Friday, April 25, 2014
street news, views and stories of justice and injustice
Follow me on Twitter

Search WitnessLA:

Recent Posts




mental health

New Video Breaks Down “Zero-Tolerance” with Sitcoms…Realignment Study Part 2…Trauma Lingers Long After Release from Solitary…Supes to Interview Contenders for IG over LASD

November 12th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


On Monday, the Advancement Project’s program, “Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track,” released a video (along with some complementary animated GIFs) using clips from TV shows like the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “Saved By the Bell” to illustrate the absurdity of harsh “zero-tolerance” discipline in schools. (You can check out some of our previous posts on “zero-tolerance” policies and the “school-to-prison-pipeline” here.)


The San Jose Mercury’s Tracey Kaplan has a worthwhile and informative take on the recent realignment report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (see post above).

Here are a few of the meaningful takeaways Kaplan pointed out:

More than 100,000 felons have been diverted to counties for punishment and post-release supervision since October 2011, when the state began a hurried retreat from its costly, tough-on-crime, approach.


Jail conditions could well turn out to be the ”dark side” of realignment — and not just in the more than 30 counties with overcrowded lockups. Jails across the state weren’t designed for long-term stays so other problems crop up: they offer substandard health care that might spawn another wave of prisoner-rights litigation. Yet such problems may prompt counties to eventually adopt more rehabilitative sentencing structures, including the use of post-release supervision, services and programming.

In the meantime, as jails fill up with more serious offenders who would have gone to prison under the old system, some counties have stopped prosecuting people for low-level crimes. In Sacramento, for instance, suspects who commit certain theft crimes and low-level drug offenses aren’t charged, raising concerns about public safety. But in Santa Clara County, a new diversion program run by the District Attorney’s Office still aims to hold low-level offenders accountable. Instead of facing charges, they pay a program fee and restitution, perform community service and attend rehabilitative classes.

In a “perverse” effect of realignment, many offenders actually manage to dodge drug treatment and other rehabilitation programs by choosing to do “straight time” behind bars. That’s because unlike the old prison/parole system, the new system doesn’t require a period of post-release supervision and the new rehabilitation programs and services that often come along with it. Now, everyone who opts only for jail, serves a maximum of half their sentence. Others are released even sooner because of overcrowding, particularly in Los Angeles County. Without post-release supervision, there are fewer opportunities for the authorities to detect new crime, including the loss of the ability to conduct warrantless searches and seizures of former inmates.


Here’s something from Friday that we didn’t want you to miss…

LA Times’ Geoffrey Mohan has an excellent narrative piece about Steven Czifra, a former Pelican Bay inmate who spent eight years in isolation units. Czifra is now a student at UC Berkeley, and has his life on track, but says he struggles to shake the psychological damage caused by prolonged solitary confinement.

Here are some clips:

Czifra is 38. He has spent more time in prison than the typical undergraduate of English 45C has spent in school. He was in juvenile hall before many of his fellow students were born…

A little more than a decade ago, Czifra was dubbed “the worst of the worst,” a moniker reserved for the 1,200 or so inmates isolated in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison, a concrete and wire compound in the redwood forests near the Oregon border.

Today, he carries anxiety, fear and vigilance into the lecture halls of UC Berkeley.

“I was aware of everybody that was sitting around me and all of their facial features,” Czifra said as he strolled off campus after class. “I know that nothing bad is going to happen … but I still feel like there is an imminent threat to my safety and security.”

Even on a campus noted for its tolerance and tranquility, Czifra can’t bridle a sense of doom: He will lose his scholarship, jeopardize his partner and their 5-year-old son, lapse from sobriety. Sometimes, his heart races and he is sure he’s going to die. Right here. Right now.

His short-term memory is weak. Those 12 lines of Yeats? Czifra had to read them over and over. James Joyce’s “The Dead” will bog him down for days. On this particular day, he’ll forget two appointments.

The fear, anxiety and memory loss are some of the symptoms commonly found among people kept in extreme isolation. They lie at the heart of a policy and scientific debate that was renewed this summer after prisoners statewide went on a hunger strike to protest conditions in high-security lockups. State legislators have begun to question whether a system primarily designed to isolate gang members is standing in the way of rehabilitation.

