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parole policy

Who Will Supervise LA’s Newly Aquired Parolees? Probation? Or the Sheriff? UPDATED

July 12th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday, July 12, the LA County Board of Supervisors
will prepare to decide who will supervise the approximately 13,000 parolees yearly who will now be LA County’s responsibility starting on October 1.

In the past all parolees—felons coming out of prison— have been supervised by the state. But, as part of the strategy to balance California’s budget, while also reducing the number of inmates who cycle in and out of the state’s benighted and overcrowded prisons by better helping them reenter our communities, all state parolees who are the so-called non-non-nons—non-violent offenders, non-sex offenders, non-serious offenders—will be supervised by California’s 58 counties.

In Los Angeles, the matter of who exactly will do the supervising is an open question. In 57 out of California’s 58 counties, the answer is simple: that job will fall to the logical agency already equipped to supervise and help rehabilitate lawbreakers—namely each county’s probation department.

However, in LA—which incidentally has by far the largest number of these “realigned” parolees—there are two agencies bidding for the job, and for the pile of funds that goes along with it.

Those agencies are LA County Probation, headed by Donald Blevins—and the LA County Sheriff’s Department, with Sheriff Lee Baca doing everything he can to get the nod.


Right now the Sups are reportedly leaning toward handing the responsibility to Lee Baca and the LASD. If the Sups go Baca’s direction, they will be agreeing to a system that exists no where else in the U.S.. (The folks who arrest parolees for stepping outside the law are generally not also the one’s who help advise, oversee and rehabilitate them. It’s—how to put it?—a very weird conflict of interest.)

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina are reportedly voting for Baca’s plan (with Ridley-Thomas wishing to give the Sheriff a tryout period, not an indefinite commitment). Mike Antonovich is the only one of the Sups who is thought to be leaning toward giving the responsibility and the money to Probation and Blevins. Don Knabe is thought to be in the Sheriff’s column. Zev Yaroslavsky was leaning toward the Sheriff, but may be wobbling still has yet to decide. [<---NOTE: My initial info had Zev somewhat in the Sheriff's column, but looks like I had it wrong. His vote is reportedly still in play.]

Interestingly, although the majority of the Supervisors are considered likely to vote in favor of the Sheriff, the majority of the Sups most knowledgeable deputies are reportedly pushing for Probation to be given the 13,000 parolees to oversee.

This latter fact is very telling.


I realize for many of you, this entire decision sounds like a colossal yawn. But bear with me.

As I mentioned above, part of the idea for the statewide switchover, is that local agencies can do the supervision for less money than the state can. But even more importantly, the locals can do it more effectively—which is crucial. A huge portion of the state’s unmanageable and intolerably expensive prison population is made up of repeat visitors. The majority of those who return to our locked hotels, do so not for new crimes, but for technical violations of their parole.

Since the state’s parole agencies have, for a variety of reasons, done a consistently hideous job of helping parolees get back on their respective feet—as our ghastly recidivism numbers reflect—the fact that a new agency in California’s largest county will have an opportunity to rethink parole policy using the best practices from other states who are doing a better job that we are….well, it’s a genuinely significant opportunity.

And we’re in danger of blowing it.


The most hellish part of the decision the Sups must make, is that both Probation and the Sheriff’s Department are agencies with humungous problems. So there is no really great choice.

Probation is still frighteningly inept at reforming its deeply troubled juvenile probation facilities, places that in too many cases are actively doing harm to kids. Yet, Probation’s adult services, while far from perfect, are generally reasonably functional. Plus they are the services most directly analogous to those required in overseeing parolees.

As for the Sheriff’s Department, despite Lee Baca’s popularity and his genuine belief in rehabilitation, his jails are such a mess they have attracted a brand new federal investigation. (Problems at the LASD facilities will be further evidenced by WitnessLA’s two-part investigation into the LA County Jails that will run later this summer).

Most importantly, law enforcement is not, for a thousand reasons, the right agency to run a parole system.

The LA Times has an unsigned editorial in Tuesday’s paper (written by Rob Greene and Sandra Hernandez) and it gets to the crux of the matter very, very well. Here’s a clip:

The tragedy of the county’s predicament is that the arrival of new state parolees ought to be an opportunity to focus on the reentry of these ex-prisoners into society. It should fall to churches, mosques and synagogues, to nonprofit organizations, to schools, but above all to county government to ensure that those leaving institutions and reentering their neighborhoods do so in a way that maximizes their chance to become productive and law-abiding citizens.

Even the parolees expected to come to Los Angeles County — those whose crimes were nonviolent, non-sexual and relatively low-level — are more likely than the state’s population at large to be sick, addicted, mentally ill, poorly educated and unemployable. Given that California’s state prison system has disinvested in prisoner care and rehabilitation, the parolees are unlikely to come home any better prepared to lead productive lives than when they went in. Indeed, the failure of the state’s parole efforts is one of the best arguments for turning this responsibility over to local governments, which at least have a fighting chance.

Los Angeles County has done little to prepare for this opportunity, and it must now suffer the consequences of its past mismanagement. Forced to pick between two troubled agencies, it should take the one that at least encompasses the mission. The county employees best experienced and oriented toward that task are probation workers.

Sheriff’s deputies are not.


It hardly helped Probation’s case that while Sheriff Baca was making doing one more round of enthusiastic pitches to explain why he should be given the parolees, making it clear to all concerned that he really, really wanted the job, Probation Chief Blevins spent last week in San Diego at a conference for Chief Probation Officers, no doubt a worthy event, but not when so much is at stake.

