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Jerry Signs SB9, Giving Kids Sentenced to Die in Prison a Chance at a Chance….Vetoes Media Access to CA Lock-ups

October 1st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Yes, the governor signed the bill at the last possible minute.
(Today was the cutoff.) But sign it, he did. We are grateful.

Rather than ramble on about the importance of SB9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, yet again, I’ve reprinted in its entirety, the statement from the office of bill’s sponsor, Senator Leeland Yee.

And, for those of you who are going to start shrieking about social justice advocates caring only about “criminals” and not about the victims, here’s the deal:

Fortunately for all of us, the application of compassion and simply decency to a situation isn’t a zero sum game. It’s not an either/or proposition. Thankfully, toughness and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

Okay, enough said. I’m climbing off my soapbox. Here’s the story:

Today, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senator Leland Yee’s Senate Bill 9 – the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act – which will give youth serving life without parole an opportunity to earn a second chance.

Approximately 300 youth offenders have been sentenced to die in California’s prisons for crimes committed when they were teenagers. SB 9 will give some youth sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) a chance to earn parole after serving at least 25 years in prison.

“I commend Governor Brown for having the courage, understanding, and leadership to sign SB 9,” said Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), who is a child psychologist. “The Governor’s signature of SB 9 is emotional for both the supporters and the opposition, but I am proud that today California said we believe all kids, even those we had given up on in the past, are deserving of a second chance.”

The United States is the only country in the world where people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime serve sentences of life without parole.

Under Senate Bill 9, courts could review cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after 15 years, potentially allowing some individuals to receive a new minimum sentence of 25 years to life. The bill would require the offender to show remorse and be working towards rehabilitation in order to submit a petition for consideration of the new sentence.

“SB 9 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it is an incredibly modest proposal that respects victims, international law, and the fact that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults,” said Yee. “The neuroscience is clear – brain maturation continues well through adolescence and thus impulse control, planning, and critical thinking skills are not yet fully developed. SB 9 reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”

“SB 9 becoming law speaks volumes for who we are as a society – that we value our children,” said Yee.

Supporters of SB 9 included child advocates, mental health experts, medical organizations, faith communities, and civil rights groups. In recent weeks, SB 9 also gained high level support from the Democratic Leader of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as well as a number of law enforcement leaders including San Francisco’s police chief, sheriff, and district attorney.

“In California, a sentence of life without parole is a sentence to die in prison,” said Elizabeth Calvin, children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Teenagers are still developing. No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a sixteen year old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult. It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up and becomes an adult. There’s no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”

In California, prosecutors and judges have some discretion on whether to pursue LWOP for juveniles. However, several cases call such discretion into question.

One such case involves Christian Bracamontes, who was 16 and had never before been in trouble with the law. One day when Christian’s friend said, “Hey do you want to rob this guy?” Christian replied in what can only be described as a quintessential adolescent response, “I don’t care.” When the victim refused to comply with his friend’s demand, Christian said he thought the bluff was called, and he remembered turning away and bending down to pick up his bike and leave, when he heard a gunshot.

The prosecutor offered a lower sentence, but in Christian’s teenage mind he could not see how he would be responsible for the other person’s actions and he turned down that deal. The DA was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It’s hard for teenagers to understand concepts like aiding and abetting.” Christian was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

A report published by Human Rights Watch found that in many cases where juveniles were prosecuted with an adult for the same offense, the youth received heavier sentences than their adult codefendants.

Despite popular belief to the contrary, Human Rights Watch found that life without parole is not reserved for children who commit the worst crimes or who show signs of being irredeemable criminals. Nationally, it is estimated that 59% of youth sentenced to life without parole had no prior criminal convictions. Forty-five percent of California youth sentenced to life without parole for involvement in a murder did not actually kill the victim. Many were convicted of felony murder, or for aiding and abetting the murder, because they acted as lookouts or were participating in another felony, such as a robbery, when the murder took place.

One prosecutor who has publically supported Yee’s bill, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said, “I recognize the ability of young people to reform their behavior and be rehabilitated as they mature. SB 9 holds youth responsible for their actions. It creates a rigorous system of checks and balances, and provides a limited chance for young offenders to prove they have changed – both to a judge and to a parole board.”

California also has the worst record in the nation for racial disparity in the imposition of life without parole for juveniles. African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate that is eighteen times higher than the rate for white youth, and the rate for Latino youth is five times higher.

Each new youth offender given this sentence will cost the state upwards of $2.5 million. To continue incarcerating the current population of youth offenders already sentenced to life without parole until their deaths in prison will cost the state close to $700 million.


In vetoing AB1279, the sunshine law that would have allowed greater press access to Californi’s state prisons, Jerry Brown used the same rationale that a list of previous governors have used in axing similar bills.

They say that if reporters are allowed to request interviews with specific prisoners, this inevitably means that high profile bad guys like Charlie Manson will quickly become media stars.

