Judge Slams State With Restraining Order Over Jefferson High’s Scheduling Mess…Powerful Prosecutors…and MoreOctober 9th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon
Here’s the deal: Due to a hideously malfunctioning computer system, Jefferson High—which has been one of LA County’s most troubled high schools off and on for years now— fell into morass of scheduling dysfunction before this school year began in August. Kids were assigned to incorrect classes—in many cases courses they’d already taken. Or worse they were given pretend classes that weren’t classes at all, hours called “Service” periods, or “College Class” or “Adult Class”—each of which turned out, incredibly to provide no instruction. In still other cases, kids were even simply sent home because no classes—even the faux courses—-were available.
Now here we are in October and, according to Judge Hernandez, the debacle is showing no sign of getting straightened out.
As it happens, Jefferson High was already one of nine “high-need schools” named in a class action lawsuit, Cruz v. California, filed this past spring by Public Counsel and the So Cal ACLU (with pro bono support from the law firms Carlton Fields Jorden Burt and Arnold & Porter LLP).
Cruz v. California challenges “California’s failure to provide meaningful learning time to students” of these nine schools.
Thus, thankfully, when the scheduling crisis erupted, there was already a legal instrument in place to address it.
All this brings us to the very unhappy Judge Hernandez who issued a tersely-worded temporary restraining order on Wednesday demanding that, no later than next Tuesday, Oct. 14, the state and LAUSD must come up with a viable plan to get kids back in appropriate classes, and then have the plan and the needed resources in place by no later than November 3.
“Absent such intervention,” wrote the judge, “there is a significant likelihood that Jefferson students will continue to endure chaos and disruption due to ongoing scheduling issues and low morale, will not have the opportunity to enroll in courses needed to graduate or qualify for college admission, will fail courses or receive poor grades due circumstances beyond their control (including the scheduling fiasco and lack of remedial resources) and, as a result, will be less equipped to succeed in life, in the job market, and (if they are able to gain admission) in college.”
The judge wrote a lot more in that vein about the harm he believed had been done to Jefferson’s students who, he noted, were “disproportionately low income, minority, first generation students, foster children and/or English learners.”
(Here’s a link to the order itself.)
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs praised the judge’s speedy action, but slammed California’s Department of Education for its inattention.
“The State stood by for months while students at Jefferson sat in classes they had already passed, made copies instead of learning math, and were sent home midway through the school day,” said Kathryn Eidmann, staff attorney at Public Counsel. “Students, parents, and teachers deserve better. Today’s ruling recognizes that the State must ensure that all California students have a chance to graduate, attend college, and succeed.”
David Sapp, staff attorney at the So Cal ACLU, added that although the situation at Jefferson is extreme, “it’s also typical of students at schools that have been ignored by the state for too long. We need a new attitude from our state leaders that all students deserve the same opportunity to learn,” he said.
HOW PROSECUTORS CAME TO HAVE SO MUCH POWER
“The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America,” said then U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson, in 1940.
In the intervening 74 years, prosecutors have gotten more powerful not less, with almost nothing in the way of legal consequences to rein in those prosecutors who choose to misuse their power.
The Economist Magazine has a good story that explores the matter of prosecutorial power.
Here are some clips:
Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of murdering his daughters in 1991 by setting fire to the family house. The main evidence against him was a forensic report on the fire, later shown to be bunk, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed to have heard him confess. He was executed in 2004.
The snitch who sent him to his death had been told that robbery charges pending against him would be reduced to a lesser offence if he co-operated. After the trial the prosecutor denied that any such deal had been struck, but a handwritten note discovered last year by the Innocence Project, a pressure group, suggests otherwise. In taped interviews, extracts of which were published by the Washington Post, the informant said he lied in court in return for efforts by the prosecutor to secure a reduced sentence and—-amazingly—-financial support from a local rancher.
A study by Northwestern University Law School’s Centre on Wrongful Convictions found that 46% of documented wrongful capital convictions between 1973 and 2004 could be traced to false testimony by snitches—making them the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death-penalty cases. The Innocence Project keeps a database of Americans convicted of serious crimes but then exonerated by DNA evidence. Of the 318 it lists, 57 involved informants—and 30 of the convicted had entered a guilty plea.
It is not clear how often prosecutors themselves break the rules. According to a report by the Project on Government Oversight, an investigative outfit, compiled from data obtained from freedom of information requests, an internal-affairs office at the Department of Justice identified more than 650 instances of prosecutors violating the profession’s rules and ethical standards between 2002 and 2013. More than 400 of these were “at the more severe end of the scale”. The Justice Department argues that this level of misconduct is modest given the thousands of cases it handles.
Judge Kozinski worries, however, that there is “an epidemic” of Brady violations—when exculpatory evidence is hidden from defence lawyers by prosecutors. For example, in 2008 Ted Stevens, a senator from Alaska, was found guilty of corruption eight days before an election, which he narrowly lost. Afterwards, prosecutors were found to have withheld evidence that might have helped the defence. Mr Stevens’s conviction was vacated, but he died in a plane crash in 2010.
Prosecutors enjoy strong protections against criminal sanction and private litigation. Even in egregious cases, punishments are often little more than a slap on the wrist. Mr Stevens’s prosecutors, for example, were suspended from their jobs for 15 to 40 days, a penalty that was overturned on procedural grounds. Ken Anderson, a prosecutor who hid the existence of a bloody bandana that linked someone other than the defendant to a 1986 murder, was convicted of withholding evidence in 2013 but spent only five days behind bars—one for every five years served by the convicted defendant, Michael Morton.
Disquiet over prosecutorial power is growing. Several states now require third-party corroboration of a co-operator’s version of events or have barred testimony by co-operators with drug or mental-health problems. Judge Rakoff proposes two reforms: scrapping mandatory-minimum sentences and reducing the prosecutor’s role in plea-bargaining—for instance by bringing in a magistrate judge to act as a broker. He nevertheless sees the use of co-operators as a “necessary evil”, though many other countries frown upon it.
Prosecutors’ groups have urged Mr Holder not to push for softer mandatory-minimum sentences, arguing that these “are a critical tool in persuading defendants to co-operate”. Some defend the status quo on grounds of pragmatism: without co-operation deals and plea bargains, they argue, the system would buckle under the weight of extra trials. This week Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vetoed a bill that would have allowed judges to inform juries if prosecutors knowingly withhold exculpatory evidence.
WHY ARE SO MANY WOMEN IN PRISON IN AMERICA? IT’S THE DRUG WAR, STUPID!
I turns out that nearly a third of the women who are incarcerated worldwide, are locked up in U.S. jails or prisons according to the International Center for Prison Studies. (Of course, given our overall incarceration rate per capita, that should not be surprising.)
The Huffington Post’s Nina Bahadur has more on the story. Here’s a clip:
So, why does America imprison so many women? Mandatory sentencing minimums have led to prison overcrowding in general. An estimated two-thirds of women incarcerated in federal prisons are serving time for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.
Female prisoners are disproportionately women of color, and one study suggests that 44 percent of female prisoners in the U.S. don’t have a high school diploma or GED. Incarcerating women also plays a huge role in breaking up families — 64 percent of female state prisoners lived with and cared for their minor children before their imprisonment.