Czifra, who traveled to Sacramento last month to give his view from inside the isolation cells, called them torture chambers that left him “a fractured human being.”

Yet Czifra is at peace with the past. He is amiable, voluble — a man making up for lost connection. On Center Street, he chats with a fellow student he knew from Folsom Lake College, where he earned good enough grades to get accepted last year to UC Berkeley…

Czifra had a complicated childhood, including a drug-addicted father who beat the left-handedness out of him. He had his first brush with the law at age 7, for burglarizing a garage. He smoked crack at age 10.

He soon graduated to carjacking. He wasn’t very good at it. His life became a blur of juvenile hall, prison camps, group homes and, eventually, the adult state prison system. Four times, he was sentenced to isolation, serving a total of eight years at four institutions.

Czifra is sure some of his symptoms come from the corrosive, sometimes terrifying boredom of having no meaningful human contact during those years of isolation. Science appears to be on his side, though not unanimously…

(Go read the rest.)


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors will have a closed-session meeting to interview candidates for the independent Inspector General for oversight of the Sheriff’s Department. (We will be reporting on it as we know more.)

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, mental health, Realignment, School to Prison Pipeline, solitary | No Comments »

Issues with DCFS Stopping Family Services, Voluntary Isolation, and a SCOTUS DNA Swabbing Update

June 6th, 2013 by Taylor Walker

(Scroll down to the second section for the corresponding story.)


A community meeting was held in South LA last week to discuss the ramifications of the decision by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) to drop what are known as “family preservation services” meant to keep kids out of the foster care system while providing troubled families help through various programs that allow them to get control of their lives while keeping kids safe.

Kelly Vassar has the story for Chronicle of Social Change. Here are some clips:

The coalition, angered by recent cuts of $14 million in cuts to family preservation services set to take effect in July, addressed three primary issues with the DCFS’ policies in SPA 6: detention strategies, dismantling the safety net, and the dismantling of partnerships that had been developed during a county-wide effort to bring down the numbers of children entering foster care.

“At our last snap shot, which was through April, we had 27,188 children under our courts’ jurisdiction,” stated Judge Nash, while reading from a report for the county’s judges. “Are there any services that will allow the child to safely remain in the home? We must force DCFS to answer this question in each and every case.”


The $14 million cut to the family preservation fund for high-risk DCFS families also concerns the SPA 6 coalition, because reduced funding for family prevention strategies means the number of child detentions in South L.A. might escalate.

Indeed, as Nash pointed out, it already has.

David Green, president of the local 721 Service Employees International Union (SEIU), discussed ways to best serve the children of South L.A., he observed the “detain first, ask questions later mentality” was the not the best way to move forward.

Proponents of family preservation policies argue that reuniting families is a much more suitable priority than foster care, considering the poor life outcomes experienced by many foster children.

Obviously, family reunification requires rigorous risk assessment. We don’t want more dead kids at the hands of their families. Nor do we want more kids yanked away from parents that could’ve been helped to nurture their children. (And we don’t want them sent to frightening places like Teens Happy Homes, for that matter.)


Juvenile In-Justice Project photographer and advocate Richard Ross was given the opportunity to spend a day in an isolation cell at a juvenile detention facility last month. He documented his stay with a digital camera that snapped a photo every seven seconds during his twenty-four hour voluntary solitary confinement.

Wired’s Jakob Schiller has the story and photos. Here are some clips:

His incarceration started at 4:30 p.m. on May 3 and lasted until 5:00 p.m. the following day. During the entire time he had a digital camera and an intervalometer set up in the corner of the cell that took a picture every seven seconds as a way to record his stay.

Ross chose 24 hours because that’s the typical amount of time a juvenile offender spends in isolation at the facility when they’re first admitted. It’s not punishment for some aggressive or egregious behavior, just a matter of procedure while the bureaucracy “evaluates” them. Sometimes children are put in isolation because they are low-level offenders and should not be housed with the more serious offenders in the general population. Isolation can also be used for disciplinary action, however, and Ross has interviewed many kids who have spent weeks alone.

It was unbelievably dehumanizing [in the cell], and I’m an adult and I knew that I had 24 hours,” he says. “Then you have these kids who are used to sleeping in their beds, some of whom have never been away from home.”


