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Prop 57 Debate Rising to a Fever Pitch as November Draws Closer

September 13th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

As California nears the November election, the debate surrounding Governor Jerry Brown’s criminal justice initiative is intensifying. Proposition 57 would take the power to transfer kids to adult court out of the hands of prosecutors and give the control back to judges. It would also as increase parole eligibility for non-violent offenders who have completed the base sentence for their primary offense and boost access to early release credits.

Critics—who are largely law enforcement leaders and district attorneys—say the measure could allow for the early release of violent offenders because it is too vague. They point, for example, to rape by use of drugs and sexual penetration or oral copulation of an unconscious person, which are not classified as “violent” in California law.

Governor Brown and Prop. 57 proponents argue that offenders aren’t going to get a free pass to get out of prison. The inmates will have to be screened for public security and go before the parole board.

Brown says the initiative is a common-sense response to the US Supreme Court’s order to reduce prison overcrowding in California. “Eighty percent of what Proposition 57 does is being done right now under the force of a court order,” Brown said. About 7,000 inmates categorized as non-violent felony offenders who have completed their base sentences would be able to apply for parole, according to the Associated Press, but around 5,700 of those offenders are reportedly already eligible for parole because of the federal court order.

KQED’s Marisa Lagos has more on the debate. Here’s a clip:

Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said many crimes that are violent are considered nonviolent under state law, and that allowing people to be released early violates a compact the state made with victims.

“You might have a guy that gets sentenced by a judge and after having heard from a defense attorney and a DA and a victim and the defendant, and the judge says, ‘Mr. Jones, I sentence you to 25 years. That’s based upon the crimes. It’s based upon these enhancements. It’s based upon your prior convictions for violent crimes. You have 25 years,’ ” she said. “Now, the victim who had the courage and fortitude to come into a courtroom and testify, say on a domestic violence case — poof. That’s all gone.”

She called the measure “very dangerous for California” and “disgraceful for victims of crime.”

But Brown argued the ballot measure’s provisions are a natural extension of actions the court has already ordered the state to undertake. Currently, many people in prison under the state’s three-strikes law are being paroled early under a process similar to what Proposition 57 proposes.

“Eighty percent of what Proposition 57 does is being done right now under the force of a court order. It is backed up by the United States Supreme Court and which we cannot change unless they say our remedy, in this case Proposition 57, is durable and serves the end of justice,” Brown said.

He said the changes must be combined with rehabilitative programs.

“Education, junior college programs, drug treatment, more intensive mental health,” he said. “All these things that will take people — many have been abused as children, neglected, starting narcotics when they are 10 or 12, and are turning their lives around with some professional help.”

The governor says inmates will be more inclined to participate in those programs if they have the opportunity to leave prison sooner — and that society will be safer if they leave prison rehabilitated.


SCOTT BUDNICK DISCUSSES THE “SMART ON CRIME” BALLOT INITIATIVE

In an interview with The Atlantic’s Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, “Hangover” series producer-turned justice-reform advocate Scott Budnick talks about his involvement with Prop. 57 and why he believes it to be “one of the smartest measures that has ever been put forward.”

Budnick, who left Hollywood behind to found the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), helped draft the language in both the juvenile justice portion of the initiative and the sections dealing with adult prisoners.

Budnick says incentivizing education and rehabilitation programs through the use of good time credits will result in improved chances of success for inmates exiting prison, and thus, hopefully reduced recidivism.

Here’s a clip (but go over to The Atlantic to read the rest):

Lantigua-Williams: The governor decided to introduce adult provisions into what was originally a bill about juvenile offenders.

Budnick: If you think about it, it’s not juvenile versus adult. The juveniles who we’re talking about in a direct-file piece are going to adult prison, going to adult court, and getting adult sentences. They’re only juvenile in age. In California, they’re not treated as juveniles. Once they’re direct filed, in every part of their contact with the system they become an adult.

Lantigua-Williams: California has been leading the charge in terms of trying to reduce incarcerations. Do you see Prop. 57 as an overall play toward that?

Budnick: I don’t think it’s an ambitious plan to decarcerate. The governor obviously has a population cap that judges have given him for the system, and the governor realizes that the people who are leaving prison under our current mechanism have no incentive to rehabilitate whatsoever. They can just sit in prison. Imagine if you had a nine-year determinate sentence: You could sit and shoot up heroin and continue gang politics, and you’re still getting released in nine years. There’s nothing that you need to do before then. You could get drunk every night in prison, party, have fun, and there is nothing that forces you to change, that forces you to go to education programs, forces you to get a job, forces you to learn a trade, forces you to go to therapy. None of that exists right now. The people who are actually getting out of prison under our current system have no incentive to change whatsoever.

That’s why Prop. 57 includes the rehabilitation credits for educational achievements, GEDs, college, jobs, career technical education. You incentivize someone with the ability to get out a few months earlier, a year earlier. If they’ve completed all these things, all the evidence points to reduced recidivism. What makes a safer community is the amount of people who decide to change. Decide to not use drugs anymore. Decide to not involve themselves in gangs.

Every single person in prison who makes that decision comes out and makes us a safer community. If we can triple that number, quadruple that number, go 10 times that number of people—who choose to change and come into the community, are now college students, are now union workers or working at businesses, are not gang members, are not drug dealers, and are not drug addicts—that’s real public safety. This is one of the smartest measures that has ever been put forward. It’s really, really smart on crime.


SF CHRON URGES “YES” ON 57

The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board has recommended “yes” on Prop. 57, saying that Prop. 57 gives inmates real incentive to participate in education and rehabilitation programs to earn early release credits. Here’s a clip:

Simply allowing a certain class of offenders — those who have served their base sentences for a nonviolent felony offense — the opportunity to be eligible for early release doesn’t mean they’re all going to earn it. These offenders still have to be screened for public safety, and then they have to go before the parole board.

The difference is that now they’ll have an incentive to be better civilians. Under the current system, offenders have little motivation to participate in rehabilitative programs. Instead, they’re encouraged to sit in prison — a difficult, dangerous environment — and wait until their sentence is finished. When they’re released, they’re often more dangerous than they were when they went in.

