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OIG: LAPD Deployed “Ghost Cars” to Boost Patrol Numbers, Asset Forfeiture $$, Black Teens’ 21 Times Higer Risk of Death by Officer, and LA’s New Poet Laureate

October 13th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

INSPECTOR GENERAL FINDS LAPD MET PATROL GOALS BY SENDING OUT “GHOST CARS”

An investigation by the LAPD’s Office of the Inspector General found department supervisors falsified documents to augment the recorded number of cars on patrol to meet policy requirements. Department commanders in at least 5 of 21 divisions sent out “ghost cars” while the officers recorded as on patrol were actually completing paperwork or performing other duties, according to the report released Friday.

The LA Daily News’ Mike Reicher has more on the investigation. Here’s a clip:

To keep call response times down throughout the city, department policy requires at least one car to patrol each of the department’s roughly 200 geographic areas at all times. A workforce constrained by budget cuts and pressure to report positive statistics may have pushed commanders to manipulate information, some say.

“In the broadest sense, perceptions become reality,” Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said in an interview. “People perceive there are a lot of police in the street, but they would act differently if there’s only one car patrolling their neighborhood.”

Department spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Smith declined to comment until the full Police Commission addresses the report at its Tuesday meeting.

The investigation found that the officers’ patrol cars, which were reported to be responding to emergency calls, were actually parked at the stations or otherwise not on patrol. They are known as “ghost cars.”

[SNIP]

“It appears that the area personnel provided inaccurate accounts of actual patrol strength to [headquarters], and not to the public,” the report by Inspector General Alex Bustamante stated, “for the express purpose of meeting the patrol plan mandate.”

Bustamante’s report details one officer who was assigned to work patrol, but instead worked the equipment room checking out items such as microphones, rifles and car keys. Another spent six hours writing reports and conducting follow-up investigations in the station, despite his official status as patrolling. The report doesn’t list officers’ divisions or names, to protect whistleblowers’ confidentiality.


LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES USE SEIZED ASSETS AS FUNDING, BUY WEAPONS, GEAR, AND MORE

A new Washington Post investigation found that since 2008, local law enforcement agencies across the US have used billions of dollars obtained through civil asset forfeiture to buy things like weapons, gear, vehicles, a $637 coffee maker, and a clown. (No, we’re not kidding about the clown.)

The Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Steven Rich analyzed tens of thousands of expenditure reports submitted to the DOJ through the Equitable Sharing Program which allows law enforcement agencies to use the money they take from citizens. The investigation found that 81% of the $2.5 billion reported was taken from people who were never charged with a crime. But because people have to jump through hoops to prove they legally acquired the money or property that officers took from them, they do not often win it back.

(You can read our earlier posts about asset forfeiture here, here, and here.)

Here are some clips:

The details are contained in thousands of annual reports submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize. The Washington Post obtained 43,000 of the reports dating from 2008 through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents offer a sweeping look at how police departments and drug task forces across the country are benefiting from laws that allow them to take cash and property without proving a crime has occurred. The law was meant to decimate drug organizations, but The Post found that it has been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level.

“In tight budget periods, and even in times of budget surpluses, using asset forfeiture dollars to purchase equipment and training to stay current with the ever-changing trends in crime fighting helps serve and protect the citizens,” said Prince George’s County, Md., police spokeswoman Julie Parker.

Of the nearly $2.5 billion in spending reported in the forms, 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment was filed, according to an analysis by The Post. Owners must prove that their money or property was acquired legally in order to get it back.

The police purchases comprise a rich mix of the practical and the high-tech, including an array of gear that has helped some departments militarize their operations: Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.

The spending also included a $5 million helicopter for Los Angeles police; a mobile command bus worth more than $1 million in Prince George’s County; an armored personnel carrier costing $227,000 in Douglasville, Ga., population 32,000; $5,300 worth of “challenge coin” medallions in Brunswick County, N.C.; $4,600 for a Sheriff’s Award Banquet by the Doña Ana County (N.M.) Sheriff’s Department; and a $637 coffee maker for the Randall County Sheriff’s Department in Amarillo, Tex.

Sparkles the Clown was hired for $225 by Chief Jeff Buck in Reminderville, Ohio, to improve community relations. But Buck said the seizure money has been crucial to sustaining long-term investigations that have put thousands of drug traffickers in prison.

“The money I spent on Sparkles the Clown is a very, very minute portion of the forfeited money that I spend in fighting the war on drugs,” he told The Post.

About 5,400 departments and drug task forces have participated in the Equitable Sharing Program since 2008. Justice spokesman Peter Carr said the program is an effective weapon to fight crime but should not be considered “an alternative funding source for state and local law enforcement.”


PROPUBLICA: BLACK TEENS FACE MUCH HIGHER RISK OF BEING FATALLY SHOT BY OFFICERS THAN WHITE TEENS

ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara analyzed federal data on fatal “officer-involved” shootings of young males up to the age of 19. The analysis, which included 1,217 deadly shootings between 2010 and 2012 (as well as a larger pool of 12,000 incidents from as far back as 1980), revealed black teens faced a risk of being killed by officers that was 21 times greater than white teens.

Here’s a clip from the ProPublica analysis:

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring – 185, more than one per week.

ProPublica’s risk analysis on young males killed by police certainly seems to support what has been an article of faith in the African American community for decades: Blacks are being killed at disturbing rates when set against the rest of the American population.

Our examination involved detailed accounts of more than 12,000 police homicides stretching from 1980 to 2012 contained in the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. The data, annually self-reported by hundreds of police departments across the country, confirms some assumptions, runs counter to others, and adds nuance to a wide range of questions about the use of deadly police force.

Colin Loftin, University at Albany professor and co-director of the Violence Research Group, said the FBI data is a minimum count of homicides by police, and that it is impossible to precisely measure what puts people at risk of homicide by police without more and better records. Still, what the data shows about the race of victims and officers, and the circumstances of killings, are “certainly relevant,” Loftin said.

[SNIP]

The data, for instance, is terribly incomplete. Vast numbers of the country’s 17,000 police departments don’t file fatal police shooting reports at all, and many have filed reports for some years but not others. Florida departments haven’t filed reports since 1997 and New York City last reported in 2007. Information contained in the individual reports can also be flawed. Still, lots of the reporting police departments are in larger cities, and at least 1000 police departments filed a report or reports over the 33 years.


LUIS RODRIGUEZ NAMED LOS ANGELES POET LAUREATE

Last week, Luis Rodriguez, an iconic LA poet, novelist, memoirist, teacher, publisher, and advocate, best known for his memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA, was named Los Angeles’ second ever poet laureate.

(We at WLA think this is a wonderful thing, and we’ll have more on the story later in the week.)

LA Weekly’s Jennifer Swann has more on our new poet laureate. Here’s a clip:

As L.A.’s poet laureate, Rodriguez will serve a two-year term in which he’ll act as “the official ambassador of L.A.’s vibrant creative scene,” a sort of spokesman for the written word, according to a statement issued by the mayor’s office. It’s a natural fit for Rodriguez, who’s already been filling that role on his own, as the founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, a nonprofit bookstore and cultural center that fosters art, literary and music workshops in the largely Latino community of Sylmar.

In his new position, the best-selling author of the memoirs Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. and It Calls You Back is expected to host a series of readings, workshops and classes at the L.A. Public Library, which sponsors the poet laureate program, along with the Department of Cultural Affairs. The program is aimed at educating inner-city kids with limited access to poetry.

Posted in LAPD, racial justice, War on Drugs, writers and writing | 37 Comments »

Justice Bills, InsideOUT Writers, Prison Gangs, and More on the Probation Dept. Workers Comp. Fraud

September 19th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

BILLS FOR HOMELESS KIDS, REENTRY SERVICES, AND SAFEGUARDING JUSTICE PROGRAMS ON THEIR WAY TO CONGRESS

Right before the US Senate Judiciary Committee headed into recess, it approved three noteworthy social-justice-related bills.

