Hiding the Real Cost of Lawsuits Against the LA County Sheriff’s Department…..Sentencing 101…..& Do We Need a Permanent LASD Citizen’s Commission?November 1st, 2013 by Celeste Fremon
WHY WON’T LA COUNTY DISCLOSE THE REAL $$ COST OF DEFENDING THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT AGAINST ALL THOSE LAWSUITS?
Thursday afternoon the ACLU of Southern California and civilian watchdog, Eric Preven, filed a lawsuit demanding that Los Angeles County and the Office of the County Counsel release invoices detailing the exact dollar amount billed by private law firms in each of the lawsuits filed against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and its personnel.
They are particularly interested in the cost of defending the lawsuits that the LASD and the county loses.
This new ACLU/Preven lawsuit speaks to a question a number of us have been discussing for some time.
We know that, during the fiscal year 2011-12, lawsuits against the LASD cost the county taxpayers $37 million.
We also know that, for the first six months of FY 2012-2013, the $$ paid out for lawsuits against the department have already come to around $25 million (a figure that obviously does not suggest anything good about what the 2012-2013 totals will look like).
But, of course, what the ACLU/Preven lawsuit rightly points out is that the $37 million total we have been given for last year is not, in fact, the real total. It’s not real because it doesn’t include the money paid to the private attorneys hired to defend the county in lawsuits filed against the sheriff’s department—suits like the recently concluded Willis case that we wrote about here.
Willis v. Rodriguez is the one where, after a week-long trial, a federal jury unanimously found Sheriff Lee Baca personally liable for punitive damages in relation to the brutal beating Mr. Willis received from deputies when he was a guest at Men’s Central Jail. (The jury also found 4 other present and former department members liable for damages as well.)
Willis’ attorney, Sonia Mercado, told me that originally Willis wanted to settle, that he wasn’t interested in punitive damages. He simply wanted his doctor bills and injury-related expenses paid for.
But the county’s hired gun lawyers refused to settle. Instead they pushed for a trial. And guess what? They lost resoundingly at trial. Now, we’ve been told that Baca intends to appeal—which means a brand new round of attorneys’ bills.
And, as with every other case filed and eventually settled against the sheriff’s department, we, the taxpayers, will pay the tab for all of it. Unfortunately, we don’t have a clue how much those tabs are really costing us.
Why don’t we know? (I know that I’ve inquired after some of those figures a couple of times in the past and gotten nowhere. But admittedly I didn’t keep at it.) Eric Preven has persistently filed California Public Records act requests asking for the information, and gotten next to nothing back.
“We are asking the officials of Los Angeles County to be transparent and tell taxpayers how their money is being spent on private attorneys to defend deputies accused of savage beatings and other illegal actions,” said the So Cal ACLU’s legal director, Peter Eliasberg, who has also been trying to get the information.
According to the ACLU’s statement announcing the lawsuit, here is what Eliasberg and Preven were told in return:
John F. Krattili, county counsel, responded to the CPRA requests saying that billing records that document the tasks and time for which private firms were billing the County are exempt from disclosure.
Not if we’re paying the bills, dearie.
“The County is paying out millions of dollars to private law firms, and when we, the people, ask to learn more about how that money is being spent, the answer is ‘none of your business!’ Sorry, that doesn’t cut it.” said Petitioner Eric Preven. “We’re demanding an end to the secrecy around practices that may well have cost the taxpayers far more than they’ve saved.”
“The County has no valid legal basis to keep these records hidden from the public,” said Jennifer L. Brockett, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. “The County should turn the records over, not defend withholding records that the law does not permit them to withhold.”
SENTENCING 101: IF A CONVICTED LAWBREAKER IS GIVEN A SENTENCE OF 5 YEARS IN PRISON, HOW LONG WILL HE OR SHE REALLY SERVE….AND WHY? AND WHO GETS TO DECIDE THESE THINGS?
In a wonderful essay from the LA Times Editorial Board, Rob Greene answers these questions and more.
