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Monday Must Reads: Jails, SCOTUS and Prohibition….and More

October 3rd, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


It is welcome news that Sheriff Lee Baca talked with inmates at Men’s Central Jail in a town hall-style meeting on Saturday and asked those at the meeting to be candid about what was wrong at CJ.

At the same time, the move doesn’t in any way lessen the need for a large scale federal investigation into inmate abuse by deputies in the County Jail system.

For one thing, the problems are far deeper than anything inmates are likely to be willing to share in any public setting, for fear of reprisal.

On the other hand, the Sheriff is giving a signal that he is paying attention, which is a move forward from last week’s stance.

Rong-Gong Lin II of the LA Times has the story. Here’s a clip:

More than 100 prisoners, many shaved and tattooed, crowded into the hard pews of the Men’s Central Jail chapel and craned their necks to get a good look at “The Man.”

Sheriff Lee Baca, the top authority figure in Los Angeles County’s troubled jail system, had summoned them for a rare town-hall-style meeting Saturday morning. The reason for the gathering? Allegations of abusive behavior on the part of jail guards and the disclosure of a federal law enforcement probe into Baca’s jails.

“I want to hear your concerns,” the sheriff told the men, all denizens of the aging jail’s infamous third floor, where many use-of-force incidents occur. “Don’t hold it back.”

In an appeal that sounded more like Oprah Winfrey than Wyatt Earp, Baca urged the inmates to open up to him, and at the same time ordered his jail commanders to take note. …

Read on.


Getting one’s hands on narcotics inside California’s correctional institutions, be they state prisons or LA’s jails, isn’t even a teensy bit difficult. Ask any inmate. One merely has to have to have the money to pay for the stuff.

The LA Times’ Robert Faturechi and Jack Leonard have report that the Sheriff’s Department has been investigating guards for bringing drugs into the jails in return for money. (In simple parlance we call this drug dealing.)

Here are a couple of clips from their story:

Los Angeles County jail inmates have used corrupt guards to penetrate tight security at lockups, helping fuel a lucrative drug trade behind bars, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Times.

Three sheriff’s guards have been convicted and a fourth fired in recent years for smuggling or attempting to smuggle narcotics into jail for inmates. Sheriff’s investigators are probing allegations that at least three more deputies took drugs or other contraband into the jails.

The porous nature of the jails was highlighted last week when The Times revealed that FBI agents conducted an undercover sting in which a deputy was accused of taking $1,500 to smuggle a cellphone to an inmate working as a federal informant. Federal authorities are investigating reports of brutality and other misconduct by deputies in the nation’s largest jail system.


Sheriff Lee Baca said employees caught up in smuggling schemes are usually facing financial hardship. The deputy at the center of the FBI sting had six children from two prior marriages, commitments that consumed about 70% of his salary, Baca said.

“There are people who will falter,” he said.

James E. Blatt, an attorney who represented a sheriff’s custody assistant caught trying to smuggle five grams of heroin and two syringes into jail, said his client was a 19-year-old who lacked the training necessary to deal with wily criminals.

A couple of points about those last two statements: While we all feel for the child-support-and-alimony-hobbled deputies who get nailed for bringing in drugs or other contraband, one cannot help but observe that the same standard of emotional leniency is not applied to some ordinary Joe who gets popped for possession with intent to sell in order to buy food for his family and diapers for his baby.

As for attorney James Blatt’s contention that “wily criminals” made the sheriff’s custody assistant start dealing heroin to inmates…. ditto.


The NY Times’ Adam Liptak
. Here are some clips:

The Supreme Court, which has been focused in recent terms on the rights of corporations and on curbing big lawsuits, returns to the bench on Monday with a different agenda. Now, criminal justice is at the heart of the court’s docket, along with major cases on free speech and religious freedom.


…the shift in focus toward criminal and First Amendment cases will soon be obscured if, as expected, the justices agree to hear a challenge to the 2010 health care overhaul law. That case promises to be a once-in-a-generation blockbuster.

In the meantime, the justices will hear an extraordinary set of cases that together amount to a project that could overhaul almost every part of the criminal justice system.

The court will decide whether the police need a warrant to use advanced technology to track suspects, whether jails may strip-search people arrested for even the most minor offenses, whether defendants have a right to competent lawyers to help them decide whether to plead guilty, when eyewitness evidence may be used at trial, and what should happen when prosecutors withhold evidence.

“The Supreme Court has positioned itself to improve the quality of the criminal justice process from beginning to end,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University.

The court will continue its intense engagement with the First Amendment. But where earlier cases involved quirky issues like dog fights, funeral protests and the Seven Aphorisms of a fringe church called Summum, the marquee First Amendment cases this term involve issues of sweep and consequence.

In one, the court will rule on whether the government may ban swearing and nudity on broadcast television. In another, the justices will decide for the first time whether there is a “ministerial exception” to employment laws that allows religious institutions to discriminate in ways others employers cannot.

Read on. There is an intriguing line-up of criminal justice and free speech cases that could be of consequence.


Doug Berman at Sentencing, Law and Policy has this commentary:

I highly recommend everyone join me in setting the DVR to record the new PBS three-part documentary “Prohibition.” In my town, this terrific-looking program begins airing [Sunday, Oct. 2]; I am hopeful that even those without TVs can find ways to watch the whole series via this official website. Here is a preview from that site:


PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed. The culmination of nearly a century of activism, Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.

But the enshrining of a faith-driven moral code in the Constitution paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality. Thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened. Music heated up. America’s Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse — instead, the “drys” had their law, while the “wets” had their liquor.

The story of Prohibition’s rise and fall is a compelling saga that goes far beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation. The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago: about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.


I do not think one needs to be a committed critic of the modern war on drugs to be worried that, now in 2011, the enduring national prohibition on marijuana often “turn[s] law-abiding citizens into criminals, [makes] a mockery of the justice system, [causes] illicit [drug use] to seem [comical] and fun, encourage[s] neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permit[s] government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and foster[s] cynicism and hypocrisy.”

I am rooting not only for this documentary to be a stark reminder of the failures of alcohol prohibition, but also for it to encourage new persons ask hard questions “about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government” and American virtues and values in conjunction with modern federal pot prohibition.


I like Cooley, but this is not helpful—nor do most people directly involved with the realignment process believe it’s true. From CBS:

District Attorney Steve Cooley says with thousands of new, convicted felons coming into the jail system and 8,000 or more nonviolent felons being released early on parole; it’s a prescription for disaster.

“I’m also predicting in connection with that population, we’re going to experience the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades,” Cooley said.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, LA County Jail, LASD, Marijuana laws, Must Reads, Supreme Court | No Comments »

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