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Orange County Wraparound Program Slashes Youth Recidivism by Focusing on Mental Health – by Sara Tiano

December 5th, 2016 by witnessla

Manuel Dircio and Jesus Vasquez, both 20, are star alumni of the Youthful Offender Wraparound in Orange County, California


By Sara Tiano

Manuel Dircio, 20, a business administration student at Fullerton College boasts a 4.0 GPA.

He is also a recovering alcoholic with a history of arrest and incarceration in juvenile detention — not quite what you’d expect from a seemingly model college student with a stellar grade point.

Dircio credits the Youthful Offender Wraparound program (YOW), which he says “helped [him] grow successfully.” It’s what’s known as a full-service partnership (FSP) in Orange County, California, that uses a nontraditional approach to help kids identified as having “complex needs.”

Dircio was a dual status kid, meaning he had been been under the supervision of both the county’s child welfare system and the juvenile justice system. Dual status or “crossover youth” have higher rates of detention and recidivism than other justice system-involved youth. They are also statistically more likely to develop substantial behavioral health needs, according to a 2014 report from the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice.

Knowing his situation, Dircio’s probation officer referred him to the YOW program. The referral enabled YOW to get in touch with Dircio while he was still locked up in Orange County’s juvenile hall. Then 18, he had been living in a group home in the foster care system for two years after being under his older brother’s guardianship from age 9.

“It was a disaster,” Dircio said of his life prior to enrolling in YOW and getting sober. “It was horrible. I was drinking, smoking drugs, not going to school, not having a job.”

The fact that Dircio turned 18 while incarcerated meant he’d aged out of the foster care system. Thus, he would have nowhere to go once released. The fact that he had been struggling with alcohol and drugs — and getting into legal trouble for it — made the situation worse. When YOW entered the picture, they paid for Dircio to move into a private sober living treatment center.

After moving into that facility’s stable environment, he started working on recovery from substance abuse and eventually found a job on his own. Though it wasn’t Dircio’s first attempt at sobriety, this time it stuck.

“I tried alone, and I failed miserably,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Once I decided to actually start accepting the help, and accepting advice from positive people, that’s when I started making that change.” Now Dircio works while keeping up his grades, and sometimes does outreach with YOW for kids with difficult family circumstances who are starting to get into trouble as he did.

Dircio’s success story is an emblematic example of what YOW was designed to accomplish: promoting the positive development of juvenile justice-involved youth who struggle with mental health diagnoses, substance use disorders and histories of trauma by providing a variety of supports to manage these challenges.

“Why we’re here is to look at the underlying reasons why they are participating in the delinquent and criminal behaviors,” said Hether Benjamin, director of youth development for Community Service Programs (CSP), the nonprofit that operates YOW.

Orange County’s FSPs are intensive treatment programs that coordinate a unique menu of mental health services for each client to address individualized needs. YOW is one of 12 programs run by CSP that incorporate shelter services, crime victim assistance, youth development programs, comprehensive support for at-risk youth, conflict resolution and community education programs.

Once enrolled, YOW clients have access to an array of positive, proactive services that may seem unconventional, but are all aimed at addressing the causal mental health issues at play.

YOW’s game and rec rooms add appeal to the guidance center, and also provide a space for clients to have informal, lower-pressure therapy sessions with their counselors, Hether Benjamin says.


YOW is available to 16- to 25-year-old Orange County residents who have both a mental health diagnosis and a history with the county’s juvenile justice system. It provides traditional individual, family and group therapy, along with substance abuse treatment and anger management. In addition, YOW offers skill-building opportunities, like computer tutorials, career and education guidance, as well as job interview outfits.

The atmosphere inside YOW’s Fountain Valley strip-mall guidance center is a lot warmer than the formal listing of its services might suggest. There youths have access to a couple of game rooms with air hockey and ping pong, access to art supplies and musical instruments, culinary arts classes and fitness classes, like yoga and jiujitsu.

According to YOW staff, this array of activities accomplishes two goals: creating a safe, healthy space where the kids actually want to spend time, and using unconventional techniques to provide services without the kids necessarily even knowing they’re getting help.

“Everything we do is tied into alleviating the symptoms that led to the behavior that got them incarcerated,” Benjamin said.

Even the rec rooms serve a double purpose at YOW, according to Benjamin. They’re crucial to creating the nonthreatening, living room environment the administration hopes to achieve, while also serving as informal therapy rooms.

When clients are having a bad day and can’t sit through a therapy session, Benjamin explained, they’ll come talk with staff over foosball and have the counseling session without realizing it. YOW offers laundry facilities that clients can sign up to use — and often they wind up chatting with their coordinator on the couch while they wait for their clothes.

The idea is that the more relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere will make the treatment more organic and accessible, in contrast to the conventional “therapeutic dose” of 50 minutes per week with a clinician. The center—which is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.—is designed to encourage clients to drop in anytime the need or whim strikes, rather than just during scheduled appointments.

“Having those quick interactions of ‘Hey, how’s it going,’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat’ … those are what I think makes the biggest difference,” said YOW Program Director Amy Sutherland. It is also what differentiates the program “from traditional therapy,”

Hether Benjamin, director of youth development (left), and YOW Program Director Amy Sutherland say unconventional thinking and interagency collaboration are keys to YOW’s success.

Jesus Vasquez, another YOW alumnus, said this kind of daily support, even hourly, if needed, was pivotal to his recovery process. He described himself as an outcast in his own family and said the only time he ever got attention was when he would get arrested. Before enrolling in YOW, Vasquez said he “didn’t know where to turn” when he had bad days.

“They were always there for me, every single person. They always had something positive to say,” Vasquez, 21, said of the guidance center staff. “If it was my old friends they’d tell me, ‘Come on, man, you need a drink,’ and that’s what I don’t need anymore.”

‘They never gave up on us’

What further differentiates YOW from other juvenile diversion models, according to Vasquez and other YOW graduates, is that the positive support system didn’t disappear or punish him when he had a setback in his recovery process, he said. Vasquez told about the time he showed up at the guidance center one morning after having gotten into trouble the night before, sobbing because he thought he’d forfeited all the progress he’d worked so hard to make.

Instead — according to Sutherland, who was part of the crisis intervention team that morning — nearly half a dozen staff members rallied around Vasquez, telling him, “OK, let’s problem solve. What needs to be done?”

Vasquez was briefly reincarcerated due to his bad night. “But he knew we weren’t going to go anywhere in that time,” Benjamin added. “We visited him, continued our treatment plan with him, in custody.”

Clients who return to YOW after getting into trouble again are welcomed with open arms and lots of encouragement, Benjamin said.

It’s a sign that they had a good enough experience the first time to reach back out and try again, agreed Sutherland. Some clients need to return two or three times.

“If they relapse, go back into incarceration, well then, it wasn’t this time — it’s the next time. We get excited that they call again,” Benjamin explained. It’s all about resiliency, building on strengths and creating positive reframes around struggles past and present, she said.

And the strategy works. According to CSP, YOW and the organization’s other youth development programs have succeeded in reducing recidivism: Clients exhibit, on average, a 75 percent decrease in episodes of incarceration, as well as a 91 percent decrease in days homeless and a 94 percent decrease in episodes of psychiatric hospitalization compared to their lives before joining the program.

YOW started in 1972 as a collaborative study with the University of California, Irvine’s social ecology department to divert youth who were going to juvenile hall for minor offenses such as curfew violations. YOW serves an average of 250 clients each year.


YOW’s often-invoked motto is “Whatever it takes,” which means several things in the YOW playbook. It refers both to a policy of flexibility in treatment options, and a promise of an individualized, adaptive service plan. It also gives the message to the clients of what Benjamin and other staff call “sovereignty.”

YOW’s clients are both “partners and consumers” in their treatment plan, Benjamin said. “They have just as much say as the county of Orange does, as the probation officer does. Because it’s their life.”

Sutherland says giving the patients power in their treatment goes a long way in making them more receptive. The people in YOW have “been dictated to for so long,” she said, and they shut down when they start being told what to do. YOW coordinators “work alongside” the clients, allowing them to focus on the issues they want to address, in the way they want to address them, ultimately working toward the goals they want to achieve.

“If they’re having a horrible time managing their mood and they can stabilize that by running on a treadmill, doing a punching bag, we will pay for a gym membership. There’s a mental health need for that service,” Benjamin said. “Tattoo removal. If those tattoos are preventing them from having self-esteem, good body image, getting a job, being looked at seriously by other peers, we will help them remove those tattoos if that’s what they want.”

Vasquez is among the clients who have benefited from this particular offering.

Services such as culinary arts classes serve as life skills training, job skills training and a form of art therapy, according to Amy Sutherland.


YOW is able to provide their level of specialized service via flexible funds designated for individualized services and supports. Funding originates through the mental health services 1 percent tax on California residents earning $1 million or more annually. The money is distributed through county governments. In Orange County, the OC Mental Health Care Agency “takes those dollars and specializes it down to these really underserved populations,” Sutherland said.

That a program like this is being funded with mental health dollars is noteworthy, according to Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit juvenile justice research group. There’s been a “big push” for systems integration, in which the juvenile justice, child welfare, mental health and education departments share information and resources, she said.

