Justice and the Courts
May 15, 2013
Los Angeles County’s legendary Hall of Justice has had its share of dangerous inhabitants over the years. Now you can add one more to the list: lead-based paint.
The 1920s-era red oxide paint, containing as much as 39% lead, was found when construction workers last summer uncovered painted steel beams that had previously been encased in concrete. Testing on the steel and surrounding concrete revealed higher-than-anticipated lead concentrations in both.
This week, the Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious, $6.45 million abatement effort that will require lead removal in more than 15,000 locations throughout the hall, which, since opening in 1925, has played host to some of Los Angeles’ most notorious figures, including Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan and Bugsy Siegel.
The unexpected discovery of the lead-painted structural steel came as workers were preparing to begin seismic reinforcement work on the imposing downtown structure, which has been closed since the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
“Absolutely, it’s a surprise,” said Greg Zinberg, project executive with Clark Construction, the contractor for the renovation. “We’ve had to re-strategize about how we’re approaching the project…We’re talking about thousands of hours of work.”
Areas within the building are being cordoned off to contain lead dust and workers must wear protective gear, including respirators and special suits, as they go about their tasks. A literal top-to-bottom scrubbing will be required to decontaminate the structure.
Even so, the project remains on schedule to finish up next year, with county departments, including the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office, still on track to move in by early 2015. The lead abatement work itself is expected to wrap up by this October.
The funding for the lead removal comes from $16.9 million set aside in the project budget to cover unanticipated changes that crop up during the construction process. The overall budget for the project, which is being financed by long-term bonds, is $231.7 million.
This is not the building’s first brush with lead problems. When open fire escapes on two sides of the building were set to be cleaned out as part of the renovation project, workers found 4½-foot-high heaps of pigeon droppings on just about every floor, said James Kearns, the Public Works division head whose team is overseeing the project. Testing on the pigeon guano found lead as well as the more expected pathogens, resulting in an earlier $36,415 abatement effort.
The pigeons haven’t spared the surface of the building, either. Behind scaffolding, cleaning is now underway to restore the hall’s dingy grey exterior to its original white—the same color as nearby Los Angeles City Hall. But getting it done meant encountering decades-old droppings amid the colonnade of Romanesque columns along the building’s upper floors—“an interesting discovery,” as project executive Zinberg puts it.
As for the lead abatement, the latest twist in long-running efforts to bring the Hall of Justice back to life, workers are taking it all in stride. “Right now, we’re moving along and getting through it,” said Kearns, of Public Works. “It’s not an easy job but it’s all under control.”
For a look inside the building during an earlier phase in the construction process, click here.
February 14, 2013
Just hours before fugitive ex-cop Christopher Dorner was finally cornered in a hijacked cabin near Big Bear, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had joined the manhunt: On Tuesday morning, it authorized a $100,000 reward for his capture, on top of the $1 million offered in private and public funds by the City of Los Angeles.
Now, with the quadruple murder suspect dead, it’s unclear exactly how—or if—the county’s bounty will be doled out to those who’ll inevitably step forward asserting that their information was crucial in Dorner’s discovery and demise. Ultimately, under county law, a recommendation will be made by representatives of the Chief Executive Office, Sheriff’s Department and Board of Supervisors, whose five members will have the final say.
The Dorner reward made news, of course, because of the international magnitude of the case, upstaging even President Obama’s State of the Union address as the drama came to a fiery conclusion Tuesday evening. But with less fanfare, the county for decades has been offering and paying rewards for information that has helped authorities obtain convictions for crimes ranging from multiple murders, to racially-inspired vandalism to animal cruelty.
During the past five years, the Board of Supervisors has authorized more than 140 reward offers—totaling $1.9 million—on behalf of law enforcement agencies throughout the county. Of those, the county has paid 25 claims worth about $225,000. The biggest payout came last April, when 10 people shared $30,000 for providing information that led to the arrest and conviction of assailants in the so-called “49th Street Massacre.” In that 2006 tragedy, three people, including a 10-year-old boy on a bike, were gunned down in a mistaken identity gang shooting in South Los Angeles.
Over the years, questions have been raised about how crimes are selected for rewards and whether the publicity surrounding a case—or the victim’s race—might unduly tip the scales. In the late 1990s, entertainer Bill Cosby asked that several taxpayer-funded reward offers be rescinded after his son, Ennis, was murdered while changing a tire on a darkened road near Bel Air. The family did not want to make it appear they were getting preferential treatment. Although the state and City of Los Angeles declined Cosby’s request, the Board of Supervisors withdrew its $12,500 reward.
For the most part, however, law enforcement officials dismiss such concerns and criticisms, saying they only seek rewards from the supervisors or other municipal bodies when investigations of particularly heinous crimes go cold and the public remains at risk.
