Category Archives: Criminal Justice Reform

Reducing Barriers to Professional Licensing

The Collateral Consequences Resource Center recently reported on a  new Indiana law regulating consideration of conviction in occupational and professional licensure in that state.  This is part of a trend, with eight additional states recently enacting or about to  enact similarly progressive occupational licensing schemes.  New general laws regulating licensure are in place in Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, and Massachusetts.  Similar bills have been enrolled and are on the governor’s desk for signature in Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, and Tennessee.  Arizona’s new 2018 licensing law follows on another law passed in that state in 2017 that authorized provisional licenses for individuals with a criminal record.  Massachusett’s new licensing law is part of a more general criminal justice reform bill.   Delaware and Connecticut have also recently loosened restrictions on licensing for cosmetology and related professions.

In California, AB 2138 is currently making its way through the legislature. The bill would reduce barriers to professional licensure for individuals with prior criminal convictions by limiting a regulatory board’s discretion to deny a new license application, or suspend or revoke an existing license, to cases where the applicant or licensee was formally convicted of a substantially related crime or subjected to formal discipline by a licensing board, with offenses older than five years no longer eligible for license denial or suspension or revocation with the exception of violent felonies, as currently established in statute. 

Study finds correlation between weak gun laws, police shootings

An analysis by vox.com suggests that weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership do, at the very least, correlate with more killings by police officers (including shootings and other incidents of lethal force). The theory is that behind virtually all police shootings is a constant fear that a gun may be present.

The police have good reason to be fearful. The US has a tremendous amount of civilian-owned guns — far more than any other country in the world. Based on recent estimates, there are more firearms in America than there are people. That presents a constant potential threat to police.

“Police officers in the United States in reality need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”

Stop what you’re doing and listen to this…

“Money respect money, thats the bottom f***ng line” says John Thompson, the Louisiana man who spent 18 years on death row after prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence in his trial. Its part of an unforgettable New Yorker Radio Hour podcast, “John Thompson vs. American Justice,” that lays out the history of the original case and the resulting Supreme Court case that overturned Thompson’s $14,000,000 verdict against the NOLA District Attorney’s Office for their actions in his case. As Thompson says, “the highest court in the land reached out and said ‘f**k you!'”

In the original case, Thompson was convicted of murder in a high-profile case where New Orleans prosecutors wanted a conviction and were not scrupulous about how they got it. After 18 years on death row at Angola State Prison, just weeks before his scheduled execution, his lawyers discovered that a prosecutor had hidden exculpatory evidence from the defense. It was a clear and purposeful violation of the Brady Rule, and ultimately Thompson was exonerated of both crimes. He sued the DA’s office for its practices and won a fourteen-million-dollar settlement, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision, declining to punish the D.A. for the Brady violation.

Here is the Radio Hour summary:

“Thompson’s case revealed fundamental imbalances that undermine the very notion of a fair trial.  Under the Brady Rule, prosecutors must share with the defense any evidence that could be favorable to the defendant.  But there is essentially no practical enforcement of this rule. In most states, prosecutors are the ones who hold the evidence and choose what to share, and disclosing exculpatory evidence makes their cases harder to win. We have absolutely no idea how many criminal trials are flawed by these violations.The staff writer Andrew Marantz, his wife, Sarah Lustbader, of the Fair Punishment Project, and the producer Katherine Wells reported on John Thompson’s story and its implications. They spoke with the late John Thompson (who died in 2017), with his lawyers, and with Harry Connick, Sr., the retired New Orleans D.A. who, despite having tried very hard to have Thompson killed, remains unrepentant.”

 

Evaluating “Correctional Education”

In 2013 the Rand Corporation completed a meta-analysis of studies examining “correctional education” – basically, any sort of vocational or academic educational program for prisoners. The study (Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, Davis, Lois M., Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N. V. Miles,. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013) asked these questions:

  1. How effective are correctional education programs in reducing recidivism?
  2. How effective are correctional education programs in improving one’s chances of obtaining employment upon release from prison?
  3. Is correctional education cost effective?
  4. What types of educational programs are most effective?
  5. What additional information is needed to understand the characteristics of effective programs and further build the research evidence base?

The answers:

  • Inmates who participate in correctional education programs had a 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.
  • It may improve their chances of obtaining employment after release. The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not participate in correctional education.
  • Inmates exposed to computer-assisted instruction learned slightly more in reading and substantially more in math in the same amount of instructional time.
  • Providing correctional education can be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism.