According to Sickmund, systems integration represents a hopeful path to more flexible funding of rehabilitative services for youthful offenders. “Part of the juvenile justice reforms that are happening would encourage that kind of a thing,” she said. There’s currently no statewide protocol for systems integration in California, but some counties have enacted their own protocol for how the courts should work with dual status minors, Orange County among them.

(Los Angeles County adopted its dual status protocol for crossover kids in 2011 under the leadership of then presiding judge of the juvenile court, Michael Nash.)

Sutherland said YOW’s adaptable funding system is a big part of what differentiates it from many full-service partnerships that provide each client with the same menu of services. It provides for truly individualized treatment plans, in keeping with a fundamental tenet of the wraparound theory, and it lets administrators empower clients with more choices in their own treatment, she said. It also allows the program to go to extreme lengths when needed, such as temporarily paying for a bed in sober living to avoid a kid becoming homeless, as they did with Dircio.

Yet, it’s not necessarily the speciality services that keep Dircio connected to the program and coming back to help post-graduation — it’s Adrian Grow, who helped him enroll in Fullerton College; it’s Christina Tompkins, who helped him get his driver’s license and secure a place to stay.

“That’s what I got out of this program the most — not financially, just the good support system they have,” Dircio said. The YOW staff was always there for him, and still is, he said, which is why he reciprocates by doing youth outreach with them — and talking to the press.

“Whenever they call me or need me I’m going to help them.”

This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, which is the product of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Posted in juvenile justice, mental health, Reentry | No Comments »

LA County Swears in a New, Reform-Minded Mental Health Director…& an Update on the Selection of a New Probation Chief

October 21st, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


Last week, the Los Angeles County board of Supervisors formally hired a new Director of LA’s Department of Mental Health, the largest public mental health system in the nation.

The new director’s name is Dr. Jonathan Sherin. And, according to our sources, in Sherin the supes seem to have found a winner.

By training, Dr. Sherin is a psychologist and neurobiologist with a particular expertise in developing programs and providing care for individuals who are, as he explains it, challenged with persistent and severe mental health conditions, “many of whom have criminal records due to disorganized thought processes and behavior.”

Professionally, Sherin worked for a decade for the Department of Veteran Affairs, both in Los Angeles and Miami, where he gained a national reputation in the arena of care for veterans struggling with reintegration challenges, testifying frequently before Congress on the issues of veteran suicide, homelessness, and other mental health-related difficulties with which many vets struggle after they come home.

Most recently, Sherin has continued his work with veterans and mental health as the chief medical officer, and executive vice president for military communities, for the national nonprofit social-services group Volunteers of America.


During his time in Los Angeles, Sherin has been unafraid to wade into some of the county’s most pressing mental health controversies with an eye toward reform. For example, he has been a strong, outspoken proponent of diversion programs for mentally ill criminal offenders who revolve in an out of the LA County’s jail system.

“From a clinical perspective,” he wrote in a letter to the board of supervisors on the topic in 2014, “it is important to recognize that incarceration is in many cases contraindicated.”

Around that same time, Sherin told the Wall Street Journal that jail-based treatment programs aren’t the right solution.

“They’re a reaction that is based in fear,” he said. “Having an individual with mental illness in a constrained environment, in a punitive environment, in a deprived environment, is adding fuel to potential fire.”

Similarly, Sherin has made it clear that he is not a fan of excessive prescribing of psychotropics and other medications for either adults or kids.

He expressed his concerns to LA Magazine reporter Anne Taylor Fleming about the overuse of psychiatric medication for veterans. “Our society—the VA and beyond—is focused on treating mental and physical injuries with pharmaceuticals,” Sherin said. “Opioids can be effective in the short term, but they are not a solution. We have an epidemic of younger folks who are becoming addicted to them.”

Given the revelations that have risen in the last few years about the overuse of psychiatric drugs with California children in the state’s foster care systems, and possibly in juvenile facilities and elsewhere, it is heartening to find that LA’s County’s new head mental health guy appears, when it comes to drug use, to believe firmly in restraint.

Sherin replaces Acting Director Robin Kay, who took over after the exit of longtime former Director of Mental Health, Dr. Marvin Southard, who headed the department for 17 years. Southard announced his retirement in August 2015, shortly after the Supes voted to consolidate the county’s three health agencies.

Dr. Sherin’s undergraduate degree is from Brown University, his medical degree was a combined program at the University of Chicago and Harvard Medical School, where he was a scholar in residence, followed by an internship and residency at UCLA. He continues to teach and provide psychiatric care as a volunteer at the VA in Los Angeles, Calif.

Dr. Sherin will be sworn in on Friday at noon at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.


While we’re on the topic of heads of big LA County agencies, we understand that the board of supervisors has finally chosen a chief for the county’s embattled Department of Probation, but that there are still a few contractual matters being ironed out before they will actually announce their choice. The vote to select the final candidate was reportedly unanimous.

While we await a formal announcement, here is WitnessLA’s previously published look at the five finalists, a varied list of candidates, each with different strengths, whom the board has been interviewing and, in some cases, re-interviewing in the course of making their final selection for the crucial position.

The county has cycled through five probation chiefs in just over 10 years, as the department struggled through various serious scandals and challenges in the past decade. Now more recent revelations (see here, here, here and here for examples) have pointed to the fact that the agency’s problems are still far from solved, making the selection of the chief, plus the process of instituting a system of civilian oversight for the agency, of ever more pressing importance.

Posted in mental health | 8 Comments »

Missing: Mental Health Services in CA Schools, Mortality Rates Among SF Homeless Youth, and CA’s Prison Budget

April 19th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


California school districts are failing to provide students with the mental health services they are legally entitled to, and sending mentally ill kids into the juvenile justice system instead, according to a report from the Western Center on Law & Poverty, Mental Health Advocacy Services, and Learning Rights Law Center.

Even with a $400 million per year budget for mental health services, California school districts have not done enough to identify the 580,000 students eligible for—and in need of—mental health services, as required by the state’s Mental Health for Students Law. And the inability to identify kids that need mental health treatment, leads to harsh school discipline and creates a funnel for kids into the juvenile justice system.

“We are limiting too many of our children, especially children of color, who can and will do well in school, graduate with their class, and go on to successful careers, if given the right services,” said Antionette Dozier, Senior Attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty. “We know what the services are, we have providers who can provide them, and we have the funding available for the services.”

The study’s authors collected data from 15 California school districts (including the Los Angeles Unified School District), special education advocates representing more than 900 kids every year, mental health providers in 20 counties, and over 70 parents.

Advocates in Los Angeles told researchers that 50% of LAUSD students who were involved with the Probation Department, receiving special education services, and had serious emotional disturbances, were not getting the mental health services they needed in school. The same was true of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin counties. And when schools did provide kids with mental health services, they were often inadequate or the wrong kind of treatment altogether.

Here’s the story of one young Long Beach Unified student and his family:

Michael is a 9-year-old, male student with social phobia and anxiety disorders, which included symptoms that made leaving his room a serious obstacle. Michael’s mother informed the school numerous times about his condition, and made multiple requests for a special education assessment. The district replied that they could not assess the student because he could not attend school, essentially using the child’s mental health condition against him as an excuse for their inaction to address it.

The report calls for a wider offering of school-based mental health services and crisis intervention, increase parent participation, and tracking of data on mental health spending and kids’ outcomes, among other actions.


The risk of dying is ten times higher among homeless San Francisco teens and young adults between the ages of 15-24 than their housed peers, according to a report by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

The study followed 218 homeless transitional age youth between 2004-2010. Of the 218, eleven died during the six-year study period (around 5%), mostly from drug abuse and suicide.

“Given that these youth come disproportionately from groups for which society has a fiduciary responsibility, including survivors of physical and sexual abuse, foster youth and youth with a history of involvement in the juvenile justice system, our collective mandate to address their disparity in mortality is even more pressing,” the report reads.


A California bill by Assemblymember Young Kim (R-Fullerton) would allocate $25 million for emergency services for homeless children, including up to three years of transitional housing, as well as life and family skills, employment, and interventions.

Read more about the bill in Kim’s editorial for the OC Register. Here’s a clip:

According to the California Homeless Youth Project, approximately 298,000 kids in the state will experience homelessness during the school year. And according to the Annual Report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County, more than 32,000 of our county’s kids are homeless. This is a tragedy.

Many of these kids come from a background of violence, neglect and poverty. They typically end up on the streets, exposed to risks that jeopardize their health and well-being.

That is why it is imperative we provide different programs and services to help homeless youth – so we can earn their trust, transition them into permanent homes, and help them achieve successful lives. Through intervention at an early age, we can get them the tools they need to ensure that homeless children do not grow up to be homeless adults.

I am leading the fight in the Legislature to address this growing problem. First, I introduced Assembly Bill 1699, which passed the Assembly Human Services Committee with bipartisan support and would set aside $25 million for homeless youth emergency service projects. These projects would provide transitional living for up to 36 months and create access to education and employment assistance. They would also teach independent living skills, family engagement, and interventions.

I also have asked the Budget Committees in both houses to allocate the funds that my bill calls for, and just last week the relevant budget subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the $25 million that I requested for homeless youth.

I am hopeful that by tackling this issue in both the legislative process and the budget process, we will be able to provide the help that these children need. And it can’t happen soon enough.


