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Scott Budnick, For-profit Foster Care, the Youth Welcome Center, and Reentry Employment

March 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

SCOTT BUDNICK: FROM PRODUCING THE HANGOVER MOVIES TO FOUNDING THE ANTI-RECIDIVISM COALITION

Jesse Katz has an excellent longread profile for the California Sunday Magazine on Scott Budnick and his journey from pre-med student to Hollywood producer to full-time criminal justice reform champion.

Budnick began mentoring kids in Sylmar’s juvenile detention center more than a decade ago through the Inside Out Writers program.

Budnick, executive producer of the Hangover series, left Hollywood behind in 2013 in order to take on criminal justice activism full-time. Budnick says he has Dede Gardner, producer of 12 Years a Slave, to thank for his decision.

After the split, Budnick founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition with a $400,000 grant from California Endowment. While ARC was in its earliest stages, Budnick was instrumental in pushing SB 260 (a law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who were convicted of murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole) through legislature and into Governor Jerry Brown’s hands. Budnick also used ARC as a platform to campaign for the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014.

Here are some clips from Katz’s profile:

If Budnick were a priest or a lawyer, even a counselor or a coach, these jailhouse pilgrimages would be easier to explain — his declarations not so incongruous. But until a bit more than a year ago, Budnick had a day job as a Hollywood producer, and not one devoted to bringing socially conscious, inspirational tales to the screen. As the number two at Green Hat Films, Budnick executive-produced the raunchy, uproarious Hangover movies, the top-grossing R-rated comedy franchise in history. For years it meant living a kind of double life, racing from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank to Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, interrupting conference calls to accept collect calls, burning through girlfriends once they realized he would rather be, as his official bio says, “walking the tiers of California jails and prisons on his nights and weekends” than a red carpet.

“These kids,” Budnick says, “are what give me life.”

At once earnest and hyperbolic, loyal and schmoozy, Budnick can come across as a character in one of his own films. When people first meet him, whether it be an inmate or a warden, a politician or a philanthropist, the initial reaction is almost always the same: “Who the fuck are you and what are you about?” his longtime mentor, Javier Stauring, who oversees the L.A. Archdiocese’s youth-detention ministry, says with a laugh. Budnick is not the likeliest crusader, in other words, to be redefining how California punishes and redeems.

[SNIP]

The break was unlikely, though, only if you did not know Budnick and his growing distaste for a business rife, he says, with “ego and selfishness and people that make every decision out of fear.” It was no coincidence, either, that he took his leave the same year that both The Hangover Part III and 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, the fierce moral compass of one making the other look even more aimless. After a day of guiding Dede Gardner, one of 12 Years’s Oscar-winning producers, around juvenile hall, Budnick credits her as the person “who changed my life, who made the movie that kicked me out of the business.”

Forgoing a paycheck at first and, he says, tapping much of his savings, Budnick began 2014 as a full-time activist, putting everything into the Anti-Recidivism Coalition — arc — a support and advocacy nonprofit he had begun in his garage. arc now has a $1.2 million budget, a paid staff of six, and an office in the downtown L.A. building that houses the rooftop lounge Perch. Instead of clients, arc has what Budnick calls “members” — 160 formerly incarcerated men and women, murderers and carjackers and tweakers — nearly all of whom he met and mentored while they were locked up.

“He is kind of an oddity,” says Robert Downey Jr., the onetime recidivist turned world’s highest-paid actor, who serves on arc’s board of directors. “In politics, usually, you try to align yourself with things that make you look as good as possible and disconnect with anything that’s the least bit tainted.”

Befitting a veteran of broad commercial entertainment, Budnick has chosen his moment shrewdly. After decades of throw-away-the-key policies, the nation is again considering the philosophy of second chances. With a growing number of conservatives daunted by the cost of mass incarceration, libertarians dismayed by the broad license to police that drug laws give the government, evangelicals committed to the promise of personal transformation, and the most crime-ravaged communities also the most crippled by tough-on-crime tactics, the movement defies easy labels.

California, a pioneer of three-strike sentencing laws, is now at a different forefront. In recent years, through ballot initiatives and legislative measures, the state has given breaks once unthinkable to thousands of felons: parole dates, sentence reductions, educational alternatives, employment opportunities. Budnick, campaigner and noodge, has had a hand in it all.

“When I first heard about him, I have to be honest with you: A white Hollywood guy? He can’t be real,” says Robert K. Ross, president and ceo of the California Endowment, the state’s largest health foundation. Then Budnick invited him to visit Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A., where Ross was so moved by Budnick’s rapport with the inmates, he helped launch arc with a $400,000 grant. “Scott Budnick,” Ross says, “is the most extraordinary force in the state of California on badly needed incarceration and justice reform.”

[SNIP]

In the long run, Budnick dreams of removing every young person, 18 to 25, from the adult prison system and placing them on a campus with educational and therapeutic programs. He has been sketching plans for what he calls the California Leadership Academy for more than a decade — a Warner Bros. set designer helped with the earliest diagrams — and since his recent appointments to both the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and the Board of State and Community Corrections, he now has more platforms for making it happen. While still years away, the project just received an $865,000 endorsement in Governor Brown’s budget. This sweeping proposal, with all of its promise and uncertainty, is not rooted in an especially religious perspective, nor is it particularly ideological. If pressed, Budnick will repeat the axiom “hurt people hurt” — and its corollary, “healed people heal.”

We’ve written about Budnick before (and, full disclosure: he is a pal of WLA’s).


THE DEATH OF ALEXANDRIA HILL…AND THE PROBLEM OF PRIVATIZED FOSTER CARE

In July of 2013, two-year-old Alexandria Hill was murdered by her foster mother, a woman screened and supervised by Mentor Network, a huge for-profit foster care agency.

After Alexandria’s death, Mother Jones’ Brian Joseph dove into an 18-month investigation into the world of privatized foster care.

Overloaded and understaffed child welfare departments across the US turn to private foster care companies to pick up the slack. These for-profit companies receive a bunch of tax dollars to vet potential foster families, train them, place kids in their care, and supervise them.

And there’s not much oversight.

Joseph found that very few states are even keeping a record of how many kids are in private foster care. No states are collecting data on how many kids involved in private foster care are being abused. And no one is running the numbers on the cost difference between privately-run and government-run foster care.

Here are some clips from Joseph’s investigation:

With blond hair and blue eyes, Alexandria stood 32 inches tall and weighed just 30 pounds. She liked kitties and the color purple….

At about a quarter to seven that evening, Clemon Small woke from a nap and left for a meeting at a nearby restaurant, leaving Sherill alone with Alexandria and the infant. About 15 minutes later, Sherill dialed his number, then 911.

First at the scene was Ward Roddam, the chief of the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department, who was so surprised to find no one in the front yard waving him down that he called dispatch to make sure he had the right address. Inside, he encountered what he would describe as one of the strangest scenes in his 25-year career: Alexandria’s limp body lay on the floor while Clemon sat on the couch and Sherill talked to 911. Roddam found mucus on Alexandria’s mouth, suggesting that CPR, which foster parents are trained to administer, had never been attempted.

On the witness stand 15 months later, Roddam was asked if the Smalls seemed panicked. “‘Panic’ does not describe it at all,” he said. They seemed “very calm.”

What happened in Rockdale that night would be the subject of a weeklong trial in the fall of 2014, focusing on the care of Alexandria. But it also opened a window into the vast and opaque world of private foster care agencies—for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that are increasingly taking on the role of monitoring the nation’s most vulnerable children. The agency involved in Small’s case was the Lone Star branch of the Mentor Network, a $1.2 billion company headquartered in Boston that specializes in finding caretakers, or “mentors,” for a range of populations, from adults with brain injuries to foster children. With 4,000 children in its care in 14 states, Mentor is one of the largest players in the business of private foster care, a fragmented industry of mostly local and regional providers that collect hundreds of millions in tax dollars annually while receiving little scrutiny from government authorities.

Squeezed by high caseloads and tight budgets, state and local child welfare agencies are increasingly leaving the task of recruiting, screening, training, and monitoring foster parents to these private agencies. In many places, this arrangement has created a troubling reality in which the government can seize your children, but then outsource the duty of keeping them safe—and duck responsibility when something goes wrong.

Nationally, no one tracks how many children are in private foster homes, or how these homes perform compared to those vetted directly by the government. As part of an 18-month investigation, I asked every state whether it at least knew how many children in its foster system had been placed in privately screened homes. Very few could tell me. For the eight states that did, the total came to at least 72,000 children in 2011. Not one of the states had a statistically valid dataset comparing costs, or rates of abuse or neglect, in privately versus publicly vetted homes.

