For 22 years, Merrick Bobb has been the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors’ special counsel when it comes to oversight of the sheriff’s department.
Bobb issued his last report on the department on Thursday. Now all oversight of the LASD will be left up to Inspector General Max Huntsman, who has yet to completely gear up.
Bobb’s work provided the very first long-term civilian oversight of law enforcement in the nation’s history. There were many areas in which Bobb and the 1992 Kolts commission were able to achieve important change, as this final report points out.
Under Lee Baca, however, the cooperation that Bobb and his command staff had enjoyed under Sherman Block, began to wither.
“While relationships remained cordial with Baca,” in the jails, Bobb writes, “an anti-reform counter movement took over as certain recent Undersheriffs rose to the forefront and Sheriff Baca’s and the Supervisors’ attention seemed to be focused elsewhere.”
The report continues: “…brutality seems to have festered in the jails. Across the Department, deputies were affirmatively encouraged to ‘work in the gray zone’—an apparent green light for unconstitutional or near-unconstitutional misconduct.”
Work the gray was, of course, one of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s signature phrases, a phrase that he has repeatedly maintained had nothing to do with suggesting that deputies cross the line into illegality, although multiple independent sources suggest otherwise.
Under Baca, Bobb writes, “accountability for discovering and dealing with actual or potential misconduct was not very high on the list of priorities….”
This disregard by Baca and Tanaka for holding deputies accountable for their misconduct, Bobb writes, all but called for the involvement of the FBI to discover “….what was going on in front of their eyes.”
Bobb takes Baca to task for allowing his underling, Tanaka, too much power. Yet he reserved the bulk of his criticism regarding the problems with the department, for the former undersheriff himself.
“To say that Sheriff Baca over-delegated to Paul Tanaka understates the matter. Paul Tanaka has been considered by some to be bright, good with numbers and budgets, and skilled at handling fiscal crises. Nevertheless, with regard to police accountability, reform, rewarding constitutional policing, and engendering the active support and trust of the ever-diversifying community, the man seemed to avoid evolving substantially from his days as a Lynwood Viking.” [WLA's ital.]
“Lee Baca placed great importance on loyalty to subordinates and the duty to mentor future leaders. Paul Tanaka managed to repay Baca’s loyalty, quick promotions, and sustained mentoring by undercutting the Department’s moral authority and mocking the values that Lee Baca so often professed to be central to his vision.”
And during all this time, the board of supervisors, by and large, Bobb suggests, did nothing.
The creation and selection of an inspector general—Max Huntsman- is meant to signal a new kind of oversight of the sheriff’s department. It has also meant the elimination of Bobb’s role as special counsel and the similar elimination of Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review, (OIR).
Yet, it remains unclear how successful Huntsman will be able to be considering the fact that Bobb’s reports of problems and wrongdoing were so cheerfully ignored year after year, with no consequence whatsoever for the sheriff and those to whom he delegated.
In November, of course, we will have a new sheriff, and that sheriff will likely be Jim McDonnell, a man who has repeatedly made clear that he welcomes aggressive oversight. McDonnell was even strongly in favor of a civilian commission, in addition to an IG, an option that the board of supervisors voted down this week.
Yet, it was also this week that Paul Tanaka announced in a tweet that he was still running for sheriff, providing a potent reminder that we cannot have a system of departmental oversight that is dependant on the goodwill of the sheriff for its effectiveness or lack thereof, as has been the case in the past.
Such an arrangement—as this and other reports from Merrick Bobb vividly attest— can easily lead to catastrophe.
Under Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka, catastrophe arrived.
There is much more to Bobb’s report, including an analysis of litigation against the department, a look at employee discipline, an update on the canine units, and a critique of the LASD’s strategy of gang enforcement.
The section on gang enforcement, in particular, is well-informed and thoughtful in its analysis, and should be scrutinized carefully by the next sheriff for its usefulness, as the points that it makes are remarkably consistent with what we have heard over the past decade from community members who live and work in the Los Angeles neighborhoods that are the most adversely affected by gang violence.
A large thank you to Merrick Bobb for his 22 years of commitment to improving the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for the people of LA and for the men and women who protect and serve at the LASD.
MAXED OUT PRISON SENTENCES AND THE IMPORTANCE OF POST-RELEASE SUPERVISION (AND SPLIT-SENTENCING) FOR LOWERING RECIDIVISM
Nationwide, in 2012, one-in-five prisoners maxed out their sentence in prison and reentered their communities without supervision (a rise of 119% from 1990), according to a new Pew Charitable Trusts report. Conversely, data collected on prisoners in New Jersey showed that offenders who served part of their sentence on parole were 36% less likely to return to prison within three years of release than those who served the entirety of their sentence behind bars.
Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at Pew, said studies the group conducted in New Jersey and elsewhere found that, overall, offenders who serve a portion of their sentence on supervision were arrested or returned to prison 30 percent less than those who served their entire sentence in custody.
“It just doesn’t make sense to take somebody who’s been institutionalized, locked up in a prison 24/7, and put them straight back on the street without any supervision or accountability or monitoring or support whatsoever,” Gelb said.
Yet nationwide, the number of offenders serving their full sentences has gone up over the past two decades. Between 1990-2012, the number of inmates released without supervision went up 119 percent.
That could change, Gelb said, and has already started to. In the past few years, eight states — including California — took steps to make it easier to release offenders early to supervision.
California’s policy — called “split sentencing” — came out of prison realignment, which passed in 2011.
The policy — a response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to cut the state prison population — shifted the job of punishing lower-level felons from the state to the county level. It also gave the counties a tool to use if they choose: permitting these felons to be sentenced partially to time in county jail and partially to community supervision by the local probation department…
In California, prison realignment (AB 109) has reduced the number of max-outs in state prison to less than 1%, but it’s unclear to what extent max outs have transferred to the local level. Some counties (Contra Costa, for instance) have used their realignment funds to implement split-sentencing—in which sentences are “split” into part jail time, part probation—with favorable results. (Unfortunately, Los Angeles is actually backsliding in its use of split-sentencing.) Here’s what the Pew report has to say about the issue:
In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act. The landmark legislation transferred jurisdiction of lower-level offenders from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to the counties. Felony offenders who are classified as nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex registrant, known as “non-non-nons,” are now sentenced to county jail instead of prison, supervised by county probation departments under post-release community supervision, and sent to local jails if they violate the terms of their release. As a result, the number of inmates released from California prisons fell by more than half between 2011 and 2012, from 109,467 to 49,574.
Other elements of realignment also affected the number of California prison releases. All revocations for state parolees, except those with an original sentence of life, go to county jail instead of state prison for a maximum of 180 days. Additionally, the non-non-nons are being diverted from state prison at sentencing, reducing both admissions and releases.
As a result of these changes, the number of max-outs from state prisons fell in the first full year of realignment from 12 percent in 2011 to less than 1 percent in 2012. Under the new system, non-nonnons—more than 30,000 offenders who accounted for 62 percent of releases—are released to their county of last legal residence and supervised under post-release community supervision. Offenders diverted to supervision are eligible for discharge at six months, and sanctions for violators are capped at 180 days. Counties have discretion to determine the type of supervision provided. The remaining 36 percent of inmates released in 2012 were serving sentences for serious or violent crimes; they remained under the jurisdiction of state parole agents.
