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“Back on Track LA,” Sheriff and Doctor Duo Fight Trauma, How to Defend Kids Facing Life, and ending CA Prison Healthcare Oversight

March 12th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


On Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and Probation Chief Jerry Powers announced the launch of “Back on Track LA,” an innovative recidivism reduction pilot program that has been launched as a collaborative effort between the LASD, Probation, the AG’s Office, the LA County Child Support Services Dept., several foundations, and schools.

Back on Track provides participating inmates with education and job training, cognitive behavior training, and life skills and customized re-entry coaching.

“Instead of only reacting to crime, we must also focus on prevention to shut the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” says AG Harris. “Back on Track LA will hold offenders accountable to their communities, their families and themselves. This initiative will give participants the skills to become contributing and law-abiding members of society, which enhances public safety.”

Both Harris and McDonnell stressed the urgent need for such a program in California’s various counties, especially Los Angeles.

“At this very moment, 20,000 individuals are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jails,” said Jim McDonnell. “Too many of those in our jail and justice system come from broken homes and challenging life circumstances.”

McDonnell listed some of the challenges that the program will need to address, like early childhood trauma and the fact that a high percentage of jail inmates finished school.

“Very few of those filling our jails today have the needed tools to give them a good shot,” he said.

Ninety non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders, who are now the county’s responsibility post-realignment, are enrolled in the pilot program, which began mid-February.

Once the initial 90 inmates are released from jail, they will receive transitional housing, help with employment, and continued mentoring the entire year after their release. In addition, the college credits they earn through the program during their incarceration can be transferred to any community college in the state.

In order to ensure that the program is actually working, researchers will be part of the process from the very beginning, tracking participants and their outcomes along the way and in the long-term, and measuring them against the outcomes of inmates not involved in the program.

The program is funded through a $750,000 grant through the US Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act (Back on Track was one of just four recipients nationwide), and grants from the California Wellness Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.

Back on Track is intended to become a model for California, and hopefully for the nation, McDonnell said on Wednesday:

“What we are announcing today is not merely an experiment. We know we have too many people in jail who can and should be contributing members of society. Many of those in jail regret the decisions of their youth that landed them where they are today.”

Such programs contribute to public safety, McDonnell said:

“It is tempting to believe that by being tough on criminals by depriving them of education and skills training, we are being tough on crime. But that’s simply not the case.

We can reduce crime by reducing criminals, and we can reduce criminals by giving people the skills they need to get Back On Track.”


Laura Starecheski has another excellent story for NPR about childhood trauma as a critical health issue. This latest story follows a doctor and a sheriff who join forces to combat childhood trauma in poverty-stricken, and high-crime areas in Gainesville, FL.

When the University of Florida’s Dr. Nancy Hardt, a pathologist and OB-GYN, and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell realized that their respective hotspot maps (Hardt’s a map of children born into poverty, and the sheriff’s a crime map) were nearly identical, the unlikely pair knew they had to take action.

Here are some clips from Starecheski’s story:

The research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.

“I want to prevent what I’m seeing on the autopsy table,” Hardt says. “I’ve got to say, a lot of times, I’m standing there, going, ‘I don’t think this person had a very nice early childhood.’ ”

Back in 2008, Hardt was obsessing about this problem. She wanted to do something to intervene in the lives of vulnerable kids on a large scale, not just patient by patient.

So, by looking at Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Block by block.

Right away she noticed something that surprised her: In the previous few years, in a 1-square-mile area in southwest Gainesville, as many as 450 babies were born to parents living below the poverty line.

It just didn’t make sense to her — that was an area she thought was all fancy developments and mansions.

So Hardt took her map of Gainesville, with the poverty “hotspot” marked in deep blue, and started showing it to people. She’d ask them, “What is this place? What’s going on over there?”

Eventually she brought the map to the CEO of her hospital, who told her she just had to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell.

So Hardt did.

And, to Hardt’s surprise, Sheriff Darnell had a very interesting map of her own.

Darnell had a thermal map of high crime incidence. It showed that the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.

“It was an amazing, ‘Aha’ moment,” says Darnell.

“We kind of blinked at each other,” Hardt says. “And — simultaneously — we said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”

Read on.


On Wednesday, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth released a set of guidelines for providing quality defense to kids facing life imprisonment.

Gabriella Celeste, Child Policy Director at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, explains why making sure these kids have skilled and thorough representation is so critical:

“Kids are kids. They don’t stop being kids just because our criminal justice system has deemed them ‘adults’ as a matter of legal fiction to justify placing them in the adult system. Our system forgets that kids are still growing, developing, and maturing. This is wrong. Worse yet, the harm caused to a young person cannot be overstated, both due to their unique developmental stage as an adolescent and the damage that results from children inevitably facing more years in prison than adults and being at greater risk for isolation, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and trauma. Having an informed advocate can make all the difference.”

The report calls for a defense team of at least four—an attorney with experience representing kids, an attorney who has represented defendants charged with homicide, an investigator, and mitigation specialist to discuss all possible contributing factors like trauma and poverty and to stress the ways kids’ and teenagers’ brains differ from those of adults. An interpreter should also be on the defense team, if needed.

The guidelines also say defense teams must regularly meet with and maintain open communication with the kids they are representing. Defense teams are also directed to advocate for their clients to be placed in juvenile facilities, and to make sure that those detention centers have proper education, mental health care, and rehabilitation services.

The guidelines are endorsed by dozens of advocate groups, including Gideon’s Promise, the Juvenile Law Center, the NAACP, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Here are some clips from the report:

The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense. These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.

These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles:

- children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;

- children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and

- children must not be defined by a single act;

- juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation
of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation;

- juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development;

- juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally
competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner…

- juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing
determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation
to the court.


The mitigation specialist must investigate and develop a social, psychological, and genealogical history of the child client for purposes of presenting mitigating evidence at sentencing. The mitigation specialist also should work with the child client and his or her caretaker(s) to develop a reentry plan to present at sentencing.

Mitigation evidence includes, but is not limited to: the ability to make a positive adjustment to incarceration; the realities of incarceration; capacity for redemption; remorse; vulnerabilities related to mental or physical health; explanations of patterns of behavior; negation of aggravating evidence regardless of its designation as an aggravating factor; positive acts or qualities; responsible conduct in other areas of life (e.g., employment, education, as a family member, etc.); any evidence bearing on the degree of moral culpability; mercy; and any other reason for a sentence other than life…


On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson revealed a plan to end nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system.

When Judge Henderson initiated the oversight, he said the conditions inmates were living under constituted cruel and unusual punishment: California prisons were averaging one easily preventable inmate death per week due to medical neglect.

(Henderson is also part of the three-judge panel forcing California to bring the prison population down…or else.)

The federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso, says the situation is much better now: there are more medical staff members, the budget has doubled, and there are 40,000 fewer prisoners. But there are still cracks to be filled in.

Here’s a clip from a blended AP/Sacramento Bee story on the issue:

To address the issues, California over the last decade has:

Spent $2 billion on new medical facilities for prisons;

Doubled its annual budget for prison health care to about $1.7 billion; and

Reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

According to a report by court-appointed federal receiver J. Clark Kelso, the state prison system now has:

Adequate medical staff;

Processes to ensure inmates receive care; and

An oversight system to catch problems when inmates do not receive care.

However, Kelso noted in his report that that the prison system still needs to make several improvements, including:

Adequately keeping medical records;

Appropriately scheduling appointments;

Delivering care onsite rather than sending inmates to outside hospitals; and

Upgrading treatment areas.

Under Henderson’s plan, every prison will have to pass an inspection before the feds return some of the control to the state. At that time, Kelso will step back and act as a monitor, with the ability to take back the reins if the state begins to backslide.

Posted in Department of Justice, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, LA County Jail, medical care, prison, Realignment, Reentry, Trauma | 2 Comments »

Inmates Write their Own Obits, Community Policing, Ferguson Reports, and #Cut50

March 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


In this exceptional multimedia Column One story by the LA Time’s Chris Megerian, San Quentin State Prison inmates share obituaries they’ve written for themselves as part of a writing assignment. The inmates designed their own demise (several chose to die protecting others) and for what they wanted to be remembered.

Here’s a clip, but definitely go over to Megerian’s story and read and watch for yourself:

Since Julian Glenn Padgett arrived in 2006, he’s enrolled in academic classes and played Shylock in a prison production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Even while sitting in a cramped storage closet during a break from his work at the inmate-run newspaper, he spoke with the intensity of an actor on stage. Asked about committing murder, he cited a Walt Whitman poem.

Padgett stabbed and killed a man he believed was a romantic rival. Therefore, his victim cannot “contribute a verse” in “the powerful play” of life.

“I don’t want to be remembered as the man to do that,” he said. Like You, he doesn’t mention his crime in his fictional obituary.

Padgett, a 51-year-old Ethiopian Jew who wears a knit kippa over his dreadlocks, was convicted in 1997 in Sacramento and isn’t eligible for parole until 2023.

His obituary is brimming with passion for outdoor activities that are out of reach.

“Julian loved everything to do with nature,” he writes, “and often took trips with many of his friends on the weekends where they would go camping, horse back riding, snow and water skiing and his favorite mountain climbing.”

Padgett describes an epic death from an earthquake striking the Bay Area. It was the first thing that came to mind, he said.

“Earthquakes are memorable. They’re forces of nature,” he said. “To take me out, it would take something like that.”


The day after Sunday’s LAPD Skid Row shooting of an unarmed homeless man, the White House released an interim report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (established after the controversial deaths in Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland at the hands of officers). The report lauded the LAPD’s Watts and East LA community policing teams as well as its civilian oversight commission.

However, the shooting highlights how important it is that Los Angeles law enforcement agencies continue working toward better community relations through training, new programs, and policy changes.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

“Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community,” the report states.

The task force was formed in December in response to the national debate on policing after officers in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland killed young African-American men.

In the federal report, the Los Angeles Police department’s community policing teams in Watts and East Los Angeles were highlighted for building on-the-ground relationships with public housing residents. Officers there are assigned to community policing teams for five years and are offered more pay, according to the federal report.

Los Angeles also earned a mention for its civilian oversight board.

