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Jim McDonnell Swearing-in, Native American Kids’ Exposure to Violence, California Exoneration, and a Child Welfare Czar Update

December 1st, 2014 by Taylor Walker

TODAY: LA GETS A NEW SHERIFF

Jim McDonnell will be sworn in as the 32nd Sheriff of Los Angeles County today, December 1. The swearing-in will take place downtown at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration at 2:00p.m.

McDonnell will replace Interim Sheriff John Scott, who took over for Sheriff Lee Baca after he resigned in January.

Former chief of the Long Beach Police Dept. and a 29-year LAPD veteran, McDonnell is the first new sheriff elected from outside the department—the fourth largest law enforcement agency in the US—in more than a century.

We will have much more on our new sheriff after the swearing-in.


NATIVE AMERICAN KIDS PLAGUED BY COMMUNITY VIOLENCE, FAILED BY THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Children growing up in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities experience violence at a rate higher than any other race, according to a recent report. (The 120-page report from the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence was presented to Attorney General Eric Holder in mid-November.)

According to the report, 75% of deaths of Native Americans between the ages of 12-20 are due to violence.

AI/AN kids are also five times more likely than the general population to have four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Kids with four ACEs have a much higher likelihood of having emotional and physical health issues, among other serious negative outcomes.

Clearly this is a national issue, but it’s a California issue, as well, in that our state has the second largest Native American population in the US (the largest is in Oklahoma).

The report makes 31 recommendations to improve the lives of AI/AN kids exposed to violence, including allowing tribes to prosecute non-Native Americans who abuse Native American children on reservations.

Here are some clips from the report:

Violence in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities occurs at very high rates compared with non-AI/AN communities—higher for AI/AN than all other races. And violence, including intentional injuries, homicide, and suicide, accounts for 75 percent of deaths of AI/AN youth ages twelve through twenty.2 Unfortunately, Indian children cannot escape the violence that surrounds them.

Repeated exposure to childhood violence has a staggering lifelong impact on an individual’s health and well-being. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study demonstrated that persons who experience four or more childhood adversities have a four- to twelvefold increased risk for alcoholism, drug use, depression, and suicide attempt when compared to those that had experienced none. This study, coupled with data that show American Indians and Alaska Natives have a fivefold higher risk of being exposed to four or more adverse childhood events, underscores the overwhelming impact of exposure to violence in AI/AN communities.

Children engulfed by this level of community violence often struggle with rebuilding trust, finding meaning in life apart from desires for safety and justice, finding realistic ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from danger and dealing with feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, and doubt. Additionally, when children experience ongoing violence in their communities, it may become an accepted condition of life. They may learn to think of recurring danger, fear, injury, and death as normal. Instead of celebrating life, too often they must mourn losses. This may confuse them in figuring out how to navigate life. These children wait nervously or helplessly for the next explosion of violence in their neighborhood or school, or they mourn the all-too-common deaths or devastated lives of families, friends, and community members. At some point, these children may feel the need to fight back against actual or potential perpetrators, causing them to have difficulty acting appropriately on those feelings. Unfortunately, a number of these children become perpetrators in adolescence and adulthood.

[SNIP]

Vulnerability Due to Homelessness. Homelessness may be caused by a need to escape violence in the home, and homeless youth become easy targets of violent crime in the community. In Minnesota, where the Advisory Committee conducted a Listening Session, it was reported that AI/AN youth make up 20 percent of homeless youth ages twelve through seventeen, although they make up only 1 percent of the general population.

[SNIP]

The cycle of violence that now grips AI/AN communities was years in the making and largely due to failed federal policies. Breaking the cycle of violence will require cooperation at the federal, tribal, and state level as well as the investment of significant new resources.

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz has more on the report.

In a more recent story for the Washington Post, Horwitz tells of how the federal justice system is failing Native American kids. Horwitz takes a particularly close look at kids from the violence-ridden Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and their encounters with the juvenile system. Here’s a clip:

Around the country, juveniles on reservations are left to languish in cash-strapped facilities that cannot afford to provide the kind of rehabilitative services afforded to most young offenders in the United States. Because some reservations have no juvenile detention centers, offenders often are shipped to facilities far from their homes, compounding the isolation of incarceration.

A jurisdictional legal maze in Indian country further complicates matters. Indian reservations are sovereign nations. So when juveniles commit minor crimes, their cases are usually handled by the tribes. But when they commit a serious felony, their cases are generally handled by federal prosecutors, and they can be sent to either federal prison or a federal facility.

In the federal system, there is no juvenile division, and no court judges, rehabilitation facilities or probation system for juveniles. From 1999 through 2008, as many as 60 percent of juveniles in federal custody were American Indians, according to a commission that last year recommended that tribes be given full jurisdiction over Indian children and be released from “dysfunctional federal and state controls.”

Advocates say Native American youths have essentially been forgotten.

“There is no systemic program to educate kids or provide services for them in detention centers,” said Troy Eid, the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission and a former U.S. attorney from Colorado. “They don’t have computer instruction. They don’t have classrooms. They have nothing, and their services are lacking because Congress hasn’t appropriated the funding. They just sit in a cell all day.”


MAN FREED AFTER THE LONGEST WRONGFUL INCARCERATION IN CALIFORNIA, PLUS INTERVIEW WITH HEAD OF INNOCENCE PROJECT

Michael Hanline, a man wrongly convicted of a 1978 murder, was released from prison after serving 36 years behind bars—the longest wrongful imprisonment ever in California. —and a 15 year battle on his behalf by the folks at the California Innocence Project. (You can read the rest of Hanline’s story here.)

UT San Diego’s Dana Littlefield interviewed Justin Brooks, founder of the California Innocence Project. Brooks discusses breaking the good news to Hanline about his exoneration. He also explains how the Innocence Project chooses cases, and a walk from San Diego to Sacramento to file twelve clemency petitions.

Here are some clips from the interview:

Q: What was it like to tell Michael Hanline he would finally be getting out of prison?

A: It was stunning. I think it had been such a roller coaster over all these years that it was hard for him to believe it. I still don’t think he really believed it until (the day after he was released). I think he had to get out. He had to go to bed and wake up somewhere else to really have it hit him.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve walked 15 people out of prison in that situation. And I still don’t know what it’s like because I’m still just an observer. I always try to imagine it, but I can’t imagine it. I mean, I don’t like staying home sick one day. I can’t fathom 36 years of in prison, thinking you’re gonna die there.

[SNIP]

Q: What’s the California 12?

A: With Hanline, we thought we’d run out of options. We were still fighting but we had been going on for so long. So one night I thought, Well, the governor has the ability to grant clemency and my goal isn’t necessarily to exonerate everybody it’s to free innocent people. Clemency isn’t about exonerating you, it’s about getting you out of prison.

So I thought, I’m going to file clemency on all the cases that we’ve been fighting for years and where we have strong evidence of innocence, but we haven’t been able to convince the courts of it.

Clemency is so hard to get because it’s so political and you have to get the governor’s attention. So I came up with this crazy idea that I would walk the clemency petitions from my office here (in San Diego) to his office in Sacramento. Fortunately two of my young and much fitter staff attorneys agreed to walk with me.

It was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life and it was the most amazing experience of my life…

Read on.


WHY THE PROCESS OF FINDING AN LA CHILD WELFARE CZAR HAS BEEN DELAYED

The LA County Board of Supervisors was expected to begin interviewing candidates for the new child welfare czar—to oversee much-needed reforms to the Department of Children and Family Services—at the beginning of November. Instead, the board postponed the process until the two new Supervisors would be sworn in today, December 1.

Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, co-chair of the transition team tasked with preparing the way for the new Office of Child Protection, expressed concern over whether the search would gain momentum before the end of the year.

Gilbert-Lurie also noted that the Supervisors may not be happy with the size of the applicant pool. (Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of the LA Juvenile Courts, has been the only person to publicly announce interest in the position, thus far.)

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

“The interviews themselves were postponed,” said transition team co-chair Leslie Gilbert-Lurie during the Nov. 24 meeting. “I was disappointed to hear that the interviews were postponed, but hopefully it will lead to a very positive result.”

The board had also voted 3-2 on October 7 to include members of the transition team in the selection process to fill the director position. But Gilbert-Lurie reported to the rest of the transition team that the board of supervisors was not actually planning to include the transition team in that process.

“What our office was told on the Friday before interviews that were set for Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon was that this was going to be in closed session for the Supervisors only,” Gilbert-Lurie said.

[SNIP]

“What I would question is if the Supervisors were not happy with the search that took place, if they did not feel that they had enough choices, I don’t know how that search gets revved up, redone, and interviews take place again in December,” Gildbert-Lurie added. “I’m just not sure how that timing could possibly work.”

Posted in ACEs, DCFS, Foster Care, Innocence, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, Youth at Risk | 12 Comments »

Conviction Integrity Units, Race-Based Lockdowns, 30 House Dems Concerned by US Immigration, and a Nathaniel Ayers Update

October 29th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

MULTNOMAH COUNTY DA’S OFFICE JOINS SANTA CLARA COUNTY AND OTHERS, SETS UP CONVICTION INTEGRITY UNIT

As part of a growing trend to combat wrongful convictions, prosecutors offices across the US—including in Dallas, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Santa Clara County (see below), and the US Attorney in DC (above)—are establishing “conviction integrity” watchdog systems. (And back in August, we pointed to this Mother Jones story about a Florida public defender’s office using a group of former police officers for investigating claims of prosecutorial misconduct and bad police work.)

Now, Oregon’s Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has nominated a veteran prosecutor to investigate innocence claims, as well as update plea deal policies, and examine how cops utilize photo lineups and confidential informants.

The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein has the story. Here’s a clip:

“It’s our job to do it right in the first place and double-check our work if we need to,” Underhill said.

Russ Ratto, a 35-year Multnomah County prosecutor, will start in the new job Monday.