The extent to which realignment has shifted max-outs to the local level is unclear. County judges can now exercise their discretion to impose either a straight jail sentence without supervision or a split sentence that combines a jail term with a period of mandatory supervision to follow. Current use of split sentencing varies widely among the counties. Some order it in more than 80 percent of cases, while several, including Los Angeles and Alameda counties, use it less than 10 percent of the time. Without greater use of split sentences, large numbers of non-non-nons may be returning to California communities without supervision.
And here’s what the Pew report suggests to both lower the max-out rate and keep former inmates from reoffending:
1. Require a period of post-prison supervision for all offenders. 2. Carve out community supervision period from prison terms. 3. Strengthen parole decision-making. 4. Tailor supervision conditions to risk and need. 5. Adopt evidence-based practices in parole supervision. 6. Reinvest savings in community corrections.
In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Attorney General Kamala Harris praises the Realignment Act for easing overcrowding in California prisons, but calls for implementation of alternatives to incarceration and evidence-based rehabilitation and re-entry services to lower recidivism. Here’s a clip:
Realignment shifted responsibility for the incarceration and supervision of low-level, nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to California’s 58 counties. It also directed significant financial resources to counties to handle their increased responsibilities and to create localized alternative solutions to incarceration.
Three years in, Realignment has achieved one of its primary purposes — reduction of the population of California’s prison system. Following implementation of Realignment, the state redirected 30,000 recently convicted offenders who would have gone to state prison to county jail and shifted supervision of 50,000 offenders from state parole agents to county probation departments. Realignment has also forced an examination of California’s return on its investment in incarceration. The state spends an estimated $13 billion per year on criminal justice, but almost two thirds of those released from state prison go on to commit another crime within three years. This rate of recidivism is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and it is a threat to victims of crime and to public safety in general.
As a career prosecutor, I firmly believe there must be swift and certain consequences for all crime, and that certain offenses call for nothing less than long-term imprisonment. But I also believe that the way our system deals with low-level, nonviolent and non-serious offenders wastes resources needed to fight more serious crime.
Rather than a one-size-fits all justice system that treats all crime as equal, I have argued for a “smart on crime” approach — one that applies innovative, data-proven methods to make our criminal justice system more efficient and effective. Such an approach will not only hold offenders accountable for their actions; it will make our communities safer by taking steps to ensure that they don’t commit new crimes.
JUDGE RULES LA COUNTY COUNSEL MUST SAY HOW MUCH IT SPENDS ON PRIVATE LAWYERS IN LAWSUITS AGAINST THE LASD
Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin ruled in favor of civilian watchdog Eric Preven and the SoCal ACLU in a lawsuit demanding the Los Angeles Office of County Counsel release information on the exact dollar amounts paid to private law firms in lawsuits filed against the LASD and its personnel.
ACLU SoCal and Mr. Preven submitted several California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests for the documents that list not only money paid to private attorneys, but also the contracts between the County and individuals hired to oversee implementation of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. The County Counsel denied the requests. Lawyers from the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP are representing ACLU SoCal, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California is representing Mr. Preven.
During the fiscal year 2011-12, lawsuits against the Sheriff’s department cost the county $37 million, not including the costs the County paid to private lawyers to defend LASD, according to Supervisor Gloria Molina. The cost of defending LASD likely adds millions of dollars to the total. In just the first six months of fiscal year 2012-13, the total the County spent on verdicts and settlements on lawsuits against LASD was $25 million, not including the costs of defending those suits.
“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 Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of SoCal.
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.
“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.”
…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.
TWO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT CASES—ONE IN CALIFORNIA, ONE IN ARIZONA—RECEIVE CLASS ACTION STATUS
This week, a federal judge granted class action status to a lawsuit filed by Pelican Bay inmates challenging the prison’s solitary confinement conditions and the policies keeping a number of prisoners in isolation for decades. (Backstory here and here.)
The inmates allege physical and psychological abuse when California puts inmates in Pelican Bay’s windowless isolation cells. The prisoners are confined 22 hours a day and, in some cases, have been in solitary for years and decades at a time.
The Pelican Bay inmates, in their federal lawsuit, also challenged the administrative process California uses to determine who to send to the super-maximum security cells for an indefinite stay….
In courtroom proceedings, lawyers for the state have argued that isolation is necessary to keep the peace within prisons, and to hinder gang activity inside and outside prison walls. They said that by creating a so-called “step-down” program last year that allows some prisoners to eventually earn their way out of isolation, the state had made sufficient improvements.
In her ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken narrowed the class action case to just those Pelican Bay inmates who have not been accepted into the state’s step-down program.
The class action motion was filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates in solitary confinement, but California has since moved five of them to other quarters. Wilken’s order allows the remaining five prisoners to represent the larger class of some 500 Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent more than a decade in isolation, and some 1,100 put into solitary because of alleged gang associations.
And in another piece of good news, on Thursday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed an ACLU lawsuit alleging mistreatment of Arizona prisoners to proceed as a class action case. The suit alleges denial of adequate healthcare and unconstitutional use of isolation. East Valley Tribune’s Howard Fischer has more on the issue.
In a three to two vote, members of the LA County Board of Supervisors decided to move ahead with a nearly $2 billion plan to tear down the dangerous and decrepit Men’s Central Jail, and build in its place a state of the art facility that will house 4,860 inmates, with approximately 3200 of those beds slated for LA County jail’s mentally ill population.
The project will also include a campus-like jail facility for woman to be built at the site of the now closed Mira Loma jail.
Supervisors Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Gloria Molina voted to give the green light to project, which was one of five differently priced plans presented by Vanir Construction Management.
Zev Yaroslavsky voted against the decision, and Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained.
The go-ahead for the project came in spite of a raft of letters and public testimony from advocates and mental health professionals who urged the board to put a hold on the building until they could put into place a strong diversion strategy for the many mentally ill who commit non-serious crimes and are in need of treatment, not jail time, where historically the problems of the mentally ill have been exacerbated.
The vote also ran counter to the wishes of all but one of the candidates for sheriff who also favored diversion for low level mentally ill offenders, and said they believed that the new sheriff elected in November should be a part of the decision making process on a project of his magnitude, especially considering that the sheriff would have the responsibility for running the new jails.
LA DISTRICT ATTORNEY JACKIE LACEY: “THE CURRENT SYSTEM IS, SIMPLY PUT, UNJUST.”
Some of the most interesting moments in the more than three hour discussion about the building plan came when Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey surprised some watchers by making her own presentation to the board on the topic of a “comprehensive diversion plan,” that would place a large percentage of the mentally ill lawbreakers that now are housed in the county’s jail system into community treatment facilities.
Lacey spoke with with low key but seemingly genuine passion the topic.”It is clear, even to those of us in law enforcement, that we can do better in Los Angeles County,” she said. “The current system is, simply put, unjust.”
