A report from the advocacy group Children Now takes a county-by-county look at children’s well-being in California through 28 health, education, child welfare, and economic indicators.
According to the scorecard, approximately 81% of children exited to permanent homes within three years of entering the child welfare system in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Clara Counties. For all five counties, this was a drop in permanent placements from the previous year, and 3% lower than the state average.
Alameda County came in 52nd place with 77% of kids exiting to permanency. In Alameda, San Berardino, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara, African American kids found permanent homes less often than kids of other races.
Statewide, just over three quarters of foster kids between the ages of 12-17 are living in “family-like settings.” Nearly a quarter of kids in the child welfare system are in group homes, transitional housing, and shelters.
Other data collected by Children Now paints a bleak picture of kids’ educational well-being in the state. For example, only 12% of California kids from low-income households have access to state-funded after-school programs.
Just 27% of black third graders and 31% of Latino third graders can read at grade level, compared with 60% and 67% of their white and Asian peers.
One bit of good news is that California’s school districts have made progress toward eliminating harsh school punishment. Sixty-nine percent of suspensions were limited to serious offenses, rather than willful defiance—up from 57% of suspensions the prior year.
“Leaders across California need to take a hard look at the Scorecard data and work together on policy solutions to improve the well-being of children,” Children Now President Ted Lempert said. “We need to invest more in quality early childhood programs, increase access to the health screenings and quality mental, oral and physical health supports that children need, and make sure that all kids, especially kids of color, have access to excellent schools and teachers from the very start.”
Head over to the scorecard for more county-by-county rankings, which can be sorted by county or by any of the individual well-being indicators which include “Three- and four-year-olds who attend preschools,” “Twelfth graders who graduate on time,” “Children who have health insurance for the entire year,” “Schools that have a health center,” and, “Students who are low income and eat free or reduced price meals.”
The achievement gap between white students and minority students narrowed by nearly 20 points during the height of school desegregation. In more recent years, however, the fissure has once again widened. During the heyday of No Child Left Behind a plethora of methods were tried to once again narrow the educational disparity affecting so many minority children. But, with certain notable exceptions, in general, most of the strategies failed to consistently produce the needed progress.
A report released last year by the Department of Education noted dourly that, 60 years after Brown v. the Board of Education, the disparity in allocation of educational resources was exacerbating the “achievement and opportunity gap,” rather than remedying it: Black and Latino children are the least likely to be taught by a qualified, experienced teacher, noted Catherine Lhamon, the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights for the DOE, in a letter. They are also the least likely to get access to AP courses or such college-prep courses as chemistry and calculus, to have gifted and talented programs in their school, or to have access to technology or such education niceties as science labs.
What the Assistant Secretary did not say is that it turns out there is one strategy that has been proven to invariably make the stubborn achievement gap—along with the resource gap—grow smaller. It is, however, a strategy that it is very unfashionable mention—namely school integration.
With this thorny problem in mind, This American Life has produced a a two-part series on education reform that should be mandatory listening. It doesn’t prescribe what we ought to do to improve the minority/white gap in our nation’s schools, but it lays down some interesting facts that bear discussion.
In Part 1, which aired last week, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones delves into the issue that Lhamon, of the U.S. Department of Education, pointed to unequivocally. “American schools are disturbingly racially segregated, period,” Lhamon said.
in the course of her exploration, Hannah-Jones tells the story of a school district in Missouri, which accidentally ended up integrating—at least for a while. And how it turned out.
In Part 2, which aired this past weekend, producer Chana Joffe-Walt reports on the Hartford, CT, school district, which actively tried to integrate its schools. The challenge was to convince white families that it was to their advantage to go to integrated schools. What happened may surprise you.
The show then follows producer Joffe-Walt as she interviews the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan on the topic of integration and student achievement.
Both shows are informative, disturbing and hopeful—and loaded with good storytelling.
Don’t miss them.
The painting above is, of course, by Norman Rockwell. It is his famous, “The Problem We All Live,” painted in 1964 to depict Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, on her way into an all-white public school in New Orleans on November 14, 1960.
Every Wednesday night around two dozen men from the Jordan Downs housing project meet to teach each other, and themselves, how to be fathers.
“See, most of the men in the group never had fathers,” Mike Cummings, told me two years ago. Cummings, whom everyone calls Big Mike, is a very large, very charismatic man and one of the program’s founders.
“Or if they did have a father in the home,” Cummings said, “he was usually was doing drugs or an alcoholic, or abusive, or both. So those men never had anyone show them what it means to be a parent. At least not a male parent.”
Big Mike has been through his own wide array of life stages. He’s been an LA gang member, been shot, sold drugs, been to prison.
Now he’s an ordained pastor and a recognized community leader who spends most of his waking hours working to heal the same community that, as a young man, he and his friends helped to break.
The Wednesday group, which he and a handful of other men with experiences akin to his own, started in the fall of 2011—is called Project Fatherhood.
“A mother can teach a lot of things,” said Big Mike. “But she can’t teach the same things that a father can teach,” he said. “She can’t teach a boy to be a man.”
PROJECT FATHERHOOD, THE BOOK
Dr. Jorja Leap is on the faculty of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and is an internationally recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention. Leap has also been the resident academic, official social worker, and adopted sister of the Jordan Downs fatherhood program since its beginning.
Homeboy Industries’ founder, Father Greg Boyle called the story “a view of courageous men as architects of their own healing” that “offers hope for real solutions in our inner cities born from the community itself. “
I talked to Jorja Leap earlier this week about the book, and about the fathers who have left such a deep mark on her life.
DADS HEALING DADS
WITNESS LA: Before we go further, explain a little about Project Fatherhood for those who have never heard of it.
JORJA LEAP:Sure. There was a group of men, former gang members who had become community activists—Big Mike, Andre Christian, Johnny Bailey, and some others. And they began meeting regularly with younger men from the community and trying to sort of mentor them out on these picnic tables behind Jordan Down housing project. They saw these younger men had the need, and so this group sprang up organically.
At the same time, a man named Dr. Hershel Swinger of the Children’s Institute, who was an important African American psychologist and a big believer that fathers were part of the family’s strength and that children who did not consistently have fathers in their lives tended to do poorly in school, were more likely to drop out, more likely to be caught up in the school to prison pipeline… So, he too was interested in strengthening the fathers [in places like Jordan Downs], and he got a big federal grant to do it.
The third factor in the creation of Project Fatherhood was HACLA—the Housing Authority for the City of Los Angeles—which plan to rebuild Jordan Downs and, in doing so, they want to, as they put it, build human capital.
So all three of these forces came together in a sort of positive perfect storm. The will, the knowledge, and the credibility was there from the community men who were meeting at the picnic tables. Children’s Institute and Hershel Swinger provided the funding, the support, and the infrastructure. And the locale was provided by HACLA.
WLA: How did you get involved?
JL: Big Mike called me because, to qualify for the funding, they were required to have an MSW on board—to deal with DCFS, child custody issues, issues of child abuse prevention, mental health issues, and a million other things.
WLA: So in some ways, when you were first brought in, it sounds like the fathers were just checking a box. How did that change?
JL: I’d known Big Mike for about ten years. And I really wanted to go back to Watts for some kind of project.
WLA: I know you and your family lived in South LA until you were around 10 years old….
JL: Yes, and as a young social worker I’d worked in South LA and loved it, so I was returning to an old love. But I had real doubts if the group was going to take hold, if people were going to show up. But then one of the fathers, Sy Henry, who is also one of the elders of the community, said to me, “Are you going to stick around? Or are you going to leave us too?” I realized I had to make a commitment. This wasn’t just drive by social work. So I committed. And what the group turned into was beyond my wildest imaginings. Truly.
