Tuesday, October 13, 2015
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Juvie LWOP, Sheriff Jim McDonnell on ICE Compliance, and VICE and HBO Look at the Prison System

September 23rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker


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.)


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.


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


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


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s a clip from Rubin’s story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 14th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But the process has been slow and hard-fought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CA Education Bill to Help Foster Kids, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck Interview, CA Wrongful Convictions,

June 18th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


CA Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) has introduced a bill that would beef up California’s Foster Youth Services program (FYS). FYS provides vital education-related support to foster kids through mentoring and tutoring services. FYS, which began as a pilot in 1973, had such favorable results, that it was expanded statewide 17 years later, in 1998.

FYS and Assemblymember Weber’s related bill target a population of kids who often struggle to finish high school (nearly half of foster kids do not).

FYS in its current form, only lends support to foster kids who are living with a non-relative foster family or in a group home. Foster children living with their relatives are not eligible for the program.

AB 854 would extend services to the 40,000 foster kids living with family members—that’s two-thirds of all CA foster youth—who do not actually have better graduation rates than kids in non-relative foster homes.

Anna Maier and Zefora Ortiz have more on the bill in a story for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

A 2006 study conducted on behalf of the state legislature found that nearly half of foster youth (46 percent) drop out of high school—compared with 16 percent of non-foster youth—and less than 10 percent enroll in college.

“I feel strongly that I need the authority to serve students with the greatest need,” said Lustig.

The Foster Youth Services program began as a pilot in 1973 with four California school districts, and a 1981 statute formally established and funded FYS in the four pilot districts. In 1998, the state legislature expanded grant funding to county Offices of Education with an emphasis on serving students in group homes. The 2006-07 State Budget renewed existing FYS funding and provided additional grant money for county Offices of Education to serve a broader array of foster youth, including those in juvenile detention facilities. FYS programming looks a little different in each county. But in Mt. Diablo Unified (one of the original pilot districts), the approach is working. The program supports all foster youth, regardless of their placement type. The district partners with group homes, mental health providers and local universities in order to provide comprehensive support.

“We get to see kids who are smiling and feeling good about themselves,” said James Wogan, administrator of School Linked Services, which oversees FYS programming in the district. “Many people thought [these students] would need a higher level of placement, but they get support from their peers as well as us. The culture has really taken off here.”

Throughout the state, FYS programming is showing similarly positive outcomes. A California Department of Education report for the 2012-13 school year found that participating foster youth exceeded their 90 percent target rate for attendance, and more than 70 percent of students who received tutoring met their goals for academic growth. Less than one percent of participating foster youth were expelled from school, far surpassing the target rate of less than 5 percent expulsion.


On KPCC’s AirTalk, Patt Morrison (filling in for Larry Mantle), speaks with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck about the Ezell Ford case, officer discipline, and transparency.

The chief said he wished the department had more liberty to discuss disciplinary actions against police officers. Because of confidentiality rules, Chief Beck says his hands are tied. Beck will not be able to explain the discipline (nor the rationale behind the decision) the two officers involved in the death of Ezell Ford will receive.

“I must follow the law,” Beck told Morrison. “Now, we can have discussions about what would be a better way to regulate this but that won’t change how this will be regulated.”

Last week, after Chief Beck determined the officers acted within policy, the LA Police Commission determined that one officer acted outside of department policy throughout the confrontation that ended in the death of Ezell Ford in August. The other officer involved acted improperly by drawing his weapon the first time (the second was deemed justified), according to the commission.

For backstory, Ford, a mentally ill and unarmed man, allegedly grabbed for one of the officers’ guns during an “investigative stop” in South LA, and was shot three times by the two officers.

Here’s a clip from Chief Beck’s interview:

Chief, you and the commission are looking at the same set of guidelines, why is it that you found this to be in policy and the police commission didn’t? How could that happen?

CB: Well people, as I said, disagree on this topic all the time. Reasonable suspicion is a topic of contention in every criminal case in which it applies. This is not unusual for people to have different opinions on this and especially when you recognize that I see things through my experience, in my eyes, which is very different than theirs. That’s not to say who’s right and who’s wrong, but it is to say that I have strong reasons and strong beliefs in my opinion on this. I also have my role in the process and my role is to determine discipline if it applies to the employees involved and that has yet to come and I will absolutely do the right thing on that.

Do you have a deadline for that?

CB: You know, I have a personal deadline. I’m not going to reveal that because I don’t think it helps the discussion for a couple of reasons. One of which is that by state law, I cannot make public whether or not I discipline these officers and what that discipline was so to create an expectation that there is going to be some type of announcement based on a date point would be unreasonable.

Why no mention of the police commission in your message to officers?

