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Good Bye to Leon Russell, a Piano Player’s Piano Player – 1942-1916

November 13th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Before Leon Russell went out on his own as a singer, he played with nearly everyone as a session musician—Bob Dylan, George Harrison, the Beach Boys, his wide-fingered two-fisted style of founded the piano keys so distinctive that Elton John claimed Russell as his mentor well before actually meeting him. (And decades later it would be John who arm twisted the arms of the right people to make sure that Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

When Russell finally went out on his own, others often had bigger hits with the music he wrote. Joe Cocker made Delta Lady a hit. A Song For You was recorded by a list of nearly 100 artists that includes Cocker, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Russell’s friend, Willie Nelson. Yet, Russell was able to dazzlingly reinvent the songs written by far bigger stars, such as the Stones’ Wild Horses, and Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (which you can listen to here).

Leon Russell died in his sleep on Sunday in Nashville.

Posted in American artists, Life in general | 1 Comment »

The Cost of Dangerous Jails: Two More High Ticket Payouts for LA County Jail Deaths

November 11th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


Despite the work toward reform in the Los Angeles County Jails in the last few years, the problems that were allowed to bloom largely unchecked inside the nation’s largest jail system continue to take millions of dollars out of the pockets of LA County’s taxpayers in the form of legal settlements.

On Wednesday of this week, the day after voting day, the board of supervisors agreed to pay a grand total of $3,250,000 in settlements to the families of two inmates who died in the jails.

In addition to the $3.25 million on the two cases, the county paid $928,564 in attorneys fees and expenses on the cases that dragged on for a year and a half, in once case, and two-and-a-half years in the other.

One of the deaths occurred after many of the reforms were supposedly in place, at least in part.


The most recent of the cases was filed in April 2015 by Arean Edwards, the mother of 24-year-old Earl Lee Johnson, who alleged that, on September 27 2014, sheriff’s deputies at Twin Towers jail beat her son in the head so badly that he became unconscious. Then, according to the lawsuit, the deputies covered-up the alleged assault by hanging the young man from a bedsheet in his cell to make his injuries appear be suicide.

Johnson did not die right away but lingered in the hospital for three weeks before succumbing to this injuries.

James Orland, the attorney for Johnson’s mother, told an AP reporter in April 2015 that the LA coroner’s office Johnson killed himself by hanging.

Orland said that the family got its own autopsy, which concluded Johnson died from a “fractured skull” caused by “blunt-force trauma.”

County counsel recommended settling.


The second case was brought by Helen Jones, the mother of a 22-year-old man named John Horton who, on March 30, 2009, was found hanging from a noose in his cell in Men’s Central Jail.

WitnessLA wrote about the case in a two-part series back in 2009, and learned that, when Horton died, he had been in jail for over a month on a drug possession charge and was waiting to be shipped off to fire camp where he was to serve two years. As a nonviolent, low-level offender without a pile of priors Horton was eligible the program that allows inmates to learn elements of wildland firefighting. According to his mother, he welcomed the idea of fire camp.

Yet, for reasons that no one could adequately explain, for nearly entire duration of Horton’s time in CJ, Horton had been kept in insolation in a a dimly lit, windowless, solid-front cell the size of a closet.

The cell was around 5 X 7 feet, said Margaret Winter, the head of the ACLU’s national prison project, when we talked back in 2009 about Horton’s case.

Winter, who has seen many cells in her professional life, said that Horton’s cell was so dimly lit that reading would have been difficult or impossible. “And there was nothing else in the cell. It was a room with no desk, no chair.”

Only a cot, sink and toilet and a cement floor. This meant that Horton was left in the room for hours and hours on end, seeing no one, talking to no one, reading nothing, receiving none of the prison programs. Glimpsing no sunlight. For hours, and days, that turned into weeks.

Horton’s mother, Helen Jones, told me that, initially, she thought it was a good thing that her son was in jail. She was optimistic that the arrest would be the wake up call he needed to get him off of drugs and back on a positive path.

Horton was originally arrested for drug possession in 2007, Jones explained. At that time, she said, he accepted a plea agreement and was ordered by the judge to go to a drug rehab. Horton agreed eagerly, according to his mother. But on the day he was supposed to report to the rehab facility, he never showed up. As a consequence a bench warrant was issued in his name.

Fast forward to late February of 2009. Jones was worried about her son. She didn’t see him use drugs but she knew something was amiss, “He was a good boy. But he was messed up, she said. He loved kids. He was talented boxer. But he was having problems, she said, and she was at a loss to know what to do about it.

Finally one night Jones found John overdosed. She was fairly sure he had taken a bunch of pills. Terrified, she drove him to the emergency room of St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.

At the hospital, the existence of the arrest warrant was discovered. Once Horton was determined to be out of immediate danger, he was taken to Men’s Central Jail.


Helen Jones went to visit him a day later and he still seemed very groggy. I’m alright, he told her. I’m reading the Bible. It’s okay.

Jones wasn’t sure. So she made a point of going to the jail again a couple of days later. This time she was told her son could have no visitors. Nor could he make phone calls. “He’s in protective custody,” the deputy said. No one seemed to be able to explain what exactly this meant.

Jones said she tried again a few days later still. Again, she was told that Horton could have no visitors. Worried, she asked to see the watch commander, whom she said was uninformative. “My son needs to know I’m here for him,” she said she told the officer. “He needs my support.”

Helen Jones next saw her son on March 16 when he went to court to face the consequences of his AWOL from rehab.

According to Jones, the judge seemed to see that John was no hard core criminal but a young man in need of help. In any case, it was this judge who agreed to sentence Horton to the two years in fire camp, where he would learn a trade and get back in good physical condition. Jones was overjoyed at the fire camp sentence.

“When I talked to him, he was relieved too,” she told me in 2009. There would be no more running. No more drugs. “He was already planning what he would do in two years when he was released. He wanted to come out and go back to boxing. That was his plan.”

Jones said she actually thanked the judge.

Yet, during the hearing she became concerned about her son’s mental condition. He was behaving strangely.

“He wasn’t all the way right,” she said. The judge who, according to Jones, recognized that Horton was in some kind of state of mental distress, told her that John would be in the medical unit of the jail for at least the beginning of the two or three weeks it would take to arrange the transfer to fire camp. He told her that she shouldn’t worry.


A few days later, Jones again went to visit her son, but was once more told he could have no visitors, and could not make phone calls. “He’s supposed to be in the medical unit,” she told the jail staff. No, he was in “protective custody,” they said. Again there was no explanation.

Jones continued to go back to the jail during visiting hours to try to see her son, but was never able to see him.