The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, S.2646, would fund housing and “trauma-informed and gender-responsive” services for teens who are homeless or have runaway from home. The bill also aims to increase the time kids are allowed to stay at basic shelters from 21 days to 30 days, as well as require that shelters offer counseling. The bill would also create a fund for young victims of trafficking out of money recovered from sex trafficking sting operations.

The second bill, S.1690, would renew funding to the Second Chance Act at $100 million to pay for developing state and local reentry services for kids and adults.

And the final piece of legislation would change a portion of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. So far, only two states have passed compliance with PREA. (California is not one of them.) States that do not become compliant face a 5% deduction from the federal funding of their prisons. Cornyn’s bill would exempt three programs from the funding fine: the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants.

The bills will head to Congress once the fall recess has ended, after the November elections.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s John Kelly has more on the bills. Here’s a clip:

The bill, S.2646, extends the maximum stay at basic shelters from 21 days to 30 days. It also requires transitional living program grantees to provide counseling services and aftercare services to participants.

The legislation would also establish a compensation fund for victims of human trafficking. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), speaking at the committee markup of the bill today, said the fund would be paid for with assets recovered in trafficking stings and by increasing financial penalties on federal sex offenders, who Cornyn described as “among the most affluent in the federal system.”

A second piece of legislation passed by the committee today, S.1690, would reauthorize the Second Chance Act at $100 million. Second Chance funds state and local efforts to improve and expand reentry programs for adult and juvenile offenders.

Cornyn successfully attached an amendment to the reauthorization that actually relates to the penalties involved in another federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)…


INSIDEOUT WRITERS PROGRAM TEACHES LOCKED-UP KIDS HOW TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES

InsideOUT Writers, an anti-recidivism program taught at three LA juvenile detention facilities, has been helping incarcerated kids learn positive self-expression through writing for nearly two decades. (And we’ve written about it here, and here.)

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Henry Foster Rubenstein had the opportunity to attend several InsideOUT Writers classes where he was able to experience first hand the impact the teachers and writing have on the kids, and the power the kids themselves have to rise above their incarceration. Here’s a clip:

At 9 a.m. the next day, another IOW teacher, Scott Budnick, brings me into his all-boy class, most in for violent crimes. He has taught IOW classes every Saturday morning since 2003. With him that day are two other teachers, Johnny Kovatch and Susy Sobel. The three create a perfect balance of caring nurture and hard-knock love.

Kovatch bounces around the table, pouring out energy and enthusiasm, while Budnick and Sobel bring it all together.

The teachers emphasize the students must express the talent and effort the teachers knew they’re capable of. The atmosphere begins to get aggressive. Unlike the girls’ class the day before, the boys don’t like opening up about their feelings.

But the teachers are ready to make them dig.

“Sometimes I feel that I’ve been a failure so long I can’t succeed, but I know I have to let that pressure out, and not hold it in,” one student says. Each student uses the writing circle to look inside themselves at the decisions and emotions that set them off-course.

Budnick asks the students to share something they got out of the day. Most say the classes give them a chance to vent. One boy says, “Writing makes me not want to care about the bad things anymore,” while another insists, “Writing makes me believe in myself, knowing I can do it!”


THE COMPLICATED AUTHORITY OF PRISON GANGS ON THE INSIDE, AND HOW THEY REGULATE CRIME ON THE OUTSIDE

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood has an excellent longread about the complex system of inmate gangs that, in addition to their obvious downsides, also provide the function, particularly in the California state prison system, of imposing a kind of order inside the state’s lock ups. Wood’s story looks as well at how the gangs originated, and how they enforce a system of rules for the drug trade on the streets from inside prison walls.

Here’s a clip, but do yourself a favor and read the story in it’s entirety:

…starting in the 1950s, things changed: The total inmate population rose steeply, and prisons grew bigger, more ethnically and racially mixed, and more unpredictable in their types of inmate. Prisons faced a flood of first offenders, who tended to be young and male—and therefore less receptive to the advice of grizzled jailbirds. The norms that made prison life tolerable disappeared, and the authorities lost control. Prisoners banded together for self-protection—and later, for profit. The result was the first California prison gang.

That moment of gang genesis, Skarbek says, forced an arms race, in which different groups took turns demonstrating a willingness to inflict pain on others. The arms race has barely stopped, although the gangs have waxed and waned in relative power. (The Black Guerrilla Family has been weakened, prison authorities told me, because of leadership squabbles.) The Mexican Mafia was the sole Hispanic gang until 1965, when a group of inmates from Northern California formed Nuestra Familia to counter the influence of Hispanics from the south. Gang elders—called maestros—instruct the youngsters in gang history and keep the enmity alive.

What’s astonishing to outsiders, Skarbek says, is that many aspects of gang politics that appear to be sources of unresolvable hatred immediately dissipate if they threaten the stability of prison society. For example, consider the Aryan Brotherhood—a notoriously brutal organization whose members are often kept alone in cells because they tend to murder their cell mates. You can take the Brotherhood at its word when it declares itself a racist organization, and you can do the same with the Black Guerrilla Family, which preaches race war and calls for the violent overthrow of the government. But Skarbek says that at lights-out in some prisons, the leader of each gang will call out good night to his entire cellblock. The sole purpose of this exercise is for each gang leader to guarantee that his men will respect the night’s silence. If a white guy starts yelling and keeps everyone awake, the Aryan Brothers will discipline him to avoid having blacks or Hispanics attack one of their members. White power is one thing, but the need to keep order and get shut-eye is paramount.

Another common misconception about prison gangs is that they are simply street gangs that have been locked up. The story of their origins, however, is closer to the opposite: the Mexican Mafia, for example, was born at Deuel Vocational Institution, in Tracy, California, in 1956, and only later did that group, and others, become a presence on the streets. Today, the relation of the street to the cellblock is symbiotic. “The young guys on the street look to the gang members inside as role models,” says Charles Dangerfield, a former prison guard who now heads California’s Gang Task Force, in Sacramento. “Getting sentenced to prison is like being called up to the majors.”

But Skarbek says the prison gangs serve another function for street criminals. In a 2011 paper in American Political Science Review, he proposed that prison is a necessary enforcement mechanism for drug crime on the outside. If everyone in the criminal underworld will go to prison eventually, or has a close relationship with someone who will, and if everybody knows that gangs control the fate of all inmates, then criminals on the street will be afraid to cross gang members there, because at some point they, or someone they know, will have to pay on the inside. Under this model, prison gangs are the courts and sheriffs for people whose business is too shady to be able to count on justice from the usual sources. Using data from federal indictments of members of the Mexican Mafia, and other legal documents, Skarbek found that the control of prisons by gangs leads to smoother transactions in the outside criminal world.

Gangs effect this justice on the inside in part by circulating a “bad-news list,” or BNL. If your name is on a BNL, gang members are to attack you on sight—perhaps because you stole from an affiliate on the outside, or because you failed to repay a drug debt, or because you’re suspected of ratting someone out. Skarbek says one sign that the BNL is a rationally deployed tool, rather than just a haphazard vengeance mechanism, is that gangs are fastidious about removing names from the list when debts are paid.


LA PROBATION PINPOINTING DOCTORS WHO HELP PROBATION STAFF WIN WORKER’S COMP. FOR DUBIOUS INJURIES

Yesterday, we linked to Rina Palta and Karen Foshay’s story for KPCC about a surprising number of far-fetched worker’s compensation claims filed by Probation Dept. staff members.

Probation Chief Jerry Powers says investigators are not only working to crack down on on worker’s compensation fraud by going directly to the staff in question, but also investigating the doctors who are allegedly enabling the fraud.

Palta and Foshay have the update. Here’s a clip:

…Probation chief Powers says there is a problem with doctors who are all too willing to approve workers’ compensation claims.

“There’s an informal grapevine out there” of doctors “who are more than willing to sign [probation workers] off duty so they can gain benefits,” says Powers.

He says he doesn’t know how large that grapevine is. There are hundreds of doctors who handle probation staffers’ workers’ compensation claims.

