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Obama Breaks Clemency Record, Commutes 214 Drug Sentences

August 4th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Wednesday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners—including 10 Californians—serving time behind bars under outdated drug sentencing laws. Sixty-seven of the recipients were serving life sentences. President Obama granted the largest number of commutations during a single day since 1900.

Obama’s latest act of clemency, brings his total number of commutations to 562.

Wednesday’s commutations appear to signal a welcome increase in momentum for the White House’s Clemency Initiative as Obama nears the end of his final year as president. The move is a significant one for a president who, in past years, has faced criticism from activists for granting too few people clemency.

“In just the first eight months of 2016, the President has more than doubled the number of commutations granted in all of 2015,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “But we are not done yet, and we expect that many more men and women will be given a second chance through the Clemency Initiative.”

It is worth noting, however, that the president has granted far fewer pardons (which wipe a person’s criminal record and restore their rights) than many of his predecessors, despite receiving more than 2,000 petitions. Obama has granted 70 pardons during his two terms, while George W. Bush granted 189 pardons, Bill Clinton granted 396, Ronald Reagan granted 393, Jimmy Carter granted 534, Lyndon B. Johnson granted 960, and Harry S. Truman granted 1,913.

In the above video, Norman Brown—a man who served 20 years of a life sentence before Obama commuted his sentence—offers advice to the men and women who will now reenter their communities after years in prison. “Take your time, be grateful…and enjoy starting your life all over again,” Brown says.

Posted in Obama | 2 Comments »

Fifty-Eight More Commutations from Obama

May 6th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Thursday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 58 federal prisoners serving time behind bars under outdated drug sentencing laws—including two people from Los Angeles and one from Richmond, CA.

The president has now commuted (or shortened) sentences for 306 people, more than the six previous presidents combined. But Obama still has not done much in the way of presidential pardons (which wipe a person’s criminal record and restores their rights) when compared with his predecessors. Obama has granted just 70 presidential pardons during his more than seven years in office. George W. Bush granted 189 pardons, Bill Clinton granted 396, Ronald Reagan granted 393, Jimmy Carter granted 534 (during just 4 years in the White House), Lyndon B. Johnson granted 960, and Harry Truman granted 1,913.

Obama wrote about his latest batch of commutations in a story for Medium, pointing to individual success stories from those granted clemency, and praising bipartisan efforts to rein in over-the-top mandatory minimum sentences. Obama said that while he will keep reviewing clemency petitions, “only Congress can bring about the lasting changes we need to federal sentencing.”

Posted in Obama | 3 Comments »

The US Would Save $$$ by Helping Disadvantaged Kids…Disparate School Discipline….California Endowment’s Robert Ross on Justice Reform…and the Struggles of an Understaffed Juvie Lock-Up

July 31st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


A new White House Council of Economic Advisers report shows that it is much more expensive not to tear down the school-to-prison pipeline, lower incarceration rates, and ensure boys and young men of color have the same opportunities to succeed as their white peers.

While black kids represent 18% of the preschool population, they make up 48% of preschoolers who have received two or more out-of-school suspension. Those disparities certainly don’t get any better as kids get older, either. There were 875,000 kids arrested in 2013, the majority of them racial minorities.

Despite similar rates of marijuana use, black people are four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.

The White House report points out that we spend around $112,000 on incarcerating a kid for a year, in comparison to $23,000-$31,000 for a year of college, $13,000 for K-12 public school, and around $1,300 for a major mentoring program like Big Brothers Big Sisters or One Summer Plus.

There are disparities in higher education achievement as well. Only 12.4% of Latino men and 20.8% of black men ages 25-29 have a college degree, compared to 37.7% of white men of the same age.

If we closed the higher education gap between men of color and white men ages 25-64, the number of men of color with a bachelor’s degree (or higher) would double, and they would earn around $170 billion more per year.

The report says that intervention at these milestone life changes are crucial to close the gaps:

• Entering school ready to learn
• Reading at grade level by third grade
• Graduating high school ready for career and college
• Completing post-secondary education and training
• Successfully entering the workforce
• Reducing violence and providing a second chance


Black kids often receive suspensions, expulsions, or justice system referrals, while white kids receive medical treatment for the same offenses, according to a Penn State study.

The study, published in the Sociology of Education, used data from 60,000 schools in 6,000 schools districts.

The Daily Beast’s Abby Haglage has more on the report (which is behind a paywall). Here’s a clip:

David Ramey—assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State and the author of the study—has spent years researching how sociological factors affect schools’ modes of punishment. Even when the level of misbehavior is the same, he says, the treatment is not. “White kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem,” he says. “Black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.”

Ramey is clear about the distinction between the two disciplinary styles. Criminalized discipline revolves around penalizing the student, using concrete things like suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement. Medicalized is distinctly more benign, searching for solutions through medical attention or psychological intervention.

The deeper implications of Ramey’s results are troubling. Misbehavior from black students is seen as a crime that warrants punishment; misbehavior from whites is a malady that needs medicine.

The American Civil Liberties Union refers to this issue as the “school-to-prison-pipeline” (STTP): “a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system.” Dwindling resources, pressure to bring in high test scores, and increased caution from school shootings are all cited as contributing factors.


In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, California Endowment President Robert Ross applauds President Barack Obama’s recently heightened focus on shifting the nation away from punitive and costly mass incarceration, moving instead toward a prevention and opportunity mindset. Ross highlights the progress California has made toward meaningful criminal justice reform, including passing Prop 47 (which reclassified certain non-serious felonies as misdemeanors), and implementing restorative justice in schools that were funneling kids into the juvenile justice system. Here’s a clip:

We worked with young leaders to address the fact that, for many of our young people, their criminalization begins as early as elementary school. Rather than asking why our students are acting out, they are being pushed out of school and police are being called in to deal with things such as talking back to teachers.

Through our grantees’ efforts, more schools in California are now adopting positive school discipline–giving students the opportunity to reconcile their mistakes–rather than pushing students out of schools and into the juvenile justice system.

Not only do our policies reflect prioritization of punishment over prevention, but so does our state spending. In California, we spend $62,300 a year to keep one inmate in prison but just $9,100 per year to educate one student in our public schools, one of many statistics we highlighted through our Do The Math campaign.

Realizing this contradiction, California voters decided to shift spending priorities towards prevention by passing Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which gives Californians a second chance at opportunity by lowering some non-violent offenses to misdemeanors rather than felonies and shifts up to $1 billion dollars every year toward community health programs.

These efforts will help turn the tide on our prison population, which has grown 430 percent nationally since 1970. At the same time that we seek to break the school-to-prison pipeline, we cannot forget those who have ended up in prison.

One of the most moving things we did last year was visit one of our prisons here in California, to be able to hear from incarcerated people about the type of opportunities they’d like while behind bars to prepare them to best re-enter their lives and communities.

What we heard is they’d like to further their education, be offered opportunities to heal from intense trauma, and have more communication with their families.

We applaud President Obama for visiting El Reno Correctional Institution and we encourage more of our national leaders to do the same. And to take time listening to our youth, you’d be surprised how much information they’ll share about the type of opportunities and future they’d like us to build for them, but it’s up to us to act on that information.


Brett Myers of of NPR’s Youth Radio visited a juvenile detention facility in San Leandro, CA, that’s struggling to maintain their reputation as a model juvenile facility to due to severe understaffing. Even though they watch over a smaller population of kids than the facility housed around 2010, guards are doing double the amount of overtime they did five years ago, and the kids are paying the price. Use-of-force incidents have tripled, and kids are spending more time in their cells missing out on recreation time.

Myers’ story is part of a series on juvenile justice. (On Thursday, WLA pointed to two stories on juvenile probation that are also from this series.)

Here’s a clip from the write up of the radio show:

According to county records obtained by Youth Radio, guards used pepper spray 147 times last year. The kicker: 90 percent of state-run juvenile correctional agencies don’t allow guards to carry pepper spray. But here, with guards working an average of 30 hours of overtime per week, there has been an increase in the use of force on juvenile inmates — like guards performing takedowns or handcuffing inmates. The department calls these acts “use of physical and mechanical restraints,” and that number nearly tripled in the past five years…

Supervisor Ray Colon has been working for Alameda County Juvenile Hall for 25 years.

“You’ve got a couple of staff watching a number of kids, and things happen,” he says.

During waking hours, the state mandates a minimum of one guard for every 10 kids in detention.

When they’re short on guards, supervisors sometimes run what they call split recs — basically dividing recreation, exercise and dinner time in half. Fifteen kids come out while the other 15 remain in their cells.

