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Fresno’s Public Defender Problem…John Oliver on Mandatory Minimum Sentences…and Supes Consider LASD Oversight

July 28th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

ACLU LAWSUIT AGAINST FRESNO SAYS POOR DEFENDANTS GO WITHOUT ADEQUATE LEGAL REPRESENTATION FROM PUBLIC DEFENDERS

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the city of Fresno in Northern California over the state of the city’s indigent defense system, which is so underfunded, 60 public defenders take on 400,000 cases per year between them. That’s more than four times the maximum caseload recommendation from the American Bar Association and National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. But this is not a problem unique to Fresno, it’s happening all over the nation, and like many other areas of the criminal justice system in need of reform, it disproportionately affects people of color.

Mother Jones’ Gabrielle Canon has more on the issue. Canon opens with the story of Peter Yepez, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit:

After being charged with burglary in 2013, Peter Yepez waited in the Fresno County, California, jail for a month before his assigned public defender came to talk to him. This delay was a sign of what was to come: Between arraignment and sentencing Yepez spent more than a year being shuffled between nine different Fresno County public defenders, who he says told him they did not have time to work his case

By then he’d missed his daughter’s graduation and his young son’s memorial service, and had fallen into depression.

Though he was originally accused of a domestic burglary, during those many months prosecutors added additional charges to his case, alleging that a victim had been present during burglary even though a police report filed at the time of the crime had claimed no one was there. The new allegations would bump his original charge to a violent felony. Still, Yepez’s public defender advised to him to accept all the charges and the punishment that would come—and so he did. Now Yepez’s record reflects a felony conviction.

Read on.


JOHN OLIVER BLASTS MANDITORY MINIMUMS, CALLING FOR REFORM AND RETROACTIVITY

Once again, John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight is staying on top of important criminal justice issues. We didn’t want you to miss his latest segment about President Obama’s recent commutations and mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. (Oliver is not a fan.) Watch it above.


LA COUNTY SUPES TO CONSIDER LASD CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT COMMISSION

Today, the LA County Board of Supervisors will consider a report from the working group convened to advise the board on what the composition and reach of civilian oversight for the LA County Sheriff’s Department ought look like. (Backstory here.)

We’ll keep you posted on the outcome.

Posted in ACLU, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, Public Defender, Sentencing | No Comments »

Private Prison Medicine, Foster Care Benefits for Dual Status Kids, Presidential Pot Pardons, Sheriff Jim McDonnell on WWLA? …and More

July 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

WHEN FOR-PROFIT CORPORATIONS TAKE OVER PRISON HEALTH CARE INMATE MORTALITY RATES RISE

The private medical company, California Forensic Medical Group, is the largest prison health care provider in CA. And, not unlike the largest prison health care company in the nation, Corizon Correctional Health Care, CFMG continues to rake in money despite being mired in scandals and lawsuits alleging mistreatment, neglect, and short-staffing.

CFMG holds medical care contracts for 64 detention facilities in 27 of California’s 58 counties. Most of the counties are rural, like Imperial and Yolo, but CFMG is also responsible for thousands of inmates in counties like San Diego, Ventura, Santa Cruz, and it’s hometown, Monterey.

Around 200 inmates have died in the last decade under CFMG medical care, and more than 80 lawsuits have been filed against the company in the last 15 years, according to an investigation by FairWarning.

FairWarning’s Brian Joseph takes an in depth look at CMFG’s history (which is not unlike many other private prison companies), as well as the stories of inmates who died seemingly preventable deaths while under the care of CFMG. Here are some clips:

The outsourcing of medical care in jails and prisons reflects a nationwide push for privatizing government duties. The private sector, outsourcing advocates say, offers better services at a lower cost. But while other government services have outspoken constituencies, jails and prisons do not. Inmates usually have little clout to demand change if they believe they are receiving poor health care.

“Society doesn’t really care about prisoners,” said Neville Johnson, a Beverly Hills lawyer. Johnson sued CFMG and Yolo County, near Sacramento, over the August 2000 jailhouse suicide of Stephen Achen. A drug addict, Achen warned some jail staffers that he could become self-destructive but promised another that he wouldn’t hurt himself. “As we got into it, we were astonished at what we felt [was] the deliberate indifference of the jail staff and especially CFMG, which is nothing but a money-making machine,” Johnson said. CFMG settled with the Achen family for $825,000 after a judge found evidence of medical understaffing, according to media reports.

The private sector started providing health services to jails and prisons in the 1970s, when negligent medical care became a foremost prisoners’ rights issue. Inmates across the country filed lawsuits alleging inadequate care. Courts ruled that depriving prisoners of competent medical services was unconstitutional and in some cases ordered states and counties to take corrective action. Wardens and sheriffs, lacking backgrounds in medicine, turned to outside contractors for help.

[SNIP]

Ryan George, age 22, was serving time for domestic violence in 2007 when he experienced the onset of a sickle cell crisis, a painful, but treatable, condition where blood vessels become clogged by the misshapen cells. For days, Valerie says, Ryan called her from jail in obvious pain, complaining that he was being neglected.

Finally, when he was found “unresponsive” in his bed, Ryan was taken to the hospital, according to court records. But after a couple of days, of treatment, doctors there decided Ryan was exaggerating some of his symptoms and sent him back to jail. Shortly thereafter, Valerie said, a CFMG doctor called her, saying Ryan was getting worse. She says she demanded that the doctor take him to the hospital, but he said “that’s not a possibility.”

The company doctor acknowledged in court papers that he spoke with Valerie George, but disputed her version of what was said. CFMG executives also acknowledged that the company would have incurred more costs if Ryan was sent back to the hospital, but denied that financial concerns had anything to do with his death.

A few days later, Ryan George was found dead in his cell, with dark green fluid oozing from his mouth and eyes, according to the civil complaint. A subsequent Sonoma County Grand Jury investigation found that the “Sheriff’s (department) and CFMG medical staff failed to fully intervene” when Ryan’s condition worsened. “He was not re-hospitalized, despite exhibiting symptoms of jaundice, severe dehydration, bone pain, altered level of consciousness and loss of urinary and bowel control,” the grand jury found. Said Valerie George, whose family settled with CFMG: “They let him die like a dog in a cage because this company would not pay for him to get proper medical treatment.”

[SNIP]

“Why wasn’t an ambulance called?” a guard later recalled someone asking when he wheeled a pale Dau into El Centro Regional Medical Center at about 9:30 a.m. on July 23, 2011. A doctor rushed to her side and felt her neck. “She has no pulse!” the doctor yelled, according to a deposition given later by the physician. Hospital staff cut off her jumpsuit and attempted CPR, but it was no use: at 9:56 a.m. Dau was declared dead.

A subsequent autopsy by Imperial County Chief Forensic Pathologist Darryl Garber determined Dau died of heart disease with a contributing factor being acute drug intoxication from the multiple medications she was prescribed. Garber also discovered Dau had a bed sore on her lower back, suggesting that she had been unable to move for some time.

Later, according to the minutes from a meeting about Dau’s death, CFMG and jail staff decided that an ambulance should have been called and that Dau was “probably” going through Valium withdrawal.


CRUCIAL BILL TO CLOSE A LEGAL LOOPHOLE AND EXTEND BENEFITS TO “DUAL STATUS” FOSTER KIDS MOVES FORWARD

A CA bill to give foster kids involved in the juvenile justice system (often called “dual status” or “crossover” youth) extended foster care benefits was approved unanimously by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

SB 12, authored by Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), would close a loophole in existing law, and ensure kids who turn 18 while in juvenile detention receive extended benefits like their non-justice-system-involved peers.

Sawsan Morrar has more on the bill and its progress for the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

DeAngelo Cortijo, an intern at the National Center for Youth Law, spoke at Tuesday’s hearing about his firsthand experience as a crossover youth. Cortijo was removed from his home when he was two after his mother attempted suicide. He was placed with family members, and at one point returned to his mother, before he was sent to foster care amid reports of abuse. Since then, he was in over four detention facilities, and ran away from group home placements several times.

“When I was released, I faced many challenges,” Cortijo said. “I now have to fend for myself as an adult. I had to find stable and clean housing. I didn’t have an income to support myself.”

Cortijo was left depending on others for the most basic needs like purchasing a toothbrush or borrowing socks.

“Do you know what that does to a person’s confidence? It completely destroys it,” he said.

With extended benefits in place, Cortijo would have received about $800 a month, just like other transition-age foster youth, to help pay for food, housing and school.

Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, said these probation youth in transition are exactly who extended foster care aims to support.

“We know that the rates of homelessness, unemployment and incarceration for young people who cross from dependency to delinquency are double to triple the rates for youth who are just in dependency or delinquency,” she said.

According to the Youth Law Center there are approximately 4,000 probation-supervised foster youth in California. There are over 50,000 foster youth in the state.


WHAT IF PRESIDENT OBAMA FOLLOWED IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FDR AND WILSON AND USED HIS PARDON POWER ON MARIJUANA OFFENDERS?

On Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, bringing the total number of approved commutation petitions up to 89. While this is a good step in the right direction, there are 95,265 federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.

The Atlantic’s Zach Hindin makes the case for presidential pardons for all marijuana offenders in federal prison. Former President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences and pardoned 189 during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton commuted 61 sentences and pardoned 396. Our current president has granted just 64 pardons, thus far. (If you are fuzzy on the difference between the two, a pardon wipes a person’s criminal record and restores rights, a commutation shortens a person’s sentence, but does not offer a clean slate.) Obama’s latest move seems far less historically meaningful when compared to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thousands of post-prohibition acts of clemency for alcohol offenses, says Hindin.