Ratto will review claims of innocence after convictions have occurred and update office protocols on everything from prosecutors’ obligations on sharing evidence with defense attorneys to how to use eyewitness identification of suspects.

Underhill said he hopes that assigning one deputy to the work will improve the ability to track the cases and boost public confidence in the county’s prosecutions. In the past, he said, a number of prosecutors throughout the office have juggled the cases, but there was no central contact.

“We want to make sure we’re using the best practices to obtain the best convictions so we don’t have to ask later ‘Was a mistake made?’” Ratto said. “We think we’ve got a good criminal justice system here, but we want to maintain the public confidence going forward.”

Other prosecutors’ offices are doing the same thing, including in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver and California’s Santa Clara County, according to the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

“This is a very important movement in our nation’s criminal justice system,” said board member Everett Bartlett of the Center for Prosecutor Integrity. The center started in 2010 with a mission to end wrongful convictions and promote prosecutor ethics.

Until the advent of forensic DNA testing in 1989, we “assumed our criminal justice system was operating very effectively and very accurately,” Bartlett said. Since then, he said, more than 1,000 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated. The majority have not been due to DNA analysis, but due to false confessions or problems in witness identification.

California’s Santa Clara County’s Conviction Integrity Unit is headed by David Angel. The San Jose Mercury’s Tracey Kaplan has a worthwhile 2011 story about Angel and his appointment. Here’s how it opens:

Mention Santa Clara University’s esteemed Innocence Project and most prosecutors cringe. They see the legal advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people as out to get them.

But not David Angel, the prosecutor named this month to head the newly re-established Conviction Integrity Unit in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office.

Not only does he not fear the project, he also is teaching a wrongful conviction class alongside Cookie Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

It’s not that Angel holds prosecutors solely responsible when people are sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. He will forcefully point out that defense attorneys, mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions contribute to plenty of wrongful convictions. But Angel is devoted to making certain that the 170 prosecutors in Santa Clara County do all they can to get their cases right.

“He’s a model of a good prosecutor,” said Ridolfi.

As head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, Angel will review cases in which an allegation of a wrongful conviction has been made, examine office policies, serve as crime lab liaison and take charge of training prosecutors on a number of topics, including ethics.


LA TIMES EDITORIAL APPLAUDS END TO RACE-BASED PUNISHMENT IN CALIFORNIA PRISONS

Last week, the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to end race-determined prisoner lockdowns triggered after a riot or other violent incident, settling a six-year-long class action lawsuit. The suit was originally filed on behalf of black inmates at High Desert State Prison who were confined to their cells for 14 months without access to outdoor exercise or rehabilitation programs, but was broadened to apply to all state prisoners.

An LA Times editorial says punishment based on race should not be used in detention facilities, that inmates should only have to account for their own actions, not the actions of every other inmate of the same race. Here’s a clip:

Racial segregation and discriminatory treatment of populations by race are, prison officials argued, important tools for combating violence. Squeamishness about such responses was a luxury afforded to outsiders who didn’t have to deal with the reality of prison conditions.

In fact, though, racial segregation is at best a temporary option to quickly defuse violence, but unnecessary and corrosive as an ongoing policy; and race-based punishment is an evil that goes to the heart of the American experience and cannot be countenanced in the justice system….

Inside prison walls, just as outside, people should expect that they will be treated according to their actions and not be made to pay for the transgressions, real or perceived, of others of the same race or ethnicity. Society’s failure to abide by that precept is intertwined with the history of crime and punishment and is exacerbated when race-based policies govern prison populations.


HOUSE DEMOCRATS WRITE LETTER TO PRESIDENT VOICING CONCERNS ABOUT DETENTION OF IMMIGRANT WOMEN AND CHILDREN

On Tuesday, over 30 House Democrats signed a letter to President Barack Obama sharing concerns about how the US is handling of immigrant detention and deportation, especially with regard to women and children fleeing violence from their home countries.

Politico’s Seung Min Kim has more on the letter. Here are some clips:

“At the current rates, within one year this administration will have increased capacity to detain immigrant women and children by more than 4,000 percent,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who spearheaded Tuesday’s letter. “As the law requires, there needs to be a better assessment in place to appropriately screen and assess these women and children, many of whom are fleeing violence, torture or persecution in Central America.”

[SNIP]

In Tuesday’s letter, House Democrats said it is “critical” that none of the families who are currently detained be deported until officials ensure they won’t be sent back to dangerous conditions – such as persecution or torture – in their home countries.

The Democratic lawmakers added that they are “concerned that the rapid expansion of family detention is being done in a manner that fails to meet the unique needs of parents and children.”


CHECKING IN WITH NATHANIEL AYERS, THE “SOLOIST,” AS HE RECORDS NEW ALBUM, PUTTING ON AYERS

For KCET’s SoCal Connected, LA Times’ Steve Lopez catches up with Nathaniel Ayers, the formerly homeless, Juilliard-trained musician who is the subject of Lopez’s book (and subsequent film) “The Soloist.” Lopez sits in on the recording of Ayers’ album, Putting on Ayers, the proceeds of which will fund mental health agencies’ art programs.

Posted in arts, immigration, Innocence, Mental Illness, prison policy | 3 Comments »

Gov. Brown’s Realignment, LAPD Investigating Use-of-force Incident, Exoneree Wins $41.6 Million, and a Bryan Stevenson Essay

October 27th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

LOOKING AT REALIGNMENT AS WE HEAD INTO NOVEMBER ELECTIONS

As Gov. Jerry Brown seeks reelection on Nov. 4, California Report’s Scott Shafer takes a look at the state of criminal justice in California under Brown, particularly with regard to Realignment (AB 109). Many critics argue prison realignment was implemented too quickly, without adequate advanced planning, and thus left counties to struggle with little preparation under the burden of supervising and housing would-be state prisoners.

California counties received a combined $2 billion to adapt to realignment, yet the various counties are not using the money uniformly. Some are funneling the money into rehabilitation, reentry, and diversion programs as reformers had hoped they would, while others have beefed up their sheriff and probation staff. And still other counties have used the money to build new jails able to handle the influx of inmates serving longer sentences than preexisting county facilities were designed to house.

Three years after its launch, in short, the jury is still out. Even supporters agree we won’t really know if realignment had the effects proponents had hoped for until years from now.

Here’s how Shafer’s story opens:

It’s not the focus of this year’s campaign for governor, but under Jerry Brown the state’s approach to criminal justice has gone in a dramatically new direction.

Underlying it all: too many inmates and too few cells.

In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the state Legislature that the prisons were powder kegs.

“Our prisons are in crisis,” the governor said. “We have inherited a problem that has been put off year after year after year.”

Schwarzenegger did take steps to reduce the inmate population, but not nearly enough to satisfy the federal courts. Finally, in 2011, with the state’s back to the wall, the Legislature passed the most fundamental reform of California’s criminal justice system in more than a generation.

AB109, known as “realignment,” transferred responsibility for tens of thousands of low-level criminals from state prisons to county jails and probation officers.

These perpetrators of non-serious, non-sexual, nonviolent crimes would now become the responsibility of local law enforcement officials, rather than the state.

“Probation [departments] were not ready,” says U.C. Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, who for years has advised the Legislature on criminal justice matters.

Krisberg says California adopted realignment so fast that counties struggled to keep their heads above water.

“I mean, if you had done this logically, you would’ve announced to everyone, ‘We’re gonna do it.’ You probably would have spent a year or so planning it out, training and making it happen,” Krisberg says.

“But that’s not how realignment happened. It just happened.”

Five months after Brown signed AB109 (and a companion bill, AB117), realignment took effect.


LAPD OFFICER ALLEGEDLY KICKED RESTRAINED SUSPECT IN THE HEAD

An LAPD officer has been accused of kicking 22-year-old Clinton Alford in the head while he was being restrained on the ground by other officers. Police officials were able to view footage of the incident taken by a nearby store’s security camera. The officials said Alford was not resisting arrest, and one viewer described it as “a football player kicking a field goal.” The police officer (as well as three other officers and a sergeant) has been relieved of duty with pay pending the investigation. The officer’s lawyer said the kick landed on Alford’s shoulder and was an acceptable use of force.

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

Alford said he was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk along Avalon Boulevard near 55th Street when a car pulled up behind him. A man shouted a command to stop, but Alford said he continued pedaling because the man did not identify himself as a police officer. When someone grabbed the back of the bike, Alford said he jumped off and ran.

After a short foot pursuit, two officers caught up to Alford. Footage from the security camera on a nearby building captured Alford voluntarily laying down on the street and putting his hands behind his back, according to several people who viewed the recording. The officers restrained Alford, who made no movements and did not resist, the sources said.

Seconds later, a patrol car pulled up and a uniformed officer, who the sources described as “heavyset” or “very large,” rushed from the driver’s side, according to sources. The officer moved quickly over to Alford, who was still held on the ground by the other officers, and immediately stomped or kicked, the sources said.

The officer then dropped to the ground and delivered a series of strikes with his elbows to the back of Alford’s head and upper body, sources said. Alford’s head can be seen on the video hitting the pavement from the force of the strikes, two sources recounted. Afterward, the officer leaned his knee into the small of Alford’s back and, for a prolonged period, rocked or bounced with his body weight on Alford’s back, the sources said. At one point, the officer put his other knee on Alford’s neck, a source said.

Throughout much of the altercation, two officers restrained Alford but eventually they moved away.

Two officials who viewed the video said it was clear to them Alford was handcuffed as soon as he got on the ground. Others said it is difficult to tell from the video when Alford was placed in handcuffs.

Alford said he had already been handcuffed when he was first kicked.

When it was over, Alford’s body was limp and motionless, according to sources who viewed the video. It took several officers to carry him to a patrol car, they said.

“He looked like a rag doll,” one person said of Alford.

