Thursday, September 20, 2007

Juvenile Justice set to reverse course, cut programs that deter teen crime

The former Tallahassee police chief chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist to head Florida's juvenile justice system this year announced soon after taking over that the state would fight crime in a new way.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil said Florida would not keep dumping the bulk of its money into youth lockups. Instead, the state would take a balanced approach, investing in less expensive prevention programs that stop teens from skipping school, joining gangs and committing crimes.

Legislative leaders and youth advocates say they now are surprised that the agency and governor's office presented budget plans that would do just the opposite - chopping millions from programs proven to reform teens who have not yet committed crimes as adults.

As the state held its first round of hearings last month on plans to reduce a $1.1 billion budget shortfall, Rep. Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice, wrote a memo saying that the agency's proposed cuts would sabotage Florida's attempts at juvenile justice reform.

The cuts to proven programs were "appalling," he wrote to Rep. Dick Kravitz, chairman of the House Safety and Security Council, on Aug. 31.

The intent of juvenile justice reform, Needelman wrote, "was to abolish the archaic system that had failed juvenile offenders so miserably and 'warehoused' them in a mire of outdated policies until they finally aged out of the system and graduated into full-fledged adult criminals."

Under the budget proposed by Crist, 45 percent of all public safety cuts would be at the Department of Juvenile Justice, a far greater percentage than the reduction at the Department of Corrections.

The proposal would take $3 million from Redirections, a program the legislature established in 2004 and expanded by $6 million to a budget of more than $11 million earlier this year. The program, which provides intense therapy for families of teens who are violating probation and committing crimes, would be forced to scale back its expansion plans by 422 teens statewide, some in Palm Beach County.

113 girls would be dropped

The governor's plan also would hamper a planned expansion of the PACE Center for Girls, a day school and counseling program, cutting its budget from $11.6 million to the $10.5 million it received in 2005-06. A total of 113 girls would be cut from the program, and the state likely would have to eliminate two centers, PACE spokeswoman Mary Marx said.

Roy Miller, who advocates for children's issues as head of the Children's Campaign, said, "It appears that some advisers in the governor's budget office haven't gotten the word about the new direction of public safety and juvenile justice in Florida."

Anthony DeLuise, a spokesman for Crist, said that in a difficult budget year, the governor suggested cuts to programs that were scheduled to expand. Crist "is certainly still committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and the many very important programs they provide," DeLuise said.

West Palm Beach's PACE Center for Girls provides education and counseling for 40 girls who are making mistakes that could one day get them locked up, killed or pregnant. Some have joined gangs or committed crimes such as stealing a car.

When they first come to PACE, said Executive Director Angela Clarke, many of the girls are confrontational or withdrawn. Gradually, Clarke said, workers peel back the layers of their anger to find the true problem. For many, it is a deep sadness. Statewide, a quarter of the girls have a father or both parents in jail, and 10 percent have seen a parent die.

Helping teens and parents

Alicia, 16, said the program helps "girls who have lost their way." Before she came to PACE, she said, her mother was worried for her and cried all the time.

Alicia started the program as a 10th-grader. After a little over a year in the program, she will return to her home school a senior, on track to graduate a year early. After college, she would like to help other teens who are struggling, maybe as a probation officer.

"I'm trying to make my mom happy," she said. "That's my goal."

The Redirections initiative, started by the legislature in 2004, has similar goals. In that program, therapists teach teens how to resolve problems at school and at home. They work closely with families, helping parents regain control of their teens. State and national studies have shown that Redirections programs are effective at deterring crime.

Legislators will meet in a special session beginning Oct. 3 to make up the deficit, caused by a dip in the housing market and a drop in sales tax receipts.

Last month, every state agency was asked to recommend 10 percent in possible cuts to the legislature. It wasn't possible to do that to the Department of Juvenile Justice's $700 million budget without cutting into worthwhile programs, McNeil said.

He told state legislators he was not endorsing any of the cuts he was forced to bring to them and said he has been a strong supporter of programs such as PACE for more than a decade because he could see that they worked.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, said he has no plans to cut teens from juvenile justice programs.