I think, quite candidly, that was the case for everyone—including the Children’s Institute and, Dr. Swinger.
This group was supposed to help these men learn to be fathers. . But, they also did another thing. They fathered one another. They also took responsibility and wanted to be fathers to the young men of the community, whose fathers were not around. In a sense, they adopted them, and now they have these youth impact sessions.
WLA: What was one of the most challenging moments for you personally during these past years of your involvement with the program.
JL: One of the most shattering moments was a fight that we had when Christopher Dorner was in the midst of his…bloodbath. One of the fathers, a man named Donald James, stood up. Donald James had been in San Quentin for 32 years and he and I were often at odds. He stood up and said, “I think Christopher Dorner is a hero.” And I waited for somebody to say, “What’re you talking about?!” For someone to speak up. But there was no dissent. In fact, many fathers were nodding their heads. I didn’t know what to do. I was shattered.
When I went home to my husband, Mark, he had to set me on my ear. [Jorja is married to Mark Leap, a retired deputy chief of the LAPD.] He said, “Well, of course they feel that way. Do you know what the LAPD has done to them?
I’d always felt like little miss enlightened, and I understood, and had my finger on the pulse of everything. Instead I found I had my finger up my….well, I’ll leave it at that.
WLA: I know from reading the book that there have been many, many high moments. Tell us about one.
JL:There are so many. For example there was the evening that one of our fathers brought his daughters to the meeting. They were fighting with each other at school and got expelled. And he said, I want to whup both of them, but I know that’s wrong, so I brought them to you and I need you all to help me. And so the fathers did. And magic occurred. It was very humbling.
WLA: What made you decide to turn what you were witnessing into a book.
JL: Well it was complicated. Because these aren’t my stories. So I had to ask the men if the book would be okay with them and ask their permission.
But when I heard their voices, how the men expressed themselves, and how they felt about fatherhood, I realized that these were stories that had not been told. These were voices that had not been heard. And I realized I could be the vessel that carried these stories—that were their stories—out into the world.
And these are men who have pasts. When you total it up, the group has probably spent a couple of centuries incarcerated. Yet these men are, week after week, putting one foot in front of the other, while making this effort at healing themselves and healing their community.
WLA: What are the main misconceptions about the men whom you know from Project Fatherhood—and men like them.
JL: Good question. In the mind of many, there are the two extremes—deadbeat dads and the Clifford Huxtable dad—Bill Cosby allegations notwithstanding, the character he created on the Cosby Show.
We don’t seem to have room in our minds for the men who are between those two extremes. But I’m dwelling here in the heart of the territory between those two extremes. These men want to be fathers to their children, but it may not be mom, dad, the Prius and the 2.5 kids. Watts bounces between 50 and 55 percent unemployment during the years of this program. Yet, these men desperately want to work—and not make-work jobs or summer jobs. They want real jobs. They want to stay off public assistance. They’re very proud of staying off. They’ll say, “That’s my baby son. He wasn’t raised on the county. I raised him. “On the county,” means welfare.
WLA: What does what you’ve learned from Project Fatherhood suggest about changes we need to see in public policy?
JL:For one thing, I think there should be a program like this one on every corner, including in Brentwood.
Another thing, people tend to come out of the university environment and mine the data in these communities. And we need to be a presence. We need to not just mine the data, but help the community in tangible ways.
One more thing: every one is missing a bet in Watts, because the real leadership is coming from within that community. Outside agencies don’t need to come in and tell them what to do. Outside programs need instead to provide support for the qualified leadership that is already there.
WLA: What are the most significant lessons you’ve learned personally from your experience with the fathers in the group?
JL:There are so, so many, They helped me understand myself and my relationship with my father, of course. I’ve also learned the uncomfortable lesson that I bathe in White privilege without being aware of it. It’s one thing to read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.” It’s another thing to live it every day.
And, by the way, we are not living in a post racial society. I’ll tell you that right here, right now.
We’ve lost several of our fathers to the New Jim Crow. There’s one father in the book, whom people will read about. What happened to him…broke everybody’s heart. I’m still struggling with it.
The other thing I become more and more aware of is what I’d call the wages of trauma, which is so profound for so many of these men. They are trying to heal themselves, while healing others whom they’ve hurt.
Witnessing their courage every week has been and continues to be very humbling.
NOTE: There will be a book signing and discussion with Dr. Jorja Leap on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, at 2 p.m. at Esowan Books, located at 4327 Degnan Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90008
All the proceeds from Jorja Leap’s book go back to Project Fatherhood.
The video above is from the book launch event for Jorja Leap’s Project Fatherhood featuring a discussion between Jorja and several of the fathers. Watch it!
ONE UNUSUAL MILWAUKEE PROSECUTOR TAKES ON THE MASS INCARCERATION PROBLEM
As a nation, we incarcerate too many people. In terms of cost/benefit, this over incarceration is not good for us, socially, fiscally, or ultimately in terms of public safety.
Fortunately, calling over incarceration for what it is has ceased to be an idea embraced solely by reformist liberals. In the post-2008 period in which states and counties faced drastic budget shrinkages, the expanding price tags of our bloated jails and prisons got the attention of an increasing number of conservatives, who began joining hands with progressives to try to find some way out of the whole ghastly mess.
Now there are the Right on Crime people out of Texas who wrote Op Eds for California newspapers supporting the initiative that reformed the state’s too rigid Three Strikes law and, a few years later, did the same to get Prop. 47 passed. More recently, the Koch brothers have joined forces on sentencing reform with the likes of the ACLU. Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul are cosponsoring several bills aimed at criminal justice reform. And so on.
At the same time, the idea that people of color, and black people most of all, have paid a disproportionately high price in the crack down on crime that has occurred over the last three decades, is a topic that has finally—thankfully—begun to reach the main stream.
Four years later, star civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A story of justice and Redemption, about the terrible injustices regularly wrought the American justice system, landed on a string of 2014 “best books of the year” lists, meaning its emotionally devastating message was absorbed by a wide variety of readers. Plus there was Stevenson’s TED talk, “We need to talk about an injustice,” with its more than 2 million views.
Yet, despite the overdue but welcome shifts in attitude, we still lock up too many people, and we still do so with what appears to be a disturbing racial bias—conscious or not.
That is where where this New Yorker profile of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm comes in. Written by the magazine’s staff writer and legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, the story titled “The Milwaukee Experiment” which appears in next week’s issue, suggests that it may be local prosecutors—more than even cops, judges and/or law makers—who likely hold one of the primary keys to precipitating the kind of change that our justice system so urgently needs.
Like many people in the criminal-justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons. The issue is especially salient in Wisconsin, where African-Americans constitute only six per cent of the population but thirty-seven per cent of those in state prison. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as of 2010 thirteen per cent of the state’s African-American men of working age were behind bars—nearly double the national average, of 6.7 per cent. The figures were especially stark for Milwaukee County, where more than half of African-American men in their thirties had served time in state prison. How, Chisholm wondered, did the work of his own office contribute to these numbers? Could a D.A. do anything to change them?
The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops. Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation. Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison. And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.
Chisholm decided to let independent researchers examine how he used his prosecutorial discretion. In 2007, when he took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing. According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).
Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety. “For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences,” Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told me. “But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time. Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era. Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.”
So what, then, did Chisholm do? And how did he do it?