When I talked to Blevins last month about the soon-to-be-reassigned parolees, he was clear, persuasive and articulate about the ways in which Probation could potentially make a difference in the lives of thousands of released prisoners. It is perplexing that he has not been aggressive in making a strong case to those who actually vote on the matter.

Frank Stoltze at KPCC and Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly and Robert Faturechi of the LA Times have also reported on the issue so read and listen.


UPDATE: It appears that the Sups won’t vote today as there is a brand new 37-page analysis from the County CEO’s office on the competing plans and it shows that the Sheriff’s plan will cost substantively more (in the tens of millions of $$) than that of Probation, a wrinkle that the Supervisors need time to consider.

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, Los Angeles Times, parole policy, Probation | No Comments »

Was a Visitor to LA County Jail Viciously Beaten by Guards?

May 27th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

This week’s LA Weekly’ cover story about LA County’s Men’s Central Jail
paints a discouragingly familiar picture of brutal behavior on the part of a cadre of sheriff’s deputies—use of force which seems always to be officially portrayed by the sheriff’s department as a justified response to a violent inmate.

However, in this case, it wasn’t an inmate. The guy beat up—Gabriel Carrillo— was not residing inside jail, but was a civilian just visiting his brother, his girlfriend along with him.

However as in cases of inmates who have ended up beat up and inured, without video tapes, neutral witnesses, or someone inside the LASD willing to break ranks, it is inevitably the word of the beat up jailbird against multiple sworn officers of the law.

Even when there was a neutral witness earlier this year in the person of the ACLU’s Esther Lim, LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore suggested that Lim probably didn’t see what she said she saw in a sworn affidavit.

I mean, who are you gonna believe? Her lying eyes? Or the guys with the badges? [See here and here for Lim backstory.]

The LA Weekly cover package by Chris Vogel is full of excellent reporting.

By the way, it is also in many ways, a preview of the series on the LA County Jails bu Matt Fleischer that is coming this summer from WitnessLA in partnership with Spot.Us.

Here’s a long opening clip from Vogel’s terrific story.

But there’s much, much more. Read the whole thing, or you’ll miss out.

And there is far more still coming right here at WLA very, very soon.

Shackled in handcuffs, Gabriel Carrillo was being detained in a small break room near the visitors’ lobby in Men’s Central Jail when, he says, a Sheriff’s deputy knocked him to the floor with an uppercut.

Carrillo, 5 feet 6 and 160 pounds, doubled over in pain. Three deputies began kicking and punching the baby-faced 23-year-old in his head and thigh, tearing his white T-shirt while blood splattered on his blue jeans and Air Jordans.

With each blow, Carrillo felt his body jerk as his head bounced up and down on the cold, county building floor. He briefly lost consciousness, only to wake to the sting of punches to his head and face.

Through eyes purple with bruises and nearly swollen shut, Carrillo could see blood pouring out of his head onto the floor.

“I’m not fucking resisting,” he cried out.

Suddenly, Carrillo felt a blast of chemical spray. He was blinded and gasping for air as more punches pummeled his increasingly numb legs and torso. It was like being caught in a violent ocean wave, Carrillo recalls. Every time he tried to come up for air, another blow drove him back under.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Carrillo wheezed.

“Shut the fuck up,” Carrillo claims a deputy said. “If you can talk, you can breathe.”

Finally, Carrillo lay motionless, watching officers wipe his blood off the floor with clean towels, thinking to himself, “How did this happen? All I was trying to do was visit my brother in jail.”

Carrillo arrived at Men’s Central Jail, a dungeonlike fortress near downtown Los Angeles, around noon on Feb. 26 with his girlfriend, Grace Torres, to visit his younger brother, who was locked up on charges of carrying a concealed weapon.

It was a Saturday, and Torres was on call for her job at an employment agency. She says she was afraid of being fired if she missed a call, so she tucked her cellphone into her boot and sneaked it into the visitors’ lobby, despite the signs prohibiting it. Carrillo, a general laborer who helped build a stage for an Academy Awards after-party next to the El Capitan Theater, says he forgot he had a phone in his pocket.

While they waited, Torres moved to scratch her foot and her phone fell onto the floor. Within minutes, she claims, deputies had confiscated the phones, handcuffed Carrillo and taken the two of them into the break room, where a deputy pushed Carrillo into the side of a refrigerator.

Carrillo admits that he mouthed off, telling the officer, “If I weren’t in these handcuffs, it’d be a different situation and I wouldn’t let myself get thrown around like this.” He says he was trying to compensate for being scared.

The deputy, however, called for backup....


Actually there are two inmates at the North Facility. Two. One, two.

Robert Faturechi has the story—and the county’s rationale for this preposterous situation.

Admittedly, the two jails have separate functions. But surely there’s a better system.

In any case, read it!


The California Department of Corrections is using a test that theoretically can screen for psychopathy when determining if a man or woman will ever be eligible for parole. But is it accurate?

NPR’s All Thing Considered reports that even the test’s creator, Robert Hare, is having his doubts.

“I’m very concerned about the inappropriate use of this instrument for purposes that have serious implications for individuals and for society,” Hare says. “It shouldn’t work that way.”

In fact, Hare says, he is so disturbed by some of what he has seen as he has traveled through America training psychologists in use of the PCL-R, that he sometimes has trouble focusing on the way his test could be affecting people’s lives.

