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Talking About Race & Justice on Sunday at the LA Times Festival of Books

April 16th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



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.

Here’s what David Cole had to say about Just Mercy for the New York Review of Books:

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.

Here, for example, is what David Kennedy, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, wrote in the Washington Post:

“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.

Posted in race, race and class, racial justice | 12 Comments »

Media & Crime & Race…Emotion Makes Bad Law…..Were SF Jail Deputies Behind Inmates Gladiator Fights?…A SF Jail Deputies Behind Inmates Gladiator Fights?

March 30th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


DEAR MEDIA, ABOUT THE CRIME & RACE THING…YOU’RE NOT HELPING

We know that, statistically, poor minority defendants fair far less well when they come in contact with the American criminal justice system than do non-minorities.

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.

Think progress has more on the story.

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.

There’s more, so read the rest.


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.

The LA Times editorial board lays the matter out in a strong and sensible editorial that includes some suggestion solutions.

Here’s how it opens:

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?)

In any case, Vivian Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle has the story.

Here’s a clip:

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.


Posted in Civil Liberties, crime and punishment, jail, media, prison policy, race, race and class | 7 Comments »

John Legend’s Oscar Night Statement….Tech Education for Kids in Lock Up… The Bail Industry Fights Back….Will CA Regulate Solitary for Juveniles?…

February 24th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

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.)

Here, for example, is a clip from a story by Max Ehrenfreund for the Washington Post’s WonkBlog:

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…

Read the rest. (And then listen.)


CAN TECH TRANSFORM EDUCATION FOR LOCKED-UP KIDS?

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.

The first such facility Hill singles out is The Wyoming Girls’ School in Sheridan Wyoming.

Here’s a clip from the story:

“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.

Naturally, the bail industry is fighting back.

Alysia Santo of the Marshall Project has the story.

Here’s how it opens:

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…

Posted in Education, juvenile justice, pretrial detention/release, prison policy, race, race and class, racial justice, solitary | 3 Comments »

Does California Need an Innocence Commission?…ABA Sez No More LWOP 4 KIDS….Confronting Lynching…MacArthur Puts Up $$$ to Reform U.S. Jails

February 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


DOES CALIFORNIA NEED AN INNOCENCE COMMISSION?

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.

[SNIP]

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.

According to a 2014 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, since 1973, when the first death penalty laws now in effect in the United States were enacted, 143 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated.

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.

The NY Times’ Campbell Robertson also has a story on the release of the report, which you can find here.


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.”

The new initiative is based on a MacArthur-supported report released Wednesday by the Vera Institute, called Incarceration’s Front Door: the Misuse of Jails in America.

[More on the Vera report tomorrow.]

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.

Posted in Innocence, jail, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, race, race and class, racial justice | No Comments »

The Presumption of Innocence & the Presumption of Dangerousness

January 28th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


This past weekend, UC Irvine’s Literary Journalism Program together
with UCI’s School of law sponsored a unique interdisciplinary conference titled Justice and Injustice: The Consequences of Storytelling in the Courtroom.

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.

But, it appears there is another likely significant factor that could affect jurors’ potential for impartiality, which social scientists Nour Kteily and Sara Cotterill bring up in an Op Ed for the New York Times.

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.”

[SNIP]

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.

Then this:

“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.

[SNIP]

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.

NPR’s Sam Sanders has the story for NPR’s Morning Edition.

Here’s a clip:

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.


MINI THERAPY HORSE JOINS THE LASD

One more thing in case you’ve missed it: a ridiculously cute miniature therapy horse has just joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, Death Penalty, race, race and class, racial justice, Sentencing | 5 Comments »

Blue is the New White: The Complexity of Talking About Police Reform – by Bill Boyarsky

January 21st, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


EDITOR’S NOTE:

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Barak Obama said of the events of Ferguson and New York: “…Surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift.”

Let us hope so.

In Los Angeles as we talk about those issues, the worried father Obama mentioned is not necessarily African American. He is just as likely to be Latino. More likely, really.

And the police officers working patrol whose husbands and wives are fearful for their safety are widely diverse when it comes to race, ethnicity and gender.

So, yes, the conversation we need to have is, in part, about race—but it is also a lot more complicated than that.

In the story below—which originally appeared in TruthDig—columnist Bill Boyarsky explores the complexity of law enforcement reform with members of the Youth Justice Collation, civil rights attorney Connie Rice, journalist/author Joe Dominick and others.

In the end, Boyarsky admits he finds no quick answers. But he brings up some worthwhile questions.

Happy reading.



BLUE IS THE NEW WHITE

Why Talking About Law Enforcement Reform in LA is Not a Simple Matter

by Bill Boyarsky


This story originally ran in TruthDig, which has generously allowed WitnessLA to reproduce it in full.



“It’s not the person that fills the uniform, it’s what the uniform does to the person,” said Kim McGill, an organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition. “Blue is the new white.”

“We have to change the culture of law enforcement and create real community authority over police if we want to address system violence and transform the treatment of black and brown communities,” she added.

Or, as another Youth Justice Coalition member, Abraham Colunga, told me, “It’s cop versus black and brown, any minority. It’s more a matter of cop versus us, no matter what the cop is, black, brown, Filipino.”

I visited the coalition headquarters, at the western edge of South Los Angeles, in search of an answer to a question raised by the Los Angeles Police Department’s fatal shooting of Ezell Ford, 25, a mentally ill African-American, in a poor black and Latino neighborhood of South L.A. on Aug. 11.

He was killed two days after Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and a month after Eric Garner, another African-American man, died after a white New York cop subdued him with an illegal chokehold. Then, in Cleveland in November, a white officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, 12, who was holding a replica gun. The officer and another cop threw Rice’s 14-year-old sister to the ground, handcuffed her and forcibly put her into a patrol car when she ran to her fatally wounded brother’s aid.

But Ford’s death in Los Angeles did not follow the black-white narrative that has framed news coverage of these police shootings. One of the cops who shot Ford, Sharlton Wampler, is Asian-American. The other, Antonio Villegas, is Latino.

White law enforcers have been killing black men since slavery. A study by ProPublica, the investigative journalism organization, analyzed federal data from 2010 to 2012 and found that young black males were at a 21 times greater risk of being shot to death by police than young white men.