First of all, he stationed prosecutors in neighborhoods around Milwaukee. Then he instructed those prosectors to do more than simply process the cases brought to them by law enforcement.
He and his team started asking themselves in every instance why they were bringing that case. “In those that were seen as minor, it was the least experienced people who were deciding whether to bring them. And these people saw that we had generally brought those cases in the past, so they went ahead with them again. But we started to ask, ‘Why are we charging these people with crimes at all?’ ”
And then he and members of his office devised a remarkably smart assessment tool that everyone used with potential defendants. Here’s the deal.
The most significant innovation in Chisholm’s overhaul of the office involves an “early intervention” program, which begins after a defendant is arrested but before arraignment. Each defendant is given an eight-question assessment, which can be conducted in about fifteen minutes and is compared to the information on the rap sheet and in the police report. The questions include: “Two or more prior adult convictions?” “Arrested under age sixteen?” “Currently unemployed?” “Some criminal friends?” A low score can lead to an offer of “diversion”—a kind of unofficial probation that, if successfully completed, leaves the individual without a criminal record. A high score leads to a second, more detailed, fifty-four-question assessment. The questions include: “Ever walked away/escaped from a halfway house?” “Were you ever suspended or expelled from school?” “Does your financial situation contribute to your stress?” “Tell me the best thing about your supervisor/teacher.” Results of the assessment may also lead to diversion or may lead to a more intensive kind of post-arrest supervision, known as deferred prosecution. People in this group will maintain a criminal record of an arrest but may have their charges reduced or dismissed. To participate in these incarceration alternatives, a defendant must commit to completing drug-treatment or other educational programs that are approved by Chisholm’s office.
In other words, Chisolm and his team viewed those who landed in the second group as having a higher risk of reoffending because, for whatever reason, their needs were more complicated, thus they required greater help and supervision, if they were going to stay out of jail or prison in the future. And the team acted accordingly.
“The whole program is designed to reduce the number of people we are putting in jail or prison, but to do it in a smart, accountable way,” Jeffrey Altenburg, a deputy district attorney, who oversees the early-intervention program, told me. “It’s to get people back on track, based on their risk and their need.” Every week, Altenburg, an eighteen-year veteran of the D.A.’s office, conducts a series of informal meetings with people in the diversion and deferred-prosecution programs who are in danger of being thrown out and returned to the traditional criminal-justice system.
There’s lots more to the story, of course. And, while Chisholm has a growing crowd of fans and admirers, he also has a some angry detractors, some of them in high places. In any case, it’s a story well worth your time, so read on.
AND IN OTHER NEWS…..STATE LAWMAKERS CHANGE COLLECTIVE MINDS ON CHANGING PROP. 47
After the passage of Prop. 47, which was opposed by various law enforcement groups and others who were conservative on the issue of crime and punishment, those same groups pushed legislators hard to introduce bills that would weaken the proposition. But now that we are months into the legislative year, Prop. 47 has had time to go into action; its initial positive effects have been observed, and the sky has not fallen. As a consequence, lawmakers have actively backed away from the so-called “fixes.” Thus, at present, all but 2 of the 9 proposed bills have been watered down to the degree that they are no longer a threat to the new law, or they are permanent stalled, or both.
The two that remain—AB150 and SB452—would both make stealing a gun a felony in all cases. If they pass in their current form, and are signed by Jerry Brown, they would require voter approval in 2016 to go into effect. However, they are not seen as problematic by Prop. 47 supporters, should they indeed become law.
“None of the legislative discussions occurring around Proposition 47 have the potential to undermine the initiative,” said Lenore Anderson, who co-authored the measure, chaired the ballot campaign and directs Californians for Safety and Justice, a progressive policy group.
She said supporters aren’t surprised the Legislature is looking at these issues, and that most of the bills aren’t going to substantively change what Prop. 47 is aiming to achieve: a criminal justice system that focuses on locking up only serious offenders, like those convicted of violent crimes, and not people addicted to drugs who commit petty crimes.
The measure was retroactive, allowing people in prisons or jails to ask for reduced sentences as well as people with past convictions who are no longer incarcerated. So far, more than 115,000 people have filed petitions asking courts to reduce their sentences from felonies to misdemeanors, according to the Judicial Council of California. And more than 3,200 have been released from state prisons.
LA SUPERVISORS APPROVE $450,00 SETTLEMENT TO FATHER OF 2-YEAR-OLD BEATEN TO DEATH DESPITE MULTIPLE CALLS TO DCFS
According to the suit, Medina’s investigation began in late January 2011, when someone called the child abuse hotline to say that Gabriel and his two siblings were in danger because Vega lived with them and was violent and out of control. He had punched a neighbor in the presence of the children, the anonymous caller said.
The caller also asserted that Vega, who had a violent criminal record, was engaged in domestic violence against the mother, had gang affiliations and that there was drug use in the home, the suit alleged.
The suit also alleged that Medina went to the home on the day of the anonymous call, but over his ensuing visits, he believed Gabriel’s mother when she lied by saying that Vega no longer lived in the home — even though his clothes were still there and the children said they saw him often.
By the time Medina closed the case, other hotline calls had also been received about the family, according to the suit. Medina’s final report falsely stated that Vega was not in the home and that the mother did not have a drug problem, even though he received a positive test for marijuana for her days earlier, the suit said.
When the boy died days later, the coroner determined that some of his serious injuries had occurred weeks before, the suit said.
Therolf also reported that, in fighting the settlement, the county spend $230,00 in legal fees.
Oh, yes, and the social worker who handled the case kept his job.
HUNDREDS OF COMMUNITY MEMBERS & ADVOCATES GATHER TO ASK STATE & COUNTY OFFICIALS TO SPEND PROP 47 SAVINGS $$ ON RE-ENTRY & DRUG TREATMENT
In an absolutely packed town hall meeting held Wednesday night at Hollman United Methodist Church on West Adams, close to 800 So Cal community members, clergy, office holders, and advocates came from as far as San Diego, Orange County, and the Inland Empire to talk about the implementation of Proposition 47, the initiative passed last November that reduced a number of low level felonies to misdemeanors.
The string of speakers that included LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis, A New Way of Life’s Susan Burton, LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers, Father Greg Boyle and other representatives from Homeboy Industries, and more, talked about the need to make sure that the biggest piece of the projected millions in savings generated by the law is directed toward reentry services, drug treatment, and other programs that either help prevent a return to jail or prison, and/or provide healthy alternatives to incarceration.
Supervisor Solis talked about increasing county funding for community programs “that work,” and about how the newly configured LA county board of supes “is realizing it’s wiser to reduce incarceration for community safety.”
Hillary Blout of Californians for Safety and Justice, one of Prop 47′s sponsors, gave a rundown on the statewide implementation to date of the still new law, and talked about the “need to treat health problems with health solutions,” rather than incarceration.
“Drug addiction is a disease that needs treatment…untreated it gets worse behind bars”
Susan Burton, who founded An New Way of Life to give women coming out of prison a new start. said that she had supported Prop. 47 “because it recognizes the promise in all of us.”
The overarching purpose of the night was to seek commitments to support programs that “create opportunities for redemption and success” from members of the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which is the group that will administer 65% of the savings from the Proposition 47 Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.”
The two-plus hour event was cosponsored by PICO California, LA Voice, Californians for Safety and Justice, Homeboy Industries, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Community Coalition, All of Us or None, and A New Way of Life. And, as the night reached its end, most participants seemed to come away with inspiration.