Lacy went on to explain that, together with other county officials, including judges, public defenders, prosecutors, and more, her office has created a special taskforce to “identify successful jail diversion practices in other parts of the country and to develop a model that can work here in Los Angeles County.”
Lacey said that members of the task force-—called the Criminal Justice Mental Health Project—have been meeting for a several months and have visited similar diversion programs that are already up and running successfully in Miami-Dade Florida, Memphis. Tennessee and San Antonio,Texas.
“The task force intends to develop a plan that will “relieve a significant portion of jail overcrowding,” Lacey said, adding that her goal is to add 1000 residential beds in the community as well as to set up an outpatient program for another 1000 people “who may be able to accept help and be monitored” without the need for a residential program.
The point is to leave only those in the jail those who need to be there, she said.
Since Vanir’s plan is to provide 3,216 mental health beds in the proposed new jail, if a comprehensive diversion program of the nature that DA Lacey envisions can indeed be put into place, the obvious question is whether the county needs a replacement project that is as large and expensive as the one that the board has voted to fund.
Even Lacey tried tactfully to broach the subject. “When I looked at the jail plan,” she said, “I saw that a significant amount of the cost is based on what you’re going to do with those who are mentally ill. You should know that there’s a committed group of professionals…who are looking for alternative ways to address the issue. We’re serious about it. And I am optimistic.”
When she went to visit the Memphis program, she said, she found they were doing so well with diversion that they were shutting down a wing of their jail.
“I just thought you ought to be aware,” Lacey said finally to the board, “that, quite frankly, something very profound is going on behind the scenes and just factor it in to what you’re doing today.”
A COMPROMISE, SORT OF
Prior to the vote, a dismayed Zev Yaroslavsky called the Vanir plan possibly the most costly in the nation, and urged his fellow supervisors to wait for Lacey’s task force to report before bulldozing ahead.
“I do think that it would make some sense if we could have some information…some of your conclusions” he said, referring to Lacey, “even if they’re preliminary, before we commit to spending this kind of money.”
Alas, it was not to be.
Supervisor Gloria Molina (who, along with Supervisor Mike Antonovich, co-sponsored the motion to go ahead with Vanir plan), was particularly concerned that, because of jail overcrowding, too many inmates were being let out of jail after having only served a fraction of their sentences, explained senior aide, Roxane Marquez after the vote.
Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed a second motion that called for a report back from Lacey and her task for in 60 days. “Keeping people out of jail who should not be in jail is the right thing to do,” he said. “There is no comprehensive and adequate approach to diversion.
He read from his motion:
“A comprehensive diversion plan is the missing element of the jail master planning analysis. Without its inclusion, the jail master plan, in my view, is in complete. Regardless of the selections to replace men’s central jail, the County of Los Angeles must commit to develop and fun a sustained plan to divert low-level offender from incarceration who are mentally ill and/or substance abusers. the mentally ill, unfortunately, are incarcerated at higher rates than people without mental illness.”
Ridley-Thomas’s motion passed unanimously 5-0.
AND IT OTHER NEWS…JUDGE CHOOSES PRESIDENT FOR DEPUTY UNION ALADS TO BREAK CRAZY GRIDLOCK
A power struggle at the union that represents Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies has entered a new phase after a judge barred the leader of one faction from entering the group’s headquarters.
For now, Jeffrey Steck will serve as president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. His rival, Armando Macias, will retain no power under a preliminary injunction granted by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin on Tuesday.
At one point, both Steck and Macias claimed to be president. Each had an official-looking website. Business ground to a halt with uncertainty over who could sit at the negotiating table or withdraw money from union bank accounts.
On Tuesday, Lavin granted a preliminary injunction in Steck’s favor. Macias may not access union funds, represent himself as a union leader or set foot in the union’s building in Monterey Park.
But the dispute could drag on, draining money from union coffers, as Steck seeks to make the prohibitions permanent.
DOWNFALL: FORMER SHERIFF LEE BACA, HIS SECOND IN COMMAND PAUL TANKA AND THE STORY OF HOW THINGS AT THE LASD GOT SO BAD
The insanely long story (more than 11,000 words) I wrote about former sheriff Lee Baca for Los Angeles Magazine is both online and on the news stand.
It is, of course, about way more than Lee Baca as the title suggests.
Regular readers of WitnessLA will find that much in the story covers material with which you’re already very familiar. But I think you’ll find some new nuggets. More than anything, I hope the tale gathers most of the main puzzle pieces together to form a larger, explanatory picture that will have some impact, particularly for those LA residents who are not obsessive LASD watchers, but who want a deeper understanding of what the hell is going on in the sheriff’s department and why they need to care about it.
Scores of other LASD members, working and retired, have described similar experiences to me. “The requests would come in a bunch of different ways,” said a female officer. “You would be told that it would be good for your career to walk precincts for Paul. I never walked precincts, but I’ve been to three of his events and another fund-raiser he threw for [former city attorney] Carmen Trutanich. I gave money each time. There wasn’t a choice.”
In one instance she gave $350, at the request of her boss. He in turn was required to collect checks from his underlings, she said, because he was prominently “in the car” with Tanaka. “In the car” was the term for those who operated in the slipstream of the undersheriff’s patronage. “If you were single, like I was at the time,” she explained, “you were told things like, ‘You don’t have any kids, so you can afford more.’ ”
The ring kissing worked in two ways, both directly and in tiers. “In other words,” she told me, “I wasn’t just writing a check to stay in Tanaka’s good graces, I was doing it to get along with my boss. It sounds crazy, but that’s how it worked. And if you said no, they’d tell you, ‘Then you have nothing coming.’ Those were the terms they’d always use—in the car and nothing coming.”
One meant you were protected. The other meant you were screwed.
And here again is a link the teaser Q & Athat my editor at LA Mag, Matt Segal, did with me, along with a clip to give you an idea of the exchange below:
Q: When you began the assignment for this story a year ago, Baca was still very much in office. He had every intention of running for sheriff again and looked like a shoo-in to win in June. But he “retired” a month before we went to press and not long after the US Attorney’s office delivered a multicounty indictment against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. As far as LASD critics may be concerned, problem solved, right? So why do you think the story is still necessary?
A: Mainly because I believe the story is far from over. The FBI is looking at a number of new areas of alleged corruption that fall well outside the problems in the jails. And, although Lee Baca is has yanked himself from the LASD’s helm, his controversial second in command, Paul Tanaka, is running for sheriff. But no matter who is elected next November, for real reform to take place, the new sheriff will need to have a clear-eyed view of the dysfunction that still plagues this department. I hope this story can provide a bit of that perspective.
A NOTE ON RADIO SHOWS: As I mentioned yesterday, I’m on KCRW’s show Press Play with Madeleine Brand today, Wednesday, at noon. You can listen to it online here (or at 89.9 FM) in real time.
Here’s a link to the podcast. The LASD segment begins at just about the 26 minute mark.
