a mostly ordinary, somewhat demon-haunted guy who—despite what a Simi Valley jury said—changed the city simply by the fact of having unwillingly endured the vicious beat down he received at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers on March 3, 1991, a beating that fractured his bones in 59 places, and nearly killed him.
Still, although he may not have had most of the hero’s virtues he believed his moment in LA history demanded, what King did possess was a deep vein of decency, dignity, and real compassion, all of which was particularly visible in his “Can’t we just get along” speech in the midst of the ’92 riots.

Because of this, and because of his crucial role in our collective LA history, we cannot help but mourn Rodney King’s passing. He was a member of the family.

The LA Times Joe Mozingo has a very good obit of King. Here’s a clip:

“Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD,” Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement. “What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love. His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its Police Department.”

R.I.P.


G-DOG: HOMEBOY MOVIE DRAWS MAXIMUM CROWD AT LA FILM FEST

It was a very full house at the American premiere of G-Dog, the documentary film by Oscar winning director Frieda Mock, about Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention program that Father Greg founded more than two decades ago. Evidently, a great many LA people decided that watching a movie about the guy who urges us to claim kinship with the men and women whom others often tell us that we should despise—namely former gang members and felons—was an excellent way to spend Father’s Day.

As UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap said on screen when she was interviewed in the course of the film, the approach that Boyle and Homeboy practicies produces remarkable results, which was much of what the movie portrayed. Leap (who is a nationally recognized expert in trauma response, gang violence, and at-risk youth) is in the midst of a 5-year longitudinal study of Homeboy, and has noted that, for those who come into its programs, Homeboy has a highly unusual 70 percent retention rate, with only 30 percent reoffending. (The statewide prison recidivism rate is the mirror opposite, with 65 to 70 percent reoffending.)

Thus the film was a portrait, not just of Father Greg, but of the healing and transformative therapeutic community that Homeboy Industries’ programs and its businesses have become, and also of some of the daunting challenges the organization still faces, with its ongoing struggles to balance its fiscal realities with the wrenching needs of the people who daily walk through its doors.

In any case, when I know of another showing of the film, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, here’s a clip from what the LA Times’ Steve Lopez wrote about the film:

….. writer/director/producer Freida Mock — an Oscar winner for her film on the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation’s capital — wisely focused on the year 2010, when financial problems almost put Homeboy out of business. While trying to save the lives of young men and women, Boyle finds himself trying to save even his own job, and at one point jokes about having to tell his mother he could be collecting unemployment.

Boyle had critics early on who scornfully called his work “hug-a-thug,” but as the program evolved and drew the support of law enforcement officials like LAPD Chief Charlie Beck — who thinks of Homeboy as an important ally — the correspondence went from hate mail to fan mail. Boyle’s gospel was that for people with dysfunctional families, substandard schools and no job prospects, gang life is a natural allegiance, but the cycle can be broken with tough love, accountability, community and a show of respect….


HUNDREDS ESCAPE OR WALK AWAY FROM THE NEW JERSEY HALFWAY HOUSES THAT NJ GOVERNOR CHRISTIE FAVORS

The NY Times has a very, very long article about New Jersey’s use of privately run halfway houses favored by NJ Governor Chris Christie as a way of keeping the state’s incaceration costs down and then providing better services to certain inmates in their last few months of incarceration. However, it seems that more than 450 of the half-way house residents escaped last year, some committing very serious crimes, including murder, after vanishing

However, upon reading further, it seems that “escape” isn’t quite the right term, as the facilities aren’t lock-downs, thus anybody can pretty much walk away. By the end it is unclear if the places are a terrible idea from which Christie’s pals are gaining monetarily bigtime, or a good idea that needs better triage, so as to keep the more dangerous people in a locked facility to the end of their term.

On the other hand, since the people in the halfway houses are going to be released in a few months anyway, if they are kept in a locked facility for those last three months, where they will get little or no treatment, can we really say it will lessen the chances they would act out violently? Or what is it that the Times reporters are actually implying or suggesting?