It is a rationale that has perplexed most of the journalists who would be those actually going into the prisons to report had the governor signed the bill on Sunday. The last thing most of us would wish to do is to rush to interview the Charlie Mansons of the world.

Regrettably, however, there is a small group of reporters who would.

In any case, it’s back to the drawing board on the necessary concept of bringing more light and thus more accountability to California’s prisons

Posted in Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, media, prison, prison policy | 2 Comments »

LA Gets a New Education Blog! It’s About $%@#%& Time!… KQED Does Realignment…& Juvie LWOP Bill Goes to Brown’s Desk….and More

August 21st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


There are few things of more consequence in this city and county than education. And yet, although we have good education reporters in LA (Tammy Abdollah at KPCC, Howard Blume at the LA Times, plus various people at the LA Weekly), for whatever reason, the cumulative coverage has not had the depth, rigor and edge that the subject demands.

Not since Bob Sipchen ran the School Me blog for the LA Times (that the Times, in it’s infinite wisdom, chose to drop) has there been anything approaching the fine grain work we really need here on an day-in-day-out basis.

That’s why it is such very good news that we now have a new player on the field in the form of an independent education blog called: THE LA SCHOOL REPORT

The extremely smart and talented Hillel Aron will be writing it. Highly respected veteran education wonk and journalist/author, Alexander Russo, is editing. Journalist and television news producer and executive, Jamie Alter Lynton is the founder/ publisher.

And may I say in response to this bit of info: WOOOO-HOOO!

I don’t know Ms. Lynton, except by reputation. But I do know Hillel and Alexander, and—I promise you—this is a good team.

The timing could not be better. As cuts to education continue to go ever deeper, there can be no business as usual. Innovative solutions are needed. And good reporting will help to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The need for a watch-dogging press that holds the various facets of our educational system accountable has never been greater. Ditto a press that points to small, promising green shoots of progress.

The LA School Report is also surfacing at a time when the State Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color wrapped up its year’s worth of hearings with a report that revealed—among many other things— that African-American and Latino school kids are more likely than white kids to be suspended, and to drop out, and kindergartners of color are more than three times as likely as their white playmates to believe they lack the ability to succeed in school.

So how do we address those problems on which the health of our communities and our city depends? Good education reporting can help.

And so…. Welcome LA School Report! We’re very glad to see you!


Last October, California began the grand experiment known as realignment, a strategy that shifts responsibility for a certain slice of our convicted law breakers away from state custody and oversight, transferring the responsibility for oversight instead to California’s various counties.

The immediate purpose of realignment is to lower the population of the state’s overcrowded prison system, in response to last year’s Supreme Court decision, which demanded that our policy makers find a way to drop said population or the court would do it for us (and we likely wouldn’t like their strategies).

The secondary purpose is to lower our dreadful state prison recidivism rates (which would, in turn, over time, lower the prison population), the assumption being that the counties can do a better job at rehabilitation and reentry than the beleaguered state.

So, after less than a year, how’s it going?

KQED, together with the Center for Investigative Reporting, have just launched a series that aims to tell us just that.

First, KQED’s Matthew Greene gives us a mini-primer on the in’s and outs’ of the R word.

Then my very smart pal, veteran criminal justice reporter, Michael Montgomery, has a report on the differences in the way that San Francisco is responding to the added jails population, as compared to Fresno County.

For instance, in Fresno Nontgomery finds the system already getting overwhelmed. Some of the realignment inmates he talks to tell him they wish they could got to state prison instead of doing their time closer to home, in the county jail. They said that in jail, there is far less opportunity to better one’s self.

“There are no programs here,” one heavily-tattooed young man says. “No school, no education. There’s no jobs. This yard is once a week, every Monday, for one hour. That’s it. No sunlight, no fresh air.”

When asked where would they prefer to be, prison or jail, one Fresno inmate answers, “I’d rather go to prison myself.” All the other inmates agree. They’d rather be in state prison.

The theory behind realignment is that putting non-violent offenders closer to home increases their chances of rehabilitation. But for now at least, Fresno’s jail is stretched to capacity. Margaret Mims, the Fresno County sheriff, says they weren’t prepared for the influx.

“It was disappointing that we were hit so hard so fast with many more inmates, says Mims. “And we’re all scrambling to figure out how we’re going to deal with it.”

Yet here is what Montgomery heard from San Francisco inmates:

Unlike some other counties such as Fresno, San Francisco is investing most of its realignment money in rehabilitation.

Randy Nichols is serving time for drug charges. He says he spent 27 years in and out of prison, only to end up at the San Francisco county jail because of realignment.

“When I go to state prison I don’t know if I’m getting out…alive,” says Nichols. “When I come here I’m able to work on myself, be myself.”

The next installment will look at Los Angeles.