“The kids don’t always get the services they should get because we’re running short. They spend more time in their room, which is unfortunate, but it’s the reality of not having the staff to complete the duties we need to do,” Colon says.

Malik, 18, spent more than four months incarcerated in Alameda County Juvenile Hall. He says when young people are locked in their cells, tensions flare.

“Man, more fights, more attitudes. Kicking and banging — it’s just angry. They want to be out of their rooms. That’s why I used to kick and bang,” he says. “If I know that I have a guaranteed hour of PE each day no matter what, I’m going to be angry if I can’t get that.”

Posted in Education, juvenile justice, Obama, racial justice, Rehabilitation, Restorative Justice, School to Prison Pipeline | 5 Comments »

LA Supes Hold Discussion on LASD Oversight, Richmond’s Anti-Violence Program, Pell Grants for Prisoners, and Calexico’s Police Chief

July 29th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors held a discussion on the final recommendations from the working group tasked with figuring out how to structure a civilian oversight panel for the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

The group spent six months working toward this final report, and held thirteen public meetings and nine town hall meetings across the county to gather community input.

Former CEO of Public Counsel and working group member, Hernan Vera, said that, in studying other counties’ oversight boards, they noted three broad powers: the ability to look into and address systemic and procedural problems within the department, to investigate individual instances of alleged misconduct and excessive use of force allegations, and to build a bridge to the community through transparency, accountability, and dialogue.

The working group voted 4-3 in favor of recommending giving subpoena power to the commission. Vera acknowledged it as the “elephant in the room” jumped right into discussing the issue.

“First, we believe at the end of this process, that this commission wouldn’t enjoy the full trust and confidence of the public without that power,” said Vera. “That was made clear to us. So much of the public testimony centered around this issue.”

Vera continued, “The majority who voted for this believed that this commission wouldn’t be able to do its job as effectively without its power…the commission itself wouldn’t be seen as truly independent without this power because everything would have to be negotiated. And the commission, bottom line, would be dependent on the generosity or good will of the sheriff’s department to get the records that it needs.”

There may have to be changes to state law, however, to make subpoena power possible. County Counsel told the board they are still looking into whether it would need to go on next year’s ballot or not.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich expressed concern over officer privacy. “We would have to ensure that anyone who has access to those records is aware of the need to keep them confidential. We’re exploring options to address that issue,” said Antonovich. “We could have confidentiality agreements drafted. And there could be penalties associated with violation of those agreements. Under the law, there’s also the Peace Officer Bill of Rights…if you violate it and breach confidentiality…there could be consequences, even misdemeanor consequences.”

Also on the working group, was LASD Undersheriff Neal Tyler, who said Sheriff Jim McDonnell was concerned about the idea of subpoena power, and thought it unnecessary.

The sheriff wants the county to hold off on trying to set up subpoena power, and first work on a memorandum of agreement (MOA), which could take as little as a couple of weeks to establish. Then, if that agreement does not live up to the level of access desired by the commission and board, subpoena power could go on the 2016 ballot.

In answer to this, Supe Mark Ridley-Thomas said that the issue must be looked at structurally and systematically, and that, respectfully, his “days of of deferring to a sheriff, elected or not…are over.”

Inspector General Max Huntsman, who is also part of the working group, says he has been trying to get an MOA in place for the Office of Inspector General for the last year and a half, and because the working group did not yet have an MOA from the Sheriff for the commission, the group had to consider subpoena power. “In order to accomplish the goals of this board, I think what’s important is complete access,” said Huntsman. “At the time we took that vote, there was no MOA on the table. We still do not have an MOA in place. I’ve been here for a year and a half, and haven’t been able to get an MOA. …In the working group, we had no option but to pursue something else that would allow us to implement that goal.”

Huntsman continued, “Subpoena power by itself does not get us access to the kind of detailed internal information that I think is absolutely critical in order to accomplish the goals of this board.”

Vera said that having subpoena power would be important for the commission to have as backup. “What we heard from cities like San Diego…is that the mere fact of having subpoena power facilitates broader access and a more effective commission,” said Vera. The subpoena power will not be needed 99% of the time, according to Vera, as the the commission will go through the MOA. “But the fact that it exists just creates more of an incentive to comply…the jurisdictions that haven’t had that, have had to work out a way of negotiating for records. And when the sheriff’s department says no, the conversation ends there.”

Among other important topics of discussion were whether undocumented immigrants could serve on the commission, as well as whether retired sworn personnel could serve as commission members, or whether that would create a conflict of interest.

No consensus was definitively reached by the board on any one topic, and no date was set to vote on the commission, but the hearing was an important step toward establishing oversight.

“It is not as if we are engaged in any revolutionary act here with respect to the establishment of an oversight commission….we are rather late to the party,” said Ridley-Thomas. “Oversight commissions exist all over the length and breadth of this country, and it’s about time that Los Angeles County got with the program.”


The city of Richmond, CA, is seeing incredible success with their unique anti-violence program, according to a new report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Just under a decade ago, the city of Richmond, CA had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. In 2007, there were 47 gun-related homicides in the city of 106,000 people. The situation was so dire, the city authorized an unheard of new program that would identify the most likely to shoot someone or be shot, and pay them to keep out of trouble.

Four times per year, the Office of Neighborhood Safety, conceived and developed by DeVone Boggan, selects 50 candidates under 25-years-old to take part in an 18-month program. Participants receive a monthly stipend between $300 and $1000 for nine of those months, along with mentoring, education, and other services.

In 2013, 6 years after the launch of ONS, there were 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—the lowest number Richmond had seen in 33 years. And the homicide rate continues to drop.

And those participants, most likely to shoot or be shot, are, for the most part, staying alive and out of trouble: 94% of the 68 men to complete the program are still alive, and 79% have not been arrested or charged with a firearm-related crime since.

(WLA has previously written about Richmond’s Police Chief Chris Magnus, who has vastly improved officer morale and the police-community relationship.)

Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy has more on the report. Here’s a clip:

The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

As evidence, the study cites the life-changing effect on fellows. Ninety-four percent of fellows are still alive. And perhaps just as remarkable, 79 percent have not been arrested or charged with gun-related offenses during that time period.

“While replication of the Fellowship itself may be more arduous because of the dynamic leadership associated with the current model, the framework of the Fellowship could be used to improve outcomes for communities across the country,” the study’s authors wrote. “The steps taken to craft programming developed with clients in mind, and being responsive to their needs and the needs of the community, can serve as a model.”


On Friday the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch are slated to reveal A 3-5 year plan to give federal Pell Grants—college grants for low-income students—to thousands of prisoners across the nation, reversing a 1993 ban on giving such grants to inmates.

Through the grants, prisoners will receive up to $5,775 per year to spend on tuition, books, and other education expenses.

The hope is that, by opening up access to education for prisoners, recidivism rates will drop, saving states and the federal government piles of money in the long run.

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Mitchell and Joe Palazzolo have the story. Here’s a clip:

Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens.

Between the mid-1990s and 2013, the U.S. prison population doubled to about 1.6 million inmates, many of them repeat offenders, Justice Department figures show. Members of both parties—including President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—have called for a broad examination of criminal justice, such as rewriting sentencing guidelines.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.

Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.


The LA Times’ Joel Rubin has a long read profile on Calexico Police Chief Michael Bostic, a former LAPD Assistant Chief, who took the helm of an agency that was the subject of an FBI investigation, and was drowning in officer misconduct scandals. Chief Bostic has been very vocal about problems plaguing the department he says he has come to fix.

In April, Chief Bostic asked the DOJ to step in and help him clean up the border city’s police department. The DOJ, via its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said it would provide extensive training and would help build a community policing unit over the next three years.

Bostic does have critics, however, including some who question the hefty paycheck he receives for leading a rather small department.

Here’s a clip from Rubin’s story:

Since arriving in Calexico, Bostic has unabashedly presented himself as a savior, promising residents he will rid their Police Department of “the cancer living within it” — a refrain during his first months on the job.

“These people are so desperate for help,” he said. “The LAPD has given me a unique set of skills and training that you can’t get many places…. I know exactly what to do to fix this place.”

Bostic hasn’t shied away from such grand statements, touting the major role he played in reforming the LAPD. Although he did have a hand in trying to push through changes that followed some of the LAPD’s worst episodes, the reality of his time there is more modest.

In the wake of the videotaped beating by officers of Rodney King, then-Chief Daryl Gates assigned Bostic to review the department’s use-of-force and training procedures. In his role, Bostic was critical of some problems he identified but wasn’t in a position to make significant changes himself.