Underground Scholars at UCLA

(Paul Seeman is an advisor to the Underground Scholars Initiative at UCLA)

In its latest issue dedicated to incarceration issues, the UCLA student magazine “La Gente” has two articles on the Underground Scholars Initiative, the support and advocacy group for formerly incarcerated students. There is a profile of the group by one member, Humberto Flores:

“When I was introduced to the Underground Scholars, it gave me a space where I felt comfortable with people from my background and upbringing, prior to that, walking around campus, I felt like I didn’t belong.”

…and an individual profile of Daniel Cisneros,one of the founding members:

“I always try to promote higher education, like, Ay, if i could do it, then you could do it, man. You know, I’m not any smarter than you are.”

Check it out!

27 Years On Death Row…

On Monday the California Supreme Court granted the habeas corpus petition of  Vicente Benavides Figuero, a former farmworker who spent 27 years on death row, finding that medical testimony and an autopsy result used to convict him had been inaccurate. Most of the experts who testified against him have since recanted. “The evidence now shown to be false was extensive, pervasive and impactful,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The outcome results directly from SB 694 (Leno), passed in 2015, which added as grounds for a writ of habeas corpus, new evidence exists which would raise a reasonable probability of a different outcome if a new trial were granted. This is a substantially different and easier burden to meet than the old standard, before 2015, when in order to prevail on a new evidence claim, a petitioner had to show that the new evidence undermined the prosecution’s entire case and “point[ed] unerringly to innocence with evidence no reasonable jury could reject” (In re Lawley (2008) 42 Cal.4th 1231, 1239). The California Supreme Court had stated that this standard was very high, much higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard that governs other habeas claims.

As the bill analysis for SB 694 explains, the old standard was: “nearly impossible to meet absent DNA evidence, which exists only in a tiny portion of prosecutions and exonerations. For example, if a petitioner has newly discovered evidence that completely undermines all evidence of guilt and shows that the original jury would likely not have convicted, but the new evidence does not “point unerringly to innocence” the petitioner will not have met the standard and will have no chance at a new trial. Thus, someone who would likely never have been convicted if the newly discovered evidence had been available in their original trial is almost guaranteed to remain in prison under SB 694 (Leno ) Page 4 of 6 the status quo in California. The proposed new standard in SB 694 addresses this anomaly. Our criminal justice system was built on the understanding that even innocent people cannot always affirmatively prove innocence, which is why the burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt when a charge is brought to trial, and absent evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, innocence is presumed. The new standard contained in this bill ensures that innocent men and women do not remain in prison even after new evidence shows that a conviction never would have occurred had it been available.”

Eight Reasons Why

I quote John Grisham’s op-ed in the LA Times. “Eight reasons for America’s shameful number of wrongful convictions”:

“Bad police work

Most cops are honest, hard-working professionals. But some have been known to hide, alter or fabricate evidence, lie on the witness stand, cut deals with snitches in return for bogus testimony, intimidate and threaten witnesses, coerce confessions or manipulate eyewitness identifications.

Prosecutorial misconduct

Most prosecutors are also honest, hard-working professionals. But some have been known to hide exculpatory evidence, encourage witnesses to commit perjury, lie to jurors, judges and defense lawyers, use the testimony of bogus experts or ignore relevant evidence beneficial to the accused.

False confessions

Most jurors find it impossible to believe that a suspect would confess to a serious crime he didn’t commit. Yet the average citizen, if taken to a basement room and subjected to 10 consecutive hours of abusive interrogation tactics by experienced cops, might be surprised at what they would say. Of the 330 people who were exonerated by DNA evidence between 1989 to 2015, about 25% gave bogus confessions after lengthy interrogations. Almost every one recanted soon after.

Faulty eyewitness identification

More often than not, those who witness violent acts have trouble accurately recalling the facts and identifying those involved. Physical and photo lineups may exacerbate the problem because police manipulate them to focus suspicion on favored suspects.

Jailhouse snitches

In every jail there is a career criminal staring at a long sentence. For leniency, he can be persuaded to lie to the jury and describe in great detail the confession overheard from the accused, usually a cellmate. If he performs well enough on the stand, the authorities might allow him to walk free.

Bad lawyering

Those accused of serious crimes rarely have money. Many are represented by good public defenders, but too many get stuck with court-appointed lawyers with little or no experience. Capital cases are complex, and the stakes are enormous. All too often, the defense lawyers are in over their heads.

