Monday, November 30, 2015
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Considering Risk of Reoffending, a $4.9M Settlement in Kelly Thomas Case, LA Justice System Portrayed in New Yorker, and New LAUSD Arts Money

November 25th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Jurisdictions across the nation are turning to risk and needs assessment (RNA) information for use during sentencing to determine whether a person can be safely and successfully supervised in the community, rather than locked up in a jail or prison.

Judges (and prisons and parole boards) using RNAinfo look at factors such as prior offenses, marital status, age, sex, education, employment, and sometimes where a person lives.

A new report by the National Center for State Courts’ Center for Sentencing Initiatives looked at initiatives in ten jurisdictions nationwide, including Napa, California, through which RNA information is used during sentencing.

The other jurisdictions were Coconino County, Arizona; Mesa County, Colorado; Bonneville County/7th Judicial District, Idaho; Grant County, Indiana; Douglas County/4th Judicial District, Nebraska; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Yamhill County, Oregon; Travis County, Texas; and La Crosse County, Wisconsin.

The initiatives included treatment programs, evidence-based supervision programs, and partnerships between the court system and probation departments.

The Napa County Probation Department employs risk and needs assessment info to assign offenders to a corresponding tier of supervision based on their risk of reoffending. Low-risk offenders report to their probation officers on a quarterly basis on the phone, and medium-risk cases were given to officers with a caseload of around 100. Thanks to the RNA system, Napa county is handing down lower jail sentences, utilizing more incarceration alternatives like electronic monitoring, and using treatment programs in probation case plans.

In Napa, probation officers also incentivize probation, reinforcing positive actions like going to a job interview, or being to the probation appointment on time with rewards, which include items from “a little basket of goodies.” Since Napa started using RNA information during sentencing, the probation department experienced a decrease in recidivism rates, but it’s still unclear whether the change can be attributed to using the RNA info.

Yamhill County, OR focuses specifically on offenders who would be sent to prison under Oregon’s sentencing guidelines or who are repeat property or drug offenders, but can be safely and successfully supervised in the community.

Travis County, TX has seen a 77% reduction in recidivism rates for low-risk offenders and a 50% reduction in recidivism rates for medium-risk offenders. The county estimates it saved $21.3 million between 2007-2011 by using RNA information during sentencing.

(The report is a companion to this 2011 report.)


On Monday, the city of Fullerton agreed to pay $4.9 million to the father of Kelly Thomas, the homeless schizophrenic man who died after being beaten and shocked multiple times by Fullerton police officers in 2011.

In a security video of police confronting Kelly Thomas, who was suspected of stealing personal items, Thomas can be heard screaming for his father.

Three former Fullerton police officers involved in the fatal beating, Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli and Joseph Wolfe, were fired from the Fullerton Police Department. Ramos and Cicinelli were found not guilty and the charges against Wolfe were dropped.

The settlement is not an admission of legal liability, said Diana Fox, the attorney representing Fullerton.

The OC Register’s Lou Ponsi, Theresa Walker, and Sean Emery have the story. Here’s a clip:

Dana Fox, an attorney for the city of Fullerton, said the $4.9 million settlement is not an admission of legal liability by the city or police.

But Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, disagreed.

“They know they were guilty of murder,” he said during a news conference that included blown-up photos of his son as a child playing with his family and holding up a fish he caught, and the now-familiar photo of an adult Kelly Thomas in a cowboy hat.

“By offering that amount, they feel they are getting off lucky.”

Civil rights lawyers and advocates for the mentally ill said the amount sends a strong message to all police and the public that the lives of the homeless have value.

“You can’t look at these folks on the streets and deal with them in any less a human manner than you would with a regular working Joe,” said Eric Traut, former president of the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, said the amount “sends a message that something really wrong was done here.”

“If the amount was $10,000, that’s a very different message than $4.9 million. Obviously, the city would not have settled for $4.9 million unless they felt there was a substantial risk that they would lose much more before a jury.”

The wrongful death lawsuit named the city, former Fullerton police Officers Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli and Joseph Wolfe, who were all fired from the department. Others included in the suit: Fullerton Officers Kevin Craig and James Blatney, who remain with the department; ex-Chief Michael Sellers; and his predecessor, Patrick McKinley, who sat on the City Council at the time of the incident and was later recalled.