After three years of being shot down in California’s Assembly, State Senator Leland Yee’s bill that would allow some kids convicted of murder as juveniles to at least apply for parole, passed in the assembly last week, and sailed through the state senate on Monday, 21-16. It is now headed to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Here’s a clip from the Sac Bee’s quickie rundown on what the bill means:

The bill by Democratic Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco would allow some murderers to petition for a hearing to have their sentence changed to 25 years to life, allowing them to later petition for parole. Several conditions would apply: They would have to have been under 18 when they committed a murder that got them life in prison with no possibility of parole. They also would have to have already served at least 15 years of their sentence, and wouldn’t be released until they had served at least 25 years. And they would have to have been convicted with at least one adult co-defendant.

Some criminals would not be eligible — those with a history of violence before the murder conviction, those who had tortured their victims, and those who had killed a firefighter or law enforcement official.

Yee said the bill would only apply when offenders showed remorse and when “it is a very clear case where an individual has made amends and demonstrated that they are not going to re-offend.”

Again, this perfectly sensible bill took three years to pass. But pass it has.

Now it’s up to Jerry.


I was in the Bay Area last week, part of that time in Oakland, where I learned that, not only is the Oakland Police Department laboring under a federal consent decree (a circumstance that LA knows well), things have gotten so weird that they’re actually teetering on the edge of being forced into federal receivership—which would make Oakland the first U.S. city to have its police department snatched from its control.

AND if that wasn’t trouble enough, Monday the news broke that the federal monitor (the person who keeps an eye on the department to see if the requirements of the consent decree are being met) is being investigated for….oh…just read the story yourself.

It’s a mess. as Matthew Artz from the Oakland Tribune points out. Here’s a clip:

….Deputy City Attorney Jamilah Jefferson wrote that the city is “duty-bound” to review the “potentially damaging” allegations concerning “communications between the court monitor and city officers” and asked U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson to seal all documents in connection with the investigation.

On Monday, the city filed a revised motion and asked that Friday’s motion be withdrawn and sealed because it contained “confidential and sensitive information that … should not be part of the court’s public record.”

Speculation is that the accusations stem from one or more meetings that included Warshaw, a former deputy drug czar in the Clinton Administration, and City Administrator Deanna Santana. Santana said she couldn’t comment on what happened because it is part of a personnel investigation. Warshaw could not be reached for comment Monday.

Henderson has tentatively scheduled hearings for December to consider stripping the city control of the police department because of its failure to fully comply with reform measures spelled out in a 2003 agreement that settled the Riders police misconduct case…

It’s not at all clear what the monitor did, as no one will say, but Artz quotes one source as telling him that he knows of no problem with Warshaw, the monitor, other than the fact that city officials really don’t like his reports.

Photo by SteveCof00 licensed under Creative Commons

Posted in Education, jail, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, law enforcement, LWOP Kids, media, Realignment, Reentry, Sentencing | 1 Comment »

Gathering Some Thoughts About the Murders in Aurora

July 23rd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Over the weekend, it was hard to focus on news other than the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people were killed, 58 wounded, at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. With this in mind,
we’ve set aside other issues and have gathered some reports and stories that you might have missed.


Journalist and author Dave Cullen has first hand experience about the perils of jumping to conclusions about mass murder—and mass murderers. He is the author of the excellent book Columbine, which deconstructs in harrowing detail the myriad events that led to the Columbine school massacre, after which everyone reporting on the tragedy, including Cullen himself, seemed to get it wrong.

Here’s the opening of his essay about the Colorado shooting for Sunday’s NY Times.

YOU’VE had 48 hours to reflect on the ghastly shooting in Colorado at a movie theater. You’ve been bombarded with “facts” and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong.

I learned that the hard way. In 1999 I lived in Denver and was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School the afternoon it was attacked. I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with. We created those myths for one reason: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them.

Not one bit of that turned out to be true.

But the news media jumped to all those conclusions in the first 24 hours, so they are accepted by many people today as fact. The real story is a lot more disturbing. And instructive.


It is nearly impossible not to talk about gun control after this shooting (pro and con). And yet the presidential candidates have managed it.
Here are some of the more articulate pleas for a real discussion on the matter.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about what the politicians—on the right and the left—won’t talk about.

The murders—it dignifies them to call them a “tragedy”—in Aurora, Colorado, have hit us all hard, though the grief of the friends and families of the victims is unimaginable. Still, it hits home, or someplace worse than home, for any parent who (as I did, as so many did) had a kid at one of the many midnight screenings of the new Batman movie last night, they having gone to see it the moment it opened. Once again, as so often before, the unthinkable news is disassembled, piece by piece, into its heartbreaking parts. After the Virginia Tech shooting, the horrifying detail, as I wrote at the time, was that the cell phones were still ringing in the pockets of the dead children as their parents tried to call them. In Colorado, you can’t expunge the knowledge of the sudden turn from pleasure to horror that those children experienced.


The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it.