“They are effective, absolutely,” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore says, although he acknowledges that the offer of money can make investigations more complicated. “A lot of the tips aren’t fruitful,” he says. “But the important thing is that a lot of them are.”
Such was the case for frustrated Glendale Police Department detectives, whose investigation into the hit-and-run death of Elizabeth Sandoval in 2007 was at a standstill. The 24-year-old woman was thrown 100 feet after she was struck by a black Mercedes-Benz as she jaywalked across Glendale Avenue in the darkness of night.
“If the driver could just look into their heart and see that things would be better for him or her if they came forward,” Sandoval’s grief-stricken father pleaded after his daughter’s death. “Just do yourself a favor and turn yourself in,” her brother urged.
But it wasn’t until the Glendale City Council and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors each offered $10,000 in reward money that police got a breakthrough that led to the arrest and conviction of Ara Grigoryan, 23, who, according to the informant, had fled to Mexico.
Without the reward, says Glendale police spokesman Sgt. Tom Lorenz, “it would never have gotten solved.” The informant, he says, “made it very clear to us that she called because there was an offer of a reward…She kept calling back until she got the money.”
Long Beach police officials, meanwhile, credit a $25,000 county reward with helping them crack one their biggest cases in recent years—the 2006 murder of Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Maria Cecilia Rosa. She was shot twice just after dawn by robbers while loading bags into her car before heading from Long Beach to her assignment in the county jails. “It was a coldblooded killing,” Sheriff Baca told the media. “Who is truly safe? No one.”
A little more than a month after the reward offer, an informant gave Long Beach police the name of the suspected gunman and arranged a meeting between detectives and another individual who revealed where one suspect was believed to be living. In the end, two men—both of whom were already serving state prison time—were convicted in the deputy’s murder. One was sentenced to death; the other was given 29 years to life.
“The reward prompted an otherwise unwilling witness to come forward and provide information which allowed detectives to focus on a small group of suspects,” says Long Beach police spokesman Sgt. Aaron Eaton.
Long Beach police also benefitted from another reward offered by the county—this one involving the murder of popular honors student Melody Ross, 16, who was hit by gunfire that was sprayed into a group of young people leaving the 2009 Wilson High School homecoming football game. Two witnesses shared the $20,000 reward after giving authorities information that led to the arrest and conviction of two teenaged defendants.
Financial incentives, Easton says, “sometimes mean the difference between making an arrest or the case going unsolved.”
But not always.
The largest county reward anyone can remember—$150,000—was first offered in late 2002, after the death of 15-year-old Brenda Sierra, whose body was found off a mountainous road in San Bernardino County. She died from a blow to the head. The unusually high reward was approved by the board at the request of Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes East Los Angeles, where the teenager lived and was last seen alive.
For nearly a decade, the reward was repeatedly renewed for six-month stretches in the hopes that someone would come forward and bring a measure of closure to the long grieving family. “Until we find her killer, we’re not giving up,” Molina said in announcing the award’s extension in July, 2009.
The reward finally expired in mid-2010, and the case remains unsolved.
October 18, 2012
Confronted with a scathing report on brutality and mismanagement in the Los Angeles County jails, Sheriff Lee Baca has repeatedly insisted that he’s committed to implementing scores of recommended reforms. But given the beating the sheriff himself took in the report, the Board of Supervisors isn’t taking any chances.
The board unanimously voted this week to hire a monitor to track implementation of more than 60 recommendations made by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence after a year-long investigation. While some of those recommendations address narrow but important policy issues, others urge a major overhaul of the department’s structure and accountability, including creation of an independent Office of Inspector General. The supervisors also voted to require the sheriff to provide progress reports during monthly appearances before the board.
The supervisors’ stepped-up scrutiny—which Baca on Tuesday told the board he supports—reflects their determination to build on the momentum of the jail commission’s widely-praised work and avoid criticism down the road that county leaders again neglected to act.
In its final report, the jail panel accused Baca and other top department officials of failing to rein in violent deputies, despite years of warnings and recommendations from various civilian watchdogs concerned about the treatment of inmates and the county’s potential liability. One of those monitors, Special Counsel Merrick J. Bobb, has written 31 semi-annual reports since serving on the landmark Kolts Commission, which, in 1992, advocated numerous reforms to curb widespread excessive force.
The jail panel noted that many of Bobb’s roughly 100 recommendations involving use of force and personnel issues in the jails went “unheeded” or “languished for more than a decade before the department responded.” The commissioners said concerns voiced by another monitor, the Office of Independent Review, also went unaddressed for years.
“At a fundamental level, the failure to heed recommendations made—and advanced repeatedly over time—is a failure of leadership in the department,” the seven-member commission wrote. “As the sheriff has acknowledged, it was his responsibility to ensure that reforms recommended by these oversight and advocacy groups were implemented and that problems of excessive force in the county jails were addressed. Yet, his response has been insufficient.”
