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Does LA County Probation Need a Watchdog Commission?

January 27th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Will Los Angeles County’s large and still troubled probation department
get its own watchdog?

The unsettling concerns raised by the recent release of a new audit report that examined probation’s fiscal behavior would, all by itself, strongly suggest that more aggressive oversight is needed. (We wrote about the report’s findings here.)

And then there’s the fact that LA’s probation department has had five chiefs in the last ten years, the last three of which exited under various kinds of clouds.

With these and other issues in mind, LA County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl will introduce a motion at next Tuesday’s board meeting, which proposes the appointment of a working group to “evaluate the feasibility of establishing a permanent Probation Oversight Commission, similar to that recently established to oversee the Sheriff’s Department.”

If the motion is approved, the working group is to deliver its first report to the board, along with a plan for moving forward, in 90 days.

The exploratory group will also be instructed to make a recommendation to the board as to whether or not this watchdogging of probation should be separated into two separate oversight entities, one for the agency’s youth services, the other for the adult side—”given the different needs of the two populations.”

(On first bounce, WitnessLA leans toward the idea of two separate watchdogs.)

Probation already has a string of advisory bodies including an its own Probation Commission,, and several of its commissioners are very proactively reform-minded. Yet, as the motion notes, “there is no overall, formal assessment and reporting process.”

Hence the motion.

“lt is critical to evaluate the past actions and oversight of the Probation Department, assess ongoing needs and determine what changes might be adopted at this critical time of transformative reform in Los Angeles County,” said Sheila Kuehl in a statement about the motion.

Ridley-Thomas sounded equally firm about the need for a codified process for oversight leading to reform.

So will the motion pass? We hope so.

In any case….stay tuned..

Attractive bulldog photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Probation | 8 Comments »

Freedom For Sale: An Important San Francisco Bail Lawsuit Hits a Bump in the Road

January 27th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

In the past year, Equal Justice Under Law,
a Washington DC based civil rights group, has filed nine class action challenges in seven states hoping against cities’ money bail systems that, in the simplest terms, allow the affluent to go free when charged with the same crimes that keep poor defendants in jail when awaiting trial.

With their filings, the group has, thus far, gotten cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana to reform their practices of using of secured money bail for new arrestees.

The organization’s most recent battle site is in San Francisco, CA, where, on Tuesday, the class action lawsuit hit an unexpected snag in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of Oakland, who denied the lawsuit class action status and gave the plaintiffs and their lawyers 30 days to “think of a legal avenue” to continue their efforts to force reform of the SF bail system.

The plaintiffs filed the suit with the help of San Francisco’s refreshingly reform-minded public defender, Jeff Adachi, who also filed a court declaration in support of the suit, writing, “A fair system of pretrial justice would not rely on monetary conditions, as such conditions penalize arrestees solely based on their wealth status.”

Bail reform supporters call the judge’s ruling “discouraging,” since the class action lawsuit has produced tangible results, with no such judicial roadblocks in at least four other states.

Meanwhile, Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland and Mary Lou Fulton, a senior program manager at the California Endowment, have written an excellent Op-Ed for the LA Times detailing exactly why this lawsuit is so important.

Here’s a clip:

On any given day, two-thirds of the people sitting in California jails haven’t been convicted of anything. These 42,000 people are simply awaiting their day in court, many of them incarcerated for no reason other than being too poor to post bail.

That fundamental unfairness is at the center of a federal case getting underway Tuesday in San Francisco. The class action suit asserts that California’s bail system allows rich people to buy their freedom while awaiting trial, but assumes poor people endanger community safety and can’t be trusted to show up on their court date.

The Washington D.C. group was helped with its local filing by the SF Public Defender’s Office and public defender Jeff Adachi who, in the declaration he filed in support of the class action suit wrote, “A fair system of pretrial justice would not rely on monetary conditions, as such conditions penalize arrestees solely based on their wealth status.”

One of the lead plaintiffs is Riana Buffin, who was arrested in San Francisco on suspicion of theft and conspiracy, and jailed when she couldn’t produce $30,000 in bail money. The 19-year-old Oakland resident was given no opportunity to tell a court officer that she had a job, lived with her mom and three younger brothers, and posed no flight risk or danger to the community. A few days later, the charges against her were dropped. But because Buffin missed work while being jailed for a crime she didn’t commit, she lost her job as an airport baggage handler.

In California, the bail process varies depending on where you’re arrested. In some counties, judges can quickly release people to await their court date at home. But in others, like San Francisco County where Buffin was arrested, those without bail money are stuck.

Bail isn’t pocket change either. The median amount in California is $50,000 — five times higher than the national median. Most people don’t have anything close to that kind of cash available; a survey last year found 37% of Americans couldn’t cover even a $500 car repair bill. Many wind up turning to a bond company to get released. But bail bondsmen charge about 10% of the bail amount, money people don’t get back if charges are dropped. Still, people agree to that debt because a short stay in jail can cause major struggles, such as losing a job or custody of children.

Bail compounds the already substantial race and class discrimination problems rampant in the justice system. People of color experience higher arrest rates to begin with. Then they are charged with crimes that carry heavier sentences and in turn face higher bail amounts. Finally, those who can’t afford bail are more likely to give in to pressure to plead guilty. Research shows that those jailed while awaiting trial end up receiving longer sentences than people facing similar charges who are able to wait for their court dates at home.

Norris and Fulton point out that the County of Napa has already instituted a well-thought-out system of bail reform and amazingly the sky hasn’t fallen. “In Napa County,” they write, “more than 90% of those released pending trial show up for court and stay out of trouble in the meantime.”

