Here’s What It’s Like To Be a Defense Investigator in a Rigged Criminal Justice System – JUDITH COBURN AUG. 20, 2016 6:00 AM

A journalist-turned-private eye unloads.


This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Once upon a time I was a journalist, covering wars in Indochina, Central America, and the Middle East. I made it my job to write about the victims of war, the civilian casualties. To me, they were hardly “collateral damage,” that bloodless term the military persuaded journalists to adopt. To me, they were the center of war. Now I’m a private eye. I work mostly on homicide cases for defense lawyers on the mean streets of Oakland, California, long viewed as one of America’s murder capitals.

Indeed, on some days Oakland feels like Saigon, Tegucigalpa, or Gaza. There’s the deception of daily life and the silent routine of dread punctured by out-of-the blue mayhem. The city’s poorest neighborhoods are sporadic war zones whose violence sometimes explodes onto streets made rich overnight by the tech boom. On any quiet day, you can drive down San Pablo Avenue past St. Columba Catholic Church, where a thicket of white crosses, one for every Oaklander killed by gun violence in a given year, crowds its front yard.


Whenever I tell people I’m a private eye, they ask: “Do you get innocent people off death row?” Or “Can you follow my ex around?” Or “What kind of gun do you carry?”

I always disappoint them. Yes, I do defend people against the death penalty, but so far all my defendants have probably been guilty—of something. (Often, I can only guess what.) While keeping them off death row may absolve me of being an accessory after the fact to murder, it also regularly condemns my defendants to life in prison until they die there.

My defendants may be guilty—but seldom of what they are charged with.

And I find spying on people their ex-spouses fantasize about killing much sleazier than actual murder. Finally, I’m a good shot, but I don’t carry a gun because that’s the best way to get shot. I work on the low-profile cases: poor people charged with murder, burglary, or robbery, who don’t have the money for a lawyer or their own P.I. (I’m paid, if you can call it that, by the state.)

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Privatizing extradition: Behind the shocking investigation into the criminal justice system’s underbelly – DANIEL DENVIR MONDAY, JUL 11, 2016 02:57 AM PDT

Prison transport hell: How transportation companies profit off low-level offenders — and put lives in danger

Privatizing extradition: Behind the shocking investigation into the criminal justice system’s underbelly

Last week, Marshall Project reporters Eli Hager and Alysia Santo published a detailed, disturbing investigation into a little-known system of private transportation companies used to move prisoners long distances between states and localities, primarily in the South and Midwest. They revealed an almost entirely unregulated industry profiting from the extradition of oftentimes low-level offenders in frequently brutal conditions — overseen by underpaid, undertrained and overworked guards. At least four deaths have occurred on private extradition vans run by the largest such company, Prisoner Transportation Services, since 2012. One was Steven Galack, who suffered from delusions and was allegedly beaten to death by other prisoners on a guard’s orders. Another man, who suffered from diabetes, had both legs amputated after three days in a van. The Marshall Project, a non-profit criminal justice news outlet, published the story in collaboration with the New York Times.

Hager and Santo spoke to Salon about the investigation. Below is an edited version of the interview:

This was a remarkable and utterly heartbreaking investigation. It’s also a piece of the American criminal justice system that is, at first blush, pretty obscure. How did you find out about this network of privately run prisoner transport companies?

Santo:It all started with a tip from a lawyer that was representing the family of Steven Galack. He had told the Atlanta Journal Constitution about his case, and we have partnered with that newspaper in the past for other projects, so they passed the tip on to us. We saw the brutality in the case and wondered: What else happens on these vans? How many others might have been hurt or killed while being moved across the country by these companies? And when we started to look into it we realized quickly that there was so much that needed to be exposed about this industry.

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Bernie Sanders’s plan to abolish private prisons, explained – Updated by German Lopez on September 18, 2015, 12:00 a.m. ET

Charlie Leight/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to abolish a multibillion-dollar industry: private prisons.