CB: Well, it wasn’t intended to put forth a position for or against the officers by the commission. It was intended to do exactly what it did. It was intended to tell officers that they needed to continue to develop community support, that they had community support. I used myself as an example; I used the mayor as an example; I used the vast majority of Los Angeles as the other example. No intent to omit the commission. No intent to comment one way or the other about the commission’s support for the rank and file. I know all the commissioners very well, they’re good people. I believe that they were guided by what they thought was right. I am not disparaging them; that was not the intent of the video.


On Wednesday, CA Gov. Jerry Brown approved nearly $1 million in settlements to be paid to three wrongfully convicted Californians.

A former Long Beach high school football star, Brian Banks, was cleared of a 2003 rape conviction in 2012 with help from the California Innocence Project. Banks spent six years falsely imprisoned. Once on parole, Banks met with his accuser, Wanetta Gibson, and secretly recorded Gibson admitting the accusation was false. Banks will receive $197,000.

Susan Mellen, who spent 17 years in prison after she was wrongfully convicted of murdering her boyfriend, will receive $597,200.

Ronald Ross was found factually innocent after being convicted in 2006 of assault and attempted murder. Ross will receive $229,000.

The LA Times’ Phil Willon and Patrick McGreevy have the story. Here’s a clip:

At the time, Banks insisted that their sexual contact was consensual. However, he took his attorney’s advice to plead no contest rather than risk being sentenced to 41 years to life in prison….

Banks, who as a high school player had caught the eye of coaches at USC, UCLA and other college football programs, tried out with the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons after his release from prison but was not signed. In 2014, he was hired by the National Football League to help monitor games for problem calls by referees.

Claims are filed with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board and automatically recommended to the Legislature for payment if the petitioner was wrongly convicted and found by a judge to be factually innocent.


On Wednesday, we pointed to a tour of German prisons organized by the Vera Institute of Justice and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Seventeen criminal justice officials and experts are examining how Germany handles sentencing, juvenile justice, incarceration, probation, rehabilitation, and other areas of the criminal justice system.

The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah has committed to a daily tour journal. Day two found the travelers at Heidering Prison, where inmates can smoke, cook for themselves, wear their own clothes, and visit family. Inmates never spend more than eight hours in isolation. And corrections officers are trained more, paid more, and even knock before entering inmates’ rooms.

Here’s a clip from Chammah’s day two offering:

Though the prisoners cannot access the Internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone — even the media.

“We have nothing to hide,” Detlef Wolf, vice governor for Heidering Prison, said with evident pride.

As the tour took turns walking through the cell, I briefly met a 24-year-old prisoner named Bryan Meyer. He was wearing his own clothes—cargo shorts, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a black baseball cap. One of the most visually striking aspects of German prisons is how prisoners wear regular street clothes. It adds to the sense that the only thing being denied them is their liberty.

Administrators here freely work terms like “human rights” and “dignity” into speeches about their prison system, and Germans appear to view people who commit crimes as medical patients (the word “prognosis” came up a lot to describe the status of an inmate). There is little stigma after prisoners finish their sentences — employers in Germany generally do not ask job applicants if they have a criminal record, according to Michael Tonry, a University of Minnesota professor on the trip who’s studied corrections systems in the U.S. and Europe. In some cases, the cultural norms were so foreign that it was pretty much impossible to imagine them taking root in the U.S.

Once the shock wore off, the questions came, and they reflected the political and professional concerns of those doing the asking. Many of the leaders here who have been elected or appointed — including Marcantel of New Mexico and Jeff Rosen, the elected district attorney in Santa Clara, California — wanted to know about victims. Do their desires for retribution play any role in sentencing here? (In the U.S., they are often allowed to read “victim impact statements” before juries assess punishment, and prosecutors often consult with them). Do sensational murders lead to the passage of more punitive laws?

The Germans had trouble making sense of these questions. There were a lot of blank stares. In Germany, prosecutors and judges are not elected. As career civil servants, they are insulated from public opinion. Their work is more “technical,” said Gero Meinen, who directs the prison system in Berlin. The role is to protect the rational system of correction — which aims to restrict freedom the least amount necessary — from the retributive impulses that individual victims and society in general might feel.

Posted in Charlie Beck, DCFS, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Education, Foster Care, LAPD, law enforcement, prison, prison policy | No Comments »

LA County Selected for 1st Round of MacArthur $75 Million Jail Reform Challenge (This is a Very Good Thing)….& Holding on to Humanity at Pelican Bay

May 28th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


On Monday, Los Angeles County received news that it has been chosen as one of 20 jurisdictions in the nation that will take part in the MacArthur Foundation’s ambitious Safety and Justice Challenge, a $75 million initiative that hopes to “reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.”

This is very good news.