But shootings like the one on Skid Row expose the remaining rifts between police and communities.

Criminology professor Elliot Currie of the University of California, Irvine said having multiple policing programs is a good start, but the goal is for police departments to implement relationship-based policing across the board.

“What we want is for these not to be considered as scattered programs that we implement within a police department that’s otherwise unchanged,” Currie said. “But that we slowly shift the whole conception of what a police department is.”

Here is a clip from Los Angele Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s statement to the task force late last month about the challenges the sheriff’s department faces with regard to ensuring better interactions with the mentally ill:

We are…ill equipped to address the challenges of this population in patrol. Patrol personnel lack the requisite mental health training and we have a dearth of Mental Evaluation (or ”MET”) Teams and community supports to help deputies properly handle and deescalate contacts with mentally ill persons. In 2013, nearly 40% of all use of force incidents involved individuals suffering from mental illness and in too many cases we “arrest” our way out of these encounters rather than diverting individuals to the community treatment and care they need.

The strategies that can enable us to change this paradigm exist and are in place in pieces around the nation, but have yet to be brought to scale throughout the country. We need:

1. Resources to support crisis intervention (“CIT”) training so deputies working the streets (as well as within Custody) know how to identify and respond to individuals with mental disorders and, wherever possible, divert entry into the justice system.

2. Support for MET teams where we pair deputies with mental health clinicians and create a comprehensive response to those in crisis. In LA these teams are few and far between – often they operate only during business hours and can be as much as an hour away from a critical incident.

3. Support for community-based resource centers with multidisciplinary treatment in a therapeutic environment that avoids incarceration. These models exist elsewhere and, in the long run, result in improved outcomes as well as fiscal savings.

4. A new paradigm with strategies that focus on alternatives to incarceration – including mental health courts and other diversion strategies.


In an 86-page report released Wednesday, the US Department of Justice cleared Ferguson officer Darren Wilson of “prosecutable [civil rights] violations” in the death of Michael Brown.

A separate DOJ investigation found systemic racial bias and policing-for-profit within Ferguson’s police force and court system. Among other findings in the scathing 100-page report, black residents accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% percent of arrests. The report calls for….

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery have a helpful cliff-notes list of the report’s highlights.

(And here’s a WaPo list of alarming statistics from the report.)


The Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein explores what it would take to fulfill the goal of the #Cut50 movement to reduce the nation’s jail population by 50% within 10 years. That would mean more than a million fewer people would be locked up, through things like changing sentencing laws, bolstering diversion and reentry programs, and split-sentencing.

This figure is not attainable even by giving up the war on drugs and completely eradicating incarceration for non-serious/non-violent/non-sex offenses. Those convicted of violent crimes would have to be part of the population reduction equation.

This has criminal justice reform advocates on both sides of party lines disagreeing about the 50% goal, whether it’s feasible and inline with public safety, and what it would take to get there.

Goldstein’s story includes an interactive section that allows you to move sliders for offender groups and make your own 50%. (Go try it.) Here’s a clip:

Vikrant Reddy, coordinator of the Right on Crime campaign, agreed. “The focus among conservatives is the low-level nonviolent offenders.” As for Cut50, “I just don’t like the name of this organization. The reason is because I see this issue, and most conservatives see this issue, in terms of public safety. If I felt confident the levels of incarceration we have in the United States made us a safer society, I would begrudgingly say, ‘So be it.’”

“I really admire what Cut50 is trying to do, but I am concerned that people are going to misunderstand it,” Reddy added. “The bottom line is not just getting the levels of incarceration down. The end point is that crime rates are still too high.” (Crime is currently at a four-decade low, although rates remain high in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.)

Civil rights activist Van Jones is co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, the organization promoting the “Cut50” tagline. Jones and Gingrich are co-hosting a March 26 conference in Washington, D.C. to bring criminal justice reformers together across party lines. Jones acknowledges that conservatives have not signed onto the Cut50 goal. But he points out that many people convicted of violent crimes have, in fact, not hurt anyone physically, such as offenders picked up for theft or burglary and discovered to have a gun on them.

“We might want to look at whether someone who had a gun but didn’t use it should be considered violent,” Jones said. “People will say that’s gun crime and you can’t talk about them. Well, I think that’s ridiculous.”

That might discomfit some liberals who favor stricter gun controls. Meanwhile, the idea of the home as a castle has been popular on the right, resulting in laws that rank burglary alongside violent bodily assault. So on both sides of the political spectrum there is lingering support for the tough sentences that would have to be reduced in order to cut the prison population by 50 percent.

Jones and other reformers, both progressive and conservative, say it is not yet time to focus on the hot-button question of whether to redefine violent crime. “We’re not heavily leaning into that part of the conversation yet, because there is so much common ground on the nonviolent offenders, the indigent population, and the mental health population. We think we can get some momentum going,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, some scholars point out just how modest — by international and historic standards — a 50 percent reduction in the prison population would be.

“When does mass incarceration become regular incarceration?” asked Michael Jacobson, a former New York City corrections and probation commissioner and director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. To bring the United States to a prison incarceration rate equal to that of European nations — or to our own rate in the early 1970s — we would have to slash our incarceration rate from 623 per every 100,000 adults to about 150 per 100,000. That would be a reduction of approximately 80 percent.

Posted in Jim McDonnell, journalism, LAPD, LASD, mental health, prison, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs, writers and writing | 4 Comments »

Skid Row Shooting Points to Larger Problems…..Attica Dramas, Past & Present…CA Supremes Overturn Sex Offender Housing Law…..Holder’s To Do List

March 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


The above video of Sunday’s fatal shooting of a mentally ill Skid Row man by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department is the original one shot by a bystander that’s gone viral on YouTube, not one of the body cam videos that are expected to play a role in determining what actually happened, and if use of deadly force could have been avoided.

The shooting, which has inevitably sparked controversy, was covered by at least two amateur videos as well as the security camera of the Union Rescue Mission, and two body cameras worn by LAPD officers who activated their devices prior to the action.

While the LAPD has not yet released the body cam videos, LA Times’ Kate Mather and Richard Winton talked to police sources who have reviewed the videos. Here is a clip from the story outlining what Winton and Mather learned:

Footage from body cameras worn by an LAPD officer and a sergeant involved in Sunday’s deadly shooting in downtown’s skid row does not show whether the man reached for an officer’s gun, law enforcement sources said.

But three sources who reviewed the footage from the chest-mounted cameras said the video was still consistent with accounts that the man did grab an officer’s holstered pistol.

One source said an officer is heard on the video shouting “He’s got my gun” multiple times. The footage then shows the officers pulling away from the man as though his actions posed a threat, the sources said.

The sources requested anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation into the shooting.

The new information comes a day after an LAPD sergeant and two officers shot and killed a man in downtown’s skid row, an area heavily populated by homeless people.

The LAPD has said the officers were responding to a 911 call about a robbery and that the man tried to fight the officers after they approached him. During the struggle, the LAPD said, the man reached for a probationary officer’s holstered pistol, prompting police to open fire.

In a press conference on Monday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck showed a still photo from the bystander’s video that appears to show the homeless man reaching for an officer’s weapon. Beck also said that two of the officers involved were among those had received extensive training in dealing with the mentally ill.

Reverend Andy Bales, the highly respected executive director of the nearby Union Rescue Mission, who said he knew the homeless man shot by officers, who called himself “Africa, told reporters that Skid Row is becoming an increasingly difficult area to police due to the influx of homeless from elsewhere in LA County where officials, rather than deal with their own homeless residents, send them to Skid Row. Bales called current conditions the worst he’s seen.

LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, who has been widely praised for his own longterm work on Skid Row, echoed many of Bales’ observations on his Facebook page on Monday regarding the about the newly dire nature of conditions for LA’s homeless. (Joseph was not present at the shooting on Sunday.) The current system “is failing the mentally ill,” he wrote, “it is failing the community they live in, as well as the officers who serve them.”

URM’s Bales went further and strongly recommended far more training for law enforcement, and that the specially trained officers be allowed to take the lead in approaching homeless who are likely mentally ill, while armed officers wait nearby.

The veteran homeless expert told the LA Times columnist Sandy Banks that he’s frequently seen encounters similar to Sunday’s go wrong, “because the officers are all using one hand to protect their guns.”


Built in the 1930′s, the supermax prison located in Attica, New York, seems to have more than the usual number of ghosts—vivid collective memories that still haunt nearly everyone locked up in or working at the place.

Attica Correctional Facility entered the national lexicon in September 9, 1971 when, after weeks of tension, the inmates rioted and took over the facility, beating a guard fatally in the process. Although guards took most of the prison back within hours, 1,281 convicts retained control of an exercise field called D Yard, where they held 39 prison guards and employees hostage for four days. When negotiations stalled, state police and prison officers launched a disastrous raid on September 13, in which 10 hostages and 29 inmates were killed in an uncontrolled storm of bullets.

A total of 43 people died. That number included the original guard killed by inmates, William Quinn, and three inmates who were beaten to death by other prisoners. The extensive investigation that followed showed that the rest were killed by gunfire, and that the inmates never had access to firearms.

The terrible riot happened nearly 45 years ago. But now a new case of a brutal inmate beatomg by guards has resurrected many of the old ghosts.

A story by Tom Robbins, for both the Marshall Project and the New York Times, investigates the more recent incident, and also looks at it’s psychological resonance with the past.

The story concerns an inmate named George Williams, a 29-year-old African American man from New Jersey who was doing two to four years for robbing two jewelry stores in Manhattan. What happened to Williams occurred around 30 minutes after a noisy verbal exchange between a guard and an inmate, in which the guard swore, and the inmate swore back, then added a disrespectful and obscene suggestion, after the swearing.

Here are some clips detailing what happened next:

Inmates were immediately ordered to retreat to their cells and “lock in.” Thirty minutes later, three officers, led by a sergeant, marched down the corridor. They stopped at the cell of George Williams, a 29-year-old African-American from New Jersey who was serving a sentence of two to four years for robbing two jewelry stores in Manhattan.

