Federal Protection for Women Sliding Backwards, Experts Warn

Lynn Rosenthal and Bea Hanson, prominent players in the Obama White House, told a conference at John Jay College Tuesday they were worried that the upcoming reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act would not cover the programs needed to help women experiencing intimate partner violence.

Two of the country’s leading experts on women’s issues warn that federal efforts to prevent violence against women are in danger of sliding “backwards” under the Trump administration.

Current discussions in Washington over the anticipated reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) this year raise concerns about whether funding under the Act will cover the programs needed to help women experiencing intimate partner violence, a conference at John Jay College in New York was told Tuesday.

Bea Hanson

Bea Hanson. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Even the level of funds provided under the last reauthorization of the Act in 2013 is “at risk because (it) happened in the last administration,” said Bea Hanson, executive director of the NYC Domestic Violence Task Force. 

And those funds barely addressed all the needs of women under threat of sexual assault or abuse, added Hanson, who was previously Principal Deputy Director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice during the Obama Administration.

VAWA, passed in 1994, was the first piece of federal legislation designed to end violence against women. It was also a triumph for women’s groups that lobbied hard to persuade Congress to grant federal protection for women on the grounds that states were failing in their efforts to address this violence.

However, Lynn Rosenthal, who heads the Violence Against Women Initiative at the Biden Foundation, expressed concern that VAWA under the Trump administration would reduce protections for LGBTQ women and immigrant women.

“There’s a real fear that VAWA is moving backwards in 2018,” said Rosenthal, who served as the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women from 2009-2015.

The funds allocated under the 2013 reauthorization—$465 million—were barely enough to address the scope of the problem, she pointed out.

“We never funded the innovations we need,” she said, noting that the funds amounted to a “rounding error” compared to other expenditures in the federal budget—even as the threats faced by women continued to grow.

“While overall rates of domestic violence have dropped by 63 percent since VAWA was passed, still, one in three women will experience some form of abuse by an intimate partner in their life,” she said.

Notably, 70 percent of those women will be under the age of 25.

Lynn Rosenthal

Lynn Rosenthal. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

“It’s a burden borne by young women,” said Rosenthal.

While the future of VAWA is unclear, the question of whether or not states could adequately protect women who are survivors of violence has emerged as another major concern. 

According to Hanson, the states shouldn’t be left with this responsibility.

The problem with the state’s response is that some communities would receive help, while others would not, she said.

“There would be a huge slot in the country where nothing is happening, and that is why we need the broad brush that the federal government can offer,” Hanson added.

Of the vulnerable population VAWA aims to protect, undocumented immigrant women living in the US should be at the forefront, argued experts at the conference.

“We forget about those who don’t speak English and had to leave their home because of the sexual violence they faced in their country,” said Rocío García, program coordinator at VIP Mujeres, a nonprofit New York-based advocacy group that works with immigrants.

Yet under the Trump administration, undocumented immigrants are at great risk of losing whatever protection they had previously under VAWA.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose duties include supervision of the nation’s immigration courts, is conducting a broad review to question whether domestic or sexual violence should ever be recognized as persecution that would justify protection in the United States.

With approximately 19 million immigrant women and girls in the US, VAWA offers three forms of protection to undocumented immigrant women: “U” visas for victims of crime; “T” visas for victims of severe forms of trafficking; and “self-petitioning” visas.

See also: How Safe Are ‘Sanctuary Cities’?

Rescinding provisions of VAWA that aid undocumented women would be a mistake, García argued. 

“We need immigration relief,” she said.

“America is supposed to be for all of us, but these undocumented immigrants who are victims of abuse are still afraid.”

The two-day conference for the media, scholars, practitioners, and advocates on “The Hidden Crime: Covering Domestic Violence,” was co sponsored by the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence and the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.

The conference ends Wednesday.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers. 

from https://thecrimereport.org

How Safe are ‘Sanctuary Cities’?

For Amanda Morales, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who has taken refuge in a New York church with her family, it’s a question of life or death. Identified in an ICE database after a driving offense, she is subject to deportation and a return to a homeland where she believes her children’s lives would be in danger.

Many undocumented immigrants living in the U.S believe so-called “sanctuary cities” provide protection against the heightened risk of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But are they wrong?

Even in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned ICE arrests in state buildings and Mayor Bill De Blasio urged the NYPD not to assist immigration enforcement, undocumented immigrants are vulnerable.

Sanctuary cities, which some prefer to define as “safe cities,” limit their cooperation with immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation. (They still turn over those who have committed serious crimes.)

But here’s the reality: if an undocumented individual, or an immigrant with a green card or temporary work visa, comes into contact with law enforcement, he or she is entered into a database system accessible by the federal agency, which acts effectively as a guidepost to locate individuals who might otherwise have escaped notice.

Under the Trump administration, which has stepped up the already-aggressive policies begun under the Obama administration of detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants found to have broken US laws, the fate of individuals who may have committed offenses at some point during their stay in the US has become even more uncertain.

Take, for example, Amanda Morales.

A mother of three living without documents in New York City for 14 years, she was involved in a minor accident while she was driving in 2012. When a police officer checked her documents, she had no driver’s license—a typical predicament for undocumented immigrants who fear making themselves known to authorities.

Once her name was automatically entered into a database, ICE was alerted.

Today, she’s a wanted fugitive, living in a church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her three children—two girls and a little boy, who were born in the US and are US citizens—where (she hopes) she’ll be protected from ICE agents.

Morales’ case is not unusual.