In a criminal trial that ended early last year, Ramos and Cicinelli were found not guilty and charges were dropped against Wolfe.

“These officers are trying to get their jobs back,” said Garo Mardirossian, an attorney for Ron Thomas.

“We wanted to make sure they can’t.”

Kelly Thomas, who was known as a transient in Fullerton and other North County communities, died five days after police tried to take him into custody at the Fullerton Transportation Center for possibly stealing small personal items.

A city security video that surfaced after the incident showed several officers threatening Thomas. Though the video isn’t clear on all that transpired, Thomas was unconscious at the end of the encounter and his injuries included a compressed trachea and broken bones in his face.


In Rachel Kushner’s “Fifty-Seven,” a short story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, a homeless man who is released from an LA County jail with five dollars and nowhere to go quickly finds himself locked back up, this time for killing a woman during a robbery. The story follows the man through the court system, and back into prison, where he stabs a guard and gets himself thrown in solitary confinement indefinitely.

In conversation with The New Yorker‘s Deborah Treisman, Kushner says that “Fifty-Seven” was inspired by her many interviews with men and women in Los Angeles jails and the rest of California’s justice system, whose childhoods involved “extreme situations of poverty and abuse.” Here’s a clip:

The story emerged from what has preoccupied me both as a person and as a writer for the past few years, which is the world of Los Angeles jails and criminal courts and California prisons, and who moves through these structures (needless to say, very poor people and people of color, disproportionately). The character in the story is released with no place to go (as are probably half of the people let out of the county-jail system downtown every day and night). He then commits a crime that puts him in prison for life. I have spent a lot of time listening to people who are serving life sentences and getting to know them and the circumstances of their lives.

I have never met anyone serving a long prison sentence who had anything close to what I could call a childhood; instead, the upbringings always—always—involve extreme situations of poverty and abuse. The second half of the story, when the character is in prison, was influenced by what I’ve observed on prison yards, especially the Level Four maximum-security facilities, like Salinas Valley, which is the prison my character initially goes to. C Yard there is an intense place, a very “active” yard. These yards have specific energies. You can feel it when something is about to take place. And meanwhile these guards, all puffed up in their stab-proof vests (they supposedly get paid extra to wear them), are yelling at you to stay close to the wall, not to talk to groups of people, and so on, as if you were on, say, a safari. But these are people, not lions, and in a way the people I feared most were the guards themselves.


On Monday, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a $1 million in funding for arts education—especially for schools lacking arts education—from the state.

KPCC’s Priska Neely has more on the new (and much-needed) funding. Here’s a clip:

Money went out based on student enrollment and the results of the district’s new Arts Equity Index, which was released this spring. That survey was used to figure out which schools were providing arts education and which weren’t — to help the district determine the greatest need.

“We are bringing more equity and access to the funding and support of schools,” said Rory Pullens, head of the district’s arts education branch, in an interview…

Principals can decide how to spend the money. One school that ranked low on the index, Madison Middle School, received nearly $5,000. “Our school is in desperate need of supplies, so this will go into supplies for art enrichment programs,” said principal Estelle Baptiste in a statement.

Another school is starting a new music program from scratch.

Posted in Sentencing | 10 Comments »

Exploring What’s Next on the Criminal Justice Reform Agenda

November 9th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Juan, once homeless and addicted to heroin, was arrested when he broke into a warehouse. “It was empty, I just needed a place to sleep,” Juan said. The police found drugs on Juan, and charged him for possession, which was prosecuted as a felony. The arrest was not his first and he went to prison on what was originally a multi-year sentence. Juan said that he had been in and out of prison since 1983. “I became a real bad drug addict,” he said. “I burned every bridge in my family.”

After the 2014 passage of California’s Proposition 47, however, Juan was eligible for reduction of his conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor, and he was released earlier this year.

(Prop. 47 is the state initiative that reduced six non-serious felonies to misdemeanors.)

When he got out, Juan received little or no reentry assistance, and was fearful he’d slip back into his addiction. “I knew I needed more help,” he said. He’d heard about a drug rehab center called the Amity Foundation, and managed to snag a spot in their program. “I have a job today,” Juan said, tearing up as he explained that he now works at Ruth Chris Steakhouse in Beverly Hills and has stayed clean since his release from Amity. He has also repaired relationships with family members that he said he lost to his heroin addiction.

