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LA to Get a Conviction Integrity Unit, LA’s Judge Michael Nash is Back, Bridging the Gap Between Homelessness and Employment, and Crime Victims

April 24th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LA COUNTY DA JACKIE LACEY TO LAUNCH UNIT TO HUNT FOR WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey is establishing a conviction integrity unit to investigate innocence claims, following a wave of recent exonerations in Los Angeles and across the nation.

The team will consist of three prosecutors, a senior investigator, and a paralegal. DA Lacey has asked the Board of Supervisors for around $1 million in funding.

(Read about conviction integrity units elsewhere in the US: here and here.)

The LA Times’ Marisa Gerber has more on the new unit. Here’s a clip:

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he expects that a new conviction review unit would particularly help people of color, who he said are wrongfully convicted at disproportionately high rates.

“It sends the message to law enforcement officers that trumped-up charges will not work,” he said. “It’s another dimension of checks and balances in the criminal justice system, which I think is sorely needed.”

The units have already had an effect in other places in California.

On Wednesday, at the request of the Ventura County district attorney’s office, a judge dismissed a murder case against Michael Ray Hanline, who was convicted in 1980. The office said it made the request after an investigation by its conviction integrity unit, along with the California Innocence Project, which turned up new evidence casting doubt on Hanline’s guilt.

[SNIP]

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, said that setting up a unit won’t necessarily translate into meaningful change or exonerations.

“There are lots of people who can say, ‘Oh gee, I have a conviction integrity unit,’ because that’s now the necessary fashion accessory,” he said.

To be successful, Scheck said, Los Angeles County should search for someone with “a different way of looking at the cases” —- like a former defense attorney — to lead the unit. The other key, he said, is fostering robust relationships between prosecutors and defense lawyers in which neither side expects to be “sandbagged.”

“It’s no longer an adversarial relationship,” he said. “It’s a joint search for the truth.”


FORMER HEAD OF LA JUVIE COURT, JUDGE MICHAEL NASH, OUT OF RETIREMENT AND INTO DELINQUENCY COURT

Judge Michael Nash retired in January after serving for nearly 30 years as the presiding judge of LA County’s juvenile court. Fortunately, he did not remain retired for long. Judge Nash is back, and working as a sitting judge in a Compton delinquency court.

Prior to Nash heading the entirety of the 43-courtroom juvenile system, he served as a dependency court judge. (Read about Nash’s efforts to bring transparency and accountability to the children’s court system, here, and the Department of Children and Family Services, here.)

Holden Slattery interviews Nash for the Chronicle of Social Change.

Nash discusses the differences (and commonalities) between delinquency and dependency courts, and the kids he strives to protect. Here’s a clip:

He had shown interest in taking a lead as the county’s Director of Child Protection, a new office created after recommendations by a blue ribbon commission established to overhaul L.A.’s child protection system. But when the Board of Supervisors dithered on hiring him, he recalibrated his sights.

For a couple of months, he enjoyed relaxing at home with his puppy, doing projects, and watching TV shows that had never fit his schedule in years past.

But Nash wanted more than a cozy seat on the couch. He applied for California’s Assigned Judges Program, which assigns retired judges to benches where they are needed. Nash was appointed to the Juvenile Court in Compton. He now sits in Judge Donna Groman’s courtroom on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays while Groman does administrative work.

As presiding judge, Nash was responsible for all of the delinquency courts and dependency courts in Los Angeles County—more than 40 courtrooms in total. In delinquency courts such as Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court, a judge determines whether children have broken laws and takes corrective action. In dependency courts, a judge decides whether children have been victims of maltreatment. Before being elected as presiding judge, Nash worked in a dependency court. This is his first time working on the delinquency side of the county’s vast judicial system for minors.

“This is a new experience for me, and it’s great,” Nash says in Groman’s office during a break. “This court is really a hybrid between two systems.”

“On the front end of this process, it’s like a criminal court because kids are charged with crimes and you have to deal with that. But once you get to resolve that issue, it’s the same thing we do on the dependency side. We have to work with these kids and their families to ensure that they’re in stable settings and getting the services they need to become productive members of the community.”


LA TRADE TECH PROGRAM COMBATS SOUTH LA UNEMPLOYMENT RATE, HELPS THOSE IN NEED LAND JOBS

Los Angeles Trade Tech’s nonprofit WorkSource Center, which opened in November, makes finding work an attainable goal for low-income men and women in the eastern part of South LA, where the unemployment rate is more than twice as high as the state average. The center serves as a hub, providing everything from employment training and job fairs, to work clothes and tools, and connecting participants to housing assistance and other indispensable services.

The program runs on a $1.1 million grant from the City of Los Angeles.

KPCC’s Brian Watt has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Job seekers take online classes, and complete resumes and job applications at the center’s computer terminals. Private meeting rooms are available for job interviews. The center will host a job fair on May 7.

Carlon Manuel, who works at the WorkSource center, said many of the people who come for help are homeless and hungry.

“We can help them find housing, food banks, rental assistance,” Manuel said, standing in a large closet full of donated suits, ties, dress shoes and business-casual sweaters. “We can give you everything but underwear and a T-shirt and socks. The underwear, T-shirts and socks you work on your own.”

Manuel’s colleague, John Wilson, added: “We’ve put gas in someone’s car so they could get to an interview.”

On a recent Thursday, Manuel, Wilson and other staffers at the center helped a group of men sign up for a construction apprenticeship program. Some were military veterans. Others were what Manuel called “veterans of the streets,” who were referred to the center by representatives at Homeboy Industries, a local nonprofit that helps current and former gang members.

Applications and training are the first steps for job seekers. As they near the end of that process, and are at the cusp of getting hired, other needs can get in the way. Construction work might require tools and boots that the employer doesn’t pay for. The same goes for culinary knives for line cooks in restaurants. If the aspiring worker doesn’t have the cash to cover those items, the center tries to find a way.


CRIME VICTIMS’ RIGHTS WEEK: POLICE WIDOW AND ADVOCATE CALLS FOR EQUAL ACCESS TO VICTIM SERVICES

In the summer of 2005, Dionne Wilson’s police officer husband, Dan, was talking with three drunken young men outside of an apartment building when one of them pulled out a gun and shot him.

In an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee in honor of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, Dionne Wilson explains how her husband’s murder led her to become a member of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice. Wilson says that while she received excellent support as a victim of crime, her experience did not fall within the norm. Not all crime survivors are treated the same by the criminal justice system, and many do not have easy access to support and resources. Wilson helped secure funds for one-stop-shop trauma recovery centers in California to combat these problems. Currently, there are just three centers in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. Wilson says more are needed, and lauds the allocation of anticipated Prop 47 funds for future trauma recovery centers.

Here’s a clip:

Responding to a minor disturbance outside an apartment complex, Dan spoke with some young, very intoxicated men. One man, who had been in jail for drugs and feared a return trip, drew his gun and shot Dan. The man was caught, convicted and received the death penalty. But the healing I expected did not come. I was angry, depressed and broken.

As a police widow, I had all the support you could want: Friends brought me food, Dan’s colleagues helped me navigate the justice system and everyone always saw me as a victim. Without this support, I would not have made it.

However, the entire experience led me to view the system itself as broken…

This endless cycle of incarceration is largely driven by mental health and drug addiction issues that continue to be punished instead of healed. This is exactly what happened with the man who shot my husband.

The current approach is not working; it’s expensive and not making us safer. This realization led me to work with Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, a statewide network whose members were in Sacramento on Monday and Tuesday to call for new priorities that better aid survivors.

For example, the support I received after Dan’s death is the exception, not the rule. After meeting with survivors, I realize that the justice system does not respond to victims equally. Equally troubling is that a vast majority of crime survivors don’t know about, or have access to, services for victims.

Posted in DCFS, District Attorney, Foster Care, Innocence, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, law enforcement | No Comments »

Santa Clara Does it Right With Duel Status Kids….Defining Violent Felony….Freddy Gray’s Voice

April 23rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Earlier this month we introduced you to Angel,
a young woman, now-20, who had spent much of her adolescence in the care of [tk] County juvenile probation, not because she was particularly breaking any laws (save things like lying about her name when approached by cops), but because after years of chronicled abuse by her mother, she finally fought back, although she was reportedly the one with the bruises. As a consequence Angel wound up a juvenile lock-up. Then, when her term was finished, she stayed under the care of probation, because—although she should have long-ago been in the foster care system, now that she was a teenager, no one seemed sure where else to put her.

Angel was a “duel status” or crossover kid, which in many California jurisdictions makes kids like her nobody’s child.

As defined by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, the term “dual status youth” refers to young people who come into contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and occupy various statuses in terms of their relationship to the two systems. A growing body of research has consistently shown that, in comparison to kids involved in only one of the two systems, dual status youth are usually dealing with more in the way of childhood trauma and other daunting challenges. Sadly, despite their needs, these kids often get less consistent help and attention than singly involved young people.

The RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice (a division of the RFK Children’s Action Corps) is trying to change all that by offering consultation, technical assistance, and training to local, state and national “youth-serving agencies” to improve the lives and the outcomes of duel status kids.

With this in mind they have worked with 13 jurisdictions around the nation on efforts designed appropriately synchronize the two systems—child welfare and juvenile justice—in order to give dual status kids the consistant care and services they need to begin to thrive.