“Humane” would not be how Ross described his experience in the cell. Instead, he says it was cold and designed to take away any sense of control. There was no clock in the room and someone else decided when the lights were on or off. The food was predictably terrible, the bed was unforgiving, and the only thing he was allowed to read was the Bible. To stay sane he sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” because it reminded him of his wife.

As difficult as the experience was for Ross, he had it easy. It was on his terms. He knew when he was getting out. He had a nice hotel and dinner to go back to. He spoke with many kids who were scheduled for 24 hours but spent many days. One child in California had spent eight weeks.


In a delightfully smart essay for Slate, law professor Barry Friedman explains why both the majority and the dissenting justices are wrong about Maryland v. King, Monday’s ruling on the constitutionality of DNA swabbing upon arrest for serious crimes.

Here’s an unusually large clip (and we hope Slate will forgive us), but we wanted to show you how great Friedman’s reasoning is (and definitely go read the whole thing):

What the justices seem to see only through a glass darkly is that there are two very different kinds of searches, reflecting two different kinds of policing. There are investigative searches, and there are regulatory searches. The first kind are what you see on television, like on The Closer when Brenda Leigh Johnson tries to catch a bad guy who has committed or is about to commit a crime. The second kind includes airport security or drunk driving roadblocks—or even searching arrested people for weapons. These searches aim not to catch criminals, but to deter bad things from happening in the first place. Sure, we want to find the person getting on a plane with a gun. But the real reason for airport security is to deter people from bringing weapons to airports in the first place.

The categories matter because until you see them you can’t understand what the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure offers in each situation. Justice Scalia was right that the Fourth Amendment is categorical in requiring that the police must have a good reason before conducting investigative searches. These searches target a specific person for a specific crime, and before the government can single you out from the crowd for its special, loving attention, it has to have reason to believe you deserve to be the lucky winner. That’s probable cause.

If you think about it for all of a nanosecond, though, it makes zero sense to talk about “probable cause” as a protection against regulatory, deterrent searches. We don’t have any reason to think anyone in the airport security line did anything wrong. But does that mean airport security is unconstitutional? Surely not!

The Constitution does offer protection from invalid regulatory searches, though, in two ways. The first is generality: Search everyone, and there is a good chance the courts should uphold it. If Congress decided that everyone in the country, members of Congress included, should be in the DNA databank, lawmakers are more likely to have a good reason than if they only go after a politically vulnerable group like people who are arrested. (And yes, the chance of universal DNA collection actually getting adopted by Congress resembles that of the proverbial snowball surviving in Hades, demonstrating how general applicability is a good political check on government intrusiveness.)

The second protection is “cause,” but of a specific and heightened sort: The rule should be that the government must have a really, really good reason to subject a particular group to a regulatory search—for example to collect DNA from arrestees rather than from everyone.

Posted in DCFS, DNA, Foster Care, juvenile justice, mental health, Supreme Court | No Comments »

Unmasking Out of State Elections Donors, Voter Disenfranchisement…and More – UPDATED

November 5th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


A large last minute elections drama continues to unfold after the California Supreme Court ordered an Arizona group attempting to influence the outcome of two of the state’s ballot proposition races to hand over its donor records. The group has funneled $11 million into campaigns to defeat Governor Jerry Brown’s Prop. 30, and to pass Prop. 32, both ballot propositions that could have a large effect on the state’s future. In the hope of stalling any such revelations until after Tuesday’s election, the AZ group has appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The LA Times’ Chris Megerian and Maura Dolan are following this still-developing story. Here’s a clip from their report:

An Arizona group was scrambling late Sunday to keep secret the individuals behind its $11-million donation to a California campaign fund after California’s Supreme Court, in a rare and dramatic weekend action, ordered it to turn over records that could identify the donors.

The order followed days of frenzied legal battles between California regulators, who have tried to get documents related to the anonymous contribution before election day, and attorneys for the Arizona nonprofit who have resisted delivering them.

The showdown continued into the night Sunday, with no records produced nearly seven hours after the justices’ late-afternoon deadline. Lawyers for the nonprofit said they were trying to comply even as they rushed to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to halt to the audit.

The $11 million went to a committee that is fighting tax increases proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in Proposition 30 and promoting an initiative that could limit political spending by unions, Proposition 32. The donation has been among the most controversial moves of this election season, with Brown railing against the “shadowy” contributors at campaign appearances.