The presidential hopeful introduced a bill on Thursday that would ban private prisons within a few years, taking aim at what he called a “broken criminal justice system” and mass incarceration.

The plan is just the latest in what’s increasingly becoming one of the biggest issues of the Democratic primaries: criminal justice. Hillary Clinton recently released an anti-drug plan that tries to shift drug policies away from punitive criminal justice measures to public health programs, and Sanders and Martin O’Malley released plans for addressing racial justice issues.

Still, Sanders’s plan by itself probably wouldn’t do much to reduce mass incarceration. While private prisons are a favorite target of liberals like Sanders, they house a small percentage of convicted criminals. The most effective part of Sanders’s plan, in fact, may be a provision that has nothing to do with private prisons at all.

Sanders’s plan would ban private prisons within a few years

The bill takes six main steps, according to Sanders’s office:

  1. Prohibit local, state, and federal contracts for privately run prisons within two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension if deemed necessary by the US attorney general.
  2. Eliminate private immigration detention centers within two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension if deemed necessary by the US attorney general.
  3. End the requirement that the federal government maintain a certain number of beds for immigrant detainees.
  4. Stop the detention of immigrant families caught at the border, and increase monitoring of immigrant detention facilities to ensure more humane conditions.
  5. Increase oversight to stop private companies from overcharging inmates for services like banking and phone calls.
  6. Reinstate the federal parole system.

Why Sanders introduced the plan

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Charles Koch’s views on criminal justice system just may surprise you – BY ROY WENZLTHE WICHITA EAGLE 12/27/2014 5:12 PM 12/29/2014 9:49 AM

After studying the U.S. criminal justice system, Charles Koch concluded that there are too many laws and too many prosecutions of nonviolent offenders. (May 22, 2012) BO RADER FILE PHOTO Read more here:

Of all the contentious history between Koch Industries and the U.S. government, the Corpus Christi, Texas, case from 1995 is the one that Charles Koch remembers most vividly.

A federal grand jury indicted his company on 97 felonies involving alleged environmental crimes at an oil refinery.

Prosecutors dropped all but one of the charges six years later, after the company spent tens of millions of dollars defending itself.

Ultimately, Koch Petroleum Group agreed to pay a $10 million settlement.

“It was a really, really torturous experience,” said Mark Holden, Koch’s chief counsel. “We learned first-hand what happens when anyone gets into the criminal justice system.”

Holden said Charles Koch wondered afterward “how the little guy who doesn’t have Koch’s resources deals with prosecutions like that.”

No one at Koch wants to re-litigate the Corpus Christi case, Holden said. But it prompted Charles Koch to study the justice system – both federal and state – wondering whether it has been over-criminalized with too many laws and too many prosecutions of nonviolent offenders, not only for him but for everybody.

His conclusion: Yes, it has.

Ten years ago, he began giving money to support efforts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to help train defense lawyers and reverse what some see as a national trend to get tough on crime, which has resulted in the tripling of the incarceration rate since the 1980s and has stripped the poor of their rights to a legal defense.

He’s going to give more to that effort, he said.

“Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country,” Koch said. “And that would be freedom of speech, cronyism and how that relates to opportunities for the disadvantaged.”

The nation’s criminal justice system needs reform, “especially for the disadvantaged,” Koch said, “making it fair and making (criminal) sentences more appropriate to the crime that has been committed.”

Holden said legislators in recent decades drifted into a habit of adding more laws every year and taking stands to show themselves as “getting tough on crime.” It has gone too far, Holden said.

The weight has fallen most heavily on minorities, Holden said.

It has festered in neighborhoods and fostered the anger of people protesting against police actions in Missouri and New York. And, Holden said, “It definitely appears to have a racial angle, intended or not.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that one in three black men will spend time in prison.