Then tomorrow, Thursday, I’ll be on KPCC’s AirTalk with Patt Morrison sitting in for Larry Mantle. Airtalk is on from 11 am until 1 pm, and you can listen live at 89.3 FM. And naturally I’ll post the podcast for this show too when it goes up.
Okay, whew! I guess that’s it. There’ll be one more web extra about the LASD on LA Mag later in the week. I’ll let you know when it goes up.
On the morning of April 16, 2012, Paulino Juarez testified in front of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence about three cases of deputies beating inmates he said he had witnessed during his time working as a Catholic chaplain at Men’s Central Jail. Juarez is a diminutive, soft spoken man who has worked in the county’s jail system since July 1998. This meant he had fourteen years of jail work under his belt by he spoke to the commission, so he was hardly new to custody ministering. Nevertheless, his hands frequently trembled as he described the third and most harrowing of the beatings he said he saw.
(You can read Jaurez’ testimony before the CCJV about the reported beating here, starting on page 162.)
The third incident that chaplain Juarez recounted to the CCJV forms the basis of the federal indictment announced last Friday morning in which two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies—Joey Aguiar, 26, and Mariano Ramirez, 38—-were charged with illegally using force against an inmate, and then attempting to cover up the incident with false reports that “formed the basis of a false prosecution initiated against the victim.”
These new charges bring the number of department members indicted by the feds to 20—with more assuredly to come.
The notion of two deputies allegedly brutalizing an inmate who is already handcuffed and waist-chained, and doing so in front of an experienced civilian witness, and then reportedly trumping up criminal allegations against that the same inmate—despite the witness—is alarming enough.
But this indictment points beyond itself to four other issues that should, if anything, alarm us more.
1. PEOPLE ON THE TOP OF THE LASD FOOD CHAIN KNEW ALL ABOUT THIS INCIDENT, YET NO DEPARTMENT SANCTIONS RESULTED
Juarez said that he recounted the incident verbally and in writing to a host of people within the sheriff’s department’s command structure—plus the Office of Independent Review—but no sanctions appeared to result. In July 2011, nearly 2 years after the incident, Juarez even managed to meet with Sheriff Baca and Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rambo, at which time he relayed what he’d seen.
According to Juarez, the sheriff told him that LASD investigators had determined that the inmate/victim’s bruises were not caused by a beating at all, but by being hit by a car before he ever got to jail. So nothing to see here folks.
No one mentioned the fact that, as Rena Palta reported, there was an LASD video of inmate/victim Brett Phillips lying injured and unconscious—or barely conscious—after the beating.
But, heck, why deal in evidence?
2. AFTER A SCATHING ACLU REPORT AND A PILE OF BAD PRESS, THE DEPARTMENT DID TAKE ANOTHER LOOK INTO THE BEATING IN OCT. 2011, THEN RAN OUT THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS CLOCK.
After the ACLU issued its September 2011 report about violence in the jails, including a declaration and video by Paulino Juarez (among other civilian witnesses)—all of which made national news—the LASD decided to reinvestigate the matter.
Not that it did any good.
According to documents from the Integrity Division of the LA County District Attorney’s office, the LASD’s criminal investigative unit, ICIB, didn’t finish their investigation into the 2009 beating until January 28, 2013—nearly four years after the original incident. In other words, they didn’t finish until they’d neatly run out the clock on the statute of limitations regarding any punitive actions or charges that the LASD or the district attorney might bring.
Whether or not the DA’s office was interested in the case is unclear. But what is very clear is the fact that, by time the DA’s people were belatedly given the paperwork by the LASD, they had no choice but to decline to proceed:
“…Violation for Penal Code section 149, Assault Under Color of Authority, must commence within three years after commission of the offense,” the DA’s office wrote in their official rejection of the case. “We are legally precluded and therefore decline to file criminal charges in this matter…”
3. THE FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP IS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The younger of the two deputies facing these new federal charges, which could result in decades in prison, is now 26. Doing some quick math, this means he was around 21 at the time of the 2009 incident, presumably not very far out of the academy.
Yet, despite the existence of independent witness to the event, it appears that every supervisor who came in contact with the 2009 beating incident, and its alleged criminal cover-up, either denied the existence of any wrongdoing or winked at it—from the sergeant directly above the deputies, through Internal Affairs, ICIB, up to Sheriff Baca. Once has to ask what kind of message all these supervisors imagined they were sending to their young deputies—and the rest of their rank and file—with such actions, or lack thereof.
“We’ve got your back, no matter what trouble you stir up! Don’t worry about the blow-back!” is neither good leadership nor good parenting.
The other jail brutality incidents from the previous round of indictments occurred in 2010 and 2011. Those charges too suggest a pattern of abuse and criminal cover up that had been roundly ignored by supervisors for years. This is the catastrophic failure of leadership that the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence described so scathingly in their September 2012 findings and report.
Certainly, a few department members tried to raise red flags. In 2009, Custody division commanders, Robert Olmsted and Stephen Johnson asked for and received reports by Lt. Mark McCorkle and Lt. Stephen Smith, that each delved into the growing number of incidents of force used against inmates, and outlined a troubling lack of accountability, and worse. But, reportedly when Olmsted tried repeatedly to shake department leadership awake, again, those at the top of the LASD adamantly declined to act.
(For the Smith and McCorkle reports go here and start on p. 27. For our previous detailed reporting on Olmsted’s lengthy testimony at the CCJV, go here.)
We know that uses of force in the jails have gone down, and investigations have, at times, been far more rigorous. Assistant Chief Terri McDonald has made some strides. But throughout the department, custody included, under the past regime, accountability has been highly selective. Too often it has been for show, not for real change.
I watched the Los Angeles Police Department go through a such a period of selective accountability, post Rampart, in 2001 and 2002. The result was that officers stopped pro-active policing for fear of being disciplined, and crime actually went up. Nobody was safer.
Then Bill Bratton came in. The department had real leadership. The rules were the rules for everyone. (It wasn’t about whom you knew.) Crime went down. Officer moral rose.
(Just to be clear: we aren’t saying the LAPD is perfect. For example, we agree with the LA Times editorial board that keeping the names secret of those involved in the Torrance officer-involved shootings that occurred during the Dorner nightmare, is not an acceptable stance for the reasons the Times states. Nonetheless, the core culture of the LAPD has fundamentally altered because of clarity of message and action at the top.)
In these very early days, Sheriff Scott has shown strong signs of wishing to do the same.
May it be so.
The LASD presents a unique challenge. It has corrosive factions within its culture that are formidable.
4. INDICTMENTS MOVING UP THE FOOD CHAIN?
And speaking of accountablity, in the case of those indicted this past December for their part in hiding federal informant Anthony Brown from the FBI and any other federal agents, the failures of leadership were not of omission, but commission. To put it more plainly, the two lieutenants, two sergeants, and three deputies criminally indicted in relationship to the Brown operation did not assign themselves to the task of hiding Brown. That little caper was reportedly overseen by either former undersheriff Paul Tanaka or former sheriff Lee Baca (depending upon which one of them you ask). Or both.