One of RFK’s earliest “demonstration” sites is California’s Santa Clara County, which is located at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay and encompasses 1,312 square miles.

Heidi Benson, writing for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, has written an excellent profile of what Santa Clara is doing with RFK’s guidance, who is involved, and how it is changing kids’ lives for the better.

Here are some clips:

SAN JOSE, Calif. — At 8 years old, Marco had spent most of his life in the child welfare system. When an uncle took him in, to the first stable family environment he’d ever known, the boy finally began to thrive.

When he turned 13, his behavior changed. He started fighting at school and smoking marijuana daily. His uncle feared for the family’s safety. Marco was sent to a group home. Soon, he was living on the street, addicted to methamphetamine.

The scenario is all too common, said Laura Garnette, chief probation officer for Santa Clara County. “Kids hit adolescence and something snaps.

“We don’t know why, whether it’s memories or the onset of puberty,” said Garnette, who first studied to be a psychologist. “Something triggers past trauma.”

[SNIP]

Previously, Marco might have fallen into the bureaucratic and philosophical gap between probation and child welfare. Today, he is back in school and in treatment for substance abuse. Though he is still in a group home, he now lives four days a week with his uncle, whose family is getting supportive services.

“Marco will probably be our first graduate,” said Garnette, who sat in on his hearing in January. “Soon, he’ll be out of both systems. He’ll be living full-time with his uncle. That’s our goal.”

[SNIP]

Once a case is labeled “dually involved,” another team convenes — a family meeting, organized by a facilitator who is also a youth advocate.

“They bring in everybody under the sun,” Tondreau said, including parents or foster parents, social workers and probation officers. The group stays on board until a case is decided. The anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said. “Kids are saying, I really like my team, I’m glad they’re involved in my life.”

A growing body of scientific research shows that the adolescent brain is more malleable and more complex than previously known. The findings have informed progressive legislation: In 2014, taking a cue from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentences.”

The distinction has come into play in Santa Clara.

[SNIP]

Even in the best of circumstances, adolescents are vulnerable to poor judgment while their brains are developing. “You’re not weighing consequences because you don’t have the ability to do it quite yet,” said [Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Patrick] Tondreau, who confessed that he knows this through personal experience.

“Part of the reason for my love of juvenile court is that I was in juvenile delinquency court myself,” he said. “I was a good kid, but I got involved with a couple of guys and we snuck out every night and were going for joy rides. Nobody locked their cars back in 1961. We’d get in the car. We’d drive around. And we’d park it right where we’d found it. We weren’t trying to hurt anybody. Then one night, we hit a telephone pole. Everybody got hurt. Not badly. We were lucky.”

At the time he was an Eagle Scout and on the basketball team of his Jesuit high school in Portland, Ore.

He never forgot the sadness he felt, or how deeply upset his parents were. “The shame that they had, that cured everything. The judge couldn’t have done anything to me,” he said.

“Even as a really good kid, with really good parents, I made some terrible mistakes. Adolescents screw up. It’s what happens.”

Now, as a judge of adolescents, he brings that awareness to the bench.

And so does Santa Clara County.


WHEN A VIOLENT FELONY ISN’T VIOLENT

In federal criminal law, the definition of “violent felony” is an extremely fuzzy one. The LA Times Editorial Board hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will force Congress into making some needed changes.

Here’s a clip:

Twice recently the Supreme Court has chastised the U.S. Department of Justice for stretching criminal laws beyond their rational application in order to secure a conviction. Beyond their consequences for individual defendants, these decisions sent a welcome message to prosecutors that they must not uproot a statute from its clear context in order to get their man (or woman).

Sometimes, however, prosecutors are aided in their overreach by laws that are so vaguely written that it’s not clear exactly what conduct is being targeted. On Monday, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to one such law, which allowed the government to define illegal possession of a gun as a “violent felony” justifying an extended prison term.

The exceedingly unattractive defendant in this case, Samuel Johnson, is a white supremacist from Minnesota who pleaded guilty in 2012 to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term because he had three prior “violent felonies” on his record. Johnson conceded that two of his previous convictions, for robbery and attempted robbery, were violent felonies. But he disputed the government’s decision to classify a third conviction, for possessing a short-barreled shotgun, as a “violent felony.”

The notion that the mere possession of an illegal firearm is a violent act defies the dictionary and common understanding, and Johnson initially argued — plausibly — that it was not. But Monday’s arguments focused on a broader issue: whether the violent felony provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. The answer is clearly yes.


AND NOW….FREDDY GREY’S VOICE & A NEW DOJ INVESTIGATION

Now there is an other front-and-center death of a young black man in the nation’s vision; that of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would launch a civil rights investigation into Gray’s death in police custody, which is sparking ongoing demonstrations.

Gray, 27, died this past Sunday, April 19, a week after he was chased by Baltimore officers on April 12, when he took off running after exchanging eye-contact with one of the cops. It is not clear why the BPD chased him, other than the fact that he ran. He was found to have a knife on him, which is not necessarily illegal in Baltimore, and which was not known until he was caught and searched. None of the officers who apprehended Gray described any kind of use of force on the man.

And yet…..Gray reportedly died of a complication of a spinal injury that, barring out-of-season lightening strikes or other forces majeures, almost certainly were sustained during his arrest or during his transport in a police van, or possible both, with the van ride worsening a first injury. According to The Baltimore Sun, members of Freddie Gray’s family have said he sustained three fractured vertebrae in his neck and that his larynx was crushed. Since anyone with the slightest amount of first aid training knows that moving a spinal injured person can exacerbate the problem, the van ride, particularly if he travelled without a seatbelt, could have turned a bad situation tragic. The Sun has also reported that officers present in the van said that Gray repeatedly asked for medical attention.

And was Gray spinal-injured in the course of being apprehended by police? A cell-phone video taken by a local observer would certainly suggest so, given the strange limpness of Gray’s legs as he is being dragged to the police van, shouting what appears to be intense pain.

Baltimore officials like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and police Chief Anthony Batts, (formerly of Long Beach PD, followed by Oakland PD) have struck most of the right notes, promising an unusually quick and transparent investigation, and being very careful to humanize Freddy Gray with believable empathy, while not demonizing officers as they do so. The BPD has, however, suspended the six officers most involved.

The BPD investigation is due to be handed over to prosecutors on May 1. Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she will launch an investigation by an independent commission. And now we have the feds.

If you haven’t yet watched the cell-phone video of Mr. Gray’s arrest, you can find it above. It is harrowing. Not so much the look of it. It is the sound of Gray’s voice.

Here, if you’d like to read a little further, is a commentary by The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson that talks mostly about that voice.


Photo of Angel by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Department of Justice, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation, law enforcement, racial justice, Sentencing | No Comments »

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

April 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker

NEW REPORT SHOWS STATES ARE STARTING TO RE-THINK PUTTING KIDS IN OUT-OF-HOME DETENTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FBI FORENSIC HAIR EXAMINERS GAVE FLAWED TESTIMONY IN HUNDREDS OF TRIALS SPANNING DECADES

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

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

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

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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


CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM “JOVEN NOBLE” HELPS AT-RISK LATINO BOYS NAVIGATE THE ROAD TO ADULTHOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

After learning about Joven Noble, his outlook is different.

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucial Bill to Give More Crossover Kids a Chance at Extended Foster Care Benefits Passes Out of Committee

April 17th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



On Tuesday of this week, a bill was passed out of committee
that, if passed by the full California legislature, would offer extended foster care benefits to groups of what are known as “crossover youth”—kids affected by both the juvenile justice and the foster care systems. An earlier bill (AB 12), that passed in 2010, gave many crossover youth the crucial three-years of extra help that research has shown can dramatically improve outcomes for kids as they begin to navigate adulthood without the help of stable families. But, due to quirks in the law, still other crossover youth were excluded from receiving the all-important extended benefits.

The new bill, SB 12, which was introduced by Sen. Jim Beale (D),, was the focus of a recent story by Daniel Heimpel, that was co-published by WitnessLA and the Chronicle of Social Change. The story, called Who is Watching Out for Angel, told of a now 20-year-old young woman who entered the foster care system through the doorway of juvenile probation when she was arrested following a fight with her mother, after years of reported abuse at home.

While Angel now hopes to qualify for extended care, the need for the bill was made particularly clear by two earlier stories written by Brian Rinker (here and here) for the Chronicle of Social Change.

Rinker wrote of three brothers who entered foster care together but were immediately split up, and each sent to different placements. Due a variety of circumstances, only the youngest brother, Joseph Bakhi, was eligible for extended care, while his two older brothers, Terrick and Matt, were not. The outcomes for each of the three brothers differed dramatically. Joseph attended UC Berkeley with scholarships and financial aid available only to foster youth. In contrast, the other two brothers—Terrick and Matt—had no support after turning 18, either from family or from the state, and faced constant struggle, were at times homeless, and began battling with drug addition.

On Tuesday, Joseph Bakhi attended the committee hearing in support of his brother Terrick, who was hit particularly hard by the lack of support after he turned 18.