Despite a 22% decrease in California’s prison population—thanks in large part to realignment and Prop. 47—prison spending continues to rise. Part of the overall increase can be attributed to more rehabilitative services and federally mandated improved health care within the state prison system, but pay for prison staff is also on the rise, even though there are fewer inmates to supervise. Part of the problem, according to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, is that prisons were already understaffed. And the state doesn’t have plans to close any prisons in the near future—one particular move that would reduce the number of corrections officers needed.

The SF Chronicle’s editorial board explores the issue and the influence of law enforcement unions on spending. Here’s a clip:

…salaries for the approximately 29,000 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) cost the state about $2.1 billion last year, not including an additional $350 million for overtime and other special payments.

The CCPOA is negotiating a contract. If approved, the latest agreement would add incremental annual costs to the state that top out at $588 million in fiscal year 2018-19. In addition to getting raises (9.3 percent over three years), CCPOA members would also receive enhanced benefits like an increase in “physical fitness incentive pay” from $65 to $130 per month per member. The enhanced benefit would also be counted as base pay — meaning that it would count toward retirement.

The members would begin contributing to a retiree benefits trust fund, but that’s a relatively small concession for any state worker in 2016. The general trend is increased state costs for a union that has fewer charges. And the choices the state makes with regard to the CCPOA are crucial to doing the right thing on criminal justice reform.


…the legislative analyst’s office says that the new contract will increase overtime costs by tens of millions of dollars each year. And while the state has decreased the number of state prisoners, it has no plans to close any prisons — the kind of move that could reduce the number of corrections officers.

Posted in Education, mental health | No Comments »

Mental Health Crisis Center Opens, Taser Training from the LASD, a TX County Overhauls Child Welfare, and the DOJ Investigation of Chicago Police

December 8th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


This Thursday, a newly reopened Westside Mental Health Urgent Care Clinic will begin providing emergency psychiatric care to people suffering from a mental health crisis.

These centers serve as places law enforcement officers can bring people in crisis. Often, police officers have to choose between waiting 6-8 hours to drop someone in crisis off at hospital emergency room, or booking the person on a minor charge and getting back to work within an hour.

The crisis center is expected to serve 5,900 patients from Culver City and the surrounding area every year. The Westside facility is the second mental health facility to open in the area, following the February reopening of MLK Mental Health Urgent Care Center at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus in Willowbrook.

This summer, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey presented a massive report and comprehensive plan for diverting LA’s mentally ill offenders from jails and redirecting them to community programs and support. One of Lacey’s important diversion recommendations was to increase the number of mental health urgent cares in LA County.

“At the Westside UCC, people in crisis can get help to avoid harming themselves or others around them, preventing needless violence in the community,” said LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, who led the ceremonial reopening of the Westside facility.


As the debate heats up about how “less-than-lethal” tasers really are, KCRW reporter George Lavender visits the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Training Center to see (and feel) firsthand how the department trains deputies in the use of tasers. Lavender watches deputy Ed Clark use the video simulator that trains officers in use-of-force situations. Lavender even has a deputy shoot him in the back with a taser.

In recent months, there has been more scrutiny of officers’ use of tasers, and increasing reports of taser-related deaths. When Lavender asked Taser International CEO and co-founder Rick Smith if there are times that tasers should be considered lethal force, Smith said, “If you have someone standing on an elevated surface and they fall off and Taser is directly involved in the chain of events of that death. Or if they fall and hit their head another way.”

But many of those who have died after receiving the 50,000-volt shock were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, suffering from a psychiatric crisis, or were the recipient of multiple, successive taser shocks (and sometimes, it’s all three).

Here’s a clip from the accompanying text, but do go listen to Lavender’s story over at the Which Way LA? blog:

Tasers can deliver a 50,000-volt shock but the duration and frequency of exposure vary greatly. The standard cycle is five seconds. The trigger can also be held down to extend the shock for longer. Taser International and most police departments caution officers against more than three cycles — that would be a total of 15 seconds. A 2011 National Institute of Justice study found that most Taser-associated deaths involved “multiple or prolonged discharges.”

The condition of the person being tased can also be a factor. According to Akiva Freidlin, one of the authors of a report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center that assessed the available research on Tasers and public safety, “They’re safe as long as the person being subjected to the shock is reasonably healthy, not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, not in the middle of an acute mental health crisis, not pregnant, not suffering from latent heart conditions, as these things pile up, they slice away at what seems like a clear and certain conclusion.” Freidlin says it’s not possible to test the effects of Tasers on those who might be most vulnerable. Some medical studies have suggested that the electricity from a Taser shot to the chest may lead to cardiac arrest. The manufacturer, Taser International, disputes this.

In the UK there’s a national record of every time a Taser is drawn, aimed, or fired. That kind of central database doesn’t exist in the US. There’s no way to clearly answer questions about how Tasers are being used here.


Bexar County (where San Antonio is located) has led the state of Texas with the highest rates of removal of children from homes in which they were abused or neglected. Bexar has also had the highest rate of re-victimization of those kids who are returned to their families after being removed by social workers.

Last fall, Bexar County overhauled its children’s court in an attempt to reverse these statistics. The county successfully—and safely—reduced the number of children removed from their homes by a third, so far.

Among a number of important changes Bexar is making, the county is creating a version of its highly successful alternative drug court. The new court will specifically provide early intervention for young mothers with babies and toddlers involved with Child Protective Services, focusing on mothers’ mental health and bonding and attachment issues.

Texas Judge Peter Sakai lays out the important steps Bexar took to transform its child welfare system in a story for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

…one of the biggest flaws in our child welfare system was the failure to coordinate services with the nonprofit organizations that the county contracts with to support children and families (i.e. drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment, mental health treatment and batterers’ intervention programs for domestic violence).

Quite often, they were left out of any discussions and hearings involving the best interests of children. This created a patchwork of services and inconsistent application of the law to the families most in need.

In Bexar County, we employ two full time Associate Judges with full court staff and courtroom to hear CPS cases on a daily basis. Redesign created two additional staff positions to assist the two presiding judges who were hearing CPS cases on a daily basis.

We decided that the two positions would be filled with tenured and experienced CPS caseworkers that knew investigation, family preservation and legal conservatorship cases, meaning that they were the best CPS caseworkers that the Court could employ. Their mission is to assist the judges in helping them assess all child abuse and neglect cases that came before them; to answer any questions of CPS policy and practice or get the answers from the appropriate sources; and to establish communication and collaboration with the nonprofit organizations that provide direct services to the families in the court system.

Two other big changes brought about by the redesign involved our nonprofit partners. Newly elected District Attorney Nico LaHood agreed to give up office space to allow offices for the nonprofit organizations right next to the courtrooms to allow direct and easy access of services for the parents and families that come to court.

Meanwhile, we established new expectations of nonprofits by requiring evidence-based outcomes with data and metrics that would allow the flow of information between them and the Court.

For the past fiscal year, we have reduced the number of cases filed for removal by 30 percent, nearly 3,000 fewer court orders for removal. The Court had much more time to spend on the needs of individual cases, and more reunifications with families are occurring with the enhanced communication and collaboration of all the stakeholders.

We at WLA will be keeping an eye on Bexar as a possible model for successful child welfare system reform.


Writing for the Atlantic’s CityLab, Brentin Mock gives an informative rundown on why the US Department of Justice has decided to investigate whether Chicago’s law enforcement officers have been violating the rights of civilians.

The DOJ’s move follows on the heels of the release of dash cam footage of Chicago cops shooting a black teenager named Laquan McDonald 16 times. Chicago paid a $5.5 million settlement to McDonald’s family. The city’s payout number for officer misconduct cases between 2010-2014 was $601 million, more than double the city with the second-highest payout amount of $250 million, New York. (Los Angeles and Philadelphia hold the third and fourth places with $57 and $54 million respectively.)

Here’s a clip from Mock’s story:

Already, Chicago’s history of police brutality looks rather like a pattern:

- Revelations of Chicago detectives applying a torture protocol to suspects in the 1980s to coerce confessions—which ultimately led to the city paying out more than $5 million in reparations to some of the victims of that torture.

- Discovery of a secret “black site” where police took suspects for aggressive (if not flat-out violent) interrogations before officially arresting them.

- Settlements from lawsuits over police brutality that have cost Chicago more than $521 million between 2004 and 2014—$84.6 million paid out in 2013 alone. The Los Angeles police department has paid $57.1 million in police brutality settlements between 2010 and 2014 by comparison, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Chicago recently paid $5.5 million to the family of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old African American teen who was shot 16 times last October by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in what McDonald’s lawyers describe as an “execution.” The police dash-cam video of that killing was released right before Thanksgiving, over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial objections and decision to previously withhold it from the public.

Police are now preparing to release another police dash-cam video to the public, of an officer killing Ronald Johnson, 25, also black, in an incident that happened just a week before McDonald’s killing.

(For further reading on this topic: A Frontline and Washington Post investigation into DOJ interventions, examined the long-term outcomes for the law enforcement agencies, and found mixed results.)

Posted in mental health | 1 Comment »

Protecting Foster Kids, Gov. Brown’s Veto Message, John Oliver on Mental Illness…and More

October 7th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a new center—a philanthropy liaison—within the still developing Office of Child Protection. The new liaison effort will fill in a problematic gap in the child welfare system: collaboration with philanthropic groups on initiatives to better protect and serve foster kids.

