The Dangers of ‘Toxic Masculinity’ on Campus

Campuses around the country are facing up to sexual assault and violence—often committed by star athletes. At the University of Arizona, now hit with a number of lawsuits, looking the other way is no longer an option, according to an Arizona Daily Star report.

Universities should take a more aggressive approach to address “toxic masculinity” on campus, particularly in their athletic programs, according to a New Jersey-based sports psychologist.

“People want to pretend that they’re doing something about it,” said Mitch Abrams, a psychologist who specializes in anger management and violence in sports. “(But) what’s been done, in my opinion, is the equivalence of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

Mitch Abrams

Mitch Abrams/courtesy Arizona Daily Star

Noting that sexual violence perpetrated by athletes is sadly common on college campuses, Abrams said many schools are using outdated or ineffective models to teach violence-prevention to athletes.

“The problems of sexual assault, sexual violence and sexual abuse are ubiquitous,” he said.

The University of Arizona, currently defending itself against lawsuits that claim the school’s athletic department failed to protect students from violence and sexual harassment, is taking Abrams’ warnings to heart.

Starting this week, an attorney who specializes in gender discrimination law will lead a comprehensive review of the university’s processes and policies and also examine how the UA coordinates with supporting agencies such as law enforcement and health care.

“There is no place for sexual misconduct and discrimination at the University of Arizona and we’re working to ensure that a positive and supportive culture reaches across the entire university,” UA president Robert C. Robbins wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star.

Robert Robbins

UA president Robert Robbins, left, pictured with AD Dave Heeke, says sexual misconduct “will not be tolerated” on campus. Photo by Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star.

“I’m committed to investing in the people and resources needed to place our prevention, support and response measures among the very best in the country. Our students, employees and the university community deserve no less.”

But Abrams noted that bystander intervention training, such as Arizona’s Step UP! program, is ineffective and difficult to implement. Step UP! teaches students how to be proactive in helping others in situations involving alcohol, dating violence, gambling, hazing and depression.

“If these programs work, then why isn’t the problem ameliorating?” Abrams said. “Bystander intervention as a primary approach is deliberate indifference.”

The UA has hired San Francisco-based attorney Natasha Baker, who trains campus administrators about Title IX compliance and campus investigations, to guide a review of its processes and policies.

In his email to the Star, Robbins said that while the university “cannot guarantee that the incidents will not happen,” he is committed to making it a “top priority for us to do all we can within our roles as educators and employers to prevent them.”

Robbins’ email emphasized that the university is no different from colleges and universities across the country that are also “wrestling with reports of sexual assault, relationship violence, sexual harassment and discrimination.”

The UA has more than a dozen offices that provide education, counseling, health care, investigative and other support services related to Title IX, a federal law that protects students from gender discrimination.

While the quantity of those services demonstrates the school’s commitment to students, they will be better served by “gathering our existing resources in a more coordinated and enhanced fashion,” Robbins wrote.

The university, which has over 34,000 students on its Tucson campus, is defending itself in two federal lawsuits and one local civil lawsuit, all of which claim the school failed to protect students.

In 2015, assistant track coach Craig Carter was arrested after reportedly threatening an athlete with a box cutter while his other hand was wrapped around her throat.

After the incident, Carter sent dozens of text messages and emails to the woman, threatening her and her family members, Pima County Superior Court documents say. The woman is suing the UA in Pima County Superior Court for not protecting her. Carter and the student-athlete were engaged in a sexual relationship that the coach says was consensual.

Orlando Bradford

Orlando Bradford, a former Arizona Wildcats football player, will serve five years in prison for two felony counts of aggravated assault. Two of his victims are suing the UA in federal court. Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

In 2016, running back Orlando Bradford was arrested and charged in connection with choking two ex-girlfriends. A third woman told campus police that Bradford had choked her, but hasn’t filed a claim or sued. Bradford is serving five years in prison.

The two victims have sued the UA in federal court and one of the suits has since been amended to include allegations of gang rapes by football players. No details were provided in the claim, and it’s unclear if anyone has been charged.

Legal troubles involving coaches and athletes extend beyond the suits against the university.

Football coach Rich Rodriguez was fired Jan. 2, the same day a sexual harassment and hostile workplace claim against him became public. The notice of claim, filed by Rodriguez’s former assistant, says the coach fostered an environment where Title IX “did not exist.”

In 2016, the university issued UA basketball player Elliott Pitts a one-year suspension for sexual misconduct related to the alleged sexual assault of a fellow student.

Arizona officials learned the limitations of “bystander intervention” first-hand in the Bradford case.

Tucson police reports show that four of Bradford’s roommates — all UA football players — routinely witnessed him abuse women, but failed to intervene on all but one occasion. All four teammates, and Bradford, had been trained in the Step UP! program.

Rather than teach bystander intervention, Abrams said, schools must increase accountability among their athletes.

Some athletes and coaches “believe they have different types of rules,” he said. “When we hold coaches and athletes up like that, we can’t be surprised when they take liberties.”

Toxic masculinity plays a key role in violence against women, in that low self-esteem in men causes them to use physical power to regain control, Abrams said.

“These people can change, but they need treatment,” Abrams said, adding that schools often expel players when they recognize a problem, rather than offering help. “If we don’t treat people, we aren’t reducing the number of victims.”

He said that when schools learn athletes or coaches are violent toward women, many cover it up or kick them out — often depending on how valuable the player or coach is to their program.

When UA officials learned of the situation involving Carter, they quickly took action and fired him, even banning him from campus. Carter coached a sport that receives little national attention and doesn’t generate revenue.

University of Arizona

University of Arizona stadium, home of the Wildcats. Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star.

Bradford, a potential starter for one of the UA’s two showcase programs, seemingly received more slack. Police reports show school officials were made aware of his violent tendencies nearly a year before his dismissal.

Abrams said sweeping changes are necessary to fix the problem. Without trying to understand how perpetrators think, it’s impossible to reduce the incidents of violence by athletes.

“It’s pennywise and pound foolish. Schools are prioritizing things to save their reputations but not addressing the long-term solution,” Abrams said.

“I think people would rather pretend they’re doing something about it rather than saying, ‘I really don’t know and I need to bring in people who do.’”

Admitting and addressing the problem is smart fiscally as well as morally, Abrams said.

“Risk management is cheaper than damage control,” he said.

Caitlin Schmidt is a 2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of her story published in the Arizona Daily Star, as part of her journalism project for the fellowship. The full version is available here. Caitlin welcomes readers’ comments.


Bad Cell Signal? If You Wear a GPS Ankle Bracelet, It Can Send You Back to Jail

Persistent malfunctions in the electronic tracking devices worn by released Wisconsin inmates are prompting some experts in the state to question whether lifetime GPS monitoring is fair, effective, and worth the cost.

Cody McCormick spent much of the past seven years incarcerated or on probation after being convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in Minnesota.

Since he had his supervision transferred to his home state of Wisconsin in late 2016, McCormick has been repeatedly thrown in jail. He lost a job. And he continues to be disturbed by corrections officials calling him — sometimes in the middle of the night.

McCormick says these barriers to reintegrating into the community stem from a GPS ankle bracelet, which he was not required to wear in Minnesota but is required by Wisconsin to wear for life. As of January, Wisconsin monitored 1,258 offenders on GPS devices at an annual cost of about $9.7 million.

Five years after the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism documented serious problems with the state’s GPS monitoring program for offenders — false alerts that have landed offenders in jail, disrupting family lives and causing them to lose jobs — inefficiencies and inaccuracies with the system remain, according to state and county records and 16 offenders interviewed for this story.

Such problems have led some law enforcement and other officials to doubt the program’s ability to ensure public safety and assist offenders in reintegrating into their communities.

Since the Center’s 2013 report, the cost of the program and the number of offenders under monitoring have roughly doubled. Lawmakers never followed through on calls to study the system in the wake of the Center’s report. State officials have been unable to produce records of any evaluation of the system’s reliability or effectiveness.

In this current report, the Center found numerous service requests and complaints related to bracelets failing to hold a charge. In February, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it a felony for anyone on GPS monitoring to intentionally fail to charge his or her bracelet.

The state is drawing up a new request for bids for GPS monitoring equipment. Lawmakers are considering extending the length of the contract from three years to seven to entice additional bidders. Bill sponsor Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, said the current vendor, Boulder, Colorado-based BI Inc., is planning a 50 percent price hike unless the contract is lengthened.

Missed Signals

McCormick, 29, said his troubles with GPS monitoring began soon after being fitted with an ankle bracelet in February 2017. Records show the BI Inc. tracker was not communicating with the Department of Corrections’ Electronic Monitoring Center in Madison because of poor cellular reception at his grandmother’s house, where he lived in rural Monroe County.

And even though police found him exactly where he was supposed to be, McCormick was taken to jail for about three days. As a result, he lost his job at his family’s restaurant.

Cody McCormick. Photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Ten months later, McCormick was incarcerated again, this time for five days. Records from the Sparta Police Department show the arrest stemmed from McCormick allegedly being located next to a library — a zone off-limits for him — for an hour. McCormick said he only drove past it; his roommate, who was driving with him, affirmed this version of the incident.

McCormick’s difficulties persisted. This January, McCormick was briefly jailed on a warrant for allegedly tampering with the bracelet. A police report said McCormick showed them he had not tampered with it. He was later fitted with a new bracelet. Officials did not charge him with a crime — although tampering is a felony offense.

“It’s not just the people who are on monitoring devices (who are affected),” McCormick said. “It’s their family, their jobs, their social life.”

McCormick’s story illustrates broader flaws with Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring program, which relies on both cell phone and satellite service to track offenders.

The Center reviewed data from a single month, May 2017, to more deeply explore the large volume of alerts being triggered by Wisconsin’s monitored offenders. In all, Wisconsin offenders in May generated more than 260,000 GPS alerts, 81,000 of which corrections officials sorted through manually.

The review found:

  • The state monitoring center lost cell connection 56,853 times with 895 offenders — or an average of about 64 times per offender, according to DOC records.
  • Most offenders on monitoring across the state experienced loss of satellite signal, generating 32,766 alerts — half of which were serious enough to be investigated.
  • Of the 52 arrest warrants issued by the DOC monitoring center, service request records indicate 13 involved offenders whose equipment was having technical problems around the same time.
  • DOC employees submitted 135 requests for technical problems with GPS tracking devices— 93 for charging or battery issues with ankle bracelets, 12 for signals lost, 14 for false tamper alerts.

Other records showed:

  • Several offenders have been jailed between one and three times since 2013 for what DOC records indicated or they reported were technical malfunctions.
  • Since January 2015, DOC has filed 1,360 reports when offenders damaged, lost or absconded with DOC-issued equipment, including GPS equipment, sobriety monitors and home-confinement monitoring. An examination of a portion of those reports found at least 89 offenders had evaded GPS monitoring for some length of time, subverting the program’s goal of enhancing public safety.
  • Some offenders claim their GPS shows them to be in places they are not or that they are arrested for tamper alerts when their devices’ ankle straps wear out.

