Posts Tagged ‘A New Way of Life’

Sheriff, Supervisors, and LA County’s Most Vulnerable

March 15, 2014

My article in today’s LA Progressive:

There have been more Popes elected than LA sheriffs in the last 80 years.

This year, progressives need to choose carefully in the LA County June election. Not only will we be voting for sheriff but will also fill the supervisory seats currently held by Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavky in the First and Third Districts. There may be low turnout and low interest for these contests but at the March 13 general meeting of the LA Regional Reentry Partnership–”LARRP”– I learned why these offices matter to anyone concerned with social justice, public safety, or the rational expenditure of taxpayer money.

But first, here’s what else I learned.

LARRP brings together service providers, government agencies, advocates, and clients all concerned with the reintegration into the community of the formerly incarcerated in ways that are humane and consonant with public safety.

The first time I attended a LARRP meeting, back in July, executive director Peggy Edwards pointed out, “Our reentry providers haven’t looked at themselves as homeless providers and our homeless providers haven’t looked at themselves as reentry providers.”

That has changed and collaboration is now the order of the day with open communication and computerized and filtered lists of clients and services.

Hazel Lopez of the Lamp Community, which provides services on Skid Row, said, “Reentry and homelessness are not separate issues. People coming out of prison are without housing and that is the definition of homeless.”

Danielle Wildkress of the Corporation for Supportive Housing explained, “The Skid Row Housing Trust didn’t think of themselves as reentry providers, but it turned out 60% of the people in their housing were on probation.”

Lopez described a new initiative, the Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing, which has been funded in part by the United Way, while Wildkress explained the workings of the new Jail In-Reach 2.0 program which seeks to end recidivism and the cycle of homelessness.

On Skid Row

On Skid Row

Both initiatives follow similar models:

“Housing First“

Don’t expect clients to be stabilized physically, mentally, and free of substance abuse before offering them housing. Experience now shows that once people are actually living in permanent supportive housing, it becomes possible for them to get stabilized.

But where is such housing to come from? LA has nowhere near enough to meet the need. Troy Vaughn, also of Lamp, acknowledged, “There’s limited capacity to do development projects” for permanent supportive housing and even when a project can be funded and approved, “it doesn’t get up fast enough.” In the past, he explained, people assumed there had to be a single facility where residents and wraparound services could be housed together. Now Lamp is trying a new approach. Through negotiation, the owner of the Alexandria Hotel agreed to set aside 60
units for chronically homeless people coming out of the hospital. Ten have already moved in. Lamp agreed to find all the supportive services the residents need. Service providers will travel to the client. Vaughn hopes if the program is a success and the residents in the Alexandria remain stabilized, other property owners and landlords will join the effort.

Foster collaboration and streamline services

In LA County, as in many urban areas, people in great need often go without help as they find themselves unable to find their way through a landscape of scattered services and no unified effort. Both of these programs identify clients through street outreach or in-reach into hospitals and jails where they can begin work with a vulnerable person before discharge. Each client is paired with a “Navigator” who helps with documents and ID and makes connections to all appropriate and available supportive services. The Navigator makes sure there’s a bed available–even a temporary one–while actively working toward the goal of permanent supportive housing. When people leave jail, their own Navigator is waiting at the gate to greet them and remains a familiar, friendly presence in the client’s life until new relationships are built with the post-release team.

Put decision-making in the clients’ hands

Navigators offer options but clients are never coerced and are free to accept or reject housing offers. Every step of the way, clients explain what kinds of help they want and need. For example, Kelli Poole, an employment specialist with Chrysalis, who works with Jail in-Reach 2.0, recognizes that many people would write off her clients as unemployable. She said the clients themselves, however–far from wanting to rely on handouts–consider it a priority to prepare themselves for getting and holding down a job.

Prioritize the most vulnerable.

“Usually when a new building comes online in Skid Row,” Lopez explained, “people start lining up 2-3 days in advance to get an application.” Obviously–and as a survey confirmed–it’s almost exclusively the younger and healthier Skid Row residents who get the applications and housing.

People who are chronically homeless, repeatedly incarcerated, and disabled with physical, mental health, or substance abuse issues tend to be excluded. With the new programs, they are the priority. Not only is their need the greatest but, as constant users of ambulances, emergency rooms, hospital stays, jail and law enforcement resources, they are the greatest drain on public funds. Providing the most vulnerable with intensive and extensive services can save lives while saving money. A study of a similar program outside LA found that a chronically homeless person cost $67,376 in public taxpayer monies in a year while housing that person and providing full wraparound services cost only $19,399.

Which brings us to one of the reasons why we need to vote carefully for County Supervisors: What will the Supes do with such considerable savings? Put the money back into housing and reentry services or stash it elsewhere, continuing a tradition of neglect?