The 20 areas selected for this first phase of the challenge include New York City, New Orleans, LA, Pima County, AZ, Harris County, TX, Pennington County, SD, and the entire state of Connecticut. (Full list below.) The idea is for these cities and counties (and one state) to be mentored by the nation’s experts in such things through the process of creating and refining a plan to reform their respective jail systems.

Then in phase two of the Justice Challenge, the 20 jurisdictions, will be whittled down to ten. Those fortunate ten will receive a second round of mentoring plus funding of between $500,000 and $2 million annually to implement their respective plans for reform.

In other words, those who are part of the 20 are, by their participation, committed to a real, no-kidding substantive plan for jail reform, which will include strategies to reduce the jail system’s population and more. Then if they’re chosen to be one of the ten, they’re committed to implementing that plan, and will get an infusion of cash to better make that implementation possible.

(The 20 that were recently selected have jails systems that range in size from 239 beds in Mesa County to LA County’s 21,951 bed system, so for the second phase, the yearly funding for the remaining ten, will depend on the size of the jurisdiction’s jail system.)

According to MacArthur, the criminal justice organizations that will provide “technical assistance and counsel” to the 20 jurisdictions as they design and prepare their “comprehensive plans for local reform” are the Center for Court Innovation, the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, the Pretrial Justice Institute, and the Vera Institute of Justice.

The Vera institute of Justice in particular, has been deeply involved in MacArthur’s jail reform initiative with two MacArthur-funded studies released this year that both illuminate problems in the nation’s jail systems and point toward the way toward solutions.

For instance, we learned from this month’s study by Vera that U.S. jails are draining a lot more dollars from our public coffers than most people think. And in February of this year, another Vera study, Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America, showed the ways that the nation’s jail policies can do harm.

Vera’s February study makes clear that jails serve an important function in local justice systems, both for short term incarceration, and to hold those charged with crimes who are either deemed too dangerous to release pending trial, or who are considered flight risks unlikely to turn up for trial.

Yet, according to what the study’s authors found, the above categories no longer represent what jails primarily do or whom they hold. Instead, Vera reported, three out of five people in jail are unconvicted of any crime, yet are simply too poor to post even a low bail in order to be released while their cases are being processed.

For instance, in 2013 in New York City, more than 50% of the jail inmates who were held until their cases were settled, stayed in jail solely because they couldn’t afford bail of $2,500 or less. Most of these inmates were arrested on misdemeanor cases.

All of this time spent in jail purely for fiscal reasons, the report states, has collateral consequences in terms of lost wages, lost jobs, loss of a place to live, and loss of time spent with spouses and children, producing further harm and destabilization of those incarcerated and, by extension, their families and communities.

Moreover, nearly 75 percent of both pretrial detainees and sentenced offenders are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses—some of which could be more successfully handled through diversion programs that utilize community based services. “Underlying the behavior that lands people in jail,” write the Vera authors, “there is often a history of substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, failure in school, and homelessness.”

(The report notes that, in Los Angeles County, they found that the single largest group booked into the jail system consisted of people charged with traffic and vehicular offenses.)

It is these problems and others that the Justice Challenge of which LA County is now a part hopes to help cure.

The fact that jails can do harm is, of course, a fact with which LA is very familiar, what with the scathing report on our jails delivered in September 2012 by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, the looming federal consent decree pertaining to the way the mentally ill are treated in LA’s jails, and the recent landmark settlement of “Rosas v. Baca,” the giant federal class action lawsuit brought by the So-Cal ACLU that has resulted in a court enforceable roadmap to correct the use of force policies inside the jail that led to a pattern of brutality by sheriffs deputies against inmates.

Back in February, when the challenge was first announced we spoke to one of the MacArthur people, and also to one of the Vera study authors, both of whom said they hoped very much that LA County—the home of the nation’s largest jail system—would be one of those jurisdictions that applied.

To its credit LA County—which, in this instance, means the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Departmentdid apply and, as we know now, was selected.

We look forward to hearing about LA’s strategy for reform of its massive system as that plan evolves.

And, of course, but we cannot help but hope that LA will be one of the final ten that get MacArthur bucks to put their stellar plans into action.

The full list of jurisdictions selected for the first round of Justice Challenge is as follows:

· Ada County, ID
· Charleston County, SC
· Cook County, IL
· Harris County, TX
· Los Angeles County, CA
· Lucas County, OH
· Mecklenburg County, NC
· Mesa County, CO
· Milwaukee County, WI
· Multnomah County, OR
· New Orleans, LA
· New York City, NY
· Palm Beach County, FL
· Pennington County, SD
· Philadelphia, PA
· Pima County, AZ
· St. Louis County, MO
· Shelby County, TN
· Spokane County, WA
· State of Connecticut


In the Chronicle of Social Change, Wendy Smith, an Associate Dean and Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work has written an extraordinary story about her trip to Pelican Bay Prison to meet with men who were incarcerated for crimes they’d committed as teenagers.

