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New Bureau of Children’s Justice, the CORRECTIONS Act, $8.3M for Wrongful Death in Jail, and Jefferson High Scheduling Update

February 13th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

NEW CALIFORNIA DOJ BUREAU TO TACKLE CHILDHOOD TRAUMA, SEX TRAFFICKING, AND OTHER ISSUES FOSTER KIDS FACE

On Thursday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced the launch of the Bureau of Children’s Justice.

The bureau will target childhood trauma, juvenile justice, sex trafficking, truancy (and other education issues), with a particular emphasis on kids in foster care.

In a letter sent to officials in each California county, the attorney general announced the new bureau and passed along a list of the rights of foster kids, and a reminder of their duty to protect those rights.

The CA Department of Justice was also selected (one of only three state departments) to participate in the Defending Childhood initiative, a federal effort targeting childhood trauma from exposure to violence.

Here’s a clip from AG Harris’ announcement:

The Bureau will enforce criminal and civil laws to hold those who prey on children accountable; work with a range of local, state, and national stakeholders to increase support for vulnerable children to prevent bad outcomes; and identify and pursue improvements to policies impacting children.

“We simply cannot let down our most vulnerable children today, then lock them up tomorrow and act surprised,” said Attorney General Harris. “The Bureau of Children’s Justice will continue our smart on crime approach by addressing the root causes of crime, including our broken foster care system, and making certain that California’s children receive full protection under the law and equal opportunities to succeed. One of the Bureau’s first orders of business will be to look at enforcement gaps in the foster care system and ensure that government agencies are held accountable to those entrusted in their care.”

[SNIP]

Attorney General Harris also announced that the California Department of Justice was one of just three state agencies accepted by the U.S. Department of Justice to be part of its national Defending Childhood Initiative. Through this initiative, California will work to improve outcomes for children exposed to trauma by ensuring that at-risk children are screened for exposure to violence at school, when they visit a pediatrician, or when they become involved with child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

“I commend Attorney General Harris for taking this important step to protect the youngest and most vulnerable Californians,” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO, The California Endowment. “The Bureau of Children’s Justice will watch over our state’s legal system and guarantee greater protection for our children, safeguarding their physical, social and emotional health and helping to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to grow up healthy and safe.”

And here’s who will run the bureau:

The Bureau will be staffed by attorneys and experts on legal issues impacting children, including civil rights, education, consumer protection, nonprofit charities, child welfare, privacy and identity theft, fraud, and human trafficking.


FED. CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BILL WITH BEST CHANCE OF PASSING IS UNFAIR TO MINORITIES, BUT BETTER THAN NOTHING

The CORRECTIONS Act, introduced Tuesday by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would allow federal inmates viewed as low-risk to take part in education programs and prison jobs that would take time off their sentences. The problem is that, because of who the bill excludes and how risk-assessment tools decide how much time to shave off, it will likely mostly help white people and people doing time for white-collar crimes.

While it seemed that the bipartisan criminal justice reform would have big potential during the 114th Congress, CORRECTIONS may be the only criminal justice reform bill that has a chance of making it through Congress and past the Senate Judiciary Committee and it’s non-prison-reform-minded chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

Vox’s Dara Lind explains the bill’s exclusions and risk assessment, and why the CORRECTIONS Act will disproportionately serve white people. Here are some clips:

The bill excludes any inmate with a “criminal history” that places them in the highest category under the federal sentencing guidelines. The problem is that someone gets placed in that category automatically if they’re labeled a “career offender,” which just means three convictions at either the state or federal level for drug or violent crimes. Most “career offenders,” according to the US Sentencing Commission, are African Americans — simply because it’s easier to arrest and prosecute them for “offenses that take place in open-air drug markets, which are most often found in impoverished minority neighborhoods… [This] suggests that African-Americans have a higher risk of conviction for a drug trafficking crime than do similar White drug traffickers.” In 2000, 69 percent of newly-sentenced “career offenders” were black. (Interestingly, only 17 percent were Hispanic.)

[SNIP]

Anyone convicted of participating in a “continuing criminal enterprise.” This is another label that’s typically applied to drug offenders — anyone who’s an “organizer, supervisor or manager” of a group of five or more people dealing drugs can be hit with a conviction for a “career criminal enterprise.” The statute isn’t used that often — only 239 people were convicted under it from 2006 to 2013, according to data from the US Sentencing Commission. But 77 percent of the time, it was used against black or Hispanic defendants.

[SNIP]

…how does the government determine how likely someone is to recidivate? The bill tells the federal government to come up with a risk assessment tool. These tests are used in several states and in federal court to figure out how best to manage an inmate’s case — or to determine whether someone should be put on probation instead of prison to begin with. But most states shy away from using them to determine the length of an inmate’s sentence.

And there’s a reason for that. Some of the factors used to determine recidivism risk are “dynamic” — they’re factors that an individual can change over time. But others are “static” factors: they say more about the environment where an inmate lives, or where he grew up, than about his own behavior.

One of the major risk-assessment tools treats drug use, low education level, and frequent changes in residence as factors that put someone at higher risk to recidivate. Even factors that look fair on the face of it, like the age an inmate was when he was arrested for the first time, can just mean that the inmate lived in a neighborhood where teenagers (or younger) were under police suspicion.


RECORD-BREAKING WRONGFUL DEATH SETTLEMENT FOR INMATE WHO DIED AFTER BEING TASERED DURING ALCOHOL WITHDRAWALS

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors and a jail health care company will pay $8.3 million to the children of Martin Harrison, an Alameda County inmate who died after being tasered by ten deputies. The sum sets the record for the largest wrongful death settlement in a civil rights case in state history, according to the Harrison family’s attorneys. A separate $1 million was awarded to one of Harrison’s kids who was still a minor.

The family’s attorneys said that although Harrison informed the LVN that he had a history of alcohol withdrawal, he died during the violent encounter with deputies while suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal.

Harrison was stopped for jaywalking and arrested for failing to appear for his DUI court date.

As part of the settlement, the for-profit Corazon Health, Inc. will change the practice of hiring Licensed Vocational Nurses instead of Registered Nurses (as state law requires) to perform inmate medical intakes.

Contra Costa Times’ Malaika Fraley has the story. Here’s a clip:

Harrison, 50, died in August 2010 two days after be was beaten and Tased by 10 deputies at the Santa Rita Jail. His children’s attorneys say Harrison was hallucinating from a severe form of alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens for which he should have been hospitalized, and he never fought back. He was in jail on a warrant for failing to appear in court in a DUI case after being arrested for jaywalking.

Corizon is one of the largest for-profit correctional health care providers in the country and holds a $210 million contract to provide health care services in Alameda County’s Santa Rita and Glenn Dyer jails. Under state law, the company is required to have registered nurses (RNs) assess inmates upon intake, but Harrison’s medical screening was done by an unsupervised licensed vocational nurse (LVN), Sherwin said.

“If the deputies had been trained, and if Corizon had had an RN instead of an LVN do the intake medical assessment then we all would not be here today,” Sherwin said at a news conference attended by Harrison’s family.

Corizon Health said that Harrison did not alert the LVN that he had a history of alcohol withdrawal, while the plaintiff’s attorneys said that he did.

(Alameda is another municipality that might want to enter the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge.)


PROGRESS MADE TOWARD FIXING JEFFERSON HIGH’S SCHEDULING CRISIS

Last October, an Alameda County Superior Court judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order demanding the California Department of Education help the LAUSD fix scheduling issues at LA’s Thomas Jefferson High School that gave kids filler classes and sent them home early, throwing many off the track to graduation.

Four months later, repairs have been made to the data system, more teachers have been hired, classes have been added, and the number of students in the inaccurate or non-instructive classes has dropped. But there is still much to be done.

Adolpho Guzman-Lopez has a welcome update on the Jefferson scheduling debacle. Here’s a clip:

Castillo was one of 150 students who were enrolled at the start of the school year in “home” periods, meaning they were sent home early. Others were assigned “service” periods where students helped as aides in offices and classrooms, but received no academic instruction. Students were enrolled in non-academic classes because the school didn’t have courses that they hadn’t already taken.

Other students spent weeks in the school’s auditorium, cafeteria and library waiting for their schedules to be fixed. Advanced Placement classes were all scheduled at the same time, limiting students’ ability to take higher level courses. Teachers began taking attendance by hand.

The litany of MiSiS-related problems went on for weeks.

At one point Jefferson students, fed up with the situation, staged a peaceful on-campus protest.

[SNIP]

David Sapp, a lawyer for the students who sued to fix the problems, is happy with the improvements at Jefferson, but not with the way the school was forced to make changes.

“We shouldn’t put the burden on students to go out and find lawyers to have to go and get a court order to fix this,” he said.

Not all of the school’s problems are solved. Foote says 90 students are still sent home early because of scheduling problems. As of last month L.A. Unified reported that MiSiS continued to have problems accurately counting English learner students and giving parents access to their child’s data and not other students.

Posted in Department of Justice, Education, Foster Care, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, LAUSD, racial justice, Trauma | 3 Comments »

Are American Jails Being Misused? A New Report Says YES…(And How Do LA Jails Rate?)

February 12th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Every year there are nearly 12 million admissions to local jails in the U.S.
—almost 20 times the number of admissions to the nation’s state and federal prisons.

Yet while Americans seem finally to be having a sober conversation about the collateral damage done by our disastrously outsized prison systems, comparitively little attention has been paid to the rapid growth of the nation’s jails.

Now a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice looks at the key policies that have contributed to the rise in the use of jails, and the impact of jail incarceration on individuals, families, and communities.

The report, called Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America, was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of MacArthur’s just announced $75 million Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, through which the Foundation will fund up to 20 jurisdictions throughout the country to rigorously examine how well or poorly their local jails are being used. Then out of the 20, 10 entries will be selected and given up to $2 million a year to design and implement plans for using “innovative, collaborative, and evidence-based solutions” to reduce the use of jail incarceration without compromising public safety.

The Safety and Justice challenge is competitive and, on Wednesday, MacArthur released its request for proposals [RFP], for the first round of the competition, entries for which are due March 31.

“We’ve had expressions of interest from a number of counties in California,” Laurie Garduque, the director of Justice Reform for MacArthur told me. “I expect we’ll get applications from some of those jurisdictions—especially in light of the impact of realignment and other legislation, that has focused more attention on what is happening at a county level with the local jails”

As to whether anyone had expressed interest from Los Angeles County, the MacArthur and the Vera people I spoke with said they hadn’t yet talked directly to any of the main players about the challenge, but that they hoped LA would apply.


FACTORS AFFECTING OVER USE OF JAILS

The Vera report points out that jails serve an important function in local justice systems, both for short term incarceration, and to hold those charged with crimes who are either deemed too dangerous to release pending trial, or who are considered flight risks unlikely to turn up for trial.

According to Vera, however, the above categories no longer represent what jails primarily do or whom they hold. Instead, Vera reported, three out of five people in jail are unconvicted of any crime, yet are simply too poor to post even a low bail in order to be released while their cases are being processed.

For instance, in 2013 in New York City, more than 50% of the jail inmates who were held until their cases were settled, stayed in jail solely because they couldn’t afford bail of $2,500 or less. Most of these inmates were arrested on misdemeanor cases.

All of this time spent in jail purely for fiscal reasons, the report points out, has collateral consequences in terms of lost wages, lost jobs, loss of a place to live, and loss of time spent with spouses and children, producing further harm and destabilization of those incarcerated and, by extension, their families and communities.

Moreover, nearly 75 percent of both pretrial detainees and sentenced offenders are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses—some of which could be more successfully handled through diversion programs that utilize community based services. “Underlying the behavior that lands people in jail,” write the Vera authors, “there is often a history of substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, failure in school, and homelessness.”

(The report notes that, in Los Angeles County, they found that the single largest group booked into the jail system consisted of people charged with traffic and vehicular offenses.)

Vera also points to success stories, like that of Portland, Oregon, where every police officer receives training in how to respond to a suspect who appears to suffer from mental illness or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. “For those people whose mental illness or substance use disorder is driving their repeated encounters with law enforcement—-typically as suspects in drug or property crimes—-the department participates in a Service Coordination Team that offers treatment in lieu of detention.” The strategy worked, both in terms of public safety, and fiscally. Between 2008 and 2010, the team saved the county nearly $16 million in jail costs alone.


WHAT ABOUT LA?

Interestingly, in 2011 the Vera Institute delivered a 289-page jails study commissioned by Los Angeles county’s board of supervisors. The report was titled the Los Angeles County Jail Overcrowding Reduction Project and, as its name suggests, it was focused on the LA county jail system specifically. The two-year Vera analysis (which was first completed in 2008, then revised in Sept. 2011) was exhaustively thorough, and yielded 39 detailed recommendations for LA, many focusing on things like pre-trial release programs and more effective responses to the mentally ill. Few of those recommendations, however, seemed to be included when, last spring, the board ordered up its $2 billion jail replacement and building plan.