The impact

Among the concerns, Holden said, of federal and state governments are:

▪ Too many nonviolent offenders have been sent to prison for too long. The United States incarcerates 2.2 million people. Another 65 million – one in four adults – now have criminal records, according to the defense lawyers association.

“We have more of America now in prison than they ever did (in South Africa) in apartheid,” Holden said. “Let that swirl around in your head for a while.”

▪ The economy has been damaged by making it difficult for offenders to get jobs once they are out of prison. The social stigma and routine background checks, according to the association, “has made it all but impossible for a person with a criminal record to leave the past behind.”

▪ Millions of former offenders have been denied voting and other rights long after they have paid their debt to society.

▪ The Sixth Amendment right to an attorney has been impaired by allowing public defender offices to be underfunded and overwhelmed, including by government prosecutors with more far more resources at their disposal.

The Corpus Christi case led Charles Koch and his company to give money, starting about 10 years ago, to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The company and the association would not say how much Koch has given, but the amount totals in the seven figures, Holden said.

Campaigning against overcriminalization has prompted Koch to form unofficial alliances with people and organizations that usually champion liberal causes, including political activist George Soros and the American Civil Liberties Union, who are also campaigning for a reduction in prison populations.

Kansas prisons

Kansas has 9,600 inmates in eight adult prisons, according to the 2014 annual report from the Kansas Department of Corrections, which has an annual budget of $306 million.

The cost per inmate is $25,000 per year.

“That’s more than what it costs to send a kid to college for a year,” said David Gilkey, a Wichita youth mentor.

The prison population is projected to rise by 740 more inmates by 2024, which would add another $18.5 million per year to the state cost, according to state estimates.

Nobody wants to let violent criminals out of prison, Holden said. Of the 9,600 inmates in Kansas, 4,836 were convicted of committing violent crimes, and another 2,129 were sent there for sex offenses.

But there are also 1,736 inmates serving drug sentences and another 567 serving sentences for nonviolent property crimes.

Wasting human resources

Gilkey and Norman Reimer say much the same things about overcriminalization of the justice system and their support of Koch’s plans to reform it. Few men could be as different in background.

Reimer, an attorney, directs the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, D.C.

Gilkey is a former Wichita crack addict and an ex-convict who spent nearly four years in Kansas prisons. But in the nine years since his release, Gilkey has become a respected Wichita mentor to young people.

He runs “Rise Up for Youth,” a United Way-supported group; he goes regularly into the tough parts of town, speaks to gang members and goes into local schools at the request of educators to plead with youngsters to study, stay away from drugs and stay out of crime.

Reimer said the “tough on crime” stance has created “too many laws, too many flaws in the criminal justice process and far too much work for beleaguered public defenders assigned to represent poor people in courts.”

“There are never adequate resources now to ensure that the poor can have access to a lawyer,” he said.

It may surprise some Koch critics that Koch took an interest in criminal justice; it’s not a surprise to Reimer.

“We share a reverence for the Bill of Rights,” he said.

Putting 2 million people in prison was a mistake, he said.

“We are not a nation of bad people. We are a nation that made some bad choices,” he said.

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There Are Ferguson’s All Over The Country, Just Waiting To Ignite. Here’s Why. I’d love to say “There’s no question that the justice system treats African Americans differently” but I can’t. People question it all the time. Question answered. – Phoebe Gavin Published on Aug 19, 2014

The shooting of Michael Brown offers Americans yet another reminder that their criminal justice system is riddled with racial disparities. From encounters with police to prison sentences, Ferguson is another drop in a very full bucket.