Passages like those prompted the Board of Supervisors this week to intensify its involvement in the implementation of the latest recommendations. The “sheriff alone cannot restore long term-integrity to the department and fidelity to its core values,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in his motion to hire an “implementation monitor.”
But, as Special Counsel Bobb knows better than most, there’s actually little anyone can do to impose changes on the Sheriff’s Department unless the sheriff himself agrees to them. Unlike the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief, who is appointed by the mayor and reports to a civilian commission, the sheriff is publicly elected. As a result, he has wide legal authority over his department.
“There is no entity, person or institution who can direct the sheriff to do something,” Bobb says. “It is up to the unfettered discretion of the sheriff.”
That’s not to say that the five members of the Board of Supervisors are without leverage; they hold the department’s purse strings, a powerful incentive for the sheriff to be accommodating. The board members also can use their high-profile positions to exert public pressure on the sheriff.
Bobb says it’s been “terribly frustrating” over the years to see his recommendations for departmental change get so little action beyond what the jail commission described in its report as “lip service.” But Bobb says he’s heartened by the department’s movement toward adopting several of his recommendations during the past year as “tremendous pressure mounted on the sheriff and the supervisors to react and respond.”
Perhaps most crucial—and challenging—for the Board of Supervisors is the jail commission’s call for the creation of an inspector general’s office, which would assume responsibilities of the three existing Sheriff’s Department monitors. Those include Bobb’s modest operation, as well as the offices of Independent Review and Ombudsman. The jail commission concluded that this multi-agency approach has been “undermined by the lack of an overarching, consolidated strategy that marshals and leverages their collective strengths.”
The commission stressed that, to be effective, the inspector general must report directly to the board—a point Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky made clear during Baca’s testimony at the supervisors’ Tuesday meeting. When Baca said he’d be “open to a collaborative selection process” of the inspector general, Yaroslavsky cut him short.
“Stop right there,” Yaroslavsky said. “You’re not going to select the inspector general…The Board of Supervisors is going to select the inspector general.”
“Fine with me,” the sheriff quickly responded.
Still, Yaroslavsky did acknowledge the realities of keeping tabs on an agency whose top official is elected by the public. The creation of an inspector general, the supervisor said, requires the sheriff’s cooperation. “He can’t inspect what he can’t see.”
Baca assured the board that the department has not withheld information from monitors in the past and won’t be doing so in the future. The Board of Supervisors, he said, “will decide what priorities you want this person to fulfill, and those priorities will be honored.”
June 13, 2012
When it comes to police scandal and reform, attorney Richard E. Drooyan has found no shortage of opportunity in Los Angeles.
A former high-ranking member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he served on the Christopher Commission after the Rodney King beating and helped lead an independent inquiry into corruption by anti-gang officers in the LAPD’s Rampart Division.
Now, he’s back, this time as general counsel to the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, a panel created in October by the Board of Supervisors to investigate alleged brutality and management failures in the county jail system. The commission is packed with marquee names in law enforcement and legal circles. But it’s the lesser-known Drooyan who’s largely orchestrating the historic effort—with the quiet help of some of Los Angeles’ most prestigious law firms.
Drooyan is drawing on a model that dates back to the Christopher Commission, one not widely known beyond Los Angeles’ legal community. Today, as in the past, he’s drafted an army of high-powered lawyers to conduct every facet of the investigation, assigning each with responsibility for a specific area of inquiry. Those attorneys, in turn, have dipped into the ranks of their own firms.
In all, some 50 lawyers, representing ten firms, have been pressed into action—without a single billable hour among them.
“Fortunately, there’s been a history of very talented lawyers in the town’s top firms who’ve been willing to devote pro bono hours to these kinds of investigations,” Drooyan said from his office at Munger, Tolles & Olson. “The reality is, you need experienced people who can devote a lot of time and energy but you don’t have the budget to pay them. If you were to add up the final billable hours for the jail commission, it would be north of seven figures.”
The payoff, so far, has been substantial. This unsung cadre of legal firepower has identified and interviewed scores of witnesses, reviewed hundreds of documents and, in a series of public hearings, elicited dramatic testimony suggesting that the department’s second-in-command contributed to a climate in which jail deputies used unnecessary force.
The Commission’s chair, retired federal judge Lourdes Baird said the legal team has become “an integral part of our commission’s efforts” and “exemplifies the best of public service in our legal community.”
One of the recruited attorneys is Nancy Sher Cohen of Proskauer Rose, who calls herself a “worker bee for the commission.” Like Drooyan, Cohen also served on the Rampart panel. “Most of us tend to work on corporate litigation,” she explained. “Of course, you love your clients but this has a social justice piece that makes it very special.”