More recently, spurred by the leadership of district attorney Jackie Lacey and by escalating threats from the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, LA has finally taken some heartening steps in the direction of a comprehensive community diversion program for the non-dangerous mentally ill who, at present, cycle in an out of LA county jail with grinding regularity.

Yet pre-trial release has been pretty much a non-starter.

So now that we have a new reform-minded sheriff, two new supervisors who are unhappy at the size of the county’s jail population, and a district attorney who continues to demonstrate her engagement with reform, will LA County fill out an application for the MacArthur Safety and Justice challenge?

“I think it’s a real opportunity,” said Nancy Fishman, one of the authors of the new 54-page report. “We’re all just at the beginning of what will be a massive outreach to counties, Los Angeles included. And we hope LA applies.”

More on that as we know it.

Posted in District Attorney, jail, Jim McDonnell, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, Mental Illness, pretrial detention/release | 4 Comments »

Does California Need an Innocence Commission?…ABA Sez No More LWOP 4 KIDS….Confronting Lynching…MacArthur Puts Up $$$ to Reform U.S. Jails

February 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


DOES CALIFORNIA NEED AN INNOCENCE COMMISSION?

North Carolina is the only state in the union that has an innocence commission, a neutral government agency that investigates claims of wrongful convictions.

The rest of the 49 states, California included, depend on the work of nonprofits, like the Innocence Project, along with certain activist lawyers who give a percentage of their time to working on innocence cases.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations compiled by the University of Michigan, since 1989, there have been 1,543 exonerations in the U.S. In 2012, California led the nation in innocence cases, with 119 exonerations since ’89. In 2013, Texas moved into first place, and remained in the top spot for 2014.

But whether or not we win first prize for exonerees in any given year, our populous state—with its massive criminal justice system–continues to make its share of tragic legal mistakes.

So do we need our own innocence commission?

The Atlantic’s Matt Ford writes about Joseph Sledge who spent 39 years in a North Carolina prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The state’s innocence commission got him set free at the end of last month, on January 23, 2015.

“In 49 other states, Joseph Sledge would still be in prison,” Ford writes.

Here are some clips from Ford’s story.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is the first full-time state agency dedicated to investigating post-conviction claims of actual innocence. “The innocence commission is the only one of its kind in the nation,” the executive director, Kendra Montgomery, told me. Other states have nonprofit organizations like the Innocence Project or think tanks with similar names, “but we’re the only state that has a government agency that is neutral to investigate these cases,” she said. 1,642 claims have been submitted to the commission since its creation in 2006; Sledge’s case marked the eighth exoneration.

Because it is a state agency, the commission has powers that other institutions lack. Investigators can compel testimony with subpoenas, for example, and gather other kinds of evidence for their cases. “The commission has the unique power, because we are a neutral, fact-finding state agency by statute, to collect and test physical evidence in criminal cases,” said Sharon Stellato, who led the commission’s investigation of Sledge. This ability can be decisive: In at least 18 cases, commission investigators were able to locate evidence that had been officially declared lost or missing by other state agencies. Three of those cases resulted in exonerations, while some others confirmed the convictions.

[SNIP]

Exonerations, which were once exceedingly rare, have become regular features of the American justice system. The National Registry of Exonerations tallied 125 cases in 2014, the highest annual total so far. The group records 1,535 exonerations nationwide since records began in 1989. Of the 125 wrongful convictions thrown out in 2014, 33 came from Harris County, Texas after faulty testing procedures were uncovered there. Even without Harris County, however, the number of exonerations last year still outnumbered those in preceding years.

125 exonerations might seem paltry compared to the estimated 1 million felony convictions per year, but the number of wrongful convictions is likely far higher. Many jurisdictions don’t devote the same level of resources towards exonerations that North Carolina does, and even then, the process can be achingly slow. For a justice system that exalts due process and the presumption of innocence, any wrongful conviction represents a serious breakdown of justice. Even a handful of high-profile wrongful convictions can ripple throughout the public consciousness, undermining confidence in the system. “The country is having to psychically cope with conclusive evidence that we make, with some regularity, errors in criminal trial outcomes,” Tate said.

Investigating possible wrongful convictions, especially those that don’t involve DNA evidence, is a difficult and time-consuming matter. Even so, exonerations, as Ford writes above, are becoming a regular feature of our justice system.

But how many innocent people are still locked up who, for one reason or another, have not been able to get the attention of a willing lawyer, or non-profit?

The question becomes even more pressing when those convicted have been sentenced to die by the state’s hand.

According to a 2014 report published by the National Academy of Sciences, since 1973, when the first death penalty laws now in effect in the United States were enacted, 143 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated.

To put it another way, since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. in 1978, for every ten whom we executed there was one death row exoneration. Not a comforting set of numbers.

Oh, and the great majority of those death row innocence cases—78—were black men.

PS: One of the arguments against a state commission is the expense. However proponents of an innocence commission counter that keeping innocent people locked up indefinitely is also a very high cost endeavor, both fiscally and morally.


AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION VOTES TO END TO LIFE-WITHOUT-PAROLE FOR CHILDREN

On Monday, the American Bar Association, passed a strongly-worded resolution calling for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life-in-prison-without-parole and urging “meaningful periodic opportunities for release.”

The ABA is the nation’s largest membership organization for lawyers, representing 400,000 prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, litigators and others.

“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.

Hubbard called the practice of juvie LWOP “a severe violation of human rights.” He added, “The ABA applauds those states that have already taken steps to reform their laws and urges other states to pass similar reforms as soon as practicable.”

The text of the resolution itself uses even more forceful language. Here’s an excerpt:

The United States stands alone in permitting life without parole for juveniles. It is the only country other than Somalia that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits life without parole sentences for youth. The legal developments in [Supreme Court rulings] Graham and Miller, along with the advances in brain and behavioral development science showing how children are fundamentally different from adults… support a conclusion that it is inappropriate to decide at the time of sentencing that life without parole is an appropriate sentence for a juvenile offender. This resolution encourages jurisdictions to go one step further than Miller and to join the policy position of the rest of the world by eliminating mandatory life without parole sentences for youthful offenders.


THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT LYNCHING IN AMERICA

There were 3959 lynchings of black people in 12 southern states between the end of reconstruction in 1877, and 1950, according to a report released this week by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the non-profit law and advocacy firm founded by attorney, Bryan Stevenson. (We’ve reported on Stevenson several times in the past.)

That number is at least 700 more lynchings than previous research has reported.

EJI and Stevenson maintain that in order to begin to cure the racial inequality that exists in the American criminal justice system, it is essential to have a conversation about the racial ills and profound trauma of the past, lynching included.

This is from the introduction to the report:

Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. These lynchings were terrorism. “Terror lynchings” peaked between 1880 and 1940 and claimed the lives of African American men, women, and children who were forced to endure the fear, humiliation, and barbarity of this widespread phenomenon unaided.

Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in America and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West during the first half of the twentieth century. Lynching created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America. The administra- tion of criminal justice especially is tangled with the history of lynching in profound ways that continue to contaminate the integrity and fairness of the justice system.

This report begins a necessary conversation to confront the injustice, inequality, anguish, and suffering that racial terror and violence created.

As Stevenson notes, Germany and South Africa has have each had their versions of truth and reconciliation in order to heal. The U.S. has not.

The NY Times’ Campbell Robertson also has a story on the release of the report, which you can find here.


MAC ARTHUR FOUNDATION LAUNCHES $75 MILLION INITIATIVE TO REDUCE USE OF AMERICA’S JAILS

On Tuesday, the MacArthur foundation MacArthur announced a five-year, $75 million investment that “seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.” (The John D. and Catherine C. MacArthur Foundation is one of the nation’s largest independent foundations.)

The plan that MacArthur is calling its “Safety and Justice Challenge” hopes to support and reward cities and counties across the country “seeking to create fairer, more effective local justice systems that improve public safety, save taxpayer money, and lead to better social outcomes.”

The new initiative is based on a MacArthur-supported report released Wednesday by the Vera Institute, called Incarceration’s Front Door: the Misuse of Jails in America.

[More on the Vera report tomorrow.]

Julia Stasch, MacArthur’s President summed up the foundation’s thinking: “For too long America has incarcerated too many people unnecessarily, spending too much money without improving public safety,” she said. “Jails are where our nation’s incarceration problem begins…”

Okay, MacArthur, how about starting in Los Angeles, the city with the nation’s largest jail system, thus the ideal test case.

Posted in Innocence, jail, juvenile justice, LWOP Kids, race, race and class, racial justice | No Comments »

Erroneous Convictions for Less Serious Crimes….SCOTUS, Alabama, and Gay Marriage….Loretta Lynch….and Efforts to Reduce Racial Tension Between Cops and Communities

February 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS FOR LOWER-LEVEL CRIMES FALL THROUGH THE CRACKS

The Crime Report’s David Krajicek has an outstanding longread about the lower-priority wrongful convictions that fly under the radar while innocence groups zero in on people serving life sentences, or those on death row.

While no one truly knows the scope of wrongful convictions in America, experts feel certain that each year, thousands of people receive undeserved convictions for lower-level crimes, like robbery and assault, without ever being exonerated. The wrongfully convicted in this category will likely take plea deals, serve their time, and forgo hiring an expensive lawyer to fight for their exculpation.

And, when innocence groups win exonerations for murder (and rape) convictions, it is, more often than not, through new DNA testing. Unfortunately, DNA evidence is rarely collected or tested for more minor crimes. It makes more sense for lifers and those on death row to be given priority, not just because of the severity of the punishment, but because it usually takes more than five years to prove innocence. People convicted of lower-level offenses generally will not serve that much time behind bars.

Here’s the opening of Krajicek’s multilayered project (we recommend reading all of the side stories, if you can):

When Rachel Jernigan was falsely accused of robbing a Gilbert, Ariz., bank 15 years ago, she expected the American criminal justice system to do the right thing.

“They tried to get me to plead guilty,” Jernigan says. “They told me they were going to give me 27 years (in prison). But I said I’m not going to plead guilty for something I didn’t do. I really believed I was going to come home from my trial. I was shocked when the jury found me guilty.”

Sentenced to 14 years, she spent more than seven years in prison before the real robber was identified by Jernigan’s determination and a fluke twist.

“If it can happen to me,” Jernigan says, “it can happen to anyone.”

And it does.

In a sense, Jernigan was a lucky exception.

Experts believe that thousands of people are wrongfully convicted each year in America for the types of crimes that Jernigan was charged with—second-tier felonies like robbery, burglary and assault. And when misdemeanors and driving infractions are included, the number of flawed convictions increases exponentially.

Yet only a tiny fraction of these cases are ever exposed. The cadre of criminologists and law professors who study wrongful convictions regard these missing exonerations as one of the great mysteries of American criminal justice.

Many believe the victims are likely the low-hanging fruit of the justice machine, poor men and women who don’t have the wherewithal to pursue justice.

They likely do what Jernigan was not willing to do: suck it up and accept a plea deal.

“My own somewhat unstudied, seat-of-the-pants estimation is that a lot of working-class folks are probably pretty cynical about the world,” says Marvin Zalman of Wayne State University, a leading wrongful convictions scholar. “And I think that when they get convicted of relatively minor stuff where they didn’t do anything wrong, they just chalk it up to a bad experience, do their time, and simply move on.”

Most who are convicted of minor crimes are unlikely to pony up a retainer—typically $25,000 or much more—to hire a lawyer to seek justice. Nor can they expect help from the community of innocence advocates, who focus on cases where DNA can provide irrefutable evidence of innocence—usually homicides and rapes.

“Unfortunately, the Innocence Project would never take cases like these,” says Mitchell Beers, a South Florida criminal defense attorney who won an assault exoneration in 2006.

About 6,000 people a year ask for help from the Innocence Project, a network of about 65 largely autonomous organizations. It has about 250 active cases at any given time, and nearly all of them focus on DNA evidence, says spokesman Paul Cates.

“We are still very committed to taking cases where DNA evidence is available to prove innocence,” says Cates. “That might change at some point down the road, but the thinking is that DNA is still kind of the gold standard in proving innocence.”

The Innocence Project has had a role in 325 exonerations since it was founded in 1992; just eight of them did not involve DNA cases: four home invasions, three car carjackings and one robbery…

Biological evidence is collected in just one of five crimes, nearly all of them murders or rapes. A 2010 study for the National Institute of Justice said fewer than 10 percent cent of assaults, burglaries and robberies had physical evidence examined in crime labs, compared with 81 percent for murders.

