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Help for San Diego’s Jailed Vets, Prop 36 Outcomes, and SCOTUS Lets Alabama Continue Controversial “Judicial Override”

November 19th, 2013 by Taylor Walker

A SAN DIEGO JAIL’S ENCOURAGING NEW PROGRAM FOR VETERANS

San Diego County’s Vista Detention Facility has a separate wing (called the N-Module-3) for veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. The N-Module-3 program “Veterans Moving Forward” offers the incarcerated vets—often wrestling with any combination of PTSD, substance abuse, and other issues—a chance to deal with the the struggles of life after active duty that helped put them behind bars, through daily classes, and by being in the company of other veterans.

The LA Times’ Tony Perry has the story. Here’s a clip:

Thirty-two veterans serving sentences or awaiting trial have volunteered to live in the module separate from the other prisoners and participate in classes meant to increase their chances of making a law-abiding return to civilian life.

“We’re all dedicated to making this work, nobody wants to go back,” said Jeremy Thomas, 22, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan and lost his left hand when a roadside bomb exploded.

Each of the veterans has agreed to take classes Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to assist with problems of post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management, substance abuse, parenting and other issues.

“We hope that by putting them together we can rekindle that esprit de corps they had when they were serving their country,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs the jails. “It’s a great population to work with.”

The program was spurred both by a sense of obligation toward the veterans and also an increased need to reduce recidivism to accommodate the state’s prison realignment program that threatens to overwhelm the capacity of local jails.

“We’ve got to do things differently,” Gore said.

Angela Simoneau, a social worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego, said she and others participating in the program will be watching for numbers to support expanding the program to other local jails. “Data is on everyone’s mind,” she said.

And here’s a snip of what’s being done for incarcerated vets in LA County and the California prison system:

The California prison system does not house veterans separately from other prisoners but does encourage formation of veterans-only discussion groups at its 34 institutions, a spokesman said. VA “reentry specialists” regularly meet with prisoners on the verge of being released to tell them of benefits and therapy programs.

In Los Angeles County, where the Sheriff’s Department runs the largest jail system in the country, 291 prisoners are housed in veteran-only dorms where they participate in programs including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and classes in art, computers and relationship counseling.

The most recent national data is, unfortunately, almost ten years old (and doesn’t offer county jail statistics): a 2004 DOJ report revealed that one in ten federal and state prisoners had prior military service. Programming for these locked up veterans is a good step toward reducing recidivism in California’s overcrowded facilities and an important tool to help vets successfully return to civilian life.


FORMER 3RD-STRIKERS: A YEAR INTO PROP 36′S REFORMS

Since California’s three-strikes reform legislation passage about a year ago, over 1,000 people have been resentenced and subsequently freed.

KQED’s Michael Montgomery kept in touch with three men released under the measure. In this California Report story, Montgomery says Prop 36′s results are generally good so far, but many of the former third-strikers have served so much time, they are not put under county or state supervision, and often miss out on crucial reentry programs.

Here are some clips (but you should also listen to the podcast):

Convicted of stealing two car alarms from a Walgreens store, Richard Brown spent 18 years in prison under California’s notorious Three Strikes law. Then, quite suddenly, he was standing outside the gates of San Quentin earlier this year, a free man.

“They told me to get off the property,” he says. “I asked if there was a phone booth or something. They said no.”

For Robert Watts, who served 13 years for receiving stolen property, getting out of prison involved an emotional legal tangle with local prosecutors who insisted he was an unredeemed career criminal and should remain behind bars.

“It was unpleasant,” he says. “But at least it’s over.”

For both men, freedom came as the result of Proposition 36, the ballot initiative approved last year by voters in every county in California.

The measure changed the 1994 law that had allowed judges to impose life sentences for low-level felonies such as petty theft and drug possession. The new law focuses on serious and violent crimes. It’s also retroactive, allowing current inmates whose third strike was non-violent and non-serious to petition the courts for resentencing and possible release.

