Fighting to Stop Human Trafficking

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Displaying a poster with the hotline to report human trafficking. (All Photos by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors)

Both the County and City of Los Angeles will strengthen enforcement of a state law intended to help victims of modern day slavery, under efforts announced by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Councilwoman Nury Martinez on the last day of Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

Under Senate Bill 1193, authored by then state Senator and now Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, certain establishments are required to display a poster listing a telephone hotline such as (888) 539-2373 and other information that would enable victims and members of the public to report human trafficking. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Councilwoman Martinez each plan to look into how more establishments can be brought into compliance.

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Supervisor with Councilwoman Nury Martinez

“The County targets certain locations for intensified awareness-raising, such as emergency rooms, urgent care centers, transit centers and motels, which provide prime opportunities for trafficked persons to seek help in escaping from their traffickers,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

“SB 1193 must be enforced, because having access to that hotline information can be the one thing that saves her from the bondage of sex trafficking,” Councilwoman Martinez said. “When a young girl is being trafficked by a gang member pimp, she rarely knows whom she can turn to for help.”

Back in 2014, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas filed a motion calling on the County’s Chief Executive and District Attorney to check compliance with SB 1193. Shortly afterwards, he joined the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in launching the Human Trafficking Outreach Project (HTOP), which trains volunteers to reach out to establishments mandated to comply with SB 1193.

More than two years after its launch, HTOP reported that more than 50 percent of the establishments visited by its volunteers remain out of compliance. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas will request a compliance update from the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Integrated Leadership Team, a multi-department entity  charged with coordinating the County’s response to CSEC, which he established by motion in 2015.

“It is imperative upon all of us to do whatever we can to stem the tide and stop the worldwide business of human trafficking,” NCJW/LA executive director Hillary Selvin said, adding, “Human trafficking is slavery.”

Kay Buck, president and chief executive of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), said SB 1193 would help connect more victims to community support services such as those provided by her organization. “Since SB 1193 went into effect, CAST has seen a significant increase in the number of calls to our hotline, including calls from victims themselves seeking help,” she said.

A study funded by the National Institute of Justice has found that requiring the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline to be posted in public areas was the most effective way to increase the number of human trafficking arrests. From 2007 to 2015, the NHTRC provided more than 6,500 tips to law enforcement.

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Civilian Oversight Commission
Gets to Work

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Civilian Oversight Commission. Photo by David Franco/Board of Supervisors

The Civilian Oversight Commission for the Sheriff’s Department held its inaugural meeting, heralding a new era in the relationship between law enforcement and the people it is sworn to protect and serve.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion that created the  Commission, administered the oath of office to its members during a ceremony at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall.

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The Sheriff and Supervisor celebrate the Commission. Photo by David Franco/Board of Supervisors

“(The Commission) will play an important role in promoting transparency, restoring public trust, validating reform efforts, and enhancing the effectiveness of the Sheriff’s Department,” he declared. “I believe these things are fundamentally important.”

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the Commission, composed of community and faith leaders, a retired Sheriff’s lieutenant, former prosecutors and public defenders, professors and executives from legal non-profit organizations, would bring “much needed and welcome outside expertise and points of view.”

“The Civilian Oversight Commission will allow the people of Los Angeles County to participate in the process as we seek resolution to some of the most challenging criminal justice issues of our time,” he said.

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Community engagement at the inaugural meeting of the Civilian Oversight Commission. Photo by David Franco/Board of Supervisors

The Commission will meet on the fourth Thursday of every month to provide robust opportunities for community engagement, ongoing analysis and oversight of Sheriff’s Department policies, practices and procedures. It will work in partnership with the public, the Board of Supervisors and Office of Inspector General, in addition to the Sheriff’s Department.

The Commission’s members, in alphabetical order, are:

  • Robert Bonner, lawyer and former U.S. Attorney and DEA Administrator, who will chair the Commission;
  • Patti Giggans, Executive Director of Peace Over Violence;
  • JP Harris, former Sheriff’s lieutenant;
  • Sean Kennedy, Executive Director of Center for Juvenile Law & Policy at Loyola Law School and former federal public defender;
  • Heather Miller, Rabbi, Beth Chayim Chadashim;
  • Priscilla Ocen, Loyola Law School Associate Professor;
  • Lael Rubin, former Deputy District Attorney;
  • Xavier Thompson, President of Baptist Ministers’ Conference and Senior Pastor of the Southern Saint Paul Church, who will serve as the Commission’s vice chair; and
  • Hernán Vera, lawyer and former president and CEO of Public Counsel.
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Members of the Civilian Oversight Commission recite their oath. Photo by David Franco/Board of Supervisors

