Thursday, May 30, 2013

The carnival around pretty white girls, sex and murder

Murders are almost always ugly. Never mind the killer's carefully chosen story in the courtroom or last words before execution. What victim hasn’t pled for his life as his life's blood literally drained from him? What family hasn’t suffered after the murder of a loved one, whether that murder was the result of a instantly-killing drive-by shooting or 29 stab wounds?

Jodi Arias may be a liar with a major personality disorder, but there are few if any indicators that she represents a risk to commit future acts of violence. She has no history of sociopathic acts. Her murder of Travis Alexander was senseless and horrible, but it has captured the media’s attention only because she is an attractive, young, whitefemale from an at least arguably middle-class environment. And also because sex sells, and Arias and Alexander had the texts and emails to prove young people like to get it on. So what? Completely irrelevant legally, and nothing new in the universe.

I recorded some of the Arias trial and watched it remote in hand, to blast past the astounding number of commercial interruptions to actual courtroom activity wedged into increasingly shrill and silly shows by Vinnie, Drew, Nancy, Jane and their C-list of “expert” lawyers and psychologists, one of whom bills herself as “the human lie detector.”

We are better served by having unfettered access to the judicial branch of our government. For a time in the 1990s it seemed that might be possible with CourtTV’s gavel-to-gavel coverage helmed by genuine class acts like veteran lawyer and journalist Fred Graham and a slew of serious younger commentators like Terry Moran and Dan Abrams, Roger Cossack, Catherine Crier and Cynthia McFadden. Greta van Susteren and even Nancy Grace (!) were at least somewhat serious then.

But the OJ Simpson trial scared off a lot of judges from allowing cameras in their courtrooms, and soon CourtTV began to supplement its schedule with B-minus cop shows. CourtTV begat TruTV, which morphed into HLN, the white trash version of CNN.

Beth Karas is the only moderate, reasoned and well-seasoned reporter left, and has to share her time with the more sensational Jean Casarez. There are limited number of truly well-known trial lawyers and legal reporters willing to weigh in on national TV, and I never saw any of them on HLN, CNN, or any of the few channels that give ANY airtime to what is a very ordinary murder. (You may want to count Jeffrey Toobin on CNN, but I don’t.)

It all adds up to a sort of voyeuristic non-analysis by people whose main qualification is how loud he can speak on a Jerry Springer-style television show.

Jodi Arias's guilt has never been in doubt. But her penalty should have been and, as it turns out, it was. She will never get out of prison. Sentence Jodi Arias to life and move on to a new case with real issues.

And bring back Fred Graham and CourtTV.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Judgment calls and early jail releases

Alex Pajunas -- Daily Astorian
There has been an unusual burst of violent crime in Clatsop County in the last few months. Family members shooting other family members. Two cases of men returning -- after being jailed and released -- to the place they had burgled, and then being shot -- with legal justification -- by the victims.

The worst case involves Mark Beebout. He was a convicted sex offender (in Shasta County, California) who came to Astoria in 2011 and failed to register as a sex offender, as required by law. Beebout was convicted in Clatsop County of this lower-level felony in 2012. He was put on probation with a 14-month prison sentence hanging over his head if he did things that would cause a judge to revoke his probation.

He did some of those things.

At the first court appearance I asked for and received an "exclusion" from the jail matrix that determines who gets released, so Beebout was put in jail awaiting a late May probation hearing. There was a second court appearance before the probation hearing, during which Beebout was ordered held without bail but was not excluded from the jail matrix.

And then, 8 days before Beebout's scheduled probation hearing, at which time he most likely would have been given 14 months in prison, Beebout was "force matrix released" because there was no jail space to hold him.

Over the next several weeks Beebout murdered two young women, one of them only 15 years of age.

There was justifiable outrage.

Even more recently, Bruce Rogers was shot to death after he tried to force his way into the home of an ex, whom he was threatening to kill. He had recently been charged with a similar crime and had also been force matrix released despite a request by me to exclude him.

I certainly understand why people are incensed.

I have deliberately avoided pointing fingers because as I've said -- and sincerely believe -- this is a systems problem. There are several parts to the system: police officers who arrest offenders (and who have the least say about who stays in jail), probation officers, jail staff, the District Attorneys office, and the judges. Clatsop County used to have a "release officer" who investigated and made recommendations to the court about whether or not somebody was a good risk for release. Release officers are usually employed by the state -- meaning the courts -- but sometimes by the counties. Clatsop County funded the position for a while after the State cut funding for the position, but has since eliminated the position as well.

These are judgment calls. I think I've been pretty good -- or maybe just lucky -- at making the right call in my recommendations. But I have no doubt that one day a felon I have recommended for release is going to go out and commit a really serious violent crime. We use our best judgment, but we are always factoring in the elephant in the room: The Clatsop County jail is capped at 60 beds, no matter what.