Bert Deixler, who served with Drooyan on the Christopher Commission and has been tapped for the jail study, says the unique investigative approach also provides newer attorneys with the experience of having societal impact while serving with seasoned law veterans across the city, a rare opportunity in a highly structured business.
“You take some young stars in your firm and say, ‘Here’s a chance to pay it forward.’ There’s a sense for all of us that this is part of what lawyers are supposed to do. It’s not just about collecting money,” says Deixler, a former member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office who’s now a partner with Kendall Brill & Klieger.
To get a feel for the job at hand, the recruited lawyers toured the troubled Men’s Central Jail on the edge of downtown, built mostly during the early 1960s. With more than 4,000 inmates packed into dark cells, it’s become the primary focus of the commission’s inquiry.
“For those who hadn’t seen it before, they came away from the experience feeling speechless,” said the commission’s executive director, Miriam Krinsky, who went on five of the trips. “It can’t help but hang with you.”
The attorneys assembled by Drooyan are a formidable group. Many are former federal prosecutors—skilled investigators with experience in analyzing data and coaxing reluctant witnesses to come forward. Already, their effectiveness has been on display during a series of headline-generating hearings during the past several months.
This was particularly true on May 14, when Drooyan presented as witnesses three retired jail supervisors. Their testimony went beyond the more familiar allegations of brutality and suggested that a series of moves by a top Sheriff’s Department manager undermined jail supervisors and led to higher levels of excessive force.
They described a culture in which longtime jail deputies—who, like some behind the bars, dub themselves OG’s, short for “Original Gangsters”—seemed to carry more clout than their bosses. Retired Sergeant Daniel Pollaro told of insubordinate deputies changing work assignments that their supervisors had created to break up “cliques” on floors throughout Men’s Central Jail. Retired Lt. Alfred Gonzales, meanwhile, recounted, among other things, the resistance he met while patrolling those floors in an effort to keep deputies in line and out of trouble, a practice not embraced by his predecessors.
But the testimony that raised the most eyebrows was Gonzales’ account of a meeting that then-Asst. Sheriff Paul Tanaka convened with jail supervisors in 2006, which followed an unusual closed-door session he’d held with complaining deputies.
“You guys are a bunch of dinosaurs,” Gonzales quoted Tanaka as saying. “Your supervisorial skills are antiquated.” According to Gonzales, Tanaka instructed the supervisors to “coddle” the deputies and to “stay off those floors and let those deputies do what they have to do.”
“The chain of command was totally broken,” Gonzales testified.
Tanaka, now the department’s undersheriff, is scheduled to appear before the commission in late July, along with Sheriff Leroy Baca. Neither has commented on last month’s testimony.
By all accounts, one of the biggest challenges for this commission—like others before it—is not only to identify witnesses but also to get them to testify publicly.
Drooyan said that Gonzales and Pollaro agreed to testify because after spending much of their working lives in the Sheriff’s Department, “they genuinely wanted to see issues addressed that were of deep concern to them.”
Sometimes, though, it can be tougher, especially in eliciting cooperation from current members of the department.
“They feel their careers are on the line,” said Fernando Aenlle-Rocha, a former federal prosecutor who’s now with the firm of White & Case. “We don’t have subpoena power and we can’t immunize people—the kind of tools that are given to prosecutors. You can just use your persuasive skills.”
So far, according to a recent commission status report, more than 150 potential witnesses have been identified between the five investigative teams created to examine the jail system’s management and oversight, use of force, culture, discipline and personnel. Each team will write a chapter for the commission’s final report, which is expected to be issued in early fall after more hearings. The full commission has met nine times to date. A committee held its first community forum on May 30.
Executive Director Krinsky stressed that the Sheriff’s Department and the commission have been extremely cooperative with each other. “It’s not a ‘gotcha,’ ” she said.
Drooyan agreed, adding that Baca himself has personally assisted in the commission’s requests for information.
“Everybody,” Drooyan said, “wants to improve the jail.”
Updated: At the Decemember, 4, 2012, meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Drooyan was appointed to oversee implementation of more than 60 reforms recommended by the jail commmision in its final report, which was released in September. Click here to read it.
March 7, 2012
Inside Dorm 3500 of the county’s Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, an experiment in personal reinvention is about to unfold.
The dorm’s 124 residents—all of them female inmates of the Los Angeles County jail system—will be embarking on a new program dedicated to the proposition that women and men take very different paths to jail and need very different kinds of help to address the underlying causes that landed them there.
“Women come into the incarcerated life differently than men do. The majority of women have some kind of abuse in their background—physical or sexual. I hate to use the term ‘victim,’ but in many cases they are,” said Sgt. Christina Baker of the sheriff’s inmate programs unit. Those physical, sexual and emotional traumas often lead women to substance abuse, which in turn brings a host of criminal and other behavioral problems.