“I think about this periodically, and I probably try to suppress it,” Hare says. “I do disassociate myself from it. I mean, if I thought about every potential use or misuse of the instrument, I probably wouldn’t sleep at all.”

Be sure to read or listen to this fascinating and troubling story.

Posted in ACLU, crime and punishment, criminal justice, jail, parole policy | 5 Comments »

Thursday Must Reads

May 26th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


Dear CDCR,

If the LA Times’ Jack Dolan has his story right, you’ve done a lousy job of sorting out who can be paroled without supervision and who needs high control parole supervision. If true, it means you’ve compromised public safety and betrayed those of us who have pushed hard for much needed parole reform.

And “Ooops, our computer programs need a little work,” is not an adequate response.

Please advise. Immediately.


More and more people who are veterans of many sides of the justice system are saying that we should reconsider putting kids away for life without the possibility of parole—LWOP kids, they call them.

A recent voice on the matter if Anthony Barkow whose essay on the topic appeared this week’s Huffington Post.

Barkow was a decorated federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office for 12 years before he became the Executive Director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law.

Here is a clip from his essay:

I was a prosecutor for 12 years. During that time, I prosecuted a wide variety of crimes, ranging from international terrorism to securities fraud, from domestic violence and sexual abuse to homicide. I prosecuted cases in which offenders received very substantial sentences. I am proud of my work as a prosecutor and I have no doubt that criminal punishment is critical to keeping communities safe.

One of the defendants I prosecuted committed murder when he was 17-years-old. He gunned down his victim and shot him 17 times in cold blood in broad daylight in the middle of a residential street. The same defendant had committed another murder before he turned 18. For these crimes, he was sentenced to consecutive terms of years that were so long as to be tantamount to life imprisonment, and he will never be released. And, in that case, that was a just result.

But at the same time, there are other youthful defendants who have been sentenced to unjust sentences of life without the opportunity for parole. For example, a 15-year-old boy in Chicago, “Peter A,” on instructions from his older brother, helped steal a van so that his brother could drive to the home of two individuals who stole drugs and money from the brother’s apartment. Peter stayed in the van while two others went inside. While Peter waited in the van, one of the men who had gone into the home shot and killed two people. Peter was sentenced to life without parole, even though the judge said at sentencing that he wished he could impose a lower sentence and described Peter as “a bright lad” with “rehabilitative potential.” But the sentence was mandatory and the judge had no discretion or choice to sentence Peter otherwise. Peter is now 29 and has spent nearly half of his life in prison. During that time, he has obtained his G.E.D. and completed a correspondence paralegal course. He has an exemplary record in prison, receiving a disciplinary ticket only once in the past six years (for possessing an extra pillow and extra cereal in his cell). But no matter how much Peter changes in prison, he will serve the rest of his life in prison without having even the possibility of asking to be released, much less getting out.

That is the critical fact to keep in mind about those seeking to end life without parole for juveniles. No one is arguing that any particular individual should be let out of prison. Ending juvenile life without parole merely leaves open the possibility that a child who commits a crime can petition for release later in life, if he can demonstrate that he is remorseful, has rehabilitated, and will not reoffend. Parole authorities can and should be trusted to make informed, reasoned decisions regarding the release and continued incarceration of inmates petitioning for parole…..

Read the rest.


Madeleine Brand interviews ,education wonk and commentator Alexander Russo, about his new book, Stay Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School chronicles the transformation of very troubled Locke High School—what has been accomplished and what remains to be done.
I’ve been looking forward to the book’s release for months, and will have more it once I’ve finished reading. In the meantime, listen to the interview. Russo’s a smart guy and has a bracingly clear-eyed view of why the “Locke experiment,” as he calls it, is important.


WLA doesn’t usually cover transportation issues but, seriously, this is a no brainer. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board votes on this issue today. Let’s hope they understand how important a station at historic and iconic Leimert Park station is, not just to South LA, but to the rest of the city.

Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas has an op ed in Thursday’s LA Times explaining very clearly why there can be only one possible answer to the Leimert Park station question.

Metro board, please get this one right.

Posted in Books, Education, Green Dot, LGBT, LWOP Kids, parole policy | No Comments »

Was an Alleged Double Murderer Paroled Years Early from Prison?

May 13th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon

Wednesday night the LA Weekly posted a story with the headline:
Zachariah Timothy Lehnen, Accused in Double Murder of Culver City Pair, Could Have Been in Prison Until 2013 But Was Released Early

The story, which was written by Dennis Romero, opened like this:

The transient accused of killing two people in Culver City this month was let out of prison late last year — with three years cut off his time — via a controversial early-release program.

Thirty-one-year-old Zachariah Lehnen’s parolee information sheet, obtained by the Weekly, shows that he could have remained in prison until November of 2013 but was let out under California’s “non-revocable parole” law, which went into effect last year as an attempt to save taxpayer money by letting low-level, nonviolent offenders out early.

Romero is a good reporter and the story was well-sourced with law enforcement types, including a retired parole officer. And surely those sources must know what they’re talking about, right?

Well, apparently not.

“Early release” is the new bogey man that, of late, so-called public safety advocates—many of them law enforcement professionals—trot around with a staggering disregard for… know….facts.

Here’s the deal:

According to his parole paperwork, Lehnen, the alleged murderer, was a transient who had served time for drug possession, probably possession of crystal meth. He had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was also likely supposed to be on medication since his report specified “Psychiatric outpatient clinic,” and he was forbidden to have alcohol.