Mr. Williams had been transferred to Attica that January following an altercation with other inmates at a different facility. He had just four months to serve before he was to be released. He was doing his best to stay out of trouble. His plan was to go home to New Brunswick and try to find work as a barber. That evening, Mr. Williams remembers, he had been in his cell watching the rap stars Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy on television, and missed the shouting on the cellblock. The guards ordered him to strip for a search and then marched him down the hall to a darkened dayroom used for meetings and classes for what they told him would be a urine test.


Mr. Williams was wondering why a sergeant would be doing the grunt work of conducting an impromptu drug test when, he said, a fist hammered him hard on the right side of his rib cage. He doubled up, collapsing to the floor. More blows rained down. Mr. Williams tried to curl up to protect himself from the pummeling of batons, fists and kicks. Someone jumped on his ankle. He screamed in pain. He opened his eyes to see a guard aiming a kick at his head, as though punting a football. I’m going to die here, he thought.

Inmates in cells across from the dayroom watched the attack, among them a convict named Charles Bisesi, 67, who saw Mr. Williams pitched face-first onto the floor. He saw guards kick Mr. Williams in the head and face, and strike him with their heavy wooden batons. Mr. Bisesi estimated that Mr. Williams had been kicked up to 50 times, and struck with a dozen more blows from nightsticks, thwacks delivered with such force that Mr. Bisesi could hear the thud as wood hit flesh. He also heard Mr. Williams begging for his life, cries loud enough that prisoners two floors below heard them as well.

A couple of minutes after the beating began, one of the guards loudly rapped his baton on the floor. At the signal, more guards rushed upstairs and into the dayroom. Witnesses differed on the number. Some said that as many as 12 officers had plunged into the scrum. Others recalled seeing two or three. All agreed that when they were finished, Mr. Williams could not walk.

His ordeal is the subject of an unprecedented trial scheduled to open on Monday in western New York. Three guards — Sergeant Warner and Officers Rademacher and Swack — face charges stemming from the beating that night. All three have pleaded not guilty. An examination of this case and dozens of others offers a vivid lesson in the intractable culture of prison brutality, especially given the notoriety of Attica…


After the beating ended, an inmate who was across from the dayroom, Maurice Mayfield, watched as an officer stepped on a plastic safety razor and pried out the blade. “We got the weapon,” Mr. Mayfield heard the guard yell.

Mr. Williams was handcuffed and pulled to the top of a staircase. “Walk down or we’ll push you down,” he heard someone say. He could not walk, he answered. His ankle was broken. As he spoke, he was shoved from behind. He plunged down the stairs, crashing onto his shoulder at the bottom. When guards picked him up again, he said, one of them grabbed his head and smashed his face into the wall. He was left there, staring at the splatter of his own blood on the wall in front of him.

An extensive investigation resulted. And on December 13, 2011, a New York state grand jury handed down criminal indictments against four Attica guards.

Inmates at Attica were stunned by the indictments as well. To them, the remarkable thing about the beating Mr. Williams endured that August night was not the cynical way in which it seemed to have been planned, or even the horrific extent of his injuries. What was truly notable was that the story got out, and that officers had been arrested and charged.

“What they did? How they jumped that guy? That was normal,” said a prisoner who has spent more than 20 years inside Attica. “It happens all the time,” he said. That view was echoed in interviews with more than three dozen current and former Attica inmates, many of whom made the rounds of the state’s toughest prisons during their incarceration. They cited Attica as the most fearsome place they had been held, a facility where a small group of correction officers dole out harsh punishment largely with impunity. Those still confined there talked about it with trepidation. If quoted by name, retaliation was certain, they said.

Those now beyond the reach of the batons described life at Attica in detail. Antonio Yarbough, 39, spent 20 years in the prison after being convicted of a multiple murder of which he was exonerated in 2014. Unlike Mr. Williams, Mr. Yarbough could go head-to-head with the biggest of Attica’s guards: He is 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. But he said that fear of those in charge was a constant. “You’re scared to go to the yard, scared to go to chow. You just stay in your house,” he said, using prison slang for a cell.

That fear was palpable to Soffiyah Elijah when she visited Attica a few months before the beating of Mr. Williams as the Correctional Association’s newly appointed executive director. The organization holds a unique right under state law that allows it to inspect state prisons. “What struck me when I walked the tiers of Attica was that every person, bar none, talked about how the guards were brutalizing them,” Ms. Elijah said. “There are atrocities as well at Clinton and Auburn, but the problem is systemic at Attica.” In 2012, the association began calling for Attica to be shut down. “I believe it’s beyond repair,” Ms. Elijah said.

On Monday, a day after the publication of the above story, the case was unexpectedly settled when three of the guards accused of beating Williams so severely that doctors had to insert a plate and six pins into his leg, each pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of misconduct. Tom Robbins and Lauren D’Avolio report for the New York Times about the last-minute plea deal that spared the three any jail or prison time in exchange for quitting their jobs.


On Monday, in a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that the residence restrictions imposed by the the 2006 voter approved Sexual Predator Punishment and Control Act—AKA Jessica’s Law—violate the constitutional protections laid out in the 14th Amendment.

Jessica’s Law prevents registered sex offenders from living within 2000 feet of a school or park where children gather, regardless of whether or not the offenders’ crimes involved children, or if the offender’s crimes suggested he or she posed any kind of credible future threat.

The law was challenged by four sex offender parolees in San Diego County who contended that the restrictions made it nearly impossible to find a place to live, thus undermining public safety by often forcing offenders into homelessness.

Jacob Sullum writing for Reason Magazine has more. Here’s a clip:

The state Supreme Court agreed, noting that the 2,000-foot rule excludes 97 percent of the land zoned for multifamily housing in San Diego County. Writing for the court, Justice Marvin Baxter said such an onerous burden, imposed without individual evaluation, cannot be justified even under the highly deferential “rational basis” test, which requires only that a law be rationally related to a legitimate government interest:

Blanket enforcement of the residency restrictions against these parolees has severely restricted their ability to find housing in compliance with the statute, greatly increased the incidence of homelessness among them, and hindered their access to medical treatment, drug and alcohol dependency services, psychological counseling and other rehabilitative social services available to all parolees, while further hampering the efforts of parole authorities and law enforcement officials to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate them in the interests of public safety. It thus has infringed their liberty and privacy interests, however limited, while bearing no rational relationship to advancing the state’s legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has violated their basic constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive official action.

The court said residence restrictions are still permissible as a condition of parole, “as long as they are based on the specific circumstances of each individual parolee.”

The ruling technically only affects San Diego County, but opens up challenges for other California counties, especially those containing large cities.


While according to Politico, it appears that U.S. Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch will not be confirmed until next week. (She was nominated by President Obama in November to replace outgoing AG Eric Holder.) In the meantime, however, in the Washington Post, Holder has put forth a four point To Do list of “unfinished business” in the realm of criminal justice. Here are Holder’s big four:

1. RETROACTIVITY ON THE CRACK/POWDER FAIR SENTENCING ACT “First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair. Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively…”

2. PASS A LAW RESTRICTING MANDATORY MINIMUMS “Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach…”

3. ONCE YOU DO YOUR TIME, YOUR VOTING RIGHTS SHOULD BE RESTORED: “Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions….”

4. OPERATIONAL DRUG COURTS IN EVERY FEDERAL DISTRICT: Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses. These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery…

Posted in Homelessness, How Appealing, mental health, Mental Illness, prison, prison policy, Sentencing, Skid Row | No Comments »

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

February 27th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Prop 47 Report, Laptops in Lock-up, Prison Rape, and Training Teachers to Identify Abuse

February 26th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


At a county public safety meeting on Wednesday, LA County interim CEO Sachi Hamai presented a draft report assessing the county’s implementation of Proposition 47. (Prop 47 reduced certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors.)

At the behest of the Board of Supervisors, the CEO’s office worked with other county agencies—District Attorney, Sheriff’s Dept., Courts, Public Defender, and Alternate Public Defender—to pinpoint the programs and efforts that could qualify for and benefit from Prop 47 funding, and to gauge the effects of the legislation, thus far.

Of the state money saved by Prop 47, 65% is to go to mental health and drug programs for criminal justice system-involved people, 25% will be spent on reducing truancy and helping at-risk students, and 10% will go to trauma recovery centers for crime victims. But it is still not clear how that money will get portioned out to counties, or if there will be restrictions on what the counties want to do with their money.

Some of the efforts county agencies flagged as deserving of grant dollars included victim services and restitution, community-based mental health programs for Prop-47ers, urgent care centers, the New Direction diversion pilot program to keep kids in school, and a reentry program for kids in probation camps.

The report says that it is still too early to tell what long-term effects Prop 47 will have in Los Angeles. However, county agencies shared some short-term effects, including courts clogged with people seeking downgrade their felonies, and a fewer number of offenders signing up for mental health and drug rehab programs.

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell and Cindy Chang have more on the report. Here’s a clip:

By the end of January, according to the Sheriff’s Department, the decrease in narcotics arrests was even greater, 48% from a year ago.

Local criminal courts will process between 4,000 and 14,000 applications from pre-trial defendants who were arrested for felonies but can now petition to have their charges changed to misdemeanors, the report said. Another 20,000 applications could come from people currently incarcerated, the report said.

Another category of cases is expected to keep judges, prosecutors and public defenders busy: the people who have already served their time and can now change the felony on their criminal records to a misdemeanor. Those cases could top 300,000 and date back decades.

The report quantifies an expected impact on court-ordered drug and mental health treatment programs: a decrease in enrollment because defendants are no longer threatened with jail time. Sign-ups for the programs decreased from 110 defendants a year ago to 53 in the first three months after Proposition 47 passed.


On Tuesday, we shared the first of Adriene Hill’s two stories for NPR’s Marketplace about correctional facilities that have taken meaningful steps toward bringing education up to par for kids behind bars by incorporating educational technology into the curriculum.

Hill’s second story takes place in the San Diego Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, where every kid has a laptop to use in class.

In San Diego County, the Office of Education has spent $900,000 on computers and accessories for kids in juvenile corrections facilities. Teachers are being trained on how to use the computers to help teach lessons, and tech instruction is now on the docket. And with the added technology, lessons can be tailored to kids’ individual needs.