Opponents of the measure have argued that the original Three Strikes law worked well and contributed to a dramatic fall in violent crime over the past two decades. Granting some inmates early release, they said, would lead to a spike in crime…

But so far, Prop. 36 does not appear to be endangering public safety, according to a recent report by Stanford Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Citing state data, the report concluded that of the more than 1,000 inmates released from prison under the measure, fewer than 2 percent have been charged with new crimes. By comparison, the average recidivism rate over a similar time period for non-Prop. 36 inmates is 16 percent.

[SNIP]

Several former three strikers say their challenge has been coping with life on the streets without the structure of prison and support normally provided to newly released felons.

Most three strikers who qualify for release have served so much extra time they’re not placed on parole or probation. Often that means that don’t have access to substance abuse, mental health and other re-entry programs as well as housing.

“They give you $200 and kick you out, and they don’t give you any type of papers to indicate that you can go down to this program or (that) program,” said Brown. He considers himself lucky to have a job, home and support network.

“For many people coming out, it’s a nightmare,” he said.


SCOTUS DISMISSES CASE CHALLENGING ALABAMA JUDGES’ ABILITY TO OVERTURN JURY DEATH PENALTY DECISIONS

On Monday, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case of an Alabama man who was sentenced to life in prison by a jury, only to have it overridden by the trial judge who then sentenced him to death. (Alabama is one of only three states that allows judges to reverse a jury’s decision in death penalty cases.)

Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented.

The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen says the court should have heard the case (Woodward v. Alabama) and ceased the state’s use of “judicial override.” Here are some clips:

If (as Alabama has done) you give judges the power to override jury verdicts in capital cases, and if (as Alabama also has done) you then make those judges accountable to public opinion by having judicial campaigns and elections, you are going to end up (as they have in Alabama) with judges who disproportionately feel it is in their self-interest to sentence people to death even when a jury has recommended a sentence of life.

Citing the trenchant work done in this area by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, Justice Sotomayor wrote that such a scenario must be unconstitutional…

One Alabama judge, who has overridden jury verdicts to impose the death penalty on six occasions, campaigned by running several advertisements voicing his support for capital punishment. One of these ads boasted that he had “‘presided over more than 9,000 cases, includ­ing some of the most heinous murder trials in our history,’” and expressly named some of the defendants whom he had sentenced to death, in at least one case over a jury’s contrary judgment…

By permitting a single trial judge’s view to displace that of a jury representing a cross-section of the community, Alabama’s sentencing scheme has led to curious and potentially arbitrary outcomes. For example, Alabama judges frequently override jury life-without-parole verdicts even in cases where the jury was unanimous in that ver­dict.In many cases, judges have done so without offering a meaningful explanation for the decision to disregard the jury’s verdict. In sentencing a defendant with an IQ of 65, for example, one judge concluded that “‘[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests.’”

Another judge, who was facing reelection at the time he sentenced a 19-year-old defend­ant, refused to consider certain mitigating circumstances found by the jury, which had voted to recommend a life­ without-parole sentence. He explained his sensitivity to public perception as follows: “‘If I had not imposed the death sentence I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.” (citations omitted by me).

(There’s more. Read on…)



Photo taken from the San Diego Sheriff’s website.

Posted in Death Penalty, PTSD, Reentry, Sentencing, Supreme Court, Veterans | 2 Comments »

Central CA School Replaces Zero-Tolerance With Restorative Justice…VA Group Aids Homeless Female Vets…Baca & Yor Health…and More

October 1st, 2013 by Taylor Walker

LE GRAND HIGH SCHOOL’S “RESTORATIVE JUSTICE LEAGUE” ANNIHILATES ZERO-TOLERANCE PRACTICES

In her blog, ACEs Too High, journalist/child advocate, Jane Stevens brings to our attention a little high school in Le Grand (a rural town in Central California) that has eradicated zero-tolerance school discipline and replaced it with restorative justice practices to great success. The program, funded by the California Endowment, began as a group of twelve seniors, self-titled the “Restorative Justice League” acting as peer-mediators. Now, in it’s third year, the program has expanded and become a meaningful example for other California schools. Last year, suspensions were down 70% from two years prior, and expulsions dropped from six to just one.