“People make the deepest of transformations with even the slimmest of support,” said Minister Zachary Hoover, LA Voice’s Executive Director. “Imagine what would happen if we continue to invest in ourselves, our neighbors, our fellow Californians as if we were family…. We are calling on state and local officials to do more,” he said, “because we the people are ready for boldness.”
Wednesday’s town hall was the third of four events in a series of town hall forums organized by PICO California and affiliates, along with the Board of State and Community Corrections, to discuss “local, regional and state priorities for violence reduction, expanding alternatives to incarceration, and reducing recidivism.”
The final town hall will be held in Sacramento on May 19, 2015
HILLARY SPEAKS ABOUT CRIMINAL JUSTICE BUT DOES SHE SAY ANYTHING NEW? OPINIONS ARE MIXED
On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton gave what was billed as a major speech on criminal justice at Columbia University. But did she say anything of substance?
The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan felt that Clinton called for an overhaul of her husband’s criminal justice policies. (Although this was reportedly somewhat refuted later by Clintonites.) Here’s a clip:
Tough-on-crime policies that emphasized arrests and convictions for relatively minor offenses have failed the country, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday, leading to overcrowded prisons and too many black men “missing” from their families and communities.
“We need to restore balance to our criminal justice system,” Clinton told an audience at Columbia University in New York.
Calling for an “end to the era of mass incarceration,” Clinton endorsed body cameras for police nationwide to record interactions between officers and potential suspects. Making her most specific policy proposals since launching her campaign earlier this month, Clinton said it’s time for a nationwide overhaul of what she called misguided and failed policing and prison strategies.
In effect, she was saying that policies put in place when her husband Bill Clinton was president have not worked. Clinton did not mention her husband or identify exactly which laws and sentencing policies she thought had gone wrong. But many of those policies grew out of the crackdown on drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses that took place before and during Bill Clinton’s presidency 20 years ago….
Speaking at Columbia University, Clinton said several true things: The use of unnecessary force by police is bad, but so is looting and rioting. Our “out-of-balance” criminal justice system punishes people too harshly, imprisons too many “low-level offenders,” and disproportionately hurts black men. As Clinton noted, there is by now bipartisan agreement on these points. “It is not enough just to agree and give speeches about it,” she said. “We need to deliver real reforms.”
Such as? The one new and specific reform Clinton recommended was equipping police officers with body cameras, which she called “a common-sense step.” She also reiterated her support for “alternative punishments,” “specialized drug courts,” and “drug diversion programs.” Body cameras are a good idea with broad support. I am less keen on forcing people into “treatment” they do not want by threatening to lock them in cages. I would tell you what I think about Clinton’s other ideas if she had offered any.
“It’s time to change our approach,” Clinton said. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.” I agree. Presumably the solution involves 1) locking fewer people up, 2) imposing shorter sentences, and 3) letting current prisoners out. But Clinton did not move beyond platitudes on any of those points. “I don’t know all the answers,” she confessed.
Sollem lists a number of reformist bills that Hillary could back that would give her stand some heft—-many of them already backed by some of the Republicans who would run for president against her.
For instance, he says, she could easily get behind making retroactive the lowering of the disproportionately high sentences for crack cocaine, which was approved by Congress almost unanimously in 2010. And he has other ideas after that one.
[The crack sentencing retroactivity] reform, which could help thousands of federal prisoners and should be a no-brainer for Clinton, is part of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was reintroduced in February by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). The bill’s 12 cosponsors include four Republicans, two of whom, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are vying to oppose Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in next year’s presidential election. The House version of the bill was introduced by a Republican and has 30 cosponsors, including seven Republicans. In addition to making shorter crack sentences retroactive, the bill would cut mandatory minimums for various drug offenses in half, eliminate the mandatory life sentence for a third drug offense, and expand the “safety valve” for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
Is this the sort of bipartisan reform Clinton has in mind? What about the Justice Safety Valve Act, a more ambitious bill sponsored by Paul that would effectively repeal mandatory minimums by allowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice? Is that too radical for Clinton? If so, why?
And while Hillary was at Columbia, after the most intense of Baltimore’s demonstrations quieted,Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this conversation-provoking essay about the fury in the streets. It is called ‘Nonviolence as Compliance.” Take a look.
Here are some clips:
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city’s publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city’s police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
….tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?
The people now calling for nonviolence are not prepared to answer these questions. Many of them are charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray’s death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray’s death and so they appeal for calm. But there was no official appeal for calm when Gray was being arrested….
CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER & AUTHOR, BRYAN STEVENSON & AWARD-WINNING LA TIMES REPORTER JILL LEOVY, TALKING ABOUT THE COMPLEXITIES OF RACE, JUSTICE & POLICING AT LA TIMES BOOK FEST!
The LA Times Festival of Books is coming to the USC campus this weekend, April 18 & 19.
I bring this up, in part, because the LATFOB is an amazing event for anyone who loves to read—or has kids who love to read. It’s arguably the best book fair in the nation, and admission is free.
But for those of you who love to read AND are interested in the complex issues surrounding race and justice in America, I’m moderating a panel at 10:30 Sunday morning AT USC’S Town & Gown, that you really—no kidding—should not miss.
It features superstar lawyer Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, and award winning LA Times crime reporter, Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside.
Here are the details:
BRYAN STEVENSON & JUST MERCY
As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson challenges excessive and unfair sentencing, aids kids prosecuted as adults, and takes on innocence cases for prisoners on death row. For instance, Anthony Ray Hinton, the man who was freed earlier this month after spending 30-years on death row, is one of Stevenson’s clients.
Stevenson has also argued five times before the U.S. Supreme court, winning two landmark rulings, both having to do with the issue of juvenile life sentences. (He will be arguing again this fall in front of SCOTUS this fall.)
With his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson exposes and personalizes the injustice in the American justice system through his experience as an activist lawyer, and the result is both shattering and weirdly hope-producing.
Just Mercy is every bit as moving as To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways more so. Although it reads like a novel, it’s a true story and….demonstrates, as powerfully as any book on criminal justice that I’ve ever read, the extent to which brutality, unfairness, and racial bias continue to infect criminal law in the United States. But at the same time that Stevenson tells an utterly damning story of deep-seated and widespread injustice, he also recounts instances of human compassion, understanding, mercy, and justice that offer hope. …As a result, Just Mercy is a remarkable amalgam, at once a searing indictment of American criminal justice and a stirring testament to the salvation that fighting for the vulnerable sometimes yields.
JILL LEOVY & GHETTOSIDE
Jill Leovy is an award winning Los Angeles Times reporter who won a Pulitzer for her part in coverage the 1997 North Hollywood shoot out. IN addition to everything else she does, Leovy made a significant difference in Southern California reporting when, in 2007 she launched The Homicide Report, which was born after Leovy had been covering crime in LA’s poorest neighborhoods for some time and had become bothered by all the deaths that went completely unnoticed, except perhaps by friends and immediate family of those murdered. It was as if some lives—and their endings—simply mattered far more than others.
So Leovy talked the Times into an unusual project. She wanted to record every single murder in Los Angeles County for one year, reporting and writing what she could about these deaths as time and energy permitted. And so the Homicide Report was born. (And to the LAT credit, it is still running today.)
Leovy’s remarkable and absolutely essential book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, goes many steps further. In it, she writes about the disproportionate number of black men who are murdered in America, most of them killed by other black men. In Los Angeles, for example, out of 260 murders in a year, 112 of those were African American in a city where, where blacks are perhaps 9 percent.
Most of those murders, particularly if they occurred in South LA, go unsolved.