[SNIP]

The bottom line for private foster care agencies—whether large, for-profit corporations or small, local nonprofits—is tied to the number of foster parents on their roster, and thus their ability to place children quickly. Given that every foster parent represents potential revenue, Zullo says, an agency may be more likely to overlook sketchy personal histories or potential safety hazards. There’s little incentive, he adds, to seek out reasons to reject a family, to investigate problems after children are placed, or to do anything else that could result in a child leaving the agency’s program. And as tough as the margins are for nonprofit agencies, the perverse incentives are exacerbated at for-profit agencies that need to make money for owners or shareholders.

“What happens,” Zullo says, “is the lives of these children become commodities.”

In 2013, the California spent $308 million on private foster care. Joseph was given a glimpse inside Positive Option, a small Sacramento set-up that is in charge of 70 kids. Here’s a clip from what he found there:

Kovill, the cofounder, is an energetic 82-year-old with a white beard who continues to manage the organization on a day-to-day basis. Kovill feels a special kinship with the foster children he serves: He says he was abandoned by his father when he was about seven and given to a shoemaker as a laborer. “Foster care is a good system,” Kovill said. “I wish it had been there when I was a kid.” (Kovill told me he changed his name long ago to break from the family that abandoned him. He wouldn’t tell me what his old name was.)

Kovill told me the margins are tight in private foster care, especially if child welfare is your top priority. He said he once had to sell land he owned in Arizona to keep Positive Option, which has annual revenues of about $1.2 million, afloat. Some of his employees report taking 10 percent pay cuts several years ago for the same reason, cuts that remain in effect today. “I’m still a businessman, and I still try to stay in the black as best I can,” Kovill told me one day in the cramped office he shares with his wife, Luan, who works at the agency for free. “But if it meant a car seat for a baby, if it meant diapers for a baby, if it meant safety for a child, the bottom line is gone.”

Kovill took responsibility for Positive Option’s problems, saying they came about in part because he was distracted by the agency’s financial struggles during the recession. “I just trusted everybody to do what I do—I work hard,” Kovill said, referring to some former employees he eventually fired. “I figured they did too. Well, you can’t do that.”


WHERE DISPLACED FOSTER KIDS GO TO WAIT

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf visited LA County’s Youth Welcome Center, the original purpose of which was to house kids new to the system while social workers placed them with foster parents or in group homes. Instead, the center, located at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, has come to serve as a sort of purgatory for hard-to-place kids, the ones who caregivers send back, like kids in their late teens, LGBTQ kids, and kids suffering from mental illness.

Here are some clips from Therolf’s story:

The center — outfitted with couches and televisions — was designed as a comfortable waiting room for children newly removed from their families; it was intended to house them for just one night while the staff tried to place them with a foster home.

Instead, the center has evolved into a holding facility for the most difficult to place youths who have been thrown out of foster homes. No one is turned away.

The facility is the last stop for some of the most desperate and extreme cases, a stark window on the difficulties of a child protection system that is burdened with maddening bureaucracy, a shortage of foster homes and crushing demands from a growing number of troubled children.

The youths who end up here are often older teenagers, sexual minorities, mentally ill or medically fragile. A significant number are involved in prostitution.

They stay here for nights, sometimes weeks, because there are so few homes willing to take them. Sometimes, the children refuse the homes offered to them and leave to live on their own. They come back sporadically to the center for a shower and a night’s rest — a respite from a life on the streets.

[SNIP]

Two of the system’s most debilitating pressures — the desperate shortage of foster homes and the swelling ranks of foster youths involved in prostitution — have conspired here to make this a place where social workers feel as though they are on a never-ending chase to find lasting foster homes for the children.

On this night, out of nearly 30 youths, only one has just entered foster care for the first time: Ruben, a small 13-year-old boy swimming in an oversized T-shirt….

Ashley spent her days in the department’s Torrance office to be near the social worker who was assigned to find her a new home. The worker was too busy to see her, however, and each night, she returned in a van to the Youth Welcome Center, where social workers take over the search on nights and weekends.

“When are you guys going to finally take me back to school?” Ashley asked the employees at the door.

“That’s not our job here at the YWC,” the woman with the clipboard replied.

“That’s not fair,” said Ashley, who was two grades behind in school.

She hoped to become a choreographer or child psychologist. She said, “I want to get my education.”


OP-ED: GOV. JOBS PROGRAM FOR RELEASED (AND SOON TO BE RELEASED) INMATES WOULD BE MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

Boston saw a record-breaking “snowpocalypse” in February that is on track to break an even larger record: the snowiest season in Boston’s recorded history. All that snow buried streets, train tracks, cars, and even turned Nantucket waves into slush.

In addition to union workers and the National Guard, Boston has put county jail inmates to work shoveling the city out from under the snow. The inmates provide the labor for pennies on the hour.

In an op-ed for the Atlantic, Bruce Western and Linda Forman Naval say that local municipalities, taxpayers, and inmates would be better served if the government created a reentry job program—one that pays more than $.20 per hour and employs both incarcerated and newly released inmates.

The public maintenance jobs program would give those locked-up and recently released inmates a chance to make the money necessary for successfully transitioning back into life on the outside: for food, shelter, and paying back their debts. It would also fill a need on the city and county levels by building a public maintenance workforce, and on the individual taxpayer level by targeting recidivism.

Here’s a clip from the op-ed:

A regular government jobs program for formerly-incarcerated people could play a valuable role in maintaining public areas and infrastructure while assisting the transition from the prison to the community. Such a program would also provide a readily available workforce that could respond in moments of catastrophe.

Better yet, extending the program to provide real jobs to those who are about to be released would help them build a nest-egg to transition back into society. Pay all these workers the prevailing wage, and they will be able to afford rent and other necessities for successful reentry. And set up a payment plan so that former prisoners can pay back their debts, such as fines owed to the courts, once they are back up on their feet.

Such a payment plan for fees and fines would represent a big upgrade over the usual work-release programs. Financial obligations are usually deducted from the paycheck up front, and debt can follow formerly incarcerated people around for years. This erodes their incentive to work, makes crime more tempting, and absorbs money that might otherwise procure stable housing and other basic necessities.

People who have been incarcerated—mostly minority men with low-incomes and little schooling —continue to pay a price long after they have left prison. They often enter prison with close to nothing and return to society with little money to get established after incarceration.

Compounding the problem, they also face significant barriers to finding employment upon release.

Bruce Western is a sociology professor and the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University, and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Linda Forman Naval is Deputy Director of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Posted in DCFS, Foster Care, jail, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Reentry | No Comments »

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

February 27th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

A NEW WAY OF LIFE: HELPING WOMEN ON THE OUTSIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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


OBAMA BACKS SMARTER SENTENCING ACT TO CUT MANDATORY MINIMUM DRUG SENTENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[SNIP]

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


ONLY 4.7% OF CA’S FREED THIRD-STRIKERS RETURNED TO PRISON…10 TIMES HIGHER SUCCESS RATE THAN THE REST OF CA PRISONERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FREE MINDS INSPIRES TEENS BEHIND BARS, AND HELPS THEM ACHIEVE THEIR DREAMS ONCE RELEASED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BOOSTS TO ARTS EDUCATION IN LA, INCLUDING PARTNERSHIPS WITH COMMUNITY ARTS PROGRAMS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandatory Minimums, Prop 47, Anti-homelessness Rules, and Sex Offenders Killed in CA Prisons

February 18th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

US ATTORNEY GENERAL ANNOUNCES FEWER MANDATORY MINIMUMS SOUGHT FOR DRUG CRIMES

In August 2013, US Attorney General instructed federal prosecutors to stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, as part of a new “Smart on Crime” initiative. On Tuesday, he reported on the results of his push for fewer outsized sentences for these non-violent drug crimes.

According to Holder, in the year after Holder announced the new initiative, there were almost 1,400 fewer federal drug trafficking cases, a decrease of 6% over the previous year. And prosecutors sought mandatory minimum sentences in half of low-level drug cases, down from two-thirds of such cases.

Here’s a clip from the announcement on the Attorney General’s website:

The figures announced Tuesday were compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission at the request of the Justice Department to measure the impact of several reforms implemented in 2013 through Attorney General Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative. Those reforms—aimed at restoring fairness to the criminal justice system and at confronting the problem of America’s overcrowded prison system—instructed federal prosecutors to exercise greater discretion in selecting drug cases to bring to federal court. The data suggests prosecutors heeded that call, as the overall number of federal drug trafficking cases dropped by six percent in FY2014.

While the sheer number of drug cases went down, the data also showed that federal prosecutors have prioritized more serious cases. Holder pointed to a rise in the average guideline minimum sentence, from 96 months in FY2013 to 98 months this past year. That suggests the severity of offenses prosecuted in FY2014 was slightly higher.