Here’s a clip:

…Compared with the last few administrations, commuting the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders may seem historic. But history sets the bar higher still.

In May 1919, Woodrow Wilson was in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. It’s hard to think of a moment when any president had a better reason to shelve domestic affairs, but on Monday, May 12, Wilson telegraphed his secretary in Washington: “Please ask the Attorney General to advise me what action I can take with regard to removing the ban from the manufacture of drink.” A week later Wilson sent another cable, this time to Congress: “It seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers.”

Congress declined, and instead introduced a bill to shore up the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Volstead Act. Wilson vetoed the Act. Congress overrode his veto. With no legislative recourse, Wilson chipped away at Prohibition using the executive power that Congress could not check: his pardon. By the end of his second term, alcohol offenders accounted for more than one-fifth of Wilson’s clemency recipients.

Unlike Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been ambivalent about Prohibition. During his time in the New York State Senate, the powerful Anti-Saloon League had praised Roosevelt’s “perfect voting record.” Even after the repeal of Prohibition became central to his presidential platform, according to one biographer, “the story persisted that whatever Roosevelt might say, there was a voting record to prove he was ‘dry’ at heart.” But when Prohibition was repealed by popular demand in 1933, FDR went on a pardoning spree that outclassed his predecessors, approving alcohol offenders who had been previously rejected or otherwise hadn’t even applied.

Wilson used his pardon to protest an impossible law. Roosevelt used his to acknowledge the change in social norms.

The time when most Americans condoned alcohol consumption despite Prohibition rhymes with our own, when 53 percent of the country supports the legalization of marijuana, and pot laws have been curtailed in 23 states and the nation’s capital. And just as Prohibition offered a legal apparatus for racism, today, the racial imbalances in marijuana arrests and sentencing are so stark that many in this country consider them a proxy for racial control. In 49 states, blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana—in the worst offending counties, by a factor of eight. The limit of this analogy is scale—together, Wilson and Roosevelt issued some 2,000 alcohol-related acts of clemency. In 2012 alone, almost 7,000 people were convicted in federal courts for marijuana offenses, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than for any other type of drug.


LA SHERIFF JIM MCDONNELL TALKS JAIL ABUSE AND MORE ON WHICH WAY, LA?

After 10 jail employees were relieved of duty this past weekend in connection with alleged jail abuse, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell appeared on KCRW’s Which Way, LA? with Warren Olney to discuss jail abuse, transparency, mental illness, and his hopes for the facility that will replace the crumbling Men’s Central Jail.

Take a listen.

In another segment, investigative reporter Jeffrey Sharlet talks about his in-depth GQ story about the March LAPD shooting of Charly Keunang, an unarmed homeless man in Skid Row, and the unreleased officer body cam videos he was able to watch of the incident.

AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF TROUBLING FOOTAGE OF OFFICER-INVOLVED SHOOTINGS…FAMILY OF UNARMED MAN KILLED BY GARDENA POLICE SEEK CIVIL RIGHTS INVESTIGATION

In 2013, three Gardena police officers fatally shot Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, an unarmed man they mistook for a robbery suspect. According to officers involved, Diaz Zeferino appeared to be reaching for a weapon. The city settled the resulting lawsuit to the tune of $4.7 million, but refused to release videos of the shooting, because of privacy concerns.

On Tuesday, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city of Gardena to release the videos. And at a press conference on Wednesday, an attorney representing Diaz Zeferino’s family called for a federal civil rights investigation into the shooting.

Here’s a clip from the KPCC update:

Mercardo said the videos allow the public to see for themselves what took place shortly after police stopped Diaz Zeferino and two others suspected of stealing a bike.

“The public can be the judge of what really happened that night,” she said, adding the family had been searching for justice, not money.

Diaz Zeferino’s brother, Augustine Reynoso, holding aloft a picture of the two of them embracing, said he wanted to bring the Gardena police department to account for the death of his brother.

“Money is not what’s important in life. Life is what’s important in life,” he said through Mercado, who translated his comments. “I want justice to be done. I want the Gardena Police Department to be investigated more deeply. That’s why I’m here.”

Posted in Crossover Youth, DCFS, Foster Care, jail, Jim McDonnell, juvenile justice, LAPD, LASD, Marijuana laws, medical care, Mental Illness, Obama, Sentencing, War on Drugs | No Comments »

President Obama – Pardons and Prisons….Feds Return Control of CA Prison Health Care at Folsom…Helping Out-of-County Foster Kids Retain Mental Health Care….and Solitary Confinement

July 14th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

OBAMA FOCUSES ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND THE U.S. AS “A NATION OF SECOND CHANCES,” COMMUTES 46 SENTENCES AND WILL VISIT A PRISON

On Monday, President Barack Obama, who has previously faced criticism for seldom granting clemency, announced that he had commuted the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders. This brings President Obama’s total number of approved clemency petitions up to 89. To put this in perspective, former President George W. Bush only commuted 11 sentences during his 8 years in office, and Bill Clinton granted clemency to 61 offenders. There are still nearly 8,000 pending clemency petitions.

In a letter, Obama tells those given a second chance, “…it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change…but remember you have the capacity to make good choices.”

Neil Eggleston, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, has more on Obama’s new push for criminal justice reform. Here’s a clip:

…federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison. Now, don’t get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities. But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today…

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules.

Obama will also become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison when he tours the El Reno prison in Oklahoma next week as part of a VICE special documentary for HBO on mass incarceration. The president, along with VICE founder Shane Smith, will tour the grounds and speak with prison staff, prisoners, and law enforcement officials. Here’s a clip from VICE’s announcement:

Located in central Oklahoma, El Reno is a medium-security facility that houses 1,300 inmates convicted of violating federal law. It was home to Jason Hernandez, a prisoner convicted on drug charges who had his life sentence commuted by Obama in 2013.

The interviews will be part of a documentary looking at the pervasive impacts of America’s approach to crime and imprisonment. The special is the latest in VICE’s ongoing coverage of what has become a major civil rights and reform agenda in the United States.

“There’s an emerging consensus in this country — on both the right and the left — that the way we treat criminal offenders is utterly broken and weakening our society in profound ways,” Smith said. “Visiting El Reno with President Obama — the first-ever visit to a federal prison by a sitting president — will give our viewers a firsthand look into how the president is thinking about this problem, from the policy level down to one on one conversations with the men and women living this reality. It’s going to be fascinating.”

The President says he will also be discussing bipartisan-backed ideas for criminal justice reform in Philadelphia on Thursday. Stay tuned.


CA REGAINS CONTROL OF HEALTH CARE FROM FEDS AT FOLSOM STATE PRISON

After nearly a decade of federal oversight of healthcare in California’s prison system, the state will regain control in Folsom State Prison—the first from the federal receiver overseeing healthcare in California’s prisons, Clark Kelso. Folsom is the first prison to be returned to state control.

Kelso says much progress has been made in Folsom and in other prisons, but U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson says federal oversight will only end after the state has had control of health care in all of its prisons for a full year.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“We’re pleased and ready to start taking back control of medical care,” corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement. “We know that other CDCR prisons are ready to step up in the months ahead and we will continue collaborating with the Receiver’s Office to ensure inmates at all of our facilities receive appropriate health care.”

Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office that represents inmates in the lawsuit, said it’s good that care has improved at Folsom, but attorneys will continue monitoring.

“One of the things I’m most concerned about is whether the state has reformed its processes so that all the improvements that the receiver has made over the last 10 or so years are sustained,” Specter said.

Kelso reported in March that conditions statewide have substantially improved, though some prisons are doing better than others and more work remains to be done statewide.

Under the judge’s rules, Kelso could retake control of a transferred prison if conditions decline, but the goal is for the receiver to eventually monitor rather than run the health care system.


FOSTER KIDS MOVED AWAY FROM THEIR HOME COUNTIES SUFFER LONG DELAYS FOR MENTAL HEALTH CARE

When foster kids are transferred out of their home counties, they face months-long interruptions in much-needed mental health services. The problem is that, under current law, instead of following the kids, the responsibility (and funding) to provide mental health treatment remains with their home county.

A California bill, which would ensure foster kids transferred outside of their home counties receive continued mental health services in their new counties, will be heard California Senate Health Services Committee today (Tuesday), after passing out of the Assembly.

The bill, authored by CA Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D), aims to fix a serious lack of collaboration between departments serving foster kids between counties.

In LA County, 17% of foster kids are in out-of-county and out-of-state placements, in comparison to Alameda and San Francisco—59% and 60% respectively.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback has more on the bill. Here’s a clip:

AB 1299, which was introduced by State Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D), would require the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) to create clear policies to guide the transfer of responsibility for mental health services to a child’s county of residence. The bill would also compel the Department of Finance to establish a system to ensure that counties are fully reimbursed for providing mental health services, during the fiscal year when the services are delivered, by May of 2016.

All California foster youth are eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s public health insurance program. But under current law, when a foster youth moves to a different county, responsibility for providing mental health services—and any related funding—remains with the county of origin and its network of service providers

As a result, nearly 12,000 out-of-county foster youth—or about one in five of all youth in the state’s child welfare system—are routinely left in limbo, waiting for mental health services that often take months to begin.

A 2011 report from the state’s Child Welfare Council, which is responsible for improving collaboration among child-serving agencies, revealed disparities between children in and out of county who were receiving mental health services. An examination of the data for all 58 counties in California showed that out-of-county youth received fewer average days of mental health outpatient or day services when compared to children with in-county placements (2.3 days versus 2.9).

“Part of the issue is that the counties have been in control of the money up until this point, and the money has not been flowing as it needs to when these kids are moving from one county to another,” said Khaim Morton, chief of staff for Ridley-Thomas. “We want to get to the point where we can collaborate and reach a compromise that will enable more of the money to reach these kids and more swiftly.”