The new Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships will have three staff members who will be tasked with securing funding assistance from philanthropic groups. Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion with Supe Sheila Kuehl said she sees the money going toward keeping kids safe from abuse, addressing trauma in foster children, and other critical safety and wellbeing efforts.

“The power of public-private partnerships has been under-utilized within the County. This motion changes that unfortunate dynamic,” Supervisor Solis said. “With this new Center in place, we will be far better positioned to combine the best thinking and resources of government and philanthropy into programs that work for children. That is why this initiative is a priority for me.”

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

“We believe it will be a game-changer and lead to a more effective and collaborative relationship between government and philanthropy as we work together toward a better future for our children,” said Chris Essel, SCG’s president and CEO, in a press release.

Twelve philanthropic groups have already endorsed the center, according to a press release from Solis’ office: The Ahmanson Foundation; Annenberg Foundation; Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation/Pritzker Foster Care Initiative; Blue Shield of California Foundation; California Community Foundation; The California Endowment; David Bohnett Foundation; Hilton Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation; UniHealth Foundation; and Weingart Foundation.

“Improving our child welfare system requires the kind of innovative solutions that result from cross-sector collaboration. This is a very important example of government and philanthropy working together on behalf of our children and families,” said Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation, in a press release.

The board also passed a motion by Supe Kuehl to hire a consultant to focus specifically on the finding areas in which the county departments are failing LGBTQ foster kids, who are over-represented in the child welfare system. The consultant will gather data and present recommendations to the board on how to better care for the vulnerable LGBTQ foster population, including recommendations on training for those in contact with the kids (like social workers, mental health professionals, and foster parents).

“All the young people in our foster care system face incredible challenges, but the nearly 20% who identify as LGBTQ are in great need of targeted support to ensure they’re properly cared for, valued and respected, said Kuehl. “This is an important first step in improving outcomes for these kids and I’m proud to have the opportunity to champion them today.”

Here’s a clip from Kuehl’s website:

These youth face unique challenges and barriers to finding positive outcomes and permanent homes—challenges stemming from discrimination due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.

Not only are LGBTQ youth over-represented in the foster care population, there are also significant disparities in experience between LGBTQ youth and their non-LGBTQ counterparts. These disparities could be mitigated if we develop and utilize accurate data and enhanced training efforts to more fully address their needs, including identifying and re-mediating the effects of bullying and trauma.

As part of a five-year, federal grant awarded to the LGBT Center in Los Angeles, the Williams Institute at UCLA and Holarchy Consulting conducted a landmark study of 786 randomly sampled foster youth ages 12 to 21. The findings show that 19 percent – nearly one in five – foster youth in Los Angeles County identify as LGBTQ. This means that there are almost four times more LGBTQ youth as a percentage of young people in foster care than those identifying as LGBTQ outside foster care.

Given this over-representation of LGBTQ youth among foster children, it is even more problematic that there has been very little focus on this population. According to the Williams-Holarchy study, LGBTQ youth have a higher than average number of foster care placements and a greater likelihood of being in a group home, hospitalized or homeless at some point in their lives. More stable placements and stronger reunification efforts could lead to improved educational and permanency outcomes.

Costly group home and hospital stays could be avoided with a more targeted approach in serving this unique population. While many of our departments have made very good efforts to develop specialized LGBTQ programs, now is the time for the County to systematically address the needs of LGBTQ youth in our child welfare system.

Also on Tuesday, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids. San Jose Mercury News’ Karen De Sá has more on the three bills authored by Senators Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). (If you haven’t, be sure to read De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)


Over the weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a pile of bills that would have created new crimes (and put more people behind bars for longer). In his veto message the governor urged caution, pointing out that the state already has a whopping 5,000 criminal laws. “I think we should pause and reflect how our system of criminal justice could be made more human, more just, and more cost-effective,” said Brown.

An LA Times editorial lauds the governor’s message, and calls for a sentencing commission to review the criminal statutes and give meaningful reform recommendations to responsive lawmakers. Here’s a clip:

We take that statement not as merely a wise admonition but as a call to action. California needs a comprehensive review of its 5,000 criminal statutes. It needs a sentencing commission to provide a holistic view of crimes and penalties, to recommend needed changes — what to roll back, what to toughen up — and to critique legislative proposals. It needs lawmakers who take such recommendations seriously and are prepared to inject some sense into our criminal justice framework.

The Legislature too often proves itself inadequate to the task. Senators and Assembly members carry bills as one-offs that respond to current tragedies, outrages or headlines, or that cater to the needs of particular advocacy groups, even when there is little or no evidence that greater safety or savings will result. There is an entire crime bill industry that measures effectiveness by the number of infractions turned into misdemeanors and misdemeanors turned into felonies. Results have included, for example, more serious charges and stiffer criminal sanctions for the theft of avocados or crustaceans than other goods of similar value, and long sentences for relatively minor nonviolent crimes such as drug possession.


John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, continues to hammer away at important social and criminal justice issues. This week, Oliver takes on the issue of mental health in the United States, including the inadequate treatment, the never-ending cycle of fatal encounters between law enforcement and the mentally ill, and the horrifying fact that there are ten times more people with mental illness behind bars than in psychiatric hospitals. Watch the segment above.


FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik has a very helpful analysis of the major bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill announced last week. (Backstory here.)

Here’s a clip:

The crimes that would have new mandatory minimums produce few convictions. They are interstate domestic violence — involving travel across state lines by an offender or victim — resulting in death or serious injury, or committed with a dangerous weapon; and providing goods or services to terrorists or proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

Just 44 people were sentenced for interstate domestic violence last year, according to the Sentencing Commission’s 2014 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics. And 162 people were sentenced for the category of crimes that includes arming or aiding terrorists.

The commission’s numbers include some people whose crimes wouldn’t have been covered by the new mandatory minimums proposed in the Senate bill. That’s because the legislation doesn’t cover everyone who has violated the relevant federal statutes; it covers only a subset of the most serious offenders. For instance, not all interstate domestic violence results in death or serious injury or is committed with a dangerous weapon.

For that reason, the number of people who would have been affected by the bill if it were in effect in 2014 is smaller — far smaller, according to Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports the bill but opposes the new mandatory minimums. She estimates that if the mandatory minimums were in place last year, they would have affected just 22 people for interstate domestic violence and just eight people for aiding or arming terrorists.

By contrast, thousands more people could benefit from a different provision of the bill. It retroactively applies the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the gap in sentencing guidelines between offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine. (Crack sentences, which disproportionately affect black prisoners, were significantly higher than those for powder.) Making the 2010 law retroactive would give approximately 6,500 people convicted of crack offenses who remain in prison the right to file a motion for a reduced sentence — although the bill doesn’t mandate that courts grant the motion and some of the prisoners already are near the end of their sentences.


And in the coming weeks, the US Department of Justice is scheduled to release around 6,000 drug offenders from federal prison, reducing prison overcrowding and shortening old, harsh drug-related sentences.

The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz has the story. Here’s a clip:

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. About two-thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release. About one-third are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported, officials said.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — that reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

The commission’s action is separate from an effort by President Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative that has resulted in the early release of 89 inmates.

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform.

The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

The releases are part of a shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing that has been driven by a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration has failed and should be reversed.

Along with the commission’s action, the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.

Posted in Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, mental health, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Trauma Lawsuit Against Compton School District, Drugging Foster Kids, the Brown Act-violating Jail Vote, and California’s New Resident Wolves

August 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald heard arguments in a potentially precedent-setting suit against Compton Unified School District for failing to help severely traumatized kids struggling with learning.

The lawsuit filed by Public Counsel and Irell & Manella LLP in May, alleges that Compton schools, instead of treating trauma as a disability, respond to traumatized kids by suspending, expelling, and sending them to different schools. The lawsuit on behalf of eight Compton students alleges these practices are in violation of federal law.

If Judge Fitzgerald grants the injunction, the school district would have to provide training for teachers, mental health services for students, and employ conflict-resolution as a first line of action before considering suspension.

A decision in favor of the young plaintiffs could also have a ripple effect on schools across the country.

Compton Unified’s attorney, David Huff, argues that the suit could have the effect giving all of Compton’s students a disability designation just because of where they live.

(Go here for WLA’s previous reporting on this lawsuit.)

NPR’s Cory Turner has the story. Here’s a clip:

Susan Ko of the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress says exposure to violence can have a profound effect on the brain’s ability to learn.

“That impacts concentration, the ability to just listen to what the teacher is saying, to understand what you’re reading, to remember something that you learned or what the teacher just said,” Ko says.

Not only that, many traumatized students live in a state of constant alarm. Innocent interactions like a bump in the hallway or a request from a teacher can stir anger and bad behavior.

The lawsuit alleges that, in Compton, the schools’ reaction to traumatized students was too often punishment — not help.

“They were repeatedly either sent to another school, expelled or suspended — and this went back to kindergarten,” says Marleen Wong, who teaches at the USC School of Social Work and has spent decades studying kids and trauma. “I think we’re really doing a terrible disservice to these children.”

The suit argues that trauma is a disability and that schools are required — by federal law — to make accommodations for traumatized students, not expel them.