The reality is simple: every country struggles with madmen and ideologues with guns, and every country—Canada, Norway, Britain—has had a gun massacre once, or twice. Then people act to stop them, and they do—as over the past few years has happened in Australia. Only in America are gun massacres of this kind routine, expectable, and certain to continue. Does anyone even remember any longer last July’s gun massacre, those birthday-party killings in Texas, when an estranged husband murdered his wife and most of her family, leaving six dead?
But nothing changes: the blood lobby still blares out its certainties, including the pretense that the Second Amendment—despite the clear grammar of its first sentence—is designed not to protect citizen militias but to make sure that no lunatic goes unarmed

And then there is James Fallows’ Sunday night post at the Atlantic, after readers wrote him to say he was too pessimistic and furious in his earlier post about his certainty shootings like this would happen again.

Here’s a clip from the first post:

Like everyone, and I’d say especially like every parent, I am of course saddened and horrified by the latest mass shooting-murder. My sympathies to all.

And of course the additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else…..

Now here’s a clip from the second post that went up Sunday night (in which he doesn’t back off in the least):

….I never mean to give in to jaded fatalism, so I will reflect on this again.

….Meanwhile, this sample of the insanity of today’s “security” thinking.

The latest Colorado shooter — like Jared Loughner of Tucson, Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech, and the countless others whose names we forget after they have done their damage — could not legally have walked onto an airplane carrying a water bottle, or without taking off his shoes.

But he could walk down the street with a legally purchased assault rifle, body armor, and as much ammo as he could lift.

At some point the madness of this disproportion may sink in. To be clear on my own views: I see no reason why a civilian should be allowed to possess an assault rifle like this shooter’s AR-15, a civilian version of the military M16, or similar high-capacity weapons. These are for soldiers and others formally authorized to administer deadly force.

And while we’re on the “madness” topic, please consider:

The lasting distortion in our airport operations and travel “security” rules if these same 12 people had been killed and dozens injured on an airplane. We’d have Congressional hearings, sackings of TSA officials, new inspections and screening machines “to keep us safe,” and so on.
The military, diplomatic, and cultural consequences if the Batman murderer had happened to yell “Allahu Akbar!” or “Death to America!” before dispatching his victims….


This weekend Doug Berman, the attorney/law professor/sentencing expert who blogs at Sentencing Law and Policy, generated a LOT of heated discussion in response to this post on the shooting rampage in which he said how relieved he was that Colorado is a death penalty state.

(A little later, he revisited his thoughts on the matter with a cooler head here in his Sunday post, but he didn’t dial back his point.)

Here’s a small clip from the post that stirred everyone up:

….In the immediate aftermath of these sorts of horrific mass killings, I find it so very hard to react with my head without also listening to my heart. And in these kind of awful cases, my heart (or is it my gut) often suggests to me that ultimate punishment of death is the only one which feels fitting. I suspect Colorado prosecutors (and perhaps also federal prosecutors) will have similar feelings…..

(Readers here know that we at WLA are big fans of Doug Berman,which doesn’t mean we agree with him on absolutely everything).


In the midst of much nattering by TV talking heads on the issue, former LAPD chief Bill Bratton was refreshingly sane and specific on Meet the Press as he responded to the argument that, if only theater goers had been carrying their own guns, much of the theater shooting tragedy could have been averted.

(NOTE: You have to listen to quite a bit of blather before you get to Bratton’s comments at about minute 2:03.)

Earlier in the weekend, Bratton told FOX News that “What we need is “some sanity in our gun control laws.”

Photo by Alan Mittelstaedt

Posted in Bill Bratton, Contemplating Crime & Consequence, crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, guns, media | 41 Comments »

Life-Skills Programs Combat Juvie Crime, Baca’s Legal Issues, and “Breaking Bad”

July 16th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Enrolling disadvantaged teens in life-skills programs may bring down juvenile arrests for violent crime by as much as 44%, according to a report released Friday by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

The Crime Report has the story. Here’s a clip:

Researchers analyzed the impact of enrolling 2,740 disadvantaged seventh through 10th grade boys in Becoming A Man (BAM)—Sports Edition, a Chicago program which focuses on developing cognitive skills related to emotional regulation and other social behaviors. In addition to the reduction in violent-crime arrests, the study found an increase in schooling outcomes that could translate to a 10 to 23 percent increase in graduation rates among participants.

The report itself is worth reading. Here’s a clip:

Our findings show that program participation significantly increased school engagement and performance by 0.14 standard deviations during the program year and by 0.19 standard deviations in the follow-up year, impacts that imply future graduation rate increases of about 10 to 23 percent of the control group’s graduation rate. Program participation also reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent (8 fewer arrests per 100 participants) and arrests in the ‘other’ (miscellaneous) category, which includes vandalism and weapons crime, by 36 percent (11.5 fewer arrests per 100 participants) during the program year. These findings are particularly noteworthy given the challenging settings in which the intervention took place. (In fact, our study is closer to what evaluation researchers would call an effectiveness trial of how a program would operate at scale than it is to the sort of smaller-scale efficacy trials carried out under ideal conditions by program developers and researchers.) The positive program effects provide the most rigorous, large-scale evidence to date that a social-cognitive skill intervention can improve both schooling and delinquency outcomes for disadvantaged youth.


