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Bill Roundup—Round 2

September 30th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

On Wednesday, WLA posted a list of noteworthy bills signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown. As the governor decides the fate of dozens of bills each day this week before his September 31 signing (and vetoing) deadline, WLA has gathered a second roundup of relevant justice-related bills we’ve been following this year.


On Thursday, Governor Brown signed an important bill to rein in police officers’ ability to seize money and/or property that may be tied to a crime (usually a drug crime), without due process.

Law enforcement agencies in California and other states circumvent their own states’ forfeiture laws through the controversial federal Equitable Sharing Program, which creates a loophole allowing police, by bringing feds into an investigation, to use seized money as revenue, with only the suspicion that laws have been broken. Across the nation, local agencies are abusing the tool and using it as a cash cow, taking money and property from people who have not been convicted of a crime.

SB 443, introduced by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), blocks law enforcement from bypassing California’s civil asset forfeiture laws. To take advantage of the controversial Equitable Sharing Program without a conviction, the seized cash must be over $40,000.

“Solutions like SB 443 give communities plagued by injustice some relief,” said Zachary Norris, Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “Low income people simply do not have the means to hire an attorney to get their lawfully earned cash returned to them. When their money gets taken by law enforcement, it’s a family crisis affecting rent, food, everything.”

Last year, a version of the asset forfeiture reform bill could not survive lobbying from law enforcement groups.

“SB 443 will not only rein in the abuse in California, but also offers a blueprint for workable solutions to other states seeking reforms. We applaud Governor Brown for signing it,” said Mica Doctoroff, a legislative advocate at the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy.


SB 813, a controversial bill that eliminates the statute of limitations for rape and other sex crimes, also made it past Brown’s desk.

The bill, introduced by Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino), was propelled by the more than 30 rape allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, many of which have passed beyond the current 10-year statute of limitations. The new law will not, however, apply retroactively.


Brown also signed a bill that will clarify and affirm the voting rights of individuals who are locked-up for non-serious felonies serving time in county jails because of California’s prison realignment (AB 109). The bill, AB 2466 by Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), also applies to eligible AB 109ers under county supervision.


Thanks to the governor’s signature on AB 2298, people will be notified of their impending inclusion on California’s gang database, CalGang, and will have the opportunity to challenge the designation.

People who admit to law enforcement officers that they are gang members or who have gang-related tattoos are added to the database, but associating with known gang members and wearing clothing that might be gang-related also sends people into the CalGang database. Advocates say the vague criteria often have the effect of penalizing people of color for living in the wrong neighborhood.

A recent audit from State Auditor Elain M. Howle found serious errors in the database, which the audit shows lacks necessary state oversight and does not adequately protect the rights of the more than 150,000 people listed in the database.


The Restorative Justice Act, also by Assm. Weber, aims to increase rehabilitation and education programs and make them available for all inmates, not just non-violent offenders.

The bill changes language in a section of the penal code, removing references to punishment as the purpose of incarceration. Now, according to the changes, public safety—which is carried out through rehabilitation, restorative justice practices, and accountability—is the purpose of incarceration.


Brown signed another bill introduced by Assm. Weber, AB 2765, , which will extend the deadline for Proposition 47-eligible Californians to get their low-level felony convictions reclassified as misdemeanors. The will give Prop. 47ers seeking to reduce their felony convictions—upon a showing of good cause—an extra five years to apply beyond the current November 2017 deadline.


The newly signed SB 1174 by Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) will trigger regular reports on physicians and their prescribing patterns of psychotropic medications, making it easier for the Medical Board of California to confidentially identify, conduct investigations of, and hold accountable doctors who over-prescribe psychotropic drugs to foster children. (For backstory, read Karen de Sá’s five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids,” which inspired SB 1174 and a number of other reform bills and policy changes.)

Governor Brown vetoed another bill that would have increased the requirements for juvenile court authorization of psychotropic meds for child welfare system or probation-involved kids. SB 253 by Senator William W. Monning (D-Carmel) would have required, among other safeguards, second medical opinions for prescriptions to foster kids under five, or in cases of multiple prescriptions. Brown called the bill “premature” in a veto message, and said he wants to wait to see the impact of new juvenile court medication authorization rules from a bill signed last year.


Governor Brown vetoed SB 1289, a bill introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), which would have banned cities and counties from contracting with (scandal-plagued) for-profit prison companies to run immigrant detention centers in California. All-told, four municipalities, including cash-strapped city of Adelanto, are currently contracting with private detention centers.

“I have been troubled by recent reports detailing unsatisfactory conditions and limited access to counsel in private immigration detention facilities,” Brown wrote in a veto message. “The Department of Homeland Security, however, is now considering whether private contracting should continue for immigrant detention, and if so under what conditions…These actions indicate that a more permanent solution to this issue may be at hand.”


Under current law, officers must record interrogations of minors suspected of committing murder. SB 1389, a bill from Sen. Steven Glazer (D-Orinda), will expand the rule to include adults accused of murder.

The recording of police interrogations is an important safeguard against false confessions, which land innocent people behind bars, sometimes for decades.


SB 1189, signed by Brown on Wednesday, aims to reduce the political pressure leveraged against forensic pathologists, and would require all autopsies to be carried out by a licensed physician and surgeon. Introduced by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), the bill will also force law enforcement agencies to hand over all information about a death to those conducting an autopsy prior to the close of an investigation. This KQED story by Julie Small gives some alarming context as to why this bill is such an important reform.


SB 955, a bill from Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), will give state hospitals the power to grant compassionate releases for terminally ill or incapacitated patients who are charged with a crime but found unfit to stand trial.

Posted in children and adolescents, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, Gangs, Restorative Justice, Sentencing, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Audit Reveals CalGang Database Violates Individuals’ Rights

August 16th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

California’s controversial gang-involvement tracking database—CalGang—lacks necessary state oversight and does not adequately protect the rights of more than 150,000 people listed in the database, according to an audit of the tool and its use by State Auditor Elain M. Howle.

People who admit to law enforcement officers that they are gang members or who have gang-related tattoos are added to the database, but associating with known gang members and wearing clothing that might be gang-related also sends people into the CalGang database.

The full criteria for designating someone as a gang member on CalGang is outlined in California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), which also created sentence “enhancements” for crimes committed “for the benefit” of a gang. The outcomes can be catastrophic. These enhancements can turn a sentence of a few years into one of multiple decades, and disproportionately affect poor and minority people.

“Although CalGang is not to be used for expert opinion or employment screenings, we found at least four appellate cases referencing expert opinions based on CalGang and three agencies we surveyed confirmed they use CalGang for employment screenings,” writes Auditor Howle.

CalGang identification can also lead to inclusion in a gang injunction.

The audit looked at how four agencies—the Los Angeles Police Department, the Santa Ana Police Department, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office—interact with the database.

Out of the 100 individual CalGang profiles closely examined as part of the audit, the agencies could not support the inclusion of 13 of the people based on the database entry criteria.

There were also significant data errors in the profiles. For example, out of all of the CalGang entries, there were more than 40 profiles for people who were reported as being younger than one year old when entered into the database. Twenty-eight of those infant gang member entries were for people who “admitted to being gang members.”

Often, in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, gang-designated minors and their parents were not properly notified and given a chance to contest an entry into CalGang. In 2013, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring both notification and an opportunity to fight a juvenile’s designation.

