Monthly Archives: June 2016

Mental Health Reform Legislation

A version of HR  2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act bill, was approved 53-0 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday. The  legislation sets new federal rules for how the United States handles people believed to have serious mental illness. There are two versions under consideration in the Committee: one version, which was introduced by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) in June, has attracted 140 Republican and 53 Democratic co-sponsors. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy committee, and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, have proposed a second version of the bill. Both versions have  strategies to help families and communities be more active in managing the care of patients who are believed to be unable to make sound decisions about treatment for serious mental health conditions.


CT Governor Malloy on “Second Chances”

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy called for juvenile justice reform in a keynote address  at the “Children and the Law” conference in New York this week:

“If you’re not a Native American, or your people were not brought here in slavery, everyone came here for a second chance, or a third or fifth chance,” Malloy said in a keynote address at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York yesterday.

“That’s who we are fundamentally as a nation.”

But in today’s polarized political climate, he added, America has “turned its back” on the concept of providing second chances—particularly in our approach to criminal justice, where authorities are more inclined towards punishment than rehabilitation.

Nowhere is such an approach more counter-productive than in the way many jurisdictions fail to explore evidence-based alternatives to jail for young people who get into persistent trouble with authorities, he said.

“No one should go to jail, simply because we have lost patience,” said Malloy, who has spearheaded a transformation in his state’s juvenile justice system that has made Connecticut one of the nation’s acknowledged leaders in justice reform.”

Orange County DA’s Informant Program

The  Huffington Post has published moving papers from a high-profile Orange County case that provides new information on the controversial jailhouse informant program run by the DA:

“After almost three years of denials, the Orange County District Attorney’s office finally acknowledged Thursday that the county has a jailhouse informant program.

Of course, the existence of the informant program should come as no surprise. Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has been arguing since 2013 that a tainted snitch network in county jails has existed in secret for decades. In a series of blockbuster motions, the defense attorney unearthed damning evidence that clearly pointed to the program’s existence, alleging that county prosecutors and police have violated multiple defendants’ rights by illegally obtaining and sometimes withholding evidence gleaned from jail informants.

Thursday’s formal admission came in court documents filed by the OCDA office detailing 1,157 pages of notes kept by sheriff’s deputies about inmates and informants in county jails. The notes, kept secret until recently, were recorded from September 2008 to January 2013.

The cache of notes “reveals that jail special handling deputies recruited and utilized numerous informers,” Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner wrote in a motion Thursday. “The informers were often kept in a particular sector. In exchange for their information, informers were given favors by deputies such as phone calls and visits.”

What’s more, Wagner says, the log contradicts statements made by several witnesses, including police, and may also contradict some evidence previously presented in the Scott Dekraai case, the largest mass-murder case in county history.

Law enforcement authorities deploy informants to help bolster a case — a tactic that’s perfectly legal, even when the snitch receives something in exchange. But Sanders alleges that in some Orange County cases, informants held recorded and unrecorded conversations with inmates who were already represented by lawyers, which violates an inmate’s right to counsel. Prosecutors then took damning evidence gathered by the informants and presented it in court, while withholding evidence that could have been beneficial to the defense — which is a violation of a defendant’s right to due process.

The log mentions informant names throughout and frequent informant interaction with “numerous” and “high-profile” inmates, Wagner writes. In the log, the deputies refer to various activities with inmates and informants as “plans,” “capers” and “operations,” and came up with “self-styled” code names for these activities like “Operation Okie Doke,” the court documents read. The log also mentions outside law enforcement agencies interacting with the deputies who manage inmates and informants. Detectives who testified during the Dekraai case, according to the notes, also inquired about running “operations” within the jail.

The log sheds new light on interactions between Sheriff’s Deputy William Grover and Fernando Perez, a Mexican mafia leader who later became a prolific informant for the county and had separate contact with both Dekraai and another man accused of murder, Daniel Wozniak, while in jail. This contact, which county prosecutors previously portrayed as coincidental, appears to be intentional, according to log entries.

Just weeks after his arrest, Wozniak was placed in the same housing tank as Perez — who had been housed there just one day earlier. Then, just days before police interviewed Perez about conversations he’d had with Wozniak, a log entry from Grover indicates that he wanted the relationship between Wozniak and Perez to “marinate.”

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act in Jeopardy

Despite bi-partisan support, the JJDPA is in danger of failing reauthorization in Congress. The opposition is almost entirely the work of one Senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, whose stated objection to the bill centers on its elimination of the Valid Court Order (VCO) that allows judges to lock up juveniles for “status offenses,” transgressions like running away from home, disobeying parents, underage tobacco use, or curfew violations, behaviors that would never land an adult in jail.

For updates on the Act, subscribe at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice

New call for prosecutorial accountability

The New York Times in an editorial today called for federal oversight of prosecutors similar to the current oversight of police departments. The Times points out:

“Prosecutors are the most powerful players in the American criminal justice system. Their decisions — like whom to charge with a crime, and what sentence to seek — have profound consequences.

So why is it so hard to keep them from breaking the law or violating the Constitution?

The short answer is that they are almost never held accountable for misconduct, even when it results in wrongful convictions. It is time for a new approach to ending this behavior: federal oversight of prosecutors’ offices that repeatedly ignore defendants’ legal and constitutional rights. There is a successful model for this in the Justice Department’s monitoring of police departments with histories of misconduct.”

“….[E]very part of the justice system bears some responsibility for not fighting prosecutorial misconduct. State courts often fail to hold prosecutors accountable, even when their wrongdoing is clear. Professional ethics boards rarely discipline them. And individual prosecutors are protected from civil lawsuits, while criminal punishment is virtually unheard of. Money damages levied against a prosecutor’s office could deter some misconduct, but the Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult for wrongfully convicted citizens to win such claims.
This maddening situation has long resisted a solution. What would make good sense is to have the federal government step in to monitor some of the worst actors, increasing the chance of catching misconduct before it ruins peoples’ lives. The Justice Department is already authorized to do this by a 1994 federal law prohibiting any “pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers” that deprives a person of legal or constitutional rights.”

No Juvenile LWOP in Iowa

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision last week ruled that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The Court said that LWOP for juveniles was “speculative” and didn’t properly consider whether a juvenile prisoner can be rehabilitated. Decisions about parole should not be made “when the juvenile character is a work in progress,” but rather on based on later determinations about “those who over time show irredeemable corruption,” Justice Brent R. Appel wrote for the majority.

There are about 2,500 people who were sentenced as juveniles to life without any chance at parole, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group advocating criminal justice reform.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandating life in prison without parole for juveniles convicted of homicides is unconstitutional, and earlier this year the justices expanded that decision and said it must be applied retroactively. In a 2010 ruling, the court had also said that juveniles could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for any crime short of a homicide.