Gary Fullerton, an attorney representing the officers, declined to discuss details of the incident but disputed that Alford had his hands behind his back when the officers used force.


INNOCENT MAN RECEIVES $41.6 MILLION FOR 15 YEARS IN PRISON, UNPRECEDENTED PAYOUT

A New York man, Jeff Deskovic, won $41.6 million in a lawsuit against Putnam County and the sheriff’s investigator who coerced his false confession. Deskovic was exonerated in 2006 of raping and killing a 15-year-old schoolmate, for which he spent 15 years in prison.

While Deskovic’s sum is reportedly the largest in US history, in a whopping 21 states, people who are exonerated after spending years in prison do not receive any compensation at all. In states that do pay, it takes years for the money to work its way through the court system, and in many cases the payouts are capped to prevent large payouts like Deskovic’s. Most Exonerees are not even given the reentry assistance provided to other released inmates.

The NY Daily News’ Stephen Rex Brown has the story on Deskovic. Here’s a clip:

Deskovic was given three lie detector tests over the course of a six-hour interrogation in which he eventually confessed.

He said on the stand this week in federal court in White Plains that he was scared for his life during the ordeal.

He was convicted in 1991 after prosecutors successfully argued that Deskovic did the deed — despite DNA taken from semen on the body that didn’t match the teen’s.


EXCERPT FROM BRYAN STEVENSON’S NEW BOOK

We introduced you to Bryan Stevenson last week, and didn’t want you to miss this essay by Stevenson in the NY Times Magazine that was adapted from his new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here’s a clip (it’s a short one, so be sure to go read the rest):

“The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”

He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”

“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.

“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”

I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.

The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.

“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”

I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,

By faith, on heaven’s tableland;

A higher plane than I have found,

Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Posted in Innocence, LAPD, Paul Tanaka, prison, Realignment, Reentry | 1 Comment »

Attorney Fights for Justice and Mercy…When Arrests by Police Replace School Discipline….Analyzing Crime Reporting in America

October 21st, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


In the often disheartening world of criminal justice reform, Bryan Stevenson is deservedly a superstar.

Stevenson is a defense attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, and founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, children who have been tried as adults, and others who have been most abandoned by the nation’s legal system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was on death row for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit.

Stevenson is also a law professor at NYU, the winner of a McArthur genius grant, and has argued six cases before the Supreme Court—two of which are of exceptional significance: He’s the guy who made possible the May 2010 Supreme Court ruling stating that it is unconstitutional to sentence kids to life without parole if they have not committed murder. Then Stevenson came back again two years later and, in June 2012, won the ruling that prohibits mandatory life for juveniles.

Now he’s written a book about his experiences with the justice system called Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. It is being released on Tuesday, October 21, and is already generating a lot of enthusiasm.

Stevenson was on the Daily Show at the end of last week talking about the book and about justice in general. (See video above and extended interview here).

Then on Monday of this week, he was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Here are some clips from Fresh Air’s write-up about the show:

In one of his most famous cases, Stevenson helped exonerate a man on death row. Walter McMillian was convicted of killing 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, who was found under a clothing rack at a dry cleaner in Monroeville, Ala., in 1986. Three witnesses testified against McMillian, while six witnesses, who were black, testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. McMillian was found guilty and held on death row for six years.

Stevenson decided to take on the case to defend McMillian, but a judge tried to talk him out of it.

“I think everyone knew that the evidence against Mr. McMillian was pretty contrived,” Stevenson says. “The police couldn’t solve the crime and there was so much pressure on the police and the prosecutor on the system of justice to make an arrest that they just felt like they had to get somebody convicted. …

“It was a pretty clear situation where everyone just wanted to forget about this man, let him get executed so everybody could move on. [There was] a lot of passion, a lot of anger in the community about [Morrison's] death, and I think there was great resistance to someone coming in and fighting for the condemned person who had been accused and convicted.”

But with Stevenson’s representation, McMillian was exonerated in 1993. McMillian was eventually freed, but not without scars of being on death row. He died last year.

“This is one of the few cases I’ve worked on where I got bomb threats and death threats because we were fighting to free this man who was so clearly innocent,” Stevenson says. “It reveals this disconnect that I’m so concerned about when I think about our criminal justice system.”

Yet the interview—which you can listen to here—is about much, much more.

So is Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, as is made clear by this review by Ted Conover who wrote about the book for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

(Conover is the author of the highly regarded “Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing,” and other nonfiction books)

Here are some brief clips from Conover’s review:

Unfairness in the Justice system is a major theme of our age. DNA analysis exposes false convictions, it seems, on a weekly basis. The predominance of racial minorities in jails and prisons suggests systemic bias. Sentencing guidelines born of the war on drugs look increasingly draconian. Studies cast doubt on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Even the states that still kill people appear to have forgotten how; lately executions have been botched to horrific effect.

This news reaches citizens in articles and television spots about mistreated individuals. But “Just Mercy,” a memoir, aggregates and personalizes the struggle against injustice in the story of one activist lawyer.

[SNIP]

The message of this book, hammered home by dramatic examples of one man’s refusal to sit quietly and countenance horror, is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. “Just Mercy” will make you upset and it will make you hopeful. The day I finished it, I happened to read in a newspaper that one in 10 people exonerated of crimes in recent years had pleaded guilty at trial. The justice system had them over a log, and copping a plea had been their only hope. Bryan Stevenson has been angry about this for years, and we are all the better for it.

NPR has an excerpt from Stevenson’s Just Mercy here.


WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ARRESTS OF TEENAGERS REPLACE SCHOOL DISCIPLINE

According to the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, 260,000 students were turned over to law enforcement by schools in 2012 (the year with most-recent available data). According to the same report, 92,000 students were subject to school-related arrests that year.

Now that the most punitive policies of the last few decades are slowly being reconsidered, it is hoped that those arrest numbers will start coming down and that school police will be used for campus safety, not as a universal response to student misbehavior.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran an extensively reported and excellent story by Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller on the matter of using law enforcement for school discipline.

Here are some clips:

A generation ago, schoolchildren caught fighting in the corridors, sassing a teacher or skipping class might have ended up in detention. Today, there’s a good chance they will end up in police custody.

Stephen Perry, now 18 years old, was trying to avoid a water balloon fight in 2013 when he was swept up by police at his Wake County, N.C., high school; he revealed he had a small pocketknife and was charged with weapons possession. Rashe France was a 12-year-old seventh-grader when he was arrested in Southaven, Miss., charged with disturbing the peace on school property after a minor hallway altercation.

In Texas, a student got a misdemeanor ticket for wearing too much perfume. In Wisconsin, a teen was charged with theft after sharing the chicken nuggets from a classmate’s meal—the classmate was on lunch assistance and sharing it meant the teen had violated the law, authorities said. In Florida, a student conducted a science experiment before the authorization of her teacher; when it went awry she received a felony weapons charge.

Over the past 20 years, prompted by changing police tactics and a zero-tolerance attitude toward small crimes, authorities have made more than a quarter of a billion arrests, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates. Nearly one out of every three American adults are on file in the FBI’s master criminal database.

This arrest wave, in many ways, starts at school. Concern by parents and school officials over drug use and a spate of shootings prompted a rapid buildup of police officers on campus and led to school administrators referring minor infractions to local authorities. That has turned traditional school discipline, memorialized in Hollywood coming-of-age movies such as “The Breakfast Club,” into something that looks more like the adult criminal-justice system.

At school, talking back or disrupting class can be called disorderly conduct, and a fight can lead to assault and battery charges, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights group examining discipline procedures around the country. Some of these encounters with police lead to criminal records—different laws for juveniles apply across states and municipalities, and some jurisdictions treat children as young as 16 as adults. In some states, for example, a fistfight can mean a suspension while in North Carolina a simple affray, as it is called, can mean adult court for a 16-year-old.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

Brushes with the criminal justice system go hand in hand with other negative factors. A study last year of Chicago public schools by a University of Texas and a Harvard researcher found the high-school graduation rate for children with arrest records was 26%, compared with 64% for those without. The study estimated about one-quarter of the juveniles arrested in Chicago annually were arrested in school.

Research by the University of South Carolina based on a multiyear U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, performed at the request of The Wall Street Journal, found those arrested as juveniles and not convicted were likely to earn less money by the time they were 25 than their counterparts. The study didn’t break out school arrests.

Another consequence: Arrest records, even when charges are dropped, often trail youngsters into adulthood. Records, especially for teenagers tried as adults, have become more accessible on the Internet, but are often incomplete or inaccurate. Employers, banks, college admissions officers and landlords, among others, routinely check records online.

Retired California juvenile court judge Leonard Edwards said the widespread assumption arrest records for juveniles are sealed is incorrect. The former judge, now a consultant with the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, an arm of the state court system, said his research indicates only 10% of juveniles nationally know they must request records be closed or removed.

But that process is complicated and varies from state to state. Even terms like expungement and annulment carry different meanings depending on the state. The process usually requires a lawyer to maneuver the rules and to file requests through courts.

“Our good-hearted belief that kids are going to get a fair shake even if they screwed up is an illusion,” Judge Edwards said.


CRIME REPORTING IN AMERICA: WE’VE GOT A LOT OF IT, BUT IS IT….GOOD?

“If it bleeds, it leads,” is the trope that has long guided a large portion of contemporary news gathering. As a consequence, while the news business continues to struggle to maintain comprehensive news coverage with diminished staffing, there is no shortage of crime reporting.

But, while there is quantity, is there quality? The John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice decided to find out. To do so, they conducted a content analysis of six U.S. newspapers over a four week period in March 2014. The study—which looked at the Detroit Free Press, the El Paso Times, the Indianapolis Star, the Camden (N.J.) the Courier-Post, the Naperville (Ill.) Sun and the Flint (Mi.) Journal—resulted in a report that was just released.