Another long-reported issue is that once a person is in CalGang, it’s extremely difficult to get off the list. In fact, more than 600 people listed in CalGang are scheduled to be taken out of the database at a date beyond the purge date of five years for profiles that haven’t been updated. Many of those 600 are not scheduled to be dropped from the database for more than 100 years.

And the CalGang Executive Board and the California Gang Node Advisory Committee operate without transparency, legal authority, or public engagement.

The “weak leadership structure has been ineffective at ensuring that the information the user agencies enter is accurate and appropriate, thus lessening CalGang’s effectiveness as a tool for fighting gang-related crimes,” the audit says.

Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of California says the audit backs up knowledge community members have had all along, namely that “CalGang is an ineffective tool full of inaccuracies that results in violations of people’s rights.” The inadequate oversight and faulty system “have a real impact on people’s lives when law enforcement relies on such a flawed system for judgments about prosecutions, employment and even deportation,” Bibring said.

The audit recommends putting the California Department of Justice in charge of overseeing and regulating use of the database, publishing yearly statistical reports, and standardizing and enforcing training for CalGang users. Law enforcement users would then implement review procedures and report results back to the CA DOJ. The state auditor also says a technical advisory committee should be established to make recommendations to the Justice Department regarding policies and procedures, and to obtain input from the public.

Posted in Gangs, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Taking a Closer Look at an Anti-Gang Program, More SFPD Racist Texts, and Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald’s Retirement

April 27th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to re-evaluate the county’s participation in a multi-agency anti-gang program launched two decades ago, during a much different time in Los Angeles’ gang history.

According to early LAPD data, the gang suppression-focused Community Law Enforcement and Recovery Program (CLEAR) appeared to be working as intended. But in light of Los Angeles’ recent uptick in gang-related violence, the County Supervisors are concerned that the program relies on outdated strategies in a time when the national (and local) focus is shifting away from suppression and the lock-em-up approach, and toward intervention and rehabilitation.

“LAPD data showed nearly 60% of the homicides in [the city of Los Angeles] were either gang-related or gang-motivated,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “So I think this is really important and timely, but I also think there has to be a reassessment of the effectiveness of gang strategies that we aim to deploy. Some are old, crusty, unimaginative, and we keep doing the same things over and over again and getting the same results.”

CLEAR was launched in November of 1996 through the President’s Anti-Gang Initiative (AGI) with funding from the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and runs on a combination of the yearly federal dollars, along with local general fund money.

When CLEAR came into being, although gang violence had dropped considerably from the awful high point of the early 1990’s, both gangs and gang enforcement were still very much in the news. Los Angeles was less than two years away from the unfolding of the LAPD’s Rampart scandal. The LAPD’s Rampart-tarnished gang units, known as CRASH—or Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums—would be disbanded in 2000. But, the year before CLEAR was launched, in September of 1995, the high profile death in a gang shooting of a pretty three-year-old girl named Stephanie Kuhen inflamed public sentiment. And pressure was placed on public officials and law enforcement to take action.

CLEAR was—and still is—run as a collaboration between the LAPD, the LA County District Attorney’s Office, LA County Probation, the LA City Attorney’s Office, and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Division of Parole Operations. (The sheriff’s department does not participate.)

The LAPD would deploy officers to CLEAR target areas, the first of which was the department’s Northeast Division. Since 1996, CLEAR units were activated in eight more LAPD divisions: Foothill, Newton, Hollenbeck, Southeast, Southwest, Ramona Gardens, Rampart, and 77th Divisions. Along with the LAPD officers, armed probation officers participate in special operations, police ride-alongs, compliance sweeps, and search and seizures.

The LA City Attorney’s Office and LA County District Attorney’s Office prosecute resulting cases.

Now, the Supes want to know if these are really the best methods for LA’s present day gang problems. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl described the need to examine the outcomes produced by any program, pointing to the recent past when ticketing truant students was thought to be effective, until research proved otherwise.

The motion, from Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis directs the County CEO, in consultation with the Interim Chief Probation Officer, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Sheriff, and the District Attorney to report back to the board with an evaluation of the county’s role in the CLEAR program, its outcomes and other data, whether CLEAR’s strategies are up-to-date with the most current research on successful gang intervention, and how the county—if it chooses to continue participating in CLEAR—can regularly evaluate the program’s value and effectiveness.

“The default is not prevention. The default is not intervention. The default is not re-entry. The default is suppression,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “So the question that CLEAR has to answer is how the resources are being used along those lines, in terms of suppression of gang violence versus activities that promote intervention and prevention.”


San Francisco city officials will have to re-evaluate 207 criminal cases—including three murders—following the public release of more than 100 disturbingly racist and homophobic text messages between four SFPD officers in 2014 and 2015.

The text messages were found during an investigation into rape allegations against former San Francisco police officer, Jason Lai. The messages were exchanged between Lai and two other officers, Curtis Liu and Keith Ybarreta.

Here’s a small sampling of Lai’s alarming messages:

“Indian ppl are disgusting.”

“I hate that beaner, but I think that nig is worse.”

Lai reportedly also referred to one of his incident reports as “a story I wrote today.”

The Guardian’s Channing Joseph has the story. Here’s a clip:

…Jason Lai, repeatedly used racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs like “nigga”, “fag” and “tranny” to refer to San Francisco residents. He also makes offensive remarks about president Barack Obama and NBA player LeBron James.

“Do you know what Obama coffee is?” Lai wrote in an apparent joke. “Black and weak!”


The revelation of the contents of the text messages is just the latest blow for the embattled police department, which has faced ongoing protests since the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods last winter.

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender, made the announcement after the district attorney’s office sent him Lai’s text messages last Friday as part of the discovery process for a robbery case that Lai had been called to investigate.

“It would be naive to believe these officers’ bigotry was reserved solely for text messages,” Adachi said in a statement. “It is a window into the biases they harbored. It likely influenced who they stopped, who they searched, who they arrested, and how they testified in criminal trials.”

He added: “It is chilling how casually former officer Lai dehumanizes the citizens he was sworn to serve. He wished violence upon the very people he was being paid to protect and none of his colleagues turned him in.”

CNN’s Scott Glover and Dan Simon also reported on this latest development in the text message scandal.


As Terri McDonald prepares to retire from her post as LA County’s Assistant Sheriff overseeing the Custody Division, the LA Times’ Cindy Chang has tells the story of McDonald’s history and hiring, her efforts to eradicate systemic abuse and improve conditions in the jails, for both inmates and deputies, during her three years with the LASD. Here’s a clip:

In a department where jailers were accused of adopting an “us versus them” attitude, McDonald brought a gentler approach, taking time to chat with inmates about their concerns. She sought to revamp a culture in which deputies viewed the jails as an unsavory assignment before moving to patrol.

In 2013, the year she arrived, there were 10 jail suicides. Last year there was one.

The most severe injuries caused by deputies — resulting in broken bones or worse — have decreased to a handful each year. Agreements McDonald helped negotiate with federal authorities and the ACLU now govern how mentally ill inmates are treated and when deputies can use physical force.

But hundreds of inmates still are injured in confrontations with deputies each year — although most incidents are minor — and the number has been climbing. And deputies are being assaulted with increasing frequency, with some complaining that the reforms have given inmates too much power.

Still, McDonald deserves credit for curtailing the worst abuses and making the jails a more humane place with her hands-on management, said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California and a frequent critic of the jails.