So how vast is the trove of undiscovered wrongful convictions? No one knows for sure, because there is little empirical evidence. Zalman calls wrongful convictions “one of the most remarkably loose areas of analysis in the criminal justice field.”

As Sam Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, has written, “The fundamental problem with false convictions is also one of their defining features: they are hidden from view…”


US SUPREME COURT GIVES GO AHEAD FOR GAY MARRIAGES IN ALABAMA, POINTS TO FUTURE HIGH COURT DECISION

In a meaningful 7-2 ruling that shut down Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s eleventh-hour attempt to suspend gay marriage for Alabamians, the US Supreme Court may have indicated which way the justices will rule when they hear four gay marriage cases this spring.

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidsonhas the story. Here’s a clip:

The Supreme Court has stopped the efforts of Justice Roy Moore, the chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court, to stand in the wedding aisle and block the marriages of same-sex couples in his state. There was no case on marriage before Moore; he had intervened, loudly, when U.S. District Judge Callie V. S. Granade, whose courtroom is in Mobile, ruled that the state’s anti-marriage laws were unconstitutional. Her ruling was stayed, but only until Monday morning. That, apparently, made Moore angry. First, he said that probate judges didn’t have to abide by the federal decision if they didn’t want to—a remarkable stance in itself. Then, when it seemed that judges might not turn away loving couples, he issued an order declaring that they were forbidden to respect the decision. The Alabama Attorney General asked for an emergency stay from the Supreme Court, saying that the state would be irreparably harmed if couples went ahead and married. The Court turned them down. By noon on Monday, news reports were full of pictures of people holding bouquets, bearing rings, and kissing their new spouses. [Update, 6:30 P.M., Monday: By the end of the business day, probate judges in more than a dozen of Alabama’s sixty-seven counties had issued same-sex marriage licenses; many others, though, denied them, only took applications, or closed their doors entirely.]

The Supreme Court’s decision was important on a number of counts. First, for the families of Alabama that have been denied the protection and respect that comes with marriage. Second, it is a strong sign that the Court, which is set to hear arguments this spring on whether there is a fifty-state constitutional right to same-sex marriage, knows where it is headed, and it is in the direction of equality. (The order was accompanied by a dissent signed only by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whose main argument was that the Court should allow states to wait for its final ruling on “this important constitutional question.”) Third, it made it clear that there is a definite federal interest in the marriage issue.


BILLS DRAFTED ACROSS THE NATION AFTER DEATHS OF UNARMED BLACK MEN

In the aftermath of a spate of controversial killings by police officers of unarmed black men (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice), bills have cropped up in at least thirteen states to increase law enforcement transparency and improve police-community relations. Efforts include bipartisan bills to put body cameras on cops and proposed changes to the way deaths at the hands of cops are recorded.

The Washington Post’s Reid Wilson has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“There is a concrete coherent legislative agenda that we are pushing for,” said Cornell Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP. “We’ve been doing this from state capital to state capital, as well as here in Washington, D.C.”

Some of the proposed responses have bipartisan support. In other cases, familiar partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats, and civil rights groups and police organizations, are emerging and slowing down legislative action.

Those partisan fissures are exacerbated by events beyond Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland. In Albuquerque, N.M., two officers were charged last month with first-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of a homeless, mentally ill man who had been camping illegally. In Springfield, Mo., a police officer was shot in the head while on patrol; he suffered career-ending injuries.

“Our citizens deserve to be and feel safe, and our law enforcement deserve our respect and support,” said Missouri Rep. Lincoln Hough (R). “I say all that to illustrate the complexity of these issues. There is not a one size fits all approach to this issue.”

Brooks and other civil rights leaders have vowed 2015 will be a year of legislative strategy, pressuring statehouses to pass state-level laws concerning special prosecutors and grand juries while pushing for broader legislative steps in Washington D.C.

Body camera legislation is at the forefront of that push. Civil rights groups like the NAACP, The Advancement Project and the American Civil Liberties Union are behind many of the body camera proposals, and the Obama administration has allocated $263 million for a three-year program to expand training for local police departments, including $75 million that would purchase 50,000 cameras through a matching program.


IN THE SAME VEIN…US AG NOMINEE LORETTA LYNCH POISED TO TAKE ON POLICE-COMMUNITY RELATIONS

US Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, will be the first black female AG if confirmed, and says she will focus on mending relations and calming racial tensions between law enforcement agencies and their communities.

The Hill’s Tim Devaney has more on the issue and why advocates and lawmakers believe Loretta is suited to the task. Here’s a clip:

As a black woman with strong law-and-order credentials, Lynch, observers say, would be uniquely positioned to ease strained relations between police and minority communities they serve.

Lynch’s reputation for being a hard-nosed, impartial prosecutor has won her wide support from civil rights advocates, law enforcement, Democrats and even some Republicans.

This will serve her well as she seeks to “resolve the tensions” between law enforcement and the African American community, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“She has prosecuted those who have committed crimes against police officers, as well as police officers who have committed crimes,” Leahy (D-Vt.) said during her confirmation hearing.

Lynch has earned the trust of civil rights groups by pursing cases of police brutality.

During her time as a federal prosecutor in New York, Lynch went after a police officer accused of sodomizing a Haitian immigrant with a stick in a precinct bathroom.

More recently, she was assigned to investigate the Eric Garner case.

As the “face of law enforcement,” Lynch will have the opportunity to improve public perceptions of police, said Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People…

Lynch promised to “draw all voices” into the conversation about reforming law enforcement and cracking down on cases of police misconduct.

“She has to be a person who brings both sides together, police and the community,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill.

Posted in Department of Justice, DNA, Innocence, law enforcement, LGBT, racial justice, Supreme Court | No Comments »

“Black Girls Matter,” Refugee Camps, Life as a Black Cop, LA Jail Suicides Down

February 9th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

BLACK GIRLS EXPERIENCE AS MUCH (OR MORE) RACIAL INEQUALITY AS BLACK BOYS, BUT DO NOT RECEIVE AS MUCH HELP

In the United States, black girls experience racially disparate school discipline at significantly higher rates than black boys (vs. white girls and white boys). US Department of Education data for the 2011-2012 school year reveals that while black boys are suspended three times more often than their white counterparts, black girls are suspended six times more often than their white peers.

In New York City and Boston, where more black kids are enrolled into the school systems than white kids, the disparity is even more stark. Black girls in NYC and Boston are 10 and 11 times more likely to be suspended than white girls, respectively.

A report from Columbia Law School and the African American Policy Forum, analyzed this data along with personal experiences from interviews with young black girls in New York City and Boston between 2012-2013.

Among other findings of the report, girls felt that zero-tolerance school policies were not conducive to a positive learning environment, and often dissuaded them from attending school altogether. Girls said that increased police and security presence, as well as metal detectors made them feel uncomfortable and less safe. Girls also reported receiving more severe discipline than boys for the same infractions.

A law professor at UCLA and lead author on the report, Kimberlé Crenshaw, said, “As public concern mounts for the needs of men and boys of color through initiatives like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper, we must challenge the assumption that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk.”

The report recommends equal funding for supporting girls and women of color as boys and men of color, as well as boosted data collection, research, advocacy, and programs.

Here are clips from a few more of the report’s findings…

The failure of schools to intervene in the sexual harassment and bullying of girls contributes to their insecurity at school:

Participants and stakeholders addressed the consequences of sexually harassing behavior, physical and sexual assault, and bullying. The emphasis on harsh disciplinary measures did little to curb such behavior. In fact, zero-tolerance policies sometimes exacerbated the sense of vulnerability experienced by girls because they feared they would be penalized for defending themselves against aggressive behavior. One participant recalled that her long history of suspensions and expulsions began with what she believed to be an unfair punishment in response to assaultive behavior by a male classmate:

This boy kept spitting those little spitballs through a straw at me while we were taking a test. I told the teacher, and he told him to stop, but he didn’t. He kept on doing it. I yelled at him. He punched me in the face, like my eye. My eye was swollen. I don’t remember if I fought him. That’s how it ended. We both got suspended. I was like, ‘Did I get suspended?’ I was, like, a victim.

Stakeholders observed that teachers were some times unprepared to resolve matters associated with sexually harassing behavior.

It was remarkable how teachers have a culture of sweeping it under the rug. They will say that ‘boys will be boys’; ‘this is sexual awakening.’ Yet they know all the gossip, they know all the stuff that is happening. . . . [T]hey even talked about girls feeling shamed coming to school, like they can’t concentrate because the boys are making comments – lewd comments – constantly pressuring them to have sex with them. Slapping their butts and bras, and just sort of forcing themselves on them against the wall or the locker. . . .

Girls sometimes resort to “acting out” when their counseling needs are overlooked or disregarded:

In environments in which discipline is foregrounded over counseling, girls who seek help in response to traumatic experiences or who have other unmet needs may gain the attention of school personnel only when they “show their face” (act out) in ways that prompt disciplinary intervention:

The only way they’re going to know there’s something wrong with you is if you show your face. If you try . . . to go in there, try to sit there, one on one, they can automatically think you’re there to waste time and not to go to class. It’s like they shutting down on us.

This point was augmented by stakeholders who noted that some of the behavior that triggers the suspension or expulsion of girls may reflect the consequences of untreated trauma. While the problem of undiagnosed needs is not exclusive to girls, their concerns may be harder to address prior to a punishable act:

I think girls tend to not express the trauma . . . and that is a big problem. In the school you focus on the people who are acting out so some are getting their needs met, but this doesn’t mean that those that aren’t acting out are not in need. It plays itself out later on. . .

…and recommendations:

Review and revise policies that funnel girls into the juvenile justice system:

The lack of counseling and other effective conflict intervention strategies leads many girls into contact with the juvenile justice system. Schools should review their current policies and develop more robust measures to ensure that student conflict is not unwarrantedly subjected to criminal sanctions.

Devise programs that identify the signs of sexual victimization in order to support girls who have been traumatized by violence:

Schools must train educators to identify signs of sexual abuse and respond with therapeutic interventions. In so doing, they should develop protocols and policies that streamline their responses to suspected instances of abuse.

Advance and expand programs that support girls who are pregnant, parenting, or otherwise assuming significant familial responsibilities:

Lack of childcare, strict attendance policies, unsafe campuses, and untrained administrators contribute to school push-out of pregnant or parenting girls. Schools, stakeholders, and advocates must work to create policies that are sensitive to the needs of pregnant girls as well as girls who take on significant caretaking responsibilities.


WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN AND CHILDREN REFUGEES WHO ENTER THE UNITED STATES

The NY Times Magazine’s current cover story by Wil Hylton takes a look at America’s controversial detention camps chock-full of women and children refugees fleeing from violence in Central America.

In these family camps, mothers are regularly held without bond (and without guaranteed legal representation), and kids’ health and schooling needs often go unmet.

Here’s how Hylton’s story opens:

Christina Brown pulled into the refugee camp after an eight-hour drive across the desert. It was late July of last year, and Brown was a 30-year-old immigration lawyer. She had spent a few years after college working on political campaigns, but her law degree was barely a year old, and she had only two clients in her private practice in Denver. When other lawyers told her that the federal government was opening a massive detention center for immigrants in southeastern New Mexico, where hundreds of women and children would be housed in metal trailers surrounded by barbed wire, Brown decided to volunteer legal services to the detainees. She wasn’t sure exactly what rights they might have, but she wanted to make sure they got them. She packed enough clothes to last a week, stopped by Target to pick up coloring books and toys and started driving south.

As she pulled into the dusty town of Artesia, she realized that she still had no idea what to expect. The new detention center was just north of town, behind a guard station in a sprawling complex with restricted access. Two other volunteers had been in town for about a week and had permission from federal officials to access the compound the following day.

Brown spent the night at a motel, then drove to the detention camp in the morning. She stood in the wind-swept parking lot with the other lawyers, overlooking the barren plains of the eastern plateau. After a few minutes, a transport van emerged from the facility to pick them up. It swung to a stop in the parking lot, and the attorneys filed on. They sat on the cold metal benches and stared through the caged windows as the bus rolled back into the compound and across the bleak brown landscape. It came to a stop by a small trailer, and the lawyers shuffled out.

As they opened the door to the trailer, Brown felt a blast of cold air. The front room was empty except for two small desks arranged near the center. A door in the back opened to reveal dozens of young women and children huddled together. Many were gaunt and malnourished, with dark circles under their eyes. “The kids were really sick,” Brown told me later. “A lot of the moms were holding them in their arms, even the older kids — holding them like babies, and they’re screaming and crying, and some of them are lying there listlessly.”