ProPublica’s black-white analysis, however, seemed incomplete for Los Angeles. Its multiethnic population—49.6 percent white, 48.5 percent Latino, 11.3 percent Asian, 9.6 percent black—is now policed by a multiethnic department. Latinos, numbering 3,547, are the largest ethnic group in the LAPD, followed by whites, 2,756, blacks, 861, and Asian Americans, 634.

The analysis by McGill, who is white, and Colunga, who is Latino, seemed more to the point.

The coalition, which knows what’s going on with the police and communities, was organized by youths of color who have been arrested, served time behind bars, subjected to stop and frisks and police abuse, and threatened with deportation. Coalition members have helped lobby local and state lawmakers to reform laws and to increase civilian supervision of the police. They also keep statistics on the number of people killed by police in Los Angeles County.

From their close contact with crime-heavy neighborhoods, they see that police shootings of young men go beyond the black-white way journalism frames the issue.

For example, McGill said a cause of the shootings is the war on gangs being waged by the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies around the country.

Gang suppression cops, operating in neighborhoods prevalent with gangs, “treat all like criminals,” McGill said. “People are going to be roughed up and hurt.”

The two officers who killed Ford were members of a gang suppression detail operating in a high crime part of South Los Angeles, where four African-Americans and two Latinos have been slain by cops since 2000.

The victim was well known in the neighborhood. Brandy Brown, another member of the Youth Justice Coalition, lived in an apartment above where Ford was shot. Brown, who is African-American, told me that she and others around 65th Street and Broadway knew him as a pleasant, longtime resident who, as his teens turned into his 20s, became severely disturbed. He wandered through the neighborhood, cadging cigarettes and meals from people who had known him for years. Her mother occasionally fed him and let him use the shower. The two police officers, she said, should have known him too.

Brown was working in her kitchen when she heard the gunshots. She ran downstairs to where her 4-year-old nephew was playing and saw people gathered around Ford.

The autopsy report showed he was shot three times. One bullet hit him in the right side, another in the back and a third in the right arm. The wound in the back had a “muzzle imprint,” the autopsy report said, suggesting the shot was fired at close range.

Police said Ford was walking on 65th Street when the two officers got out of their car and tried to talk to him. Why they did this is unknown so far.

Police Chief Charlie Beck said Ford walked away. The two officers followed him to a nearby driveway. Ford, the chief said, crouched between a car and some bushes. When one of the officers reached toward Ford, Beck said, he grabbed the officer and forced him to the ground. The policeman shouted to his partner that Ford had his gun, Beck said. The partner fired two rounds, which hit Ford. The officer on the ground pulled out his backup weapon, reached around Ford and shot him in the back at close range.

Ford joined the long list of those who have been killed by the police in Los Angeles County, which contains 88 cities, Los Angeles being the largest by far.

The Los Angeles Times painstakingly reports all these deaths in its invaluable Homicide Report, which compiles and analyzes coroner’s figures. A total of 594 gunshot victims have died in officer-involved shootings from 2000 through 2014. Of these, 114 were white, 300 Latino, 159 black, and 16 Asian.

With African-Americans a much smaller part of the population, the black toll is disproportionately high. The Youth Justice Coalition reports a slightly higher total of deaths, probably because it supplements coroner’s reports with information gleaned from neighborhoods.
In any case, ethnic minorities comprise the largest number of victims by a huge number. David R. Ayon, senior strategist at Latino Decisions and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said: “Latinos are underrepresented in a lot of positions of authority, but not when it comes to being shot by the police in Los Angeles.

“African-Americans are underrepresented in a lot of areas of society, but are overrepresented in being shot by the police. The group that is underrepresented [in police shootings] is whites.”

I talked to two criminal justice experts about the complex racial dimension to these police shootings.

Connie Rice is an attorney long active in civil rights who heads the Advancement Project, a national organization that fights for criminal justice reform and voting rights, among other issues. She was a leader in the reform of the Los Angeles Police Department after major scandals and the 1992 riots.

Rice said she found that police officers are more apt to shoot in violent crime areas. “Do I think the cops are too quick to shoot in South L.A.? Yes, I do. They give themselves permission to shoot in South L.A. where they don’t anywhere else.”

She added, “The biggest common denominator [in police shootings] is [neighborhood] income and class. It is compounded by race.”

Neighborhood figures compiled by the Los Angeles Times Homicide Report support this.

Some examples: The Florence neighborhood in South Los Angeles is listed by the report as the ninth most deadly area in Los Angeles. Nine blacks and four Latinos were shot and killed by police there between 2000 and 2014. The count was four blacks and two Latinos in impoverished South Central Los Angeles. In Boyle Heights, a poor Latino area, eight Latinos and one black died. But in middle-class Leimert Park, a largely black neighborhood, there were no police-caused shooting deaths in those 14 years.

Joe Domanick is a senior fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice and the author of “Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD,” to be published by Simon & Schuster this summer.

Domanick also believes police attitudes in high crime areas influence behavior. “The explosion of guns and the lack of any kind of gun control make cops very edgy,” he said. He added, “I think there is also racism on the part of white, Asian and Latino cops that is endemic in our society, which doesn’t value black lives unless they are Denzel Washington.”

For those seeking quick answers, this column may leave you unsatisfied. Solutions glibly floated from New York and Ferguson have been tried to some extent in Los Angeles, a city that may be the picture of the nation’s urban future.

The police department has been integrated. Its all-white occupying army tactics in poor black and Latino areas were moderated after the riots and federal supervision. Bill Bratton, now New York police commissioner, and his successor, Beck, forced the cops to interact with communities, at least much more than in the past. “Charlie Beck did a superlative job in implementing community policing, especially in African-American communities and he built up a big stack of goodwill when he was chief of the South Bureau [covering South Los Angeles],” Domanick said. “He has continued that as police chief. He has deep relationships with people. They like him.”

Friday, Beck met with representatives of demonstrators who have been camping in front of police headquarters, demanding that he fire the cops who killed Ford. He didn’t do that, insisting that he has to follow department procedures on discipline. “It’s a first step,” Youth Justice Coalition’s McGill said. “It opened communications.”

Beck and other police chiefs and mayors can do more: Give communities more of a say in policing, which cops hate. Take every complaint seriously. Investigate police killings quickly and openly without relying on bureaucratic or legalistic barriers created to protect police officers. Let the community know what’s going on. And show respect to the residents. Be as polite to people in poor neighborhoods as the police are in more affluent neighborhoods that are nearly free of violent crime. Economic class shouldn’t determine whether you get an even chance with the law.