Smith traveled to Pelican Bay with a group of lawyers, advocates, and law students with the purpose of talking to 250 of these inmates convicted as juveniles about California’s Senate Bill 260, a law passed and signed in 2013, which allows youth offenders given life sentences, the possibility of a new type of parole hearing at their 15th, 20th or 25th year of incarceration.

But the trip was much more than simply an imparting of information. In many instances, it was a walk back into humanity with men who were terrified that humanity was lost to them.

Here are some clips. But be sure to read the whole thing. It’s more than worth it.

During the small groups, we learned that some men had not been to the visiting room to receive a visitor for a long time; some had never been there. Some had exchanged no conversation with anyone but another prisoner or a guard in months or years. During the groups, described in the evaluations by many as the best part of the workshops, some men spoke and asked questions readily; others did not speak at all.

In the insight groups, some struggled with the distinction between excuses and explanations of crime, wondering if there was one. We spoke of examining and reflecting on the people and events in their early lives, and the environments in which they grew up as steps along the road that led to the crime and to where they are now.

Several men recognized aloud that they did not know how to begin this work. They wondered if there could be someone to ask the questions that could help them see into their own lives, to see the boy who was and the man who might yet be. Hope had entered the room, bringing with it fear and worry about how to make a turn from habitual ways of feeling and being, and especially, how to conceive of such a turn without help.

And then here’s a section from her meeting with men in solitary:

I told them that their crime was not the total of the person they were, and asked them to try to remember the very first illegal act they ever committed. In a moment or two, they all did. Most told me they were eight, nine, 10, or 11 at the time. A few were five or six, and a few were teenagers. All were old enough to remember a self that existed before that first act. I asked them to remember the boys they were before the crime.

We talked about how to begin to remember and piece together what happened after that, trying to dig deep to include the many steps along the road to the moment of a crime, and the decisions they made at the time and since. We acknowledged together the difficulty and shame of thinking and talking about their crimes.

In the SHU, as in the general population the day before, many men told me that they wished there were someone they could speak with on a regular basis to be able to do this work—they could not imagine how they would be able to do it. Some believed their inability to put things into words would make it impossible, now and at any parole hearing in the future.

Our conversations were brief and constantly interrupted by movement – our own as we rotated among the groups, and those of the guards and inmates, as bathroom trips and meal and water deliveries were made, as men were taken back to their cells and new groups of men were brought in.

Somehow, amid the locking and unlocking of cells and cuffs, and the congestion in narrow halls crowded with our group and guards, conversations continued. It became clear that for many of these men, we were the first people other than prison personnel or other inmates that they had spoken with in years. Some were nevertheless able to engage with little apparent difficulty, asking questions, enjoying the opportunity to interact with us.

For others, speech came slowly or not at all, and for some, even eye contact was too much to manage. These men spend all their time alone, in their cells or in the exercise area. The solitude of their confinement is absolute. Many had been there for five or ten years. Some had been there 20 years or more.

One man had spent the previous four months “debriefing,” telling what he knew about the gang life he had decided to renounce. Debriefing is the primary avenue by which inmates can obtain transfer out of solitary confinement. It is dangerous, as gang members often retaliate when someone leaves.

Those who debrief must be isolated from other inmates and their locations kept secret. For this reason, each of us met individually with this man in a separate visiting corridor. It was a relief to have the relative quiet of this space and a full twenty minutes in which my focus could be undivided.

He had been incarcerated at 17, already the father of two very young children. Now he is 41 and a grandfather. We spoke little about his crimes—he lived the gang life both before and during his imprisonment—but rather about the rocky course of his marriage over many years and how his wife helped him to get sober and to find the religious faith that strengthened his will to leave the gang life.

His eyes filled as he described his hopes for the future and his pain over how he had lived his life. Only lately had he begun to understand the impact of events of his early life: the loss of his baby brother, his mother’s wild grief that led her to cruelly abuse him, habitually pouring scalding water over his hands and body.

We wept together. There was much more he needed to say, but already the next advocate was waiting to meet and speak with him, and another group of inmates waited around the corner for me. It was awful to leave him with only the hope that he had found comfort in the humanity of those few shared moments….

Posted in ACLU, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, LASD, Los Angeles County, LWOP Kids, prison, prison policy | No Comments »

Realignment Revisited, CA Bill to Conceal Child Abuse Death Cases, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Crowdfunding Lawsuits Against Law Enforcement

May 21st, 2015 by Taylor Walker


California’s prisoner realignment, which went into effect in October of 2011, shifted the incarceration burden for certain low-level offenders away from the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) to the states’ 58 counties.