Significantly, traffic stops, particularly driving while under the influence, were the number one reason undocumented persons were deported in 2017.

Amanda Morales and her family have been “guests” of the Holyrood Episcopal Church in New York, since the ICE identified her as an undocumented immigrant subject to deportation following a driving offense. Photo by Megan Hadley/TCR

The family has made Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz, a self-declared “sanctuary church,” into a home of their own, where they eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, play, and essentially try to lead normal lives.

The children race around the pews while Amanda talks with church staff and volunteers.

But when the congregation leaves the church at night, Morales becomes sad and depressed.

“I like the hustle and bustle of church during the day”, she told The Crime Report. “There are people singing, piano lessons being taught, people coming in and out to pray, and volunteers and staff working here.”

Amanda does not leave the church for fear of deportation, making the small library into a sort of prison.

“I don’t open the door for people I don’t know,” she said. “I’m scared.”

The Morales’ small bedroom in the church. Photo by Megan Hadley

All because she was driving without a license.

There are several states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. New York is just not one of them.

In California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Washington, immigrants can provide a foreign birth certificate, a foreign passport or a consular card, and evidence of current residency in the state.

According to Amanda Armenta, an expert on policies and practices of local law enforcement, if you don’t have a license, you are more likely to be arrested because you are “a suspicious person.”

“Once arrested, even the most liberal and progressive police departments cannot stop ICE from using criminal justice content for whatever they want to use it for,” she acknowledged.

“But obviously there are things police departments can do to help ICE more or less,” she continued.

“Unfortunately for most police departments, the ways they funnel people to deportation are invisible to them,” she said. “Police departments either don’t know… or choose not to know.”

Whether or not the New York Police Department knows it’s aiding immigration enforcement with the names of illegal immigrants, the number of Latin American, Hispanic, and African-American persons they pull over during traffic stops remains high.

In 2017, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 10,861 times. Some 58 percent of those people were black and 23 percent were Latino.

Only nine percent were white.

In conservative states, traffic stops are even more of a worry for undocumented immigrants, who may be arrested by ICE officials on the side of the road, said Armenta, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Those kinds of things are ‘illegal detentions,'” she said, “but (they) still happen.”

Ordinarily, that would not happen—or should not happen—in a city with a sanctuary policy, where police have been specifically told not to inquire about immigration status or to inform ICE about these run-of-the-mill police stops, she noted.

Critics argue that this is precisely what has contributed to cases in which undocumented individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes are allowed back on the “streets” only to commit new crimes.

But immigration advocates point to statistics that show undocumented individuals commit far fewer crimes than legal residents.

But there’s another side to the story.

Amanda braids her daughter’s hair in the church pews.

Driving without a license, as in Morales’ case, is a misdemeanor offense. For a U.S. citizen or legal resident, the penalties can be stiff. An offender in New York State could be fined between $75 and $300, but could also be imprisoned for up to 15 days.

When an undocumented immigrant is convicted of a similar offense, however, the penalty is effectively deportation—not necessarily because of an assessment that the individual is a threat to the community, but simply on the grounds that he or she is in the U.S. illegally.

A recent session at the federal immigration court on Varick Street in New York, presided by immigration judge Mimi Tsankov, made that starkly clear.

The defendant stood before the judge with three Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions on his record. (His last DUI in November was an aggravated DUI.) His lawyer argued he would stop drinking, go to rehab, and never drive again.

The judge wasn’t buying it. She denied a bond hearing, and declared that whether or not the defendant is deported will be decided at a later appeal court date.

As I sat in the back with the defendant’s family, the defendant’s eleven year old son was crying on his aunt’s shoulder, unsure if his father would be deported to Mexico, or remain in the states to watch him grow up.

The defendant’s lawyer was not surprised by the outcome. But he was disheartened.

“Seeing the little boy cry made me want to break down in tears,” the lawyer, who asked that his name, and his client’s name, remain anonymous, said after the hearing.

The ICE officer I interviewed later that day, who also asked that his identity remain anonymous, agreed with Judge Tsankov.

“Criminals who are set free and released into the streets are a danger to the public,” he said simply.

An Asian American in his mid-30s, whose family immigrated legally, the agent said that “the goal of immigration enforcement is to catch criminals, and sanctuary cities hinder law enforcement’s ability to do so.”

“Sanctuary cities are a horrible idea… they make for the harboring of criminals,” he added.

For individuals like the defendant in Judge Tsankov’s court and Amanda Morales, the notion of “sanctuary” has little relevance.

According to Katrina Long, a senior immigration attorney at Cella and Associates, LLC, it’s a common misconception that undocumented immigrants are being deported for minor crimes, such as traffic violations and low level drug offenses.

The fact is, she argued, they are being deported because they are here illegally.

“When you cross border… you know you have no standing in U.S,” she told The Crime Report. “When you overstay your visa, you know you’re doing an unlawful act.”

Immigrants are being identified for minor crimes, she said, but at the end of the day, they are being deported because they have no legal standing here.

However, Long did acknowledge that for most undocumented immigrants, such as Amanda Morales and her family, being hunted by ICE officials is better than living in their homelands, which may be impoverished and violence stricken.

“If the quality of life improved in immigrant’s home countries, they wouldn’t be drawn to United States,” said Long, citing the gang violence perpetrated by drug cartels as one of the principal drivers of undocumented immigration from Central American nations like Guatemala.

“We can’t expect to solve immigration issues in the U.S and for everything to be perfect—no problem is isolated.”