Prop. 57 requires California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to implement a new system of credits for inmates based on their successful participation in evidence-based rehabilitation programs like education and drug treatment. The state prison system awards the sentencing credits, and then the parole board makes the final decision about whether an offender is worthy of release.

“This does nothing to change sentencing,” said Mark Bonini, chief probation officer for Amador County. “Nothing changes on the sentencing side. The people we’re talking about are going to be released to (parole) supervision, and this gives us a better chance of rehabilitation.”

Posted in prison | 1 Comment »

Fewer Former Offenders Returning to Prison in CA…Bill to Protect In-Person Jail Visits Moves to Gov. Brown…and DOJ Training Video for Better Interactions with Trans People

August 30th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

CDCR REPORT SHOWS BIG DROP IN RE-INCARCERATION RATES FOR STATE PRISONERS IN 2015

Three-year recidivism rates for California’s prisoners has dropped significantly for the fifth consecutive year, according to new data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The 87-page report revealed a 10% recidivism reduction—from 54.3% in 2014 to 44.6%—for inmates released during the 2010-2011 fiscal year compared with those released during fiscal year 2009-2010. Even lower than the statewide recidivism rate, was the rate for Los Angeles County: 32.3%.

Of the offenders who received substance abuse treatment both behind bars and post-release, just 15.3% returned to prison during that three year period following their release.

“Most offenders sent to prison are eventually released, and so rehabilitation is in everyone’s best interest—our staff, the inmates and the community at large,” said CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan. “The latest recidivism rate shows that we’re helping more inmates learn how to live a law-abiding, productive life.”


BILL TO ENSURE JAIL INMATES HAVE ACCESS TO IN-PERSON VISITS AWAITS SIGNATURE FROM GOVERNOR

As some jails gradually increase the use of video visitation and decrease in-person visits for inmates and their loved ones, a California bill aims to protect those face-to-face visits. The bill, authored by CA Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), which would require counties to provide in-person visitation in jails by 2022, has made it to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for final approval.

“Every year California releases thousands of jail inmates whose chances of staying out and straightening up rise in proportion to how closely they stayed in touch with family members while in jail,” said Mitchell, explaining the importance of keeping inmates and their families connected.


DOJ TRAINING VIDEO SHOWS LAW ENFORCEMENT HOW TO TREAT TRANSGENDER PEOPLE DURING TRAFFIC STOPS AND OTHER ENCOUNTERS

The US Department of Justice has released a video (above) for the nation’s law enforcement officers explaining transgender terminology and how to have respectful, kind interactions with transgender people with whom they come into contact.

Posted in prison | 3 Comments »

Changing Leadership at CA Women’s Prisons, and Why We Need More Female Cops

August 4th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

ON THE SAME DAY, RETIREMENTS ANNOUNCED FOR WARDENS AT BOTH CA WOMEN’S PRISONS

Both of California’s only all-female prisons—which have been under investigation by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—are reportedly undergoing changes in leadership. On Friday, the CDCR sent out two memos announcing the retirement of Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) Warden Deborah “DK” Johnson and California Institution for Women (CIW) Warden Kimberly Hughes.

A CDCR representative has said that the timing of the two wardens’ retirements is merely a coincidence, but prisoners’ rights advocates say the corrections department is cleaning house, and likely forced the retirements. And the CDCR spokeswoman, Krissi Khokhobashvili, confirmed that other higher-ups at CCWF have been reassigned.

We at WitnessLA have been closely following the situation at CIW, in particular. The prison has experienced an alarmingly high number of suicides (6), and suicide attempts (73), since at least 2013. In fact, the facility has the highest suicide rate–five times the state average—among all 34 prisons. (Read the story of Erika Rocha, who committed suicide in April, in the mental health unit at CIW, just one day before a scheduled parole hearing.)

Both prisons have struggled with serious overcrowding issues. The overflowing population at CCWF, one of the largest women’s prisons in the nation, has reportedly exacerbated problems with medical care at the facility, as well as “a culture of fear and retaliation…and a general lack of respect on the part of the guards toward the women,” according to Don Spector, executive director of the Prison Law Office.

LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Krissi Khokhobashvili says the timing of the dual retirements is merely a coincidence.

“They both put in for retirement, as far as I know,” Khokhobashvili says.

But according to Khokhobashvili, a number of other top officials at CCWF have been reassigned, including its chief deputy warden, chief executive officer and chief medical executive.

Observers of the prison system see the personnel changes as a move by Department of Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Dec. 28, to clean house.

“I’m relieved that there’s any response at all that indicates they see a problem,” Lenz says. “But I don’t feel optimistic, given their track record of investigating themselves.”

Spector agrees.

“We’re grateful that the department has made some changes to the leadership of both of those institutions,” he says. “But that’s only the first step. There needs to be intensive work to change the culture and practices at both prisons.”


VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND THE NEED FOR (WAY) MORE FEMALE POLICE OFFICERS

There are over 3 million incidents of domestic violence reported to police each year, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Out of the reported assaults on spouses or ex-spouses, 95% were acts of violence by men against women.

Of the more than 4.5 million reported violent crimes committed against women every year in the US, 500,000 are sexual assaults—although rape and other sexual assaults are wildly underreported. Female rape victims—whose stories are often discredited by law enforcement—are statistically more likely to report sexual assault if female cops are present.

Yet, nearly 90% of law enforcement officers nationwide are male.

At the local level, the Los Angeles Police Department—which, interestingly, hired the nation’s first female police officer with arrest powers—had 1,855 sworn female officers and 8,046 sworn male officers, as of June 2016. (For comparison, the department employs 1,676 women and 1,129 men in civilian roles.) According to LA County’s open data website, the sheriff’s department is composed of 11,360 men and 6,349 women. (The county data is not broken down into sworn versus civilian.)

By telling the harrowing story of her grandmother—a victim of domestic abuse who became a police officer—author and journalist Sarah Smarsh discusses the gender disparity in policing, and the need for more female cops, who are no less capable than their male peers, and who bring to the table more empathy and respect toward the citizens they serve.