Lynne Lyman, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and LAARP co-chair, Policy and Advocacy, cited other reasons for dissatisfaction with the current board.

Thousands of people in LA County jails have not been convicted of any crime and languish (at considerable taxpayer expense) behind bars only because they can’t afford bail. While the sheriff has stated his willingness to release some under supervision after a careful risk assessment, he does not have the authority to do so without approval from the county supervisors. It has not so far been possible to get a majority vote granting this authority.

While the supervisors were given $750 million by Sacramento to cover some of the realignment costs involved in sending prisoners back to the county from the state prison system, only a small percent was allocated for reentry services. Much of that small amount doesn’t even make it to the service providers and goes unspent.

Then there’s the plight of LA county’s Three-Strikers. In November 2012, California voters recognized the unjust and unintended consequences of life sentences handed down to nonviolent offenders. With Prop 36, they approved a measure that would offer the possibility of release. A year and four months later, 700 Los Angeles county Three-Strikers who are eligible for release remain incarcerated because they have not yet been afforded a day in court to show they have a place to go and a reentry plan. For men and women with chronic medical or psychiatric conditions–which have often been exacerbated during a decade or more in prison–or who have special needs such as wheelchair-accessible housing, a feasible reentry plan can remain out-of-reach, especially because the board of supervisors (unlike their counterparts in other counties) have refused to allocate any funding for Prop 36ers.

As for the race to fill the sheriff’s office, as voters consider the large field of candidates, it’s important to note that while the department has cooperated enthusiastically with the In-Reach program, here, too, there is a struggle over funds and an underutilization of community-based diversion programs.

Lyman notes that 40 women were released under an alternatives to incarceration program but though community placement is considerably less expensive than jail housing, the sheriff’s department money retained the savings and refused to pay anything for the beds. The alternatives program can reach only a limited number of appropriate individuals as long as nonprofits, already operating on austerity budgets, have to offer their full services for free, relying on fundraising and grant writing while the sheriff’s department holds onto all funding.

Lyman and co-chair Peter Laarman of Justice not Jails, suspecting that county officials really had no clue as to the level of professionalism and effectiveness of community-based residential programs, have led people from the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office on eye-opening tours of the Amity Foundation , the Tarzana Treatment Centers, and other programs that should be trusted and funded by LA County. A bed with full wraparound services at the Amity Foundation would cost the taxpayer one-tenth of the what the
sheriff would currently prefer to pay in sending prisoners to Kern County.

The sheriff and the supervisors continue to favor a $2 billion jail construction and expansion plan over the fiscally sound use of split sentencing and community-based programs that offer offenders realistic opportunities to turn their lives around.

There are two chances coming up to hear all the candidates vying for your vote for the office of sheriff.

The meeting concluded with a presentation by Pamela Jordan of A New Way of Life about her work as Housing Coordinator for the Reentry Family Reunification pilot program which now serves 25 formerly incarcerated individuals. The goal is to make it possible for the soon-to-be-released to move in with willing family members in Section 8 housing under the program of the Los Angeles City (not County) Housing Authority.

In the past, even families that very much wanted to welcome a member back home were held back by fear. Could they manage the person’s behavior? Would they be risking eviction if their loved one relapsed or committed a new offense?

The pilot program makes sure that their family member gets all necessary supportive services. The system will also sever culpability, so a law-abiding family will not be penalized if the person they’ve offered a home to should happen to reoffend.

What all three innovative programs–CES, Jail In-Reach 2.0, and Reentry Family Reunification–have in common (besides changing lives and neighborhoods for the better) is that they are small scale and underfunded with no guarantees they can continue.

This is why progressives need to ask direct questions of the countywide candidates well before the June 3rd election. When we simply let an offender out the gate with no place to go and no resources, we are often guaranteeing that he or she will reoffend. Continuing an emphasis on punishing people after the fact of crime instead of devoting resources to preventing crime and reducing recidivism serves no one. Good reentry programs benefit all of us. We need to know which candidates are ready to take an ethical and rational approach to homelessness and reentry and which are determined to continue a system that’s proved itself to be inequitable, ineffective, and unsustainable.

From State Prison to LA County – my article today in LA Progressive

July 15, 2013
From State Prison to LA County: Ready or Not (via LA Progressive)

As I write this Saturday morning, thousands of California prison inmates enter their fifth day of hunger strike to protest — among other abuses — long-term solitary confinement, otherwise known in the US and around the world as torture. Even after…

Race and Mass Incarceration

May 15, 2012

New Clear Vision reprinted my article today. You can open it here: (2)

Mass Incarceration: Points of Agreement from Right to Left

March 29, 2012

My article just up in LA Progressive
Part 2 of a two-part series. See also “Seeking Unity Across Sex, Race & Class”

Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander reported in her book, The New Jim Crow, that largely as an intentional consequence of
the war on drugs, there are more African American men under correctional control now than were enslaved in 1850. People of color have been rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. Alexander concluded all this came about in part as a strategy to deprive African Americans of rights, including the right to vote.