Brown took a seat at a desk, and a guard brought a woman to meet her. Brown asked the woman in Spanish how she ended up in detention. The woman explained that she had to escape from her home in El Salvador when gangs targeted her family. “Her husband had just been murdered, and she and her kids found his body,” Brown recalls. “After he was murdered, the gang started coming after her and threatening to kill her.” Brown agreed to help the woman apply for political asylum in the United States, explaining that it might be possible to pay a small bond and then live with friends or relatives while she waited for an asylum hearing. When the woman returned to the back room, Brown met with another, who was fleeing gangs in Guatemala. Then she met another young woman, who fled violence in Honduras. “They were all just breaking down,” Brown said. “They were telling us that they were afraid to go home. They were crying, saying they were scared for themselves and their children. It was a constant refrain: ‘I’ll die if I go back.’ ”

Do yourself a favor and read the rest of this fantastic (and lengthy) story.


SAN BERNARDINO COP ON WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A BLACK OFFICER IN THE US

As a black police officer in the city of San Bernardino, CA, Darren Sims is a minority on both sides of the badge.

According to 2011 Census data, San Bernardino has the highest poverty level of a city with a population over 200,000 in California, and the second highest nationally (behind Detroit). San Bernardino’s crime rates are also significantly higher than the state and national averages.

San Bernardino has struggled with creating a police department representative of the city’s population. Around 9% of SBPD officers are black, compared with a 15% black community. Latinos comprise just 28% of the police force, in contrast to 60% of citizens. And the department and city are 59% and 19% white, respectively.

In an interview with Bloomberg’s Esme Deprez, Sims shares what it’s like to be a black cop in San Bernardino. Here are some clips:

For Sims, the combination of black skin and blue uniform makes him feel, by turns, like a threat and a target. Last summer, his beat partner almost died after being shot in the head, an event that still haunts him. He empathizes with minorities who feel unfairly treated, yet he’s also been the target of their scorn. As an officer, he says, he upholds the law, regardless of a lawbreaker’s race.

San Bernardino, a city of 214,000 people 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has long been one of the most dangerous of its size. Things have gotten only worse after the city declared bankruptcy in August 2012. The police force has shrunk to 230 officers from more than 350. Homicides surged to 46 in 2013 from 32 in 2009.

Those numbers are why Sims, who grew up in nearby Riverside, wanted to join the department: Higher crime means more people in need of protection. In August 2013, he was sworn in, following stints counseling troubled youth at group homes, supervising park workers in nearby Moreno Valley and playing football at Kentucky State University.

Sims describes those drawn to policing as protectors of everyday citizens — sheep — from criminals intent on doing harm — wolves.

“Racism does exist,” he said recently, after an all-night shift. “I don’t believe it’s the underlying factor, the underlying thing, that drives law enforcement to oppress a certain person, a type of people, a certain demographic of people.”

[SNIP]

In uniform, his medium-brown skin invites taunts: Oreo, sellout, Uncle Tom. The ugly names have increased since Ferguson, Sims says. Now, as he approaches people, they’ll often raise both hands and say, “Don’t shoot,” as some witnesses said Michael Brown did.

“They don’t view us as being black,” Sims said. “They view us as being a cop.”

Those views were once his own. Growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood, Sims listened to rap music that glorified cop-killing, and shared his friends’ conviction that police were to be shunned. Now, on patrol, he is reminded of that sentiment by “187 SBPD” graffiti, referring to the penal code for murder and the San Bernardino Police Department….

The way to demolish barriers between police and community is a mutual exchange of respect, Sims says. He prides himself on talking with suspects as he would with his watch commander — or grandmother.


SUICIDES IN LOS ANGELES JAILS DECREASED BY HALF IN 2014

Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department data shows that inmate suicides dropped from 10 in 2013 to 5 in 2014. The decrease follows a year after the US Department of Justice released a report criticizing the county’s treatment of mentally ill inmates—with particular reference to the suicide count—and said it would seek a consent decree.

KPCC’s Andrea Gardner has more on the numbers. Here’s a clip:

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Kelley Frasier said deputies and mental health professionals have set suicide reduction as a top priority. For instance, after noticing a trend in higher rates of attempted suicide among inmates housed in “single-man cells,” she said they changed the practice.

“We came to the table and we said, ‘let’s make a conscious effort, let’s not put them in single-man cells,’ ” she said.

In other cases, more mental health teams were dispatched to check on isolated inmates more often.

Instances of serious self-harm—like cutting and attempted suicide—also dropped significantly in 2014 from 2013, to 71 from 110 documented cases.

Posted in Department of Justice, Education, immigration, LA County Jail, Mental Illness, racial justice, women's issues, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

Formerly Locked-Up LA Youth Tell How to Build a Better Juvenile Justice System

February 6th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


LOOKING FOR THE LA MODEL

Los Angeles County is at a critical stage in reforming its juvenile justice system, which is the largest in the nation. Juvenile crime is down, and more kids than in the past are being given probation for non-serious infractions, rather than being sent to locked facilities.

Yet, still nearly 1000 young people are spending their time daily in LA County’s 3 juvenile halls or in one of its 9 probation camps that are still in operation. (It has 14 total.)

Locking kids up is a costly matter. The average daily tab to house a youth in one of LA County’s camps is $329.61. If he or she stays in camp for six months, that’s over $60,000 to keep one teenager for one-half year—far in excess of what it would cost to send that same kid to a high priced private university.

Yet, the recidivism rate of kids coming out of the camps, according to probation’s own numbers, is 40 percent. Not an encouraging success rate. Moreover, some researchers claim that the return-customer percentage is really much higher.

Five years ago, things were spectacularly worse in the campswith conditions that were, frankly, unconscionable. But, due to nearly eight years of oversight by the Department of Justice, plus several big, bad lawsuits, there have been heartening improvements.

There is still a long way to go. Even Probation Chief Jerry Powers described the design of the probation camps, in a report to the LA County Board of Supervisors, as “creat[ing] an image of a jail-like environment.”

The good news is that there’s a scheme in the works, which many believe could usher in truly profound changes in the way LA treats its law-breaking young. Officials at LA County Probation, along with participants from a gaggle of other agencies, plus university researchers, policy makers and advocates— are in the midst of hammering out the finer details of a plan to build a new kind of probation camp, a $48 million pilot project that everyone hopes will become a model that can be replicated throughout LA County’s juvenile system—and, with luck, beyond that to the rest of the state, or maybe even the nation.

As we’ve reported in the past, the new pilot facility is to be built on the site of the now-closed Camp David Kilpatrick, the system’s oldest such facility, located in the rural hills above Malibu. The idea is to transform the run-down Kilpatrick—which, prior to teardown, resembled a group of dilapidated prison barracks——into a cluster of homelike cottages that sleep a maximum of 12. Thus both the structure and the programmatic strategy of the new facility will theoretically be designed to promote rehabilitation and healing, rather than simply behavior control, as has been too often the emphasis in the past.

But the details of this brand new programming strategy—which is slated to be called The LA Model—are, in many ways, still very fluid.

Part of the issue is the fact that the project is an unusually collaborative one, with planning committees that include juvenile justice advocates from various nonprofits, along with representatives from the LA County Office of Education (LACOE), the Department of Mental Health, the Los Angeles Arts Commission, the Juvenile Court Health Services, the Department of Public Works, researchers from UCLA and Cal State LA, and so on.

And in the end, it is LA County Probation’s project, and probation is, of course, overseen by the LA County Board of Supervisors, which holds the purse strings on the enterprise. Additionally, on anything regarding staffing, probation has to answer to its unions, which—naturally—want a say in the matter.

Getting this diverse array of people, agencies, and interests to agree has reportedly been challenging. As a consequence, although progress is being made, there have been repeated delays. As it stands now, the LA Model camp is set to be completed in late 2016 and open in January 2017.


A TEAM OF UNCONVENTIONAL EXPERTS

With all of the aforementioned in mind, some of the researchers and policy advocates involved—namely a UCLA-affiliated research team working under Dr. Jorja leap (whose CV you can find here), along with policy analysts Michelle Newell and Angela Chung from the California branch of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF-CA), decided everyone might benefit from the opinions of a very different group of advisors—specifically kids who have been locked up in the probation camps, thus have personal experience with the system.

And so it was that last spring Leap’s team, together with the CDF-CA policy analysts, coordinated a series of five focus groups with 48 teenagers and young adults, each of whom had spent time in LA County’s long-troubled camps. At every meeting, the participants were asked various versions of the same question: “How can Los Angeles County’s probation camps provide a more positive experience for youth?”

The focus groups were turned out to be quite productive. So the researchers and analysts decided to go a step further. They selected five young men and women from the groups and made them “policy fellows.” The idea was that the five would help take the material gained thus far from the focus groups, and distill it, and turn the youth-generated information into a policy brief.

The fellows—three males and two females—ranged in age from 18 to 27, and collectively had spent a total of 102 months—8.5 years—in LA County’s juvenile camps. Their names are Karla Fuentes-Quiroz, Raul Barreto, Ralphica Garnett, Daniel Bisuano and James Anderson.

“Too often we have policy briefs authored by people who don’t have any real world connection with the subject,” said Dr. Jorja Leap. Everyone was pleased that this time it was different.

After their selection, the five spent several months going to workshops to learn the nuts and bolts of research, analysis and policy writing. Then they were mentored by CDF-CA’s juvenile justice policy team through the process of conceiving and writing a brief that outlined a five priorities that the youth fellows and their mentors concluded must be at the top of the list for the LA Model planners.

The completed 34-page brief—titled Rising up, Speaking Out: Youth Transforming Los angeles County’s Juvenile Justice System—was presented to the various Kilpatrick planning entities early this year, and reportedly was warmly received.

“The response has been overwhelming and positive,” said Leap. “There is tremendous support for the youth voices and how important these are in the process.”

Before we get to the details of the youth brief, however, it might be helpful to meet one of the fellows, Raul Barreto, whose backstory represents the kind of life experience that the five brought to the table.


EXPERTISE GAINED THE HARD WAY

When Raul Barreto was a pre-teen, a lot of the kids around him were joining street gangs, yet he did not. Like the other boys, he was curious about the gang world. But his over-stressed and distracted mother moved her eight children around far too often for him settle comfortably into any group—gangs included.

“My mom did her best. I love and admire her so much for that,” he said. “She always fed us. She washed our clothes. But she could never afford to stay in one place.” The frequent moving was compounded by the fact that there were no rules in the household. No boundaries, Raul said. No emphasis on school. No protective parental focus that helped her children feel secure and emotionally tethered.

It didn’t help that Raul had no dad around for most of his upbringing. When he was seven-years-old, his father vanished into prison.

In the father’s absence, Raul’s oldest brother became his role model, imparting to the younger boy the only gifts he had to give, which were primarily the ability to be tough, even when you didn’t feel tough, and instructions about how to get by on the street.

When Raul was in 8th grade, he put those lessons to work by attempting to form a clique of his own. When a boy from another clique “disrespected” Raul’s newly formed group, Raul did what he thought he had to do. He whacked the kid with a heavy chain, and was quickly arrested and charged with assault. And so it was that, at age 13, he was sentenced for nine months to an LA County probation camp.

“Basically, it was gladiator school,” said Raul of his first camp stay. The staff offered little help. “They didn’t do much more than herd people. They were essentially guards.”

Raul’s brother, who’d been to camp before him, told him how to navigate the place without being bullied. It was not honorable to back down, his older brother said, even if you got beat up, even if you got hurt badly. “There was a certain pride that I held in having never backed down,” Raul said.

Raul was sent to LA County camps a total of four times, although the last three stays were for probation violations, not for additional charges. Between camp stays, Barreto’s adored older brother, who was nineteen at the time, was arrested and sentenced to prison for more than 100 years.

The brother’s sentence slammed Barreto far more than his father’s exit had but, as with the camp fights, he took the blow with as much stoicism as he could muster.

His last stay in camp was at Camp David Gonzalez, then the system’s most progressive, volunteer-heavy facility, located in the hills off Malibu Canyon. There Barreto met a mentor who would change his life, a volunteer named Dan Seaver who ran the camp’s unique, kid-produced newspaper.

Seaver repeatedly told Raul that he was smart, and had potential, and urged him to take advantage of the camp’s various activities. “He talked to me about college. He talked to me about work. He talked to me about those and other things in a way that made them real for me,” he said.

During his stay at Gonzalez, Raul learned he had a knack for writing, and soon became the newspaper’s editor. While in camp, he also read like crazy. Fantasy was his favorite genre. “I read all the Harry Potter books, and a whole lot of others,” Raul said. “I wanted read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they didn’t have it in the camp library.” Reading was a way he could escape from being locked up” Raul said. “It also helped me become a better writer.”

Seaver’s mentorship at Gonzales didn’t magically solve all of Barreto’s problems. It took a couple additional incarcerations, this time as an adult. It also took knowing someone who, over time, refused to give up on him.