Lehnen was paroled from prison on November 9. 2010. His official prison term (and thus the end of his parole), terminates on November 9, 2013.

Lehnen was not, however, released from prison three years early as part of some new program. There is no such new years-early program.

Here’s what is true:

Everyone in the state of California who is convicted of a nonviolent, non serious, non-sex-related felony—like this guy—does half their time. If you are sentenced to six years, you do three. For the remaining three you are on parole.

If a crime is violent and/or serious, you will do 85 percent of of your sentence.

Again, this is not some new program.

The “half-time” (or 85 %) structure has been built into California’s sentencing and parole policy for years and years. The notion that Lehnen got some kind special treatment and that the state should or could have held him for another three years is simply nonsense.

Nonviolent, non-serious lawbreakers know at the time of their sentencing that, as long as they aren’t written up for disciplinary infractions when they’re locked up, with rare exceptions, they’ll do half their sentences.

What is new for California is the idea of non revokable parole.

Up until last year, much of California’s nearly 70 percent recidivism rate (the highest in the nation) was caused, not by people committing new crimes, but by parolees violating the technical terms of their parole. If they tested dirty, or they missed an appointment with their parole officer, or strayed into a forbidden neighborhood, or left town to visit grandparents without permission—or any number of other infractions—they’d go back to prison. Nearly two thirds of the thousands who returned to prison each year in California, did so for technical violations.

These parole revocations were costing the state a fortune with no appreciable gain in public safety.

In 2009, in effort to slow down this revolving door—and its attendant cost to the taxpayer— and still protect public safety, the CDCR decided that a certain class of low-level prisoner would be eligible for non-revokable parole. The parolee would still get out of prison at the same time, and still be on parole, which means they could be searched at any time by law enforcement, but they could not be hauled back to prison unless they actually committed a new crime. Part of the idea was that parole supervision would be reserved for those who need it most, and that those “high control” cases would get better supervision since parole officers’ case loads would be lightened up to more manageable levels. (You can read more details here.)

The program kicked in last year.

None of this, however, has anything to do with “early release.” And, yes, the state does have a new early release program unrelated to its parole reform, but unlike what the alarmists are saying, “early” is a matter of a few weeks ahead of schedule, not years. (To put it another way, this means if someone who turns out to be a bad guy up-to-no-good gets early release, he’ll be committing his post release bank robbery in, say, May instead of July.)

What is a legitimate question—what we should be talking about-–is whether, due to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Lehnen should have been excluded from the non-revokable parole program and made more high control. We ought to be asking if someone—a parole officer— should have made certain that he stayed on his meds (if, indeed he was on bi-polar medication).

I’m betting—as is the very experienced criminal attorney I consulted as I was writing this—that the alleged killer went off his medication and had what amounts to a psychotic episode. And two people are dead as a consequence.

So, yes, there’s something important to talk about with this case. But please, let’s use actual facts when we have the discussion.

PS: IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT ROMERO has updated his story several times on Thursday evening to reflect some of what I’m talking about, as he continues to check on the facts of the matter. In other words, he too is trying to get to the bottom of things. But the supposedly expert sources who repeatedly misrepresent the facts….are not helping.

Posted in parole policy, prison policy, Sentencing | 2 Comments »

“Conservatives” and Prison Cost, Poisoned Prison Water, the Ruben Salazar Files…and More

February 23rd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


The LA Times Robert Lopez is writing a book about Ruben Salazar and he is one of those who has been pushing hard for the release of the Salazer files that have been held by the LA Sheriff’s Department for four decades.

On Tuesday, Lopez and KPCC’ Franks Stoltz were on the Larry Mantel Show talking about the case and what those boxes might and might not contain.


I rarely find myself cheering for something Grover Norquist has written, but this Op Ed from the Orange County Register is dead on.

Conservatives pride themselves on relentlessly questioning government agencies: Is this program producing results? Do the results justify the cost? Can the project be done less expensively? These are typical conservative questions about education, pensions, health care and dozens of other government functions – except one: criminal justice.

The size and cost of America’s prisons has quadrupled in the past three decades. In states like California, the annual cost of incarceration is around $50,000 per inmate. When looking for reasons why California is going bankrupt, just multiply that figure by the 170,000 inmates that live in the state. Moreover, 34,000 California prisoners are serving life sentences as a result of the “three strikes” law, for which the state prison guards’ union lobbied intensely. Certainly, some violent criminals should be out after the first strike, but the law applies to many low-level, nonviolent offenders, too.

Criminal justice expenses continue to grow – even during a recession. For instance, Delaware’s Department of Corrections is seeking a 5 percent budget increase, while other agencies are desperately looking for ways to cut costs.

The costs of incarceration is worthwhile to the extent that it is the most cost-effective means of protecting the public; however, research indicates we have reached the point of diminishing returns.

Further, more prison spending provides less safety per dollar than other approaches…


The Oakland Tribune has the story:

County officials who administer the state’s treatment-not-jail program for certain drug offenders are struggling with a lack of funding that’s not likely to improve, but advocates say ignoring the mandate simply isn’t an option.

Instead, officials are trying to figure out how they’ll continue to provide the same treatment without the money to pay for it.

Enacted by 61 percent of voters in November 2000 as Proposition 36, the law says first- and second-time nonviolent, simple drug possession offenders must be given the opportunity to receive substance-abuse treatment instead of jail time.