As it turned out, researchers Debora Wenger and Dr. Rocky Dailey found that quantity did not necessarily equal quality. In fact, the majority of the crime stories Wenger and Dailey analyzed lean strongly toward “just the facts, ma’am,” and offered little or nothing in the way of context or depth. Yet when it came to perceptions about crime in the city or state, the researchers noted that the news sources covered, the papers’ crime stories were very influential in shaping opinions, including those of lawmakers.

The Crime Report has more on what the study found. Here is a clip from their story:

What may be more surprising is how often stories rely on a single source. About 65 percent of the crime and justice stories overall referenced just one source of information.

At the Camden paper, for example, 84 percent of stories had one reported source, as did 55 percent of those published in The Indianapolis Star.

At every publication in the study, law enforcement officers were the most commonly cited sources by a wide margin, with court representatives, including judges and prosecutors, coming in a distant second. Fox agrees this heavy reliance on the official point of view is one of long standing.

News media tends to take the official side, the prosecution side – this doesn’t surprise me – when a case emerges in the news, that’s often the only side available to the reporter,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Eric Dick, breaking news editor at the Star, told researchers the newspaper likes to add more points of view to stories whenever possible; but for every enterprise story, there are undoubtedly many more briefs.

“I think there are three factors involved. One is the amount of crime: information is readily available that rises to the threshold you need to do a story, but you wouldn’t be able to develop all of them,” Dick said.

The authors of the study said more research could further “quantify whether there is more or less crime coverage occurring in today’s daily metropolitan newspapers than in the past.”

Pointing out that, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Journalism Project, 66 percent of U.S. adults say they follow crime news—with only weather, breaking news and politics garnering more interest—they said such research was “a critical tool for editors, journalists and policymakers” at a time when the criminal justice system was the focus of intense national debate.

“It is imperative that the audience gets the most contextualized and well-sourced coverage possible,” Wenger and Dailey wrote.


Posted in Civil Rights, crime and punishment, criminal justice, Education, Future of Journalism, Innocence, race, race and class, School to Prison Pipeline, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 3 Comments »

Innocent Man Freed Amid “A Legacy of Disgrace”….LA Times Pushes for Recordings of Cop Interrogations…..”Chip” Murray Slams Tanaka…Charges Filed Against LA Mom for Kid’s Gun at School

October 16th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon



A CASE OF INNOCENCE, TEENAGERS MAKING FALSE CONFESSIONS AND “A LEGACY OF DISGRACE”

On Wednesday, David McCallum, a 45-year-old Brooklyn man, was freed after spending 29 years locked up for a kidnapping and murder that it has now been found he did not commit, although he and his friend confessed to the crime when they were both 16.

“I was beaten by the officers and I was coerced into making a confession,” McCallum told a parole board in 2012.

When announcing that McCallum and his co-defendant, Willie Stuckey, had been cleared of the killing, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said grimly, “I inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions.”

McCallum called his release “bittersweet” because “I’m walking out alone.” His friend Stucky, while also cleared, had died in prison of a heart attack in 2001.

Oren Yanev of the New York Daily News broke the story of McCallum’s impending release on Tuesday, and had more on the story Wednesday.

Here’s a clip:

Stuckey’s mother, Rosia Nealy, sat in her dead son’s stead and she comforted McCallum as he broke down after the judge announced his exoneration. The two then embraced as some in the jam-packed courtroom cheered and clapped.

[Brooklyn District Attorney] Thompson said there “is not a single piece of evidence” that connected the two suspects to the crime — except for their brief confessions, which prosecutors have now concluded were false.

McCallum and Stuckey were both convicted for the kidnapping and murder of 20-year-old Nathan Blenner and were sentenced to 25 years to life.

McCallum’s lawyer, Oscar Michelen, said he had brought up the case with the conviction integrity unit of ex-DA Charles Hynes, who was defeated a year ago in large part because of the ballooning wrongful convictions scandal.

“Our pursuit of justice for David fell on deaf ears,” he said of the two years or so they’ve been communicating with prosecutors.

“They basically told us, ‘Call us when you find the real killer,’” the lawyer recalled.

Eventually Michelen, along with some of McCallum’s other supporters, did approach the DA’s office with evidence that DNA obtained from a car used in the abduction matched another suspect who had been questioned in 1985 without the defense ever being notified.

McCallum and Stuckey make ten exonerations for Thompson’s office since the Brooklyn DA took office in January— with two of those exonerations issued posthumously.

The video above is a trailer for a documentary about the efforts of famous exoneree, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, along with the filmmaker and his father, to free McCallum.


LA TIMES SAYS CALIFORNIA LAW NEEDED TO REQUIRE VIDEO RECORDING OF ALL INTERROGATIONS FOR SERIOUS FELONIES

David McCallum, in the story above, was convicted in Brooklyn, New York, not California, but the issue of false confessions leading to wrongful convictions potentially affects every state in the union.

The LA Times editorial board wants California to pass a law requiring video recordings of all interrogations for serious felonies.

Here’s a clip from their editorial on the topic:

The Innocence Project says that over 15 years, 64 of 102 erroneous murder convictions nationwide were based on false confessions. About 22% of all wrongful convictions involved coerced or otherwise improperly obtained confessions.

There’s a simple step that can help address this: Require police to videotape interrogations of suspects in serious felony cases. More than 40 California cities or agencies already do this, including San Diego and San Francisco. (Los Angeles does not.) Federal agents in the Department of Justice began doing so in July. The benefits are clear and laudable: a chance to reduce wrongful convictions, protect police from contrived allegations of abuse or malfeasance and save the expense of defending bad cases.

California has considered this before. The Legislature passed such laws in 2005 and 2007, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed them because of his fear of constraining police.

[SNIP]

Since 2010, Congress has considered several bills that would have provided matching federal funds to install recording systems, but it has failed to pass them. It should do so.

But even if it doesn’t, the Legislature should work with Gov. Jerry Brown to recraft legislation requiring the recordings. It would protect both the integrity of the criminal justice system and the innocent.


REV. “CHIP” MURRAY WRITES THAT PAUL TANAKA SHOULD NOT BE SHERIFF

Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray has written an unusually strongly-worded Op Ed for the Los Angeles Sentinel outlining why he feels that former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka should not be the next Los Angeles County Sheriff.

Murray, as you may or may not remember, was the Vice Chair of the Citizen’s Commission for Jail Violence, the blue ribbon panel appointed by the LA County Board of Supervisors to investigate allegations of systemic abuse within the county’s jail system and to recommend reforms.

Now he serves as the John R. Tansey Chair of Christian Ethics in the School of Religion at USC. Yet, he is best known as former pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) who in his 27 years at the pulpit, transformed a small congregation of 250 people into a powerhouse 18,000 person church recognized throughout the nation.

Murray writes that he and his fellow CCJV commissioners found their year long process to be “deeply troubling,” which led to his reason for writing the Op Ed.

Here’s a clip from his essay:

…During those hours of testimony, time and time again we were pointed back to the integral role of then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who we heard had little interest in curtailing years of abuse, failed to hold deputies accountable, encouraged LASD personnel to “work in the grey” — on the border of right and wrong — and undercut managers who tried to reign in abuses. Indeed, our report concluded that “the troubling role of [then]-Undersheriff Tanaka cannot be ignored.”

Now, Mr. Tanaka is running for Sheriff and asking the public to ignore or forget the leadership role he had in overseeing the violence and corruption that the Commission uncovered and for which he was eventually forced out of LASD.

While I am not ordinarily vocal in political races, the race for the next Sheriff is too important for me sit on the sidelines. This election is about the future of the LASD and how we treat the men and women of our community and in custody.

[SNIP]

The report issued by the CCJV concluded in no uncertain terms that “Undersheriff Tanaka promoted a culture that tolerated the excessive use of force in the jails.” Our report described in detail how Tanaka “discouraged supervisors from investigating deputy misconduct,” “vetoed efforts” to address the problem of deputy cliques and “encouraged and permitted deputies to circumvent the chain of command.” The report also recounted a system of patronage within LASD that Tanaka created: “many department members believe promotions and assignments are based on loyalty to the Undersheriff” (Tanaka) and “campaign contributions accepted by Tanaka furthered the perception of patronage.” This demonstrably poor judgment and misdirected leadership has continued beyond his tenure at LASD; in his race for Sheriff, Tanaka has accepted a large number of campaign donations from current and former employees of the Sheriff’s Department…..

[SNIP]

All in all, Mr. Tanaka’s “leadership” has resulted in the indictment of over 20 former LASD members, federal convictions and prison sentences of seven of those individuals, and legal costs to the County based on civil lawsuits likely to exceed 200 million dollars. And Mr. Tanaka himself remains the subject of an ongoing federal criminal investigation.


LA CITY ATTORNEY FILES CHARGES AGAINST MOM WHEN SON BRINGS LOADED GUN TO SCHOOL

On May 13 of this year, a 17-year-old at a Van Nuys continuation high school got into a fight with another boy on campus. The next day, he reportedly brought a loaded 45-caliber semiautomatic pistol to school, along with an extra magazine in his backpack, and showed the gun to a friend. School police heard about the weapon recovered the gun and ammo from the kid’s backpack.

The following day, when police executed a warrant at the kid’s home, they reportedly found four other unsecured firearms that belonged to the boy’s mother in places like a bedroom drawer and inside a kitchen cabinet.

On Wednesday of this week, LA’s City Attorney charged the student’s mother with four criminal counts: allowing a child to carry a firearm off premises, allowing a child to take a gun to school, permitting a child to be in a dangerous situation and contributing to the delinquency of a minor—counts that each could carry a maximum sentence of a year in jail.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has the story. Here’s a clip:

City Attorney Mike Feuer called a press conference to announce charges against Leah Wilcken, 41, for failing to safely secure a semi-automatic handgun that her 17-year-old son took to Will Rodgers Continuation School in May.

“It has to be the case that when a parent sends their child to school, they do not fear that another child is going to have a weapon on campus,” Feuer said.