Once identified on U.S. soil, an undocumented immigrant has some rights under existing laws, she said. Some may be eligible to have deportation proceedings cancelled if a child or family member is a U.S. citizen.

According to Long, an individual in those circumstances can apply for a green card, on the grounds that a dependent would suffer if he or she is removed from the country.”U” visas are also available for victims of crime who are willing to assist authorities with catching the perpetrator.

But these legal protections offer slim comfort to women like Morales, who fear taking the risk of subjecting themselves to a legal process they do not understand, and which could end in disaster—especially if they have been identified in a data base for a criminal offense.

For those among the 1.2 million undocumented immigrants living in New York who do not qualify for cancellation of removal, and who have exhausted all the mercies of the justice system, seeking refuge in a local church seems like the best alternative.

“Living in this church is much better than living in Guatemala,” Morales said, adding that in her country gangs preyed on anyone who they believed had money, in some cases kidnapping childen for ransom.

“You cannot even sleep thinking about people coming to get your kids,” she said.

“At least,” she added, “in the church you can sleep safe.”

But whether she can remain indefinitely as a fugitive—even in a city that offers itself as a “sanctuary”—is an open question.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Guns in Schools: The Nuanced View From ‘Trump Country’

Few messages are more alarming to the parent of a schoolchild than a “lockdown” alert from a school. When an incident near a small Catholic school in Gainesville, Fl. triggered that alert it reinforced some local views that having weapons available in schools made sense. But not everyone in this conservative pro-Trump stronghold agrees.

Art work at Saint Patrick’s Interparish school. Photo by Megan Hadley

“Personally, with the way things are going now, I think teachers should be allowed to have protection,” said Lady L, the mother of an eight-year-old boy at Saint Patrick Interparish school in Gainesville, Fl., and a firm supporter of allowing teachers to carry guns in schools.

Saint Patrick’s, a small Catholic grade school, was on lockdown last Wednesday, due to an attempted armed robbery at a bank just down the street.

Fearful for her child’s life, Lady L (who asked that her real name be withheld) texted the school for permission to come and pick up her child, but he was not allowed to leave.

“I didn’t know what to think,” she told The Crime Report.

While gun control remains a widely polarized issue nationally, with President Donald Trump voicing his support for guns in schools at the National Rifle Association Convention last Friday, and gun control advocates making clear their fierce opposition to the idea, those closest to the problem have a much more nuanced reaction.  

Here in the so-called Florida “Panhandle,” in the state’s northwest corner, where conservative voters helped Trump win the state in 2016,  gun ownership is common. But the mood in this part of “Trump Country”  reflects both fear and anxiety.

Saint Patrick Parish. Photo by Megan Hadley

As we stood on the church steps, Lady L described the realities of what she called the “natural world,” a world where humans need to protect themselves, especially in present times, because people are “doing strange things.”

“You never know. People are bringing guns in churches these days and when you leave the house you don’t know if you’re coming back home,” she said.

Richard Shalack, a local gun shop owner in Gainesville, carries not one, but two guns on him at all times.

Shalack agreed that teachers have a right to defend themselves in the school, and if they carry a concealed weapons permit, they should be allowed a gun in the classroom to protect themselves and their students against a possible shooter.

“It’s common sense” he told me. “You are responsible for your own protection. You are responsible for your own safety.”

Maurice Moore, who retired after teaching school  in Florida for 35 years, would have brought his gun to class if it were an option.

Moore also spent time in the air force, and said that his training made him qualified to handle a gun in the classroom.

“I think it should be open to teachers who want to do it and who are qualified.” If they are military personal, such as myself, who know about weapons and guns, I would be comfortable with it, he said.

Since the mass shooting in a Parkland, FL high school that left 17 dead and 17 injured, and prompted walkouts and rallies across the country, research shows a large uptick in school-based violent incidents.

Data from the Educator’s School Safety Network found more than 70 violent incidents in schools each day, prompting lockdowns and other safety measures.

Although one consequence is that 57 percent of young people surveyed  report being fearful in their schools, according to a report released by the Center for American Progress, others contend that arming teachers or school resource officers will address those fears.

Shalack- owner of Gainesville Guns-  used the example of the gym coach at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who died to support his argument.

Richard Shalack, owner of Gainesville Guns, shows some of his wares. Photo by Megan Hadley

The gym coach used his body as a shield to protect his students, and consequently was shot down.

If he had a concealed weapon, instead of having a 17 loss that day, it could’ve been a two-loss,” he said. 

Currentlyat least 15 states already arm teachers, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and, as of this March, Florida.

And now Louisiana is considering gun legislation that would allow visitors with concealed weapon permits to carry their guns on school and college campuses.

See also: Louisiana is Latest State to Consider Allowing Guns in Schools.

While arming teachers is one facet of the gun control debate, whether or not mentally ill individuals should be allowed to purchase a gun remains unsettled.

Shalack, a firearms dealer for 33 years, said that he “never would have sold a gun to the kid that shot up Parkland” because he “weeds out the crazies” before selling them guns.

Signs in Shalack’s store make his political sympathies clear. Photo by Megan Hadley

Not wanting to end up in court with a lawsuit against him, Mr. Shalack only sells guns to individuals with a concealed weapons permit, above the age of 21, after having what he describes as an in-depth conversation with them.

He keeps his guns in the back, and refuses to sell any firearms to individuals who are “too emotional” or “acting weird.”

In the state of Florida, it is not required to have a license or permit to purchase a gun, leaving the sale of firearms to the discretion of firearm dealers. 