Fast forward to the present. Raul, now has a good job working for Martin Outdoor Media, the company that sells advertising on those green bus benches that bloom around the city. He has also done some crew work in the film industry and has plans to do more.

In his off time, he does advocacy work for an organization called Anti-recidivism Coalition—or ARC—through which he makes visits to the county’s probation camps to talk to kids who remind him of his younger self, telling them not to give up, that they can do it, that it’ll be okay.

And, now of course, there is his involvement with the policy fellowship.


FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR TRANSFORMATION

In all, the youth fellows came up with five primary areas of change that they believed were most essential.

“These are very realistic recommendations,” said Michelle Newell of the Children’s Defense Fund who, like Leap, feels that the youth-informed policy brief has been well received.

“Things have gotten a lot a lot better in the camps,” continued Newell, But, in a lot of ways, she said, they were “still operating on a punitive incarceration model.”

Probation had worked to hit all the marks that the various big lawsuits, and the years of oversight by the DOJ have required, and that has helped, Newell said. “But compliance-based reactive change isn’t going to get us where we want to go.”

Hence the brief, the five primary points of which are the following:

1. Increase the availability and diversity of programs.

• Implement programs at all camps that are youth-centered and tailored individually for a youth’s strengths, skills and interests. Programs should be scheduled in ways that encourage youth participation, making efforts to address gaps in scheduling and ensure equal access across the camps.

• Provide camp programs that prepare young people to successfully transition back into their communities, such as higher education workshops, work and technical skill-building, and job search and interviewing workshops.

• Provide high quality education in probation camps, including utilizing the 300 minutes of instructional time for supportive and advanced curriculum, better textbooks and more avenues to establish stronger credit recovery. Continue to expand successful educational models such as Road to Success Academy, a project-based learning model that was piloted in the two girls’ camps and is currently being expanded.

• Expand partnerships with community-based organizations at all camps to provide a diverse array of programs for young people to develop pro-social skills and connections with mentors (e.g., Camp Gonzales, arguably the most resourced camp,12 has many such partnerships and can serve as a model).

2. Foster mentorship and supportive relationships with probation officers.

*Hire, invest in and retain probation staff who are not trained only as guards but rather who also want to work with youth and rehabilitate them. These efforts have already begun but need to be deepened; probation should reevaluate job descriptions and hiring practices to ensure the best staff is recruited and retained.

* Train and provide technical assistance for probation staff on all levels in trauma-informed approaches, positive youth development and other therapeutic approaches to communicating, managing and working with youth. Los Angeles County should invest in trainings such as those run by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network or other violence intervention programs that prevent re-victimization and train staff in the role trauma plays in brain development, adolescent development and behavior.

*Build a mission, culture and operations centered on positive approaches to safety and building relationships, moving away from correctional approaches that emphasize control and supervision.

• Foster activities, routines and spaces for probation staff and youth to engage in positive ways (e.g., in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, at the maximum security facility for youth who have committed serious and violent crimes run by the nonprofit Alternative Rehabilitation Communities (ARC), staff sit and eat with the young people at the dining table for all meals, creating a family feel).

• Establish a working schedule for probation staff that supports a small group treatment model and is consistent with relationship building20 (e.g., reevaluate the 56-hour staffing shift and determine whether a different schedule would allow for closer relationship building with youth).

3. Cultivate the dignity of youth at camp through increased privacy, cleanliness and nutrition.

• Provide access to healthier food, more food and better quality food. This includes providing more snacks, removing expired food and having equal access to seconds (i.e., not providing reward systems for youth to have seconds).

• Increase hygiene by providing youth with individual towels and soaps, better quality hygiene products, including feminine products, cleaner and nicer clothing, and better quality and cleaner bedding (e.g., Santa Clara County’s William F. James Enhanced Ranch provides each youth his or her own regular commercial hygiene products).

• Create physical layouts of camps that provide more privacy in bathrooms (for toilets and showers), as well as dorm rooms with less crowding, homelike furniture and better quality beds (e.g., The Missouri Model created homelike pods that fit 12 youth in one setting rather than 100 beds in one dorm with a single control center.

4. Increase connections with family and community.

• Provide regular visits (i.e., more than one a week) for families and include flexible times to accommodate families’ schedules (e.g., North Carolina state facilities provide visitation seven days a week, which helps youth build closer relationships with their families.)

• Provide access to transportation, given that most probation camps are in
remote locations where public transportation does not exist. This could be through transportation stipends, rides to camps or alternative meeting places where youth are transported closer to home for supervised visits (e.g., in Virginia, the Transportation Program provides low-cost transportation for family members who need it29). Sending youth to facilities in remote areas that are not accessible to families or community services also needs to be re-evaluated.

• Create alterative mediums for families to communicate with youth, such as Skype and video chat. Camps should consider home passes or “furloughs,” which are used in many model juvenile justice programs, including Santa Clara County, California, Missouri and ARC in Pennsylvania.

• Eliminate any practices that limit or remove visitation, phone calls or mail from family as punishment.

• Create physical spaces and procedures in camp that make families feel welcomed, valued, less intimidated and open to staff interaction.

• Expand the definition of family and allow visits from non-relatives; mentors, siblings under 18 years old and other loved ones play an important role in youth’s lives and should be allowed to visit.

5. Improve camp discipline and management procedures.

End regimented, boot camp-like camp procedures (e.g., marching with hands behind the back, sitting on bunks to be counted, and running to and from buildings) that demean youth and convey control and coercion.

• End punitive practices, including solitary confinement, use of force and pepper spray, and replace them with positive behavior support systems. Nationally recognized models demonstrate successful methodologies for crisis and safety management that are not deficit-based, such as Positive Youth Development, Trauma-Informed Care, New York State’s Sanctuary Model37 and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

• Adopt practices that let youth feel normal and valued, including recognizing normal adolescent developmental milestones — celebrating birthdays, acknowledging losses such as deaths, and recognizing accomplishments, such as graduations.

• Allow for personal space and freedom by developing camp routines and structures that allow for youth to experience a sense of calmness, privacy and reflection, which is critical to their development and the progress they make with their treatment.


LIVES SAVED—AND NOT

Each of the five fellows wrote a personal introduction for one of the five categories. It is likely not a surprise that Raul was the person in charge of the chapter on relationships and mentoring.

As a part of the introduction to his section, Raul wrote the following:

“I was 13 my first time in camp and was sentenced to nine months. During those nine months I didn’t get counseling, I didn’t learn a trade or any new skills and, probably most importantly, I never made a connection with a positive adult or anyone I trusted who could give me life advice. I had myself and my peers. When I wasn’t worried about my peers doing something, I was worried about staff and vice versa. I learned to survive in so many unnecessary ways that are only useful in institutions.

“Every time I was released, I remained unguided and misinformed and, usually, I ended up recidivating. Luckily, I eventually broke that pattern. Many of the kids I met, fought with, laughed with and lived with throughout my many stays in juvenile detention are now dead, heavily drug addicted or serving life in prison.

“The difference between me and them is that during my last camp program, I met a volunteer who became my mentor, a person who until this very day will answer my call, listen to my problems and give me the best possible advice he can offer. I firmly believe it was this simple, consistent act that saved my life….

“And while my camp experience happened a lot longer ago than many other youth in the focus groups, the need for connection and mentorship continues to remain a problem for youth at camps today. My experience simply shows just how important it is when just one person makes a connection with a young person….”

Hard to argue with that.


Posted in juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, Probation | 1 Comment »

Prison Tech, Prez Nominates Deputy Mayor for US Attorney, Disabled in Isolation, Public Defenders’ Unconscious Bias

February 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

SMUGGLED CELL PHONES CONNECT PRISONERS WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD…PLUS SAN QUENTIN’S CODING CLASS

A three part series for Fusion by Kevin Roose and Pendarvis Harshaw explores digital tech issues in the criminal justice system.

Part one takes a look at the seemingly limitless flow of contraband cell phones, which inmates use for everything from to coordinating hunger strikes between prisons, to checking in with loved ones, to recording comedic vine videos. Here are some clips:

A month-long Fusion investigation turned up dozens of social media profiles of inmates currently serving time in several states, many of whom were frequent users of the services in question. Some inmates appeared to be accessing the Internet through proxies – a family member who had the inmate’s Facebook password, for example, and was using the account to relay messages – while other inmates appeared to be accessing the sites directly from their cells.

“Been on lock down for two weeks…going into the third week. Letters would be great. Money would be a blessing. If I have to choke down one more bologna sandwich I think I might snap….,” wrote one Facebook user last October. The user, whose name matches that of a current federal prisoner in West Virginia, appears to have posted to his Facebook profile from two other prisons where he was previously housed.

“Hello everyone, wanted to say hi and let u know I’m currently on an extended lock-down,” wrote another federal inmate, who is serving time for armed robbery at a high-security facility in Texas. “Dont worry I’m nit [sic] in trouble the lock-down is due to a big incident that happened between two gangs at my location,” the inmate wrote….

Other social networks, too, are filled with evidence of contraband activity. One Vine user, who goes by “Acie Bandage,” has posted dozens of six-second videos of himself and his fellow inmates dancing, goofing off, and doing impersonations from their prison cells. (The user wraps a bandage around his face during the videos to disguise his identity — click here to see more of his videos, which are really quite something.)

[SNIP]

Beyond the pragmatic safety issues, there are philosophical questions about the role digital culture should play in the criminal justice system. In 2015, as technology forms the base layer of culture, communication, and education, is it cruel and unusual to cut prisoners off from the entire online universe? What’s the role of technology in rehabilitation? If the purpose of a prison is to restrict an offender’s movement and keep him from causing further harm to the general population, should those restrictions apply just to the physical body? Or should his virtual self be imprisoned, too?

The second story explores the issue of teaching inmates technology in prison, for job seeking purposes, and also so that they can more easily reenter their digitally-connected communities.

Roose and Harshaw focus on Code 7370, a coding program put on by the Last Mile, in partnership with Hack Reactor and the California Prison Industry Authority. While the vocational program at San Quentin State Prison does not directly connect participants to the internet, their completed coursework is tested on an administrator’s computer and projected onto a screen. And although there do not seem to be many pre-release programs to teach inmates the basic tech skills they will need to thrive on the outside, yet, the calls for such training are growing louder. Here’s a clip:

For former inmates, the transition out of prison and into the 21st century can be jarring. Many newly paroled inmates, especially those who served long sentences, have never sent an e-mail, used a smartphone, or filled out an online form. The unfamiliarity of these systems can create hurdles when it comes to mundane tasks, such as buying groceries from the self-checkout aisle at the store or using an electronic subway pass. And when it comes to applying for jobs, small hurdles can turn into huge obstacles.

The post-prison lives of inmates are rarely easy, technology problems or no. 77 percent of ex-convicts are arrested again within a 5 year period of being released, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Justice. But numerous studies have shown that vocational training and educational opportunities, like those offered by The Last Mile, can help keep ex-inmates from returning to prison. A 2010 study by The Rand Corporation showed that fewer than half of incarcerated people receive academic instruction while behind bars. Those who do receive educational or vocational training, though, are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders, and 28 percent more likely to land a job.

One graduate of The Last Mile, Kenyatta Leal, got his first smartphone shortly after being released from San Quentin, where he served the last part of a 19-year sentence for firearms possession. Leal, 46, was no stranger to technology – years before, he’d been given 40 days of isolation in “the hole” as punishment for having a cell phone in prison – but he’d never had a phone capable of downloading apps, streaming music, and sending e-mail. In his new job at RocketSpace, a San Francisco tech co-working space whose founder hired Leal after meeting him in Code 7370, he realized he would need to catch up.

“I didn’t have any tech skills, but I had bust-my-ass skills,” says Leal. “My boss gave me a Galaxy III on my first day, and I took it home, figured out YouTube, and watched, like, four different videos on how to send an e-mail.”


LA DEPUTY MAYOR, EILEEN MAURA DECKER, TAPPED TO BE NEXT US ATTORNEY FOR CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CA

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama nominated Eileen Maura Decker to be US Attorney of California’s Central District. Decker is a former federal prosecutor and currently serves as Los Angeles’ deputy mayor on law enforcement and public safety.

Decker would take the place former US Attorney André Birotte Jr., who was sworn in as the newest judge of the federal District Court in Los Angeles in October.

The Associated Press’ Brian Melley has more on Decker’s nomination and background. Here’s a clip:

Mayor Eric Garcetti credited Decker’s leadership with bringing crime to a historic low in the city, overhauling the fire department and making the city a model for disaster preparedness.

“Our office will miss her work and I will personally miss her, but I am glad that her new position keeps her in the business of keeping L.A. safe,” Garcetti said.