The LA Times’ Stephen Caesar also reported on this issue.


A California bill would have mandated oversight of the prescribing of psychotropic medications to foster kids, giving current public health nurses power to monitor the kids, and paying for 38 new public health nurses across CA’s 58 counties.

The bill likely would have been a meaningful step forward in addressing a serious breakdown in foster kids’ mental health care, (uncovered in Karen de Sá’s invaluable investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids“) that is, until its author Senator Jim Beall had to strip it of nearly all of its power in the hopes of getting it past budget hawks.

Implementation would have cost $5 million in the first year, and up to $10 million per year, thereafter.

Because Sen. Beall cut the funding out of the bill to give it a chance in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, nurse oversight is no longer be mandatory: counties can choose to opt in (or not) and will have to cough up the money if they want to participate.

Unfortunately, according to National Center for Youth Law’s Anna Johnson, “If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it.”

Contra Costa Times’ Josh Richman has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Appropriations committees are usually the highest hurdle you have to jump over … second perhaps only to the governor’s signature,” Beall, D-San Jose, said later Wednesday. “We’re going to get the bill on the governor’s desk.”

Beall’s SB 319 is one of four pending bills inspired by the Bay Area News Group’s investigative series “Drugging Our Kids,” which revealed that nearly 1 in 4 foster care teens takes psychiatric drugs.

The drugs are often used to control behavior, not to treat mental illnesses. Most of those on the drugs are prescribed antipsychotics, a powerful class of medication that have the most harmful side effects.

The bill still would give public health nurses the authority to get foster youth’s medical records from social workers and prescribing doctors, Beall said, even though it won’t be required. Almost all of the state’s largest counties will do so, he predicted, and he can use his seats on the Senate Budget and Appropriations committees to revisit funding for more nurses and perhaps a statewide mandate in next year’s budget talks.

Still, foster-youth advocates were disappointed.

The Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law sponsored SB 319, and center policy analyst Anna Johnson testified on its behalf Wednesday. Afterward, she said the state’s refusal to spend any money on this is especially disappointing because the federal government would pay 75 percent of the bill.

“If you want monitoring to happen, you have to mandate it” as many other states have, she said. Refusing to do so means “we’re happy with passing that cost on to foster children’s bodies” by “taking a big risk that children will continue to not be monitored on these medications, whether they’re medically necessary or not.”


Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey sent a letter confronting the Board of Supervisors about violating the Ralph M. Brown Act when they voted on a proposed amendment to a large-scale plan to divert mentally ill from county jails last Tuesday.

Because the board agenda did not mention there would be a discussion or vote on the jail construction, the vote did not honor the public’s guaranteed right to attend and participate in meetings of local government bodies.

The LA Times’ editorial board says that even though the Supes remedied the improper vote by recalendaring it, the move doesn’t do anything to solve the public trust issue the first vote created. Here’s a clip:

Then, without prior notice, they proceeded to discuss and adopt a separate plan to downsize a facility to replace the dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and to move ahead with construction of a women’s jail in the Antelope Valley. They offered this ludicrous explanation: The proper jail size depended on the number of people they could divert, so the agenda item on diversion programs and funding necessarily provided the public adequate notice that they would also take up and vote on the controversial multibillion-dollar public works projects.

The true reason for trying to shoehorn in the jails vote? It might be that they had just discovered that state officials were serious about a looming deadline to apply for construction funding, and that they were going to miss it because of their inattentiveness; or that properly calendaring the item for a later meeting would interfere with their vacation plans; or that providing legally adequate notice would raise too much of a public ruckus; or all of the above.

Some county officials also reasoned, after the fact, that anyone who cared about jails also cared about diversion, and therefore was already in the room and received their (very short) notice in real time.

But the purpose of public notice requirements isn’t solely to allow people to show up at board meetings to offer comments, especially in a county of 10 million residents. Only a small slice of the public weighs in that way. Others voice their opinions by calling, emailing, organizing, lobbying or arguing in advance of a major decision affecting them — if they know, as the law entitles them to know, when that decision is to be made. And when push comes to shove, taxpayers and other members of the public have every right to know what their elected representatives are doing, whether they plan to weigh in or not.


A new pack of gray wolves, called the Shasta Pack by wildlife officials, has appeared in California. The two adult wolves and five pups, captured on a trail camera, are the first resident pack in CA in decades.

In 2011, a lone gray wolf, OR-7, made news as the first wolf in California since 1924 when he crossed the border from Oregon. OR-7 now lives with his pack just over the Oregon border.

Here’s what the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has to say about the new pack:

Wild wolves historically inhabited California, but were extirpated. Aside from these wolves and the famous wolf OR7 who entered California in December 2011, the last confirmed wolf in the state was here in 1924. OR7 has not been in California for more than a year and is currently the breeding male of the Rogue Pack in southern Oregon.

In June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to list gray wolves as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf is also listed as endangered in California, under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Gray wolves that enter California are therefore protected by the ESA making it illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect wolves, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct in California.

CDFW is completing a Draft Wolf Management Plan and will release it soon.

LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick who has been following the California wolf saga for years has the story.

Posted in District Attorney, Foster Care, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, mental health, Trauma, wolves | 7 Comments »

LA Jail Plan to be Reconsidered….Rebuilding Jordan Downs….and Bail

August 18th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


The LA County Board of Supervisors may have violated the Brown Act when they voted on a proposed amendment to a large-scale plan to divert mentally ill from county jails last Tuesday. The amendment, proposed by Supe. Michael Antonovich, was to launch construction on two new jails—one, a 3,885-bed replacement of Men’s Central Jail (to the tune of $2 billion), and the other, a women’s jail renovation at Mira Loma Detention Facility.

Because the board agenda did not mention there would be a discussion or vote on the jail construction, advocates and others say the vote was illegal according to the Brown Act which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local government bodies.

Supe. Antonovich has since submitted a motion to reconsider the jail plans on September 1, but the ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg is worried the new “ambiguous” motion also means the jail diversion plan it’s attached to will also be reconsidered, unnecessarily.

“The only thing that really needs to be recalendared and opened for comment is the board’s decision to go ahead with the jail plan,” said Eliasberg. “As far as I’m concerned, the diversion motion was properly noted and should be treated as properly passed.”

The Daily News’ Sarah Favot has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“We understood that there were members of the public concerned that there was not enough time to participate in the process,” Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell said Monday. “We recalendared the item to make sure anyone who wanted to provide input on this item had that opportunity.”

The vote to continue construction of a $2 billion new jail in downtown L.A. to replace Men’s Central Jail and the renovation of a women’s jail at Mira Loma Detention Facility was tacked onto a motion during last week’s meeting on the jail diversion plan.

Antonovich proposed an amendment to the jail diversion motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl that would authorize contractors to continue construction on the two jails and proposed that 4,600 beds be built in the downtown jail that would house mentally ill inmates, inmates who have substance abuse issues and those who require medical attention.

Kuehl proposed a change to Antonovich’s amendment that the new jail have 3,885 beds, which was approved by a 3-1 vote with Supervisor Hilda Solis abstaining.

The diversion plan was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Don Knabe opposed. Knabe said he wanted to have a flexible number of beds so that if the diversion efforts were successful, the number of beds in the jail could be reduced.

The agenda did not mention there would be discussion or a vote on the jail plan.

The jail plan was discussed at the Aug. 4 board meeting, but no vote was taken. At that meeting, the supervisors discussed a consultant’s report on the number of beds required at the new downtown jail facility.

During last week’s meeting, Peter Eliasberg, ACLU legal advisor, said the vote violated the Brown Act, which governs open meetings for local government bodies. He said the board opened itself up to a lawsuit.

The problematic vote riled the LA Times’ Editorial Board. Here’s the first paragraph of the board’s response:

Why does the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors even bother with agendas? Why post them, why even write them up, if the supervisors are simply going to ignore them and barge ahead with non-agendized business, approving costly and controversial projects such as new jail construction without public notice — without sufficient notice even to one another — and without serious analysis of the consequences?

We’ll keep you updated.


Plans for major reconstruction of the once-notorious 700-unit Jordan Downs housing project in Watts have been on hold for years.

The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) has been sitting on a $700 million plan to clean up the subsidized housing community, and add 700 more units, as well as restaurants and shops meant to provide jobs opportunities to Jordan Downs residents and the rest of the Watts community.

Jordan Downs has a history of gang violence, but is not as bad as it once was. The housing project went nearly four years without a homicide (until this April). Before that, from 2000-2011, 25 people were killed there.

Money has been spent on substance abuse treatment, community policing, child care, job training, and other programs including, Project Fatherhood. Through the Project Fatherhood program, men from Jordan Downs meet every week to teach each other, and younger men in the community, how to be fathers.

HACLA has lost out on federal funding, and is in the middle of cleaning up an adjacent toxic factory site on 21 acres, both of which are causing delays. But the LA Times’ Editorial Board says HACLA and city officials must make the Jordan Downs rebuild a priority, and get it built. Here’s a clip:

Numerous challenges lie ahead: There are commitments for some funding but hardly all of it, and the Housing Authority has twice lost out on federal grants for the project. Residents, meanwhile, are fearful of how the rethinking and reconstruction of their homes will change their lives.