Posted in criminal justice | 1 Comment »

SCOTUS Rules on Miller Retroactivity, Comparing the LA Police Commission and Planned LASD Civilian Oversight

January 26th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


In a 6-3 vote on Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, which established that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life-without-parole (without considering mitigating circumstances) was cruel and unusual, should be applied retroactively.

Monday’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana has the potential to free juvenile offenders sentenced before the 2012 Miller ruling, who will now have the opportunity to be considered for parole based on whether they show evidence of rehabilitation.

The clarification of Miller v. Alabama (which, by the way, was argued by superstar civil rights attorney and author, Bryan Stevenson) is important because interpretation and application of the retroactivity of the ruling has varied across state lines.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

“Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions,” wrote Justice Kennedy. “Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

Advocates agree. “People told as children that they would leave prison only in a pine box now will have an opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed and are ready to re-enter society,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “All children possess the capacity for change, and this ruling affirms that when and where a youth committed a crime should not determine whether he or she should die in prison.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined in a dissenting opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia. (Justice Thomas also wrote his own dissenting opinion.)

Lyle Denniston over at SCOTUSblog has a helpful analysis of Monday’s Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling. Here’s a clip:

In a way, the ruling was technically only about whether the Court would apply retroactively its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, declaring that life without parole should be an “uncommon,” even “rare,” sentence for an individual who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime. Making a decision retroactive means that inmates whose convictions have become final can begin anew their challenges, to take advantage of the new decision.

The new decision does make Miller retroactive to cases that were final before the date of that ruling — June 25, 2012. But it also appears to go beyond the actual scope of the Miller ruling, by strengthening the chance that a newly convicted juvenile will be able to show, at the time of sentencing, that he is not beyond rehabilitation to become a law-abiding individual. Life without parole, the Court declared, is always unconstitutional for a juvenile unless he or she is found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

For inmates who as youths many years ago were sentenced to life without parole, the ruling gives them a chance to reopen their sentence with an attempt to show that, at that time, they were not beyond rehabilitation — a point that they apparently can try to prove by offering evidence of their good behavior as prisoners in the years since.

Those aspects of the ruling appeared to go beyond what the Court had decided in the Miller case itself, which required judges who sentence defendants under the age of eighteen to take their youth into account, to make sure the punishment was appropriate for each individual. Monday’s dissenting Justices, in fact, complained that the new decision had “distorted” the meaning of the Miller decision and will force sentencing judges to try to figure out “a knotty legal question” — what were the prospects for rehabilitation at the time of sentencing?

The Miller ruling only applied in 2012 to sentences that had not yet become final. That left open the question whether the ruling would apply to cases that had been completed before, perhaps long before, the Miller ruling was issued. That is the fundamental constitutional question the Court has now answered, making its bar on mandatory life-without-parole sentences applicable to already closed cases — in federal trial courts, and also in state trial courts — if the state courts have (and retain, in the future) the authority to hear challenges based on federal law as it applies to sentencing.


The Los Angeles Police Commission, which has a say in who serves as chief of police, has a considerable amount of control over the LAPD, its practices, and policies. While that kind of power won’t be in the hands of the members appointed to a civilian oversight commission for the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the advisory-only civilian commission will still be able to bring about reform by making recommendations and using public opinion, some experts say.

The LA Daily News’ Sarah Favot has more on the differences between the two oversight groups. Here’s a clip:

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently agreed to move forward on an oversight panel for the Sheriff’s Department. But unlike the Los Angeles Police Department’s Police Commission, the panel will be merely advisory.

The Board of Supervisors is set to vote on the proposed ordinance that will govern the commission in the coming weeks.

The main difference between the two oversight bodies will be that the sheriff is an elected official who has the sole responsibility to operate the department, while the police chief is appointed by the mayor, with the approval of the City Council and Police Commission. Under the City Charter, the Police Commission is the head of the LAPD.

The Police Commission sets policies for the department. Although in reality the chief also has a lot of control, and he manages the day-to-day operations of the department.

Attorney Dean Hansell, who chaired the working group formed last year to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors about the role of the Sheriff’s Department oversight commission, described how the Sheriff’s Department oversight panel would be different from the Police Commission.

“The sheriff is independently elected,” Hansell said. “This commission, much of their powers and tools are really going to have to be power of persuasion and power to muster public opinion.”

Posted in LWOP Kids | No Comments »

No More Solitary for Kids in Federal Prison

January 26th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Monday, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, acknowledging the devastating effects of isolation on mental health.

Last summer, President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a review on the nation’s over-reliance on solitary confinement. The report came back offering ways to better protect the health and well-being of federal inmates by greatly limiting solitary confinement.

The president said his administration will adopt the recommendations in the report, which include banning the use of isolation as punishment for low-level offenders, expanding out-of-cell time for those held in solitary, and building separate and less-restrictive spaces for mentally ill inmates and those in “protective custody,” who would normally be held in solitary confinement. The changes have the potential to impact the lives of approximately 10,000 federal prisoners.

President Obama wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post explaining why solitary confinement reform is so crucial.

Obama pointed to the story of Kalief Browder, whose inability to post $3,000 bail led to a three-year stint at Rikers Island, most of which was spent in solitary confinement. Browder came out of Rikers and isolation and struggled for three years with mental illness and the aftereffects of prolonged isolation. Browder tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of last year. He was 22-years-old.

Here’s a clip from Obama’s op-ed:

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.

That’s why last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. They found that there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort. They have identified common-sense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement in our criminal justice system.

The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system…

Posted in solitary | No Comments »

Competing Truths Unfold at the Trial of 2 LA Sheriff’s Deputies Who Allegedly Beat an Inmate Then Lied to Cover Up

January 25th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

Every criminal trial is, at its heart, a battle over whose truth will prevail.