Here are some clips from Hill’s second story:

Since July 2013, San Diego County Office of Education has spent nearly $900,000 on computers, printers and software for its secure juvenile facilities. Soon every one of the 200 kids here will have access to a Chromebook in class. All the teachers are being trained to run a digital classroom and add tech to the curriculum.

But getting to this point took more than a big investment. It took a significant culture shift.

“At first, we were a little nervous. I’m not going to lie,” says Mindy McCartney, supervising probation officer, who is charged with keeping the youth here under control.

“Everybody thinks they are going to use [the laptop] as a Frisbee, or attack somebody, or they are going to tag it and break it,” she says. “And it simply hasn’t happened.”

There was also anxiety about turning on the internet, even though there were firewalls and monitoring systems in place.

“We hear ‘internet’ and ‘access’ and we automatically get very paranoid and think the worst-case scenarios,” McCartney says.

But, so far, McCartney says there have not been significant problems. Kids aren’t using laptops as weapons. They’re not sneaking messages to gang members on the outside. In fact, teachers say the technology has made their students here more engaged in what they’re learning. That’s exactly the type of progress experts say the juvenile justice system desperately needs to make.


In many ways, educational technology is perfectly suited to kids in custody. Students who have committed crimes are constantly being yanked in and out of class. They have court hearings and meetings with probation officers.

“We do have a population that moves around a lot,” says teacher Yolanda Collier. She says when students have their own computers and some lessons are online, they don’t have to fall behind.

Say there are some supplementary stories, an interview…videos…and such, if I want.


The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah has an excellent longread chronicling the failures of the justice system to protect inmates from rape, and the gaps in the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Chammah focuses, in particular, on the sexual violence inflicted on vulnerable teenage boys who are placed in adult detention facilities.

Chammah tells the harrowing story of “John Doe 1,” a 17-year-old repeatedly brutalized by adult men in multiple prisons. John’s experiences are all-too-common, especially in states where 16 and 17-year-olds are automatically charged as adults. Here are some clips:

The second time David raped him, John says David held a homemade weapon to his throat. It was a toothbrush, wired up with four or five shaving razors.

The third and fourth times, David just left the weapon on his desk, in clear view, and relied on John’s fear to keep him passive.

Then, one morning around 6 a.m., while out on the yard for recreation, John says he saw David receive a mesh laundry bag from a prisoner he didn’t know. He could see that it contained meat sticks and bags of chips. These kinds of exchanges were common; he figured the other prisoner might be trading the food for the use of his cell as a quiet place for tattooing or some other illicit activity. (Official policy forbade prisoners from visiting other cells, but officers frequently looked the other way.)

That afternoon, John returned to his “house,” as prisoners call their cells, and saw his cellmate’s key—in this prison, every inmate had a key to his own cell—sitting on the desk. His cellmate was in bed. Feeling greasy after his kitchen shift, John started to undress so he could take a shower. As he took off his pants, he saw the mesh bag of food. He looked over and realized the man in the bed was not David. It was the prisoner who had handed over the bag of food. The man rose from the bed, grabbed David’s toothbrush weapon, held it to John’s cheek, and forced him down. This prisoner had a jar of Vaseline, but it did not do much; after he left, John found blood on his clothes.

John says he was raped several more times by both his cellmate and strangers. He was forced to perform oral sex, and he still remembers brushing his teeth twice to get the taste out of his mouth. He never told medical staff about his anal bleeding because he felt embarrassed, though because of a foot injury he was able to get painkillers.

John would later be asked why he did not tell correctional staff, since in theory they could have taken steps to protect him. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. He assumed the staff knew what was happening. From their station at the end of the hall, the officers would see men going in and out of his cell and they would not intervene. The rapists would put a towel over the cell door’s window, which was not allowed but must have been noticed by officers making their rounds. John says some of the officers would even make jokes, calling him a “fag,” a “girl,” and a “bust-down.”

Two months after his arrival, John finally reached a breaking point. Around 2 p.m. one day, David tried to touch the middle of his back. John pushed his hands away. David forced him up against a locker and wrapped his hands around John’s neck. John wrestled his way out, and emerged from the cell barefoot. Hanging a left, he ran to the guard station, and begged them to assign him to a different cell. He didn’t mention the rapes, only his cellmate’s attempt to choke him. The officers allowed John to grab his few possessions and move down the hall, closer to their station.

His new cellmate was not a predator, but by then John had been tagged as easy prey. Two days after he was moved, another prisoner cornered him in his cell and raped him. It seemed like other prisoners had figured out his schedule—when he would be alone in his cell, or in the shower. He was called a “fuckboy,” a term for the men who are “gay for pay,” trading sex for food or other favors, even though John said he never did.


It is impossible to know how many of the teenagers sent to adult prisons in recent years have been sexually assaulted, in part because so many of them have been afraid to report. (Rape outside of prison is known to be under-reported, and the same is true within prison walls, especially because prisoners face the possibility of retaliation by both correctional staff and other prisoners.)

Some corrections officials have pointed out that sexual assaults regularly occur in juvenile facilities as well as in adult ones. But many non-violent crimes lead to probation, rather than incarceration, when they’re handled by the juvenile system, and a 1989 study found that prisoners under 18 in adult prisons reported being “sexually attacked” five times more often than their peers in juvenile institutions.


Thanks to a new state law, California teachers and other school employees are now required to take an online training course on how to identify child abuse and neglect, and how to report it.

KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students,” Torlakson said in a written statement. “The new online training lessons will help school employees carry out their responsibilities to protect children and take action if they suspect abuse or neglect.”


[Stephanie] Papas, who helped create the new two-hour online training, said the course will help employees tell if a child has been hurt from abuse or from an accident, for example.

“We have photos that are examples of, say, a welt that is in the shape of a belt buckle or a slap on a child’s cheek that’s left a hand imprint,” she said.

Posted in Child sexual abuse, District Attorney, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, mental health, prison, Public Defender, Rape | No Comments »

Koch Campaign, Violence Intervention in Hospitals, Mental Illness and Solitary, Legislation Against Over-medicating Foster Kids

February 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Weldon Angelos will spend 55 years in prison for selling weed while carrying a firearm, a punishment tremendously disproportionate to the crime, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The conservative multi-billionaire Koch brothers want to help free Angelos (only possible through a presidential pardon), and introduce him as the face of their criminal justice system reform campaign. The campaign will target harsh mandatory minimum laws, overcriminalization of non-serious, non-violent offenses, civil asset forfeiture abuse, militarization of police, and reentry services.

The Koch brothers are part of a growing trend of Republican leaders and groups emerging as leaders in the fight against mass incarceration. Another high-profile group, the Texas-based Right on Crime, were integral to the passage of California’s three-strikes reform bill, as well as the more recent Proposition 47.

The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak has the story. Here’s a clip:

Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”

At the time of the trial, Cassell noted that Angelos’ sentence exceeded the minimum required for an individual convicted of airline hijacking, detonating a bomb intended to kill bystanders, and the exploitation of a child for pornography.

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.

He has more than 40 years left to go. Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.

His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem. And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.

The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.

They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week.

In the same vein, Mother Jones’ Sam Brodey has a roundup of five important criminal justice issues we may see some bipartisan reform on from Congress soon, including sealing and expunging records, good time credits, and mandatory minimums. Here’s a clip:

Earned-time credits: These programs, under which prisoners can work to earn an early release by completing classes, job training, and drug rehab, are highly popular among reformers. Many states already offer them, and they’ve been touted as smart, efficient ways to reduce prison populations as well as recidivism rates. Jay Hurst, a criminal-justice lawyer and commentator at the Hill, says that this is the likeliest issue where Congress could pass legislation this year.

Easing up mandatory minimums: These laws, which broadly require those convicted of certain crimes to serve set sentences regardless of the specifics of the case, are considered hallmarks of the tough-on-crime approach politicians used to embrace. Critics, such as advocacy group Families Against the Mandatory Minimum, argue that these laws “undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual” and that they are one of the main reasons for overcrowded prisons. According to Jesselyn McCurdy, a criminal-justice expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, half of those locked up in federal prison are there for drug offenses, to which mandatory minimums are often rigorously applied.

Last January, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which intended to reduce the size of the prison population and rein in ballooning costs by reducing mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for drug-related crimes. Someone serving a 10-year sentence for a nonviolent crime could theoretically get out in five, under the legislation. The bill also proposed broadening judges’ discretion to sentence below federal minimums, known as the “safety valve” for oversentencing.

The Durbin-Lee bill died in committee—a common fate for criminal-justice legislation—and a total overhaul of mandatory minimums could be a tough ask for this Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s new chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is a vocal defender of sentencing minimums. Still, experts say there’s reason to believe some progress could get made. “Safety valve relief could happen this Congress,” Hurst said, because it’s considered a more moderate path to reducing sentences.


A growing number of “hospital-based violence intervention programs,” designed to interrupt patterns of violence in kids’ lives, are cropping up in California and across the US.

These programs ensure there are tools and resources to redirect kids and teens from retaliation, when they turn up at hospitals suffering from violent injuries and traumas.

Not only are these methods successfully keeping kids and communities safer by connecting kids with therapy, job training, and other services at a pivotal moment, they are saving criminal justice systems (and hospitals) money.

Pacific Standard Magazine’s Lauren Kirchener has this story (we didn’t want you to miss). Here’s a clip:

When Joel Fein was working in the emergency room of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, treating a 16-year-old boy for injuries he had suffered in a fight, he felt truly helpless when he heard the boy say: “The guy that did this—I’m gonna cap him.” It would mean another fight, another victim of violence, and another patient in the ER. How could Fein do anything to stop the continuation—and escalation—of violence?

This helpless feeling, and this question, both eventually led Fein to his role as co-chair at a national network of “hospital-based violence intervention programs” (HVIPs) that teach health care workers how to help kids and teenagers who have undergone a trauma, and to divert their energies away from dangerous retaliation. And (not that this should be the primary goal, but) according to a new study out by Drexel University, it might save communities a lot of money, too.