Here are some clips from Stevens’ story:

At Le Grand High School, all 487 students are given a tablet computer for the year. They’re free to use cell phones (appropriately). One-third of the students participate in after-school programs, including martial arts and cooking. Where there used to be regular gang brawls, only two fights have occurred over the last two years. Half of last year’s graduates attend college.

The school, which also draws students from the nearby communities of Planada and Plainsburg, isn’t wealthy. In fact, the high school is 100% “free and reduced” — education-speak for the fact that students come from farm families (workers and owners) that live just above, at, or below poverty level. But [Principal Javier] Martinez is a grant-writing machine. Over the last five years, he’s brought nearly $2 million to the school to support technology and programs for the students and their parents, including a restorative justice program.

At the core of this restorative justice program is the Restorative Justice League. Starting off as a dozen students flailing uncomfortably with their mission, they evolved into a tight-knit band that jumped in to help resolve a major school crisis. In doing so, they became the tipping point in the school’s decision to jettison its zero tolerance policy, and replace it with a supportive approach to school discipline.

[SNIP]

They trained to become peer mediators by role-playing made-up conflicts, and by discussing the confrontations they saw at school and developing strategies to intervene appropriately. Then Griggs gave them assignments, such as talking with a student they had never spoken to. Each took a different approach. For example, Briana Biagi talked with a fellow student at a college entrance exam, while Yuhuen Ceja texted to as many of the students as she could: “Who wants to be my friend?” “That got a lot of people talking to me,” she said.

[SNIP]

By June, the Restorative Justice League students have trained 50 juniors, sophomores and freshman to be mentors for the 2013-2014 school year’s incoming freshmen. They hosted a restorative justice conference for students from surrounding school districts. And, they have seven interventions under their belts.

Their first intervention was for a fellow senior, a gang member who got into a fight and broke his hand. At an intervention panel, the Restorative Justice League members listen to students who have committed an offense that would normally result in suspension or expulsion, offer ideas for restitution, and, if the students agree, follow up to make sure they carry through. In the case of this gang member, they asked him to write a formal apology, to clean up after all school dances, and to become involved in something positive after school. The process uncorked his creativity and changed his life. He founded the Modeling Club – a fashion club that attracted 20 student members who learned how to do photography and magazine shoots, and put on modeling events for the school. He’s now attending Merced College.

(The above demonstration video was made by the student members of the Restorative Justice League for their fellow students.)


VETERAN’S GROUP PROVIDES MUCH-NEEDED HELP TO LA’S HOMELESS VET WOMEN

A Los Angeles VA outreach team led by chief of community care, Michelle Wilde, has prioritized finding and aiding LA’s homeless female veterans. The team combs through areas with dense homeless populations and reaches out to women whom, Wilde says, often don’t seek help because they don’t fit the “stereotype of a man coming back from war.” Through HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), women are provided housing vouchers and helped to find homes, support, and treatment when needed.

LA Daily News’ Susan Abram has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans,” said Michelle Wilde, chief of community care at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

“They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war,” Wilde added.

Wilde’s department was the first in the nation to organize an outreach team specifically to find and help homeless women veterans, whether they served tours overseas or stayed stateside, in times of war or in peace.

The team formed right on time, especially in Los Angeles County, when the number of homeless women veterans rose 51 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. That meant there were nearly 1,000 homeless women veterans living in cars, converted garages, and elsewhere across the region.

[SNIP]

With some federal funds from the Obama administration’s “Opening Doors” initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wilde’s a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.