“All of the money I used to get went straight to the drugs…but today it goes to Chase,” he said, referring to the JP Morgan Chase Bank. “I have a debit card!” Juan said with a delighted grin. Now his family members ask him for a loan rather than the other way around, Juan said.

Juan told his story to a ballroom full of lawmakers, academics, and criminal justice reform advocates, with a sprinkling of state and local officials, all of whom gathered in LA’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel on Wednesday, November 4, the one-year anniversary of the passage of Prop. 47. The crowd showed up for this all-day “summit” called Smart on Safety to discuss next steps in the world of California’s justice reform.


One of the day’s most talked about panels featured San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen, who are two of only three of the state’s district attorneys (out of 58) who publicly endorsed Prop. 47. The prosecutors talked about their separate paths to the realization that California’s criminal justice system was in need of serious restructuring. Gascon and Rosen each made the point that prosecutors are in a unique position to bring about meaningful reform if they widen their perspectives.

Telling the story of his journey through law enforcement, which included serving as Assistant Chief of the LAPD, and San Francisco Chief of Police, Gascón said that it became “increasingly obvious” to him that “the doors to the prisons and the jails” are controlled by district attorneys. “District attorneys are the ones who decide who gets prosecuted, how they’re going to get prosecuted,” and to a great degree, the length of their sentence. As a result, they also have great power to affect reform, he said.

DA Rosen, who recently traveled to Germany to tour that country’s progressive prison system, told of his own awakening from the punishment-focused mindset, “I began to understand that, first of all, the distinction between crime victim and defendant is often artificial, and many of the defendants we were prosecuting were victimized early in their lives…and that if we did a better job helping people that were victims of crime, we may have fewer defendants in the future.”


In a later panel, Robert Rooks, the organizing director for Californians for Safety and Justice, and the former national criminal justice director for the NAACP, laid out a list of five areas for justice reform in the state that he felt were the most important for the gathered crowd to consider. In that CSJ is the non-profit that was the main organizer behind the passage of Prop 47, audience members listened carefully.

Rooks’ five-point “blueprint for reform” contained the following:

1. “We believe that we must get Smart on Jails,” he said. “We have too many people that are stuck [in jail] because of the cash bond system.” He also said he was inspired by a new pilot program in seattle called LEAD—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion—in which cops participate in referrals to community programs, pre-booking.

2. “We also need to be Smart on Sentencing,” he said. For example, “we have thousands people incarcerated today on a non-serious second strike offense…. ”

3. Next on Rooks’ list was Smart on Youth and Adult Sentences. “Prop 21 has been talked about a number of times today,” he said, referring to the California ballot initiative passed in 2000 that increased a variety of criminal penalties for crimes committed by youth, and made it far easier to transfer young law-breakers into the adult criminal justice system. “It’s so past time to stop having babies as young as 14 being tried as adults. So it’s time to go to the ballot to overturn prop 21.”

4. “Smart on Reentry” was next up. If reentry is done right, he said, and some of the present barriers to success are removed that prevent the formerly incarcerated from succeeding, public safety is greatly enhanced, “And it builds trust back in the system.”

5. Last Rooks pointed to Smart on Safety, which he said meant Investing “in programs to help people”—trauma recovery centers, mental health treatment programs, more funding for schools. “We have a billion dollars still locked up in the criminal justice system. We need to get that money out and invest it in programs in the community.”


Among the day’s the most persuasive voices calling for criminal justice reform was former film producer Scott Budnick, best known for producing the Hangover movie franchise, who left Hollywood behind to found the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC).

Budnick was instrumental in pushing for the 2013 passage of California’s SB 260, a law that gave a second chance at parole to kids who were convicted of murder before the age of 18 and sentenced to life-without-parole. He also was a prime mover behind SB 261, which built on 260, expanding parole eligibility to age 23, and was signed into law this year.

When questioned by panel moderator, Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, CA, Budnick said he thought it was the personal testimony of those locked up for youthful crimes that was, to a great degree, responsible for the surprising passage of SB 261.