“I am a proud recipient of AB 12,” Joseph told Chronicle of Social Change reporter Sawssan Morrar. “And with assistance like this I could only imagine the difference in Terrick’s outcome. Issues like these are prevented by AB 12 and other resources, but the criteria to receive them are exclusive to kids that fall under dependency status.”

We will be following the progress of SB 12, as it makes its way through the legislative process.


Photo by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation | No Comments »

Mentally Ill and Locked-up Kids, State of the City, and Police Brutality

April 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

BACKGROUND ON RAHEEM HOUSSEINI’S ILLUMINATING STORY ABOUT HOW MENTALLY ILL KIDS WIND UP IN JAIL

Here in California, there has been ample discussion about how adults with mental illnesses are winding up in jails and prisons instead of receiving appropriate treatment in their communities or in mental health facilities. (And in LA County, in particular, District Attorney Jackie Lacey is working on a comprehensive mental health diversion program.)

Sacramento-based reporter Raheem Hosseini found, almost by accident, that the same thing is happening to mentally ill kids in California, and wrote in-depth about the issue last November.

This week, Hosseini published a story-behind-the-story about how he came upon this troubling set of facts and the difficulties he faced in reporting on kids with mental illness in the juvenile justice system. Here’s a clip:

Interim chief probation officer Suzanne Collins spent her limited time summarizing her department’s mandate: supervising adult offenders once they exit custody; producing in-depth assessments for the courts to consider at sentencing; and housing juvenile delinquents. While describing this last mission, Collins made the off-hand comment about juvenile hall having turned into a “commitment facility” for mentally ill children with no other place to go. The session quickly moved onto other business. In my head, however, the bell had been rung.

I had become familiar with the shifting complexion of adult prisons and jails, where a third to half of inmates experience mental health issues, depending on who — and when — you asked. But I had done little reporting on the juvenile justice system, and I was surprised to hear such an alarming assertion dropped so casually.

Because, if true, this is where the prison pipeline began for children who needed help, not institutionalization.

It wasn’t until weeks later that I was able to schedule a tour of juvenile hall. The kids I briefly met, especially in the special needs unit, stuck with me. Who were they? What brought them here? And where would they go next?

I managed to pick story subjects with multiple, co-existing privacy obstacles: Minors (1) with mental illnesses (2) in the juvenile justice system (3).

How would I find them? And can a mentally ill minor even grant consent to their story being told? That’s a question I posed to a few of the speakers present at a week-long health reporting fellowship at the University of Southern California in February 2014. I got sympathetic shrugs in return.

When I started reporting, I immediately reached out to multiple youth justice foundations, advocacy groups and researchers to see if they could put me in touch with mentally ill incarcerated juveniles, former juveniles and their families. Many requests went unanswered; some referred me to other groups or individuals; most said they couldn’t put me in touch with anyone.

Meanwhile, locating hard data on mental health trends within the juvenile justice system proved almost as tricky…

Here’s a clip from Hosseini’s original story about how kids who really need mental health care get ensnared in the juvenile justice system (where they are over-prescribed antipsychotics) and what counties are doing, or are not doing, to rectify the situation:

Ashley Drake is trying to be something other than a cautionary tale. In a north Sacramento law enforcement office, the 22-year-old waits on a probation officer, the same one she’s had since childhood. It’s time again to reach for the straight and narrow.

She’s never had much help in that department.

Afflicted with bipolar disorder, clinical depression and avoidant personality disorder symptoms, Drake’s childhood is a blur of family discord, 10 juvenile hall detentions and 13 separate group home placements. Therapy, counseling and treatment? They never happened. Instead, she began self-medicating with hard drugs as an adolescent, and has since graduated to adult jails…

According to a comprehensive analysis completed in September for the Sacramento County Criminal Justice Cabinet, nearly 43 percent of the average daily juvenile hall population received mental health services this year, a 19-percent increase over 2000. Of the 84 children who were served, 52 received psychotropic drugs. The representation of medicated juveniles at the hall rose by 16 percent in comparison to 2004, when the population was larger and the number of medicated kids smaller—around 32—an examination of state and local data shows.

“About half of our juvenile hall is a mental health facility. And we don’t have adequate services to keep up with that,” says Arthur L. Bowie, supervising assistant public defender of the county’s juvenile division. “We’re making criminals out of them, instead of what they are.”

What they are, says Bowie and others, are victims of abusive homes and failed institutions. Institutionalized at a young age and too often deprived of proper psychiatric care, they’re groomed for lives on perpetual lockdown.

“Half these kids don’t belong in detention,” says deputy probation officer Gabo Ly, who supervises the special needs unit, where juvenile hall’s most emotionally and psychologically unstable are segregated. “But this is all we have.”

It’s a crisis in quiet, sapped of any grand political campaign or national outcry.

Read the rest.


LA MAYOR’S STATE OF THE CITY: COMMUNITY POLICING, TARGETING CRIME HOTSPOTS, FUNDING GRYD

At CSUN on Tuesday, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti delivered his second annual State of the City address. The mayor announced a new 40-officer LAPD unit that will focus on community policing, as well as other activities (like coaching sports teams) that will build better relationships between cops and the neighborhoods they serve.

The LAPD will also hire 200 new Metropolitan Division officers to target high crime areas. (KPCC’S Frank Stoltze has more on this plan and why critics say it may harm the efforts of community policing.) Each police division will also receive a new specialized domestic violence unit.

Among other noteworthy changes, an extra $5.5 million in funding will go to the Gang Reduction Youth Development program, which allows for GRYD’s Summer Night Lights program to be extended to include non-summer Friday nights in some park locations.

KPCC’s Sharon McNary has more on the State of the City address. Here’s a clip from the mayor’s speech:

“We should all be very proud: we reduced overall crime at the end of last year to its lowest level per capita since 1949.

But our city’s violent crime numbers were up.

And as long as I’m your Mayor, I won’t duck bad news. I’m going to own it and I’m going to attack it.

Here’s how:

First, we’re nearly doubling the ranks of LAPD’s elite Metropolitan Division, so we can quickly saturate a neighborhood with additional officers when crime spikes.

Second, because domestic violence increased in our city last year, we’re also doubling the number of our Domestic Abuse Response Teams so there’s one in every LAPD division — and today, I am proud to announce that they will be on the streets by July first, six months ahead of schedule.

DART teams are civilians who roll out with police officers and give victims of domestic abuse the legal, medical, and emotional support they need to break the cycle of violence.

Third, we know that intervention works…when our Gang Reduction and Youth Development workers step in, guns are lowered and lives are saved.

Today, I’m pleased to share that the budget that I’m sending City Council next week will include five point five million dollars more for the GRYD program, so we can cover new territory and 50 percent more gang-related violent crime.


TA-NEHISI COATES: BEYOND POLICE REFORM, SITUATIONS FOR WHICH LAW ENFORCEMENT MAY NOT BE THE BEST SOLUTION

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates says that instead of questioning whether a police use of force was within the law and department policy, we should question whether we should have sent the officer(s) out to deal with the situation that led to a use of force. Coates says we should ask, for instance, whether there are safer (for both officers and the public) and more peaceful ways to deal with a person who is skipping out on child support (instead of arrest), or to help someone in the throes of a mental health crisis. Here’s a clip:

There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, “Were they justified in shooting?” But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, “Were we justified in sending them?” At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one’s children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can’t be every place.

When Walter Scott fled from the North Charleston police, he was not merely fleeing Thomas Slager, he was attempting to flee incarceration. He was doing this because we have decided that the criminal-justice system is the best tool for dealing with men who can’t, or won’t, support their children at a level that we deem satisfactory. Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up, and said to the criminal-justice system, “You deal with this.”

Last week I was in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was informed of the killing of Tony Robinson by a police officer. Robinson was high on mushrooms. The police were summoned after he chased a car. The police killed him. A month earlier, I’d been thinking a lot about Anthony Hill, who was mentally ill. One day last month, Hill stripped off his clothes and started jumping off of his balcony. The police were called. They killed him.

[SNIP]

Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners.

STEVE LOPEZ: COPS GET TOO MUCH LEEWAY ON USE OF FORCE

In his column, the LA Times’ Steve Lopez says that while officers have to make extremely difficult, split-second decisions to protect their own safety and the safety of the public, deadly use of force incidents resulting from minor civilian misdeeds seem to occur too frequently. And, after questionable uses of force, officers are investigated by their own department, District Attorneys with close ties to local law enforcement agencies, and sympathetic juries. Here’s a clip:

The job is inherently dangerous, split-second decisions are hard to make under pressure, and sideline critics like me have the advantage of hindsight in second-guessing the use of deadly force.

But too often, it seems to me, we’re left trying to understand how a minor infraction or mere suspicion of criminal activity could have escalated into a deadly confrontation, and why police didn’t use better judgment.

[BIG SNIP]

It’s also time for police to refine the widespread broken-windows strategy — a full-bore crackdown on minor infractions to discourage serious crime — that can border on harassment and have deadly consequences, even if it does conveniently fill local treasuries with money from nuisance citations.

I’d like to put in a vote for the development and use of less lethal arms and ammo — such as a non-penetrating bullet now being tested in Ferguson, Mo. — that can incapacitate a suspect without killing him.

And it’s time to review deadly force policies and training.

Stephen Downing, a retired LAPD deputy chief, said he thinks a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on use of force has led to varying interpretations that give police too little guidance and too much latitude in determining when to shoot.