California may once again find itself back in court as part of a class-action lawsuit if there isn’t an agreement soon, according to mental health advocate Patrick Gardner, founder of Young Minds Advocacy Project.

“If there isn’t a solution by the end of the year, either through negotiations under the auspices of the Child Welfare Council or through the work being done in the legislature, a judge is going to have to step in to fix this, because letting this continue is completely unacceptable,” said Gardner.


CA TURNING AWAY FROM SOLITARY CONFINEMENT…SLOWLY

In 2011, California prisoners went on the first of three major hunger strikes over prison conditions and excessive and punitive use of solitary confinement.

Real efforts toward curbing solitary in state prisons began in late 2012. Prison officials reviewed the cases of prisoners in solitary, and released a modest number of long-isolated inmates back into the general population.

But the process has been slow and hard-fought.

In June, six San Quentin death row inmates held in “extreme isolation” filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jerry Brown, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard and San Quentin Prison Warden Ronald Davis alleging cruel and unusual punishment.

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has more on California’s efforts toward limiting the use of solitary confinement. Here’s how it opens:

Even as it prepares for a courtroom showdown over the use of prolonged solitary confinement to keep order in its prisons, California has adopted emergency rules to dial down such isolation.

Inmates may no longer be put in isolation for refusing a cell assignment, for example, one of several prison infractions for which solitary confinement punishment has been reduced or dropped. And those being disciplined with segregation can cut that punishment in half with good behavior.

“This is part of an ongoing evolution in how we manage inmates in segregation,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the corrections department. “There will be more changes.”

The new rules went into effect last month, ahead of public hearings scheduled for August. They come atop other changes that have cut the count of California prisoners held in near-constant lockdown from more than 9,800 in early 2014 to just under 8,700 last month.

The revisions also have been made amid an escalating debate over solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, of which California has the largest share.

Advocates for inmates are preparing to release research by a prominent corrections psychiatrist describing a malady he calls “SHU Post-Release Syndrome,” a reference to the Security Housing Unit, California’s name for long-term solitary confinement.

The study documents some of the same psychiatric effects raised last month by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in an unusual opinion in a California death penalty case. He essentially invited a constitutional challenge to long-term isolation and the “terrible price” it extracts.

Posted in CDCR, DCFS, Foster Care, mental health, Obama, prison, Sentencing, solitary, The Feds | No Comments »

LASD Deputy to Donate Liver to Partner….a Misused Federal Sentence Enhancement…and More

June 3rd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LASD DEPUTY FINDS HE IS COMPATIBLE TO DONATE PARTIAL LIVER TO HIS DYING TWIN TOWERS PARTNER

On Thursday, LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Javier Tiscareno will donate part of his liver to save the life of his deputy partner, Jorge Castro, whose own liver is failing.

After numerous unsuccessful treatments, and learning that none of his family members were a match for a liver transplant, Castro was placed on a waiting list.

California is not an ideal place to live if you need a liver transplant. Once you’re on the UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) waiting list, the wait in the golden state is commonly 12-36 months. (With this in mind, Apple founder Steve Jobs got on the list in Tennessee, instead of California.)

When Castro, told his partner about his health issues, Tiscareno decided to get tested for liver donation. The two deputies were a match.

At a press conference outside Twin Towers jail, where both men are correctional officers, Tiscareno said, “He told me he would be dead by the end of the year. That was unacceptable to me.”

A partial liver transplant is considered a relatively safe procedure for the donor, but it is still a major surgery, and complications do sometimes occur. Tiscareno said, regarding his decision, “I’m not going to a funeral knowing I could have helped.”


OP-ED: FED PROSECUTORS MANIPULATING A 45-YEAR-OLD STATUTE TO FORCE LOW-LEVEL DRUG OFFENDERS TO TAKE UNFAIR PLEA DEALS

Enacted in 1970, statute “851″ was originally intended to give federal prosecutors the ability to seek double or more the usual sentences for serious drug dealers, while exempting those with lower-level drug charges from the sentencing “enhancement” that 851 provided.

But that’s not how things turned out.

Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology, law, and society at UC Irvine, says federal prosecutors have severely misused 851, employing it, instead, as a tool to force low-level drug offenders to take plea deals.

By filing the 851 enhancement against defendants with prior convictions, prosecutors can turn what would normally be a 10-year mandatory minimum into life without parole in the most extreme cases.

Lynch says this weapon federal prosecutors use to coerce plea deals must be eliminated.

Here’s a clip from Lynch’s op-ed for the NY Times:

I have conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in four federal districts; in each, the 851 threat loomed for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words of one of my interviewees, “the 851 is the ultimate lever” used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it almost always worked: Defendants were compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse.

What happens to the defendant who doesn’t go along? The threat becomes a reality. Take the case of a former defendant whom I’ll call Brandon.

Brandon may not have been squeaky clean when he landed in federal court on drug charges, but he certainly was no drug kingpin. A week or two before his arrest, he reignited a friendship with a high school classmate — I’ll call him Frank — at the time a relatively large-scale crack dealer. After reconnecting, Brandon went for a drive with Frank and Frank’s girlfriend on a single drug-supply run, something the couple did on a weekly basis.

On the way home, a state trooper pulled over Frank’s car, searched it, retrieved the drugs and arrested them. Each was charged with conspiracy to distribute hundreds of grams of crack cocaine.

All three had prior drug convictions, so the 851 threat loomed. Frank and his girlfriend succumbed to the pressure and pleaded guilty. But Brandon had a strong case. By all accounts, including law enforcement’s, he was neither Frank’s partner nor involved in any continuing conspiracy with the couple.

So Brandon went to trial. And the prosecutor played her ace card, filing the 851 on the eve of trial. He was convicted. At sentencing, Frank received 20 years in prison and his girlfriend received probation. Brandon, who chose to exercise his right to trial, received a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

[SNIP]

Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.


LEGAL EXPERT GIVES 40 REASONS WHY POOR AND MINORITY PEOPLE MAKE UP SUCH A LARGE PORTION OF THE US JAIL POPULATION

Bill Quigley, Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, put together a noteworthy list of 40 reasons why jails across the US are full of racial minorities and poor people. Here’s a clip:

One. It is not just about crime. Our jails and prisons have grown from holding about 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.2 million today. The fact is that crime rates have risen and fallen/a> independently of our growing incarceration rates.

Two. Police discriminate. The first step in putting people in jail starts with interactions between police and people. From the very beginning, Black and poor people are targeted by the police. Police departments have engaged in campaigns of stopping and frisking people who are walking, mostly poor people and people of color, without cause for decades. Recently New York City lost a federal civil rights challenge to their police stop and frisk practices by the Center for Constitutional Rights during which police stopped over 500,000 people annually without any indication that the people stopped had been involved in any crime at all. About 80 percent of those stops were of Black and Latinos who compromise 25 and 28 percent of N.Y.C.’s total population. Chicago police do the same thing stopping even more people also in a racially discriminatory way with 72 percent of the stops of Black people even though the city is 32 percent Black.

Three. Police traffic stops also racially target people in cars. Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and Hispanic drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Connecticut, in an April 2015 report, on 620,000 traffic stops which revealed widespread racial profiling, particularly during daylight hours when the race of driver was more visible.

Four. Once stopped, Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely to be given tickets than white drivers stopped for the same offenses.

Five. Once stopped, Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to be searched. DOJ reports Black drivers at traffic stops were searched by police three times more often and Hispanic drivers two times more often than white drivers. A large research study in Kansas City found when police decided to pull over cars for investigatory stops, where officers look into the car’s interior, ask probing questions and even search the car, the race of the driver was a clear indicator of who was going to be stopped: 28 percent of young Black males twenty five or younger were stopped in a year’s time, versus white men who had 12 percent chance and white women only a seven percent chance. In fact, not until Black men reach 50 years old do their rate of police stops for this kind of treatment dip below those of white men twenty five and under.

Six. Traffic tickets are big business. And even if most people do not go directly to jail for traffic tickets, poor people are hit the worst by these ticket systems. As we saw with Ferguson where some of the towns in St. Louis receive 40 percent or more of their city revenues from traffic tickets, tickets are money makers for towns.

Posted in jail, juvenile justice, LASD, Prosecutors, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs | 8 Comments »

What Happens When Predictive Analytics Enters the World of Child Protection?….How Do You Define a Gang Member?……The LAPD & the Guardian’s Count

June 2nd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



WHERE ABUSED CHILDREN MEET THE WORLD OF PREDICTIVE ANALYTICS AND BIG DATA

Much has rightly been made of the unbearably tragic child deaths in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state, at the hands of those who should have kept them safe, deaths like that of 8-year old Gabriel Fernandez. To refresh your memory, when paramedics showed up at Gabriel’s mother’s home in May 2013, they found the little boy with a fractured skull, three broken ribs, bruises and burns in too many places to count, and his mouth absent two of his teeth. BB pellets were embedded in his lungs and his groin.

Both LA County’s Department of Children Services and the LA County Sheriff’s Department had received complaints that Gabriel was being abused. But somehow nobody acted. And the two-agency non-action resulted in the torture and violent death of an eight-year-old.

Yet, there are other documented cases where DCFS seems to act too quickly, yanking kids out of less-than-ideal but non-dangerous homes and putting them through encounters with the foster care system that were, at best, traumatic and, at worst, deeply damaging.

So how does one tell the difference? Certainly, in some cases, it seems that a modicum of caring attention and common sense would have helped. But in others, the lines may not be so clearly drawn.

Some counties and states around the nation think they might have found at least part of the answer in the realm of what numbers geeks call predictive analytics.