The Sheriff’s Department’s new “gender-responsive” program aims to give women—often for the first time in their lives—a chance to recognize and change those destructive patterns. “It’s basically a chance to reinvent themselves,” Baker said.
Although women inmates make up just 10% or so of the county’s jail population of around 20,000, they tend to be avid consumers of self-help and other programs, Baker said. Women “want that education, that life-changing element,” she said, noting that male inmates, by contrast, are often “wrapped up in jail politics” and afraid that taking part in programs will mark them as weak.
Karen Dalton, director of the sheriff’s Inmate Services Bureau, said she participated in a trial session of the program and found the hands-on, small group activities eye-opening, such as a session that used photos in magazines to connect with women’s feelings about themselves. “It’s a very interactive way of getting people to think differently about themselves, and not use the trauma as a crutch,” she said. “We’ve wanted this for a very, very long time.”
The women’s program, the first of its kind in the Los Angeles County jail system, will include one-on-one assessments, life skills training, domestic violence education, substance abuse recovery, behavioral therapy and other elements—all aimed at having an impact that goes well beyond individual inmates.
“It’s not just about the women,” said Renee Smith, who directs women’s services for Haight Ashbury Free Clinics-Walden House. “Women have babies, and families. It’s also about stopping the cycles for generations.”
Smith’s organization this week was awarded a contract to run the program for three years, with an option to continue for an additional 2½ years, at a total cost of up to $3.5 million.
Smith said similar programs have been run in the California prison system, and on a smaller basis in the San Francisco jail. The L.A. County program, to be offered first to female inmates who already have completed all available courses in the jail educational curriculum, is notable for the “constellation” of services it will offer.
“This is really a full program. This is what you’d get if you walked into residential treatment in the community,” Smith said. She said the women will be learning everything from “mindfulness” skills to how to write a letter to an estranged family member to the basics of navigating bureaucratic systems—“when to keep your mouth shut and when to speak up when you have a need.”
Unlike state prisoners serving lengthy sentences, county jail inmates tend to come and go more quickly. The average jail stay currently is about 44 days, although that’s likely to increase as prisoners who previously would have been sent to state prison instead do their time in county jail under the process known as realignment. And, at least as far as rehabilitation programs are concerned, that may not be a bad thing.
“The longer they’re here, the more treatment they receive,” Sgt. Baker said.
Stephanie Covington, who co-directs the Center for Gender and Justice and is a nationally-recognized leader in the field, said the criminal justice system has not always been so open to the notion of giving women inmates treatment geared to their backgrounds and needs.
“In the last 10 years, there’s been a growing understanding of the need for women to have different kinds of services,” she said. “It makes no sense to warehouse people.”
And, she said, even relatively short-term programs can make a difference.
“It’s time you can plant seeds,” she said. “You can help people see there are other options.”
October 6, 2011
Inside a cramped, dingy-white building in Alhambra, one of California’s most radical—and some say reckless—experiments in its criminal justice history is unfolding. There, officials are getting a detailed first look at some of the thousands of state inmates who’ll be supervised by Los Angeles County once they’re freed, a process that began this week.
So far, it’s not an encouraging sight.
Hundreds upon hundreds of prisoner files—some woefully incomplete—are haphazardly arriving by mail, fax and Fed-Ex at Los Angeles County’s “pre-screening” hub in the Probation Department’s Alhambra field office. Eagle-eyed probation workers are uncovering mistakes, large and small, in the state records, including inmates who should be sent to other counties and others whose crimes should disqualify them entirely from the new “realignment” program.
Only late last week, after intense pressure from L.A. County, did state corrections authorities even begin sending comprehensive mental health records on ex-convicts headed here for supervision, information that’s crucial in developing treatment plans for the clients and protection for the public.
What’s also become increasingly clear in recent days is that the state has not been entirely forthcoming about the fine print of the controversial realignment plan, which is aimed at reducing prison overcrowding while slashing the state’s budget deficit.
Again and again, the governor and legislature have publicly stressed that the ex-inmates who’ll be supervised by the counties are “low-level” offenders convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crimes. They also note that these individuals would have returned to their home counties no matter who was responsible for their oversight. But that’s not the whole story, as L.A. County officials are quickly learning.
These same felons could—and sometimes do—have prior cases involving very serious crimes. Under the realignment law, AB 109, only the most recent conviction, or “commitment offense,” is considered in determining whether inmates will be supervised by counties or state parole agents after their release.
Take, for example, one inmate who was scheduled to be freed on Wednesday and has been ordered to report to L.A.County for post-release supervision. He was serving time for second-degree commercial burglary, attempted grand theft of personal property, forgery and identity theft—all non-serious, non-violent crimes under the penal code. But over the previous decade, he had more than a dozen arrests or convictions for a slew of serious and violent crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon, robbery and terrorist threats.