[SNIP]

Like men, women veterans also may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, some because of sexual assault. They may return home and find that family support has vanished. Or they may have returned to jobs that no exist.

But the outreach team’s efforts have helped. Of the 3,000 homeless veterans placed in homes, 10 percent were women. And the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles County also has shown an overall drop, from 8,131 in 2011 to 6,248 this year according to the latest figures. Among women, the stats have fallen from 909 in 2011, to 352 this year.


BEFORE ABC7 AIRS BACA PITCHMAN STORY, HIS ENDORSEMENT VIDEOS MAGICALLY VANISH

ABC7 aired a segment Monday night on Sheriff Lee Baca’s involvement as a pitchman for the company Yor Health. (Which we previewed here.)

Here’s a clip from the segment:

“Hi, I’m Lee Baca and I’m the Sheriff of Los Angeles County and I’m going to live to be 100 years old and beyond,” Baca says in a video. “You still need some nutritional support.”

Does this look like a commercial to you? The pitchman might make you do a double-take.

“The advice I give my friends who are trying to take full control of their body is to take the YOR Health products, sustain their daily nutritional needs and operate on less than 2,500 calories a day,” Baca says in the video.

“To me, this is 100 percent unethical,” says Dr. Maki Haberfeld of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

ABC7 noted that Baca has been a special guest speaker at YOR Health’s annual conferences every year since 2010, and appears in a YOR Health magazine.

Baca also stated at a 2010 Yor Health conference, “We are selling these products in the sheriff’s department emporium for the deputies,” Baca said at a 2010 conference.

So what, if anything, did the sheriff get in return?

ABC7 found that Yor Health gave Sheriff Baca a $1000 campaign donation in 2010, and a $527 reimbursement for travel expenses.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, had this to say about whether the endorsement violates LA County’s conflict of interest laws:

“I’m not convinced that he’s kicked over that threshold, but when we look at the purpose of the conflict of interest statutes and the spirit of the law, then I think it’s perfectly fair to ask questions.”

ABC7 shared some complaints that had been made to the FTC:

“Yor Health is really a pyramid scheme.”

“It’s focused more on recruiting others than selling the actual product.”

“It brainwashes and manipulates people.”

…and “uses cult-like techniques to get people to join their company.”

The FTC wouldn’t disclose to ABC what was being done about the allegations, if anything.

When ABC7 did the math, they found that over a third of representatives made no money, and half of all representatives lose money.

ABC7 pointed out that today, after three years, the Yor Health videos featuring Sheriff Baca were made private and the sheriff’s photo was removed from the company’s website.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said that Sheriff Baca would now be separating himself from Yor Health, and that Baca was under the impression that the videos he shot were only for use within the company.

(CBS2 followed ABC7′s lead and also did a story on Baca’s Yor Health connection, which you can find here.)

Posted in Homelessness, Restorative Justice, Sheriff Lee Baca, Veterans, women's issues, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 16 Comments »

Happy Independence Day!

July 4th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon


The Boss at Fenway Park on August 15, 2012, singing with with Ken Casey of the glorious American Celtic punk band, the Dropkick Murphys


Barring breaking news, we at WitnessLA are taking the four-day weekend off. We have a pile of stories for next week, so we’ll see you bright and early Monday morning.

In the meantime, may each of you and your families have a wonderful 4th of July weekend in this complicated but achingly beautiful country of ours.


NOTE: If you’d like to do something practical on this 4th of July four-day weekend, by helping returning veterals, a good bet for donations is the Intrepid Fallen Heros’ Fund, which aids American service people who have come home with traumatic brain injuries and/or PTSD. It is important to know that the IFHF is one of only two charities for veterans that got an A+ rating by the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch, so you can be assured that most all of what you give will go into programing for veterans (rather than into fundraising or into the pockets of administrators).