Take for example, the case of Florida’s Department of Children & Families, which had nine child deaths in the state’s Hillsborough County area between 2009 and 2012. All of the kids were under three years old, and all but one were killed by either a parent or paramour.

At the time, the region’s child protective services were contracted out, at a cost of $65.5 million a year, to private youth services agency called Hillsborough Kids.

Florida dumped Hillsborough Kids, bumped up the budget for social workers and, perhaps most significantly, Florida officials contracted to use a new decision-making tool to help the agency prioritize calls of suspected child abuse. It is called Rapid Safety Feedback.

Darian Woods, writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, takes a look at where predictive analytics has entered the world of child protection, who is involved, and what that entry could mean in terms of the future safety of kids.

Here’s a clip:

So in 2012, the department made changes. It commissioned a comprehensive analysis of the data behind the child deaths that were concentrated in Hillsborough County. Hillsborough Kids lost out on the $65.5 million contract and went into liquidation. A private youth services agency, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, was selected by the department to take care of approximately 2,900 abused children in Hillsborough County. The next year, Florida Governor Rick Scott boosted funding for new social workers. Perhaps most radically, a new decision-making tool called Rapid Safety Feedback was introduced in the county.

Rapid Safety Feedback uses — in the parlance of big data crunchers and, increasingly, social scientists — predictive analytics to prioritize calls of suspected child abuse.

Predictive analytics in child protective services means assigning suspected abuse cases to different risk levels based on characteristics that have been found to be linked with child abuse. These risk levels can automatically revise as administrative data is updated. Administrative data may be as simple as school reports or could delve deeper into other information that the state holds: the parents’ welfare checks, new criminal offenses or changing marital status.

Combining predictive analytics with more investigators seems to be producing results in Hillsborough County. According to Eckerd, who also holds contracts in Pasco and Pinellas counties, since it took over the contract in 2012, the quality of reviews has improved 30 percent. There is a significant increase in completed documentation by caseworkers. There have also been zero child homicides in the county since the handover.

LA County is one of the counties that is looking hard at the use of predictive analytics, but they are less positive that big data can solve the problem.


HUMAN JUDGEMENT VERSUS THE MACHINE: CAN SAVVY PEOPLE KEEP KIDS SAFER THAN PREDICTIVE ANALYTICS? OR IS BIG DATA THE ANSWER?

Holden Slattery, also writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, looks further into what LA County is doing as it “struggles to strike the right balance between human judgement and increasingly sophisticated predictive tools when determining the risk that a child will be abused.”

Here’s how Slattery’s story opens:

On weekdays, calls to Los Angeles County’s child abuse hotline reach their peak between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.—right after school. On average, 70 to 80 calls about child maltreatment in Los Angeles County reach the hotline per hour during that span, according to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the agency charged with responding to alleged abuse.

There are about 85 social workers manning the phones at any given time. They ask callers to explain how child abuse or neglect took place.

The number of calls made to the largest child welfare system in the United States creeps up each year, said Carlos Torres, an assistant regional manager for the DCFS hotline. In 2014, the hotline received 220,000 calls, he said.

After listening and marking down answers on a computer program, the social workers decide whether a situation meets the criteria for an in-person response. They also decide whether DCFS should respond by the end of their current shift, within 24 hours, or within five days, Torres said.

These decisions, based on small bits of information shared by a caller, determine where DCFS directs its limited human resources. DCFS responds with an in-person investigation to 35 percent of the calls, Torres said. In these cases, a social worker drives to the home, interviews the family, gathers information, and enters his or her findings into a web-based decision-making tool, which, like a questionnaire that an insurance company gives to prospective clients, estimates risk; in this case, risk that a child will be abused.

When everything goes right, DCFS can save a child from harm. When something goes wrong, the result can be heartbreaking. A 2011 report on recurring systemic issues that led to child deaths in Los Angeles County put the onus largely on flawed investigations and problems with the decision-making tool employed. In the search for solutions, public officials have looked toward new technologies, such as analytics software used primarily by private companies, to see if that can keep more children out of harm’s way. As public officials make these kinds of inquiries, in Los Angeles County and across the globe, they confront the conundrum of human judgement versus machine. Some say technological advances hold the answers, while others say that only savvy people are up to the task.

Slattery notes that a number of experts cite research that suggests all this predictive analytics isn’t particularly effective when it comes to assessing if a kid is safe or not.

In any case, read on.


IS IT TIME TO REFORM CALIFORNIA’S “STEP ACT?”

One night in January 1988, rival gang members were shooting each other on the streets of Westwood and mistakenly hit and killed a young woman named Karen Toshiba.

The murder of Karen Toshiba became a flashpoint, as such tragic deaths often do, and 1988 became the year the so-called war on gangs was declared in Los Angeles and, in Sacramento, the state legislature passed the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection Act (STEP Act), Statute 186.22 of the penal code.

Among its other functions, the the STEP Act imposed greater punishment for crimes committed “for the benefit” of a criminal street gang. In the beginning, the sentencing “enhancements” were no more than a few years. But it 2000, crimes that were “serious” or “violent,” as defined by the California Penal Code, could be enhanced by five or ten or, in certain cases, a life sentence.

The STEP Act can be brought to bear even when a young man or woman is at the periphery of a gang, with a relationship that has more to do with where he or she lives, than any kind of actively committed or formalized association.

It has resulted in multi-decade sentences for juveniles tried as adults as a consequence of their proximity to violent acts in which they did not participate, even in cases when no one was injured.

If a so-called gang expert can successfully label a defendant as a gang member, even if he or she is not, then the enhancement can kick in, and conviction is also much more likely.

In a story by Daniel Alarcón in this week’s New York Times Magazine called “How Do You Define a Gang Member?” Alarcón
describes a case that shows the STEP Act in action.

The story has to do with a case in Modesto, California, where the primary gangs are variation on the theme of Norteño, or northerners, or Sureños—southerners.

Here’s a clip:

On a rainy day last December, in a courtroom in downtown Modesto, Calif., a 24-year-old white man named Jesse Sebourn, along with five co-defendants, sat accused of second-degree murder. The victim, Erick Gomez, was only 20 when he was shot to death. He was a reputed Norteño gang member who had lived just a few minutes’ drive from the working-class Modesto neighborhood where Sebourn was raised. The police estimate that there are as many as 10,000 gang members in Stanislaus County, where Modesto is, most either Norteños and Sureños, two of California’s most notorious Latino street gangs. The feud between them often turns deadly, and according to Thomas Brennan, the district attorney, this was one such instance: Sebourn and his co-defendants were Sureño gang members hunting for rivals on Valentine’s Day in 2013, when they found Gomez, out on a walk with his girlfriend.

Brennan was not saying that Sebourn had fired the gun; in fact, the accused shooter, Giovanni Barocio, had evaded arrest and is believed to be in Mexico, while witnesses and time-stamped 911 calls made it difficult to believe Sebourn had even been present at the scene when Gomez was killed. But according to the prosecution, Sebourn had set the entire chain of events in motion a few hours before the shooting, when he and two of his co-defendants tagged a mural eulogizing dead Norteños in an alley behind the building where Gomez lived. Sebourn and the others were caught in the act and beaten by Norteños, though they got away with little more than scrapes and bruises. But the prosecution argued that spray-painting over a rival’s mural was an aggressive act intended to incite violence — the equivalent of firing a shot. By this interpretation of events, the afternoon scuffle led directly to that evening’s murder: tagging, fisticuffs and finally, hours later, homicidal retaliation, each escalation following logically and inevitably from the previous. “Ask yourself,” Brennan said to the jury in his opening statement, “what are the natural and probable consequences of a gang fight?”

But this time the defense has a gang expert of its own, a former gang member turned PhD named Jesse De La Cruz…

In any case, read on.


THE LAPD HAS THE MOST POLICE KILLINGS IN 2015 OF ANY LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY IN THE NATION, SAYS THE GUARDIAN, WHICH HAS DECIDED TO COUNT

The Guardian newspaper has launched a project it is calling The Counted, the purpose of which is to count people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015.

It’s an interactive project, which you can find here.

Over at KPCC, Aaron Mendelson writes that, according to the Guardian’s database, the Los Angeles Police Department has killed more people (10), than any other law enforcement agency in the United States this year, that’s twice as many as the four law enforcement agencies, one of which is the LASD, that are in second place.

Anyway, it’s interesting so take a look, both at what KPCC has isolated from the database, and at the Guardian database itself.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, DCFS, families, Foster Care, LAPD, LASD, Sentencing | 17 Comments »

The 22-Hour Standoff, Sentencing Videos, and a Promising Housing Program in SF

May 27th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LASD 22-HOUR STANDOFF WITH ELDERLY WOMAN A MODEL FOR HOW LAW ENFORCEMENT INTERACTIONS WITH THE MENTALLY ILL CAN GO RIGHT

Last Thursday, beginning at 5:30a.m. in a mobile home park on the 4200 block of Topanga Blvd., a mentally ill 74-year-old woman armed with a revolver engaged members of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in an intense standoff that lasted more than 20 hours.

On Tuesday, LA Sheriff Jim McDonnell called a press conference to lay out the details of the crisis situation, which would have tested “the resolve, training and tactics of any law enforcement agency.”

The woman reportedly brandished the gun at paramedics and officers who had responded to her distress call, as well as mobile home park residents (who were quickly evacuated), before taking over a neighboring mobile home. The LASD sent in its Crisis Negotiations Team, a Special Enforcement Bureau (SWAT) “Blue Team,” commanding officers, and special equipment.