In 2013, the Public Policy Institute of California looked at what effect, if any, realignment had on crime in its first year of existence. It found a slight uptick in violent crime, but noted that it was comparable to similar increases in violent crime elsewhere in the country in states that had no new realignment strategy. (There was however, an anomalous uptick in auto theft, for which the researchers had no explanation.) At the same time, in that first year, the state’s prison population dropped by around 27,000 to 133,400 inmates.

On Tuesday, the Public Policy Institute of California released a second report, finding that in 2013, crime rates dropped several percentage points (or more) in all categories of violent crime and property crime calculated.

And, thanks to realignment, and more recently, Prop 47, the state’s prisons are now 2,200 inmates below the 137.5% capacity deadline set by a panel of federal judges. (Prop 47 reclassified certain non-violent drug and property-related felonies as misdemeanors.) County jail population growth has also slowed down.

A Sacramento Bee editorial lauds California Governor Jerry Brown’s criminal justice reform efforts, calling realignment an important accomplishment and a model for the nation.


A “trailer bill” tucked away in the CA budget proposal would hide records of child deaths at the hands of a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend. It would also limit access to other case notes, and keep social workers’ identities secret in such cases. Interestingly, the bill would also implement a federal order to release case files when kids are brought close to death.

Because the bill is attached to the budget, it will bypass the usual committee review process.

According to the Times, the bill could be voted on as early as today (Thursday).

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has more on the bill. Here are some clips:

…state and county officials implemented a battery of child protection reforms that child welfare advocates credit with reducing the number of children who die because of abuse and neglect.

But the bill currently under consideration would relax deadlines for the release of records, and keep the names of social workers secret. It would deny the public access to original case notes, instead providing abbreviated summaries of how the government attempted to protect vulnerable children.

It would also exclude the public from reviewing case files concerning children who were killed by their parents’ boyfriends or girlfriends.

[EDITOR'S UPDATE: We have just deleted a sentence in our clip from this LA Times story. It had to do with DCFS's purported sponsoring of this worrisome bill, which---according to information we have subsequently received---turns out to be incorrect. (A DCFS spokesman said that those at his office first learned of the bill's existence this morning from the LAT's and WLA's reporting. He assured me that DCFS is not at all in favor of the information-restricting proposed legislation.)

The Times too has removed the problematic sentence, although without notifying readers that they have done so. Instead the faulty information just unaccountably vanished. (Bad LAT, no cookie!)]


Pete Cervinka, the deputy director of the social services department who reportedly led efforts to draft the rollback, declined to answer questions about the proposal.

A spokesman noted that the department had not yet publicly introduced the language of the bill, which he said will implement a federal mandate to release records for the first time in cases where children are injured to the point that they are “near death.”


In a story for the Nation, Debbie Nathan, a journalist and freelance “mitigation specialist” for death penalty cases, gives an interesting take on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case from the eyes of someone whose job is to “de-monster the monsters.”

In death penalty cases, when guilt is already established, mitigation specialists dig through the defendant’s past to present a humanizing narrative that will sway jurors to spare the defendant’s life. Often, according to Nathan, the investigations turn up prior abuse, mental illness, and other traumas. But, Nathan says, the concepts and practices of mitigation investigations, vilification, and even innocence claims are indicative of a broken criminal justice system. Nathan argues that humans should be allowed to make bad decisions, even catastrophic ones, and remain among the living.

Here are some clips from Nathan’s insider take on the issue:

We search out hardship in early life. In death-penalty cases, this is usually like shooting into barrels of fish. Capital murder is an extreme behavioral outlier and almost always is associated with a gross inability to control one’s frustration, anger, and other antisocial impulses. The problem is most often associated with conditions like intellectual disability, mental illness, exposure to environmental and workplace toxins, and substance abuse. Learning this background can liberate a jury from simplistic and legalistic notions of “guilt,” toward the more complicated understanding that when terrible things happen to someone, even grotesquely violent responses are imbued with a quantum of moral innocence.


Exposition. Rising action. A plot gone awry and a horrible climax. The denouement remains to be written. We mitigation specialists hope the poetics of our client’s life will move the jury to consider their own poetics. To think, as they lie in bed at night after court: “There but for the grace of God go I. Or my child!” They might vote to kill a monster, but not a human. Mitigation narratives don’t work all the time—witness what’s just happened with Tsarnaev. But they work often enough, and they save lives.

As a result of this work, I see capital cases from the inside. I see privy things. Very occasionally, I see strong evidence that someone is actually innocent: they seem truly to have done no wrong. These cases underscore the State’s outsized and often corrupt power, exercised though egomaniacal and dishonest district attorneys, lying cops, inept “experts.” These cases have become a powerful argument against the death penalty.