“We’re literally seeing every criminal record you could think of,” says Richard Giron of the Probation Department, who’s in charge of the pre-screening center in Alhambra, where nearly 2,000 files have been received. “We’re seeing prior violence, prior sex offenses—the full range of minimal criminal records to extensive, serious records.”
Giron says his staff is flagging such individuals for heightened supervision as part of the case plans developed when inmates arrive at other hubs throughout the region for face-to-face interviews.
Reaver Bingham, the Probation Department’s deputy chief of adult services and juvenile placement, called some of the county’s new charges “very hard core” but insisted that his agency is trained and prepared to deal with them. “This population is not unfamiliar to us,” he said, noting that the department currently supervises 15,000 adults with histories of serious and violent crimes.
In recent weeks, as AB 109’s October 1 implementation date drew near, concerns about public safety took center stage, with the harshest warnings coming from Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. He predicted that crime rates would soar not only because of the freed inmates who’ll be under county supervision but because, under the law, defendants convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes will now be sentenced to county jail rather than state prison. He and others argue that this will lead to even greater jail overcrowding and more inmates being released early by the Sheriff’s Department, which manages the sprawling system.
In the Alhambra screening center, Giron and his hand-picked team understand the high stakes for public safety and are determined to make sure no inmate is erroneously placed under the county’s jurisdiction. His 11 deputy probation officers and two supervisors scour every document the state sends and then comb criminal databases, as well as court records, for additional information on each of the inmates scheduled for release.
In the process, Giron says, his staff has uncovered mistakes that have given county officials ammunition to keep dozens of inmates from falling under probation’s purview.
“I’m doing everything I can in my power to reject cases that are inappropriate for supervision in L.A. County,” Giron says. Those cases have included an inmate who’d been serving time for molesting a child under the age of 14, a prisoner convicted of a serious extortion attempt and yet another who was described by the state’s own prison board as not safe to be released.
On Wednesday morning, Deputy Probation Officer Deanna English, a 22-year veteran of the department, found yet another, using the scant information contained in the state’s own file as a springboard.
Corrections officials had determined that a 20-year-old inmate at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco was eligible for county supervision because, according to a release form, he was serving time for a second degree burglary. But that was wrong. Contained within the file itself was the notation that he’d been sentenced for a robbery, a serious crime that would exempt him from the realignment program. English says she then checked the actual court record, which confirmed the robbery conviction.
“Honestly speaking, I thought they were trying to pull one over on us,” she says of corrections officials. “Their thing is to get as many [inmates] out of the state system as they can.” English says she feels “a high sense of duty” to thoroughly vet every file.
Making the job even more challenging for the Alhambra crew is the fact that the state has no centralized point of contact. The county is receiving files from 33 separate prisons. And those files are not being sent based on the chronological release dates of inmates, dates that seem to be constantly shifting.
Just the other day, as Giron talked with a visitor from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office, another probation supervisor, Al Montellano, walked up with a handful of documents fresh off the fax. They stated that eight inmates scheduled for release on December 4 will now be freed on October 23, meaning that the time-consuming review of their cases will have to be rushed into the mix, putting others on hold.
“That,” Giron says with a hint of understatement, “is operationally inefficient.”
Progress finally has been achieved, however, in one of the most crucial facets of the screening process—determining the mental health status and needs for the estimated 20 percent of inmates coming to the county who’ll need some level of treatment.
For months, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, a key player in the realignment process, had been stymied in its efforts to obtain comprehensive treatment records for inmates. The information provided by the state was simply a notation that mental health services had been delivered in prison.
“We were getting promises and assertions that were not true,” says Dr. Marvin Southard, director of mental health. “It was very frustrating.”
Among other things, Southard says his department was directed to dial an information number on the inmate forms. “If you call that number, you get a correctional counselor—the cell-block staff person—but they have no access to the medical records,” Southard says.
Further, according to Southard, his staff was told that they’d have to individually contact each of the state’s 33 prisons for information, which would consume crucial time in learning an inmate’s needs and creating a treatment plan.
The issue reached a boiling point two weeks ago when the Board of Supervisors voted to send a stern letter to Gov. Jerry Brown. In it, they warned that, unless the necessary information was forthcoming, “we will not accept parolees with mental health issues.”
“After that, everything changed,” Southard says, noting that a centralized system was developed by California’s corrections officials. “The governor’s staff promised that we’d get the records we need.”
Still, even if the county manages to overcome all these logistical challenges, there’s still the overarching question of whether the state will provide the money necessary to make it all work today and in the future.
“This has been my concern from Day One,” says Supervisor Yaroslavsky. “We’ve been asked to take a leap of faith that the reimbursement is adequate to meet our responsibilities. You can’t blame us for being skeptical, especially given the problems that have emerged in the opening days of this program. Even though the governor has assured us he will make us whole, it’s not entirely up to him and that makes me nervous.”