Board of Supervisors Makes Deeper Commitment to Youth Diversion

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Photo by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors

In a move that could lead to a fundamental change in juvenile justice practices, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to look into dramatically expanding diversion programs for youth.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, principal author of the motion, noted that shifting the juvenile justice system’s focus from punishment to mentoring, healing, restorative justice and similar techniques produces better outcomes for youth, while also saving taxpayer money. He noted the cost of keeping a teenager in a probation camp for year has risen to $247,000, and added that any involvement in the juvenile justice system increases a youth’s risk of dropping out of high school, becoming unemployed, and ending up homeless.

“This motion is centered on figuring out what works when it comes to serving and diverting youth, and then expanding and investing in those proven strategies,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, the motion’s co-author, added, “All of our stakeholders recognize the need to devote resources to keeping kids out of jail and the importance of celebrating the potential of every child, devoid of any stigma that law enforcement contact may bring.”

Youth of color are disproportionately impacted at all stages of Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system, and represent 95 percent of youth in probation camps and juvenile halls.

At present, diversion programs are unevenly spread out, vary widely in approach, and have limited funding. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Hahn’s motion calls for crafting a comprehensive, coordinated and expanded system countywide that also addresses racial disparities in access to diversion opportunities. It drew wide support from both County leaders and community stakeholders, many of whom testified before the Board over the course of an hour and half in favor of the motion.

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Chief Probation Officer Terri McDonald, Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, and Office of Diversion and Reentry Director Judge Peter Espinoza testify in favor of the motion. Photo by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors

“We’re in full support of the motion because it further gives us the opportunity to keep children out of the justice system or to minimize their involvement in it,” newly hired Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell said. “Children that don’t pose a risk to public safety need not be in the juvenile justice system.”

“It is important to keep children out of the court system, out of custody, and out of the juvenile justice system entirely,” Acting Public Defender Kelly Emling said. “The stigma alone of being attached to a court case, or being attached to probation, is a very deep stigma for a child (but) outcomes have been shown to improve with any type of diversion effort.”

Cheryl Bonacci, program director for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said the current punitive approach has not been effective. “I’ve sat with too many 12- and 13-year olds who don’t belong in juvenile hall, and who would’ve benefited a lot more from a restorative pathway than punishment without proper support and guidance,” she said. “I’ve seen too many teenagers who’ve been locked up over and over, and moved around the probation camp system without success, only to end up in adult court at the age of 16 on a case that has them set to be thrown away.”

Dr. Robert Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment, explained that many youths’ problematic behavior can often be traced to childhood trauma, such as physical and sexual abuse, witnessing family or community violence, emotional neglect, separation from parents and caregivers due to incarceration or deportation, and other factors. He added that when immature brains are traumatized, the ability to make rational decisions is impaired.

“We have criminalized too much of what ails young people across this country,” Dr. Ross said. “We must prioritize ways of helping to hold them accountable while keeping them out of the justice system.”

“There’s no question that young people need to be held responsible for their actions, but in a way that’s supportive,” Dr. Ross added. “Punishment and incarceration are not the only ways.”

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Advocates for youth and reforming the juvenile justice system testify before the Board of Supervisors. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors

Turning Up the Heat on a Cold Case

weston-rewardHoping to bring justice to a family that has been waiting seven years, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the killers of Waymon Weston.

“His death can’t be seen as anything other than an absolute tragedy,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said at a press conference to announce a renewal of a reward that he first offered in 2011.

weston-reward-2“He had his whole life in front of him and he and his family were essentially robbed of that,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “It is our job to do something about it.”

Weston’s mother, Yolanda Williams, appealed to the public for help. “This is my eighth Christmas with my son being gone,” she said. “It’s really hurting me real bad to know that someone out here in the streets took my son away and they’re still walking around freely.”

On October 19, 2009, Weston was standing outside his house, talking on a phone with his girlfriend, when at least two men walked over, asked him if he had a gang affiliation, opened fire without provocation, and fled in a dark sedan.

Weston died at the scene on the 1100 block of West 90th Street in Athens-Westmont. He was 20.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department urged anyone with information about his murder to contact Homicide Detective Robert Gray at (323) 890-5500 or Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.

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Yolanda Williams urges the public to come forward with information on her son’s 2009 murder