The idea behind an intervention program in the hospital setting is that, while victims of violence might have other opportunities to connect with social workers or other resources at other times in their lives, the time right when they are recovering from their injuries may be the most crucial. So the people who are surrounding them at that time should be trained to help them make the right choices. The national network’s handbook for starting up a new hospital-based program reads:

The philosophy of these programs is that violence is preventable and that trauma centers and emergency rooms offer a unique opportunity at the hospital bedside—the teachable moment—to most effectively engage a victim of violence and stop the cycle of violence.

How programs actualize that philosophy will vary, but, for instance, San Francisco’s Wraparound Project assigns case managers to patients who can organize ongoing home visits or cognitive behavioral therapy, and can help patients get better access to government services. They can also point young people to vocational training and new after-school programs to occupy their time, and even to free or discounted tattoo removal—presumably so the kids can take steps to dissociate themselves from gangs.


In the first of a four-part series for WNYC’s Morning Edition program, Cindy Rodriguez shares the tragic story of Sedlis Dowdy, a severely schizophrenic man who has spent nine years in solitary confinement (seventeen total in prison, with five to go) for violent crimes associated with his mental illness.

Dowdy was released once, at the end of his fourteenth year behind bars, but only made it a few days in transitional housing before he was locked up again for stabbing someone. He will likely be released again in five years.

Among a number of other collateral consequences of how the US uses solitary confinement, a high percentage of people held in solitary confinement are eventually going to leave prison—often with more mental problems than when they arrived. When they are released back into their communities, they take illnesses exacerbated by isolation with them. (California struggles with this problem, as do many other states.)

Here are some clips from the WNYC story:

Dowdy grew up poor in Harlem during the 70s and 80s, as the state’s mental-health system went through a wrenching transformation away from large institutions to the underfunded, underperforming system that it is today.

The illness derailed what could’ve been the story of a young man who beat the odds. Despite frequent fights and dropping out of high school, he did well on his GED and attended college at Morrisville State in central New York.


…in February of 1996, he shot a man at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem.

“I didn’t even know the guy,” Dowdy said. “I couldn’t take the voices no more and they was telling me to do it.”

Dowdy’s violent crime made him an outlier: Research suggests that only 4 percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to the mentally ill. He was sentenced to five to 10 years but ended up serving 14 because of the serious trouble he got into. Within a 15 month period, starting in October of 1997, he became uncontrollable. The state Department of Corrections said he assaulted inmates and staff, had weapons and disobeyed direct orders. Dowdy said he was off his meds and delusional at the time.

And as he acted out, the prison responded with more punishment. Dowdy spent nine years, nearly a quarter of his life, in solitary confinement and was often only fed what’s called “the loaf,” which is a brick of baked bread and vegetables.

Experts say extreme isolation is like physical torture for someone who is mentally ill. Over the last four years, several states have scaled back their use of solitary for more vulnerable populations, including New York, which enacted a new policy last year as the result of a lawsuit.

Dowdy’s situation got so bad, he took to throwing feces on guards. He was prosecuted for it and got four extra years added to his sentence. Soon, according to Dowdy, punishment turned into brutality by guards. He described guards beating him, putting glass in his food and trying to break his legs.

“At the time I was just so angry I didn’t know what to do,” he explained. “And nobody was listening to me, so I would come out of my cell and not go back in.”

When asked about the abuse, the state Department of Corrections said records show Dowdy spent nine months on the loaf and in 2000 was the subject of one excessive use of force report complaint, the details of which were lost when the agency changed computer systems.

The environment inside prisons and jails is known to exacerbate mental illness, making treatment that much more difficult to deliver.

“The more chaotic the environment, the harder it is for somebody who is already having trouble organizing their thoughts and organizing their behavior to deal with it,“ said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University.


Karen de Sá’s alarming five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury exposed the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California kids in the foster care system. Last year, the Department of Health Care Services tightened restrictions on how doctors prescribe these meds to kids in the foster care system, as a result of the exposé.

This year a number of California bills are in the works to protect foster kids from dangerous over-medication.

One bill would allow kids to receive alternate treatments to certain psych drugs. Another would provide training to foster parents regarding psychotropic prescriptions.

San Jose Mercury’s Karen de Sá has more on the issue, as well as a rundown on the rest of the upcoming bills. Here’s a clip:

With a half dozen legislators exploring bills, de León’s staff has been working behind the scenes, attending meetings of a statewide reform group and meeting with advocates led by the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law and lawmakers considering bills.

“When the government takes the extraordinary step of removing a child from their families because of abuse or neglect, it assumes the tremendous responsibility of ensuring they are cared for and not further abused or neglected by the system,” de León said in an email.

This newspaper’s series “on the overprescribing of psychotropic medications has shed a spotlight on a deeply troubling aspect of the system,” de León said. “The Senate will be investigating the plight of the adolescents highlighted in these articles, as well as foster children generally.”


Lawmakers, including state Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, have each submitted early language to the Legislative Counsel’s Office, their staff members confirmed. Other bills that address prescribing psychotropics in group homes are also in the early stages.

The influential California Welfare Directors Association is working with Mitchell’s office on legislation that would provide more information to judges, social workers and others in the lives of foster children about their medication and treatment history. That information would give judges who authorize medications more than just a prescriber’s recommendation. It would include observations from social workers, caregivers and the children themselves.

“We’ve been very concerned about making sure that only kids who really need these drugs are getting them,” said Frank Mecca, the welfare director association’s executive director.

Yet, opposition has already surfaced over the state Department of Health Care Services’ decision last fall to require that doctors receive extra authorization to prescribe antipsychotics to children 18 and younger in the public health system…

Hop over to the SJ Mercury for the rest of the story.

Posted in Foster Care, juvenile justice, Mental Illness, prison, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Right on Crime, Sentencing, Trauma, Violence Prevention | No Comments »

“Ghettoside”….Unsolved Murders….a CA Prison Healthcare Company and Inmate Deaths…and Helping Homeless Kids

January 26th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


In her brand new book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, LA Times crime reporter Jill Leovy tells the story of an 18-year-old son of a homicide detective, Bryant Tennelle, who was shot by gang members looking for an easy target from a rival neighborhood. Tennelle was a smart, black kid who was not in a gang.

Ghettoside uses Tennelle’s tragic death and subsequent investigation as a human portrait of homicide in Los Angeles and across the country, particularly young men of color killing other young men of color, breakdowns in the criminal justice system, and why so many of these murders go unsolved.

Leovy’s book is already getting a lot of well-deserved attention (and we’ll have more on Ghettoside when it’s released).

Prior to writing Ghettoside, Leovy created the LA Times’ Homicide Report, a ground-breaking blog that endeavored to record every homicide in LA County, and told the stories of the unknown and unnoticed victims, matching faces to the statistics.

NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Leovy about her book, which will be released tomorrow (Tuesday). Here’s a clip:

On what the Tennelle murder investigation found:

The [detectives] … call it “profiling murder.” And so what’s happening is gang members will get in a car, they will go to the rival neighborhood to send a message and they will just look for the easiest, most likely victim they can find. And [it's] probably going to be a young black man. And if he fits the part, that’s good enough. And an astonishing number of victims — I did a count in 2008 of 300-some LA homicides of the gang-related homicides, and I think something like 40 percent of the victims were this sort of a victim: non-combatant, not directly party to the quarrel that instigated the homicide, but ended up dead nonetheless.

On the challenge of getting witnesses to talk:

Well, everybody’s terrified. I’ve had people clutch my clothes and beg me to not even write that there was anybody at the scene. I’m not even describing them. They just don’t want anyone to know that there was somebody at the scene. …

In the big years in LA, in the early ’90s, young black men in their early 20s — who, by the way, are a disproportionate group among homicide witnesses because this is the milieu they’re in — had a rate of death from homicide that was higher than those of American troops in Iraq in about 2005. So people talk about a “war zone” — it was higher than a combat death rate. They are terrified, they have concrete reason to be terrified and then the justice system comes along and asks them to put themselves in possibly even more danger. What would you do?

Ghettoside also landed a front-page NY Times book review by Jennifer Gonnerman.


The LA Daily News has two excellent stories sharing common themes with Leovy’s Ghettoside.

In the first, Sarah Favot, compiled and analyzed mountains of unsolved LA County homicide data from 2000-2010. Favot found that 46% of the 11,244 homicides recorded during those years remain unsolved. At 54%, LA County had nearly a 10% lower success rate than the national average (63%).

Here are some clips from Favot’s report:

The homicide information analyzed by this news organization is the first-of-its-kind database of unsolved homicide cases in L.A. County from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2010. A 54 percent countywide clearance is not satisfactory, said L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. “In the real world, these are people’s lives and their memories and how they view the system,” McDonnell said. “You can never bring the person back, but at least there is some level of justice when people are held accountable; it adds to the credibility of the system.”


The data analysis is based on 11,244 homicides recorded over the time period by the L. A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. Law enforcement agencies throughout the county provided the statuses of 10,501 homicide investigations. Information was not provided on 682 cases and detectives determined an additional 61 deaths were no longer considered homicides.

In 44 percent of the cases in which the status was known, a suspect had been arrested. About 10 percent of the homicides are considered “solved by other means” either because the suspect had died, the case was deemed a murder-suicide or police investigators determined the death to be justified, as in the case of an officer-involved shooting.

“This is eye-popping data when you look at it in detail,” said Jody Armour, the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC. “You see stark differences in just homicide numbers and (clearance) rates as a function of race….It’s a window on race and class and crime in L.A. and therefore in much of America.”


Half of the homicides of black victims remain unsolved. Black victims made up about 34 percent of all homicides recorded in L.A. County during the 11-year period.

Blacks and Latinos are killed most often because they are more likely to live in high crime and gang-affected areas where illegal weapons proliferate, said Jorja Leap, a professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and nationally recognized gang expert conducting a five-year research study evaluating the impact of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and re-entry program in Los Angeles.

In the second, Rebecca Kimitch explores two crucial reasons many of these homicides go unsolved—witnesses’ mistrust of law enforcement and fear of retaliation for “snitching”—as well as what can be done to build trust between cops and communities. Here are some clips:

…some departments in large cities across the United States, including Houston, Denver, San Diego and Jacksonville, have bucked the trend, boasting homicide clearance rates of 80 to 90 percent. They’ve even cleared more of the most difficult to crack cases: those involving gangs.

How have they done it?