“It was the stories of the people going into legislature, saying ‘This is who I was when I was 14. This is who I was when I was 20. I made the worst mistake of my life. I got locked up… The system didn’t change my life… I chose to change my life, and now I’m out, and this is what I’m doing.’ And no matter if we were sitting with democrats, moderate democrats, or republicans, those stories blew their minds. And that was the game changer.”

Budnick talked about when he got his own mind blown at California State Prison at Pelican Bay, where he and a small cadre of advocates and attorneys held a seminar with people who had been convicted as juveniles, who were now locked in solitary confinement, but who could qualify for parole consideration under 260 and 261.

One of the encounters Budnick had was with a man who was about 60 years old. “I can’t get it out of my memory,” said Budnick. The man had been incarcerated for around 40 years for a teenage crime. Thirty of those years had been spent in isolation. “And when we told him about SB 260, he started weeping….knowing that he had the ability to now come home,” Budnick continued. Because the man was still solitary, Budnick could not talk to him face-to-face. Instead “he stuck his little finger through the hole in the cage and he shook my finger and said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever touched in 30 years.’”

Among the reform targets that Budnick wants to focus on next, he said, are the sentencing “enhancements” now on the books in California that can turn a relatively short sentence into one of multiple decades for young people, particularly if that young person can be labeled a gang member.

Panel member, Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights attorney for Human Rights Watch, agreed and listed additional justice issues affecting kids that she has in her radar. Front and center for Calvin is the matter of solitary confinement for juveniles, and the process of deciding whether or not a young person will be tried as adult, a decision she noted was once was in the hands of judges, that now, she said, was determined by prosecutors “about 70 percent” of the time.

In order to share some of the compelling justice stories he and fellow activists have witnessed, Budnick announced that he was working to raise $300 million to launch a new social justice-focused film company. The mission, Budnick said, was solely “to tell the right stories, and change the narrative.”


Philanthropic foundations, from the California Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Rosenberg Foundation, and the California Wellness Foundation, are all significant players in the state’s justice reform movement, and each of those foundations had representatives at the summit who talked about why their organizations were so committed.

For instance, Dr. Gail Christopher, who is the vice president and senior advisor at the WK Kellogg Foundation, talked about race and incarceration, arguing that that if we as a nation don’t own up to that “absurd notion,” of a “hierarchy of human value” which leads to “disparities in education…healthcare access, residential segregation, lack of affordable housing,” a large percentage of the next generation will find themselves behind bars, too.

Building on Dr. Christopher’s points, Dr. Robert K. Ross, President of the California Endowment said that justice reform work is “uncomfortable for many of our colleagues in the [philanthropy] field… because it forces us to confront issues of race and power.”

Foundations are much more comfortable funding research,” Dr. Ross said. “Getting the data out, and trusting that little elves will take those papers and turn them into really good public policies,” he continued.

Ross said that only within the last five years has the Endowment, a private foundation traditionally advocating for health access and equity in communities state-wide, focused on criminal justice reform as a health issue.

“We had our view of what a healthy community looked like. We had our data, and our slides, and our charts,” said Ross. “And then, the community told us what their definition of a healthy community was. Included in their definition…was the disruption and the dismantling of the prison pipeline. We could not escape that conversation anywhere we went.

As the day came to a close (following a bunch of discussions between heavy-hitter panelists about issues like the connection between community health care and public safety, and racial bias in policing, and arts in reentry and rehabilitation), civil rights attorney Van Jones praised California activists for helping to trigger the beginnings of bi-partisan reform on a national level. “The leadership in this room is changing the country,” Jones said. And still, miles remain on the road to equality in the criminal justice system.

Posted in Sentencing | No Comments »

Stanford Report Looks at Prop 47 Data, LA Sheriff Records Videos About Prop 47, SF Has a New Sheriff…and More

November 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


California’s release of thousands of prisoners through 2014′s Proposition 47 has not led to an increase in crime, according to a controversial Stanford report released this week.