“I don’t think everything’s perfect,” Eliasberg said. “But there’s been a dramatic decrease in the brutal beatings that were quite commonplace prior to her arrival.”

In late 2012, a blue-ribbon citizens’ commission placed much of the blame for the endemic violence on the Sheriff’s Department’s top brass — and recommended that the jails be led by a corrections professional familiar with how facilities in the rest of the country are run.

Then-Sheriff Lee Baca responded by hiring McDonald as an assistant sheriff in charge of the jails. It was a major shift for an agency that always had cycled its jailers in and out of street patrol.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We at WitnessLA are grateful for what Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald accomplished in her tenure. We understand there are still problems in LA County’s jail system, and they are not trivial. One does not reverse a toxic culture overnight. And we are also concerned by the rise in assaults on deputies. But we appreciate the no-nonsense, hardworking intelligence with which McDonald approached the work, and the unfailing decency with which she approached inmates, demanding respect, but also giving it. She has made a large difference at a crucial time in the life of our jails. And we truly thank her for it.

Posted in Gangs, Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

LA County Sheriff’s Department Takes Gang Diversion to College

April 18th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

This past Saturday morning, April 16, in a lecture room at the University of California, Irvine, a UCI student, whom we’ll call Luis,* spoke to 46 teenagers about how, as a 14-year-old living in Compton, he and his cousin, who was also 14 at the time, were sitting, kicking it outside his uncle’s house—also in Compton—when everything changed.

“Two Lincoln Navigators drove really slowly up to my uncle’s house,” said Luis, who is member of the university’s Sigma Delta Alpha fraternity. “And we saw the gun come out. It was an Uzi. And they started shooting. I dropped down to the ground. But then I saw that my cousin didn’t duck. He was choking with blood.”

Most of the teenagers in the audience had never been on a college campus, and they listened to Luis’s story with nearly breathless intensity. Ranging in age from 12 to 18, they were part of a Gang Diversion Team program (GDT) that was started ten years ago by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy, Fred Noya, out of the department’s Carson station.

On Saturday, Noya’s GDT kids had come to UC Irvine for an all day event that was designed to persuade the group of young men and women of the worth and joys of college, along with giving them the message that, if they wanted to go to a really good school like UCI, or other highly rated colleges and universities, if they were willing to work toward that goal, such a school was within their reach.

One of the first events of the day was the morning session featuring talks by several motivational speakers. And far and away the most popular of the presentations was the talk given the group by Luis.


As the kids watched fraternity guy speak, Noya watched his GDT charges whom he noted were “glued” as Luis continued his story.

Luis said that four bullets hit his cousin on that awful day-–”three in the stomach, one on the side.” Luis paused. “I saw him die in front of me….A kid shouldn’t have to do that. It changes you. It traumatizes you.”

Although he didn’t realize it right away, Luis had also been hit. A bullet grazed the side of his head just above his ear. Luis parted his hair with his fingers to reveal a still very visible scar.

“I usually don’t show this to people,” he said.

Luis went on to tell his young audience that, right after his cousin’s death, he stopped going to school, and began spending time on the street.

“I was blindfolded by rage and anger,” he said. “I stopped going to school for about three months.” All he could think about, he said, was retaliating for his cousin’s murder.

“It was a dark time.”

For a teenager in his painful state, Luis said, “you need someone who gives you hope.”

Over the next few years, Luis said he was “living two lives,” one of them in school, one on the street. Yet, despite his increasingly problematic behavior away from school, some of his teachers didn’t give up on him. In particular there was a physics teacher who was “extraordinary,” he said. She made it clear she thought he was someone who mattered by driving to at his house when he didn’t show up at school. The physics teacher did whatever else it took to get the boy out of the emotional spiral that had taken possession of him after his cousin’s murder.

At home, Luis said, he “didn’t have any guidance.” His parents worked very long hours and were exhausted during the show time they were at home. His dad had been deported twice. No one was pushing him to stay in school or helping him stay out of trouble.

“So having someone believe in me,” said Luis, made the crucial difference. He gradually reengaged in classes. And, with the help of the physics teacher, he applied to college.

By his senior year in high school, Luis had managed a near miraculous turnaround, a 4.7 GPA, plus he was class salutatorian at graduation. Even better, he got a full ride to UCI where he is now majoring in business economics. He plans to go on to graduate school and wants a career in finance.

“Don’t be a statistic,” said Luis to the kids in the audience, near the end of his story. “Anyone can change. It’s a lot of work. I worked really hard. But you can do it.”

When you come from Compton, Luis added, all you hear about is “famous rappers and basketball players.”

Since the kids in the audience came primarily from Compton, Lynwood and Carson, many of them nodded. What about the doctors and lawyers? What about the rest of the professions? Luis asked. “Don’t listen to the stereotypes,” he said.

For the rest of the time on the Irvine campus, the GDT kids toured the school with student volunteers who acted as guides and mentors for the day, telling stories from their own lives, and answering questions.

At lunch, when the GDT youth were asked to give feedback about which of the day’s speakers and activities had most affected or inspired them, the response was unanimous. The story of Luis was easily the winner.

“With all he had going against him and nobody always pulling for him, he kept at it,” said one UCI visitor. “I want to be like that.”

Luis had made college seem possible, they said. “He’s one of us.”


Ten years ago when GDT began, LASD Deputy Fred Nova was, as he explained it, on the suppression side of law enforcement when it came to gangs. Specifically, he worked in a COPS Bureau** “suppression team” at the LASD’s Carson station. Then one day Todd Rodgers, who was then the captain at Carson, asked him to come up with a gang intervention and diversion program that would have a positive effect on the city’s gang members who were “causing damage to property and lives in the city,” said Noya. (Rodgers is now an assistant sheriff at the sheriff’s department.)

Enforcement could only go so far, Rodgers felt. He wanted a ““community-based intervention strategy” that interwove police efforts with those of community organizations.

Noya signed on enthusiastically. “I decided I had to make it personal,” he told me. “I had to act as if it was my own kids I was working with.” If he looked at the nascent program any other way, “like as a stepping stone” on a career path, “it wouldn’t have worked.”

The need was apparent. “We’d had a lot of parents coming to us. Mom’s crying that they were afraid of their kids,” or that their kids wouldn’t go to school.”

When it was first launched, the program dealt mostly with active gang members. But, over time, it widened to include kids who were on the fringe of gangs, the wannabes and the soon-to-be’s. “We thought, why don’t we get ‘em before they get to the point” of arrest or serious police involvement, said Noya.

The way the program worked was that kids would be referred to GDT—by parents, by school officials, by law enforcement, and in some cases, just walk ins who’d heard something interesting was going on.

Each kid would go through assessment by a case manager to determine their level of risk, the details of their family situation, educational needs, drug involvement, mental and emotional issues, and more. Then after a thorough review, each boy or girl would be referred to a list services in the form of a detailed action plan.

The programatic referrals included things like mentoring, tutoring, a life skills class, anger management, drug and rehab programs, and various kinds of rewards, like trips or outings offered as incentives. During the process, each kid’s progress is monitored and documented.

The GDT program serves both boys and girls, although boys are still in the majority. On the girls’ side of things, Deputy Noya pointed to the example of a girl named Kiani Dean, whose grandma brought her to the program. Kiana, Noya said, was a frequent runaway who was overly tattooed, and suffered from depression, and a general lack of self worth. After participating in a year of mentoring and conflict resolution programs through GDT, Noya said, Kiani was able to begin to turn things around. Now, after graduating from high school with honors, Kiani is an honors student at Hampton University, with plans to become a doctor.