The case, which has the potential to reshape a growing sector of political giving, has put California at the forefront of a national debate over concealed political donations. Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which initially sued the Arizona group, called the California high court’s decision historic.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: This morning, there was a whip-lash-producing about face by Americans for Responsible Leadership, the nobody’s-ever-heard-of-them AZ nonprofit that had funneled $11 million into what are arguably CA’s two most important ballot proposition races—32 (they wanted YES) and 30 (pushing for NO votes). Surprising everyone, this morning the nonprofit dropped its move of last night to try to get a stay from SCOTUS in order to avoid having to reveal its secret donors.

Now that the secret has been revealed, we see one of the two reasons the AZ folks likely stopped fighting. (The first reason was probably that their lawyers advised them that they were not going to win the battle, since—as corporation-friendly though SCOTUS might at times seem to be—even the court’s most conservative justices are loath to trample on state laws when they differ from federal laws, which is the case here. [See above clip.])

However, reason number 2 was perhaps more to the point. By revealing their list of donors, Americans for Responsible Leadership, looked like they were cooperating but….revealed exactly NOTHING. Zero. Zip. Nada.

As with a set of nesting Russian dolls, when one opens doll number one and looks inside one finds…..more dolls. (Another analogy might be a series of secret offshore bank accounts that some types of….um….investors use when they want to launder obscure the provenance of large piles of money. But I digress.)

Anyway, the donors to the nonprofits are—ta da!—more nonprofits (as the LA Times story on the topic points out).

KPCC’s Julie Small reports that, to be specific, the AZ money came from Virginia-based Americans for Job Security (after first passing through yet another AZ nonprofit called the Center to Protect Patient Rights). Americans for Job Security, Small learned, is headed up by Stephen DeMaura, “a former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.”

Then with a bit more searching Small found this:

An online search reveals that Americans for Job Security shares an address in Alexandria with Crossroads Media, which is a top media buyer for Republican candidates and causes. Its clients include Americans for Job Security and American Crossroads, a political action committee co-founded by Karl Rove.

Just so you know.


Almost six million Americans convicted of felonies—half of whom have served their sentences—will be banned from voting on Tuesday. That number is made even higher by eligible voters that are sometimes turned away by election officials who have misinterpreted the law.

The NY Times editorial thinks we should take another look at this outdated practice. Here’s how it opens:

The United States maintains a shortsighted and punitive set of laws, some of them dating back to Reconstruction, denying the vote to people who have committed felonies. They will bar about 5.85 million people from voting in this year’s election.

In the states with the most draconian policies — including Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia — more than 7 percent of the adult population is barred from the polls, sometimes for life.

Nationally, nearly half of those affected have completed their sentences, including parole or probation.

Policies that deny voting rights to people who have paid their debt to society offend fundamental tenets of democracy. But the problem is made even worse by state and local election officials so poorly informed about the law that they misinform or turn away people who have a legal right to vote.


The LAUSD, together with UCLA, USC, the Rand Corp. and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, recently received a grant of $2.4 million to further their work with students who have been exposed to trauma.

The LA Times’ Marisa Gerber has the story. Here’s a clip:

The grant is the latest in an ongoing partnership among the district, UCLA, USC, the Rand Corp. and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a group of trauma centers funded within the Department of Health and Human Services.

L.A. Unified and its partners used the first chunk of money from the network in 2003 to do exploratory work about students and trauma.

A study that year found that more than 60% of local sixth-graders had witnessed more than one event that exposed them to trauma, said Pia Escudero, who directs L.A. Unified’s mental health and crisis counseling services.


By the way, look for our take-to-the-poll voting recommendation list Tuesday morning (full list of endorsements here).

Photo by: 401K 2012 / Flickr – licensed through Creative Commons

Posted in California Supreme Court, Education, elections, LAUSD, mental health | No Comments »

The Reality of Realignment, the CA Higher Education Massacre…and More

October 3rd, 2012 by Taylor Walker


In a sharply-worded essay, LA Times editorial-writer Robert Greene explains why realignment doesn’t let anyone out early despite common misstatements by law enforcement unions and even some journalists. Greene expresses righteous indignation at the misinformation still being spread by the CA GOP and others a year after the realignment bill AB109 was signed. Here’s a clip:

“No Happy Anniversary for the Democrat Early Release Program,” reads a statement from the California state Senate Republican Caucus. I can understand why they’d be unhappy at the early release of Democrats, but I don’t think that’s what they mean. They’re referring instead to criminal justice realignment under last year’s AB 109. It took effect Oct. 1, 2011.