(They feature a tragic story of a young woman who became infatuated with a halfway house inmate who had a past of poor impulse control, had committed armed robbery, and had made at least one violent threat against a woman friend in the past. Anyway, the sweet young woman, who we are told was good with animals, tried to break up withe inmate. His response was to escape the halfway house and kill her. A terrible, terrible story, to be sure. However, it is not at all clear what we are to take from this, or even what would have helped avert this tragedy. Perhaps the state of New Jersey should have locked the guy up indefinitely. However, that’s a sentencing issue, not a programmatical one.)

Take a look for yourself. I found it initially heartening that the NY Times had taken on such topics as private prisons, post-incarceration half-way houses, and corrections as big business. However, whatever conclusions the Times reporters intended us to draw, I’m afraid got lost in the welter of ominous and yet contradictory information they kept piling on us as readers.

Here’s a clip:

After serving more than a year behind bars in New Jersey for assaulting a former girlfriend, David Goodell was transferred in 2010 to a sprawling halfway house in Newark. One night, Mr. Goodell escaped, but no one in authority paid much notice. He headed straight for the suburbs, for another young woman who had spurned him, and he killed her, the police said.
The state sent Rafael Miranda, incarcerated on drug and weapons charges, to a similar halfway house, and he also escaped. He was finally arrested in 2010 after four months at large, when, prosecutors said, he shot a man dead on a Newark sidewalk — just three miles from his halfway house.

Valeria Parziale had 15 aliases and a history of drugs and burglary. Nine days after she slipped out of a halfway house in Trenton in 2009, Ms. Parziale, using a folding knife, nearly severed a man’s ear in a liquor store. She was arrested and charged with assault but not escape. Prosecutors say they had no idea she was a fugitive.

After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets. In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house.

At the heart of the system is a company with deep connections to politicians of both parties, most notably Gov. Chris Christie.


ETHIOPIAN GOV’T MAKES USE OF SKYPE AND ALL INTERNET PHONE SERVICES PUNISHABLE BY UP TO 15 YEARS IN PRISON

We don’t usually do international stories, but this one is alarming and needs to be widely talked about.

Here’s a clip from TechCrunch’s story on the matter that was first reported by Al Jazeera:

The Ethiopian government, Al Jazeera reports, has criminalized the use of Skype and other VoIP services like Google Talk. Using VoIP services is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This law actually passed last month, but mostly went unnoticed outside of the country. Ethiopian authorities argue that they imposed these bans because of “national security concerns” and to protect the state’s telecommunications monopoly. The country only has one ISP, the state-owned Ethio Telecom, and has been filtering its citizen’s Internet access for quite some time now to suppress opposition blogs and other news outlets.

As for Skype and other VoIP services, the new law doesn’t just criminalize their usage, but the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology now has “the power to supervise and issue licenses to all privately owned companies that import equipment used for the communication of information.” It’s worth noting that, as TechCentral points out, the new law also prohibits “audio and video data traffic via social media.” It’s not clear how exactly the government plans to enforce this restriction, but a potential 15-year prison term will likely keep most people from using Skype in Ethiopia anytime soon.


G-Dog Photo by Christine Duong Mason for WitnessLA

Posted in Civil Liberties, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, Homeboy Industries, LAPD, Los Angeles history, prison, prison policy | 8 Comments »

Friday Wrap up: Is Decrypting Covered by the 5th? Baca Agrees With Beck about DLs….and More

February 24th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


DIGITAL SELF INCRIMINATION

So, let’s say you’ve been arrested, and you’ve been told by the cops (or the assistant district attorney, or whomever) that you have to decrypt the hard drive of your laptop, which law enforcement has been unable to hack. Let’s also say that you know that the material on said hard drive will not be….um…helpful to your legal situation (not that any of you would ever find yourself in such a nasty dilemma; we’re speaking hypothetically here). Anyway, would you have to do it—legally speaking?