Bostic testified as the government’s use-of-force expert during the state trial against the officers. Defense attorneys picked him apart on cross-examination, however, forcing him to admit he had formed his opinion of the beating after only a few viewings of the tape. After acquitting the officers, jurors said that they did not find Bostic credible.

He climbed the ranks to become an assistant chief, at times running the department when the chief was away. But after Bostic clashed with William Bratton, who was hired as chief in 2002, Bratton demoted him and exiled him from his inner circle.

Soon after he took over in Calexico, Bostic said he contacted the FBI, relaying concerns he had about some of his officers. Then, on a morning in late October, dozens of agents descended on the police station, seizing computer hard drives and documents.

FBI officials acknowledged the ongoing investigation but declined to comment on its scope or focus. Bostic, for his part, has refused to elaborate on the probe. But it seems to have struck a sensitive chord with him. Twice after the raid, Bostic choked back tears when answering reporters’ questions about the investigation.

“There could be nothing more embarrassing than to have your department under that kind of scrutiny…. It was literally the most disappointing day in all my years of policing,” he said at one news conference after composing himself.

The problems, Bostic said, stemmed from half a dozen or so officers, who also held sway in the police officers union. Bostic said they effectively ran the department, threatening other officers with misconduct investigations if they got out of line and running the department’s $450,000 annual budget for overtime to nearly $1.5 million.

“They believed they were untouchable. They still believe it, even since I’ve arrived. They’ve been protected for so long.”

Posted in Education, Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, law enforcement, Obama, prison, Violence Prevention | 16 Comments »

A Ride Home, Fresno’s Restorative Justice, $$ Spent on Misconduct in Biggest Police Departments, and Obama Visits Prison

July 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Carlos Cervantes and Roby So, members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), pick up men newly released former third-strikers from prison to help them through their often overwhelming first day on the outside.

Through their Ride Home Program, Carlos and Roby, who spent 11 and 12 years in prison themselves, often travel hours to meet people exiting prison, to help them acclimate and bring them up-to-date on what they missed while they were locked up.

When men and women come out of lock-up, they are often given just $200 to start over with, and if they don’t have family waiting to meet them, they have to navigate the unfamiliar alone.

NY Times’ Jon Mooallem has a great longread (and documentary video) on Carlos and Roby and their Ride Home program. Here are some clips:

Unlike typical parolees, third-strikers are often notified of their release just before it happens, sometimes only a day in advance. (It can take months for a judge to rule after papers are filed.) They’re usually sent out the door with $200, a not-insubstantial share of which they often pay back to the prison for a lift to the nearest Greyhound station: An inmate might be released from a prison outside Sacramento and expected to find his way to a parole officer in San Diego, 500 miles away, within 48 hours. Stanford’s Three Strikes Project was setting up transitional housing for its clients, but initially, a lot of the third-strikers weren’t making it there — they were just blowing away in the wind. Then, Carlos and Roby started driving around the state and waiting outside to catch them.

The job started as a simple delivery service, to carry some of these discombobulated bodies from one place to another. In late 2013, the director of the Three Strikes Project, Michael Romano, contacted a nonprofit called the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which has built up a close community of formerly incarcerated people in Los Angeles. (Romano, who is also an A.R.C. board member, is a friend of mine.) Romano asked if A.R.C. could dispatch one of its members to pick up third-strikers and drive them to their housing near the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A.R.C. recommended Carlos, a dependable young man just three years out of prison himself, who — most important — also had his own car and a credit card to front money for gas. Carlos was hired, for $12 an hour, to fetch an old man named Terry Critton from a prison in Chino. On the way back, Critton asked if Carlos wouldn’t mind stopping at Amoeba Records, so he could look at jazz LPs — he’d been a big collector. They wound up spending almost two hours in the store, just looking. Then, Critton wanted a patty melt, so Carlos found a place called Flooky’s, where they ordered two and caught the end of a Dodgers game. It was extraordinary: All day, Carlos could see this man coming back to life. He wanted to do more pickups, and he wanted to get his friend Roby involved. He told his bosses he needed a partner.

By now, Carlos and Roby — officially, A.R.C.’s Ride Home Program — have done about three dozen pickups, either together or individually, waking up long before dawn and driving for hours toward prison towns deep in the desert or up the coast. Then they spend all day with the guy (so far they’ve picked up only men), taking him to eat, buying him some clothes, advising him, swapping stories, dialing his family on their cellphones or astonishing him by magically calling up Facebook pictures of nieces and nephews he’s never met — or just sitting quietly, to let him depressurize. The conversation with those shellshocked total strangers doesn’t always flow, Roby told me. It helps to have a wingman.

‘‘The first day is everything,’’ Carlos says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, ‘‘like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,’’ he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, ‘‘How you doin’?’’ and Acosta said, ‘‘Fine,’’ that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.

But what if Acosta had accidentally bumped into a waitress, knocking over her tray and shattering dishes? What if that man had glared at him, instead of greeting him, or snapped at him to get the hell out of the way? Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that even the smallest bungled interactions on the outside leave recently incarcerated people feeling ‘‘like they’re being exposed, like they’re incompetent. It’s feeding into their worst fear, their perception of themselves as an impostor who’s incapable of living a normal life.’’ Carlos and Roby have learned to steer their guys through that perilous newness — and to be nonchalant about it, to make the sudden enormity of life feel unthreatening, even fun. On one ride home earlier this year, I watched a third-striker venture inside a convenience store, alone, to buy a candy bar while Roby pumped gas. The man seemed emboldened after a few hours of freedom, actually hopping a bit as he walked. But then he tripped over the curb and tumbled forward, arms thrashing, nearly face-planting in front of the door. Roby just shrugged and said, ‘‘Well, you’ve got to get that one out of the way.’’

‘‘Been a long time since I looked at a menu,’’ Dale Hammock said. He was sheltered in a corner of a booth at a Denny’s near the prison. The restaurant was overcrowded, loud and full of the kind of hyperdifferentiated nonsense that ordinary Americans swim through every day, never assuming it can or should be fully understood. But Hammock was having trouble sorting the breakfast menu from the lunch menu, and the regular Denny’s menu from the Denny’s Skillets Across America limited-time menu. There were two kinds of hot sauce and four different sweeteners on the table. On the Heinz ketchup bottle, it said: ‘‘Up for a Game? Trivial Pursuit Tomato Ketchup.’’

The first meal after a long prison sentence is an ostensible celebration laced with stress. The food tastes incredible. (Roby gained 60 pounds after his release, desperate to try the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion and other fast-casual delicacies he’d seen commercials for on TV.) But ordering — making any choice — can be unnerving. Waiters are intimidating; waitresses, especially pretty ones, can be petrifying. So at Denny’s, Roby started things off, ordering a chocolate milk. Hammock ordered a chocolate milk, too. Then he reconsidered and said: ‘‘I want a milkshake! I’ll just have that!’’ He ordered a Grand Slam. Then he changed it to a Lumberjack Slam. And when the waiter shot back with ‘‘Toast: white, wheat or sourdough?’’ Hammock went stiff momentarily, then answered: ‘‘Toast, I guess.’’


The Chronicle of Social Change’s Lisa Jenkins looks at efforts in California to steer kids away from the juvenile justice system, with a particular focus on the Keeping Kids in School Project and the Victim Offender Reconciliation program (VORP), an important part of the restorative justice efforts in Fresno schools. Here’s a clip:

The 2013 KKIS conference was the first concrete step in changing the tone of the conversation around truancy. At the core of the 2013 conference was a recognition that students need to be physically in school in order to receive the state’s educational services. Being deprived of these services, as inevitably happens when one is chronically absent, has been tied to other problems; research presenters at the conference utilized statewide data showing a direct link between missing school, suspension from school and ultimately dropping out.

Making this link clear to parents, guardians and other stakeholders is the most important part of the work that KKIS is doing, said Gordon Jackson, director of the coordinated student support division in the California Department of Education, in a phone interview.

“Of course, all across the span of economics or earned income, there is this common thread among parents of wanting good things to happen for their kids,” Jackson said. “There is really a focus on the challenge of catching students early, before they develop truancy patterns, and involving the parents.”

This idea has been taken to heart in Fresno County, where the regional KKIS focus group and other stakeholders are working to improve academic performance of elementary and middle school students in order to prevent their eventual court-system involvement. This means targeting those with complicated home situations, and even creating personalized plans for how students will get to school. There is a particular focus on literacy, as studies have shown that students with strong reading engagement experience less absenteeism.

According to education specialists, one promising solution to this excessive absenteeism (and to numerous other justice questions) is a coordinated system of restorative justice.