September 20, 2011
The Sheriff’s Department will, indeed, get a new jail phone vendor, promising cheaper calls for families of inmates and a bigger share of phone revenues for the county’s Inmate Welfare Fund.
Under the new contract with Public Communications Services Inc., the county’s share of revenue for the Inmate Welfare Fund will rise to 67.5%, with a guaranteed annual minimum of $15 million. That’s a 30% increase over the $10 million or so that was generated for the fund last year.
Meanwhile, the price of a collect call from jail will be cut from $3.54 to $1.25 for the first minute, with a 15-cent-per-minute charge thereafter. The price of a 17-minute phone call will fall 30% to about $3.65.
“This is a win-win,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who congratulated Sheriff Lee Baca for changing direction three years ago after the Board unanimously denied the department’s request to extend the contract with the current vendor, Global Tel*Link, and insisted that it be put out to competitive bid.
“It wasn’t your original path forward, but once it became the Board’s path forward, you did it with zeal, and I think the results are spectacular.”
PCS was the top scoring bidder among four who were vying for the contract, including the current vendor, GTL. Shortly after PCS submitted its winning bid, the company, then headquartered in Los Angeles, was acquired by GTL, which in the past year or so has acquired at least one other rival and has announced plans to acquire at least two more.
The terms of PCS’ bid are binding regardless of the change of ownership, according to the contract approved by supervisors on Tuesday.
The new contract, which takes effect in November, will cut the price of calls to public defenders via a special speed-dial number to a flat 12 cents per minute. Families of international callers will be charged a 50-cent connection fee in addition to the cost of the call, which will vary according to the country.
Calls to Mexico, for instance, will cost 50 cents to connect plus 50 cents per minute thereafter and calls to El Salvador and Guatemala will cost 50 cents plus 95 cents per minute; calls to most other countries will cost $1.25 per minute after the connection fee.
Sheriff’s officials told the board that the contract will cover some 5,800 phones in the jail and probation system—one of the largest public phone systems in the state.
September 8, 2011
Families of Los Angeles County inmates who’ve been forced to pay unusually high rates for collect calls from jail telephones could soon find relief under a proposed new contract that also would generate more county revenue.
A proposed change of vendors, outlined in a letter to the Board of Supervisors from Sheriff Lee Baca and Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins, would cut rates for an average phone call from the county lockup by about 30% while adding millions in guaranteed annual funding for key inmate programs and jail maintenance.
Tentatively scheduled for consideration by the board on September 20, the recommendation to hire Public Communications Services, Inc., is the result of a competitive bidding process urged by critics, including Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who complained that families were paying too much for jail phone calls and that the county was receiving too little in the existing contract’s revenue sharing provisions.
“My argument from Day One has been that if the rates were less burdensome on inmates families who were being overcharged, then more calls would be made and more money would be generated for the Sheriff’s Department,” Yaroslavsky said. “Now we have a proposal in place that hopefully will achieve those objectives.”
The price of phone calls from county jails has been controversial. Studies show that maintaining close contact with families via phone, correspondence and visits, can reduce recidivism among inmates and improve their chances of a successful reentry into society.
High phone rates deter that crucial communication. But they can also indirectly benefit inmates because, by law, the county’s portion of revenues from jail phones must go into special Inmate Welfare Funds that underwrite educational, recreational and other projects that are geared to them.
Debate over the rates charged to Los Angeles County jail phone users dates back several years to early preparations for the renewal of the current contract, which is held by Global Tel*Link Corp., a private, Alabama-based company that provides jail and prison phone systems nationally.
GTL had offered a $3.5 million fee to the county in exchange for a contract extension. The sheriff, meanwhile, argued against opening the contract to competitive bidding, saying that it might damage the department’s revenue stream.
But the supervisors and County CEO William T Fujioka insisted that putting the contract out to bid would be the best way to lower prices and maintain funding.
“I’m absolutely convinced, you put this out on the street, we’re going to get a more competitive contract,” Fujioka told Supervisors in 2008. Ultimately, in the fall of 2009, a competitive process was undertaken, leading to the new proposal.
The push for more competitive rates comes amid a shrinking competitive landscape. In fact, the winning bidder, PCS, was acquired by GTL three months after the bidding closed. GTL is among the larger firms in the prison telecommunications sector; PCS, whose customers include the Michigan Department of Corrections, was its Los Angeles-based rival.
Unlike phone contracts that govern the rates of residential users, jail phone pacts have had little regulation, allowing a handful of specialized service providers to charge whatever the market will bear.
Such high prices allow carriers to offer counties lucrative revenue sharing arrangements on contracts that, in Los Angeles County’s case, have typically amounted to millions of dollars a year.
But the situation has had its downsides. Families of inmates—many of whom are among the poorest people in the county—have borne some of the highest phone rates in California at a time when the price of phone service in even far-flung places has been slashed by technology.