The last day Jones tried to visit her son at Men’s Central Jail, it was on a weekend. This time she was told he was in “disciplinary custody.” Frightened and furious, she asked how he could go from isolation in protective custody to isolation in disciplinary custody, when a judge had supposedly slated him for the medical unit. Had John done something wrong? The staff said they could give her no information.

Jones again asked to see the watch commander. She was told that seeing a watch commander was not possible. By this time, Helen had been trying to visit her son for a month and had been repeatedly put off. She was not about to be put off again. She worked her way up the command structure until finally the watch commander did come out to talk to her.

He was very polite, Jones told me. Kind even.

Since it was the weekend, he said, if she would come back the following Wednesday, he would get to the bottom of things and have an answer for her then.

Wednesday turned out to be too late. “By Monday he was gone,” she said.

John Horton hanged himself on Monday, March 30.


By the time deputies found Horton he had been dead so long that rigor mortis had set in. “How long was he in there? He’s very stiff!” the prison paramedic reportedly remarked to the officers, according to the ACLU’s Winter.

The man in the cell next to Horton reportedly began taking frantic notes immediately after the young man’s death, just to make sure that someone had a record of what had happened. WitnessLA obtained a copy of the inmate’s notes. (See image above.)

In the days before his suicide, wrote the inmate/witness, Horton showed many signs that he was a man in serious trouble. For one thing, he had tied a noose tied to the back of his light fixture in his cell and hanging in plain sight.

“I seen it. They seen it. Mr. Horton visibly stood in his cell and/or squatting atop his sink with plastic ties around his wrist and looking directly at the noose (several deputies observed these “items” and ‘behavior’ when taking me or bringing me back they brought me back from the law-library)…”

Horton stopped eating, refused his meds, began talking to himself, yet according to the witness, he told staff that Horton needed help. But he observed no help or intervention given.

At the time, we talked to a second inmate who, while farther away, told a similar story of Horton being in distress, and no one reportedly paying attention until it was much too late.


Frank Stoltze at KPCC has a report that looks at the changes being made inside the jails now, which includes training as to how to better deal with mentally ill inmates.

And the Office of Inspector General Max Huntsman has issued a new report that looks at progress in reform efforts in the LASD in general, and specifically in the jails. You can find that report here.

Posted in LASD | 14 Comments »

With Our Deepest Thanks to All Our Veteran Brothers & Sisters, Sons & Daughters

November 11th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

The string of Springsteen songs below is from the 2014 Concert for Valor.

Dave Grohl played a version of There Goes My Hero at the same concert.

Last, the great Ray Charles in 1991: “And crown thy good with brotherhood….”

Posted in Life in general | No Comments »

Leonard Cohen: The Death of the Incandescent Songwriter-Poet, 1932 – 2016

November 10th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

RollingStone explained the irreplaceable Mr. Cohen and his music very well:

“Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned five decades, died at the age of 82. Cohen’s label, Sony Music Canada, confirmed his death on the singer’s Facebook page.

“‘It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away,’ the statement read. ‘We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.’ A cause of death and exact date of death was not given.

“Cohen was the dark eminence among a small pantheon of extremely influential singer-songwriters to emerge in the Sixties and early Seventies. Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet. Cohen’s haunting bass voice, nylon-stringed guitar patterns, Greek-chorus backing vocals shaped evocative songs that dealt with love and hate, sex and spirituality, war and peace, ecstasy and depression. He was also the rare artist of his generation to enjoy artistic success into his Eighties, releasing his final album, You Want It Darker, earlier this year.

Here’s the title song from that newest—and last—album, You Want It Darker. It’s Leonard’s good-bye, telling us that he would soon be exiting the building. And so he did.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Cohen. We will miss you terribly.

And then there are all the rest…

Other singers have interpreted Mr. Cohen wonderfully, Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave among them, along with once-lover and recording collaborator, Jennifer Warnes.

And of course there is Jeff Buckley with his heart-tearing and luminous version of Hallelujah.

But nobody does Cohen’s work quite like the man himself.

Posted in Life in general | 4 Comments »

Post-Election Roundup

November 10th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

At WitnessLA, we have been following a handful of the 17 ballot initiatives Californians either approved or shot down on Tuesday. There were four main criminal justice-related initiatives (plus one gun control measure).

If you haven’t yet seen the final results of the California races and initiatives, you can find them: here.


On Tuesday, 64% of California voters approved Proposition 64, which legalizes marijuana for recreational use in the state.

Along with California, the states of Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine legalized recreational pot use, and Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota voters approved marijuana for medical use.

California won’t start handing out licenses to sell recreational weed until 2018, but some provisions have already kicked in. People 21-and-over can possess up to an ounce of marijuana at a time. Adults over 21 can also grow up to six plants, as long as they are out of public view. No one can use marijuana in public.

The initiative will also counteract the criminalization of marijuana use (which has disproportionately impacted people of color) by reducing marijuana-related sentences and opening up a path for people who have committed certain marijuana offenses to petition to have their records changed or expunged.

Possession of more than an ounce of weed would be a misdemeanor offense. The penalty for selling-related offenses would be reduced.

The OC Register’s Brooke Edwards has more on how the initiative will help marijuana offenders leave lock-up sooner and change their records. Here’s a clip:

…more than 6,000 people serving time…could potentially have their time behind bars shortened or even go free if Prop. 64 passes on Tuesday, according to an estimate by the Drug Policy Alliance, which is funding the measure.

Another 1 million people convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies could petition to have their records changed or cleared, the nonprofit organization estimates. That would give them wider access to jobs, housing and other services that are currently out of reach.

Beyond the obvious changes the measure will have in California, proponents say that the passing of Prop. 64 is a big blow to prohibition and the war on drugs at the national level.

The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller has more on the larger implications of the marijuana win in California—the “epicenter of marijuana cultivation for the country”—in particular. Here are some clips:

With the addition of California, Massachusetts and Nevada, the percentage of Americans living in states where marijuana use is legal for adults rose above 20 percent, from 5 percent.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon and a supporter of legalization, said Tuesday’s votes would add to the pressure on the federal government to treat cannabis like alcohol, allowing each state to decide on its own regulations.

“The new administration is not going to want to continue this toxic and nonproductive war on drugs,” Mr. Blumenauer said.

The federal government’s ban on the drug precludes the interstate sale of cannabis, even among the states that have approved its use. But Tuesday’s votes created a marijuana bloc stretching down the West Coast, and Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, said he saw an opportunity for the states where recreational marijuana is now legal to “coordinate and collaborate” on the issue, including applying pressure in Washington to relax the federal ban.


“I think of this victory in California as a major victory,” said Lauren Mendelsohn, the chairwoman of the board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group that has campaigned against the government’s war on drugs. “It shows the whole country that prohibition is not the answer to the marijuana question.”