The heroes of Leovy’s book are some of the South LA parents who bear the most unbearable kind of pain, and a cluster of LAPD homicide detectives who move heaven and earth to solve the killings that most of the rest of the city would rather ignore.
“Ghettoside” should change our understanding of and the debate about what’s going on in our most troubled neighborhoods. They are not hopeless places filled with incurable problems. They are dealing as best they can with horrific conditions not of their making and mainly not under their control. The book should bring some much-needed balance to the current debate about what post-Ferguson policing should look like. It should show why making policing more effective — while, yes, doing far less collateral damage — is an absolute necessity for helping those neighborhoods find safety and justice.
Both Leovy’s and Stevenson’s books are extremely important, especially right now, but each reads with the propulsive speed of great fiction, in which the deepest human issues—and characters—stay with you most of all.
So, if you can, come to USC Sunday morning and listen. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.
Now, according to a recent report by Media Matters, it turns out that the media also tends to give disproportionate coverage to crime stories involving African-American suspects, over those involving non-black suspects.
Compared to the percentage of crimes they actually commit, African Americans are grossly overrepresented on local news broadcasts about criminal activity, according to a new report from Media Matters for America. In New York City alone, black people make up 75 percent of criminals discussed on local channels, whereas they only make up 51 percent of the actual arrest rate.
Summarizing the report, the Color of Change, a black advocacy organization, concluded that all four [NYC] channels [studied] failed to contextualize the crimes that were reported, making no mention of discriminatory policing that targets African American communities or systemic factors that contribute to crime, such as unemployment. By portraying black people as the vast majority of perpetrators, the news stations detracted from criminal activities perpetrated by non-black persons and fueled racial bias.
Unfortunately, media bias parallels extensive research that shows how African Americans are far more criminalized than their white counterparts, nationwide. One study about “who looks criminal” determined that police officers frequently associate black faces with criminal behavior. According to a 2010 survey, white people overestimated African Americans’ participation in burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime by 20-30 percent. Additionally, white people support stricter criminal justice policies if they think that more black people are arrested as a result.
EMOTION MAKES FOR BAD LAW—PARTICULARLY WHEN IT COMES TO SEX OFFENDERS
California Proposition 83—otherwise known as Jessica’s Law—passed easily in 2006, and has made a mess ever since, as evidenced by two recent court decisions. Jessica’s law, in case you don’t remember, set down a bunch of regulations and prohibitions about where sex offenders could and could not live after being released from prison. The answer too often was nowhere, which has resulted in homeless sex offenders living on the street, under bridges, in cars—hardly safe situations for anyone.
Jessica’s Law — California’s version of it, anyway — was a mess from the beginning. Voters here adopted it (as Proposition 83 in 2006 )because they mistakenly believed they were cracking down on horrific crimes against children. They were urged on by nightly harangues from national TV commentators who campaigned on-air for swift action following the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Florida, a crime that touched an especially sensitive nerve here because the circumstances nearly mirrored the nightmarish killing of Polly Klaas in California a decade earlier. But emotional outpourings of fear, revulsion and collective guilt too often translate poorly into policy and law, and that was surely the case with Proposition 83.
The latest reminder of the law’s failure came last week, when state parole officials announced that they would no longer enforce the measure’s blanket ban on paroled sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a school or park where children regularly gather.
That decision follows a state Supreme Court ruling this month invalidating the ban as it applied in San Diego County.
Californians have every right to protect their children from child molesters, so it would be understandable if they were perplexed by the actions of the court and corrections officials — until they realize that the residency restriction did nothing of the sort.
In fact, it likely undermined public safety for everyone, children included, by pushing paroled sex offenders from their homes and compelling them to live homeless or as transients, leaving the public in the dark as to their whereabouts and making parolees harder for agents to find.
Besides, it is important to remember that the law did not single out child molesters. It did not distinguish parolees at high risk to commit new crimes, or those more likely to target children, from any of the other 6,000 parolees required to register as sex offenders — or indeed any of the approximately 80,000 Californians not on parole but with a sex offense on their record….
SAN FRANCISCO JAIL DEPUTIES ALLEGEDLY FORCED INMATES TO FIGHT WHILE THEY PLACED BETS
San Francisco’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, announced on Thursday that at least four of the county’s jail deputies reportedly had a little side bets on gladiator-like fights they threatened and cajoled inmates into staging.
(Really, people? After all the scandals in and around the jails in LA, you still think this is a good idea?)
San Francisco sheriff’s deputies arranged and gambled on battles between County Jail inmates, forcing one to train for the fights and telling them to lie if they needed medical attention, the city’s public defender said Thursday.
Since the beginning of March, at least four deputies at County Jail No. 4 at 850 Bryant St. threatened inmates with violence or withheld food if they did not fight each other, gladiator-style, for the entertainment of the deputies, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.
Adachi said the ringleader in these fights was Deputy Scott Neu, who was accused in 2006 of forcing inmates to perform sexual acts on him. That case was settled out of court.
“I don’t know why he does it, but I just feel like he gets a kick out of it because I just see the look on his face,” said Ricardo Palikiko Garcia, one of the inmates who said he was forced to fight. “It looks like it brings him joy by doing this, while we’re suffering by what he’s doing.”
An attorney for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Association said that the allegations were “exaggerated,” and that what happened was basically “horseplay.”
District Attorney George Gascón called the allegations “deplorable.”
Vivian Ho provides has a lot more about the accusations, so read on.
In addition to Monday morning’s expected post-Oscar commentary on winners, losers, and the various best and worst dressed, we were pleasantly surprised to note that there was also a lot of attention paid to a particular part of musician/composer John Legend’s acceptance speech in which he referred to the alarming number of black men in America’s prisons. The singer/songwriter’s assertions evidently sent reporters and commentators scurrying to find out if what Legend said was factually accurate. (Answer: Yes.)
The artists John Legend and Common received an Academy Award Sunday night for “Glory,” their song in the film “Selma.” In his acceptance speech, Legend called for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. “There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850,” he noted.
It’s true. There are some, as Politifact has written, 1.7 million black men under some form of correctional control, including probation and parole, excluding those held in local jails on any given day. That is about twice the 870,000 or so black men at least 15 years old who were enslaved in 1850, according to the Census (warning: big file).
In some ways, of course, the comparison is misleading. Although there are more blacks under correctional control now than there were slaves before the Civil War, the population has a whole has grown tremendously in that time. The Census that year found that roughly nine in 10 of the nation’s 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, one in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
And it would be wrong to obscure the horrors of slavery by comparing that peculiar institution to today’s systems of probation and parole (although in modern prisons, practices such as solitary confinement are indeed profoundly damaging to inmates).
In other ways, though, these numbers conceal the size of our criminal justice system and its consequences, especially for blacks — in a society that, unlike that of the 1850s, is supposed to be free and equitable…
On any given day more than 60,000 kids under the age of 21 are confined to juvenile facilities in America. The majority of those kids are already behind in school when they encounter the juvenile system. And most have experienced one or more serious traumas in their childhood of the kind that have been shown to have had a negative impact on school performance and behavior.
In theory, the time those same kids spend locked up should be a stable period in which they can begin to catch-up on their education without distractions. Thus, most kids should be able to leave the facility better able to succeed in school than when they came in.
Unfortunately, in too many cases, the opposite is true. The education they receive is often sub-par in quality; the environment more punitive than rehabilitative, and not overly conducive to learning.