In training and practice, Downing said, the standard has been pushed “closer to what is justified by law as opposed to what is expected by the community. Thus, we see more and more, ‘He reached for his waistband’ rather than, ‘I opted to take cover, assess, develop a tactical alternative to use of deadly force and do all in my power to avoid taking a life.’”

And as for cops who negligently or maliciously cross the line, no more free passes. As Los Angeles attorney Walter Katz argued last week in a Harvard Law Review commentary, it’s time for independent investigations of police shootings, to help restore police accountability and public trust.


MAN SUING LAPD FOR ALLEGED BRUTALITY SAYS COPS ARE HARRASSING HIS FAMILY

Clinton Alford Jr., a 22-year-old man who filed a lawsuit last year against the LAPD for alleged excessive use of force, says officers are retaliating against him. Alford says officers drew guns on him during a traffic stop, have driven by his house heckling Alford and his family, and flown a helicopter so low above his home that the house shook.

Last fall, a store security camera captured video of an officer allegedly kicked Alford in the head while he was being restrained on the ground. LAPD officials said Alford was not resisting arrest, and one viewer described it as “a football player kicking a field goal.”

The LA Times’ Kate Mather has the story. Here’s a clip:

Flanked by his father and his attorney, Clinton Alford Jr. told reporters that officers have repeatedly driven past his South L.A. house. And helicopters have flown so close overhead that walls and windows shook.

The 22-year-old’s attorney, Caree Harper, said officers had “heckled” Alford and his family while driving past their home. Last week, she said, officers drew their guns on her client after stopping him for a traffic violation.

Harper said she planned to amend a federal civil rights lawsuit she filed on Alford’s behalf to include the allegations of retaliation by police.

“They want to catch him doing anything,” she said. “Even if he’s not doing anything.”

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, an LAPD spokesman, declined to discuss the Oct. 16 incident, citing an ongoing internal investigation and civil litigation.

“There’s already an internal affairs investigation into this matter,” he said. “If they have any other allegations of misconduct, we’re eager to hear them and have internal affairs investigate them fully.”

Posted in Eric Garcetti, jail, juvenile justice, LAPD, Mental Illness | 2 Comments »

WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR ANGEL? The Shadowy Intersection of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice – by Daniel Heimpel

April 12th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon




EDITOR’S NOTE:
On Tuesday, the California Senate Judiciary Committee will debate a bill to widen access to extended foster care benefits for probation-involved foster kids who have landed in the juvenile justice world because of untenable situations at home.

The wonderful and important story below written by Daniel Heimpel—and co-produced by WitnessLA & the Chronicle of Social Change— explains in deeply human terms why this bill is so essential.

WHO IS WATCHING OUT FOR ANGEL?

A 20-year-old’s saga of abuse, incarceration and heartache illuminates the shadowy intersection of child welfare and juvenile justice.

by Daniel Heimpel


Like a picture in a magazine.

That’s how Angel’s mother Leah wanted their small townhouse in Pacifica, California, to look. Picture perfect.

Leah says that she got the idea of giving her 12-year-old daughter chores after Angel’s school sent home fliers describing the importance of teaching children how to “become successful adults.”

When her adolescent daughter failed to manage perfection—when Angel missed a task in her 16-point list of chores that ranged from cleaning the cat’s litter box to folding plastic grocery bags exactly four times over—Leah’s mood grew dark.

The punishments she meted out escalated from ridiculous, to humiliating, to grim.

“She would ground me from food,” Angel, says. “She would ground me from wearing normal clothes. I’d have to go to school in my pajamas. She would ground me from petting my cat. She would ground me from my room.”

Having given birth to Angel when she was herself just 16, Leah says that she didn’t ever learn how to be a parent. Then, when her own father died, and Angel was around 14, Leah stifled her grief with a mixture of alcohol and cocaine, which she admits affected her behavior.

Whatever the exact cause, when her daughter failed to maintain the order she was trying to bring to their home, Leah’s reactions were extreme. She would exile Angel to the communal laundry room of their housing complex. There, with the damp Pacific cold pushing in, cat vomit on the floor, the girl would be forced to sleep.

Worse still were the beatings. Sometimes, Angel says, her mother would hold her down, and use scissors to cut the clothes off her body.

One day when the girl was 15, the usual discord between Angel and her mother erupted. This time, however, the conflict took a direction that would set Angel adrift in the murky space between juvenile justice and foster care.

The row began in the evening over some dirt under the microwave that Angel had neglected to wipe up. This time Angel stormed out before the punishments could start.
When she came back, red-faced from climbing the hill to their home, her mother accused her of being drunk.

“She confiscated my book bag saying she was going to look for drugs in it,” Angel says. With her book bag, Leah also took the homework that Angel had to turn in the next day.

Angel was famous for leaving everything until the last minute, says her grandmother, Wendy.

“Talk about a fuse lit and the bomb explodes,” Wendy says. “The situation became very volatile.”

Angel kicked Leah’s door, frantic to get the book bag back.

Leah burst out, and attempted to ground Angel from her room again. “She started taking my door off the hinges. I tried to stop her, and was met with punches and kicks so I backed away.”

Leah’s version is different. Instead of demanding her schoolwork, Leah says that her daughter threatened her.

“’I don’t fantasize about drugs or sex,’” Leah remembers Angel saying, “’I fantasize about ways to kill you.’”

Both Angel and Leah agree about the way the fight ended. “I copped out and called the cops,” Leah says.

An hour later, two male police officers appeared at the front door. Angel told them that she was the victim, and tried to show them the hot red welts on her arms and legs from where her mother had hit her. “They averted their eyes so quickly,” Angel says, “as if they wanted to pretend I had never said anything.”

The cops took Angel to the Pacifica police station. From there, she was moved to San Mateo County “Youth Services Center,” a juvenile hall in Belmont, where she spent two-and-half months. Finally, Angel says, her attorney told her that if she took a plea deal, she would be released faster than if she waited around for trial. She pleaded guilty to charges of vandalism and battery and spent the next five months across the street in the Margaret J. Kemp Camp for girls.

When the five months were up, no one was sure where to send the girl. Leah admits that child protective services had investigated her because of reports of abuse and neglect filed by neighbors and Angel’s estranged father over the years, starting when Angel was a baby and Leah was still in her teens. Why child services never removed Angel from Leah’s care earlier is not clear. But when her relationship with her mother failed, and she was released from camp, it was probation’s turn to act as a parent.

And so it was that, in 2010, Angel became one of roughly 4,000 California children who to this day enter the juvenile justice system and are kept in group homes because they have nowhere to go or cannot be safely returned home to serve out the terms of their probation.


CALIFORNIA’S “SECOND SYSTEM”

California’s probation system is one of a number across the country that use federal foster care funds to take care of kids like Angel who enter juvenile justice but have no safe home to serve out their probation terms, so are placed in group homes. With the federal dollars come strings, along with memorandums of understanding spelling out for all 58 counties that their juvenile probation departments must provide case management like the foster care system would.

But probation isn’t foster care. It is a law enforcement agency, which means its go-to method for eliciting compliance from kids is often its power of arrest, a tactic that runs contrary to the goals of healing children from the emotional abuse that got so many of them caught up with the law in the first place.

Then there is the matter of what to do when this distinct subset of vulnerable probation youth reach age 18.

In the foster care system, it has long been recognized that to cut all aid at age 18 was to invite poor outcomes with disproportionately high numbers of foster youth experiencing homelessness, incarceration and diminished educational opportunity. When it comes to children who have had the double blow of experiencing foster care and the juvenile justice system, a famous 2011 study out of Los Angeles tracking these so-called “crossover youth” showed that their transitions into adulthood can be twice as perilous.

With the outcomes of foster youth in mind, in 2010 the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 12, which extended foster care benefits from age 18 to 21. In 2012, California began implementing AB 12, and kids like Angel, who entered foster care through probation’s door, were eligible.

While Angel describes her encounters with juvenile justice as painful and providing little discernible therapeutic value, they did afford her the opportunity for support past age 18.

“These young people are fleeing abuse and neglect,” says Amy Lemley, the policy director of the John Burton Foundation, and a leading advocate behind AB 12. “ They [probation foster youth] probably did something as a direct result of being maltreated, and that resulted in them entering the juvenile justice system. We have a secondary system for kids that act out because they were abused.”

While far from ideal, that “secondary system” provides a unique escape, unavailable in most states.

“In other places, the juvenile justice system is completely distinct,” Lemley says. “She [Angel] would have been shuttled into the criminal justice system and not be eligible for extended foster care.”

Pending legislation here in California could open up eligibility for extended foster care to even more young people who were involved in the probation system.

But advocates maintain that this is not a simple policy fix. Across the state, county probation departments are grappling with how best to help these emerging adults who are often suffering the long-term effects of childhoods riddled with traumatic events, including having spent large parts of their younger days in juvenile halls, camps or probation-run group homes.


THEN THE TRAILER CAUGHT FIRE

Shortly before Angel’s 16th birthday, the juvenile probation department in San Mateo County released her to the custody of her grandmother, who had finally agreed to take her. While this new living situation was far preferable to returning Angel to her mother, it was less than ideal.