Sometimes, Noya noted, the success stories are far less obvious than that of high-achieving Kiani.

One night just before Christmas 2014, he said, “this guy came up to me in the station.” The boy, now an 18 year old, had been in the program a few years before, but not done well. A gang member who continued to cause trouble and get into regular fights, Noya’d had more than a few “go-rounds” with the kid, he said.

Then one night the boy—now legally a man—approached Noya at the Carson station house and said, “Hey, Deputy Noya, remember me.”

“I remember you,” said Noya cautiously.

“Can we walk outside,” the kid said.

The deputy found himself instantly on alert, thinking that perhaps the kid intended to take a swing him, Noya said when he told me the story.

Once outside, the young man’s expression changed. “I just wanted to say ‘thank you,’” he said. “I never had a dad and I appreciate all that you said to me.”

Noya listened, stunned. “I don’t do crime anymore,” the young man continued. “I’ve done some bad things. But now I’m managing a pizza place.” He didn’t make a lot of money, he said. “But I make enough to take care of my mom.”

Noya remember that, a few years before, he’d become so exasperated with the kid, and the trouble he caused, that he’d told him it would be better for all concerned if he left town.

The former gangster reminded Noya of his advice about leaving. “You were right,” he said. And he did leave.

He now lives in Inglewood, he said.

Noya was blown away. “Honestly, when he asked me to walk outside, I thought for sure we were going to battle.” Instead the young man thanked him over and over.

But the thanks didn’t end with the one visit.

Late one night after the reunion at the station, the young man texted Noya.

“Thanks for getting me out of the dark place,” read the text.

Noya allowed amazement to creep into his voice as he told me the story.

“Kids’ll surprise you,” he said. “You never know when something you say is going to take root.”

That’s why he loves this program, Noya said.

*”Luis’s” real name was not be used to protect his privacy.

**COPS Bureau, is the federally funded Community Oriented Policing Services, which include targeted gang suppression.

Posted in Gangs, LASD | 3 Comments »

The Life-Saving Art of Fabian Debora

September 8th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

“Art saved my life.”

These days my friend Fabian Deborah says those words in front of a wide variety of audiences. Sometimes the audiences are well-heeled adults at a fine art event. Other times Fabian might talk to a class of local elementary school children who, at first, stare at him nervously, like deer getting ready to bolt. But gradually his ability to be absolutely present with them starts to settle the kids down. By the end of class, a surprising number of students have painted pictures representing traumatic events in their lives that their teachers knew nothing about.

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1975, Fabian’s family migrated west when he was five-years-old to what was then Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi. His mother found low-paying piece work in a downtown factory sewing dolls. His heroin addicted father earned money transporting drugs from Mexico, a profession that cycled him in and out of prison.

During the height of the Los Angeles gang crisis, Pico-Aliso, as the mile-square area of the projects was called, was the home to six warring gangs, making it the most violent neighborhood in the city, according to LAPD stats of the time. Gang shootings took place almost nightly.

Fabian, who was a thin, sensitive kid, also coped with violence inside his household on the occasions that his dad happened to be home. When the hitting began, the boy would hide himself away with the small notebook he was never without, and he would draw. The worlds he created on paper became his one dependable form of protection from the emotional hurricaines that so often bore down on him.

At age 13, he found additional refuge in the streets by joining one of the Eastside’s most infamous street gangs. His street name was Spade. “You join a gang when you lose hope,” he explains. “I lost hope early.”

I got to know Fabian in the early 1990′s when I was researching a book about gangs in the projects, and the work of Father Greg Boyle. By that time, Fabian was trying to pull away from gang life and was starting to transition from spray-painting graffiti to working on color-drenched murals.

He had also begun smoking crystal meth to dull the pain that even a casual observer could see he carried. And, like his father before him, Fabian cycled in and out of juvenile, then adult lock-ups.

Hoping to steer Fabian’s obvious talent in a positive direction, Father Greg introduced him to Wayne Healy, a prominent Los Angeles-based Chicano-Irish muralist and painter. Healy liked the young man and took him under his wing as an apprentice. Through the relationship, Fabian began to discover himself as an artist. Even so, he couldn’t seem to shake whatever psychic injuries his early years had embedded. And he couldn’t shake the drugs.

In 1995, Fabian’s self-loathing became so overwhelming that, on one awful afternoon, he decided to kill himself. On impulse, he choose a particularly messy strategy. He sprinted into the oncoming lanes of traffic on the I 5 freeway assuming he’d be run down by some commuter going 70, and that would be that. Through blind luck, however, he made it across three lanes unscathed. But then, in lane four, he saw a turquoise Chevy Suburban coming at him. As he stared at the shiny grill of the truck bearing down on him, Fabian had a sort of religious experience in which some greater force somehow got him to the center divider, allowing the Suburban to whoosh by without doing harm.

The near-fatal freeway dash became a turning point. Fabian recommitted himself to painting. Then, a year later, he got clean and sober for good. A year still after that, in early July of 2007, I saw him for the first time in a decade. He showed up at a poetry reading that was part of a writing project I was involved with, in which some of his former homeboys were participating. “I’ve been completely clean for a year,” he told me after I spotted him at the back of the room and rushed to greet him. “I’m painting. I’m doing good.”

Indeed he was. And his work was remarkable.

Fast forward to today. Now that he’s saved himself through art, Fabian shows others how to find their own refuge and healing through the transformative power of creative expression. He gives talks about what painting can accomplish to at-risk teenagers in Chile, to transfixed students at Otis College of Art and Design, to the struggling former homeboys and homegirls who show up at his new downtown LA art studio.

He also has a day job as the Director of Substance Abuse Services and programing for Homeboy Industries, where he helps former gangsters in trouble with drugs save themselves through more prosaic means.

With the rest of his waking hours, Fabian spends time with his kids, and works on his extraordinary paintings, which have grown increasingly recognized for the way in which they illuminate the world that shaped him, a world that gave him both his wounds and his art.

“Drugs were my addiction,” Fabian told a class recently. “I would suffer without them. Now art is my addiction and I suffer when I don’t paint. So what do I do when I’m struggling? I paint. It’s something that no one can take away.”

This past week, a wonderfully-written long-read cover article for LA Weekly, by Lisa Whittemore, celebrates Fabian Debora’s teaching, his artwork and his story. Here are some clips:

Two stories above the intersection, behind a reinforced steel door and two deadbolts, Fabian Debora’s Skid Row art studio, La Classe Art Academy, reflects the chaos and cacophony of the streetscape below.

Debora clicks on overheard lights. What was outside is now in: the graffiti, the drifters and the gangsters, and a cross-section of those who call downtown Los Angeles home.

The sense of having been swallowed by the city is uncanny. Debora’s studio is a cornucopia of these streets, past and present. In one painting Einstein, grinning mischievously, is tagging “L.A.” on a wall; a skateboard deck featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs above a desk littered with paint pens; a memorial shrine with religious candles and dead roses is tucked in a corner. Smoke from a fresh sage bundle is curling into the air.