With these problems in mind, late last year the Department of Justice and the Department of Education put out an advisory to state educational officers urging them to make changes:
For youth who are confined in juvenile justice facilities, providing high-quality correctional education that is comparable to offerings in traditional public schools is one of the most powerful – and cost-effective – levers we have to ensure that youth are successful once released and are able to avoid future contact with the justice system. High-quality correctional education, training, and treatment are essential components of meaningful rehabilitation because these equip youth with the skills needed to successfully reenter their communities and either continue their education or join the workforce.
On Monday and Tuesday, Adriene Hill reported for NPR’s Marketplace on two examples of facilities that are already doing what the DOJ and DOE describe—in particular by focusing on the educational technology that has become common in America’s public schools.
“Technology is no longer the way of the future,” says Chris Jones, superintendent of the Wyoming Girls’ School, which was one of the first secure juvenile justice facilities in the country to embrace the digital classroom. “It is the status of the current. So it is our job as educators to integrate that into how we are educating kids.”
To that end, the school has incorporated educational technology in nearly all its classes, as well as in sports. In geography class, for instance, students use Google Earth to explore the streets of Manhattan and other cities. In horticulture, they will soon be using iPads to monitor temperature and humidity in the greenhouse. And, in computer science class, girls are learning to code.
Teacher Jordan O’Donnell, who has been instrumental in bringing tech into the school, says he is trying to, “empower these students here to think them beyond what got them here to get them involved in coding, STEM, science technology engineering and math.”
Fourteen-year-old Shawnee, who asked her last name not be used, has been at the school for just under five months. In that time, coding has become her thing. She says it gives her a sense of control.
“When people mediate they do that to come at peace with themselves,” she says, in a way that makes her sound much older than she is. “That’s kind of what coding is for me, it’s my meditation.”
She’s already taken the computer science class offered by the school, so she’s doing a more in-depth online class in her free time. She says, ultimately, she wants to get a degree in computer science, then go work for Google. Or a video game company.
“If I hadn’t been here and hadn’t discovered coding, I would be running around like a chicken with their head cut off trying to figure out what I’m doing to do with my future,” she says. She also points out cutting class isn’t exactly an option.
Wednesday, we’ll excerpt from Hill’s story on a facility in San Diego that plans to give every kid a laptop.
THE BAIL INDUSTRY WANTS TO BE YOUR JAILER
The United States is one of only two countries with a private bail industry. (The other is the Philippines.)
In England and Canada, making a profit by posting a defendant’s bail is a crime, while in America, the bail bond business has grown to approximately $14 billion, and the average bail amounts levied by courts have more than doubled since 1994, largely due to the aggressive lobbying of the bail industry.
In the past few years, however, studies have repeatedly shown that the over-use of bail has disproportionately penalized the poor, while resulting in overcrowded jails with no benefit to public safety. To the contrary, the inability to make bail has been found to greatly diminish offenders’ ability to resume a normal life once they do get out, and to significantly raise the likelihood that they will recidivate. As a consequence, an increasing number of states and municipalities are starting to consider a system of pre-trial release for those charged with lower-level nonviolent offenses.
In a Dallas Hilton conference room last summer, a few dozen state lawmakers from around the country gathered for a closed-door presentation about an all-American industry under threat. The pitch was part of an annual conference hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerhouse conservative consortium that promotes — and often drafts — pro-business legislation. The endangered industry was bail.
Bail is an essential lubricant of American justice, asserted Nicholas Wachinski, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail bonds. But now bail agents are under siege by so-called reformers, who argue that the traditional bail system forces poor defendants to choose between paying fees they can’t afford and sitting in jail until they go to trial. A growing number of states — New Jersey, Colorado, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, Hawaii and others — are limiting the use of bail for defendants who don’t pose a threat, or replacing for-profit bail with government supervision.
Of course, Wachinski said, the bail bond industry will continue its tireless lobbying to protect its lucrative franchise, but he was there with another message: Innovation! New products! New markets! “A brave new world!” Why should bail bonds be only for defendants who are awaiting trial? How about bail bonds for a whole new class of customers: people who have already been convicted.
“My task,” Wachinski told the crowd, “is to bring the sexy side of bail back.”
In a courtroom just outside Jackson, Mississippi, Kristina Howell was about to experience a new, “sexy side of bail.”After spending two days and nights in jail for drunk driving this past August, Howell was brought to the Byram city court, where she pled guilty and was told she had to pay a fine of $1,044. If she couldn’t come up with the money on the spot, she was headed back to jail. “I panicked,” said Howell, who lives and supports her son “paycheck to paycheck.”But there was one other option. The judge explained to Howell that she could avoid jail by purchasing a new kind of bail bond, a post-conviction device that bail agents in Mississippi are busily promoting around the state. It would cost $155, and would buy her two extra months to come up with the money to pay her fine. Howell was then escorted to another room, where Patty Hodges from the Mississippi Bonding Company sat ready with the paperwork….
ADVOCATES RAMP UP SUPPORT FOR LENO BILL LIMITING SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN JUVENILE FACILITIES
In January of this year, state senator Mark Leno introduced a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities.
The bill—SB 124— is co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, California Public Defenders Association, Youth Justice Coalition and Children’s Defense Fund-California.
Specifically, SB 124 would:
• Define solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
• Provide that solitary confinement shall only be used when a young person poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and when all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
• Provide that a youth shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
• Empower existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.
This spring the proposed legislation will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee, so on Tuesday, its advocate co-sponsors issued a statement ramping up support. Here’s a clip from the Children’s Defense Fund’s letter:
Solitary confinement is particularly psychologically damaging for young people who already arrive having experienced a history of trauma in their lives, which encapsulates between 75 and 93 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system. Practices such as solitary confinement can contribute to re-victimization and re-traumatization of these young people.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as early as 2006, found that children are particularly at high risk of death and serious injury as a result of the use of seclusion and restraint, especially children with mental disabilities. In April of 2012, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry noted the psychiatric impact of prolonged solitary confinement including depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and also finding that the majority of suicides occurred in juvenile correctional facilities when the individual had been isolated or confined…
North Carolina is the only state in the union that has an innocence commission, a neutral government agency that investigates claims of wrongful convictions.
The rest of the 49 states, California included, depend on the work of nonprofits, like the Innocence Project, along with certain activist lawyers who give a percentage of their time to working on innocence cases.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations compiled by the University of Michigan, since 1989, there have been 1,543 exonerations in the U.S. In 2012, California led the nation in innocence cases, with 119 exonerations since ’89. In 2013, Texas moved into first place, and remained in the top spot for 2014.
But whether or not we win first prize for exonerees in any given year, our populous state—with its massive criminal justice system–continues to make its share of tragic legal mistakes.
So do we need our own innocence commission?
The Atlantic’s Matt Ford writes about Joseph Sledge who spent 39 years in a North Carolina prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The state’s innocence commission got him set free at the end of last month, on January 23, 2015.
“In 49 other states, Joseph Sledge would still be in prison,” Ford writes.
Here are some clips from Ford’s story.
The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is the first full-time state agency dedicated to investigating post-conviction claims of actual innocence. “The innocence commission is the only one of its kind in the nation,” the executive director, Kendra Montgomery, told me. Other states have nonprofit organizations like the Innocence Project or think tanks with similar names, “but we’re the only state that has a government agency that is neutral to investigate these cases,” she said. 1,642 claims have been submitted to the commission since its creation in 2006; Sledge’s case marked the eighth exoneration.
