DOJ Tackles Profit-Focused Court Practices…the Healing Power of Poetry…the Human Toll of Jail…and More


On Monday, the US Department of Justice announced a package of resources and a new task force aimed at curbing illegal and harmful profit-focused enforcement of court fines and fees that disproportionately affect the poor.

In a letter released Monday, DOJ officials called on state and local court administrators and judges to stop incarcerating indigent defendants for not paying fines, and to eliminate practices that keep people locked up who can’t afford to post bail.

“In addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents,” wrote Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta, and Director of the Office for Access to Justice Lisa Foster.

The letter also says safeguards must be set in place to ensure private contractors (like controversial for-profit probation) and court staff don’t violate the constitutional rights of those who come into contact with the justice system.

The DOJ will award $2.5 million in grants to state, local, or tribal jurisdictions and community partners seeking to reform these court system practices.


A literacy program called Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) mentors Sacramento teens and empowers them through slam poetry and spoken word performance poetry in an effort to heal kids’ trauma, encourage self-expression, and close the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers.

The Sacramento Mayor’s Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force has awarded SAYS $60,000 to ramp up services.

The Sacramento Bee’s Ellen Garrison has more on the program. Here’s a clip:

The grants come as Sacramento grapples with a sudden rise in violent crime, particularly in low-income neighborhoods where gangs have a significant presence. An annual FBI crime report recently showed that Sacramento had 1,830 violent crimes between January and June last year, a 25 percent increase over the same period in the prior year, the biggest jump among the 25 largest U.S. cities.

Khaalid Muttaqi, director of the anti-gang task force, said in the past, the city simply directed more money toward traditional law enforcement efforts to counter gang violence. This time around, Muttaqi and task force members recognized that community organizations are better equipped to handle some aspects of the problem.

“The city’s not going to go in when there’s a shooting, go into the home and console the family and try to go to the next family and say let’s not retaliate, let’s work together,” he said. “We don’t have the street cred.”

SAYS worked with students this week at Grant High School, which experienced one of last year’s highest-profile homicides near the Del Paso Heights campus. Football player Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo was killed as he and friends were driving back to Grant for a playoff game after getting a bite to eat. Police in February arrested 16-year-old Keymontae Lindsey and he faces trial as an adult on charges that include homicide with a gang enhancement.

SAYS will receive $60,000 from the anti-gang program. The group’s founder, Vajra Watson, said some of the funding will pay for more poet mentor educators and case managers, though she doesn’t like to call students “cases.” The rest will go to comprehensive training in how to counsel young people who have experienced trauma.


The Vera Institute of Justice has an important ongoing series called the Human Toll of Jail that we didn’t want you to miss.

One highlight is a string of videos in which Santa Clara County’s reform-minded District Attorney Jeff Rosen talks about California’s Proposition 47, law enforcement transparency, stopping traumatized victims from going on to commit crimes themselves, wrongful convictions, and the importance of reserving incarceration as a last resort.

The story of a former offender’s return to Rikers Island
to visit his son
—20 years after his own incarceration at the jail—told in the form of a comic strip is another not-to-be-missed part of the series.

Another story gives a behind-the-scenes look at the public defense system.

Also among the series’ offerings is a story that focuses on the importance of volunteers in jails and prisons to provide inmates with education, employment training, re-entry preparation, and other important services. Here’s how it opens:

Although research on the role of volunteers in jails and prisons is limited, recent studies suggest that visits from community volunteers to incarcerated people may reduce the likelihood of re-offending. CeCe Gannon is one such volunteer. After her own son’s brush with jail, Gannon, then a therapist-in-training, realized how many people reentering society after incarceration—whether brief or extended—desperately need someone to talk to. She decided she could be that someone.

When Gannon’s son was 16, he was arrested at school for his involvement in the sale of a controlled substance, expelled for six months, and eventually sentenced to probation and community service. While he was being held at juvenile hall, Gannon visited him, and that opened her eyes to some of the barriers other people face while incarcerated, specifically, “There wasn’t anyone for him to talk to,” she says, recalling the lack of therapeutic services. “It stuck in the back of my mind when he got out. So when I had an opportunity and I went back there, the magnetic pull was incredibly strong.”

As a longtime teacher with a doctorate in psychology, Gannon began a second late-career act as a practicing therapist, and in time became a volunteer at the jail in Sonoma County, California. For her internship, she chose a juvenile hall, where young people await court hearings or placement in long-term care. She worked for more than two years, long enough to watch some people she had helped as teens get in trouble as adults and cycle back into the system. She has seen firsthand, over and over again, what a lack of rehabilitative services does to young people. “The nonviolent drug user who has gone to prison at 18, 19, 20—once these youngsters go to prison,” she says, “they don’t come back the same.”