Canvases are propped on easels and stacked against one another on the floor. On one, a brown-skinned girl leans in against her older brother on the streets of Tijuana, smiling impishly. On another, Debora, arms outstretched, in fiery oranges and reds, stands life-size against a chain-link fence, offering his view of the Los Angeles skyline to his son. This studio space is the inside of Debora’s mind.


Every Tuesday from 9 to 11 a.m., Debora opens his studio to clients from Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit job-services organization that works with ex-cons and former gangsters, and to teenagers from Learning Works, a charter school associated with Homeboy. Debora says the art academy is in its fetal stage, “barely getting its breath,” but the students roll in.

“I carry many feathers,” Debora explains. “A gang member, a drug addict, a felon, but I have redeemed myself through the power of art. It has given me my self-worth.” He pauses, then adds, “I feel it is my responsibility to use my art as a vehicle in helping kids and even adults to heal and recognize value in themselves and their surroundings.”

They come because they want to. Attendance is not mandatory. Three folding tables, covered in tagged-up butcher paper, brushes and paints, fill the studio. An easel with the day’s exercise faces the seats. The level of the students’ capabilities varies, yet no one hesitates. They stroll in, get seated and begin working on their projects. The Isley Brothers harmonize in the background and heads bob.

Debora doesn’t dictate instructions; he simply makes himself available and waits to be asked for guidance. The students thrive in an atmosphere where they are not judged and have nothing to prove.

“Whoever shows up on any given day is who I work with; it happens organically,” he says. “I’m not looking to work with the professionals, I want the stumblers.” When Debora laughs, the right side of his mouth hitches up in a wistful, childlike grin.

Debora has come a long way from tagging his moniker, Spade, on the L.A. River’s bed. He has crossed oceans and borders, visiting Rome and various countries in Central and South America, telling his dark origin story and rendering his images of Los Angeles. His artwork has been featured in exhibits, both solo and group, across the country.

In 2013 Debora painted a mural on the ceiling of the American Airlines terminal at LAX to celebrate the opening of a Homeboy Café. Macy’s has hired him to live-paint murals for events and conferences. From 2007 to 2012, Debora worked as a teaching assistant to Ysamur Flores-Peña at the Otis College of Art and Design. Edward James Olmos awarded him a scholarship and featured Debora’s story in a 2007 documentary, Voces de Cambio. Since 2008, the walls of Homegirl Café on Bruno Street have rotated his works.

People in the art community focus on the relevance and meaning behind Debora’s art. Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that preserves, documents and restores the murals of L.A., says, “I have seen his techniques grow and expand over time. Every day he is more accomplished than the day before. … Choosing art as his way to express himself, using his brush, the walls and the canvas, Fabian is writing our history.”

Williams came to the United States in 1973 from Chile. In 2012, she was approached by the U.S. Embassy in Chile about sending someone there to speak with at-risk youth, and she immediately thought of Debora. He traveled to Chile, spoke with government officials, facilitated art workshops and met with kids.

“Fabian made a tremendous impact on those kids in Chile, not only as an artist or a mentor but as a human being,” Williams says. “He showed with his art how it is possible to transform absolutely any experience.”

Debora saunters through his studio with his hands in the pockets of his creased Levis. Bending over a student, he whispers in Spanish about las oportunidades de arte. His inky black hair is meticulously braided and hangs between his broad shoulders. Before he answers a question, he always pauses and looks off to the side. His replies are soft, yet every word is weighted. His eyes are almost black, smooth and wet like glass. They miss nothing. The same skill set that served him on the street serves him in class. He’s watchful, aware and anticipatory.

Read on. It’s worth it. Fabian Debora is the real deal.

Posted in American artists, American voices, Gangs, Homeboy Industries | 1 Comment »

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 »

Ex-Gang Member’s Life Does a 180 After He Joins Los Ryderz – by Sarah Zahedi

June 8th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

EDITOR’S NOTE: Programs that are effective at helping gang-involved kids and others to reroute the trajectories of their lives, come in a variety of packages—as illustrated by a program known as Los Ryderz Bike Club, profiled by reporter Sarah Zahedi in the story below. Yet all such programs have certain elements in common—namely, a caring and accepting community, a safe place to hang out, and some activity to engage in that builds skill, knowledge, discipline, and self worth. Los Ryderz has all that and more.

Riding His Way Out of Gang Life

How a Young Watts Gang Member Found a Different Kind of “Family” Through an Unusual Community Bike Club

by Sarah Zahedi

Riding his bike through the barren projects of Watts — the sidewalks of which are scattered with used heroin needles and double-sided razor blades — 21-year-old William Fabian is enjoying himself. He is exploring his neighborhood with friends from Los Ryderz, a biking club for youth who are struggling to escape gang activity.

Today, Fabian (pictured front and center in the photo above) feels free to ride across gang-territory lines into new neighborhoods he hadn’t seen before, but just a short time ago he would not have dared.

Three years ago, Fabian walked the halls of Alain Leroy Locke High School in Watts, proud of his reputation as a gang member.

“The gang gave me attention — I had their back and they had mine,” Fabian said. “It made me feel good inside to have people look at me like I was something.”

No one had ever told Fabian he would amount to anything. Although he had felt support from his mother throughout his life, his relationship with his father has always been rocky.

“My mom has always been there for me, my dad — not as much I could say,” Fabian said. “The stress of my family problems got to me and fighting and causing trouble was my way of relieving myself of that.”

Fabian got heavily involved in gang-related fights when he started going to Santee Education Complex in south Los Angeles. Then, in 2010, he moved to Watts and began attending Locke. There, he stayed involved in gang activity.

“I was already known in Locke to people for my reputation at Santee,” Fabian said. “I hung out with people I met who looked up to me.”

The youngest of four siblings and the only first-generation American in his family, Fabian was introduced to gang activity and culture at an early age. Fabian’s two eldest brothers, who emigrated from Mexico and attended Belmont High School, were regularly involved in gang-related fighting in school. When he began school in Watts, William Fabian followed his brothers’ example.

“I didn’t dedicate myself to my schoolwork but I dedicated myself to fighting and being a troublemaker,” Fabian said.

Not succeeding in class and continually getting cited for fighting at school, Fabian was finally kicked out of Locke in 2012.

It was then that he knew he had to make a change. Walking along 103rd street a few blocks from his house in Watts, Fabian happened upon the Yo! Watts Youth Center. At the time it housed the Inspire Research Academy, a nonprofit that allows young adults 18 to 25 to earn their high school diploma in small classes at the center.

In 2012, he began classes at the center. In the same room where his classes were held was the Los Ryderz bike club headquarters. There, Fabian met Los Ryderz founder Javier “JP” Partida.


Partida, who worked as a football coach from 1999-2007 at various local high schools, founded Los Ryderz in May 2012 to give endangered youth the opportunity to go on weekly bike rides all over Los Angeles. He paid for many of the bikes himself; others were donated. About 50 bikes are stored at the Los Ryderz headquarters. He teaches club members how to fix and maintain the bikes and provides them for members to use during rides for free.

When Partida first met Fabian, he encouraged him to join the club. He noticed Fabian’s hesitance, partly fueled by the fear of being shot off his bike if rival gang members saw him in their neighborhood and partly by his uncertainty about what being a part of the club would be like.

“He still had the gang mentality when I first met him,” Partida said. “It took me a while to convince him that it was worth his time.”

“I didn’t get the point, it didn’t catch my attention,” Fabian said. “But little by little, JP would just encourage me to come out and experience what it’s like to be a part of the club and finally I was convinced.”