Under the county’s current contract, GTL charges families of Los Angeles County jail inmates $3.54 for the first minute of a collect call—more than almost every other county jail in Southern California and about seven times the price of a 50-cent pay phone call. The Sheriff’s Department gets 52% of the revenue generated by the roughly 5,400 phones in the county’s jail system—a split that last year generated about $10 million for the county’s Inmate Welfare Fund.
In contrast, the 5-year PCS plan would cut the first-minute rate to $1.25, with a 15-cent-per-minute charge thereafter. The cost for an average 17-minute inmate phone call would fall from about $5.20 to around $3.65. The new contract also would increase the county’s share of revenue to 67.5 percent, with a guaranteed minimum of $15 million annually for the Inmate Welfare Fund and $59,000 for the county’s Probation Department.
Lt. Ronald E. Gilbert of the Sheriff’s Inmate Services Bureau said PCS was one of four bidders whose names will become a matter of public record after the supervisors’ upcoming vote.
Gilbert said PCS submitted its proposal before bidding was closed in August, 2010, three months before its acquisition by GTL. The terms of PCS’ bid would be binding, despite the change in ownership, Gilbert said, adding: “They’re still their own entity. As far as the contract is concerned, we’re dealing with them as PCS.”
Gilbert said the proposal’s guaranteed revenue is especially welcome in a time of constricted state funding. In recent years, Gilbert said, the county’s share of money has dropped as steep budget cuts have prompted the release of thousands of inmates from overcrowded jails while the tough economy has forced families to limit phone time with those who remain incarcerated. Gilbert predicted that the lower prices would likely increase inmate calls, which during the first six months of this year numbered 2.4 million.
“It generates a more stable income stream for the Inmate Welfare Fund, and it benefits the inmate and family population,” he said. “Everybody seems to win on this deal.”
July 27, 2011
After a rare public tussle between two powerful local criminal justice agencies, the Board of Supervisors has unanimously picked the Los Angeles County Probation Department to oversee thousands of freed California prisoners who, as part of the governor’s budget plan, will no longer be charges of the state.
Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins was given the nod over Sheriff Lee Baca, who had forcefully argued that his department was better suited to monitor an estimated 8,000 inmates who’ll be heading back to the streets of Los Angeles County during a nine-month period.
Critics of Baca’s proposal argued that such sweeping new duties would create public confusion over the mission of a department charged largely with suppressing crimes, not rehabilitating those who commit them. In Los Angeles and throughout the state, that job traditionally has been the responsibility of probation and parole agencies.
The board’s decision on Tuesday was based on a motion by Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, who noted that the Probation Department “has been providing supervision and rehabilitative services to adult probationers for over a century.” For that reason, they said, the agency has the kind of infrastructure and expertise that makes it best qualified to run the so-called “post-release community supervision program.” But the supervisors also called for a role for the Sheriff’s Department in identifying and, when necessary, apprehending high-risk parolees in the program.
The truth is that county officials at all levels wish they’d never had to confront the issue in the first place. Earlier this year, they argued strongly against being forced to take responsibility for the freed inmates, a key facet of Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” budget strategy to save money and reduce prison overcrowding. Faced with the county’s fears about funding and strains on a local jail system already tearing at the seams, the state agreed to pay for the first year but has yet to fulfill its promises for funding beyond that.
The ex-inmates, whose releases are scheduled to begin October 1, are known as “non, non, nons”—meaning non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders. Under a new state law, those who violate the terms of their release will no longer be returned to state prisons. With few exceptions, they’ll serve a maximum of 180 days in county jails.
That same law also mandates that counties create an operational plan—including staffing, budget needs and re-entry services—through new multi-agency Community Corrections Partnerships. In L.A. County, the CCP will submit a plan to the Board of Supervisors for approval in August, one that is likely to include a role for the Sheriff’s Department.
Indeed, during Tuesday’s meeting Baca made clear that his department would not be relegated to the margins. “When it comes to managing high-risk parolees,” he said, “I’m not going to ask the chief probation officer for permission. I’m just going to do it.”
Obviously irritated, Baca also criticized Blevins for statements in a report to the chief executive officer in which he “literally had kind of drawn a moat around his department and looks upon me and my department as some kind of threat to the traditions of rehabilitation when, in fact, we are at the forefront of rehabilitation for parolees.”
During the meeting, Blevins, who chairs the county’ CCP, did not address Baca’s comments. But he later told the Daily News that the Sheriff’s Department would have a role in the oversight of the soon-to-arrive ex-inmates, albeit a limited one.
“Our original plan,” Blevins was quoted as saying, “was for absconders or individuals who have been working with probation but need a higher level or more intensive supervision, we would ask [the sheriff’s] assistance on those kinds of cases…The sheriff has indicated they are 24/7 and they can provide those kinds of services.”