None of these small steps would make a headline or a mention on the Internet or in cable news. But they’re important in a country that is so racially divided and resistant to change.


Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Journalism, and a columnist for LA Observed.



Photo of LAPD academy graduation from LAPD Blog




AND AS A REMINDER OF ONE MORE FACET OF THE POLICE REFORM ISSUE…THE STORY OF A COP DEALING WITH THE AFTERMATH OF A FATAL SHOOTING

If by some chance you haven’t been following the account of Billings, MT, police officer Grant Morrison who was involved in a fatal shooting in the Spring of 2014, this nuanced story by Zach Benoit of the Billings Gazette, shows the grief and self-doubt Morrison has struggled with since the shooting, which was recorded by a dashboard video.

A later widely-destributed video shows Morrison sobbing after the incident after realizing he had fatally shot an unarmed man.

Both videos make for harrowing viewing.

Morrison was cleared of all wrongdoing in the matter by a coroner’s jury after a two day inquest.

Posted in Charlie Beck, LAPD, LASD, law enforcement, Police, race, race and class, racial justice | 2 Comments »

Thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King

January 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Attorney Bryan Stevenson’s Spring 2012 TED talk called “We Need to Talk About Injustice” reportedly got one of the longest and most intense standing ovations in TED’s history, and the thing went viral as soon as it was posted.

Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, children who have been tried as adults and given outsized sentences, and others who have been most abandoned by the nation’s legal system.

He is also a law professor at NYU, the winner of a McArthur genius grant, and has argued six cases before the Supreme Court—two of which are of exceptional significance.

We first introduced you to Stevenson a few months ago when his book about his experiences with the justice system—Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption—was first released.

As we celebrate Dr. King’s day and contemplate all that he accomplished and all that remains to be done, we at WLA could think of no one whose work better embodies both of those perspectives than Stevenson.

Below you can listen to Stevenson’s 2013 talk with Bill Moyers about how wealth, class and race are too often still the primary determining factor when it comes to justice.


Back to our regularly scheduled programing tomorrow.

Posted in Justice, race, race and class, racial justice | No Comments »

LA Supes Finally Approve 2 Foster Care Fixes….Can SF’s Community Court Halt the Revolving Door?….NYC Bans Solitary for Inmates Under 21….More on the “End of Gangs…..and the Pain of Losing Al Martinez

January 14th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


AFTER MUCH STALLING BY THE OLD BOARD, THE NEW LA BOARD OF SUPES QUICKLY MAKES 2 NEW FOSTER CARE FIXES

It looks like those two new members added to the LA County Board of Supervisors have changed the mix enough to make a big difference when it comes to social issues. (Let’s hope it continues.)

To wit: On Tuesday, the board added two important–-and long-stalled—safeguards to the child welfare system.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has the story. Here’s a clip:

After a year of stalled efforts to address breakdowns in Los Angeles County’s child protection system, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted two key recommendations of a blue ribbon commission established in the aftermath of a beating death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy.

In what is believed to be the nation’s first program, the board voted unanimously to pair public health nurses with social workers to investigate every allegation of abuse involving children younger than 2, an age group identified as being the most at risk of fatalities from mistreatment.

The public health nurses will help medical and child welfare workers evaluate children and determine whether they are in danger of abuse or need immediate medical attention. Deploying the additional personnel is expected to cost $8 million annually.

Supervisors said they hope the nurses will help connect families with needed child healthcare and keep families together when appropriate. Initially, the nurses will be added to two child welfare offices serving areas in and around South Los Angeles.

Lack of adequate medical evaluations have been tied to some child fatalities in recent years. In 2008, 2-year-old Isabel Garcia starved to death — two months after social workers visited her and wrote that she appeared healthy, despite the toddler’s sharp weight loss.

The board also moved forward with a recommendation to ensure that children are taken to specialized county medical clinics for health screenings when a nurse in the field deems it medically necessary. The clinics are equipped with sophisticated equipment and staff trained to detect and document child abuse. To accommodate the increased health screening, the county is spending $2 million on additional clinic staff.

“The time is now to move on the blue ribbon commission’s recommendations. The protection and well-being of children in our care should always be top priority,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-sponsored the motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

Now if the board will keep up the good work and move on the rest of the Blue Ribbon Committee’s recommendations, most notabley the hiring of a child welfare czar.

(cough) Judge Michael Nash (cough, cough)


SAN FRANCISCO TURNS TO COMMUNITY COURT TO BREAK THE INCARCERATION CYCLE

With a U.S. incarceration rate that increased more than seven-fold between 1980 to 2010, and national recidivism rates at 67.8 percent (and far higher for drug offenders), some of the nation’s more forward-looking communities have been turning to alternative forms of justice such as community courts as a means to stop the revolving door that keeps many low-level offenders cycling in and out of jail or prison.

But do such strategies work?

Community courts have many of the same purposes as regular criminal courts: reducing crime, protecting public safety, and ensuring due process. But unlike most criminal courts, community courts are particularly focused on improving outcomes for offenders by addressing some of the key factors that often underlie certain kinds of criminal behavior—-things like mental and emotional health issues, unemployment, substance abuse, and an unstable home situation.

With such variables in mind, the community courts attempt to match services—not just sanctions—with offenders.

The first community court opened its doors in the U.S. in 1991, in New York City. Now there are more than three dozen such courts in the nation.

California’s two main community courts are located in Orange County and in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s community court, which is known as the Community Justice Center (or CJC), opened in 2009 in the Tenderloin.

Those involved with the court believed from the beginning that they were seeing a drop in recidivism among the CJC’s clients. But were they really?

“Success can be hard to measure in community courts,” writes the Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass in a story that looks at the emerging national trend. “The most common criticism leveled against the community court system is that it is often unable to prevent relapses into criminal behavior….”

As a consequence, he writes, “criminal-justice researchers are trying to put together solid statistical evidence of how community courts are performing.”

With this in mind, the RAND corporation decided to take a statistical look at whether or not the CJC really cut the likelihood of returning to the criminal justice system.