Posted in Life in general, Veterans | No Comments »

The Invisible War: Rape in the Military – by Matthew Fleischer

June 22nd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

THE INVISIBLE WAR: RAPE IN THE MILITARY

A San Diego Navy vet speaks out in a deeply important and shattering new film

by Matthew Fleischer


“When you get raped in civilian life, you go to a court that’s independent and unbiased to seek justice and recourse. When you get raped in the military, your only recourse is to go to your commander, who knows you and likely knows your rapist.”
–Amy Ziering, producer, “The Invisible War”



Navy veteran Allison Gill says she was violated three times during her military service in the early aughts: once when she was raped by a fellow service member, once when she tried to report the crime and was told to go away, and a third time when she tried to get the Veterans Benefits Administration to acknowledge her sexual assault-based PTSD and authorize treatment—only to denied and stonewalled for three years and counting.

“To go to countless therapy sessions and truly get to the place where you believe that this is not your fault, and then to be denied and denied and denied,” she tells WitnessLA, “it sets you back in your therapy. That’s a devastating thing for a survivor, to tell them ‘we don’t believe you.’”

Gill is one of the dozens of military victims of sexual assault featured in the new documentary The Invisible War, which opens nationwide Friday. The film offers an astounding portrait of military veterans living with the trauma of sexual assault—perpetrated by their brothers in arms. This epidemic of rape in the military is seemingly impossibly widespread. Since World War 2, nearly 500,000 military men and women have reported being raped during their service. 3,000 military on military rapes were reported in 2011 alone—and authorities think the actual number could be six times higher.

Almost worse than the act itself is the treatment these victims receive from military authorities when they attempt to report these crimes. I ran into Gill at a recent screening of The Invisible War at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and we spoke about the film and about her ordeal. “When I went to report my sexual assault to military police, I was told I was silly,” Gill remembers. “They said I’d been drinking, I’d put myself in a bad situation and I should ‘suck it up.’ They threatened that if I filed a report and it was found to be false, I could be dishonorably discharged. They talked me out of it.”

According to the film, 80 percent of military rape victims do the exact same thing—stay quiet.

“The thing that hits me like a ton of bricks was the barrage of women in the film who said the exact same thing as I did,” says Gill. “I’ve never met anyone that went through what I went through. It blew me away that everyone’s story is the same.”

That story too often includes Gill’s problem of getting the Veterans Benefits Administration to acknowledge she suffers from sexual assault-induced PTSD from her attack. She first filed her claim 2009, was denied, she appealed, was denied again, and is still waiting for the results of her second appeal three years later.

Gill happens to be graded 30 percent disabled by the VBA, based on other injuries she suffered during her service, which entitles her to free medical care at the VA. But because the VBA refuses to acknowledge that sexual assault is the cause of her PTSD, she has to pay for any meds her therapist prescribes for treatment out of pocket.

It could be much worse. Military sexual assault survivors who have their claims denied, are not graded 30 percent disabled or more, or do not meet the minimum service threshholds, do not receive free care from the VA at all. They are subject to co-pays and other fees for PTSD treatment and other basic medical care.

Gill is very clear in distinguishing between the difficulties she’s had with the Veterans Benefits Association and the actual VA hospital system. Despite her ordeal, after getting out of the Navy, she wound up working for the VA in San Diego, a job that she loves.

“I’m a pretty patriotic person,” she says. “I wanted to serve my government in some capacity. I wanted to give back something. It made sense to me to give back to my country and serve veterans at the same time.”

Gill has found one unusual form of therapy to heal the mental wounds the VBA declines to acknowledge: standup comedy. The local press in her adopted hometown of San Diego has dubbed Gill the city’s “funniest woman.” (Incidentally, if you’re too busy to drive south to check out her act, she’s going to be at the Hollywood Improv on Friday August 10th.)