Most important of all, Holder said, was the trend observed with respect to mandatory minimums. After several years in a row that saw federal prosecutors pursue such mandatory sentences in roughly two-thirds of drug cases, last year’s rate dropped to one-in-two. The Attorney General said this showed that the department was succeeding in reserving these strict sentences for the worst types of offenders rather than imposing indiscriminately.

“This figure, perhaps more than any other, shows the significant impact that our policy reforms are having,” said Attorney General Holder. “These are extremely encouraging results.”

Advocates say these steps forward are great, but much more can be done. There are still tons of federal prisoners serving preposterously long sentences for drug offenses. Weldon Angelos, for instance, is serving a 55 year sentence for selling weed while carrying a firearm. (Weldon is the face of the Koch brothers’ criminal justice reform campaign. We pointed to the campaign, and Weldon, here.)

In a dramatic contrast to Weldon’s case, back in California, Governor Brown is reviewing a controversial parole board decision to release a former Mexican Mafia leader (turned informant) serving a life sentence for two murders.


THE RUSH TO HELP PROP 47-ERS IN CALIFORNIA COUNTIES

Jill Jenkins is a paralegal at the Alameda County Defender’s Office. She works in an office that has worked its way through nearly everyone seeking to reduce their convictions through Proposition 47, which lowered certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors. But Jenkin’s connection to the important new law runs deeper than her job. Jenkins herself, is a former felon who had her conviction commuted to a misdemeanor by Prop. 47, and her criminal record expunged.

But not all Prop 47-ers will share Jenkins’ good fortune. It is critical that those still serving time for their felony convictions have a place to live, and are connected with other resources to help them reenter their communities, upon their release.

Not all counties have been able to move as quickly as Alameda, either, and are struggling under the towering workload and the law’s three-year deadline.

The San Jose Mercury’s Malaika Fraley has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

The difficulties that people with felony convictions face are profound, said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice and co-author of Proposition 47. They have a difficult time getting jobs, promotions, federal student loans, certain housing and public assistance, teaching credentials, and more.

Because the maximum punishments for misdemeanors are much lower than for felonies, many offenders were released from jail or prison once their offenses were reclassified under the new law.

Counties like Los Angeles and Orange still have a long way to go to reduce convictions for all of their Proposition 47-eligible offenders who are currently incarcerated, Anderson said. But defense attorneys in the Bay Area hit the ground running the week it became law and are largely done addressing that population.

[SNIP]

In an Oakland courtroom last fall, inmates were doing arm pumps and flashing big smiles at the news that they were being released. Social workers rushed to their side to hand out referrals for community-based organizations offering emergency shelter, mental health services, rehab programs and job training to help with the transition.

“They were thrilled because a lot of people didn’t even know why they were coming in to court,” said Sascha Atkins-Loria, one of a team of social workers deployed by Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods to help Proposition 47 clients.

“Eighty percent seemed overjoyed because they didn’t know they were getting out,” Atkins-Loria said. “Another 20 percent seemed like they didn’t know where they were going to stay tonight.”

Legislative analysts say that lowering the prison population through Prop 47, and thus eliminating some of the costly use of out-of-state private prisons, could save California $20 million. The analysts said, however, that their estimate may be off without the usual four-year prison population estimates from Governor Jerry Brown. The governor, in turn, says that it will be difficult to predict prison population numbers without knowing the long-term Prop 47 effects.

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has the story. Here’s a small clip:

Coupled with a $36-million project to expand three existing prisons, the analysts say California could potentially reduce its use of private overflow prisons and save $20 million “under almost any scenario.”

However, the report notes, the assumption is uncertain and lawmakers should demand a more detailed accounting from Brown’s administration. Without long-term projections, the report states, “it is impossible for the Legislature to make an informed decision” on prison spending.

Another important question, aside from how much money Prop 47 will save, is how those extra dollars will be used.

State money saved by Prop 47 will be be split three ways. Sixty-five percent will go to mental health and drug rehab programs for criminal justice system-involved people, 25% will fund efforts to reduce truancy and help at-risk students, and 10% will be spent on establishing trauma recovery centers for crime victims.

But Prop 47 does not tell counties what to do with the money they save (the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice estimated LA could save $100 million to $175 million per year).

Here’s what Californians for Safety and Justice (the group behind Prop 47) has to say about the Prop 47 money and where it will be invested:

When is the money available?

State savings will be available in 2016, whereas county savings are already being realized.

The state savings from Prop. 47 come from fewer people being sent to state prison. To determine those amounts, the state will calculate how many fewer people are sent to state prison each year because of the felonies reduced by Prop. 47…

Who decides where the state savings go?

Savings from reduced incarceration within state prisons will be distributed by a grant process run by three different state agencies:

The Board of State of Community Corrections will evaluate grant proposals and distribute 65% of the funds for mental health and drug treatment; the Department of Education will distribute 25% for programs in K-12 schools focused on at-risk students; and the California Victim Compensation Program will distribute 10% for trauma recovery services for crime victims.

Savings achieved from reduced incarceration within county jails are not distributed by Prop. 47 but rather by local government bodies. Local advocates may advocate for those savings to be reallocated to crime-prevention strategies and programs that best serve the needs of that particular community.

Can the money go to law enforcement or jails?

The savings from Prop. 47 are intended to go to programs that prevent crime, reduce recidivism and aid crime victims. Any public agency may apply.

The law is focused on investing savings in prevention approaches that reduce the cycle of crime for people (especially those with drug or mental health problems) at risk of committing misdemeanors addressed in Prop. 47.


REVERSING HARMFUL ANTI-HOMELESS RULES IN CALIFORNIA

Fifty-eight cities in California have together authorized hundreds of ordinances that target homeless people, criminalizing things like sitting, sleeping, standing, and food-sharing, according to a report expected to be released this week by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley. The report predicts another 100 city rules against homelessness within the next ten years. In 2013, more than 7,000 homeless Californians were arrested for vagrancy-related offenses.

In an op-ed for the LA Times, the Western Regional Advocacy Project’s Paul Boden, and UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic director, Jeffrey Selbin, point to a “crucial” Right to Rest bill (part of a three-bill package called the Homeless Bill of Rights) being pushed by advocates that would begin to undo some of the anti-homeless rules plaguing California cities. Here’s how it opens:

Anti-Okie laws. Sundown towns. Ugly laws.

These old vagrancy laws recall shameful periods in our history when communities selectively persecuted and punished migrants, people of color and the physically disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s anti-Okie law, which made it a crime to bring anyone indigent into the state, in 1941. In a 1972 case from Jacksonville, Fla., the Supreme Court invalidated a local vagrancy ordinance because it encouraged arbitrary arrests, criminalized innocent activities and placed unfettered discretion in the hands of the police.

But those rulings weren’t the end of vagrancy laws. In their latest iteration, they target homeless people. After homelessness began skyrocketing in the 1980s, cities responded with laws that criminalize basic life activities conducted in public like standing, sitting, resting or sleeping, and even sharing food with homeless people. As the crisis worsened in California — 22% of America’s homeless population now lives in the state — cities have piled on more and more vagrancy laws…

Although arrests are only the tip of the enforcement iceberg, more than 7,000 Californians were picked up for vagrancy in 2013 according to police agency reports to the FBI. Vagrancy arrests increased 77% in California from 2000 to 2012, while arrests for “drunkenness” and “disorderly conduct” declined by 16% and 48% respectively. In other words, vagrancy laws increasingly are being used to punish people’s status — being homeless — rather than their behavior.


HIGH RATE OF SEX OFFENDER DEATHS IN CALIFORNIA PRISONS

An investigation by the AP’s Don Thompson revealed that since 2007, male sex offenders comprised 30% of inmate deaths in California prisons, while only making up 15% of the total prison population. Thompson’s investigation also found the mortality rate of California inmates to be twice as high as the national average.

According to jails expert James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, those numbers will not go down until the state lowers its prison population much further than the 137.5% of capacity mandated by a panel of three federal judges.

Here’s a clip from Thompson’s story:

The deaths — 23 out of 78 — come despite the state’s creation more than a decade ago of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, often marked men behind bars because of the nature of their crimes.

In some cases, they have been killed among the general prison population and, in others, within the special units by violence-prone cellmates. Officials acknowledge that those units, which also house inmates trying to quit gangs, have spawned their own gangs.

Corrections officials have blamed a rise in the prison homicide rate on an overhaul meant to reduce crowding. As part of the effort, the state in 2011 began keeping lower-level offenders in county lockups, leaving prisons with a higher percentage of sex offenders and violent gang members.

Violence and homicides won’t decline unless the state goes well below the prison population level set by the courts — 137.5 percent of the system’s designed capacity, said James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that works on prison issues.

