SOME LA PAROLEES AND PROBATIONERS WILL NOW BE ELIGIBLE TO RECEIVE SECTION 8 VOUCHERS
On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of opening up Section 8 program eligibility to parolees and probationers whose low-level drug crime convictions are more than two years old. Supe. Hilda Solis voted alongside Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas who introduced the motion.
Until now, just one small drug crime, even from five or six years prior, excluded people on community supervision from accessing housing vouchers through the Section 8 program.
Although this is an important step toward reducing recidivism and equipping former offenders with the right tools to successfully reenter their communities, the current waitlist for housing vouchers has 43,000 names on it, and is expected to be closed to new applicants for at least the next few years. And the approximately 1,200 spots expected to open up over the next year will not make a dent.
To be clear, this decision does not change eligibility requirements for living in any of the 3000 public housing units managed by the county. Specifically, it allows people on probation and parole to apply for what are called “housing choice vouchers,” through which participants choose their own residence (as long as the housing meets certain program requirements).
While those on community supervision will no longer be blocked from the voucher program, landlords still have the right to perform background checks on prospective housing voucher tenants.
LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl spoke with KPCC’s Larry Mantle on AirTalk before the board’s decision. Here are some clips of what Kuehl said about the particulars of the motion and why it’s so important.
[Regarding LA's homeless population]: We hear a lot about veterans, but we don’t hear a lot about people coming out of jail, or for that matter, young people coming out of our probation camps at the age of 18. We didn’t want to bar them if they qualified in every other way for housing vouchers.
They haven’t shown any proof that public housing is safer because they’re barring people on probation or parole. As a matter of fact, if you ask any of the probation officers, their impression is that it would be safer, because these men and women have to report to them quite often… There’s much more checking-up than there is on any other kind of resident. And having people camping out in the homeless population nearby doesn’t make you any safer either.
The data shows that you’re far less likely to recidivate…if you have a permanent place to live. So it seems like we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face by barring people who have served their time.
REPORT: “NOT JUST A FERGUSON PROBLEM — HOW TRAFFIC COURTS DRIVE INEQUALITY IN CALIFORNIA”
In a system that is not dissimilar to Ferguson, MO’s policing-for-profit strategy, California traffic courts frequently suspend drivers licenses of those who are unable to pay outsized fines for minor tickets, according to a report released Wednesday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s no surprise that the practice has a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority Californians, costing people their jobs when they can’t drive to work and creating an often insurmountable pile of debt via lost wages and late fees.
According to the report California is home to nearly four million people with suspended licenses (that’s 17% of the state’s licensed adults), and has racked up more than $10 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt.
In an Alameda County traffic court case, for example, a $25 ticket given to a motorist who had failed to update the home address on her driver’s license within the state law’s allotted 10 days led a traffic court judge to suspend her license when she was unable to pay the fine.
The accumulation of fees and penalties for late payment increased her fine to $2,900, and the woman — identified in the report only as “Alyssa” — was fired from her job as a bus driver because she no longer possessed a valid driver’s license and is now receiving public assistance, according to the report, which was prepared by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which worked in conjunction with other California legal aid groups.
“These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt,” the report said. “Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”
Ferguson’s policies, the Justice Department report said, resulted in a disproportionate number of arrests, citations and traffic stops of African-Americans and was among the factors in the public anger that led to weeks of demonstrations there after Mr. Brown’s death.
In California, a 2012 state analysis unrelated to the new report found that assessments tacked onto tickets by California lawmakers meant that a $500 traffic ticket actually cost $1,953 — even if it was paid on time. A $100 ticket for failure to have proof of auto insurance cost $490 — and increased to $815 if the motorist missed the initial deadline to appear in court or to pay the ticket.
Among the fees included in the cost of a traffic ticket were assessments for court operations, court construction and DNA collection.
YEARS AFTER THEIR RELEASE, FORMER OFFENDERS STILL FACE EXTREME HURDLES TO ENTERING (AND STAYING IN) THE WORKFORCE
Al Jazeera America’s Naureen Khan has some excellent reporting on the impenetrability of America’s workforce for former offenders seeking employment.
Khan’s story follows Jesse Killings who has spent years trying to land steady and stable work after fighting over his wife with another man. Jesse wins small victories over the stigma of his criminal record, but when a job or internship ends, he lands right back where he started. And his story is far from uncommon.