In the year since the implementation of Prop. 47, which reduced six low-level felonies to misdemeanors, only 5% of the nearly 4,500 released early from jails and prisons have returned to lock-up. Pre-Prop. 47, 42% of state inmates went back to prison within a year of their release. It’s still too soon to calculate the full impact of the proposition on crime rates. And while the recidivism data recorded by the state prior to Prop. 47 is limited, the Stanford study suggests that the unusually low recidivism rate among Prop. 47ers indicates that higher crime rates in California should not be attributed to the 2014 law.

Since last November, there are 13,000 fewer inmates in CA prisons and jails. That number is significant because it means that fewer inmates have to be released early due to overcrowding. The study found that because of Prop. 47, counties reduced those early releases by 35%.

Stanford researchers estimated the state and counties will save a combined $300 million annually, from which $150 million will be earmarked for mental health and substance abuse treatment, efforts to reduce truancy in public schools, and services for crime victims.

In an interview on the blog, Stanford Lawyer , the report’s author, Justice Advocacy Project’s director, Michael Romano, discusses his findings, the ways he says Prop. 47 has been successful, as well as criticism of the law. Here are some clips:

News about rising crime rates has been getting a lot of attention lately. Is that the case in California—is crime going up here?

Romano: LA is reporting a rise in crime; other counties are reporting a decrease in crime. But there’s no state-wide crime data available yet. There is no evidence connecting Proposition 47 with crime rates. However, as I said, the data really isn’t in yet.

Where is that coming from?

Romano: I think the LA police department, which is obviously the biggest and most important in the state. I don’t doubt that their data is correct, but data provided by other counties and other police departments shows that crime in those counties is going down. Now, how each county reports crime and what they each consider to be property crime, versus violent crime, it’s all different, county to county, so it’s very difficult to say apples to apples.

Is there a correlation between a rise in crime, if there really is one, and Proposition 47?

Romano: There is no evidence that there’s a correlation. The correlation that is suggested by some law enforcement officials, frankly, does not square with the available data and, certainly, the data that has been released by state agencies—including the Department of Corrections, which indicates that those who’ve been released early under Proposition 47 are not responsible for the crimes being reported.

There have been several op-eds in the LA Times about Proposition 47, some critical of it. Marc Debbaudt, president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, said in one that criminal history is no longer taken into account for sentencing since passage of Proposition 47, even a history of serious crime, such as armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, which is contrary to what I’ve read about Proposition 47. Is he just wrong about that?

Romano: No. He’s right in that if you were convicted of an assault in the past and sentenced and served your time and then released, you start with a clean slate. If you commit a drug crime, then you are sentenced for that new drug crime. The punishment for that new crime has reduced from a presumptive sentence of 18 months to a presumptive sentence of one year.


Romano: There has been a lot of misinformation spread about Proposition 47 and I hope that this report helps paint a realistic picture based on real data.

The initiative was supported by key law enforcement individuals including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and William Lansdowne, former San Diego police chief. And Derek Byers, President of the California Public Defender’s Association, has voiced optimism about the data highlighted in your report.

Romano: Overwhelmingly, the people who have spoken up against Proposition 47 are folks in law enforcement who opposed it in the first place, who are now apparently seeing some rise in crime in their jurisdiction and, rather than looking to their own policies or other outside trends, are blaming concerns about public safety on Proposition 47, without any empirical data to support those claims.


Continuing the LA Times’ editorial series on Prop. 47, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell recorded a series of videos of his take on Prop. 47 and its effects a year after its implementation. Sheriff McDonnell says that the law has removed consequences beyond citations for certain offenses, and has made Californians less safe than they were a year ago.

For a successful Prop. 47, Sheriff McDonnell says, “we should have front-loaded the treatment portion with funding from the state.” Because substance abuse and mental health diversion courts were set up to serve people facing felonies with longer sentences, participation in these alternative courts is down 60% in Los Angeles. (In a separate op-ed for the Times, Superior Court Judge Stephen V. Manley, who founded Santa Clara County’s mental health and drug courts, said that for the courts to survive, they can and must evolve.)

McDonnell discusses the department’s use of risk assessment and triage with regard to jail overcrowding and which offenders stay locked up and which are released early. The sheriff also says he believes that a climate of mistrust and scrutiny of law enforcement across the nation may be responsible for rising crime, by making officers afraid to be proactive.

Go watch the sheriff’s video messages.

The Times had two more recent additions to the Prop. 47 series.