Or does that fall in the category of self incrimination, thus you cannot be made to do the decrypting?

On Thursday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, located in Atlanta, GA, said nope. You cannot be forced into digitally confessing your sins.

Joe Palazzolo of the Wall Street Journal has more.

In a ruling that could have broad ramifications for law enforcement, a federal appeals court has ruled that a man under investigation for child pornography isn’t required to unlock his computer hard drives for the federal government, because that act would amount to the man offering testimony against himself.

The ruling Thursday appears to be the first by a federal appeals court to find that a person can’t be forced to turn over encyption codes or passwords in a criminal investigation, in light of the Fifth Amendment, which holds that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

The Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals of the 11th Circuit ruled that “the Fifth Amendment protects [the man’s] refusal to decrypt and produce the contents of the media devices,” which the government believes contain child pornography.

The ruling could handcuff federal investigators, as more data are secured behind sophisticated encryption software. A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


SHERIFF BACA JOINS CHIEF BECK IN SAYING YES TO LICENSES FOR ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

Robert Faturechi, Joel Rubin and Paloma Esquivel report for the LA Times:

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he supports the idea of allowing illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses as long as they have been in the United States for a number of years without committing other crimes.

Baca’s comments Thursday come as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck has also expressed support for driver’s license for illegal immigrants.

Baca said such licenses should only be issued after illegal immigrants fill out comprehensive applications, similar to those for citizenship. The sheriff also said the licenses should be up for renewal annually, and be noticeably different than those issued to citizens.

“There’s enough potential for Chief Beck’s idea for it to be explored,” Baca said Thursday.

The sheriff has expressed openness to illegal immigrants being issued driver’s licenses before. In 2002, he supported a proposal to allow the licenses, but to imprint them with a special marker such as the letter “I” for immigrant so police could determine immediately if they were dealing with someone in the country illegally.

At the time, the sheriff was the head of a task force helping then-Gov. Gray Davis craft a plan to allow certain unlawful immigrants to get licenses, a proposal that eventually was scuttled.

Baca emphasized then that many illegal immigrants were already driving without having passed a driver’s test or buying auto insurance.
“At some point in time, we will allow illegal immigrants to have a driver’s license as long as they are trustworthy and non-criminal people,” Baca said at the time.

Good for the Sheriff. Now if the state legislature would just show some common sense and understand that this is less about immigration policy, than it is about public safety.

The Times editorial board put it well when it wrote:

….critics will argue that granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants condones their presence in this country and makes it easier for them to stay. That makes sense in theory but not in practice. The reality is that undocumented immigrants are already here, and they are already driving to jobs taking care of children, mowing lawns and working in factories, among other things. Doesn’t it make sense to ensure that every driver, regardless of immigration status, is trained, capable and insured?

As Beck wisely points out, California’s push to keep undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses hasn’t reduced the problems on the road


SCOTUS APPEARS TO BE HEADED TOWARD AFFIRMING THE STOLEN VALOR LAW

The New York Times’ Adam Liptak has a good summary of what went on in the court when the Supremes heard the Stolen Valor case. Here’s a clip (that includes in back story, in case you’re not up to speed:

Over the course of an hourlong argument on Wednesday, the Supreme Court seemed gradually to accept that it might be able to uphold a federal law that makes it a crime to lie about military honors, notwithstanding the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. The justices were aided by suggestions from the government about how to limit the scope of a possible ruling in its favor and by significant concessions from a lawyer for the defendant.

The case arose from a lie told in 2007 at a public meeting by Xavier Alvarez, an elected member of the board of directors of a water district in Southern California.

“I’m a retired Marine of 25 years,” he said. “I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy.”

That was all false, and Mr. Alvarez was prosecuted under a 2005 law, the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to say falsely that one has “been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States.” Mr. Alvarez argued that his remarks were protected by the First Amendment.

But for the personality of the SCOTUS discussion go to the report from Slate’s Dalia Lithwick, in which she details the kinds of lies that worry each of the justices.