Angel’s grandmother, Wendy, had always been an anxious and at times oblivious woman. (She confesses, for example, that she had no idea that her stepson had been sexually abusing Leah when she was a child.) With Angel sleeping on a couch in her cramped South San Francisco apartment, Wendy tried to set the “boundaries” in a sort of delayed atonement for her failings as a mother to Leah.

“She worried about my safety excessively and didn’t want me to end up like my mother: a teenage parent on drugs,” Angel says.

Angel admits she wasn’t an easy kid to handle. “I came to her after suffering years of trauma,” she says. “I was struggling to cope and I had a tremendous amount of repressed anger.”

Wendy’s efforts to keep the rebellious teenager in check, along with the terms of Angel’s probation, which included strict curfews, came to a head one night in January of 2013. Wendy had been up the whole of the previous night, sewing a Victorian-era styled dress for Angel to wear at a dance the following evening. Angel and her grandmother had bonded over tales of English aristocracy and stories of Wendy’s grandmother, who had been educated in London and spoke the “Queen’s English.”

“It was part of the family mythology we liked to connect with,” Wendy says.

But the sleepless night of sewing, along with the strain of a recent invasive medical procedure to remove varicose veins, caused Wendy’s temper to flare and the two fought. The rupture lasted for weeks. By March, Wendy says that Angel was increasingly elusive, staying away nights at a time. Finally one night, a worried Wendy remembers driving to the South San Francisco Police station with an 8.5 x 11 inch photo of Angel’s face, and pleading with police to find her granddaughter.

When the police did find Angel near a San Bruno shopping mall a few hours later, she was scared of being locked up again and gave the cops a fake name. Angel pleaded guilty to giving false identification to a police officer and was soon whisked back to San Mateo County juvenile hall, where she remained for the next two-and-a-half months.

“I thought it was very unfair,” Angel says. “I hadn’t done anything wrong, but was being treated like a criminal.”

When it was time for her release from San Mateo Juvenile Hall, Angel’s grandmother would no longer take her in, and her mother’s home still wasn’t a legal option. Thus county probation “placed” her in a group home on the grounds of the juvenile hall.

The group home, called the Excell Readiness Center, was in reality a flimsy prefab structure, where four boys and four girls were crammed into four tight bedrooms. Angel would spend the next 10 months there. She was due for release when she turned 18.

Weeks from her birthday, Angel met with her probation officer who gave her a cursory description of the extended foster care benefits available to her. According to Angel, it was one of only a handful of times she met with her P.O.

Days after the meeting, a dryer in Angel’s group home caught on fire.

“Smoke was pouring into my room from the hallway,” Angel says. “My entire room was full of it.”

As she and her trailer mates were evacuated, she remembered that one of the boys had once threatened to set the place on fire. “He actually did it,” Angel says.

After a long and cold night spent in one of the group home vans, the kids who had been consigned to the trailer were moved to the “receiving home” down the street where children removed from their homes because of safety concerns were kept until they could be placed in foster care. “Our clothes and hair still smelled of smoke when they woke us up,” Angel says.

Vernon Brown, the CEO of Aspiranet a large youth service provider that ran the readiness center until 2014, says that most of the kids were moved back to the structure within a couple of weeks.

But for Angel, the fire meant leaving probation’s care prematurely and going back to live with her grandmother prior to her 18th birthday. Wendy agreed to take her granddaughter back, under the condition that it would only be for a few weeks.

Once those weeks were up, as is the case for so many other probation-involved foster youth, the only thing certain in Angel’s life was uncertainty. She was not terribly clear about how to get the extended benefits her probation officer had outlined only briefly. And the idea of putting herself back into the county’s hands made her anxious.

So Angel struck out on her own.


WIDENING THE DOOR

In October of 2010, the year AB 12 was passed, 391 youth between age 18 and 20 were supervised by probation in group homes, according to data compiled by the Center for Social Services Research at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. By January of this year, the new law was showing impressive results. The number of 18 to 20-year-old probation youth had exploded by almost 400 percent to 1,485 young people.

But advocates contend that significant numbers of probation-involved foster youth are still being excluded from AB 12, so are pushing for new legislation to open access to kids who share similar experiences with Angel.

Among those young people still slipping between the cracks are those who have spent large stretches of time in the county’s care but are, by happenstance, released from probation group homes to the custody of a relative before they turn 18.

“They forget that the youth ever came from child welfare,” says Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director the Youth Law Center, and a central player behind a series of legislative pushes to improve AB 12 for probation-involved foster youth. “Sometimes the probation department is releasing them right back to the parent who child welfare removed them from. All the problems that initiated the child welfare referral still remain and are not resolved.”

Another group presently excluded are the otherwise AB 12 eligible kids who, for one reason or another, find themselves in a locked juvenile facility on their 18th birthday, at which point any extended benefits suddenly vanish.

In October of last year, The Chronicle of Social Change published a story following the lives of three brothers who had all been in foster care.

The youngest, Joseph Bakhit, was AB 12 eligible and is using the extended benefits to help him pursue a degree at UC Berkeley. The oldest, Matthew, was excluded because he was already 21 when the law was implemented. Terrick, the middle brother, was denied AB 12 benefits because he was locked up in San Diego County’s Camp Barrett on his 18th birthday. If he had been released to a group home the day before, or if the judge had written him an all-important “placement order,” he would have been eligible.

Without the benefits, Terrick has struggled to succeed, the most stable employment he has had was selling knives for Cutco.

State Senator Jim Beall, who had been one of the lead legislative proponents behind AB 12, was moved by the story of the Bakhit brothers, and the efforts of advocacy groups like the Youth Law Center, to introduce legislation that would expand extended foster care eligibility for probation-involved foster youth.

“When you take away benefits, it is telling the kid, ‘You’re not going to college,’” Beall says. “I fail to see the logic of taking away the benefits. We’re going to fix that. That is the intent of [Senate Bill] 12.”

SB 12, which will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 14, would also open up eligibility for a class of kids who, like Angel, had nowhere to go when the terms of their probation were up. But, while Angel was legally “placed” with grandmother Wendy, making her magically eligible, some are simply sent to live with a relative or other caretaker without a placement order, leaving them ineligible for the important three years of extended foster care benefits.

But the proposed legislation has powerful opponents, such as county probation department officials from up and down the state who say they are already struggling to deal with the influx of AB 12-eligible foster youth, so are opposed to widening the door for still more young people.

“We are having difficulty serving the foster youth we do have,” says Rosemary McCool, deputy director of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC). “The current programs, in our view, aren’t sufficiently funded. We shouldn’t be expanding the population by any amount.”



PROBATION AS PARENT

As Beall and others battle with the CPOC over whether or not to fix the policy barriers for excluded crossover and probation youth, the big question affecting young people now in the system is this: Are probation departments equipped to effectively stand in for parents during AB 12 kids’ fitful transitions into adulthood?

California is a vast and diverse state, and some counties deal with the fates of their 18-year-old charges better than others. Contra Costa County is among those still struggling, according to an attorney with intimate knowledge of the county’s system.

Virginia Corrigan is both a deputy public defender in Contra Costa County and a lawyer working for the Youth Law Center through a fellowship offered by Baker & McKenzie LLP and Intel. As a P.D., Corrigan carries a caseload of more than 30 Contra Costa probation youth who are AB 12 eligible.

She says that while the county is good at getting kids into AB 12, probation lacks the institutional knowledge to effectively deal with housing and other critical services once the kids are in the system.

“Sometimes supervision of this population is foreign to probation,” Corrigan says.

The matter became clear to Corrigan on her very first case in 2013, when she spent weeks helping her young client fill out forms for housing services, and explaining how AB 12 worked.

“It ends up being a replacement for what a social worker would be doing,” she says. “My primary goal should be advocating for them in court,” not helping them with paperwork to get them a place to live.

Across the Bay in San Francisco, the county’s juvenile probation system is far more proactive. Instead of relying on its probation officers to handle the casework for AB 12-eligible probation youth, the department added two new social workers dedicated exclusively to working with that population. The workers were assigned to the Juvenile Collaborative Re-Entry Unit (JCRU), which was already helping the county’s probation youth as they transition back into their communities.

“We were very aware of the conflict of having probation officers supervise those youth,” says Allison Magee, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Zellerbach Family Foundation, who, while serving as deputy director of the city’s Juvenile Probation Department in 2012, came up with the idea of hiring social workers for AB 12 kids. “It frankly is confusing to both the child and the P.O., as the P.O. has mandated responsibilities that would become very blurry.”

Allen Nance, chief of San Francisco’s Probation Department, also considers the strategy important. “Unlike other departments across the state, we are one of the few, if not the only, that has chosen to staff these caseloads with social workers instead of probation officers.”

Rebecca Marcus is a San Francisco juvenile public defender with 24 current AB 12 kids on her caseload. Marcus sees AB 12 as a lifeline for young people who have few options when released from probation without a safe place to call home.

“I have had two kids within the past year who were AB 12 eligible, whose high school graduations I attended, who didn’t take advantage of the program and who were both killed in San Francisco,” she says.

The latest death, which occurred just a month ago in March, has clearly shaken the fast-talking public defender.