Probation says it has reached out to a number of doctors who have a high approval rate of department employees’ workers’ compensation or disability claims, although it won’t say how many, or which ones. Officials say sometimes they show doctors surveillance footage of workers engaged in physical activity while out on disability or workers’ compensation. But the doctors frequently have an explanation for the physical activity, says Cynthia Maluto, head of probation’s return to work unit.

“Things don’t change after the meetings,” she says.

Posted in Gangs, prison, Probation, race, Reentry, writers and writing | No Comments »

CA to Spend BIG $$ on Youth Lock-ups. So Can We spend it Well?…..”Getting Life” – What It’s Like to Be Wrongfully Convicted…….

July 9th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


CALIFORNIA PLANS TO SPEND $79 MILLION ON YOUTH, & ADVOCATES PRESS FOR $$ TO GO TO COUNTIES WITH CLEAR REHAB GOALS

Right now the California Board of State & Community Corrections (BSCC) is working on structuring an RFP so that it can give away $79 million to various counties in the state for the construction of new juvenile facilities.

The $79 mil is the second round of post-realignment funding for county youth lock-ups; $220 million has already been awarded to 14 California counties.

With this new round of money, research and advocacy organizations like the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), the National Center for Law, and the Ella Baker Center see a rare opportunity to stimulate reform through the enticement of funding, so have been trying to educate and persuade the BSCC about what kind of youth facilities are likely to produce the best results.

According to Kate McCracken, CJCJ’s Director of Policy & Development, the the BSCC’s Executive Steering Committee, which is responsible for developing the crucial RFP, has “demonstrated openness” to crafting a competitive process would give the edge to county proposals that are designed with “clear rehabilitative goals.”

Ideally, McCracken writes, “the language of this RFP will guide the way counties develop their own proposals, and is thus essential to the development of long-term dispositional options and rehabilitative services available to young people in the community.”

Thus she hopes “the RFP will be rooted in what we know works for young people.”

“Research has proven time and time again that facilities are not effective when they have artificial environments, living quarters designed to confine large numbers of youth, and minimal programming space. If California is going to spend $79 million dollars — plus matching funds from the counties — on more juvenile facilities, let’s do it in a meaningful way.”

Some counties, like Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, are already committed to juvenile programs that emphasize rehabilitation and treatment over conventional youth corrections facilities.

Los Angeles County, which has the state’s (and the nation’s) largest juvenile justice system, was stuck for years in a punitive pattern that has resulted in years of federal monitoring along several class action lawsuits. Now LA County’s juvenile probation is moving toward some reform, with such programs as the in-the-works transformation of Camp David Kilpatrick. But, the tentative move in the direction of rehabilitation over containment is nothing close to system-wide.

If the purse-string-holding BCSC were to make clear that future $$ will be linked to reform, such fiscal incentives cannot help but have a salutary effect on counties like Los Angeles and others that may have made some improvements, but need to make many more.

“The future of California’s juvenile justice system is in the 58 counties,” writes McCracken, “as we observe pockets of innovation throughout the state that require support and incubation in other counties. There is significant evidence that a continuum of community-based services is the most effective approach to serving youth, as well as promising programs available to promote a new way of justice in California. This RFP is just one example of an opportunity for the state to rethink its approach to justice and challenge the status quo with innovative development.”

Yep. Exactly.


CHP HEAD MEETS WITH CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERS OVER FREEWAY BEATING VIDEO

Concerned about a building furor over the bystander-taken video of a California Highway Patrol officer beating a woman next to the 10 freeway, on Tuesday, CHP head Joe Farrow met Tuesday with civil rights leaders.

KPCC’s Frank Stolze has the story. Here’s a clip:

In an indication of the agency’s increasing concern over the videotaped altercation between an officer and an African-American woman on the 10 Freeway, California Highway Patrol Commissioner Joe Farrow met Tuesday with civil rights leaders in Los Angeles.

“I believe that right now, we are somewhat wounded because of what people have seen,” Farrow told reporters afterward outside the CHP’s West L.A. office. “I was deeply concerned when I saw the videotape. I was shocked.”


AN INNOCENT MAN TELLS OF HIS 25-YEARS BEHIND BARS, AND MORE

Michael Morton’s memoir, “Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace,” about the wrongful conviction that led him to serve a quarter century in prison for murdering his wife, has just been released to reviews that, thus far, are uniformly glowing.

For instance, here’s a clip from the review by Jesse Sublett of the Austin Chronicle:

Even for readers who may feel practically jaded about stories of injustice in Texas – even those who followed this case closely in the press – could do themselves a favor by picking Michael Morton’s new memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey From Prison to Peace. It is extremely well-written, insightful, infuriating, and, in places, quite funny. The “peace” part of the title is no exaggeration, either. For everything he’s been through, Michael Morton seems to be a very well-adjusted person with a sense of Zenlike calm…

Morton’ wife, Chris, was bludgeoned in their bed while he was at work. When he returned home to find the family home surrounded by yellow police tape he became frantic. Morton was arrested soon after and railroaded by Williamson County D.A. Ken Anderson, who withheld crucial information and documents from the defense. Morton was eventually cleared by the Innocence Project using DNA evidence. After that, the DNA led officials to the actual killer.

Here’s a clip from what NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said about Morton’s book:

A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, “Getting Life.” It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham, a window into a broken criminal justice system.

Indeed, Morton would still be in prison if the police work had been left to the authorities. The day after the killing, Chris’s brother, John, found a bloodied bandanna not far from the Morton home that investigators had missed, and he turned it over to the police.

Morton had advantages. He had no criminal record. He was white, from the middle class, in a respectable job. Miscarriages of justice disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men, but, even so, Morton found himself locked up in prison for decades.

Then DNA testing became available, and the Innocence Project — the lawyers’ organization that fights for people like Morton — called for testing in Morton’s case. Prosecutors resisted, but eventually DNA was found on the bandanna: Chris’s DNA mingled with that of a man named Mark Alan Norwood, who had a long criminal history….

Parade Magazine has an excerpt from “Getting Life”.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

The door closed.

Not with a click or the sound of tumblers finally hitting their marks or the sturdy clunk of wood and metal meshing as if they were made for each other.

This was different.

It began with the long, hard sound of steel sliding against steel.

Like a train, the heavy door built speed as it barreled along its worn track, the portal to the real world growing smaller as the barrier of thick and battered bars roared into place.

It locked with a cold, bone-shaking boom that rattled me— literally—me, the guard outside my door, and any other inmates unlucky enough to be nearby.

I was alone in my cell, alone in the world, as alone as I had ever been in my life.

And I would stay there—alone—listening to that door close, over and over and over again, for the next twenty-five years.

Twenty-five years.

My wife, Chris, had been savagely beaten to death several months earlier. Before I had time to begin mourning, I was fighting for my own life against a legal system that seemed hell-bent on making me pay for the murder of the woman I would gladly have died for.

I was innocent.

Naïvely, I believed the error would soon be set right.

I could not have been more wrong.


Posted in American voices, Innocence, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, Probation, Realignment, State government, writers and writing | No Comments »

Jail Visitor Beaten by Deputies Wins Settlement, SCOTUS Moves to Protect Intellectually Disabled on Death Row, Problematic Proposed Adelanto Jail, RIP Maya Angelou…& WLA Finalist for LA Press Club Prize

May 29th, 2014 by Taylor Walker

JAIL VISITOR BEATEN BY LA COUNTY DEPUTIES WINS SEVEN-FIGURE SETTLEMENT

In February 2011, a man visiting his brother at Men’s Central Jail was reportedly violently beaten by deputies, who then covered their tracks by falsely charging the man, Gabriel Carrillo, with assault. Carrillo would have faced 14 years in prison had the District Attorney’s Office not dismissed all charges a week before his trial. The FBI and US Attorney’s Office filed charges against the deputies involved (which are currently pending).

And today, at 9:30a.m., Gabriel Carrillo, his family, and attorneys will announce a seven-figure settlement reached in Carrillo’s lawsuit against LA County.

(For the backstory on the Carrillo beating, go here.) Interestingly, the Carrillo incident occurred seven months before the Anthony Brown incident that has triggered the current trial. The FBI, at that time, was investigating brutality of inmates by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies.