Here’s a clip:

Most interesting to me is what judges think people lie about. So, for instance, amid the flurry of opinions written as the 9th Circuit tried to decide whether to review the Stolen Valor decision as a full court came this gem from Judge Alex Kozinski:

So what, exactly, does the dissenters’ ever-truthful utopia look like? In a word: terrifying. If false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he’s Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won’t hurt a bit. Phrases such as “I’m working late tonight, hunny [sic],” “I got stuck in traffic” and “I didn’t inhale” could all be made into crimes.

In so doing, Judge Kozinski launched a weird little judicial Rorschach test one might call Lies Federal Judges Worry About. Entries fly fast and furious this morning.

Posted in Charlie Beck, crime and punishment, criminal justice, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, How Appealing, immigration, Sheriff Lee Baca | 7 Comments »

STOP SOPA (and PIPA)

January 19th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon



While WitnessLA didn’t go dark on Wednesday for the SOPA blackout (too much jails stuff going

on to even consider it), the protest seems to be helping.

If you’re unfamiliar with the fuss about SOPA—the Stop Online Piracy Act—and its little sister PIPA …. the Protect IP Act, let writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky explain it all to you.

Shirky, who is one of the smartest people breathing on all things web, was asked to do an “emergency TED talk,” to address the issue of SOPA (and PIPA) in plain terms.

You can find it here.

And then if you want to take action, go here.

Posted in Free Speech, Freedom of Information | No Comments »

The U.S. Supreme Court, the Power of Money and other Must Reads

April 5th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


In next week’s issue of the New Yorker (April 11),
the magazine’s legal writer, Jeffery Toobin, has a MUST READ story about SCOTUS’ view of campaign reform.

It is an interesting and important read, but not exactly a cheery one:
Below I have posted a few salient clips but the whole thing is worth your time:


Eight of the current Supreme Court Justices are known for their zeal in questioning lawyers.
That tendency was on display last week during the oral argument over the constitutionality of an Arizona law known as the Citizens Clean Elections Act, a law that attempts to do a little something about campaigns in which one candidate has a great deal more money than the others. Roughly, the law says that the ones who are outspent should receive a modest subsidy from state funds. By the end of the questioning, however, it had become clear that a majority of the Justices will probably declare the Arizona law unconstitutional. In apparent frustration, Justice Stephen G. Breyer departed from custom and allowed himself a despairing comment about the Court’s treatment of campaign-finance laws, which he has long, and mostly futilely, defended. “It is better to say it’s all illegal than to subject these things to death by a thousand cuts, because we don’t know what will happen when we start tinkering with one provision rather than another,” he said.

[SNIP]

In many other respects, this Court’s commitment to free speech is admirable. Earlier this year, Chief Justice John Roberts gave voice to the best American tradition of tolerance when he (along with seven colleagues) overturned a damage award against a fringe religious group. The Westboro Baptist Church, which, as it happens, is more of an extended family than an actual church, had launched one of its odious anti-gay publicity stunts near a funeral at which a mother and father were grieving the loss of a son in Iraq. Understandably, perhaps, a judge had awarded five million dollars in a civil suit brought by the father, but the Court recognized that such a judgment threatened the free-speech rights of all unpopular groups. “Speech is powerful,” Roberts wrote, but it was the Court’s duty “to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

The problem is that there is more than one way to stifle public debate. The idea behind limiting campaign contributions and expenditures is to insure that the voices of the wealthy don’t drown out the voices of those who are less well off. A surreal moment during the Arizona argument summed up how peculiar the Court’s campaign-finance jurisprudence has become. Springing a well-planned trap, Roberts told the lawyer defending the Arizona law, “I checked the Citizens Clean Elections Commission Web site this morning, and it says that this act was passed to, quote, ‘level the playing field’ when it comes to running for office. Why isn’t that clear evidence that it’s unconstitutional?” To many ears, levelling the playing field hardly sounds like a sinister activity, worthy of the Supreme Court’s ultimate sanction. Indeed, as recently as 1990 the Court upheld a campaign-finance law because of “the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.” But the Court explicitly overruled that decision last year in the Citizens United case. For better or for worse, Roberts is right: leveling the playing field is now verboten.