RAND researchers analyzed approximately 10,000 cases involving 6,000 defendants that the court heard from its opening in March 2009, through December 2013. When matching the CJC offenders with a control population, they did their best to compare apples with apples, by looking at those who committed similar offenses in the same general geographic area, but before CJC opened. They also looked at those who committed similar offenses after CJC came along in 2009 but who, for some reason, didn’t get funnelled to community court.

The results were published in late 2014 and they were extremely encouraging. They showed that those tried in SF’s Community Justice Center were 8.9 to 10.3 percent less likely to be rearrested within a year than those non-CJC offenders tried in convention court. Over time, the stats got even better. It turned out that the likelihood of not being rearrested rose the longer the CJC people were out. Whereas for those tried in regular courts, the opposite was true; they were more likely to reoffend as time passed.

So why did SF community court system work? One of the study’s authors, Jesse Sussell, said that he and his co-author, Beau Kilmer, weren’t 100 percent sure how to answer that question.

“Policymakers in the United States are aware of the enormous potential gains to be had from reducing recidivism,” he wrote in a paper for Social Policy Research Associates. “They also know that the status quo approach for handling offenders has done a poor job of preventing re-offense…”

But as to why CJC having a better effect?

“We still don’t know precisely why the San Francisco CJC appears to reduce recidivism,” Sussell admitted. But he thought the fact that the program wasn’t a one size fits all system might have something to do with it. “The CJC itself is really a collection of interventions,” he said. “A suite of services,”—some to address addiction, others to address homelessness and other situational problems, and so on.

The court was also speedy, Sussell noted. “Community court participants are also ordered to report to the court much sooner following initial arrest (about one week) than are offenders processed by the traditional court (a month or more).”

Bottom line, the RAND researchers found the study’s results to be very promising, but they’d like to now drill down a bit and look at “the relative contributions of these different program components.”

Sounds fine to us.


NEW YORK CITY BANS SOLITARY FOR INMATES 21 OR UNDER AT RIKERS

In a move that startled many, members of New York City’s board of corrections voted on Tuesday—7-0—to eliminate the use of solitary confinement for all inmates 21 and younger, a move that it is hoped would place the city’s long-troubled Rikers Island complex at the forefront of national jail reform efforts.

Los Angeles County has yet to come close to such a sweeping decision—although in the last few years it has greatly reduced its dependence on solitary confinement in response to a raft of public criticism by juvenile justice advocates.

Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have the story for the New York Times on Tuesday’s policy change.

Here’s a clip:

The policy change was a stark turnaround by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio [whose corrections guy supported the surprise move], which recently eliminated the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds but, backed by the powerful correction officers union, had resisted curtailing the practice more broadly.

Even the most innovative jails in the country punish disruptive inmates over age 18 with solitary confinement, said Christine Herrman, director of the Segregation Reduction Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. “I’ve never heard of anything like that happening anywhere else,” she said, referring to the New York City plan. “It would definitely be an innovation.”

The Correction Department has faced repeated criticism over the past year after revelations of horrific brutality and neglect of inmates at Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail system. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, is suing the city over the treatment of adolescent inmates at the jail complex.

[SNIP]

A large body of scientific research indicates that solitary confinement is particularly damaging to adolescents and young adults because their brains are still developing. Prolonged isolation in solitary cells can worsen mental illness and in some cases cause it, studies have shown.

Inmates in solitary confinement at Rikers are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation, which they spend by themselves in a small caged area outdoors. A report published in August by Mr. Bharara’s office described the use of solitary cells for young people at Rikers as “excessive and inappropriate.” Inmates can be locked away for weeks and months and, in some cases, even over a year.

As of Jan. 9, according to recently released city data, there were 497 inmates between ages 19 and 21 at Rikers, with 103 of them held in solitary confinement.

“The majority of inmates in the 18- to 21-year-old cohort are young men of color whom we presume innocent under our laws because they are awaiting trial,” said Bryanne Hamill, one of the board’s strongest voices for eliminating solitary for young inmates. “The evidence showed that solitary confinement will not improve their future behavior, but will reliably convert anger and frustration today into rage and violence tomorrow.”

The president of NYC’s 9,000-member correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook, said the plan would endanger correction officers by leading to more inmate attacks. Seabrook told the NYT that he planned sue the board for every guard assaulted.


SAM QUINONES ON “DEADLINE LA” TALKING ABOUT DRAMATIC REDUCTIONS IN GANG CRIME

For those of you who were interested in the discussion that resulted from Sam Quinones’ story for Pacific Standard magazine, provocatively titled “The End of Gangs,” you’ll likely enjoy listening to the podcast of Monday’s Deadline LA on KPFK, featuring Barbara Osborn and Howard Blume interviewing Quinones about whether or not the gangs are disappearing from LA’s streets and, if so, why.

As you may remember, Quinones’ story is thought-provoking and deeply reported, but also controversial.

For instance, we still find his analysis far too law-enforcement centric. And it has made gang experts nuts that, in discussing the gangs’ lessened grip on day to day life in our urban neighborhoods, his story completely left out the essential role played by non-profit programs that offer jobs and other crucial support to former gang members, plus the powerful effect of grassroots community involvement, along with a host of other factors that have contributed to the drop in gang crime.

Yet, all that said, Osborn and Blume ask some great questions. And Quinones’ highly informed answers having to do with the measurable successes gained by policing “smarter, not harder,” along with the LAPD’s brass enlightened move some years ago to treat the most violence-afflicted communities they police as partners, not adversaries—and other intriguing topics regarding the world of cops and gangs—are very much worth your time.

So, listen. Okay? Okay.


THE PAIN OF LOSING AL MARTINEZ

Al Martinez, LA’s glorious storyteller, our city’s bard, as the Huntington Library called him, our deeply humanistic, gloriously poetic and wildly funny chronicler of the zillion extraordinary and ordinary facets of life in Southern California, has left us.

Martinez died Monday at West Hills Hospital of congestive heart failure, said his wife, Joanne, when she called LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick, for whom Al wrote his last columns. He was 85 and had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Al wrote for the LA Times for 38 years—most notably as a columnist—before stupid management decisions forced him out during the worst of the Times’ staff purges, first once, then again. (After panicking at the furious response from readers, the Times rehired him after the first push out in 2007.)

Yet, the ongoing demand for his unique voice was such that Martinez easily placed his columns elsewhere after he parted with the Times, LA Observed being his last home.

He also wrote a string of non-fiction books, a novel and, since this is LA, after all, he wrote occasionally for television, when it suited him.