Tech Glitches Put Public ‘In Imminent Danger’

A 2017 examination by the University College London and Australian National University of 33 studies on electronic monitoring effectiveness worldwide found one of the most frequent barriers to success was technological problems, including equipment malfunction, loss of signal or power, battery failure and inadequate broadband capacity.

California replaced half of the state’s ankle bracelets after testing showed that brand, 3M, was so inaccurate and unreliable that its use put the public “in imminent danger.” In 2013, a Los Angeles County audit found one in four of its bracelets had defective batteries or excessive false alerts.Massachusetts replaced all 3,000 of its GPS bracelets in 2016, citing poor cell coverage. A 2015 investigation by Northeastern University journalism students in Boston had found wrongful arrests caused by GPS false alerts.

Wisconsin DOC officials said the benefits of the program outweigh any technical drawbacks. Spokesman Tristan Cook noted that the program is aimed at public safety.

“GPS tracking provides a deterrent effect since offenders know they are being tracked and allows the department to review an offender’s location history to aid the prosecution of any crimes or identify supervision violations,” Cook said.

BI Inc., which supplies the ankle bracelets and other monitoring equipment, declined to answer questions about reported problems with the technology.

Technology does continue to improve, however, and states are aggressively increasing the number of offenders on GPS.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 88,000 offenders were strapped with GPS bracelets in 2015 — 30 times more than the 2,900 offenders who were tracked a decade earlier. Wisconsin had a daily average of about 1,500 offenders on tracking in 2017-18 — a nearly 10-fold increase from 158 offenders in 2008-09.

Some experts say GPS monitoring can be a useful tool in providing structure, reducing recidivism, allowing offenders to work and lowering costs compared to incarceration. But technological problems can get in the way of those benefits.

Mike Nellis, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, believes that GPS monitoring in the United States has taken on a punitive approach that hampers offender reintegration. The journal focuses on monitoring technology and its use in enhancing public safety.

“If (offenders) are trying to reintegrate themselves … to suddenly find yourself carted back to prison for something that is in no way your fault seems to me to be quite an unnecessary disruption in the life of an offender — and quite at odds with good practice in reintegrating them,” Nellis said.

DOC has the authority to detain offenders on monitoring for up to three work days while it investigates violations, although extensions may be granted.

Cecelia Klingele. Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison/Wisc Center for Investigative Journalism.

Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate law professor who specializes in correctional policy, said DOC is put in a difficult position when it knows some, or even many, of the alerts it receives are caused by equipment malfunctions. But she argues the agency should investigate such alerts with minimal harm to the offender, especially in the case of false alerts.

“Even short periods of jail are highly disruptive and can cause a person to lose his job, be unable to care for children, or even lose stable housing,” Klingele said.

‘It’s a Wilderness Up Here’

Some officials in law enforcement and the judiciary who deal with Wisconsin’s GPS program have seen false alerts firsthand and have reservations about the program.

“It’s wilderness up here,” Price County Sheriff Brian Schmidt said of his county in northern Wisconsin. “When you’re dealing with that, you’re dealing with cell coverage issues. DOC needs to recognize those things. County taxpayers pay for these issues.”

Schmidt recalled an incident in which he refused to detain a GPS-monitored offender with a warrant because it appeared to stem from a device malfunction.

“If there’s a violation, I understand, but if … you find a gentleman in bed, and the monitor is failing, even though I have the (apprehension) request, I’m less likely to put that person in jail,” Schmidt said.

DOC sees it another way.

“There is no such thing as a ‘false alert,’ ” Cook said. “If the monitoring center is not able to successfully resolve an alert, an offender is taken into custody to protect the public and comply with state statutes requiring continuous tracking.”

Judge James Morrison of Marinette County, a sprawling, heavily forested county on the Michigan border, said concern about the reach of GPS tracking in rural areas was one factor that led him to reject the placement of a sex offender in July.

“It’s just common sense that we’re not getting a tremendous amount of protection out of this system,” Morrison said.

Nellis said when states conflate GPS monitoring with public safety, they are “giving the public quite excessive expectations at what GPS is capable of.”

Research shows that at least two-thirds of sexual assaults are perpetrated by individuals known to the victim — family members or acquaintances — not by strangers who might visit common GPS exclusion zones such as schools, day-care centers or parks.

Morrison regularly sees offenders remove their ankle bracelets to evade monitoring in Marinette County. This reflects the Center’s findings, which show at least 36 offenders since January 2015 have illegally removed their devices.

Given the sprawling size of Marinette County — 1,400 square miles — and the three to four officers on hand to patrol it, responding to GPS apprehension requests would take too long to be effective, the judge said.

“(If) somebody cuts off their GPS monitor and decides they’re going to go bash in the skull of a witness in a case against them, what kind of protection do we get?” Morrison said. “They’ve (the monitoring center) got to tell our cops. Our cops are 70 miles away.”

Such is the case in records obtained by the Center. They show it can take days or even weeks for DOC or the police to locate errant offenders, especially if they are homeless or have removed their bracelets.

Other states, weighed down by excessive alerts, have seen tracked offenders commit serious crimes when officials delay in responding to alerts. In one case in Colorado, officials took five days to respond to a tamper alert from a paroled white supremacist, who had killed two people, including the then-head of the state’s Department of Corrections.

In Germany, an offender on electronic monitoring fled the country to join ISIS. *A Kenosha offender removed his GPS bracelet and was found by police knocking on the door of his victim.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) cannot always determine remotely whether alerts signify a technical issue or legitimate violation; they sometimes jail offenders while they investigate the alleged violation.

For instance, in May, DOC received 14 alerts for strap tampers — a felony in Wisconsin and seen as one of the most severe violations — that ended up being false alarms after no evidence of tampering was found upon inspection, a review of DOC records showed.

On the other hand, offenders can commit serious crimes without generating any alerts at all.

In July 2016, for instance, four offenders, three on electronic monitoring, allegedly sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl at a halfway house near Madison. The crime was not detected because the three monitored offenders were right where they were supposed to be.

Spurred by the high-profile kidnapping, rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in 2005, Florida began requiring lifetime GPS monitoring of certain sex offenders, and California, Wisconsin and other states followed.

But evidence is mixed on whether it prevents new sex crimes.

Recent studies show that electronic monitoring combined with traditional parole methods and treatment could lower rates of arrests, convictions and returns to custody. But a University College London study speculates that any positive effects may be due to increased compliance with treatment programs, not the monitoring itself.

Other studies show that even if GPS does produce some benefits, it may not be worth the cost.

Susan Turner, a professor of criminology, law and society at University of California-Irvine, has studied California’s GPS monitoring program. Turner argues such systems do not provide much benefit for the cost.

In a 2015 study on California’s GPS program that she co-authored, Turner found the system does reduce recidivism, but only for administrative violations such as failure to register as a sex offender, not for criminal sex and assault violations, where recidivism is already “very low.”

“I think they (lawmakers) had the tail wagging the dog,” Turner said. “They hadn’t really thought through what exactly they hoped to accomplish by putting it on, other than just saying we got the GPS on the sex offender.”

In her paper, Turner concluded that “although knowing the whereabouts of sex offenders is important, the cost of monitoring sex offenders on GPS may outweigh these benefits.”

In another Turner study from 2012, she found California’s program cost $4,600 per year more per high-risk sex offender than for those not on GPS because it takes more agents to keep up with the constant monitoring.

About 96 full-time equivalent staff work at the DOC’s electronic monitoring center in Madison to investigate GPS alerts, notify agents or law enforcement of violations and pursue arrest warrants when necessary.

Warrants are issued when an offender allegedly removes his ankle bracelet or otherwise absconds from supervision, misses curfew or spends too long in an “exclusion zone” such as a park or school.

Offenders interviewed by the Center say they generally have experienced fewer malfunctions as time passes. Jessa Nicholson Goetz, a Madison-based criminal defense attorney, said that technological improvements have largely resolved the malfunctions her clients experienced.

Still, problems do remain.

Arrested for a Malfunctioning Bracelet

James Morgan, a sex offender profiled in the Center’s original report who was jailed for alleged GPS violations at least eight times between 2011 and March 2013, has been arrested three times since then for alleged GPS violations. DOC records show that one time was for a lost signal, which was not Morgan’s fault. In another case, Morgan said, his bracelet malfunctioned.

If found guilty of violating the terms of his monitoring, Morgan, 58, could be returned to prison for years. That prospect keeps him up at night.

James Morgan, pictured with his wife and daughter, wears a GPS ankle bracelet for life after having spent 26 years in prison for sexual assault and other crimes. He has been arrested several times due to GPS problems. Photo by Coburn Dukehart /Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

“I could potentially never walk out,” Morgan said as his daughter, Angela, and new wife, Rachel, listened beside him. He thinks about that every time he is arrested, Morgan said.

“He’s not going to be the same when he comes back,” Angela chimed in. “Even if it’s for 48 hours. How do you give me my father back — but not really?”

For corrections departments, however, creating more tolerant policies comes with risk. In New York, where officials set up a program to notify them only if an alert lasted for more than five minutes, an offender evaded monitoring and raped a 10-year-old girl and killed her mother in 2013.

The system’s ability to accurately locate offenders in rural areas, where cell service is poor, also can be spotty.

Several offenders told the Center they have received repeated phone calls from the monitoring center or their probation agents asking them to regain a signal or informing them they are located in places where offenders claim not to be.

David Bay, a sex offender on GPS from Ashland County, has been arrested three times on probation violations since 2013. He claimed the problem was with his monitoring bracelet. Bay said he is afraid to stray too far from the beacon at his home.

“My signal is so weak I spend very little time outside because if they lose me, they just come and get me. I’m in there two to three days for what? For nothing,” the 69-year-old Bay said on the phone from his home in Glidden.

Battery malfunctions are widely reported, according to DOC records. Of the 93 service requests submitted in May for battery problems, some were for batteries that failed to take a charge or drained within a few hours. BI Inc., the device manufacturer, advertises that its devices can hold a charge for up to 80 hours.

When GPS bracelets lose their charge prematurely, offenders who are outside of their homes must race to find a place to gain a charge, or face jail time.

“When they go dead, they go dead fast,” said Steven Nichols, 48, of Whitehall. “You’ll notice the battery gets hot and burns my leg and takes two hours to charge. … I once charged it fully and drove to Eau Claire (a 50-minute drive), and it was beeping that the battery was dead.”