JERRY BROWN SIGNS BILL SENDING THOUSANDS OF NONVIOLENT PRISONERS BACK TO JAIL TO SERVE OUT THEIR TIME

Yeah, I’m sure this sounded great on paper. And I’m all for doing whatever is necessary to reduce the California state prison population. But all this new plan seems to be is simply moving prisoners around in some kind of shell game strategy in which the county jails take the hit instead of the state prisons—a hit that LA’s county Jail system, for one, really cannot take right now.

Here’s a clip from Jack Dolan’s story for the LA times.

Tens of thousands of felons convicted of nonviolent crimes would serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons under a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday evening.

The measure is designed to reduce the number of inmates in California’s chronically overcrowded state lockups and keep relatively low-level offenders closer to their homes, where drug treatment and mental health services are believed to be more effective.

Supporters hope to save taxpayers money by lowering the number of offenders who return to prison and by housing many parole violators in less expensive county jails.

“For too long, the state’s prison system has been a revolving doorr for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months,” Brown said in a news release. “Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impedes local law enforcement supervision.

Sounds dandy. Unfortunately, however, the county jails have even less in the way of rehabilitation and other programs than the California prisons, so this bill is going to help our recidivism rate how exactly?

We need sentencing reform if we want to reduce CA’s prison population.


….AND SPEAKING OF SENTENCING REFORM, THERE IS THIS FROM FORBES MAGAZINE

Here’s a relevant clip from the Forbes report:

…Republican governors and lawmakers pushed for many of the policies that put low-level drug offenders and nonviolent felons behind bars and extended sentences for many convicted criminals. But with the GOP in control of more financially strapped state governments, a growing number of Republican elected officials favor a review of the sentencing laws that contributed to a fourfold increase in prison costs over two decades.

The total cost of incarcerating state inmates swelled from $12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion by 2008.

Newly elected Republican governors in Florida and Georgia are among those pushing sentencing reforms. Brent Steele, a Republican state senator in Indiana, concedes that lawmakers share the blame for driving up state prison costs in recent years. High-profile crimes prompt lawmakers and governors to adopt ever-tougher criminal sentencing, such as three-strikes laws that impose minimum mandatory sentences for those convicted of a third felony, no matter the offense.

“But with that eventually comes the time when we run out of prison space,” said Steele, who is sponsoring a criminal justice overhaul in his state, prompted by budget concerns. “So what do you do? You concentrate on incarcerating those we’re afraid of and not those we’re just mad at.”

I want that last sentence on refrigerator magnets so we can give ‘em out in Sac’to.

Once again, in California, we not only cannot persuade our Republican lawmakers to go along with sentencing reform—we can’t get the Dems show a little spine on the topic either.

(Dear Georgia and Florida Repubs, can’t you talk sense to these people? Seriously. It would mean a lot to us.)

Posted in Free Speech, Freedom of Information, prison, prison policy, Sentencing, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Crazy Prosecutions, Lawyers Using Facebook & More

February 27th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


SUPREMES CONSIDER WHETHER BLOGGERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR WORDS (AND CAN BE SUED FOR DEFAMATION)

Uh, yeah. Of course they can be and should be. And it’s time the issue was addressed.

UPI has the story.

A high-profile defamation suit by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official against a prominent conservative blogger may test the role of libel laws in the brave new world of the Internet, as one newspaper writer suggests.

Or it may be just an opportunity to reinforce the notion, shocking and strange as it may seem, that bloggers should actually be held legally accountable for the truth of what they say — like trained journalists.

The case in the District of Columbia Superior Court involves former USDA official Shirley Sherrod and conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who posted a video online purporting to show Sherrod’s prejudice against whites as she addressed the NAACP in Atlanta.

