Exonerating the Wrongly Convicted

Board of Supervisors chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas presented a scroll honoring Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent (LPI) for their work in exonerating the wrongly convicted.

“The criminal justice system can only function if it is fair, just and protects the innocent,” Board Chair Ridley-Thomas said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the system gets it wrong and it is often people of color who bear the brunt of these wrongful convictions.

“Since 2011, LPI has secured the release of five clients who served a collective 121 years in prison for crimes they did not commit,” he added. “They have also given hope to countless other clients who know that somebody is fighting for them.”

At LPI, law students work in a yearlong clinic supervised by its founder, Professor Ethical Advocacy Laurie Levenson, legal director Paula Mitchell, program director Adam Grant, and other staff. To date, LPI has evaluated more than 1,400 cases and trained more than 130 students.

“We should never give up on securing justice, no matter how long it takes,” Prof. Levenson said. “Each person’s life is precious.”

“If anything, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that those who are wrongfully convicted get the help they need and that we take steps to prevent wrongful convictions in the future,” she added. That is our mission; that is our promise.”

LPI successfully exonerated Marco Contreras, who was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and attempted robbery in connection with a shooting at a Compton gas station. LPI found new evidence that led to his exoneration. He was released in March after serving 20 years for a crime he did not commit. As a result of LPI’s work, other men have been charged with the crime.

Contreras expressed heartfelt gratitude to LPI during the scroll presentation. “I’d like to first of all thank the Loyola Law School for everything they’ve done and also for the other work they’re doing,” he said. “I am grateful to be here today. Thank you, everybody.”

 

Addressing Implicit Bias Countywide

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Testifying before the Board on implicit bias training. L-R: Susan Burton, A New Way of Life; Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro; and Patricia Guerrera of Community Coalition. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by its chairman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, to enhance the training of Los Angeles County employees to stifle implicit biases and subconscious prejudices that adversely affect public service.

“As a Board, our mandate centers on a commitment to social justice for all as an administrative responsibility,”Board Chairman Ridley-Thomas said before the vote. “As the environment in which we work and serve becomes more diverse, we simply need to up our game.”

“This should not be construed as a stick, but more of a tool to help respective County departments, and the employees therein, to do their jobs more effectively,” he added. “We seek to root out prejudicial dispositions, and do it in a way that celebrates the dignity and worth of every single person with whom our employees come in contact.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis spoke out in support of the motion, as did Inspector General Max Huntsman and Probation Commissioner Cyn Yamashiro and several others.

Centinela Youth Services director Jessica Ellis told the Board, “As experts in conflict resolution, we know how easy it is for all of us humans to unconsciously label each other. We also know the damage that this does, particularly when a person who is in a position of power, who is in control of resources, is unaware of their biases with respect to the people they are meant to serve.

Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, also applauded the motion, saying biases can do serious harm, particularly in law enforcement. “When law enforcement targets individuals because of their identity or responds more severely to harmless or ambiguous conduct by minorities than by whites, it impedes effective policing,” she said.

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In foreground, Jessica Ellis of Centinela Youth Services. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

“Biased policing is a public safety concern,” she added. “As we have seen, many instances involving African American civilians that culminate in officers’ uses of force – deadly or otherwise – evolve from situations where an individual who was not actually engaging in criminal activity was nonetheless viewed as suspicious and approached by the police, or were engaged based on minor infractions that elicited more aggressive policing actions than the same infractions committed by others.”

In August 2016, the Board approved a separate motion by Board Chair Ridley-Thomas to examine implicit bias and cultural competency training within the County’s law enforcement departments and agencies, and to study the best constitutional policing practices in the nation. The County’s Chief Executive Office found that few departments and agencies in County government mandate regularly scheduled training on implicit bias and cultural competency, and none evaluate the effectiveness of such training in operations and contact with the public.

The directives in Board Chair Ridley-Thomas’ motion include developing and enhancing protocols to examine employees’ limitations with cultural competency, and the root causes and impact of prejudices.

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In foreground, Sunny Kang of St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, sitting beside Melanie Ochoa of ACLU. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

Improving Civil Service Accountability

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All photos by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors

The Board of Supervisors voted to review the civil service hearing process to ensure Los Angeles County employees are held to the highest standards of trustworthiness, especially if they are responsible for public safety or serve vulnerable populations.