CA voters also rejected a bill that would have abolished the death penalty. There are 728 men and 21 women currently on death row in the state. The initiative only garnered 46% of the vote.

While Californians once again voted to keep the death penalty in place, a competing ballot initiative, which will speed up the death penalty appeals process, did make it past voters—barely. Critics of Proposition 66 argue that truncating the appeals process could lead to the execution of innocent people. (We’re inclined to agree.) According to the California Innocence Project, 150 people have been declared innocent after a death sentence in the United States.

In addition to speeding up the deadline for filing petitions, Prop. 66 also shortens the deadline for appointing lawyers for death penalty appeals. And if appointed by the California Superior Court, lawyers would be forced to accept the appointment if they want to stay eligible for future non-capital cases. The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff has a good explanation of the potential pitfalls:

Currently, sentences are appealed directly to the California Supreme Court, which assigns lawyers to defendants from state-funded agencies like the Office of the State Public Defender or, if none are available, private attorneys who meet certain qualifications.

Given the enormous backlog of cases, even that can take years. So in order to make lawyers available to defendants upon their sentencing to death, Proposition 66 would allow the courts to also appoint attorneys who are qualified for the most serious non-death penalty appeals. Those lawyers would have to accept the appointment in order to remain eligible to receive other non-death penalty cases in the future.

There are approximately 400 death row inmates currently awaiting counsel for their appeal or some other legal challenge to their sentence. Natasha Minsker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, said there are simply not enough private attorneys willing to take on the cases for the low compensation provided, especially given the time crunch Proposition 66 would impose on preparation.

“They would just have to do this full time, which is not practical for most people,” she said.

While mail-in and provisional ballots have not yet been counted, Prop. 66 held 51% of the vote as of Wednesday night. A California law firm has already filed a challenge to the ballot initiative, seeking a stay from the state Supreme Court.

San Jose Mercury News’ Tracey Kaplan has more on the response to Prop. 66′s win. Here’s a clip:

…The ACLU, NAACP and other groups have said they are prepared to duke it out in court. Experts said they may be able to challenge the measure on the grounds that conscripting lawyers in death penalty cases and threatening to take their livelihood away (by not appointing them in other matters) if they refuse would be illegal.

Another line of attack could be on the grounds that requiring defendants and their lawyers to challenge their convictions in trial court would require an amendment of the state constitution. To put such an amendment on the ballot, supporters would have had to collect more signatures than they did for Proposition 66.


Proposition 57 also passed in California by a wide margin—64% voted in favor of Prop. 57. We’ve written a lot about the criminal justice reform initiative in the months leading up to the elections. Now that the bill has passed, it’s time to take a look at what comes next.

For those unfamiliar, Prop. 57 will take the power to transfer kids to adult court out of the hands of prosecutors and give the control back to judges. Advocates expect this change to result in fewer kids being charged as adults. Prop. 57 will also increase parole eligibility for non-violent offenders who have completed the base sentence for their primary offense. This means that prisoners will be able to go before the parole board prior to completing time added onto a base sentence via sentence enhancements, consecutive sentences, and alternative sentences. Prop 57 will also boost access to early release “good time” credits.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Sarah Barr has more on the upcoming reforms. Here are some clips:

Under the new law, the only way for a juvenile in California to end up in adult court will be if a judge decides that is the most appropriate setting for him or her. The judge will have to consider criteria that take into account teenagers’ ongoing development and potential to change before sending him or her to adult court.

The criteria, which were expanded under an earlier law and included in Proposition 57, are an improvement that will give judges a fuller picture of a youth’s situation, Burrell said.

“The things that a court will look at are much more helpful to teenagers than the previous criteria were. They’re much more developmentally appropriate,” she said.

In addition, the law no longer places the burden on juveniles to prove they deserve to stay in juvenile court, said Frankie Guzman, a staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. Prosecutors instead will have to make their case to a judge.

Analysts and supporters expect the changes will result in fewer juveniles ending up in adult court. But that means the juvenile system has to be prepared to handle more teenagers charged with serious crimes, who likely need significant services and treatment, Guzman said.

“We also have to make sure the programs and services line up and actually meet the increased demand because we’re going have more high-needs kids. If we’re going to serve public safety well, we have to serve them well,” he said.

The state should focus on improving behavioral and mental health services, mentoring programs and other interventions that can put young people on a healthy path, Guzman said. Locking teenagers up, albeit in the juvenile rather than the adult system, is not a solution for most young offenders, he added.


Voters elected California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris to the US Senate. Harris will be the first Indian American woman in the Senate, and California’s first female African American senator.

Now that Harris is moving on, the question that presents itself is: Who will Governor Jerry Brown appoint to take the position of Attorney General. The appointee would hold the post for two years until the 2018 election. There have been many speculations as to possible candidates, including Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin, California’s first lady, Anne Gust Brown, and any one of a number of capable current county district attorneys.

The Sacramento Bee’s Jeremy White has a good rundown of the possibilities. Here’s a clip:

Whoever Brown picks, he faces a central choice: whether to choose a placeholder candidate who would step aside rather than run for re-election in 2018 or to elevate someone with the desire to try to serve for almost a decade and the political and financial wherewithal to mount a serious run. That person also would have the huge advantage of using the ballot label, “California Attorney General,” in the 2018 election.

“Is the governor trying to pick someone who will be consistent with his perspectives and there for ten years? Or is it a caretaker to keep the office functioning well for two?” said former Attorney General Bill Lockyer. “Does he want to have an impact on who the next attorney general or maybe a future governor will be? Or does he prefer to just have an open primary scramble and whoever wins the election gets it in 2018?”

Administration officials like Brown chief of staff Nancy McFadden or First Lady and top Brown aide Anne Gust Brown, both attorneys and members of the governor’s inner circle, often surface in speculation about who could be tabbed for a short-term tenure. Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin, who currently serves under Harris at the Department of Justice and would automatically be elevated to acting attorney general if she resigns to join the Senate, could also slide into the job.

Those options remain firmly in the realm of speculation. Barankin and McFadden did not respond to emails seeking comment. Speaking to reporters, the governor made light of the suggestion he might appoint his spouse.

“My wife is fully employed,” Brown said.

Lockyer acknowledged that “the political chattering class loves to suggest Anne” but added that Gust Brown has said she is not interested and posited that her assuming such a prominent spot “doesn’t seem to be consistent with where (the Browns’) lives together are heading” as Gov. Brown nears a potential end to decades in public service when his fourth term ends in 2018.