And yet it is deputies and sergeants (and two lieutenants) who are facing serious prison time.
With all of the above in mind, we await the next round of indictments and cannot help but hope that at least relatively soon the charges will begin to move further up the ladder of command.
U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte has stated unequivocally that his office intends to follow the investigations wherever they go.
We are counting on just that.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…..JERRY BROWN WANTS SPLIT SENTENCING AND WE DO TOO (AND SO DOES THE LA TIMES)
Governor Jerry Brown was in town late last month telling everyone that they needed to save water (obviously). Equally importantly, he was also meeting with various criminal justice agency heads—probation, the judiciary, the DA’s Office and more—-in the hope of persuading them to get with the program when it comes to the policy of “split sentencing” for many of the AB109 defendants that are now landing in county—not state—supervision.
I talked at length with Probation Chief Jerry Powers after he met with Brown, and he said and his people are totally on board for split sentencing. Certainly all the criminal justice advocates are for it, as is WitnessLA.
So what is split sentencing? Why isn’t it happening? And why should you care?
While he was in town late last month to talk with local water agencies and policymakers about the drought, Gov. Jerry Brown also had a lower-profile but just as urgent meeting with Los Angeles County’s top criminal justice officials. What is it with you L.A. people, the governor asked, and your resistance to split sentencing?
It’s a good question, even if it requires a bit of explanation. Under California’s AB 109 public safety realignment, low-level felons do their time in county jail instead of state prison, and courts have the option to split their sentences between time behind bars and time under supervised release. An offender sentenced to four years, for example, may get out after only two — but then be subject to another two years of structured reentry into society, with intensive oversight and required participation in drug or mental health treatment, anger management or other such programs. Counties administer those programs, but the state pays for them.
Several counties are taking advantage of split sentencing with promising results. In Riverside County, for example, 80% of AB 109 felons leave jail for mandatory transition and supervision programs, and early figures suggest lower rates of recidivism. In Los Angeles County, only 6% of felons have their sentences split, and the rest walk out of jail on the final day of their terms subject to no search and seizure, no supervision, no mandatory rehab or services, no management or oversight of any kind.
The problem, explains the Times, is that prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges are dragging their collective feet because…..well, they can’t really say why. Most defendants don’t want split sentences, they mutter.
Um, really? And so we’re letting the lawbreakers call the shots? Even though every piece of evidence suggests that some enlightened supervision would be—on average—-in the defendants’ and everybody else’s best interest in preventing recidivism, and facilitating success after release?
Mostly, says the times, LA has been slow-dragging on the policy because the judges, lawyers et al are “used to doing things a certain way.”
(Honestly, the resistance to this obviously necessary policy change is about that dumb.)
Jackie Lacey is, at least, putting together a group to study the matter.
As for the rest, like Jerry said, it’s time to get with the program.
On Tuesday after much speculation, a couple of closed meetings between the members of the LA County Board of Supervisors, and many side meetings in the individual Supes’ offices, the board members finally agreed upon a selection for the interim LA County Sheriff.
Their pick is John Scott. And the early word is good on the selection of Scott who, for the last few years, has been the undersheriff of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department under OC Sheriff Sandy Hutchins. Prior to his Orange County job, Scott worked for the LA County Sheriff’s Department for over 3 1/2 decades—-from 1969 to 2005. One of his final postings at the LASD was as Chief of the Custody Division, making him familiar with—among other things— the difficulties of running the country’s largest jail system.
Scott will attend his first LASD executive staff meeting on Wednesday at department headquarters.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department had its own kind of challenges when Hutchens lured Scott out of retirement to help her clean up the mess left behind by the federally indicted former Sheriff Michael Carona. (Hutchens was appointed in 2008 to finish out Carona’s term after he was arrested.)
Scott told the Supes he will go back to his OC job after he finishes his tenure in LA County this coming December when a new sheriff will be sworn in. Hutchins has said she is holding the job open for Scott.
“The fact that Scott had a place to go back to had a big appeal,” said a county insider of the supervisors’ choice. It meant, said the source, that that Scott wasn’t angling to run for LA sheriff himself. “It also solved the problem of, ‘How do you get an A-lister for the short term?’”
According to another well-placed source, additional selling points for the board members include the fact that, due to his decades in LA, Scott has a working knowledge of the embattled LASD, without being caught up in all the factions and intrigue to which many insiders are subject. And yet, “he knows where a lot of the bodies are buried,” said the source.
When Sheriff Lee Baca announced his retirement on January 7 of this year, he named Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald as his pick for interim sheriff—a choice that some of the Supes embraced more than others did, although all seem very pleased with McDonalds work as head of the department’s long-beleaguered custody division. The possibility of her stepping in to run the entire department was nixed when attorneys from the county counsel’s office said that McDonald did not have the proper certification to run the whole department.
McDonald came to the LASD from her position as undersecretary for operations California Department of Corrections starting her career a quarter century earlier as a corrections officer, making her an appealing choice to run LA County’s scandal-racked jail system—yet not, thought some, an ideal fit for the department-wide job.
Scott, in contrast, explained to the supervisors how involved he had been in in helping Sheriff Hutchens implement her five point action plan to reform the OC department.
The plan’s outline ends this way:
The ultimate goal of law enforcement in America is to reduce crime by honoring every aspect of American law. This includes the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. The foundation of any law enforcement agency must be built on the public trust.
The Supes approved Scott by a vote of 4-0 (with Mark Ridley Thomas abstaining).
At the Tuesday afternoon press conference where he was introduced, Scott told the crowd of reporters and onlookers that he was returning to the department “I love.” He also assured those listening that he would not be “a placeholder.”
“I will begin the process, immediately, of restoring both the dignity to the men and women of L.A. County and the confidence and the trust of the public that they serve,” Scott said.
On Thursday at noon, Lee Baca will leave the office he has held for 15 years and the department he has served for 48.
When Scott left the LASD in 2005, he did so in part, according to our sources, because of a dissatisfaction with the some of those to whom he felt Sheriff Baca was ceding too much power.
HE’S THE SHERIFF, NOT THE “INTERIM” SHERIFF
LA Times editorial board member, Rob Greene,opines interestingly that the Supes pick, John Scott, is a great combination of LASD insider and outsider.
Here’s a clip:
The Board of Supervisors could have picked an insider to succeed Lee Baca and serve as Los Angeles County sheriff for the next 10 months. A top deputy would have given the Sheriff’s Department someone already acquainted with the policies and pecking orders that give the place its culture, and with the people who patrol the streets and the jails. But that’s just the point: Continuity isn’t always a plus. The department needed an unmistakable break from its past, so choosing an insider wouldn’t have been the best move.
So the board could have gone with an outsider, a person from another law enforcement or corrections agency with a solid resume of experience untainted by any time in Baca’s department. But that would have meant a person trying to fix, or even just run, the department without much knowledge of its particular assets and problems. Such a sheriff might have had trouble gaining support or even respect from either internal would-be reformers or old-school foot-draggers, all of whom would have recognized that their boss was a short-termer who would be gone by Dec. 5, when the newly elected sheriff is sworn in.