Restorative justice programs involve two crucial components: a discussion among those involved with the crime or truancy, and a concrete plan for rectifying the situation. The oldest such program in the state, VORP of the Central Valley, was founded in 1982 by Ron and Roxanne Claasen, but has only relatively recently gained the momentum to become a part of the local juvenile justice vocabulary.

For the Claasens, who also founded the Discipline That Restores program at Fresno Pacific University, these techniques are an important part of getting students to reconnect with their school communities. After involvement with restorative justice techniques, VORP estimates that eight of every ten juvenile offenders successfully move on from crime and return to school. Instituted across school districts, these results are significant; when comparable California communities have instituted district-wide restorative justice policies, they have cut suspensions by up to 60 percent in just five years.


The ten cities with the largest police departments paid out a total of $248.7 million last year in officer misconduct settlements and court judgments. That number is up 48% from 2010′s grand total of $168.3 million. Between those five years the ten cities paid out a combined $1.02 billion. New York City was responsible for a whopping $601.3 million, more than half of that 2010-2014 grand total. In comparison, Los Angeles, while still among the top three cities that spent the most, had a five year total of $57.1 million.

Los Angeles, Baltimore, Phoenix, unlike the other seven cities, experienced a decline in payout amounts between 2010-2014. And in LA, 39% of payout dollars were spent on misconduct cases. In Chicago, misconduct cases accounted for 89% of the total.

The Wall Street Journal’s Zusha Elinson and Dan Frosh have more on the numbers.

Cities are cutting more checks to people who were wrongfully imprisoned years ago because of police misconduct. As more wrongful convictions come to light, jury verdicts have risen, with some now exceeding $2 million a year behind bars.

New York City agreed last year to pay $41 million to five black and Hispanic men imprisoned for the 1989 beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park, then freed after another man confessed and DNA evidence confirmed his story. City lawyers under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had fought a lawsuit brought by the five men, which alleged that detectives coerced confessions from them as teens. Under current Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city agreed to a settlement equal to about $1 million for each year each man spent behind bars.

New York City Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter said the settlement “should not be construed as an acknowledgment that the convictions of these five plaintiffs were the result of law-enforcement misconduct.”

Chicago has been trying to resolve cases stemming from allegations that detectives, led by former commander Jon Burge, tortured black and Hispanic suspects with implements like electric cattle prods, coercing confessions from them and putting them behind bars from the 1970s to early 1990s for crimes they didn’t commit. Those cases have cost the city more than $60 million in payouts. In May, Chicago launched a $5.5 million reparations fund for some of the victims.

A Chicago police spokesman called Mr. Burge’s actions a “disgrace.” Mr. Burge was convicted of federal perjury and obstruction charges in 2010. Mr. Burge, who has been released from prison, declined to comment.

In New York, settlements and judgments in misconduct cases hit $165 million in fiscal 2014, up from $93.8 million in 2010. Both New York and Los Angeles, which paid out $10.7 million on such cases last year, now are tracking claims more closely and trying new approaches to risk management.

New York City’s government-run hospitals were for years the city’s leading source of liability payouts, primarily because of medical-malpractice settlements. But beginning in the 2010 fiscal year, the police department surpassed the city hospitals in total liability payouts.

The trend caught the attention of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who launched a program to track legal claims called ClaimStat. “Instead of accepting rising claims and settlements as the cost of doing business,” Mr. Stringer says, the city can use the data to identify underlying problems and make changes to prevent future suits.

The number of new claims filed against New York City police, including allegations of police misconduct and damage from car crashes, rose 71% between 2004 and 2013, according to the comptroller.

“While the filing of a lawsuit does not prove any misconduct on the part of an officer, the department is aware of the increasing number of actions filed against the NYPD,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the department is “addressing these very real concerns” with the creation of a risk-management bureau and police litigation unit.

The settlement with Mr. Garner’s estate came nearly a year after his confrontation with officers who accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes—a scene captured in a widely viewed video. Mr. Stringer said the settlement “acknowledges the tragic nature of Mr. Garner’s death while balancing my office’s fiscal responsibility to the city.”


On Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. NPR’s Scott Horsley has the story on the president’s visit.

Posted in LAPD, Obama, Reentry, Restorative Justice, School to Prison Pipeline, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 5 Comments »

Private Prison Medicine, Foster Care Benefits for Dual Status Kids, Presidential Pot Pardons, Sheriff Jim McDonnell on WWLA? …and More

July 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


The private medical company, California Forensic Medical Group, is the largest prison health care provider in CA. And, not unlike the largest prison health care company in the nation, Corizon Correctional Health Care, CFMG continues to rake in money despite being mired in scandals and lawsuits alleging mistreatment, neglect, and short-staffing.

CFMG holds medical care contracts for 64 detention facilities in 27 of California’s 58 counties. Most of the counties are rural, like Imperial and Yolo, but CFMG is also responsible for thousands of inmates in counties like San Diego, Ventura, Santa Cruz, and it’s hometown, Monterey.

Around 200 inmates have died in the last decade under CFMG medical care, and more than 80 lawsuits have been filed against the company in the last 15 years, according to an investigation by FairWarning.

FairWarning’s Brian Joseph takes an in depth look at CMFG’s history (which is not unlike many other private prison companies), as well as the stories of inmates who died seemingly preventable deaths while under the care of CFMG. Here are some clips:

The outsourcing of medical care in jails and prisons reflects a nationwide push for privatizing government duties. The private sector, outsourcing advocates say, offers better services at a lower cost. But while other government services have outspoken constituencies, jails and prisons do not. Inmates usually have little clout to demand change if they believe they are receiving poor health care.

“Society doesn’t really care about prisoners,” said Neville Johnson, a Beverly Hills lawyer. Johnson sued CFMG and Yolo County, near Sacramento, over the August 2000 jailhouse suicide of Stephen Achen. A drug addict, Achen warned some jail staffers that he could become self-destructive but promised another that he wouldn’t hurt himself. “As we got into it, we were astonished at what we felt [was] the deliberate indifference of the jail staff and especially CFMG, which is nothing but a money-making machine,” Johnson said. CFMG settled with the Achen family for $825,000 after a judge found evidence of medical understaffing, according to media reports.

The private sector started providing health services to jails and prisons in the 1970s, when negligent medical care became a foremost prisoners’ rights issue. Inmates across the country filed lawsuits alleging inadequate care. Courts ruled that depriving prisoners of competent medical services was unconstitutional and in some cases ordered states and counties to take corrective action. Wardens and sheriffs, lacking backgrounds in medicine, turned to outside contractors for help.


Ryan George, age 22, was serving time for domestic violence in 2007 when he experienced the onset of a sickle cell crisis, a painful, but treatable, condition where blood vessels become clogged by the misshapen cells. For days, Valerie says, Ryan called her from jail in obvious pain, complaining that he was being neglected.

Finally, when he was found “unresponsive” in his bed, Ryan was taken to the hospital, according to court records. But after a couple of days, of treatment, doctors there decided Ryan was exaggerating some of his symptoms and sent him back to jail. Shortly thereafter, Valerie said, a CFMG doctor called her, saying Ryan was getting worse. She says she demanded that the doctor take him to the hospital, but he said “that’s not a possibility.”

The company doctor acknowledged in court papers that he spoke with Valerie George, but disputed her version of what was said. CFMG executives also acknowledged that the company would have incurred more costs if Ryan was sent back to the hospital, but denied that financial concerns had anything to do with his death.

A few days later, Ryan George was found dead in his cell, with dark green fluid oozing from his mouth and eyes, according to the civil complaint. A subsequent Sonoma County Grand Jury investigation found that the “Sheriff’s (department) and CFMG medical staff failed to fully intervene” when Ryan’s condition worsened. “He was not re-hospitalized, despite exhibiting symptoms of jaundice, severe dehydration, bone pain, altered level of consciousness and loss of urinary and bowel control,” the grand jury found. Said Valerie George, whose family settled with CFMG: “They let him die like a dog in a cage because this company would not pay for him to get proper medical treatment.”


“Why wasn’t an ambulance called?” a guard later recalled someone asking when he wheeled a pale Dau into El Centro Regional Medical Center at about 9:30 a.m. on July 23, 2011. A doctor rushed to her side and felt her neck. “She has no pulse!” the doctor yelled, according to a deposition given later by the physician. Hospital staff cut off her jumpsuit and attempted CPR, but it was no use: at 9:56 a.m. Dau was declared dead.

A subsequent autopsy by Imperial County Chief Forensic Pathologist Darryl Garber determined Dau died of heart disease with a contributing factor being acute drug intoxication from the multiple medications she was prescribed. Garber also discovered Dau had a bed sore on her lower back, suggesting that she had been unable to move for some time.

