DN (Almost) Calls for Baca Resignation, Debt Collection Companies Use Misleading Scare Tactics, and a Compelling Case for ClemencySeptember 17th, 2012 by Taylor Walker
REACTIONS TO THE LATEST JAILS COMMISSION HEARING
In the wake of the findings presented at the most recent hearing of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence there have been a series of responses. (You can find WitnessLA’s story on the hearing here.)
The strongest is an editorial by the Daily News. The DN article doesn’t quite call for Baca to step down, but it comes pretty close. Here’s a clip:
It may be time for Baca, 70, to consider resigning his post. It’s hasn’t quite reached the point where the public should demand his removal, but he’d likely have been fired already for such a failure of leadership if the county supervisors had that kind of power over an elected sheriff.
Granted, running the Los Angeles Men’s Jail is no more a picnic than being incarcerated in it. The most dangerous murderers, thugs and crooks from not only L.A. County but practically every corner of the world are booked into it on a daily basis. The Hilton, it’s not.
But it’s also not a place in which those incarcerated should expect to be the victims of a cabal of deputies who hide behind a code of silence about violence. Who have their alleged crimes announced to the general jailhouse population and then are tossed into it. Who are strip searched not because the deputies expect to find any weapons but as a routine tool of humiliation – deputies who use heavy force not as a last resort, as regulations require, but as a first resort.
These are the charges brought against Baca’s administration by the county’s Citizens Commission on Jail Violence last week. Its members are all prominent attorneys and retired judges. [WLA NOTE: Actually, the commission is made up of four retired federal judges, one police chief, one famous former church pastor and a former federal prosecutor who is now a member of various policy groups. But, okay, we take their point.] Baca’s response is, as ever, certainly one of concern – but it’s also the administrative equivalent of that old street cop’s line to the crowds: “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”
The LA Times also ran a post jails commission editorial. Here’s a clip:
… The commission must decide whether reform of the long-troubled county jails is possible under Sheriff Lee Baca, who has emerged in the testimony as an out-of-touch figure overly reliant on his command staff. The sheriff has proved ineffective, at best, at running the jails. He blames his staff for keeping him in the dark about inmate abuse and other misconduct by deputies, yet despite repeated complaints over a period of years, he hasn’t held anyone accountable or made significant staff changes.
He failed to file inmate complaints in the personnel records of deputies accused of misconduct, making it nearly impossible for such evidence to be used by inmates in criminal defense trials. Although Baca says he’s taken steps to reduce abuse in recent months, there’s no way to know whether the reduction will continue once he and his office are out of the spotlight.
The commission should also consider whether the current department structure makes sense in a county as vast as Los Angeles. Can a single sheriff manage the largest jail system in the nation as well as providing public safety to dozens of cities and unincorporated areas?
On the same day as the LAT editorial, Sherriff Lee Baca wrote his own Op Ed response to the Commission findings. Here’s how it opens:
Last week, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence issued a report sharply critical of my department with regard to violence at the Los Angeles County Jail. But the report neglected to mention a number of important initiatives my management team and I have put into place since allegations of problems at the jails surfaced. These measures have resulted in a record low use of force in county jails in recent months.
Here are just some of the initiatives investigators neglected to mention in their report to the jail commission on Friday.
When the American Civil Liberties Union first raised allegations of excessive force being used by deputies, I launched a full-scale investigation into each and every one. Because allegations and anecdotes are not the same as facts, it was important to discover what was true, and I think that when these investigations are completed, which I believe will be soon, the public will be surprised by the factual findings.
PRIVATE DEBT COLLECTORS THREATENING JAIL TIME ON DISTRICT ATTORNEY STATIONERY
Debt collection companies have been sending out notices to check-bouncers, threatening them with jail time, using the local district attorney’s seal and signature. DA’s offices allow the private companies to use their stationary with the understanding that the debt collectors will also try to wrangle an additional $180 from the debtors for a “financial accountability class” from which the DA’s office reaps a portion of the fee. (While we haven’t looked into this, on first glance, we’re made slightly queasy here.)
The NY Times’ Jessica Silver Greenberg has the story. Here’s how it opens:
The letters are sent by the thousands to people across the country who have written bad checks, threatening them with jail if they do not pay up.
They bear the seal and signature of the local district attorney’s office. But there is a catch: the letters are from debt-collection companies, which the prosecutors allow to use their letterhead. In return, the companies try to collect not only the unpaid check, but also high fees from debtors for a class on budgeting and financial responsibility, some of which goes back to the district attorneys’ offices.
The practice, which has spread to more than 300 district attorneys’ offices in recent years, shocked Angela Yartz when she was threatened with conviction over a $47.95 check to Walmart. A single mother in San Mateo, Calif., Ms. Yartz said she learned the check had bounced only when she opened a letter in February, signed by the Alameda County district attorney, informing her that unless she paid $280.05 — including $180 for a “financial accountability” class — she could be jailed for up to one year.
“I was so worried driving my kid to and from school that if I failed to signal, they would cart me off to jail,” Ms. Yartz said.
Debt collectors have come under fire for illegally menacing people behind on their bills with threats of jail. What makes this approach unusual is that the ultimatum comes with the imprimatur of law enforcement itself — though it is made before any prosecutor has determined a crime has been committed.
A DEATH ROW INMATE’S TRAGIC ARGUMENT FOR MERCY
Lawyers for Pennsylvania prisoner Terrence Williams will go before the PA Board of Pardons today to request that his death sentence be transmuted to life without parole. Terrence’s case for clemency is an extremely interesting one. After a suffering abuse and a series of violent rapes beginning in childhood, Terrence snapped and beat to death a man who sexually assaulted him. Even the victim’s wife
The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen has the story. Here’s how it opens:
On Monday afternoon, before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons in Harrisburg, lawyers for a man named Terrance Williams will attempt to convince state officials that his life should be spared– that instead of being executed by lethal injection on October 3rd Williams (shown at left) should instead be permitted to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Despite the deadly violence of Williams’ crime, despite no questions about his guilt, it’s an unusually compelling clemency request– and because of its timing, in the midst of two local sex abuse scandals, a vivid test of the nature of Pennsylvania’s clemency process itself.
Williams’ lawyers will make their case to five officials who will then make a recommendation to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, who signed Williams’ death warrant on August 8th. The vote of the Board of Pardons must be unanimous in Williams’ favor and, even then, under state law, Gov. Corbett is free to disregard it and push on with the execution. It would be the first contested execution in the state in nearly half a century (three executions between now and then occurred when the defendants in the cases all agreed to waive their appeals). And it’s clear that the governor will be a tough sell.
This is so despite the fact that the widow of Williams’ victim now believes that his sentence should be commuted to life. It is so despite the fact that eight former judges — federal and state — now believe his trial was unjust. It is so despite the pleas of 28 former prosecutors — federal, state and local — who have gone on the record saying that justice would be served by clemency. It is so despite the fact that five of Williams’ trial jurors have come forward and declared, under oath, that they never would have recommended a death sentence for him had they known of material facts his defense attorneys did not introduce at trial.
At its core, clemency is an act of mercy, an official acknowledgment that justice will be best served in a particular instance by the granting of relief to someone who is not, technically speaking, entitled to it. There are many legitimate legal reasons why Williams ought to be given a new trial– just yesterday a state judge agreed to hear more about the new evidence in the case– but clemency is not about law. It’s about equity. It’s about the power of the state to put to right an unjust result. Below are some of the facts that were not introduced at Williams’ long-ago murder trial. Judge for yourself whether he deserves to die at the hands of the state.
Be sure to read on!