In picking Orange County Undersheriff John Scott, the board went with someone who’s got a foot in each camp…..
In a surprising turn of events, WitnessLA has learned that Sheriff Lee Baca will announce that he will not finish out his term as the head of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. The announcement will reportedly come at 10 am Tuesday morning.
Up until now, 71-year-old Sheriff Baca has continued to reaffirm that he was running for a fifth term as sheriff. And that he wasn’t at all worried about challengers Bob Olmsted and Paul Tanaka, who are considered to be the most serious of the candidates running against him. Yet, with the unveiling of 18 federal indictments in December, and many more reportedly still to come, plus a rising tide of department scandals that still shows no sign of abatement, observers were no longer calling Baca’s reelection a sure thing.
Baca is presently serving his fourth term in office. He was sworn in for his first term as sheriff on December 7, 1998.
The pending announcement comes as a shock to even most of those who know the sheriff, sources told us. Baca reportedly spoke to each of the members of the LA County Board of Supervisors individually on Monday night. He reportedly briefed members of his command staff days before, meeting with many of them individually.
WHO WILL TAKE BACA’S PLACE?
It will be up to the LA County Board of Supervisors to choose an interim sheriff to replace Baca, although attorneys from the County Counsel’s office are expected to brief the board in the near future on the fine points of this process.
With the sitting sheriff removing himself from the race, at least one, possibly two additional candidates are likely to enter the contest to join the existing top contenders—Olmsted and Tanaka.
One of those, Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers, is expected to announce his candidacy as early as Tuesday—reportedly with Baca’s blessing, and possibly the support of some of the sheriff’s high ticket donors.
The other possible new entry is Long Beach Chief of Police/former LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, who was considering stepping into the race even before word of Baca’s impending announcement was confirmed. (Last summer McDonnell came close to declaring his candidacy, but then decided against it.)
In the meantime, Tanaka is said to have acquired some deep pocket campaign donors. While Olmsted’s campaign is now being run by heavy hitter veteran campaign consultant, John Shallman, who most recently ran Mike Feuer’s campaign for City Attorney.
GUILLERMO CESPEDES TO LEAVE POST AS “ANTI-GANG CZAR,” AND WHAT THAT MEANS FOR LA
Director of LA’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, Guillermo Cespedes—whose innovative gang violence reduction efforts were considered an integral element in the city’s crime decrease over his nearly four-and-a-half-year tenure, and in helping kids stay out of gangs altogether—will be resigning this Thursday. Cespedes will be taking a position at Creative Associates International, in the organization’s crime and violence prevention division for Honduras and El Salvador.
On Thursday’s Air Talk, Frank Stoltze (filling in for Larry Mantle) talks to Cespedes, along with LA City Councilman and Chair of Public Safety Committee, Joe Buscaino, and UCLA violence reduction expert, Jorja Leap, about Cespedes’ move, his legacy and what the future holds for gang intervention in LA.
Here are a few clips from the highlights:
[Cespedes] On why he is leaving his post as anti-gang czar:
“I think that for me this is a natural evolution of the work that we’ve done in LA. It’s sort of interesting that people are framing it as me leaving LA, rather than the work is evolving. To me it’s a logical next chapter.
“Most of this started back in 2011, I was called into an officer involved shooting in Rampar/Pico-Union, a 17-year-old got killed, he happened to be gang-involved. I’m giving the mother the news and about 14 members of his family. She says to me, ‘I need to call his father and give him the news’…It dawned on me that she was calling El Salvador. I went back to the office and said to the staff that our concept of a grid zone is much larger than what we think, and probably about three months later I made my first trip to El Salvador. The motivation for it was to connect the work that we’re doing here with I think very important work that is being done there and those two elements need to connect.
[Cespedes] On the basis of his programs to reduce gang violence:
Number one, you have to engage the people who are perpetrating the violence if you want to reduce violence. You cannot put up a lightbulb and hope that lighting up the neighborhood is going to reduce violence. You have to physically engage in an ethical way with the people who are perpetrating the violence. Number two, I believe we have to focus on behavior, not identity. We learned that from LAPD that blanketing a neighborhood based on a person’s identity backfired all through the ’70s, the ’80s and the ’90s. You have to look at specific behavior, who i perpetrating that behavior, not the entire neighborhood.
“Statistically, what we know from empirical data is little at 3 percent and as high as 15 percent of youth living in those marginalized communities…will likely become gang members… We used to think of dangerous neighborhoods, we used to think of youth violence, as if that came with the term, youth. I think if we look at data, this might not be the most violent generation of youth in decades, but yet youth violence seems to be like a first and last name… In LA we really had to break apart some assumptions, including what we think a family is.”
[Buscaino] We’re excited…to work with the new mayoral administration and expanding the success of the grid program, as well as working forward with the county, and improving coordination and communication amongst the departments…
[Jorja Leap] I do think there’s work to do… And I think we’ve got to look at reentry. We’ve got AB109—we’ve got prison realignment—and I think this is going to be a challenge…let’s celebrate the success, but let’s look to sustaining it. We need to stay the course.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We at WLA are fans of Cespesdes and are sorry to see him go—even though we know that LA’s loss will be Central America’s gain.
LA COUNTY’S STRUGGLE AGAINST RECIDIVISM, POST-REALIGNMENT
Since realignment began two years ago, and thousands of state prisoners were put under county oversight, LA County’s Probation Dept. has made considerable efforts to reduce recidivism. It has been no simple task.
One tactic the department has utilized, with mixed success, “flash” incarceration, allows probation officers to send supervision-violators to jail for up to ten days. Before realignment, probation-violators were usually sent back to state prison, which was expensive, mostly ineffective, and jammed the prison system.
So far, the new methods have had a small measurable success against rearrests, but the probation department has struggled to break the jail cycle. In December, nearly 20% of the realignment probationers had a current arrest warrant for absconding.
Though hundreds of millions of dollars in increased state funding has been allocated to the county for the realignment program, local officials say it’s not enough to lock up, rehabilitate and keep track of the expanded population of criminals. Moreover, they contend that most of those the state indicated would be non-serious offenders have been assessed by local law enforcement officers to be high risks for committing new crimes.
Use of the new ["flash" incarceration] tactic in Los Angeles County jumped nearly 300% in the second year of realignment to 10,000 “flash” arrests, a county analysis shows. Nearly half of those ex-inmates were incarcerated two or more times, with one jailed 13 times.
About 60% of a group of 500 felons shifted to county supervision in the first year of realignment were arrested for new crimes or violating probation — slightly higher than the 56% recidivism rate for former state prisoners overall, according to data from county and state studies.
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman with the state’s corrections department, noted that those statistics show a slight reduction in rearrests of former prison inmates. That is cause to be “cautiously optimistic” that the program will disrupt cycles of crime in the future, he said.
However, the figures also show more churning through the jail system among ex-prisoners like Azevedo. Since realignment began, the proportion of former state inmates arrested four or more times in the first year after their release increased from 7% to 12%.