Later, according to the minutes from a meeting about Dau’s death, CFMG and jail staff decided that an ambulance should have been called and that Dau was “probably” going through Valium withdrawal.


A CA bill to give foster kids involved in the juvenile justice system (often called “dual status” or “crossover” youth) extended foster care benefits was approved unanimously by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

SB 12, authored by Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), would close a loophole in existing law, and ensure kids who turn 18 while in juvenile detention receive extended benefits like their non-justice-system-involved peers.

Sawsan Morrar has more on the bill and its progress for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

DeAngelo Cortijo, an intern at the National Center for Youth Law, spoke at Tuesday’s hearing about his firsthand experience as a crossover youth. Cortijo was removed from his home when he was two after his mother attempted suicide. He was placed with family members, and at one point returned to his mother, before he was sent to foster care amid reports of abuse. Since then, he was in over four detention facilities, and ran away from group home placements several times.

“When I was released, I faced many challenges,” Cortijo said. “I now have to fend for myself as an adult. I had to find stable and clean housing. I didn’t have an income to support myself.”

Cortijo was left depending on others for the most basic needs like purchasing a toothbrush or borrowing socks.

“Do you know what that does to a person’s confidence? It completely destroys it,” he said.

With extended benefits in place, Cortijo would have received about $800 a month, just like other transition-age foster youth, to help pay for food, housing and school.

Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, said these probation youth in transition are exactly who extended foster care aims to support.

“We know that the rates of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration for young people who cross from dependency to delinquency are double to triple the rates for youth who are just in dependency or delinquency,” she said.

According to the Youth Law Center there are approximately 4,000 probation-supervised foster youth in California. There are over 50,000 foster youth in the state.


On Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, bringing the total number of approved commutation petitions up to 89. While this is a good step in the right direction, there are 95,265 federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.

The Atlantic’s Zach Hindin makes the case for presidential pardons for all marijuana offenders in federal prison. Former President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences and pardoned 189 during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton commuted 61 sentences and pardoned 396. Our current president has granted just 64 pardons, thus far. (If you are fuzzy on the difference between the two, a pardon wipes a person’s criminal record and restores rights, a commutation shortens a person’s sentence, but does not offer a clean slate.) Obama’s latest move seems far less historically meaningful when compared to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thousands of post-prohibition acts of clemency for alcohol offenses, says Hindin.

Here’s a clip:

…Compared with the last few administrations, commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders may seem historic. But history sets the bar higher still.

In May 1919, Woodrow Wilson was in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. It’s hard to think of a moment when any president had a better reason to shelve domestic affairs, but on Monday, May 12, Wilson telegraphed his secretary in Washington: “Please ask the Attorney General to advise me what action I can take with regard to removing the ban from the manufacture of drink.” A week later Wilson sent another cable, this time to Congress: “It seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers.”

Congress declined, and instead introduced a bill to shore up the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Volstead Act. Wilson vetoed the Act. Congress overrode his veto. With no legislative recourse, Wilson chipped away at Prohibition using the executive power that Congress could not check: his pardon. By the end of his second term, alcohol offenders accounted for more than one-fifth of Wilson’s clemency recipients.

Unlike Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been ambivalent about Prohibition. During his time in the New York State Senate, the powerful Anti-Saloon League had praised Roosevelt’s “perfect voting record.” Even after the repeal of Prohibition became central to his presidential platform, according to one biographer, “the story persisted that whatever Roosevelt might say, there was a voting record to prove he was ‘dry’ at heart.” But when Prohibition was repealed by popular demand in 1933, FDR went on a pardoning spree that outclassed his predecessors, approving alcohol offenders who had been previously rejected or otherwise hadn’t even applied.

Wilson used his pardon to protest an impossible law. Roosevelt used his to acknowledge the change in social norms.

The time when most Americans condoned alcohol consumption despite Prohibition rhymes with our own, when 53 percent of the country supports the legalization of marijuana, and pot laws have been curtailed in 23 states and the nation’s capital. And just as Prohibition offered a legal apparatus for racism, today, the racial imbalances in marijuana arrests and sentencing are so stark that many in this country consider them a proxy for racial control. In 49 states, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana—in the worst offending counties, by a factor of eight. The limit of this analogy is scale—together, Wilson and Roosevelt issued some 2,000 alcohol-related acts of clemency. In 2012 alone, almost 7,000 people were convicted in federal courts for marijuana offenses, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than for any other type of drug.


After 10 jail employees were relieved of duty this past weekend in connection with alleged jail abuse, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell appeared on KCRW’s Which Way, LA? with Warren Olney to discuss jail abuse, transparency, mental illness, and his hopes for the facility that will replace the crumbling Men’s Central Jail.

Take a listen.

In another segment, investigative reporter Jeffrey Sharlet talks about his in-depth GQ story about the March LAPD shooting of Charly Keunang, an unarmed homeless man in Skid Row, and the unreleased officer body cam videos he was able to watch of the incident.


In 2013, three Gardena police officers fatally shot Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, an unarmed man they mistook for a robbery suspect. According to officers involved, Diaz Zeferino appeared to be reaching for a weapon. The city settled the resulting lawsuit to the tune of $4.7 million, but refused to release videos of the shooting, because of privacy concerns.

On Tuesday, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city of Gardena to release the videos. And at a press conference on Wednesday, an attorney representing Diaz Zeferino’s family called for a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting.

Here’s a clip from the KPCC update:

Mercardo said the videos allow the public to see for themselves what took place shortly after police stopped Diaz Zeferino and two others suspected of stealing a bike.

“The public can be the judge of what really happened that night,” she said, adding the family had been searching for justice, not money.

Diaz Zeferino’s brother, Augustine Reynoso, holding aloft a picture of the two of them embracing, said he wanted to bring the Gardena police department to account for the death of his brother.

“Money is not what’s important in life. Life is what’s important in life,” he said through Mercado, who translated his comments. “I want justice to be done. I want the Gardena Police Department to be investigated more deeply. That’s why I’m here.”

Posted in Crossover Youth, DCFS, Foster Care, jail, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LAPD, LASD, Marijuana laws, medical care, Mental Illness, Obama, Sentencing, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Judge Forces Gardena to Release 2013 Video of City’s Cops Shooting Unarmed Man…& More

July 15th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city of Gardena to release two disturbing videos of Gardena police officers shooting an unarmed man named Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, whose brother’s bicycle had been stolen, causing someone to call the police. As they waited for police to come, Diaz Zeferino and two friends went out to look for the bike but ran into the police instead, who assumed that the three were the bike thieves. The encounter ended with a volley of gunfire that killed Diaz Zeferino and badly injured one of his friends.

The tragedy may have been in part set in motion when the police dispatcher wrongly described the called-in theft as a robbery, suggesting that it involved force.

The June 2, 2013 encounter between the three men and the police was captured by two patrol car-mounted video cameras.

City officials and the Gardena police department have been battling for two years to keep the videos from public view, even though the city had already settled with Diaz Zeferino’s family and others for $4.7 million.

In making his ruling, Judge Wilson was responding to a collective request from the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Bloomberg, which challenged a blanket protective order by 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, that had prohibited the release of the videos and other evidence in the court case.

LA Times reporters Richard Winton and Joel Rueben have more details.

Here’s a clip:

In unsealing the videos, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said the public had an interest in seeing the recordings, especially after the city settled a lawsuit over the shooting for $4.7 million. Wilson rejected last ditch efforts by Gardena attorneys, who argued the city had paid the settlement money in the belief that the videos would remain under seal.

The “defendants’ argument backfires here — the fact that they spent the city’s money, presumably derived from taxes, only strengthens the public’s interest in seeing the videos,” Wilson wrote. “Moreover, while the videos are potentially upsetting and disturbing because of the events they depict, they are not overly gory or graphic in a way that would make them a vehicle for improper purposes.”


Wilson’s decision comes as law enforcement agencies nationwide increasingly have embraced the use of cameras worn by officers and placed in patrol cars to record police interactions with civilians. But few agencies have made their videos public, spurring a debate over the need to balance the privacy of those captured on the recordings and transparency in policing.


On Tuesday, President Barak Obama gave what turned out to be a serious policy speech when he addressed the annual conference of the NAACP in Philadelphia. The speech, which was also broadcast, had criminal justice reform advocates madly tweeting to each other: “Is anybody watching this?!!”

And, Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, (the book on which the series is based) giddily retweeted nearly all of the post speech tweets of @POTUS.

The enthusiasm was for good reason.

Among the topics @POTUS tackled was the controversy over solitary confinement-—but there was lots more.