The growing criminalization of homelessness – by Aaron Cantú July 18, 2014 6:00AM ET

As the number of homeless people in America’s major cities has increased, so have ordinances criminalizing homelessness and pushing homeless families and individuals into the criminal justice system. Criminalization has become a tactic with which politicians have reconfigured cities to serve wealthier citizens and tourists, at the considerable expense of the poor. These politicians are rarely challenged, and developers, businesses and city officials have partnered with police and private security forces to “cleanse” urban spaces by any means necessary.Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at Jul 23, 2014 2.09

A new report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found the number of cities imposing penalties for camping, begging, sleeping, sitting or eating in public has risen sharply in the last two years. There are now laws against feeding the homeless in over 50 cities. Ordinances prohibiting sleeping in cars — specifically targeted at the destitute — have more than doubled nationwide since 2011. In Denver the City Council passed a controversial “urban camping ban” in 2012 to clear space for the continued development of its downtown into a “millennial playground,” complete with nightclubs, restaurants and a miniature-golf course. Honolulu’s mayor told The New York Times he had renewed a crackdown on the homeless because tourists “want to see their paradise … [not] homeless people sleeping.” And Phoenix announced the creation of “a new organization focused on downtown’s revitalization,” while at the same time launching an initiative to arrest street people with misdemeanor warrants.

This crackdown is happening without equally forceful measures to develop the nation’s supply of affordable housing, which has fallen by 12.8 percent since 2001 because of fewer subsidies for federal housing. The U.N. Human Rights Committee even condemned the trend as “cruel, inhuman, [and] degrading” in a recent report on the United States.

What’s behind these cruel laws? USA Today suggested that the trend toward criminalization was a result of “compassion fatigue,” a gradual receding of empathy for the poor. But there’s a more practical reason for it: As recession- and austerity-battered cities look for ways to revive their economies, they’re offering huge tax incentives for companies to build entertainment complexes, hotels and retail chains in their downtown districts in the hopes that the relocation will spur a renaissance. Statutes criminalizing homelessness have been outfitted specifically to clear out these areas. The New Yorker called this process “Manhattanization,” defined as “turning a city into a playground for the wealthiest inhabitants, even as [the city] forgets about the poorest.”

Cities haven’t quite forgotten about the poorest, though — they’re simply dealing with them in an entirely different way. 

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As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price by JOSEPH SHAPIRO May 19, 2014 4:02 PM ET

The proliferation of court fees has prompted some states, like New Jersey, to use amnesty programs to encourage the thousands of people who owe fines to surrender in exchange for fee reductions. At the Fugitive Safe Surrender program, makeshift courtrooms allow judges to individually handle each case.

The proliferation of court fees has prompted some states, like New Jersey, to use amnesty programs to encourage the thousands of people who owe fines to surrender in exchange for fee reductions. At the Fugitive Safe Surrender program, makeshift courtrooms allow judges to individually handle each case.

Nicole Beemsterboer/NPR

In Augusta, Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2.

In Ionia, Mich., 19-year-old Kyle Dewitt caught a fish out of season; then a judge sentenced him to three days in jail.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., Stephen Papa, a homeless Iraq War veteran, spent 22 days in jail, not for what he calls his “embarrassing behavior” after he got drunk with friends and climbed into an abandoned building, but because he had only $25 the day he went to court.

The common thread in these cases, and scores more like them, is the jail time wasn’t punishment for the crime, but for the failure to pay the increasing fines and fees associated with the criminal justice system.

A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It’s a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.

state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:

  • In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
  • In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
  • In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
  • And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.


NPR’s yearlong investigation included more than 150 interviews with lawyers, judges, offenders in and out of jail, government officials, advocates and other experts. It also included a nationwide survey — with help from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts — of which states are charging defendants and offenders fees. Findings of this investigation include:

  • Defendants are charged for a long list of government services that were once free — including ones that are constitutionally required.
  • Impoverished people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind paying these fees.
  • Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees.
  • Many courts are struggling to interpret a 1983 Supreme Court ruling protecting defendants from going to jail because they are too poor to pay their fines.
  • Technology, such as electronic monitors, aimed at helping defendants avoid jail time is available only to those who can afford to pay for it.

Listen to Morning Edition and All Things Consideredall this week for additional stories from this investigation.

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