Female cops are also less likely to use excessive force or engage in misconduct. Smarsh argues that “toxic masculinity,” bias, and a culture of overly aggressive law enforcement (and even sexual assault) within troubled departments would be mitigated by having an even number of men and women wearing badges. “There is no greater agent of positive disruption than a female cop,” Smarsh says.

Here’s a clip from Smarsh’s not-to-be-missed Longread:

Men thus compose the immense majority of both women’s assailants and women’s official protectors…

“The history of police is the history of state power,” political theorist Mark Neocleous wrote in The Fabrication of Social Order. State power for millennia belonged mostly to men, of course, societal beneficiaries of a biological evolution in which size meant control. Modern policing thus centers on armed males trained to subdue civil disruption—most recently and notably, mass killings by male shooters with histories of violence against women—with physical force. The 20th century was a crescendo of militarization, first by the state and then by a fearful populace. It brought us to our current, boiling-point moment in which mostly male cops kill innocent civilians and mostly male civilians kill innocent cops. Racism is often the undercurrent, but toxic masculinity is the force that makes it lethal.

Meanwhile, a modern officer’s work more often involves driving a homeless person to a shelter than it does tackling a perp or drawing a weapon. For a society that in recent decades has dismantled many of the public institutions that once cared for citizens in need—mental health care, welfare, after-school programs—today’s American cop is among the few remaining tax-funded administrators of public wellness. He is less called upon to be a soldier than a caretaker.

Often the person who needs his care is a woman. In that process, gender can be a detrimental divide.

One result of that divide is that women are often disbelieved when reporting assault. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, ten officers in a Michigan police department—seven of whom were male—described their personal approaches to evaluating rape reports: “If there is no physical evidence and you said you got raped, did you get raped? …No,” one cop said. Other officers described giving alleged victims “a light interrogation” in the event that “there’s any inclination that there might be another motive” for the report. Such scrutiny of sexual assault victims deters reporting, of course. Unsurprisingly, the presence of female cops makes women more likely to report, according to United Nations research.

A police department’s treatment of domestic violence in its own ranks is telling of the culture it brings to work. In the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of domestic violence claims against its own officers from 1990 to 1997, 227 complaints were filed, 91 were determined to be worth investigating—and just four resulted in a criminal conviction. The validated claims weren’t mentioned in performance evaluations more than three-quarters of the time, and over a quarter of accused officers were promoted while under investigation. Calling out bad cops is risky business, of course. When a legal consultant in a civil lawsuit noticed these scandalous mishandlings in LAPD personnel files and leaked the story to the press, he became the first person in U.S. history to serve prison time for violating a judge’s protective order.

An even more sinister outcome of a gender-lopsided police force: Sexual assault of female civilians by male cops. Last year, the Associated Press reported that, over a six-year period, about a thousand officers lost their badges for rape, propositioning citizens and other sex crimes. Victims—mostly young, poor females compromised by addiction or criminal records and unlikely to file complaint—included “unsuspecting motorists, schoolchildren ordered to raise their shirts in a supposed search for drugs… women with legal troubles who succumbed to performing sex acts for promised help, and prison inmates forced to have sex with guards.” The study doesn’t capture the size of the problem, as it only counted revoked licenses, thus leaving out untold reported and unreported offenses that went unpunished. (Nine states and Washington, D.C., including highly populous California and New York, didn’t provide numbers or have no state-level system for dealing with officer misconduct to begin with.)

High-profile cases of serial-rapist officers leveraging the power of their badges to assault women have brought recent arrests in Los Angeles and convictions in Oklahoma City. In March, an Alabama state trooper who raped a woman when responding to her call for help after a car accident was sentenced to just six months in jail. In June, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf said of a scandal involving over a dozen male officers accused of having sex with a teenage girl and supplying her with money and information, “I’m here to run a police department, not a frat house.” In 2009 and 2010, sexual misconduct was the second most frequent complaint against officers, according to the Cato Institute.

The most frequent complaint: excessive force. This topic of broad public discussion for the last couple years has rightly centered on the race of victims, but relevant too is the gender of cops: Female officers are, in general, far less brutal. They are over eight times less likely than male officers to face sustained charges of excessive force, and two to three times less likely to receive complaints. This data, compiled by the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) in a 2002 report, also shows that female police officers favor—and succeed with—non-physical means of interaction with suspects, though they still use force when necessary. In 1991, an independent commission formed after the videotaped beating by white officers of black motorist Rodney King highlighted similar findings to little public notice.

Preference for nonviolence does not constitute physical weakness. The NCWP report cites studies indicating that women’s typically smaller stature doesn’t hurt their survival in the field. When physical force is required, training—not brute strength—better predicts success. Meanwhile, communication skills important for defusing dangerous situations, commonly measured as higher among female officers, are under-emphasized in officer-selection standards—hiring criteria that would encourage less violent male recruits, too. In these ways, a police force over-fueled by testosterone endangers not just women but people of any gender most likely to come into contact with police, including people of color or in poverty.

As someone who grew up with cops for family and friends, I’m sensitive to reactive discourse that casts every officer in a negative light—especially concerning so harrowing a job that I doubt most critics would perform any better. As recent killings of innocent black civilians by white male cops reveal, though, our police departments reflect the unjust power paradigms of our country.

Posted in prison, women's issues | 1 Comment »

Suicides at CIW, a New Trial After Miranda Rights Violation, and Indigent Defense

July 26th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

A BAFFLING EPIDEMIC OF SUICIDE ATTEMPTS AT CALIFORNIA INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN

Erika Rocha was 35 years old when she committed suicide on April 14 of this year, in the mental health unit of the California Institution for Women (CIW) in San Bernardino, just one day before a scheduled parole hearing. Rocha, who was serving a 19-to-life sentence for a juvenile crime, was taken off of suicide watch despite a making a suicide attempt before a previous parole hearing. (Read WLA’s previous reporting on Rocha’s untimely death: here.)

Unfortunately, Rocha’s case is not an outlier.

In June, one month after Rocha’s death, 27-year-old Shaylene Graves was found hanging in her cell, with just six weeks left to go on an 8-year sentence. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department said Graves’ death was a suicide, but the young woman’s loved ones are challenging that conclusion.