The San Francisco Chronicle ran a long story over the weekend about LA County Sheriff Lee Baca’s expanding list of serious legal challenges, including the ACLU’s most recent lawsuits against the department (that WitnessLA reported here and here), the issues raised at the jails commission hearings, the 200 newly recalled department badges that had been passed out unwisely to civilians—and a lot more.

SF Gate’s Greg Risling has the detailed story. Here’s a clip:

“We could call for his resignation daily, but it’s not going to do any good,” said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU Southern California legal director, who called for Baca to step down late last year. “If he stays on, he’s got to fix these problems. There are some glimmers of hope, but it’s far from what we’d like to see.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, a constant critic of the sheriff and a court-appointed monitor of jail conditions, sued Tuesday, alleging that inmates charged with assaulting deputies have been unable to get evidence that could help exonerate them.

At the core of the problems facing the department is how its deputies treat some of the estimated 15,000 inmates in county jails. The ACLU has filed another lawsuit accusing Baca and some other department officials of condoning violence against inmates.

Last year the civil rights group released a report that documented more than 70 cases of alleged abuse and other misconduct by deputies, many of which occurred at Men’s Central Jail. The FBI has launched its own investigation and asked for internal department records dealing with inmate abuse.

On July 6, Capt. Michael Bornman testified before a county commission looking into deputy abuse in the jails that the former head of the jail, Capt. Daniel Cruz, resisted efforts to investigate employees who were accused of excessive force. Bornman described a culture of brutality where Cruz allegedly joked about not hitting inmates in their face so marks wouldn’t be visible. Cruz has denied the accusations.

However, Bornman said his boss has been addressing and correcting the problems in the jails.

Baca, 70, who has said he’s to blame for deputy misconduct against inmates and wasn’t available for comment Friday, pointed out in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that some of the media coverage has been unfair.

“Criticism is necessary; so are all the facts,” Baca wrote to the paper’s editor on Friday regarding Bornman’s testimony. “I simply ask you to present both.”

You can read the rest of Baca’s letter to the LA Times here.


AMC’s “Breaking Bad”, whose fifth (and final) season premiered Sunday, is actually a pretty accurate depiction of the meth business–from the drug production to the Mexican cartels.

The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe has the story. Here’s a clip:

…“Breaking Bad” is a chamber piece, relying on the shifting alliances and betrayals of the same handful of players. The show presents a challenge, for Gilligan and his writers, to configure and reconfigure, like playing an endless game of Scrabble using only the same eight letters.

So it’s somewhat surprising that in depicting the mechanics of the meth business, “Breaking Bad” is so notably realistic. I spent the past six months interviewing drug traffickers and D.E.A. agents for an article about the business side of a Mexican drug cartel, and, having been an ardent fan of “Breaking Bad,” I was startled by how much the show gets right. On one level, the show is a parable about the impossibility of running a mom-and-pop business in a world of rapacious multinational conglomerates. In this sense, it shares a basic template with Oliver Stone’s lurid “Savages”—or, for that matter, with “You’ve Got Mail.” The difference in the case of Walter White, the show’s protagonist, is that Pop ends up waging bloody war on the conglomerate. And winning.

Photo by WitnessLA

Posted in ACLU, art and culture, criminal justice, LA County Jail, LASD, media, prison policy, Sheriff Lee Baca | 2 Comments »

WitnessLA Walks Away With One of Top Prizes at LA Press Club Awards

June 25th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Witness LA took home a top prize in one category, a second place in another, and was a finalist in a third on Sunday night at the 54th annual Los Angeles Press Club Awards,
where hundreds of reporters, editors, columnists, producers, news anchors and other miscellaneous members-of-the-press gathered in the Crystal Ballroom of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel to find out who had won what in the world Southern California Journalism.

Among its highlights, the evening featured a duet of speeches by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. (The twosome got the evening’s President’s Award). Woodward gave his remarks looking Big Brother-ish via SKYPE on a screen behind where Bernstein stood at the ballroom’s podium. (Woodward apologized for his looming electronic non-in-person presence, pleading that the manuscript for his latest book was due to the publisher on Monday.)

For some reason, the glitzy night also featured more than the usual number of gawp-worthy shoes including these startling items, whose owner admitted she had lacerated her ankles more than once with the things.

(click to enlarge)

Witness LA—namely Matt Fleischer and I— walked away with a 1st Place for Advocacy Journalism for our work reporting and investigating the problems in the LA County Jails and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. (Matt didn’t do any literal walking Sunday night as he was up in the Bay Area all weekend, so learned of the award via his editor’s enthusiastic texts.) We competed in a terrific field that included entries from Reason Magazine and Reason TV, the Huffington Post, KCET’s online division and more.

In their comments on WLA’s work the judges wrote:

Many thought it just sarcasm when some inner-city residents referred to law enforcement as “just another armed gang” during the riots some years back. These reporters uncovered the chilling truth in what is perhaps America’s most troubled jail in this startling series of articles, making the judges relieved that they lived to tell the tale. While some observers prefer the term “cliques,” groups of deputies employ many of the trappings of street gangs to protect some prisoners (and each other) while savagely assaulting the person of prisoners and the careers of deputies who don’t join up. Outstanding research and excellent writing.