“It starts with (Gov. Brown) being utterly unpredictable,” Lockyer said. “It’s very hard to reliably forecast.”

Brown could also dip into the private sector. Prominent trial lawyer Joe Cotchett said the topic of a successor came up in recent conversations with the governor. Although Brown did not go into detail about whom might appoint, Cotchett said, he made it clear he preferred a long-term choice. A Brown spokesman called a report that the two had discussed an appointment accurate.

“He only wanted someone who could win in 2018,” Cotchett said.

A longer-term choice could include any of a number of prominent district attorneys. That list includes Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and San Francisco County District Attorney George Gascón, as well as Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer. Through staff, all of those district attorneys either declined comment or deflected the question by saying they were focused on their jobs. The platform of serving as attorney general would vault any of them into serious contention in a state campaign.


California Rep. Janice Hahn will step into the seat of outgoing Supervisor Don Knabe in District 4, which includes a stretch of coast from the city of Long Beach to Venice, as well as part of the San Gabriel Valley.

Kathryn Barger will take over for Supervisor Michael Antonovich in District 5, which covers the Antelope Valley, Santa Clarita, a portion of the San Gabriel Valley, and a portion of the San Fernando Valley.

With the addition of the two new supes, for the first time ever, the board will have a female majority, comprised of Hahn, Barger, Hilda Solis, and Sheila Kuehl, to work alongside Supe. Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Hahn, who created the Watts Gang Task Force in 2005 during her time as an LA City Councilmember, has come out in support of mental health diversion, the hiring of more LA County Sheriff’s deputies, and improved community policing. For more about what Hahn’s victory will mean for justice in LA County, read this April LA Daily News story by Dakota Smith.

Barger has worked for Supe. Antonovich for more than 25 years. Back in May, the Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback interviewed then-candidate Barger, asking important questions about her views on child welfare and juvenile justice reform. The newly elected 5th District Supervisor had some promising things to say about keeping low-risk kids out of lock-up, increasing community-based programs for justice system-involved kids, and “preventing crossover of our foster youth into juvenile justice system,” and other pressing issues.

We’ll likely have more on the two new supervisors in the coming weeks.


The Marshall Project has done an excellent job of presenting the election’s criminal justice highlights at the national and state levels, as well as clearing up what the new presidency might mean for justice in the near future. For example, TMP’s editor Bill Keller points out that the “law and order” president-elect Donald Trump has mentioned the possible appointment of former NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani as US Attorney General. Keller also says that Trump may also roll back President Barack Obama’s recent criminal justice efforts, which included placing limits on when and how long locked-up kids can be placed in solitary, as well as an order to “ban the box” on federal employment applications. Here’s a clip:

Trump’s victory may be fatal to the unusually bipartisan campaign to reduce prison sentences, invest in rehabilitation, and otherwise render the federal justice system more humane and effective. The Republican Party platform adopted at the July convention nods to red states that have reduced prison populations and calls for “mens rea” legislation, which would oblige prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to break the law. In general, Trump’s law-and-order entourage — Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and others — constitutes a virtual counter-reform movement, favoring longer sentences, fuller prisons and militarized policing. His natural allies on Capitol Hill are men like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who this year blocked even the most incremental reforms.

Fusion’s Casey Tolan says Trump’s victory is not a death knell for criminal justice reform in the US, however:

The president does not actually have that much power over the policies that lead to mass incarceration. Only about 12% of prisoners in America are in federal prisons run by the executive branch, while the vast majority are in local jails and state prisons. In many ways, local district attorneys have a bigger impact on criminal justice and incarceration in their districts than the president does.

Posted in elections | 2 Comments »

STUNNING TRUMP VICTORY….Next Step: Come Together

November 8th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Posted in Life in general | 35 Comments »

A Rikers Documentary, Rethinking the Meaning of Public Safety, and Voting After Disenfranchisement

November 8th, 2016 by witnessla


In a new documentary from journalist Bill Moyers, “RIKERS,” former inmates at the notorious Rikers Island Jail in New York tell their stories of prolonged solitary confinement, violence, and other dehumanizing conditions within the jail.

The documentary will debut at DOC NYC on November 12, and air on PBS station THIRTEEN on November 15.

“The result is a vivid arc of life on Rikers as told by the people who experienced it — from the trauma of entry, the conflicts with other inmates and corrections officers, the stabbings and beatings, and the torture of solitary confinement to the psychological challenges of returning to the outside world,” the veteran journalist said on his website

Back in 2014, a four-month investigation by the NY Times revealed that brutal attacks by staff on mentally ill inmates inside the jail were “common occurrences.”

And in 2015, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide following a traumatizing three-year stint at Rikers Island—without ever being tried—for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder spent most of those three years, which started at age 16, in solitary confinement. Following the prolonged isolation in Rikers, Browder struggled for three years with mental illness. The tormented young man tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of last year. (Read more about Kalief’s story: here.)

THIRTEEN’s Christina Knight interviewed Moyers about the history of Rikers, the dangers inmates face on a regular basis, and how the documentary came into being. Here’s a clip:

Q: What are the risks one faces if brought to Rikers?

In talking to almost one hundred former detainees – some jailed there in the 90s and others who just got out last year – we heard similar stories that seem to echo through the years. Inmates intimidate each other. They steal from each other. Attack each other. Beat each other. Some corrections officers abuse their power. The noise is unsettling and disturbing. Remember, these people are housed in “cages”, as it were. Their psychological stress is major, they get depressed and experience incredible anxiety. How so many survive is difficult to grasp. I’m still wrestling with that one.

Q: How did the filmmakers find and approach those featured in the documentary?

Our team was led by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, two long-time colleagues of mine and terrific filmmakers who have a lot of experience filming inside jails and prisons. They were joined by a new member of the team, Rolake Bamgbose, who was relentless in tracking down former detainees and engaging them in opening up memories that as you will see in the film, remain very painful many years later. We got a lot of help from criminal justice organizations in the city as well as others that specialize in re-entry programs and transitional houses.

Q: How did you vet the stories of the former detainees featured in the film?

Once we had narrowed down the number of primary story-tellers in the film to about a dozen, we very carefully checked out their descriptions of what they experienced. There are “use of force” reports”, civil suit documentation and other public records that substantiate their memories of life at Rikers Island Jail. One former inmate who attended a private screening of the film said softly as the lights came back up in the room, “Everything in there is true.”

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Clarissa Sosin saw a preview screening of the film. Here’s a clip from her take on the documentary:

In the film, Gibbs described his first time going to Rikers and the reactions of the other inmates as he entered the jail. To him the looks on their faces said, “Oh, we got a victim. Fresh meat,” he said.