In the latest federal trial involving members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which began last Tuesday, the matter of competing truths is particularly dramatic.

The defendants are two LASD deputies, Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, who are charged with punching, kicking, pepper spraying and generally whacking with a flashlight an-allegedly non-resistant former Men’s Central Jail inmate named Bret Phillips on February 11, 2009. Then, after the beating, Aguier and Ramirez allegedly falsified reports to portray Phillips, who is mentally ill, as the violent, out-of-control aggressor whose actions required multiple deputies using various kinds of force to bring him back under control, and who should be prosecuted for his actions.

According to federal prosecutors, Jennifer Williams and Mack Jenkins, on the morning of February 11, 2009, Phillips—who has been formally diagnosed as being both bipolar and schizophrenic—was handcuffed and waist-chained as he was being led back to his cell from a trip to the jail’s medical clinic. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams described it in her opening statement, the inmate was nervous because, earlier in the morning, he’d been left in painfully over-tight cuffs and chains for around half an hour, and had repeatedly called out to deputy Aguier to have the cuffs loosened. When he was ignored multiple times, in frustration, inmate Phillips managed, with difficulty, to pick up a couple of small milk cartons that were in his cell. Then the next time Aguier walked by, Phillips tossed the cartons in the deputy’s direction to get his attention. As nearly as Phillips could tell, one carton struck the deputy’s foot.

Thus when the inmate was on the way back from the clinic, and Deputy Aguier approached Phillips and told him to face the wall, inmate Phillips became frightened that the milk carton tossing incident would provoke a retaliation. And that is, according to Williams, when the alleged beating began, by Aguier and a second deputy, Ramirez, and eventually others. Williams said Phillips lost consciousness somewhere during the event, and never resisted in any way.

“Something terrible happened to Bret Phillips,” said Williams. Although Phillips’ was still cuffed and chained, she said, “he suffered a beating by deputies” who were “sworn to protect and serve. But they did the opposite.”

According to defense attorneys Evan Jenness and Vicki Podberesky, who each gave separate opening statements after the prosecution finished, the incident in question was entirely different than what Williams presented. This “trial is about a necessary use of force,” that was the only way to bring under control a dangerous inmate in the most dangerous unit of the county’s most dangerous jail.

“Even if they are waist-chained, inmates can still use other parts of their body” to attack deputies, said Vicki Podberesky, who represents Ramirez. And that’s exactly what Phillips had done. He said, “’Fuck you, deputy, I ain’t goin’ back!’” Podberesky told the jury. “And then he head-butted the deputy and was taken to the ground,” she said. Phillips also tried to viciously kick Aguier, which his waist chains and handcuffs in no way prevented him from doing.

Another deputy who saw what was unfolding yelled 415! 415! Meaning “a deputy assault was going on.” And additional LASD showed up.

Yes, said Podberesky, deputies struck Bret Phillips in the ribs “two or three times,” to subdue him. They also used OC spray—pepper spray. “Then when that didn’t work, Deputy Ramirez took out a flashlight and struck Bret Phillips in the legs several times.”

But although necessary force was used, and it wasn’t pretty, unlike what the prosecution claimed, Phillips was barely injured, said the defense attorneys. There was no bleeding, no large lacerations, no excessive bruising.

Contrary to what the prosecution said that its witnesses would state, “there was no blood,” said Podberesky. Phillips was not unconscious. He “was awake, alert and agitated,” and photos and a video taken within minutes of the incident will show this, she said.

Furthermore, while the prosecution described a brutal beating given to Phillips by the defendants, in the course of their opening, the defense showed the jury a photo of Phillips’ forehead that was reportedly taken after the incident. It shows what appears to be a comparatively minor laceration with no swelling or bruising to speak of. It is nothing like the swollen, discolored post-beating face of Gabriel Carrillo, the victim of a brutal deputy assault who testified in one of the previous federal trials of LASD deputies. In that case, two deputies and a sergeant were subsequently convicted of assaulting Carrillo in the jail’s visitor’s center. They were also convicted of falsifying reports to cover their actions, portraying Carrillo as the aggressor—as it is alleged in this trial that deputies Aguier and Ramirez have done.

In contrast, when Bret Phillips was released from jail, “he never made a complaint,” about the MCJ incident, said Aguier’s attorney, Evan Jenness. He got that idea from investigators, she said.

“So why are we here?” Jenness, asked the jury rhetorically. The answer: “When you have a witness, if they have biases, they are not reliable.”


Indeed, whichever truth is the right one, the alleged 2009 beating of Bret Phillips would likely never have gotten on the feds’ radar, much less resulted in the October 2013 federal indictment of two deputies, had it not been for the presence of a civilian witness.

Otherwise, it would have been the word of one mentally ill inmate with a record for acting out when he’s off his meds, against that of several working members of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department who either participated in the even or observed it and who, according to the defense, will be showing up to testify.

The civilian witness in this case is a Catholic jail chaplain named Paulino Juarez, who has been working at MCJ providing spiritual counsel for inmates since 1998. Unbeknownst to the deputies involved in the Phillips incident, according to the prosecution, Chaplain Juarez was in the third floor 3500-3700 module just beginning his rounds to visit prisoners on the module, when he heard the encounter with Bret Phillips taking place nearby and, alarmed at what he heard, walked quietly toward the action to investigate.

Juarez normally made those rounds in the afternoon. But on the day in question he had a scheduling conflict, so began his visits in the morning. Thus, according to the prosecution, the deputies failed to notice Juarez’ unexpected presence until after the incident was in full swing, so to speak.

“There was one witness they weren’t counting on,” said prosecutor Williams in her opening. “A chaplain. What he saw was so severe that he thought it left the inmate dead.” And the chaplain “at no time saw the inmate fighting or resisting.”