WLA also won second place in the Group Weblog category. (The staff of Reason Magazine was the winner in this field, but we were happy to be the runner up on a list that also included entries from Truthdig and LA Weekly’s Squid Ink.)

AND WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer was a finalist for the Online Investigative Journalism award for Part 3 THE PRINCE of our Dangerous Jails series, a category won by Bloomberg reporters Christopher Palmeri, Rodney Yap and Michael Morris.

(A pretty good haul, we thought, for our hardworking little shoe-string operation.)

There were many, many worthy winners, lots of our good pals among them.

(click to en-biggen)

KCET’s So Cal Connected left with a bunch awards, as did KPCC, Neon Tommy,
LA Weekly, OC Weekly, the LA Times and The Atlantic Magazine….and more.

(You can find the full list here.)

Congratulations to everyone for their fine work.

Posted in media, writers and writing | 23 Comments »

WitnessLA is a Finalist for Three LA Press Club Awards

May 25th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

WitnessLA is very happy to report that we are a finalist in three categories
for this year’s Southern California Journalism Awards given by the LA Press Club.

The categories in which we are shortlisted are:

Best Online Investigative Story or Package….for Matt Fleischer’s Dangerous Jails Part 3: The Prince.

Best Advocacy Journalism…….for the coverage—reporting and commentary-–documenting a complex system of corruption inside the LA Sheriff’s Department.

Best Group Weblog….for WitnessLA in general.

You can find a full list of all the finalists here.

The winners will be announced on June 24 at the 54th SoCal Journalism Awards Gala at Biltmore Hotel.

Posted in media | 9 Comments »

Saving “LA Youth”—The Nation’s Largest Youth Newspaper Needs Help ASAP

May 10th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

We want our kids to be informed, thinking, confident compassionate, educated people, such a goal is in everyone’s interest, for heaven’s sake, and yet increasingly, as the economy continues to wobble, the commitment to this obviously worthy goal on the part of those with resources seems to be faltering.

It doesn’t help that education has been slashed to a horrific degree. while, at the same time, nonprofits that serve kids and families at risk have watched their funding shrink down to nothing.

And now LA Youth, the Los Angeles based newspaper for and by kids— the largest of its kind in the nation, and an institution that always seemed safe—-is right at the edge of closing its doors at the end of this school year, one more possible casualty of the economic tsunami of 2008.

(Thanks again, Wall Street. Really. Your giant vampire squid-osity is a gift that keeps on giving.)

However, all is not lost. What LA Youth needs to rescue it from disaster is $500,000 in operating funds, and then it can make do with some of the other grants it will receive for specific programs.

They’ve already raised some of what they need, but it ain’t close to enough. They must hit that $500K mark by May 15.

I’ve been a friend and admirer of LA Youth for years now, and have spoken to kids and read essays by other kids, who explain in detail how their lives and sense of self would be far, far different had it not been for the mentoring they received as writers/editors/mentees for this stellar organization.

The video above is by a teacher at Locke High School, where LA Youth runs a weekly program. Just listen. She explains how writing for the newspaper allows kids—many of whom come out of risky personal circumstances—to discover that they count for something, that they have a voice, that what they think/feel/perceive/know can matter.

Put another way, a lot of kids who were struggling in school have now graduated from college, because of the intellectual/emotional lifeline this program tossed to them.

Okay, that’s the pitch. You can check out LA Youth here, and CLICK HERE to donate, if you are so moved. I am told that every little bit helps. (And if you happen to know a wildly wealthy philanthropist, feel free to drop a hint.)

Posted in academic freedom, American voices, journalism, media | No Comments »

4 Monday Must Reads & 1 Must Watch

May 7th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

with Taylor Walker


In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Padilla vs. Kentucky, that a an immigrant who is a permanent legal resident but who, after being charged with a felony, agreed to a guilty plea on the bad advice from a defense attorney without being told that his or her plea will result in automatic deportation, can have that guilty conviction vacated.

Now the court is set to decide this year whether or not Padilla should be made retroactive.

Michael Strickland from UPI has more of the details. Here’s a clip:

Is the U.S. Supreme Court about to open the appeal floodgates for legal aliens who committed crimes in the United States, pleaded guilty but weren’t told they would face deportation under federal law?

Maybe. Argument on the issue will be heard next term, which begins on the first Monday of October.

The genesis of the dispute arose in 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled in Padilla vs. Kentucky that non-citizens who pleaded guilty to felonies, but weren’t advised by their lawyers they automatically would be deported, were unconstitutionally deprived of their Sixth and 14th Amendment rights to effective counsel.

The vote was 7-2.

Now the Supreme Court has agreed to review whether the Padilla ruling should be made retroactive. In other words, should it be applied to any non-resident who pleaded guilty to a felony without effective counsel from 1996, when the deportation law was passed, to 2010, when the decision was handed down.