John Mesker remembers his initial impression when he first met Gannon at the juvenile hall in the mid-1990s: “Who is this hippie lady?”

Gannon connected with Mesker, then 15, in a way other adults at the facility hadn’t been able to, despite his confounded first reaction. She taught him how to use visualizations and his breath to calm down.

“She wanted to do art therapy,” Mesker says. “Here I am trying to prove myself as a violent person, and she’s asking me, ‘Do you like Belgian chocolate?’ ‘Do you read books?’ ”

John Mesker who struggles with addiction and has been incarcerated several times since he was a teenager for crimes relating to his addiction, in Howarth Park, Santa Rosa, California, November 19th, 2015. AJ and John were in the Sonoma County Jail together and since this past August have been at a residential treatment center.

It was around this time that Mesker was made a ward of the court. His mother—who struggled with addiction—was no longer allowed to write or visit. “Cece was my first dose of a normal person,” Mesker says, reflecting on the drug use that was a backdrop to his childhood and the bouts of homelessness and instability that plagued his family.

After her internship at the juvenile hall, Gannon started going into the county jail with the support of a Catholic organization and later through a project called Earth Hope, cofounded by Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame.

She now volunteers her therapeutic services, acting as a reentry counselor and teaching four courses at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California. Three are correspondence classes. The fourth she teaches in person, and its focus is cosmology, which she explains as a connection of science and spirituality, in which she weaves the history of the universe into self-inquiry exercises. “I’m here to help you wake up everything inside you to the best of my ability,” she says of her students. “The best insurance that they are going to do something differently is if they’re inside themselves more consciously.”

Gannon strives to make her class a respite from the otherwise stressful experience of jail. “I don’t corner people there ever,” she says. “They get cornered all day long.” She says that keeping the class interactive and varied helps her hold the men’s interest. She may do a 15-minute presentation, then show an excerpt from a DVD. She uses handouts. She breaks the students into racially mixed groups and has them work together. She never gives tests and she always plays music. These weekly interactions inspire her, Gannon says. “I’m just as excited going in every Tuesday as I was years ago, because something touches me and hopefully, I touch something.”


Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul J. Watford has reportedly made it into President Obama’s top three choices for nomination to the US Supreme Court. All three of Obama’s top picks have earned support from members of both sides of the aisle in the past, but Senate Republicans have vowed to shut down any Obama nomination.

If nominated and confirmed, Watford would be the third black justice, and the first justice from Southern California.

The LA Times’ David Savage and Maura Dolan have more on Watford. Here’s a clip:

When Obama nominated Watford, 48, to the 9th Circuit in 2011, he won glowing praise, including from prominent conservatives. Since then, he has won compliments from judges who serve with him.

“The bottom line is he is just really wonderful,” said Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee.

Watford clerked for Kozinski for a year early in his career, but “I can’t describe him ideologically,” the judge said. “He has been my colleague for three or four years, and I can’t pigeonhole him into anything. The guy is really, really smart. He is careful about applying precedent, but based on ideology, you cannot predict the guy.”

Two of Watford’s opinions were reviewed by the Supreme Court last year. Both were affirmed.

In one case, the pastor of a small church in Gilbert, Ariz., sued because the town would not allow him to post large signs along the roadside to direct people to a Sunday service, even though large signs for political events and real estate were permitted. The 9th Circuit upheld the ordinance, but Watford dissented, arguing that sharply different treatment based on the content of the sign violated the 1st Amendment.

The Supreme Court agreed with Watford’s view in June in the case of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert. The court’s 6-3 opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

The other case came from Los Angeles. This time, Watford was in the majority, writing an opinion for the 9th Circuit that struck down a city ordinance that said the police may enter a motel and check the guest registry at any time.

The city ordinance violated the 4th Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches” because the motel operators were given no opportunity to contest the inspections before a magistrate, Watford wrote. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the city’s appeal in Los Angeles vs. Patel, but affirmed the 9th Circuit’s decision. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the opinion for a 5-4 majority.

Watford was born and raised in Orange County and has degrees from UC Berkeley and from the UCLA Law School. After clerking for Kozinski in Pasadena, he was a law clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court.

After returning to Los Angeles, he spent three years as an assistant U.S attorney prosecuting cases of fraud and white-collar crime. For the next decade, he was an appellate lawyer at Munger, Tolles & Olson.

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