Offenders say new devices take around 30 minutes to charge. But Jason Wolford, a 37-year-old offender on lifetime GPS and off of probation, said he has spent up to five hours sitting in one place to charge an older unit. GPS service requests show reports of charging taking up to seven hours.

After the Center’s 2013 report on troubles with Wisconsin’s GPS program, lawmakers requested a study on the reliability of the technology, but it never happened.

Former state Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, who co-chaired the Joint Legislative Council in 2013, told the Center that the study died for lack of interest, failing to gain support among 90 suggested studies that session.

On an early August evening with the summer sun setting behind them, McCormick, his fiancé Breanna Kerssen and a friend hauled up from his grandmother’s basement boxes of clothes, an oscillating fan and a used canvas that Breanna hoped to paint over someday.

They carefully placed everything into two aging Acura sedans and drove down a winding country road to an apartment in Sparta where McCormick hoped better cellular reception would give him a life less interrupted by the corrections system.

The apartment, a shabby second-floor walk-up, was only four miles from his grandmother’s. For McCormick, it might as well have been 4,000 miles.

“I was tired about getting phone calls (from the monitoring center),” McCormick said as he surveyed his new yard. “Here, I don’t have to worry about that as much.”

McCormick’s optimism, it turns out, was misplaced.

In addition to two more arrests since moving to Sparta, the monitoring center called McCormick in October when he came within half a block of a liquor store, which is one of his exclusion zones. Another time, he had to return home early from helping with his grandmother’s fall yard cleanup.

The monitoring center said it could not gain a signal.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of an article published this month by the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.  The full version is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


L.A. County Introduces ‘Lighter Touch’ for Juvenile Offenders

The nation’s most populous county is embarking on an overhaul of its juvenile justice system that could in the long run, all but end the practice of arresting and prosecuting youth under 18, except for the most serious crimes.

Los Angeles County—the birthplace of heavy-handed police tactics like S.W.A.T. teams, helicopter patrols and gang injunctions—is embarking on an effort that could make the nation’s most populous county a model for using a lighter touch with juvenile offenders.

Late last year, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved a sweeping plan that will make diversion the centerpiece of the county’s juvenile justice system, and could in the long run, all but end the practice of arresting and prosecuting youth under 18, except for the most serious crimes.

“This is a huge sea change and represents a whole new era in dealing with youth, especially youth of color,” said Peter Espinosa, a former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who is leading the effort.

Espinosa heads the new Division of Youth Diversion & Development, which county supervisors created within the Department of Health Services when they approved the plan last November. The department is tasked with designing a program that will ultimately serve all 46 police agencies within the county borders, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the juvenile probation division, and the many smaller police departments within the county borders.

County health officials cite so-far unpublished U.S. Department of Justice figures that show youth arrests have plummeted in Los Angeles County over the past decade –from 56,285 in 2005 to 11,399 in 2016.Yet they estimate that in as many as 9,000 of those 2016 cases, young people could have been offered a diversion program had there been proper resources in place.

The only offenses not eligible for diversion under the plan are felonies committed with a firearm and serious juvenile crimes which the state Welfare and Institutions Code has declared ineligible for diversion. That includes: assaults that result in serious bodily injury, robbery, rape and sexual assault, kidnapping, murder and attempted murder, and several other violent felonies.

“We are trying to emphasize prevention and we don’t believe the most effective solution is incarceration,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who first proposed the plan in early 2017 and shepherded it through the county supervisors’ vote in November.

“We believe that is better for the young person involved as well as better for taxpayers.”

When Ridley-Thomas mentions taxpayers, he is alluding to the estimated $233,000 it costs to house a young offender in one of the county’s juvenile lockups for one year.

Espinosa acknowledges that bringing the plan to fruition “will be a heavy lift,” especially when considering the current state of diversion in the county. While there are diversion programs operating now, they exist in pockets of the county and are inconsistently offered.

Youth advocates have long complained that whether a juvenile is offered diversion depends on where in the county he or she is arrested, and the color of their skin. A number of studies have shown that white youth in Los Angeles and elsewhere are far more likely to be offered diversion than youth of color. Because the new diversion plan will cover the entire county, officials and advocates are optimistic that it will help reduce these disparities.

Despite the daunting nature of the undertaking, there is a palpable excitement for the plan in law enforcement as well as among youth advocates.

“It’s been a thrill to watch it unfold,” said Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, which has invested heavily in efforts to limit youth incarceration. Because the LA system is so large, we think the direction they are headed in will have national implications.”

Breaking New Ground

Ross and others say the plan is groundbreaking because it prioritizes pre-charge diversion, meaning that a youth alleged to have committed a crime will be diverted before being booked and fingerprinted. This means that as long as he or she completes a diversion program, there will be no record of the arrest.

This is crucial, youth advocates say, because studies have shown that any contact with the juvenile justice system, even just an arrest and one court date, makes a child less likely to finish school and more likely to become further ensnared in the system.

 While advocates have long pined for pre-charge diversion, it’s traditionally been a deal-breaker for many in law enforcement who have feared it would remove an important crime deterrent. But successful large-scale diversion programs in a handful of other places, such as Miami-Dade and San Francisco counties, have suggested that those fears are largely unfounded.

High-level officials in the LAPD have bought into pre-charge diversion thanks to a five-year-old partnership with Centinela Youth Services, a local nonprofit focused on youth and community development.

The program started in the LAPD’s South Division, with officers referring 49 pre-charge cases to Centinela in 2013. Since then, the program has expanded to a dozen divisions, with officers referring 254 cases to Centinela in 2017, according to Cmdr. Jeffery Bert, the LAPD’s Risk Manager.

And though those cases represent a small fraction of all juvenile arrests by LAPD officers during those five years, the recidivism rates opened a lot of eyes.

The recidivism rate for youths who go through the county’s juvenile justice system without the offer of diversion is between 30 percent and 60 percent, Bert said.

Meanwhile, the rate for youth in the Centinela program has hovered around 11 percent.

“This program has really blossomed for us in the past two years,” Bert said. “We believe in it and would like to see its smart expansion.”

The LAPD’s experience notwithstanding, advocates say getting system-wide buy-in for the pre-charge model was an uphill battle, and likely wouldn’t have happened had they not elbowed their way into the development process, starting in March 2017 when a committee established by the supervisors began meeting to design the plan.

“Usually system change is driven by county players and law enforcement, and it gears too much toward suppression and a hammer-only approach,” said Kim McGill, an organizer with LA County’s Youth Justice Coalition.

“If we didn’t push hard and bring four or five young people to every meeting, we wouldn’t have gotten this plan.”

One young person who joined the lobbying effort is Tanisha Denard, who was charged with petty theft and sent to juvenile hall as a 16-year-old after getting caught stealing personal hygiene items from a store in South Central Los Angeles.

In an interview, Denard, now 23, claimed she hasn’t been in any trouble with the law since, and that she stole the items because her mom was in the process of losing her house to foreclosure and she didn’t want to burden her with more expenses.

But her record has been a severe hindrance as she’s tried to get through college.

“For a long time, it held me back as I tried to find jobs and pay for college,” said Denard, who is currently attending Long Beach City College. “I would do good in the interviews, but then it would come to the background check and they’d say your background didn’t pass…if I’d gone through diversion I’d be at a university by now.”

Sheila Mitchell, who heads the county’s juvenile probation division, said she was excited to see the groups that in past haven’t seen eye-to-eye come together.

“Fundamentally and philosophically, we need to help our children do well, and help them avoid the path that takes them deep into the juvenile justice system,” Mitchell said. “The beauty of this undertaking is all hands are on deck—courts, law enforcement, supervisors, and community-based organizations.”

Finding the Money

Over $26 million has been budgeted for the plan, which will be phased in over four years. Mitchell is being credited for offering up nearly half of the funding from her budget in the probation department.

Advocates characterize the $26 million as “a good start,” but add there is concern as to whether the county will dedicate the resources necessary to build capacity within community-based organizations that would sustain a countywide diversion program over the long haul.

“The county has invested a lot of money in blue ribbon panels and task forces in the past, but unfortunately they often sit on the shelf and collect dust,” said McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition.

“So, it will take the same vigilance and united effort among county players and [community-based organizations] that we’ve had so far to make sure this plan is implemented.”

County officials say they’re confident they’ll be able to find other funding for the program, including state grant money. And they are counting on charities to provide increased funding to community organizations that will serve the diverted youth.

“There’s a lot of energy for criminal justice reform in the philanthropic community,” said Ridley-Thomas, who gave the opening remarks to a crowd of more than 300 at the Youth Diversion & Development Summit, held March 1 at the Carson Community Center.

“I think charities are already stepping up because they want to see certain kind of results.”

Ross of the California Endowment said his institution is dedicated to helping to make the plan work, so much so that he showed up and spoke at the supervisors’ meeting when the plan was approved. But he cautioned against expecting too much from philanthropies, adding that the largest pool of potentially available money is the billions in taxpayer dollars currently being spent on California’s “incarceration infrastructure.”

“I think the philanthropic community will be emboldened and bolstered should the LA County plan go forward,” Ross said.

David Washburn

David Washburn

“We see our role and supporting the development and evaluating the effectiveness of the approaches. But it’s the public and taxpayer dollars that will be the main driver of change – the philanthropic money won’t be able to save the day.”

The Crime Report is pleased to co-publish this story with the California Health Report, a statewide nonprofit news service that covers health and health policy. David Washburn is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Voice of San Diego and Dateline NBC. In recent years, he’s focused on issues related to juvenile justice and school discipline. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Where Do the Guns Come From?

The current gun debate has focused on background checks for legal firearms purchases. But gun violence is often committed by criminals who obtained their weapons illegally, according to podcasters who talked with youths and with researcher Philip J. Cook of Duke University about Chicago’s flourishing underground gun market.

“Oh, it’s not hard to use a gun. All you got to do is pull the trigger,” says Samuel.

Samuel, a former Chicago gang member, grew up in the Henry Horner Homes, a housing project in Chicago. In a recent podcast of Ways & Means, he agreed to discuss his life with guns, using an alias that would allow him to talk freely.

Guns were easy to obtain when he was a youngster, Samuel told us. Adults would shoot dice in front of the building, and he would offer to hold their guns. Sometimes he’d be sitting on a nearby bench with 10 guns on him.

“I had them all around my waist, in my pants pocket,” he says. He’d lean back in his seat, loaded with guns, as if to say, “Just look at me now.”

At the time, he was only 11 or 12 years old.

“Holding a gun … it’s power,” he says. “To see the gangsters in the neighborhood, I wanted to be a reflection of them.”

Pretty soon, Samuel had his own gun. At first, he would climb to the roof of the project, 15 floors up, and shoot towards the sky. But before he turned 15, Samuel had shot someone – and been shot himself.

When he was 20, Samuel was convicted of murdering a rival gang member.