SCOTUS EASES FLORIDA’S RIGID IQ REQUIREMENT FOR DEATH ROW INMATES SEEKING EXEMPTION DUE TO INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY

The US Supreme Court struck down Florida’s rule that a person on death row must have an IQ below 70 to be considered intellectually disabled enough to be spared from execution. The 5-4 ruling means that states cannot determine death row inmates’ intellectual capacity using only a fixed number on an imperfect test—that the inmates’ IQ number should instead represent a range with room for error.

The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes and Matt Zapotosky have the story. Here’s a clip:

The court ruled 5 to 4 that state laws that draw a bright line on IQ-test results are unconstitutional. Under those laws, an inmate who scores above 70 on the test does not meet the first step of proving that he or she is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty.

Florida, Virginia and Kentucky have such laws, and a handful of others have similar rules.

It was the court’s first consideration of state laws defining mental retardation in capital cases since its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia that executing the mentally retarded violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In that decision, the court left it up to states to define intellectual disability. But those state determinations must meet constitutional requirements respecting “the gravest sentence our society may impose,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the majority opinion released Tuesday. He was joined in the decision by the court’s four liberals.

“Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of a 70 on an IQ test,” Kennedy wrote, adding that experts agree that any number on an IQ test is an imprecise measurement. “Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.”

It is relatively rare for a death row inmate to raise intellectual disability as a bar to execution. Defense lawyers in Virginia, for instance, estimate that the ruling might aid only a couple of the eight death row inmates there.

But the decision again showed the continuing tension among the justices about how to apply the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” as the court put it more than 50 years ago, to the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.


PROPOSED ADELANTO PRIVATE JAIL FACILITY MEANS TO LEASE BEDS TO LA COUNTY

Amid LA County’s costly plans to rebuild the crumbling Men’s Central Jail and renovate another jail to make room for female inmates, the relatively small city of Adelanto (in San Bernardino County) has proposed building another detention facility. The city aims to capitalize on LA County’s overcrowding crisis by constructing a 3,280-bed jail to lease to LA for $104 million a year.

If the facility is built, LA County plans to be locked into the lease for a whopping 20 years. In addition to the double-decade, multi-million dollar commitment (on top of our $2 billion Men’s Central Jail project). Inmates moved to the Adelanto facility would also be far from their families.

And if the county enters into a new private prison contract, would the $104 million lease create yet another unholy conflict of interest that could put pressure on the county and the entrepreneurs to keep the facility filled so that everyone gets their monies worth? as we have seen in contracts across the nation with CCA and GEO Group? (Backstory here, and here.)

The LA Times’ Abby Sewell has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

County supervisors recently voted to embark on a $2-billion plan to tear down and rebuild the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. The new facility is intended to improve conditions for inmates with physical and mental health needs, but would not add beds to the county system or address the overcrowding that has led to thousands of inmates being released early each year.

Adelanto, a city of 31,000 in San Bernardino County’s high desert region, is proposing to build a 3,280-bed jail on vacant industrial land next to a federal corrections complex. Then it would lease the beds to Los Angeles County. City Manager Jim Hart said Adelanto — via its public financing authority or another agency to be created for the project — would issue bonds to buy the property and build the jail, at an estimated cost of $332 million.

Under a proposal presented earlier this month by a pair of businessmen who are marketing the deal, Los Angeles County would not pay the upfront costs to build the jail but would agree to lease beds there for 20 years once it’s completed, at a rate of $88 per bed per day, or about $104 million a year.

Proponents say the facility could be completed in about two years and would allow the county to avoid shortening the time served by serious offenders, comply with federal requirements to reduce crowding, and save money they might otherwise spend constructing new jails.

County supervisors have not formally discussed the proposal, but three of the five — Don Knabe, Gloria Molina and Michael D. Antonovich — have said they’re willing to consider it.

Knabe said Friday that he sees the Adelanto facility as “a possible enhancement in the future” to expand the county’s jail capacity — not as an alternative to the Men’s Central Jail project.

“It would not be something I would want to pursue instead of the option we picked,” he said.

Two politically connected businessmen are making the Adelanto pitch: Doctor R. Crants, a Nashville-based businessman who cofounded Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company in the United States, and William Buck Johns, a Newport Beach-based developer and prominent Republican fundraiser who has been involved in other ventures in the Inland Empire. Johns and his company, Inland Group, have contributed to Knabe’s and Antonovich’s campaigns in the past.


REMEMBERING MAYA ANGELOU

On Wednesday, Maya Angelou, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was found dead at her home in North Carolina.

NPR’s Morning Edition does an excellent job of remembering Angelou and her legacy as a poet, author, activist, and so much more. Here are some clips from the transcript, but do go listen to the episode:

“She really believed that life was a banquet,” says Patrik Henry Bass, an editor at Essence Magazine. When he read Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, he saw parallels in his own life in a small town in North Carolina. He says everyone in the African-American community looked up to her; she was a celebrity but she was one of them. He remembers seeing her on television and hearing her speak.

“When we think of her, we often think about her books, of course, and her poems,” he says. “But in the African-American community, certainly, we heard so much of her work recited, so I think about her voice. You would hear that voice, and that voice would capture a humanity, and that voice would calm you in so many ways through some of the most significant challenges.”

[SNIP]

Joanne Braxton, a professor at the College of William and Mary, says Angelou’s willingness to reveal the sexual abuse she suffered as a child in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was unprecedented at the time. The critical acclaim and popularity of the book opened doors for both African-American and female writers.

“Maya Angelou brought about a paradigm shift in American literature and culture,” Braxton says, “so that the works, the gifts, the talents of women writers, including women writers of color, could be brought to the foreground and appreciated. She created an audience by her stunning example.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued this statement regarding Angelou’s passing:

“Maya Angelou was one of history’s great lyricists whose words and deeds opened windows that allowed the world to see and appreciate the enduring principles of freedom, equality and justice. She had an immeasurable impact on the way I view the world and my place in it. Maya Angelou’s legacy will live on not only through her extraordinary body of work, but in the efforts of all those who fight for freedom, dignity and humanity.”

Take a listen to this very empowering recording of Maya Angelou reading one of her well-known poems, “Still I Rise.”

We also recommend taking a look at Angelou’s Twitter account (trust us, it’s worth it).


ELIMINATING THE POWDER VS. CRACK COCAINE SENTENCING DISCREPANCY IN CALIFORNIA

The California Senate has passed a bill to equalize the punishment for possession (for sale) of powder and crack cocaine. Crack previously held a higher penalty of three to five years, while powder was punishable by two to four years. Both forms of cocaine will now carry a two to four year sentence.

(The cocaine sentencing discrepancy is also an issue dealt with at the federal level.)

The Associated Press has the story.


BY THE WAY…

I am very happy to report that WitnessLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, is an LA Press Club Award finalist for the “Online Journalist of the Year” category.

The winners will be announced on Sunday, June 29, at the Biltmore Hotel, in downtown LA.

You can find the rest of the categories and finalists here.

Posted in Death Penalty, LASD, Sentencing, Supreme Court, writers and writing | 5 Comments »

What Does CA’s Use of Juvie Isolation Look Like?…..Stop Locking Up Truant Kids in CA! ….The Lousy State of Education in Juvie Lock-Ups, CA’ s included….North Carolina Sheriff Takes On Wrongful Convictions….Farewell to Gabriel Garcia Marquez

April 18th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING LOOKS HARD AT CA’S JUVIE SOLITARY

In addition to the shock and perplexity felt by many over California State Senator Leeland Yee’s arrest for what is alleged to be extravagant corruption and wrongdoing, the even larger disappointment is over the loss of his extremely valuable work in the arena of juvenile justice now that he’s been disgraced.

A case in point is, the legislation Yee (Dem-San Francisco) introduced earlier this year to ban solitary confinement as a form of punishment for juvenile inmates in California. Now, sadly, bill appears to have nearly zip chance of passing after Yee’s indictment last month on corruption charges.