CIW has experienced an alarmingly high number of suicides and suicide attempts since at least 2013. In fact, the facility has the highest suicide rate—five times the state average—among all 34 prisons of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

There have been 73 suicide attempts and six women have committed suicide since the beginning of 2013.

A 2014 report examining suicide prevention practices at all 34 prisons of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found CIW, in particular, to be “a problematic institution that exhibited numerous poor practices in the area of suicide prevention.”

While the prison has been faulted for its suicide prevention efforts, CDCR officials have not pinpointed a single specific reason for the spike in suicides and attempts. There are likely other factors involved. Krista Stone-Manista—an attorney who took part in a lawsuit against the state over treatment of mentally ill prisoners—says the stream of suicide attempts may be due to “suicide contagion” effect.

“There’s a greater sense of despair there that I haven’t seen in other prisons,” Angie Junck, supervising attorney for the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, told LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron.

The inmates agree.

Other possible factors include an increase in drug traffic through the prison, and a high turnover rate for psychiatrists.

CA Senator Connie Leyva wants to solve the mystery. The senator says she is going to call for an investigation into the situation at CIW to ensure that “officers are receiving adequate training, making sure policies there are being adequately followed.”

Here’s a clip from Aron’s story for LA Weekly:

For years, the California Coalition of Women Prisoners has been asking California lawmakers to open an independent investigation into suicides at CIW.

“I think the problem is so deep,” Lenz says. “You could have better mental health care, but the culture of prison is so dehumanizing. I don’t think you can ever remedy the problem without changing the way we deal with crime and violence. But in the meantime, we want to help people survive.”

Following Erika Rocha’s death, which has received a small amount of media attention, their requests are gaining traction.

State senator Connie Leyva, whose district includes CIW, says she’s going to call for “an audit,” in August to “find out exactly what’s going on.” Leyva credits correctional officers with bringing the suicide rate to her attention.

“Clearly there is a problem,” Leyva says. “No one seems to be able to put their finger on what’s happening. We need to make sure that officers are receiving adequate training, making sure policies there are being adequately followed.”

She says she’s spoken to CIW’s warden, Kimberly Hughes. “I want to keep our discussion private,” Leyva says, “but we’re moving forward.”

Department of Corrections spokespeople declined L.A. Weekly’s request for an interview with Hughes.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kristina Khokhobashvili points out that CIW is the only women’s prison in California with a psychiatric inpatient program. “Those inmates that require that advanced level of care, they will leave CCWF and be housed at CIW, because that facility is set up for that,” Khokhobashvili says.


BECAUSE OF MIRANDA RIGHTS VIOLATION, NINTH CIRCUIT GRANTS NEW TRIAL TO MAN CONVICTED OF MURDER AS A TEEN

In a 2-1 ruling on Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said Kevin Jones Jr.—a man convicted in 2003, when he was 19, of fatally shooting one teen and wounding two others in a drive-by—must be granted a new trial because LAPD officers continued questioning him after the young man invoked his right to remain silent.

The court said LAPD detectives lied to Jones, telling him they had evidence of his guilt. Jones’ responses to the detectives’ post-Miranda questioning were pivotal in the case against him.

The victims who survived the shooting were unable to identify Jones from a lineup, and the vehicle witnesses described seeing was different than Jones’ car. The witnesses also described a hat that did not match Jones’ baseball cap.

The LA Times’ Maura Dolan has more on the ruling. Here’s a clip:

In a ruling written by Judge Jay S. Bybee, the court said Jones had invoked his Miranda right to remain silent when he said he didn’t want “to talk no more.”

“Once Jones said he wished to remain silent, even one question was one question too many,” wrote Bybee, a President George W. Bush appointee. Bybee was joined by Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee.

The victims were members of the Eight Treys Gangster Crips. They were shot while stopped at a gas station in a neighborhood that bordered the territory of a rival gang, the Westside Rolling 90s Crips.

An African American man sitting in the passenger seat of a black Ford and wearing a Cleveland Indians cap fired at the victims, witnesses said.

An informant told police that Jones was a gang member and drove a car similar to the one used in the shooting.

But the surviving victims were unable to pick Jones out of a photo lineup, and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, the court said.


CREATING A PATH FOR FEDERAL LAWSUITS IN CASES OF INADEQUATE INDIGENT DEFENSE

US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) announced their partnership on proposed legislation that would open up avenues for defendants to file federal lawsuits (including class action lawsuits) against states and local governments for system-wide failures to give poor felony defendants effective legal representation.

Across the nation, public defenders are severely overburdened (and underpaid), which means that and often can’t provide all of their clients with effective representation. In some jurisdictions, public defenders only have a few minutes to spend on each case. Approximately 95% of indigent criminal defendants take plea deals, Booker and Maloney point out.

“Fifty-three years after the Supreme Court reaffirmed our constitutional right to an attorney, public defenders are still juggling hundreds of cases and defendants are still meeting their lawyers only minutes before entering a guilty plea,” says Rep. Maloney.

These justice system failures most heavily impact low-income communities, Sen. Booker says. “The Equal Justice Under Law Act seeks to fill in the glaring gaps that have left too many Americans vulnerable and without adequate legal representation.”

The proposed legislation is a welcome step toward a more just public defense system, says NAACP Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy, Hilary O Shelton. “By allowing a federal cause of action that allows a class of indigent defendants to sue in federal court for systemic violations of the Sixth Amendment on a pre-conviction basis, you are offering a constructive and effective solution.”

By the way, Booker’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia is worth watching, if you missed it:

You can also read the full text of Booker’s speech over at Time.

In talking about Democratic pres cand Hildog, Booker managed to work into the speech his own most cherished topic, namely criminal justice reform:

She knows that our criminal justice system desperately needs reform, that we need to bring back fairness to a system that still, as Professor Bryan Stevenson says, treats you better if you are rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

She knows that we can be a nation that both believes that our police officers deserve more respect, support, cooperation, and love – and believes that a young twenty-something black protestor deserves to be valued, that they should be listened to with a more courageous empathy, and that change is needed in our system.