That “must” isn’t a suggestion; it would take another voter-approved ballot measure to undo it.

But Prop. 36 allocated $120 million per year for only five years, and as the state’s budget crisis worsened, the Legislature and governor declined to ante up. They set aside $108 million in 2008-09 but just $18 million in 2009-10, and then zeroed it out for this current fiscal year. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal includes no money for it in 2011-12.

A $45 million infusion of federal economic stimulus funds in 2009 is now all but gone, and the coffers are empty.

So, it’s a mandate with no money, but a mandate nonetheless: Someone who’s eligible and demands treatment can’t just be sent to jail……


It doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask. Yeah, it’s prison. But nobody’s asking for bottled water, just running water that won’t actively poison you when you drink it. has the details:

Blanca Gonzalez’s son spent years at California’s Kern Valley State Prison, where she says he was sickened by the foul water he was forced to drink – water that the state knows is contaminated with arsenic, a carcinogen that can cause serious skin damage and circulatory system problems. And she wanted to do something about it.

But where to start? For years California officials have been promising to fix the facility’s water problem – promising to provide its more than 5,000 inhabitants water that meets the standards of the EPA and World Health Organization. And for years they have failed to deliver, extending and then extending again their self-imposed deadlines for when they “anticipate” resolving the issue; indeed, just this year the supposed deadline for installing water treatment equipment has been extended from October 2011 to February 2012 – and then again to August 2012.

After reading an article last fall about Kern Valley State Prison’s dirty water, Gonzalez contacted your humble criminal justice editor here at, asking that I write more about the problem. And for weeks … well, I didn’t – hey, I’m a busy guy, alright? But after a few more friendly reminders, her persistence paid off. And now her campaign is drawing the attention of California’s top prison officials.

Since her petition was first featured here a few weeks ago, more than 2,100 people have joined Gonzalez and other mothers of sickened, incarcerated men in California in demanding that the state stop poisoning its prisoners with arsenic-laced water.


The Committee to Protect Journalists has posted about the disappearance of Libyan journalist Atef al-Atrash,. His absence has many worried.

The Committee to Protect Journalists
is alarmed by the ongoing deterioration of conditions for the media in the Middle East, including the disappearance of Atef al-Atrash, a critical Libyan journalist, since anti-Qaddafi demonstrations began February 17. The Internet has been intermittently down since Saturday in the country, according to international news reports, and foreign journalists continue to be denied entry. Al-Jazeera’s signal in Libya remains jammed, according to the network. In Yemen, security forces confiscated the print run of an independent newspaper and at least one reporter was injured as demonstrations turned violent. And in Iraq, 50 gunmen reportedly shot up an independent television station while the staff of a local newspaper was forced to evacuate their offices.

The Libyan authorities and their supporters should know that violence against journalists reporting on political turmoil will not be tolerated,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director. “We are concerned for the safety of all journalists, in particular Atef al-Atrash.”

Al-Atrash disappeared after reporting live on Al-Jazeera from demonstrations in Benghazi on Thursday, the network reported. He also reported that “several journalists” had been detained in the second largest city of Libya but did not provide names.

The painting above is Frank Romero’s 1986 work, the Death of Rubén Salazar. It is free of my usual…um…artwork, because I cannot possibly scribble on Frank Romero.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Economy, parole policy, prison, prison policy | No Comments »

Mass Incarceration…Prison Strike in Georgia…LA’s Homeless

December 12th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

The January/February issue of American Prospect magazine
contains a special report on what has become a system of mass incarceration in the US.

The report points out that, right now, nearly 1 percent of the American adult population is imprisoned—a rate unprecedented in American history. Between 1980 and 2008, the US population grew 34 percent, while the prison population grew 375 percent.

Most of those locked up will be released. And a high percentage of those reentering our communities will offend again because the rehabilitation and re-entry policies we’re using are inadequate, nonexistent or, in many cases, aggressively counterproductive.

For most of you reading WitnessLA, this is not exactly new news. But what is interesting about this report is that it focuses on a series of strategies that could help the US might reduce its prison and parole population while still keeping a strong focus on public safety.

Take a look for yourself.


Prisoners at up to seven Georgia prisons have organized a nonviolent demonstration to protest living conditions et al in the state’s correctional institutions.

The strike, which was into its third day on Sunday, is expected to continue into Monday. (It is being billed as the largest prison strike in American history although I’ve not been able to independently verify that claim.)

Curiously, there is almost zip media coverage of the strike inside Georgia, save some by alternative media.

Monday, however, the New York times is running an article about how the strike was coordinated though the use of contraband cell phones.


Monday’s NY Times also has an article on LA’s plan to end homelessness within 5-years. (Or at least that’s what the planners hope).

Here’s how the story opens:

At a time when cities across the country have made significant progress over the past decade in reducing the number of homeless, in no small part by building permanent housing, the problem seems intractable in the County of Los Angeles.

It has become a subject of acute embarrassment to some civic leaders, upset over the county’s faltering efforts, the glaring contrast of street poverty and mansion wealth, and any perception of a hardhearted Los Angeles unmoved by a problem that has motivated action in so many other cities.

For national organizations trying to eradicate homelessness, Los Angeles — with its 48,000 people living on the streets, including 6,000 veterans, according to one count — stands as a stubborn anomaly, an outlier at a time when there has been progress, albeit modest and at times fitful, in so many cities…


Posted in parole policy, prison, prison policy, Probation | 4 Comments »

Prison Without Walls

August 18th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

The September issue of Atlantic Magazine contains an article
that every state legislator—particularly California lawmakers—ought to read.