Here are some clips:
…on a March night in 2001, he drove to his mother-in-law’s house, he says, to see if he and his wife could work through their problems. Instead, he found another man under the same roof. Killings admits that he was the one to throw the first punch. “My emotions went through the roof,” he said. “I bee lined to where he was. We were two rams.”
In the flurry of fists that followed, Killings’ dreams were caving in around him. He was charged with felony counts of burglary — for entering his mother-in-law’s home — and assault.
“I did that, I’m guilty,” Killings said.
He served for only three months through a plea deal his public defender urged him to take, but Killings says the felony convictions have cast an immeasurably long shadow on his life since then. He lost his scholarship. He’s had to rely on homeless shelters and draw from food banks. In 2005, he was so desperate that he stole $200 from the till of a bookstore he was temporarily staffing after he says his employers did not pay him.
Killings says he accepts responsibility for the mistakes of his past and only wants to rebuild his life. But redemption is hard to find when his decade-old record stands in the way of a steady employment and a decent wage, even after he moved across the country to Fredericksburg for a fresh start.
TONIGHT: FIRST TOWN HALL MEETING TO GATHER INPUT ON CITIZEN’S OVERSIGHT COMMISSION FOR LA SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
The working group tasked with advising the LA County Board of Supervisors on the structure, power, and objective of a civilian oversight commission for the sheriff’s department are holding town hall meetings to gather community input on the issue. Over the next few weeks, in nine different locations across the county, citizens will be able to share comments and recommendations with the working group and thus take part (or take an active role) in the creation of the oversight panel.
Here’s the info for a few of the upcoming meetings (the first one is tonight):
April 9: Florence Firestone Service Center
6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
7807 S. Compton Ave.
Los Angeles, 90001
April 14: El Cariso Community Regional Center
6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
13100 Hubbard Street
April 15: Bassett Community Center
6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
510 North Vineland Ave.
La Puente, 91746
For those who care about this oversight issue, find the location nearest to you and contribute to the discussion. Here’s the full list.
US HIGH COURT TO HEAR ARGUMENTS ON HOW POLICE HANDLE ARMED, MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE
This week, the US Supreme Court will consider in what capacity law enforcement officers must adhere to the Americans With Disabilities Act during an encounter with a mentally ill (or otherwise disabled) person who is armed and violent.
In San Francisco v. Sheehan, officers shot a woman with schizoaffective disorder in a group home who, in midst of a psychiatric crisis, had locked herself in a room with a knife after threatening her social worker. Sheehan survived the shooting. She has since sued the police department for resorting first to lethal force instead of attempting to deescalate the confrontation.
Law enforcement groups are keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court case, which they say could undermine police tactics, place officers and bystanders at risk, force departments to spend thousands in new training and open them to additional liability.
The ADA was designed to regulate institutional policies, not an individual officer’s behavior, said Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which filed a brief supporting San Francisco.
Stephens said that while departments around the country receive training to de-escalate and avoid using force in a situation with an unstable person, it’s not always possible to do so.
But mental health advocates say the ADA requires police to act less aggressively when arresting or detaining people with disabilities. Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union’s disability rights program, said the ADA should apply to all situations, especially emergencies when the disabled most need to be accommodated.
“This case is not unusual. There are a lot of Sheehan situations out there where there is an opportunity not to rush in, and take a moment,” Center said.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC: RADLEY BALKO SAYS WE ASK THE WRONG QUESTIONS ABOUT POLICE KILLINGS
Last summer, Dallas police officers shot and killed Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man who police say threatened them with a screwdriver. Late last week, Harrison’s family members, who are suing the Dallas Police Dept., released footage captured by one of the officers’ body cameras during the encounter. (You can watch it here.)
The police department concluded their internal investigation into whether or not the officers broke any laws and chose to turn it over to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.
The Washington Post’s Radley Balko says that instead of just looking at whether the killing was lawful and within department policy, we should also ask whether the killing was necessary, or whether it could have been deescalated by the officers. Balko also says that if the killing of this man suffering from mental illness could have been reasonably avoided, we must also determine what needs to change in order to prevent such shootings in the future. Here’s a clip:
Asking if a police shooting was legal tells us nothing about whether or not we should change the law. Asking whether or not it was within a police agency’s policies and procedures tells us nothing about the wisdom of those policies and procedures. Of course, both of those questions are important if your primary interest is in punishing police officers for these incidents. But while it can certainly be frustrating to see cops get a pass over and over again, even in incidents that seem particularly egregious, focusing on the individual officers involved hasn’t (and won’t) stopped people from getting killed.