There are also two former jail inmates on the prosecution’s witness list, both of whom reportedly witnessed whatever happened between the deputies and Phillips.

But it is Chaplain Juarez’s testimony that is arguably the most critical for the prosecution.


For the first couple of days of the trial, it looked as if the government might never get to Chaplain Juarez and its other main witnesses at all. In fact, by Wednesday afternoon, that the possibility that U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell might have to declare mistrial looked increasingly likely, due to a string of jurors who managed to get themselves excused, or tried to get themselves excused, until the court was out of alternates.

First there was a woman who, moments after being sworn in on Tuesday, told the judge she was being treated for anxiety, depression and occasionally hearing voices, so couldn’t concentrate. (She was excused.) Another, failed to mention prior to swearing in that her father was a former probation officer, which she suddenly realized would make her unalterably pro law enforcement. (She too was excused.)

Even before the jury was seated, a diminutive woman who nearly made the panel told the judge that as a practicing Buddhist she “couldn’t condemn anyone,” because we were all here in life to learn. Then, a third juror said after opening arguments that she felt intimidated by the trial’s subject matter and feared that she might be retaliated against by those involved. (She did not specify which side she thought might do the retaliating.) The judge managed to wrangle her into staying. By the day’s end, however, both alternate jurors were used up, meaning if anyone else dropped out, the jury number would fall to eleven and a mistrial could result.

So when on Wednesday morning, a diving stock market drove still another juror to tell the judge that he was in the financial industry, and he couldn’t concentrate due to worrying about his clients who were no doubt freaking out, the judge sent everyone home at midday.

By Thursday morning, the market had bounced back a little, and the financial guy said he’d managed to make other arrangements for his clients, thus a mistrial was averted, and the prosecutors were finally able to call Chaplain Juarez to the stand.

Then, on Friday, Phillips himself was sworn in to tell his story.

To Be Continued…

Posted in LASD | 5 Comments »

Pregnant and Parenting Foster Kids, Housing Homeless Vets, and a Prison Acting Class

January 22nd, 2016 by Taylor Walker


A study by First Place For Youth compares the outcomes of transition-aged foster youth who are pregnant or parenting with non-parent foster kids.

First Place for Youth is a non-profit that helps foster kids aging out of the system with housing and other services in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties.

The study, which used data from teens and young adults within the program, and found that the participants who were parents were less likely to have a job or high school diploma (or GED), and the parents had a harder time attending higher education or pursuing a career than the non-parents.

And foster kids in California are far more likely than their non-child-welfare-involved peers to be pregnant or have children of their own. According to Alliance for Children’s Rights, girls in foster care in LA are 2.5 times more likely to be pregnant by age 19 than girls not involved in the child welfare system. And 50% of 21-year-old young men aging out say they have gotten someone pregnant, compared to 19% of 21-year-old males not in foster care.

The report recommends boosting access to affordable child care, providing more parenting services to foster youth (for both moms and dads), developing a pregnancy prevention strategy, and providing extra income for foster kids who are working and going to school while raising kids.

The report also recommends that counties opt-in on CA Senate Bill 1252 to extend eligibility to age 25 for a transitional housing program, pointing out that parenting foster youth need far more support adjusting to independent adult life than non-parenting foster kids.

The study was funded by the Butler Family Fund, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Hedge Funds Care and Kaiser Foundation Hospital Fund.


On Wednesday, the US Senate voted unanimously to fund $35 million in construction work on a decrepit Department of Veterans Affairs building in Westwood to house homeless vets.

The decision is an important one, as there is a serious shortage of beds for the more than 4,000 homeless military veterans living in Los Angeles County.

If the House of Representatives approves the bill, the $35 million would provide seismic retrofitting for a portion of the historic VA campus, which has been underutilized due to its current dilapidated condition. The Senate-approved renovation will quickly provide housing for 65 veterans in need.

If completed, the a draft plan for the whole campus would create permanent housing for 900 vets and traditional housing for 700 more.

KPCC’s John Ismay has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

With more homeless veterans than any other city in the U.S., Los Angeles has been scrambling for ways to house those in need. Last year, under a settlement agreement, the V.A. agreed to repurpose the campus to help house homeless veterans.

Veterans had sued the V.A., claiming misuse of the property, which was donated to the federal government to serve those who served in the military. Instead, large sections of the campus were leased out to businesses and nonprofits who had nothing to do with veterans.


The $35 million would provide earthquake retrofits to a building that could house about 65 veterans–making the price tag more than a half million dollars per bed.

Seems steep–and the V.A. has acknowledged that demolishing the historic buildings that litter the campus and erecting new ones would be much cheaper. But the process for doing so is much slower, particularly since the government believes the existing buildings have historical value.

“The campus has a number of beautiful old buildings, that are outdated and underutilized,” said Milo Peinemann of New Directions, a non-profit organization that works to house homeless veterans.


Inmates at a California State Prison in Lancaster learn interpersonal skills and how to manage stress through meditation and acting classes led by teachers and mentors from the Strindberg Laboratory.

People Magazine’s Tiare Dunlap has more on the program. Here’s a clip:

The Strindberg Laboratory currently employs three acting teachers who are graduates of its programs in jails and homeless shelters – a number the directors say will grow to at least 10 within the year.

Teacher Tony Cedeno was serving a three-year sentence in Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles when he met Bierman and Pakarinen, who he calls “my angels from God.”

“When I met them, I was fully involved in the gangs,” Cedeno, 52, tells PEOPLE. “I came out one morning of their drama class to give notes to somebody and I wound up staying.”