It’s called Prison Without Walls by Atlantic contributing editor Graeme Wood, and it is about high tech corrections strategies like GPS tracking devices and others.

Here are a couple of clips from the opening:

Incarceration in America is a failure by almost any measure. But what if the prisons could be turned inside out, with convicts released into society under constant electronic surveillance? Radical though it may seem, early experiments suggest that such a science-fiction scenario might cut crime, reduce costs, and even prove more just.


GPS devices … are looking like an appealing alternative to conventional incarceration, as it becomes ever clearer that, in the United States at least, traditional prison has become more or less synonymous with failed prison. By almost any metric, our practice of locking large numbers of people behind bars has proved at best ineffective and at worst a national disgrace. According to a recent Pew report, 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated — enough people to fill the city of Houston. Since 1983, the number of inmates has more than tripled and the total cost of corrections has jumped sixfold, from $10.4 billion to $68.7 billion. In California, the cost per inmate has kept pace with the cost of an Ivy League education, at just shy of $50,000 a year.

This might make some sense if crime rates had also tripled. But they haven’t: rather, even as crime has fallen, the sentences served by criminals have grown, thanks in large part to mandatory minimums and draconian three-strikes rules — politically popular measures that have shown little deterrent effect but have left the prison system overflowing with inmates. The vogue for incarceration might also make sense if the prisons repaid society’s investment by releasing reformed inmates who behaved better than before they were locked up. But that isn’t the case either: half of those released are back in prison within three years. Indeed, research by the economists Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago and M. Keith Chen of Yale indicates that the stated purpose of incarceration, which is to place prisoners under harsh conditions on the assumption that they will be “scared straight,” is actively counterproductive. Such conditions — and U.S. prisons are astonishingly harsh, with as many as 20 percent of male inmates facing sexual assault — typically harden criminals, making them more violent and predatory. Essentially, when we lock someone up today, we are agreeing to pay a large (and growing) sum of money merely to put off dealing with him until he is released in a few years, often as a greater menace to society than when he went in.

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers. The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

Moreover, such a change would in fact be less radical than it might at first appear. An underappreciated fact of our penitentiary system is that of all Americans “serving time” at any given moment, only a third are actually behind bars. The rest — some 5 million of them — are circulating among the free on conditional supervised release either as parolees, who are freed from prison before their sentences conclude, or as probationers, who walk free in lieu of jail time. These prisoners-on-the-outside have in fact outnumbered the incarcerated for decades. And recent innovations, both technological and procedural, could enable such programs to advance to a stage where they put the traditional model of incarceration to shame.

In a number of experimental cases, they already have. Devices such as the one I wore on my leg already allow tens of thousands of convicts to walk the streets relatively freely, impeded only by the knowledge that if they loiter by a schoolyard, say, or near the house of the ex-girlfriend they threatened, or on a street corner known for its crack trade, the law will come to find them. Compared with incarceration, the cost of such surveillance is minuscule—mere dollars per day—and monitoring has few of the hardening effects of time behind bars. Nor do all the innovations being developed depend on technology. Similar efforts to control criminals in the wild are under way in pilot programs that demand adherence to onerous parole guidelines, such as frequent, random drug testing, and that provide for immediate punishment if the parolees fail. The result is the same: convicts who might once have been in prison now walk among us unrecognized—like pod people, or Canadians.

There are, of course, many thousands of dangerous felons who can’t be trusted on the loose. But if we extended this form of enhanced, supervised release even to just the nonviolent offenders currently behind bars, we would empty half our prison beds in one swoop…. [S]ome would offend again. But then, so too do those convicts released at the end of their brutal, hardening sentences under our current system. And even accepting a certain failure rate, by nearly any measure such “prisons without bars” would represent a giant step forward for justice, criminal rehabilitation, and society….

Read on. It’s worth it.


Then, while you’re on a roll, read this piece from the AP about about aging prisoners.

Here’s a clip:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in parole policy, prison, prison policy | 10 Comments »

LA Press Club Honors Parole Series

June 28th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

At the LA Press Club Awards held in the Crystal ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel Sunday night,
Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered the welcome speech and rattled on pleasantly for quite some time—a little too long, actually—reciting a litany the things that didn’t get done, or got done wrongly, or not well, during his tenure that the press had helpfully pointed out. He end with “I’ll be back.” Back to where wasn’t clear.

Many hours and many, many, MANY awards later, Sean Penn presented the President’s Award to Andersen Cooper for his reporting on the earthquake crisis in Haiti. Cooper was very gracious but looked decidedly sleep-deprived and like every minute he was forced to spend in some LA ballroom instead of working on the gulf oil spill story was some form of punishment. (He told me when I asked that he was flying back Monday morning.)

In between, my gorgeous friend, actress Wendie Malick, was one of a group of celebrity types who were drafted to actually hand out the 79 trillion awards given. (I’ll link to them when the press club puts them online as there were many excellent and deserving people honored.)

The Daily Journal’s Greg Katz was one of those recognized. He got an award for the best investigative series (publications under 50,000) and as the print journalist of the year (also for papers under 50,0000).