None of this would have happened, Samuel says now, if he had not had such easy access to guns.


Philip J. Cook, a professor emeritus at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, is one of the top researchers on the costs and consequences of the widespread availability of guns in America. For one study, his team conducted interviews with inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

Philip J. Cook

Philip J. Cook

They asked 99 inmates a simple question: where do you get your guns?

And the research is clear: while policymakers argue about background checks for legal gun purchases, criminals, for the most part, are not getting guns through legal means. Most of the young men the researchers consulted couldn’t have legally owned a gun, either because they were too young, or because they already had criminal records.

The young men definitely didn’t have an Illinois Firearm Owners’ ID card. Instead, most of the men said they got the gun from someone they knew.

Samuel agrees. In his Chicago neighborhood, he says he had access to a huge variety of guns: shotguns, handguns, carbines, even Uzis. And there were plenty of people around who could get him any kind of gun he needed, even when he was underage.

“It’s very easy,” he remembers. “I mean, just like you go and order beer, you go ask one of your gang members and say you need a gun. And being that they’re much older than you, they knew exactly where to go get the guns from.”

But even though it was relatively easy to get guns, gang members, for the most part, aren’t really in the business of selling guns— especially to outsiders, researchers say.

“They might acquire guns and keep them in the stash and pass them around within the membership, but this was not a business proposition for them,” Cook says.

Inmates who were interviewed for the study even said they conducted street-level “background checks” before selling guns to someone they didn’t know.

Editor’s Note: Prof. Cook and other researchers discussed the “underground gun market” at last month’s H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. Watch the panel here.

The widespread ease of access to guns—all kinds of guns—matters.

Because even though gun rights advocates argue that it’s people who kill people—not guns who kill people—Cook says his research is clear: the choice of weapon often determines if a victim lives or dies.

Emily Hanford

Emily Hanford

“There are no drive-by knifings,” Cook told us. “The type of weapon matters a lot … People who resist the idea that that the type of weapon matters take the view that whether the victim lives or dies is simply a reflection of the intention of the assailant.

“(They argue that) if the assailant is deprived of a high-powered pistol, for example, then they’ll make do with some other type of weapon and do whatever is necessary to see the job done. And that is a myth. It’s a belief based on no evidence, and every bit of evidence we have would point in the other direction.”

Cook’s research shows lawmakers do have the power to stop the flow of guns into urban neighborhoods like the one Samuel grew up in. For example, laws designed to regulate legal gun sales can significantly affect the underground market.

After Maryland passed a Firearm Safety Act in 2013, 41 percent of surveyed parolees in the state reported that it was more difficult to get a handgun. And a study of over three decades of data on handguns recovered in Boston shows that fewer guns are illegally obtained from states where people are restricted to legally buying just one gun a month.

Cook also advocates for a change in the way law enforcement deals with guns when they make an arrest.

Carol Jackson

Carol Jackson

“When a dangerous person gets picked up and has a gun, there needs to be a lot of questions asked about where that gun came from,” Cook says.

He argues that if detectives spent time tracking the history of the gun, law enforcement might ultimately be able to arrest the person who sold that gun, and presumably other guns, into the underground market.

Soon, Cook says, law enforcement could begin to chip away at the stream of guns getting into the wrong hands.

This story originally appeared as an episode from the Ways & Means podcast which offers bright ideas for how to improve society. Readers are invited to listen to the entire episode, and subscribe.


Montgomery Case Reveals ‘Uncharted Territory’ for Juveniles on Life Sentences

The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that individuals serving life terms for crimes committed as juveniles should be given a “meaningful opportunity” for release. But that didn’t help Henry Montgomery, now 71, who killed a sheriff’s deputy when he was 17.

Last month marked two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Henry Montgomery, a quiet prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Montgomery was 17 when he killed Deputy Charles Hurt in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. A teen with a low IQ and oversized incisors that earned him the nickname “Wolf Man,” he did poorly in school and was playing hooky that day, taking a nap in a grassy area of a park when Hurt, a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy, found him while trying to clear truants from that area.

Though his lawyer claimed that he was not guilty because of insanity, because of what his lawyers described as “the mentality of a three-year-old,” Montgomery was convicted of first-degree murder. First he got the death penalty. Then, after a new trial and conviction, he was, in accordance with state law, automatically sentenced to life without parole.

But in 2016, the Supreme Court read the pleadings of Henry Montgomery and ruled that a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” should be given to prisoners like him, who were serving times for crimes they had committed as juveniles.

Last week, Montgomery was given that chance and was formally denied parole by a three-person panel.

Peggy Moriearty. Photo courtesy JJIE

The decision raises the question of what a “meaningful opportunity” is for prisoners like Montgomery, said Perry Moriearty, who co-directs the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Minnesota.

“Part of the problem is that this is uncharted territory,” she said. “Parole boards across the country are struggling with how to review the sentences of adults who were incarcerated decades earlier for offenses they committed as children.”

Because the state’s powerful law enforcement organizations had submitted letters pushing for a denial, some also saw the decision as an indication that the parole board couldn’t look beyond Montgomery’s crime.

“It’s the one thing he can’t change,” said lawyer Carol Kolinchak, who consults on juvenile cases in Louisiana and trains lawyers working on such cases. “And the Supreme Court knew that he had killed a sheriff’s deputy when they decided this case.”

In 2016, in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court found that mandatory life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional for Montgomery and other prisoners who had been convicted of crimes they committed as juveniles.

Only the rare, incorrigible person would likely be deserving of such a sentence, the court found.

“The penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of the ‘distinctive attributes of youth,’” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Montgomery decision. It outlined the science about still-developing adolescent brains, which causes adolescents to be impulsive but also gives them capacity for change.

Defense lawyers knew that from the outset that, in many ways, it would be an uphill battle to resentence these cases and move people toward parole, Kolinchak said. “Every one of these is a murder. Every one of these is horrible. In every one of these, there are loved ones that won’t come back,” she said.

Still, since the decision, about half the 2,600 inmates are no longer serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, according to the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth. Some have been released, and the rest have been resentenced to something other than JLWOP.

“Model Prisoner”

Montgomery, now 71, also seemed to be moving toward freedom. He was re-sentenced last year by a judge who called him a “model prisoner.” He made his way onto the docket of the Louisiana Board of Pardons & Parole on Feb. 19.

The board heard how Montgomery has been a role model and a coach for decades and how he helped form a boxing team at Angola, according to reports from the hearing’s observers and from press accounts written by the Associated Press and the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Board members also heard how he was active in his church, how he’d worked in the prison’s silk-screen shop for 20 years and was named employee of the month eight times. He had not earned a GED, but he had earned a waiver for that, because of his borderline IQ, which is in the low 70s. Though he’s taken only two classes, classes weren’t offered at Angola until about 20 years ago and he was considered ineligible for any classes that require reading and writing, advocates said.

He was denied, in a 2-1 vote, by parole board members who questioned the number of classes he’d taken, asked about his role in the murder a half-century ago and noted that his release was opposed by Hurt’s family, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

Access to letters the Department of Corrections sent for Montgomery’s hearing was denied under a parole board regulation that precludes the release of anything submitted by a private entity on behalf of a victim.

Parole board member Alvin Roche Jr., the designated victims’ advocate on the board, was the only vote for Montgomery.

“In my opinion, Henry Montgomery will become a productive member of society, if allowed a second chance,” Roche said.

Montgomery needed a unanimous decision. James Kuhn, a retired appellate judge, cast one of two opposing votes.

“One of the things that society demands, and police officers certainly demand, is that everyone abide by the rule of law. One of the rules of law is that you don’t kill somebody, and when you do, there’s consequences,” Kuhn said during the hearing.

As board chair, Kuhn is designated as the person who can publicly comment on cases; he did not return phone calls for this story.

Did the Parole Board Look Beyond the Crime?

Defense attorneys and experts who work on juvenile cases said the parole board somehow looked past the Supreme Court’s directive that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

They pointed to the hearing itself, which did not focus on whether Montgomery was the rare prisoner who could not be released, as the Supreme Court had described.

“Nothing was presented to show that he was incorrigible. The argument about not taking enough education courses seems to be a fig leaf,” said lawyer George Kendall. He directs the Squire Sanders’ Public Service Initiative, which has worked pro bono on a number of juvenile cases across the country, though not Montgomery’s.

George Kendall

George Kendall. Photo courtesy JJIE

Instead, the parole board should have focused on something very different, given its charge by the Supreme Court, he said. “This individual committed this crime at a very young age, when, as we know now, the most important parts of his brain were not fully developed. So the question is: How did he turn out when nature was done with him?”

Moriearty agreed.

“In the case of a juvenile who’s served 54 years of an unconstitutional mandatory life-without-parole sentence, Montgomery says that you should begin with the presumption that he’s not permanently incorrigible and therefore eligible for release. The state can try to rebut it,” she said.

Certainly, determinations of rehabilitation can be more complicated for people more recently convicted, Kendall said. “But these old guys, we can look at their records. We don’t have to guess at all.”

Until the Feb 19 ruling, hopes were high that Montgomery might also be able to earn parole after 54 years of incarceration, since he hadn’t had a disciplinary write-up for years and had been given a very low risk-assessment score, clocking in with a negative-one score in the Louisiana Risk Needs Assessment, or LaRNA.

Still, those hopes had always been tempered by the reality that Montgomery is seen as a cop-killer, as a person who gunned down a sheriff’s deputy who had three young kids. “That was always going to be the problem with this case,” Kendall said.

Hurdles and Different Procedures

It’s a tough hurdle to overcome, one not isolated to Louisiana or to people who were juveniles when they committed their crimes.

In New York state last year, Supreme Court Justice Maria Rosa issued a contempt order against the state’s parole board over the case of John MacKenzie, an exemplary prisoner who was an adult when he shot an officer in 1975 and has been denied parole repeatedly. Rosa found that the board’s decision gave undue weight to the crime of conviction instead of MacKenzie’s rehabilitation.

Beyond that, what a highly publicized case like Montgomery’s makes clear is that the Supreme Court’s instructions about “a meaningful opportunity” are being interpreted through parole procedures that differ broadly from state to state. For instance, some states allow defendants to appear in person: Montgomery, who is hard of hearing and has trouble understanding complicated questions, was connected to the procedures by video and was clearly confused during the process, observers said.

Guidelines about these cases published in May by the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole noted that “juveniles are constitutionally different from adults” and instructed the parole panel to “give great weight to the fact that youth are less responsible than adults are for their actions.”

To understand the barriers that Montgomery defendants face, Sarah French Russell, a professor at Quinnipiac University of Law in Connecticut, sent a survey to 49 states with parole boards and received answers from 45 of them.