But I’ve also seen cases in which the defendant and his lawyers have publicly claimed innocence—yet during my work I’ve found evidence suggesting my client is guilty. I’ve seen attorneys hide the “bad facts” of the case—facts, kept quiet by the defense, which suggest that my client did commit murder. These are the moments in which I question the corrosive role that “innocence” plays in criminal justice, and in our effort to reform that broken system.

Claims of innocence can be tremendously useful tools. In court they can rout a death sentence, particularly when raised on appeal to contest an execution that is imminent. Politically, innocence claims are a potent argument against capital punishment, because who, even among the most die-hard of capital punishment advocates, wants to mistakenly execute the blameless?

But innocence claims, even in far lesser crimes than murder, can be as corrosive to our struggling comprehension of humanity as is the prosecutor’s rant about “monsters.” Handed down in courtrooms and in the court of public opinion, a judgment of innocence gives indigent people, people of color, and immigrants the right in America to live. But the other side of the shiny coin of innocence is the crumpled currency of guilt. You’re not innocent? You fucked up? Then you deserve your exile—prison for an eternity, ejection from the United States, your life injected away on a gurney. After all, you’re not innocent.


Anoush Hakimi turned to crowdfunding to “level the legal playing field” by helping indigent victims of alleged police abuse pay their attorney’s fees.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has the unusual story. Here’s a clip:

The effort is designed to address a perennial problem in police abuse litigation: most victims are poor and their attorneys only get paid when there’s a settlement or a jury finds in their favor.

In the meantime, attorneys spend their own money to hire expert witnesses, conduct discovery and prepare the case.

“So naturally, plaintiff attorneys are reluctant to take on cases unless they are a slam dunk,” said Hakimi, 37, a Century City finance lawyer. “This leaves a lot of people out in the cold.”

Too often, he argued, victims are forced to settle a case on the cheap because their lawyers can’t afford to fight. The Iranian immigrant, who graduated from UCLA Law School, said he co-founded TrialFunder.com to raise investor money to bolster good cases.

Hakimi said investor money will “level the legal playing field” against deep-pocketed cities, counties and corporations.

Posted in Charlie Beck, Death Penalty, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Innocence, LAPD, LASD, law enforcement, prison, Realignment | No Comments »

Manifesting Justice This Week in Los Angeles

May 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


As events in Baltimore and elsewhere continue to unreel, on Saturday in Los Angeles, a unique combination pop-up art show and public discussion launched at the Baldwin Hills Theater to promote dialogue about civil rights, social and criminal justice, and activism in order to “build a healthier and more just future.”

The 10-day event, called Manifest Justice, put on by Yosi Sergant of TaskForce PR, along with the California Endowment and Amnesty International, features the work of more than 190 artists, discussions with criminal justice leaders and activists, as well as music, poetry, plays, workshops, and a lot more.

Manifest Justice opened Saturday morning with a Prop 47 Record Change Fair, organized by Californians for Safety and Justice. Attendees with felonies that qualified for reclassification under Prop 47 were offered free legal advice from LA County public defenders and volunteer attorneys, along with help in filling out required court forms. (We’ll have more on the Record Change Fair later this week.)

At 10:00a.m., US Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) chaired a community dialogue in which an array of panelists told of their personal experiences with the justice system.

There was, for example, Charity Chandler, a woman who now works as an activist at Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), founded by former film producer Scott Budnick.

Chandler’s first encounter with LA County’s juvenile justice system began in her early teens with a six-month stint in Juvenile Hall for petty theft after she stole a pack of underwear and a t-shirt.

From that point on, Chandler said she went through things “no child should have to experience,” cycling in and out of juvenile detention and foster care.

When she found out she was pregnant at 18 with a little boy, Chandler had to convince herself that she was not worthless. Chandler made a vow to herself, “I refuse to be a statistic, and I refuse to bring a black man into this world…and have him suffer like me and so many countless others.”

That decision sent Chandler down a path of transformation and redemption. Chandler became an advocate, and enrolled in school while she was pregnant. She said she finished graduate school this week.

(For more of Chandler’s story, watch her TEDx talk at Ironwood State Prison.)

Other panelists discussed their efforts toward policy change.

Dr. Paul Song, head of, Courage Campaign, spoke about the importance of funding universal pre-kindergarten as a force against poverty and crime.

Dr. Song pointed to stats indicating that kids in poor communities who didn’t participate in government-funded pre-K were 70% more likely than their peers to get arrested for violent crime by the age of 18, and that career criminals can cost the state as much as $1.3 million.

Song argues that while Governor Jerry Brown is intent on storing surplus budget money in a rainy day fund, “for many communities at risk…it has never stopped raining.”