For Fabian, the first ride made all the difference. Los Ryderz biked from the Yo Watts! Center to Ted Watkins Memorial Park and proceeded onto a 6-mile ride through the neighborhood.

“I felt good,” Fabian smiled. “We were just a group of people rolling down the street on bikes and cars were honking at us in support, people were cheering for us, yelling ‘Hey man, keep on riding!’ I just kept coming back.”

Fabian said he was particularly thrilled to go to areas of his community he had not previously felt comfortable about going to before.

“It’s amazing … I’m always seeing people from different neighborhoods on my rides … people that — I’m not even going to lie — people that I didn’t get along with,” Fabian said. “Now they see me riding, doing something positive. They don’t mess with me no more.”

Since that first ride, Fabian has dedicated himself to bike riding.

“I go every night at least for one 2- to 3-mile ride to myself and that’s it,” Fabian said. “It feels great just to cruise a little bit and not worry about anything else.”


Although he said his peers and friends made fun of him when he first joined the bike club, he only gets support from them today, especially now that he has a leadership role in the club as sergeant at arms, or youth leader of the club.

“They would laugh at me, make jokes that I was wasting my time but people didn’t know how useful it is,” Fabian said. “Now they see me, with my vest and my leadership position and know I’m doing something good … they’re proud of me.”

Gang-interventionist groups like Los Ryderz, which incorporate exercise into their programs, are some of the most effective in reducing gang activity, according to UCLA School of Public Affairs faculty member Michelle Talley. This is because such groups work both mentally and physically.

“It’s so powerful on so many levels. It’s an alternative to gang involvement that builds both physical and emotional strength,” Talley said. “It’s a way to cope, to build self-esteem and self-confidence.”

Because all age groups can enjoy bike riding, it is a model example of a constructive gang-interventionist activity in the long term, she said. Talley is a licensed clinical social worker whose main focus is working with youth and families as it relates to public child welfare, including youth dealing with criminal issues.

“What is an appropriate activity for a 10-year-old is different from what’s appropriate for a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old because they are going through various developmental stages,” Talley said. “Activities like biking can be appropriate at all these stages.”

For this reason, surrounding law enforcement has taken notice of Los Ryderz and its success. Officer Ron Harrell serves as the senior lead officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s community safety partnership program for the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts. After seeing Los Ryderz’ bike rides through Watts and visiting club headquarters to see how Partida worked with endangered youth, Harrell said he was immediately impressed.

“Today, a lot of kids don’t do physical activities like kids did in the past,” Harrell said. “They feel good because they are seeing improvements in their stamina, they are actually physically doing something and getting to know their community while they do it.”

In a neighborhood where gangs are prevalent throughout nearly every square inch, Harrell said community organizations like Los Ryderz help create a different image of Watts within the community.

“These kids are being seen and they’re doing something positive instead of something negative and a lot of people see Watts in a negative way,” Harrell said. “Where there is light though, there can be no darkness.”

This positive image of Watts is in line with a recent drop in crime in the area. According to the LAPD, since 2010 violent crime is down by 57 percent in Imperial Courts, 54 percent in the Jordan Downs project in Watts and 38 percent in the Nickerson Gardens project in Watts. Harrell said community organizations, which aim to prevent gang activity, have contributed to dropping crime rates.

“Community organizations are taking back the community,” Harrell said. “So many kids are just trying to find something different and get out of a gang. If they find an activity they enjoy, they keep coming back.”

While he still lives within gang territory, Fabian no longer feels compelled by his peers to take part in gang activity. Talley noted that many times, gang members will be allowed to leave their gangs if they show skill and potential for success in another area like bike riding.

“A lot of the times youth can get permission from a gang to not be a part of it anymore because they’re going to be somebody, if they show they are really good at something,” Talley said.

When youth become aware that they can excel outside a gang, Talley said the youth are able to see themselves in a new, positive light.

“These kids are not just gang members. Being a part of a gang is just one aspect of how these kids define themselves,” Talley said. “If we define them as just gang members, that’s the message they get and it’s harder for them to make a change.”


In Fabian’s case, Partida played a significant role in helping him to see himself as more than just a gang member and a troublemaker.

“I’ll always remember when he told me that I was something,” Fabian said. “He would say, ‘You’ll always be something in life, even if you think you are not.’ No one had ever told me that.”

A positive, strong relationship between a gang-interventionist and a youth at risk of getting into trouble, like that between Fabian and Partida, is vital for a program’s success, in Talley’s experience.

“Youth are more likely to be active in programs where they have a strong relationship with the interventionist, when they know the interventionist is always there for them.”

And through the past three years he has been with Los Ryderz, Fabian has come to help or go on rides from the club headquarters almost six days a week. He said he has grown close to Partida and looks to him as a mentor.

“If it wasn’t for JP, I probably would have never joined a club like Los Ryderz,” Fabian said. “I gained JP’s trust and respect with my involvement and he’s gained mine by always being there for me. He’s taught me so much about life and how to live positively. He’s my mentor … one of my role models.”

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles and being involved with gangs himself as a youth, Partida knows the negative impact of gang activity on an adolescent’s lifestyle firsthand. Having lost friends to gang-related violence, Partida said he is thrilled to see youth such as Fabian evolve and turn their lives around through Los Ryderz.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Partida said. “This club doesn’t charge a penny. The only thing we ask for is loyalty and commitment from the members and in return the kids come out with skills they didn’t have before and something positive to do with their time.”

Because of Los Ryderz, Fabian said he has been able to become a more open and happy person.

“I changed a lot,” he said. “Right now, you see me … I like to laugh, to talk, to smile. Back then I wasn’t like that. I used to be serious all the time. I wouldn’t talk to anybody except my friends.”

Knowing how much the club helped him change his life, he said he now wants to encourage other youth to do the same.

“I talk to other kids. They know I’m a good friend so they tell me their problems at home or at school,” Fabian said. “I advise them to go to the bike club so they can have a place to relieve their stress with biking, a place where they can enjoy themselves.”

The bike club has even become like a family to him.

“No one messes with you, everyone is cool and nice to each other,” Fabian said. “All we care about is riding and having a good time.”

Just having completed an internship to be a custodian at John Ritter Elementary School, he hopes to go to culinary school one day or study sociology.

“I like working with people and am starting to think of college for the first time in my life,” Fabian said. “Los Ryderz really helped me to get to this point. It’s magical.”

This story first appeared in Youth Today.

All photos (except the very first one) by Sarah Zahedi

Posted in Gangs, juvenile justice | No Comments »

States Shift Away from Costly Juvie Detention, FBI Hair Forensics Fiasco, and “Joven Noble”

April 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


States are starting to replace the ineffective and expensive practice of incarcerating kids in residential facilities, choosing instead to keep kids with their families through community-based alternatives, according to a new Pew Charitable Trusts brief on the issue.

Research shows that out-of-home detention fails to reduce recidivism, and in many cases, makes kids more likely to reoffend.

A recent study in Texas found that kids housed in state detention facilities were 21% more likely to be arrested again within one year of release than their peers under community supervision.

And neither do longer stays in residential detention facilities lower recidivism rates.

A Ohio report revealed that kids kept locked up longer were much more likely to reoffend than kids detained for a shorter period.

Multiple studies reveal that states receive a paltry return on the millions of taxpayer dollars they spend on locking kids up.