“State parole boards have traditionally had great flexibility in terms of the criteria that they use in making release decisions,” she wrote in a report on the matter, “and they have not been required to provide a realistic opportunity for release to prisoners.” That’s particularly true if the defendant’s offense was violent, she noted.

But Russell’s analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court directives on the matter notes that a 2010 decision, Graham v. Florida, requires that states “give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” She believes that “a releasing authority that relies too heavily on the severity of the initial offense in denying release will run afoul of the Eighth Amendment.”

Yet, Russell also acknowledges what observers saw at Montgomery’s hearing, that juveniles who have been incarcerated since their teen years likely had limited education, didn’t have opportunities to develop communication skills and may have difficulty refuting information that’s kept in private parole-board folders.

By their very nature, hearings like Montgomery’s are meant to convey conflicting information, Russell wrote. Parole board members want to hear about genuine remorse but also understand how the crime was affected by the defendant being a juvenile, all during a short time period.

“It is difficult for someone to focus on remorse for a terrible act while at the same time cataloging one’s accomplishments,” Russell wrote. “And it is extremely hard for a person to express remorse and responsibility for the crime at the same time as he or she suggests mitigation regarding an offense.”

The May directive to the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole notes, in one sentence, the importance of their role. “The availability of a meaningful opportunity for release on parole is what makes the juvenile’s life sentence constitutionally proportionate,” it reads.

This story was written for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily, and crossposted by agreement in The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


‘What If I Was Free?’

An investigation of Florida juvenile cases spotlights the long-term implications of incarcerating youthful offenders. The intervention elements of juvenile incarceration often fall short of offering the transformation advocates hope for.

It was over in two minutes. No objections. No comments. No updates.

A court hearing earlier this month in Jacksonville, FL., was held to set probation requirements on 19-year-old Cristian Fernandez, who didn’t attend. All the actual decision-making had taken place already, in a 30-minute meeting held behind closed doors, away from the seven reporters and photographers who had staked out the hearing.

This was the latest in a years-long string of court proceedings at which lawyers and judges decided the fate of Fernandez, who was propelled to international notoriety when he was just 12.

Left alone with his two-year-old half-brother at their Alden Road apartment in March 2011, Fernandez beat David Galarraga so severely that the toddler spent two days on life support before dying in hospital.

Fernandez, baby-faced and just over five feet tall, was charged by then-State Attorney Angela Corey with first-degree murder. He faced the possibility of life behind bars.

A team of heavy-hitting Jacksonville attorneys, including current State Attorney Melissa Nelson, stepped in to intervene. Fernandez ultimately pleaded guilty in February 2013 to the lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated battery, and received juvenile sanctions.

It was a negotiation that Corey said she hoped would help the boy receive counseling, treatment and other help to keep him from re-offending.

“A middle ground that would both punish and rehabilitate Cristian Fernandez,” she said.

So while his peers were experiencing the normal milestones of adolescence, like first jobs, learning to drive, going to prom and graduating high school, Fernandez was surrounded by razor-wire fencing and 24-hour supervision.

The goal of sentencing Fernandez to the Department of Juvenile Justice — which has the stated mission of turning “around the lives of troubled youth” with “prevention, intervention and treatment services” — was to equip him to, one day, get on with his life.

But, after seven years of incarceration, how does a 19-year-old begin to move on?

Though recent court hearings and documents have mentioned “circumstances” and “issues” that have developed in his life, the answer for Fernandez is still unknown.

However, those who have come before him have seen that the intervention elements of juvenile incarceration often fall short of offering the transformation advocates hope for. Other youthful offenders who served sentences similar to Fernandez’s said his transition won’t be easy.

Experts say it’s hard for anyone to be incarcerated during such formative years, let alone a teen who has been the subject of international documentaries and repeatedly cited as a key example of Corey’s “cruel” nature as a prosecutor.

Studies that have looked at youth incarceration have found that it is connected to less education, a higher risk of re-offending and worse long-term health outcomes. Critics don’t see Corey’s “middle ground.”

“If the goal of the system is to maintain the highest level of public safety and give kids the best shot at redemption, then what we’re doing now is the exact wrong way to approach children who make the mistake of committing a felony,” said Scott McCoy, the Tallahassee-based senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The state gets nothing out of it, except maybe retribution,” McCoy said. “It vindicates their interest for punishment.”

And while Fernandez’s case is unusual, it is not unique. In the last 11 fiscal years, 87 juveniles from Duval County have been charged with a murder or manslaughter offense not stemming from a vehicle incident or drug sales. Across Florida, there have been 860 such children.

‘I was Completely Disillusioned’

Xavier McElrath-Bey was arrested for the first time at age 9. He’d stolen a candy bar.

When he was 11, he was incarcerated for the first time, for obstruction of justice. He and a friend had been playing with a gun when McElrath-Bey was accidentally shot. Not wanting to get his friend in trouble, he made up a story to tell police; they arrested him.

By 13, McElrath-Bey was a ward of the state and had a record with 19 arrests and seven convictions. At that same age, in July 1989, he was charged for his participation in the gang-related murder in Chicago of a 14-year-old boy.

Now 42, a free man after 13 years of incarceration, and the senior advisor and national advocate with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, McElrath-Bey said the 13-year-old version of himself who was raised in a tough part of the South Side of Chicago is “so far gone.” He looks back on his past now through the eyes of an adult, but also through the lens of a reform-minded advocate.

Because he was locked up during his seventh-grade year, McElrath-Bey never set foot in a real high school as a student. “Saved by the Bell,” a late-1980s, early-1990s sitcom about a group of high school-aged friends, became McElrath-Bey’s vision of a normal high school experience. There was no violence or gangs in the school, and it intrigued him.

“What if I wasn’t in prison? What if I was free? What if high school could have been somewhere safe?,” he said. “A part of me wanted to know what it was like to live a normal life like that. … How amazing it would be.”

McElrath-Bey was charged as an adult but was allowed to stay in the juvenile system until after he turned 17, sparing him a few years in the Cook County, Ill., jail and a max-level state prison for adults.

“It’s highly important that a kid is kept in a nurturing environment,” he said, describing how adolescents’ brains don’t fully develop until their mid-20s.

While he said juvenile lockup is no place anyone would want to be, it at least allowed access to more education, counseling and recreational time than the adult prison where he’d find himself later.

Incarcerating young people deprives them of a range of emotional experiences, the ability to create meaningful relationships and leaves them overall emotionally underdeveloped, he said.

When he was released at 26, McElrath-Bey didn’t know how to user a pager or cell phone, he’d never had his own apartment, struggled to find a job and was overwhelmed by the public transit system, which he described as a “barrage of colors that shot straight at me.” His first night of freedom was spent in a homeless shelter because the halfway house that was supposed to take him was full.

“When you’re in prison you have this very Pollyanna perspective on the future,” he said. “Get out, go to the halfway house, get a job, save money, get your first apartment. … First day, I was completely disillusioned.”

McElrath-Bey credits his first employer, Starbucks, with giving him a job with flexible hours so he could continue his education. McElrath-Bey now has a master’s degree from Roosevelt University’s Counseling and Human Services program. Providing support for those re-entering society is crucial to supporting their success, McElrath-Bey said, as is access to therapy to address the trauma of incarceration.

“You have to learn to live as an adult in prison,” McElrath-Bey said, “and then you have to learn to live as an adult in free society.”

Born Into Tragedy

Cristian Fernandez was born into tragedy.

His mother was 12 and his father was in prison for the sexual assault that led to his birth. When Cristian was 2 and his mother 14, the two were placed in foster care together in South Florida.

Just months before Fernandez turned 12, his stepfather shot and killed himself in front of his family to avoid arrest on child-abuse charges. That’s when the family headed north to Jacksonville.

Despite all that, Corey, then the area’s head prosecutor, said his case was best handled in the adult system. After two years, Fernandez’s team of attorneys worked out a plea deal that would help him avoid adult prison altogether. It allowed him to plead guilty to the lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated battery, and serve his time in a juvenile facility.

“Five years is better than life,” Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor, said back in 2013. “But five years in juvenile prison is no cake walk.” She worried whether Fernandez could get the proper treatment and be safe in the juvenile justice system.

Jeree Thomas, policy director with the Campaign for Youth Justice, represented kids in Virginia who were incarcerated in juvenile prisons.

“It’s like you put a young person who’s growing in a box, but they can’t grow anymore,” she said. “They’re stuck.”

They go all day, every day, with adults making decisions for them, and they must obey to get along, she said. They become institutionalized so deeply that upon release, they struggle with even very basic tasks, like tying shoes and ordering off a menu.

“What we know from adolescent brain development is they age out of this behavior, or, the behavior is connected to trauma, poverty and mental health,” Thomas said. “We need to look at the individual needs of that young person and their individual risk. What led to that situation? What are their needs?”

In a series of recent Supreme Court rulings, the justices have consistently held that children are different than adults. This conclusion is based on the consistent scientific findings that kids’ brains are still developing into their twenties, and they’re highly influenced by feelings of reward and peer-influence. Because of this, the high court has eliminated the juvenile death penalty and limited — at least, theoretically — when minors can be sentenced to life without parole.

Thomas said youthful offenders have their whole lives ahead of them, but yet they’re given no skills to help them get by once freed.

McCoy, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said prosecuting Fernandez as an adult did nothing to further the goal of turning his life around. Saddled with a felony record, he’ll have a harder time getting employment, educational help and housing. All of those things, in turn, affect his ability to access health and mental health care, he said.

“If anything, what the state gets out of it is less tax revenue and more potential expense in services,” McCoy said. “It’s not a good deal. It’s not a good deal at all.”

A Robbery Ends in Tragedy

When Ellis Curry was 16, he never really thought the robbing and stealing he and his friends were doing was actually hurting anyone. Sure, they’d point their guns at them and take their money, but since they didn’t shoot them, it seemed OK.

Besides, that’s the kind of behavior that got him praise in his Arlington neighborhood back in the early 1990s.

“At the time, you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t the baddest thing walking the earth,” said Curry, now 41.

But on Nov. 4, 1993, someone did get hurt. Curry and three friends tried to rob 14-year-old Jeff Mitchell outside of Terry Parker High School, but when the boy resisted, Omar Jones, 19, shot and killed him.

Curry, the only juvenile of the group, reached out to the Mitchell family to express his remorse, and for that remorse, he received a shorter sentence. His co-defendants are all serving life. Ellis was released in 2005, after more than a decade in jail and Florida prisons. Soon thereafter, he began working with the victim’s father, Glen Mitchell, to tell their story of healing and forgiveness.

Released at 28, Curry said his first two months of freedom were the worst in his life — even worse than going to prison.

“I still had that pride of a man to where I didn’t want to ask nobody for help. That was the biggest downfall. I was struggling. I needed help, but I was afraid to ask for it. I know my family was watching me to see how prison affected me, so I acted just like them. But the whole time, I was struggling with small, little, minor stuff.”

