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Does Summer Stephan think she’s Olivia Benson?

Does Summer Stephan think she’s Olivia Benson?

Viewers know that Olivia Benson is the leather jacket-wearing detective on Law and Order SVU, an icon to law-abiding women everywhere. In a recent Women of the World biography, the newly-anointed district attorney for San Diego Summer Stephan received comparisons to Olivia Benson for her tough-as-nails approach to offenders. Stephan has taken over the top prosecutor job, handpicked by her predecessor Bonnie Dumanis, who stepped down last month, and plans to run next year to officially keep the post. Stephan has largely touted her success prosecuting sex crimes and reaching across the aisle to increase use of pretrial diversion.

But is Summer Stephan really the crusading hero she would like people to think?

In her application for district attorney, Summer Stephan called the botched prosecution of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe one of her crowning moments — where she claims she “did the right thing.” But Stephan seems to have conveniently forgotten the facts of the case. She claims that she came into the case uninformed mid-way, and, as a result, prosecuted three kids for a crime they didn’t commit. But like many wrongful convictions, the prosecution of Michael Crowe should be reexamined as an example of the typical misbehavior that prosecutors rarely must reckon with.

In 1998, 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe was stabbed multiple times in her bed, crawling to the door before dying. Her 14-year-old brother, Michael, and two of his friends were quickly arrested for the crime. After hours of interrogation without his parents or lawyer, in a manner known to be coercive and prone to generating false statements, Michael gave the police incriminating statements. One friend made a false confession. Much of the theory of the cases rested on Michael’s penchant for video games, medieval imagery, and the game Dungeon and Dragons. There was no direct physical evidence tying them to the crime.

Summer Stephan was one of two prosecutors on the case during the grand jury indictment of Michael and his friends, and she remained heavily involved throughout. Throughout the course of the investigation, not only did Stephan refuse to question the coercive interrogation of 14-year-old boys, but she also concealed evidence showing that the prosecution’s theory of the crime was wrong. Prosecutors insisted the Michael Crowe had lied and, therefore, was guilty, but in fact, that theory was wrong.

Michael Crowe and the other boys were never tried — investigators ultimately found DNA matching someone else and never pursued the case. But the case against Michael Crowe wasn’t formally dropped for years, largely because Stephan persisted in believing she was right. In 2012, a judge declared the boys factually innocent. The likely murderer was found, but due to the botched investigation and prosecution, his first conviction was overturned and he was acquitted on retrial. (The second accused murderer’s defense was in fact the police investigation of Michael Crowe and his friends.)

During the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting that ultimately resulted in Stephan being appointed as interim district attorney, the Crowe family submitted a 22-page letter saying that Stephan had mistreated them and had wrongly accused them of “not cooperating” with the investigation. (The Crowes won a civil lawsuit against the city for its treatment of Michael.) The Crowe family pointed out that Dumanis herself had said during her campaign that her opponent’s office, including Stephan, had botched the case.

Stephan has argued weakly that she took over the case after it had begun and that she had nothing to do with the patently flawed theory of the case. Yet Stephan had clearly courted the spotlight the Crowe cases generated, calling Michael and his friends “evil.” And during the intervening decades, she’s done nothing to rectify her mistake, instead insisting that she is proud of her work.

So should the people really trust Summer Stephan to make the right choices now that she is the lead prosecutor for San Diego?

New book explores the legal debt that comes after prison

New book explores the legal debt that comes after prison

Throughout his life, Nick has battled mental illness and an addiction to crack cocaine. He was convicted three times in the 1990’s for offenses that are characteristic of someone struggling with addiction, and served more than four years in a Washington State prison. But despite his fierce desire to remain sober and gainfully employed since then, bipolar depression and addiction have pulled him in another direction. He hasn’t been able to hold a job or find stable housing, cycling between homelessness and crashing at a friend or relative’s house. He also hasn’t been able to pay over $3,100 in legal debt he owes the state — fines and fees imposed on him for his involvement in the criminal justice system. As a result, he’s been thrown in jail multiple times for nonpayment.

Nick and other people in his position are profiled in Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, a new book by Washington University professor Alexes Harris (watch Professor Harris discuss her work here and here). Zooming in on five Washington counties, the book sheds light on fines and fees — also known as legal financial obligations (LFOs) — that haunt poor people long after they’ve completed sentences for their crimes. It also describes the actors in the criminal justice system who impose and enforce these payments: prosecutors and judges who don’t think prison, probation, and community service is punishment enough.

Harris sifted through 3,300 court cases, conducted 50 interviews, and observed courtroom proceedings to assess how debtors are surveilled and penalized for much of their lives. Besides serving their sentences, defendants in Washington must make a mandatory minimum payment of $600 for every conviction (a $100 DNA collection fee and a $500 victim penalty assessment.)

On top of that fees can be imposed for victim restitution, crime lab analysis, requesting a trial by jury, pleading out, probation monitoring, drug and alcohol treatment and assessment, supervision, and electronic monitoring. Fees are required for time behind bars (incarceration in Washington costs prisoners $50 per day), and there are crime-specific fees for domestic violence and drug use. Moreover, people are forced to pay collection fees and interest.