Through crisp and emotionally raw interview footage of Gibbs and the other former inmates, interwoven with the occasional surveillance footage, “RIKERS” vividly creates a bleak and violent image of the culture of violence inside the jail.

Event organizer Lisa Armstrong, visiting associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said she was struck by the film.

“For some reason it impacted me in a way that I didn’t expect it to, given that I already knew how bad Rikers was, or is,” she said.

Ismael Nazario, a former inmate featured in the film, described being jumped by another inmate. He said that when a corrections officer broke up the fight, she said to him, “You going to hold it down?” a phrase he said he would come to realize meant, “Are you going to stay quiet?”

Candie Hailey-Means, one of only two women in the film, described screaming out for help while being sexually assaulted by corrections officers in her cell. Morse, the other woman, described being attacked and raped in the showers. Tears streamed down her face as she recalled the incident on camera.

Other experiences described in the film: feeling like a “roasted pig” while being hogtied and carried by corrections officers; watching an inmate throw scalding hot water onto another’s face, burning it so badly skin comes off in his hands; and playing with your own feces while in solitary because you don’t know what else to do.


In an op-ed for the LA Times, Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment, says that while the national conversation regarding public safety is hyper-focused on racism in policing, the biggest dangers to youth and their families “have nothing to do with guns or badges.”

Beyond race relations, problems like absence of affordable child care, low reading levels among young boys of color, harsh school discipline, and a dearth of parks have considerable negative impacts on community safety, says Dr. Ross, a former public health official and pediatrician. And when community members feel neglected or abandoned, the results “can be harmful—even lethal,” as was the case in Ferguson, MO.

Ross also touches on the importance of improving police-community relations through increased transparency and training, as well as boosting crime prevention efforts—like mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and after-school programs—to make cities safer.

Here’s a clip:

Cities, starting with Los Angeles, should put these kinds of issues and needs at the center of our thinking on community safety.

Improving police-community relations is an essential safety strategy, as well as just the right thing to do. Many excellent police officers are doing their best for Los Angeles, but their effectiveness and security are compromised when community trust falters. To address this, Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck should provide greater transparency in police shooting investigations and hold Police Commission meetings in community locations to allow for more meaningful participation. The LAPD also should accelerate the training reforms it has been piloting with civil rights attorney Connie Rice and support research into racial and gender biases, such as the work of the Center for Policing Equity co-founded by UCLA professor Philip Goff.

But spending on law enforcement cannot be the only way we think about investing in improving community safety. Any shift certainly will entail difficult conversations about how L.A. city and county budgets are organized and allocated. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s and probation departments together have nearly 27,000 employee positions, compared to just 5,000 jobs in mental health and 1,600 in parks and recreation. We need to move public spending away from reacting to crime, and do more to prevent it in the first place.

Research can help us understand how to do that. If we examine data, such as that of UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project, which maps where arrestees live and calculates the cost of their incarceration, we can see where we need to target preventive resources. For instance, the top reasons for being booked in Los Angeles County Jail are drug possession, driving while under the influence and domestic violence, suggesting we need more investments in mental health and addiction treatment in affected neighborhoods. More importantly, we need to look upstream and provide these communities with more support for preschool, school-based health services, after-school programs and other services that keep kids in school and support families.


Around 6.1 million US citizens—1 out of every 40 voting-age men and women—are banned from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws. In California, felony offenders cannot vote while in prison or on parole, but upon completion of a sentence, voting rights are restored. (There are many states with much harsher laws, as well as states that never remove the right to vote.)

Politico Magazine’s Rikha Sharma Rani spoke with four formerly incarcerated men and one woman from San Diego who have recently regained their right to vote. The San Diegans talk about how it feels to be able to vote after having their rights restored, what issues they value, and who and what they’re voting for on Tuesday. Here’s a clip:

De’Andre Cooper, 22

Three years ago, De’Andre Cooper was charged with conspiracy to commit eight murders and seven attempted murders. As it happens, Cooper was in juvenile hall for much of the period during which the murders took place. But he, along with more than a dozen other men, were charged under a never-before-used section of California’s penal code, which allows gang members to be charged for felonies committed by the gang. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in another state when the crime takes place; if you’re a documented gang member, you can be found guilty of conspiracy. Police convicted members of Cooper’s gang for the murders and then charged Cooper with conspiracy. He accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Cooper was released after two years, but the experience changed him. The penal code that had enabled him to be charged had been voted into law by Californians. If the 22-year old, who will be voting for the first time on November 8th, ever needed a lesson on why elections matter, this was it.

It might seem strange, then, that Cooper won’t be voting for a president on Tuesday. “I’m going to vote on local propositions,” he says. He’s helping to rally voters to pass Proposition 57, an effort to roll back a previously passed law that allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to choose between juvenile and adult court—a law that, critics argue, puts too much power in the hands of prosecutors. He says he’s registered over a hundred people to vote this cycle—and that has nothing to do with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. “As long as I’ve been alive, with the presidents we’ve had, my life has always been the same.”

He calls the Trump videos showing the Republican candidate bragging about groping women “sick.” “I don’t know nobody that has that type of mind,” Cooper says, “for him to think he could just touch a woman that don’t want to be touched.”

He would prefer a Clinton presidency. Among other things, he believes that she is better suited to be commander-in-chief. “I think Trump wants to go to war. I think he promotes that type of violence,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be over there [at war] with Trump’s orders.” But he’s not going to help the Democratic candidate win. “I don’t want her to have my vote.”

Part of his decision not to cast a vote for the next president is rooted in his lack of faith in the institutions of this country—especially law enforcement. He describes a neverending cycle of being stopped by police as a youth, in which one stop would lead to the next, and the next…

Read the rest.

Posted in Police, prison | No Comments »

A To Do List for LA County Probation’s Two New Chiefs – by Madeline Ottilie

November 7th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


A new chief and a deputy chief were selected this week by the Los Angeles County board of supervisors and we have some items for their To Do list

By Madeline Ottilie

Los Angeles County’s newly-chosen chief probation officer and her new second in command, who will both take over in January, are entering LA’s troubled probation department at a pivotal moment.
For the very top position, LA’s Board of Supervisors selected former Assistant LA County Sheriff Terri McDonald who, up until recently, was in charge of LA’s massive jail system, after being brought in to implement reform recommendations following a series of very public scandals.

Then to head the juvenile side of the department, the supervisors hired Sheila Mitchell, who is the former chief of the Santa Clara Probation Department, where she earned a national reputation for instituting innovative youth programs in the agency she ran for nearly 10 years.