Simple things, like walking around a store, riding a bus and crossing the street, were challenging. And, he said, how do you even begin to ask for help with something so basic? What kind of adult doesn’t know how to cross a street?

For a time, Curry thought maybe he should get locked up again and get his life sorted out from the inside. Prison had become comfortable, and everyone he encountered in the system had told him he’d be back behind bars eventually.

“All these challenges at one time? I was close to tapping out,” he said. “Now that I got a little taste of the free world, I guess I’ll go back and sit down and think about ways how I can do it better. ’Cause I don’t think I can make it now.”

He eventually found a welding job that paid $16 an hour, and now he keeps busy with welding, selling cars and teaching Jiu-Jitsu, as well as running a non-profit, CUTS, or Cleaning Up Today’s Society.

But even still, almost 13 years after his release, Curry has to keep himself calm when someone accidentally bumps into him.

“I have to check that,” he said. “I have to constantly tell myself that he’s not trying to measure me.”

Through talking with other formerly incarcerated people, Curry said he’s learned how trauma manifests itself differently in everyone. Curry is one of the founding members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, an offshoot of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that McElrath-Bey launched in 2014.

The group has more than 70 members from 25 states, and comes together each year to talk about the issues unique to their situations. McElrath-Bey said they deal with the issues of guilt, remorse and feeling like no one understands them.

“It affects everybody differently,” he said. “I haven’t met two people it affected the same yet.”

Worse Outcomes

Study after study points to worse outcomes for kids who are charged as adults.

Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report called, “Destined to Fail,” which outlines how many kids in Florida, once prosecuted as adults, effectively lose access to adequate schooling.

A 2015 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that teens who are incarcerated tend to have “substantially worse outcomes later in life than those who avoid serving time for similar offenses” and are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to end up in prison as an adult.

An issue brief from The Pew Charitable Trusts in 2015 pointed to multiple studies that show juvenile incarceration actually does not reduce recidivism.

According to the state Department of Juvenile Justice, 47 percent of the 742 kids released from a secure residential program in 2015-16 were punished for a new crime within 12 months of their release. These facilities are for kids considered high-risk or maximum-risk to re-offend, and include the one where Fernandez was placed.

Last year, an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that incarceration during adolescence and early adulthood is “independently associated with worse physical and mental health later in adulthood.” The study looked at data from more than 14,000 adults, of whom 14 percent reported being incarcerated for at least some time in their early years.

“The juvenile justice system, initially created to rehabilitate youthful offenders, has become increasingly harsh and punitive,” the report said. “Our findings speak to an urgent need for pediatricians to: 1) prevent youth incarceration by addressing key behavioral and social determinants of health, 2) mitigate potential downstream health effects of youth incarceration.”

Thomas said there’s a perception that if young people are released once they’re legally of age that they’re developmentally adults, too.

“There’s really not a full appreciation of the amount of support that will be necessary for young people who have been incarcerated,” she said. Some of them don’t even know where they’ll live once released. The re-entry services available, Thomas said, are often “a mess.”

“For some kids, it’s terrifying,” she said. “Even if it’s horrible when you’re (in) there, there’s a level of consistency.”

It has not been stated in any of Fernandez’s court hearings where he’s lived since being released last month. His attorneys have declined to comment on anything relating to Fernandez or his case.

Donna Webb, chief probation officer for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties with the Department of Juvenile Justice, said they are rare, but there are cases in which a child is charged as an adult and receives juvenile sanctions followed by adult felony probation through the Department of Corrections — as is the case with Fernandez.

In these instances, Webb said, the DJJ works to make sure felony probation officers know what treatment the child has gotten, for how long, and what they need going forward.

For the “adult kids” — those who turned 18 or older while under DJJ jurisdiction — with no home to return to, Webb said there is transitional housing around the state, but there aren’t a lot of beds. The housing is not run by DJJ, but it does receive some department funding along with federal grants. Kids with sex offenses and violent offense are ineligible.

“When the youth are coming out and they don’t have a place to live, we’re going to know that,” she said. “So we start working with other relatives. There’s been times when we’ve placed kids with churches. Of course, there’s homeless shelters, but we don’t like to use those.”

The DJJ tries to help kids get state identification so that they can get jobs when released, and also offers counseling to families.

“The better you set them up, the less they go back to jail,” she said. “If you wrap them up in as many services you can find … the chances of them being incarcerated again really go down.”

Jailed at 16

Two days were all that separated Hernan Carvente and the prospect of spending 18 years behind bars.

If he’d been two days older when he shot a rival gang member, Carvente would have found himself in Rikers Island — New York City’s notorious jail complex — followed by more than a decade in state prison.

Luckily for Carvente, he hadn’t yet turned 16, the threshold in New York state for automatically charging a teen as an adult. (Reform raising the age of adult prosecution has since been signed into law and will go into effect next year.)

Carvente served four years of a six-year sentence in a juvenile prison for the attempted murder, and was released five years ago when he was 20. By then, he’d missed his daughter’s birth, his own high school graduation and all the other normal moments that occur when one grows from adolescence into young adulthood. There was no easing into hands-on fatherhood, job hunting and going to college.

“When I was released, I had to jump into all of that,” he said. “I always think about how I missed those four years. I also missed the opportunity to do a lot more for myself, for my daughter, for my family.”

Carvente, now an alumnus of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, works as the national youth partnership strategist with the national Youth First Initiative, which seeks to close youth prisons around the country. As he’s taken on the role of advocate, Carvente said, he has been intentional in making sure he talks openly about his own mental health issues as a result of incarceration.

“I still carry a lot. I have come to terms with anxiety. I’ve come to terms with depression,” Carvente said. “All of these things were exacerbated with incarceration.

“A piece of you is kind of left in there. The more time you spend in there, the more challenging it becomes to keep yourself grounded.”

Those in Fernandez’s corner can’t help but wonder what might be different today if prosecutors had charged the 12-year-old as a juvenile with manslaughter — which is what he ultimately pleaded guilty to — instead of as an adult with first-degree murder.

If Fernandez’s case had been kept in juvenile court — as other cases of local kids charged with manslaughter have since been — fewer details about him and his case would have been made public. While juvenile court proceedings are considered public, their documents are not. In January, a 14-year-old Jacksonville boy was sanctioned to a “high-risk” juvenile facility, which most kids complete in 9 to 12 months. When he’s released later this year, it will likely be to little, if any, media attention.

Throughout the month leading up to Fernandez’s release from a juvenile facility in January, news coverage proclaimed him a “pre-teen killer” and “one of Jacksonville’s youngest killers,” and plastered social media with the mug shot of the then-12-year-old. While not inaccurate, advocates like McCoy said such headlines are “terrible.”

“He became this poster child, you know, and that media attention is going to have an impact on him and follow him,” McCoy said. “He’s notorious now. That’s going to make his life so much harder.”

Thomas said media attention is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s “really, really critical that lawmakers hear directly from young people and their families,” but, it also makes it hard to put their pasts behind them when they’re so public. Being recognized can affect school and work opportunities.

All of these caveats are not to diminish what Fernandez — or any other young offender — did, McCoy said. But it is crucial that he and others receive the support they need so that they don’t end up in trouble again.

“That is a real risk,” he said. “Unfortunately, our system is not designed to help people who are re-entering to deal with that risk. It seems more critical for someone who is still a young man like Cristian is.”

Thomas said there are some youth who might be best served in residential facilities, but “an overwhelming number of kids” don’t need that level of treatment. But, they’re taken away to facilities because no community-based alternatives exist. Once there, they’re not taught how to be productive adults.

“We don’t know what else to do,” she said. ”‘If we lock them away, we don’t have to deal with them for a period of time.’”

Carvente said juvenile facilities are filled with kids who have similar backgrounds of poverty, abuse and violence. Without a way to communicate those struggles to adults, teens act out to show they’re in pain.

Carvente said he wanted to prove that all the people who wrote him off as an irredeemable gang member were wrong about him — that he could change, and other kids could, too, with the right support. For Carvente, that support came from James LeCain, the man who ran the college program where Carvente was incarcerated.

“Not every young person up and chooses to turn their lives around while incarcerated,” Carvente said. “Some people require more chances and opportunities than others.”

Tessa Duvall is a former John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This article was published earlier this month by the Florida Times Union.  Others forthcoming on this topic are being produced as part of a project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, in conjunction with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Opioids: ‘End the Stigma of Addiction’

A columnist praises Cheri Walter, head of Ohio’s Association of County Behavioral Authorities and a recovering substance-abuser, for highlighting the failure of policymakers to address the roots causes of the opiate epidemic at this month’s Guggenheim Symposium.

She walked up to the mic to the side of the small stage and modestly remarked that she had no idea why she had been invited to the event.

Someone knew what they were doing because by the time the session ended, Cheri Walter, without a teleprompter or written notes in front of her, had delivered an informative but blunt and moving presentation worthy of any Tony Award-winning performance taking place on a Broadway stage not far from where she spoke.

So, too, Joe Rannazzisi, a former top DEA supervisor turned whistleblower who exposed how the pharmaceutical industry, with the help of Congress and lobbyists, actually worsened the opioid crisis and disrupted the federal agency’s ability to go after “drug dealers in lab coats,” as he once described it.

Walter, who heads Ohio’s Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, a nonprofit, was among the panelists in the 13th annual two-day conference held by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice.

The event, sponsored by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, brings together cops, prosecutors, journalists like yours truly, academics, public health professionals and others to discuss crime-related trends. The theme this year? “Justice in the Heartland,” with the opiate crisis as the focus of two panels.

What she and Rannazzisi shared about a substance abuse epidemic that has taken more lives annually in recent years than gun violence, motor vehicle crashes and the HIV crisis at its peak should resonate here and nationally.

Walter knows this issue personally and professionally. She has been in recovery for 36 years. Her mother was a longtime prescription pill addict who died at the age of 86.

Ohio in 2016 recorded the most drug-related overdose deaths of any state, mostly from heroin or opiates — 4,149.

“An addiction is an addiction and we have to address the underlying issues of this disease,” she told the audience. “But the reality is that this addiction is different than most. People become addicted to opiates much quicker than any other drug we have ever seen. Because of fentanyl, a game changer, this drug is deadlier than any we have ever seen….

“The problem we are not talking about is the emotional impact this disease is having on our communities,” she added, “and the emotional impact this disease is having on our first-responders and the emotional impact this disease is having on users who may or may not believe that they can recover.”

In Ohio, as she noted, the process by which first responders revive overdose victims with a naloxone hydrochloride injection has become a verb — a person has been “narcanned.”