Yet on a federal level, unlicensed sellers are exempt from having to perform any background check before selling a firearm, a loophole that The Giffords Law Center calls particularly dangerous.

But according to the principal of a small grade school in Gainesville, FL, who asked to remain anonymous, the answer to gun control is to simply stop making firearms.

More guns means more killing, he said.

“What do we need guns for?” he asked. “Guns are designed to kill people. If you don’t own a gun then I don’t need to gun.”

Logistically, he noted that the states would waste money training and equipping teachers with guns, and that money could be spent elsewhere.

He said that schools need better mental health care for students, not more guns.

The school guidance counselor, who asked to remain anonymous as well, also cited mental health as the determining factor for reducing school violence.

She pointed to the need for changing the stigma associated with mental illness.

“A huge part of the solution is increase in mental health funding- that’s what I see with my kids,” she said.

But as state legislators across the country move towards arming teachers with guns, students, particularly in low-income, minority communities, could be in greater danger than their white, wealthier counterparts, one expert told TCR. 

Hailey Nolasco

Photo of Hailey Nolasco

Hailey Nolasco from the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence in New York City painted a grim picture of  the risks when a new teacher comes to work in a school in an unfamiliar and violent neighborhood. If the teacher were armed, the gun might be used in response to a perceived threat from a student, she said. 

Likewise, the teachers are also in danger: a violent student could disarm the teacher and take the gun, she mentioned. 

For Nolasco, guns in schools are “ just the wrong way to go” because there is a sense that law enforcement is “everywhere.”

She related schools where teachers carry guns and students have to walk through metal detectors to prison, which is certainly not a “conducive learning environment.”

Instead, she pointed to a model used in New York City’s Mayor’s office called the ‘cure violence model’ which aims to reduce violence in the schools. While the ‘cure violence model’ is an international approach to reducing harm, NYC has created a unique subset called ‘crisis management in the schools’.

Now, a trained official, someone who has experience with gun violence, possibly someone who has been in prison for gun use, goes into the schools and mediates dangerous situations.

“Instead of relying on law enforcement, it’s wholistic approach where young people can relate to people who have had similar experiences.” Nolasco said.

And now, New York is the safest it’s ever been, she concluded.

Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Did Outdated Laws in Louisiana Help Convict an Innocent Man?

Louisiana juries can convict someone of a felony without a unanimous vote, thanks to a law that legal experts call outdated and potentially dangerous. That’s what happened to Troy Rhodes, a 37-year- old African-American man, convicted by a 10-2 jury in New Orleans and sent to prison for 149 years for crimes he may not have committed.

In Louisiana, non-unanimous juries are able to convict someone of a felony, thanks to a law that legal experts call outdated and potentially dangerous.

Photo of Troy Rhodes provided by the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center

Such is the case of Troy Rhodes, a 37-year- old African-American man who was convicted by a 10-2 jury verdict in New Orleans for armed robbery and attempted murder and sent to prison for 149 years for two crimes he may not have committed.

“Louisiana’s jury law just has no place in the modern criminal justice system,” said Pamela R. Metzger, inaugural director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU School of Law, in an interview with The Crime Report.

Metzger said that non-unanimous juries were created over 120 years ago to ensure a white majority on juries.

“We as a society should want every single eyewitness case in which there was a non unanimous jury to be re-evaluated,” she said.

Significantly, Louisiana and Oregon are the only two states in the country with the law on their books.

But in early April, the Louisiana state senate advanced a bill that would require unanimous juries for all convictions in felony trials. The fate of the measure has moved to the House, where Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, has filed an identical bill. Should the proposal go to voters and be approved, it would require unanimity starting Jan. 1, 2019.

However for Rhodes, the questionable jury was not the only barrier.

The witness, who was the only eyewitness in the case, identified Rhodes as the perpetrator, but was under medication during his testimony. Yet the public defender never confronted the witness with his medical records or asked for his medical records to be shown to the jury.

Why? Because the public defender wasn’t in the position to do the work that should’ve been done, said Metzger.

Public defenders in 2003 (the year of Rhodes’ trial) were understaffed, underpaid, and under-resourced, and it wasn’t until after hurricane Katrina hit in 2007 that the public defender system was revamped, she said.

Unfortunately for Rhodes, his public defender was overworked and under- resourced, creating problems during the trial.

For instance, the singe eye witness was a white man, which raises questions about cross-racial examination, but the public defender did not bring this issue to the attention of the jury.

Consequently, Rhodes found himself in the middle of what Metzger calls “a perfect storm” of injustice due to laws in Louisiana that actively worked against him, as well as problems with witness identification, and an underfunded public defender.

This “perfect storm” of injustice led the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU Law School to take notice in Rhodes case when Metzger became the Center’s D, and Tuesday morning, they announced that they would be seeking the release of Troy Rhodes in a case that “amplifies the need for justice reform.”

Now, the power lies in the hands of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to overturn Rhodes’ conviction.

Photo of Troy Rhodes and his family

“This case presents an opportunity for the DA to face forward”, said Metzger. “To acknowledge what we know about best practices about identification and trials. It’s an opportunity for him to do the right thing in a way that he might not have had otherwise.”

Rhodes, while waiting in prison, obtained a four-year degree in Christian Ministry and a technical certificate in the culinary arts. He has also obtained the highest level of trust in the prison and is now a minister in the west prison yard, where he helps to manage conflicts with other prisoners.

His family eagerly awaits his homecoming.

Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Accurate Data on Mentally Ill Needed To Reduce Jail Population, Experts Say

A national effort launched Tuesday by the Stepping Up initiative aims to help counties collect accurate, accessible data on the number of people entering their jails who have mental illnesses.

A national effort launched Tuesday, at the start of mental health month, by the Stepping Up initiative aims to help counties collect accurate, accessible data on the number of people entering their jails.

Collecting information on the population of mentally ill individuals in jail is critical to reducing their number, and finding alternative approaches to incarceration, says Kati Habert, Deputy Program Director of the initiative.

“Counties need to understand the scope of the challenge they are facing,” she told The Crime Report in an interview. “They need accurate data because as they implement policies, they can actually track their progress and know the impact.”

The initiative will provide counties with the tools they need to overcome difficulties in data collection, which often include limited staff capacity, lack of validated tools, and insufficient data-sharing mechanisms.

Stepping Up’s seven “Innovator Counties”—Calaveras County, CA; Miami-Dade County, FL; Champaign County, IL; Douglas County, KS; Johnson County, KS; Franklin County, OH; and Pacific County, WA—have each implemented this approach and will be sharing their experiences in identifying and gathering data on the people entering their jails who have mental illnesses.

“We hope this is the tipping point for other counties to come forward and talk about how they are doing this, or it will influence other counties to come forward and do this” said Habert.

In order to help overcome these challenges, the Stepping Up partners have identified a three-step approach to collecting accurate data that includes:

  • establishing a shared definition of serious mental illness;
  • ensuring everyone booked into the jail is screened for mental illnesses using a validated tool, and referring those who screen positive for a clinical assessment by a licensed mental health professional; and
  • regularly reporting on this population.

The Stepping Up initiative was launched in May 2015 by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, the National Association of Counties (NACo), and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation (APA Foundation) to mobilize local, state, and national leaders to achieve a measurable reduction in the number of people in jails who have mental illnesses.

Stepping Up has a mixture of funding, from private and foundation partnerships, such as the American Psychiatric Association, and from federal resources.

Habert said the first year will be focused on collecting baseline data.

“Once we know who’s in the system, we can identify the right policies and practices for each county,” she noted.

“We hope this year counties will get accurate baseline data, and next year put together a comprehensive plan to lower that number and identify some targets.”

This is the first step in that process, she concluded.

Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Is Social Media Responsible for Bill Cosby’s Takedown?

Experts argue that social media has given sexual assault victims the platform they need to come forward and speak out. But prosecutors need to do their part and file charges against powerful men, one lawyer said.

Social media was a key factor in the prosecution of actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who was convicted Thursday of drugging and molesting Andrea Constand, formerly of Temple University, experts told The Crime Report.

Victims can now come forward with “the push of a button” said Jeff Herman, a lawyer in Boca Raton, Fl., who handles sexual abuse cases. “We saw a flood of victims coming forward on social media, which created a platform for women to join together and support each other.”

Herman noted that in the days before the internet, powerful men like Bill Cosby engaged in “bad behavior” and could use their power to protect themselves. Consequently, victims felt they had no voice.

Cosby’s case was the first big celebrity trial of the #MeToo era, completing the spectacular late-in-life downfall of a comedian who broke racial barriers in Hollywood on his way to TV superstardom as America’s Dad, the Associated Press reports.

Cosby, 80, could end up spending his final years in prison after a jury concluded he sexually violated Constand at his suburban Philadelphia mansion in 2004.

The verdict came after a two-week retrial in which prosecutors had more courtroom weapons at their disposal than they did the first time: They put five other women on the stand who testified that Cosby, who has been married for 54 years, drugged and violated them, too. Cosby is expected to argue in an appeal that the other women should not have been allowed to take the stand.

By the time the verdict was read on Thursday, the public view of Cosby had fully shifted, but it took more than a decade, and a previously hung jury, to get to this point, noted Columbia Journalism Review. 

It was nearly 12 years ago that Philadelphia magazine published the first investigation into sexual assault allegations against hometown hero Cosby. The story said that Constand’s accusations might “amount to nothing, yet there is also the possibility that [they] will bubble up to destroy him.”

On Thursday, Cosby lashed out loudly at District Attorney Kevin Steele after the prosecutor demanded Cosby be sent immediately to jail. Steele told the judge Cosby has an airplane and might flee. Cosby angrily denied he has a plane and called Steele an “a–hole,” shouting, “I’m sick of him!”

In 2015, Steele made good on his promise to prosecute Cosby, a move that Wendy Murphy, a lawyer in Boston who specializes in crimes against women and children, said was “worthy of a prosecutor” in an interview with The Crime Report.

Murphy emphasized the importance of Steele’s decision to prosecute Cosby.

“We need to take page from the playbook of Kevin Steele and use it in counties across the country” she said. “He should be the standard bearer on what a worthy prosecutor looks like. What a worthy prosecutor does. If we don’t do that, this case will not have turned a chapter.”

For Murphy, Cosby’s case has three important messages for society:

1. To men like Cosby … beware. You may have thought you could get away with this, but that has obviously changed and you cannot expect to get away with it. You may end up behind bars.

2. To women and victims, no matter who you are in society or how long ago your case happened, you should report it and speak up because it is never too late for justice. In whatever form it happens.

3. Every prosecutor who doesn’t file rape charges on the grounds that it doesn’t matter because women’s lives aren’t that important may find himself out of a job.