That’s partly the result of an increasing reliance on flash jail stays. They are seen as a less costly and less severe option for getting nonviolent offenders off the street — and getting probationers to change their behavior — than longer sentences that exacerbate overcrowding in county jails.
Supporters of realignment say the mini-sentences appear to be working: Most felons jailed for the short terms haven’t been rearrested on similar violations. They also note that repeat offenders can be sentenced to three months in jail.
“If there’s anything we can do while they’re sitting in the county jail, a captive audience, to keep them from absconding when those gates are opened, we’re going to do it,” said county Probation Department Assistant Chief Margarita Perez, whose agency sought a lead role in realignment and is getting $80 million for the program this year.
Ultimately, prison reform advocates and state officials predict the new system will encourage alternatives to incarceration, allow offenders to be near their families and help them break drug habits and patterns of criminal behavior that return them to state prison.
So far, that hasn’t worked for Azevedo, 27, a self-described third-generation street gang member whose criminal history began when he was a child in the small northern Orange County city of Placentia…
After leaving Calipatria State Prison in April 2012, Azevedo ignored a requirement to report to an L.A. county probation officer and went back to the streets in Pacoima, where a girlfriend waited.
He was flash incarcerated six times and had his probation revoked four of those times. After each release from jail, he fled from county supervision…
THE IMPORTANCE OF REHABILITATION OUTSIDE OF JUVENILE CAMPS
KPCC’s Rina Palta has a worthwhile story about the finite value of juvenile camps and the new and welcome shift of focus toward youths’ reentry into the community. Here’s a clip:
L.A.’s Deputy Probation Chief Felicia Cotton says even when kids are successful in camp, once they go home, they often fall back to old behaviors.
“You’ll hear many people, and even parents that come to us and say, ‘hey take this kid and when we get him back, he’s going to be perfect,’” Cotton says. “Camp is not a cure-all.”
This belief – that camp is of limited value – is a cultural shift that’s growing inside L.A. County’s Probation Department. Now, Cotton says, camp is seen more as an intervention that momentarily plucks a kid from their ecosystem and tries to give them the skills to deal with whatever caused the behavior that led to detention.
“Because the real rehabilitation comes when they get in their natural ecology,” Cotton says.
Under a policy change being implemented over the past few months, more and more attention goes into planning for life back in the community. Each child leaving camp now has a team to plan his or her transition.
A SMALL UPDATE FROM THE LA SHERIFF CAMPAIGN-FRONT
Downtown News named sheriff-hopeful Bob Olmsted in their top seven Los Angeles political figures to watch in 2014, saying that if Olmsted “raises enough cash and gains steam, he could topple the king [Sheriff Lee Baca].”
Read about Olmsted and the other expected movers and shakers of 2014 here, at the top of page two.
THE LOS ANGELES SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT’S SPECIAL FAVORS HIRING SCHEME
The LA Times’ Robert Faturechi has a new storyabout questionable hiring practices at the LASD. This time the story centers around a program called “Friends of the Sheriff,” that “granted preferential treatment to the friends and relatives of department officials, including some candidates who were given jobs despite having troubled histories…”
According to Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore, the program did indeed exist, and the department shut the thing down last Thursday after the sheriff became aware of the Times’ reporting.
The Times characterizes the program as a project stamped with the approval of the Sheriff, but Whitmore is emphatic that Baca did no such thing. “He didn’t authorize it. He didn’t approve it! He didn’t sponsor it,” Whitmore said hotly.
Whitmore does not, however, dispute the Times’ reporting of the involvement of former undersheriff Larry Waldie with the project. He also said that the program started in 2005 and that one of those who helped to jump start it was former LASD captain Bernice Abrams.
Abrams, if you’ll remember, is a longtime friend of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka and, a year ago, was allowed to retire ahead of being terminated for her alleged protection of a reported drug dealer.
It appears that the idea of lowered standards to increase hiring is not a new one for the LASD.
In the February 2009 report by the Office of Independent Review, OIR chief attorney, Michael Gennaco, delivers a harshly critical 31-page assessment of the department’s background checking process in 2005-2007, during which time Gennaco notes that the department’s application of its standards “changed dramatically” resulting in far “fewer disqualifications.” He also described how independently contracted psychologists were pressured to lower their standards during the background process…and provided a series of individual case studies showing how the lowering of hiring standards had unpleasant results.
CITIZEN PREVIN: LA COUNTY’S FEROCIOUS AD HOC WATCHDOG
LA County watchdog Eric Previn often drives the staffs of the LA County Board of Supervisors and other county officers absolutely crazy because when he grabs hold of an issue, he does not relinquish it. His missives to selected press persons and to denizens of county government are long and full of wordplay, but his institutional knowledge is broad and deep, and his willingness to dig for facts indefatigable.
Reporters frequently gain from the information Previn uncovers.
Elected officials ignore Previn at their peril.
Above is a video portrait of Citizen Previn by Matthew Hamilton, a grad student at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
DOES LA’S PRIVATE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM ENDANGER KIDS?
In 1986, the California state legislature allowed for the creation of private non-profit foster care agencies with the idea that these new privatized agencies, known as FFAs, would be safer and better for kids, a lot less expensive for the state, and would take some of the heat off the state and counties’ often disastrously over-burdened systems.
As the FFAs proliferated it turned out that they were more expensive, not less. Moreover, while many of the new private agencies were quite good. Some were affected by the system’s perverse fiscal incentives to get kids into placement faster, keep them in foster care longer and to cut corners on the quality of care.
A report by the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf looks at the numbers on these FFAs, and tells some of the worst of the FFA horror stories that point to a system painfully in need of reform.
Unfortunately, the problem is not new as shown in this 2009 news story by Daniel Heimpel in which he paints an almost identical picture of the FFAs and their unhappy potential for abuse and tragedy.
Here’s a clip from Therolf’s story:
….Today, the state’s private foster family system — the largest in the nation — has become more expensive and more dangerous than the government-run homes it has largely replaced.
Those living in homes run by private agencies were about a third more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children in state-supervised foster family homes, according to a Times analysis of more than 1 million hotline investigations over a recent three-year period.
In Los Angeles County, at least four children died as a result of abuse or neglect over the last five years in homes overseen by private agencies, according to county officials. No children died in government-run homes during that period.
The flow of money to private foster care — now about $400 million a year — introduced a powerful incentive for some to spend as little as possible and pack homes with as many children as they could.
Those agencies are so short of homes that they accept convicted criminals as foster parents. The state has granted waivers to at least 5,300 people convicted of crimes. In the most egregious cases, people with waivers later maimed or killed children.
The system is so poorly monitored that foster care agencies with a history of abuse can continue caring for children for years. Substantiated cases of wrongdoing can bring little punishment from regulators.
Private agencies now care for 15,000 children statewide. The care comes at greater cost — an additional $327 million between 2001 and 2010, the state auditor found.
Los Angeles County has come to heavily rely on this system; five out of six foster children who are not placed with relatives go to private homes.
It is “as bottom of the barrel as you can imagine,” said Jill Duerr Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at UC Berkeley. “They are clearly not keeping track of quality issues. It’s really quite surprising we don’t have more tragedies.”