The LAT’s Valerie Nelson has a lovely obit on Martinez, and Roderick writes about his friend and columnist here, plus Al’s longtime friend and colleague, Bill Boyarsky writes his own tribute, “The Storyteller Exits.”

PS: Al settled himself and his family in Topanga Canyon when he moved to Southern California in the early 1970s. Thus, we who also make Topanga our home always felt that LA’s fabulously gifted teller-of-stories belonged to us personally. We understood we couldn’t keep him forever. Yet, losing him still seems unimaginable.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, gender, law enforcement, Life in general, Los Angeles writers, Police, Public Health, race, race and class, racial justice, School to Prison Pipeline, solitary, Violence Prevention, writers and writing, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 9 Comments »

Kamala Harris Talks Cops & Race….Start of Prison Terms Delayed for LASD 7….LAT Asks What Should Replace Men’s Central Jail….Jerry Brown Talks Criminal Justice….a Juvie Sex Scandal in Idaho….& More

January 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


AT SWEARING IN AG KAMALA HARRIS ENTERS NATIONAL CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE AND POLICE SHOOTINGS

Despite the trouble that NY Mayor Bill de Blasio has been having for his remarks regarding the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, California Attorney General Kamala Harris waded fearlessly into the national discussion regarding race and law enforcement practices in the speech she gave following her swearing in for her second term. Considered a bright political star on the rise, the topic was one of many that Harris discussed in her post-swearing in address.

The AP’s Don Thompson has the story. Here’s a clip:

California’s attorney general stepped into the national debate over the recent slayings of unarmed civilians by police on Monday, calling for a review by her agency and promising to lead a public dialogue.

Kamala Harris, the first minority to hold the state’s highest law enforcement office, made the pledge as she was sworn in to a second and final term in the office she now holds. However, she is widely expected to be preparing for a run for governor or the U.S. Senate.

“As law enforcement leaders, we must confront this crisis of confidence,” Harris said. “We must acknowledge that too many have felt the sting of injustice.”

She ordered a review within 90 days of how her Department of Justice trains special agents on bias and the use of force. Harris also said she will work with the state’s law enforcement agencies and communities in coming months to strengthen mutual trust.

Her comments come after the killings of two unarmed black men this summer by white police officers in Missouri and in New York.

Harris, a Democrat, is the daughter of a black father from Jamaica and a mother from India. She referred to herself in her inaugural speech as “a daughter of Brown vs. Board of Education and the civil rights movement.”

Harris said that as a career prosecutor, she has learned “one central truth: the public and law enforcement need each other to keep our communities safe.”


START OF PRISON TERMS DELAYED FOR 7 FORMER LA COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT MEMBERS CONVICTED OF OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

The six members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department convicted last July of obstruction of justice in connection with their interference in an FBI investigation into brutality and corruption by members of the LASD were originally directed to surrender on January 2, 2015, to begin their respective prison sentences.

Deputy James Sexton, who was tried twice before being convicted of similar charges last September, was to have surrendered on February 16.

Now, it seems, all seven of the surrender dates have been postponed pending the response of the The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to the seven’s various applications for bond—in other words, bail.

This has to do with the fact that each of the seven have appealed their convictions. Thus if the Ninth Circuit grants any of the bond applications, it will be a signal that the court means to at least hear that particular appeal.

As to what the odds are that the appellate court will decide to listen to any or all of the appeals….none of the attorneys, nor any of the feds, are willing to hazard a prediction.

“But not even the prosecutors want anyone to start a sentence, then be yanked out,” said a source close to the cases.

And so the surrender dates are delayed while everyone waits.

More news as we know it.


YES, YES, EVERYONE AGREES THAT LA COUNTY’S DREADFUL MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL MUST BE REPLACED. BUT REPLACED WITH WHAT? A DUMB OR A SMART PLAN? HMMMMM. TOUGH ONE.

Over the weekend, the LA Times editorial board made the point rather eloqently that the question isn’t whether or not Men’s Central Jail should be replaced; the question is whether the replacement should be big and expensive? Or something, say, smaller, smarter, and less costly.

As it stands now, the board is committed to a $2 billion plan that, as the Times points out, was one “among several presented by Vanir Construction Management Inc., a firm in the business of building such facilities. The price tag makes the construction project the most expensive in county history.”

Moreover the plan, writes the LAT board, “remains rooted in questionable estimates and bygone practices.” It completely ignores the research-backed conclusions of a 2011 jail population study by the Vera Institute—which the board commissioned—showing ways that MCJ’s population could be safely and appropriately reduced, thus requiring a smaller replacement facility.

Nearly everything in the editorial is something that the Times—and we at WLA—have said before, multiple times. But, unfortunately, it bears repeating….and repeating…for as long it takes the LA County Board of Supervisors to hear it and act accordingly.

Here’s a clip from the Times’ essay:

In pushing forward with a new jail that could keep as many people locked up as were, say, two years ago, the Board of Supervisors is in effect making an astounding policy statement: The current jail population is the correct one, despite the theoretical embrace of mental health diversion, the ability to authorize some no-bail, pretrial releases, and the recent reduction of sentences for some crimes. And the $2 billion — or perhaps twice that, when including bond interest — should all be spent on incarceration rather than more effective, and cost-effective, alternatives.

Such a statement is both incorrect and potentially self-fulfilling: If they build a jail, they will fill it. In other words, the supervisors won’t have the incentive — or the money — to build out the county’s capacity for more just, more efficient and more effective community-based programs to end the cycle of recidivism.

Supporters of the Vanir plan point out that Men’s Central Jail is so over-capacity that inmates serve only 20% to 40% of their sentences. They argue that the space freed up by mental health diversion and all the other ways of reducing the jail population should be used to ensure that inmates serve their full time. But even if they do, the potential reductions would outpace the need for jail space.

Men’s Central Jail should be demolished. But again, replaced with what? A jail that will house just as many people as the current one, or a scaled down version that permits smarter use of limited resources?

And, yes, like the Times, we once again vote for the latter—the smart plan—over the non-research-based, dumb and insanely expensive model. Silly us.


GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN’S LATEST WORD ON CALIFORNIA’S SYSTEM OF CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Among the six or so major topics that Jerry Brown emphasized in his State of the State speech following his swearing in on Monday morning to his fourth term as governor, was the issue of whom the state of California locks up, and for how long. For your reading pleasure, here is the text of that section of his speech:

Another major state responsibility is our system of crime and punishment. And here too, I will refer to my father’s 1959 address. He worried then about California’s “dangerously overcrowded prisons.” He talked about identifying “those prisoners who should never be released to prey again on an innocent public,” but he also said, “we should also determine whether some prisoners are now kept confined after punishment has served its purpose.”

We face these same questions today: what purposes should punishment serve and for how long should a person be confined to jail or prison – for a few days, a few years or for life?

In response to a large increase in crimes beginning in the 1970s, the Legislature and the people – through ballot initiatives – dramatically lengthened sentences and added a host of new crimes and penalty enhancements. Today, California’s legal codes contain more than 5,000 separate criminal provisions and over 400 penalty enhancements, an arcane and complex mix that only the most exquisitely trained specialist can fathom. And funding has grown proportionately: during the 1970s we had 12 prisons holding fewer than 30,000 prisoners and corrections spending was only 3 percent of the budget; our system then grew to a peak of 34 prisons, with an inmate population of 173,000, eating up more than 10 percent of our budget dollars.

Four years ago, the United States Supreme Court held that our prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded and imposed strict capacity limits, far below the number of inmates that were then being held.

Clearly, our system of crime and punishment had to be changed. And through the courts, the Legislature and the voters themselves, a number of far-reaching reforms have been enacted. The biggest reform is our realignment program, which places tens of thousands of lower-level offenders under county supervision. More recently, a federal three-judge panel ordered further measures to reduce prison overcrowding. And the voters, through Propositions 36 and 47, modified our criminal laws to reduce the scope of the Three Strikes law and change certain felonies into misdemeanors.

All these changes attempt to find less expensive, more compassionate and more effective ways to deal with crime. This is work that is as profoundly important as it is difficult, yet we must never cease in our efforts to assure liberty and justice for all. The task is complicated by our diversity and our divisions and, yes, by shocking disparities. Since time immemorial, humankind has known covetousness, envy and violence. That is why public safety and respect for law are both fundamental to a free society.


SEXUAL ABUSE SCANDAL IN IDAHO KIDS’ PRISON

Another case of kids behind bars being sexually victimized by staff, this time in Idaho. The Wall Street Journal’s Zusha Elinson has the story. Here’s a clip:

When a local nurse’s son was sent to the juvenile corrections center here at age 15, she was upset, but relieved that he would be away from drugs and gangs. The single mother said that the “night he went in, I felt bad, but I could sleep because he was safe.”

But within months, the head of security at the state juvenile corrections center in Nampa struck up a sexual relationship with the teenager, according to police reports. Julie McCormick admitted to having sex with him three times in 2012 while he was incarcerated, the reports said.

Ms. McCormick, 29 years old at the time, told detectives that she fell in love with the boy nearly half her age. She pleaded guilty in 2013 to lewd conduct with the minor and was sentenced to five to 20 years in prison in 2014. A lawyer who represented Ms. McCormick declined to comment.

“You hear about the Boy Scouts, you hear about the Catholic Church—those kids can walk away from it,” said his mother. “My son couldn’t.”

The scandal is an instance of an issue plaguing juvenile facilities nationwide.


RESEARCHER ON A MISSION FINDS MORE THAN 50 GRAVES OF KIDS WHO DIED—MANY KILLED—AT OLD FLORIDA REFORM SCHOOL

Ben Montgomery writes for the Tampa Bay Times a fascinating and chilling tale about kids who came to the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, often for minor infractions, and ended up dead. Now a university researcher is determined to put things right 80 years later, despite opposition. Here’s a clip:

By the time she came for them and brought them up from the earth and spread them on tables in a basement lab on Maple Drive in Tampa, they were in hundreds of pieces, some as small as a fingernail. All that remained of some of them could fit inside a lunch box.

It took imagination to remember that they were boys once, before their childhoods ran out at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, before they were buried without the dignity of headstones, before they were lost to time. All 55 of them were, in the cold language of forensics, unidentified human remains.

Erin Kimmerle wanted to give them their names back.

She’d been working 14-hour days through January, February and March, stressing about finding time for teaching and advising on top of leading this massive project. She’d been missing her family, too. When her cell phone rang, the word BABE popped onto the screen — Mike, her husband. “Hey, babe,” she’d sing, and walk out of earshot to get updates on school activities and runny noses.

When she started the project in 2012, her goal had been to map the cemetery on the reform school campus so that family would know where their relatives were buried. It would take a year, tops. But when ground penetrating radar showed 50 graves, 19 more than the state had said, and when families wanted the remains of their boys back, it became a mission.

Now she was in her third year. Now she had 55 sets of remains. Now she was trying to piece the boys back together, bone fragment by bone fragment, to figure out who they were and, she hoped, how they died.

She needed the bones to speak.


WHEN JUDICIAL DETACHMENT ISN’T ENOUGH

A heartbreaking first-person tale for the Marshall Project in which a judge ponders the value of empathy versus that of the law in the case of a disturbed young veteran he had recently sentenced.

Here’s how it opens:

Alone at my chambers desk late in the day, I find myself staring blankly at Tyler’s death notice in the online Billings Gazette, and I am stunned. There are many who come to spend a few trial days in my courtroom and remain opaque and unreadable. This was never the case with Tyler, who, from the first, I had seen as wearing both his admirable strengths and his pitiable weaknesses as if they were medals on display. The notice’s bland statement that this 27-year-old man had “passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 1, 2014” strikes me as so distant, so bloodless, so inadequate…

Eventually my eyes drift to the daily “Hot Topics” banner at the top of the page where references to child molestation and prison sentences scroll side-by-side. Linking to current news stories, it turns out these headlines have nothing at all to do with Tyler. Still, it somehow seems apt that they have been woven into the fabric of this page where I have landed in search of confirmation of what has been so hard for me to take in.

The last I’d seen Tyler Williams was just before Thanksgiving when he appeared in my Seattle courtroom for the setting of a post-conviction appeal bond. Upon posting a modest $10,000 security, he would be free of the obligation to surrender in two weeks to begin serving the 15-month prison term I had ordered. Much of our discussion that day centered on whether it would be wiser to get the incarceration out of the way while his life was lacking in direction or to postpone it in the hopes that an appeal might be successful.