The goal of public housing has long been to provide temporary shelter to families who need time to get on their feet before moving on, but Jordan Downs has become a multi-generational village that celebrates together and mourns together. The complex has been the site of both gang warfare and truce.

Questions of ideology and pragmatism lurk in the background. Has traditional public housing failed? Will adding market-rate housing and retail better serve the people who live there? Will the new Jordan Downs be an alternative to old-style projects such as Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Gonzaque Village, or a model for them?

However those questions are answered, it’s crucial for current and future residents that Jordan Downs be rebuilt into a complex that could offer a way out of subsidized housing and up the economic ladder.


Plans for the new development have it maintaining 700 units of subsidized housing, and every resident in good standing at the old Jordan Downs is being promised a home there. An additional 700 units of market-rate and affordable housing would also be built. Ideally, subsidized residents would get jobs and earn more income and graduate to nonsubsidized housing, possibly in the same complex. The retail complex would also offer job opportunities for residents in Jordan Downs and throughout Watts.

But first, it has to get built.


The NY Times’ Nick Pinto takes a hard look at bail,the punishment-until-proven-innocent system that disproportionately affects the poor and keeps jails and prisons overflowing.

More than half of the nearly 750,000 people locked in city and county jails nationwide have not been convicted of a crime. And many of them remain in jail awaiting trial because can’t pay the bail amount a judge has set, not because they are a threat to public safety or in danger of absconding.

Time spent in jail pretrial, solely because a poor person gets arrested and can’t afford bail, can be extremely counterproductive for all concerned, causing loss of the person’s job, removing a parent from his or her family unnecessarily, and contributing to the cycle of incarceration that keeps jails and prisons stuffed.

The broken bail system also pressures people to take plea deals they might otherwise refuse, so as not to have to spend weeks, months, or years, behind bars without a conviction. Sometimes, like in the case of Sandra Brown (link), victims of the bail system don’t even make it out alive.

In the case of Kalief Browder, an inability to post $3,000 bail led to a three-year stint at Rikers Island, most of which was spent in solitary confinement. Browder came out of Rikers and isolation and struggled for three years with mental illness and the aftereffects of prolonged solitary confinement. Browder tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of this year. He was 22-years-old.

Here’s how Pinto’s story opens:

On the morning of Nov. 20 last year, Tyrone Tomlin sat in the cage of one of the Brooklyn criminal courthouse’s interview rooms, a bare white cinder-block cell about the size of an office cubicle. Hardly visible through the heavy steel screen in front of him was Alison Stocking, the public defender who had just been assigned to his case. Tomlin, exhausted and frustrated, was trying to explain how he came to be arrested the afternoon before. It wasn’t entirely clear to Tomlin himself. Still in his work clothes, his boots encrusted with concrete dust, he recounted what had happened.

The previous afternoon, he was heading home from a construction job. Tomlin had served two short stints in prison on felony convictions for auto theft and selling drugs in the late ’80s and mid-’90s, but even now, grizzled with white stubble and looking older than his 53 years, he found it hard to land steady work and relied on temporary construction gigs to get by. Around the corner from his home in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where Tomlin has lived his entire life, he ran into some friends near the corner of Schenectady and Lincoln Avenues outside the FM Brothers Discount store, its stock of buckets, mops, backpacks and toilet paper overflowing onto the sidewalk. As he and his friends caught up, two plainclothes officers from the New York Police Department’s Brooklyn North narcotics squad, recognizable by the badges on their belts and their bulletproof vests, paused outside the store. At the time, Tomlin thought nothing of it. ‘‘I’m not doing anything wrong,’’ he remembers thinking. ‘‘We’re just talking.’’

Tomlin broke off to go inside the store and buy a soda. The clerk wrapped it in a paper bag and handed him a straw. Back outside, as the conversation wound down, one of the officers called the men over. He asked one of Tomlin’s friends if he was carrying anything he shouldn’t; he frisked him. Then he turned to Tomlin, who was holding his bagged soda and straw. ‘‘He thought it was a beer,’’ Tomlin guesses. ‘‘He opens the bag up, it was a soda. He says, ‘What you got in the other hand?’ I says, ‘I got a straw that I’m about to use for the soda.’ ’’ The officer asked Tomlin if he had anything on him that he shouldn’t. ‘‘I says, ‘No, you can check me, I don’t have nothing on me.’ He checks me. He’s going all through my socks and everything.’’ The next thing Tomlin knew, he says, he was getting handcuffed. ‘‘I said, ‘Officer, what am I getting locked up for?’ He says, ‘Drug paraphernalia.’ I says, ‘Drug paraphernalia?’ He opens up his hand and shows me the straw.”

Stocking, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, a public-defense office that represents 45,000 indigent clients a year, had picked up Tomlin’s case file a few minutes before interviewing him. The folder was fat, always a bad sign to a public defender. The documentation submitted by the arresting officer explained that his training and experience told him that plastic straws are “a commonly used method of packaging heroin residue.” The rest of the file contained Tomlin’s criminal history, which included 41 convictions, all of them, save the two decades-old felonies, for low-level nonviolent misdemeanors — crimes of poverty like shoplifting food from the corner store. With a record like that, Stocking told her client, the district attorney’s office would most likely ask the judge to set bail, and there was a good chance that the judge would do it. If Tomlin couldn’t come up with the money, he’d go to jail until his case was resolved.

Their conversation didn’t last long. On average, a couple of hundred cases pass through Brooklyn’s arraignment courtrooms every day, and the public defenders who handle the overwhelming majority of those cases rarely get to spend more than 10 minutes with each client before the defendant is called into court for arraignment. Before leaving, Stocking relayed what the assistant district attorney told her a few minutes earlier: The prosecution was prepared to offer Tomlin a deal. Plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal possession of a controlled substance, serve 30 days on Rikers and be done with it. Tomlin said he wasn’t interested. A guilty plea would only add to his record and compound the penalties if he were arrested again. ‘‘They’re mistaken,’’ he told Stocking. ‘‘It’s a regular straw!’’ When the straw was tested by the police evidence lab, he assured her, it would show that he was telling the truth. In the meantime, there was no way he was pleading guilty to anything.

When it was Tomlin’s turn in front of the judge, events unfolded as predicted: The assistant district attorney handling the case offered him 30 days for a guilty plea. After he refused, the A.D.A. asked for bail. The judge agreed, setting it at $1,500. Tomlin, living paycheck to paycheck, had nothing like that kind of money. ‘‘If it had been $100, I might have been able to get that,’’ he said afterward. As it was, less than 24 hours after getting off work, Tomlin was on a bus to Rikers Island, New York’s notorious jail complex, where his situation was about to get a lot worse.

But the bail system wasn’t always this way.

When the concept first took shape in England during the Middle Ages, it was emancipatory. Rather than detaining people indefinitely without trial, magistrates were required to let defendants go free before seeing a judge, guaranteeing their return to court with a bond. If the defendant failed to return, he would forfeit the amount of the bond. The bond might be secured — that is, with some or all of the amount of the bond paid in advance and returned at the end of the trial — or it might not. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that ‘‘excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.’’ The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Posted in ACLU, HACLA, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, mental health, pretrial detention/release, Rehabilitation, Violence Prevention | 7 Comments »

Gov. Brown Signing Bills, Hearing on Overmedication of Foster Kids, Defining Solitary, and the Folsom Riot

August 13th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


CA Governor Jerry Brown has signed several noteworthy bills, so far this week:

SB 411, the Right to Record Act, clarifies the First Amendment right to photograph and record video of law enforcement when officers are in a public place or where the recording citizen has a right to be.

Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), the bill’s author, said, “With the stroke of a pen, Governor Brown reinforces our First Amendment right and ensures transparency, accountability and justice for all Californians. At a time when cell phone and video footage is helping steer important national civil rights conversations, passage of the Right to Record Act sets an example for the rest of the nation to follow.”

And here’s why this bill is important, according to Sen. Lara’s website:

In California and beyond, members of the public have been arrested while recording or photographing police activity in public places. News accounts and videos have surfaced showing that some civilians have been arrested for recording officers in the cities of Los Angeles, Torrance, and San Diego, as well as the County of Orange. This conflict extends past police officers and civilians to professional photographers and media personnel. In Berkeley, CA a journalist was arrested after recording law enforcement officers in a public place. Last week, a bystander caught a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. in a shooting incident that has led to charges being filed against that officer.

In May, the ACLU of California launched a “Mobile Justice” app that allows users to take video (of an officer-involved incident, for instance) and immediately send it to the ACLU by pressing a button. According to the ACLU SoCal’s Twitter page, the app has been downloaded over 160,000 times as of this week.

Another bill, SB 227, bans the use of criminal grand juries to investigate cases involving alleged fatal excessive use of force and fatal shootings by law enforcement officers.

The bill follows controversial secret grand jury decisions not to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Ferguson and Staten Island.

“One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to understand why SB 227 makes sense,” said Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who authored the bill. “The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system.”

The governor also signed a bill by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), SB 601, which aims to boost transparency and accountability by increasing the amount of required public data reporting from California prisons.

The data will be published quarterly online as a “data dashboard,” which will include inmate population numbers; rehabilitation program numbers, including enrollment and achievement statistics; the number and nature of deaths in the facility; use of force incidents; staff overtime, vacancies, pay, and positions; inmate appeals; solitary confinement population; budget and money spent; and information on lockdowns.