William J. Stuntz, Harvard Law professor, evangelical Christian and self-identified conservative, (who sadly died much too young, before his book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice was published in 2011) argued that black people are disproportionately imprisoned because they commit more crimes, that incarceration rates have risen in part because the system used to be too
lenient, that incarceration keeps at least the incarcerated from committing more crimes, and that police carry out drug sweeps in certain neighborhoods as a strategy to get gang members off the streets when threats against witnesses and the no-snitch culture create daunting obstacles to the arrest and prosecution of violent criminals. Though Stuntz begins his book providing rational (non-racist) reasons for racial disparity, he does conclude the effects are racialized and lead to the collapse of the rule of law.

Given their different perspectives, it’s striking that both Alexander and Stuntz reach some of the same conclusions and identify some of the same systemic problems in the American way of criminal justice. Even more striking to me is that when I listened to the anti-prison activists and former prisoners who spoke on Saturday, March 24 as part of the Teach-In “Sex, Race, and Class: What Are the Terms of Unity?” I heard some unity between their ideas and Stuntz’s.

He would surely have characterized them as radicals. (Selma James, the keynote speaker for the Teach-In and editor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest book, said the people inside prison “have a political education we all need. A lot of the leadership of our movement is inside. We need them and we need them out.”)

The panelists would surely have strenuously disagreed with much of Stuntz’s book, but they are living examples of the injustice he identified in the system.

This essay will consider how the activists’ experiences align with Stuntz’s critique.

Susan Burton went to prison six times for drug offenses during the years she was in despair and became addicted to crack cocaine after her 5-year-old son was killed, run over by a police car. It was only after serving the sixth sentence that she was able to access drug treatment. Today, as the founder of A New Way of Life, she runs five homes that provide housing for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles and she also works with All of Us or None, a group advocating for the rights of former prisoners who leave State custody with a record that often deprives them of the vote and stands in the way of employment even while they are barred from receiving food stamps or living in subsidized housing, all of which too often leads to their children being permanently taken from them.

“We have to disrupt the flow of what’s happening,” she said at the Teach-In. And her most disruptive idea is this one, aimed at throwing a monkey wrench into the process of mass incarceration: What if every person arrested refused plea bargain offers and instead demanded her or his Constitutional right to a trial? Right now, she said, when a prosecutor threatens you with a 15-year sentence but says you’ll only be locked up for two years if you waive a trial and plead guilty, of course people say, “Let me take the two because I’m scared of the 15. That’s what the system relies on.”

Michelle Alexander wrote about Burton’s idea in an op-ed in the New York Times–”Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” because in a system in which more than 90% of criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas, and resources are entirely lacking for the
trials that defendants are entitled to, a complete breakdown is exactly what would happen.

What does Stuntz say? He puts the percentage of cases resolved by guilty pleas even higher — at 95%, most by plea bargains, and cites plea bargains as part of the greatest injustice. Unlike what we see each week on CSI, “noninvestigation is the norm.” Prosecutors clear cases through pleas but no one investigates to be sure the defendant is actually guilty–not the D.A. and not
the indigent defendant’s appointed counsel who has only a brief time to represent the client. He writes, “punishment deters crimes only if crime, not innocence, receives punishment.” That is not happening.

Like many conservatives, Stuntz is withering in his criticism of the Warren Court’s decisions that protected the rights of criminal defendants, because this made the jobs of police and prosecutors much harder. But he also saw that by focusing on procedural safeguards–Did the defendant get a Miranda warning? Was there probable cause? Was evidence obtained through a proper search warrant?–the Court overlooked what was more important: The substance of justice. Search for the truth of either innocence or guilt. This is a critique people on the left will agree with as today we end up with Antonin Scalia asserting that as long as procedures have been followed correctly, “actual innocence” is no bar to execution.

The Court has mandated “due process” but not “equal protection.” And African Americans do not enjoy “equal protection of the law” in court or in low-income predominately black neighborhoods which he says are “under-policed” (while Susan Burton says they are “over-policed.”) But Stuntz’s point is that the police are present as a punitive force, not a protective one in African American
neighborhoods: black-on-black crime is not prevented and is rarely punished. He urges more community policing and less SWAT.

In this respect, he is in line with civil rights attorney Connie Rice who has urged that the rewards structure within the Los
Angeles police department be changed. An officer should move up in the ranks not for having the highest number of arrests but rather for bringing the incidence of crime down by being a stabilizing presence in the neighborhood.

While Stuntz has an idealized view of the police compared to the perspective of young people who are stopped and harassed daily on the way to school and to families mourning the death of an unarmed loved one shot by an officer, he stresses that the real decision making power and severity doesn’t lie with the police but with prosecutors.