While trying to helpfully explain his options, I made it clear that I could not advise him from the bench on legal matters – such as whether I had committed reversible error from which he might benefit on appeal. But, characteristically, I didn’t hesitate to offer a recommendation of Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” which had won the National Book Award for fiction the previous day. Consciously prodding him to look beyond his depressed and depressing present, I was pleased when Tyler asked me to repeat the author’s name and seemingly intended to follow through.

I wish he had. Reading it might have brought him to a deeper realization that he was not alone in struggling with the after-effects of his honorable military service in Iraq. As difficult as the soldiers in Klay’s stories find being sent to Iraq, many of them – like Tyler – find it even tougher when it comes time to separate from the “band of brothers” and be deployed back home. As former Marine Lieutenant Klay has observed, the experience of war is “too strange to be processed alone.

”But now Tyler was dead, having met his end in a manner quintessentially and chillingly alone.

Posted in Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, law enforcement, race, race and class, racial justice, Realignment | 6 Comments »

LA County Supes Say YES to Civilian Commission to Oversee Sheriff’s Department (Updated)…Convictions That Aren’t…Racial Inequity….Bad School Data…& Torture

December 10th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


With a 3-2 vote, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed the motion introduced by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis
to create a civilian commission to oversee the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was the third, and very emphatic vote in favor of the oversight commission’s creation.

Ridley-Thomas first proposed a civilian oversight body back in the fall of 2012, after the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence delivered their highly critical report on the brutal conditions in the LA County jail system and the LASD leadership that the CCJV said allowed such conditions to continue to exist year after year.

Until now, the votes were not there for the idea. But following the arrival on the board of Solis and Kuehl, all at once a majority was onboard for a civilian commission.

“The people of Los Angeles have demanded a new day by electing a new sheriff,” said Solis. “…Under the new leadership, we have a chance to restore trust in the county. This is not just a morally right answer,” she added, “it is fiscally prudent. Taxpayer money spent defending lawsuits is money that can’t go to improving the lives of our constituents….”

Supervisor Mike Antonovich disagreed. “The darkest days within the sheriff’s department in recent experience…,” he said, came about “during a time when it had the most amount of external oversight.” Then he ticked off the oversight entities of the recent past: the Office of Independent Review, Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, the county ombudsman, and the court-ordered jail monitors of the ACLU. Thus Antonovich favored “a single watchdog entity” that would “streamline and strengthen civilian oversight”—namely the inspector general.

Tuesday’s vote took place just a little after the 1 pm hour, after a long and impassioned segment of public comment. Prior to the vote, LASD Undersheriff Neal Tyler read a letter from Sheriff Jim McDonnell giving strong support to the motion. The letter said, among other things that “… partnerships with our community should be embraced, not feared.”(At the time of the vote, McDonnell was at a long-scheduled meeting of the California State Sheriff’s Association.)

Interestingly, LASD Inspector General Max Huntsman also spoke positively about the idea of community oversight.

In the end, the motion to create the civilian commission was divided into three parts. Part one was the approval of the civilian oversight body. Part two was to cause the creation of a working group to hash out what the new commission would look like, what its mandate and its powers would be, and so on. And part three was the request of a report from County Counsel having to do with issues such as the correct legal language necessary to create the civilian group.

This partitioning of the motion was at the suggestion of Supervisor Mike Antonovich who wanted to vote for the working group, and the County Counsel’s report, but against the commission.

Bottom line: The creation of a civilian oversight body passed 3-2, with Antonovich and Supervisor Don Knabe both voting no—at least for the time being. The creation of the working group, solely, passed with a unanimous vote, as did the request for a report from the county’s lawyers.

And so it was that, after more than two years of discussion, civilian oversight of the county’s long-troubled sheriff’s department will soon be a reality.


THE DEVIL & THE DETAILS

The devil will, of course, be in the details.

Among those devils and details will be the make-up of the commission, the degree of access it will have to LASD information and what, if any, legal power it will have.

In his letter to the board of supervisors, Sheriff McDonnell was actually quite specific in his suggestions as to what kind of commission members he envisioned, and how many commissioners there ought to be. (He figured 7 to 9 commissioners, to be exact.)

As to whom they ought to be, McDonnell thought the commission should made up of volunteers, not paid employees. They should be “…highly regarded and esteemed members of the community, committed to public service on this body in an unpaid and part-time capacity (similar to how CCJV functioned). The structure should also include not simply individuals appointed by the Board of Supervisors, but also others selected by other appointing authorities….”

When IG Huntsman spoke he also had a number of suggestions. He stressed that, if oversight was to mean anything, it was essential that he and, by extension any commission he reported to, must have maximum access to information.

“I used to be an attack dog,” he said. “Now I’ve been asked to be a watchdog. If you buy a watchdog, they are only worth it if they come into your house. If you keep them in the backyard, then the burglars can come in the front door. A watchdog can’t watch what they can’t enter and be a part of. So transparency means complete access…”

Huntsman said it was his understanding that there was a way to accomplish this access and still respect the restrictions of the Peace Officers Bill of Rights.

As for the question of whether or not the soon-to-be created civilian commission could or should have any legal power, Huntsman was unconcerned.

“There are lots of commissions that have legal authority,” he said, “and those who don’t have legal authority, and that doesn’t really control how effective they are.” A commission’s effectiveness had more to do about “whether or not what they have to say is welcomed by the department, whether or not the department interacts with them, and whether or not they speak in a language the department understands.”



AND IN OTHER NEWS….

NEVER CONVICTED OF A CRIME BUT HELD BACK BY A CRIMINAL RECORD

It’s bad enough that significant percentages of job-seeking Americans are hampered in finding employment for which they are otherwise qualified by criminal records. This story by Brendan Lynch writing for TalkPoverty tells how yet another slice of U.S. job hunters faces the same barriers even without criminal convictions.

Here’s how the story opens:

Tyrae T. and N.R. needed what any thirtysomething American without regular income needs: a well-paying job. They were both ready and eager for work, yet both were turned down for numerous entry-level positions they were qualified for. The reason? Criminal records. Tyrae and N.R. have never been convicted of any crimes, but they face a problem that afflicts millions of low-income Americans: arrests without conviction that are improperly used as grounds to deny employment.