A three-hour joint oversight hearing between two CA Senate committees focused on a package of four California reform bills addressing the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California kids in the foster care system.

Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsberg), chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee, and Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, voiced frustration at the lack of data tracking and transparency to explain why foster kids are so heavily medicated.

Here’s a quick explanation of the bill package from California Healthline:

SB 238, by state Sens. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Jim Beall (D-San Jose), which would require the state to provide more data on the number of children in foster care who are prescribed psychotropic drugs, along with other medications that might cause harmful drug interactions;

SB 253, by state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), which would change the juvenile courts’ process for authorizing psychotropic drugs by prohibiting such drugs from being authorized without prior medical examination and ongoing monitoring of the child;

SB 319, by Beall, which would establish a system for public health nurses to monitor and oversee anyone in foster care who is prescribed psychotropic medications; and

SB 484, by Beall, which would establish treatment protocols and state oversight of psychotropic drugs in group-home settings (California Healthline, 5/18).

The four bills are on their way to the Senate Appropriations Committee next week, and if passed there, will land on Gov. Brown’s desk.

(For more on this issue, read Karen de Sá’s powerful five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids.”)

San Jose Mercury News’ Tracy Seipel has more on the hearing. Here’s a clip:

The hearing was intended to look more closely at the standards and tools used by state and local governments in evaluating psychosocial services for foster care youth that minimize the need for the reliance on psychiatric drugs.

“You can imagine the challenges our vulnerable kids faced when they were trying to access care within the foster health care system,” McGuire said.

The senator said he was having trouble getting answers to basic questions, including: How many of the youths had been prescribed prescription drugs? How many were taking multiple prescribed drugs? How many doctors had the youths seen?

“How can we treat them if we don’t have their medical history?” McGuire asked, noting that much of this data is submitted to state departments on a voluntary, but not mandatory, basis.


On Tuesday, Hernandez told the panel that after this newspaper’s series brought the problem to his attention he wanted some answers.

“The questions I have are: Why is it that this population is being prescribed drugs at the rates they are being prescribed? Is that normal, standard protocol? How do we compare to other states?”

Anna Johnson, a policy analyst with the National Center for Youth Law, told the senators that California lacks a system capable of tracking prescription practices about psychotropic medications for foster youth.

“Care coordination should be provided immediately upon entry into foster care,” Johnson said, noting that California can learn from states.


At a Senate hearing focusing on conditions in federal prisons, Charles Samuels, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, insisted that solitary confinement is not used in federal detention facilities.

Samuels said that inmates are housed two to a cell. Because of this, even if the prisoners are held for 22 or more hours per day and experience every other aspect of isolation, the practice no longer qualifies as solitary confinement, according to Samuels.

(Read more about the Senate hearing: here.)

Vice’s Seth Ferranti and Robert Rosso gathered some reactions to Samuels’ statements from federal prisoners. Here are some clips:

“Reading what Samuels said was like watching Bill Clinton change the meaning of ‘sexual relations’ when he denied that Monica Lewinsky gave him head,” says Jay Martt, a federal inmate serving 14 years for robbery at FCI Terre Haute, a federal prison in Indiana. “He’s redefining what solitary confinement means in modern times.”…

“We do not, under any circumstances, nor have we ever had the practice of putting an individual in a cell alone,” while housed in the SHU, Samuels swore before members of the Senate.

“How can he get away with saying such a bald-face lie?” wonders Martt. ” Of course they put guys in single-cells in the SHU. All that one of these senators needs to do is subpoena any log-book from any SHU in the BOP and they could prosecute Director Samuels for lying to members of Congress.”…

“Prison officials like to tell the public and the courts that when we are put in the hole, or the ‘SHU,’ that we get one hour out of our cells every day for recreation. It’s a lie,” Martt, who gets released from prison next year, tells VICE. “Sometimes, when the staff feels like it, they might let us go from our cell into a cage that’s the size of two cells combined with up to six other people in it, and we stand around looking stupid. That’s what the BOP calls our ‘one hour’ out of the cell per day.”…

Troy Hockenberry, serving a ten-year sentence for a gun charge, says it’s the misuse of the special housing units that concerns him. “I know a guy who was sent to the hole for not tucking in his shirt. He stayed back there for over a month—for not tucking in his shirt! That’s absurd,” he said. Hockenberry argued that staff will target inmates that they don’t like and have them placed in the SHU for an “investigation.” According to BOP policy, an inmate can remain in the SHU under investigation for a period 90 days, at which time a decision must be made: Charge the inmate, or place them back into general population.

“But they’ve got a trick for that, too,” Hockenberry tells VICE. “They ask for an extension.” An officer investigating an alleged wrong doing can request three extensions, meaning that an inmate can be held in the SHU for nine months without ever being charged. “The bottom line is they can do whatever they want to us and nobody cares,” Hockenberry concludes.


On Wednesday, 71-year-old Hugo “Yogi” Pinell, one of the “San Quentin Six” inmates who attempted to break out of the state prison in 1971, was killed during a 70-inmate riot at New Folsom Prison in Sacramento.

Pinell and other inmates were reportedly stabbed with makeshift weapons. Eleven prisoners were taken to hospitals. No prison staff members were injured in the brawl.

Pinell was locked-up in 1965 for rape, and in 1971 was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after killing a guard at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. That same year, Pinell was part of a prison break that resulted in the death of two guards and four inmates, including George Jackson, founder of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang.

The Sacramento Bee’s Sam Stanton and Richard Chang have the story. Here’s a clip:

At least 11 other inmates at California State Prison, Sacramento, were taken to hospitals Wednesday, officials said. No staff members were injured in the riot, which began at 12:55 p.m. in a general-population yard at the prison, which houses 2,300 maximum-security inmates. The combatants inflicted stab wounds with weapons furnished in prison, according to the state corrections department.

Pinell’s attorney, Keith Wattley of Oakland, said he learned Tuesday that his client – the target of prison attacks in the past – had been moved into the general population before his death.

“The threat of harm to him has been well known by prison officials,” Wattley said. He added that Pinell had been the target of “long-standing threats,” but said he could not elaborate Wednesday.

Posted in ACLU, CDCR, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, law enforcement, mental health | 11 Comments »

LA County Supervisors Choose a New Jail Plan & Vote Serious $$ to Fund Mental Health Diversion Strategy

August 12th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

The LA County Board of Supervisors made two significant decisions on Tuesday regarding LA’s troubled jail system.

In an historic move, the Supes approved a plan to establish an Office of Diversion to oversee the county’s nascent mental health diversion effort. More importantly, the board allocated $120 million to launch the plan to divert mentally ill people away from jail and into community treatment, with a minimum of $10 million a year to continue the program.

LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey, was ebullient. This day, she said, was something “that many of us have been dreaming of in terms of people acknowledging that the old way of doing things simply isn’t working.”

But as excited as she was, Lacey emphasized that, when it came to diversion, the devil would be in the details.

She had questions about the motion, she said, but she was confident that all concerned could work out those details in good faith.

Next the board voted to go ahead with the construction of a replacement for the old and awful Men’s central jail, and for a new women’s jail at Mira Loma, which would be partially funded by the state of California.

The sticking point was, as it has always been, the size of the MCJ replacement.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich moved that the new replacement facility should supply 4,600 new beds, which is still a lower number than the 4,900 beds that Sheriff Jim McDonnell and Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees the county’s custody facilities, say are needed to appropriately house and treat the county’s mentally ill inmates—now and in the future—even with an aggressive diversion plan.

Supervisor Hilda Solis disagreed and proposed a far smaller 3,243-bed facility.

“In the light of the massive investment [in diversion] contemplated by a separate motion on the board’s agenda today,” said Solis, “it is clear that Los Angeles County intends to be at the forefront of efforts to develop safe and effective ways of reducing our society’s unsustainable and ineffective reliance on incarceration.”

Solis also name checked the MacArthur Foundation’s Challenge Grant, under which the county has agreed to be mentored to design and implement a plan to lower LA County’s jail population.

Finally, Sheila Kuehl offered a compromise plan for 3,885 beds.

“I think listening to this,” she said, “people probably feel a bit of whiplash. Everybody’s got a motion.” Her suggestion was a larger jail than she wanted, she said, and smaller than the sheriff and Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald would like. But while she didn’t think incarceration was the answer for many people, she believed the compromise size was called for.

“…Over the next ten years,” Kuehl continued, “it seems unlikely to me that we will be able to divert every single person. And what will happen if we do not tear down that abomination, Men’s Central Jail, and put something in tis place that is truly a treatment facility…Then all that will happen is people who need mental health treatment…” will not get any treatment at all.

“We could imagine that everyone can be diverted, but the truth is, they cannot.”

Kuehl’s compromise passed 3/1 with Supervisor Don Knabe voting no, and Supervisor Solis abstaining.

Cindy Chang at the LA Times has more. Here’s a clip:

Men’s Central Jail currently houses about 4,000 inmates. Many of the inmates at the new jail would be moved from the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which is now used for mentally ill inmates. That would allow the department to move some inmates in Men’s Central Jail to Twin Towers, which was originally designed to house the general population rather than the mentally ill.

