Category Archives: Juvenile Justice

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.”

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!

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.

DA Confusion

Interesting article in the Boston Globe about DA’s running unopposed in local races:  eight of the state’s 11 prosecutors faced no one in their most recent elections, and most will run unopposed this year as well. Per the Globe, “Suffolk DA Dan Conley hasn’t had an opponent since he first ran in 2002. Ditto DA Jonathan Blodgett, in Salem. There hasn’t been a contested DA race in the Berkshire, Bristol, or Middle districts since 2006.”

However, while more than 80% of Massachusetts voters think there is a need for reform in the criminal justice system, according to a poll released by the ACLU – 88% think that people are treated differently based on who they know, 84% think that people are treated differently based on their race, and less than half (48%) think the state’s criminal justice system is working – voters showed limited knowledge of the power and budgets of District Attorneys, and few realized that DAs are accountable only to voters, with little in the way of checks-and-balances in between elections. Half of the registered voters believed individual District Attorneys have only a minor or insignificant impact on the functioning of the criminal justice system—and almost four-in-ten (38%) did not know that District Attorneys are elected and accountable only to voters.

As part of the polling, voters were then given some information about actual impacts that District Attorneys can have on individual lives and in communities – as the Globe put it, “They choose how hard to go after somebody and when to go easy. They decide the charges that are brought against those accused of crimes and what punishments to request of a judge. Many times, there’s no judge or jury involved at all: Nationally, over 90 percent of felony cases are dispatched via plea deals.” After this information was presented, 81 percent of voters said they were more likely to pay attention to their local District Attorney race in 2018.

 

Building a Prison-to-School Pipeline

Please read this excellent article from the New Yorker about the Underground Scholars Initiative at Cal Berkeley, a group formed by formerly incarcerated undergraduates at Cal to provide mentoring, support, and advocacy – and eventually, create a prison-to-school pipeline. About the experience:

“When Czifra first got to Berkeley, he went looking for his people, by which he meant ones who had grown up poor, but they were hard to find. He told an adviser he wanted to work with the incarcerated, particularly children—he believed that imprisoning a child for any kind of crime was counterproductive and wrong. The adviser suggested that he volunteer, but the sign-up form mentioned background checks, and he never went back.

He found big classes hard to take. For a long time after he left prison, he’d had a raw, aggressive energy about him that scared people. He still had to remind himself when he entered a new situation that nobody was going to attack him; he didn’t have to be constantly on his guard. When he walked into a crowded classroom, he felt a rush of paranoia: he felt that everyone was looking at him, and that if they knew what he’d done and where he’d been he would not be welcome. And, in fact, he was not always welcome. He went to see a professor early on to ask why he was getting B’s. “The professor made some kind of comment like he knew I was a gang banger who was trying to change my life,” he says. “He was, like, I got your number—not in an accusatory way, but not in a warm, Kumbaya way, either. He said, If you get an A-plus, I’ll write you a letter of recommendation, if you get an A, you’re grad-student material, and if you get A-minus or below, forget it.”

“Double Jeopardy, Sanctuary Cities, and the Kate Steinle Case”

In an article by that title in “The Crime Report,” Matthew Mangino examines the issue of the Double Jeopardy Clause in the case of  José Ines Garcia Zarate, who was acquitted in a California court of Kate Steinle’s murder but convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Garcia Zarate has now been indicted on two federal charges similar to those he was convicted of in state court.  The state conviction and new federal charges raise the issue of violating the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As Mangino points out, this issue is virtually identical to Gamble v. United States, a case that the Supreme Court is currently considering for certiorari. Gamble was pulled over in 2015 by an Alabama police officer for a broken taillight. During the stop, the officer discovered both a gun and marijuana paraphernalia in Gamble’s car. Gamble, who had been convicted of second-degree felony robbery seven years earlier, was barred from owning a firearm. He was prosecuted for illegal possession of a firearm and served one year in state prison. Subsequently, the federal government also charged Gamble with illegal possession of a firearm for the same incident. Gamble asked the U.S. District Court to dismiss his federal indictment for violating double jeopardy.

The Federal District Court ruled against Gamble under the “dual-sovereignty” exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause, an exception created by the Supreme Court which permits a second prosecution for the same offense by a different “sovereign,” permitted the federal case to proceed. The rule dates back many decades, to a time when there was little federal criminal jurisprudence and so little overlap between federal and state crimes. Gamble and many Amici, including some conservative voices such as the Cato Institute along with traditional criminal justice advocates like the ACLU, are now asking the Supreme Court to reconsider the rule in light of the expansion of federal criminal statutes –  “a stunning expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction into a field traditionally policed by state and local laws,” according to Justice Thomas in 1992.

Justice Hugo Black argued in a 1959 dissent, “If double punishment is what is feared, it hurts no less for two ‘Sovereigns’ to inflict it than for one.”

 

Crime Rates in LA in the “Justice Reform Era”

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has published an interesting report on crime trends in Los Angeles County during what they call the “justice reform era,”  from 2010 to 2016, with major changes – Public Safety Realignment, Proposition 47, and Proposition 57 – in California’s justice system. The main findings:

 

  • From 2010 to 2016, roughly half of LA County’s 89 jurisdictions showed an increase in crime (53%) and half showed a decrease (47%). Most jurisdictions elsewhere in California (259 of 422) showed decreases in their crime rates.
  • The City of Los Angeles, which encompasses over 40 percent of the county’s population and over half its reported crimes, strongly impacts LA County crime rates. While Los Angeles County showed a modest increase in total crime (5%) from 2010 to 2016, this was made up of extreme variation among its 89 jurisdictions.
  • The jurisdictions showing decreased crime from 2010 to 2016 had higher average crime rates at the beginning of the reform period than jurisdictions showing increased crime. This suggests that some jurisdictions, especially those that began with elevated crime, have developed successful policies and practices to improve public safety on a local level.

The overall conclusion: crime patterns in Los Angeles County, as well as the rest of the state, result from local policies and practices rather than statewide reform.