The system is moving in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether prosecutors will fall in line, she concluded.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Solitary Confinement Called ‘21st Century Slavery’

Eliminating the use of solitary is essential to transforming the modern culture of corrections, speakers at John Jay College said Wednesday. The college’s week-long examination of solitary confinement continues Thursday with a conference of leading researchers, legislators and advocates.

A member of the Correctional Association of New York says solitary confinement is equivalent to “21st century slavery.”

“Solitary confinement is the whipping post of mass incarceration,” Tyrrell Muhammad told a panel at John Jay College Wednesday. “We’re fighting an old fight.”

Muhammad, who works with the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association,  a non-profit that advocates for criminal justice reform, said that the culture of corrections needs radical transformation, starting with how guards are trained. 

“If solitary confinement is the only kind of response you have to [disciplinary issues], you need reform,” he said.

Muhammad was part of a panel that included formerly incarcerated individuals and practitioners in the criminal justice system.

Miyhosi Benton, another speaker on the panel and a formerly incarcerated woman, described the mental deterioration she experienced during the time she spent in solitary.

Miyhosi Benton

Miyhosi Benton, associate of the Women and Justice Project , was placed in solitary when she was 19 and pregnant. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

She was 19 and pregnant when guards told her she was being placed in solitary confinement for her own “protection.” 

“It was complete deprivation,” said Benton, who is an associate of the Women and Justice Project.

“I was hearing voices. Having conversations with myself. I was experiencing so much harm I couldn’t understand what ‘protection’ I was receiving.”

With over two million people incarcerated in the United States, about 80,000 are sitting in solitary confinement or Special Housing Units (SHU), which survivors have described as “hell in a small place.” 

Some prisoners can spend weeks, months and even years in solitary confinement for offenses such as helping another inmate with their legal affairs or talking back to guards, panelists said.

In solitary confinement, guards have full control over inmates’ meals, recreation time, mail, soap, toilet paper, etc—making the system susceptible to abuse. 

More than 60 percent of people in solitary confinement are there for non-violent offenses, the panel was told.

“The goal is to break you,” said Johnny Perez, who spent nearly three years in solitary confinement at the Rikers Island facility in New York City. Perez is now director of U.S Prison Programs at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a strong advocate for abolishing solitary confinement.

Perez and other speakers observed that the most difficult battle was adjusting to normal life after leaving solitary confinement.

Johnny Perez

Johnny Perez, director of the US Prisons Program, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, spent almost three years in solitary. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

“You go from solitary to 42nd Street, but you [can’t forget] the demons you face in solitary,” Perez said. “I still have dreams about it —those demons always stay with you.”

The debate about whether or not solitary confinement is a necessary form of punishment comes at a time when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced  plans to close Rikers, which is notorious for its violence and brutality.

De Blasio and other government officials say they will move individuals held for detention at Rikers to “community-based” facilities closer to where they live, and to the courts where they were scheduled to appear.

De Blasio’s announcement came after a report issued by a commission headed by Judge Jonathan Lippman last year recommended closing the facility.

But a timetable for the closure has still not been announced.

 “It will take several years, no question,” Tyler Nimms, executive director of the commission told the panel. “There are a lot of challenges ahead.”

He added, “ You are never going to have a good jail or a perfect jail. All you can hope for is a better one.”

But will relocating the jail address the problems of mass incarceration?

Miyhosi Benton thinks it won’t.

“The criminal justice system is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing,” she said. “And you can’t change it because it’s a well-oiled machine.”

Muhammad argued, however, that some change can be achieved by changing the way correction officers are trained.

Correction officers “need to see themselves as therapists and counselors,” who can help turn the punitive approach to corrections into a “a rehabilitative model,” he said.

Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn  (NY) Defender Services, said reform of solitary confinement has to begin with addressing the larger issues driving mass incarceration—including relations between police and the communities they work in.

Interactions between the “police and policed” should be reexamined, he told the panel, noting that the killings of unarmed civilians had eroded the legitimacy of police in many neighborhoods.

“For my clients it’s too dangerous for them to call the police,” he said. “There’s no trust.”

The Wednesday panel was one of the highlights of “Solitary Week” at John Jay—a multimedia exploration of solitary confinement practices, which included a model walk-through solitary cell installed as a temporary exhibit on campus.

On Thursday and Friday, 24 journalists from around the country will participate in a  workshop entitled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement: Where Do We Go From Here?” organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report, and supported by the Langeloth Foundation.

Scheduled speakers Thursday include Homer Venters, programs director of Physicians for Human Rights; Johnny Perez of the Washington DC-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a former solitary detainee; Minnesota State Rep. Nick Zerwas; and Anthony Graves, a Texas death row exoneree.

Watch The Crime Report for coverage. For details and more information click here.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Are Young Offenders in Financial Handcuffs?

Experts say that fines, fees and court costs imposed on juveniles can have detrimental consequences for individuals and their families.

Angel LaCourt was 22 years old when he was released from the Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in New York and moved back to Boston, MA. But not long after his release he went back to selling drugs—the very crime he was incarcerated for—to pay for his court fees and probation costs.

Angel LaCourt

Of the millions of young people who appear before juvenile courts in the US each year, a significant number have found themselves in similar situations. According to the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, many of these juvenile offenders and their families come from low-income, minority communities.

Fines and fees generally accumulate in three different ways: through victim restitution, baseline fines, and court fees (or administrative costs), which cover things like monthly probation, electronic monitoring, and a public defender.

And costs can add up quickly. 

Photo by Strategies for Youth

When young offenders fail to pay the costs, the consequences can be severe. Defendants face longer probation sentences, more time in jail, or denial of treatment.