Let’s go back to that Dallas shooting. Unfortunately, the video camera doesn’t capture the critical moments immediately prior to the shooting. But it does capture the initial police contact with Harrison. Let’s assume for a moment that the police account of the incident is 100 percent true — that Harrison did come at them with the screwdriver. The question we should be asking isn’t whether or not the police decision to shoot Harrison at that moment was justified. The question we should be asking is whether the interaction ever should have reached that moment. Or, to go back to our more basic question: Was this shooting necessary?
The video strongly suggests that it wasn’t. Why were two patrol officers responding to a call about a possibly schizophrenic man? Would it be better for a mental health professional to have accompanied them? If Dallas police officers are going to be the first responders to calls about mentally ill people who have possibly become dangerous, are they at least given training on how to interact with those people? Are they taught how to deescalate these situations?
From the video, it seems clear that these particular police officers did the escalating, not Harrison. It’s the cops who begin yelling and who take a confrontational stance. Yes, Harrison was holding a small screwdriver. And yes, in the right circumstances, even a small screwdriver can do a lot of damage. That doesn’t mean you pull your gun on everyone who is holding a small screwdriver. Now, there’s probably nothing illegal about a police officer unnecessarily escalating a situation with his words or his body. There’s certainly nothing illegal about his failure to deescalate.
But that’s precisely why Was this illegal? is the wrong question. The better question is, Was this an acceptable outcome? And if the answer is no, then the follow-up question is, What needs to change to stop this from happening again?
GOV BROWN CALLS ON CALIFORNIA BUSINESSES TO EMPLOY EX-OFFENDERS TO REDUCE REVIDIVISM
At a employer forum at Merritt College in Oakland, California Governor Jerry Brown urged businesses to hire former offenders to give them the means to successfully transition back into their communities. Brown called the issue one of public safety as well as about “being a human being.”
Brown says a lack of work will keep them locked out of a permanent place in their communities and, too often, locked up behind bars once again.
“This work I see is, yes, about public safety, but it’s also about being a human being,” says Brown.
Now, Brown is hoping that providing employers with information and incentives will encourage more of them to do their part. That means tax breaks, talent matching, bond reimbursements and training subsidies of between $5-10,000 per employee.
Businesses can also take part in a Joint Venture Program that offers what officials call attractive benefits for employing people while they’re still in custody, in the hopes of providing them a seamless transition once they’re out.
LA COUNTY DISAGREES ABOUT HOW TO KEEP SEX-TRAFFICKED KIDS FROM BEING PULLED BACK TO THE STREETS
Within the last few years, LA County has shifted away from criminalizing and locking up sexually exploited minors as “prostitutes,” instead treating them as victims and diverting them from juvenile detention into foster care. But placing trafficked girls into foster care and connecting them with services and mentors does not always work. Sometimes the young girls run away, and return to the streets and their pimps.
The LA County Board of Supervisors and head of the Department of Children and Family Services, Philip Browning, don’t all agree on how to address this complex problem.
…as county supervisors debate establishing a treatment center for these youth, the issue of locking up foster children has become a quagmire.
On one side are those who say the state should act like a responsible parent to stop children from leaving their home to meet pimps and johns. On the other side are those who say that locking up children mirrors the confinement that predators subject them to, and will ultimately fail to cure the problem.
“This is really the issue that everyone keeps coming back to,” said Allison Newcombe, an attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights who represents sex-trafficked children. “Everyone has such strong opinions.”
Law enforcement officials say criminal gangs have increasingly turned from selling drugs to selling children for sex because a drug can be sold once, but a child can be sold repeatedly. According to the California Child Welfare Council, a child’s life expectancy after being involved in sex trafficking is seven years, with AIDS and homicide being the leading causes of death.
Pimps capitalize on the porous barriers between foster care facilities and the outside world, advocates say, by calling vulnerable children, sending them letters and infiltrating group homes with young recruiters. In some cases, the pimps persuade children to get tattoos of their names.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who opposes efforts to allow locking up foster children who are at risk of being lured into sex trafficking, said the recruitment for prostitution in the county’s juvenile detention facilities proves that confining children is not a solution.
Leading the push to establish a locked facility for some foster youth are Los Angeles County’s child welfare chief, Philip Browning, and Supervisor Don Knabe. Both are lobbying Sacramento lawmakers to change laws that currently prohibit confining foster care youth who are at risk.