Cedeno, formerly known as “Teardop,” was coping with HIV positive status and substance abuse issues when he became involved with the program. He says he “never in a million years” could have imagined acting would change the course of his life.

“I just gave it a chance,” he recalls. “I played my mother in our first show and it helped me to process a lot of feelings I was harboring and gave me a chance to look at the part I played as a son rather than what my mother had done to me.”

Most of the plays the program puts on are written or adapted by the actors themselves. This allows for a greater creative expression and helps with two practical concerns.

“It’s easier because if you do a play you have to learn lines,” Bierman says. “A lot of the guys, especially if they’re dealing with addiction, can’t remember anything.”

Cedeno contacted the couple one day after being released from jail. After participating in productions on the outside, Cedeno became a Strindberg Laboratory teacher. He now leads acting workshops at Project Alofa, a Long Beach, California, organization that assists formerly incarcerated individuals and the LGBTQ community – a role he takes extremely seriously.

“I released my tension in the theater and that’s what I do today,” he says. “I’m still clean and sober going on three years thanks to them.”

“I work extra hours because it’s like therapy for me,” he continues. “After getting shot, getting stabbed, getting thrown off of bridges, getting tied up in handcuffs, being the victim of home invasions, these people make me feel safe. I feel a safety, I feel like they’re teaching me. They’re teaching me how to be human again.”

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

Paying for Lawsuits Against the LAPD, Crisis Centers, Parole for Juvie Crimes, and Realignment Savings

January 21st, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA City Council approved $24.3 million in settlements to two men, Kash Delano Register and Bruce Lisker, who were wrongfully convicted of murder and spent decades in prison.

On Wednesday’s episode of KCRW’s Which Way LA?, the LA Times’ Matt Lait and LA Police Commission Vice President Steve Soboroff talked with host Warren Olney about the city’s decision to agree to a big-bucks settlement based on the likelihood that going to court would cost more than the $24 million.

Prosecutors dropped charges against Register, who was convicted of killing a man at age 18 in 1979, after his lawyers accused the prosecution of withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, and using false testimony. Lisker’s conviction for his mother’s 1983 murder was overturned after a judge found that the prosecution had presented false testimony.

Lait pointed out that Register’s lawyers were originally demanding $40 million to settle, and Lisker’s lawyers were demanding around $22 million. Through federal mediators, those sums were brought down to approximately $16.7 and $7.6 million respectively.

When asked if he thought the City Council made the correct call by settling, Soboroff said, “I believe [the City Council] did the right thing. They were travesties. They happened 37 and 33 years ago. It was a different world then in Los Angeles policing than it is now.”

Soboroff asserted that today’s law enforcement officers are not making such egregious errors in policing as in Register and Lisker’s cases. “This is not going to happen again,” Soboroff said. “This is not like the Netflix “Making a Murderer” that’s been going on recently. That is not what our police department is about.”

The commission president said that while officers make mistakes, the LAPD had established a number of protections since Register and Lisker’s convictions. “We have a system which has national recognition as having safeguards, having citizen oversight, having independent inspector generals, having all kinds of intra- and inter-department safeties…”

The Times’ Lait was not so convinced. “You see time and again throughout the country, DNA evidence exonerating people… Even though there’s no DNA evidence in this case, Mr. Register’s case dealt with eyewitness identifications. And those can be faulty. So there’s always the risk.”


The LA Times’ Abby Sewell takes a look inside Los Angeles’ crisis centers, as the county shifts toward a reliance on LA’s five centers, rather than jails or hospitals, for taking care of a person in the middle of a mental health emergency.

These centers, the newest of which opened in Culver City last month, serve as places law enforcement officers can bring people in crisis. Often, police officers have to choose between waiting 6-8 hours to drop someone in crisis off at hospital emergency room, or booking the person on a minor charge and getting back to work within an hour.

Here’s a clip from Sewell’s story:

Until recently, Los Angeles police were reluctant to take patients directly to the urgent care centers because, unlike hospital emergency rooms, the centers don’t take people with serious medical issues or who are extremely drunk or aggressive.

But after meeting with Exodus staff over the summer to clarify the guidelines, police have begun taking more patients to the centers rather than emergency rooms. In December 2014, law enforcement officers took 209 patients to L.A. County-USC Medical Center and 107 to the Exodus center across the street. In August, officers took 196 patients to the hospital and 268 to the urgent care center. LAPD officers who had been frustrated at the time they spent waiting to hand off patients to medical staff at the overcrowded county emergency rooms said the turnaround time is much quicker at the urgent care centers.

“The times I’ve been there, it’s been 15 minutes as opposed to two hours at the ER,” said Lt. Brian Bixler of the Los Angeles Police Department’s specialized mental health team.

The turn to urgent care centers has also helped to alleviate overcrowding at the county hospitals’ psychiatric emergency departments and in the regular emergency rooms. The average morning patient count for the three county psychiatric emergency rooms was about 40 in November, down from 60 a year earlier.

Mark Ghaly, director of community programs for the county’s Department of Health Services, which runs the hospitals, said a “significant amount” of the reduction in crowding can be attributed to the increased use of urgent care centers…

But it can be a challenge to find a bed in a psychiatric facility that provides long-term care. One patient waited a week at an urgent care center — in violation of rules — before an inpatient bed was found.

Ghaly said the expansion of urgent care centers will be a boon to hospitals, but needs to come with “a commensurate increase” in inpatient beds and community-based resources so patients have somewhere to go upon release.


On Wednesday, a California appeals court ruled that, for inmates who were sentenced to life-without-parole for juvenile crimes, judges must take into consideration evidence of prisoners’ rehabilitation when deciding parole eligibility.

In 2014, the CA Supreme Court ruled that judges must take a second look at juvenile life-without-parole sentences, but the ruling did not specify what kind of evidence, if any, a prisoner could present for the second chance at parole.

The Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles overturned a judge’s decision to disregard evidence that Elizabeth Lozano, who killed another teenager when she was 16-years-old, had turned her life around in prison.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Bob Egelko has more on appeals court’s decision. Here’s a clip:

In the state’s first appellate ruling on the issue, the court said the U.S. and California Supreme Court decisions had emphasized that juveniles were different from adults in maturity and responsibility, and that judges must consider all evidence relating to the “distinctive attributes of youth” before imposing harsh sentences.

“All relevant evidence, in our view, includes what Lozano asserts is 15 years of rehabilitation in prison,” Justice Sandy Kriegler said last Thursday in a 3-0 ruling ordering a new hearing.

Lozano, a 16-year-old member of a Los Angeles street gang, fatally shot Tayde Vasquez and took her jewelry in January 1992 after hearing that the girl had accused her of plotting with members of a rival gang. She was tried and sentenced as an adult in 1996, violated prison rules repeatedly for four years, and was convicted of a drug crime. But she has been discipline-free since then and has apparently turned her life around, the court said.

Lozano earned a high school diploma and a two-year college degree in prison, was elected to an inmate council that works with prison administrators, took part in an outreach program to help juveniles stay crime-free, and has won praise from a former prison warden and numerous staff members, the court said.

When she tried to present that information to the judge who was ordered to reconsider her sentence, prosecutors objected. They argued that evidence of good behavior in prison can be presented only at a separate hearing, authorized by a recent state law, that juveniles sentenced to life without parole can request after 15 years in prison.


Last week, WLA pointed to an LA Times editorial taking a closer look at why, despite a promised pile of savings from California’s realignment strategy and Proposition 47, the state’s prison budget has only risen over the last four years.

In response to calls for accountability from CA lawmakers, on Wednesday, prison officials released a long-term corrections plan that says the state would have had to spend $1.3 billion more, if not for the inmate population reductions from realignment and Prop. 47. Corrections officials also say that the current spending is necessary to keep the inmate population below a level ordered by a panel of federal judges, and that money is being spent on private prisons, while dilapidated and costly prisons have not been replaced.

The Associated Press’ Don Thompson has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Federal judges required the state to reduce the headcount in the state’s 34 main adult prisons more than officials wished, according to the revised long-term plan Brown’s administration released Wednesday at the insistence of state lawmakers.

That led to more expensive private prison beds in California and other states and ended plans to close a dilapidated state lockup as the state scrambled to maintain enough beds, according to the new plan.

But the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now houses about 35,000 fewer inmates than it did at its peak in 2006, leading liberal and conservative advocacy groups and a state lawmaker to question why the savings never materialized.

“The money’s going up, and the population’s going down,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, who heads the Senate Public Safety Committee and the budget committee that oversees corrections spending. “When do you start seeing the long-term savings?”

The department says its budget would have been $1.3 billion higher this year without the changes the state has made in the last four years.

The revised plan says the current level of spending is needed to hold the inmate headcount below the level set by federal judges. Brown’s budget includes more than $120 million in stop-gap population control measures, including fixing up the rundown California Rehabilitation Center at Norco and keeping 4,900 inmates in private lockups past this year’s legislative deadline. The revised corrections plan also relies in part on space for nearly 2,400 inmates in three new cell houses built at existing prisons.

Posted in LAPD | No Comments »

County Litigation Figures, and LA County and City Approve Big-Ticket Settlements

January 20th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


LA County spent $118.9 million during fiscal year 2014-2015, an increase of 24% over the $95.6 million spent in FY 2013-14 according to a new report from County Counsel.

The LA County Sheriff’s Department alone spent $61 million on litigation, up 50%—$20 million—over the previous year’s $40 million. The LASD spent more than half—$33.5 million—on excessive force incidents, most of which were patrol cases (only 3.7% were jail cases). The excessive force cost was up nearly $10 million over the previous year.

Much of these cases date back several years. So while the sum paid out for law enforcement cases has risen over the past few years, instances of excessive use of force are actually declining. A report from the County CEO’s Office, also presented to the board Tuesday, says that use of force numbers dropped 22% from fiscal year 2013-2014 to 2014-2015.

Nearly half of the total $118.9 million was spent on litigation via attorneys’ fees and costs.

“Every cent the county spends on litigation is precious funding that we cannot use to house the homeless, promote better health and wellness for children, upskill our workforce and provide countless other needed services to our communities,” said LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis in a statement.


After County Counsel presented a breakdown of last year’s legal costs to the Supervisors, the board approved a $1.6 million settlement in a lawsuit against the LASD over the fatal shooting of an 80-year-old man, Eugene Robert Mallory, in his home.

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

The deputies were serving a search warrant at Mallory’s home in the community of Littlerock near Palmdale in June 2013 while investigating reports of a suspected meth lab.

No evidence of methamphetamine was found. Sheriff’s officials at the time said that marijuana was discovered on the property.

Mallory’s wife filed a wrongful death suit against the department. According to a statement released by her attorneys at the time, deputies claimed that Mallory had confronted them with a gun, but his wife said he was “sleeping in his bed when he was confronted and shot without warning.”

In a memo to the supervisors, county attorneys said the county denies the allegations in the lawsuit but recommended settling the case “due to the risks and uncertainties of litigation.”


The LA City Council has approved $24.3 million in settlements to two men, Kash Delano Register and Bruce Lisker, who spent decades behind bars for murders they did not commit.

The city will pay $16.7 million to Kash Delano Register, who spent 34 years in prison, and $7.6 million to Bruce Lisker, who spent 26 years in prison after being falsely convicted of killing his mother when he was 17.