Job applicants with criminal records, especially men of color, face a high hurdle to employment. Studies have shown that black men without criminal records get callbacks for job interviews at rates below those of white men with criminal records; and for a black man with a record, the callback rate is almost negligible.

Arrests that never led to conviction shouldn’t affect employment—innocent until proven guilty is a fundamental principle of American justice, after all. Because there is a presumption that arrests without convictions don’t hinder employment opportunities, this issue has received far less media and political attention than the employment obstacles created by past convictions. But the fact is that when it comes to getting jobs, a mere arrest can be just as bad as a conviction for millions of people like Tyrae and N.R.

Many companies conduct pre-employment background checks using FBI rap sheets, which are notoriously hard to read: employers often can’t discern whether the charges resulted in conviction, were withdrawn, or dismissed.

State-level databases can be equally confusing. In Pennsylvania, if an item turns up when an employer runs a background check through the state police, the system immediately responds with a generic code, indicating that details will follow within four weeks. If someone only has arrests on his record, the report eventually comes up clean, but many employers won’t wait that long for the clarification—they simply move on to the next job applicant.


…CORY BOOKER SPEAKS TO FELLOW U.S. SENATORS ABOUT BIAS IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

“Enough lamentation, when will there be legislation?” asked New Jersey Senator Cory Booker when he spoke before Senator Richard Durbin’s Tuesday hearing on the State of Civil Rights & Human Rights. It’s strong stuff, filled with both passion and common sense. And Booker bolstered his points with plenty of statistics.

Take a look.


MORE BAD NEWS ABOUT LAUSD’S MALFUNCTIONING SOFTWARE SYSTEM THAT SCREWED UP STUDENTS’ SCHEDULES

Recently we wrote about the restraining order an angry judge slapped on California Department of Education head, Tom Toriakson, to force Toriakson and LAUSD to come up with a plan to fix a disastrous tangle of problems with the district’s student data system. It seems the data snarl had somehow resulted in many students at Jefferson, Dorsey and Fremont High Schools losing more than a month’s worth of class time, and other students’ transcripts being comprised as college application deadlines rolled around.

So is the system fixed yet? Uh, no. Even more alarming, the cost of repairing the mess has, thus far, cost three times what the district initially spent to set up the data system.

Annie Gilbertson of KPCC has the story-–and it ain’t pretty.

Here’s a clip:

The Los Angeles Unified School District board approved another $12 million Tuesday to fix the student data system that failed to schedule classes, take attendance and track students with special needs beginning last fall.

Under the new plan, the district will spend up to $2 million per week from Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 to have technology companies, including Microsoft, debug the system, stabilize servers, and expand use of the system known as MiSiS at charter schools, among other tasks.

The money will also pay for oversight of the work by an outside party and expansion of the help desk.

The new spending brings the total cost of the software system to $45.5 million, three times as much as was initially invested in it.

When the six weeks are up, the board will be presented with another, pricier spending plan for MiSiS improvements. Earlier estimates submitted to the school construction bond oversight committee showed the price of addressing the system’s problems could double to about $85 million….


A FEW WORDS ON THE TORTURE REPORT

We don’t normally report on issues—even criminal justice issues—that occur beyond U.S. borders, because they are too far outside our California-centric mandate.

But we cannot fail to acknowledge—however briefly—the release of what is being called the “torture report,” the Senate’s long awaited report on C.I.A. torture during the Bush Administration released Tuesday. It has too many implications about criminal justice issues we do write about.

This week’s revealations are so dispiriting that a lot of the writing about the report that we’ve read in the last 24 hours has sort of a stunned eloquence, like this opening of Tuesday’s story by the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson.

There is a tape recording somewhere, unless the Central Intelligence Agency has destroyed it, that captures the sound of a man named Nazar Ali crying. He was a prisoner in a secret C.I.A. prison, in a foreign country where terrorists were supposed to be interrogated. But Nazar Ali, whom a Senate Select Intelligence Committee report, part of which was released on Tuesday, suggests has a developmental disability—it quotes an assessment of him as “intellectually challenged”—was no sophisticated Al Qaeda operative. It is not even clear, from what’s been released of the report, that his interrogation was an attempt to gain information, or indeed that he was properly interrogated at all. According to the report, his “C.I.A. detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information.” A footnote later in the report, where his name appears, explains that Nazar Ali’s “taped crying was used as leverage against his family member.” Left unexplained is what the American operatives did to make this man cry. Did they plan ahead, preparing recording equipment and proddings, or did they just, from their perspective, get lucky?

That audio may be long erased or destroyed, as ninety-two videotapes documenting waterboarding were. The unauthorized running of those videotapes through an industrial shredder, in 2004, put in motion the production of the Senate report. (The Washington Post has a graphic guide to its twenty key findings.) It took nine years and cost forty million dollars, largely because the C.I.A. and its allies pushed back, complaining about unfairness and, finally, warning darkly that Americans would die if the world knew what Americans had done. Senate Republicans eventually withdrew their staff support. The Obama Administration has largely enabled this obstruction. The opponents of accountability nearly succeeded. In another month, a Republican majority takes control in the Senate, and they might have buried the report for another decade, or forever. As it is, only a fraction has been released—the five-hundred-page executive summary of a sixty-seven-hundred-page report—and it is shamefully redacted. But there are things the redactions can’t hide, including that the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration lied, in ways large and small. One telling example has to do with the number of people held in the secret C.I.A. prisons. General Michael Hayden, as director of the C.I.A., regularly said that the number was “fewer than a hundred.” By that, he meant ninety-eight—and, when he was informed by others in the Agency that there were at least a hundred and twelve, “possibly more,” he insisted that they keep using the number ninety-eight. The report released today lists the number, for the first time, as a hundred and nineteen. Of those, twenty-six were held wrongly—that is the C.I.A.’s own assessment; the number may be greater—either because there was no real evidence against them or because of outright Hitchcockian cases of mistaken identity. There’s a footnote where the report mentions the twenty-six who “did not meet the standards for detention.” Footnote 32, the same one that outlines the motives for holding Nazar Ali, has a devastating litany, starting with “Abu Hudhaifa, who was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before being released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be…”

There’s lots more in Davidson’s story, in the New Yorker in general, and, of course, in every other mainstream publication.

Posted in Board of Supervisors, Civil Rights, criminal justice, Education, Inspector General, jail, Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, LAUSD, Los Angeles County, race, race and class, racial justice, torture | 14 Comments »

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