Decker was recommended for the post by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said she was highly qualified to work with federal, state and local law enforcement in a region of 19 million people that spans from Orange County to San Luis Obispo and the Inland Empire.

Decker, 54, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from New York University, started her legal career in private practice in 1990.

She worked as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor for two years, returned to private practice and then became an assistant U.S. attorney in 1995, where she prosecuted cases involving national security, fraud and organized crime. She also has a master’s degree from the Naval Post Graduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey.


FED. JUDGE SEZ STOP WAREHOUSING DISABLED CALIFORNIA PRISONERS IN ISOLATION

An Oakland federal judge has ordered California prisons to discontinue sticking disabled inmates in solitary confinement due to lack of space elsewhere in the facility. Judge Claudia Wilken says a number of state prisons are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that San Diego’s R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility is the most egregious violator. Wilken is currently hearing a class-action lawsuit against California’s solitary confinement practices.

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has the story. Here’s a clip:

Lawyers for prisoners and the state in 2012 had agreed on a plan to find more suitable housing within the state’s crowded prison system. Even so, Wilken found, prison logs showed 211 disabled inmates had been put in the isolation cells in the past year, spending from one day to one month in the units. Most of those cases were at one prison — R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the agency was reviewing the court’s order but otherwise did not comment.

Lawyers for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, representing the corrections department, argued in court that the problems at the San Diego prison would best be resolved internally by state policy changes.

A corrections department administrator said the housing assignments were temporary as the state copes with unplanned need to move 400 to 600 inmates between prisons every week, some the result of other court orders to relocate prisoners at risk of contracting valley fever or to receive mental health care.


WHEN PUBLIC DEFENDERS GIVE LESS THAN ADEQUATE REPRESENTATION BECAUSE OF THEIR UNCONSCIOUS BIASES

The Sixth Amendment Center’s David Carroll interviews Tigran Eldred, New England Law Professor and former public defender, about what he calls “ethical blindness,” which the prof. says is what happens when well-meaning public defenders are too overloaded to detect when they are giving poor clients subpar representation.

Elgred names three components: confirmation bias—preferring information that validates prior beliefs, motivated reasoning—seeking information that brings preferable answers, and overconfidence bias—misjudging the power to give effective counsel in the face of extreme adversity.

Here’s a clip from the interview:

DC: Okay – let’s try to unpack this for our readers. Are you saying that the demands of excessive caseloads force public defenders into making quick decisions about cases everyday that that they themselves may not be consciously aware of?

TE: That’s basically it. And, the scientific support for this comes from the world of “behavioral ethics.” In particular, three psychological factors are relevant to the excessive caseload discussion. First, we all experience what is known as “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency in all of us to seek out, interpret and remember information in a manner that supports our pre-existing beliefs. The second and related concept is “motivated reasoning.” Not only do we seek to confirm our pre-existing beliefs, but also we do so to reach conclusions that we prefer. Third, because of our general desire to think well of ourselves, we tend to experience an “overconfidence bias,” including the tendency to overestimate our abilities to act competently and ethically when confronted with difficult dilemmas.

All of three of these factors occur unconsciously. We are tricked into believing that our choices are reasoned, even when often they are not. Our brains convince us our quickest decisions are solely the result of conscious and rational deliberation. But all the while we are blissfully unaware of how our pre-existing views, desires and self-conception can influence the judgments and decisions that we make.

DC: So, we need some context here. Can you explain these theories within the specific debate of how public defenders respond to excessive caseloads?

TE: Certainly. I agree with Professor Gross that defenders who have too much work often have only one option: to triage cases. Structurally, they are forced into focusing limited resources on a percentage of cases at the expense of many others – and on those cases that don’t get the same level of focus or resources, you wind up with an assembly line of quick plea dispositions. When this type of triage occurs, the psychological phenomena I have described can be expected to exert significant influence.

For example, by starting with the premise that most cases will need to be disposed of quickly, lawyers will likely engage in confirmatory and motivated reasoning, unconsciously seeking reasons to justify this pre-determined conclusion. This can happen in a number of ways. For example, the lawyer might overestimate the strength of the evidence against the client or underestimate the value of additional investigation. Acts of omission, as Professor Gross notes, can have a profound effect on a case. When the lawyer fails to seek exculpatory material, to interview witnesses or to visit a crime scene – or fails to engage in many other forms of advocacy for a client – the lawyer is essentially confirming the pre-existing belief that no additional work for the client will be helpful.

DC: In studying indigent defense services all across the country, I continually encounter public defenders that tell me that I should not be so dismissive of early resolution courts because they often result in favorable decisions to defendants.

TE: Right, they’re playing the percentages. While in many instances it may be true that the best course of action is a quick plea bargain, it is also true that in many instances it is not. There is a significant chance that the decision to forgo additional work for the client is the product of the type of fast thinking I have described. And then, after the fact the process become self-fulfilling. The lawyer has decided that a quick plea is appropriate without further investigation. So the client is advised to take the plea quickly and the lawyer, laboring under the illusion that the decision was solely the product of rational deliberation, remains convinced of the propriety of the decision — unaware of the subtle psychological forces that conspire to influence the lawyer’s behavior.

Tilgard goes on to explain how to reform indigent defense in a way that will effectively combat these unconscious biases:

TE: This is where the latest post by Mr. Vitale is so critical to the discussion. He suggests that indigent defense reform must occur on three fronts: system-building, public advocacy and culture change. I agree all three are critical to overcoming ethical blindness. Public defenders must work in systems that insulate them from undue political and judicial interference. Without structural independence there is little hope that public defenders can overcome these issues alone.

Posted in CDCR, Obama, prison policy, Public Defender, Reentry, solitary, U.S. Attorney | 1 Comment »

Koch Campaign, Violence Intervention in Hospitals, Mental Illness and Solitary, Legislation Against Over-medicating Foster Kids

February 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

A FACE FOR THE KOCH BROS’ CAMPAIGN AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES, CIVIL FORFEITURE, AND MORE

Weldon Angelos will spend 55 years in prison for selling weed while carrying a firearm, a punishment tremendously disproportionate to the crime, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The conservative multi-billionaire Koch brothers want to help free Angelos (only possible through a presidential pardon), and introduce him as the face of their criminal justice system reform campaign. The campaign will target harsh mandatory minimum laws, overcriminalization of non-serious, non-violent offenses, civil asset forfeiture abuse, militarization of police, and reentry services.

The Koch brothers are part of a growing trend of Republican leaders and groups emerging as leaders in the fight against mass incarceration. Another high-profile group, the Texas-based Right on Crime, were integral to the passage of California’s three-strikes reform bill, as well as the more recent Proposition 47.

The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak has the story. Here’s a clip:

Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”

At the time of the trial, Cassell noted that Angelos’ sentence exceeded the minimum required for an individual convicted of airline hijacking, detonating a bomb intended to kill bystanders, and the exploitation of a child for pornography.

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.

He has more than 40 years left to go. Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.

His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem. And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.

The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.

They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week.

In the same vein, Mother Jones’ Sam Brodey has a roundup of five important criminal justice issues we may see some bipartisan reform on from Congress soon, including sealing and expunging records, good time credits, and mandatory minimums. Here’s a clip:

Earned-time credits: These programs, under which prisoners can work to earn an early release by completing classes, job training, and drug rehab, are highly popular among reformers. Many states already offer them, and they’ve been touted as smart, efficient ways to reduce prison populations as well as recidivism rates. Jay Hurst, a criminal-justice lawyer and commentator at the Hill, says that this is the likeliest issue where Congress could pass legislation this year.

Easing up mandatory minimums: These laws, which broadly require those convicted of certain crimes to serve set sentences regardless of the specifics of the case, are considered hallmarks of the tough-on-crime approach politicians used to embrace. Critics, such as advocacy group Families Against the Mandatory Minimum, argue that these laws “undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual” and that they are one of the main reasons for overcrowded prisons. According to Jesselyn McCurdy, a criminal-justice expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, half of those locked up in federal prison are there for drug offenses, to which mandatory minimums are often rigorously applied.

Last January, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which intended to reduce the size of the prison population and rein in ballooning costs by reducing mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for drug-related crimes. Someone serving a 10-year sentence for a nonviolent crime could theoretically get out in five, under the legislation. The bill also proposed broadening judges’ discretion to sentence below federal minimums, known as the “safety valve” for oversentencing.

The Durbin-Lee bill died in committee—a common fate for criminal-justice legislation—and a total overhaul of mandatory minimums could be a tough ask for this Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s new chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is a vocal defender of sentencing minimums. Still, experts say there’s reason to believe some progress could get made. “Safety valve relief could happen this Congress,” Hurst said, because it’s considered a more moderate path to reducing sentences.


HOSPITAL PROGRAMS BREAKING THE CYCLE OF RETALIATORY VIOLENCE

A growing number of “hospital-based violence intervention programs,” designed to interrupt patterns of violence in kids’ lives, are cropping up in California and across the US.

These programs ensure there are tools and resources to redirect kids and teens from retaliation, when they turn up at hospitals suffering from violent injuries and traumas.

Not only are these methods successfully keeping kids and communities safer by connecting kids with therapy, job training, and other services at a pivotal moment, they are saving criminal justice systems (and hospitals) money.

Pacific Standard Magazine’s Lauren Kirchener has this story (we didn’t want you to miss). Here’s a clip:

When Joel Fein was working in the emergency room of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, treating a 16-year-old boy for injuries he had suffered in a fight, he felt truly helpless when he heard the boy say: “The guy that did this—I’m gonna cap him.” It would mean another fight, another victim of violence, and another patient in the ER. How could Fein do anything to stop the continuation—and escalation—of violence?

This helpless feeling, and this question, both eventually led Fein to his role as co-chair at a national network of “hospital-based violence intervention programs” (HVIPs) that teach health care workers how to help kids and teenagers who have undergone a trauma, and to divert their energies away from dangerous retaliation. And (not that this should be the primary goal, but) according to a new study out by Drexel University, it might save communities a lot of money, too.

The idea behind an intervention program in the hospital setting is that, while victims of violence might have other opportunities to connect with social workers or other resources at other times in their lives, the time right when they are recovering from their injuries may be the most crucial. So the people who are surrounding them at that time should be trained to help them make the right choices. The national network’s handbook for starting up a new hospital-based program reads:

The philosophy of these programs is that violence is preventable and that trauma centers and emergency rooms offer a unique opportunity at the hospital bedside—the teachable moment—to most effectively engage a victim of violence and stop the cycle of violence.

How programs actualize that philosophy will vary, but, for instance, San Francisco’s Wraparound Project assigns case managers to patients who can organize ongoing home visits or cognitive behavioral therapy, and can help patients get better access to government services. They can also point young people to vocational training and new after-school programs to occupy their time, and even to free or discounted tattoo removal—presumably so the kids can take steps to dissociate themselves from gangs.


WAREHOUSING MENTALLY ILL PRISONERS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, THEN RELEASING THEM WITH A WORSENED MENTAL STATE

In the first of a four-part series for WNYC’s Morning Edition program, Cindy Rodriguez shares the tragic story of Sedlis Dowdy, a severely schizophrenic man who has spent nine years in solitary confinement (seventeen total in prison, with five to go) for violent crimes associated with his mental illness.

Dowdy was released once, at the end of his fourteenth year behind bars, but only made it a few days in transitional housing before he was locked up again for stabbing someone. He will likely be released again in five years.

Among a number of other collateral consequences of how the US uses solitary confinement, a high percentage of people held in solitary confinement are eventually going to leave prison—often with more mental problems than when they arrived. When they are released back into their communities, they take illnesses exacerbated by isolation with them. (California struggles with this problem, as do many other states.)

Here are some clips from the WNYC story:

Dowdy grew up poor in Harlem during the 70s and 80s, as the state’s mental-health system went through a wrenching transformation away from large institutions to the underfunded, underperforming system that it is today.

The illness derailed what could’ve been the story of a young man who beat the odds. Despite frequent fights and dropping out of high school, he did well on his GED and attended college at Morrisville State in central New York.

[SNIP]

…in February of 1996, he shot a man at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem.

“I didn’t even know the guy,” Dowdy said. “I couldn’t take the voices no more and they was telling me to do it.”

Dowdy’s violent crime made him an outlier: Research suggests that only 4 percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to the mentally ill. He was sentenced to five to 10 years but ended up serving 14 because of the serious trouble he got into. Within a 15 month period, starting in October of 1997, he became uncontrollable. The state Department of Corrections said he assaulted inmates and staff, had weapons and disobeyed direct orders. Dowdy said he was off his meds and delusional at the time.

And as he acted out, the prison responded with more punishment. Dowdy spent nine years, nearly a quarter of his life, in solitary confinement and was often only fed what’s called “the loaf,” which is a brick of baked bread and vegetables.