Trey Bundy reporting for the Center for Investigative Reporting, takes a look at the way California juvie lock-ups are still using solitary confinement. Here is what he found in one of the state’s most progressive juvenile facilities in Santa Cruz, CA.

Although solitary confinement for extended periods is considered one of the most psychologically damaging forms of punishment – particularly for teenagers – no one knows how many juveniles are held alone in cells in California.

Neither the state nor the federal government requires juvenile halls to report their use of isolation for minors – and no laws prohibit them from locking down youth for 23 hours a day.

One thing is clear: Even the county considered one of the most progressive in the state sometimes resorts to solitary confinement to control adolescents.

The Center for Investigative Reporting was given a rare glimpse inside juvenile isolation cells at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. Considered a model youth detention facility by many juvenile justice experts, Santa Cruz still places youth in 23-hour isolation, sometimes for days on end.

But amid a growing national debate over juvenile solitary confinement, the way Santa Cruz manages its youth population could serve as a guide for lawmakers as they attempt reform in various states.

The cells at Santa Cruz look like what you would find in a prison: gray concrete floors, cinderblock walls, a bunk, a window, a heavy green door and a metal sink-toilet combo.

When isolation is used at the hall, teenagers usually are kept in their own cells for up to 23 hours a day. Guards check on them every 15 minutes, and they can receive visits from nurses, lawyers, pastors and administrators. Officials refer to the practice as room confinement. In extreme cases, inmates can be placed in one of three isolation cells with no windows that sit behind two sets of doors off the main hall. It’s clear by talking with youth here that even a few days alone in a cell can take a toll.

Sitting on a bunk in his 8-by-10-foot cell, one 15-year-old boy described throwing a fit when he thought he was unfairly locked inside for several days.

“I started, like, banging on my wall all day,” he said. “I got all kinds of toilet paper and I covered my light and was throwing up on my walls and making a big old mess.”

Santa Cruz probation officials allowed CIR to interview juvenile inmates on the condition that their names not be revealed.

The boy, who is now 16, has been detained at the hall nine times since April of last year on charges ranging from gun possession to auto theft. His stays lasted between two days and three weeks. This time, he was in room confinement for trying to pick a fight with an inmate from a rival neighborhood.

His mother has had drug problems and doesn’t always have a fixed address, so he couch-surfs a lot. He sometimes has to wear an ankle monitor as a condition of release. Occasionally, he said, life becomes so draining and chaotic and that he violates the monitor on purpose to get back here.

“I kind of feel safe here,” he said. “I come here back and forth, and in a couple weeks, I’ll be back in here.”

The boy was released a week after speaking with CIR and, as he predicted, was back 14 days later. “I’m probably my own worst problem when I’m in here,” he said.


JUDGE MICHAEL NASH SAYS STOP LOCKING UP TRUANTS IN CALIFORNIA

It doesn’t happen in every county, but the locking up of kids for so called status offenses like truancy has to stop says head Juvenile Court Justice Michael Nash, explaining that kids are just made worse by this kind of incarceration, and that most often truancy is a symptom of a family situation or an emotional issue that the kid is dealing with.

The Juvenile Justice Exchange has Nash’s Op Ed.

Here’s a clip:

With all the talk about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, many people may be surprised to learn that California still, in the year 2014, allows kids to be locked up for not going to school. On its face, state law prohibits this, but court decisions have created a loophole that allows incarceration when truants are deemed to be in contempt based on their truancy. Although a majority of California counties do not use this practice, a few persist in locking up truants. Senate Bill 1296 — the Decriminalization of Truancy Act, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, would close the loophole. It deserves widespread support.

The loophole stems from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, which originally prohibited the incarceration of “status offenders” — including truants, runaways and incorrigible youth — because Congress didn’t want youth who had committed no crime to be treated like criminals. Unfortunately, the law was later amended to allow confinement if the young person continued to violate court orders. A few California courts have used that amendment to justify locking up truants.

Over the past decade, there has been increasing opposition to the needless incarceration of truants through loopholes in state law. Fourteen states have changed their laws already, and elimination of the federal exception has been a central part of efforts to reauthorize the law. Most recently, U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles has introduced the Prohibiting Detention of Youth Status Offenders Act aimed at eliminating the exception once and for all.


HOW BAD ARE THE EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES IN AMERICA’S JUVENILE LOCK UPS? VERY, VERY BAD.

A new study by the Southern Education Foundation looks at how well or poorly various states are doing in getting kids who are locked up to the goal line of a high school diploma. The answer in most states—California prominently included—we are doing very, very badly.

Here’s a clip from the report’s introduction:

There is every reason to predict that today most of these students, like those who came before them in the juvenile justice systems, will never receive a high school diploma or a college degree, will be arrested and confined again as a juvenile or adult, and will rarely, if ever, become self-supporting, law-abiding citizens during most of their lives. Yet, substantial evidence shows that, if these children improve their education and start to become successful students in the juvenile justice systems, they will have a far greater chance of finding a turning point in their lives and becoming independent, contributing adults. The cost savings for states and state governments could be enormous.


NC SHERIFF BECOMES INNOCENCE CHAMPION—AND SAYS ITS GOOD FOR PUBLIC SAFETY

One day, after reading a nonfiction novel by popular author John Grisham, North Carolina Sheriff Chip Harding arrived at a blinding conclusion; one of the best ways to convict the right person for a serious crime, he concluded, is to avoid convicting an innocent.

Lisa Provence has the story for C-Ville.com Here’s a clip:

Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding has always approached his work as a cop through his background as a social worker and through his Baptist faith. But after a four-decade law enforcement career that includes nearly 30 years putting criminals behind bars as a Charlottesville Police Department investigator, he had a come-to-Jesus moment reading John Grisham’s The Innocent Man. The true story of a once major-league baseball player named Ron Williamson who spent 11 years on death row for a brutal Oklahoma rape and murder before being cleared by DNA evidence hit Harding like a punch to the stomach.

“It embarrassed me, that I’m part of law enforcement that did that,” he said.

Last month, Harding sent a rallying letter to the 123 sheriffs and 247 police chiefs in Virginia asking for their support in forming a justice commission to help prevent wrongful convictions like Williamson’s in the Commonwealth.

“I think we can change practices to lessen the likelihood of convicting the innocent while strengthening our chances of convicting the actual offender,” Harding wrote. “If police chiefs and sheriffs were to propose and or support reform—we would be taken seriously.”

That Harding would be the one leading the charge to overhaul the criminal justice system, one known for its resistance to change, shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s long been on the cutting edge of investigative work as the guy who pushed for the General Assembly to fund Virginia’s DNA databank in the 1990s. And while he aggressively—and successfully—pursued hundreds of felony cases during his years as a detective, he also serves as the vice chair of the Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, which provides Bible classes and counseling services to inmates at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Realizing he was part of a system that put innocent people behind bars—or worse, to death—was “humbling and shameful,” Harding said. “And it induced a rage. From there I started wondering how often that was going on.”

Here’s a hint at how often: Nationwide, 1,342 people have been exonerated, often after spending decades in jail, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint effort of the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools. In Virginia, 36 people have been cleared of committing heinous crimes, 17 of those thanks to DNA evidence.

“That’s not even the tip of the iceberg,” said Harding, who went on to read UVA law professor Brandon Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, an examination of the first 250 people exonerated by DNA.


FAREWELL TO GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ, LATIN AMERICA’S MYTHO POETIC TRUTH TELLER, COLUMBIAN ALCHEMIST WITH WORDS, IRREPLACEABLE GENIUS

Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez died Thursday at age 87. He had been ill for a long time.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Garcia Marquez to literature in general, and to Latin American writing specifically.

And of course to his legions of entranced readers. (Your editor included.)

To glimpse the power of the man referred to in the Spanish speaking world as Gabo, one has only to read the opening sentence to Garcia Marquez’ masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, long considered one of the best first line’s in literature:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

(What book lover with any sense would not wish to read on after that?)