The raving elderly woman reportedly shot at a robot sent in to negotiate with her, as well as at officers during the standoff. At one point, the woman approached officers, saying she had lost her gun, before pulling it out and firing two rounds.

Sheriff McDonnell said the incident “provided rare insight in to the continuum of decisions that our deputies make in life or death situations…decisions that balance the need for control in the name of public safety…with the safety and welfare of an individual.”

Officers deployed a great deal of less-than-lethal resources, including foam projectiles, tear gas, and even a fire hose, all of which failed to subdue the woman. Despite believing the woman had at least one live round left, a Special Enforcement Bureau (SWAT) “Blue Team,” stripped out of their gear, helmets, and vests. Five Blue Team members very carefully crawled under the house, and were able to take the woman into custody—all at great danger to the unarmed officers.

McDonnell praised the officers’ skillful handling of a situation that could have easily ended in tragedy. “It would be a mischaracterization to say that the SWAT team was ‘held at bay,’” said McDonnell. “The Special Enforcement Bureau’s SWAT team held themselves at bay of out an overriding desire to end the incident without having to resort to using deadly force.”

Sons of the elderly woman, who they said had never been in trouble or caused any disturbances before, expressed deep gratitude to the members of the Lost Hills Station and SWAT team: “…everyone we came into contact with exhibited the utmost in compassion, concern, patience, discipline  and restraint: for the residents of the mobile park, their fellow officers, our family and most importantly, for an elderly woman in need of help.”


SENTENCING VIDEOS BRING DEFENDANTS HUMANNESS INTO THE COURTROOM, BUT WILL THE COST KEEP THEM OUT OF REACH FOR POOR DEFENDANTS?

It is becoming increasingly more common for defense lawyers to submit mini biographical documentaries during sentencing. The new defense tool, commonly called a “sentencing video” focuses on a defendant’s history, hardships and traumas, and potential, in an effort to humanize defendants and sway judges toward handing down lighter punishment.

Advocates are concerned, however, that as the trend grows, the use of often-costly sentencing videos will not be possible for indigent defendants using public defenders.

Silicon Valley De-Bug, a criminal justice non-profit, seeks to level the playing field.

The NY Times’ Stephanie Clifford has the story. Here’s a clip:

Even in cities with robust public defense programs, like New York, lawyers may be handling as many as 100 cases at once, and they say there is little room to add shooting and editing videos to their schedules.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that public defenders could possibly spare the time to do that,” said Josh Saunders, who until recently was a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, adding that lawyers there are often physically in court for the entire workday. He sees the humanizing potential of videos, he said, but “I would also be concerned that defendants with means would be able to put together a really nice package that my clients generally would not be able to.”

Mr. Jayadev’s nonprofit, Silicon Valley De-Bug, a criminal justice group and community center in San Jose, Calif., believes that videos are a new frontier in helping poor defendants, and is not only making videos but also encouraging defense lawyers nationwide to do the same. The group has made about 20 biographical videos for defendants, one featuring footage of the parking lot where a homeless teenage defendant grew up. With a $30,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation, De-Bug is now training public defenders around the country.

Given that a defendant has a right to speak at sentencing, a video is on solid legal ground, said Walter Dickey, emeritus professor of law at the University of Wisconsin Law School, “though the judge can obviously limit what’s offered.” Professor Dickey said that because, at both the state and federal levels, the lengths of sentences are increasingly up to judges rather than mandated by statute, it followed that videos that “speak to the discretionary part” of sentencing were having a bigger role.

Mr. Jayadev takes a standard approach to his projects: The producers identify the defendant’s past hardships and future prospects, then select supporters or family members to describe those, usually in a visual context, like a pastor in a church pew. Mr. Jayadev said he found it was more natural to have the defendant talking to someone off-screen, rather than staring at the camera.

For Mr. Quijada, “this story is around this young man’s transformation from a life that had sort of run its course,” Mr. Jayadev said.


A COLLABORATIVE SF PROGRAM TO PROVIDE FORMER OFFENDERS WITH FREE HOUSING AND REHABILITATION SERVICES TO HELP THEM GET BACK ON THEIR FEET

Forty-two recently released low-level former offenders and more serious offenders who are currently on probation will soon move into their own studio apartments at Drake Hotel in the heart of San Francisco. Through a united effort between the SF Superior Court, Probation Department, and Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a single-occupancy hotel is being transformed to specifically house homeless former offenders who struggle with addiction.

The move is particularly meaningful in a city where the average apartment runs $3,458 per month. The goal of the housing program, which is funded with realignment money, is to help tenants find permanent housing within one year of living at the Drake Hotel.

Tenants will be given a set of responsibilities and a curfew and will be paired with case managers who will help them access public benefits and save up for a deposit and first month’s rent on their own apartment.

The SF Chronicle’s Heather Knight has more on the program. Here are some clips:

…asked why criminals should get free housing in San Francisco when law-abiding low-income and even middle-class families struggle to afford apartments, court officials seemed to be caught off guard.

“The kind of housing these folks are getting is not something to be envious of, honestly. It’s just a room,” said Lisa Lightman, director of the Superior Court’s collaborative courts, which include special courts for drug-addicted people and mentally ill people and the Community Justice Center, which handles low-level crimes committed in the Tenderloin.

Asked the same question, Krista Gaeta, deputy director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the public will benefit if people who have committed crimes are living in decent housing and provided case management.

“You can’t let someone out of jail, give them $5 and say, ‘Good luck,’” she said. “The better plan is to do things like this so they can go out and get permanent housing, find work and not commit the crimes that got them in trouble in the first place.”

[SNIP]

Fletcher said it has become increasingly difficult to help people on probation in San Francisco find any sort of housing because of the city’s sky-high rents. Last month, San Francisco landlords with available apartments were asking a record average rent of $3,458 a month.

The Drake Hotel will specifically serve people on probation who are homeless and are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The facility will be considered a clean and sober building, but tenants won’t be evicted for having relapses, Fletcher said.

Posted in Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, law enforcement, Mental Illness, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Sentencing | 22 Comments »

Can a Lone Milwaukee Prosecutor Point the Way Out of Mass Incarceration? … Lawmakers Screech to Halt on Changing Prop. 47 …$450K Settlement on 2-Yr-Old’s Beating Death

May 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


ONE UNUSUAL MILWAUKEE PROSECUTOR TAKES ON THE MASS INCARCERATION PROBLEM

As a nation, we incarcerate too many people. In terms of cost/benefit, this over incarceration is not good for us, socially, fiscally, or ultimately in terms of public safety.

Fortunately, calling over incarceration for what it is has ceased to be an idea embraced solely by reformist liberals. In the post-2008 period in which states and counties faced drastic budget shrinkages, the expanding price tags of our bloated jails and prisons got the attention of an increasing number of conservatives, who began joining hands with progressives to try to find some way out of the whole ghastly mess.

Now there are the Right on Crime people out of Texas who wrote Op Eds for California newspapers supporting the initiative that reformed the state’s too rigid Three Strikes law and, a few years later, did the same to get Prop. 47 passed. More recently, the Koch brothers have joined forces on sentencing reform with the likes of the ACLU. Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul are cosponsoring several bills aimed at criminal justice reform. And so on.

At the same time, the idea that people of color, and black people most of all, have paid a disproportionately high price in the crack down on crime that has occurred over the last three decades, is a topic that has finally—thankfully—begun to reach the main stream.

Matters have been helped by the work of brilliant, impassioned and media savvy academics like University of Ohio law professor Michelle Alexander, whose 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, became that year’s must read in criminal justice circles and beyond.

Four years later, star civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A story of justice and Redemption, about the terrible injustices regularly wrought the American justice system, landed on a string of 2014 “best books of the year” lists, meaning its emotionally devastating message was absorbed by a wide variety of readers. Plus there was Stevenson’s TED talk, “We need to talk about an injustice,” with its more than 2 million views.

Yet, despite the overdue but welcome shifts in attitude, we still lock up too many people, and we still do so with what appears to be a disturbing racial bias—conscious or not.

That is where where this New Yorker profile of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm comes in. Written by the magazine’s staff writer and legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, the story titled “The Milwaukee Experiment” which appears in next week’s issue, suggests that it may be local prosecutors—more than even cops, judges and/or law makers—who likely hold one of the primary keys to precipitating the kind of change that our justice system so urgently needs.

Here are some clips from Toobin’s story about Chisholm:

Like many people in the criminal-justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons. The issue is especially salient in Wisconsin, where African-Americans constitute only six per cent of the population but thirty-seven per cent of those in state prison. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as of 2010 thirteen per cent of the state’s African-American men of working age were behind bars—nearly double the national average, of 6.7 per cent. The figures were especially stark for Milwaukee County, where more than half of African-American men in their thirties had served time in state prison. How, Chisholm wondered, did the work of his own office contribute to these numbers? Could a D.A. do anything to change them?

The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops. Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation. Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison. And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.

Chisholm decided to let independent researchers examine how he used his prosecutorial discretion. In 2007, when he took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing. According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).

Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety. “For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences,” Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told me. “But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time. Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era. Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.”

So what, then, did Chisholm do? And how did he do it?

First of all, he stationed prosecutors in neighborhoods around Milwaukee. Then he instructed those prosectors to do more than simply process the cases brought to them by law enforcement.

He and his team started asking themselves in every instance why they were bringing that case. “In those that were seen as minor, it was the least experienced people who were deciding whether to bring them. And these people saw that we had generally brought those cases in the past, so they went ahead with them again. But we started to ask, ‘Why are we charging these people with crimes at all?’ ”

And then he and members of his office devised a remarkably smart assessment tool that everyone used with potential defendants. Here’s the deal.