Sherrod was forced out of her job, but the NAACP released a full video of the speech showing the portion posted online was taken out of context. Sherrod was actually making the case that all people need to be helped, regardless of color.

Of course if bloggers are eligible to be sued successfully for defamation, then they should also be eligible to be protected by journalist shield laws.

I’m just sayin’.


LA’S RANK AND FILE CITY WORKERS AIM TO TELL MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL WHERE THE BUDGET CUTS ARE HIDING

On Sunday, a group of city employees who are fighting being furloughed ” sent out an informational press release, which they stated was” a direct effort to bring to public light, the true cause of the City’s budget crisis…”

The group listed a bunch of areas the city could look to for additional funds rather than laying off city workers (like, say, themselves.) This list includes things like collecting those half a billion in back taxes that the city is owed and a similar amount uncollected fees.

The group includes employees from the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the Department of Transportation, Department of General Services and Department of Public Works. They have, they said, made this move apart from their unions.


AN ADVOCATE FOR “JURY NULLIFICATION” IS INDICTED FOR JURY TAMPERING

File this under Prosecutors Gone Wild. Benjamin Weiser for the NY Times has the story.

Julian P. Heicklen sat silent and unresponsive as his bail hearing began one day recently in federal court in Manhattan; his eyes were closed, his head slumped forward.

“Mr. Heicklen?” the magistrate judge, Ronald L. Ellis, asked. “Mr. Heicklen? Is Mr. Heicklen awake?”

“I believe he is, your honor,” a prosecutor, Rebecca Mermelstein, said. “I think he’s choosing not to respond but is certainly capable of doing so.”

There was, in fact, nothing wrong with Mr. Heicklen, 78, who eventually opened his eyes and told the judge, “I’m exercising my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.”

Indeed, it was not his silence that landed Mr. Heicklen, a retired Pennsylvania State University chemistry professor, in court; it was what he had been doing outside the federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street.

Since 2009, Mr. Heicklen has stood there and at courthouse entrances elsewhere and handed out pamphlets encouraging jurors to ignore the law if they disagree with it, and to render verdicts based on conscience.

That concept, called jury nullification, is highly controversial, and courts are hostile to it. But federal prosecutors have now taken the unusual step of having Mr. Heicklen indicted on a charge that his distributing of such pamphlets at the courthouse entrance violates a law against jury tampering.

Since Mr. Heicklen didn’t target any particular jurors or in any way try to influence the outcome of any particular case, the jury tampering charge seems a bit of a stretch. (cough) firstamendmentviolation (cough, cough)

In fact it seems that Heicklen didn’t even give his leaflets specifically to jurors but to random people going in and out of the court building, hoping to hit some jury members among those he approached.

If you read the rest of the story you’ll see that Heicklen is something of a character. But fortunately for many of us, being quirky isn’t, as yet, a federal offense.


FACEBOOK AND JURIES

It seems that Facebook is being used by attorneys—both defense and prosecutors—to determine whether or not individuals are suitable for jury placements. The Wall Street Journal has the story. Here’s a clip:

Prosecution and defense lawyers are scouring the site for personal details about members of the jury pool that could signal which side they might sympathize with during a trial. They consider what potential jurors watch on television, their interests and hobbies, and how religious they are.

Josh Marquis, district attorney of Clatsop County in Oregon, did background searches on Facebook to help pick a jury for a penalty trial last summer to determine if a convicted murderer should get the death penalty. He was looking for clues on how potential jurors might feel about the defendant, a man who killed a couple as a teenager in 1988. The jury imposed the death penalty.

Jury consultant Amber Yearwood in San Francisco found that one potential juror in a product-liability case last year held strident opinions on a host of issues, and dispensed unsolicited medical and sex advice. “Often juries offer opinionated people like that the perfect opportunity to wield their influence,” said Ms. Yearwood. The prospective juror was bounced….

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