The narrative is familiar to anyone on the email list of police unions or California Republicans and it goes like this: Democrats adopted realignment, Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law, inmates got out of prison early, and many of these people who should still be behind bars committed new crimes, including rape, attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery.

Ten of the Senate’s 13 Republicans offer their own comments as part of their caucus’ official statement. Former GOP leader Bob Dutton, of Rancho Cucamonga, refers to “letting dangerous criminals out of prison early.” Ted Gaines of Rocklin, near Sacramento, says realignment “essentially means the early release of some very dangerous individuals.” Tony Strickland of Thousand Oaks talks about “hundreds of offenders released early.” Mimi Walters of Irvine mentions “early release of many dangerous criminals.”

There are links to news stories that detail crimes allegedly committed by felons who got out of prison early because of realignment.

It sure sounds like they’re saying realignment lets felons out of prison early, right? How can Dutton’s statement, for example, be interpreted as saying anything else? How can the caucus’ collective statement about “the Democrats’ early-release program for prison inmates” mean anything else?

The problem with this narrative is pretty basic. Under AB 109 realignment, no one is released from prison any earlier than he or she would have been otherwise.

Before realignment, a felon was sentenced to prison for, say, 10 years, and after five – 50% of time served – was released on parole. The 50% is a result of credit for good behavior and for work, and has been part of California law for years. Realignment hasn’t changed that.


It should be pretty easy to be able to document whether new felons are being released early from local jails, and if so whether they are committing new crimes. But police groups, the state GOP and others who criticize realignment and have a knack for citing anecdotes never quite seem to be able to find those numbers. At least a third of the state’s new so-called non-non-nons have been sentenced in Los Angeles County Superior Court and have gone to Los Angeles County jail. According to the Sheriff’s Department, not one such person has been released from jail early. The department also reports that it has not changed its early release criteria. Yes, the sheriff has long released inmates early in order to manage crowding and keep beds available, but it has not sped up releases to make room for the newly convicted felons.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I love my pal Robert Greene’s writing anyway, but it is particularly satisfying to see him yank apart the mendacious, fact-phobic pronouncements that are routinely advanced by sloppy reporters, with the help of a slew of public officials and law enforcement spokespersons who are seemingly convinced that it is to their advantage to prove realignment a ghastly, public safety-endangering failure—factual reality be damned. It has driven me mad, mad, I tell you!

Go, Rob!


In Tuesday’s Huffington Post, Mother Jones’ staff writer Andy Kroll maps out the history of California’s higher education from a time (not so long ago) when it was affordable and available and the best of its kind in the nation. Then he fast-forwards its current condition where budget cuts and tax breaks have hacked and chopped it into a horribly diminished version of its former self that also happens to be a lot more expensive. Kroll also explains the correlation between the missing CA education funding and the state’s affinity for over-incarceration.

The Huffington Post’s Andy Kroll has the story. Here’s how it opens:

It was the greatest education system the world had ever seen. They built it into the eucalyptus-dotted Berkeley hills and under the bright lights of Los Angeles, down in the valley in Fresno and in the shadows of the San Bernardino Mountains. Hundreds of college campuses, large and small, two-year and four-year, stretching from California’s emerald forests in the north to the heat-scorched Inland Empire in the south. Each had its own DNA, but common to all was this: they promised a “public” education, accessible and affordable, to those with means and those without, a door with a welcome mat into the ivory tower, an invitation to a better life.

Then California bled that system dry. Over three decades, voters starved their state — and so their colleges and universities — of cash. Politicians siphoned away what money remained and spent it more on imprisoning people, not educating them. College administrators grappled with shriveling state support by jacking up tuitions, tacking on new fees, and so asking more each year from increasingly pinched students and families. Today, many of those students stagger under a heap of debt as they linger on waiting lists to get into the over-subscribed classes they need to graduate.

California’s public higher education system is, in other words, dying a slow death. The promise of a cheap, quality education is slipping away for the working and middle classes, for immigrants, for the very people whom the University of California’s creators held in mind when they began their grand experiment 144 years ago. And don’t think the slow rot of public education is unique to California: that state’s woes are the nation’s.