Early release of re-offending criminals is a problem that really can't be corrected until Clatsop County has about three times the number of jail beds it has now.

Some online comments to a Daily Astorian story about this issue have accused me of "blaming the voters" for not passing a jail bond. But that's not what I've said. We desperately do need to expand the jail, but those of us "selling" the jail bond issue have clearly failed to make our case to the voters.

The courts are open to the public. I strongly encourage anyone interested in this serious issue to come to the Courthouse at 1:15 pm any weekday. Most days you'll find me there, advising the judge about a defendant's record and making a recommendation as to whether he or she should be released. If I don't have another court appearance, I can hang around and answer your questions. Or you can post them here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Senator Johnson opposes the Oregon Public Safety Package

Senator Betsy Johnson, a fearless independent Democrat in the mold of Wayne Morse (my political hero), spoke out in the Sunday Oregonian about the many problems with HB3194, also known as the "Governor's Public Safety Plan." I wish I could claim I helped her write it, but I did not. Senator Johnson makes apt comparisons with so-called "restructuring" in California that has resulted in a lot of crime.

There's no safety invested in the Oregon Public Safety Package: Guest opinion
by Betsy Johnson
May 04, 2013 at 11:00 AM, updated May 04, 2013 at 11:04 AM

One of the hottest investments being sold this legislative session is the Oregon Public Safety Package. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with investing in public safety.

House Bill 3194 would move felons from the state's prisons to "community corrections." That's an umbrella term that can include county jail or any number of programs --with varying degrees of supervision.

In community corrections, these offenders would receive services that are supposed to change their behavior, educate or train them for good jobs, and turn them into law-abiding taxpayers. This is called "justice reinvestment."

"If you want a good return on dollars, spend it on prevention," Gov. John Kitzhaber told KOIN (6) in a recent interview.

His idea of prevention is to not sentence certain future felons to mandatory minimums required under the voter-approved Measure 11. The lucky felons who would catch this break would be those convicted of first-degree sexual abuse, second-degree assault and second-degree robbery.

The state's county sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys all oppose HB3194 because they don't believe money would be saved and reinvested. Nothing would go toward community corrections. It's the public that would pay the price when more convicted felons hit the street. It's ordinary citizens who would have their homes burglarized, their cars stolen, their physical well-being assaulted by felons who have been given a pass to avoid Measure 11.

So who's in favor of the Oregon Public Safety Package? First and foremost, the Pew Center on the States, a think tank that is trying to change American attitudes toward crime and justice. In Pew's world, prisons cause crime -- not the other way around.

In the past year, Pew's experts have coached Kitzhaber's Commission on Public Safety as it developed the report that led to HB3194. It's curious, then, that at hearings for HB3194, nobody from Pew has uttered a word about California's prison realignment plan. Much of California's prison realignment sounds like Oregon's Public Safety Package. Key similarities: Shifting prison inmates to county jails and more use of alternative sentencing, such as electronic ankle bracelets or home detention.

California's prison realignment has been in effect since October 2011. How's it working?

Not so good. The best that supporters of California's realignment plan can say is that it's still a work in progress. Supporters have tried to reassure residents that parolees don't pose a special risk. They point to a pre-realignment study of four California cities that showed "only 22 percent of total arrests" were for parolees.

But the state's major news media have noted post-realignment property crime increases in various California cities of all sizes. An examination by Los Angeles County found that 26 percent of people released on community supervision between October 2011 and March 2012 were arrested on a new crime within six months.

Any link between prison realignment and victims of violent crime has become a regular feature of news coverage. The Los Angeles Times has also reported on the growing problem of sex offenders cutting off their GPS monitoring bracelets with little or no consequences.

Over at the website for the Pew Center on the States, if you look at public safety news for California you won't find much devoted to prison realignment. One brief gushes about California voters overturning the "notorious 'Three Strikes' law." Among the felonies no longer considered a third strike is being a felon in possession of a firearm. Amazing, isn't it, how many of the same people who favor strict gun laws seem to oppose punishment for those who break gun laws? In Pew's world of white, educated professionals who don't have to live in high-crime neighborhoods, felons deserve multiple times at bat.

Pew's website entry for Oregon praises the state's efforts at public safety reform. There's a quote from former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who chaired the governor's Public Safety Commission: "Our prison population is growing, primarily with lower-risk drug and property offenders, and this growth is threatening our balanced portfolio at the expense of prevention, supervision and rehabilitation."

In Oregon, most felons are not sentenced to prison. Any lower-risk drug or property offender who lands in prison has done something to deserve it. But De Muniz characterizes this as threatening "our balanced portfolio."

Gov. Kitzhaber needs to remember why Oregon residents embraced Measure 11. It has nothing to do with dollar signs in an investment portfolio.