In 2012, CA was spending around $180,000 annually to house each locked-up kid. And more than half of the state’s incarcerated kids reoffended within three years of release.

Many states are catching on and passing legislation to limit what types of offenses can land kids in out-of-home facilities, and for how long they can remain incarcerated.

In 2007, California banned sending kids to state facilities for low-level and nonviolent offenses. Several other states stopped putting kids in detention facilities for misdemeanors and other non-serious offenses. Mississippi even limited out-of-home placements in the state’s training camp to kids with violent felonies or more than three misdemeanors.


A federal review of 268 cases revealed 26 of 28 FBI forensic examiners overstated hair comparisons 95% of the time when giving forensic testimony against a defendant. According to the investigation, the examiners gave flawed testimony against 32 defendants facing death sentences, nine of whom have already been executed, and four of whom have since been exonerated.

But the Justice Department is not stopping at 268. Around 2,500 applicable cases from before the year 2000 (in which the lab reported hair matches) are slated for review.

The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu has the story. Here are some clips:

The FBI errors alone do not mean there was not other evidence of a convict’s guilt. Defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals. Four defendants were previously exonerated.

The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. The question now, they said, is how state authorities and the courts will respond to findings that confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques — like hair and bite-mark comparisons — that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.


The FBI is waiting to complete all reviews to assess causes but has acknowledged that hair examiners until 2012 lacked written standards defining scientifically appropriate and erroneous ways to explain results in court. The bureau expects this year to complete similar standards for testimony and lab reports for 19 forensic disciplines…

Federal authorities are offering new DNA testing in cases with errors, if sought by a judge or prosecutor, and agreeing to drop procedural objections to appeals in federal cases.

However, biological evidence in the cases often is lost or unavailable. Among states, only California and Texas specifically allow appeals when experts recant or scientific advances undermine forensic evidence at trial.


In Santa Ana, where the incarceration rates for young Latino men are higher than anywhere else in Orange County, Joven Noble (Noble Young Man) seeks better outcomes for at-risk boys and young men through character development and restorative justice.

The culturally informed curriculum was developed by National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute. Joven Noble provides young boys and men with an emotional outlet and important behavior skills.

The Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color has helped spread the curriculum to Santa Ana schools, where kids can enroll as an alternative to suspension.

The OC Register’s Alejandra Molina has more on Joven Noble and the boys the program has helped. Here’s a clip:

Here in Santa Ana, coordinators are hoping to reach Latino youth by instilling a “rites of passage” curriculum, or Joven Noble, that challenges the myth that manhood is defined by physical dominance and sex. Manhood, the practice says, is about honor, generosity and respect.

For Reyes, expressing his feelings proved a struggle. He said he rebelled after his older brother died. He would bottle up his feelings and resort to “punching something and making a hole in the wall.”

After learning about Joven Noble, his outlook is different.

Reyes now believes that real men respect women, and they’re responsible. They let out their emotions. “They actually get emotional,” he said.


The program has its roots in South Los Angeles, Compton and Watts to address Latino youth struggling and “exhibiting their pain with substance abuse and gangs.”

Jerry Tello, director of the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute, who developed Joven Noble, said when programs honor one’s identity and culture, “problem behaviors begin to lessen.”

Teachers and counselors at pilot schools send a list to coordinators, or circle keepers, of 15 students who have displayed behavioral problems or who would benefit from the curriculum. Enrollment would be an alternative to suspension, Rios said.

Gathered in a circle, students can vent about their weekend or highlight something positive for the week. A lot of it is storytelling, having a conversation. Within those circle discussions, Rios said, “it gives us a space to re-establish the values, traditions.”

At the core of Joven Noble is redefining what it means to be a man.

Posted in FBI, Gangs, Injunctions, Innocence, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation, law enforcement, Restorative Justice, Youth at Risk | No Comments »

After 24 Years, Juvie LWOP Lifer Paroled…2 Supremes Blast US Justice System…Recognizing Good Prosecutors

March 26th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


In 1991, the year that LA’s gang violence was at its most deadly, Janet Bicknell, a 49-year-old teacher’s aide, was driving home from a Westminster supermarket. Five gang members—four of them adults—were looking for a car to jack with the idea of using the car in a drive-by shooting against some “enemy” gangsters and they spotted Bicknell’s car. One of the five, 16-year-old named Edel Gonzalez, a gang member since he was 11 and the only kid of the group, stepped in front of Bicknell’s car then tried to yank open the driver’s side door. When Bicknell attempted to drive away, one of the adult gangsters raised a .44-caliber pistol and shot Bicknell in the head, killing her.

The senseless brutality of the murder shocked Westminster. Although Gonzalez did not himself kill Bicknell, the crime was committed in the course of a robbery, so the other four—including Gonzalez—could legally be tied to it along with the actual shooter. Gonzalez was the first of the group to go to trial and, in 1993, he became the youngest person in Orange County to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole

Fast forward more than twenty years, to September 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown—after much dithering—signed AB 9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which allows some of those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, to apply for resentencing hearings if they have served 15 to 25 years, and have met certain strict criteria.

So it was that that Gonzalez became the first person in California to apply for resentencing under the new law. In December 2013, Judge Thomas Goethals changed Gonzalez’s sentence from life without to 25 years to life with parole.

Then in 2014, a second law known as Senate Bill 260, went effect requiring parole commissioners to consider the diminished culpability of youth at the time of their crime.

The combination of the two laws, plus Gonzalez exemplary behavior in prison along with his ongoing expressions of responsibility and profound regret about the murder of Bicknell, helped his pro bono lawyers at USC’s Post Conviction Project successfully advocate in his behalf.

On Tuesday of this week, Gonzalez was released from custody.

Back in 2013, Gonzalez told the judge that, if he was released, he hoped to work with kids to help them stay out of gangs. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not reminded of the wrong, the harm and the pain I’ve caused,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who was brought to the US by his parents as a small child, is not a citizen. As a consequence, he will deported to Mexico shortly. He already has plans in place in Tijuana, where he will work at a local church counseling kids about staying out of trouble, in addition to other tasks.

Here’s what Marshall Camp, one of Edel’s earlier lawyers, said about his client to Super Lawyers after his 2013 resentencing. “He lived a model life in prison, avoiding gangs, drugs, and violence, while taking advantage of educational opportunities and finding religion. I can’t imagine how someone could do that with no realistic prospect of ever getting out.”

Merisa Gerber of the Los Angeles Times has more.

In California, about 310 prisoners are serving life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18, said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the corrections department. Nationwide, about 2,500 prisoners are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, said James D. Ross, spokesman for Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The California legislation, SB 9 — which comes into effect as Gov. Jerry Brown has been paroling more “lifers,” including adults convicted of murder — shows how the state has “evolved,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.

“It really shows that California is on the right track,” she said, “that it’s trying to shape its laws with what we know is true: That young people have a capacity to turn around their lives.”

But Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who helped found the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, said she was concerned about setting violent offenders back into the community.

“If anybody dies because this guy got let out, what are you going to say to those people?” said Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and her husband were killed in 1990 by a 16-year-old in a suburb of Chicago. “I know everyone loves to believe every human being is fixable. I used to believe that — sadly, I know differently now.”

Two landmark court decisions also paved the way for the laws that resulted in Gonzalez’s Tuesday release.

First, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole was cruel and unusual. (Superstar civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson argued Miller v. Alabama before SCOTUS.)