Posted in prison | No Comments »

Prison Call Fees Increasing After FCC Cap, How “Legal Financial Obligations” Also Burden Poor Inmates, and More

July 6th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

AFTER FCC PUTS CAP ON EGREGIOUS OUT-OF-STATE PHONE CALL RATES FOR PRISONERS—MAJOR PHONE PROVIDER MAKES UP THE LOST REVENUE BY INCREASING LOCAL CALL RATES

Last August, a Federal Communications Commission ruling placed a cap on how much companies can charge inmates (through their families) for interstate calls.

Research has consistently shown that contact with family is extremely important for a former offender’s successful reentry into their community, yet many families simply cannot afford to visit loved ones who are locked up far from home, so they rely on the telephone. But outsized fees for phone calls can be a huge financial burden and a significant barrier to family connection.

The problem appears to be that the FCC’s cap only applies to out-of-state calls, and the largest prison phone company, Securus Technologies, has reportedly increased fees levied against inmates’ families for local calls to make up for the rate reduction for out-of-state calls. The rate increases have resulted in an overall higher cost to prisoners’ loved ones.

Last week, the Human Rights Defense Center filed a complaint with the FCC about Securus’ fee shift.

Mignon Clyburn, a federal regulator who pushed for the rate caps, called the local rate increase the “most egregious case of market failure” he had seen in his 16 years at the FCC.

International Business Times’ Eric Markowitz has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

At Weld County Jail in Greeley, Colorado, for instance, rates went up 52 percent for a local call. And at a jail in Holdenville, Oklahoma, rates recently rose 43 percent in just 24 hours — from $4.03 on June 19 to $5.75 on June 20. Both jails have contracts with Securus. Right now, it’s unclear how many other jails and prisons have raised their prices.

Rick Smith, chief executive of Securus Technologies, defended the change in an email and pointed the finger toward the FCC. Smith argued that because the FCC eliminated fees, set rates below their costs, and did not ban commission payments (i.e. revenue sharing with sheriffs an prison officials) the company “had to increase rates as long as we received facility approval in order to stay neutral financially.”

“Bottom line,” Smith wrote, “the lower rates that were highly publicized never went into effect because the FCC failed to do their job and tried to set rates below our cost. There are no rate caps on intrastate and local calls, only on interstate calls. I understand that inmates and families are upset that rates didn’t decrease, it’s the FCC’s fault.”

Wright, the inmate advocate, conceded what Securus is doing isn’t illegal. “While Securus may not be violating the law … there is no question that they are not only violating the spirit of the Commission’s Order, but doing so in a blatant manner that indicates their contempt for the FCC’s reforms and authority,” Wright wrote in his official complaint.

When a customer emailed a Securus to complain, the company responded: “Due to an order by the FCC, effective June 20th certain fees related to inmate calling will be reduced or eliminated. As a result, you may see modifications and rebalancing of calling rates at that time to offset fees that have been eliminated or reduced.”

This offsetting, however, has real-life impacts.


PHONE CHARGES ARE NOT THE ONLY UNFAIR FINES INMATES ARE BURDENED WITH…”LEGAL FINANCIAL OBLIGATIONS” ARE ANOTHER USURIOUS FEE THAT CAN CRIPPLE INMATES AND THEIR FAMILIES

Another incredible financial burden placed on justice system-involved people by a growing number of local governments nationwide, is called a “legal financial obligation” (LFO). Jurisdictions charge defendants thousands of dollars in bench-warrant fees, filing-clerk fees, public defender fees, jury fees, incarceration fees, and more, in order to increase funding for their criminal justice systems. Not surprisingly, these fines, often carrying prohibitively expensive interest rates, have a hugely disparate impact on low-income and minority defendants.

And in 44 states, if formerly incarcerated people “willfully” default on paying these fees, they can be locked back up and slammed with even more LFOs.

The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

The interest charged on LFOs can be prohibitive for some former prisoners, adding thousands of dollars on top of the fines and fees they already can’t pay. For instance, on average, people in Washington State were sentenced to LFOs of $1,347. But that amount can increase significantly if individuals can only pay $5 a month. Many realize they may never pay off their LFOs, according to Harris.

The uptick in LFOs comes as states look for ways to pay for their corrections system while facing other revenue shortfalls. The fees levied on the formerly incarcerated include bench-warrant fees, filing-clerks fees, court-appointed attorney fees, crime-lab analysis fees, DNA-database fees, jury fees, and incarceration costs. They come in different forms: Fines are fixed financial penalties for given offenses, fees are charges for costs of using the justice system—and surcharges are levied on top of those—as a percentage of the total cost. States also charge for restitution and the cost of collection, and add interest surcharges for people on payment plans.

The percentage of prison inmates with court-imposed monetary sanctions exploded from 1991 to 2004, according to a study by Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett. In 1991, just 25 percent of inmates reported receiving court-ordered fines and sanctions, by 2004, 66 percent did.


EDITORIAL – NOT ANOTHER NARROW, “HEADLINE-DRIVEN” BILL TO CHANGE SEXUAL ASSAULT LAWS

In 2012, 15-year-old Audrie Pott committed suicide after three teens sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious, and then texted photos of her body to fellow high school students. In response, California lawmakers passed Audrie’s Law, which increased penalties for sexually assaulting someone who is unconscious. Unfortunately, the law was poorly though through. The scope of Audrie’s Law was too narrow and left major disparities in sex crime sentencing laws.

State legislators should not make the same mistake in the wake of the the unpopular Brock Turner rape sentence, says the LA Times editorial board. Instead lawmakers should take the opportunity to carefully examine the state’s rape and assault laws and disparities in sentencing that might have contributed to Turner’s lenient sentence. Here’s a clip:

It would have been nice if the brutal attack, the sentences and the headlines and outrage that followed had spurred a more exhaustive reexamination and overhaul of California rape and assault law rather than a bill so narrowly focused on the circumstances of one incident. It would have been helpful if lawmakers had taken the opportunity to thumb through their statute books and had discovered the continuing imponderable discrepancy between sentences not just for juveniles but for adults who rape conscious victims and those who rape unconscious ones. If they had, they might have had a more rational legal framework in place than the one that allowed Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky to sentence former Stanford student Brock Turner in June to a mere six months in jail plus probation for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman after a party in 2015.