A high percentage of kids who have a run-in with the juvenile justice system come into lock up with emotional troubles that are likely transitory but tend to leave with problems that are much more intractable. Specifically the study from Northwestern University researchers says that, among kids who have been locked up in a juvenile detention facility, almost 50% of males and 30% of females had at least one psychiatric disorder following incarceration.

Red Orbit’s Connie Ho has the story. Here’s a clip:

“For some youth, detention may coincide with a period of crisis that subsequently abates. Many youth, however, continue to struggle: five years after detention, when participants were ages 14 to 24 years, nearly half of males and nearly 30 percent of females had one or more psychiatric disorders with associated impairment.”

The scientists looked at evidence gleaned from the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a longitudinal study consisting of 1,829 youths between the ages of 10 and 18 who were based in a Chicago detention center. They believe that the study is the first longitudinal study to measure psychiatric disorders in young people following detention.

“Our study addresses a critical hole in the research,” remarked the study’s lead author Linda A. Teplin, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement.

Among the 657 females and 1,172 males, the abuse of substances like alcohol and drugs was the most common and long-lasting form of psychiatric disorder.

“These findings demonstrate the need for special programs – especially for substance use disorders – not only while these kids are in corrections but also when they return to the community,” noted Teplin in a statement.

At the start of the study, the male participants had an approximately one-third higher chance of displaying signs of substance abuse compared to females. At the five-year mark, however, males were at a 2.5 times higher risk of developing the disorder compared to their female counterparts.

“People think these kids are locked up forever, but the average stay is only two weeks,” continued Teplin in the statement. “Obviously, it’s better to provide community services than to build correctional facilities. Otherwise, the lack of services perpetuates the revolving door between the community and corrections.”

You can access the abstract here, but it appears as if the full report can only be read with a subscription to the Archives of General Psychiatry journal.


And while we’re on the topic of the relationship between incarceration and emotional/psychological problems, while people incarcerated under the three-strikes law are twice as likely to have substance abuse issues, they are no more likely to engage in dangerous “criminal-thinking” than regular inmates, according to research by the California Watch and the SF Chron.

California Watch’s Marisa Lagos and Ryan Gabrielson have the story. Here’s a clip:

The psychological, substance abuse and education profiles of thousands of inmates – obtained and analyzed by California Watch and the San Francisco Chronicle – reveal that the state imposes especially lengthy sentences on felons with substance abuse problems who have not necessarily committed violent offenses.

But according to their profiles, these inmates would pose no more a threat to public safety than a non-three-strikes inmate.

The never-before-released data could play an important role for critics and supporters of California’s three strike’s law, amid a dramatic year for criminal justice reform. Thousands of inmates are being transferred to county jails under a realignment plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and voters are being asked to alter the state’s three strikes initiative with a ballot measure in November.

The act of judging a person’s criminal proclivity is steeped in a long and controversial history of guesswork and junk science. But modern social scientists and criminologists say California’s prisoner surveys ranking “criminal thinking” – which have been verified through rigorous studies of recidivism rates – are reliable tools to gauge risk factors and psychological makeups.

The data shows that about one-third of all prisoners – including second- and third-strikers – need cognitive therapy to deal with their criminal tendencies, the impulse that drives them to break the law. But the need for substance abuse rehabilitation is overwhelming among inmates serving two- or three-strike sentences.

Posted in Education, juvenile justice, mental health, Realignment | No Comments »

Steinbeck’s Son Joined Effort to Halt Execution of Disabled Man, a New Report on the Last Decade of Juvenile Justice…and More

August 9th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61 was executed Tuesday after SCOTUS denied him a stay of execution. A TX judge referenced Of Mice and Men to illustrate the difficulty of knowing the level of mental disability one must have to be exempt from the death penalty under the 8th Amendment. Upon reading an account of the death penalty ruling, John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, joined the fight to stop Wilson’s execution.

The NY Times’ Robert Mackey has the story. Here are some clips:

As the legal analyst Andrew Cohen explains on The Atlantic’s Web site, the execution of a 54-year-old man “who could not handle money or navigate a phone book, a man who sucked his thumb and could not always tell the difference between left and right, a man who, as a child, could not match his socks, tie his shoes or button his clothes,” seemed to “directly contradict the spirit, if not the letter,” of a Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that appeared to bar the execution of mentally retarded inmates.