The BBC has more. Here’s a clip:

President Barack Obama has called for sweeping reforms to the US criminal justice system including curbing the use of solitary confinement and voting rights for felons.

He said lengthy mandatory minimum sentences should be reduced - or thrown out entirely.

“Mass incarceration makes our entire country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” he said.
Mr Obama urged Congress to pass a sentencing reform bill by year’s end.

On Thursday, Mr Obama will be the first sitting president to visit a federal prison - part of week long focus by the White House on the criminal justice system.

Speaking to a gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Philadelphia, Mr Obama discussed investments in education, alternatives to trials and prison job training programs.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been tasked with reviewing the overuse of solitary confinement, Mr Obama said.

“Do we think it makes sense to lock people up in tiny cells for 23 hours a day? It won’t make us safer and stronger.”

The country should not be tolerating overcrowding in prisons, gang activity or rape, which Mr Obama called “unacceptable”.


Robby Soave writing for the Daily Beast argues that “when the feelings of students are prized above all else,” talented teachers like Rafe Esquith “looking to inject a little personality into the classroom are the first to suffer.”

Here’s a clip about Esquith’s case, but read on for other examples:

Teachers with unusual, engaging methods are often mistreated by the education system—even, like Buchanan, when they win awards. Rafe Esquith, an elementary school teacher at Hobart Boulevard in Los Angeles who won numerous teaching distinctions and was dubbed the world’s most famous teacher by The Washington Post, earned a suspension this year for a familiar reason: he told a joke.

Whereas Buchanan said some mildly provocative things to a bunch of full-grown adults, Esquith made a completely inoffensive remark to a bunch of children. He runs his own nonprofit, puts on productions of Shakespeare plays, and takes his low-income LA students on educational field trips—relying on private donations to fund his activities. In March, Esquith joked with his students that unless he was able to raise more money, they would have to perform the play naked. He made this remark after reading a relevant passage from Huckleberry Finn that concerns a king “prancing out on all fours, naked.”

The joke was essentially harmless. But another teacher overheard it, divined some sinister intention, and reported it to school authorities. Esquith had to cancel his production and sit in a rubber room while administrators interrogated his students about his behavior. A California credentialing committee ruled that Esquith did nothing wrong, but the district still hasn’t let him return to teaching.

Last month, Esquith’s attorneys announced that they were filing a class action suit in behalf of “thousands of well-respected teachers deprived of their rights by the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

Posted in Education, law enforcement, Obama, solitary | 23 Comments »

President Obama – Pardons and Prisons….Feds Return Control of CA Prison Health Care at Folsom…Helping Out-of-County Foster Kids Retain Mental Health Care….and Solitary Confinement

July 14th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Monday, President Barack Obama, who has previously faced criticism for seldom granting clemency, announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders. This brings President Obama’s total number of approved clemency petitions up to 89. To put this in perspective, former President George W. Bush only commuted 11 sentences during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton granted clemency to 61 offenders. There are still nearly 8,000 pending clemency petitions.

In a letter, Obama tells those given a second chance, “…it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change…but remember you have the capacity to make good choices.”

Neil Eggleston, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, has more on Obama’s new push for criminal justice reform. Here’s a clip:

…federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison. Now, don’t get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities. But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today…

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules.

Obama will also become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he tours the El Reno prison in Oklahoma next week as part of a VICE special documentary for HBO on mass incarceration. The president, along with VICE founder Shane Smith, will tour the grounds and speak with prison staff, prisoners, and law enforcement officials. Here’s a clip from VICE’s announcement:

Located in central Oklahoma, El Reno is a medium-security facility that houses 1,300 inmates convicted of violating federal law. It was home to Jason Hernandez, a prisoner convicted on drug charges who had his life sentence commuted by Obama in 2013.

The interviews will be part of a documentary looking at the pervasive impacts of America’s approach to crime and imprisonment. The special is the latest in VICE’s ongoing coverage of what has become a major civil rights and reform agenda in the United States.

“There’s an emerging consensus in this country — on both the right and the left — that the way we treat criminal offenders is utterly broken and weakening our society in profound ways,” Smith said. “Visiting El Reno with President Obama — the first-ever visit to a federal prison by a sitting president — will give our viewers a firsthand look into how the president is thinking about this problem, from the policy level down to one on one conversations with the men and women living this reality. It’s going to be fascinating.”

The President says he will also be discussing bipartisan-backed ideas for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia on Thursday. Stay tuned.


After nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system, the state will regain control in Folsom State Prison—the first from the federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso. Folsom is the first prison to be returned to state control.

Kelso says much progress has been made in Folsom and in other prisons, but U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson says federal oversight will only end after the state has had control of health care in all of its prisons for a full year.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“We’re pleased and ready to start taking back control of medical care,” corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement. “We know that other CDCR prisons are ready to step up in the months ahead and we will continue collaborating with the Receiver’s Office to ensure inmates at all of our facilities receive appropriate health care.”

Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office that represents inmates in the lawsuit, said it’s good that care has improved at Folsom, but attorneys will continue monitoring.

“One of the things I’m most concerned about is whether the state has reformed its processes so that all the improvements that the receiver has made over the last 10 or so years are sustained,” Specter said.

Kelso reported in March that conditions statewide have substantially improved, though some prisons are doing better than others and more work remains to be done statewide.

Under the judge’s rules, Kelso could retake control of a transferred prison if conditions decline, but the goal is for the receiver to eventually monitor rather than run the health care system.


When foster kids are transferred out of their home counties, they face months-long interruptions in much-needed mental health services. The problem is that, under current law, instead of following the kids, the responsibility (and funding) to provide mental health treatment remains with their home county.

A California bill, which would ensure foster kids transferred outside of their home counties receive continued mental health services in their new counties, will be heard California Senate Health Services Committee today (Tuesday), after passing out of the Assembly.

The bill, authored by CA Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D), aims to fix a serious lack of collaboration between departments serving foster kids between counties.

In LA County, 17% of foster kids are in out-of-county and out-of-state placements, in comparison to Alameda and San Francisco—59% and 60% respectively.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback has more on the bill. Here’s a clip:

AB 1299, which was introduced by State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D), would require the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) to create clear policies to guide the transfer of responsibility for mental health services to a child’s county of residence. The bill would also compel the Department of Finance to establish a system to ensure that counties are fully reimbursed for providing mental health services, during the fiscal year when the services are delivered, by May of 2016.

All California foster youth are eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s public health insurance program. But under current law, when a foster youth moves to a different county, responsibility for providing mental health services—and any related funding—remains with the county of origin and its network of service providers

As a result, nearly 12,000 out-of-county foster youth—or about one in five of all youth in the state’s child welfare system—are routinely left in limbo, waiting for mental health services that often take months to begin.

A 2011 report from the state’s Child Welfare Council, which is responsible for improving collaboration among child-serving agencies, revealed disparities between children in and out of county who were receiving mental health services. An examination of the data for all 58 counties in California showed that out-of-county youth received fewer average days of mental health outpatient or day services when compared to children with in-county placements (2.3 days versus 2.9).

“Part of the issue is that the counties have been in control of the money up until this point, and the money has not been flowing as it needs to when these kids are moving from one county to another,” said Khaim Morton, chief of staff for Ridley-Thomas. “We want to get to the point where we can collaborate and reach a compromise that will enable more of the money to reach these kids and more swiftly.”

California may once again find itself back in court as part of a class-action lawsuit if there isn’t an agreement soon, according to mental health advocate Patrick Gardner, founder of Young Minds Advocacy Project.

“If there isn’t a solution by the end of the year, either through negotiations under the auspices of the Child Welfare Council or through the work being done in the legislature, a judge is going to have to step in to fix this, because letting this continue is completely unacceptable,” said Gardner.


In 2011, California prisoners went on the first of three major hunger strikes over prison conditions and excessive and punitive use of solitary confinement.

Real efforts toward curbing solitary in state prisons began in late 2012. Prison officials reviewed the cases of prisoners in solitary, and released a modest number of long-isolated inmates back into the general population.

But the process has been slow and hard-fought.

In June, six San Quentin death row inmates held in “extreme isolation” filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard and San Quentin Prison Warden Ronald Davis alleging cruel and unusual punishment.

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has more on California’s efforts toward limiting the use of solitary confinement. Here’s how it opens:

Even as it prepares for a courtroom showdown over the use of prolonged solitary confinement to keep order in its prisons, California has adopted emergency rules to dial down such isolation.

Inmates may no longer be put in isolation for refusing a cell assignment, for example, one of several prison infractions for which solitary confinement punishment has been reduced or dropped. And those being disciplined with segregation can cut that punishment in half with good behavior.