“AB 12 is a tool to help young people relocate out of wherever they live,” she says, pointing out that oftentimes these youngsters return to the same dangerous neighborhoods that led them into the system in the first place. This was the case, she says, with her 19-year-old client. “He had the ability through AB 12 to relocate. He did not, and was murdered in the middle of the day.”

Polina Abramson is one of San Francisco’s two AB 12 social workers who work to keep kids caught in risky personal circumstances in extended foster care. She says she has 19 such cases, five of which are “unfunded,” meaning that the young people are not meeting all of AB 12’s eligibility requirements. Her counterpart, Heather Bruemmer, has a caseload of 22.

In addition to that list, there are other kids who are eligible, says Abramson, but didn’t opt in immediately, thus winnowing down the three short years of benefits that AB 12 offers.

Abramson says she understands why 18-year-olds often want to strike out on their own, especially those whose last residence was a probation group home. But, she notes, they often come back.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that goes into surviving in the real world,” Abramson says. “Kids realize that they could actually benefit from having someone in their life and have support.”

When they do, Abramson and Newell are there to catch them. And P.D. Marcus is more than ready to make their case in court.

In Angel’s San Mateo County, the juvenile probation department says that there are only three probation youth accessing AB 12. Angel now wants to be the fourth.


GETTING BACK IN

It is just after 6:00 pm on Friday, March 27, and Angel is already an hour late for her meeting. She passes happy clusters of other young people, relieved to be taking their first breaths of the weekend on a cool spring evening in downtown Oakland.

Angel too is feeling happy. It is her 20th birthday, and it has already been a good day. She and grandma Wendy spent the afternoon together. The highlight: sharing high tea, English style, a nod to their mythologized aristocratic ancestor.

Angel chose not to see her mother today. In the five years of their separation, Leah has made a number of unsuccessful efforts to repair their relationship, like showing up unannounced on Angel’s 18th birthday, which frightened the newly minted adult, rather than delighting her. Other attempts by Leah to give her daughter gifts have resulted in Angel recoiling.

“My mother says that Angel treats every gift like a rattlesnake that is going to bite her,” Leah says when called for an interview on Angel’s 20th birthday.

Arriving slightly flushed at the eleventh floor offices of the California Youth Connection, Angel is greeted by six former foster youth and two staffers sitting around some tables pushed together for the weekly policy-intern meeting. They are there to discuss how education policy is effecting foster youth, but when Angel walks in they immediately begin singing “Happy Birthday.”

As it happens, Angel has something else to celebrate. Just the day before, she handed in paperwork to a San Mateo social worker that should allow her to opt back into AB 12. Since her 18th birthday, Angel has spent most of the past two years at a transitional housing program available to young people at risk of homelessness.

But Angel has often coped with less stable circumstances, couch surfing with acquaintances, even spending one difficult night warming herself next to a generator in a South San Francisco park.

Angel hopes for at least a period of real stability while she works to advance at San Francisco City College. But for now, riding high on her birthday, she dreams of visiting England and the manor where the popular PBS show “Downton Abbey” is shot.

If yesterday’s paperwork is approved, the “second system” that handles cases like hers will provide her with a residence and other benefits, at least until her next birthday.



Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.

WitnessLA and the Chronicle of Social Change collaborated in producing this story.

The story was made possible through the support of the Sierra Health Foundation,which has partnered with the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation to launch the Positive Youth Justice Initiative to reform the juvenile justice system in four California counties.


All photos (except for the family photo of Angel and her mother) are by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.


CORRECTION: We wrote Heather Bruemmer’s name inaccurately in the original draft of this story, but it has now been corrected.

Posted in Foster Care, Homelessness, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation | No Comments »

New Auditor-Controller Report Says LA County’s Juvie Probation Camps NOT in Compliance With DOJ Requirements

April 10th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



SO DOES “COMPLIANCE” MEAN, LIKE “COMPLIANCE?”

Last month we reported that LA County’s juvenile probation camps were in “full compliance” with the 73 reforms demanded by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, after six years of DOJ oversight.

At least, they were in compliance according to the DOJ monitors and according to probation’s own accounting. Having finally met the goals set out by the feds seemed like—and in many ways is—laudable progress.

The bad old days that brought the DOJ into the camps in the first place, were very bad indeed. And probation has worked hard to make improvements, for which they should be given lots of credit.


BUT THEN ANOTHER SHOE DROPPED….

On Monday April 6, however, the LA County Auditor-Controller’s office put out their own report about the matter of probation’s compliance in the department’s 16 operational juvenile camps and facilities. WitnessLA has obtained that report.

So was probation in compliance according to A-C’s assessment?

The A-C’s answer: Uh, no.

Here’s the deal: At the direction of the LA County Board of Supervisors, the Auditor-Controller was following behind the federal monitors, double checking to see what was in compliance and what still needed work. The Auditor-Controller’s monitors were not looking at all the items on the DOJ’s check list. They were only keeping tabs on seven provisions of the feds’ list that had been some of the main sticking points near the end of the DOJ’s oversight.

And out of those seven how did probation do? According to the Auditor-Controller’s assessment: not very well.

“Probation did not maintain substantial compliance for six (86%) of the seven provisions reviewed. The areas of non-compliance noted in our review centered on Probation not ensuring their staff complete the ongoing training required by many of the provisions reviewed.

Among the areas where probation reportedly failed to fully comply are the following:


THE MATTER OF REHABILITATION

One of the most important areas in which the DOJ monitors asked for substantial change was article #17, which requires Probation to:

“…provide formal daily programming that incorporates education, recreation, and specialized rehabilitative and/or treatment programs for the minors and incorporate a points-driven behavior management program that addresses negative behavior and rewards positive behavior.”

Number 17 was considered so important because, as probation’s deputy chief, Felicia Cotton said when we talked last month, during the problematic years that so appalled the DOJ, and precipitated their oversight, there was very little that was rehabilitative going on at the camps.

“We used to use a system of custody and control,” Cotton told me. “That’s what it was all about.” And, she said, “…you had kids who rebelled against that kind of control, with not much to lose. And you can’t blame them. That’s not the best approach for angry, traumatized kids.”

Exactly. And, in response to DOJ pressure, probation did finally launch the various required rehabilitative programs,—with more programs still to come. But, according to the Auditor-Controller’s report, there are several problems with the programs’ implementation.

For one thing, the DOJ specified that the staff needed to make sure that the kids in camp actually attended the various classes and activities.

In ten out of the 15 camps that had the programs, the A-C’s report found little or no problem. But in four of the facilities in particular, 30 percent of the kids didn’t attend their classes, and another 36 percent of the kids only attended some of their classes. (They were required to attend 80 percent.)

The A-C monitors also reported that in five of the camps some of the staff reportedly failed to honor the reward system. For instance, they would wrongly reward kids. And in four of the camps, staff would delay rewards and “promotions” for the kids who had actually earned them.

This may sound petty, but for already traumatized kids who are angry and acting out, the adults absolutely must be consistent and trustworthy if any rehabilitation is going to take place.

When the adults can’t keep their collective word, the effect is psychologically corrosive, and you are guaranteed to have problems.


HANDLING KIDS WHO ARE SUICIDE RISKS

On the topic of suicidal kids, the A-C’s people noted that an average of 30 percent of the staff in the 16 camps/units didn’t complete the required training in suicide prevention that teaches them “how to prevent and respond to crises.”

Perhaps that lack of training and understanding accounts for why, later in the report, the A-C monitors noted that, at one camp, in 14 of the staff shifts reviewed, “the managers at one specialized unit did not insure that staff completed Safety Check Sheets for each eight-hour shift.” These were the check sheets that made certain staff were properly looking in on a kid with “persistent suicidal ideation” housed in a SHU—or isolation cell.

Elsewhere in the report, the monitors also found that, in two instances, kids were kept in the SHU for over 8 hours without appropriate documentation. Considering that, right now, the state legislature is considering a bill (SB 124) that would severely limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, hyper-vigilence regarding the proper use of the SHU in LA’s juvenile camps would seem to be a prudent course.


UNDERSTANDING KIDS WITH MENTAL ILLNESS AND DISABILITIES

According to the report, the camp staff did slightly better in attending the training designed to give them the “skills and information necessary to understand behaviors of, engage in appropriate interactions with, and respond to needs of youth with mental illness and developmental disabilities.”

Still, however, 20 percent of the staff, according to the A-C, did NOT attend the training.

Even more staff (23 percent or more) in 13 of the 16 facilities appeared to blow off—or not be offered—the required training that would have informed them of the proper “policies, practices, and procedures to define those circumstances in which staff must report allegations of child abuse or neglect to the appropriate external agencies.”

In other words, one fifth or more of the staff in a paramilitary organization that oversees the wellbeing of troubled kids did not manage to get the absolutely required training..

We hate to be harsh, but really. Those of us who have taught at either public or private universities—even as guest lecturers—know that if we haven’t completed the required sexual harassment training we cannot walk into a classroom. Period.

In the camps, the stakes are far higher, and the training is even more critical.

In the case of LA County’s juvenile probation facilities, changing what was a very problematic culture inside the camps that, for years, allowed real abuse to take place, is not an easy process. Training is a big part of making that change.


PROBATION’S REBUTTAL

Included in the Auditor-Controller’s report is a rebuttal from Probation Chief Jerry Powers, who writes that probation “does not agree” with four of the listed six problem areas.