As the nation turns its attention to the 6,000 federal prisoners granted early release, a Times editorial says the most crucial thing for those 6,000 and the thousands released from California’s prisons and jails is reentry: substance abuse and mental health services, housing, employment and other services that are often underdeveloped and underfunded.

The editorial makes the case that while official Prop. 47 funds will not be available to use for reentry services until next year, there’s still untapped savings (from the reduction in felony prosecutions) that the state and local municipalities could put to work right now to beef up support for people exiting lock-up. Here’s a clip:

Prisoners come home every day. About 9,000 California inmates completed their sentences and returned home each month during the worst of the state’s prison crowding crisis. Their prospects for staying on the straight-and-narrow were not great because in-prison treatment and rehabilitation programs were too few to meet the need, and because the prisons were (according to federal judges) “criminogenic” — meaning the environment made it more likely that inmates who returned to their neighborhoods would return to crime. Yet as large numbers left prison, crime rates kept falling. Offenders were reabsorbed into society in fairly large numbers without touching off crime waves.

Those releases, however, have been accompanied by increases in the number of people living in misery on the streets who suffer from mental illness and drug addiction. It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see the connection. The problem of draconian punishments for nonviolent acts such as drug possession is being addressed in large part by the resentencing and release of prisoners. But prisoners coming home without drug or mental health treatment, without jobs, without housing and without reentry counseling and support — this is a different problem and is a long way from resolution. When inmates were being released at a steady pace of 9,000 or 10,000 a month, society’s failure to offer assistance could be conveniently ignored. That will be harder to do as sentences are shortened and the number of prisoners coming home becomes larger.

In a third entry in the Times series,
the editorial board urges legislators to eliminate the three-year deadline for people with old felony convictions to take advantage of Prop. 47, in part because so many of those eligible are still unaware of the opportunity. Here’s a clip:

…old felony records still keep most of those people from fully taking their places in society, even if they have lived crime-free for decades.

Should that matter to the rest of us? It should. It’s a basic American value that people who have done their time ought to be able to return to society with their rights and opportunities restored, especially when the crime in question was neither violent nor serious. The crimes are still crimes, and the rap sheets won’t disappear, but the records should be updated to reflect the fact that the offenses are now misdemeanors, not felonies.

Many people with felony records remain legally marginalized, unable to get good-paying jobs, inadmissible to many schools and virtually ineligible to care for foster children or even their own kids. All told, according to some studies, they are burdened by more than 4,000 restrictions that don’t apply to people with only misdemeanor records. It’s in the interest of all Californians to ensure that as many former offenders as possible can transition from incarceration to responsible positions in society as parents, breadwinners and members of their communities.


Ross Mirkarimi lost his re-election bid for San Francisco Sheriff on Tuesday to Vicki Hennessy.

Hennessy, who won by a landslide, says she wants to repair the department’s relations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, choosing on a “case by case” basis” when to notify ICE that an undocumented inmate is about to be released.

The new sheriff’s stance does not seem to fully line up with San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” status, which the SF Supervisors reaffirmed in October, despite criticism, after an undocumented man, whom ICE had wanted for deportation, shot and killed a woman on the pier.

Hennessy says she will also take a serious look at Mirkarimi’s recent decision to house transgender inmates according to their gender identities.

The NY Times’ Laura Holson has the story. Here’s a clip:

Ms. Hennessy will succeed Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, whose four-year term was marked by personal scandals, confrontations with Mayor Edwin M. Lee, and — perhaps most dramatically — the release of an illegal immigrant in his jail who had several felonies.

The felon he released, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had been deported to Mexico five times and, after winning freedom here, proceeded to shoot a tourist named Kathryn Steinle to death on a pier on the Embarcadero waterfront. The issue prompted San Francisco to re-examine — and reaffirm — its commitment to being a sanctuary city, one that shields immigrants from deportation.

Ms. Hennessy, who was backed by the mayor, said she would take a more inclusive approach in working with federal immigration officials, reviewing on a “case-by-case basis” whether to notify them when an unauthorized immigrant with a criminal record was due for release.

Ms. Hennessy said she did not have a political agenda but wanted to bring a sense of calm back to the Sheriff’s Department; many of Mr. Mirkarimi’s deputies had campaigned for her and against him. She takes office in January.