Browning said he reluctantly came to support such an option after social workers watched children as young as 10 and 11 run from county foster care facilities to rendezvous with pimps and johns.
“We have a small number of youth in foster care where our current programs simply haven’t worked,” Browning said. “Frankly, I’m not certain that the current facilities provide the level of security that I would like.”
WHY PROP 47 DRASTICALLY REDUCES USE OF DRUG COURTS …AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM
Before Proposition 47 reduced many low-level property and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors, drug courts were a place where people charged with drug crimes could avoid a felony conviction and time behind bars if they completed a rehabilitation process. Those who completed drug court requirements had a much lower chance of reoffending than than if they had instead served out a sentence.
But these drug courts were intended for those who committed felony drug offenses. Because the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is one year, there is not as much incentive to apply for drug court, or to finish it out, once enrolled.
In LA County, drug court applications are 50% lower than pre-Prop 47 numbers.
There may be ways to resolve this problem, however.
[A former public defender involved with L.A.'s drug courts, Mark] De Wit believes expanding eligibility for drug court could be the answer. And – for those who fail, a gentler sentence at county jail instead of prison.
Another proposal from Loyola Law Professor Eric Miller, include more serious felonies.
Miller admits however that there’s little political appetite for such a move locally, and it would be complex determining who would respond best to different kinds of treatment.
Miller adds that one of the shortcomings of the program already is that drug courts don’t engage in sophisticated enough screening process to weed out people who won’t succeed.
That very quandary has left many who work in this field with complicated feelings. De Wit, for instance, voted for the proposition, but simultaneously criticizes what it has done to drug courts.
And the California District Attorney’s office says a new policy is in the works that will change the qualifications for entering drug court.
FORMER LIFERS MENTOR FORMER LIFERS IN A FOUR-CITY CALIFORNIA PILOT PAROLE PROGRAM
KQED’s Scott Shafer visited a pilot support group in San Francisco through which paroled ex-lifers mentor each other. The participants discuss things like guilt and responsibility, as well as how to live successfully on the outside after spending decades behind bars.
This particular parole program is also being piloted in Los Angeles, as well as Pomona and Sacramento, with hopes to expand with the goal of helping the more than 2,100 paroled ex-lifers in California stay out of prison.
This meeting is a support group, an experimental peer mentoring program. It’s voluntary and those who come share practical advice, like tips on looking for work and dealing with one “no” after another from employers who just aren’t willing to take a chance on hiring an ex-felon.
One of the men, Steve Monger, said the last thing he wanted to do was work in a fast-food joint. But the rejections kept piling up.
“So me and another lifer, we just went in, we was honest with the guy,” Monger said. “We said we recently got out of prison. I was in 27, he was in 25, and we want a job. We’ll be here on time, we’ll work hard for ya. We don’t steal from ya. We don’t do drugs. You ain’t gotta worry about us. You call us, we’ll be here.”
Taco Bell hired them both. They’ve been working there five months.
Now let’s be clear here — there are plenty of inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole who will never, or should never, get out. It’s just too risky. They’re sociopaths, or they don’t show any remorse for what they did.
But over the past few years I’ve interviewed quite a few lifers — in and outside prison. And I’m always surprised at how thoughtful and reflective they are — especially given what they did to land them in prison.
Like Alisha Nolan Taplett. She was living in Sacramento when she got behind the wheel of a car with some friends out to settle a score.
“I was just looking at myself as the driver in the beginning,” she admitted. “Well, I didn’t kill anybody. But at the end of the day and every day, I still have to remind myself if it hadn’t been for me driving that vehicle, that young woman could still be alive.”
I asked Taplett what she’d say to a young person today who finds himself or herself in a situation where they’re being asked to drive a getaway car.
“If someone asks you to drive a car and you know that a homicide is going to take place, maybe you should pick up the phone and call 911,” she said without hesitation. “But that’s one of the things that we fail to do in our communities as well, because we don’t want to be labeled as that snitch. If I don’t save that person’s life by dialing 911, at least I know I tried.”
FOUR WAYS PROSECUTORS CAN MAKE BETTER USE OF THEIR VAST DISCRETIONARY POWER
In an op-ed for the Marshall Project, Brian Elderbroom, senior research associate at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, and Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at Brennan Center’s Justice Program, lay out four reform-minded changes prosecutors can make to the way they wield their prosecutorial authority. (Instead of this way, and this way, for instance.) – links
Here are some clips:
Considering that crime has declined significantly, with violent crime falling by almost half since its peak in 1991, do prosecutors still need the leverage of mandatory minimums and long sentences for even the least serious felony offenses? To what extent have prosecutorial practices contributed to the high incarceration rates that are rallying Democrats and Republicans alike to seek alternatives to prison?