Democrat Betsy Johnson represents Scappoose in the Oregon Senate.

read the piece on the Oregonian site

Friday, May 3, 2013

Clatsop's PSCC "share concerns" about changing mandatory minimum sentences

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments and actions by the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners in backing up the Public Safety Co-ordinating Council (made up of over 15 local citizens and public safety types including the sheriff, police chiefs, judges, mental health professionals and others). They are discussing the so-called "Governor's Public Safety Plan," also known as HB 3194, which is enormously controversial.

Clatsop advisory council objects to loosening jail time
Changing mandatory minimum sentences for Measure 11 offenders raises concerns
Posted: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 10:19 am | Updated: 12:19 pm, Wed Apr 24, 2013.
By TED SHORACK The Daily Astorian

Clatsop County’s advisory council on public safety has weighed in on proposed reforms to Oregon’s prison sentencing.

In a letter sent to the Public Safety Committee in the Oregon Legislature, the Public Safety Coordinating Council expressed concerns about House Bill 3194, that would change mandatory minimum sentences for sex abusers and other violent offenders.

At its last meeting, the advisory council also endorsed a separate letter by the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police that stated similar objections to the bill. “Although there are some positive proposals in House Bill 3194, we share the concerns about changing the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions under Measure 11 and 57,” the letter by the PSCC states.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she agrees with the PSCC, and stated she has grave concerns about the bill and a lack of transparency that followed its development.

House Bill 3194 would modify sentences imposed for felony marijuana charges and driving while suspended, but would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, which were adopted with Measure 11 and 57 by Oregon voters.

As a representative of the PSCC, Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis spoke at the Board of Clatsop County Commissioners’ last meeting, telling them that the bill was ill advised and its rapid development has made it an urgent matter.

The bill is being championed as a way to cut down on the cost of Oregon’s prison system, which will see an estimated increase in the prison population by more than 2,000 inmates in the next 10 years. Proposed reforms are projected to save the state $600 million in the next 10 years, keeping down the inmate population and avoiding the need to build another prison.

In front of the Clatsop County board, Marquis said that parts of the bill make sense, but that the essential “gutting of Measure 11” was not appropriate. “There certainly can be reform in the criminal justice system – it’s a work in progress,” he said.

But Marquis said that the Oregon prison system is among the lowest in overall incarceration rates, as evidenced in a recent article by Nigel Jaquiss in Willamette Week, and reprinted in The Daily Astorian. The article touched on a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics study that found Oregon incarcerates the highest percentage of violent offenders among the 33 states that keep that kind of data and the lowest rate of nonviolent offenders.

“The claim that we are on some unsustainable path is simply not true,” Marquis said about the amount of prison beds that are available. “We need not build another prison for at least 10 years,” he said.

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Public Safety Commission and the Pew Center on the States studied Oregon’s prison data and looked for ways to implement reforms that worked in other states.

House Bill 3194 was one result after looking at the numbers. Another, House Bill 3195, championed by Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, does not affect Measure 11 while still calling for other reforms.

The letter from Oregon sheriffs and chiefs of police states that changes should not be made based only on state savings or reinvestment, but rather on policies that work.

“Front-end, community-based and evidence-based corrections policies are good for Oregon because they work, not because they are cheaper than a penitentiary,” the letter states. “Public safety reform should be driven by thoughtful policy and not based on cost savings.”

‘We need to shift the focus to what is the real problem’

The PSCC, which is co-chaired by Circuit Court Judge Cindee Matyas and Janet Evans, the Clatsop County juvenile department director, wrote in its letter that if the reform put more pressure on county resources it would be disastrous.

“Dismantling a criminal justice system which, in many respects, is working here in Oregon and placing more supervision responsibility on local county jails without adequate beds, funding or resources is a recipe for disaster,” the advisory council wrote.

At the last commissioners’ meeting, Chairman Peter Huhtala thanked Marquis for presenting the advisory council’s concerns. Commissioner Sarah Nebeker, who is on the advisory council, stated her own concerns about possible reforms. “We need to look at us as a state, as a society. Do we want to fund early childhood education enough so that we have a lower rate of incarceration?” Nebeker asked.

Other societies pay more for education and have lower rates of incarceration, she said.

“It just seems to me that we need to shift the focus to what is the real problem,” Nebeker said. “It isn’t the problem with the prison system or incarceration rates. That’s just a way of getting money for a worthy cause. But that’s maybe not what we want to do.”

She said she believed there was a better solution for saving money than one that would take away from public safety.

The bill is still in committee in the Oregon Legislature. It would take a two-thirds vote in the Oregon Legislature to modify Measure 11. Oregon voters passed Measure 11 in 1994 and upheld the ballot measure in 2000, overwhelmingly defeating a repeal effort.

read the article and comment on the Daily Astorian's website