"I'll be right up front," said Crist, no relation to the governor. "The governor's proposal is significantly different than the Senate's." He said he disagrees with the governor's plan, which "whacks into the Department of Juvenile Justice pretty significantly and then holds the Department of Corrections pretty harmless."

Children's Campaign President Miller said the state won't be able to solve its budget crisis by ignoring teens on the brink of becoming serious criminals. "Florida won't be able to build enough prisons if we don't invest in children," Miller said. "It will bankrupt the state."

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The government's morally dubious use of drug informants

Late last month, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the death of the Kathryn Johnston, the 92-year-old Atlanta woman killed by police during a November 2006 drug raid on her home.

Johnston died when she mistook a team of narcotics officers for criminal intruders. When the police broke down her door, she met them with an old pistol. They opened fire, and killed her.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the entire chain of events up to and shortly after Johnston's death were beset with lies, planted evidence, and cover-up on the part of the narcotics cops. They fabricated an imaginary informant to get the search warrant for Ms. Johnston's home. They planted evidence on a convicted felon, arrested him, then let him off in exchange for his tip—which he made up from whole cloth—that they'd find drugs in Ms. Johnston's house.

When they realized their mistake, they then tried to portray an innocent old woman as a drug dealer. They planted marijuana in Ms. Johnston's basement while she lay handcuffed and bleeding on the floor.

More investigation revealed that this kind of behavior wasn't aberrant, but common among narcotics officers in the Atlanta Police Department. Police Chief Richard Pennington eventually dismissed or reassigned the entire narcotics division of the APD.

What came out at the hearings investigating Kathryn Johnston's death was even more disturbing.

In one eye-popping exchange, two congressmen—one Democrat and one Republican—confronted Wayne Murphy, the assistant director of the FBI Directorate of Intelligence about the way the FBI uses drug informants. Rep. Dan Lundgren, R-Calif., and Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., told Murphy they were troubled by reports that the FBI had looked the other way while some of its drug informants participated in violent crimes, and that the agency then failed to notify local authorities, leaving many of those crimes unsolved.

Lundgren and Delahunt said they were also troubled by reports that in order to protect the identity of its informants, the FBI had withheld exculpatory evidence from criminal trials, resulting in innocent people going to prison.

This is worth repeating. The FBI has determined that in some cases, it's better to let innocent people be assaulted, murdered, or wrongly sent to prison than to halt a drug investigation involving one of its confidential informants.

Could Murphy assure the U.S. Congress, Delahunt and Lundgren asked, that the FBI has since instituted policies to ensure that kind of thing never happens again?

Murphy hemmed and hawed, but ultimately said that he could not make any such assurance. That in itself should have been huge news.

Shortly after the Johnston hearings concluded, another informant scandal emerged.

Jarrell Bray, a longtime informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Cleveland field office, admitted that with the cooperation of DEA agent Lee Lucas, he had repeatedly lied in court to secure the convictions of innocent people. Bray said he and Lucas fabricated evidence, falsely accused people who had done nothing wrong, then concocted bogus testimony to secure their convictions.

Bray's admission could result in dozens of overturned convictions.

There's nothing new about any of this. The problems with the use and abuse of drug informants have been known for years. Policymakers have just decided it's more important to keep up a brave front in the drug war than admit to the shortcomings. Bogus testimony from drug informants has led to wrongful arrest and/or incarceration of innocent people in Dallas, Texas; Hearne, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Church Point, La.; to list just a handful of the more egregious examples.

In fact, more than 12 years ago, the National Law Journal ran a three-part series on the issue of drug informants. The magazine reviewed more than a thousand search warrants in four cities. It found widespread abuse with respect to the use of informants, and issued an urgent warning that "there is little or no oversight of the informant system," and that as a result, "the nation's system of justice is in danger."

Not much has changed.

The article was spurred by the case of Donald Carlson, a San Diego businessman who was nearly killed in 1992 after an informant's faulty tip led police to raid his home. Like Kathryn Johnston, Carlson thought the police were criminal intruders, and fired at them in defense of his home as they broke down his door. He was shot several times in the back, and spent six weeks in intensive care.