Child advocates and community activists hope the new leadership duo will change what has been described as a punishment-centered culture into one that focuses on rehabilitation, treatment and the effective transition of probationers back to their communities, particularly for the kids under the county’s supervision. Thus, many were cautiously optimistic when the board of supervisors hired Mitchell with her extensive background in juvenile probation reform.

The decision to hire two people, in and of itself, has produced hope.
“Probation has two important and quite different functions in the populations it supervises,” said Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. “We think it’s important that the department move away from a law enforcement type of supervision on both of those sides. But juveniles are quite different than adults,” Eliasberg continued, “and it appears that the problems of youth probation are as significant if not more significant than on the adult side. Therefore we are pleased the board did not take a one-size-fits-all approach, and made sure that there was going to be somebody at the top with a substantial level of experience with youth.”


LA County Probation, the largest of its kind in the nation, has been hit by a stream of problems in the past decade, many of them having to do with how the department deals with the youth in its care. Things got bad enough to bring Department of Justice monitors into the county’s juvenile halls and camps from 2004 to 2015. Then there was a large class-action suit filed in 2010, “due to the failure” of probation “to provide adequate education to youth in the camps,” even “locking students in solitary confinement for weeks or months without attending school.” In the past few years, however, probation executives claimed that the bad old days were all but over when the DOJ signed off in April 2015.

But more recently, a string of new red flags suggested that, despite some improvements, there is much work to be done.

Among the issues that critics say demonstrated all was not well are recent allegations of kids being assaulted by staff inside two juvenile halls, evidence of fiscal mismanagement both on the adult and the juvenile side of probation and an April 2015 report by the LA County Auditor-Controller’s office that showed the youth detention programs weren’t doing anywhere near as swimmingly as everyone was claiming. It came a month after a 155-page Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Outcomes Study that showed that a discouraging percentage of the youth who were in the department’s facilities or on home probation were not getting the help they needed, and recidivated in alarming numbers.

But none of these events pushed LA County’s juvenile probation into the national spotlight. Instead, it was the release of a detailed in-house report that detailed what the author described as “deplorable” conditions in the main juvenile hall. LA County Probation Commissioner Azael “Sal” Martinez compiled it in February 2015, mainly for his fellow commissioners, members of the LA County Board of Supervisors and probation department higher-ups. But in March the report leaked to a couple of members of the press — namely WitnessLA and the Los Angeles Times, both of which wrote stories.

Martinez’s report was unusually frank, comparing Central Juvenile Hall to a “Third World country prison” and describing units lacking in running water and inmates kept in isolation without an apparent cause. Walls and other surfaces were reported to be covered in gang graffiti, and some urinals were said to be overflowing. Martinez noted an appalling stench due to an unrepaired sewage system. Doors to probationers’ rooms were allegedly propped open to air out the smell, not with doorstops, but their personal items.

He wrote the report after making an unscheduled visit to the facility early last year and being appalled by what he saw. After the initial two news articles, other media outlets wrote about it. People spoke out online and on social media. One LA Times online commenter wrote that he was housed in the facility 32 years ago and recalled similar awful conditions and mistreatment. Others argued that conditions were fair punishment for those who had committed crimes. Most merely expressed disgust.

The 15 probation commissioners are required to check the Probation Department’s juvenile facilities periodically and report back on their findings. When a commissioner reports a problem, the department is required to respond within 30 days.

The Probation Department was quick to investigate Martinez’s observations and allegations — and act to correct the issues he listed. Some of the problems had reportedly already been hurriedly fixed by the time Probation’s inspector arrived. Other alleged violations were not found during investigations, such as the stench from toilets, according to probation officials. Due to Martinez’s high-profile report, a significant amount of graffiti was reportedly washed away, walls repainted, bathrooms scrubbed and restored, and real doorstops bought.

The story raised significant concern. But while officials expressed their disappointment with the conditions and acknowledged the importance of fixing the issues Martinez reported, some viewed the report as a symptom of larger problems in a system that desperately needs significant reform.

“In the scheme of all the other stuff that’s going on with the department,” said Cyn Yamashiro, a member of the Probation Commission along with Martinez, “the fact that there’s some graffiti on the wall and the urinals stink … Yeah that’s bad, but there’s a lot of other stuff that’s going on.” (Yamashiro said he spoke on his own behalf and not on behalf of the commission.)


The physical condition of the facilities do have symbolic importance in the rehabilitative process, especially for minors, he said. He is concerned that, even though these specific instances were reportedly resolved, they were allowed to occur in the first place. He also worries about similar conditions that might be occurring unreported elsewhere in the juvenile system, he said.

“I’m not a psychologist, but I would assume that there’s a relationship between the conditions of confinement and how youth see themselves,” Yamashiro said, “and [how they] see the institution that is trying to rehabilitate them.” The physical state of the department’s three juvenile halls and 12 juvenile camps can easily be viewed “as an expression of the institution’s desire to kind of create environments that are healthy for kids,” he explained. “If kids see that the institution doesn’t care enough to fix the plumbing and fix urinals and things like that, it doesn’t say a lot about the institution’s desire to help them.”

Probation’s Kerri Webb and Scott Sanders, consultant for the department’s juvenile detention services, both had a more upbeat take on the problems. Central Juvenile Hall, the largest of the county’s three juvenile halls, currently houses somewhere around 200 youth, said Sanders, who noted that the facility has a swimming pool, recreation stations, a school, and two medical units.

“A lot of time these kids are receiving services and educational opportunities that they didn’t take advantage of when they were on the outside committing the crime,” said Webb. “Now they are in a facility and in a program and environment where they have to go to school, and there are educational programs where they will receive the credit towards graduation. There are health professionals who will evaluate them to see what their psychiatric needs are, what their mental health needs are. We’re really proud of the fact that a lot of the times these kids, once they complete their stay here, are armed with better opportunities and better services, and more prepared to be a better juvenile in society.”

Educational services and a swimming pool may play a positive role in rehabilitation, according to Yamashiro and others, but that doesn’t prevent the negative factors in the juvenile halls and camps from playing a harmful one.

“At some point, the conditions themselves become the punishment,” Yamashiro said. “The farther away the environment is that they’re confined in, the farther away that is from their own home life, is I think the extent to which it is a punishment.”

And according to Yamashiro and department officials punishment is not supposed to be the point, at least in theory.

“The goal at this point when you’re working with youth,” Yamashiro said — “particularly when such a high percentage of youth come into the system with mental health disorders, diagnoses of learning disabilities” and more — is that this is “not [supposed to be] an exercise in punishment. It’s really about rehabilitating kids.”

That is why it is so essential to understand how the physical conditions of the county’s various juvenile facilities can have a great deal to do with a kid’s experience when he or she is in the county’s care, he said.