I mention this because the terrific newspaper series that got Katz the awards was something called Revoked about California’s parole revocation system. Since it was published in the Daily Journal, it was hidden behind a pay wall, thus most of you likely didn’t see it. But Katz, (who Tweeted excitedly when he won) has kindly provided a PDF for your reading pleasure.

It opens this way:

Imagine you’re a defendant in a court system where hearings take place in prison, behind closed doors, while you are shackled to the floor.

You get an attorney who can subpoena witnesses, but the court doesn’t compel them to show up. Hearsay evidence from law enforcement is allowed, and you can be convicted without ever being allowed to confront your accuser.

There is no jury. There is also no prosecutor; rather the judge is charged with protecting the public safety, creating a duel role with an inherent conflict. This hearing officer may or may not be a lawyer.

To send you to prison, he does not have to find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, only 51 percent likely to have done what you’re accused of.

You’re not in Guantanamo Bay.
You’re in California’s parole revocation system.

Read on here.

And while we’re on the topic of media, if you haven’t already, be sure to read Frank Rich’s dead on commentary in Sunday’s New York Times about the mainstream media’s utter shock over the fact that a smart Rolling Stone reporter actually just did his job and got a terrific story.

Posted in media, parole policy, writers and writing | 2 Comments »

The Sad Bad Lesson of John Gardner & Parole System Failure

June 4th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

On Wednesday of this week, the Inspector General of California, David Shaw,
issued a 35-page special report on the parole supervision of John Albert Gardner III, the man who raped and murdered Amber Dubois and Chelsea King..

The report is scathing. Shaw says that the California Department of Correction’s parole supervision of John Gardner blew it in myriad ways with horrific results.

For example, he says:

“.. .it did not identify Gardner’s aberrant behavior, including unlawfully entering the grounds of a state prison––a felony––as well as numerous parole violations. Had the department identified Gardner’s criminal act and parole violations, it could have referred them to the district attorney or Board of Prison Hearings for appropriate action. Successful prosecution of Gardner’s crime could have sent Gardner back to prison, making it impossible for him to murder the two young girls and commit the attempted sexual assault.”

It seems that the primary reason that Gardner’s parole agents didn’t send him back to prison for his more than 158 parole violations, or the actual new felony he committed by gong on the grounds of a state prison, is because his parole officer didn’t know about about most of the violations, much less the prison incident—even though, all the while, Gardiner had a GPS tracking device on his ankle.

So why wouldn’t the tracking gadget alert Gardner’s PO that he was breaking his curfew with ridiculous frequency, that he was often in the proximity of schools and playgrounds, that he had a storage unit, which was strictly against the rules, that he visited creepily isolated spots (also against the terms of his probation and that he had committed an outright crime?

Shaw explains that the tracking device was only monitored thirteen percent of the time. The other 87 percent the GBS tracker was useless. It wasn’t watched at all.

(You can find the entire 35-page report here.)

These revelations are awful enough on their face because, had Gardner been monitored properly, he would have landed back in prison,—which means in turn that he wouldn’t have been able to kill 14-year-old Amber Dubois and 17-year-old Chelsea King.

The report also points beyond itself to say troubling things about California’s parole supervision in general. It doesn’t help that this comes at a time, when there is a strong push to let certain offenders out early, provided they have GPS monitoring.

I am someone who has been in favor of the monitoring option for certain cases. But if nobody’s keeping track of a braceleted, high control sex offender whose jacket includes several alarming reports about his impulse control, why in the world should we think that the CDCR will keep tabs on run-of-the-mill GPS-wearing parolees?

We must also have the confidence that when officials call an offender “low level”—that a proper and thorough assessment of the parolee’s entire record has been done, not merely a glance at his/her most recent crime. Unfortunately this often seems not to be the case either.

If we are to have a chance at legislating real sentencing and parole reform, the public will need to know that the system is a lot better calibrated than what we evidently have now.

Many tragic crimes arrive without warning. However, with John Gardiner, it appears that there were red flags galore, but that they went unheeded. We need a system that is calibrated to see those flags and act on them appropriately.

(The San Diego Union has a story on the report, as does the LA Times.)


The Economist praises South Carolina’s sentencing reform package that was recently signed into law:

South Carolina’s Republican governor today signed off on a sentencing-reform law that passed the state’s Republican-controlled legislature by a wide margin. It reduces sentences for some non-violent offenders while increasing them for certain violent ones and it improves post-release supervision. It also ends the ridiculous sentencing disparity between powdered and rock cocaine, ends mandatory minimum sentences for first-time drug possession and lets more inmates participate in work-release programmes. It is also projected to save the state $400m over the next five years—no small potatoes for a state looking at a billion-dollar shortfall.


Zach Behrens reports for LAist that less than 24 hours after an LA photographer posted a video of an officer losing it with him over being photographed legally from a public sidewalk, the LAPD has triggered an investigation of the incident.

“Constitutional policing is very important to Chief Beck and we examine cases through that lens,” said Commander Richard Webb, who announced that his Internal Affairs group will conduct the investigation. “We will keep the Inspector General informed of the progress of the investigation which will ultimately be presented to the Chief of Police to determine if any discipline or retraining should take place.”

Good for Chief Beck and the LAPD. Quick action on a complaint goes a long way in building public confidence in the department.

You can watch the video here.