But they didn’t, and the maddening result is that lawmakers are now repeating their mistake by rushing to pass more headline-driven bills tailored to the circumstances of a particular case and the highly unpopular sentence that followed.

When the Brock Turner sentence hit the headlines, Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose) quickly announced that she would introduce a bill on sentencing in cases in which an unconscious victim is raped (it’s worth noting that Campos is running against state Sen. Jim Beall, another San Jose Democrat, who is author of Audrie’s Law). She was beaten to the punch by AB 2888, a bill that once covered funding for food displays at California fairs, but was hastily rewritten and now prohibits probation for a variety of sex crimes, including rape or sexual assault of an unconscious person.

Posted in prison | 1 Comment »

Juvie LWOP, Sheriff Jim McDonnell on ICE Compliance, and VICE and HBO Look at the Prison System

September 23rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

REPORT: IN THE LAST DECADE, LA COUNTY HAS SENTENCED THE MOST KIDS TO DIE IN PRISON

Five counties, including Los Angeles, are responsible for 22% of all juvenile life-without-parole sentences in the United States, according to a new report by the Phillips Black Project.

The other four counties are Philadelphia, PA, Orleans, LA, Cook, IL, and St. Louis, MO.

Los Angeles leads the pack on the highest number of juvie LWOP sentences in the last decade at 6.6%, but Philadelphia has the highest count over the last 60 years. The Phillips Black Project researchers put Philadelphia’s tally at 214, 10% of all juvenile LWOP sentences, although one of the county’s public defenders told the Marshall Project the number is actually much higher.

The Phillips Black report shows a growing trend away from locking kids up for life, a practice which rose in popularity during the “superpredator” fear-mongering of the 90′s.

Fifteen states have eliminated juvie LWOP altogether, nine of which made the shift after the 2012 Miller v. Alabama US Supreme Court ruling that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole was cruel and unusual.

California has made heartening progress toward scaling back use of LWOP sentences for kids, starting in 2012, when California passed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which gave kids sentenced to life-without-parole, allowing courts to review cases of minors sentenced to life without parole after 15 years, and possibly resentence them to 25-to-life.

And in 2013, CA Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who committed murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole. (A new bill awaiting the governor’s signature, SB 261, would go even further by expanding the age of eligibility for early parole hearings to include lifers whose crimes were committed before the age of 23.)


LA COUNTY SHERIFF JIM MCDONNELL SEZ DEPT. WILL FOLLOW STATE LAW, ONLY SEND UNDOCUMENTED INMATES TO FEDS FOR SERIOUS OFFENSES

On Tuesday, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said that he would hand over undocumented jail inmates to federal immigration officials seeking deportation only if the inmates qualify for deportation under the California Trust Act. The state law passed in 2013 stipulates that local law enforcement agencies can only transfer people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who have been charged with or convicted of serious offenses.

LA Daily News’ Sarah Favot has the story. Here’s a clip:

McDonnell said he will allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to have access to county inmates for potential transfer to ICE under the Priority Enforcement Program once the inmates are preparing to be released as long as the inmates qualify under the California Trust Act. If ICE wants custody of an inmate, but the inmate has not committed a serious or violent felony, the inmate will not be transferred to ICE, McDonnell said.

The California Trust Act, passed by the state Legislature in 2013, limits the criteria under which people can be transferred to ICE custody for potential deportation to serious or violent felony convictions.

“While I have made clear my desire to abide by and implement PEP [the Priority Enforcement Program] as it applies to the county’s jails, the department will not do so when and if that program conflicts with the California Trust Act or applicable case law,” McDonnell wrote. “Our federal and state leaders have developed approaches in regard to this important issue that are at times in tension with each other. It is the department’s aim to balance and reconcile these provisions.”

The L.A. county supervisors voted in May to participate in the program and directed the sheriff to come up with policies and procedures to carry out the program within the county jail system. At the supervisors’ request, the sheriff held community meetings throughout the county before the policies were developed.

McDonnell said his objectives in developing the policies were to work with federal authorities to identify “undocumented persons who pose a danger to our community,” “partner with some of the most diverse and immigrant-rich” communities and promote public safety.

PEP was unveiled by federal Homeland Security officials this year as a successor to the controversial Secure Communities Program. PEP uses fingerprint data to identify potentially deportable noncitizens when the FBI performs criminal background checks for local police.


FIXING THE UNITED STATES PRISON SYSTEM

This Sunday, we recommend tuning into a VICE special on the inner workings and effects of incarceration in America on HBO. The documentary features President Obama’s historic visit in July of Federal Correctional Institution, El Reno in Oklahoma, and his meetings with inmates and prison staff.

The show, VICE Special Report: Fixing The System, will air Sept. 27, at 9:00p.m. (Pacific and Eastern).


Posted in immigration, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LASD, LWOP Kids, prison | No Comments »

Who Pays for Incarceration?

September 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

REPORT GOES BEYOND THE $80 BILLION THE US SPENDS ON PRISONS TO REVEAL THE COLOSSAL FINANCIAL BURDEN OF INCARCERATION ON FAMILIES

The average family with a locked-up loved one racks up $13,607 in debt related to their family member’s incarceration according to a new report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

To put that $13,607 deficit in perspective: 38% of survey participants’ yearly household incomes were less than $15,000.

Researchers for the report, which was also sponsored by Forward Together, Research Action Design, and other community partners, gathered information from a sampling of more than 2,000 people in 14 states. They also collected more than 1,000 surveys and held 34 focus group discussions to document families’ individual stories. Of the survey participants, 35% were in California.

One in three families reported falling into debt because of the high costs of accepting collect calls from and visiting their incarcerated loved one. Research shows that contact with family is extremely important for a former offender’s successful reentry into their community, yet many families simply cannot afford to visit loved ones locked up far from home, or pay the fees charged by prison phone service providers.

The high cost of incarceration on families affects women, in particular. Of those family members specifically responsible for the cost of court fees and fines, a whopping 83% were women. A fifth of respondents reported having to take out a loan to cover these costs. It doesn’t help that when a family member is locked up, it often comes with a loss of income into the household.