Then in May 2014, the California Supreme Court handed down its own ruling to modify California’s sentencing law, with People v. Gutierrez, which affirmed that juveniles are different from adults, and that these differences must be taken into account in sentencing, even in very serious cases.

While it (obviously) had no effect on Gonzalez’ case, it is interesting to note that in Florida, that state’s supreme court ruled last week that juveniles not convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life in prison, and that even those convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life without parole.


In testimony on Monday before a house subcommittee, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Bryer surprised many observers by blasting the U.S. Justice System for, among other things, over incarceration, “terrible” sentencing minimums, and the use of solitary confinement.

Justice Kennedy, the much watched swing voted on the court, was up first, and was asked about the nation’s “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding.” Think Progress’s Jess Bravin has this about what Kennedy said:

“In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. Doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”

Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation.

Kennedy, who seemed to be more voluble in his testimony than Breyer, also slammed the nation’s overuse of incarceration.

“This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” said Kennedy. In many instances, he said, it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation and other supervised release programs.

The whole thing just wasn’t cost effective, Kennedy told the committee, and wasn’t helpful to public safety.

Justice Breyer added that mandatory minimum sentences were “a terrible idea,” and urged Congress to “prioritize” improvements to the criminal-justice system. Breyer has long been an opponent of mandatory minimums, which he says “set back the cause of justice.”


We at WitnessLA are often critical of prosecutorial overreach and misconduct, in which winning seems all important, and seeking justice falls by the wayside.

Yet this Op Ed for Politico by Lara Bazelon—associate clinical professor of law at Loyola Law School and director of the school’s Project for the Innocent—is an important reminder that, like journalists and cops, the majority of prosecutors are doing their damnedest to use their profession to make things better.

Here’s a clip:

….It is a misconception that prosecutors simply take the job to put people behind bars. Yes, there are bad apples, but they are a minority whose misdeeds attract a disproportionate share of media attention. The vast majority of prosecutors go into this line of work to ensure that citizens get justice—and, in a growing number of cases, that means helping to free wrongly convicted felons.

Last year, 125 men and women were released from prison because they were wrongfully convicted, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That is more than two people per week and a record number of exonerations for a given year. More than half of these cases—or 67— were overturned because of prosecutors like Mark Larson either cooperated or led the charge to set the record straight and ensure that justice was done.

The irony of my writing this essay is not lost on me. Before directing the innocence project at Loyola Law School, I spent seven years working as a deputy federal public defender where my role in the system was to vigorously defend the criminally accused regardless of whether they “did it” or not. My job description emphatically did not include singing the praises of prosecutors. But it is important to do that. We should call out bad prosecutors and punish their misconduct, of course. Just as importantly, we should make sure that honorable prosecutors get the attention and respect they deserve.

Many exonerations receive extensive media coverage, searing into the national consciousness the image of the prisoner’s emotional reaction at the moment of freedom as we learn about the long road from hopeless, unmitigated suffering to sudden and complete redemption.

Afterwards come the recriminations. Prosecutors lied and withheld evidence. Witnesses who claimed to be 100 percent positive were in fact 100 percent wrong, coaxed or coerced into finger-pointing by overzealous police officers. Our system of justice, we are told over and over again, is irretrievably broken.

What receives less discussion is the powerful, positive narrative behind the recent statistics: the story of the good prosecutor. The National Registry of Exonerations records not only the number of exonerations, but their cause.

Posted in Gangs, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Sentencing | No Comments »

Tarrant County, TX, Demonstrates the Art of Helping Law-Breaking Kids

March 5th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

A week ago, we published a story from the series by John Kelly for the Chronicle of Social Change, which is taking a close look at programs that use a strategy known as
Positive Youth Justice to help kids who have come in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Last week’s story explored an Oakland, CA, program that uses a process called community conferencing, which asks lawbreaking kids to confront the effects of their crime.

This week, the series looks at a program in Tarrant County, Texas that has been successful in helping reboot the lives of kids who, two decades ago, would have been sent to a state-run juvenile lock-up.

This story was produced as a collaborative project with The Chronicle of Social Change.


by John Kelly

Most state and county juvenile justice systems have reduced the number and rate of juveniles admitted to secure or residential confinement. But many counties still lack community-based options that provide the kind of intensive and effective rehabilitative services not found in simple probation.

Tarrant County, Texas, has filled that need for more than 20 years through partnership with a national provider of community corrections that uses a youth development framework to help kids recalibrate their lives..

The Tarrant County Advocate Program (TCAP) pairs trained advocates with high-risk juveniles and their families in an attempt to identify and build on the strengths of both.

“They’re not just serving that kid,” said Randy Turner, director and chief probation officer of Tarrant County Juvenile Services (TCJS). “You’ll have the younger brother, a mom that might need to take classes. They’re helping that family, as a unit, connect to the right resources.”


Tarrant County is located in North Texas, with Fort Worth its largest city.  In the early 1990s, the county was home to a gang war between the Bloods, Crips, and Latin Kings. According to a feature on Fort Worth gangs by Fort Worth Weekly, the city’s police tallied 31 gang-related killings in 1990, 23 in 1991, 11 in 1992, and a staggering 60 in 1993.

Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six, two predominantly African-American and Latino communities in Fort Worth, were at the heart of that conflict.

At the time, counties in Texas had very little in the way of community options when it came to serving adjudicated youths. Officials didn’t have much incentive to create a local program, because it cost them nothing out of the county coffers to place a juvenile offender into the state-run juvenile prisons operated by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC).

During that era, two neighborhoods in Tarrant County—Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six—had become particularly active feeders for TYC. More than a million people lived in Tarrant County in 1992, and only about 15,000 of them live in Polytechnic Heights and Stop Six. Yet, in the early 90s, 40 percent of the youth the county sent to TYC facilities came from those two neighborhoods.

Carey Cockerell, Tarrant County’s chief probation officer at the time, said he and several county probation leaders were unhappy seeing so many kids being shoved into state lock-ups.  So they reached out to a lawmaker named Rick Williamson about the lack of state support for any option other than TYC facilities and county probation. Williamson, then a conservative member of the Texas legislature’s appropriations committee,, secured $16 million to help counties establish programs that allowed kids to remain local, Tarrant County among them.

Now that he had the budget, Cockerell needed to find an organization capable of working with high-risk youth in a community setting. A national juvenile justice reform consultant named Paul DeMuro recommended a Pennsylvania-based group called Youth Advocate Programs (YAP).

YAP was founded in the mid-1970s by Tom Jeffers, whose background includes being second in command on the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services staff that famously managed to close the state’s juvenile prisons in the early 1970s. It now has contracts for juvenile justice systems in 18 states.

Cockerell flew east to observe YAP’s Philadelphia program. “We liked what we saw,” he said. “This was a group of people committed to the mission of keeping kids in their homes, with strength-based intensive services.”

While in Philly, Cockerell attended a staff meeting where a YAP advocate described to the directors a horrific home situation for one of his kids: no running water, relatives with multiple convictions living in the home, a sister already in foster care. The advocate recommended pushing the county to remove the child from the home.

“The consensus of the staff was, instead, let’s get his whole family out of that house,” Cockerell said. “By the time I left the next day, they had found affordable housing for the boy, his mom and siblings.”

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Posted in Gangs, juvenile justice, Positive Youth Justice | No Comments »

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