“Until the state gets its prison population below 100 percent of capacity, you’re going to have this,” he said.

Overall, 162 California prisoners were killed from 2001 to 2012, or 8 per 100,000 prisoners — double the national average over the same time period and far higher than that of other large states, including Texas, New York and Illinois, according to federal statistics.

Posted in Department of Justice, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Reentry, Sentencing, The Feds | No Comments »

Prison Tech, Prez Nominates Deputy Mayor for US Attorney, Disabled in Isolation, Public Defenders’ Unconscious Bias

February 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

SMUGGLED CELL PHONES CONNECT PRISONERS WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD…PLUS SAN QUENTIN’S CODING CLASS

A three part series for Fusion by Kevin Roose and Pendarvis Harshaw explores digital tech issues in the criminal justice system.

Part one takes a look at the seemingly limitless flow of contraband cell phones, which inmates use for everything from to coordinating hunger strikes between prisons, to checking in with loved ones, to recording comedic vine videos. Here are some clips:

A month-long Fusion investigation turned up dozens of social media profiles of inmates currently serving time in several states, many of whom were frequent users of the services in question. Some inmates appeared to be accessing the Internet through proxies – a family member who had the inmate’s Facebook password, for example, and was using the account to relay messages – while other inmates appeared to be accessing the sites directly from their cells.

“Been on lock down for two weeks…going into the third week. Letters would be great. Money would be a blessing. If I have to choke down one more bologna sandwich I think I might snap….,” wrote one Facebook user last October. The user, whose name matches that of a current federal prisoner in West Virginia, appears to have posted to his Facebook profile from two other prisons where he was previously housed.

“Hello everyone, wanted to say hi and let u know I’m currently on an extended lock-down,” wrote another federal inmate, who is serving time for armed robbery at a high-security facility in Texas. “Dont worry I’m nit [sic] in trouble the lock-down is due to a big incident that happened between two gangs at my location,” the inmate wrote….

Other social networks, too, are filled with evidence of contraband activity. One Vine user, who goes by “Acie Bandage,” has posted dozens of six-second videos of himself and his fellow inmates dancing, goofing off, and doing impersonations from their prison cells. (The user wraps a bandage around his face during the videos to disguise his identity — click here to see more of his videos, which are really quite something.)

[SNIP]

Beyond the pragmatic safety issues, there are philosophical questions about the role digital culture should play in the criminal justice system. In 2015, as technology forms the base layer of culture, communication, and education, is it cruel and unusual to cut prisoners off from the entire online universe? What’s the role of technology in rehabilitation? If the purpose of a prison is to restrict an offender’s movement and keep him from causing further harm to the general population, should those restrictions apply just to the physical body? Or should his virtual self be imprisoned, too?

The second story explores the issue of teaching inmates technology in prison, for job seeking purposes, and also so that they can more easily reenter their digitally-connected communities.

Roose and Harshaw focus on Code 7370, a coding program put on by the Last Mile, in partnership with Hack Reactor and the California Prison Industry Authority. While the vocational program at San Quentin State Prison does not directly connect participants to the internet, their completed coursework is tested on an administrator’s computer and projected onto a screen. And although there do not seem to be many pre-release programs to teach inmates the basic tech skills they will need to thrive on the outside, yet, the calls for such training are growing louder. Here’s a clip:

For former inmates, the transition out of prison and into the 21st century can be jarring. Many newly paroled inmates, especially those who served long sentences, have never sent an e-mail, used a smartphone, or filled out an online form. The unfamiliarity of these systems can create hurdles when it comes to mundane tasks, such as buying groceries from the self-checkout aisle at the store or using an electronic subway pass. And when it comes to applying for jobs, small hurdles can turn into huge obstacles.

The post-prison lives of inmates are rarely easy, technology problems or no. 77 percent of ex-convicts are arrested again within a 5 year period of being released, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice. But numerous studies have shown that vocational training and educational opportunities, like those offered by The Last Mile, can help keep ex-inmates from returning to prison. A 2010 study by The Rand Corporation showed that fewer than half of incarcerated people receive academic instruction while behind bars. Those who do receive educational or vocational training, though, are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders, and 28 percent more likely to land a job.

One graduate of The Last Mile, Kenyatta Leal, got his first smartphone shortly after being released from San Quentin, where he served the last part of a 19-year sentence for firearms possession. Leal, 46, was no stranger to technology – years before, he’d been given 40 days of isolation in “the hole” as punishment for having a cell phone in prison – but he’d never had a phone capable of downloading apps, streaming music, and sending e-mail. In his new job at RocketSpace, a San Francisco tech co-working space whose founder hired Leal after meeting him in Code 7370, he realized he would need to catch up.

“I didn’t have any tech skills, but I had bust-my-ass skills,” says Leal. “My boss gave me a Galaxy III on my first day, and I took it home, figured out YouTube, and watched, like, four different videos on how to send an e-mail.”


LA DEPUTY MAYOR, EILEEN MAURA DECKER, TAPPED TO BE NEXT US ATTORNEY FOR CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CA

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama nominated Eileen Maura Decker to be US Attorney of California’s Central District. Decker is a former federal prosecutor and currently serves as Los Angeles’ deputy mayor on law enforcement and public safety.

Decker would take the place former US Attorney André Birotte Jr., who was sworn in as the newest judge of the federal District Court in Los Angeles in October.

The Associated Press’ Brian Melley has more on Decker’s nomination and background. Here’s a clip:

Mayor Eric Garcetti credited Decker’s leadership with bringing crime to a historic low in the city, overhauling the fire department and making the city a model for disaster preparedness.

“Our office will miss her work and I will personally miss her, but I am glad that her new position keeps her in the business of keeping L.A. safe,” Garcetti said.

Decker was recommended for the post by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said she was highly qualified to work with federal, state and local law enforcement in a region of 19 million people that spans from Orange County to San Luis Obispo and the Inland Empire.

Decker, 54, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from New York University, started her legal career in private practice in 1990.

She worked as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor for two years, returned to private practice and then became an assistant U.S. attorney in 1995, where she prosecuted cases involving national security, fraud and organized crime. She also has a master’s degree from the Naval Post Graduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey.


FED. JUDGE SEZ STOP WAREHOUSING DISABLED CALIFORNIA PRISONERS IN ISOLATION

An Oakland federal judge has ordered California prisons to discontinue sticking disabled inmates in solitary confinement due to lack of space elsewhere in the facility. Judge Claudia Wilken says a number of state prisons are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that San Diego’s R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility is the most egregious violator. Wilken is currently hearing a class-action lawsuit against California’s solitary confinement practices.

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has the story. Here’s a clip:

Lawyers for prisoners and the state in 2012 had agreed on a plan to find more suitable housing within the state’s crowded prison system. Even so, Wilken found, prison logs showed 211 disabled inmates had been put in the isolation cells in the past year, spending from one day to one month in the units. Most of those cases were at one prison — R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the agency was reviewing the court’s order but otherwise did not comment.

Lawyers for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, representing the corrections department, argued in court that the problems at the San Diego prison would best be resolved internally by state policy changes.

A corrections department administrator said the housing assignments were temporary as the state copes with unplanned need to move 400 to 600 inmates between prisons every week, some the result of other court orders to relocate prisoners at risk of contracting valley fever or to receive mental health care.


WHEN PUBLIC DEFENDERS GIVE LESS THAN ADEQUATE REPRESENTATION BECAUSE OF THEIR UNCONSCIOUS BIASES

The Sixth Amendment Center’s David Carroll interviews Tigran Eldred, New England Law Professor and former public defender, about what he calls “ethical blindness,” which the prof. says is what happens when well-meaning public defenders are too overloaded to detect when they are giving poor clients subpar representation.

Elgred names three components: confirmation bias—preferring information that validates prior beliefs, motivated reasoning—seeking information that brings preferable answers, and overconfidence bias—misjudging the power to give effective counsel in the face of extreme adversity.

Here’s a clip from the interview:

DC: Okay – let’s try to unpack this for our readers. Are you saying that the demands of excessive caseloads force public defenders into making quick decisions about cases everyday that that they themselves may not be consciously aware of?

TE: That’s basically it. And, the scientific support for this comes from the world of “behavioral ethics.” In particular, three psychological factors are relevant to the excessive caseload discussion. First, we all experience what is known as “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency in all of us to seek out, interpret and remember information in a manner that supports our pre-existing beliefs. The second and related concept is “motivated reasoning.” Not only do we seek to confirm our pre-existing beliefs, but also we do so to reach conclusions that we prefer. Third, because of our general desire to think well of ourselves, we tend to experience an “overconfidence bias,” including the tendency to overestimate our abilities to act competently and ethically when confronted with difficult dilemmas.