Mr. Wilson’s lawyers argued that the court should intervene because Texas uses criteria to determine whether someone can be fairly classified as mentally retarded that “lack any scientific foundation,” The Texas Tribune reported. As The Atlantic Wire notes, in a 2004 ruling that paved the way for Mr. Wilson’s execution, a state court judge turned instead to literature, invoking John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” to describe the difficulties of defining “that level and degree of mental retardation at which a consensus of Texas citizens would agree that a person should be exempted from the death penalty.”


After Thomas Steinbeck, the writer’s son, read a Guardian article on how his father’s novel had been used in a Texas court to argue for the execution of the mentally retarded, he joined the effort to halt the killing of Mr. Wilson, The Beaumont Enterprise reported. In a statement released on Tuesday, just before Mr. Wilson was put to death for a fatal shooting in 1992, Mr. Steinbeck wrote:

On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson’s case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e., Lennie Small from “Of Mice and Men,” as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die.

My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel Prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way. And the last thing you ever wanted to do, was to make John Steinbeck angry.

(Be sure to also check out Andrew Cohen’s article for The Atlantic on the subject, as it is well worth reading.)


A report released Tuesday by the National Conference of State Legislatures examines juvenile justice trends between the states over the past decade. The report reviews state policies distinguishing juvies from adults, the disproportionate representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, and advances in mental health and rehabilitation policies.

Here’s a clip from the NCSL press release on the report:

Between 65 and 70 percent of the two million youth arrested each year in the United States have some type of mental health disorder. With this in mind, states have focused on providing proper screening, assessment, and treatment services for young offenders with mental health needs. As just one example, a Colorado law now allows a 90-day suspended sentence, during which treatment is provided to juveniles with behavior disorders or mental health issues.

Minority youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage at a higher rate than their white peers. Between 2005 and 2007, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee established committees or commissions to address the overrepresentation of minorities in their juvenile justice systems. And in 2008, Iowa became the first state to require a “minority impact statement,” which is required for proposed legislation related to crimes, sentencing, parole and probation.


The Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that a Burbank detective, who blew the whistle on fellow detectives whom he reportedly saw abusing suspects, was not shielded against departmental sanctions as his did not constitute protected speech. (Not sure what kind of precedent this sets—we’ll let you know more as we find out more.)

Courthouse News Service’s Annie Youderian has the story. Here are some clips:

Angelo Dahlia claimed he saw a fellow detective in the Burbank Police Department squeeze a suspect’s throat and stick a gun in his face, saying, “How does it feel to have a gun in your face motherfucker?”
Dahlia said he heard yelling and the sound of people being hit as the detective continued to interview suspects.
He said he told Burbank Police Lt. John Murphy that “things were getting out of hand, the interviews were getting too physical, and too many people were doing their own thing and were out of control.”
Murphy allegedly told Dahlia to “stop his sniveling.”


Dahlia was interviewed by investigators at least three times. After each interview, Dahlia said he was harassed and threatened.

In May 2009, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department interviewed Dahlia, who said he disclosed his colleagues’ abusive interrogation tactics. Four days later, Burbank Police Chief Tim Stehr placed Dahlia on administrative leave.

Dahlia sued the city of Burbank and several officers, claiming the disciplinary action constituted retaliation for his protected speech.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that Dahlia’s speech was not protected because the “disclosure of incriminating facts” fell within his official duties as a police officer. The federal appeals panel in Pasadena agreed.

Posted in Death Penalty, Free Speech, juvenile justice, literature, mental health | 1 Comment »

Plush Prison Hospitals?

January 12th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


The SF Examiner just ran an article that characterizes the new construction
requested by the draft report for the court-appointed receiver tasked with overhauling the state’s prison health care system as loaded with “plush” “amenities.”

They may be right.

Or not.

(For the back story on this issue see these posts.)

Here’s the relevant clip:

The recommendations called on the cash-starved state to spend $8 billion on seven new hospitals – each roughly the size of 10 Wal-Mart stores – to replace a decrepit health care system that a federal judge says is killing an average of one inmate per week. Judge Thelton Henderson said state officials were incapable of fixing the system and handed the job to receiver Clark Kelso.