But that revival runs hollow if the person is discharged from an emergency room without follow-up, only to be revived again and again. Enter quick-response teams, which arguably first got off the ground a few years ago in a southwest Ohio county reeling from an opiate overdose crisis.

The teams, composed of cops, emergency medical technicians, treatment providers and, as important, certified or credible peers in recovery, visit the overdose victim at their home or other site within 72 hours of their emergency room, clinic or hospital visit.

Cheri Walter

Cheri Walter

“They visit the person who was saved the day before, the next day,” Walter said. “These are the kinds of things we have to do.”

Such efforts are being funded by grants through that state’s attorney general’s office.

“If we don’t keep people alive from the overdose or the addiction, they will never get into recovery,” Walter said. “We have to keep them alive first.”

I don’t know Walter’s politics or lifestyle, or whether she’s into salsa or square dances, or meditates or does yoga. I couldn’t care less. She spoke truth to power for me at the event. She had more to say that struck home.

“We have to talk about the fact that this is a disease,” she said. “If I had diabetes, it would not matter how many times I wound up in the ER because I ate too much sugar. The same has got to be true of addicts …”

She once thought the addiction stigma dissipated as the opiate victims were coming more from the suburban, wealthier communities. She believes that stigma has persisted, if not worsened. She has heard from constituents who wonder what the point of saving the lives of addicts is if some will only come back to rob and steal again.

“There’s meanness in politics right now.” She said. “Ohio is a very conservative state. We actually right now have people talking about, ‘Now, well, the second time people are narcanned, maybe we should make that a crime.’ Really? We are going to criminalize addiction?

“Now, I don’t think that’s going anywhere because calmer heads will prevail,” she said. “But I think when people don’t know what to do, sometimes, on a political level, what they try to do, they try to clamp down on everything, thinking that it will go away, when if anything it will just put it in the shadows and people will not come forward and they won’t get help.”

She also pointed out that cuts to federal Medicaid expansion funds will backfire in the long term.

The expansion “has been the single most important thing for helping individuals with an addiction in Ohio get treatment,” she said. “If Medicaid goes away in Ohio there would be literally billions of dollars dumped into our system just to get all those people who got into treatment back into treatment.”

Rannazzisi followed during an afternoon panel.

Joe Rannazzisi

Joe Rannazzisi

The 29-year DEA veteran, who retired in disgust in 2014, was the centerpiece of a Washington Post/”60 Minutes” exposé that found a “drug distribution industry that shipped, almost unchecked, hundreds of millions of pills to rogue pharmacies and pain clinics providing the rocket fuel for a crisis that, over the last two decades, has claimed 200,000 lives,” as the project described the issue online.

Rannazzisi, then the head of the agency’s Office of Diversion Control, the division that regulates and investigates the pharmaceutical industry, faults the distributors for fueling the opioid epidemic by not doing anything while knowing that pain pills were diverted to illicit use.

“During the height of a drug epidemic driven by the pharmaceutical industry, why is it that Congress would pass a bill to protect the pharmaceutical industry?” he asked the audience. “The pharmaceutical lobby is the strongest lobby in Congress. They are not going to change until we force them to comply.”

He retired in frustration after he went from supervising 600 agents to none.

“I was tired of bureaucrats and I was tired of politicians and tired of talking to parents who lost kids,” he said in a choked voice. “I will be the first to admit it. A lot of people died on my watch … And if you want helplessness, you should have sat in my chair every night talking to doctors and talking to parents, talking to police officers and chiefs saying, ‘Fix this.’

Rubén Rosario

Rubén Rosario

“There’s no type of helplessness like that,” he said.

Rubén Rosario is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press and a board member of Criminal Justice Journalists, a partner in The Crime Report.The full version of his column is available here. Ruben welcomes comments from readers. The panel at which Cheri Walter spoke is available here. To see other panels from the H.F. Guggenheim Symposium, please click on John Jay’s YouTube channel.


Opioids: ‘I’m Tired of Dying Every Day’

Inmates leaving the Harris County jail in Texas will soon be offered monthly Vivitrol injections to help them combat heroin and opioid addiction. The innovative pilot program has sparked some criticism, but defenders say the treatment can help keep addicts out of the justice system.

When Kristina Davis walked into her daughter’s parent-teacher conference high on heroin, it was a moment of truth. She knew things had to change.

The 31-year-old had tried to get sober before, but nothing stuck. So on Wednesday, she tried something new.

Sleepy-eyed but hopeful, Davis arrived at the Texas Clinic before 7 a.m. for her first injection of Vivitrol, a drug administered once a month to combat addiction.

“Honestly, I just want to live,” she said. “I’m tired of dying every day.”

The shot is an innovative treatment option that soon will be available for inmates leaving the Harris County Jail. The state’s largest county lockup has launched a pilot program that will begin offering the treatment in coming weeks to soon-to-be-released prisoners in hopes of preventing relapse and reducing recidivism.

It is believed to be the first county jail in Texas to offer the drug.

“It’s really pretty exciting for us,” said Dariel Newman, the jail’s head nurse of quality improvement. “We see so many folks in here that their addiction is either the reason they were arrested or a factor.”

The medication is designed to combat opioid and alcohol cravings, but it’s not as well-studied as some of the alternatives, experts caution. The marketing practices of the drugmaker, Alkermes, have sparked criticism in recent months, including a sharply worded letter from U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., calling for an investigation into “treatment manipulation.”

But amid a rising tide of heroin addiction, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office is optimistic about the drug’s possibilities.

“We’re trying to be more innovative as an agency,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “Incarceration only is not an effective solution.”

‘A Big Step’

Vivitrol is non-addictive, non-narcotic and has no street value—three traits that have made it appealing to jails and corrections departments, some of which may not be comfortable with other treatments like methadone or buprenorphine, one of the drugs in Suboxone.

The monthly shot is a long-acting version of naltrexone, which works by covering opioid receptors so heroin can’t reach them. That means patients on Vivitrol aren’t able to get high and may have fewer cravings.

But unlike Vivitrol, which is a non-narcotic “antagonist,” buprenorphine and methadone are agonists. Known as maintenance treatments, the drugs latch on to the opioid receptors and prevent the heroin from attaching but at the same time deliver a bit of their own painkilling effect.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Vivitrol shots in 2006 for use in alcohol dependence treatment. But as the opioid epidemic ramped up, the medication became another tool in the fight against heroin.

Because it’s a long-lasting shot, patients don’t have to take a pill or pick up a methadone dose every day. But it requires that patients get off heroin before they can start the first shot, or they risk making the painful detox worse.

It’s also pricey: more than $1,000 per shot. Drugmaker Alkermes has donated enough Vivitrol to cover the initial doses for everyone in the Harris County Jail’s 20- to 30-person pilot program, and after that block grant funds, Medicaid or private insurance are expected to cover the rest.

Over the coming year, the jail’s medical staff will help select inmates for the program, looking for medically and psychologically fit candidates with a strong desire to stay sober.

“Are you addicted to opiates? Are you addicted to alcohol? Because if so, we will help you,” Newman said.

Participation is voluntary, and there’s no incentive in terms of reduced sentences. And only inmates set to be released – not those headed to state prison – are eligible to take part.

“This is a big step for the jail,” said Katharine Neill Harris, a researcher with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Although the drug is a new offering for Harris County inmates, it’s already been locally available through the Texas Clinic Healthcare System, which has partnered with the jail to administer the program.

Just before their release, selected inmates will get one 380-mg shot. After their release, they’ll come back once a month for shots, with additional visits for counseling.

“On average, people stay on Vivitrol about 6 to 12 months,” said Farrukh Shamsi, Texas Clinic Healthcare System president and CEO. The Fulton Street clinic, which has been offering medication-assisted treatment since the 1980s, started doling out the monthly shots about two years ago, and since then, Shamsi said, he’s seen some notable success stories.

Stopping the Cravings

“We had a patient who switched over from buprenorphine and wanted to be off everything,” he said. “The first shot, he said, ‘Everything is going fine and I don’t have any cravings.’ And the second shot he said he noticed this color on the side of his house that he never noticed before.”

That’s the sort of testimony that made the shot an attractive option to Davis. She’d tried Suboxone and didn’t like it.

“I felt over-medicated,” she said.

So this time when she went into rehab in October, she asked about other options, and the program director told her about Vivitrol. Her recovering peers were skeptical, Davis said, but she wanted to try it anyway.

“It sounds promising,” she said, minutes before receiving her first injection. “I’m always willing to try some new avenue.”

After 15 years of battling her addiction, it feels like it’s about time, Davis said.

The Houston native started using hard drugs in her mid-teens, a move she now attributes to untreated childhood trauma.

“The rig was the only thing that accepted me, and I didn’t have to worry about anything else,” she said. But despite her descent into addiction, Davis managed to keep up appearances. For years, she held a job at a local oil change company. She took community college classes and, as a single parent, raised her 7-year-old daughter.

She had periods of clean time, but in the end she always returned to the needle. Now, she thinks maybe those four trips to rehab and two jail stays could have been avoided if she’d been able to get naltrexone before.

“I would have been clean a long time ago,” she said.

Although the drug is appealing to health care providers uncomfortable with the idea of maintenance treatments, it’s also been a source of some controversy. A ProPublica investigation over the summer raised questions about the relative lack of research showing efficacy and the ethics of (Vivitrol’s) coercive use in drug court programs.

Earlier this month, Sen. Kamala Harris announced an investigation, saying Alkermes had purposely contributed to misconceptions about other medications to boost its sales.

“Alkermes has taken unethical drug promotion to new depths by enlisting judges, law enforcement personnel, and legislators to favor Vivitrol over proven treatments,” Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman of Georgetown University Medical Center said in a release at the time.

Alkermes fired back, saying it had “dedicated itself to addressing the scourge of opioid addiction” and agreeing to cooperate.

Just a few days later, a large-scale study helped bolster some of the drugmaker’s claims, but experts still see some cause for concern.

“There is much more data showing long-term effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine, including studies from other countries showing that when offered during incarceration, these medications decrease mortality after release from incarceration,” said Dr. Aaron D. Fox of Montefiore Medical Center. Although the new study boosts claims about the drug’s efficacy in fighting cravings, there’s still more research on the life-saving effects of older treatments.

“I’m sure that Vivitrol can be helpful for some people,” Katharine Neill Harris said. “But I would caution against the rush to Vivitrol to the neglect of other medications that we do have evidence help people.”

‘Great Intention’

Harris County Sheriff’s Maj. Mike Lee, who oversees the jail’s mental health programs and diversion strategies, said he’s open to exploring other options.

“We’re doing it with great intention, and we have every hope that it succeeds,” he said. “But I think we’re willing to say if this approach doesn’t work, then let’s try another.”

Lee also said the sheriff’s office “would consider” giving out the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to inmates before their release. And non-medication interventions may be on the table, too, including a detox center or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program.