How big a universe would be affected is up for speculation….

One thing: although Strickland implies otherwise, a guilty plea does not always mean the person pleading actually committed the crime. Most times it does, of course. But far from always. These days 90 percent of all criminal cases are settled by plea bargain and people take pleas for all kinds of reasons, a common one being someone who has already spent a year or two in jail waiting to go to trial when his attorney tells him if he just pleas out, he will be released for time (already) served. So he takes the plea—whether he committed the crime or not.. And, if he’s a perfectly legal resident, but not a US citizen, he (or she) will be immediately deported for the rest of his or her life.

In any event, this will be an interesting matter to watch.


SF woman Wanda Brown was released after serving fifteen years longer than the maximum she should have spent behind bars. Her release was based upon a new retroactive law that allows domestic abuse testimony to be considered in old cases. Getting out also required the work of a young but determined pro bono attorney.

San Jose Mercury News columnist, Scott Herhold has the story:

Here’s how it opens:

Wanda Brown killed Willie Kelley. There was never any question. In a frenzy in 1984, the 22-year-old woman stabbed the San Francisco shopkeeper 64 times with a pocket knife. As lawyers say, it looked like bad facts. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. A judge gave her 16 years to life.

With no evidence of premeditation, her lawyer, a San Francisco public defender, told her she’d likely be out in eight and a half years. That was the standard back in the mid-’80s.

Then California politics lurched toward an unforgiving stance on crime. More than 27 years later, Wanda Brown was still at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, rejected three times for parole.

On this one, you really do need to read the rest.


With more and more innocence cases turning up evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, the fact that prosecutors are legally protected from accountability in most of such cases is becoming an increasingly pressing matter.

The Innocence Project’s Barry Scheck has an essay on the issue in Sunday’s Austin Statesman.

Here’s a clip:

In February, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson affirmed the finding of state District Judge Sid Harle that there was probable cause to believe former Williamson County prosecutor Ken Anderson had violated the criminal laws of Texas by disobeying a court order to disclose evidence pointing to the innocence of Michael Morton, who in 1987 was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. A court of inquiry will now try Anderson on these charges.

The case against Anderson (who is now a state district judge and denies wrongdoing in the Morton case) made national headlines because, as a recent article in the Yale Online Law Review thoroughly documents, our system rarely disciplines, much less brings criminal charges against, prosecutors who have engaged in acts of intentional misconduct. Far too often, prosecutors, who wield enormous power over our lives, aren’t investigated at all, even for intentional misconduct that has led to a wrongful conviction, much less “harmless” intentional misconduct in cases in which the defendant was guilty.


Be sure to watch this 60 Minutes story about how a small town newspaper did what even the feds couldn’t manage. (Video link here.)

And here’s a clip from the written version:

Prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in America. Few places have been hit harder than Kentucky, a state that has also been ravaged by addiction to crystal meth. In Whitley County, Kentucky – in the heart of Appalachia — matters were made worse when the man suspected of being at the center of the drug trade was the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Lawrence Hodge.

There had long been suspicions that Sheriff Hodge was dirty, but nobody – not even federal agents – could prove it.

That’s when two local journalists — both in their 20s — launched their own investigation. And they soon discovered poking into the affairs of a powerful county sheriff can be risky business.

Adam Sulfridge: You know you’re 20 years old, and you’re taking a shower one day and getting ready for class and you get a call from a federal agent because there’s a credible threat against your life. Everything about it is just so surreal. You know. You don’t– you don’t think a whole lot about it. Then later that night you start thinking, you’re like, “Geez, somebody wants to kill me. That’s a little odd.”

And it’s the sheriff. The sheriff wants to kill you.

Read and or watch the rest.


Ex gang-leader-turned-pastor Jesse Sanchez’s Coachella Valley group home requires hours of candy sales by parolees and recovering addicts without providing any rehabilitative programs for the residents.

The Desert Sun’s Rebecca Walsh has the story. Here’s a clip:

At Victory Life, treatment for as many as two dozen men seems to consist of days of chocolate-selling punctuated by church services Sunday morning and Tuesday evening. There is no counseling, no job or life skills training. Residents simply beg, day in and day out, for their upkeep.

“That would never happen in any of our programs,” says Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Where a parolee goes to find comfort with a church is their business. But that is very different from what we consider rehabilitation.”

Read on. It’s an interesting tale.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, immigration, Innocence, media, Must Reads, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Juvenile Justice Cuts, Death Penalty Deterrence, The Controversial LA Times Photos….& More

April 19th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

by Taylor Walker


More than three decades after the moratorium against capital punishment was lifted, the prestigious National Research Council released a report that, after reviewing dozens of studies, failed to find reliable evidence that the death penalty is actually a homicide deterrent. In fact, the Committee of Deterrence and the Death Penalty said that any past research on the subject should be disregarded in death penalty debates as incomplete and unsupportable.

The LA Times has the story.

Here’s a clip:

The Committee of Deterrence and the Death Penalty concluded that studies on the death penalty and its potential effect on homicide rates — both pro and con — contain fundamental flaws that essentially make them moot.