All of three of these factors occur unconsciously. We are tricked into believing that our choices are reasoned, even when often they are not. Our brains convince us our quickest decisions are solely the result of conscious and rational deliberation. But all the while we are blissfully unaware of how our pre-existing views, desires and self-conception can influence the judgments and decisions that we make.

DC: So, we need some context here. Can you explain these theories within the specific debate of how public defenders respond to excessive caseloads?

TE: Certainly. I agree with Professor Gross that defenders who have too much work often have only one option: to triage cases. Structurally, they are forced into focusing limited resources on a percentage of cases at the expense of many others – and on those cases that don’t get the same level of focus or resources, you wind up with an assembly line of quick plea dispositions. When this type of triage occurs, the psychological phenomena I have described can be expected to exert significant influence.

For example, by starting with the premise that most cases will need to be disposed of quickly, lawyers will likely engage in confirmatory and motivated reasoning, unconsciously seeking reasons to justify this pre-determined conclusion. This can happen in a number of ways. For example, the lawyer might overestimate the strength of the evidence against the client or underestimate the value of additional investigation. Acts of omission, as Professor Gross notes, can have a profound effect on a case. When the lawyer fails to seek exculpatory material, to interview witnesses or to visit a crime scene – or fails to engage in many other forms of advocacy for a client – the lawyer is essentially confirming the pre-existing belief that no additional work for the client will be helpful.

DC: In studying indigent defense services all across the country, I continually encounter public defenders that tell me that I should not be so dismissive of early resolution courts because they often result in favorable decisions to defendants.

TE: Right, they’re playing the percentages. While in many instances it may be true that the best course of action is a quick plea bargain, it is also true that in many instances it is not. There is a significant chance that the decision to forgo additional work for the client is the product of the type of fast thinking I have described. And then, after the fact the process become self-fulfilling. The lawyer has decided that a quick plea is appropriate without further investigation. So the client is advised to take the plea quickly and the lawyer, laboring under the illusion that the decision was solely the product of rational deliberation, remains convinced of the propriety of the decision — unaware of the subtle psychological forces that conspire to influence the lawyer’s behavior.

Tilgard goes on to explain how to reform indigent defense in a way that will effectively combat these unconscious biases:

TE: This is where the latest post by Mr. Vitale is so critical to the discussion. He suggests that indigent defense reform must occur on three fronts: system-building, public advocacy and culture change. I agree all three are critical to overcoming ethical blindness. Public defenders must work in systems that insulate them from undue political and judicial interference. Without structural independence there is little hope that public defenders can overcome these issues alone.

Posted in CDCR, Obama, prison policy, Public Defender, Reentry, solitary, U.S. Attorney | 1 Comment »

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

February 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

A FACE FOR THE KOCH BROS’ CAMPAIGN AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES, CIVIL FORFEITURE, AND MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where the Koch brothers come in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


HOSPITAL PROGRAMS BREAKING THE CYCLE OF RETALIATORY VIOLENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


WAREHOUSING MENTALLY ILL PRISONERS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, THEN RELEASING THEM WITH A WORSENED MENTAL STATE

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

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

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

Here are some clips from the WNYC story:

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


UPCOMING CALIFORNIA BILLS TO TARGET UNCHECKED OVERPRESCRIBING OF PSYCHOTROPIC MEDS FOR FOSTER KIDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[SNIP]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suit Against LASD Over Leaks to LA Times….White Privilege in the Justice System….Realignment Tweak….and More

January 23rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

FORMER LA OFFICERS SUE SHERIFF’S DEPT OVER PERSONAL RECORDS LEAKED TO LA TIMES INVESTIGATION

When the LA County Office of Public Safety was disbanded and absorbed the the sheriff’s department in 2010, OPS employees were authorized to apply for positions within the LASD. The sheriff’s dept. took on 280 from more than 400 applicants.

In December 2013, we pointed to an LA Times investigation that found an alarming number of those hired were previously rejected by other law enforcement agencies (or terminations), had been disciplined for serious misconduct, or had other troubling histories.

Now, a number of those singled out in the report are suing the sheriff’s department for leaking their names and confidential records to the LA Times. The plaintiffs say county officials know the identity of the employee who slipped the records to the Times, and have not held the person accountable.

Courthouse News Service’s Matt Reynolds has the story. Here’s a clip:

Named as problem applicants in the story were David F. McDonald, Ferdinand C. Salgado, Linda D. Bonner, and Niles L. Rose, all of whom were hired as jailers. They are among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed this week.

The officers claim that with the help of county or Sheriff’s Department officials an unidentified county of department employee leaked their confidential records to the Times.

Calling the dim view of the Office of Public Safety “widespread and epidemic,” the officers say it is “no secret” that Sheriff’s Department officials treat them with disdain.

After the Office of Public Safety was shut down to cut costs in 2010, its officers were allowed to apply for transfers to the Sheriff’s Department.

In late 2013, the Times published a series of articles highlighting 280 of the 400 applicants to the department.

A Dec. 2, 2013 article was headlined: “Sheriff’s Department Hired Officers With Histories of Misconduct.”

The Times reported that 188 officers had been rejected for other law enforcement jobs; 29 successful applicants had been fired or asked to resign from their previous jobs; and 15 officers had attempted to manipulate the county polygraph examinations.

Others had been disciplined or had or exhibited signs of dishonesty, the Times reported.


A PRISON REFORM ADVOCATE’S JOURNEY FROM HEROINE ADDICTED PRISONER TO CORNELL GRADUATE

Writing for the Washington Post, Keri Blakinger, shares her story of rising up from a heroin addiction and years in prison to become a graduate of Cornell University. And Blakinger believes that the reason she was able to, relatively easily, reenter her community and return to her Ivy League school was because she is white. Here’s how it opens:

I was a senior at Cornell University when I was arrested for heroin possession. As an addict — a condition that began during a deep depression — I was muddling my way through classes and doing many things I would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for my own habit. I even began dating a man with big-time drug connections that put me around large amounts of heroin. When police arrested me in 2010, I was carrying six ounces, an amount they valued at $50,000 — enough to put me in prison for up to 10 years. Cornell suspended me indefinitely and banned me from campus. I had descended from a Dean’s List student to a felon.

But instead of a decade behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, I got a second chance. In a plea deal, I received a sentence of 2½ years. After leaving prison, I soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. Then Cornell allowed me to start taking classes again, and I graduated last month. What made my quick rebound possible?

I am white.

Second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the United States. But when you are white, society offers routes to rebuild your life. When found guilty of a drug crime, white people receive shorter sentences than black people. And even after prison, white men fare better in the job market than black men with identical criminal records.

It was prison that clued me in to just how much I benefit from systemic racism in our society. Until then, I hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which is exactly how privilege works – as a white person, I could ignore it. But sitting behind bars, I saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.


JAILING LOW-LEVEL FELONS FOR DRUG POSSESSION PAROLE VIOLATIONS GOES AGAINST 3 STRIKES LAW

California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal has overturned a portion of California’s realignment law (AB 109) that sends former felons under county probation to jail for drug possession. According to the court ruling, this provision was in violation of California’s Three Strikes Law, Prop. 36, which says that non-serious drug offenders can be placed in treatment instead of lock-up.

The SF Chronicle’s Bob Egelko has more on the court’s decision. Here’s a clip:

Tuesday’s decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana does not affect the central provision of that “realignment” law, which sends lower-level felons to county jail rather than state prison. But the ruling, if it stands, would overturn a section of the law that allows some former inmates to be returned to jail for drug use.

Felons whose crimes were not classified as violent or sex offenses are now placed on local probation supervision rather than state parole after their sentences, and can be jailed for up to six months for violating the terms of their release. But the court said a 2000 ballot measure, Proposition 36, entitles nonviolent drug offenders to be placed in treatment rather than confinement, unless they have been shown to pose a danger to the public.

Prop. 36 can be amended only by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature, the court said.

“The Legislature cannot evade Proposition 36’s amendment requirements simply by passing legislation that purports to pare down the proposition’s coverage,” said Justice Raymond Ikola in the 3-0 ruling.


FURTHER READING (AND LISTENING) ON BUILDING STRONG BONDS BETWEEN COPS AND COMMUNITIES

Frank Stoltze has a good recap of the diverse opinions voiced at a KPCC panel moderated by Air Talk‘s Larry Mantle on the state of police-community relations and how to improve them.

Mantle’s panel included Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna and other law enforcement officers, policy analyst Francisco Ortega, Robert Cristo of the Youth Justice Coalition, among others. (You can listen to the whole forum, here.)

Here are some clips from Stoltze’s accompanying story:

[LBPD Chief] Luna urged people to cooperate with police, even if they are mistreating you. “If you get into a negative encounter with a police officer, don’t fight or resist. Do exactly what they are telling you to do.”