Because it is a state agency, the commission has powers that other institutions lack. Investigators can compel testimony with subpoenas, for example, and gather other kinds of evidence for their cases. “The commission has the unique power, because we are a neutral, fact-finding state agency by statute, to collect and test physical evidence in criminal cases,” said Sharon Stellato, who led the commission’s investigation of Sledge. This ability can be decisive: In at least 18 cases, commission investigators were able to locate evidence that had been officially declared lost or missing by other state agencies. Three of those cases resulted in exonerations, while some others confirmed the convictions.
Exonerations, which were once exceedingly rare, have become regular features of the American justice system. The National Registry of Exonerations tallied 125 cases in 2014, the highest annual total so far. The group records 1,535 exonerations nationwide since records began in 1989. Of the 125 wrongful convictions thrown out in 2014, 33 came from Harris County, Texas after faulty testing procedures were uncovered there. Even without Harris County, however, the number of exonerations last year still outnumbered those in preceding years.
125 exonerations might seem paltry compared to the estimated 1 million felony convictions per year, but the number of wrongful convictions is likely far higher. Many jurisdictions don’t devote the same level of resources towards exonerations that North Carolina does, and even then, the process can be achingly slow. For a justice system that exalts due process and the presumption of innocence, any wrongful conviction represents a serious breakdown of justice. Even a handful of high-profile wrongful convictions can ripple throughout the public consciousness, undermining confidence in the system. “The country is having to psychically cope with conclusive evidence that we make, with some regularity, errors in criminal trial outcomes,” Tate said.
Investigating possible wrongful convictions, especially those that don’t involve DNA evidence, is a difficult and time-consuming matter. Even so, exonerations, as Ford writes above, are becoming a regular feature of our justice system.
But how many innocent people are still locked up who, for one reason or another, have not been able to get the attention of a willing lawyer, or non-profit?
The question becomes even more pressing when those convicted have been sentenced to die by the state’s hand.
To put it another way, since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1978, for every ten whom we executed there was one death row exoneration. Not a comforting set of numbers.
Oh, and the great majority of those death row innocence cases—78—were black men.
PS: One of the arguments against a state commission is the expense. However proponents of an innocence commission counter that keeping innocent people locked up indefinitely is also a very high cost endeavor, both fiscally and morally.
AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION VOTES TO END TO LIFE-WITHOUT-PAROLE FOR CHILDREN
On Monday, the American Bar Association, passed a strongly-worded resolution calling for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life-in-prison-without-parole and urging “meaningful periodic opportunities for release.”
The ABA is the nation’s largest membership organization for lawyers, representing 400,000 prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, litigators and others.
“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.
Hubbard called the practice of juvie LWOP “a severe violation of human rights.” He added, “The ABA applauds those states that have already taken steps to reform their laws and urges other states to pass similar reforms as soon as practicable.”
The text of the resolution itself uses even more forceful language. Here’s an excerpt:
The United States stands alone in permitting life without parole for juveniles. It is the only country other than Somalia that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits life without parole sentences for youth. The legal developments in [Supreme Court rulings] Graham and Miller, along with the advances in brain and behavioral development science showing how children are fundamentally different from adults… support a conclusion that it is inappropriate to decide at the time of sentencing that life without parole is an appropriate sentence for a juvenile offender. This resolution encourages jurisdictions to go one step further than Miller and to join the policy position of the rest of the world by eliminating mandatory life without parole sentences for youthful offenders.
THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LYNCHING IN AMERICA
There were 3959 lynchings of black people in 12 southern states between the end of reconstruction in 1877, and 1950, according to a report released this week by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the non-profit law and advocacy firm founded by attorney, Bryan Stevenson. (We’ve reported on Stevenson several times in the past.)
That number is at least 700 more lynchings than previous research has reported.
EJI and Stevenson maintain that in order to begin to cure the racial inequality that exists in the American criminal justice system, it is essential to have a conversation about the racial ills and profound trauma of the past, lynching included.
This is from the introduction to the report:
Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. These lynchings were terrorism. “Terror lynchings” peaked between 1880 and 1940 and claimed the lives of African American men, women, and children who were forced to endure the fear, humiliation, and barbarity of this widespread phenomenon unaided.
Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in America and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West during the first half of the twentieth century. Lynching created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America. The administra- tion of criminal justice especially is tangled with the history of lynching in profound ways that continue to contaminate the integrity and fairness of the justice system.
This report begins a necessary conversation to confront the injustice, inequality, anguish, and suffering that racial terror and violence created.
As Stevenson notes, Germany and South Africa has have each had their versions of truth and reconciliation in order to heal. The U.S. has not.
MAC ARTHUR FOUNDATION LAUNCHES $75 MILLION INITIATIVE TO REDUCE USE OF AMERICA’S JAILS
On Tuesday, the MacArthur foundation MacArthur announced a five-year, $75 million investment that “seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.” (The John D. and Catherine C. MacArthur Foundation is one of the nation’s largest independent foundations.)
The plan that MacArthur is calling its “Safety and Justice Challenge” hopes to support and reward cities and counties across the country “seeking to create fairer, more effective local justice systems that improve public safety, save taxpayer money, and lead to better social outcomes.”
Julia Stasch, MacArthur’s President summed up the foundation’s thinking: “For too long America has incarcerated too many people unnecessarily, spending too much money without improving public safety,” she said. “Jails are where our nation’s incarceration problem begins…”
Okay, MacArthur, how about starting in Los Angeles, the city with the nation’s largest jail system, thus the ideal test case.
The conference (in which I was fortunate enough to take part) was unusually dynamic, and many of the topics discussed by the event’s panelists and keynote speakers will find their way into WLA stories and posts in the future.
But a cluster of this week’s news stories pointed directly to two issues that came up repeatedly, including in the Friday evening presentation of superstar lawyer, author, and justice advocate Bryan Stevenson.
The issues are the presumption of innocence and what Stevenson called, “the presumption of dangerousness.”
Here are the stories that brought those two concepts—at least tangentially—to mind:
IS THE DEFENDANT WHITE OR NOT?
As the jury selection takes place in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two alleged Boston Marathon bombers, there is a lot of concern about whether or not the ethnicity of the jurors will affect their views.
While Kteily and Cotterill are writing about Tsarnaev, the results of research they conducted regarding his case, point well beyond the matter of the alleged Boston Marathon Bomber to some discomforting conclusions about the part race may play—in general—in certain people’s perceptions of how lightly or harshly a defendant should be treated by the justice system.
Here’s a clip from their essay:
No sooner did the F.B.I. release photographs of Mr. Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, three days after the bombings, than questions arose about the racial identity of the suspects. (“Are the Tsarnaev Brothers White?” ran a headline in Salon.) Although neither brother matched the visual prototype of a white American, both hailed from the Caucasus, the region that gave rise to the term “Caucasian,” and both had lived in America for many years.
In the aftermath of the bombings, we sought to answer two questions: If white people perceived Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as less white, did that influence their support for treating him harshly? (Tamerlan was dead by this point.) And if people varied in how white they considered Mr. Tsarnaev to be, what psychological propensities, if any, determined whether they perceived him as more like “us” or more like “them”? We, along with three of our colleagues, published our findings last year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Within hours of the F.B.I.’s release of the suspects’ photographs, we collected responses from 426 white Americans to a broad questionnaire assessing a range of their demographic information as well as aspects of their ideological orientations. Eight days later, we offered these same participants the opportunity to respond to a second questionnaire. Here, we presented them with the original F.B.I. photos, and asked them to tell us how white they thought the suspects looked.