“If [the facility is] an environment that allows people to be comfortable and be in a position where they can learn, they can reflect on their own behavior and how they’re going to get better,” Yamashiro said. “[If] it’s so gross they can’t do that, then it kind of defeats the purpose of them being there.”

The Probation Department agreed, but said their quick response to the Martinez report’s allegations was less publicized than the high-profile news that resulted from the report itself.

“It doesn’t get out there, but we are proud of what we do,” Sanders said. “I stand on this, that our staff cares about these kids, that the department cares about these kids. And we are trying to do everything we can to provide the services that these kids need.

“I think the public misses the piece that a lot of these kids come in broken,” Sanders said. “They come in and our job is to try to stabilize them in the length of time we have. In Juvenile Hall, the average stay is 17 days. You might have some that are there longer. You have a lot that are there shorter. So our job is to try to help them leave as fast as possible, which is not a small task.”

Webb agreed.

“That’s our goal, that’s our mission,” she said, “to rehabilitate and get them back into their community and [to] be functional members of society. We’re really proud of that. [But] that doesn’t seem to really get across to the public. We’re not about just locking these kids up. They leave many times better than they were when they came in.”
Yet critics say these worthy intentions still beg the question as to how these practices were allowed to occur in the first place, particularly those with such a simple fix as rinsing the graffiti off the wall. What prevented this disrepair from being fixed the moment it was observed, not by a commissioner, but by a Detention Service Officer or other employee who works in the facilities every day?


In the past, the department has been criticized for various kinds of financial negligence. The audit released in January said the department did not adequately track its expenditures. Money was spent on employee phones that no one was using and on phones for former employees, for example. The report also found $161 million in state funds designated for much-needed adult and juvenile programs that had never been spent. Why? This was unclear. And though this sum was comprised of funding designated for programming and not facility upkeep, it suggested a level of financial dysfunction that had the potential to bleed into all areas of the department.

The cost of keeping a young person locked up in the county is unusually high, for example, compared with other California counties with large juvenile systems, according to an audit completed in April 2015.

The Average Daily Cost Per Youth or (ADCPY) for the county’s juvenile halls is $640 per kid per day in the halls and $552 in the camps. San Diego County spent $351 and $206 for camps and halls, respectively. Orange County spent $497 and $284. Harris County, Texas, $232 and $272.

In 2005, the county reported 17,648 felony arrests of juveniles, that was 6,906 by 2015, according to the California Attorney General’s Office.

Fewer arrests means fewer kids in residential facilities. In early 2016, 535 youths were held in facilities designed for 1,469. Despite this low number, the department continued to pay for services for a capacity of nearly 1,000, even though the camps and halls were reportedly seriously understaffed at the time of the audit.

Yamashiro said that, like the graffiti, the fiscal issues pointed beyond themselves to larger management troubles and attitudes. “You have a department whose budget hasn’t really shrunken, but you’ve got a population of kids that’s far lower than it has been in any memory,” he said. “So there’s a lot fewer kids and the same [departmental issues] persist. And I think that’s a problem.”

So why is the cost per kid so high in LA County’s juvenile halls and camps? And what are the county’s kids getting for the money? The county auditors noted that they were not 100 percent sure about the details of how the money was being spent because, they wrote, “Probation does not adequately track expenditures for juvenile halls and camps.”


One more issue addressed in Martinez’ original report is juvenile solitary. He wrote about a boy who was reportedly sent into isolation for 16 hours after trading his beverage carton for another inmate’s. While trading food is not allowed, Martinez noted that the punishment was a misuse of solitary confinement, which can only be used as a disciplinary action for no more than a few hours at a time. Exceptions are made for serious and rare situations.

The use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary action for juveniles has been a source of national controversy for some time, with many calling the strategy unproductive, cruel and capable of triggering permanent psychological consequences, especially with youth.

Last May, the county’s board of supervisors banned the use of solitary confinement, except in exceptional circumstances, in all the county’s juvenile detention facilities. While youth might still occasionally be separated for a cool-down period when all other options fail, the conditions of this separation were radically redefined and are supposed to now provide a more therapeutic and calming experience.

The day before these changes were approved in Los Angeles County, President Obama announced a solitary confinement ban for juveniles in federal prisons.

“Everyone agrees [solitary is] just not an appropriate way to handle crisis for youth for any lengthy period of time,” Yamashiro said.

Six months after the board of supervisors ordered the replacement of trips to solitary with far briefer time outs in a therapeutic environment, what are the results? Are staffers making use of the therapy-oriented procedures, like the newly created Hope Centers, in the halls and camps? Some probation sources say that many staff feel a vital tool has been taken away from them, and are unsure what to use in its place, so often use extended periods of room confinement as a replacement, which isn’t at all what the board of supervisors had in mind.

Even more pressing than the need for a progress report on the isolation issue is the matter of the growing number of reports of alleged assaults of youth by staff in the department’s halls and camps. Video surveillance caught a beating of an unresisting boy by staff members earlier this year. The instance does not appear to be isolated.

Another alleged incident surfaced the next month. And a third in October, with more rumored still to come. A report officials compiled this summer at the request of the probation commission found that monthly use of force incidents in the county’s three juvenile halls had increased 85 percent from January to July of this past year.


The two new chiefs will be faced with a long list of key decisions and daunting challenges when they arrive in January, especially given the agency’s need for many major and vital reforms.

“In working with the last two chiefs,” Sal Martinez said, “there’s one thing that I learned: No matter who’s in charge, there’s still a big disconnect between the executive offices in Downey and the line offices. And that disconnect needs to be fixed if we want to reform this department.”

This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, which is the product of a collaboration between WitnessLA and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Posted in juvenile justice, Juvenile Probation, Probation | 3 Comments »

Next Fifth District Supervisor Will Face Highest Reported Rates of Child Abuse, Death in L.A. County – by Jeremy Loudenback

November 4th, 2016 by witnessla


by Jeremy Loudenback

Next week, Los Angeles County will elect a new supervisor to oversee an area that has the highest rates of reported child abuse and neglect and the highest infant mortality rate in the county.

The fifth district covers about 2,800 square miles, from the tony hills of Pasadena and Glendale to sprawling exurbs of the San Gabriel and Santa Clarita Valleys.

But it is the more distant, high-desert communities of the Antelope Valley that are cause for concern.

Located about 70 miles from the seat of county-government power in downtown Los Angeles, the sleepy bedroom communities of the Antelope Valley present worrying conditions for the health and well-being of young children.

The pair of candidates vying for termed-out Supervisor Michael Antonovich’s seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are aware of the issues facing the Antelope Valley.

“It’s like one of these Hunger Games movies where the capital gets all the benefit,” said candidate Darrell Park, a clean-energy entrepreneur. “The farther north you go, the less benefit you get.”