File a complaint later, he said.

Henderson and Cristo said they wouldn’t trust police to discipline an officer involved in misconduct. Henderson also wondered why the burden rests with residents to submit to an officer’s demands, even if they are unreasonable. “Shouldn’t police empathize with me?”

Repeated interactions with criminals, particularly in South LA, can affect an officer’s attitude, said LAPD Lt. Al Labrada, who works in the community relations section of the department.

“You become involved in so much of the violence that occurs around you, you tend to have a negative perception of a lot of things,” he said. “For officers working in South LA, it’s sometimes not healthy.”

Labrada said that’s one reason he left the area after working there 14 years, including eight years as a gang sergeant.

“We have a long way to go” in building trust, he said. “But we also need to look at the fact (that) officers are making progress.” Labrada pointed to community policing programs in Watts as an example.

AND IN OTHER LA LAW ENFORCEMENT-RELATED NEWS…

In response to a report from LASD Inspector General Max Huntsman on transparency within the Sheriff’s Dept. in comparison to other law enforcement agencies, the LAPD has updated its annual use of force and officer discipline reports on the department website.

The LA Times’ Cindy Chang has the story. Here’s a clip:

The report by Inspector General Max Huntsman focused on transparency issues with the sheriff’s department, analyzing other agencies’ practices for comparison. Huntsman noted that the LAPD posts annual use of force reports and quarterly discipline reports on its website, whereas the sheriff’s department does not.

But the LAPD’s information was not current, Huntsman wrote. Only the 2009 and 2010 Annual Use of Force Reports were posted, and the quarterly discipline reports stopped in 2012.

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, an LAPD spokesman, said the lapses were not intentional, and the department would be posting the latest reports.

As of midday Thursday, the quarterly discipline reports, which include the number of complaints against officers, the types of allegations and the penalties imposed, had been updated through 2013.

Posted in LAPD, LASD, parole policy, racial justice, Reentry | 54 Comments »

The End of Gangs? Uh, No. WLA Discusses This Particular New Contention on KCRW’s Which Way LA?

January 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



THE END OF GANGS—THAT WASN’T.

A story called “The End of Gangs” by veteran So Cal journalist Sam Quinones appeared late last month in Pacific Standard Magazine, and the thesis it contains—that the damaging affect and visible presence of Southern California gangs has all but vanished, or at least been drastically reduced—has produced a large stir among many experts on violence and safety in California communities.

Here’s a clip from Quinones’ story:

In the past few years, street gangs have been retreating from public view all over Southern California. Several years ago, I spent a couple of days in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, interviewing some Florencia 13 gang members. One nearby garage was never free of graffiti for more than a few minutes a week. (This was the amount of time it took after the graffiti clean-up truck left for the 76th Street clique of Florencia 13 to re-deface the thing.) That garage wall has now been without graffiti for more than four years. I go by it every time I’m in the neighborhood.

Fifteen miles southeast of Florence-Firestone, much of the tiny city of Hawaiian Gardens used to be scarred with the graffiti of HG-13, a local gang that absorbed several generations of the town’s young men. The last three times I’ve been to Hawaiian Gardens, I’ve seen nothing on the walls, and young black men freely visit taco restaurants on the main drag, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. In Oxnard’s Colonia Chiques neighborhood in Ventura County, the decades-old neighborhood gang is not outside, and their graffiti is gone.

Some of this is a state and national story, as violent crime declined by about 16 percent in both California and the nation from 2008 through 2012. But the decline has been steeper in many gang-plagued cities: 26 percent in Oxnard, 28 percent in Riverside, 30 percent in Compton, 30 percent in Pasadena, 30 percent in Montebello, 50 percent in Bell Gardens, 50 percent in El Monte.

Santa Ana once counted 70-plus homicides a year, many of them gang-related. That’s down to 15 so far in 2014, even as Santa Ana remains one of the densest, youngest, and poorest big cities in California. “Before, they were into turf,” says Detective Jeff Launi, a longtime Santa Ana Police gang investigator. “They’re still doing it, but now they’re more interested in making money.”

No place feels so changed as the city of Los Angeles. In 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that gang crime had dropped by nearly half since 2008. In 2012, L.A. had fewer total homicides (299) citywide than it had gang homicides alone in 2002 (350) and in 1992 (430). For the most part, Latino gang members no longer attack blacks in ways reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. Nor are gangs carjacking, assaulting, robbing, or in a dozen other ways blighting their own neighborhoods. Between 2003 and 2013, gang-related robberies in the city fell from 3,274 to 1,021; gang assaults from 3,063 to 1,611; and carjackings, a classic L.A. gang crime born during the heyday of crack, from 211 to 33.

“Being the member of a gang doesn’t have the panache it did,” says George Tita, a criminology. “Things have changed radically in the last five years.”

So what’s the deal? We know violent crime is down all over the nation. Does this also mean that Los Angeles law enforcement has “tamed” its gang problem as Quinones’ story suggests?

I was on KCRW’s Which Way LA? with Warren Olney discussing the issue Monday night. Sam Quinones was on too.

Here are some of the topics we talked about—plus a bit more:


ARE GANGS GONE?

So, does the fact that most gangsters now rarely wield spray cans to mark territory mean that gangs are no longer wreaking havoc in LA’s communities?

No, experts I spoke with told me. But gangs have changed a great deal. During the height of the gang conflicts in the late 1980′s and early to mid 1990′s, gangs primarily fought about turf and drug sales and identity.

Now gangs are all about business.

Moreover, according to UCLA gang anthropologist Dr. Jorja Leap, gangs are less visible because they have gone underground.

“They are extremely sophisticated about social media, and expert in many markets,” Leap said when we talked Monday morning.

Gentrification and the drop in violent crime all over the U.S. does not translate into the end of gangs, she said. “They relocate,”—to places like Riverside and San Bernardino and the Inland Empire, where you do see gangsters on the street. “And then commute back in to commit crimes.”

Leap said she has been called in to consult on several criminal cases having to do with an active gang pipeline running from LA to Las Vegas that involves drug dealing, guns—”and now they have expanded their operations to human trafficking.”

Much of the organization needed to facilitate this commuter gang action, Leap said, “is achieved using social media.

“And I don’t mean guys throwing gang signs on Facebook,” she said, adding that she was talking about sophisticated websites, the purpose of which is well disguised, “sometimes using shadow businesses.”

Leap’s points are depressingly easy to support. For instance, a look at the 110-page RICO indictment filed against 38 members of the Mexican Mafia-associated Big Hazard gang filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in mid-December 2014, details the long-time gang’s elaborate actions to conceal its very healthy drug distribution business.

The place that gangs still thrive with perhaps the most strength and influence, Leap and others I spoke with Monday reminded me, is in California’s prisons and also in many of the state’s county jails, most particularly in LA County’s jail system and jails in the inland empire.

Elie Miller, a former alternate public defender now well known for her nonprofit legal work for places like Homeboy Industries and the Union Rescue Mission, told me this week about a young client who is afraid to go to jail in San Bernardino County, where he has a warrant, because of the heavy gang presence. He was fearful, said the attorney, “he have to comply with requests [from the gangs] to do things if in jail.”

From LA County jails I hear repeatedly about how those from gang-affected neighborhoods cannot receive money from family members “on their books,” without paying a percentage tax to the gang shot callers, whether they themselves are gang-involved or not.

“One other thing,” added Leap, “Quinones writes mostly about Latino gangs. And some of the mothers I know in South LA, would be really surprised to learn that gang crime is gone from their neighborhoods.”


WHAT ABOUT GANG VIOLENCE AND COMMUNITY SAFETY? THE TRAUMA

As I mentioned earlier, we know that violent crime is down all over the nation, Los Angeles County included.

There is much argument about the exact reasons for the crime drop, but most agree that it is due to a complex stew of causes that include smarter strategies in policing, along with the work of nonprofits like (in California) Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, the Toberman Foundationin San Pedro, Youth Uprising in Oakland, and a long list of like agencies that are on the front lines when it comes to addressing community health and safety,

Gang homicides are down too, but as for gang crime in general? Those in law enforcement I spoke with about the issue said that those stats are far less solid.

Moreover, while gangs are less visible, the collateral damage done to families and communities—along with the former gang members themselves—is still all too present and visible.

Violence reduction experts now talk less about gangs and more about the pressing issues of prison reentry and about addressing the now multi-generational trauma that the worst old days of gang violence left in its wake.

And then there are the still discomforting stats like the fact that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for black children and teenagers.

“I’d love to have the gang problem solved. Trust me,” said Leap. “But to say so is not just incorrect, it risks abandoning the programs we need to address the damage that’s already been done.”

And the damage that is still being done.