Sleeping judges

Judges are supposed to be impartial referees intent on ensuring fair trials. They should exclude confessions that are inconsistent with the physical evidence and obtained by questionable means; exclude the testimony of career felons with dubious motives; require prosecutors to produce exculpatory evidence; and question the credentials and testimony of all experts outside the presence of the jury. Unfortunately, judges do not always do what they should. The reasons are many and varied, but the fact that many judges are elected doesn’t help. They are conscious of their upcoming reelection campaigns and how the decisions they make might affect the results. Of those judges who are appointed rather than elected, the majority are former prosecutors.

Junk science

Over the past five decades, our courtrooms have been flooded with an avalanche of unreliable, even atrocious “science.” Experts with qualifications that were dubious at best and fraudulent at worst have peddled — for a fee, of course — all manner of damning theories based on their allegedly scientific analysis of hair, fibers, bite marks, arson, boot prints, blood spatters and ballistics. Of the 330 people exonerated by DNA tests between 1989 and 2015, 71% were convicted based on forensic testimony, much of which was flawed, unreliable, exaggerated or sometimes outright fabricated.”

 

Grisham references “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist,” by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington, a new book that tells the story of two of these “experts,” Steven Hayne  – a controversial forensic pathologist who once boasted of performing more than 2,000 autopsies in a single year – and his friend, Michael West, a small-town dentist who assumed the role of an expert in many other fields. Together they accumulated a string of convictions in Mississippi and Louisiana, and while it is clear that they in fact had little or no real expertise, only a few of those many convictions have actually been overturned. Grisham tells the story as an indictment of America’s broken criminal justice system, where prosecutors were allowed, and even encouraged, to present flawed forensic testimony because it was molded to fit their theories of guilt.

“Will incarcerated students transform the university?”

Excellent op-ed, “Turn Prisons Into Colleges”  by Harvard Professor Elizabeth Hinton in the New York Times this Tuesday. Hinton argues that education is a civil right that improves society and increases civic engagement, and that expanding educational opportunities to prisoners will reduce recidivism and government spending. She quotes a 2013 study from RAND showing that inmates who took classes had a 43 percent lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13 percent higher likelihood of getting a job after leaving prison.

Currently, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is consideringpermanently reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated students, who lost access to federal scholarships under the 1994 crime bill. Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls providing prisoners with the chance to earn a degree “a very good and interesting possibility.”

Hinton’s conclusion:

 “College presidents across the country emphasize the importance of “diversity, inclusion and belonging,” and they are reckoning with their institutions’ ties to slavery. Expanding prison education programs would link those two ventures in a forward-thinking way. It’s clear that education will continue to be a central part of criminal justice reform. The question we should ask ourselves is not “Will incarcerated students transform the university?” The better question is, “Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?”

Juvenile Diversion in LA County

The LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry has published a new report on their efforts to implement the new, comprehensive model of youth diversion that the Board of Supervisors adopted in November 2017. The aim of the new model is to connect at-risk youth with community-based services that support their development instead of arrest or citation.

Los Angeles County has the largest juvenile justice system in the nation. Available data suggests that although the total number of youth arrests in the county has decreased in the last decade overall, youth of color have become increasingly more likely to be arrested than their caucasian peers. In 2015, the arrest rate for Black youth in Los Angeles County was over 6 times higher than that of White youth. According to the new ODR report, one factor that contributing to this inequity is the wide variation in youth diversion practices and resources in Los Angeles County: “Coordination and support is needed to scale and spread evidence-informed practices and build a continuum of services that can effectively address the needs of youth in communities countywide.

Informed by local data and evidence of effective practice, this model will build the infrastructure needed to ensure that all youth in Los Angeles County can connect with a continuum of services that address their needs, reducing youth arrests and equitably improving outcomes for youth and communities.”

People v. Contreras

The California Supreme Court on Monday struck down a 50 year sentence for a juvenile as cruel and unusual punishment. In a 4-3 ruling, the state high court said such a sentence for minors was “functionally equivalent” to life without parole. “A young person who knows he or she has no chance to leave prison for 50 years ‘has little incentive to become a responsible individual,'” wrote Justice Goodwin Liu, citing the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Graham decision that restricted life terms with no chance of parole for minors to cases involving murder.

The California court ruled in favor of Leonel Contreras and William Rodriguez, who were 16 when they attacked two teenage girls in San Diego County in 2011. Rodriguez was sentenced to 50 years to life and Contreras to 58 years to life.