Probation did agree with two of the report’s noncompliance items having to do with the failure of a big chunk of the staff to get required training. One of the “agreements” centered around training that helped staff members better understand “youth with mental illness and developmental disabilities.” Powers basically wrote that, while they weren’t in full compliance, they would be soon.

In the case of the required regular training to give staff “the knowledge and skills needed to effectively manage youth, including de-escalation techniques, crisis interuention, youth development, and supervision,” Powers said there was a scheduling conflict. (It’s more complicated, but that was the bottom line.) But probation will be catching up on the training this year.

As for the other four categories, probation said it is in compliance.

So who’s right? Hard to say. We have calls into both probation and the A-C’s office and didn’t hear back from either in time for publication.

However, at the end of the A-C’s report, in a rebuttal to the rebuttal, Auditor-Controller John Naimo had this to say:

“…we completed our review using the monitoring tools developed by Probation and the DOJ Monitor, and in accordance with the training Probation provided. ln addition, we provided Probation copies of our monitoring tools with the details of our audit results, and the Department did not provide documentation to invalidate our results.

“We also attempted to validate Probation’s results for a sample of provisions to determine why the results of our reviews were different. However, the Department did not maintain sufficient documentation to support the results of their reviews, which prevented us from identifying the cause of the differences.”


A MOTION BY SUPERVISOR MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS

This past Tuesday, a motion to launch a new fiscal audit of the probation department was introduced by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas with support of Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

The motion, which is to be voted on by the board next week, proposes an audit that would look at, among other things:

*The current cost of operating the camps and halls including the cost per youth, annual maintenance costs and deferred building maintenance costs…”

*Recruitment, examination, hiring and promotional practices to determine whether the Department is effectively recruiting, retaining and promoting the most qualified staff for its operating needs”

*”The Department’s Request for Proposal procedures and its process for examining satisfactory compliance with the statements of work for contracted community-based organizations and agencies.”

When I spoke to Ridley-Thomas about his reason for the motion, he said that although he didn’t make the motion with the Auditor-Controller’s report in mind, he made it “with concern about these issues that the report raises in mind.”

UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap, who has been a part of various studies examining aspects of the juvenile camps, had something similar about the Auditor-Controller’s report:

“There is no sign off from vigilance,” Leap said. “It is to the county’s credit that they are carefully examining what occurs in probation camps in an ongoing manner. In particular, there needs to be a consideration of the mental health needs of all youth — something that continues to be sadly lacking!”

So there you have it: Progress has been made. But, perhaps not quite as much as probation hopes. And ongoing oversight would be wise.

Posted in juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Probation | No Comments »

LA Officials to (Belatedly) Crack Down on Over-Drugging LA Kids….A Juvie Lifer Artist…and the Shooting of Walter Scott

April 8th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



MENTAL HEALTH OFFICIALS TO CRACK DOWN ON OVER-DRUGGING OF KIDS IN COUNTY CARE (UM…THAT WOULD BE NICE.)

In the past year, it has come to light that kids are being over-drugged in many of California’s various foster care and juvenile systems, LA County’s included. Then more recently, we learned that powerful medications are unnecessarily being jammed down the throats of poor kids via the Medicare system. (See here and here and here for some of the latest stories.)

Tuesday, however, there was a piece of good news when the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf reported that Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health officials plan to crack down on doctors who appear to be inappropriately prescribing powerful and dangerous antipsychotic drugs to kids in LA County’s foster care and juvenile justice systems.

The question is, however, knowing the serious dangers posed by overprescribing or wrongly prescribing antipsychotics for children or teenagers, why weren’t the county’s mental health officials paying better attention?

Here’s a clip from Therolf’s story:

Social workers and child welfare advocates have long alleged that the widespread use of the drugs is fueled in part by some caretakers’ desire to make the children in their care more docile. On May 1, the county Department of Mental Health is scheduled to launch a program to use computer programs to identify doctors who have a pattern of overprescribing the medications or prescribing unsafe combinations of the drugs.

Once problematic doctors are identified, the department will recommend that judges no longer approve their prescriptions for youth under court supervision.

Additionally, Los Angeles County mental health workers will fan out across the county to randomly interview children, caregivers and doctors about the reasons behind the prescriptions and how they are working.

The hope is that the in-person reviews will allow the county to go beyond the information doctors submit in their paperwork, offering a more complete picture of the youth’s mental health and whether less-intrusive interventions were used before turning to drugs.

“We know there is really a need to do this,” said Fesia Davenport who was recently named interim director of the county Office of Child Protection, a new agency charged with coordinating services across county departments for abused and neglected children. “Once we start to look at the data I think we’ll identify patterns and really understand why the use of the drugs seems to be high.”

In February, Therolf, writing for the LA Times, noted that “51% of California’s foster youth who are prescribed mental health-related drugs took the most powerful class of the medications — antipsychotics.” (And, of course, Karen de Sá, of the San Jose Mercury News, reported extensively on the over-drugging of foster kids in her multi-part series.)

That 51% figure is deeply concerning..

The risks of using antipsychotics on kids are considerable—except in certain very closely monitored situations. (For further details, read last week’s WLA story by Taylor Walker about the most recent study released showing the disturbing overuse of antipsychotics on Medicaid kids, with California one of the five states studied.)

The crack-down Therolf reports is a very welcome step, albeit distressingly belated. Yet, another underlying issue still calls out to be discussed, namely that, every study we have on the matter shows that most kids who land in foster care or the juvenile justice system, or both, are suffering from high degrees of childhood and adolescent trauma. This kind of toxic stress almost inevitably results in some kind of emotional and/or behavioral symptoms—which are crucial to address. But, in most cases, powerful drugs are neither an appropriate nor safe way to ameliorate and heal these issues.

Of course, real healing of trauma-harmed kids is labor intensive— and cannot be done from the remove at which one can prescribe drugs.

But that’s a discussion for another day.


A JUVENILE LIFER WHO MAKES MEANING WITH ART COULD BE AMONG THOSE GETTING NEW SENTENCE IF SCOTUS AGREES

In 1999, when Kenneth Crawford was fifteen, he was the getaway driver for a brutal murder of strangers. He did not himself beat, rob and shoot Diana Lynn Algar, 39, and her friend Jose Julian Molina, 33, at a campground in Pennsylvania. The admitted killer was an 18-year-old fellow drifter and carnival worker, David Lee Hanley. Nevertheless, Crawford was tried as an adult, and given a sentence of life without parole in a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, which was still legal for juveniles as the time.

Although nearly all of his upbringing was horrific, Crawford makes no excuses for his involvement in the crime for which he was convicted.

“I was too drunk and full of pills and have only myself to blame,” he wrote to a couple who have befriended him during his time in prison.

The victims “were good people and their families did not deserve the pain and suffering they endured. I have begged the Lord for forgiveness and I believe I have been forgiven. But I will never forgive myself.”

One of the primary ways Crawford, now 31, finds meaning and solace in his life behind bars is painting miniature scenes on fallen leaves he collects. The results are remarkably beautiful.

Crawford is also one of the 2100 inmates given life sentences as teenagers, whose prison terms could possibly be affected when the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates the question, likely in September of this year, of whether their historic ruling of Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively. Miller, if you remember, which was presented by civil rights attorney and author, Bryan Stevenson, ruled that mandatory sentences of juvenile life without parole were unconstitutional.

Gary Gately has delved further into Crawford’s story for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Here are some clips:

Five years ago, Kenneth Carl Crawford III returned to that woods behind his childhood home in Oklahoma, but only in his mind — the only way he can go back now, perhaps the only way he’ll ever go there again in his time on this Earth.

After a storm, he had been gazing at a thick forest about 100 yards away when he noticed a bunch of leaves had blown over the high electric fences topped by razor wire and landed in the prison yard at the State Correctional Institution-Greene, here in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania.

Crawford picked up one of the leaves. “It had been a long time since I had touched a part of a tree, let alone held a piece of it in my hands,” he would write in his journal.

He kept looking at the leaf, mesmerized, nostalgic for so much of a bit of boyhood paradise lost.

Then he took the leaf back to his 8-by-12-foot cell and decided to recapture some of what he missed so dearly — and ultimately painted on it a scene right out of the woods he remembered.

He’s been painting wildlife scenes — and painting them superbly — on leaves ever since.

Crawford, 31, has plenty of time to create his miniature masterpieces. He’s serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for his involvement in a double murder at age 15 in 1999.

[SNIP]

Crawford, a lean man with the beginnings of a mustache and beard, calls the Sanfords “Mudder” and “Peepaw.” [The Sanfords are a couple who ran across his art and have gradually befriended him.]

“I’ve had ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers,’ and none of them turned out too well,” he says.

Indeed, his alcoholic father beat him, his brother and his two sisters with extension cords and switches in drunken rages and often left them home alone in their ramshackle trailer with no electricity or heat and little food. And he forced them to tend to his marijuana plants behind the trailer.

Crawford’s mother ran off with one of her boyfriends to work the carnival circuit when Ken was 5…..

When he was 9, Child Welfare Services came to remove Ken and his siblings from their father’s custody — and promised the children their lives would be much better with foster parents.

They weren’t.