For more read Quinones’ story and then listen to the Which Way LA? podcast, starting at around minute 12:20.

And, by the way, in the end, Quinones and I agreed on far more than we disagreed on this important and complicated topic.

Posted in Gangs, Homeboy Industries, law enforcement, Los Angeles County, PTSD, Public Health, Reentry, Trauma, Violence Prevention | 5 Comments »

Michael Brown: “Deader than a Roadkill Dog”….Police Unions’ Open Letters: Violence Against Cops….Prosecutors’ PowerPoint Misbehavior…and More

December 24th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

A PARODY SONG ABOUT THE DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN PERFORMED AT LAPD RETIREE’S DINNER

While inflammatory language launched at police officers is being justifiably slammed, a parody song about Michael Brown’s death performed at a retired LAPD officer’s dinner party at the Glendale Elks Lodge last Monday was caught on video and leaked to TMZ.

The song, a play on “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce, includes lyrics like, “”Michael Brown learned a lesson, about a messin’ with a bad police man, and he’s bad, bad Michael Brown, baddest thug in the whole darn town…” and “Michael looked like some old Swiss cheese, his brain was splattered on the floor.”

According to TMZ, private investigator Gary Fishell wrote and performed the parody song. Here’s a clip from the original story:

Singer Gary Fishell is a P.I. who once worked as an investigator for the Federal Government. His lawyer tells TMZ, Fishell now realizes the song was “off color and in poor taste.” The lawyer adds, “He’s a goofball who writes funny songs.” We asked why Fishell would sing this in a room full of cops, and the lawyer replied, “He thought the room would get a kick out of it.”

Joe Myers tells TMZ, “How can I dictate what he [Fishell] says in a song?” Myers goes on, “This is America. We can say what we want. This is a free America.” Myers adds … he’s done this as an annual event for decades and has raised a lot of money for charity.

Chief Charlie Beck took to Twitter to address the issue: “I am aware of the video released via TMZ. Like many of you, I find it offensive & absurd. It does not reflect the values of the #LAPD. I have directed our Professional Standards Bureau to look into this & determine if any active department employees were involved.”

KPCC has more on the incident. Here’s a clip:

Investigators are looking into whether any current LAPD officers attended the Dec. 15 party, which was thrown by a retired LAPD official at an Elks Lodge in Glendale.

“Simply being present at an event obviously does not constitute misconduct,” said LAPD officer Drake Madison.

[SNIP]

In a written statement, the LAPD echoed Beck’s sentiments and called the performance “stunningly offensive and absurd,” while noting that it was not a department-sponsored event. Madison said the song was performed by a former detective who retired from the force in 2007. The department does not believe that the event raised any money for the LAPD.

NOTE: The small headline mistakenly read that the song was performed at an “LASD Retiree’s Dinner,” when it was an LAPD dinner. Many apologies for that error!


CALIFORNIA LAW ENFORCEMENT UNIONS’ NUANCED RESPONCES TO MURDERS OF NYPD OFFICERS

In the wake of murders of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu over the weekend, California law enforcement groups are reaching for a more balanced way to approach a complex issue.

President of Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA), Brian Moriguchi, urges the public and local officials to work with law enforcement agencies to create real reform, while he calls for an end to racially charged violence against rank-and-file law enforcement officers. Here’s a clip:

The Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA) is outraged by the recent murders of police officers throughout this country. These attacks on our nation’s police officers are directly and indirectly related to the racial tensions fueled by anti-police groups and the racial agendas of select politicians and race mongers.

Our jobs as police officers are dangerous enough without incitement to violence against officers by those with agendas and racial bias. We should be advocating for change, not violence. We should be advocating for accountability, not retribution. Police officers are human beings and as human beings, we are not perfect. But the vast majority of police officers are honest, hard-working professionals who place themselves in harm’s way to protect people, even those who despise them. They don’t deserve the hostility levied against them. Advocating violence is not the solution.

The recent violence at protests and the execution of officers are a result of irresponsible leadership at the national and local level. We, as a society, need to work together to resolve racial issues and strained relationships with the police and our government. Both community members and the police need to join together to reform police policies and accountability to ensure the highest level of conduct by our officers.

The three presidents of the Oakland Police Officers Association, the San Jose Police Officers Association, and the San Francisco Police Officers Association also wrote an open letter to Bay Area residents. Here’s a clip:

The protests that followed the grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York are a legitimate expression of our First Amendment traditions. The reaction is not unexpected but the vilification of front-line public servants by some politicians and media pundits has been demoralizing and unjust. Public safety in the Bay Area and the nation will be a subject of major debate going forward and we will each participate vigorously in that debate.

But what few have acknowledged until now is that too often the legitimate expression of views has devolved into vilification and violence against this nation’s front-line public safety servants. Demonstrators in New York chanted in unison: “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” That was disgraceful…

The overwhelming majority of our members—who represent the most diverse police departments in the nation—bear such malice in dignified silence. Even following the murder of three of their own, our officers continue with their duty, answer your calls, respond to your crises, fulfill their mission, and honor their commitment to the people of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland.

In short, they will always be there when you need them. In return, as their “voices” we simply ask that you join them in a cooperative effort to keep our streets safe, and to engage in constructive dialogue that calls for a common sense approach to very complex issues.


PROBLEMATIC POWERPOINT VISUALS BY PROSECUTORS: A NEW FORM OF MISCONDUCT

In the past, we at WLA have pointed out a number of stories of prosecutorial misconduct involving breaches such as withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, coercing witnesses, and perjury.

The Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong tells of a relatively new form of prosecutorial misbehavior that has been cropping up in courts nationwide: inflammatory PowerPoint slides. The most common infraction involves strategically placing the word “guilty” in red, all-caps letters across a picture of the defendant. Prosecutors are expected to leave their opinions about the case at the door, and instead present evidence to make their points.

Here are some clips from Armstrong’s story, but jump over to the original for the rest (including photos of the PowerPoint slides):

At least 10 times in the last two years, US courts have reversed a criminal conviction because prosecutors violated the rules of fair argument with PowerPoint. In even more cases, an appellate court has taken note of such misconduct while upholding the conviction anyway or while reversing on other grounds (as in the case of Sergey Fedoruk). Legal watchdogs have long asserted that prosecutors have plenty of ways to quietly put their thumb on the scales of justice —such as concealing exculpatory evidence, eliminating jury-pool members based on race, and so on. Now they can add another category: prosecution by PowerPoint. “It’s the classic ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’” said Eric Broman, a Seattle attorney who focuses on criminal appeals. “Until the courts say where the boundaries are, prosecutors will continue to test the boundaries.”

Perhaps the most common misuse of what some legal scholars call “visual advocacy” is the emblazoning of the word “Guilty” across a defendant’s photo. Almost always the letters are red—the “color of blood and the color used to denote losses,” as one court wrote.

[SNIP]

The use of sophisticated visuals in the courtroom has boomed in recent years, thanks to research on the power of show-and-tell. DecisionQuest, a trial consulting firm, tells lawyers that when they give jurors information verbally, only 10 percent of them retain it after three days. But if the lawyers provide that information visually as well, juror retention zooms to 65 percent. Lawyers in both civil and criminal cases have seized upon this advantage, integrating visuals ranging from simple slides to animated graphics into their courtroom presentations. In one civil case in Los Angeles County, a plaintiff spent $60,000 on a PowerPoint slide show.


STATES MOVING TO HELP EX-OFFENDERS HAVE BETTER OUTCOMES, BUT MORE COULD BE DONE TO CUT COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES

A new Vera Institute report takes a look at what reforms states have adopted in the last five years to minimize the crippling secondary consequences of incarceration on people attempting to reenter their communities and families. (These consequences include difficulties obtaining employment, housing, education, the ability to vote, and more.) The report shows that while the majority of states (41) have taken 155 legislative steps to alleviate post-incarceration penalties, much more can be done to improve outcomes for former inmates and their families (and thus, reduce recidivism).

California has passed 10 reforms, including legislation to expand the pool of people with misdemeanors who are eligible for expungement, and legislation to establish wraparound services for mentally ill parolees at risk of being homeless.

Here’s a clip from the summary:

While efforts to remove or alleviate the impact of collateral consequences may indicate a broader shift in how the criminal justice system views law-breakers, vast numbers of post-punishment penalties remain in place and a closer look at recent legislation suggests that efforts do not go far enough. In particular:

* Reforms are narrow in scope;

* Relief mechanisms are not easily accessible;

* Waiting periods are long in many cases; and

* New rules restricting third-party use of criminal history are difficult to enforce.