Feuer described the charges as the first ever filed in Los Angeles against a parent whose child took a gun to school. But KPCC found records of a 1995 case in which former City Attorney James K. Hahn filed similar charges against a Panorama City woman after her 9-year-old daughter took a gun to her elementary school and fired it on the playground.

California law requires weapons to be safely stored. Anyone who keeps a loaded firearm where children under 18 years can obtain it is required to store the firearm in a locked container or with a locking device that keeps it from functioning, according to state law….

According to the Kate Mather and Richard Winton of the LA Times, who also reported the story, an attorney who is a representative of the NRA thought the “charges seem inappropriate.”

Posted in 2014 election, elections, FBI, guns, Innocence, jail, Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, law enforcement, Paul Tanaka, Sentencing, Sheriff Lee Baca | 3 Comments »

Judge Slams State With Restraining Order Over Jefferson High’s Scheduling Mess…Powerful Prosecutors…and More

October 9th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon



Alameda County Superior Court Judge George Hernandez Jr. has taken a good look
at the mess that is occurring at LA’s Thomas Jefferson High School, and he is furious.

Here’s the deal: Due to a hideously malfunctioning computer system, Jefferson High—which has been one of LA County’s most troubled high schools off and on for years now— fell into morass of scheduling dysfunction before this school year began in August. Kids were assigned to incorrect classes—in many cases courses they’d already taken. Or worse they were given pretend classes that weren’t classes at all, hours called “Service” periods, or “College Class” or “Adult Class”—each of which turned out, incredibly to provide no instruction. In still other cases, kids were even simply sent home because no classes—even the faux courses—-were available.

Now here we are in October and, according to Judge Hernandez, the debacle is showing no sign of getting straightened out.

As it happens, Jefferson High was already one of nine “high-need schools” named in a class action lawsuit, Cruz v. California, filed this past spring by Public Counsel and the So Cal ACLU (with pro bono support from the law firms Carlton Fields Jorden Burt and Arnold & Porter LLP).

Cruz v. California challenges “California’s failure to provide meaningful learning time to students” of these nine schools.

Thus, thankfully, when the scheduling crisis erupted, there was already a legal instrument in place to address it.

All this brings us to the very unhappy Judge Hernandez who issued a tersely-worded temporary restraining order on Wednesday demanding that, no later than next Tuesday, Oct. 14, the state and LAUSD must come up with a viable plan to get kids back in appropriate classes, and then have the plan and the needed resources in place by no later than November 3.

“Absent such intervention,” wrote the judge, “there is a significant likelihood that Jefferson students will continue to endure chaos and disruption due to ongoing scheduling issues and low morale, will not have the opportunity to enroll in courses needed to graduate or qualify for college admission, will fail courses or receive poor grades due circumstances beyond their control (including the scheduling fiasco and lack of remedial resources) and, as a result, will be less equipped to succeed in life, in the job market, and (if they are able to gain admission) in college.”

The judge wrote a lot more in that vein about the harm he believed had been done to Jefferson’s students who, he noted, were “disproportionately low income, minority, first generation students, foster children and/or English learners.”

(Here’s a link to the order itself.)

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs praised the judge’s speedy action, but slammed California’s Department of Education for its inattention.

“The State stood by for months while students at Jefferson sat in classes they had already passed, made copies instead of learning math, and were sent home midway through the school day,” said Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney at Public Counsel. “Students, parents, and teachers deserve better. Today’s ruling recognizes that the State must ensure that all California students have a chance to graduate, attend college, and succeed.”

David Sapp, staff attorney at the So Cal ACLU, added that although the situation at Jefferson is extreme, “it’s also typical of students at schools that have been ignored by the state for too long. We need a new attitude from our state leaders that all students deserve the same opportunity to learn,” he said.

Indeed.


HOW PROSECUTORS CAME TO HAVE SO MUCH POWER

“The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America,” said then U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson, in 1940.

In the intervening 74 years, prosecutors have gotten more powerful not less, with almost nothing in the way of legal consequences to rein in those prosecutors who choose to misuse their power.

The Economist Magazine has a good story that explores the matter of prosecutorial power.

Here are some clips:

Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of murdering his daughters in 1991 by setting fire to the family house. The main evidence against him was a forensic report on the fire, later shown to be bunk, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed to have heard him confess. He was executed in 2004.

The snitch who sent him to his death had been told that robbery charges pending against him would be reduced to a lesser offence if he co-operated. After the trial the prosecutor denied that any such deal had been struck, but a handwritten note discovered last year by the Innocence Project, a pressure group, suggests otherwise. In taped interviews, extracts of which were published by the Washington Post, the informant said he lied in court in return for efforts by the prosecutor to secure a reduced sentence and—-amazingly—-financial support from a local rancher.

A study by Northwestern University Law School’s Centre on Wrongful Convictions found that 46% of documented wrongful capital convictions between 1973 and 2004 could be traced to false testimony by snitches—making them the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death-penalty cases. The Innocence Project keeps a database of Americans convicted of serious crimes but then exonerated by DNA evidence. Of the 318 it lists, 57 involved informants—and 30 of the convicted had entered a guilty plea.

[LARGE SNIP]

It is not clear how often prosecutors themselves break the rules. According to a report by the Project on Government Oversight, an investigative outfit, compiled from data obtained from freedom of information requests, an internal-affairs office at the Department of Justice identified more than 650 instances of prosecutors violating the profession’s rules and ethical standards between 2002 and 2013. More than 400 of these were “at the more severe end of the scale”. The Justice Department argues that this level of misconduct is modest given the thousands of cases it handles.

Judge Kozinski worries, however, that there is “an epidemic” of Brady violations—when exculpatory evidence is hidden from defence lawyers by prosecutors. For example, in 2008 Ted Stevens, a senator from Alaska, was found guilty of corruption eight days before an election, which he narrowly lost. Afterwards, prosecutors were found to have withheld evidence that might have helped the defence. Mr Stevens’s conviction was vacated, but he died in a plane crash in 2010.

Prosecutors enjoy strong protections against criminal sanction and private litigation. Even in egregious cases, punishments are often little more than a slap on the wrist. Mr Stevens’s prosecutors, for example, were suspended from their jobs for 15 to 40 days, a penalty that was overturned on procedural grounds. Ken Anderson, a prosecutor who hid the existence of a bloody bandana that linked someone other than the defendant to a 1986 murder, was convicted of withholding evidence in 2013 but spent only five days behind bars—one for every five years served by the convicted defendant, Michael Morton.

Disquiet over prosecutorial power is growing. Several states now require third-party corroboration of a co-operator’s version of events or have barred testimony by co-operators with drug or mental-health problems. Judge Rakoff proposes two reforms: scrapping mandatory-minimum sentences and reducing the prosecutor’s role in plea-bargaining—for instance by bringing in a magistrate judge to act as a broker. He nevertheless sees the use of co-operators as a “necessary evil”, though many other countries frown upon it.

Prosecutors’ groups have urged Mr Holder not to push for softer mandatory-minimum sentences, arguing that these “are a critical tool in persuading defendants to co-operate”. Some defend the status quo on grounds of pragmatism: without co-operation deals and plea bargains, they argue, the system would buckle under the weight of extra trials. This week Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vetoed a bill that would have allowed judges to inform juries if prosecutors knowingly withhold exculpatory evidence.


WHY ARE SO MANY WOMEN IN PRISON IN AMERICA? IT’S THE DRUG WAR, STUPID!

I turns out that nearly a third of the women who are incarcerated worldwide, are locked up in U.S. jails or prisons according to the International Center for Prison Studies. (Of course, given our overall incarceration rate per capita, that should not be surprising.)

The Huffington Post’s Nina Bahadur has more on the story. Here’s a clip:

So, why does America imprison so many women? Mandatory sentencing minimums have led to prison overcrowding in general. An estimated two-thirds of women incarcerated in federal prisons are serving time for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.

Female prisoners are disproportionately women of color, and one study suggests that 44 percent of female prisoners in the U.S. don’t have a high school diploma or GED. Incarcerating women also plays a huge role in breaking up families — 64 percent of female state prisoners lived with and cared for their minor children before their imprisonment.

Posted in Education, Innocence, LAUSD, prison policy, Prosecutors, Sentencing | 2 Comments »

Citizenship Largest Criminal Justice Disparity, Non-returnable Military Gear, Gay Marriage…and More

October 7th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

STUDY: CITIZENSHIP STATUS BIGGER SENTENCING DISCREPANCY THAN RACE

Until now, an abundance of research has emerged illustrating colossal racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system (and many other systems). But according to a forthcoming study, citizenship is even more influential than race in determining if a person will go to prison and how long they will be locked up.

In the United States, undocumented immigrants are four times more likely to be incarcerated, and spend two to four months longer in jail for the same crimes as legal citizens, according to the groundbreaking study authored by Michael Light of Purdue University, which will published in the American Sociological Review.

The gap between citizens and non-citizens is larger than the gap between black and white offenders. The study looked at non-immigration-related offenses in the non-citizen federal prison population (which is a quarter of the entire federal prison pop.).

Yahoo News’ Liz Goodwin has more on the study. Here are some clips:

This sentencing gap between citizens and noncitizens is even larger than ones found between black defendants and white defendants, according to Michael T. Light, the study’s author and an assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University. Lacking citizenship appears to be worse news for a defendant than his or her race. A white noncitizen faces more jail time, on average, than a black U.S. citizen convicted of the same crime, the study found.

Citizenship “appears to trump race and ethnicity when determining punishments for those who violate U.S. law,” the study concludes. The effect was starkest for undocumented immigrants, but even legal immigrants faced significantly longer sentences than citizens convicted of the same crimes, regardless of their race. Most of the sentencing disparity between Hispanics and whites could be explained by the higher percentage of noncitizens in the Hispanic group, the study found.