Discounting restitution, Harris found that the average LFO for a Washington defendant is $1,300. Among the people she interviewed, the average legal debt owed was $9,000. And regardless of their inability to pay, people like Nick are thrown in jail over and over again for nonpayment.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but judges and prosecutors are choosing to damn people to a lifetime of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system.

“[Prosecutors] have a great deal of discretion in what they’re asking for,” Harris told the Fair Punishment Project. “What I observed in the courthouses is that generally there was a common amount that prosecutors ask for and judges gave. It was never negotiated or discussed.” In fact, Harris writes in her book that its title was inspired by a prosecutor who admitted he wanted to “screw” and collect “a pound of flesh” from an unnamed defendant.

One district attorney admitted to Harris that prosecutors’ “personal belief systems” influence their LFO requests. They often view failure to pay as failings of character and signs of laziness. They’ll subsequently ask judges to issue bench warrants or impose additional fines because people are intentionally dodging payments — decisions that discount conditions of poverty, mental illness, addiction, and other factors that impede people’s ability to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars. Nason, another debtor described in the book, was jailed for 60 days because a prosecutor claimed — and a judge agreed — there was no evidence that he’d tried collecting aluminum cans to make money and pay his fees. Nason was homeless and his sole income came from food stamps.

One prosecutor explained to Harris: “[They] collect their food stamps and they collect their other stuff and I don’t know what all. If in fact an individual’s been on drugs or they come in under the influence, whether it’s under drugs or alcohol, that stuff costs money, it’s not free. So they’re getting money to spend it somewhere.”

Harris’ findings come at a time of heightened scrutiny of prosecutors and the role they play in incarcerating poor people — particularly how they push for draconian bail payments that keep indigent defendants behind bars long before trial. But fewer people seem aware of the costs that come after a conviction. The reason for this isn’t clear-cut, but Harris thinks the story of Kalief Browder resonated with people in a way that a story like Nick’s has not. “The human face was put on this and you could really see the prosecutors’ lack of caring and how bail really was the problem in his case,” she said.

At age 16, Browder was arrested and charged for allegedly stealing a backpack. Unable to pay $3,000 for bail, he was locked up in Rikers Island awaiting trial. He remained there for three years, where he was put in solitary confinement for over a year and severely beaten by guards and inmates. After his case was finally dismissed and he was released, Browder committed suicide at the age of 22. His death made national headlines and invigorated the fight for bail reform. Compelling stories like Browder’s reveal that bail is an important part of the criminal justice discussion, Harris argues, but she’s hopeful that fines and fees will garner more attention in the future.

“For me, the fines and fees issue is just as salient as the bail issue. It’s even worse in a way. You’ve basically done your time in jail and prison, but just because of poverty…you’re going back to jail and you’re stuck in this cycle,” she said.

Harris is now in the process of researching fines and fees in eight other states, and following the money to assess how it’s actually spent. In the meantime, she wants people to understand that poor people don’t have to be trapped in this way, and that prosecutors should be held accountable.

“We often don’t focus on prosecutors enough to say ‘you could change this process,’” she said.

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Life sentence for Louisiana man convicted for juvenile crime found to be unconstitutional

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore

Life sentence for Louisiana man convicted for juvenile crime found to be unconstitutional

A 22-year-old Baton Rouge man sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when he was a juvenile will now have a chance to get out of prison after the Louisiana Supreme Court held that his sentence is unconstitutional.

Thayer Green was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after he was arrested in 2012 for battery and home invasion of a residence where the mother of his child lived. He had previously been convicted of simple burglary and simple robbery. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore successfully sought a life sentence on the home invasion charge under the state’s habitual offender statute.

On appeal, Green’s counsel argued that his life sentence conflicted with Graham v. Florida, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case which found that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. In that decision, as well as subsequent rulings addressing juvenile sentencing, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted how “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”

Prosecutors argued that Graham didn’t apply because Green had committed multiple offenses before being convicted and sentenced for this crime. But the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected that argument.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Graham was founded on the notion that juvenile non-homicide offenders, because of their youth and greater capacity for reform, are significantly less culpable than adults who have committed the same or worse offenses, and therefore deserve different treatment at sentencing,” the Louisiana Supreme Court said in its ruling. The Court also questioned the use of prior juvenile convictions to be used to enhance Green’s sentence.

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed that Graham prohibited a determination to be made that someone like Green, who was a juvenile at the time of the offense, “will never be fit to rejoin society.” Following the holding in Graham, the Court held that Louisiana “must give such an offender a ‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” Accordingly, the Court ordered the Louisiana Department of Corrections to remove the restriction on Green’s parole eligibility.

The justices also sent Green’s case back to state District Judge Chip Moore for a hearing on whether the trial court’s initial decision to impose consecutive sentences constituted “excessive punishment” under Louisiana law.

Mike Mitchell, East Baton Rouge Parish’s chief public defender, said he would seek to show that Green is capable of rehabilitation and should have a chance at release.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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