Two out of three families surveyed had difficulties meeting basic needs because of these fees, fines, and other incarceration-related expenses. And 70% of those families were caring for kids.

“This study confirms what society has ignored for too long,” says Alicia Walters, Movement Building Director at Forward Together, a leading organization in the project. “…that already vulnerable families and the women who sustain them are being plummeted into greater poverty, stress, and strain when their loved ones are incarcerated. Decades of bad policy have torn families apart, typically leaving mothers to make up the difference and bear the brunt of these costs.”

The crippling costs that their families are shouldering weighs on the inmates, too. “Everything that was put into bailing me out was everything my mother had in savings and she borrowed some money from my grandparents,” an ex-inmate from Oakland, CA said. She was back to working paycheck to paycheck. Eventually, about a year and a half after being locked up, my mother had to give up the house she loved and move back to an apartment.”

An incredible 44,000 state and local restrictions are placed on former offenders. The report recommends breaking down barriers to successful reentry—things like housing, government assistance, family reunification, employment, and education—will reduce recidivism and cut costs for families and the government.

Researchers also recommend moving away from a focus on punishment and toward rehabilitation, citing California’s Prop 47 as an example worthy of replication. The report also calls for alternatives to pre-trial detention.

“Shrinking the criminal justice system through sentencing reforms is not enough,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, National Campaigner at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “We must enact policies that restructure the system, remove barriers, and restore opportunities to create lasting change that reinvests in the families and communities most harmed by mass incarceration.”

Posted in prison, Rehabilitation | 4 Comments »

LA Jail Building Vote Rescheduled So Supes Can Take a NEW new Vote, This Time Legally….Veterans Help Each Other Heal in Prison……Does a NY Prison Have a “Beat Up Squad?”…Education in Prison Saves $$$ – UPDATED

August 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


CHASTENED SUPES RESCHEDULE VOTE FOR LA’S MUCH DISCUSSED (AND OFTEN VOTED ON) BIG BUCKS JAIL BUILDING PLAN

As we reported Tuesday morning, last week’s August 11 vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors to move ahead on a compromise version of the costly and controversial jail rebuilding plan turned out to be ..um…illegal. It seems it was not calendared on the board’s agenda, thus it violated the Brown Act, which guarantees that the public—i.e. the rest of us—will be notified in advance that such a vote is going to take place in order to be able to participate in the decision making process in the form of public comment.

Thus, as of Tuesday, the vote has been scheduled to be re-voted on Sept. 1, complete with plenty of time for public discussion.

We are genuinely curious about what the supervisors thinking in blasting the vote through last week without putting it on the agenda properly. Instead, after multiple years of discussing this puppy, it was rushed through as a sort of rider on another scheduled vote—namely the mental health diversion plan—as if it was simply a minor amendment of no consequence, instead of a hugely controversial multi-year project that will cost upwards of $2 billion.

It didn’t matter that, before the illegal vote, ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg threatened every kind of lawsuit he could think of, and other jail reform advocates threatened similar measures.

But then, on August 13, two days after the vote, District Attorney Jackie Lacey wrote the board a short, pleasant, but very firm letter advising the five Brown Act scofflaws that they’d better fix things. Like, now.

The supes did as they were told. Sort of. They didn’t actually rescind the illegal August 11 vote. Instead, they approved a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich to redo the vote legally on the new date, while leaving the old vote on the books in the meantime. The reason for leaving the old vote intact until a new vote could replace it was to avoid missing a strict deadline to apply for $100 million in state money that would help to finance the Mira Loma women’s jail. (Fear of losing the $100 mill was much of the reason the Supes engaged in their tortured efforts to make the legally challenged vote happen in the first place.)

Here’s the letter: Letter to Board of Supervisors

NOTE: This story was updated to correct our earlier erroneous report that the vote had been rescinded in order to reschedule it.


MILITARY VETERANS HELP EACH OTHER HEAL IN A WASHINGTON STATE PRISON

A Washington state prison houses convicted military veterans together, seeking to capitalize on their shared experiences to promote healing and their eventual transition to the outside. Washington is one of the handful of states that have instituted programs where vets are grouped in a special unit. Florida, Oregon, Virginia, and Colorado are some of the others.

Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington is one such prison where the process seems tentatively to be working.

Patricia Murphy, reporting for KPCC as part of the KUOW/American Homefront Project, has more on the issue:

Here’s a clip:

“We want to recapture that positive stuff that they learned in the military and them have them apply it to civilian life,” McElravy said.

The 90 or so men move about their unit freely. The walls are painted with armed forces insignia and flags.

The program is attractive to prison officials largely because it doesn’t cost extra money. Inmates with non-violent behavior while in prison are eligible; they work with the State Department of Veterans Affairs to sign up for VA benefits, services and job training.

Inmate Michael Kent began serving time for robbery in 2011 and came to the vets pod a year and a half ago.

“When I came to the pod, people greeted me. I was like, ‘Whoa, something is different here,’” Kent said. A common background helped to foster a sense of responsibility.

“There wasn’t all the politics. There wasn’t all the other garbage to be involved in,” he said. “All they were trying to do is help each other out. “

A story by Matthew Wolfe that ran late last month in the Daily Beast tells of a prison in Virginia with its own veterans’ pod, that is also seeing early intimations of success. Here’s a clip from that story:

Butler County’s Judge McCune, who spent a decade as a prosecutor, admits that veterans do receive treatment that, in a perfect world, would be available to all defendants. But he sees rehabilitating soldiers afflicted with combat trauma as a special moral imperative.

“If you’re willing to give your life to protect your country, we as a society have an obligation to help you deal with some of the problems attached to that service,” he said. “We’re trying not to make the same mistakes we made after Vietnam.”

In Haynesville, each veteran is assigned a position in the dorm. Recently the other inmates voted Corporal Boyd senior coordinator, making him the dorm’s unofficial leader. In previous facilities, Boyd tried to kept his veteran status under wraps—a challenge, as his right shoulder bears a massive tattoo reading “USMC.”