Each of his ten novels produces its own kind of revelation. But for me, after One Hundred Years of Solitude, the book of his I most treasure is Love in the Time of Cholera Gabo’s novel about lovers whose story takes fifty years, nine months, and four days to finally entirely bloom.

It has its own great opening line as well:

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

NPR’s Mandalit del Barco has more in a wonderful appreciation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here.

Gabo, rest in peace. We will miss your light, of course. But we are grateful beyond words that you left so much of it behind for us.

Posted in art and culture, Education, Innocence, juvenile justice, law enforcement, Life in general, literature, solitary, Trauma, writers and writing, Youth at Risk | No Comments »

Sex Trafficked Boys Overlooked as Victims….Trials for Sheriff’s Department Members Indicted for Hiding Federal Informant Schedules for May…..Pulitzers…and More

April 15th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


SEXUALLY TRAFFICKED BOYS ARE SEEN AS VICTIMS LESS OFTEN

It is heartening that kids who are involved in sex trafficking are now being seen—for the most part anyway—as victims to be protected and helped, rather than lawbreakers subject to arrest.

Unfortunately, this understanding that kids are the victims in the equation does not apply equally to both genders, writes Yu Sun Chin in his reports for the Juvenile Justice Exchange.

According to Chin, although boys represent over 50 percent of the kids commercially trafficked for sex in the U.S., they are still too often seen as perpetrators not victims by law enforcement.

Here’s a clip:

For years, the sex trade was ‘their’ problem, a heinous part of culture in poorer nations. But attention here to sex trafficking has slowly increased in recent years with the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and other federal state laws.

Still, males remain a largely invisible population within the dialogue on sex trafficking. According to a 2008 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in fact, boys comprised about 50 percent of sexually exploited children in a sample study done in New York, with most being domestic victims.

However, the percentage of male victims may be higher due to the underreported and subversive nature of the crime, said Summer Ghias, program specialist for the Chicago-based International Organization for Adolescents.

“We’re conditioned as a community to identify female victims more readily,” she said, “because that has been the more prominent focus of the anti-trafficking movement.”

Despite these high percentages of commercially sexually exploited boys, a 2013 study by ECPAT-USA indicates that boys and young men are rarely identified as people arrested for prostitution or rescued as human trafficking victims, and are arrested more for petty crimes such as shoplifting.

Experts say that the law enforcement’s attitudes toward male victims are still weighed down by gender biases in trafficking discourse, which pins females as victims and males as perpetrators. Therefore, male victims in custody often fall through the cracks of services that could be offered to help them because they are not properly assessed for sexual exploitation.


THOSE INDICTED FOR THE HIDING OF FEDERAL INFORMANT ANTHONY BROWN WILL BEGIN TRIAL IN MAY SAYS JUDGE

In a hearing on Monday afternoon, Federal Judge Percy Anderson ordered that trials begin in mid-May for LA Sheriff’s Department defendants charged for their alleged part in the hiding of FBI informant Anthony Brown.

At the same hearing, Anderson agreed to grant a motion to sever the trial of Deputy James Sexton from that of the six other defendants (lieutenants Greg Thompson and Stephen Leavins, plus two sergeants, Scott Craig and Maricella Long., and deputies Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo.)

As expected, Anderson denied a list of other motions brought by attorneys representing Sexton and several of the others, including motions to dismiss charges. (WLA reported on some of the motions filed by defendants here and here.)

As the cases speed toward trial, the main question that hangs in the air is whether the U.S. Attorneys Office will eventually indict any of the higher-ups who are said to have ordered the hiding of Brown, or if only those allegedly following those orders (including whistleblower Sexton, who will now be tried separately from the other six) will be threatened with prison terms and felony records.


KPCC INTERVIEWS PAUL TANAKA

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze interviews Paul Tanaka as part of Stoltze’s continuing series on the LASD Sheriff’s candidates for KPCC.

Here’s a clip:

Early on, Tanaka had little interest in being a cop. It’s hard to imagine now, but the buttoned-down Tanaka once wore a ponytail. “A lot of people had long hair back in the 1970s,” he explains.

He also adhered to the cultural rules in his strict Japanese-American household in Gardena, earning a black belt in Aikito and respecting his parent’s wishes.

“In an Asian family, you’re going to be a doctor or an attorney or a CPA,” says Tanaka, sporting a dark suit and tie on a recent afternoon at his campaign headquarters in Torrance.

He was an “A” student, studying accounting at Loyola Marymount University and holding down two jobs — one as a janitor, one making sports trophies — when his life changed. He spent a day on patrol with a sheriff’s deputy as part of a class and fell in love with policing.

It took years for Tanaka’s father to fully accept his eldest son’s decision. The young man had to adjust too:”One of the more traumatizing things was I had to do was cut my hair.”

Early in his career, Tanaka says he faced racial epithets in a mostly white department. He ignored most, chalking it up to ignorance. Over the years, the certified public accountant gained a reputation as detail-oriented — a commander who knew more about your job than you did.

Tanaka grew close to Baca, who eventually appointed him undersheriff. Tanaka became the heir apparent. The jail violence scandal that surfaced three years ago changed all of that.

Did he know about deputy abuse of inmates when he ran the jails from 2005-07? Tanaka claimed ignorance to the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

“It was never brought to my attention,” he said in his testimony.

What about violent deputy cliques inside Men’s Central Jail?

“That was never, ever mentioned as a problem,” he said.


CANDIDATES FOR LA COUNTY SHERIFF CONTINUE TO UP THE ANTE WITH EACH OTHER IN DEBATE MONDAY

All seven candidates for the office of LA County Sheriff squared off again on Monday night. KNBC 4 reports on some fiery moments.

Last Monday night’s mistaken fatal shooting by sheriff’s deputies of aspiring television producer, 30-year-old John Winkler, during a hostage stand-off, could not help but provide an emotional backdrop for the debate, some of those present reported.


THE PULITZER PRIZES EVOLVE

Much is rightly being made over the fact that one of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for journalism was awarded jointly to the Guardian US and the Washington Post for their coverage of the Edward Snowden/NSA revelations.

It is also notable, however, that the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting went—not to any conventional news outlet—but to reporter Chris Hamby who writes for the Center for Public Integrity, an independent, non-profit news site that is one of many throughout the U.S. (WitnessLA included) that have filled in the gaps left as traditional news organizations cut back their coverage, often leaving vital issues underreported.

Both prizes are cheering signs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: While we’re on the subject of Pulitzers, I happen to heartily approve of the Pulitzer judges’ choice of Donna Tartt’s deliciously Dickensian novel The Goldfinch as the winner for the prize in Fiction.


And, speaking of literary prizes, here are the winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, announced this past Friday night.

(I was on the judging panel for the Current Interest Prize and my fellow judges and I are very proud of our winner—Sheri Fink for Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital—as well as all five of our finalists.)

Posted in 2014 election, American artists, American voices, FBI, Future of Journalism, juvenile justice, LA County Jail, LASD, Paul Tanaka, U.S. Attorney, writers and writing | 29 Comments »

It’s LA Times Festival of Books Weekend!!!

April 11th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon

That glorious time has come ’round again: the LA Time Festival of Books is this weekend!

As always, there are loads of wonderful author panels to attend, both Saturday and Sunday, with the LAT book awards held Friday night at 8 pm. Again this year, the free-of-charge event will be held on the USC campus.

On Sunday at 11 am, I’m moderating a panel filled with excellent mystery authors and, I promise, if you’re intrigued with the genre at all, this panel is the place to be. (At Seeley G. Mudd Hall)

My panelists are:

MILES CORWIN, a great LA nonfiction writer who, a few years ago, decided to cross over into crime fiction with spectacular effect. His latest novel, Midnight Alley, has a narrative that moves like lightning while remaining satisfyingly grounded in the real—and often conflicted—details of a cop’s life.

SARA GRAN, the author of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, her second book featuring her deliciously original detective protagonist, the coke-snorting, dream-haunted, DeWitt, who, as one reviewer put the matter, is “a cool blend of Nancy Drew and Sid Vicious.” Gran’s the real deal.