BCA_8892 (1)Acting on a motion by Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the Board called for analyzing whether civil service rules should be amended to allow the discharge, reassignment, or other discipline of employees who have made false statements, misrepresentations and omissions of material facts in internal investigations. It will also assess whether to keep track of different classifications of employees who should be held to a higher standard of honesty in the workplace.

“We are committed as a Board to maintaining a diverse and skilled workforce dedicated to serving our residents with integrity, courtesy and excellence,” Board Chair Ridley-Thomas said during the Board meeting. “If there is a question of whether the disciplinary systems here in our County are effective enough, we have an obligation to address any gaps in a manner that is fair and transparent while, at the same time, honoring and respecting employee rights.”

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Urban Peace Institute executive director Fernando Rejon testifies with Los Angeles County Commission on Children and Families member Sydney Kamlager in support of the motion.

“County residents should be able to put their faith in the trustworthiness and honesty of all County employees, most especially those who are responsible for public safety and where lives are at stake,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “The motion will provide the Board of Supervisors with the tools we need to hold our employees accountable if they violate that trust and lie in internal investigations.”

Several people who attended the Board meeting to testify in support of the motion expressed concern over recent events involving County employees. Last month, former Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted of making false statements, obstruction of justice and conspiracy in connection with a federal investigation into excessive use of force at County jails. This coincided with the filing of assault charges against Probation officers in connection with the videotaped beating of a 17-year-old at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. Days later, a judge ordered four social workers to stand trial in connection with the torture and murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in Palmdale.

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Melanie Ochoa, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, testifying in support of the motion.

Daniel Heimpel, publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, an online publication with a focus on child welfare and juvenile justice, noted existing civil service rules led to the reinstatement of one of the social workers fired in connection with the Gabriel Fernandez case. He told the Board, “What you’re doing today, in terms of trying to create a transparent and accountable system, not only helps (social) workers do their job better but it will also help protect the children.”

The County’s Inspector General for the Sheriff’s Department, Max Huntsman, blamed a “dysfunctional discipline system” for hampering the department’s ability to fire a certain deputy who has admitted to falsifying hundreds of police reports. “Civil service reform is a critical part of repairing that process,” he told the Board.

Merrick Bobb, the Board’s former Special Counsel monitoring the Sheriff’s Department, said the motion is “necessary for expanding accountability and for increasing transparency… (which are) critically important to maintain the integrity of the system.”

Alberto Retana, president of the nonprofit Community Coalition, said, “Failure to hold public servants accountable for misconduct threatens public trust and confidence in local government.”

A year ago, Board Chair Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Kuehl filed a separate motion to evaluate the selection, qualifications, training and responsibilities of Civil Service Commission members, hearing officers and department advocates. In response to that motion, the Board’s Executive Office submitted a report listing several recommendations, including providing more training and offering an increase in compensation to attract a larger pool of candidates.

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Merrick Bobb, the Board of Supervisors’ former Special Counsel monitoring the Sheriff’s Department, testifying in support of the motion.

A Second Chance at a Better Life

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All photos by Aurelia Ventura/Board of Supervisors

Los Angeles County is taking steps to help people clear their criminal records under Prop. 47. The Public Defender’s Office and Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas recently joined forces to host a Jobs, Legal Services and Resource Fair in the Vermont Manchester area, offering assistance with everything from job-hunting to housing to reducing traffic fines. One of the day’s key offerings: legal help for those seeking a second chance under Prop. 47.

Image-10Hundreds of people flocked to the Rita Walters Learning Complex to meet with attorneys, County service providers, employers and community-based organizations. Aside from meeting several potential employers, including FedEx, Los Angeles County, and the Los Angeles Community College District, they were also able to apply for health insurance, housing, Cal Fresh/Medi-Cal and other  services. Several in the crowd also obtained free legal services to clear their record and to benefit from the Traffic Amnesty Program. 

FairAmong the many County departments present at the event were Public Social Services, and Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services. Southwest College and the nonprofits A New Way of Life and Drug Policy Alliance were among the partners. Several more fairs are planned throughout the County.

Prop. 47, approved by 60 percent of California voters in 2014, downgrades certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors, and requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging or writing bad checks when the amount involved is $950 or less. No one is automatically released from state prison because of Prop 47. Instead, it allows those already serving a felony conviction to petition the court for resentencing. Those who have already completed their sentences can ask the trial court to downgrade their conviction.