The draft report, posted recently on the receiver’s Web site, said the new hospitals’ environment “should be ‘holistic’ in expression.”

“In the place of sterile prison corridors or barren, large-scale ‘yards,’ both staff and patient should experience landscaped courtyards and places of rest and respite,” the draft said.

The report also suggested that the new prison hospitals include:

– Workout rooms to “promote wellness,” featuring exercise machines and space for “therapeutic activities such as aerobics, yoga, (and) group exercise.” Plus handball courts.

– Outdoor courtyards “where patients will be encouraged to participate in recreational therapy programs such as horticulture.”

– Gymnasiums with a basketball court and a music room, a crafts room, game room and therapy kitchen.

– Outdoor running tracks.

The report also said there should be day rooms for patients featuring a “quiet room for reading and study, as well as a separate room for group TV watching.” Each should include “a liberal use of sound attenuation materials and be designed to maximize natural light to create a normative environment,” the document said.

Those representing Kelso, the federal receiver, say that this is an old draft of the report and that most of the kerfuffle is about mental health treatments that are already required by the courts.

The office of State Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is furious at the whole thing and tried to block it in court, sent the article around to interested press persons, myself included, with an “IN CASE YOU MISSED THIS” note.

From my chilly perch in the wilds of Vermont, I can’t readily tell you if the critics and the SF reporters are shooting at straw men with this howl over “plush prison hospitals,” or whether the requests from Kelso are indeed absurdly excessive.

But I do know two things:

ONE: the state’s prison health care system cannot continue to offer unconstitutional treatment (or lack thereof) that routinely kills an inmate a week. Sorry. That’s how it is.

And TWO: The state is perilously close to broke.

All of which adds up to the fact that the supposed grown-ups in Sac’to need to stop sniping at each other and figure this puppy out.


Posted in crime and punishment, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), mental health, prison policy, State government, State politics | 6 Comments »

Suicide, PTSD and War – The New Cost of Doing Business

November 14th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon


On Tuesday night, CBS News announced the devastating results
of a five-month investigation into the incidence of suicide among American war veterans. Until the CBS folks did their own count using existing state death records (that no one had bothered to gather together and analyze), little information existed about how many suicides among veterans there were nationwide.

The numbers CBS found are extremely disturbing.
In 2005, 6256 veterans killed themselves—an average of 120 suicides each week. Furthermore, the CBS researchers found that veterans age 20-24 had the highest suicide rate of any age group. These, of course, are the Iraq and Afghani war kids. Whereas other veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide than the non-veteran populace. The new, young vets were three or four times more likely.

The examples CBS used to illustrate the problem
, for me as a mother, were nearly unbearable to watch.

Twenty-three-year-old Marine Reservist Jeff Lucey hanged himself with a garden hose in the cellar of this parents’ home – where his father, Kevin, found him.

“There’s a crisis going on and people are just turning the other way,” Kevin Lucey said.

Kim and Mike Bowman’s son Tim was an Army reservist
who patrolled one of the most dangerous places in Baghdad, known as Airport Road.

“His eyes when he came back were just dead. The light wasn’t there anymore,” Kim Bowman said.

Eight months later, on Thanksgiving Day, Tim shot himself. He was 23.

Diana Henderson’s son, Derek, served three tours of duty in Iraq. He died jumping off a bridge at 27.

Meanwhile, in related story reported in this morning’s LA Times, a new study was released on Wednesday showing that post-war emotional stress and depression caused by combat in Iraq often don’t appear until months after a soldier has returned home.

Overall, about 20 percent of active-duty soldiers and more than 40 percent of National Guardsmen and reservists were referred for care or had sought care on their own, a military team reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Psychologists hope that catching incipient problems early and getting soldiers into treatment will prevent the type of long-term mental health problems that afflicted many soldiers who fought in Vietnam, said Dr. Charles S. Milliken of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, who led the study.

Yes, but are we really catching
things early—or at all?

The story excerpted below ran in the Texas Observer this summer. It’s a portrait of three different service people who have come back from Iraq, and it It suggests we aren’t doing quite so swimmingly at the Walter Reed guy would have us believe.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mental health, PTSD, Public Health, War | 9 Comments »