Another panel member, Winston Peters, an LA County Assistant Public Defender, told his story of transformation. Peters said he focused only on the legal aspects of his cases, until he worked at a now-defunct juvenile center in South Los Angeles where, Peters said, he realized that, while he was a good a lawyer, his young clients faced a list of daunting issues that the law failed to adequately cover, abuse, trauma, and mental illness among them.

Peters also noted that LA’s public defender’s office has made efforts to bridge the gap he witnessed all those years ago, by creating a multidisciplinary approach that includes hiring social workers to team up with the attorneys in the juvenile justice division.

Elsewhere in the Baldwin Theater, a massive cardboard Lady Liberty holds her head in her hands. Across the room, a Ferguson police car has been turned into a garden.

Here are photos of a handful of the art installations on display (but really must be seen in person).

“The Talk,” by Michael D’Antuono:

Jordan Weber:

Yolanda Guerra:

Scheduled for later in the week are workshops, discussions, performing arts, and other not-to-be-missed experiences.

But, if you only choose one day to visit the Manifest Justice exhibit, consider making it Wednesday, May 6. At 6:30p.m., Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mom, and Dr. Robert Ross, head of the California Endowment, will discuss “resilience,” followed by a play from Patrisse Cullors of Dignity and Power Now and #BlackLivesMatter.

There are a ton of other great events and reasons to take in Manifest Justice before it’s over, so check out the website and calendar for yourself.

Note: Watch artist Max Rippon paint overlapping NY Times headlines to create “The True Is a Moment of the False” in the above video.

Posted in American artists, American voices, art and culture, Civil Rights, criminal justice, Foster Care, juvenile justice, prison, Public Defender, racial justice, School to Prison Pipeline | 15 Comments »

Prop 47 and Drug Courts, Ex-lifers Mentor Each Other, Prosecutorial Power, and Young Cops and Use of Force

March 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Before Proposition 47 reduced many low-level property and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors, drug courts were a place where people charged with drug crimes could avoid a felony conviction and time behind bars if they completed a rehabilitation process. Those who completed drug court requirements had a much lower chance of reoffending than than if they had instead served out a sentence.

But these drug courts were intended for those who committed felony drug offenses. Because the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is one year, there is not as much incentive to apply for drug court, or to finish it out, once enrolled.

In LA County, drug court applications are 50% lower than pre-Prop 47 numbers.

There may be ways to resolve this problem, however.

KPCC’s Rina Palta has the story. Here are some clips:

[A former public defender involved with L.A.'s drug courts, Mark] De Wit believes expanding eligibility for drug court could be the answer. And – for those who fail, a gentler sentence at county jail instead of prison.

Another proposal from Loyola Law Professor Eric Miller, include more serious felonies.

Miller admits however that there’s little political appetite for such a move locally, and it would be complex determining who would respond best to different kinds of treatment.

Miller adds that one of the shortcomings of the program already is that drug courts don’t engage in sophisticated enough screening process to weed out people who won’t succeed.

That very quandary has left many who work in this field with complicated feelings. De Wit, for instance, voted for the proposition, but simultaneously criticizes what it has done to drug courts.

And the California District Attorney’s office says a new policy is in the works that will change the qualifications for entering drug court.


KQED’s Scott Shafer visited a pilot support group in San Francisco through which paroled ex-lifers mentor each other. The participants discuss things like guilt and responsibility, as well as how to live successfully on the outside after spending decades behind bars.

This particular parole program is also being piloted in Los Angeles, as well as Pomona and Sacramento, with hopes to expand with the goal of helping the more than 2,100 paroled ex-lifers in California stay out of prison.

Shafer has more on the program for KQED’s California Report. Here’s a clip:

This meeting is a support group, an experimental peer mentoring program. It’s voluntary and those who come share practical advice, like tips on looking for work and dealing with one “no” after another from employers who just aren’t willing to take a chance on hiring an ex-felon.

One of the men, Steve Monger, said the last thing he wanted to do was work in a fast-food joint. But the rejections kept piling up.

“So me and another lifer, we just went in, we was honest with the guy,” Monger said. “We said we recently got out of prison. I was in 27, he was in 25, and we want a job. We’ll be here on time, we’ll work hard for ya. We don’t steal from ya. We don’t do drugs. You ain’t gotta worry about us. You call us, we’ll be here.”

Taco Bell hired them both. They’ve been working there five months.

Now let’s be clear here — there are plenty of inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole who will never, or should never, get out. It’s just too risky. They’re sociopaths, or they don’t show any remorse for what they did.

But over the past few years I’ve interviewed quite a few lifers — in and outside prison. And I’m always surprised at how thoughtful and reflective they are — especially given what they did to land them in prison.