Campaign rhetoric should more closely match the national dialogue. Based only on DA elections, one wouldn’t know that crime was at historic lows or that members of both political parties are advancing policy reforms that aim to reduce incarceration. Prosecutors still regularly tout their success at securing the longest prison sentences and rarely campaign on the number of people they helped get treatment or avoid harmful incarceration. Instead of promising to pursue increasingly punitive policies, and then advocating for them in state legislatures, prosecutors should focus on expanding proven crime-prevention strategies.
Rather than trying to secure convictions and long sentences, prosecutors should focus on reducing recidivism and overall harm to the community. There is evidence that putting people in prison for longer than necessary can actually increase their propensity to commit crimes. There is also a growing body of research that suggests we have reached a point of diminishing returns with regards to incarceration and that additional increases to imprisonment rates will have no impact on public safety. According to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, prison expansion since 2000 had effectively zero impact on crime rates. Prosecutors are uniquely positioned to create opportunities to improve public safety while also reducing the nation’s incarceration footprint…
States and the federal government should require prosecutors to provide data on their charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing decisions. One way to ensure this outcome is for Congress to incentivize states to participate in a national prosecutor reporting program…
YOUNG OFFICERS USE FORCE, INCLUDING DEADLY FORCE, MORE OFTEN THAN OLDER COPS
There is a growing body of research indicating that younger officers are more likely to be involved in shootings and other uses of force.
The officers who killed Michael Brown, Darren Thomas, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice were all in their twenties.
A number of law enforcement veterans and experts argue that recruitment ages should be raised, and that officer training should be tailored to the individual, and include stress-management instruction.
The risk of officer-involved shootings drops as officers age, according to a study conducted by James P. McElvain, formerly of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Loma Linda University and Augustine J. Kposowa of the University of California, Riverside.
The data used in that 2008 study, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, was collected from McElvain’s department, the 44th largest law enforcement agency in the country at the time. The results match what two researchers found in a 2007 study, published in the same journal, that found that incidents in which officers employ verbal and/or physical force diminished with each year of experience gained by the officer.
Researchers told BuzzFeed News they are not surprised that officers who use excessive, and sometimes lethal, force are young. Studies conducted by academics and police departments alike said age is a factor — one of many, but still a factor — in an officer’s use of deadly force.
Experts who have researched the issue said most people in their young adulthood — from ages 18 to 29 — haven’t developed full maturity of judgment to make, as the Justice Department called it in the Brown shooting analysis, “split-second judgements in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” (Federal investigators cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing this week, calling his account “credible,” but found evidence of discriminatory policing throughout the Ferguson Police Department.)
And police orientations do little to address the emotional needs of future police officers. Across the country, police training includes little to no guidance on the psychological and emotional aspects of using force and stress management, said Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science, and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College.
“We place a great deal of responsibility” on young officers, said Tom Nolan, a retired 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department and current professor of criminology at Merrimack College.
Nolan, who became an officer when he was 22 years old in 1978, said he was overwhelmed when he began the job. “I in no way had the requisite maturity and wisdom,” he said. “I had never held a gun before. It’s a dirty little secret that we’re hiring police officers too young.”
“I was in over my head,” he said about his start. “The tendency for someone that is overwhelmed or fearful is to react with excessive force, and I say that from personal experience.”
NEW COLLABORATIVE LA COUNTY REENTRY PROGRAM SEEKS TO BE MODEL FOR NATION
On Wednesday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, and Probation Chief Jerry Powers announced the launch of “Back on Track LA,” an innovative recidivism reduction pilot program that has been launched as a collaborative effort between the LASD, Probation, the AG’s Office, the LA County Child Support Services Dept., several foundations, and schools.
Back on Track provides participating inmates with education and job training, cognitive behavior training, and life skills and customized re-entry coaching.
“Instead of only reacting to crime, we must also focus on prevention to shut the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” says AG Harris. “Back on Track LA will hold offenders accountable to their communities, their families and themselves. This initiative will give participants the skills to become contributing and law-abiding members of society, which enhances public safety.”
Both Harris and McDonnell stressed the urgent need for such a program in California’s various counties, especially Los Angeles.