POLICE AGENCIES’ UNWANTED MILITARY GEAR HARD TO RETURN, JUST GETS MOVED TO ANOTHER TOWN

Since Ferguson, law enforcement agencies have felt considerable pressure to get rid of military surplus armored vehicles, firearms, and gear. But agencies have found that not only is it very difficult to return military gear, when the military does take it back, it’s because a different agency wants it. So, for forces like the LAUSD police department agreeing to give back unnecessary grenade launchers, and the San Jose police department trying to get rid of a mine-resistant vehicle, the gear and vehicles they return will likely just be handed off to another town.

Mother Jones’ Molly Redden has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

…some agencies have found the process of getting rid of unwanted military gear next to impossible. Agencies can’t return or trade large pieces of tactical equipment without Defense Department approval, and because the Pentagon technically still owns that equipment, they can’t sell it.

According to interviews with state officials running point between the Pentagon and police, the Defense Department prefers to leave equipment in circulation whenever possible. “It’s a low-cost storage method for them,” says Robb Davis, the mayor pro tem of Davis. His town is trying to shake its MRAP. “They’re dumping these vehicles on us and saying, ‘Hey, these are still ours, but you have to maintain them for us.’”

[SNIP]

“The federal government is just not interested in getting this stuff back,” says Davis Trimmer, a lieutenant with the Hillsborough, North Carolina, police department. Local law enforcement officials and Pentagon liaisons interviewed by Mother Jones all agree that the Defense Department always prefers to keep working equipment in circulation over warehousing it. Trimmer has twice requested permission to return three M14 rifles that are too heavy for practical use. But the North Carolina point person for the Pentagon insists that Hillsborough can’t get rid of the firearms until another police department volunteers to take them. Police in Woodfin, North Carolina, are facing the same problem as they try to return the town’s grenade launcher.

In fact, the first move for state liaisons when a police department wants to dump its military equipment is to alert the rest of the state’s police force that the item is up for grabs. This poses a moral dilemma for communities that are getting rid of their weapons and armored vehicle out of protest: ditching your MRAP just makes it another town’s problem.

“I have a lot of discomfort about that,” Davis says. “A lot.” Jarred by the clashes in Ferguson, the Davis city council voted in late August to come up with plans for getting rid of the city’s newly acquired MRAP—which arrived with the machine gun turret still attached.

But officials in Davis are finding that the cheapest way to unload the armored vehicle may be to ship it to a police department in a neighboring town. At best, says Davis, the Defense Department will ask the city to ship the vehicle to a police department out of state. “The bottom line is, if we send it back, we know what will happen to it. It will go on to be used in another community,” Davis says. “In the broader scheme of things, we will not have done anything but make a symbolic gesture.” At least two law enforcement agencies, both located in Northern California, have already expressed interest in the MRAP.


THE US SUPREME COURT’S DECISION (OR LACK THEREOF) ON GAY MARRIAGE, WHAT IT MEANS, AND WHY IT WAS SURPRISING

On Tuesday morning, the US Supreme Court unexpectedly chose not to hear any of the seven cases before them challenging states’ rights to ban gay marriage. Everyone (experts included) expected the high court to take up at least one of the cases.

By refusing to hear any of the cases, SCOTUS let gay marriage stand in Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Six additional states under the those states’ circuit courts will also be affected by this decision. This would mean that a majority of states (30) would boast legal gay marriage. (Hooray!)

There’s a lot of coverage on this, but if you only read one piece of reporting on this issue, Lyle Denniston’s analysis over at SCOTUSblog makes some interesting points.

For instance, Denniston lays out six reasons why the high court’s decision was surprising. Here are the first four:

First, for all seven petitions, both sides had urged the Court to grant review — a rare thing, and one that almost never fails to assure review.

Second, last year the Court had agreed to decide on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, but wound up not deciding that issue because of a procedural defect in the appeal in that case (involving California’s “Proposition 8″). That was a sign that the Justices were prepared to confront the basic issue, at least at that time.

Third, during this year, the Court itself has three times blocked lower court rulings striking down state bans — an indication that the Justices did not want same-sex marriages to occur until they had weighed in on their constitutionality.

Fourth, the Court surely knew what the practical impact would be of turning aside all seven petitions — that is, the early implementation of same-sex marriages in a good many more states, without the Court ever having ruled on the core question and, in fact, with the Court having never said anything, one way or the other, on that basic issue.

USA Today’s Brad Heath also has good coverage (and a nifty interactive map).


EXONEREES TO SHARE THEIR STORIES AT LOYOLA’S DTLA INNOCENCE DAY CELEBRATION

Today (Tuesday) five exonerated men will speak at an Innocence Day celebration co-hosted by Loyola Law School, Los Angeles’ Project for the Innocent and Death Penalty Focus. The speakers, Mario Rocha, Kash Register, Obie Anthony, Arthur Carmona, and Nick Yarris, have spent more than 80 years (combined) behind bars for crimes committed by someone else. (WLA has shared Mario Rocha’s story—here—and Kash Register’s—here.) The Project for the Innocent helped secure the release of both Kash Register and Obie Anthony, who had spent 34 years and 17 years, respectively, in prison while innocent.

The celebration will take place from 12:00-1:00p.m. at Loyola’s Downtown LA campus. You can find out more about the event on Project for the Innocent’s Facebook page.

they had something to do with the exoneration of one or two of them

Posted in Innocence, law enforcement, LGBT, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Prison Financial Service Fees Punish Families, Police Brutality Lawsuits, Fixing Eyewitness Testimony Flaws, and Homeboy Crowdfunds Tattoo Removal

October 3rd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE PRISON MONEY TRANSFER SYSTEM: CASH COW FOR PRIVATE VENDOR JPAY, BURDEN ON FAMILIES

The Center for Public Integrity’s Daniel Wagner has an excellent two-part series examining how private financial institutions are making huge profits by charging inmates’ families outrageous fees to transfer money to their loved ones behind bars.

According to Wagner, in some states, the private company JPay—which provides money transfers to nearly 70% of inmates in US prisons—charges families nearly 45% of what they are sending.

While the fees are nowhere near that high in California, it costs $6.95 to send $50 (over 10%) and $9.95 to send $120 to an inmate through JPay.

These fees overburden families, often forcing them to visit their loved ones less often in order to be able to send money for necessities like toothbrushes and toilet paper.

Here are some clips from Wagner’s story:

JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services. To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives, the Center for Public Integrity found in a six-month investigation.

Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase.

By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones.

JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.

Taken together, the costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.

[SNIP]

Funding prisons out of the pockets of families and inmates has non-financial costs too, says Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in an Illinois state prison for murder. Nelson says he has “become an asset to society” since he was released four years ago because he stayed in touch with family and priests even when he was in solitary confinement. When inmates can’t afford to maintain contact with the outside world, he says, they are less equipped to transition smoothly to civilian life.

The effect on poor families is especially harsh, Nelson says: “It’s a wife that has three children at home, and her husband is in jail, so now she has a choice: Do I send money to him so he can afford to stay in touch with the kids, or do I feed the kids?”

Part two of Wagner’s series explores the lucrative no-bid contracts that .. have with the US Treasury to provide debit cards for just-released prisoners that charge unusually high fees for use. It’s a complex story—read the whole thing here.

And the Center for Public Integrity’s Amirah Al Idrus has a companion story about how JPay also gouges inmates upon their release. Many prisons give released inmates the money they’ve made working jobs on the inside, as well as any balance of money sent to them by relatives on a JPay debit card. The card incurs fees for each transaction, fees for checking the balance, making withdrawals, and even for not using the card within 60 days. Here’s how it opens:

When Clarence Justin Aldred was released from Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven, Michigan, in July 2013, he left with the balance of his inmate account, which consisted of his prison wages and any leftover money sent by family.

Aldred received no cash. The money was accessible via a debit card issued by JPay Inc., a Miami-based company that provides financial services to inmates. After 29 years inside, the card was Aldred’s only way to make most purchases. After using it a few times, Aldred, 57, noticed that $15 was missing.

“They kept charging me every time I used it. Nobody told me that,” he said.

Michigan is one of at least 15 states where prisoners are given their inmate account balance on a prepaid card when they are released. The cards usually carry a variety of fees that eat away at the small amount of money most former inmates are left with to restart their lives. Inmate release cards have drawn criticism from consumer lawyers and faced litigation in at least two states.

One county in Arkansas agreed to pay $71,609.58 to settle charges that the fees illegally deprived people of access to their own money. A federal judge refused to approve the proposed settlement and invited the parties to submit a modified agreement.

JPay provides the cards in at least 11 states. In most cases, the fees exceed what consumers would pay for similar services.

In Michigan, for example, JPay charges users 50 cents to check the card’s balance at an ATM, $2 to withdraw cash, 70 cents to make a purchase and 50 cents a month for a maintenance fee. Even not using the card costs money. Doing nothing draws a $2.99 fee after 60 days. To cancel the card, it costs $9.95.


WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE MILLIONS IN TAXPAYER $$ SPENT ON EXCESSIVE USE OF FORCE LAWSUITS

When people wronged by police officers win settlements and lawsuits against police departments, cities, and thus taxpayers, get the bill.

Big cities have big bills, too—Los Angeles paid $54 million last year, Chicago $85 million, and so on. Having taxpayers foot the bill is supposed to create better accountability and police work.

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko says this may not be the case, in part, because cops are personally protected by “qualified immunity,” people alleging police brutality don’t often win, and either way, the officers themselves are not financially responsible. Balko says that one way around this may be making officers pay a portion of the damages over time. Here are some clips:

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this year that the city has payed out nearly half a billion dollars in settlements over the past decade, and spent $84.6 million in fees, settlements, and awards last year. The Chicago Police Department is about three times the size of the Baltimore PD. Chicago the city has about four times as many people as Baltimore. Crunch those numbers as you wish. Bloomberg News reported that in 2011, Los Angeles paid out $54 million, while New York paid out a whopping $735 million, although those figures include negligence and other claims unrelated to police abuse. Oakland Police Beat reported in April that the city had paid out $74 million to settle 417 lawsuits since 1990. That’s a little more than $3 million per year. The Denver Post reported in August that the Mile High City paid $13 million over 10 years. The Dallas Morning News reported in May that the city has forked over $6 million since 2011. And last month, Minneapolis Public Radio put that city’s payout at $21 million since 2003.

