LA Supes to Pay LASD Inmate Settlement, More Time for LA Foster Care Panel, the Recidivism Conundrum, and Inmate FirefightersNovember 27th, 2013 by Taylor Walker
LA COUNTY SUPERVISORS AGREE TO PAY SETTLEMENT IN JAIL MISCONDUCT CASE
On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors said they would be paying a settlement of $722K to Dion Starr, a Men’s Central Jail inmate who, during the supervising deputy’s absence, was stabbed 23 times by three other inmates while awaiting trial on a minor charge. (In 2012, the Supreme Court rejected Sheriff Lee Baca’s appeal to be protected from personal liability in Starr v. Baca. Read the backstory here.)
This isn’t the only costly LASD settlement in recent times, either. Last month, a federal jury found Sheriff Baca personally responsible for punitive damages in a jail beating case. And just two weeks ago, a different federal jury awarded $740K to five inmates in another excessive force case.
Supe. Gloria Molina, who “chose not to support the [Dion Starr] settlement,” had this to say:
I do not have a problem defending lawsuits and supporting settlements for our law enforcement personnel, deputies, and managers who act in good faith and within policy. I do have an issue, however, both ethically and as a fiduciary of the public’s money to continue to defend alleged force actions by law enforcement personnel when those actions are inappropriate…
I chose not to support the settlement, even though it was a good business decision, as most settlements are…
Money spent in the defense of employees who do not act in the scope of their duties is not appropriate. The sheriff must thoroughly investigate the cases in his department, legal and otherwise, to get to the root cause and to start addressing these issues…saying you embrace change is not enough. In my opinion, the sheriff’s failure to seek appropriate corrective actions for each and every claim of excessive force…whether in our jails or our patrols, raises significant issues of potential liability and threatens all of the work this board has done over the years as prudent stewards of taxpayer resources. This is especially true when the department continuously finds that every action in the department is “within policy,” when juries continue to find otherwise…
MUST-READ EDITORIALS: GIVING THE LA FOSTER CARE COMMISSION A DEADLINE EXTENSION, AND THE DEFINITION OF “RECIDIVISM”
On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to extend the life of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection by three and a half extra months, until April 18, 2014, when the panel will be required to submit a final report on dysfunction within the foster care system. (For backstory, go here.)
In a Monday LA Times editorial, our pal, Robert Greene explains why the commission deserves some extra time to finish the job.
Here are some clips:
The commission is doing exactly what it is supposed to do: It’s examining the entire network of agencies and institutions, public and private, that deal with abuse and neglect of children in Los Angeles County, to determine the degree to which they actually solve real problems and the degree to which they instead trip over one another’s feet. It must next take what it has learned and craft a set of critiques and recommendations that transcend politics and power bases and can lead directly to improved results for children at risk.
Despite the many previous audits, reviews and reports, there really hasn’t been anything quite like this effort. Previous efforts confined themselves to examining the Department of Children and Family Services, or focused on the county’s legal liability or some other particular aspect of the child welfare system.
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection does something entirely different. Its effort was never intended to be either an inquest into Gabriel Fernandez’s death or a dissection of the department, although there were plenty of critics demanding just such a thing. The commission’s task is to outline why, despite all of those previous reports and reform efforts, avoidable child deaths keep happening.
The commissioners are finding their answers, to judge from the testimony of witnesses and the discussions among commissioners so far, chiefly in two places: in the bureaucratic silos that keep teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers and others from reporting warning signs of child abuse or neglect (or that keep any such reports from getting action by social workers); and the political push and pull on the Board of Supervisors that all too often results in at least the impression, and often the reality, that the rules that social workers must follow are in flux and that the directions under which department leaders operate can change at any moment.
That latter point provides two more reasons to keep the panel working. First, the chief argument of Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Don Knabe in opposition to the motion creating the commission was that the buck stops with the board, the board made a management change at the Department of Children and Family Services and is monitoring progress, and it is the board, and not some outside commissions, that should oversee and correct the department.
But if the child welfare system extends beyond the department and even county government, as it does, it requires a point of view from outside the county; and if the barriers to an effective system include the Board of Supervisors itself, as they do, the board cannot be counted on to provide its own critique.