“I was an executive and manager for 25 years,” she said. “We are going to agree to disagree, but we will get things done together.”

Posted in Sentencing | 6 Comments »

Did California Voters Go Wrong With Prop 47?

October 26th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

When Proposition 47 passed nearly a year ago, last November,
it did so by a healthy 17-percent margin, with more than 58 percent of those casting ballots in California voting YES for The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, despite vehement opposition from the law enforcement lobby.

So were the state’s voters crazy to have voted as they did?

Certainly since Prop. 47 passed, there has been story after story in media outlets up and down the state in which officials claim that the measure is responsible for worrisome spikes in crime that compromise public safety, and that the new law also makes it nearly impossible for drug addicts now to receive court ordered treatment, among other deleterious effects.

So what is true?

This week the LA Times Editorial Board has decided to look into the claims and counterclaims, using its Opinion Page as the forum for what it hopes will be an honest and clear-eyed discussion.

We at WitnessLA applaud the Times’ refreshing move.

On Sunday, editorial board member Robert Greene kicks off the conversation by taking a hard and very welcome look at some of the actual facts of the matter.

Here’s how Greene’s Op Ed opens:

Police and prosecutors have lately attempted to link increases in crime to last year’s Proposition 47. Based on their overwrought statements, it would be understandable for Californians to start wondering whether they had been duped into completely decriminalizing drug possession and petty theft. They could be forgiven for asking whether it’s really the case that their law enforcement officers can no longer arrest thieves for stealing guns or breaking into cars, or have no option but to write tickets while watching all manner of mayhem unfold before them. They might hear that addicts have lost any incentive to choose drug treatment or to show up for court hearings.

None of those things are true, although officials in many communities throughout California appear to sincerely, although mistakenly, believe them. As is the case with all large bureaucracies, it is difficult for courts and for city and county agencies — police departments, sheriff’s departments, district attorneys, probation officers, county supervisors — to understand and constructively respond to changed circumstances. And Proposition 47 no doubt brought change, by converting six felonies to misdemeanors and allowing many people serving sentences for those crimes, and those who served their time long ago, to be resentenced and have their rap sheets adjusted.

We’d probably be better off if the various links in the public safety chain had opted to temporarily stick with their old practices following last November’s vote: if police kept arresting people for crimes reclassified as misdemeanors, and transporting suspects to jail and to court for arraignment, for example; and if prosecutors considered the circumstances (Is this the defendant’s first arrest for drug possession? The eighth?) and occasionally opted to seek the full sentence (up to a year behind bars); and if courts offered diversion or rehabilitation as an alternative — all of which not only remain available, despite assertions to the contrary, but absolutely must be used, selectively, if Proposition 47 is to work properly. They could have spent the last year examining their options and carefully and deliberately adjusting their practices so as to bring the maximum amount of public safety to the communities they patrol.

There’s lots more. So read on.

Posted in Sentencing | 5 Comments »

On Sunday in Exposition Park, Crowds of LA Residents Look to Prop 47 for Help

September 28th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


On Sunday at Exposition Park, more than a thousand people, in many cases whole families, showed up for an outing billed as The Proposition 47 Record Change and Resources Fair.

As the title suggests, the event was designed to offer legal help and guidance to at least some of the potentially tens of thousands of LA residents who could potentially benefit from Prop. 47, the state law passed by California voters last year, which changed a cluster of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

The law is also retroactive, which means that those who have previously been convicted of the felonies that Prop. 47 addresses–-namely simple drug possession, petty theft under $950, shoplifting under $950, forgery under $950, receipt of stolen property under $950, and writing a bad check under $950–may be eligible to have those convictions reduced to misdemeanors. Since having a felony on one’s record is a barrier to getting jobs, housing, school loans, and more, the conviction reduction that Prop. 47 potentially provides can be life altering.

But, actually getting through the bureaucratic process necessary to get one’s record changed, while not entirely impossible to do on one’s own, in most cases requires at least some help from an attorney—an expense that those who could most benefit from the charge reduction, cannot easily afford.

Hence Sunday’s fair.