[SNIP]

Cops themselves are protected by the doctrine qualified immunity, which makes it difficult for a plaintiff to even get into court. But even if you do, and you win (also far from a given), in the vast majority of cases, the cop himself won’t have to pay any damages. (It happens, but it’s rare.) Some critics have called for police to be required to pay these damages themselves, as a deterrent. That might well work. The problem is that an officer did significant damage to someone, they’re unlikely have the money to make that person whole. Perhaps the best option is to take money from the cops at fault over a long period of time, then supplement that with public money. I’ve also seen suggestions that settlements be paid from police pension funds. I can see the appeal there, but it doesn’t seem wise to penalize all cops for the bad ones.


HOW TO CHANGE PROBLEMATIC EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY PRACTICES THAT LEAD TO WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

Experts say that eyewitness’ mistaken identifications account for the majority of wrongful convictions (the Innocence Project says a whopping 72%).

A welcome new report from the National Research Council lays out recommendations for how to overhaul the flawed use of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Recommendations for police forces include creating double blind line-ups, videotaping the process of identification, and special training for law enforcement officers.

The Crime Report has more on the report’s recommendations. Here’s a clip:

Research during the last few decades has made it increasingly clear that eyewitness testimony in criminal cases can be prone to inaccuracy or error, according to the report, which dozens of academics and law enforcement experts contributed to.

The report notes that human visual perception and memory is limited and law enforcement often gives unintentional cues that can compromise eyewitness identifications.

Conditions such as dim lighting, stress, or the presence of a “visually distracting element such as a gun or knife,” can compromise perception, according to the report.


HOMEBOY INDUSTRIES NEEDS HELP FUNDING TATTOO REMOVAL PROGRAM

Homeboy Industries has launched an Indiegogo campaign to bolster their tattoo removal program for former gang members. Homeboy’s current ability to remove gang-related tattoos relies on one bad-tempered machine to serve more than 3,000 men and women a year hoping to better their lives.

Here’s a clip from the campaign page:

Many of the thousands of former gang members and previously incarcerated men and women who come to Homeboy Industries each year come through the tattoo removal program. Gang-related tattoos on their faces, neck, hands and wrists are some of their first of many hurdles to employment and how the world views them.

Homeboy’s tattoo removal program is a gateway to a better life. We know that those who come here for ink removal generally end up staying and taking advantage of our other services such as life skills, anger management and parenting classes; legal referral program; job training and placement; support groups and education.

“Our clients are done with the hate and bad decisions,” said Homeboy’s Medical Director, Dr. Paula Pearlman. “These brave people endure a long wait for an appointment and the terrible pain of the removal process over and over again.”

Here’s what donations are providing:

Two new lasers – current technology improves efficiency of the machines, we can remove more ink with fewer treatments

Two skin cooling machines – decreases the pain of the removal process; with the new lasers leads us into the 21st c. with a state-of-the-art program

New desktop computers for treatment rooms to increase efficiency of the documentation process

Machine maintenance, supplies, skin numbing cream, sunblock and staff support.

Additional funds raised will support greater growth of the tattoo removal program, helping even more people reclaim the truth of who they are and become contributing members of the community.

Posted in Homeboy Industries, Innocence, law enforcement, prison policy | No Comments »

More Exonerations, but Fewer Resulting from DNA Testing….CA’s Mentally Ill Prisoners to Receive Better Care in Specialized SHUs….Unarmed Suspects “Reaching for Their Waistbands”….and an Abandoned FBI Sting Against the LASD

September 2nd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

EXONERATIONS AT A RECORD HIGH, BUT NOT BECAUSE OF DNA TESTING…ATTRIBUTED INSTEAD TO OTHER BREAKDOWNS IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Last year, the National Registry of Exonerations documented 87 exonerations—the highest number on record. The relatively new registry has identified over 1,400 such exonerations since 1989. In the beginning, most of those exonerations came as a result of advances in DNA testing. Now, in California and across the nation, groups like the California Innocence Project are dealing predominantly with convictions involving justice system failures such as alleged prosecutorial misconduct, coerced confessions, and junk science.

Kevin Davis has more on the issue in an interesting essay for the ABA Journal. Here’s a clip:

The use of DNA to both clear and implicate suspects prompted much of the early media attention on wrongful convictions. But exonerations due to DNA evidence have been on the decline for much of the past decade. According to the registry, the number of exonerations in which DNA played any role dropped from 23 in 2005 to 20 in 2012 and 18 in 2013.

One of the reasons for the decline is that many of the cases in which DNA testing was available to clear the wrongfully convicted have played out. DNA testing is now routine, and it often clears suspects long before trial.

Many of the defendants convicted when DNA testing was either not routine or nonexistent are losing hope for exoneration through DNA evidence because the evidence collected in their cases may no longer be available for testing.

“You have a certain number of cases in which DNA testing was never done or was not available, and a lot of those have been worked through—they’ve been sized up by an innocence project or someone who has requested DNA testing,” says Nick Vilbas, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas.

The downward trend in DNA cases holds true for Texas and many other states that have innocence projects. “Once word got around that DNA was exonerating people, a lot of people started asking for DNA testing and a lot of those cases have been worked through,” Vilbas says. “That doesn’t mean it’s the end of DNA exonerations. We still have several DNA cases in the process right now. But they are not the bulk of our work anymore right now.”

It’s the same thing in California. “Most of our cases are non-DNA,” says Justin Brooks, a professor at California Western School of Law and project director of the California Innocence Project. “There have not been many in California in the past 15 years.”

Brooks describes the early DNA cases as “low-hanging fruit,” many involving cases in which rape kits could provide evidence to help exonerate those convicted when DNA testing became more prevalent.

The bulk of the work for innocence projects like the one in California is on cases involving false confessions, discredited scientific evidence and unreliable witnesses, along with other factors, including prosecutorial misconduct. One of the benefits of the registry is that it offers insights into how people were wrongfully convicted and where the system failed, which can be useful in bringing about legislative and judicial reforms.

“It shines the light on the entire criminal justice system,” Brooks says. “If we’re making mistakes in the biggest kinds of cases, such as death penalty cases, what does that say about lower-level crimes?”


FEDERAL JUDGE APPROVES REFORMED PRISON POLICIES TO BETTER PROTECT RIGHTS OF MENTALLY ILL INMATES

On Friday, US District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton approved new California prison policies for isolating the mentally ill in a more humane manner.

In April, Judge Karlton ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to update its policies regarding the handling of mentally ill prisoners, which he said were in violation of inmates’ rights.

The CDCR’s new policies include moving mentally ill prisoners currently in isolation into new units created specifically for those with mental illness, giving them twice as much time outside of their cell and better mental health care.

The CDCR says it will also conduct a case-by-case assessment as to whether the inmates currently in isolation should be moved to the redesigned units, or if they can safely reintegrate into the general population.

The NY Times’ Erica Goode has the story. Here’s a clip:

Under the new policies, developed by department officials working with a court-appointed special master who ensures that the judge’s order is being followed and with consultants from the plaintiffs’ legal team, mentally ill inmates in three of the state’s four security housing units — about 740 prisoners, according to the department — will be moved to less restrictive settings. Mentally ill inmates have been excluded by court order from the state’s fourth security housing unit, at Pelican Bay State Prison, since the 1990s.

More than 2,000 inmates with less serious psychiatric disorders who for disciplinary reasons are currently kept in administrative segregation units — another type of isolation housing — will also be moved out. Most will be transferred to newly created units where intensified mental health treatment will be provided and prisoners will be allowed more time out of their cells for recreation and other activities.

In several areas, the Corrections Department said, it had decided to move beyond the scope of Judge Karlton’s order. Over the next months, for example, it will begin conducting case-by-case reviews of all inmates currently in prison psychiatric units after spending extended lengths of time in solitary confinement, with the goal of returning those who no longer pose a safety threat to less restrictive units.

Training of staff in the new policies will begin immediately, the department said.

KQED’s Julie Small also reported on the issue.


HIGH RATE OF OFFICER SHOOTINGS OF UNARMED SUSPECTS “REACHING FOR THEIR WAISTBANDS” POINTS TO CHANGES IN TRAINING, SAYS RADLEY BALKO

A US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel has reinstated a lawsuit filed by the family of an unarmed Anaheim man who was shot around 20 times by five officers who said the man had reached for his waistband, as if for a weapon. (Although no weapons were found on Caesar Cruz’s body, officers had received a tip that he was armed.)

In his opinion on the case, Judge Alex Kozinski says it makes no sense for an unarmed Cruz to have reached for his waistband as if armed while five officers had guns trained on him. Kozinski points out that one of the officers involved in Cruz’s death had been involved in a very similar shooting in which a different man, one running away from officers with guns drawn on him, moved his hand toward his waistband.

Kozinski says the circumstantial evidence “could give a reasonable jury pause”:

In this case, there’s circumstantial evidence that could give a reasonable jury pause. Most obvious is the fact that Cruz didn’t have a gun on him, so why would he have reached for his waistband?3 Cruz probably saw that he was surrounded by officers with guns drawn. In that circumstance, it would have been foolish—but not wholly implausible—for him to have tried to fast-draw his weapon
in an attempt to shoot his way out. But for him to make such a gesture when no gun is there makes no sense whatsoever.