Crawford recalls one 400-pound foster father who forced the children to scratch and bathe his legs because he could not reach down to them.

Another foster father showed off Ken’s ability to play football — until he outshone the man’s biological son, at which point the foster father made Ken quit the team.

A third foster father told him he’d be in prison by the time he was 18.

When Ken was 10 and wetting the bed, his foster mother screamed at him and ordered him to strip naked and lie on a towel on the living room floor. As other children in the home laughed, she put a diaper on him and made him wear it to school the next day.

He wet the bed again that night, and she forced him to sleep in the bathtub.

If he could change two things in his life, Crawford says now, he would have never have hung out with David Lee Hanley, and, if it were somehow possible, he would have eluded Child Welfare Services workers.

“If I could go back in time, I would have hid from Child Welfare Services. I should have hid. I shouldn’t have let them find us,” he says.

Speaking of his father’s abuse and neglect, he says: “That’s what we knew. It was nothing out of the ordinary for us. We still had something, and the physical abuse we grew up with I was used to.

“In foster care, it was mental abuse, and the mental abuse was much worse.”

Still, he’s quick to add that he doesn’t blame anybody for the circumstances that led to the double homicides. “I made the choices,” he says.


THE SHOOTING OF WALTER SCOTT

As most of you probably know by now, a 50-year-old black man named Walter Scott was fatally shot on Saturday in North Charleston, S.C., after being stopped for a broken tail light by a white Charleston police officer, Michael T. Slager, 33.

On Tuesday, Officer Slager was charged with murder.

Initially, Officer Slager reported that he made a traffic stop and was in foot pursuit after the subject. Next Slager reported shots fired and that the subject was down. “He took my Taser,” Slager said on the radio. Later, in the police report, Slager stated he had feared for his life because the suspect, Scott, had taken his taser in a scuffle.

However when a video taken by a bystander surfaced, and it told a very different story.

Here’s how the South Charleston Post and Courier describes what is on the video:

The three-minute clip of Saturday morning’s shooting starts [shakily], but it steadies as Slager and Scott appear to be grabbing at each other’s hands.

Slager has said through his attorney that Scott had wrested his Taser from him during a struggle.

The video appears to show Scott slapping at the officer’s hands as several objects fall to the ground. It’s not clear what the objects are.

Scott starts running away. Wires from Slager’s Taser stretch from Scott’s clothing to the officer’s hands.

With Scott more than 10 feet from Slager, the officer draws his pistol and fires seven times in rapid succession. After a brief pause, the officer fires one last time. Scott’s back bows, and he falls face first to the ground near a tree.

After the gunfire, Slager glances at the person taking the video, then talks into his radio.

The cameraman curses, and Slager yells at Scott as sirens wail.

“Put your hands behind your back,” the officer shouts before he handcuffs Scott as another lawman runs to Scott’s side.

Scott died there. [Actually, in the beginning Scott appears to be alive.]

Slager soon jogs back to where he fired his gun and picks up something from the ground. He walks back to Scott’s body and drops the object.

At no time, does Slager or the next officer on the scene, attempt to help the dying Scott, although one of the officers searches him and then eventually feels for a pulse.

According to the Post & Courier, Mr. Scott “had a history of arrests related to contempt of court charges for failing to pay child support. The only accusation of violence against Scott during his lifetime came through an assault and battery charge in 1987″—in other words, 27 years ago, when Scott was 23.

A family member told reporters that Scott likely ran because he didn’t want to be arrested for back child support.

In a statement released Tuesday night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) said, “What happened in this case is not acceptable in South Carolina.” Senator Tim Scott (R) said “The senseless shooting and taking of Walter Scott’s life was absolutely unnecessary and avoidable.” Senator Scott said that he would be watching the case closely.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care, juvenile justice, law enforcement, Los Angeles County, LWOP Kids, mental health, Youth | 7 Comments »

Study Shows LA County Probation Kids Not Getting Needed Help…. Mass Murder Meets Prosecutorial Madness….Local FBI Agent Indicted

March 27th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



INFORMATION LACKING FOR LA COUNTY PROBATION KIDS

Up until now, LA County juvenile probation—the largest juvenile justice system in the nation—knew very little about the kids in its care, what challenges those kids faced, which methods might be best suited to address a kid’s challenges, and whether or not those methods were actually working—and if not, why not.

On Thursday, however, all that changed with the release of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Outcomes Study, a 155-page report that took almost four years to complete, and that will hopefully be difficult to ignore.

The report shows, for example, that one-third of the kids who wind up in the county’s juvenile camps or the probation run group homes, get arrested again within a year of their release. But we pretty much already knew that. So it is more interesting to note that nearly all of the kids in either the homes or camps had been on probation prior to the arrest that sent them into the county’s care, and had not gotten the help they needed when on home probation either. Moreover, the report digs into what broke down in the kids’ lives that could have and should have been addressed for better results for all concerned.

Yet, in addition to delivering those and other pieces of bad news, the report looks deeply at the kinds of problems these youth face, then makes a series of recommendations designed to improve the probation kids’ chances of rebooting their lives. The researchers also lay out what they call “targeted reforms” to help LA County Probation fundamentally transform its approach to the youth it serves.

DATA MATTERS

In many ways, the best news out of this study is the fact that the study was done at all. Prior to its release this week, there was—as mentioned above—very little to tell us about the LA County kids who land in LA County’s care, what got those kids there, and how well or poorly they did when they got out.

As a consequence, nearly all the decisions made about how LA County Probation dealt with the kids in its care were, up until now, done flying blind. (Not that this is surprising news in that we are talking about the same probation agency that a few years ago misplaced a full third of their workforce. But those were very dark times, so we won’t return there.)

Now, thankfully, we have a rigorous piece of research and data gathering to provide a baseline, and that, by its existence, demands ongoing research and data gathering.

Moreover, the study was led by Cal State LA’s Dr. Denise Herz, who is considered one of California’s go to researchers in the realm of juvenile justice, gang violence and the like. Plus, the report was a collaborative effort that included other top notch researchers as consultants, plus youth advocates such as the Children’s Defense Fund, with the Advancement Project providing oversight in addition to getting the money to fund the thing (from the W.M. Keck Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation).

To their credit, probation fully cooperated—even if, at times, reluctantly..

“What is encouraging,” said Michelle Newell from the Children’s Defense Fund, who was one of the study’s authors, “is that many county leaders, including the Board of Supervisors, probation, and judges, seem committed to using the findings in this study to both strengthen data collection, and to improve outcomes for youth.”

We’ll have more about the study early next week. So stay tuned.


AND IN OTHER NEWS….HOW DID ORANGE COUNTY’S WORST MASS SHOOTING TURN INTO A PROSECUTORIAL DISASTER?

Impossible though it sounds on its face, Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas and his prosecutors managed to spectacularly blow the sentencing hearings in a high profile mass murder case in which the murderer confessed. The OC Weekly’s Scott Moxley lays it all out for you, and it makes for fascinating reading.

Here’s how the story opens:

Orange County’s worst mass shooting, the so-called 2011 Seal Beach hair-salon massacre, began as a traumatizing event for all, but it has devolved into one of the most polarizing legal struggles to hit our legal system. The question isn’t about Scott Dekraai’s guilt. Dekraai admitted to police that he was the killer within minutes of the shooting. Controversy swirls, however, around the tactics of prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies trying to impose a death-penalty punishment rather than a 200-plus-year prison sentence without the possibility for parole. With one embarrassing revelation after another, the battle has grown painful, especially for the baffled families of the victims. To help understand why Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, himself an accomplished former prosecutor, this month made a historic decision to recuse Tony Rackauckas and his district attorney’s office (OCDA), we are providing a chronology of events:

Read on.


LOCAL FBI AGENT INDICTED FOR….LOTS OF THINGS

On Thursday, a local FBI agent (who had a very, very small part in the feds’ investigation of the LASD) was indicted for obstruction of justice, witness tampering and more. In short, he got WAY more involved than was even vaguely appropriate with a federal witness.

ABC7′s Lisa Bartley has the story. Here’s a clip:

FBI Special Agent Timothy Joel worked out of the Los Angeles FBI Field Office. The indictment relates to Joel’s alleged relationship with a woman who was arrested at the Otay Mesa border in 2007. The woman, a Korean national, was being smuggled into the United States to work as a prostitute. Joel allegedly helped her stay in the U.S. by claiming she was an important witness in a human smuggling investigation.

According to the indictment, Joel provided the woman with regular cash payments from his personal bank account totaling nearly $20,000 and later moved in with her in an apartment in Los Angeles.

In 2013, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into Joel’s alleged actions.

Here’s the full text of the indictment. Special Agent Joel Indictment

Posted in children and adolescents, crime and punishment, FBI, juvenile justice, Probation, Prosecutors | No Comments »

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

March 26th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


CONVICTED OF MURDER AT 16, RELEASED 24 YEARS LATER IN ONE OF FIRST SB 9 PAROLES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merisa Gerber of the Los Angeles Times has more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TWO SCOTUS JUSTICES SLAM THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM IN CONGRESSIONAL HEARING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


LET’S RECOGNIZE THE MAJORITY OF GOOD PROSECUTORS SAYS INNOCENCE PROJECT LAW SCHOOL PROF

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

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

Here’s a clip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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