LaCourt described the never-ending cycle of debt as “incarceration after incarceration.”

“[The courts] don’t care if you have a place to live, they just want their money. That’s their biggest thing, and if you pay them, they’ll leave you alone,” he added.

But in reality, the courts and counties rarely get their money back. In fact, the cost of collecting fines and fees from low-income families who cannot afford to pay can be more expensive than the fees themselves. 

It’s a scheme lawyers call “high pay and low gain.”

Kate Weisburd, Director of the Youth Defender Clinic in California, told The Crime Report that counties have been paying all along, but there has been this fiction that families are paying. 

“[Counties] weren’t recouping much to begin with” she said. “What happens is a family is billed $4,000 in administrative fees, and it would cost the county that much money to collect it. Processing costs so much and these poor families can’t afford to pay for it.”

Weisburd, a graduate of Brown University and Columbia Law School, recalled seeing family after family struggle with heavy court costs, during a time when families need unity and stability.

Court fees often drive a wedge between parent and child, she said, because parents are the ones who ultimately have to pay for their child’s debt.

When a youth cannot pay their fines and fees, the debt is referred to the tax franchise board, and will come out of the parents pay check.

A practice that Weisburd concluded “is not a great policy.”

Juvenile Judges have also taken note of the inefficient policies in their court rooms, and in March of 2018, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges approved a resolution that aims to absolve young defendants of fines, fees and court costs.

The resolution made the following recommendations:

  • Work towards reducing and eliminating fines, fees, and costs by considering a youth and their family’s ability to pay prior to imposing such financial obligations;
  • Recognize that court fines, fees, and costs may have a disproportionate impact on poor communities and racial or ethnic minorities and supports the adoption of court policies and practices that promote fairness and equal treatment for all youth and their families;
  • Presume youth are indigent when making decisions regarding the imposition of fines, fees, and costs if the youth was previously determined indigent for the purpose of securing attorney representation;
  • Do not detain or order youth to out-of-home placement or extend community supervision solely because of lack of payment of fines, fees, or costs;
  • Collect detailed data on the imposition and collection of fines, fees, and costs, study their effects on youth, families, and courts and demonstrate transparency by making data publicly available; and
  • Use payment plans in cases in which fines, costs, or fees are levied.

While judges cannot act as lobbyists on this issue, each individual judge can implement the recommendations in their court room, and some judges have already started.

For example, Judge Anthony Capizzi, a Juvenile Court Judge in Ohio who has been on the bench for 13 years, decided to wave all fines, fees and costs for his young defendants.

“I don’t order fines or costs in ANY case. I don’t care if its murder, or aggravated robbery, trespassing, etc. If it’s a delinquent, I will not order costs,” he told The Crime Report.

Judge Capizzi said his court should do everything in their power to alleviate issues that are detrimental to families in poverty because the working poor are the ones ultimately damaged by fines and costs.

“How can I expect a family to pay fines and fees when they are struggling to send these children to school and pay for bus tickets?” he asked.

He noted that judges are in a unique position to implement change among delinquents by educating elected officials who may not understand the need to reduce fees for children.

Chandlee Johnson Kuhn, a retired Judge in Delaware, agreed.

“Its a matter of getting the right folks to look at research, data, historical analysis, and then putting into practice” she said.

In California, state officials got the memo, and passed a bill in the summer of 2017 to eliminate all fees in juvenile court. The law went into effect this January, making California the first state to eliminate fees for incarcerated youth.

The state of California will now be paying the costs.

However, the Trump administration has created a road block to such policy changes by abandoning an Obama-era warning against imposing excessive fees and fines on juveniles. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the move as part of a broader effort to overhaul regulatory procedures at the Department of Justice, noted Pew Charitable Trusts. 

The administration declined to comment on whether it supports the imposition of such fees, fees which Weisburd described as “financial handcuffs on young people and their families.”

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Drug Cartels Target Candidates in New Wave of Mexico Violence

At least 82 candidates and office holders have been killed since the electoral season kicked off in September, making this the bloodiest presidential race in recent history, according to a tally by Etellekt, a security consultancy based in Mexico City.

A fresh wave of violence is sweeping through Mexico as the country prepares to choose its new president on July 1, reports Newsweek.

At least 82 candidates and office holders have been killed since the electoral season kicked off in September, making this the bloodiest presidential race in recent history, according to a tally by Etellekt, a security consultancy based in Mexico City.

Four politicians have been killed in the past week alone, as candidates vie for around 3,400 positions; a record number. Most were running for local positions rather than high-profile national posts.

Powerful drug cartels are battling for influence and have been targeting politicians they think might get in their way.

Magda Rubio, a mayoral candidate in the small city of Guachochi in northern Mexico, told Reuters she has received four death threats from the same person since January. Her hometown Guachochi — located in a mountainous region of Chihuahua state — is a key route for heroin trafficking.

Rubio was warned “Drop out or be killed,” but she has remained in the race, and is now accompanied by two armed bodyguards 24/7.

Drug lords are hoping to install lawmakers they know and trust to ensure that their lucrative trade is allowed to continue.

If cartels can get their allies into office, local government offers a source of well-paid contracts and bribes. Local police forces can even be forced into working for and protecting the cartels.

“State and local authorities are outgunned and outmaneuvered and the federal forces cannot be everywhere,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“There is an urgent need…to provide greater protection and insulation against organized crime.”