“At this very moment, 20,000 individuals are incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Jails,” said Jim McDonnell. “Too many of those in our jail and justice system come from broken homes and challenging life circumstances.”
McDonnell listed some of the challenges that the program will need to address, like early childhood trauma and the fact that a high percentage of jail inmates finished school.
“Very few of those filling our jails today have the needed tools to give them a good shot,” he said.
Ninety non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders, who are now the county’s responsibility post-realignment, are enrolled in the pilot program, which began mid-February.
Once the initial 90 inmates are released from jail, they will receive transitional housing, help with employment, and continued mentoring the entire year after their release. In addition, the college credits they earn through the program during their incarceration can be transferred to any community college in the state.
In order to ensure that the program is actually working, researchers will be part of the process from the very beginning, tracking participants and their outcomes along the way and in the long-term, and measuring them against the outcomes of inmates not involved in the program.
The program is funded through a $750,000 grant through the US Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act (Back on Track was one of just four recipients nationwide), and grants from the California Wellness Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.
Back on Track is intended to become a model for California, and hopefully for the nation, McDonnell said on Wednesday:
“What we are announcing today is not merely an experiment. We know we have too many people in jail who can and should be contributing members of society. Many of those in jail regret the decisions of their youth that landed them where they are today.”
Such programs contribute to public safety, McDonnell said:
“It is tempting to believe that by being tough on criminals by depriving them of education and skills training, we are being tough on crime. But that’s simply not the case.
We can reduce crime by reducing criminals, and we can reduce criminals by giving people the skills they need to get Back On Track.”
A DOCTOR AND A SHERIFF JOIN FORCES TO TACKLE CHILDHOOD TRAUMA IN THEIR CITY NEIGHBORHOODS
Laura Starecheski has another excellent story for NPR about childhood trauma as a critical health issue. This latest story follows a doctor and a sheriff who join forces to combat childhood trauma in poverty-stricken, and high-crime areas in Gainesville, FL.
When the University of Florida’s Dr. Nancy Hardt, a pathologist and OB-GYN, and Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell realized that their respective hotspot maps (Hardt’s a map of children born into poverty, and the sheriff’s a crime map) were nearly identical, the unlikely pair knew they had to take action.
The research shows that kids who have tough childhoods — because of poverty, abuse, neglect, or witnessing domestic violence, for instance — are actually more likely to be sick when they grow up. They’re more likely to get diseases like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. And they tend to have shorter lives than people who haven’t experienced those difficult events as kids.
“I want to prevent what I’m seeing on the autopsy table,” Hardt says. “I’ve got to say, a lot of times, I’m standing there, going, ‘I don’t think this person had a very nice early childhood.’ ”
Back in 2008, Hardt was obsessing about this problem. She wanted to do something to intervene in the lives of vulnerable kids on a large scale, not just patient by patient.
So, by looking at Medicaid records, she made a map that showed exactly where Gainesville children were born into poverty. Block by block.
Right away she noticed something that surprised her: In the previous few years, in a 1-square-mile area in southwest Gainesville, as many as 450 babies were born to parents living below the poverty line.
It just didn’t make sense to her — that was an area she thought was all fancy developments and mansions.
So Hardt took her map of Gainesville, with the poverty “hotspot” marked in deep blue, and started showing it to people. She’d ask them, “What is this place? What’s going on over there?”
Eventually she brought the map to the CEO of her hospital, who told her she just had to show it to Alachua County’s sheriff, Sadie Darnell.
So Hardt did.
And, to Hardt’s surprise, Sheriff Darnell had a very interesting map of her own.
Darnell had a thermal map of high crime incidence. It showed that the highest concentration of crime in Gainesville was in a square-mile area that exactly overlaid Hardt’s poverty map.
“It was an amazing, ‘Aha’ moment,” says Darnell.
“We kind of blinked at each other,” Hardt says. “And — simultaneously — we said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”
INSTRUCTIONS FOR ENSURING KIDS FACING LIFE IN PRISON RECEIVES SPECIALIZED AND SKILLFUL DEFENSE
On Wednesday, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth released a set of guidelines for providing quality defense to kids facing life imprisonment.