To start, by finding something that doesn’t cost a dime but eludes most police departments: community trust.


“People just don’t want to get involved. Nobody would tell me, ‘Detective Yu, this is what I saw,’ ” the detective said. “That happens a lot in gang cases. At the end of the day, the common denominator is people are scared to talk.”

It’s the snitch rule, explained 26-year-old South L.A. student Shea Harrison. Talking means risking your life, he said, and it doesn’t matter if the victims weren’t part of a gang.

“It’s just the code,” he said.

On the rare occasion that witnesses come forward with information in gang-related homicides, getting them to testify in court “can take an act of God,” said Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide Detective Frank Salerno.

And with the Internet and social media making it easier to track people down, the fear of retribution is growing, Salerno said, making the public less and less inclined to get involved. While social media has also made it easier, in come cases, for police to track down witnesses, just because someone said something on Twitter, they aren’t necessarily going to say more to police or in a courtroom, Salerno said.

In some cases, it’s not gangs that potential witnesses fear, it’s the police…


California Forensic Medical Group provides health care (and in many cases mental health care) to 65 adult and juvenile facilities in more than 20 counties, including Ventura, Yolo, Monterey, and Sonoma.

Allegations of negligence via inadequate physical and mental healthcare, drug detox services, and severe understaffing have emerged as the number of healthcare-related deaths have jumped in counties across the state. CFMG has come up against more than a dozen lawsuits by California inmates’ families.

From 2004 to 2014, 92 people either committed suicide or overdosed on drugs under the care of CFMG in county facilities. In 2012, when CFMG took over health care in Santa Cruz, four people died within the nine months. Last year in Sonoma, four inmates died in less than a month.

The Sacramento Bee’s Brad Branan has more on the issue. Here’s how it opens:

On a Saturday morning in 2010, Clearlake police showed up at the home of 38-year-old Jimmy Ray Hatfield after he barricaded himself in his bedroom and told his parents he had a bomb.

Hatfield was mentally ill and thought someone was going to kill him, his parents told police. After a lengthy standoff, he was brought to a hospital, given an antipsychotic and a sedative and transported to the Lake County jail, records show.

The jail nurse received paperwork from the hospital detailing his psychotic state, but said she did not review it because that was the job of another nurse. That nurse wasn’t scheduled to work for another day and a half.

By then, Hatfield was found unresponsive in his cell, hanging from a bed sheet.

The company responsible for the jail’s health care, California Forensic Medical Group, was accused by Hatfield’s family of negligence in his death and settled the case for an undisclosed amount. It has faced allegations that it failed to provide proper care in dozens of U.S. District Court cases over the last decade.

CFMG is the state’s largest for-profit correctional health care company, delivering medical service in 27 counties, including El Dorado, Placer and Yolo. The company also provides jail mental health service in 20 counties.

The company started in 1984 with a contract to provide care in Monterey County and has consistently grown by taking over inmate health care in small and medium-size counties. Bigger counties, including Sacramento, tend to provide their own correctional health care.

Since the state started sentencing lower level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons in 2011, attorneys who successfully sued the state over inmate health care are now suing counties. That realignment has prompted more counties to rely on private companies such as CFMG to oversee jail health care to control costs and reduce liability.

At least three county grand juries have criticized the company’s role in inmate deaths. Some investigations have been spurred by a spike in deaths – four people in Sonoma County in an 11-month period ending in 2007 and four people in nine months in Santa Cruz County after CFMG took over health care in 2012.

Sonoma County officials are promising yet another investigation following the death of four inmates in less than a month last year.

A common thread in the reports and court complaints: CFMG allegedly provides insufficient mental health and detoxification services, two of the most persistent needs in jails.


In LA County in 2013, two-thirds of the 7,400 homeless family members were children, in addition to 819 unaccompanied minors, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s homeless count.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Robin Rivera, once a runaway herself, points to nine evidence-based approaches to help children out of homelessness, established by the Homeless Youth Collaborative on Developmental Evaluation.

Here are the first four:

Journey Oriented: Recognizing that everyone is on a journey and conveying that message to the client. It is helping them to see a future and they get to choose what they will create.

Trauma-Informed: All staff that have contact with clients need to be trauma trained as to be more successful and to not inflict any additional traumatic experiences for the youth.

Non-Judgmental: To make sure that clients know they will receive services and support regardless of their past, present, or future choices. This creates trust and openness.

Harm Reduction: Help clients to minimize risky behaviors in the short and long-term scenarios. This means understanding that risky behaviors do not go away over night, but an emphasis on working towards reduction.

Posted in Foster Care, Gangs, Homelessness, mental health, prison, racial justice | No Comments »

Ezell Ford, LA County Crime Rates, Flashbang Grenades, and Kids’ Perceptions of Incarceration

January 15th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Going beyond Ezell Ford’s controversial death at the hands of LAPD officers last August, KPCC’s Sharon McNary shares important pieces of the young man’s history—from his promising childhood (one filled with not so far-fetched dreams of playing pro basketball), to getting hit by a bullet during a gang-related shooting in 2008, to his battle with mental illness. Here are some clips:

“To his aunt December 25, 2004. My goals in life. What do I want to be when I am 20 years old? I would like to be a pro basketball player. I would like to be in college studying to be a doctor.”

Ford, at 16, filled the page with his careful, neat printing. He imagined each decade of his future life: practicing medicine during his pro-basketball off-season, retiring from the game, owning a nice home.

At age 50, Ford wrote, “I would be relaxing with my wife. I would still like to be a doctor.”


In September 2007 Ford was arrested on felony charges of possession of marijuana with intent to sell and carrying a loaded firearm. He was 19.


Two days after that conviction he was shot in his own neighborhood.

66th Street is home to a subset of a street gang known as the East Coast Crips. It got the name because it’s just east of the 110 freeway. Walls in the vicinity are prominently tagged with the gang initials, ECC.

Ezell Ford was one of the early casualties in a gang war that took at least four lives and wounded at least 13 people….

Neighbor Vanessa Santory lives on the Fords’ block. As she watches her granddaughter play on a skateboard in an apartment house driveway, she recalled that shooting.

“Oh, yes, I remember a little bit vaguely about it when they shot Little E in the foot, I think, or the leg? He got shot.”

But she said Ford was an innocent bystander.

“I would say so, because I never seen him gang bang or anything like that, none of [Tritobia Ford's] boys, really, none of them,” she said.

She said that after he was shot, his mental illness became more noticeable.

Clark said his mother took him to doctors. “They diagnosed him as being bipolar, and they put him on medication.”

Ford walked for hours at a time to clear his mind, she said.

Clark says that’s what he was most likely doing on the day of his fatal encounter with two gang police officers last Aug. 11.


On Wednesday, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced that the number of homicides in LASD territory last year went down 10.5% from 2013—the lowest recorded number of murders (149), since 1970. McDonnell also shared the county’s 5-year statistics. Homicides fell 26% from the number recorded in 2009.

Major violent crimes dropped 4.9% from 2013, and 20.7% between 2009 and 2014. And despite law enforcement predictions that realignment (and more recently, Prop 47) would increase property crimes, the number, in fact, decreased 6.2% from 2013, and 5.8% from 2009.

LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell says the overall decline can be attributed, in part, to fewer gang crimes (although, he said, the majority of the county’s homicides were still gang-related), improved policing, and building better community relations.

The LA Daily News’ David Montero has the story. Here’s a clip:

In 2013, there were 164 homicides, compared to 149 in 2014. By comparison, the high-water mark for homicides in Los Angeles County dating back to 1960 was 424 in 1992.

But he acknowledged most homicides are rooted in gangs. Last year, 63 percent of the 149 homicides in the county were gang-related. He said the department will continue to push youth-based activities to keep kids off the streets.

“The gangs drive our violent crime rates and particularly the homicide rate,” [LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell] said. “We know most of our gangs are young kids that grew up in an environment that was often dysfunctional. The opportunities that are there for kids in some of our neighborhoods weren’t there for them and they went down the wrong track.”

KPCC’s Frank Stolze also reported on the sheriff’s announcement. Here’s a clip:

While McDonnell credited better policing, he also said improving community relations as one reason crime is down. Those relationships have gotten better over time, he argued, despite news of corrupt and brutal deputies inside the jails.

“It really comes down to a great partnership with the community,” the sheriff said.

That partnership has improved in part because of the declining influence of street gangs, according to Captain Rod Kusch, who heads the Sheriff Homicide Bureau.

“Their strangleholds on neighborhoods is weaker,” Kusch told KPCC. “In the past, that’s driven people away from cooperating with us. They’ve been afraid of retaliation.”

Illegal drug transactions occur mostly behind closed doors now and gangs are less visible in many neighborhoods, Kusch said. “If you have confidence you can talk to police without repercussion, you’re more likely to talk to them.”


Diversionary grenades that issue a blinding light and deafening noise, flashbangs, have become a common tool, valuable for uses in extreme situations, like stopping an active shooter, by SWAT teams in big cities.

But in raids across the US, undertrained police officers (many in small municipalities) deploy flashbang grenades, with minimal oversight, often during drug raids that turn up little or no contraband. The unchecked use of flashbangs has resulted in grievous injuries to citizens and officers, including severed limbs and severe burns.

An ACLU report released last June found that SWAT teams were 14 times more likely to use flashbangs during drug raids than any other type of raid (like, you know, hostage, barricade, or shooter situations).

Propublica’s Julia Angwin and Abbie Nehring have more on the issue. Here are some clips:

Police argue that flashbangs save lives because they stun criminals who might otherwise shoot. But flashbangs have also severed hands and fingers, induced heart attacks, burned down homes and killed pets. A ProPublica investigation has found that at least 50 Americans, including police officers, have been seriously injured, maimed or killed by flashbangs since 2000. That is likely a fraction of the total since there are few records kept on flashbang deployment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit wrote in 2000 that “police cannot automatically throw bombs into drug dealers’ houses, even if the bomb goes by the euphemism ‘flash-bang device.’” In practice, however, there are few checks on officers who want to use them. Once a police department registers its inventory with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, it is accountable only to itself for how it uses the stockpile. ProPublica’s review of flashbang injuries found no criminal convictions against police officers who injured citizens with the devices.