After the demise of Colombia’s cartels in the 1990s, Mexico became the new epicenter of drug smuggling. By 2007, Mexico had become the route for 90 percent of all cocaine trafficked into the U.S.

Though several influential drug lords were captured or killed—including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, who is currently awaiting trial in New York—the clampdown splintered the large cartels into smaller competing gangs. These groups have tried to take advantage of the power vacuum, using extreme violence to carve out territory.

The U.S. Department of State has advised against travel to the states of Sinaloa, Michoacan, Colima, Guerrero and Tamaulipas, branding them with “do not travel” status.

Tourists continue to see the violence first hand. 

Two days ago a man was found dead on the beach in Acapulco, a once-idyllic tourist hotspot in Mexico. Armed troops and forensics personnel were seen carrying him off the beach as vacationers stood by, horrified.  

It is still unclear how the man died, but police suspect a shooting.

In Acapulco, locals depend on tourism as their main source of income but are understood to bring guns to the beach as protection.

Mexico’s leaders are now scrambling to mount a response to the spike in crime.

Federal and state governments are providing political candidates with bodyguards and, in some cases, bullet-proof vehicles. But the measures have proved largely ineffective as the death toll continue to rise.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Judges Called ‘Last Line of Defense’ for Mentally Ill in Justice System

The lack of adequate alternatives to jail or prison to help mentally troubled individuals who run afoul of the law is a “horrible American tragedy,” judges and prosecutors from around the country were told at a New York University School of Law conference.

When police and prosecutors are unable to act, judges must be the “last line of defense” for mentally troubled individuals who run afoul of the law.

That was one of the conclusions at a conference of leading prosecutors and jurists at New York University’s School of Law examining the plight of the seriously mentally ill who are trapped in the justice system.

The use of jails and prisons as frontline treatment facilities for individuals with serious mental illness—for lack of adequate alternatives—is a “horrible American tragedy,”  Judge Steven Leifman of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida said.

Christina Klineman, a Superior Court Judge in Indianapolis, added that if local authorities fail to provide diversion programs that police or prosecutors can use, judges should still try to find ways of ensuring the mentally ill are kept out of jail.

They are “the last line of defense” for protecting the mentally ill, she said.

The two judges spoke during a panel Friday at NYU’s Tenth Annual Conference on the administration of criminal law. They joined other speakers, including advocates, in calling for greater attention to diversion programs for the mentally ill.

“The criminal justice system should be the last resort for the mentally ill, not the first,”  Leifman said, arguing that the lack of alternatives too often places the burden of care on prosecutors, judges and police officers, who lack the proper resources, training and funding to help mentally ill patients. 

Participants in the conference cited studies showing that 40 percent of individuals with a mental illness will come in contact with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives—usually because family members call 911, not knowing what else to do. 

Police receive 250 million calls each year, but only 25 percent of those calls are connected with an actual crime, said Rebecca Neuster of the Vera Institute of Justice. Ten percent of those calls are made because someone with a mental illness is experiencing a manic episode.

See also: Why Jail is No Place for the Mentally Troubled.

But when the police become involved, the individual is handed over to the justice system.

According to Ronal Serpas, a professor of Criminology at Loyola University of New Orleans, if police officers had an alternative to arrest, they would take it.

But all they have to offer mentally ill patients “is the back of their car,” Serpas said.

That, he added, was a solution for no one.

The police role as first responders puts them in a difficult position, but at the same time makes it critical for officers to know where to take people suffering from mental illness other than jail, said Travis Parker, senior project associate at Policy Research Associates.

“Officers need an answer to the question: ‘divert the mentally ill to what?'”

He noted that in some cities, police have been given iPads to contact mental health professionals, instead of taking troubled individuals to jail.

See also: How iPads Changed a Police Force’s Response to Mental Illness.

Once an individual with mental illness is arraigned, however, prosecutors can step in to ensure mentally ill defendants are diverted to counseling and social services, the panel was told.

“Public safety is not defined by convictions and arrests — people need to feel safe and secure, they need housing and a job—and the criminal justice system removes that for so many people,” said Vermont Attorney General T.J Donovan,  who argued prosecutors should use “restraint” in deciding whether to seek convictions.

Klineman brought up the case of a homeless man urinating in the street and raised the question, “what do I sentence him to?”

“If I put him on probation, I set him up for failure and we have more problems. If I release him, he doesn’t get any help,” Klineman said.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, home to the largest percentage of people with serious mental illnesses, decarcerating jails and providing an alternative for the mentally ill is a top priority for court officials.

Authorities there created the Criminal Mental Health Project to provide community-based treatment and support services to defendants suffering from serious mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

The program provides two types of services: pre-booking diversion training for law enforcement officers, and post-booking diversion to help individuals in jail and awaiting adjudication. 

Justin Volpe, a young man who suffered from paranoia and substance abuse, said he was able to avoid prison though the program. His sentence was tossed out, and instead he was offered a job by the courts.

“That’s what people need,” Volpe told the conference. “I went from having no insight of my mental illness to working with other people in same situation. I assist people in community and get them help. I also have opportunity to train law enforcement and share my recovery story.”

In fact, Volpe was able to train the police officer who first arrested him. The officer told Volpe, “I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

Volpe takes participants in the program to out to lunch, or coffee, or even to play basketball.

“People don’t need another person telling them about their court dates and doctors appointments- giving them a list of things to do,” he said. “I give them a person-to-person feel,” he said.

Laura Usher, senior manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, commented that Volpe’s point was critical.

“The only way to treat someone with a mental illness… is like a person,” she said. 

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org