Kathryn Barger, a chief deputy to longtime Supervisor Antonovich, said the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is “bursting at the seams” dealing with an uptick in child-welfare cases in the Antelope Valley as it prepares to hire more social workers.

“But it’s not just about bodies on the ground,” Barger said. “We’ve got to provide services and access to those services. Mental health is underfunded up there.”

According to Barger, the situation has long been challenging because of high rates of domestic violence and substance abuse and the difficulty of many in getting to services. She sees a role for public health nurses in child-maltreatment prevention by visiting first-time parents.

A 2015 analysis from the University of Southern California School of Social Work’s Children’s Data Network looked at the number of families with children ages 0 to 5 referred for child abuse or neglect to L.A. County’s child-protective service hotline operated by DCFS.

Across the county, the rate for the county as a whole is 14.6 percent, or about 1 in 7 young children.

But in the area representing the Antelope Valley, the rate is 20.6, the highest in the county.

In its most recent report on child abuse in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect identified Antelope Valley as having the highest rates of infant mortality and child death in 2013.

According to DCFS, more children are entering the system in recent years, causing the agency to hire 150 new staff and caseworkers to handle the increased caseloads at its Lancaster and Palmdale offices. DCFS is now seeking a bigger office there to accommodate its larger presence.

According to advocates and policymakers, the elevated numbers and child-maltreatment risk are a result of the area’s unique relationship to the rest of the county.


Part of the reason is that the area remains geographically isolated. To get to the Antelope Valley, you have to travel up the 14 freeway, north of the San Gabriel Mountains, through the Angeles National Forest and into the edge of the Mojave Desert.

Sparsely populated, Antelope Valley is culturally and geographically distinct from other, more urban areas of the county. Cities like Palmdale and Lancaster have grown rapidly in recent years as many Angelenos have sought more affordable housing in the area or a slower pace of life.

But to get downtown or to other parts of the county often takes at least a couple hours, presenting challenges for the child-welfare system and others. Ferrying children to court either in Monterey Park or at the two L.A. County courts in Lancaster can take the better part of the day. Visitations with family members located in other parts of the county for children living in out-of-home placement in Antelope Valley stretches DCFS resources.

In recent years, many families have flocked to the Antelope Valley for cheaper housing after getting priced out of other areas in the county. But most still work in Los Angeles or nearby.

The availability of cheaper housing has also played a role in the area’s high maltreatment rate, according to Charles Avila, head of the Antelope Valley Child Abuse Prevention Council.

“In a normal household, a mom and dad leave for work when the kids go off to school, but here we have families leaving before the children are even up,” Avila said. “Because of that commute time, children are at home two or three hours before parents are even home.”

Jacquelyn McCroskey, a professor of social work at USC and a researcher with the Children’s Data Network, says that the huge land mass and long distances of the Antelope Valley present unique complications.

“Because of the commutes, there are fewer adults around in neighborhoods,” McCroskey said. “That means fewer community interactions and less time to get to know each other. Then you have the complications of a public transportation system that doesn’t get people to all the places they need to go.”

The population of Antelope Valley is relatively small, at about 390,000 — a fraction of the 10 million people who live in Los Angeles County as a whole. But services are not always available or easily accessed here.

“If you are looking for resources, whether that’s help finding a job, counseling or pre-natal care, you have to look harder for it,” McCroskey said. “You have to go further to get them, but it’s also hard to find the time to get to them even when you find them.”

For Avila, the key to preventing child maltreatment is a matter of education. The Antelope Valley Child Abuse Prevention Council hosts parent cafés, informal gatherings that allow parents to learn parenting skills and develop support networks that can decrease the risk of child abuse.

Despite the area’s struggles to prevent child abuse and neglect, Avila says it nurtures a sense of community.

“The Antelope Valley is very welcoming to new families coming in,” he said. “It’s still a quiet bedroom community. Neighbors know each other and neighbors take care of one another.”

For lots more on the race for the fifth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, see the excellent earlier coverage by the Chronicle of Social Change.

Jeremy Loudenback is the Child Trauma Editor for the Chronicle of Social Change, where this story first appeared.

Posted in DCFS, LA County Board of Supervisors | 2 Comments »

Supes Chose a Team of Two to Lead LA County Probation: Terri McDonald & Sheila Mitchell

November 3rd, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have just announced their selection of not just one brand new Chief of Probation, but two.

Here’s the deal: The Supes have chosen a new Chief Probation Officer to lead the county’s problem-plagued department—namely former Assistant LA County Sheriff Terri McDonald who, up until recently, was in charge of the county’s massive jail system, where she has been credited with successfully leading the implementation of the reform recommendations from the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

Prior to coming to the LASD, McDonald spent 25 years with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, starting as a corrections officer, and rising through the ranks to the level of Undersecretary of Operations.

In addition, the board has made the unusual move of interviewing and hiring a second in command for the nation’s largest probation department, who will have the title of Chief Deputy Probation Officer, and who will be in charge of running and reforming the juvenile side of the department.

This new number two is to be Sheila Mitchell, who was the former chief of the Santa Clara Probation Department, where she earned a national reputation for juvenile justice reform. In the past, Mitchell also worked as second in command of the Alameda County Probation Department. Prior to Alameda, she served as a Deputy Commissioner for the State of Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

At the moment, Mitchell is the CEO for Unity Care, a community-based, non-profit that focuses on developing educational and social programs to enrich the lives of at-risk youth


As the the process to select a new chief went on behind closed doors these past few months, juvenile advocates expressed worry that, in an effort to get a strong figure for the adult side of probation, the board might not choose someone with the necessary experience in juvenile reform.

Yet, Wednesday night’s announcement of two names, rather than just one, has produced cautious optimism among many probation watchers.

“Probation has two important and quite different functions in the populations it supervises,” said Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California. “We think it’s important that the department move away from a law enforcement type of supervision on both of those sides. But juveniles are quite different than adults,” Eliasberg continued, “and it appears that the problems of youth probation are as significant if not more significant than on the adult side. Therefore we are pleased the board did not take a one-size-fits-all approach, and made sure that there was going to be somebody at the top with a substantial level of experience with youth.”

McDonald will receive an annual salary of $316,342, plus $25,000 in relocating expenses.

Mitchell will be paid $250,000 a year plus the same $25,000 in relocating expenses.

McDonald will begin work on January 1, 2017, Mitchell on January 14, 2017.

Here’s the board’s memo on the new hires.

For additional information on the background of the Supes selections, and on the other three finalists originally in the running for the position of chief check out our earlier story on the final five.

Posted in Probation | 18 Comments »

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