And here’s another excellent LA Times editorial we didn’t want you to miss—this one on California AG Kamala Harris’ new DOJ recidivism division, the definition of “recidivism,” and why the statistics are misleading. Here’s a clip:
One bit of popular lore that Californians often hear regarding our criminal justice system is that the state has an extraordinarily high rate of recidivism — the nation’s highest, at somewhere between 65% and 75%. That figure is cited in legislative hearings, community meetings and news conferences, and in fact was repeated last week by Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris as she unveiled a new division in her office to deal with the problem.
In common parlance the word is generally taken as the criminal justice analog of the medical term “relapse.” A person who has cancer and is treated, for example, but is later diagnosed again with the disease is said to have relapsed, and likewise a criminal offender who commits another crime is said to have recidivated.
But what if the cancer patient catches a cold? He’s sick again, but has he relapsed?
Of course not. It would be both alarming and comical to insist that every cancer patient who ever again has to call in sick or take an aspirin has relapsed, if the word is to have any useful meaning…
So does California define recidivism as a kind of relapse? Sometimes. Our chief anti-recidivism law, known popularly as “three strikes,” applies only to those instances in which a person convicted of a serious or violent felony is later convicted of another serious or violent felony. But other statutes and guidelines, used for other purposes — such as declaring our recidivism rate the nation’s highest — apply to a felon or misdemeanant who is later convicted of any kind of crime, or not convicted but merely arrested, or not even arrested but tests positive for drug use, or not even that but is cited by a parole agent or probation officer for failing to show up on time for an appointment.
It is in part the high rate of return to incarceration due to so-called technical violations that makes California so different from the rest of the nation and makes our recidivism rate seem so high. Returns to prison are a useful measure for officials who need to know how many inmates are likely coming back, and when, but not so useful for gauging how much risk a former inmate poses to his neighborhood or how likely he is to commit another felony.
When technical parole violations are stripped out and the measure of recidivism is a new crime with a new arrest and a new conviction, the way we calculate the number for three-strikes offenses, California’s recidivism rate is closer to 50% — not good, but just about the same as most other states.
THE BENEFITS OF INMATE FIREFIGHTING CAMPS
Inmate wilderness firefighting crews have shown to be viable, cost-effective options for states with dwindling forestry budgets and growing fire problems. The prison crews are also valuable rehab and reentry tools, allow inmates to be spend time in nature, and provides them with skills and experience they can use in firefighting jobs outside of prison. (Both the CDCR and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department utilize these firefighting camps.)
The NY Times’ Fernanda Santos has the story. Here’s how it opens:
When the air was hot and the woods were parched last summer, the peak of the wildfire season in the West, these trained wilderness firefighters fought 13 forest fires in Arizona, including the one in June that half-destroyed the nearby village of Yarnell and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team. On a crisp morning this fall, they were using chain saws and pulaskis — a firefighting tool that combines an ax and an adz — to chop overgrown bushes in a private development here, offering a measure of fire prevention for houses built in the wild.
Their home base is the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, but when asked where they are from, the reply is simply “Buckeye,” the name of the town where the prison is located. If there are other questions, they call it a “gated community” and leave it at that.
“That we’re inmates is the last thing on anybody’s mind,” said John Chleboun, 33, who has been serving time for burglary at the Lewis complex and is entering his second year with the crew.
As federal agencies have cut costs during the budget standoffs in Washington, further decreasing the size of a firefighting work force that has already been reduced by 40 percent since the 1980s, the burden of fighting wildfires has been shifted to states and local jurisdictions, even as they struggle under the weight of a sluggish economy. Prison crews, cheap and dependable, have emerged as a solution as wildfires burn bigger, hotter and longer each year and take up a growing portion of the United States Forest Service budget. (In 2012 alone, federal agencies spent $1.9 billion on wildfire suppression, just shy of the record, set in 2006.)
States log significant savings, paying inmates a small fraction of the reimbursement fees paid to federal agencies for using their teams to fight fires or the price of hiring private companies to do the work the prisoners do in the off-peak season, like picking up trash along highways in Nevada, maintaining hiking trails in Colorado, and thinning forests and removing dried vegetation all across the region.
California pays inmates $1 per hour for work in emergencies like fires and floods, saving the state an estimated $80 million per year, according to forestry and fire protection statistics. In Nevada, where inmates work for the same pay, they bring in around $3.5 million in annual revenue from the nonfirefighting projects for which they are hired, said Jody Weintz, who manages the program for the Nevada Division of Forestry. (Noninmate firefighters earn around $10 an hour, as well as hazard pay and overtime.)