Like Alisha Nolan Taplett. She was living in Sacramento when she got behind the wheel of a car with some friends out to settle a score.

“I was just looking at myself as the driver in the beginning,” she admitted. “Well, I didn’t kill anybody. But at the end of the day and every day, I still have to remind myself if it hadn’t been for me driving that vehicle, that young woman could still be alive.”

I asked Taplett what she’d say to a young person today who finds himself or herself in a situation where they’re being asked to drive a getaway car.

“If someone asks you to drive a car and you know that a homicide is going to take place, maybe you should pick up the phone and call 911,” she said without hesitation. “But that’s one of the things that we fail to do in our communities as well, because we don’t want to be labeled as that snitch. If I don’t save that person’s life by dialing 911, at least I know I tried.”


In an op-ed for the Marshall Project, Brian Elderbroom, senior research associate at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at Brennan Center’s Justice Program, lay out four reform-minded changes prosecutors can make to the way they wield their prosecutorial authority. (Instead of this way, and this way, for instance.) – links

Here are some clips:

Considering that crime has declined significantly, with violent crime falling by almost half since its peak in 1991, do prosecutors still need the leverage of mandatory minimums and long sentences for even the least serious felony offenses? To what extent have prosecutorial practices contributed to the high incarceration rates that are rallying Democrats and Republicans alike to seek alternatives to prison?


Campaign rhetoric should more closely match the national dialogue. Based only on DA elections, one wouldn’t know that crime was at historic lows or that members of both political parties are advancing policy reforms that aim to reduce incarceration. Prosecutors still regularly tout their success at securing the longest prison sentences and rarely campaign on the number of people they helped get treatment or avoid harmful incarceration. Instead of promising to pursue increasingly punitive policies, and then advocating for them in state legislatures, prosecutors should focus on expanding proven crime-prevention strategies.

Rather than trying to secure convictions and long sentences, prosecutors should focus on reducing recidivism and overall harm to the community. There is evidence that putting people in prison for longer than necessary can actually increase their propensity to commit crimes. There is also a growing body of research that suggests we have reached a point of diminishing returns with regards to incarceration and that additional increases to imprisonment rates will have no impact on public safety. According to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, prison expansion since 2000 had effectively zero impact on crime rates. Prosecutors are uniquely positioned to create opportunities to improve public safety while also reducing the nation’s incarceration footprint…

States and the federal government should require prosecutors to provide data on their charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing decisions. One way to ensure this outcome is for Congress to incentivize states to participate in a national prosecutor reporting program…


There is a growing body of research indicating that younger officers are more likely to be involved in shootings and other uses of force.

The officers who killed Michael Brown, Darren Thomas, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice were all in their twenties.

A number of law enforcement veterans and experts argue that recruitment ages should be raised, and that officer training should be tailored to the individual, and include stress-management instruction.

Buzzfeed’s Mary Ann Georgantopoulos has this story we didn’t want you to miss. Here’s a clip:

The risk of officer-involved shootings drops as officers age, according to a study conducted by James P. McElvain, formerly of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Loma Linda University and Augustine J. Kposowa of the University of California, Riverside.

The data used in that 2008 study, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, was collected from McElvain’s department, the 44th largest law enforcement agency in the country at the time. The results match what two researchers found in a 2007 study, published in the same journal, that found that incidents in which officers employ verbal and/or physical force diminished with each year of experience gained by the officer.

Researchers told BuzzFeed News they are not surprised that officers who use excessive, and sometimes lethal, force are young. Studies conducted by academics and police departments alike said age is a factor — one of many, but still a factor — in an officer’s use of deadly force.

Experts who have researched the issue said most people in their young adulthood — from ages 18 to 29 — haven’t developed full maturity of judgment to make, as the Justice Department called it in the Brown shooting analysis, “split-second judgements in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” (Federal investigators cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing this week, calling his account “credible,” but found evidence of discriminatory policing throughout the Ferguson Police Department.)

And police orientations do little to address the emotional needs of future police officers. Across the country, police training includes little to no guidance on the psychological and emotional aspects of using force and stress management, said Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.

“We place a great deal of responsibility” on young officers, said Tom Nolan, a retired 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and current professor of criminology at Merrimack College.

Nolan, who became an officer when he was 22 years old in 1978, said he was overwhelmed when he began the job. “I in no way had the requisite maturity and wisdom,” he said. “I had never held a gun before. It’s a dirty little secret that we’re hiring police officers too young.”

“I was in over my head,” he said about his start. “The tendency for someone that is overwhelmed or fearful is to react with excessive force, and I say that from personal experience.”

Posted in law enforcement, prison, Prosecutors, psychology, Reentry, Rehabilitation | 4 Comments »

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