“This is part of an ongoing evolution in how we manage inmates in segregation,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the corrections department. “There will be more changes.”

The new rules went into effect last month, ahead of public hearings scheduled for August. They come atop other changes that have cut the count of California prisoners held in near-constant lockdown from more than 9,800 in early 2014 to just under 8,700 last month.

The revisions also have been made amid an escalating debate over solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, of which California has the largest share.

Advocates for inmates are preparing to release research by a prominent corrections psychiatrist describing a malady he calls “SHU Post-Release Syndrome,” a reference to the Security Housing Unit, California’s name for long-term solitary confinement.

The study documents some of the same psychiatric effects raised last month by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in an unusual opinion in a California death penalty case. He essentially invited a constitutional challenge to long-term isolation and the “terrible price” it extracts.

Posted in CDCR, DCFS, Foster Care, mental health, Obama, prison, Sentencing, solitary, The Feds | No Comments »

Incompetent to Stand Trial and Warehoused in Jails, SFPD Chief Blasts SF DA’s Task Force, 22 Pardons, and P22

April 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Porterville Developmental Center is California’s only hospital that admits developmentally disabled criminal defendants. Because Porterville has a lengthy waiting list, there are around fifty inmates declared incompetent to stand trial waiting more than two years, on average, in jails across the state for space to free up at the hospital.

The number is even higher for mentally ill defendants declared incompetent. There are more than 300 waiting for beds at the five state hospitals that can accept them.

When defendants are deemed unfit to stand trial, they are supposed to be sent to a mental hospital for treatment until they can understand the charges against them.

But it’s not as easy as just spending money to create more hospital beds. Counties, including LA, are waiting to see if Prop 47 (the reduction of many low-level property and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors) will help alleviate the problem. But the state is leaning on counties to implement jail treatment programs for the mentally ill inmates awaiting transfer.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

In January 2014, Edward Lamont Mason allegedly attacked and injured a woman with a baseball bat.

He was arrested and has been in jail ever since, even though a judge ruled he was unfit to stand trial.

Mason, it turns out, is developmentally disabled. The victim of the alleged assault was his caretaker. And while the judge ordered him sent to Porterville Developmental Center — the only state hospital set up to house and treat developmentally disabled criminal defendants — there is no room.

So while the case against the Hayward, Calif., resident has been temporarily suspended, he remains an inmate in Alameda County’s Santa Rita jail, not receiving the treatment that would allow his case to move forward.

Mason’s lawyer, assistant public defender Brian Bloom, said if his 37-year-old client had been convicted and sentenced, he probably would have served less time than he has now spent waiting for a hospital bed.

“He’s confined in jail for no other reason than he’s developmentally disabled, which is really quite horrific when you think about it,” Bloom said.

State officials say there is nothing they can do about it…

Both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have set up small programs to treat mentally ill defendants in jail. Los Angeles, already under fire for poor treatment of mentally ill inmates, is looking into doing the same, but there is no easy solution to the problem.

The program would have some financial advantages, as the state would pay to house and treat the inmates in the county jail. Currently, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department receives no reimbursement for housing inmates awaiting transfer to state hospitals.

Some advocates, attorneys and treatment providers are adamantly opposed to the proposal.

“I think it’s a foolhardy idea,” said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who specializes in jails. Mentally ill jail inmates spend most of their time in a cell and, in some cases, in isolation, which can exacerbate their symptoms, he said.

“Of course it’s possible to do quality treatment in the jails,” Kupers said. “I’ve just never seen it happen.”


On Monday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced a new task force would look into some troubling misconduct allegations within the SF Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department, and the DNA crime lab. (More on that here.)

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr criticized the DA’s move as good press for an election year, and said Gascon was overstepping boundaries by launching the task force.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Vivian Ho has the story. Here’s a clip:

The chief said police were already cooperating with the district attorney’s office in both the DNA and text-messaging cases, but that Gascón “has no role in supervising or overseeing either the Sheriff’s Department or the Police Department.”

“But then again it’s an election year, and task forces generate press conferences,” Suhr said.

Suhr also said the crime-lab supervisor who was put on leave after failing a DNA proficiency exam, Cherisse Boland, was also a supervisor while Gascón was police chief. A defense attorney complained about her during Gascón’s tenure, Suhr said, but she remained on staff.

“It’s important that we have a hand-in-glove relationship to make the best cases, and I don’t think that’s in jeopardy,” Suhr said of Gascón’s office. “But I’m the chief of police. I’m responsible to and accountable for anybody and anything that goes on in my department, just as he should be as the district attorney and Sheriff Mirkarimi should be as the sheriff. As our systems connect, I think we need to be respectful of everybody’s charge.”

The investigation into the text messages should be done by the end of the week, Suhr said, and the crime lab investigation should take four to six weeks.

[Sheriff Ross] Mirkarimi said he supports a third party looking into the allegations against his department, but he thinks the district attorney is too connected to the two departments and would not be able to clearly evaluate the cases.

“A task force could be a good idea, but the district attorney’s office is entwined with many of the systemic issues that implicate the police and sheriff’s departments,” he said. “Rather, a true independent task force would not be burdened by potential conflicts. In our case, this is why I initiated a request to the U.S. attorney and attorney general.”


On Tuesday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 22 non-violent drug offenders.

All of those pardoned have spent more than ten years behind bars, and the majority would have received shorter sentences if they had been sentenced under current drug laws.

Obama has faced criticism from activists in past years for granting so few people clemency. These 22 new recipients make up the largest group Obama has pardoned thus far, bring the president’s total up to 43. To put this in perspective, former President George W. Bush only commuted 11 sentences during his 8 years in office.

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Sari Horwitz have the story. Here’s a clip:

The 22 inmates whose sentences were commuted Tuesday were nonviolent offenders serving time for the possession, sale and distribution of substances including methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine. One, Terry Andre Barnes of East Moline, Ill., was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and sentenced in July 2005 to 246 months in prison, a term that would have kept him behind bars until 2025.

Obama wrote a letter to each of the inmates — all but one of whom, including Barnes, will be released July 28 — urging them to use the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity,” Obama wrote. “It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. . . . But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices.”

“I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong,” the president concluded, “So good luck, and Godspeed.”


National Geographic photographer Steve Winter tells LA Magazine’s Marielle Wakim about how he captured rare photos of P22, LA’s most famous cougar, over the course of fifteen months with cameras hidden around Griffith Park.

Here are some clips (but definitely go over to the LA Mag interview for the photos):

You have built a career on photographing much larger, scarier cats for National Geographic—although personally, I find mountain lions scary. How was the challenge of shooting in Griffith Park different from shooting in wilder areas?

All my work in the middle of nowhere helped when thinking about the fact that I needed to get an image of a cougar in an urban setting. I first started in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and that didn’t pan out. I went to a mountain lion meeting in Bozeman, Montana, where I met L.A. wildlife biologist Jeff Sikich. I told him, ‘Jeff, I really need to get this picture, do any of the cats in the Santa Monica Mountains walk into suburban or urban areas?’ because I had heard there used to be a cat that would walk onto Cher’s property. But Jeff said no, that they’re smart cats—they’ll go into urban areas at night, but if they don’t see any prey, they’ll turn around and come back.

After he said this, I had said to him jokingly—but never really jokingly— wouldn’t it be great to get a picture of a mountain lion with the Hollywood sign? He later told me he thought I was crazy, but he was being polite, so he said, “Well it would, except that there are no cougars or mountain lions in Griffith Park.” I told him to let me know if something changed. Eight months later, I was in the dentist’s chair, and my phone vibrates: it’s a text from Jeff saying ‘Call me now.’ He said that there was a bobcat study being done with remote cameras in Griffith Park. There’s a hill with a cross on it on the other side of the 101, and there was a remote camera right by that cross—the beginning of Griffith Park. And boom: they got a picture of a mountain lion. That’s how it all started.

What was your ultimate goal with this shot?

I was visualizing two things: Getting a picture of a cougar with L.A. in the background, and [having the image] speak to everyone around the world. City lights say ‘city lights,’ but they don’t say ‘L.A.’—everyone recognizes the Hollywood sign. Those were my goals, and we got both of them, but it took forever to figure out. It took me 15 months to get that picture and to figure out what trail that cat walks on. Nobody had seen the P22, so figuring out where to put these cameras was hard. Griffith Park is not that big, and there aren’t that many trails. There are even fewer where you can see the Hollywood sign or where you can see L.A., especially from the height of a cat. So figuring out a place to put the cameras in Griffith Park where I could get the shot and where the cameras wouldn’t get stolen was a big issue.