Gabriella Celeste, Child Policy Director at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, explains why making sure these kids have skilled and thorough representation is so critical:
“Kids are kids. They don’t stop being kids just because our criminal justice system has deemed them ‘adults’ as a matter of legal fiction to justify placing them in the adult system. Our system forgets that kids are still growing, developing, and maturing. This is wrong. Worse yet, the harm caused to a young person cannot be overstated, both due to their unique developmental stage as an adolescent and the damage that results from children inevitably facing more years in prison than adults and being at greater risk for isolation, sexual assault, and other forms of violence and trauma. Having an informed advocate can make all the difference.”
The report calls for a defense team of at least four—an attorney with experience representing kids, an attorney who has represented defendants charged with homicide, an investigator, and mitigation specialist to discuss all possible contributing factors like trauma and poverty and to stress the ways kids’ and teenagers’ brains differ from those of adults. An interpreter should also be on the defense team, if needed.
The guidelines also say defense teams must regularly meet with and maintain open communication with the kids they are representing. Defense teams are also directed to advocate for their clients to be placed in juvenile facilities, and to make sure that those detention centers have proper education, mental health care, and rehabilitation services.
The guidelines are endorsed by dozens of advocate groups, including Gideon’s Promise, the Juvenile Law Center, the NAACP, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Juvenile Defender Center.
The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense. These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.
These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles:
- children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;
- children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and
- children must not be defined by a single act;
- juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation
of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation;
- juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development;
- juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally
competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner…
- juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing
determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation
to the court.
The mitigation specialist must investigate and develop a social, psychological, and genealogical history of the child client for purposes of presenting mitigating evidence at sentencing. The mitigation specialist also should work with the child client and his or her caretaker(s) to develop a reentry plan to present at sentencing.
Mitigation evidence includes, but is not limited to: the ability to make a positive adjustment to incarceration; the realities of incarceration; capacity for redemption; remorse; vulnerabilities related to mental or physical health; explanations of patterns of behavior; negation of aggravating evidence regardless of its designation as an aggravating factor; positive acts or qualities; responsible conduct in other areas of life (e.g., employment, education, as a family member, etc.); any evidence bearing on the degree of moral culpability; mercy; and any other reason for a sentence other than life…
FED. JUDGE BEGINS PROCESS TO GIVE CONTROL OF STATE PRISON HEALTHCARE BACK TO CALIFORNIA
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson revealed a plan to end nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system.
When Judge Henderson initiated the oversight, he said the conditions inmates were living under constituted cruel and unusual punishment: California prisons were averaging one easily preventable inmate death per week due to medical neglect.
(Henderson is also part of the three-judge panel forcing California to bring the prison population down…or else.)
The federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso, says the situation is much better now: there are more medical staff members, the budget has doubled, and there are 40,000 fewer prisoners. But there are still cracks to be filled in.
To address the issues, California over the last decade has:
Spent $2 billion on new medical facilities for prisons;
Doubled its annual budget for prison health care to about $1.7 billion; and
Reduced its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.
According to a report by court-appointed federal receiver J. Clark Kelso, the state prison system now has:
Adequate medical staff;
Processes to ensure inmates receive care; and
An oversight system to catch problems when inmates do not receive care.
However, Kelso noted in his report that that the prison system still needs to make several improvements, including:
Adequately keeping medical records;
Appropriately scheduling appointments;
Delivering care onsite rather than sending inmates to outside hospitals; and
Upgrading treatment areas.
Under Henderson’s plan, every prison will have to pass an inspection before the feds return some of the control to the state. At that time, Kelso will step back and act as a monitor, with the ability to take back the reins if the state begins to backslide.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tiffany Johnson felt excited, scared, and a little incredulous on the day she was released from Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world. She’d done 16 years of her life sentence, which she got for killing her mother’s boyfriend — the man she says raped her every day from age 5 to age 10. As Tiffany exited the prison gates, two thoughts ran through her mind: “I can’t believe this is happening” and “It’s a trick.”
A few hours later, the mixed emotions distilled into fear. “I tried to take a shower,” recalled Tiffany of that April 2010 night. She turned on the water, but it came out from the tub faucet below and she couldn’t figure out how to get it to flow from above. “I cried and cried,” she said. “I felt like if this is a problem, just turning on a shower, what else am I going to run into? What other struggles am I going to have?”
The list began with the mundane, like learning to use a cell phone and getting used to closing a door herself to be alone in a room. Then there were real challenges. As a felon, she was banned from most low-income housing, and finding a job seemed near impossible. In prison she had become an expert electrician, supervising and training the other women in her penitentiary’s electrical sector. Yet every time she applied for a job, she had to check a box admitting her criminal history and never even got interviews. She finally contacted the electronic company her prison subcontractor supplied, figuring they’d give her a chance. “They didn’t,” Tiffany, now 46, said, rolling her eyes. “I served my time and I was out. But it didn’t matter. It’s like I was still serving a life sentence.”