If there was ever a flashbang injury that might have warranted criminal charges against an officer, it would be the case of Bou Bou Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old baby who last May was nearly killed by a flashbang during a drug raid in Georgia. The case garnered national attention.

Bou Bou was sleeping in a portable playpen at the foot of his parents’ bed when the Habersham County Special Response Team broke down the door to the room and threw a flashbang. The grenade landed on a pillow next to Bou Bou’s face. The blast blew a hole in his chest, severed his nose, and tore apart his lips and mouth. The SWAT team was looking for the boy’s cousin, Wanis Thonetheva, who a day earlier had allegedly sold a bag of methamphetamine to a confidential informant on the property. But Thonetheva wasn’t there, and no drugs or weapons were found. Hours later, Thonetheva surrendered peacefully when officers knocked on the door at a nearby house where he was staying.

At the hospital, Bou Bou was placed in a medically induced coma for almost a month. He has had eight reconstructive surgeries, including skin grafts, and racked up $1.6 million of medical bills that his family cannot afford to pay. In the next few months, he will need surgery to remove black flashbang powder that embedded in his face, arms and chest before it gets infected. And because his skin grafts won’t grow as he grows, Bou Bou will need reconstructive surgery every two years for the next 20 years. His mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, said that she and her husband plan to donate their own skin for the future grafts. Bou Bou often wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and shaking and holding his mouth. “It almost seems like he’s remembering what happened,” said Alecia Phonesavanh, who has been unable to hold down a job since the accident because of the demands of caring for her son.

In October, a Habersham County grand jury declined to indict the officers involved. “Some of what contributed to this tragedy can be attributed to well-intentioned people getting in too big a hurry,” the grand jury wrote in its findings.

Angwin and Nehring spoke with one of the first men to build flashbangs for police use, who stopped selling the grenades when he realized the scope of officers’ misuse and resulting injuries. Here’s a clip:

But, as flashbangs became ubiquitous, Nixon worried that departments weren’t training officers to use them properly. Reports of accidents started to trickle in. A prison guard in Nevada lost her hand when a flashbang exploded during a training exercise. And then, in 2002, an officer closer to Nixon’s home in Arkansas was injured. An Omni Blast exploded in the hand of Brandt Carmical, a North Little Rock police officer, as he conducted a flashbang demonstration for a local Boy Scout troop. It pulverized his right hand, blew out his right eardrum and perforated his left eardrum. “I saw all this flesh,” Carmical recalled. “I couldn’t hear anything.” At the hospital, Carmical’s hand was amputated at the wrist. Later, he had to go back for further surgery because black powder from the flashbang was causing his skin to rot.

Carmical sued Nixon, arguing that the Omni Blast was defective and exploded too quickly. Nixon said that although it is possible that his device was faulty, he suspects that the accident occurred because the spoon was prematurely released. The dispute was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (which Carmical said allows him to forgo a second job), and no judicial determination was made about the cause of the accident.

Nixon said he stopped selling flashbangs two years after Carmical’s accident, concerned that police officers are not sufficiently trained to use them. “I realized that, let’s say this is the perfect device,” Nixon said, “it’s still going to hurt people.” In Nixon’s opinion, the police are wrong to treat flashbangs like less destructive weapons such as tear gas and sound cannons. “It boggles my mind,” he said.


A new first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice takes a look at what at-risk kids understand and perceive about parents’ incarceration.

The study analyzed responses from the interviews of 106 kids between ages 8 and 14: 42.5% with parents who had been arrested before, and 32.4% with parents who had been incarcerated.

The majority of kids believed that jails and prisons are violent, unsafe places. Many kids believed that only bad people get locked up, and more than 12% believed parents were not allowed to see their kids while incarcerated.

Kids’ beliefs about incarceration, researchers said, could induce anxiety about their moms and dads’ safety and health while locked up.

Here’s a clip from the study:

Of note, many youth described jail as a violent place where offenders are not safe. Particularly for youth with incarcerated parents, these perceptions may provoke anxiety about the parent’s well being during the separation. A subset of youth indicated that incarcerated parents could not see their children during their incarceration.

Although this is true in some situations (e.g., long distance between the youths’ home and the facility), it may be disturbing for youth to believe they will not be able to see their parent if he or she is incarcerated. Of additional concern is the belief that individuals who go to jail are “bad people,” which was prevalent in the current sample. These perceptions, when held by the peers of youth with incarcerated parents, may lead to stigmatization of the youth, who might be regarded in a similar way (Hagen & Myers, 2003). Similarly, if youth with incarcerated parents believe their parent is a “bad” person, they may in turn internalize that belief about themselves, which may lead to psychological maladjustment.

Youths’ understanding of incarceration and perceptions of offenders may be shaped by a variety of sources of information, including the media, school, and discussions with others. In the current sample, viewing jail-related media was the most common source of information, with youth watching shows such as Cops. Although the media has the opportunity to provide realistic depictions of incarceration and offenders, it more often portrays these subjects in a sensational light that likely leads to distorted perceptions, particularly among youth who may not be critical consumers. In contrast, youth described learning largely factual information about incarceration and offenders in school and receiving warnings (e.g., parents warning their child, “you really don’t want to go there”) when discussing these subjects with adults in their lives. Although about half of the youth reported learning about incarceration in school and a quarter had discussed it with someone, a large number only received information from the media. This finding in particular highlights a gap in the communication of knowledge about incarceration.

Posted in children and adolescents, Gangs, Jim McDonnell, LAPD, LASD, Mental Illness, prison, War on Drugs | No Comments »

Part 4: “Drugging Our Kids,” Compensating Wrongfully Convicted, Rehabilitating CA’s Female Lifers, and WLA on Deadline LA

December 22nd, 2014 by Taylor Walker


In August, September, and November, we linked to parts one, two, and three of Karen de Sá’s powerful investigative series for the San Jose Mercury uncovering the alarming overuse of psychotropic medications to treat California’s foster kids.

Part four introduces readers to Yolanda Vasquez, a former foster kid with a winning smile who was once so severely drugged by doctors, she almost lost the ability to talk, and functioned at the education level of a five-year-old at age thirteen.

Yolanda was eventually rescued by a therapist who wondered who Yolanda really was “under all the medicine,” and psychiatrist who broke from the pack and helped Yolanda and other foster kids wean off of their psychotropic medication cocktails. Dr. Edmund Levin, resident psychiatrist at the Lincoln Child Center group home, began a trial of guiding the kids under his care through tapering off of their medications, of which they were often taking six or seven kinds at once.

When Yolanda emerged from the fog, nearly all of her learning and speech impairments began to fade with the drugs. And a majority of the other kids in Levin’s small experiment, which cut medication use at Lincoln by 80%, had similarly positive results.

Here are some clips from the latest in de Sá’s series:

Before Lincoln, Yolanda remembers taking 10 pills, morning, midday and at night. Levin’s records showed over time she was on a mix of psychiatric drugs that would fill a medicine cabinet: three antipsychotics to help calm her. A mood stabilizer to even her out. A stimulant to help her concentrate. An anti-seizure medication and another drug to help treat the other drugs’ side effects. And finally a drug to help her sleep. She remembers their sizes, shapes, colors and bitter taste.

And each pill had its own set of side effects. Yolanda gained weight and became so lethargic that she couldn’t play basketball — the one thing that excited her through all her moves. She often fell asleep in class, even on field trips.

And when Yolanda was awake, she often was afraid. Like so many traumatized children, Yolanda not only felt invisible but constantly on edge, an emotional state clinicians describe as “fight or flight” mode.


The tapering trials proceeded gradually, one medication at a time. All child care workers would have to agree to reduce medications in the case of every child. And drugs would be quickly added back if any serious problems arose.

Week by week, Levin eliminated one of Yolanda’s medications, then watched her progress and carefully decided whether to reduce another. Within a couple of months, she was down to one drug — guanfacine, a hypertension medication used to treat attention-deficit disorder. Weeks later, she was done.


But as Levin reduced Yolanda’s medications, the breakthroughs slowly came — along with the trust. She started sharing some painful memories with Forster, dark moments about being abused, deep sadness about longing for family.

As the “sleepy, fuzzy weirdness” wore off, the more she opened up.

She laughed more, stayed awake in class and took on a new role caring for the younger kids at Lincoln. She finally learned to tell time by reading the clock on the wall in Forster’s office.


A new program at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla for women serving life in prison is giving graduates a better chance at winning parole. The comprehensive program helps women realize the impact of their actions, overcome addiction, build relationships, and more. The program is the first of its kind: no other program has received the recognition of the Board of Parole Hearings, and it’s the first real state-funded effort at rehabilitating female lifers.

Sascha Khokha has more on the program for KQED’s California Report. Take a listen to the full audio, but here’s a clip from the accompanying story:

“Denial is real. It’s very difficult to look at yourself, especially if you’ve done horrible things,” says inmate Candace MacDonald, who is serving a life sentence for breaking into a 73-year-old man’s home in Eureka and beating and smothering him to death in 1980.

She says she was high on methamphetamine when she committed the crime.

“Because of my addiction, I did things that I would never do. Then I hated the things I was doing, so I would do more drugs because I hated the things I was doing,” she adds. “It’s just a horrible cycle.”

MacDonald is now 64 years old, and one of a number of senior citizen inmates who’ve spent most of their adult lives in prison. Some now use walkers or wheelchairs. She says in all her years here, this is the first program that’s truly pushed her to work deeply on herself. It held a mirror to her, made her dig into painful truths.

“To be able to peel that away, and look deep down inside, and gain an understanding of what you have done, and how it affected all of the people around you,” she says. “The ripple effect is incredible.”

MacDonald has unsuccessfully presented her case before the parole board a number of times over the years, repeating the same testimony she gave at her trial. But after doing this program, she says, she was able to speak from her heart and truly admit her regret. Last week, the board recommended that she be released on parole.


Rafael Madrigal was convicted in 2000 of attempted murder and sentenced to 53-years-to-life in prison. The victim, who had been shot in the head during a drive-by, identified Madrigal in a photo lineup. Madrigal, a 25-year-old father of four with a good job, said he had never been in a gang, and had a time card indicating he had been at work during the shooting.