The most significant innovation in Chisholm’s overhaul of the office involves an “early intervention” program, which begins after a defendant is arrested but before arraignment. Each defendant is given an eight-question assessment, which can be conducted in about fifteen minutes and is compared to the information on the rap sheet and in the police report. The questions include: “Two or more prior adult convictions?” “Arrested under age sixteen?” “Currently unemployed?” “Some criminal friends?” A low score can lead to an offer of “diversion”—a kind of unofficial probation that, if successfully completed, leaves the individual without a criminal record. A high score leads to a second, more detailed, fifty-four-question assessment. The questions include: “Ever walked away/escaped from a halfway house?” “Were you ever suspended or expelled from school?” “Does your financial situation contribute to your stress?” “Tell me the best thing about your supervisor/teacher.” Results of the assessment may also lead to diversion or may lead to a more intensive kind of post-arrest supervision, known as deferred prosecution. People in this group will maintain a criminal record of an arrest but may have their charges reduced or dismissed. To participate in these incarceration alternatives, a defendant must commit to completing drug-treatment or other educational programs that are approved by Chisholm’s office.

In other words, Chisolm and his team viewed those who landed in the second group as having a higher risk of reoffending because, for whatever reason, their needs were more complicated, thus they required greater help and supervision, if they were going to stay out of jail or prison in the future. And the team acted accordingly.

“The whole program is designed to reduce the number of people we are putting in jail or prison, but to do it in a smart, accountable way,” Jeffrey Altenburg, a deputy district attorney, who oversees the early-intervention program, told me. “It’s to get people back on track, based on their risk and their need.” Every week, Altenburg, an eighteen-year veteran of the D.A.’s office, conducts a series of informal meetings with people in the diversion and deferred-prosecution programs who are in danger of being thrown out and returned to the traditional criminal-justice system.

There’s lots more to the story, of course. And, while Chisholm has a growing crowd of fans and admirers, he also has a some angry detractors, some of them in high places. In any case, it’s a story well worth your time, so read on.



AND IN OTHER NEWS…..STATE LAWMAKERS CHANGE COLLECTIVE MINDS ON CHANGING PROP. 47

After the passage of Prop. 47, which was opposed by various law enforcement groups and others who were conservative on the issue of crime and punishment, those same groups pushed legislators hard to introduce bills that would weaken the proposition. But now that we are months into the legislative year, Prop. 47 has had time to go into action; its initial positive effects have been observed, and the sky has not fallen. As a consequence, lawmakers have actively backed away from the so-called “fixes.” Thus, at present, all but 2 of the 9 proposed bills have been watered down to the degree that they are no longer a threat to the new law, or they are permanent stalled, or both.

The two that remain—AB150 and SB452—would both make stealing a gun a felony in all cases. If they pass in their current form, and are signed by Jerry Brown, they would require voter approval in 2016 to go into effect. However, they are not seen as problematic by Prop. 47 supporters, should they indeed become law.

Here’s more on the story by KQED’s Marisa Lagos.

“None of the legislative discussions occurring around Proposition 47 have the potential to undermine the initiative,” said Lenore Anderson, who co-authored the measure, chaired the ballot campaign and directs Californians for Safety and Justice, a progressive policy group.

She said supporters aren’t surprised the Legislature is looking at these issues, and that most of the bills aren’t going to substantively change what Prop. 47 is aiming to achieve: a criminal justice system that focuses on locking up only serious offenders, like those convicted of violent crimes, and not people addicted to drugs who commit petty crimes.

The measure was retroactive, allowing people in prisons or jails to ask for reduced sentences as well as people with past convictions who are no longer incarcerated. So far, more than 115,000 people have filed petitions asking courts to reduce their sentences from felonies to misdemeanors, according to the Judicial Council of California. And more than 3,200 have been released from state prisons.


LA SUPERVISORS APPROVE $450,00 SETTLEMENT TO FATHER OF 2-YEAR-OLD BEATEN TO DEATH DESPITE MULTIPLE CALLS TO DCFS

Truthfully, $450K doesn’t seem like enough. In any case, the LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has the very painful story about the settlement after the little boy was found dead in his bed with more than 50 bruises mottling his small body, his intestines and liver lacerated

Here’s a clip:

According to the suit, Medina’s investigation began in late January 2011, when someone called the child abuse hotline to say that Gabriel and his two siblings were in danger because Vega lived with them and was violent and out of control. He had punched a neighbor in the presence of the children, the anonymous caller said.

The caller also asserted that Vega, who had a violent criminal record, was engaged in domestic violence against the mother, had gang affiliations and that there was drug use in the home, the suit alleged.

The suit also alleged that Medina went to the home on the day of the anonymous call, but over his ensuing visits, he believed Gabriel’s mother when she lied by saying that Vega no longer lived in the home — even though his clothes were still there and the children said they saw him often.

By the time Medina closed the case, other hotline calls had also been received about the family, according to the suit. Medina’s final report falsely stated that Vega was not in the home and that the mother did not have a drug problem, even though he received a positive test for marijuana for her days earlier, the suit said.

When the boy died days later, the coroner determined that some of his serious injuries had occurred weeks before, the suit said.

Therolf also reported that, in fighting the settlement, the county spend $230,00 in legal fees.

Oh, yes, and the social worker who handled the case kept his job.


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

Santa Clara Does it Right With Dual Status Kids….Defining Violent Felony….Freddy Gray’s Voice

April 23rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Earlier this month we introduced you to Angel,
a young woman, now-20, who had spent much of her adolescence in the care of [tk] County juvenile probation, not because she was particularly breaking any laws (save things like lying about her name when approached by cops), but because after years of chronicled abuse by her mother, she finally fought back, although she was reportedly the one with the bruises. As a consequence Angel wound up a juvenile lock-up. Then, when her term was finished, she stayed under the care of probation, because—although she should have long-ago been in the foster care system, now that she was a teenager, no one seemed sure where else to put her.

Angel was a “dual status” or crossover kid, which in many California jurisdictions makes kids like her nobody’s child.

As defined by the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, the term “dual status youth” refers to young people who come into contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and occupy various statuses in terms of their relationship to the two systems. A growing body of research has consistently shown that, in comparison to kids involved in only one of the two systems, dual status youth are usually dealing with more in the way of childhood trauma and other daunting challenges. Sadly, despite their needs, these kids often get less consistent help and attention than singly involved young people.

The RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice (a division of the RFK Children’s Action Corps) is trying to change all that by offering consultation, technical assistance, and training to local, state and national “youth-serving agencies” to improve the lives and the outcomes of dual status kids.

With this in mind they have worked with 13 jurisdictions around the nation on efforts designed appropriately synchronize the two systems—child welfare and juvenile justice—in order to give dual status kids the consistant care and services they need to begin to thrive.

One of RFK’s earliest “demonstration” sites is California’s Santa Clara County, which is located at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay and encompasses 1,312 square miles.

Heidi Benson, writing for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, has written an excellent profile of what Santa Clara is doing with RFK’s guidance, who is involved, and how it is changing kids’ lives for the better.

Here are some clips:

SAN JOSE, Calif. — At 8 years old, Marco had spent most of his life in the child welfare system. When an uncle took him in, to the first stable family environment he’d ever known, the boy finally began to thrive.

When he turned 13, his behavior changed. He started fighting at school and smoking marijuana daily. His uncle feared for the family’s safety. Marco was sent to a group home. Soon, he was living on the street, addicted to methamphetamine.

The scenario is all too common, said Laura Garnette, chief probation officer for Santa Clara County. “Kids hit adolescence and something snaps.

“We don’t know why, whether it’s memories or the onset of puberty,” said Garnette, who first studied to be a psychologist. “Something triggers past trauma.”

[SNIP]

Previously, Marco might have fallen into the bureaucratic and philosophical gap between probation and child welfare. Today, he is back in school and in treatment for substance abuse. Though he is still in a group home, he now lives four days a week with his uncle, whose family is getting supportive services.

“Marco will probably be our first graduate,” said Garnette, who sat in on his hearing in January. “Soon, he’ll be out of both systems. He’ll be living full-time with his uncle. That’s our goal.”

[SNIP]

Once a case is labeled “dually involved,” another team convenes — a family meeting, organized by a facilitator who is also a youth advocate.

“They bring in everybody under the sun,” Tondreau said, including parents or foster parents, social workers and probation officers. The group stays on board until a case is decided. The anecdotal evidence is encouraging, he said. “Kids are saying, I really like my team, I’m glad they’re involved in my life.”

A growing body of scientific research shows that the adolescent brain is more malleable and more complex than previously known. The findings have informed progressive legislation: In 2014, taking a cue from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the California Supreme Court acknowledged that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentences.”

The distinction has come into play in Santa Clara.

[SNIP]

Even in the best of circumstances, adolescents are vulnerable to poor judgment while their brains are developing. “You’re not weighing consequences because you don’t have the ability to do it quite yet,” said [Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Patrick] Tondreau, who confessed that he knows this through personal experience.

“Part of the reason for my love of juvenile court is that I was in juvenile delinquency court myself,” he said. “I was a good kid, but I got involved with a couple of guys and we snuck out every night and were going for joy rides. Nobody locked their cars back in 1961. We’d get in the car. We’d drive around. And we’d park it right where we’d found it. We weren’t trying to hurt anybody. Then one night, we hit a telephone pole. Everybody got hurt. Not badly. We were lucky.”

At the time he was an Eagle Scout and on the basketball team of his Jesuit high school in Portland, Ore.

He never forgot the sadness he felt, or how deeply upset his parents were. “The shame that they had, that cured everything. The judge couldn’t have done anything to me,” he said.

“Even as a really good kid, with really good parents, I made some terrible mistakes. Adolescents screw up. It’s what happens.”