Posted in District Attorney, jail, Mental Illness, Obama | No Comments »

Women and Reentry, Obama Supports Smarter Sentencing Act, Former 3rd-Strikers Stay Out of Prison…and More

February 27th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


in a story for Cosmopolitan, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky takes a look at how critical reentry programs are to combatting the nation’s sky-high recidivism rates, with a particular focus on women.

If they are lucky, when women are released from prison (and jail), they will be connected with services and programs to help them successfully reenter their communities. And while reentry and rehabilitation offerings are growing, the majority of women leaving prison still don’t receive the help they need to make it on the outside. More than half of women return to prison within five years.

In South LA, one sober-living transitional housing program,a New Way of Life (ANWOL), has an 80% success rate, and has helped more than 750 women reintegrate, go back to school, find jobs, stay sober, and navigate the piles of treatments and classes and meetings with their probation and parole officers.

ANWOL’s founder, Susan Burton, has a personal knowledge of prison’s revolving door, having cycled in and out of lock-up herself for 15 years.

Here are some clips from Friedman-Rudovsky’s story:

Tiffany Johnson felt excited, scared, and a little incredulous on the day she was released from Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world. She’d done 16 years of her life sentence, which she got for killing her mother’s boyfriend — the man she says raped her every day from age 5 to age 10. As Tiffany exited the prison gates, two thoughts ran through her mind: “I can’t believe this is happening” and “It’s a trick.”

A few hours later, the mixed emotions distilled into fear. “I tried to take a shower,” recalled Tiffany of that April 2010 night. She turned on the water, but it came out from the tub faucet below and she couldn’t figure out how to get it to flow from above. “I cried and cried,” she said. “I felt like if this is a problem, just turning on a shower, what else am I going to run into? What other struggles am I going to have?”

The list began with the mundane, like learning to use a cell phone and getting used to closing a door herself to be alone in a room. Then there were real challenges. As a felon, she was banned from most low-income housing, and finding a job seemed near impossible. In prison she had become an expert electrician, supervising and training the other women in her penitentiary’s electrical sector. Yet every time she applied for a job, she had to check a box admitting her criminal history and never even got interviews. She finally contacted the electronic company her prison subcontractor supplied, figuring they’d give her a chance. “They didn’t,” Tiffany, now 46, said, rolling her eyes. “I served my time and I was out. But it didn’t matter. It’s like I was still serving a life sentence.”


“Effective reentry programs are the exception to the rule in terms of women’s transitions back into society,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based criminal justice research and advocacy organization. Hundreds of these programs have sprouted up over the years, but the supply is not nearly enough to deal with the demand, and few prison systems have adequate prerelease programs that inform women about their options. Though prisoners’ rights advocates hold prerelease seminars when they can, often inmates are left to find out about these services through word of mouth or chance. Tiffany learned about ANWOL from an offhand comment by a member of her parole board.

Though no one keeps track of the exact number of people released into reentry programs in the U.S., experts say the vast majority of newly released people land on their own and on the street. Women face all the challenges men do, plus added pitfalls, including limited job options, specialized housing needs, and social stigma. “Compared to 20 years ago, we have a greater understanding and concern about the situation for women,” Mauer said. But, he added, there’s a long way to go.


Most parole and probation arrangements demand regular compliance checks, drug tests, limited contact with possible co-conspirators, restrictions on travel, group meetings, and frequent in-person reporting, on top of finding a job and place to live. “Who knows where she slept last night and you’re asking her to do all this?” said Evelyn Ayala, ANWOL’s case manager supervisor. “Disaster waiting to happen.”

Release practices are just part of the problem, Mauer of the Sentencing Project said. “Almost all our correctional systems say they are committed to reentry,” he said, “but the scale of what they do in practice is often pretty modest.” The trouble, he explained, is twofold: not enough programming to prepare women (or men) before they are released and the availability of services once they get out.

“When you get listed on parole, they are supposed to tell you everything that is available to you,” Tiffany said. “They don’t tell you all that. They just inform you that you have the right to get assistance from the parole agent.”


President Barack Obama says he wants the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act to pass. (If you’re unfamiliar, the proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, would cut certain mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses in half.)

Obama expressed his support of the bill at a meeting with members of Congress to discuss ways to fix the nation’s broken criminal justice system.

USA Today’s Gregory Korte has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that “it certainly appears” that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president’s aims to “make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources.”

Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner.

“Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time,” Obama said. “Let’s keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all.”

Labrador said that’s an important point for Obama to make. “The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true,” he said. “The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime.”


“There’s a profound zeitgeist. There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” Booker said. “Well, this idea is coming and that power I think is gonna push something good through Congress.”


Since the 2012 passage of Prop 36 (the Three Strikes Reform Act), more than 2000 inmates serving life-sentences for low-level “third-strike” offenses have been resentenced and released in California.

An average of 18 months after being freed, only 4.7% of former third-strikers are locked up again for new crimes, compared with the rest of California’s prison population, which has a recidivism rate of about 45% a year and a half after release. And when third-strikers return to lock-up, it is most often for a drug or burglary offenses.

Erik Eckholm, in today’s front-page NY Times story has more on the former lifers and why they are triumphing over the statistics. Here’s how it opens:

William Taylor III, once a lifer in state prison for two robbery convictions and the intent to sell a small packet of heroin, was savoring a moment he had scarcely dared to imagine: his first day alone, in a place of his own.

“I love the apartment,” he said of the subsidized downtown studio, which could barely contain the double bed he insisted on having. “And I love that I’m free after 18 years of being controlled.”

“My window has blinds, and I can open and close them!” he exclaimed to visitors the other day, reveling in an unaccustomed, and sometimes scary, sense of autonomy.

Mr. Taylor, 58, is one of more than 2,000 former inmates who were serving life terms under California’s three-strikes law, but who were freed early after voters scaled it back in 2012. Under the original law, repeat offenders received life sentences, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, even if the third felony was as minor as shoplifting.

Formerly branded career criminals, those released over the last two years have returned to crime at a remarkably low rate — partly because they aged in prison, experts say, and participation in crime declines steadily after age 25, but also because of the intense practical aid and counseling many have received. And California’s experience with the release of these inmates provides one way forward as the country considers how to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.

“I hope the enduring lesson is that all of these people are not hopeless recidivists,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which provides legal aid to prisoners and training to public defenders.


In Washington DC, a non-profit jail book club, Free Minds, uses poetry as an emotional and creative outlet for teens behind bars, and provides them with a support system of reentry services and fellow alumni to keep each other on track and motivated (and to eat pancakes and share poetry with) once they are released. We’ve covered the healing power of poetry before: here, and here.)

The Washington Post’s Robert Samuels has more on the program, and the teens and young men who benefit from it. Here’s a clip:

…they stick together. The support system that strengthened them then is the one they are counting on to help them now that they’re out. The unlikely community has become an unlikely lifeline, as they try to defy the patterns that send ex-offenders back to jail.

They fall into a high-risk category: Juveniles tried as adults are 34 percent more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison, according to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The alumni of the book club have no interest in becoming part of this statistic. So they work together to create goals. They applaud when someone meets his goal, such as when Barksdale got a job working full time as a city maintenance worker. They share job leads and work out together and meet up for pancakes.

They particularly like to lead writing workshops, which is why they are at this English class on a January day.

Barksdale recites a poem he wrote in his sixth year of prison, at 22:

“The things we took up are guns, knives and bats, yeah, we be armed and strong

But how do you know it’s not right if you’re being taught wrong?”

Read more poetry from the young men of Free Minds, here. And go over to the Washington Post to watch participants share their poetry.


The Los Angeles Unified School district is seeking to re-establish community arts education partnerships (once spurned) to bring art back into classrooms. The school district is also developing a formula to allocate arts funds more appropriately to schools and that need it most.

KPCC’s Mary Plummer has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Pullens lauded the district’s recent announcement clearing the way for arts funding for low-income students, and pointed to new allocations this year that helped some of the district’s schools purchase items like art supplies.

He also said the district is working on a school survey to create an arts equity index that will change the way the district allocates arts funds. The index would measure how well schools are providing arts instruction and arts access to students. Originally planned for release last year, the index is now expected next month.

But Pullens also painted a grim picture of the district’s current arts offerings. He said about a third of the district’s middle schools currently offer little or no exposure to the arts. Some of the district’s students can go through both elementary and middle school without taking a single arts class, he said. Because of gaps in arts instruction, students who start learning an instrument in elementary school, for example, might not have classes to continue music study in their middle or high schools.

Posted in Homelessness, LAUSD, Obama, prison, Reentry | No Comments »

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