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Reform candidates come under attack in Contra Costa County District Attorney selection process

Contra Costa County Courthouse, Martinez, CA

Reform candidates come under attack in Contra Costa County District Attorney selection process

At two recent public forums, candidates to become Contra Costa’s interim District Attorney focused mostly on the degree to which their views and proposed policies aligned with Contra Costa County’s solidly progressive constituents’. But the selection process took an unexpected turn on Friday when local news outlets reported that two finalists — Superior Court Judge Diana Becton and Assistant District Attorney Tom Kensok — had failed to attribute portions of their applications to the proper sources.

Becton borrowed language from Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Kamala Harris’s recent New York Times column advocating for bail reform. Kensok pulled information from a Harvard Business Review article and also pulled material from implementation guides designed for violence reduction programs and mental health programs. Both told the East Bay Times that they should have cited the material, and that they weren’t trying to suggest the words were their own.

In Becton’s case, it is unknown who discovered the borrowed passages; several county officials said they received anonymous mailings alerting them to unattributed work in Becton’s application. Radio station KQED discovered Kensok’s unattributed work after subsequently examining the other applications.

In an interesting coincidence, both Becton and Kensok have emerged as the applicants most likely to shake things up in the office and advance progressive policies as district attorney. Both have voiced support for bail reform, reducing mass incarceration, and scaling back the use of excessive punishments within the county.

And as those two applicants have come under attack, conservative finalist Paul Graves, a deputy district attorney within the office, has benefited. After receiving the endorsement of a handful of private criminal defense lawyers, he picked up the endorsements of the East Bay Timesseveral local law enforcement units, and the Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney’s Association.

Graves would seem an unlikely selection for Contra Costa County, which has consistently voted in favor of criminal justice reform. Graves has consistently tacked to the right of the other four finalists in the competition to replace the disgraced former district attorney Mark Peterson, who resigned earlier this year after pleading no contest to one count of felony perjury after using $66,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

Peterson was sentenced to three years probation and 250 hours of community service. He also faces possible disbarment.

The Contra Costa County Supervisors now must pick a replacement district attorney who will serve until June 2018 when the next election is scheduled. The other two finalists are Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Vanier and Judge Danielle Douglas.

All five candidates will appear before the Board of Supervisors in September. The five-member Board will then select the interim district attorney, though their method of selection remains unclear.

Houston Police officers will not be tried over invasive body cavity search of black woman

Harris County Courthouse

Houston Police officers will not be tried over invasive body cavity search of black woman

Two Houston police officers who were accused of going too far with a roadside body cavity search after they thought they smelled weed on Charnesia Corley in 2015 have been cleared by a Harris County grand jury.

Deputies William Strong and Ronaldine Pierre were originally indicted in June 2016 after pulling Charnesia Corley over for a traffic stop in a gas station parking lot and ordering a strip search after they smelled marijuana in the car. Corley, who is black, has said the female officer who conducted the search penetrated her vagina looking for marijuana.

According to a federal civil rights lawsuit Corley has filed against Harris County, the officers ordered her to pull down her pants. Corley said no because she wasn’t wearing any underwear. A female deputy allegedly responded with “so?”

Police then took off her pants and shined a light into her vagina. Seeing nothing, the female deputy proceeded to do an 11-minute body cavity search that involved penetration.

“I felt like they sexually assaulted me. I really do. I felt disgusted, downgraded and humiliated,” Corley said to ABC 13 Eyewitness News.

Police officials said Corley was not penetrated and the officers performed “a visual strip search.” Police also said the body cavity search did yield 0.2 grams of marijuana. Corley was charged with drug possession and resisting arrest, but after reviewing the case prosecutors dropped all charges against her, calling the search “offensive and shocking.”

But the office of District Attorney Kim Ogg presented new evidence to a second grand jury, which cleared the officers earlier this month. It was Ogg’s predecessor, Devon Anderson, who originally charged the deputies.

Ogg’s office declined to say what the new evidence was, saying that the rules of the grand jury prohibited them from talking about it. Corley’s attorney said that evidence was medical records the state had always had.

That attorney, Sam Cammack, has called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to pursue charges against the deputies.

The chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Civil Rights Division, Natasha Sinclair, told the Texas Observer that, although the charges were dismissed, it does not mean the office condones what happened.

“We don’t condone this type of search at all,” Sinclair said. “This is by no means us saying this is an appropriate way to conduct a search.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office had already cleared the two officers, and former Sheriff Ed Hickman expressed unhappiness about the original decision to indict. The office of current Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the decision to drop the charges backs up the Internal Affairs investigation that found the deputies violated no policies.

The female officer who actually did the search wasn’t charged because she was ordered to do it, Cammack said.

Corley has sued Harris County in federal court alleging that her civil rights were violated. That case is still pending. Courts have generally ruled that this type of body cavity search is only legal when cops can show that waiting for a judicial search warrant would result in the loss or destruction of evidence.

Ogg no longer prosecutes cases involving such a small amount of drugs, instead sending them to a diversion program.

A law went into effect in 2015 requiring Texas police to obtain search warrants before conducting these type of roadside body cavity searches. But critics say the practice still occurs and police do not face any criminal penalty if they violate it.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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Federal judge calls Attorney General’s mandatory sentencing decision ‘bad policy’

He cites “many, many horror stories.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Federal judge calls Attorney General’s mandatory sentencing decision ‘bad policy’

He cites “many, many horror stories.”

federal judge in Rhode Island has joined a growing number of judges speaking out against mandatory minimum sentencing across the country. Last week, Chief U.S. District Court Judge William Smith of the District of Rhode Island slammed the harsh federal sentencing mandated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year, calling it “bad policy.”

During an interview with local news station WPRI last ThursdaySmith said that he is firmly against this type of sentencing, which imposes immutable prison terms for various crimes and strips away judges’ ability to use discretion during the sentencing process. Mandatory minimums hypothetically level the playing field for convicted offenders, removing the implicit bias underlying sentencing decisions. But in practice, Black and Latino people are far more likely than their white counterparts to receive mandatory minimum sentences. The policy also leads to harsh sentencing that isn’t proportionate to the crime committed.

“There are many, many horror stories about the application of mandatory minimums to defendants who really should not have gone to prison for as long as they did,” said Smith, who was appointed during President George W. Bush’s first term. “I think it’s bad policy to take the discretion away from trial court judges.”

Smith argues that there are many factors that should be taken into consideration when making a sentencing decision, including the nature of the crime and the history of the person who committed it. A blanket policy ignores the context that judges would otherwise account for. “With every defendant, there is a whole story,” he said. “There’s a life that’s been lived — often a complicated life.”

But there’s another glaring problem with mandatory minimum sentencing that Smith left out: it doesn’t work. Researchers and criminal justice advocates have long debunked the idea that it reduces crime. What it has done instead is cause the prison population to skyrocket without increasing public safety.

“Each individual city has its own culture, its own people, history, structure, the relationships between the police and a community,” Greg Newburn, a policy director at Families Against Mandatory Minimums previously told In Justice Today. “We don’t know why crime has gone up in a lot of these cities, and why it’s gone down in others. To say in the abstract that [mandatory minimums are] the better solution is a fool’s errand.”

Rhode Island threw out mandatory minimum sentencing for defendants found guilty of nonviolent drug offenses in 2009. Many other states have passed similar reforms. Nevertheless, people convicted for federal crimes are still haunted by draconian sentencing that Sessions wants heavily enforced.

Smith is not the first to criticize Sessions’ directive. In April, one day after he quit his job as a federal judge in Tennessee, Kevin Sharp condemned mandatory sentencing that leaves judges hopeless. “The drugs-and-guns cases, you say it like that and it sounds like they’re all dangerous,” he told a reporter from the Tennessean. “Most of them are not. They’re just kids who lack any opportunities and any supervision, lack education and have ended up doing what appears to be at the time the path of least resistance to make a living.”

In June, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett of Iowa explained to NPR that this policy also hurts people struggling with drug abuse. “They have a medical problem. It’s called addiction, and they’re going to be faced with five and 10 and 20-year and sometimes life mandatory minimum sentences. I think that’s a travesty,” he said.

But with tough-on-crime Sessions steering the ship, criticism of the policy by federal judges like Smith, Bennett, and Sharp is likely to be ignored.

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