For example, the studies do not include the effects of other forms of punishment – such as life in prison without possibility of parole, and whether it too acts as a deterrent. The studies, study authors wrote, don’t “consider how the capital and noncapital components of a regime combine in affecting the behavior of potential murderers.”

In other words, previous studies don’t determine whether potential killers think about the possibility of spending their lives in prison or ending up on death row before they commit their crimes.

The lack of comprehensive information makes the research inconclusive, the study authors said. “We recognize this conclusion will be controversial to some, but nobody is well served by unfounded claims about the death penalty,” committee Chairman Daniel Nagin said in a telephone news conference.

“Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment,” he said.


Funding for juvenile justice programs is likely about to get slashed—again.

The Crime Report’s Ted Gest has the story.

Here’s how it opens:

Federal funding for state and local juvenile justice programs seems likely to take another big hit as Congress continues to slash federal “discretionary” spending.

The Republican-controlled House committee that appropriates money for the Justice Department today issued its proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. It would cut juvenile justice funding to $209 million–a figure that stood at $424 million in fiscal year 2010.

Federal aid for juvenile justice already had fallen more than 50 percent to its lowest level in more than a decade, says the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which represents state advisory committees in Washington, D.C. The coalition is asking Congress for $80 million for “formula grants” that helps states comply with mandates in a key 1974 juvenile crime law, such as separating juvenile and adult defendants in jail and keeping minor offenders out of custody.

House appropriators, rather than adding funds for those purposes, would cut them to $33 million.

The Obama administration’s funding request of $140M for three important juvenile justice programs would be slashed to just $53M under the House committee’s proposal.


A Senate committee hearing for the End Racial Profiling Act featured testimony from 225 different organizations on Wednesday. If passed, the legislature would forbid officers from using race as a component in standard law enforcement decisions.

Salon’s Jefferson Morley has the story.

Here’s a clip:

….as profiling has become entrenched in drug enforcement, counterterrorism and immigration control, said criminologist David Harris, research shows it is an ineffective law enforcement tool. “In many contexts, in many types of police agencies, the results all fall in the same direction: when racial or ethnic profiling is used, police are less likely, not more likely, to catch bad guys,” Harris said.

Ron Davis, police chief in East Palo Alto, Calif., said his experience as a cop on the streets confirmed that finding. Admitting that he himself had engaged in profiling, he called profiling “an ineffective tactic that wastes scarce law enforcement resources and it harms our relations with communities whose cooperation we need.”

Davis said passage of S. 1670 would help police nationwide.

“Without the legislation and updated Department of Justice guidance
we will continue business as usual and only respond to this issue when it surfaces through high-profile tragedies such as Oscar Grant case in Oakland, Calif., and the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Fla.,” he said.

The Obama Administration has yet to have joined the bill’s supporters.


There has been, and continues to be, a lot of controversy around whether or not the LA Times should have posted the two graphic photos of American soldiers posing with dismembered Afghan corpses. The Pentagon asked the Times not to publish the photos, contending that the publication would incite violence.

It is a thorny question. I happen to think the Times did the right thing.

Yet, I’m grateful that I wasn’t one of those who had to make the decision.

On To the Point, Warren Olney interviewed David Zucchino, the award-winning LA Times reporter who wrote the story accompanying the photos.

The New York Times has a report on the Pentagon’s objections—and how the Times’ came to be in possession of the photos in the first place.

And here the Poynter Institute weighs in, with two stories.

As of this writing, there are more than 2000 comments on the LA Times website regarding the issue.

Photo by Phil Sandlin for the AP

Posted in Death Penalty, juvenile justice, Los Angeles Times, media, Must Reads, race, racial justice | 1 Comment »

On The Young Turks Network Show – the Point…Talking Death Penality

April 16th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

NOTE: I don’t know why the video vanished between last night and this morning. I”m at the jails commission right. Will figure it out when I get back.

The Young Turks, which is partnered with YouTube,
is billed as the worlds largest online news show, and has gained further popularity now that it is also airing on Current TV.

The Point is the newest show on The Young Turks Network and launched earlier this year.

With all this in mind, when show producer Malcolm Fleschner told me that The Point was doing an all criminal justice themed show, and asked me to be a panelist, I agreed right away. I was interested in the topic, of course. But also I welcomed the chance to get an inside look at the new web-only model that the very smart Young Turks folks (and others like them) are pioneering with The Point and the rest of the shows on the TYT network.

My esteemed fellow panelists are actor and longtime activist and death penalty expert, Mike Farrell, and LA Deputy District Attorney and one-time DA candidate, Steve Ipsen.

The show is hosted by TYT’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Oh—who, as you’ll see, is himself a former prosecutor and is impassioned and informed on issues of criminal justice.

The conversation centers around the death penalty, but winds through other issues as well.

In any case, enjoy.

Posted in Death Penalty, media, prison, prison policy, Unequal Justice | No Comments »

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