Experts say extreme isolation is like physical torture for someone who is mentally ill. Over the last four years, several states have scaled back their use of solitary for more vulnerable populations, including New York, which enacted a new policy last year as the result of a lawsuit.

Dowdy’s situation got so bad, he took to throwing feces on guards. He was prosecuted for it and got four extra years added to his sentence. Soon, according to Dowdy, punishment turned into brutality by guards. He described guards beating him, putting glass in his food and trying to break his legs.

“At the time I was just so angry I didn’t know what to do,” he explained. “And nobody was listening to me, so I would come out of my cell and not go back in.”

When asked about the abuse, the state Department of Corrections said records show Dowdy spent nine months on the loaf and in 2000 was the subject of one excessive use of force report complaint, the details of which were lost when the agency changed computer systems.

The environment inside prisons and jails is known to exacerbate mental illness, making treatment that much more difficult to deliver.

“The more chaotic the environment, the harder it is for somebody who is already having trouble organizing their thoughts and organizing their behavior to deal with it,“ said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University.


UPCOMING CALIFORNIA BILLS TO TARGET UNCHECKED OVERPRESCRIBING OF PSYCHOTROPIC MEDS FOR FOSTER KIDS

Karen de Sá’s alarming five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury exposed the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California kids in the foster care system. Last year, the Department of Health Care Services tightened restrictions on how doctors prescribe these meds to kids in the foster care system, as a result of the exposé.

This year a number of California bills are in the works to protect foster kids from dangerous over-medication.

One bill would allow kids to receive alternate treatments to certain psych drugs. Another would provide training to foster parents regarding psychotropic prescriptions.

San Jose Mercury’s Karen de Sá has more on the issue, as well as a rundown on the rest of the upcoming bills. Here’s a clip:

With a half dozen legislators exploring bills, de León’s staff has been working behind the scenes, attending meetings of a statewide reform group and meeting with advocates led by the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law and lawmakers considering bills.

“When the government takes the extraordinary step of removing a child from their families because of abuse or neglect, it assumes the tremendous responsibility of ensuring they are cared for and not further abused or neglected by the system,” de León said in an email.

This newspaper’s series “on the overprescribing of psychotropic medications has shed a spotlight on a deeply troubling aspect of the system,” de León said. “The Senate will be investigating the plight of the adolescents highlighted in these articles, as well as foster children generally.”

[SNIP]

Lawmakers, including state Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, have each submitted early language to the Legislative Counsel’s Office, their staff members confirmed. Other bills that address prescribing psychotropics in group homes are also in the early stages.

The influential California Welfare Directors Association is working with Mitchell’s office on legislation that would provide more information to judges, social workers and others in the lives of foster children about their medication and treatment history. That information would give judges who authorize medications more than just a prescriber’s recommendation. It would include observations from social workers, caregivers and the children themselves.

“We’ve been very concerned about making sure that only kids who really need these drugs are getting them,” said Frank Mecca, the welfare director association’s executive director.

Yet, opposition has already surfaced over the state Department of Health Care Services’ decision last fall to require that doctors receive extra authorization to prescribe antipsychotics to children 18 and younger in the public health system…

Hop over to the SJ Mercury for the rest of the story.

Posted in Foster Care, juvenile justice, Mental Illness, prison, Reentry, Rehabilitation, Right on Crime, Sentencing, Trauma, Violence Prevention | No Comments »

Richmond PD Chief Improves Cop Morale….DOJ Calls Albuquerque Police “Reckless” ….Prop 47 Lowers Jail Pop….Luis Rodriguez’s Words Save Lives…..Saying Goodby to Rick Orlov

February 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon



RICHMOND, CA, POLICE CHIEF STRESSES COMMUNITY POLICING OVER SHOW OF FORCE

When Richmond CA hired Chris Magnus, an openly gay white guy from Fargo, North Dakota, to take over its scandal ridden police department, local cops and members of Richmond’s primarily minority communities were….how to put it?….skeptical.

But Magnus didn’t blink at the initially less-than-enthusiastic reception. He immediately disbanded the department’s “street teams,” units of heavily armed officers deployed in high-crime areas. He didn’t like the impression that the the street teams gave of being an occupying army that arrested people for small amounts of drugs and other minor crimes. Instead, he asked his officers to attend community meetings and employed a system he called a “Neighborhood Beat Policing” model. “Our goal is to build continuity of presence and the strongest possible relationships between officers and the public in every area of the city, he wrote on the Richmond PD website.

Now crime is down and morale in the Richmond PD is up.

Aron Pero of the Associated Press has more. Here are some clips:

Magnus also eliminated the seniority system that allowed officers to choose the areas they would patrol. He required officers to take on more responsibilities on their beats beyond responding to calls. Beat officers are required to attend neighborhood meetings and to maintain a high profile at churches, schools and businesses. They’re encouraged to hand out their mobile phone numbers and email addresses to residents.

“A lot of people were skeptical at first … I know I was skeptical. I mean, not only was he coming from outside the department, he was coming from Fargo, of all places,” said Officer Virgil Thomas, a 19-year veteran of the force and the newly installed president of the police union. “But he came in with a plan and stuck to it, and the image of the city and of the police has changed dramatically. Morale has improved greatly.”

Controversy erupted in December, however, when at a local protest over events at Ferguson and in New York City, Magnus held up a sign reading “#blacklivesmatter.” But even that criticism dissolved quickly.

The [police] union initially objected to the police chief’s participation in the Dec. 9 demonstration. The association’s lawyer said Magnus’ appearance in uniform “dishonored the department” and violated a law barring political activity on duty. But Thomas said the union backed away from those claims after sitting down and talking with Magnus about the demonstration.

“We talked about it, and I understand what he was trying to do,” Thomas said. “He’s trying to bridge the gap, like we all are.”

It helped, of course, that policing in Richmond is effective under Magnus’ stewardship.

The city in 2014 recorded 11 murders, the lowest rate per capita in recent decades. It was the fifth straight year the murder rate declined in Richmond. Violent crimes and property crimes alike have plummeted, as have officer-involved shootings. The U.S. Department of Justice recently added Magnus to a panel of experts investigating police relations with the community in Ferguson, Missouri.


ALBUQUERQUE POLICE: A RASH OF KILLINGS

While the relationship between members of the Richmond PD and those it serves has blossomed, in Albuquerque matters appear to be going in a less positive direction.

In 2007, crime was higher than the national average in Albuquerque, NM, and the city’s police department was having trouble recruiting police officers, despite the perks the APD offered to those who signed up. Pressured, the department higher-ups started cutting corners. They stopped consistently using psych exams for applicants, and began taking men and women who had washed out of other departments, and others whom the department’s training officers warned had….issues.

By 2011, the rate of fatal shootings by police in this city of five hundred and fifty thousand, was eight times that of New York City. More half of those killed were mentally ill. No officer had ever been charged, and few were disciplined.

Writing for the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv tells the story of one of those fatal shootings. It’s a tale that involves threats, intimidation, the DOJ and one more shooting last March. But this time the shooting of a homeless mentally ill man named James Boyd was caught on video and, in January, resulted in charges.

Here’s a clip from Aviv’s story:

Stephen Torres was meeting with a client at his law office, in downtown Albuquerque, on April 12, 2011, when he received a call from a neighbor, who told him that police officers were aiming rifles at his house. He left work and drove to his home, in a middle-class suburb with a view of the mountains. There were more than forty police vehicles on his street. Officers wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests had circled his home, a sand-colored two-story house with a pitched tile roof. Two officers were driving a remote-controlled robot, used for discharging bombs, back and forth on the corner.

Stephen’s wife, Renetta, the director of human resources for the county, arrived a few minutes later, just after three o’clock. A colleague had heard her address repeated on the police radio, so her assistant pulled her out of a meeting. When Renetta saw that the street was cordoned off with police tape, she tried to walk to her house, but an officer told her that she couldn’t enter the “kill zone.” “What do you mean ‘kill zone’?” Renetta asked. “Ma’am, you can’t go any further,” the officer said.

Renetta knew that the only person at home was the youngest of her three boys, Christopher, who was twenty-seven and had schizophrenia. Two hours earlier, he had stopped by her office for lunch, as he did a few times a week. Then he visited an elderly couple who lived two houses away. He said that he needed to “check up on them”; he often cleaned their pool or drove them to the grocery store. Because he found it overwhelming to spend too much time among people, he tried to do small, social errands, so as not to isolate himself.

When Stephen asked the police what had happened to Christopher, he was told only that there was an “ongoing criminal investigation.” Stephen offered to let the officers inside the house, but they refused. Stephen called a close friend on the force, who said that a person had been taken off in an ambulance earlier in the afternoon, at around two o’clock. Stephen called the three main hospitals in Albuquerque, but Christopher hadn’t been admitted to any of them.

Stephen called a neighbor, Val Aubol, who lived across the street, to find out what she could see. Aubol peeked through the shutters of her front window and saw ten officers lined up against a neighbor’s garage, next to the Torreses’ house. The SWAT team’s Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck was parked in front of them. When Aubol went into her back yard, she saw a rope dangling from her roof. An officer had climbed up and was pointing his gun at the Torreses’ house. Another officer was crouching behind the gate at the side of her house. She told the officers that she’d spoken with Christopher’s father, but an officer waved her back inside. “Stay in the house!” he shouted.

At around five-thirty, a female officer stepped out of a mobile crime unit, an R.V. where detectives processed evidence, and waved the family over. “She was so detached,” Renetta said. “All she said was ‘I regret to inform you that your son is deceased.’ ” She did not tell them how their son had died or where they could find his body. The Torreses asked if they could go home, but the officer said that it was still an active crime scene.


RECKLESSNESS & DEADLY FORCE

Nick Pinto at RollingStone has another feature on the Albuquerque police, which has the details on the James Boyd shooting.

Here are some clips from Pinto’s story:

…On the afternoon of March 16th, 2014, Albuquerque police received a 911 call from this part of town, a man complaining that someone was illegally camping in the foothills. Two Albuquerque officers responded and, sure enough, encountered James Matthew Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. Boyd was clearly not well, ranting, telling police that he was an agent for the Defense Department.

Unauthorized camping is a petty misdemeanor. The officers could have told Boyd to move along and left it at that. But as Officer John McDaniel approached, Boyd wouldn’t show his hands and McDaniel drew his gun. When the officers moved to pat him down, Boyd pulled out two small knives; the cops stepped back and called for backup, setting off a spectacular circus, with as many as 40 police officers reportedly joining the standoff. Among them were uniformed cops and members of the SWAT team, the tactical K-9 unit and the Repeat Offender Project squad.

Not present, Boyd’s family would later allege in a complaint, was anyone clearly in charge. Keeping Boyd surrounded, often with guns drawn, officers tried to get him to surrender his knives. Finally, after three hours, Boyd prepared to come down from the hills. “Don’t worry about safety,” he told the police. “I’m not a fucking murderer.” But as Boyd packed his stuff, both hands full of possessions, Detective Keith Sandy — who hours before, on arriving at the scene, boasted on tape that he was going to shoot “this fucking lunatic” with a Taser shotgun — tossed a flash-bang grenade, a nonlethal weapon designed to disorient and distract. Another officer fired a Taser at Boyd, and a third released a police dog on him. Boyd drew his knives again. Advancing on him, officers ordered Boyd to get down on the ground. Boyd began to turn away, and Detective Sandy of the ROP squad and Officer Dominique Perez of the SWAT team each fired three live rounds at him, hitting him once in the back and twice in his arms. Boyd collapsed, face down, crying out that he was unable to move. “Please don’t hurt me,” he said. Another officer fired three beanbag rounds from a shotgun at Boyd’s prone body. The K-9 officer again loosed his German shepherd on Boyd, and the dog tore into his legs. Finally, officers approached and handcuffed him.

After roughly 20 minutes, Boyd was transported in an ambulance to the University of New Mexico hospital. In the final hours of his life, Boyd had his right arm amputated and his spleen, a section of his lung and a length of his intestines removed. At 2:55 a.m., he was pronounced dead. He was the 22nd person killed by the Albuquerque police in just more than four years.

Boyd’s death conformed to many of the patterns governing deadly police violence in Albuquerque. Living with mental illness, Boyd fit the profile of the marginal Albuquerqueans most likely to find themselves shot to death by the city’s police. The escalation of a low-level encounter to a standoff involving numerous heavily armed officers wasn’t anything new, either. Few were surprised when footage from the lapel camera that Officer Sandy was required to keep running was inexplicably absent. And, as in so many previous officer-involved shootings, Boyd’s death was followed by a press conference by the chief of police, who declared the shooting justified and painted Boyd as a dangerous criminal….

Finally, a group of families whose loved ones had bend killed by members of the APD persuaded the Department of Justice to take a look at what was going on with the high number of deadly shootings.