PS: I hate to harp on this, but had John Gardener been a gang member, rather than an upstreet sex offender who assaulted a 13-year-old, he would have been back to prison on a parole violation, lickety split.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, LAPD, parole policy, Sentencing | 6 Comments »

Tuesday Round-Up

June 1st, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


On top of his grief over his Marine officer son’s death, Albert Snyder had to endure protesters Westboro Baptist Church disrupting the funeral with signs that bore messages like: “Semper Fi Fags,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Distraught and furious, Snyder sued the Westboro demonstrators in civil court and won, but the decision was reversed on appeal.

Now the case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which will hear the issue this fall.

The Washington Post reports:

[Albert] Snyder and his late son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, killed in Iraq, have become the public faces of more than 200 families that have seen funerals of loved ones picketed by members of a tiny church who say the deaths of U.S. soldiers are God’s retribution for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The collision of privacy rights and the Constitution’s protection of free speech will be heard by the Supreme Court in the fall. Snyder’s lawyer, Sean Summers, recently filed his brief to the court, and the fortuitous deadline for others to support Snyder is the day after Memorial Day.

Many First Amendment scholars are wondering why the Supremes took the case, arguing that, as hideous and cruel as the protest was, it is also protected speech.

(I wondered the same thing.)

In any event, it will be a significant case to watch.

And in the meantime, our hearts go out to Albert Snyder, and all the parents of service men and women who have had to grieve for their kids this past weekend.


At least so says Connie Bruck’s in her long and interesting article about the primary battle between Tom Campbell and Carly Fiorina, in the June 7 issue of the New Yorker.

The full story requires a subscription, but here’s a clip to give you the tone:

Ronald Reagan was still in the White House the last time a Republican was elected to the Senate from California, in 1988. This year, Republicans believe, will be different. The candidate who wins the primary may have a good chance of defeating Barbara Boxer, who faces an anti-incumbent mood and discontent over the state’s foundering economy. The national Republican Party has seized upon the race as a bellwether. Tom Campbell, a five-term Republican congressman who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate—he is pro-choice and supports gay marriage—believes this is his year. Recent polls show, however, that his opponent, Carly Fiorina, has overtaken his lead, and Campbell’s greatest assets—policy experience and a powerful intellect—now seem to be handicaps. Fiorina, the polished former C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard, said at a debate on May 6th: “I am not a career politician.” Campbell’s other opponent, Chuck DeVore, casts himself as anti-government. The resolution of this contest will determine a great deal about the future of the Republican Party….

For some reason, however, the Republican gubernatorial primary fight between Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman is just a run the of the mill primary battle (albeit a very expensive one), not a mythic struggle for any party’s soul.


The June edition of Social Science Quarterly contains an article that draws correlations between the large crime drop that has occurred across the nation, and immigration patterns.

Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey cites the report and wonders why some of those screaming loudest about immigration issues do so using “facts” about immigrant crime that are entirely and provably false.

Governor Brewer told Fox News and anyone else who’d listen, “We’ve been inundated with criminal activity. It’s just—it’s been outrageous.” Arizona’s Sen. John McCain said last month that the failure to secure the border with Mexico “has led to violence—the worst I have ever seen.” The president of the Arizona Association of Sheriffs, Paul Babeu of Pinal County, claims, “Crime is off the chart in this state.”

What the FBI chart actually shows is that the incidence of violent crime in Arizona declined dramatically in the last two years.

Crime is also down in most cities that have the largest influx of immigrants.

But don’t believe me: just take your own walk through the stats at the FBI’s recently released Uniform crime Report.


In a two part feature, the Atlanta Journal Constitution explores the issue. Here’s how Part I begins:

As states across the nation recognize that prison costs are busting tight budgets and doing little to reform offenders, many governors and legislators are thinking outside the cell.

Mississippi lawmakers decided in 2008 to cut prison costs by allowing all nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole after serving 25 percent of a sentence instead of 85 percent.

In Texas, a bipartisan effort in 2007 avoided $2 billion in costs to build and operate new prisons by spending $241 million on alternatives: stepped-up probation and parole programs, new halfway houses and specialty courts devoted to offenders with drug issues and mental health problems.

North Carolina announced in April a bipartisan initiative to develop a new research-driven approach to public safety that is expected to reduce prison costs by investing in alternatives that are more effective.

South Carolina’s Legislature last week approved a landmark sentencing reform package designed to save the state $400 million over the next five years by reducing incarceration of nonviolent offenders and more closely supervising released inmates to reduce recidivism.

Then the AJC asks: What about Georgia?

In Part 2, the AJC gives some ideas “that could help Georgia reduce its need for prison beds. ”

Interestingly, California—the state with the largest prison population in the nation—is not on the AJC’s list of states instituting cost saving and prisoner rehabilitating reform.


In an LA Times Op Ed a father whose son was killed three years ago in Iraq reflects on Memorial Day.

Here’s a clip:

For us, personal loss has rendered the last Monday in May into the day of remembrance that it was originally intended to be. Yet loss has also invested Memorial Day with political significance, posing uncomfortable questions.

The fallen gave their lives so we might enjoy freedom: However comforting, this commonplace assertion qualifies at best as a half-truth. Who can doubt that the soldier killed in battle at Gettysburg or on Omaha Beach died while advancing the cause of liberty? Whether one can say the same about the Americans who lost their lives assaulting Mexico City in 1847, suppressing Filipino demands for independence after 1898 or chasing rebels in 1920s Nicaragua is less clear, however.

In recent decades especially, the connection between American military intervention and American freedom has become ever more tenuous….

Posted in Civil Liberties, criminal justice, elections, immigration, parole policy, prison, prison policy | 86 Comments »

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