“A lot of guys don’t take kindly to you being in the military,” Boyd said. “A guy might be like, ‘What? You think you’re better than me?’ It’s better to keep quiet.”

In the veterans dorm, though, fights are almost nonexistent. If a conflict between inmates arises, there’s an intervention where everyone sits down and hash it out internally. The mood is calm and the dorm orderly. In the morning, racks are made, shoes squared away. Boyd and another group of vets meet for PTSD group on Thursday. The unit holds veterans from five different wars, and the average age of the dorm is a decade or two older than the inmates in gen pop. Boyd told me the level of trust was such that no one bothered to lock their footlockers.

“Everyone’s on the same page,” Boyd said. “We just want to do our time and go home.”


DOES A NEW YORK PRISON HAVE A “BEAT UP SQUAD?”

The New Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have written a very soberly reported story about a group of guards who work in the Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City, who may have deliberately beat to death a mentally ill inmate this past April.

Here’s a clip from the story’s opening:

On the evening of April 21 in Building 21 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell, an inmate with a history of erratic behavior linked to bipolar disorder, packed his bags and announced he was going home, though he still had several years left to serve on his drug sentence.

Not long after, he got into a confrontation with corrections officers, was thrown to the floor and was handcuffed. As many as 20 officers — including members of a group known around the prison as the Beat Up Squad — repeatedly kicked and punched Mr. Harrell, who is black, with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses. “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him,” said Edwin Pearson, an inmate who watched from a nearby bathroom.

Mr. Harrell was then thrown or dragged down a staircase, according to the inmates’ accounts. One inmate reported seeing him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”

“His eyes were open,” the inmate wrote, “but they weren’t looking at anything.”

Corrections officers called for an ambulance, but according to medical records, the officers mentioned nothing about a physical encounter. Rather, the records showed, they told the ambulance crew that Mr. Harrell probably had an overdose of K2, a synthetic marijuana.

He was taken to St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and at 10:19 p.m. was pronounced dead.

In the four months since, state corrections officials have provided only the barest details about what happened at Fishkill, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Citing a continuing investigation by the State Police, officials for weeks had declined to comment on the inmates’ accounts of a beating.

An autopsy report by the Orange County medical examiner, obtained by The New York Times, concluded that Mr. Harrell, 30, had cuts and bruises to the head and extremities and had no illicit drugs in his system, only an antidepressant and tobacco. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, the autopsy report said, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.”


PROVIDING EDUCATION IN PRISON REDUCES RECIDIVISM & SAVES MONEY: SO WHY NOT DO MORE OF IT?

Late last month, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch revealed a pilot program to give federal Pell Grants—college grants for low-income students—to thousands of prisoners, reversing a 22-year ban on giving such grants to inmates.

Meanwhile, in California four community colleges are launching classes inside certain state prisons as part of an 18-month, $2 million pilot program starting this fall.

Michelle Chen, writing for the Nation Magazine, points to a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which reported that participation in prison education, including both academic and vocational programming, was associated with a more than 40 percent reduction in recidivism, resulting in $4 to $5 saved, for each dollar spent on educational programs.

So why the resistance to providing more college opportunities inside the nation’s lock-ups?

Here are some clips from Chen’s story:

The plan to extend Pell Grant access in prisons is described as a “limited pilot program” authorized through a federal financial aid waiver program under the Higher Education Act. Incarcerated adults could apply for grants of up to $5,775 for tuition and related expenses, at college-level programs offered in prison facilities nationwide. Designed to allow for studying long-term effects of education on recidivism, the program moves toward restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which Congress removed in the mid-1990s.

College behind bars remains a tough sell to some law-and-order conservatives—hence the charmingly titled counter-legislation, the “Kids Before Cons” Act. Generally, however, the idea of de-carcerating the prison population appeals to an ascendant libertarian streak among Republicans because, in fiscal terms, textbooks and professors yield better returns on investment than weight rooms and laundry duty.

[SNIP]

But educational interventions may have more profound social impacts. Attending college classes has been associated with improved social climate and communications in the prison population, and “reduced problems with disciplinary infractions,” according to an analysis by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP). A study on women incarcerated at New York’s Bedford Hills facility was linked to improved family relationships, by demonstrating to family members a commitment to rehabilitation and turning parents into academic “role models.”

This is not simply about turning inmates into good worker bees. As a formidable prison debate team in New York has shown, postsecondary education enhances critical thinking by compelling incarcerated people to channel their often prodigious street smarts into more sophisticated forms of inquiry and analysis.

Glenn Martin, head of the reform group Just Leadership USA, which helped advocate for the Pell Grant initiative along with other decarceration measures, attended college himself while serving time in a New York prison. Post-release, he was rejected repeatedly for jobs, he recalls, but “what a college degree did for me was [also] to recalibrate my own moral compass and help me better understand why I was facing all those barriers to the labor market, the stigma I was facing.… I was able to analyze my situation in a much much more complex way.”

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, prison, Veterans | No 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

LA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS HEAR RECOMMENDATIONS AND HOLD DISCUSSION ON CREATING CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT FOR LASD

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.”


NEW REPORT SAYS RICHMOND, CA, HAS MADE A HUGE TURNAROUND ON GUN VIOLENCE AND RECIDIVISM RATES THROUGH THEIR FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND 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.”


OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO TRY OUT GIVING FEDERAL PELL GRANTS TO PRISONERS

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.


MEET CHIEF MICHAEL BOSTIC, HEAD OF THE TROUBLED CALEXICO, CA POLICE DEPARTMENT

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 »

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

OBAMA FOCUSES ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND THE U.S. AS “A NATION OF SECOND CHANCES,” COMMUTES 46 SENTENCES AND WILL VISIT A PRISON

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.


CA REGAINS CONTROL OF HEALTH CARE FROM FEDS AT FOLSOM STATE PRISON

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.


FOSTER KIDS MOVED AWAY FROM THEIR HOME COUNTIES SUFFER LONG DELAYS FOR MENTAL HEALTH CARE

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.


CA TURNING AWAY FROM SOLITARY CONFINEMENT…SLOWLY

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 »

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