CBS has the story. Here’s a clip:

Register had been convicted of the April 6, 1979, shooting death of 79-year-old Jack Sasson in West Los Angeles. A key witness in the case, Brenda Anderson, testified that she saw Register at the crime scene. Register was found guilty despite claims by his girlfriend that she was with him at the time.

Anderson’s sister, Sharon, testified at a court hearing in 2013 that her sibling had lied. According to attorneys for the Project for the Innocent, another Anderson sister tried to tell police investigating the shooting in 1979 that Brenda had lied to authorities, but the claim was never presented to Register’s defense attorney.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader ruled that the prosecution had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and used false testimony at Register’s trial. That ruling cleared the way for the then-53-year-old Register’s release in 2013…

Register’s New York-based attorney, Nick Brustin, said he is “hopeful that Los Angeles will build on this settlement by adopting reforms to their eyewitness identification procedures.”

“This case should also be a lesson to Los Angeles and other cities to take a hard look at other cases where inmates proclaim their innocence, even where, as here, there was no remaining physical evidence to do testing like DNA,” he said.


Lisker was convicted in 1985 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for the death of his 66-year-old mother, Dorka, who was found stabbed and beaten to death in their Sherman Oaks home in 1983, when he was 17 years old.

A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2005 called into question much of the evidence in Lisker’s trial, and his conviction was overturned in August 2009 by a federal judge in Riverside, who ruled that false evidence had been used and that Lisker had inadequate legal representation.

Posted in LA City Council, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD | 8 Comments »

California Jails’ Inadequate Reproductive Health Services

January 20th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


A report by the ACLU of Northern California found that women in jails across the state face delayed and denied access to abortions, limited access to menstrual supplies, and pregnant women reported that food, prenatal care, and living conditions were inadequate for having a healthy pregnancy.

One pregnant inmate named Erica described an alarming response to her medical emergency: “I woke up one morning and felt a sharp shooting pain in my stomach. It was a level nine on a scale of 10 so I asked the morning pill call nurse if I could be taken to the mini-clinic to be checked out,” said Erica. “When I got to the mini-clinic, three different nurses tried to locate my baby’s heartbeat but were unable to detect it. I immediately requested an ultrasound, but the nurses told me that there were no OB/GYN’s on shift and sent me back to my cell. I was really scared because I didn’t know what was going on and I started getting more depressed as time went by because I didn’t know if my baby was alive or dead.”

The report also says that jails do not adequately protect inmates—especially transgender women in male facilities—from sexual assault, as required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The report points to Los Angeles County, where the sheriff’s department vastly improved care for pregnant and postpartum women, implementing recommendations made by the ACLU following an evaluation of the county’s jail policies and practices regarding reproductive health that found delayed abortions, illegal shackling of pregnant women, and more.

The report’s first recommendation is to expand alternatives to incarceration for women, who are often low-level property and drug offenders. The report also calls on jails to collect data on inmates’ reproductive health and outcomes, examine and implement best medical practices, and adopt reproductive health care and sexual assault policies (that are inclusive of transgender people).

Posted in women's issues | No Comments »

Newest LA County Probation Audit Finds a Disturbing Array of Problems—Including a $161 Million Hoard of Badly Needed Unspent Cash

January 19th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

As we move forward toward what we hope will be a freshly optimistic and reform-minded era
for Los Angeles County Probation—-led by the as-yet-to-be-located new probation chief who will replace the recently departed Jerry Powers—we think it’s a good time to look at where probation is right now, and where it has been, and where it needs to go in the future.

We’ll examine various parts of those questions in the coming weeks. But, to begin the process, we took a look at an audit of probation’s fiscal behavior delivered to the LA County Board of Supervisors last month by Simpson and Simpson, CPAs. The report, which WitnessLA has obtained, is a summary of “significant findings” of the comprehensive audit ordered by the board last year.

Here are just a few of the issues flagged in the report that particularly caught our attention.


Most of the audit’s primary findings concern probation’s “accounting records and procedures”, and many these findings suggest that those who were overseeing the department’s budget and finances under former chief Powers were not always the most careful stewards of probation’s funds.

The report’s criticisms of the way probation’s money has been handled pertain to a wide range of dollar amounts— from a few thousand bucks up to more than $140 million.

For instance, at the lower end of the $$ spectrum there was the matter of the phones. Probation, it seems, pays for phones and other wireless devices for many of its employees. During the nine-month period of the audit, the department spent $1 million on Verizon service charges for employees’ phones, et al. However, it turned out that $256,000 of that $1 million in Verizon charges—or more than one quarter—was spent on phones that either no one was using, or that were barely used.

Furthermore, former employees who no longer worked for the department were using 83 of the phones that probation paid for during the audit period. And another 222 probation-supported devices (169 cell phones and 53 other wireless data devices) that showed up on the Verizon bills, couldn’t be accounted for at all. No one knew who had them, only that the department was paying their bills.

And then there were the smaller irregularities like the $4,650 in roaming charges for calls made by somebody with a probation phone from India, and…well you get the picture.

Cell phone fees were only one of many areas of fiscal carelessness that concerned the auditors.

To randomly choose another, there was the matter of the cash-filled envelopes that were turned in at the six county probation offices by various adult probationers, who were required to make regular payments for things like restitution, fines and similar adjudicated obligations. At both of the two probation offices examined by auditors, staff accepted the payment envelopes without giving receipts to the clients. Nor was there any other kind of internal accounting of the payments received. And the envelopes weren’t stored in a secure location.

Maybe all those unsecured non-receipted payments made it unscathed to the Treasurer and Tax Collector (TTC) every week for processing. Or maybe some of them didn’t. Probation—and the auditors—had no way of knowing.