DENISE HAMILTON, the queen of LA Noir whose latest stand-alone novel, Damage Control, is a beautifully written psychological thriller that, like her highly-regarded Eve Diamond novels, is laced with needle-sharp and deeply human So Cal social commentary.

PAUL TREMBLEY, a wildly talented author whose books include his darkly funny dystopian novel, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, and his two-book mystery series featuring narcoleptic detective, Mark Genevich. Trembly is fearless. Don’t miss him!

Early Monday we’ll be back with plenty of news. But this weekend it’s all about literature!

C’mon down!

Posted in American artists, American voices, writers and writing | No Comments »

Peter Matthiessen: May 22, 1927 – April 5, 2014…Into the Mystery

April 7th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


Impassioned non-fiction-writer, novelist, naturalist Peter Matthiessen
died on Saturday at 86 of leukemia.

For those of you unfamiliar with the man, or his work, a few facts:

Called a “shaman of literature,” Matthiessen has written 33 books, most of which were greeted with some kind of acclaim or other. He is, however, best known for such books as his cultural critique/thriller novel set in the Amazonian jungle, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and his account of a stone-age culture, Under the Mountain Wall, which Truman Capote would credit with influencing his conception of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. Matthiessen’s meditational account of a 250-mile trek across the Himalayas, The Snow Leopard,” was his biggest seller, and his 900-plus-page novel Shadow Country, took 30-years of rewriting before he felt he’d gotten it right.

His nonfiction account of the rise of the American Indian Movement, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, got him sued by an FBI agent and the former governor of North Dakota for libel, and caused the book to be yanked entirely from sale for nine years. Finally, after three different courts told both plaintiffs to pound sand, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the matter on appeal, the paperback edition of the book was, at last, published in 1992.

Matthiessen co-founded one of the most famous literary magazine’s in historyThe Paris Review—as a cover for his brief career as an undercover agent for the CIA. (His politics swung to the left shortly after that.)

After winning two National Book Awards for the same nonfiction book, the The Snow Leopard, he won the award again a few years later, this time in fiction for Shadow Country. And, yes, he is the only writer ever to have pulled off such a triple play.

(Oh, yeah, and his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a finalist for the award.)

Readers often credit his books with having changed their lives. (I would fall into that category.)

A generation or two of naturalist writers were clearly influenced by his writing.

His final novel, In Paradise, which he told interviewers would probably be his last word, will be published on Tuesday.

If you want to know more, the LAT’s David Ulin has written a lovely appreciation.

And here’s a bit of Matthiessen in his own words.

Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing – if this must come – seems the most tragic of all. I can watch elephants (and elephants alone) for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”

― Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born

The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one sees that there is a source fro this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home … The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is so overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas”, of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions. The holy grail is what Zen Buddhists call our own “true nature”; each man is his own savior after all.

Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

When we are mired in the relative world, never lifting our gaze to the mystery, our life is stunted, incomplete; we are filled with yearning for that paradise that is lost when, as young children, we replace it with words and ideas and abstractions – such as merit, such as past, present, and future – our direct, spontaneous experience of the thing itself, in the beauty and precision of this present moment.

― Peter Matthiessen


Photo by Linda Gavin/Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Posted in American artists, American voices, Life in general, literature, writers and writing | No Comments »

Losing Joe McGinniss: December 9, 1942 – March 10, 2014

March 12th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon


Journalist/author Joe McGinniss died unexpectedly on Monday, March 10.
He’d been battling prostate cancer, but it was the pneumonia following chemo that took him away with shocking suddenness.

Everyone who knew him is reeling.

(I knew Joe through his wife, writer and editor Nancy Dougherty, who is a very dear friend of mine, a wordsmith-sister, so I am reeling and heartbroken too.)

If for some reason you don’t recall his name, what you need to know first is that Joe McGinniss changed journalism.

Really.

With his 1969 book “The Selling of the President,” about the marketing of Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign, he blasted open what was possible in the world of political writing. With his beautifully composed, ferociously reported (and still quarreled over) “Fatal Vision,”” published in 1989 about the Green Beret doctor, Jeffery McDonald, who was accused of murdering his wife and two children, McGinniss advanced the form of the true crime narrative as literature.

After the news of Joe McGinniss’ death broke, the usual tributes and obits streamed to the surface. As is often the case, most do not seem to capture the man, but they at least list his formidable accomplishments, even if from a great distance. (This, by the AP’s Hillel Italie is probably the best of 40,000 feet obits.)

Atlantic Monthly columnist Andrew Sullivan’s essay on McGinniss is a welcome exception.

Here’s a clip from what Sullivan wrote:

Joe McGinniss was responsible not only for several books that are rightly understood as landmarks of journalism – he was also the case study of arguably the most famous essay about journalism, Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer.” He was a deeply curious and ferociously independent writer, compelled by the minutiae of the human comedy and riveted by the depths of human tragedy.

I think of him as some kind of eternal, unstoppable foe for Roger Ailes, whose media campaign for Nixon in 1968 presaged so much of what was to come – and still reins supreme – at Fox News. And yet Ailes and Joe were extremely close friends their entire lives and Joe would defend him – if not his network or politics – tenaciously as the years went by. That was how Joe was. Once he loved you, he loved you. And I was blessed by some of that love.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Joe – at the tender age of 26! – transformed political journalism with The Selling Of The President, the legendary expose of the cynicism of media optics in presidential campaigns – and, by the by, a lovely, ornery rebuke to the magisterial tomes of Theodore H White, as Ann Althouse notes. And the first thing to say is that the man could write. He couldn’t write a bad sentence. His narratives powered along; his prose as clear as it was vivid; his innate skill at telling a story sometimes reaching rare moments in non-fiction when you’re lost in what is, in effect, a factual novel.

But what I truly treasured about Joe – and I came to love him even though we only met a couple of times – was his dogged imperviousness to his peers or to establishment opinion. If he smelled a story, he would dig in, obsessively recovering its human truth. If others thought the story was irrelevant or non-existent, it wouldn’t affect him. His motivation, as it was with his first book, was to peel back the layers of image and propaganda and spin to reveal the reality. He did this with Jeffrey McDonald. And he did it with Sarah Palin….

About his book on Palin: as usual, Joe went where the story led him. Political columnist Dave Weigel, writing for Slate, has posted some of his memories of meeting with McGinniss when the author was researching the former Alaskan governor in her home state, and how unexpectedly Weigel’s source turned into a valued friend.

Weigel’s musings are a good read and give another small shard of insight into this irreplaceable author…journalist… father…husband…friend….who had so much more still to write.


Photo courtesy of JoeMcGinniss.net

Posted in American voices, Life in general, writers and writing | 1 Comment »

GARAGE GATE: The LA Times, Mark Ridley-Thomas & the Scandal that Isn’t

February 14th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon



WHY IS THE LA TIMES STILL REPORTING ON MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS’ GARAGE?

As of this week, the LA Times has published six articles on the matter of installing a tax-payer-funded security system in LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ refurbished garage.

“Garage-Gate” is the way LA Weekly’s Dennis Romero has wryly tagged the Times’ series of provocatively-headlined reports (one of which was even featured on the paper’s front page).

If you somehow have have missed reading this investigative juggernaut, here are a few of the basic facts:

Because they are public figures, the LA County Supervisors are each urged to have security systems installed in their homes at the county’s expense. Gloria Molina has one. So does Don Knabe. Zev Yaroslavsky has a security system that the county put in during his first term and it is reportedly still working just fine. We’re not sure about Mike Antonovich, but it is generally presumed that he has a system too, but that it was put in quite a while ago.

Mark-Ridley Thomas also has a system. His was installed early last October in the converted garage that he has started using as his home office. The Ridley-Thomas system cost the taxpayers of LA County $6,278.61—which is about a thousand dollars less than Molina’s cost. (We don’t know the costs of the other supervisors’ systems.)

It seems, however, that when MRT’s security system was put in, the county workers also mounted a flat screen TV, and installed an air conditioning unit and a 4.3 cu ft. mini-fridge, bringing the total cost of the county’s work to around $10,038.