“Effective reentry programs are the exception to the rule in terms of women’s transitions back into society,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based criminal justice research and advocacy organization. Hundreds of these programs have sprouted up over the years, but the supply is not nearly enough to deal with the demand, and few prison systems have adequate prerelease programs that inform women about their options. Though prisoners’ rights advocates hold prerelease seminars when they can, often inmates are left to find out about these services through word of mouth or chance. Tiffany learned about ANWOL from an offhand comment by a member of her parole board.
Though no one keeps track of the exact number of people released into reentry programs in the U.S., experts say the vast majority of newly released people land on their own and on the street. Women face all the challenges men do, plus added pitfalls, including limited job options, specialized housing needs, and social stigma. “Compared to 20 years ago, we have a greater understanding and concern about the situation for women,” Mauer said. But, he added, there’s a long way to go.
Most parole and probation arrangements demand regular compliance checks, drug tests, limited contact with possible co-conspirators, restrictions on travel, group meetings, and frequent in-person reporting, on top of finding a job and place to live. “Who knows where she slept last night and you’re asking her to do all this?” said Evelyn Ayala, ANWOL’s case manager supervisor. “Disaster waiting to happen.”
Release practices are just part of the problem, Mauer of the Sentencing Project said. “Almost all our correctional systems say they are committed to reentry,” he said, “but the scale of what they do in practice is often pretty modest.” The trouble, he explained, is twofold: not enough programming to prepare women (or men) before they are released and the availability of services once they get out.
“When you get listed on parole, they are supposed to tell you everything that is available to you,” Tiffany said. “They don’t tell you all that. They just inform you that you have the right to get assistance from the parole agent.”
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.
White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that “it certainly appears” that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president’s aims to “make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources.”
Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner.
“Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time,” Obama said. “Let’s keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all.”
Labrador said that’s an important point for Obama to make. “The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true,” he said. “The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime.”
“There’s a profound zeitgeist. There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” Booker said. “Well, this idea is coming and that power I think is gonna push something good through Congress.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Dowdy grew up poor in Harlem during the 70s and 80s, as the state’s mental-health system went through a wrenching transformation away from large institutions to the underfunded, underperforming system that it is today.
The illness derailed what could’ve been the story of a young man who beat the odds. Despite frequent fights and dropping out of high school, he did well on his GED and attended college at Morrisville State in central New York.
…in February of 1996, he shot a man at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem.
“I didn’t even know the guy,” Dowdy said. “I couldn’t take the voices no more and they was telling me to do it.”
Dowdy’s violent crime made him an outlier: Research suggests that only 4 percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to the mentally ill. He was sentenced to five to 10 years but ended up serving 14 because of the serious trouble he got into. Within a 15 month period, starting in October of 1997, he became uncontrollable. The state Department of Corrections said he assaulted inmates and staff, had weapons and disobeyed direct orders. Dowdy said he was off his meds and delusional at the time.
And as he acted out, the prison responded with more punishment. Dowdy spent nine years, nearly a quarter of his life, in solitary confinement and was often only fed what’s called “the loaf,” which is a brick of baked bread and vegetables.
Experts say extreme isolation is like physical torture for someone who is mentally ill. Over the last four years, several states have scaled back their use of solitary for more vulnerable populations, including New York, which enacted a new policy last year as the result of a lawsuit.
Dowdy’s situation got so bad, he took to throwing feces on guards. He was prosecuted for it and got four extra years added to his sentence. Soon, according to Dowdy, punishment turned into brutality by guards. He described guards beating him, putting glass in his food and trying to break his legs.
“At the time I was just so angry I didn’t know what to do,” he explained. “And nobody was listening to me, so I would come out of my cell and not go back in.”
When asked about the abuse, the state Department of Corrections said records show Dowdy spent nine months on the loaf and in 2000 was the subject of one excessive use of force report complaint, the details of which were lost when the agency changed computer systems.
The environment inside prisons and jails is known to exacerbate mental illness, making treatment that much more difficult to deliver.
“The more chaotic the environment, the harder it is for somebody who is already having trouble organizing their thoughts and organizing their behavior to deal with it,“ said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University.
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.”
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…
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.
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
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.)
[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 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.