Yet, while the above irregularities—and many others like them—are admittedly unnerving, some of the really high-ticket monetary issues listed by the audit involved large pots of money that probation should have spent on rehabilitation programs and reentry programs, and other crucial needs, but didn’t.
Instead, they simply sat on the funds.

Most startling of these hoarded mounds of cash is the matter of the county’s unspent SB 678 money.

California’s SB 678 fund is a performance-based program that shares with California’s counties some of the money saved by the state through AB 109 prison realignment. The counties are, in turn, supposed to spend their SB 678 dollars on “evidence-based” programs to help adult probationers restart their lives and to avoid future visits to jail or prison, thus saving the state and county additional money.

LA County probation began receiving SB 678 funds in FY 2011-2012. But, while they took the money, they did almost nothing at all with it. Thus by May 2015, the audit found, the department had amassed an astonishing $140.5 million in SB 678 funds—which—by the way—Powers and company reportedly told no one about. In other words, instead of spending the funds on crucial programs, either of probation’s own creation or on existing community-based programs, they simply sat on the cash, which—according to our sources inside probation—has now grown to $145 million or more.

The audit noted that, when confronted with their hundred-and-forty million dollar hoarding habit, probation officials said that the primary reason they’d not spent their growing mound of SB 678 money was “due to their inability to properly develop SB 678 programs.”

It was not a confidence-inspiring explanation.

And, even when the county did spend $19 million on SB 678 programs during FY 2012-2013 and FY 2013-2014, they mistakenly charged the LA County General Fund for $10.2 of their SB 678 expenditures, money that probation said they would “determine the feasibility” of recovering for the county.

Yet, the unspent $140 plus million wasn’t the whole of it.

The audit reported that probation was also sitting on $21.7 million in state-allocated juvenile justice funds that were supposed to be spent toward creating a comprehensive plan of youth services that included community-based programs to keep at risk kids out of the county’s justice system—and on related programs to help kids already in the system with reentry so that they don’t bounce right back in again after they are released.

In total, according to the report, the county is unaccountably sitting on more than $161 million in much needed cash. (At least that we know of.)

The source of the $21.7 million comes from a funding stream created by the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (JJCPA), which was itself created by the Crime Prevention Act of 2000 in order “to provide a stable funding source for local juvenile justice programs aimed at curbing crime and delinquency among at-risk youth.”

In LA County Probation, however, the funds, which have been piling up at a regular clip since FY 2010/11—like the SB 678 dollars—-were simply sitting in an account doing…well…nothing.

(WLA reported earlier on the unspent JJCPA $ here.)


While, as we outlined above, probation has failed to spend millions in state funds aimed at helping at-risk youth and AB109 adult probationers, in in other areas, the agency seemed to overspend, with questionable return.

In particular, the audit noted that probation’s daily cost of keeping kids locked up, either in LA County’s youth camps, or its three juvenile halls, was inexplicably high—in spite of the fact that the various camps and halls are reportedly seriously understaffed.

(Probation’s perplexing inability to hire anything close to the number of officers that the department needs is an issue we’ll get into another time.)

According to the audit, 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.

And how does that compare to other juvenile facilities in other counties?

Not well. The auditors found that juvenile facilities in other counties with similar kinds of youth populations spent far less.

For example, San Diego County spends $351 and $206 for camps and halls, respectively.

Orange County spends $497 and $284. Harris County, TX, $232 and $272.

If LA County’s kids were getting more services for that money, it would be one thing. But the audit does not suggest this is the case. In fact, the auditors said that, when all was said and done they weren’t one hundred percent sure about the numbers because, they wrote, “Probation does not adequately track expenditures for juvenile halls and camps.” 


In February of 2015, the monitoring team overseeing reforms in the county’s juvenile probation camps issued a final report that declared probation to be in full compliance with the 73 reforms demanded by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice which had been overseeing the camps since 2008.

In fact, when Jerry Powers resigned last month, one of the main accomplishments he and others trumpeted, was the fact that, under Powers’ watch, the DOJ finally announced that, after seven years of oversight, the feds were satisfied.

According to the December summary’s findings, in the audits performed since the DOJ signoff, rather than continuing the progress made while the feds had a metaphorical gun to probation’s head, once the various boxes were properly checked to the DOJ’s satisfaction, the backsliding reportedly began.

On April 6, of last year the LA County Auditor-Controller’s office put out their own report about the matter of probation’s compliance in the department’s operational juvenile camps and facilities and found that probation was not, in fact, so wonderfully compliant.

(We wrote about the April 2015 audit here.)

The December audit summary reiterated the problem: “Probation did not maintain substantial compliance for six (86%) of the seven provisions we reviewed,” wrote the auditors.

Five—or one third—of the 15 probation camps examined “did not maintain substantial compliance with Provision 17—which had to do with rehabilitative programs for the youth in the camps.

And none of the camps maintained compliance with the DOJ’s requirements for staff training and supervision of the kids in the camps.

Have things gotten better at all since the April report? The new audit doesn’t say.


Apart from the audit, certainly, there have been accomplishments at probation in the past few years. Kilpatrick, the new model probation camp that will be focused on rehabilitation, not punishment, is scheduled to open in 2017. The educational programs in the camps, while not perfect, have taken large strides forward, particularly in the two girls’ camps, Scott and Scudder.

And, on the adult side, there are AB109 teams who are reportedly doing a great job helping their clients overcome the challenges of reentry.

In general, the department has many talented people who bring a great deal of expertise and dedication to their jobs every single day.

Yet, all that said, when one looks under the hood, so to speak, of the Jerry Powers-run department of probation, which is what this new report has done, the view is—in a great many ways—alarming.

Posted in Probation | 3 Comments »

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