“The way I cope is I fill my life up with stuff to do, so I don’t have time to sit and think,” she says. “After my service I went back to school to get my master’s degree. I go to yoga 6 times a week. I’m always doing something, or on my way back from doing something. Some people medicate with drugs or alcohol. I medicate with having shit to do.”

Posted in Veterans, War, women's issues | 17 Comments »

FED GRANTS HELP VETS BRIDGE GAP BETWEEN WAR & WORK by Matthew Fleischer

June 21st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

HOMELESS VETERANS REINTEGRATION PROGRAM HELPS VETS STRUGGLING TO TRANSITION TO CIVILIAN LIFE & WORK

Nearly one in four 18- to 24-year-old veterans were out of work in May, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, as So Cal service providers scramble for funds to help

by Matthew Fleischer



This past Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced that her department was awarding 64 grants, totaling $15 million dollars, to help provide job training to homeless veterans across America, under the banner of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. “No veteran should have to go to sleep in their car or under a bridge,” she said to a group reporters on Tuesday morning, estimating that these grants would help 8,600 homeless veterans find work.

Seven providers in LA, Orange and San Diego Counties were given grants ranging from $277,796 to $300,000. The news was met with a huge sigh of relief from Southland HVRP service providers, who were sweating out the grant process, given the current political climate of austerity fetishism.

“The English call it ‘squeaky-bum time,’” Karl Calhoun of Volunteers of America, Los Angeles says of the hyper-tense moments before his organization received an official notice of renewal on its previous three-year $300,000 grant “We’ve been renewed a few times, but you can’t take these things for granted. Not in this economic climate.”

VoALA gives job training and placement assistance to 150-200 homeless veterans and veterans under “imminent threat of homelessness” annually. Those under “imminent threat” weren’t always eligible for HVRP services, but Calhoun tells me the feds have come around in recognizing the necessity. “It’s absurd to wait until a guy is on the street to provide him services.”

Calhoun cites the recent example of a VoALA client who lost a painting job after his union contract expired. The vet looked for work for months with no success, and was about to be evicted from his apartment when he finally came to VoALA looking for job placement help. VoALA was able to find him work painting massive storage drums at an oil refinery—dangerous work perfectly fitted for the adrenaline-accustomed veteran.

“He was close to being on the street. Now he makes $37 an hour,” says Calhoun. “Suffice it to say, he can pay his rent.”

Success stories like this can be difficult to come by. While the majority of military vets are diligent, hard-working, and highly skilled, their training frequently doesn’t do them much good in civilian life.

“They have discipline that far exceeds what civilians bring to the table,” says Calhoun. “But the skills they’ve learned often don’t translate to the commercial world. Knowing how to fix a tank, for instance, under severe time restraints in a hostile environment, is impressive, but not necessarily useful to potential employers when vets are applying for jobs back home.”

That gap between military training and commercial usefulness is exactly where these grants are aimed. The number of vets who need help in bridging that gap it daunting, particularly in the Southland.

According to statistics from the California Department of Veterans Affairs, 8.7 percent of all veterans in the United States live in California, with the vast majority–nearly a million–in the Southern California. As of 2010 there were 346,000 veterans living in Los Angeles County and another 234,000 living in San Diego County alone, numbers that will increase as American service people continue to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s no exact count for the number of homeless vets in the region, but the common estimate is that more than 8,000 Los Angeles veterans are homeless. Thousands more are at-risk, due to the effects of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, as well as the current economic malaise that has swept over the country for the past four years.

“The recovery is sputtering at best,” says Calhoun. “I think employers are willing to hire, but they’re gun-shy. They’re waiting to see what happens with the election and the economy.”

But that doesn’t mean veterans are completely out of options.

“We’ve steered plenty of our clients towards the G.I. Bill,” says Calhoun. “They were living on the street. Once they learn how to access the provisions of the bill, they get the equivalent of around $15 an hour to complete their studies.”

A little bit of guidance can go a long way.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images.

Posted in Homelessness, Veterans | 3 Comments »