SWEEPING PRISON AND SENTENCING REFORMS PROPOSED IN MISSISSIPPI (ARE YOU LISTENING CALIFORNIA?)
After taking a look at the fact that the state had the second highest incarceration rate in the nation, which was resulting in ghastly fiscal burdens on the state budget (sound familiar, California?) Mississippi’s lawmakers decided they needed to stop tinkering around the edges and go for serious reform without sacrificing public safety.
Here’s a clip:
A criminal justice task force on Tuesday recommended sweeping reforms to reduce Mississippi’s soaring prison population and costs, standardize sentences and reduce recidivism.
“This is the first time in my career — 32 years — that we have taken a comprehensive look at corrections in this state,” said Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. “… We all know the cost of doing nothing.”
The recommendations include providing more discretion for judges to impose alternatives to prison and creating “true minimums” on when violent and nonviolent offenders are eligible for release. They also call for defining what constitutes violent crime — something officials said isn’t clear in state law. Proposals also include increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony theft and lowering drug sentences for possession of small amounts while cracking down on large drug dealers.
Epps headed the bipartisan, 21-member task force of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys. The group, after working for seven months with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project, developed recommendations for the 2014 Legislature.
Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker pro tem Greg Snowden and others voiced their support for the proposal after the task force adopted it. The task force was created by a bill Snowden authored this year.
Bryant said the reforms “put victims first,” protect public safety and provide “clarity of sentencing.” Reeves praised the recommendations as “evidence-based, data-driven, fiscally sound criminal justice reforms.”
The vote on the Sentinel Offender Services contract was postponed until next Tuesday, November 26.
WHAT IS SENTINEL OFFENDER SERVICES AND WHY IS LA COUNTY OFFERING THEM A CONTRACT—AGAIN?
On Tuesday, November 19, the LA County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a pending contract to provide an adult electronic monitoring program (or EMP) for offenders, so that some of those who might have served their sentences in jail can instead spend their time at home—with restrictions.
However, in November 2011, Probation and the LA County Sheriff’s Department hoped to expand their collective use of EMP to help better deal with the influx of AB109 inmates that, post realignment, had been landing in the county’s care, not the state’s.
With this in mind, the county began a search for the best firm to replace Sentinel.
An RFP went out on November 16, 2012, and out of a cluster of potential applicants, two finalists emerged—one of them, Sentinel Offender Services. When the smoke cleared this summer, according to the most recent report from Probation Chief Jerry Powers, Sentinel got the highest rating.
And so it was that the brand new EMP provider that the board is slated to approve on Tuesday, turned out to be the old EMP provider.
HOWEVER, TWO RATHER LARGE CAUTIONARY NOTES HAVE EMERGED WITH REGARD TO SENTINEL OFFENDER SERVICES
It turns out there are issues with Sentinel that the Board of Supervisors might want to consider—or at the very least discuss—before it rubber stamps the proposed contract.
Large Cautionary Note Number 1: In June of this year, Orange County Probation found that Sentinel—which was also OC’s provider—had been guilty of what amounts to gross incompetence.
When OC Probation notified the company of the problems it had discovered, Sentinel assured probation officials that the people responsible for the issue had been reassigned or let go.
Most of the failures in the units appear to have been discovered by probation officials June 4, when deputy probation officers and supervisors reviewed the tracking data for 13 convicts wearing ankle devices, a June 13 memo said.
Officers found a number of the units had stopped providing coordinates for days, yet the company never notified officers
In one case, the last location sent by the unit was May 7 – that’s 28 days without a signal even though the devices are supposed to transmit coordinates every 60 seconds.
In another incident, officials found one convict required to use a breath-alcohol testing device failed the test 81 times in a 35-day period, yet probation officials were never notified. After the error was discovered, the convict was arrested for violating the terms of his release.
Documents reviewed by the Register show Sentinel attributed most of the errors to mechanical failures, including water damage of internal computer boards, defective units and “sporadic and insufficient length of battery recharging.”
“Fortunately, these issues were not universal, and there were no absconded clients, but the extent of these reporting failures is greater than we have ever experienced,” a June 27 letter from the company said. “We are confident that these oversights will not occur again.”
But in their report to supervisors, probation officials said problems persisted.
“It was alarming,” [OC Supervisor Todd] Spitzer said in the statement. In a June board meeting, he suggested the board consider issuing a 60-day notice of termination. “These untracked individuals posed an immediate threat to public safety, and I could not just sit back and watch.”
Later OC Probation Department officials also found that the company failed to take photos of participants in the monitoring program, a requirement under their contract.
BUT ORANGE COUNTY ISN’T THE ONLY GROUP THAT HAS HAD SERIOUS PROBLEMS WITH SENTINEL
This brings us to Large Cautionary Note Number 2: In September 2013, the story broke that Sentinel had, on its own, illegally extended the sentences for hundreds—and possibly thousands—of Georgia probationers in order to make extra bucks in the form of fees that probationers were required to pay the company for monitoring them.
(Unlike California, the state of Georgia has contracted with private for profit companies to handle its probation services altogether, not just their EMP.)
In January, Nathan Ryan Mantooth was sentenced to 12 months of probation for an improper lane change by a county judge in Georgia. He was ordered to pay a $420 fine, attend a driver improvement course, and pay a monthly probation supervision fee of $35 to Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation firm. He paid the fee and completed the course within a week of his sentencing. Twice, he went to Sentinel to submit his certificate of completion but was told his name was not yet in the computer. But when he was pulled over two months later for failure to wear a seatbelt, police found an outstanding warrant filed by Sentinel for a probation violation, and took him into custody.
Last week, a Georgia county judge ruled that Sentinel Offender Service had illegally extended the sentence of Mantooth and potentially thousands of others who were required to pay the firm monthly probation fees, and was illegally ordering electronic monitoring for misdemeanor offenders — prohibited by state law — while charging probationers for their own monitoring.
So should LA be concerned about what happened in Georgia, where the system is so different than ours? We think LA should be concerned. The Sentinel that got in trouble in Georgia, is the same Irvine-based company that operates here. Moreover the apparent fraud it was perpetrating on low-income lawbreakers, was not a brief flurry of wrongdoing. To the contrary, it went on over time.
For instance, in 2012 NBC News reported on lawsuits by Georgia probationers against the company that, along with documents obtained by NBC reporters, suggested a history of overcharging and or defrauding probationers going back to 2009, meaning even in the face of a bunch of legal action and bad press, Sentinel was mighty slow to learn its lesson—and didn’t appear to cease and desist with this ethically loathsome behavior until it was absolutely forced to do so in 2013.
MAYBE THERE ARE VERY GOOD REASONS WHY THESE TWO RECENT LARGE-ISH SCANDALS PLAGUING A SINGLE COMPANY AREN’T DEAL BREAKERS FOR LA COUNTY.
But they are big enough red flags that the Supervisors must not rush to vote on the Sentinel contract without asking some very probing questions.
And those questions must be asked in public—not behind closed doors.