But neither cops nor jury bought his story, and he spent the next nine years in prison before an attorney convinced a judge Madrigal received inadequate legal defense. And now, five years later, despite strong evidence pointing to his innocence, Madrigal has received nothing in his fight for compensation, and has struggled to pick up where he left off before his wrongful conviction.

In California, exonerees receive far less than the guaranteed federal payment of $50,000 for every year behind bars. The yearly payment is capped at $36,500 (a far cry from Texas’ $80,000), and the process is complex. As of 2013, only 11 of 132 exonerees from the year 2000 on, have actually received the money. (Note: late last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would make the process a bit easier.)

The LA Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske has Madrigal’s story, as well as a rundown of what it takes to receive compensation in California. Here’s a clip:

Madrigal walked out of Chino State Prison on Oct. 6, 2009, with the clothes on his back and $187. He was free to return to the life he’d left behind nine years earlier.

Except it didn’t exist.

Under a state law intended to compensate those wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, Madrigal appeared to qualify for $281,700 from the state of California.

In the five years since his release, he has argued his case before a state hearing officer and a state compensation board. But though a federal judge found “compelling evidence” that he was “actually innocent,” Madrigal has been paid nothing.

The Los Angeles Times has documented dozens of cases nationwide in which people convicted and later cleared by DNA or new evidence never received state compensation. Some — especially the low-income minorities who make up a large share of the wrongfully imprisoned — never file a claim because they can’t afford a lawyer or find one willing to take the case.

“They just opened the door and said, ‘Hey, walk away!’” said Madrigal, 39. “I didn’t have much when I went in. But I had what I had, and that little bit that I did have was all taken from me.”


“If someone gets paroled, they get … food vouchers, clothing vouchers, benefits, even places to live. But for someone who gets exonerated, they just throw you on the street and don’t even give you an apology,” said Dwayne Provience, 41, who spent nearly a decade in prison before his murder conviction in Detroit was overturned in 2010. The city rejected his bid for compensation and then declared bankruptcy; Provience now works two jobs to support his four children.


A 2012 survey by a researcher at the State University of New York at Albany found that California pays less than many other states and provides fewer services.

Since 1981, the earliest year with records available, the three-member board that decides compensation claims in California has denied 59 and granted 22, awarding payments of about $6.2 million.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush signed the Innocence Protection Act, which guarantees those exonerated of federal crimes $50,000 for every year they spent in prison, $100,000 for each year on death row.


WLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, will be discussing oversight of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on KPFK’s Deadline LA with hosts Barbara Osborn and Howard Blume, today (Monday), at 3:00p.m.

If you don’t catch it live (on 90.7 FM), you can find the episode in the archives, here.

Posted in Foster Care, Innocence, prison, Rehabilitation, Trauma | No Comments »

Child Welfare Czar Further Delayed, LASD Oversight, Long-Term Price of Locking Kids Up…and More

December 11th, 2014 by Taylor Walker


In a closed session last week, the LA County Board of Supervisors broke off their contract with the firm chosen to identify candidates for the new child welfare czar. (If you are unfamiliar: this czar will be appointed to oversee much-needed reforms to the Department of Children and Family Services.)

The board, unsatisfied with the people recommended by the headhunting firm, will now restart the search for viable contenders for the position. Other reasons for the change of course included uncertainty about how much power the czar will have, and the arrival of two new Supervisors, Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

One key question is how much authority to give the new position. Antonovich cited this as another reason the board decided to change headhunters.

“The position was being sold as having more authority than it was really going to have,” he said. Oppenheim said county officials decided on the job description, not him.

Solis suggested any new job description should provide the child welfare director more authority, not less. McCroskey said the current description was unclear because of conflicting views on the board.

“It wasn’t clear what it is that the primary responsibility would be,” she said. “Are you there to coordinate different agencies ? Or are you there to direct other agencies?”

Solis said the board’s decision to hire a new headhunter and re-write the job description reflects a new day at the county Hall of Administration – especially as it relates to her and fellow newcomer Kuehl.

“We’re not just going to sit by and keep with the status quo or listen to the naysayers who say ‘oh, you don’t know enough about this,’ ” Solis told KPCC. “We are taking a new refreshing look at it, a new bite at the apple.”


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of creating a citizen’s oversight commission for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. But what will that commission look like?

An LA Times editorial says the commission should not be comprised of five members chosen by the five Supes. That configuration would not have enough independence from the board. The editorial (as well as Sheriff Jim McDonnell), calls for a larger commission, one with non-board-appointed members who can only be ousted with good cause. Here’s a clip:

Will this new body remain a creature of the Board of Supervisors, or will it be granted some independence? Will it oversee the work of the department’s inspector general, or instead will it work in cooperation — or competition — with that office? Will it have power to subpoena documents? What sway will it hold over the actions of the sheriff, who will continue to report directly to voters and will, at least on paper, be accountable only to them? Can oversight be accomplished by a body that is merely advisory?

The answers to these and other questions are fundamental to the proper operation of the commission, which could become a useful tool for good sheriff-community relations and for transparency and accountability. Or, if the panel is put together with too little care, it could become another sedimentary layer of bureaucracy that consumes resources but offers little in return.


The new oversight commission should be seen differently, not as a instrument of the board but rather as something more independent, with a focus more on disclosure and accountability than on limiting financial liability.

A five-member panel would almost certainly consist of one appointee from each of the supervisors, serving as extensions of their offices, removable by them.

That’s one reason that Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in Los Angeles Jails and The Times editorial board support a larger panel with members other than board appointees, each with staggered terms and removable only for cause.

The editorial also suggests county officials look to other municipalities with civilian oversight to see what’s working.


A new report from the Justice Policy Institute examines the long-term costs, including the collateral consequences, of locking kids up.

Examining data from 46 states, the study found states spent an average of $148,767 a year locking up just one kid in the most expensive kind of confinement. California was among the 10 states spending the most on incarceration ($570.79 a day, $208,338 a year). Beyond that, the report estimates the US loses between $8-$21 billion in long-term secondary costs of needlessly incarcerating kids, including lost education time, lost future earnings, and lost future taxes.

Among other recommendations, the report suggests community-based treatment and supervision, investing dollars in diversion programs, better tracking of recidivism and outcomes.

Here are some clips from the accompanying story:

“Every year, the majority of states spend $100,000 or more to lock up youth who are mostly imprisoned for troubled behavior or nonviolent offenses,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of Justice Policy Institute. “And compared to the huge long-term costs to young people, their families, victims, and taxpayers, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. This is a poor investment and we must do better.”

The billions of dollars in hidden costs result from formerly incarcerated young people earning lower wages, paying less in taxes, as well as having a greater dependence upon government assistance and higher rates of recidivism. Research shows that the experience of incarceration increases the likelihood that young people will commit a new offense in the future…

Beyond these costs, the report also notes that the system does not affect all young people equally. African American youth are incarcerated at a rate nearly five times that of white youth, and Hispanic/Latino youth at a rate twice as high as whites. Even though young people engage in similar behavior, there are differences in the way young people of color and white youth are treated.

“The significant and multi-faceted costs of incarceration paint a troubling picture for young people, their families and communities, as well as taxpayers,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Fortunately, proven alternatives to incarceration for holding youths accountable are not only cheaper, but most importantly are almost always the best answer for protecting the public and putting kids on the right track to being productive, law-abiding citizens.”


The non-indictments of both Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo—the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner—have prompted conversations about ways to eliminate bias in police killing cases generally handled by local District Attorneys. Appointing special prosecutors or handing cases to the state DA’s office have emerged as potential work-arounds.

Slate’s Josh Voorhees has the story on another idea that is entering the discussion: an inquest. Here’s a clip:

How do we resolve this disjoint between a binary system that sees things only in black and white and the public’s need for an honest investigation of the shades of gray in between? One little-discussed option comes from Paul MacMahon, a law professor at the London School of Economics. He argues in a forthcoming Yale Law & Policy Review article that the solution may be an inquest, a quasi-judicial proceeding with medieval roots that has largely fallen by the wayside in the United States. Inquests—which are still common in England and Ireland—are called in the aftermath of an unexpected or unusual death. Typically, a jury, with the help of a judge or coroner, seeks to establish the facts of the case but, importantly, has no legal authority to indict or convict. Think of this as akin to a civilian review board, but with more power, a clearer task, and an actual platform to make sure its conclusions are heard.

How would such an inquest work? MacMahon proposes launching one automatically anytime a police officer kills someone in the line of duty. Having either a judge or coroner lead the jury would remove the apparent conflict of interest of a district attorney investigating an officer who he relies on to do his job. The inquest would have the power to compel witnesses to testify under oath, but unlike a grand jury, the proceedings would play out in public. The bigger wrinkle, though, is that the jury would have no power to decide the question of criminal or civil liability. The findings wouldn’t necessarily even be admissible as evidence in a court of law. Prosecutors would still be the ones to decide whether to take the case to the grand jury; the grand jury would still decide whether to indict the officer. But an inquest would bring a heavy dose of public accountability. In England, for instance, when an inquest concludes a homicide was an “unlawful killing,” the state doesn’t have to prosecute the case. If it chooses not to, however, it has to formally explain that decision.

The inability of an inquest to bring charges itself may sound like a weakness, but it’s what makes the process so valuable. Because the panel wouldn’t be preoccupied with the guilty/not guilty or indictment/no indictment binary, it would have more leeway to pursue the facts wherever they lead. “The inquest, more than any other institution, is charged with pursuing the truth—sometimes including the moral truth,” MacMahon writes. Inquests don’t just ask whether someone’s actions were justified in a legal sense, he says; they ask “whether or not a person’s conduct was justified in distinct and important ways from the question of whether or not the person should be held criminally responsible or liable to pay damages.”

In the case of Wilson or Pantaleo, then, an inquest could try to answer not just whether the officer was legally justified in his use of force, but whether the officer was right in a larger sense to do so. There’s no guarantee the inquest’s jurors would be able to settle that question once and for all, of course, but simply publicly attempting to would be a big step forward for a government that is struggling to convince communities of color that their lives matter in our criminal justice system…

Posted in District Attorney, Foster Care, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, prison | 22 Comments »

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