Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Ex-prisoner’s blessing becomes a curse

Effective Compassion | Man sues state for rearresting him after letting him out of prison early
by Rob Holmes
Posted 3/28/18, 04:06 pm

A Seattle man filed suit this month against the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) for rearresting him three years after releasing him from prison 76 days early.

In 2012, a computer programming error caused Orlando Wright, 37, to be released a few months short of completing his eight-year sentence for armed robbery of $300 from a man at an ATM. The same glitch allowed the early release of more than 3,000 other felons who had sentence enhancements, such as the extra 60 months in Wright’s sentence for using a firearm during the robbery. The DOC fixed the error after years of delay, and authorities arranged to rearrest Wright and 116 other offenders after a public uproar in January 2016 over two people killed by prisoners freed prematurely. 

More than 1,000 other prisoners whose releases were reviewed were not rearrested due to a Supreme Court decision allowing time at liberty to count as time served unless they “abscond legal obligations.” Officials said Wright had violated his release arrangement by drinking alcohol and failing to report to a supervisor during the months after his release. In his lawsuit, Wright claims he attended chemical dependency treatment and was released from DOC supervision having shown compliance with the indicated court ordered requirements.

Wright’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for violating his rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. He claims the state destroyed the successful life he had built during the three years since his release: He had landed a job at a car wash, enrolled in welding classes, rented an apartment, had a car, and spent time with his new baby daughter. When he went back to prison in January 2016, his housemate moved when he could no longer pay the rent, leaving Wright’s possessions. His car disappeared, and his daughter’s mother filed for and won sole custody of their child. 

When Wright left prison after 76 days, authorities gave him $60. He said he wandered in Seattle for nearly two weeks before checking in to Congregations for the Homeless shelter in suburban Bellevue. He managed to get his job back and lived on $100 a day in tips while the shelter helped him back into an apartment. 

“It has taken Mr. Wright almost two years to put his life back together, including obtaining reliable transportation, employment, housing, re-enrolling in technical college, and establishing visitation with his daughter,” his lawsuit states. 

“Seventy-six days: It’s just enough to lose everything,” Wright said.

Wright’s lawyer, Tiffany Cartwright, said the department had no authorization to rearrest him. They used a “secretary’s warrant”—issued for people who escape—instead of a legal court warrant.

Republican state Sen. Mike Padden called the DOC’s mishandling of prisoners’ early releases the “worst management failure in the history of the state,” according to The Spokane Spokesman-Review. He sponsored legislation, passed in 2017, to improve transparency and public accountability for the department.

Associated Press/Photo by Cliff Owen Associated Press/Photo by Cliff Owen The mother of a sex trafficking victim testifies before a U.S. Senate committee in January 2017.

Anti–sex trafficking bill could finally hold Backpage accountable

A bill that gives prosecutors and sex-trafficking victims better support for taking legal action against websites that post online sex ads is headed to the president’s desk.

The Senate followed the House last week in passing the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. The bill seeks to clarify language in the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which advocates have long argued shields sites like Backpage.com from criminal and civil penalties for facilitating trafficking.

Two mothers whose teenage daughters were trafficked through Backpage ads gave emotional testimony to Congress in support of the legislation after their legal battles against the website failed. Backpage has successfully defended itself against any prosecution by citing a small section of the CDA that says online intermediaries that host or republish speech aren’t responsible for what their customers say and do.

Many websites responded immediately, even though the new law hasn’t taken effect yet. Craigslist and Reddit shuttered their personal ad sections hours after the Senate passed the bill. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure. —Gaye Clark

Associated Press/Photo by Amy Taxin Associated Press/Photo by Amy Taxin The parking lot in Garden Grove, Calif., where a homeless family was found dead in their van earlier this month

Homeless family found dead in van

A homeless couple living in a van with two children died while sleeping earlier this month. Police suspected carbon monoxide poisoning emitted from the vehicle, parked at a strip mall in Garden Grove, Calif., caused their deaths.

Police Lt. Carl Whitney said a woman reported a foul odor coming from the Honda van after seeing it parked for several days beside a CVS Pharmacy in the town southeast of Los Angeles.

The children, a boy and a girl, were in diapers and appeared to be under age 2, Whitney said. The van’s windows had been covered, and “they were in pajamas and sleeping gear and it looks like they were all asleep inside the van.”

The Orange County Coroner’s Division identified the man as 41-year-old Phunyouphone Kanyavong, who is believed to be the father of the two children. He and his girlfriend lived for a while with their children in the van but did not seek help. Their relatives knew about the situation.

“What is tragic about this is we have our special resources teams that have connections to different resources,” Whitney said.

Car-dwelling has risen in California this year as cities face sharp increases in rental costs. –R.H.

‘Shack’ parents now have a home but not custody of kids

A California couple hope to regain custody of their children after their arrest for child endangerment while living in a what was described as a box. Daniel Panico, 73, and his wife, Mona Kirk, 51, now live in a permanent home paid for and repaired with nearly $70,000 in online donations to a GoFundMe campaign set up by a friend.

Last month, authorities took their three children from their home near Joshua Tree, Calif., Kirk told KMIR-TV. She saw them again for the first time this weekend, according to a social media post.

Lawyers will argue that the charges against the couple should be dropped since they were simply poor, not abusive, and friends in the community can vouch for the health and happiness of the kids—ages 11, 13, and 14—despite having lived in makeshift desert quarters.

Married to Kirk for 17 years, Panico said he wants to see the law changed so a needy family is not so easily torn apart: “Children wrenched from their parents? It’s not right.” –R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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