It’s unclear how much the compromise plan would cost.

The jail proposals were not listed on the public meeting agenda. Instead, during Tuesday’s meeting, the supervisors tacked them onto the ambitious diversion plan for mentally ill offenders proposed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl.

Jail reform advocates praised the diversion plan but opposed the jail plan. They accused the board of violating open meeting laws by voting on the jail plan without written notice.

Anna Mouradian, a justice aide to Antonovich, said the county could have jeopardized $100 million in state money for the new women’s facility at Mira Loma if the board had not voted on the jail plan. The State Public Works Board is scheduled to consider the Mira Loma project on Monday.

Mouradian said the county was justified in voting on the jail plan on Tuesday because the diversion plan was on the meeting agenda, and the two issues “go hand in hand.”

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, threatened a lawsuit over the vote.

“This is an enormous construction project,” he told the board. “It should not be rushed ahead, no matter how much this board is afraid of losing money for Mira Loma.”

The MCJ replacement project will take six to eight years to complete and will do away with the crumbling and dangerous dungeon like structure that everyone agrees must be torn down. It is to be replaced with a state-of-the-art center geared toward providing treatment for inmates with mental and emotional health and substance abuse issues.

The new women’s jail to be built at the vacant Mira Loma Detention Center will provide a more dorm-like, rehabilitative environment that is designed toward women’s specific needs.

Posted in LA County Jail, mental health | 1 Comment »

LA Supes to Vote on Mental Health Diversion, Differing Definitions of Solitary Confinement, Rancho Cielo, and HuffPost & WaPo Ferguson Reporters Facing Charges

August 11th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Today (Tuesday), the LA County Board of Supervisors is slated to vote on increasing mental health diversion efforts in the county through creating and funding an Office of Diversion.

Last week, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey presented a report full of recommendations on how to redirect LA’s mentally ill from county jails and into far more appropriate community treatment. Several of the most important pieces of DA Lacey’s report include implementation of major mental health crisis training for law enforcement, adding more urgent cares to which officers can bring people in crisis, and launching a specialized housing program.

So far, $30 million has been set aside for diversion efforts, and in a report presented to the board last week, interim CEO Sachi Hamai estimated Lacey’s diversion plan would have a total implementation cost of $83,574,841. The necessary additional funding will come from realignment money, as well as money from SB 678, the Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act.

Today’s motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl would establish a Director of the Office of Diversion position under the Department of Health Services (DHS).

The director would work with five other Diversion staff members (experts in mental health, substance abuse treatment, housing, etc.) to oversee LA County’s efforts to divert the mentally ill, homeless, and those with substance abuse problems from lock-up. The Diversion office will coordinate closely with the Jail Care Transitions Director (whose job it is to ensure inmates have access to reentry services when they’re released).

The motion would also create a committee to push diversion recommendations and to keep cross-agency collaboration running smoothly. The Permanent Steering Committee would be comprised of one official from the Chief Executive Office, the Superior Court, the Public Defender’s Office, the Alternative Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, Probation, the Fire Department, the Department of Mental Health, the Substance Abuse Prevention and the Control division of the Department of Public Health, and DHS.

“We need the Office of Diversion Services to serve as a pipeline, bringing people from one resource to the next in an effective way so they do not commit more crimes once they are released,” said Supe. Ridley-Thomas. “In fact, we need to design a game plan so that they don’t enter the system in the first place.”

The SoCal ACLU’s legal director, Peter Eliasberg, said that if the motion passed, “it would be a major step forward in the diversion effort.”


During a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing that focused on conditions in federal prisons, including solitary confinement practices, criminal justice advocates and prison officials had a strange disagreement about whether the US Bureau of Prisons even uses solitary confinement.

Charles Samuels, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, told US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) that isolation isn’t actually happening in federal facilities because in the overstuffed prisons, inmates are sharing cells in solitary confinement, and are only housed solo if they are determined to be a threat to others or if a health professional deems it necessary.

But according to the Department of Justice’s own definition of solitary confinement, if inmates are kept in their cells for 22 or more hours per day, in limited contact with other people, it doesn’t matter whether or not inmates are in their own cells or housed with others.

The ACLU’s Amy Fettig, called the confusing exchange “simply a word game to try to cover up a practice that harms people.”

The National Journal’s Emma Roller has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“We do not practice solitary confinement,” Samuels told Booker at the hearing. “Our practice has always been to ensure that when individuals are placed in restrictive housing, we place them in a cell with another individual, to also include that our staff make periodic rounds to check on the individuals.”

“I’m sorry, I just really need to be clear on that,” Booker cut in, sounding baffled. “Your testimony to me right now is that the BOP does not practice solitary confinement of individuals singularly in a confined area?”

“You’re correct,” Samuels said. “We only place an individual in a cell alone if we have good evidence to believe that the individual could cause harm to another individual and/or if we have our medical or mental health staff given an evaluation that it would be a benefit to the individual to be placed in a cell alone. We do not under any circumstances, nor have we ever, had a practice of placing individuals in a cell alone.”

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said Samuels did not testify accurately.

“It’s patently untrue. The Bureau of Prisons does use solitary confinement,” Fettig said. “It is simply a word game to try to cover up a practice that harms people.”

So, what explains the two different stories? According to Fettig, the bureau has reckoned with a growing prison population by double-celling inmates in solitary confinement, then claiming that doesn’t qualify as solitary confinement.

In fact, this interpretation is at odds with the bureau’s parent organization, the Department of Justice. The DOJ defines solitary confinement as “the state of being confined to one’s cell for approximately 22 hours per day or more, alone or with other prisoners, that limits contact with others.”

Read on.


In an essay for the Washington Post, Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips tells the story of how he went from landing kids in detention facilities as a Monterey County prosecutor (and then as a superior court judge), to creating a camp to keep kids out of lock-up.

The 100-acre Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas, provides teens and young adults with opportunities to earn college credits, participate in job training, and other skills-building services.

Judges can recommend teens for placement at Rancho Cielo, but no one is “sentenced” to stay at the camp. Phillips said he wanted the kids to see it as a space to grow and succeed, rather than as a punishment facility.
(now a Monterey County Supervisor)

According to Phillips, around 200 kids have graduated from Rancho Cielo, and that 83% of participants are still employed or in college one year after their time in the program ends. And, all told, Rancho Cielo’s costs are around 10% that of incarceration.

Here’s a clip from Phillips’ story:

I gained firsthand knowledge of the cycle of violence here — first during a long tenure as a Monterey County prosecutor and later as a Superior Court judge. I devoted most of my 21 years on the bench to criminal cases. During my career, I was responsible for sending a lot of young people to prison. That was my job.

By the mid-1990s, California had gotten tough on crime (“Use a gun and go to prison” and the three strikes law), and the legislature was severely restricting judicial discretion. I found myself having to decide whether an 18-year-old kid would be sentenced to either 46 years to life or 52 years to life. Most of the young people who stood before me were men of color who, because of multiple factors, had never had the opportunities that are supposed to be afforded to all our kids in this great nation.

There was also a bit of economic irony. Very few services were provided for young people involved in criminal activity before they got in trouble. But once the trigger was pulled, all sorts of resources were directed to them — police, prosecutors, a defense attorney, the judge, the judicial system, probation officers, and of course, prison incarceration. After a while, I didn’t feel as good as I once did about my job; I didn’t feel as if I was making things better. So I decided to do something about it.

I had learned there was one strategy that actually worked to engage disenfranchised young people: the combination of education, job training and, eventually, employment. These critical three experiences allow youths to reconnect with communities from which they feel alienated and help build the self-esteem and self-confidence that many lack.

I knew of a county-owned, 100-acre, abandoned facility in Salinas called Natividad Boys Camp. The beautiful land and distance from the streets of Salinas made it the perfect location for programs to help struggling kids regain trust in themselves and in our community. I tried to convince our county to restore the facility as a site for youth programs, but was told it would take $20 to $30 million to reopen the doors. It took the help of some friends in the legal community to form a nonprofit and convince the county to lease me the property.

Initially, my board of directors consisted mainly of elected officials. Frankly, we didn’t accomplish much. I was able to raise enough grant money to fund a feasibility study of my idea, but that $26,000 study concluded that the Rancho Cielo project was totally impossible. I decided to change direction and replaced my board of directors with people in the business community — construction industry leaders, in particular, since they were willing to get to work revamping the old building along with the kids.

I had no money, but we moved forward anyway, commencing work on the property in 2003. When I arrived at 7 a.m. on that first Saturday, 75 pickup trucks already covered the hills; 22 dump trucks from various trucking companies lined the road. It was a beautiful sight to see. We never looked back. a beautiful sight to see. We never looked back.


The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly, who reported on the 2014 Ferguson protests, are now being charged in St. Louis with trespassing and interfering with a police officer.

According to officers, the journalists did not leave the McDonald’s they were working in quickly enough when they were ordered to pack up and go. Reilly reportedly had his head slammed against glass during the arrest, and Lowery said he was pushed into a soda fountain.

In a statement, the Washington Post’s executive director, Martin Baron said, “Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous.”

The Huffington Post, in a statement backing the reporters, said, “At least we know St. Louis County knows how to file charges. If Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is.”

Posted in juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, mental health, solitary | 13 Comments »

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