We then asked the participants whether they endorsed statements such as “I hope the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon attacks rots in hell” and “It is O.K. for Tsarnaev not to have been read his Miranda rights before interrogation” and “We shouldn’t rush to judgment in bringing the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon attacks to justice.” They were also asked to indicate the sentence that they felt Mr. Tsarnaev ought to receive should he be found guilty, with options ranging from “a maximum of 20 years in prison with the possibility of parole” to “the death penalty.”
We found that there was substantial ambiguity about whether the Tsarnaev brothers were white. On a scale from zero (nonwhite) to 100 (white), the participants varied in their perceptions, with ratings running the full gamut from zero to 100. The average rating was around 64.
When the researchers asked the same research participants about what kind of punishment Tsarnaev ought to receive, it turned out that those who rated Mr. Tsarnaev lowest on the “looking white” scale, were in favor of punishing him the most severely.
“In a case like Mr. Tsarnaev’s,” Kteily and Cotterill concluded, “where guilt is widely presumed and where the outcome will most likely fall on one side of the line between life imprisonment and death, this finding seems especially relevant [when it comes to jury selection].
IS THE LITERAL APPEARANCE OF INNOCENCE NECESSARY FOR THE ASSUMPTION OF INNOCENCE?
The week also features jury selection for another alleged purveyor of mass violence, namely James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theater. As with Tsarnaev, the issue is less one of guilt or innocence than it is a matter of what kind of punishment should be meted out. With this in mind, Holmes’ attorneys naturally want their client to look the most ordinary and the least threatening possible.
Beth Schwartzapfel of the Marshall Project writes about the issue in general of shackling or not shackling prisoners when they come to court, how such decisions can affect a trial’s outcome, and whether the garb of innocence is important to the presumption of innocence that is supposed to be a pillar of the American legal system.
Here are a couple of short clips:
When jury selection began this week in the trial of James Holmes — the man accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theater — he looked different than he had in prior court hearings. He traded his jail garb for khakis and a sport coat. Instead of wearing shackles and chains, he was discreetly anchored to the floor by a tan cable meant to disappear into the tangle of computer cords at the defense table.
That cable, which was attached to a harness under Holmes’s clothes, was the result of much legal volleying before any potential jurors arrived. His lawyers had argued that seeing Holmes in restraints would ruin his opportunity to be presumed innocent. Shackles and other extreme security measures (like the snipers posted on the roofs of nearby buildings) would give jurors the impression that “extraordinary security is necessary to contain Mr. Holmes,” they wrote, “and few things could be more prejudicial to a man on trial for his life.”
James Holmes’s legal team seeks to persuade the jury that their client’s crimes were committed as a result of his longstanding mental illness. Under the law, he will have the best chance of a fair trial if he appears before jurors looking like an ordinary person. “The presumption of innocence requires the garb of innocence,” wrote a judge in another Colorado courtroom almost 70 years ago, “and regardless of the ultimate outcome, or of the evidence awaiting presentation, every defendant is entitled to be brought before the court with the appearance, dignity, and self-respect of a free and innocent man
THE PERILS OF THE PRESUMPTION OF DANGEROUSNESS
One of the topics that threaded through many of the panel discussions at the Justice and Injustice conference I mentioned above, was the legal precept of the presumption of innocence, which both the defense attorneys and prosecutors on the various conference panels said that—with rare exceptions—seemed increasingly hard to come by in criminal court.
A twin topic that keynote speaker Bryan Stevenson talked about was something he called the presumption of dangerousness. He brought it up regarding the disproportionately harsh treatment of young men of color by the criminal justice system.
It is that presumption of dangerousness that clearly frightened NY Times columnist Charles Blow when he heard about his Yale student son’s experience as the young man made his way back to his dorm room from the school library.
Here’s a clip from Blow’s column:
Saturday evening, I got a call that no parent wants to get. It was my son calling from college — he’s a third-year student at Yale. He had been accosted by a campus police officer, at gunpoint!
This is how my son remembers it:
He left for the library around 5:45 p.m. to check the status of a book he had requested. The book hadn’t arrived yet, but since he was there he put in a request for some multimedia equipment for a project he was working on.
Then he left to walk back to his dorm room. He says he saw an officer “jogging” toward the entrance of another building across the grounds from the building he’d just left.
“I did not pay him any mind, and continued to walk back towards my room. I looked behind me, and noticed that the police officer was following me. He spoke into his shoulder-mounted radio and said, ‘I got him.’
“I faced forward again, presuming that the officer was not talking to me. I then heard him say, ‘Hey, turn around!’ — which I did.
“The officer raised his gun at me, and told me to get on the ground.
“At this point, I stopped looking directly at the officer, and looked down towards the pavement. I dropped to my knees first, with my hands raised, then laid down on my stomach.
“The officer asked me what my name was. I gave him my name.
“The officer asked me what school I went to. I told him Yale University.
“At this point, the officer told me to get up.”
The officer gave his name, then asked my son to “give him a call the next day.”
My son continued:
“I got up slowly, and continued to walk back to my room. I was scared. My legs were shaking slightly. After a few more paces, the officer said, ‘Hey, my man. Can you step off to the side?’ I did.”
The officer asked him to turn around so he could see the back of his jacket. He asked his name again, then, finally, asked to see my son’s ID. My son produced his school ID from his wallet.
The officer asked more questions, and my son answered. All the while the officer was relaying this information to someone over his radio.
My son heard someone on the radio say back to the officer “something to the effect of: ‘Keep him there until we get this sorted out.’ ” The officer told my son that an incident report would be filed, and then he walked away.
What if my son had panicked under the stress, having never had a gun pointed at him before, and made what the officer considered a “suspicious” movement? Had I come close to losing him? Triggers cannot be unpulled. Bullets cannot be called back.
My son was unarmed, possessed no plunder, obeyed all instructions, answered all questions, did not attempt to flee or resist in any way.
This is the scenario I have always dreaded: my son at the wrong end of a gun barrel, face down on the concrete. I had always dreaded the moment that we would share stories about encounters with the police in which our lives hung in the balance, intergenerational stories of joining the inglorious “club.”
AND IN OTHER NEWS……OBJECTIONS TO WAZE TRACKING COPS CONTINUES TO HEAT UP
Still more law enforcement voices are calling for the WAZE communal traffic tracking Ap to remove any police tracking features. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has been a strong voice in the matter.
Waze, the popular navigation app boasting more than 50 million users worldwide, has a new critic: police officers. Over the last few weeks, law enforcement officials have been urging the app and its owner, Google, to disable a feature that allows users to report when they’ve spotted a police officer, in real time, for all other Waze users to see.
Sergio Kopelev, a reserve sheriff in Orange County, Calif., is one of the law enforcement officials behind the push to remove Waze’s police-tracker. He says he first discovered the feature through his family.
“In early December, or mid-December, I saw my wife using the app when she picked me up from the airport,” Kopelev tells NPR. “I saw her tag a location of a police officer. And then as the officer was moving, I saw her update the location… She told me about Waze, and I said, ‘Look, this isn’t good.’”
After that day, Kopelev reached out to Waze directly. He made posts about the feature on Facebook. And he eventually gave a talk about the app and its police tracker to the National Sheriffs Association’s annual convention. His talk there led to even more outcry from officials and a good amount of media coverage, but even before that conference, police around the country had been speaking out about it.
In late December, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck sent an open letter to Google CEO Larry Page, saying that the app endangers officers’ lives. “I am concerned about the safety of law enforcement officers and the community, and the potential for your Waze product to be misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community,” Beck wrote.