Here are some clips:
Did Dr. Conrad Murray get out early?
The short answer is no. Murray, the doctor who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson, had served nearly two years of a four-year sentence when he was released from Los Angeles County Jail just after midnight Monday. That’s only half the sentence, but it’s also the full amount of jail time provided for by law.
How is that not getting out early? Since when does four years equal just under two?
And it’s important — not because Murray is any different from most California inmates, but rather because he is so typical — and because his high-profile sentence is a window onto the state’s convoluted and misleading sentencing rules.
It would be simplistic to say that those rules alone are what caused the state’s current criminal justice crisis, with the prison system under federal receivership and a court order looming to require the release of more than 8,000 convicted felons by late February. The sentencing rules are, rather, one especially vexing result of years of so-called tough-on-crime laws fueled by fear, anti-drug frenzy and political opportunism.
It’s not merely that sentences were lengthened during those years; they were lengthened haphazardly, one by one, crime by crime, responding to particular incidents, with no comprehensive examination of the state’s sentencing system and with few questions asked about the purpose of prison time. Often the same Legislature that adopted longer jail and prison terms undermined them by requiring more good-conduct credits — and later reversed itself by revoking or limiting credits. The result is a mish-mash that conditions time served not merely on what crime was committed, but when it was committed, when the sentence was handed down, when it was to be served, and where. Courts have had to interpret apparently conflicting sentencing statutes, and trial judges are often unable to figure out how much incarceration time to order without the help of a computer…..
It would be more honest if the sentence on the books, and the one sought by the prosecutor, handed down by the judge and reported by the media, were called a two- to four-year term rather than a four-year sentence. As it is, the public is led to believe that felons are routinely let out “early,” which in turn suggests, incorrectly, that punishment in California is lax, even in an era of tough sentences.
That’s something an Assembly select committee should keep in mind next month at its hearing on state sentencing. For sentencing reform to work, the public must have confidence in the criminal justice system and must recognize that “early release” isn’t necessarily early at all. Lawmakers can go a long way toward restoring that confidence by allowing an independent commission, de-linked from the political process, to review and revamp sentencing….
Read the rest here.
And, yes, an independent sentencing commission. Please. We’d like that very much.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF COMMISSIONS…DO WE NEED A PERMANENT CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT BOARD TO KEEP AN EYE ON THE LOS ANGELES SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT?
Loyola law professor Laurie Levinson says yes—and explains why in an Op Ed in the LA Times.
Here are some clips:
It is time to seriously consider a civilian oversight board for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider such a proposal next week. If approved, it could be a big step toward remedying some of the ongoing problems in our county jails.
The last few years have been tough for the department, which has been plagued by jail scandals, committee inquiries and even a federal investigation. Despite the efforts of committed professionals within and outside the department to monitor abuses in the jail system, the problems have continued. Meanwhile, the public has only been invited into the process once the situation has reached crisis dimensions…
For years, I have taught law students about our county jail system. We seem to be caught in an endless loop of crises. It begins with revelations of problems in the jails and the board’s criticisms of the sheriff. Then follows a promise of reforms, but these reforms do not include any mechanism for the public to monitor their implementation or efficacy. The next the public hears of the jails is another round of criticism and another set of reform pledges.
The Board of Supervisors is in the process of selecting an inspector general for the Sheriff’s Department. It is hoped that individual will have the expertise to investigate allegations of improper conduct by the department. But this will not break the cycle. Rather, for public confidence to be fully restored, there must be civilian overseers who will not only react to allegations of misconduct but also be proactive in making reforms. And such a board must have the power to ensure that its members’ voices will truly be heard.
Yes, well, therein lies the rub. Without some kind of legislation, no civilian commission will have the power—and the independence—needed to make any kind of difference.
This is why we at WLA are still undecided about the idea of such a commission unless its creation is accompanied by an appropriate change in the law.
It will be interesting to hear what the Board of Supervisors have to say on the matter next week.