“There have been discussions occurring at the county level about possibly diverting some other low-level drug offenders,” he said. “What that would look like, we’re still having discussions.”

But whatever effects these programs have inside the jail, Davis hopes she never finds out— at least not from the inside.

“I’m trying to make sure that once I hit two years clean I can work at a treatment center and give back,” she said. “I want to do recovery coach training. That’s my goal.”

Kerri Blakinger is a staff writer for The Houston Chronicle. This story was one of her projects as a participant in the 2017 John Jay/Koch Texas Justice Reporting Fellowship program. Her original story can be accessed here. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Military Surplus for U.S. Cops ‘Saved Lives’ after Hurricane: Houston Chief

The so-called “1033” program providing free surplus defense equipment to police, revived by the Trump administration, has been the subject of fierce controversy. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo says it was a lifesaver for residents trapped during Hurricane Harvey, but critics still question the program’s rationale.

Nestled in Texas’ southern Brazoria County, the city of Alvin boasts a quaint historic depot, 12 grassy city parks and a red-brick community college along its neat gridwork of tree-lined streets.

The city of 26,000 also has six reconnaissance robots, a mine-resistant vehicle, six mine-detecting sets and three $14,000 army combative kits—all military hand-me-downs acquired since 2014.

“You know, it never hurts to be prepared,” Alvin Police Chief Robert Lee said last summer. “Back when the last hurricane hit, there was a lot of this stuff we could have used.”

Before the wrath of Hurricane Harvey, that may have seemed like a stretch.

But when the storm dumped more than 50 inches of water over Southeast Texas last August, law enforcement agencies like Alvin came to the rescue with their ambush-protected vehicles, Humvees and five-ton trucks all obtained through a controversial Department of Defense excess property giveaway program.

Dubbed “1033” after the section of law that created it, the program has come under criticism for bulking up law enforcement with resources designed for war. But local police agencies say the equipment—credited with helping save more than 10,000 people in Harris County during Harvey— took them to areas they couldn’t have reached without it.

“They tend to think that we’re militarizing ourselves. No, we’re not,” said Sgt. Jimmie Cook, who helps oversee the Harris County Sheriff’s Office 1033 program.

“We’re not looking for M16s. It’s useful gear that helps supplement our budget and it doesn’t cost the county anything except for the tank of gas to go pick it up.”

Since the 1990s, the 1033 program, run by Department of Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office, has provided free military surplus equipment to agencies that might not otherwise be able to afford it.

Those federal giveaways can include everything from air conditioners, like the 19 Houston police received in January, to the 90 rifles nabbed by 90 League City in 2014 and the 22 binoculars collected by Alvin police last year.

“They helped us save lives,” Houston police Chief Art Acevedo said. “It’s a reminder that the equipment we get from the military isn’t about the equipment; it’s about its use.”

The program first came under widespread scrutiny in 2014, when police in Ferguson, Mo., showed up in armored vehicles in response to peaceful protests over the shooting of Michael Brown.

Images of the protests sparked nationwide criticism over the military hand-me-downs, even though the Ferguson vehicles apparently didn’t come from the 1033 program. Yet the outcry did nothing to dampen police interest in the program, which has since doled out more than $13 million of equipment just to departments in the greater Houston area, according to federal data.

‘Why Not Be Prepared?’

“Basically, the government is saying, ‘Here, if you have a use for this, you can have it,'” Lee said. “And why not be prepared?”

Editor’s Note: Reversing an earlier decision to curtail 1033 by then-President Barak Obama, the Trump administration revived the program this summer.

That preparation helped Houston police rescue some 3,500 flooded-out locals, including elderly and disabled residents, some of whom were stuck in water up to their necks. Smaller departments like Alvin and Freeport saved a couple of hundred each using gear such as military trucks and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office used 1033 equipment to rescue more than 9,000 adults, along with hundreds of children and pets, Cook said.

Early in the flooding, the sergeant got a call for a high-profile rescue: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. The dispatch center downtown was taking on water, and Cook – riding in a five-ton truck acquired through the 1033 program – was summoned to evacuate the sheriff. Or so he thought.

When Cook pulled up in the open-bed truck, the sheriff hopped in and demanded to go on some rescues.

“He didn’t want to quit,” Cook said. “At one point I had to tell him it’s too dark outside, and he said, ‘See you tomorrow.'”

Though military equipment isn’t necessarily made for flood rescue, clearly some of it works.

The open-bed, five-ton trucks can go in water 8 to 9 feet deep, Cook said. The deuce-and-a-halfs do the same thing but offer a little less pulling power. The light-medium tactical vehicles—$108,000 military trucks known as LMTVs—aren’t quite as good in high water given the large number of electronic components inside. Humvees work well in floods, but they don’t hold a lot of people.

Meanwhile, the MRAPs—the most controversial of the bunch given their roughly $700,000 value and explosive-proof armor— are reliable in at least 3 to 4 feet of water, but they’re a little harder to load with people.

We probably helped rescue maybe around 200 people over a five-day period.”

“It came in very handy for us,” said Freeport police Capt. Raymond Garivey, whose department used its mine-resistant vehicle for the first time in the post-Harvey floods. “We probably helped rescue maybe around 200 people over a five-day period.”

Whatever success they’ve had, the intended law enforcement use of heavy military equipment is a bit of a mixed bag.

While Cook said the “main importance” in getting Humvees and five-ton trucks in the first place was for high-water rescue, the MRAP went to the department’s SWAT team.

The Houston Police Department also reserved its MRAPs for SWAT use, but sent out the SWAT team for rescues anyway in the hurricane’s aftermath.

Alvin police got theirs with hurricanes in mind, though it’s also used for a regional SWAT team, according to Lee. Unfortunately, the city’s mine-resistant vehicle was sidelined with a brake problem during Harvey, and the department relied instead on its deuce-and-a-half and five-ton trucks for roughly 226 rescues, according to Capt. Todd Arendell.

Richmond didn’t bring out its mine-protected machinery in Harvey at all, instead opting to keep the pricey 15-ton piece of equipment away from washed-out roads. But the equipment did come into use during last year’s Memorial Day floods, according to Lt. Jesse Martin, who oversees the Fort Bend County city’s 1033 acquisitions.

“We evacuated 72 people,” he said. “And two cats, one cockatoo and I can’t remember how many dogs.”

Despite the high-dollar value of some of the equipment, demilitarized vehicles cost local departments nothing except the tank of diesel to drive home. The program doesn’t pay for any transit, so for smaller items, departments can either pay for shipping or go pick the items up in person. Often that means a trip to San Antonio, Fort Worth or Fort Polk, La.

‘Civilianizing’ the Gear

Then, officers “civilianize” the gear, painting over the camo and adding the department name. Sometimes they add other 1033 items such as spotlights, ladders, backboards. Occasionally, they look to eBay for more easily found items such as new seats.

The program is also a big source of more mundane items, including everything from lamps to sofas to treadmills. Departments in the Houston area have snagged more than $1 million of those and other small items just since 2014, according to a data analysis by University of Idaho assistant professor Steven Radil.

And while some of the smaller goods are useful for department lobbies and gyms, some are also key for handling natural disasters.

“I just got four tourniquets,” Martin, the Richmond police lieutenant, said after the storm. “Normally a new tourniquet costs $28. And it cost me 76 bucks to get 40 of them shipped from Colorado by UPS.”

Alvin police found sleeping bags, cots, bedding and backpacks – all of which came into use when dozens of city employees and officers needed to sleep at work for days during the storm.

Although a wide range of the available equipment can be useful in natural disasters, the program prioritizes agencies that plan to use their goods for drug interdiction and anti-terrorism efforts. It’s tactical uses like those that have long been the most controversial.

But hurricanes “are the best-case scenario of when these types of resources and programs are perfectly appropriate,” said Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach Police Department lieutenant commander now active with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of cops backing criminal justice reform.

“But that (use) is the exception, not the rule,” she added. “For years they’ve always asked, ‘What are you going to be using this equipment for?’ And anyone who said this equipment was going to be used to fight the drug war would be first in line.”

A Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman confirmed that drug interdiction uses take priority, if there’s not enough equipment to meet all requests.

Critics still question the size of the federal influence the program represents.

“This is an enormous subsidy program under the name of drug interdiction and counter-terrorism,” Radil said. “It’s a partial federalization of local law enforcement.”

After Harvey, however, a number of local departments are talking about how to increase their 1033 stock. The sheriff’s office wants better lighting for night-time rescues, Alvin wants equipment to hoist medically frail evacuees into their MRAP, and Richmond wants a back-up generator. But the biggest demand is more vehicles.

“We need more trucks, and more training,” said Lt. Frank Fernandez, who oversees HPD’s 1033 acquisitions.

Houston police had seven operational five-tons when the storm struck, so the department resorted to using some 20 to 30 dump trucks to supplement their rescue operations.

“We want to get away from dump trucks because dump trucks are not made for hauling people – they’re made for hauling rocks,” Sgt. Mark Bailey said. That means they’ll need more five-tons, though it’s not clear how many it will be practical to store and maintain.

“If we have the end of the world like with Harvey, we could use a hundred trucks,” Bailey said.

But some departments say Harvey hasn’t changed much about what equipment they’ll look for in the future.

“The flood has interrupted it, but the business of life continues,” Arendell said. “And our need to respond didn’t change.”

Keri Blakinger is a staff writer for The Houston Chronicle. This story was one of her projects as a participant in the 2017 John Jay/Koch Texas Justice Reporting Fellowship program. Her original story can be accessed here. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Opioids: Chronic Pain Sufferers Seek a Voice

A Las Vegas TV station takes a hard look at the impact of the opioid epidemic on chronic pain patients in Nevada in a special investigation called “The Other Side of Opioids.”

The “opioid epidemic” has created a nightmare for many chronic pain patients. They are met with roadblocks at pharmacies— and that’s if they can even get a prescription.

Doctors in Nevada are fearful they will be targeted by law enforcement for running “pill mills.”

In “The Other Side of Opioids,” KLAS-TV takes a closer look at the numbers and discovers that many of the deaths attributed to opioids in Nevada involve illegal drugs like heroin.

That raises questions about many of the restrictions currently imposed as a result of the “opioid epidemic,” and law enforcement’s proper role in dealing with the crisis.

The one-hour special program interviewed a number of chronic pain patients who worried what a legal crackdown on opioids would mean to their lives.

“Opioid shouldn’t be taken off the table because of media hype and hysteria,” said Barbie Ingle, a pain patient advocate.

See also: “Criminalizing the Opioid Epidemic is No Way to Help Chronic Pain Sufferers.”

Vanessa Murphy is an investigative reporter for 8 News Now/KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, Nev., and a former John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice reporting fellow. Her complete report is available here.