Now, as a judge of adolescents, he brings that awareness to the bench.

And so does Santa Clara County.


WHEN A VIOLENT FELONY ISN’T VIOLENT

In federal criminal law, the definition of “violent felony” is an extremely fuzzy one. The LA Times Editorial Board hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court will force Congress into making some needed changes.

Here’s a clip:

Twice recently the Supreme Court has chastised the U.S. Department of Justice for stretching criminal laws beyond their rational application in order to secure a conviction. Beyond their consequences for individual defendants, these decisions sent a welcome message to prosecutors that they must not uproot a statute from its clear context in order to get their man (or woman).

Sometimes, however, prosecutors are aided in their overreach by laws that are so vaguely written that it’s not clear exactly what conduct is being targeted. On Monday, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to one such law, which allowed the government to define illegal possession of a gun as a “violent felony” justifying an extended prison term.

The exceedingly unattractive defendant in this case, Samuel Johnson, is a white supremacist from Minnesota who pleaded guilty in 2012 to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term because he had three prior “violent felonies” on his record. Johnson conceded that two of his previous convictions, for robbery and attempted robbery, were violent felonies. But he disputed the government’s decision to classify a third conviction, for possessing a short-barreled shotgun, as a “violent felony.”

The notion that the mere possession of an illegal firearm is a violent act defies the dictionary and common understanding, and Johnson initially argued — plausibly — that it was not. But Monday’s arguments focused on a broader issue: whether the violent felony provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. The answer is clearly yes.


AND NOW….FREDDY GREY’S VOICE & A NEW DOJ INVESTIGATION

Now there is an other front-and-center death of a young black man in the nation’s vision; that of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would launch a civil rights investigation into Gray’s death in police custody, which is sparking ongoing demonstrations.

Gray, 27, died this past Sunday, April 19, a week after he was chased by Baltimore officers on April 12, when he took off running after exchanging eye-contact with one of the cops. It is not clear why the BPD chased him, other than the fact that he ran. He was found to have a knife on him, which is not necessarily illegal in Baltimore, and which was not known until he was caught and searched. None of the officers who apprehended Gray described any kind of use of force on the man.

And yet…..Gray reportedly died of a complication of a spinal injury that, barring out-of-season lightening strikes or other forces majeures, almost certainly were sustained during his arrest or during his transport in a police van, or possible both, with the van ride worsening a first injury. According to The Baltimore Sun, members of Freddie Gray’s family have said he sustained three fractured vertebrae in his neck and that his larynx was crushed. Since anyone with the slightest amount of first aid training knows that moving a spinal injured person can exacerbate the problem, the van ride, particularly if he travelled without a seatbelt, could have turned a bad situation tragic. The Sun has also reported that officers present in the van said that Gray repeatedly asked for medical attention.

And was Gray spinal-injured in the course of being apprehended by police? A cell-phone video taken by a local observer would certainly suggest so, given the strange limpness of Gray’s legs as he is being dragged to the police van, shouting what appears to be intense pain.

Baltimore officials like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and police Chief Anthony Batts, (formerly of Long Beach PD, followed by Oakland PD) have struck most of the right notes, promising an unusually quick and transparent investigation, and being very careful to humanize Freddy Gray with believable empathy, while not demonizing officers as they do so. The BPD has, however, suspended the six officers most involved.

The BPD investigation is due to be handed over to prosecutors on May 1. Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she will launch an investigation by an independent commission. And now we have the feds.

If you haven’t yet watched the cell-phone video of Mr. Gray’s arrest, you can find it above. It is harrowing. Not so much the look of it. It is the sound of Gray’s voice.

Here, if you’d like to read a little further, is a commentary by The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson that talks mostly about that voice.


Photo of Angel by the excellent Max Whittaker, a freelance photojournalist and founding member of Prime.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Department of Justice, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation, law enforcement, racial justice, Sentencing | No Comments »

After 24 Years, Juvie LWOP Lifer Paroled…2 Supremes Blast US Justice System…Recognizing Good Prosecutors

March 26th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


CONVICTED OF MURDER AT 16, RELEASED 24 YEARS LATER IN ONE OF FIRST SB 9 PAROLES

In 1991, the year that LA’s gang violence was at its most deadly, Janet Bicknell, a 49-year-old teacher’s aide, was driving home from a Westminster supermarket. Five gang members—four of them adults—were looking for a car to jack with the idea of using the car in a drive-by shooting against some “enemy” gangsters and they spotted Bicknell’s car. One of the five, 16-year-old named Edel Gonzalez, a gang member since he was 11 and the only kid of the group, stepped in front of Bicknell’s car then tried to yank open the driver’s side door. When Bicknell attempted to drive away, one of the adult gangsters raised a .44-caliber pistol and shot Bicknell in the head, killing her.

The senseless brutality of the murder shocked Westminster. Although Gonzalez did not himself kill Bicknell, the crime was committed in the course of a robbery, so the other four—including Gonzalez—could legally be tied to it along with the actual shooter. Gonzalez was the first of the group to go to trial and, in 1993, he became the youngest person in Orange County to receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole

Fast forward more than twenty years, to September 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown—after much dithering—signed AB 9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which allows some of those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, to apply for resentencing hearings if they have served 15 to 25 years, and have met certain strict criteria.

So it was that that Gonzalez became the first person in California to apply for resentencing under the new law. In December 2013, Judge Thomas Goethals changed Gonzalez’s sentence from life without to 25 years to life with parole.

Then in 2014, a second law known as Senate Bill 260, went effect requiring parole commissioners to consider the diminished culpability of youth at the time of their crime.

The combination of the two laws, plus Gonzalez exemplary behavior in prison along with his ongoing expressions of responsibility and profound regret about the murder of Bicknell, helped his pro bono lawyers at USC’s Post Conviction Project successfully advocate in his behalf.

On Tuesday of this week, Gonzalez was released from custody.

Back in 2013, Gonzalez told the judge that, if he was released, he hoped to work with kids to help them stay out of gangs. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not reminded of the wrong, the harm and the pain I’ve caused,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who was brought to the US by his parents as a small child, is not a citizen. As a consequence, he will deported to Mexico shortly. He already has plans in place in Tijuana, where he will work at a local church counseling kids about staying out of trouble, in addition to other tasks.

Here’s what Marshall Camp, one of Edel’s earlier lawyers, said about his client to Super Lawyers after his 2013 resentencing. “He lived a model life in prison, avoiding gangs, drugs, and violence, while taking advantage of educational opportunities and finding religion. I can’t imagine how someone could do that with no realistic prospect of ever getting out.”

Merisa Gerber of the Los Angeles Times has more.

In California, about 310 prisoners are serving life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18, said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the corrections department. Nationwide, about 2,500 prisoners are serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, said James D. Ross, spokesman for Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

The California legislation, SB 9 — which comes into effect as Gov. Jerry Brown has been paroling more “lifers,” including adults convicted of murder — shows how the state has “evolved,” said Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch.

“It really shows that California is on the right track,” she said, “that it’s trying to shape its laws with what we know is true: That young people have a capacity to turn around their lives.”

But Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, who helped found the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, said she was concerned about setting violent offenders back into the community.

“If anybody dies because this guy got let out, what are you going to say to those people?” said Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and her husband were killed in 1990 by a 16-year-old in a suburb of Chicago. “I know everyone loves to believe every human being is fixable. I used to believe that — sadly, I know differently now.”

Two landmark court decisions also paved the way for the laws that resulted in Gonzalez’s Tuesday release.

First, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without parole was cruel and unusual. (Superstar civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson argued Miller v. Alabama before SCOTUS.)

Then in May 2014, the California Supreme Court handed down its own ruling to modify California’s sentencing law, with People v. Gutierrez, which affirmed that juveniles are different from adults, and that these differences must be taken into account in sentencing, even in very serious cases.

While it (obviously) had no effect on Gonzalez’ case, it is interesting to note that in Florida, that state’s supreme court ruled last week that juveniles not convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life in prison, and that even those convicted of murder may not be sentenced to life without parole.


TWO SCOTUS JUSTICES SLAM THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM IN CONGRESSIONAL HEARING

In testimony on Monday before a house subcommittee, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Bryer surprised many observers by blasting the U.S. Justice System for, among other things, over incarceration, “terrible” sentencing minimums, and the use of solitary confinement.

Justice Kennedy, the much watched swing voted on the court, was up first, and was asked about the nation’s “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding.” Think Progress’s Jess Bravin has this about what Kennedy said:

“In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. Doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”

Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation.

Kennedy, who seemed to be more voluble in his testimony than Breyer, also slammed the nation’s overuse of incarceration.

“This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” said Kennedy. In many instances, he said, it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation and other supervised release programs.

The whole thing just wasn’t cost effective, Kennedy told the committee, and wasn’t helpful to public safety.

Justice Breyer added that mandatory minimum sentences were “a terrible idea,” and urged Congress to “prioritize” improvements to the criminal-justice system. Breyer has long been an opponent of mandatory minimums, which he says “set back the cause of justice.”


LET’S RECOGNIZE THE MAJORITY OF GOOD PROSECUTORS SAYS INNOCENCE PROJECT LAW SCHOOL PROF

We at WitnessLA are often critical of prosecutorial overreach and misconduct, in which winning seems all important, and seeking justice falls by the wayside.

Yet this Op Ed for Politico by Lara Bazelon—associate clinical professor of law at Loyola Law School and director of the school’s Project for the Innocent—is an important reminder that, like journalists and cops, the majority of prosecutors are doing their damnedest to use their profession to make things better.