A jury may doubt that Cruz did this. Of course, a jury could reach the opposite conclusion. It might believe that Cruz thought he had the gun there, or maybe he had a death wish, or perhaps his pants were falling down at the worst possible moment. But the jury could also reasonably conclude that the officers lied. In reaching that conclusion, the jury might find relevant the uncontroverted evidence that Officer Linn, one of Cruz’s shooters, recited the exact same explanation when he shot and killed another unarmed man, David Raya, two years later under very similar circumstances.

Radley Balko writes for the Washington Post about the recent shootings of unarmed men who officers say appeared to be reaching for guns hidden in their waistbands, and what these deaths suggest about the evolution of police training.

Back in March I noted a recent series of police shootings in the San Diego area in which the cops also claimed an unarmed man was reaching for his waistband. A September 2011 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that in half the cases in which police shot at someone they claimed was reaching for his waistband, the suspect was unarmed. (There was another incident in Long Beach, California, in April.) A 2013 Houston Chronicle investigation found multiple incidents there. There have been other recent “unarmed man reaches for his waistband” shootings in Pierce County, Washington; Pasadena, California; and Portland, Oregon. It’s also the story we heard from BART Officer Johannes Mehserle after he shot and killed Oscar Grant in an Oakland subway station.

I doubt that these cops are gunning people down in cold blood, then using the waistband excuse to justify their bloodlust. It’s likely more a product of inappropriate training. A few years ago, a guy who trains police in the use of lethal force told me that he had grown quite concerned about the direction that training has taken in recent years. He said that police departments are increasingly eschewing training that emphasizes deescalation and conflict resolution for classes that overly emphasize the dangers of the job, teach cops to view every citizen as a potential threat, and focus most of the training on how to justify their actions after the fact to avoid disciplinary action and lawsuits.


INTRICATE FBI STING AGAINST LASD, OPERATION BLUE LINE, DERAILED BY OPERATION PANDORA’S BOX

The LA Times’ Cindy Chang reported on an elaborate FBI sting to obtain information on Los Angeles jail abuses that jumped the tracks after jail informant Anthony Brown’s smuggled cell phone was discovered, and Operation Pandora’s Box was initiated. Here’s how it opens:

Operation Blue Line was a go.

In August 2011, FBI agents were gearing up to launch the next phase of their wide-ranging investigation into suspected brutality and corruption by sheriff’s deputies in the Los Angeles County jails.

The plan was to rent a warehouse, spread the word that it was full of narcotics and hire corrupt deputies from the jails to moonlight as guards. Included in the budget was $10,000 for bribes and kickbacks, according to an internal FBI memo reviewed by The Times.

The deputies lured into the purported drug enterprise would then be used to get information about abuses in the jails.

Two days after it was greenlighted by headquarters in Washington, Blue Line came to an abrupt halt. Sheriff’s officials had caught an inmate with a cellphone and traced the phone back to the FBI, exposing an investigation that had been kept secret from them, even though they ran the jails.

Instead of moving forward with Blue Line, the FBI spent the next few months doing damage control with sheriff’s officials who hid the inmate informant and threatened an FBI agent with arrest. Of the 21 criminal cases eventually filed by federal prosecutors, seven were obstruction of justice cases stemming from the cellphone incident.

With the federal investigation into the jails still ongoing, Blue Line stands as the undercover operation that might have been. Whether it would have led to more informants and more indictments will never be known. What is certain is that after the discovery of the cellphone, the federal investigation temporarily stuttered and the warehouse scheme never got off the ground.

Posted in CDCR, FBI, Innocence, LA County Jail, LASD, mental health, prison policy, solitary | 7 Comments »

CA to Spend BIG $$ on Youth Lock-ups. So Can We spend it Well?…..”Getting Life” – What It’s Like to Be Wrongfully Convicted…….

July 9th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


CALIFORNIA PLANS TO SPEND $79 MILLION ON YOUTH, & ADVOCATES PRESS FOR $$ TO GO TO COUNTIES WITH CLEAR REHAB GOALS

Right now the California Board of State & Community Corrections (BSCC) is working on structuring an RFP so that it can give away $79 million to various counties in the state for the construction of new juvenile facilities.

The $79 mil is the second round of post-realignment funding for county youth lock-ups; $220 million has already been awarded to 14 California counties.

With this new round of money, research and advocacy organizations like the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), the National Center for Law, and the Ella Baker Center see a rare opportunity to stimulate reform through the enticement of funding, so have been trying to educate and persuade the BSCC about what kind of youth facilities are likely to produce the best results.

According to Kate McCracken, CJCJ’s Director of Policy & Development, the the BSCC’s Executive Steering Committee, which is responsible for developing the crucial RFP, has “demonstrated openness” to crafting a competitive process would give the edge to county proposals that are designed with “clear rehabilitative goals.”

Ideally, McCracken writes, “the language of this RFP will guide the way counties develop their own proposals, and is thus essential to the development of long-term dispositional options and rehabilitative services available to young people in the community.”

Thus she hopes “the RFP will be rooted in what we know works for young people.”

“Research has proven time and time again that facilities are not effective when they have artificial environments, living quarters designed to confine large numbers of youth, and minimal programming space. If California is going to spend $79 million dollars — plus matching funds from the counties — on more juvenile facilities, let’s do it in a meaningful way.”

Some counties, like Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, are already committed to juvenile programs that emphasize rehabilitation and treatment over conventional youth corrections facilities.

Los Angeles County, which has the state’s (and the nation’s) largest juvenile justice system, was stuck for years in a punitive pattern that has resulted in years of federal monitoring along several class action lawsuits. Now LA County’s juvenile probation is moving toward some reform, with such programs as the in-the-works transformation of Camp David Kilpatrick. But, the tentative move in the direction of rehabilitation over containment is nothing close to system-wide.

If the purse-string-holding BCSC were to make clear that future $$ will be linked to reform, such fiscal incentives cannot help but have a salutary effect on counties like Los Angeles and others that may have made some improvements, but need to make many more.

“The future of California’s juvenile justice system is in the 58 counties,” writes McCracken, “as we observe pockets of innovation throughout the state that require support and incubation in other counties. There is significant evidence that a continuum of community-based services is the most effective approach to serving youth, as well as promising programs available to promote a new way of justice in California. This RFP is just one example of an opportunity for the state to rethink its approach to justice and challenge the status quo with innovative development.”

Yep. Exactly.


CHP HEAD MEETS WITH CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS OVER FREEWAY BEATING VIDEO

Concerned about a building furor over the bystander-taken video of a California Highway Patrol officer beating a woman next to the 10 freeway, on Tuesday, CHP head Joe Farrow met Tuesday with civil rights leaders.

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

In an indication of the agency’s increasing concern over the videotaped altercation between an officer and an African-American woman on the 10 Freeway, California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow met Tuesday with civil rights leaders in Los Angeles.

“I believe that right now, we are somewhat wounded because of what people have seen,” Farrow told reporters afterward outside the CHP’s West L.A. office. “I was deeply concerned when I saw the videotape. I was shocked.”


AN INNOCENT MAN TELLS OF HIS 25-YEARS BEHIND BARS, AND MORE

Michael Morton’s memoir, “Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace,” about the wrongful conviction that led him to serve a quarter century in prison for murdering his wife, has just been released to reviews that, thus far, are uniformly glowing.

For instance, here’s a clip from the review by Jesse Sublett of the Austin Chronicle:

Even for readers who may feel practically jaded about stories of injustice in Texas – even those who followed this case closely in the press – could do themselves a favor by picking Michael Morton’s new memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace. It is extremely well-written, insightful, infuriating, and, in places, quite funny. The “peace” part of the title is no exaggeration, either. For everything he’s been through, Michael Morton seems to be a very well-adjusted person with a sense of Zenlike calm…

Morton’ wife, Chris, was bludgeoned in their bed while he was at work. When he returned home to find the family home surrounded by yellow police tape he became frantic. Morton was arrested soon after and railroaded by Williamson County D.A. Ken Anderson, who withheld crucial information and documents from the defense. Morton was eventually cleared by the Innocence Project using DNA evidence. After that, the DNA led officials to the actual killer.

Here’s a clip from what NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said about Morton’s book:

A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, “Getting Life.” It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham, a window into a broken criminal justice system.

Indeed, Morton would still be in prison if the police work had been left to the authorities. The day after the killing, Chris’s brother, John, found a bloodied bandanna not far from the Morton home that investigators had missed, and he turned it over to the police.

Morton had advantages. He had no criminal record. He was white, from the middle class, in a respectable job. Miscarriages of justice disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, but, even so, Morton found himself locked up in prison for decades.

Then DNA testing became available, and the Innocence Project — the lawyers’ organization that fights for people like Morton — called for testing in Morton’s case. Prosecutors resisted, but eventually DNA was found on the bandanna: Chris’s DNA mingled with that of a man named Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history….

Parade Magazine has an excerpt from “Getting Life”.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

The door closed.

Not with a click or the sound of tumblers finally hitting their marks or the sturdy clunk of wood and metal meshing as if they were made for each other.

This was different.

It began with the long, hard sound of steel sliding against steel.

Like a train, the heavy door built speed as it barreled along its worn track, the portal to the real world growing smaller as the barrier of thick and battered bars roared into place.

It locked with a cold, bone-shaking boom that rattled me— literally—me, the guard outside my door, and any other inmates unlucky enough to be nearby.

I was alone in my cell, alone in the world, as alone as I had ever been in my life.

And I would stay there—alone—listening to that door close, over and over and over again, for the next twenty-five years.

Twenty-five years.

My wife, Chris, had been savagely beaten to death several months earlier. Before I had time to begin mourning, I was fighting for my own life against a legal system that seemed hell-bent on making me pay for the murder of the woman I would gladly have died for.

I was innocent.

Naïvely, I believed the error would soon be set right.

I could not have been more wrong.


Posted in American voices, Innocence, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, Probation, Realignment, State government, writers and writing | No Comments »

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