As in Atlanta, a subsequent investigation revealed severe deficiencies in the use of informants for drug crimes. The informant in Carlson's case was later convicted on 25 counts of lying to federal law enforcement officials.

In fact, Johnston and Carlson aren't the only ones. Bad informants have led to mistaken drug raids all over the country. Many of these raids have resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including Harlem's Alberta Spruill, Denver's Ismael Mena, Houston's Pedro Navarro, and Albuquerque's Ralph Garrison.

Dave Doddridge is a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a former narcotics officer. He's now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former cops who have come out against the drug war. Doddridge says what happened in Atlanta isn't at all uncommon, and shouldn't be mistaken for a few rogue police officers acting out of line.

"There's tremendous pressure to 'climb the ladder' after you make a drug bust," he says, referring to the practice of getting one drug offender to give up information on his suppliers and superiors. "You want to get up that ladder before word hits the street, and the guys you're after know that you're on to them. That leads to the temptation to take shortcuts," he says. "What happened in Atlanta goes on all over the country."

These sorts of police tactics would be morally dubious if they were being used to fight terrorism, or to ensure national security. But they grow more absurd—and more intolerable—when you consider the ultimate end, here. None of this deception, corruption, and abuse is being employed to catch sleeper Al-Qaeda cells, or to catch murderers or serial killers or pedophiles. It's being used to stop people from getting high.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sarasota County Commission pledges jail will stay open:

They blinked.

The Sarasota County Commission indicated it would come up with about $1.2 million Monday night to keep the Venice holding facility open if it had to -- despite a plea to Sheriff William Balkwill to make further cuts in his budget for the jail.

Balkwill has threatened to shut the facility down, claiming he has no room in his budget to fund it.

"We do need the jail," said County Commissioner Paul Mercier, before a crowd predominantly from North Port dressed in red as a sign of solidarity. "If this is a standoff, I'll blink."

North Port City Commissioner Vanessa Carusone encouraged the county commissioners to take money from her city's contributions to the county to cover the costs required to keep the jail open.

"Even with the reduction in your millage rate and the reduction in our millage rate, there's still an additional $660,000 that will be added to your coffers from the city of North Port," Carusone said. "I implore you to take that money and put it toward the sheriff's department budget. Because if there is anything that is needed that cannot be cut, it's the life, safety and well-being of our South County residents."

That's when County Commissioner Shannon Staub fell in with Mercier, despite her earlier input on a motion that would encourage County Administrator Jim Ley to work with Balkwill to find more money in his budget -- as well as other sources -- for the facility.

"I can only speak for myself," Staub said. "I'm blinking. I'm ready. Let's get it done. Get it over. And I'm very sorry that we even had to come to this point."

Not budging

Things didn't start out in such a conciliatory manner. Before the meeting, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta was adamant about two things: The jail must stay open and the sheriff must help.

"We're going to have to figure out a way to keep it open and hopefully we'll get some cooperation from the sheriff to help us do that," Barbetta said. "I can't conceive us not doing everything we possibly can to keep it open."

Barbetta said he learned Venice was willing to withdraw its condition for the sheriff's office to pay rent for the facility, which he saw as a good first step toward coming to a solution.

"So it really comes down to the sheriff's manpower," Barbetta said, hinting Balkwill might make cuts in shifts, hours or jobs.

But when Balkwill came forward to state his case, it was plain to see he wasn't going to budge.

"We're down about 27 positions right now," Balkwill said. "The only way we can (keep the jail open) right now is through overtime."

Balkwill said there are other services his department provides to the county that add costs to his budget. These include working with the fire department, the Sarasota Police Department, animal services, roads and bridges and other internal services for the county.

"We've also cut over 100 vehicles from this year's budget," Balkwill said. "As far as staff goes, I challenge you to compare our staff levels with any other agency surrounding us right now."

Afterward, although he promised he was "always willing to work with them," Balkwill said his budget was too maxed out to subsidize the jail.

"What I heard in there was (the county) was funding this," he said.

By Steven J. Smith Sun-Herald