(If you’re curious, you can see photos of the extra items we’re talking about if you click on the various links above.)

In addition to installing them, the county guys picked up and bought the AC unit, the mini-fridge and the TV.

On October 23—a couple weeks after the work on the garage was completed—the county CEO’s office sent MRT two invoices totaling $3,759.39 for the extra work, and the purchases.

Invoice1
Invoice2

On October 29, the supervisor paid the invoices by check. (The very check in question is pictured at the top of this post.)

End of story, one would think.

But one would be wrong.

The LA Times began reporting on the matter in mid-January in response to a tip.


ITS ALL ABOUT THE WOOD PANELS

January was a busy month, so I didn’t catch up with the reporting on this pressing issue until story number 3, which ran on January 19.

(Here is story 1 and story 2.)

The headline and the subhead for this newest story caught my eye as they seemed to suggest real wrongdoing:

Work at Ridley-Thomas’ residence went beyond security system: taxpayer-funded project to install the system at L.A. County supervisor’s residence included other improvements, interviews and records show.”

When I finished reading the Times’ account, however, I was confused. So where exactly was the….you know….story here?

Although the Times reporters had made public records act requests, the county counsel’s office was slow to hand over the required information. So, the reporters had not yet gotten their hands on any proof of MRT’s reimbursement for the cost of the TV, mini-fridge and AC unit. Still it appears they’d heard about it.

The other issue that that seemed to alarm the Times’ folks was whether or not the county workers really had to take out some wall panelling to install the necessary wiring for the project. (Then, after it was taken out, the missing panelling was replaced with drywall, which then had to be painted.) The workers also dug a trench across the yard to the garage to bury the wiring that brought the necessary power to the outbuilding, a fact that the reporters mentioned several times, suggesting that all this trench digging might be suspicious too.

In an effort to further illuminate the the paneling problem, the LA Times reporters located a security system expert in Tenafly, New Jersey, who opined that the wood paneling likely didn’t really need to be taken down.

That was pretty much all there was when it came to anything that purported to be newsworthy-–although the piece ran more than 1000 words.

Hmmmmm, I thought. As the daughter of a construction engineer, the sister of a mad do-it-yourselfer, and the mother of 28-year-old software engineer who, in his much younger years, did systems wiring for several small companies, I know that, without seeing the actual site, one would be unwise to opine from afar about whether or not one has to take down a section of wall paneling to properly wire a new…anything.

So why in the world did the Times have two reporters chasing this tepid thing, with a third reporter listed as having contributed?

I am not personally acquainted with one of the two reporters who were bylined in the series. But I do know the other to be an excellent journalist whose work I normally admire and respect a great deal.


THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE STEPS IN…OR NOT

When Story number 4 and story number 5 ran about whether or not Ridley-Thomas should have gotten building permits to put in the new system and install the TV or whatever, they seemed to be the same weak soup.

Then finally story number 6 showed up in our LA paper of record this week.

“D.A. probes work on Ridley-Thomas’ garage” the headline announced.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is looking into whether thousands of dollars in taxpayer money was misspent on improvements to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ home last year, an office spokeswoman said Tuesday.

That didn’t sound good. If the DA’s office was looking into the security system hullabaloo, surely there must be something to it.

Looking for clarification, I called the district attorney’s office and talked to their main spokeswoman, Jean Guccione.

Guccione told me that, yes, they were investigating the matter, but they were doing so in response to a citizen’s complaint.

Oh.

So it wasn’t something that they’d initiated on their own because they were concerned that something untoward had gone on?

No, she said. She went on to explain that when a citizen complains about possible wrongdoing, the DA is required to take at least a nominal look to find out if there’s anything to it.

In fairness to the Times, they did mention the citizen complaint angle in their story, but they did so all the way down in paragraph number five and then wrote ominously that the DA’s spokeswoman “declined to elaborate.”

Right.


OTHER GRUMPY JOURNALISTS

Just about the time I was getting irritable regarding this series, both Dennis Romero at the Weekly and Bill Boyarsky at LA Observed were putting together their own thoughts.

Here’s a clip from Romero’s story Why Is the L.A. Times Obsessed With Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Garage?:

The five county supervisors, who represent more constituents than some United States senators, run county government, including the sheriff’s department, probation, child and family services, animal control and more. They’re fair game for a newspaper looking to hold public officials accountable, no doubt.

But the Times seems absolutely obsessed with what amounts to $6,278.61 of your money spent on a security system for Ridley-Thomas’ converted garage-office — even though such security work is allowed under county policy, and even though the reporter who first pursued the story, CBS L.A.’s David Goldstein, essentially passed on it:

County policy entitles the supes to taxpayer-funded security. That includes sheriff’s deputies who escort them to public events, and security systems installed at their homes. The south county’s Ridley-Thomas and east county supervisor Gloria Molina represent the most crime-challenged districts in greater L.A., even as the law requires the two officials to live in the communities from which they were elected.

The $6,278.61 spent on Ridley-Thomas’ home is less than what the Times acknowledges was spent on similar security upgrades to the home of fellow supervisor Molina — $7,406.72 worth.

[GIGANTIC SNIP]

And, in fall, while Mark-Ridley Thomas was getting $6,278.61 worth of home security at your expense, City of Los Angeles taxpayers were footing the bill for about $375,000 worth of improvements to Getty House, the official mayoral residence in Windsor Square, which is operated by a nonprofit group.

That’s 59 times the dollar amount attributed to Ridley-Thomas’ now-controversial garage alarm system.

And now here’s a clip from Boyarsky’s column,Behind the Ridley Thomas garage caper:

Ridley-Thomas told me that when he notified county officials he intended to move his home office, including his county computer, into the garage, they said they would have to revamp his county-supplied home security system. In addition, they said they, themselves, would have to move his county computer, with its high-speed Internet connection, into the new office. They had to do this, they said, to protect the county computer system from hackers.

Besides linking up with the Internet, the high-speed connection reaches the sheriff’s office and other security agencies, Ridley Thomas said. Each task requires wiring. In addition, the alarm system needs a wire to draw power from the home supply. So there must be wiring for a few purposes—high-speed Internet connection, law enforcement notification for emergencies and power for the computer and the security alarm system , Ridley-Thomas explained.

County employees and the contractors looked at the garage wall and said they wouldn’t be able to install so much wiring behind the wall without ripping it out. Since the garage was 30 years old, they said they couldn’t find replacements for the old wooden wall. Let’s hang dry wall over the wiring and paint it, they said. They preferred that solution to hanging the wires on outside of the old wall and covering them with molding. Fine, replied Ridley Thomas.

Reporters Leonard and Pringle quoted number a home security experts who said there was no need to rip out the wall to install wiring for the security system. “Ripping the walls out? That’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Nigel Smithers, Southern California general for Absolute Security Alarms. Ridley-Thomas is angry about the coverage and called me at home, hoping I would look into it. He said it was always clear that he would pay for the air conditioner, television and refrigerator. “This was above board, there was no attempt to hide anything, it was completely appropriate and legitimate,” he said.

The real dispute is over the amount of wiring needed and whether the wall should have been replaced. Was so much wiring required that the contractors had to rip down the wall? Would a cord from Home Depot sufficed? Was taxpayer money wasted?


WHY YOU AND I SHOULD CARE

So why are we writing about this in WitnessLA? After all, we’re a criminal justice news site.

Answer: Because, if as journalists we don’t kindly hold each other to account, who will? And at WLA, we are truly dismayed that the LA Times would spend this much time and reportorial energy attempting make something out of an obvious non-scandal that they, frankly, seem to justify mostly by the use of misleading headlines and very questionable lead paragraphs.

There are so many potential stories of real consequence in our county that are crying out for attention.

(I mean the corruption and malfeasance still awaiting documentation in the LA County Sheriff’s Department, is one….um…random example.)

So we’d like to gently and respectfully say: C’mon guys. You’re much better than this.

We need you to be better than this.


EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s lots more to report on topics other than Mark Ridley-Thomas’ garage. We’ll catch up on those issues Tuesday morning. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles Times, writers and writing | 4 Comments »

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