Prosecutors decide whether or not to bring a case and what charges to file and what plea bargain to offer. It’s in this realm of prosecutorial discretion that African American defendants suffer most and have little recourse. As Stuntz writes: “As long as their decisions are not racially motivated” and it’s rarely possible to provide proof of someone’s intentional and knowing discriminatory
motive, “police officers and prosecutors have unreviewable discretion to decline to arrest or prosecute offenders.”

Another trick prosecutors use to obtain plea bargains is to file (or threaten to file) a range of charges for a single offense with separate sentencing for each charge. A crime that would ordinarily carry a sentence of a year or two suddenly adds up to something approaching a life sentence. Who wouldn’t take a plea? And in death penalty states, writes Stuntz, the way capital punishment is
used most is to induce people–whether guilty or not–to confess. If they accept a plea, the State will take the death penalty off the table. Stuntz likens this to extortion.

At the Teach-In, we heard from 76-year-old Hank Jones, one of the San Francisco 8. In 1971, a San Francisco police officer was killed during an assault on a police station. Members of a Black Panther Party splinter group were later arrested in New Orleans, stripped naked, beaten, blindfolded and subjected to more torture including electric probes to the genitals until they confessed to the crime and, after more torture, named names to implicate others in the Panther Party, including Jones. The case was thrown out because confessions obtained by torture were inadmissible.

Fast-forward to 2003. Following passage of the Patriot Act, Jones and others who had been named were suddenly arrested and charged again, this time under the new law with “domestic terrorism.” Not only were they being charged under a law that didn’t exist when the crime was committed in 1971, but the Bush administration, as we know only too well, had no qualms about torture and
apparently believed public and judicial opinion would now support its use.

The San Francisco 8 benefited from the committed representation of activist attorneys. Most people targeted by prosecutors don’t fare as well.

What happened to Hank Jones is an example of another problem cited by Stuntz: criminal law being made not by judges and juries, but by legislatures that pass bills leaving little room for discretion–or mercy–and with little regard for the possible consequences.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 mandated the deportation of legal immigrants who had committed felonies. In complete disregard of legal history and fairness, the law was made retroactive. Immigrants who had committed offenses even decades earlier, had since lived entirely law-abiding lives, held jobs, had married and were raising children, were suddenly detained and deported leaving their families in abandonment and poverty. And of course many of them had never seen trial for their offenses but had taken plea bargains–sometimes receiving probation and no jail time, but now found those guilty pleas meant ruined lives.

Alex Sanchez, a founding member of All of Us or None, explained at the Teach-In that most immigrants rights organizations in LA don’t assist those who’ve been labeled criminals. Homies Unidos, the organization he co-founded offers services to exactly that population: gang members, former gang members, men with tattoos who face likely torture and assassination at the hands of death
squads if they are sent back to Central America. His own work as a peace-builder and gang intervention worker brought him so many allies in the community that Sanchez, born in El Salvador and a former gang member, had enough support to help him win asylum. At the same time his work brought him enemies in law enforcement. He continues to be targeted by prosecutors and is now out on bail after his arrest on what the community–which raised bail money–sees as trumped-up charges of continued gang activity.

“Mass incarceration has failed to suppress gangs,” Sanchez said. He cited gang truces that over and over again have led to a dramatic drop in gang violence. But after “the peace truce you have to bring resources. They have never brought resources into the community.”

James, Burton, Jones, and Sanchez would certainly agree with Stuntz that the US justice system is now “the harshest in the history of democratic government.”

How did we get here? Again, resources. Stuntz thought these were misallocated. Cities and counties pay for police and prosecution. States and the federal government pay for prisons. While more police on the street have a much more significant deterrent effect on crime than more incarceration, cash-strapped localities find it cost-effective to process cases quickly through
plea bargains and pass the prisoners along to the State. (It remains to be seen if the release of some State prisoners back to the counties as mandated now in California will have an effect on how many new cases are prosecuted, especially for minor drug offenses.)

By the end of his book, after immersing himself in study of our criminal justice system, Stuntz begins to sound like a radical himself:

“African American imprisonment rates came to exceed the rate at which Stalin’s Soviet Union incarcerated its citizens. Residents of black neighborhoods increasingly believed, with reason, that their life choices were limited to those Pushkin identified two centuries ago: they could ally themselves with their prison-bound young men or with the system that bound them. Tyrants, traitors, prisoners–none were good options. No wonder black neighborhoods in the early twenty-first century, when imprisonment rates were
reaching their peak, spawned a “don’t snitch” movement.”

He recognized that when a community sees daily injustice and doesn’t see the rule of law equally applied, it becomes morally
and ethically easier to choose to live in a lawless way.

If we want to bring peace to our communities, yes, we need resources. And we need to see that true justice is also a necessary resource which our neighborhoods demand and for which we still wait.