Policymakers interested in promoting safer communities and better outcomes for justice-involved people and their families would do well to pursue sustainable and comprehensive reforms that:

* Promote the full restoration of rights and status as close as possible to sentence completion;

* Apply remedies to more people;

* Make remedies easier to access; and

* Establish clear standards for, and offer incentives to, third-party decision makers (e.g. landlords, employers, college admissions officers, etc.).

Posted in Charlie Beck, Courts, law enforcement, racial justice, Reentry, Rehabilitation | 45 Comments »

Election Night Snapshot

November 5th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


IT’S MCDONNELL, OFFICIALLY, FINALLY

Brand new LA County Sheriff-elect Jim McDonnell took the stage last night around 10:45 p.m. at the Marriott hotel downtown. “I entered the race for sheriff less than one very long year ago…” he said, “because I realized the change needed in the LASD would not, and could not, come from within.” As a member of the citizens commision on jail violence, he said, he had seen “a failure of leadership” at the department’s highest levels….”But the fine men and women of the department are ready for a new day.”

After thanking everyone who needed to be thanked and then talking a bit about the department being at an historic crossroads, McDonnell paused and looked at those assembled, face flooded with emotion and resolve.

“I promise that I will not let you down,” he said.

In addition to his wife and two daughters, the new sheriff was surrounded on the stage by much of the leadership of the city and the county: Mayor Eric Garcetti was there, as was District Attorney Jackie Lacey, her predecessor Steve Cooley, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas, Don Knabe, Supervisor elect, Hilda Solis, City Attorney Mike Fuerer and acting sheriff John Scott. A good portion of the LA City Council, had showed up, including Herb Wesson who MC’d part of the festivities, and Mitch Englander who, together with Congressman Tony Cardenas kept flashing thumbs-up signs for the cameras.

The political figures who spoke to the crowd were nearly giddy in their praise for the new guy at the top of the LASD.

“He is up for the task! He is committed,” said Mark Ridley-Thomas and then urged audience members to turn to those around them and exchange high fives.

“We now have a sheriff who is worthy of that title,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti.


We got back from the various election events ver-r-r-rry late last night, so this is just a snapshot post.

We’ll have more on the election—among other important topics—as the week goes on.

Posted in 2014 election, Education, elections, Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, prison policy, Reentry, Sentencing | 30 Comments »

Gov. Brown’s Realignment, LAPD Investigating Use-of-force Incident, Exoneree Wins $41.6 Million, and a Bryan Stevenson Essay

October 27th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

LOOKING AT REALIGNMENT AS WE HEAD INTO NOVEMBER ELECTIONS

As Gov. Jerry Brown seeks reelection on Nov. 4, California Report’s Scott Shafer takes a look at the state of criminal justice in California under Brown, particularly with regard to Realignment (AB 109). Many critics argue prison realignment was implemented too quickly, without adequate advanced planning, and thus left counties to struggle with little preparation under the burden of supervising and housing would-be state prisoners.

California counties received a combined $2 billion to adapt to realignment, yet the various counties are not using the money uniformly. Some are funneling the money into rehabilitation, reentry, and diversion programs as reformers had hoped they would, while others have beefed up their sheriff and probation staff. And still other counties have used the money to build new jails able to handle the influx of inmates serving longer sentences than preexisting county facilities were designed to house.

Three years after its launch, in short, the jury is still out. Even supporters agree we won’t really know if realignment had the effects proponents had hoped for until years from now.

Here’s how Shafer’s story opens:

It’s not the focus of this year’s campaign for governor, but under Jerry Brown the state’s approach to criminal justice has gone in a dramatically new direction.

Underlying it all: too many inmates and too few cells.

In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the state Legislature that the prisons were powder kegs.

“Our prisons are in crisis,” the governor said. “We have inherited a problem that has been put off year after year after year.”

Schwarzenegger did take steps to reduce the inmate population, but not nearly enough to satisfy the federal courts. Finally, in 2011, with the state’s back to the wall, the Legislature passed the most fundamental reform of California’s criminal justice system in more than a generation.

AB109, known as “realignment,” transferred responsibility for tens of thousands of low-level criminals from state prisons to county jails and probation officers.

These perpetrators of non-serious, non-sexual, nonviolent crimes would now become the responsibility of local law enforcement officials, rather than the state.

“Probation [departments] were not ready,” says U.C. Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, who for years has advised the Legislature on criminal justice matters.

Krisberg says California adopted realignment so fast that counties struggled to keep their heads above water.

“I mean, if you had done this logically, you would’ve announced to everyone, ‘We’re gonna do it.’ You probably would have spent a year or so planning it out, training and making it happen,” Krisberg says.

“But that’s not how realignment happened. It just happened.”

Five months after Brown signed AB109 (and a companion bill, AB117), realignment took effect.


LAPD OFFICER ALLEGEDLY KICKED RESTRAINED SUSPECT IN THE HEAD

An LAPD officer has been accused of kicking 22-year-old Clinton Alford in the head while he was being restrained on the ground by other officers. Police officials were able to view footage of the incident taken by a nearby store’s security camera. The officials said Alford was not resisting arrest, and one viewer described it as “a football player kicking a field goal.” The police officer (as well as three other officers and a sergeant) has been relieved of duty with pay pending the investigation. The officer’s lawyer said the kick landed on Alford’s shoulder and was an acceptable use of force.

The LA Times’ Joel Rubin has the story. Here’s a clip:

Alford said he was riding his bicycle on the sidewalk along Avalon Boulevard near 55th Street when a car pulled up behind him. A man shouted a command to stop, but Alford said he continued pedaling because the man did not identify himself as a police officer. When someone grabbed the back of the bike, Alford said he jumped off and ran.

After a short foot pursuit, two officers caught up to Alford. Footage from the security camera on a nearby building captured Alford voluntarily laying down on the street and putting his hands behind his back, according to several people who viewed the recording. The officers restrained Alford, who made no movements and did not resist, the sources said.

Seconds later, a patrol car pulled up and a uniformed officer, who the sources described as “heavyset” or “very large,” rushed from the driver’s side, according to sources. The officer moved quickly over to Alford, who was still held on the ground by the other officers, and immediately stomped or kicked, the sources said.

The officer then dropped to the ground and delivered a series of strikes with his elbows to the back of Alford’s head and upper body, sources said. Alford’s head can be seen on the video hitting the pavement from the force of the strikes, two sources recounted. Afterward, the officer leaned his knee into the small of Alford’s back and, for a prolonged period, rocked or bounced with his body weight on Alford’s back, the sources said. At one point, the officer put his other knee on Alford’s neck, a source said.

Throughout much of the altercation, two officers restrained Alford but eventually they moved away.

Two officials who viewed the video said it was clear to them Alford was handcuffed as soon as he got on the ground. Others said it is difficult to tell from the video when Alford was placed in handcuffs.

Alford said he had already been handcuffed when he was first kicked.

When it was over, Alford’s body was limp and motionless, according to sources who viewed the video. It took several officers to carry him to a patrol car, they said.

“He looked like a rag doll,” one person said of Alford.

Gary Fullerton, an attorney representing the officers, declined to discuss details of the incident but disputed that Alford had his hands behind his back when the officers used force.


INNOCENT MAN RECEIVES $41.6 MILLION FOR 15 YEARS IN PRISON, UNPRECEDENTED PAYOUT

A New York man, Jeff Deskovic, won $41.6 million in a lawsuit against Putnam County and the sheriff’s investigator who coerced his false confession. Deskovic was exonerated in 2006 of raping and killing a 15-year-old schoolmate, for which he spent 15 years in prison.

While Deskovic’s sum is reportedly the largest in US history, in a whopping 21 states, people who are exonerated after spending years in prison do not receive any compensation at all. In states that do pay, it takes years for the money to work its way through the court system, and in many cases the payouts are capped to prevent large payouts like Deskovic’s. Most Exonerees are not even given the reentry assistance provided to other released inmates.

The NY Daily News’ Stephen Rex Brown has the story on Deskovic. Here’s a clip:

Deskovic was given three lie detector tests over the course of a six-hour interrogation in which he eventually confessed.

He said on the stand this week in federal court in White Plains that he was scared for his life during the ordeal.

He was convicted in 1991 after prosecutors successfully argued that Deskovic did the deed — despite DNA taken from semen on the body that didn’t match the teen’s.


EXCERPT FROM BRYAN STEVENSON’S NEW BOOK

We introduced you to Bryan Stevenson last week, and didn’t want you to miss this essay by Stevenson in the NY Times Magazine that was adapted from his new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here’s a clip (it’s a short one, so be sure to go read the rest):

“The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”

He interrupted my chatter by grabbing my hands. “I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”

“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.

“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”

I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.

The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.

“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”

I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,

By faith, on heaven’s tableland;

A higher plane than I have found,

Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Posted in Innocence, LAPD, Paul Tanaka, prison, Realignment, Reentry | 1 Comment »

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