Reviewing 20 fatal police shootings from 2009 to 2012, the [DOJ] report found a majority of them to be unconstitutional. “Albuquerque police officers shot and killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat,” the report found, noting that “Albuquerque police officers’ own recklessness sometimes led to their use of deadly force.”


PROP 47 ALREADY BRINGING DROPS IN JAIL POPS ACROSS CALIFORNIA

It’s early still, but the effect of Prop 47 on the state’s jail populations, thus far, has been to lower them. This drop is particularly welcome after jail numbers had been driven higher due to the state’s 2011 AB 109 realignment strategy that shifted the incarceration burden for certain low level offenders to the various counties.

The AP’s Don Thompson has the story. Here’s a clip:

Inmate populations are falling in once-overcrowded California county jails since voters decided in November that certain drug and property crimes should be treated as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

While some are avoiding jail, many of those who are sent to county lock-ups for crimes not covered by the ballot initiative dubbed Proposition 47 are spending more time there because jail officials no longer must release them early due to overcrowding.

Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties are among those with fewer early releases, according to an Associated Press survey of the 10 counties that together account for about 70 percent of California’s total jail population.


LUIS RODRIGUEZ & THE POWER OF WORDS

KCET’s So Cal Connected is doing a story on Los Angeles poet laureate, Luis Rodriguez, on Wednesday at 8 pm. If you’re around, be sure to tune in. Rodriquez is the best known for his classic memoir Always Running– La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A, about how he escaped Los Angeles gang life in the 1960′s. It’s a wonderful book, and one that dozens of disaffected kids I’ve met over the years told me was the first book they’d ever read, cover to cover, a book that introduced them to the joys of reading ever after.

Rodriguez has also published poetry, fiction, and other works of nonfiction, along with acting as the publisher for Southern California poets and writers. If that was not enough, he founded and runs Tia Chucha’s, a bookstore and cultural center in Sylmar, teaches writing inside California’s prisons, and mentors at risk young men and women looking to get out or to stay away from gang membership. He changes lives. I’ve seen it happen.

“Luis is a great man,” Father Greg Boyle once said to me, summing the matter up with simplicity.

Yes, He is. And we’re so lucky to have him here in LA. So, check out So Cal Connected Wednesday evening, and get to know him.


AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF ICONIC LA WRITERS…WE ARE GOING TO MISS REPORTER/COLUMNIST RICK ORLOV, R.I.P

Respected LA Daily News city hall reporter Rick Orlov died on Monday of complications of diabetes and the city’s reporting community is completely in shock.

Mayor Eric Garcetti had this to say about Orlov on Twitter:

Posted in American artists, American voices, CDCR, jail, LA County Jail, law enforcement, Los Angeles writers, Sentencing | 1 Comment »

Prosecutorial Misconduct, Sasha and Richard, False Confessions, and Penalizing States that Fail to Protect Foster Kids

February 2nd, 2015 by Taylor Walker

LETTING PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT SLIDE

Federal judge Alex Kozinski railed against unchecked prosecutorial misconduct in California’s court system while hearing oral arguments for a habeas petition last month.

Lower courts had upheld a murder-for-hire conviction despite having established that both a jail informant and prosecutor had provided false testimony—both saying that the informant had not been given a deal (he had). The prosecutor was not sanctioned, nor did the state bar revoke his license.

Kozinski, along with judges Kim Wardlaw and William Fletcher, accused California judges of continuously overlooking prosecutorial misdeeds and choosing not to overturn flawed verdicts. (This is not the first time Kozinski has zeroed in on this issue.) Kozinski said the panel would rule on the issue themselves, threatening to name names, if the California Attorney General’s Office—which had tried to keep transcripts away from the Ninth Circuit Court—did not stop fighting to uphold the conviction.

Kozinski directed Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kevin Vienna to notify California Attorney General Kamala Harris of the controversial particulars of the case, saying, “Get ahold of the Attorney General, get ahold of your supervisor, and see whether they really want to stick by a conviction that was obtained by lying prosecutors and that was maintained in the Court of Appeal after the Attorney General’s office fought tooth and nail to keep out a transcript that would have shown the perfidy of the prosecutors…” The AG’s office chose to discontinue its defense of the conviction.

The LA Times’ Maura Dolan has the story. Here’s a clip:

The January hearing in Pasadena, posted online under new 9th Circuit policies, provided a rare and critical examination of a murder case in which prosecutors presented false evidence but were never investigated or disciplined.

The low-profile case probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the video, which attorneys emailed to other attorneys and debated on blogs.

In a series of searing questions, the three judges expressed frustration and anger that California state judges were not cracking down on prosecutorial misconduct. By law, federal judges are supposed to defer to the decisions of state court judges.

Prosecutors “got caught this time but they are going to keep doing it because they have state judges who are willing to look the other way,” Kozinski said.

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said the judges’ questions and tone showed they had lost patience with California courts. State judges are supposed to refer errant lawyers, including prosecutors, to the state bar for discipline, but they rarely do, Uelmen said.

“It is a cumulative type thing,” Uelmen said. “The 9th Circuit keeps seeing this misconduct over and over again. This is one way they can really call attention to it.”

A 2010 report by the Northern California Innocence Project cited 707 cases in which state courts found prosecutorial misconduct over 11 years. Only six of the prosecutors were disciplined, and the courts upheld 80% of the convictions in spite of the improprieties, the study found.


TWO TEENS ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF A TRAGIC CRIME

In late 2013, 16-year-old Richard Thomas, egged on by friends, set 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire on an Oakland city bus. Sasha, who identifies as agender, was burned so badly in the incident that they had to undergo several surgeries and spent weeks in the hospital.

Richard, who is black, was charged as an adult with aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, with hate-crime sentence enhancements.

Richard was a well-liked kid who grew up in a turbulent East Oakland neighborhood, with his mom, siblings, and cousins. In his 16 years, Richard experienced an extraordinary amount of trauma. In 2008, Richard’s aunt was murdered. In 2013, Richard’s best friend, his “twin,” was gunned down while sitting in a car. When Richard, reeling from the loss, started doing poorly in school and skipping class, he asked for help from the school’s attendance compliance officer.

After the fire, Richard told investigating officers he was homophobic. He told them he never thought the skirt would catch on fire like it did, that he only thought it would singe a little and go out quickly, and meant it as a prank. Richard was forced to take a plea deal of seven years behind bars with removal of the hate-crime enhancements and mayhem charge. His only alternative was to go to trial and risk receiving a maximum of life imprisonment, a sentence severely disproportionate to the crime, and one he would not have faced if he had been tried as a juvenile.

Dashka Slater’s phenomenal New York Times Magazine story illuminates both sides of Sasha and Richard’s double tragedy. Here are a couple of clips, but you really must read it in its entirety:

It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.

As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.

Richard Thomas, the 16-year-old boy who lit the skirt on fire, was arrested the following day. Citing the severity of the crime, the Alameda County district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, charged Thomas as an adult, stripping him of the protections — including anonymity — customarily afforded to juveniles. Charged with two felonies, each with a hate-crime clause that increased the time he would serve if convicted, Thomas faced the possibility of life imprisonment.

[SNIP]

On Nov. 8, four days after lighting Sasha’s skirt on fire, Richard wrote the teenager a letter.

“Dear Victum,” it began. “I apoligize for my actions, for the pain that I brought to you and your family. I was wrong for what I did. I was wrong. I had no reason to do that to you I don’t know what was going through my head at that time. Im not a monster, I have a big heart I never even thought of hurting anyone like the way I hurt you. I just wanted you to know that im deeply sorry for my actions. I think about what happened every second, I pray that you heal correctly and that you recover and live a happy life. Please forgive me thats all I want. I take responsibility for all my actions, I’ll take all the consiquences,” he wrote. “I’m not just saying this because im incarcerated I honestly mean every word.” He signed it, “Love, Richard Thomas.”

A few days later, he wrote a second letter, this one addressed to “Mr. Fleischman.” It was nearly three pages long, written in neat cursive.

“I had a nightmare last night and I woke up sweating and apoligizing,” he wrote. “I really hope you get back to the way you were. I went to court yesterday and there still making me seem like a monster, but im not. I’m a good kid if you get to know me. I’m sure you would have been a nice person to,” he continued. “I was hoping that I can meet you face to face so I can apoligize to you.”

He went on to detail the charges against him, explaining that he was willing to accept the assault charges but that he rejected the hate-crime enhancements. “I don’t have a problem with homosexual’s,” he explained. “I have friends thats homosexuals and we never had problems so I don’t look at you wrong because of your sexualitie. Honestly I could care less if you like men you weren’t trying to talk to me in that way.”

As for himself, he said: “I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake.” Perhaps, he suggested, he and Fleischman had things in common. “I’ve also been hurt alot for no reason, not like I hurt you but Ive been hurt physically and metally so I know how it feels, the pain and confusion of why me I’ve felt it before plenty of times.”


ALL CONFESSIONS, EVEN FALSE ONES, HAVE AN IMPACT ON JURY MEMBERS’ PERCEPTIONS AND BELIEFS

According to 2013 data from the National Registry of Exoneration, 38% of exonerations of kids and 11% of exonerations of adults involved false confessions. Whether or not confessions are true, they have considerable power over juries, more than character testimony, and even more than eyewitness testimony.

ProPublica’s Joe Sexton uses the upcoming trial for the 1979 murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz, and a videotaped confession from Pedro Hernandez to explore the issue. Here’s how it opens:

Over the next several months, defense lawyers for Pedro Hernandez will seek to undercut the central evidence against him: his videotaped confession to having killed 6-year-old Etan Patz.

They will depict the confession as inaccurate when set against the known facts of the infamous 1979 missing child case. They will portray Hernandez, a onetime bodega clerk in the Manhattan neighborhood where Patz lived, as mentally ill. They will paint the detectives who gained the confession as manipulative and coercive.

It’s a daunting assignment, but here’s what may well be scaring the lawyers the most: They could succeed in every aspect of their attack on the reliability of the confession and still not win an acquittal.

Such is the power of confessions, true or false, for American juries. A nascent body of scholarship, driven in part by an escalating number of wrongful convictions in cases with false confessions, has begun to document just how persuasive confessions can be.

Of course, the power of confessions owes in part to the fact that they very often are true. Certainly, that is the argument Manhattan prosecutors will make as they seek to hold Hernandez responsible for a case that has haunted the city, and parents nationwide, for decades. Prosecutors say Hernandez’s claims that he strangled the young boy after luring him from his school bus stop are credible, and that any mental health issues he suffers from are not serious. They also argue that the confession is supported by the accounts of others who maintain Hernandez told similar stories of killing a child over the years.

But false confessions – including those questioned at trial by effective defense lawyers – also have proven to carry extraordinary weight with juries. Several studies, using mock jurors and sophisticated analysis, have demonstrated that confessions outweigh the value of eyewitness and character testimony. And in at least one case, according to a 2010 study, prosecutors chose to believe a confession even when the accused seemed categorically cleared by DNA evidence.


HOLDING STATES ACCOUNTABLE FOR NONCOMPLIANCE WITH FEDERAL LAWS THAT PROTECT FOSTER KIDS

In a new report, two California advocacy groups: the Children’s Advocacy Institute and First Star are calling for the feds to monitor states compliance with federal child welfare laws and to deny funding to states who do not adequately protect their most vulnerable kids.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s John Kelly has a good rundown of the report’s main points. Here are clips from the first two:

Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSR)

The CFSR has been conducted twice in each state by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and gauges the state’s performance on seven outcomes and seven systemic factors. The report takes the view that the CFSR process is a general assessment indicating adherence to federal law, done instead of a full compliance check on individual laws.

“Although the efficacy of the CFSR process is highly questionable in terms of ensuring state conformity with federal child welfare laws and standards, it at least provided some modicum of external oversight and monitoring of at least a few aspects of federal child welfare law,” the report says.

Not once in those two rounds has one state been found in “substantial conformity” with the review. States enter into a Program Improvement Plan (PIP) upon failure on the CFSR, and face withholding of federal IV-E funds if they fail to meet the goals in the plan.

Yet report authors could only identify two instances in which states were assessed penalties, according to the report….

Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System

The Department of Health and Human Services is not actively penalizing states that declare themselves out of compliance with the data collection standards put in place with the creation of AFCARS.

“By refusing to impose financial penalties on states that fail to comply with federal data reporting requirements, ACF has ignored one of the most incentivizing tools it has to ensure states’ submission of reliable, consistent, and complete data — information that could have meaningfully contributed to the improvement of the adoption and foster care processes,” the report says.

Posted in Fire, Foster Care, Innocence, juvenile justice, Kamala Harris, Prosecutors | No Comments »

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