Here’s a clip:

….It is a misconception that prosecutors simply take the job to put people behind bars. Yes, there are bad apples, but they are a minority whose misdeeds attract a disproportionate share of media attention. The vast majority of prosecutors go into this line of work to ensure that citizens get justice—and, in a growing number of cases, that means helping to free wrongly convicted felons.

Last year, 125 men and women were released from prison because they were wrongfully convicted, according to a report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That is more than two people per week and a record number of exonerations for a given year. More than half of these cases—or 67— were overturned because of prosecutors like Mark Larson either cooperated or led the charge to set the record straight and ensure that justice was done.

The irony of my writing this essay is not lost on me. Before directing the innocence project at Loyola Law School, I spent seven years working as a deputy federal public defender where my role in the system was to vigorously defend the criminally accused regardless of whether they “did it” or not. My job description emphatically did not include singing the praises of prosecutors. But it is important to do that. We should call out bad prosecutors and punish their misconduct, of course. Just as importantly, we should make sure that honorable prosecutors get the attention and respect they deserve.

Many exonerations receive extensive media coverage, searing into the national consciousness the image of the prisoner’s emotional reaction at the moment of freedom as we learn about the long road from hopeless, unmitigated suffering to sudden and complete redemption.

Afterwards come the recriminations. Prosecutors lied and withheld evidence. Witnesses who claimed to be 100 percent positive were in fact 100 percent wrong, coaxed or coerced into finger-pointing by overzealous police officers. Our system of justice, we are told over and over again, is irretrievably broken.

What receives less discussion is the powerful, positive narrative behind the recent statistics: the story of the good prosecutor. The National Registry of Exonerations records not only the number of exonerations, but their cause.

Posted in Gangs, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, Sentencing | No Comments »

Inmates Write their Own Obits, Community Policing, Ferguson Reports, and #Cut50

March 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

SAN QUENTIN INMATES COMPOSE THEIR OWN OBITUARIES IN WRITING CLASS

In this exceptional multimedia Column One story by the LA Time’s Chris Megerian, San Quentin State Prison inmates share obituaries they’ve written for themselves as part of a writing assignment. The inmates designed their own demise (several chose to die protecting others) and for what they wanted to be remembered.

Here’s a clip, but definitely go over to Megerian’s story and read and watch for yourself:

Since Julian Glenn Padgett arrived in 2006, he’s enrolled in academic classes and played Shylock in a prison production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Even while sitting in a cramped storage closet during a break from his work at the inmate-run newspaper, he spoke with the intensity of an actor on stage. Asked about committing murder, he cited a Walt Whitman poem.

Padgett stabbed and killed a man he believed was a romantic rival. Therefore, his victim cannot “contribute a verse” in “the powerful play” of life.

“I don’t want to be remembered as the man to do that,” he said. Like You, he doesn’t mention his crime in his fictional obituary.

Padgett, a 51-year-old Ethiopian Jew who wears a knit kippa over his dreadlocks, was convicted in 1997 in Sacramento and isn’t eligible for parole until 2023.

His obituary is brimming with passion for outdoor activities that are out of reach.

“Julian loved everything to do with nature,” he writes, “and often took trips with many of his friends on the weekends where they would go camping, horse back riding, snow and water skiing and his favorite mountain climbing.”

Padgett describes an epic death from an earthquake striking the Bay Area. It was the first thing that came to mind, he said.

“Earthquakes are memorable. They’re forces of nature,” he said. “To take me out, it would take something like that.”


THE 21ST CENTURY POLICING REPORT AND COMMUNITY POLICING IN LOS ANGELES

The day after Sunday’s LAPD Skid Row shooting of an unarmed homeless man, the White House released an interim report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (established after the controversial deaths in Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland at the hands of officers). The report lauded the LAPD’s Watts and East LA community policing teams as well as its civilian oversight commission.

However, the shooting highlights how important it is that Los Angeles law enforcement agencies continue working toward better community relations through training, new programs, and policy changes.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

“Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community,” the report states.

The task force was formed in December in response to the national debate on policing after officers in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland killed young African-American men.

In the federal report, the Los Angeles Police department’s community policing teams in Watts and East Los Angeles were highlighted for building on-the-ground relationships with public housing residents. Officers there are assigned to community policing teams for five years and are offered more pay, according to the federal report.

Los Angeles also earned a mention for its civilian oversight board.

But shootings like the one on Skid Row expose the remaining rifts between police and communities.

Criminology professor Elliot Currie of the University of California, Irvine said having multiple policing programs is a good start, but the goal is for police departments to implement relationship-based policing across the board.

“What we want is for these not to be considered as scattered programs that we implement within a police department that’s otherwise unchanged,” Currie said. “But that we slowly shift the whole conception of what a police department is.”

Here is a clip from Los Angele Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s statement to the task force late last month about the challenges the sheriff’s department faces with regard to ensuring better interactions with the mentally ill:

We are…ill equipped to address the challenges of this population in patrol. Patrol personnel lack the requisite mental health training and we have a dearth of Mental Evaluation (or ”MET”) Teams and community supports to help deputies properly handle and deescalate contacts with mentally ill persons. In 2013, nearly 40% of all use of force incidents involved individuals suffering from mental illness and in too many cases we “arrest” our way out of these encounters rather than diverting individuals to the community treatment and care they need.

The strategies that can enable us to change this paradigm exist and are in place in pieces around the nation, but have yet to be brought to scale throughout the country. We need:

1. Resources to support crisis intervention (“CIT”) training so deputies working the streets (as well as within Custody) know how to identify and respond to individuals with mental disorders and, wherever possible, divert entry into the justice system.

2. Support for MET teams where we pair deputies with mental health clinicians and create a comprehensive response to those in crisis. In LA these teams are few and far between – often they operate only during business hours and can be as much as an hour away from a critical incident.

3. Support for community-based resource centers with multidisciplinary treatment in a therapeutic environment that avoids incarceration. These models exist elsewhere and, in the long run, result in improved outcomes as well as fiscal savings.

4. A new paradigm with strategies that focus on alternatives to incarceration – including mental health courts and other diversion strategies.


THE DOJ’S FERGUSON FINDINGS

In an 86-page report released Wednesday, the US Department of Justice cleared Ferguson officer Darren Wilson of “prosecutable [civil rights] violations” in the death of Michael Brown.

A separate DOJ investigation found systemic racial bias and policing-for-profit within Ferguson’s police force and court system. Among other findings in the scathing 100-page report, black residents accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% percent of arrests. The report calls for….

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery have a helpful cliff-notes list of the report’s highlights.

(And here’s a WaPo list of alarming statistics from the report.)


WHAT CUTTING THE US PRISON POPULATION BY 50% WOULD LOOK LIKE

The Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein explores what it would take to fulfill the goal of the #Cut50 movement to reduce the nation’s jail population by 50% within 10 years. That would mean more than a million fewer people would be locked up, through things like changing sentencing laws, bolstering diversion and reentry programs, and split-sentencing.

This figure is not attainable even by giving up the war on drugs and completely eradicating incarceration for non-serious/non-violent/non-sex offenses. Those convicted of violent crimes would have to be part of the population reduction equation.

This has criminal justice reform advocates on both sides of party lines disagreeing about the 50% goal, whether it’s feasible and inline with public safety, and what it would take to get there.

Goldstein’s story includes an interactive section that allows you to move sliders for offender groups and make your own 50%. (Go try it.) Here’s a clip:

Vikrant Reddy, coordinator of the Right on Crime campaign, agreed. “The focus among conservatives is the low-level nonviolent offenders.” As for Cut50, “I just don’t like the name of this organization. The reason is because I see this issue, and most conservatives see this issue, in terms of public safety. If I felt confident the levels of incarceration we have in the United States made us a safer society, I would begrudgingly say, ‘So be it.’”

“I really admire what Cut50 is trying to do, but I am concerned that people are going to misunderstand it,” Reddy added. “The bottom line is not just getting the levels of incarceration down. The end point is that crime rates are still too high.” (Crime is currently at a four-decade low, although rates remain high in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.)

Civil rights activist Van Jones is co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, the organization promoting the “Cut50” tagline. Jones and Gingrich are co-hosting a March 26 conference in Washington, D.C. to bring criminal justice reformers together across party lines. Jones acknowledges that conservatives have not signed onto the Cut50 goal. But he points out that many people convicted of violent crimes have, in fact, not hurt anyone physically, such as offenders picked up for theft or burglary and discovered to have a gun on them.

“We might want to look at whether someone who had a gun but didn’t use it should be considered violent,” Jones said. “People will say that’s gun crime and you can’t talk about them. Well, I think that’s ridiculous.”

That might discomfit some liberals who favor stricter gun controls. Meanwhile, the idea of the home as a castle has been popular on the right, resulting in laws that rank burglary alongside violent bodily assault. So on both sides of the political spectrum there is lingering support for the tough sentences that would have to be reduced in order to cut the prison population by 50 percent.

Jones and other reformers, both progressive and conservative, say it is not yet time to focus on the hot-button question of whether to redefine violent crime. “We’re not heavily leaning into that part of the conversation yet, because there is so much common ground on the nonviolent offenders, the indigent population, and the mental health population. We think we can get some momentum going,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, some scholars point out just how modest — by international and historic standards — a 50 percent reduction in the prison population would be.

“When does mass incarceration become regular incarceration?” asked Michael Jacobson, a former New York City corrections and probation commissioner and director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. To bring the United States to a prison incarceration rate equal to that of European nations — or to our own rate in the early 1970s — we would have to slash our incarceration rate from 623 per every 100,000 adults to about 150 per 100,000. That would be a reduction of approximately 80 percent.

Posted in Jim McDonnell, journalism, LAPD, LASD, mental health, prison, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs, writers and writing | 4 Comments »

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