The event was sponsored by Californians for Safety and Justice, along with the The California Endowment, Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office, and various legal firms offering pro bono time, plus other community organizations such as Homeboy Industries, the Violence Prevention Coalition and more.

All those who believed they were eligible for a charge reduction were urged to bring the latest copy of their RAP sheet to the fair and then to line up outside a large tent labeled Record Change Pavilion. Inside the tent, dozens of volunteer attorneys sat at rows of portable tables, ready to provide free legal help with the record change process.

All day the tables were packed with hopefuls talking to the attorney volunteers, with still more standing in line outside the Record Change Pavilion, waiting their turn.

The wait was made easier by performances by musicians, including Grammy-nominated Aloe Blacc, with his hit, “the Man,” plus the appearance of several political figures including LA City Council member Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who showed up in the afternoon to address the crowds.

When the event wound down just after 5 pm, pro bono attorneys and other volunteers were visibly giddy at the number of people who had come to ask for—and had actually received—help in navigating their way through the change that the new law promised.

“Despite the heat and what can be a frustrating process, many of the applicants commented on how much they appreciated the volunteers spending their day at the fair to help them get a new start,” said Sandra Fluke, who was one of the volunteer lawyers, in an email to me Sunday evening. “Personally, I found it very gratifying to be partnering with so many colleagues and applicants working together to make the potential of Prop 47 a reality throughout California.”


Prop. 47 has also drawn a flood of criticism this summer after city and county officials announced that crime is up over this same time last year, particularly within city boundaries. In LA City, for example, although homicide was down by 6.7 percent, robbery was up, 16.6 percent, burglary up 15.8 percent, with aggravated assault up even higher at a startling 26.3 percent.

Officials admit that the jump in ag assaults may be caused, at least in part, by the fact that the LAPD is now classifying those crimes correctly, after the LA Times discovered last year that the department had misclassified a slew of violent crimes as misdemeanors.

The point was somewhat supported by the fact that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has reported a much smaller crime uptick during the same period with a 3.39 percent increase in violent crime and a 6.9 percent increase in property crime.

But while many officials point to the new law as the culprit behind the crime spike, researchers are less convinced—particularly since big cities elsewhere in the nation are experiencing similar spikes—without benefit of either Prop. 47 or realignment’s AB 106.

For instance, Peter Moskos, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told Kate Mathers and Ben Poston of the LA Times that it was too soon to say whether Proposition 47 was behind the increase in property crimes.

Well known UC Berkeley criminologist, Barry Krisberg, went further. In a conversation with Sam Levin of the East Bay Express, Krisberg argued that due to the fact that Prop 47′s very recent implementation, police departments simply don’t have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions about how the new law correlates to crime patterns.

Advocates point out that it is also too early to see the affect of the potential millions of dollars in financial savings that are expected to accrue from Prop. 47, money that is supposed to be use for, among other things, recidivism prevention. Most of the Prop. 47 money—namely 65 percent—will be controlled by the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which will in turn, dole out grants to public agencies around the state, which are expected to use the cash for programs providing mental health and substance abuse treatment for people involved in the justice system.

Watchdogging the paths taken by that money—to make sure it goes were it is intended—will, of course, be crucial.


In the meantime, on Sunday, the everyday impact of the law on individual lives was demonstrated by the ordinary men and women who lined up outside the Record Change Pavilion tent, hoping to get advice on how to get qualifying felonies off their records and, with any luck, their lives changed in the process.

“I just had a couple of misdemeanors I was hoping I could get expunged,” said 40-year-old Andrea Quinn, who works as a treatment counselor at Fred Brown Recovery Center and, together with her fiancé, attended the fair on Sunday. “I got advice on that. But my fiancé was convicted of felony possession a couple of years back,” she continued, “and so he was eligible for the Prop 47 reduction, which he got about a month ago.”

And so has it made a difference?

“A really big difference,” Quinn said. “He’s looking for a job right now. Before, he’d fill out applications and…you know….nothing, even though he’s really smart and has great experience. Now I see the phone ringing, and he’s getting calls to come in for interviews.” Quinn paused. “And it’s all because now he doesn’t have to check that box.”

Posted in Sentencing | 1 Comment »

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

July 28th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


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.


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.


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


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.


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.”


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.”


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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 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 »

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