DOJ Backs Down on Justice Reinvestment

The Justice Department had announced a new direction for the justice reinvestment program that encourages states to cut prison populations. The proposal has been withdrawn after advocates of reinvestment sought support from key members of Congress.

The U.S. Justice Department has withdrawn a controversial proposal to change the direction of the justice reinvestment program (JRI) that federal policymakers have supported for the last 11 years.

JRI encourages states to reduce their prison populations and reinvest money that is saved in programs that help departing inmates reenter society.

As The Crime Report described last month, after unsuccessfully persuading Congress to kill federal involvement in JRI, the Justice Department issued a request for proposals on June 28 for a “Justice Accountability Initiative” that DOJ developed, apparently to replace the kind of work that had been done by JRI over the years.

Proposals by outside contractors to take part in the new program were due on July 30.

Now, the DOJ plan has disappeared from the department’s website.

In its place is an announcement that a new solicitation for proposals “will be reposted shortly. Applicants will be provided with ample time to submit complete, competitive applications. Please check back in this space for JRI grant opportunities.”

The Justice Department has not made a public comment on the reason for the withdrawal, but several sources said that advocates of justice reinvestment had approached members of Congress who support JRI, contending that DOJ was not proceeding in line with expectations of lawmakers.

After the White House sought to zero out federal support for the program, the appropriations subcommittees in each House that handle the Justice Department’ budget each voted to recommend spending more than $20 million on JRI in the spending year that begins on October 1.

Congress is yet to approve a final budget, but approval by appropriations panels in both houses for a particular program means that it can expect to be funded.

JRI has been managed in recent years by the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the Crime & Justice Institute.

Members of Congress were not immediately available to comment on the Justice Department’s latest move on justice reinvestment.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House subcommittee handling Justice Department appropriations, are among many legislators who have supported JRI.

Earlier this year, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Tom Marino (R-PA) led a group of 68 House members who declared their support for JRI.

In its proposal that was withdrawn, DOJ sought proposals for research that would focus on reducing recidivism of state prison inmates.

The DOJ document noted that Congress has said that it intends JRI to fund “activities related to criminal justice reform and recidivism reduction.”

The DOJ wanted to start pilot projects that would improve risk assessment tools that are now being tested to predict repeat criminality among those on probation.

It was not immediately clear whether the revised Justice Department plan for JRI would include such a new effort aimed at recidivism reduction.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


50-State Report Offers ‘Playbook’ on Meeting Public Safety Challenges

The Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) has issued what it calls a first-of-its-kind, web-based resource combining data analyses, case studies and recommended strategies for all 50 states to help policymakers address public safety challenges. Among its major points: violent crime rates decreased in 32 states between 2006 and 2016, and the number of drug overdose deaths is now almost four times higher than the number of homicides.

The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center has issued what it calls a first-of-its-kind, web-based resource combining data analyses, case studies and recommended strategies for all 50 states to help policymakers address public safety challenges.

The “50-State Report on Public Safety” includes more than 300 “data visualizations” comparing crime, recidivism and correctional practices across all 50 states.

The report discusses these data along with research on strategies aimed at improving public safety, giving more than 100 examples of public safety innovations drawn from every state.

The center says the report “provides a playbook that policymakers can customize to tackle the issues most relevant to their communities.”

Megan Quattlebaum, director of the center said that, “Data and research are essential to successfully addressing the unique conditions in each state.”

The report was promised at a 50-state summit held in Washington, D.C., last fall, at which officials were given preliminary data compilations from their states. (See coverage in The Crime Report). The summit was sponsored by the CSG and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

Following up on the summit, the CSG Justice Center is working with more than 15 states to hold statewide forums on public safety with a broad coalition of stakeholders.

“There is no shortage of information to examine and consider when it comes to public safety,” Bryan Collier, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the center. “

As the head of a state corrections agency, digesting all of the available data can be overwhelming. The 50-State Report on Public Safety organizes a wealth of criminal justice information in one place, creating an important resource that is without equal in its size and scope.”

Among the report’s major points:

  • Between 2006 and 2016, violent crime rates decreased in 32 states. Violent crime increased in rural areas in 16 states.
  • The number of drug overdose deaths is almost four times higher than the number of homicides. Two decades ago, the numbers were about the same.
  • In 2015, states spend nearly 10 times as much on prisons as on community supervision of offenders, although there were 4.5 million people on probation and parole and 1.5 million in state prisons.
  • Most states track recidivism of people leaving prison. Thirty-two states use a narrow definition of the term that includes only people who are reincarcerated, not all rearrests and reconvictions.
  • Corrections populations increased in the last decade in 42 states, and 24 states project growth in prison populations.

According to a press release from the center, Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward praised the report, saying that it “gives policymakers a blueprint for achieving results, and the strategies offered here will be useful for years to come.”

Funding for the 50-State Report on Public Safety was provided by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.


Miami Center to Treat Mentally Ill Crime Suspects

Miami soon will open the nation’s first “forensic diversion” center for mentally ill people who otherwise would be destined for the criminal justice system, says Judge Steven Leifman, who has long advocated for defendants with mental problems. Leifman addressed the annual forum of the National Criminal Justice Association in Fort Worth, Texas.

Miami soon will open the nation’s first “forensic diversion” center for mentally ill people who otherwise would be destined for the criminal justice system, says Judge Steven Leifman, who has long advocated for defendants with mental problems. Leifman addressed the annual forum of the National Criminal Justice Association, which is meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. Leifman has described the facility as a 180,000-square-foot, stand-alone treatment center for the acutely mentally ill. It was funded by a $42 million county bond issue. Miami’s courts, which have been national leaders in improving the handling of crime suspects with mental problems, already have reduced the recidivism rate of such defendants from 72 percent to 20 percent by sending them promptly to medical units rather than jailing them, Leifman said.

Leifman, who has worked on issues of mental illness in his 18 years on the bench in Miami, say that so many sick people are jailed since the U.S. closed many mental hospitals decades ago that cities are being forced to choose between building schools or jails. Florida may have to build new prisons to accommodate the need to house mentally ill inmates, he said. (Leifman spoke on the same issue at a conference this month at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.) The justice association devoted the first morning of its conference to the problems involved in justice system handling of mentally ill defendants. In a discussion after Leifman spoke, experts discussed a process called “sequential intercepts” that attempts to insure that mentally ill suspects get immediate attention at various steps in the criminal justice process. Deputy Sheriff David Rhodes of Yavapai County, Ariz., urged justice leaders to “establish a sense of urgency” about improving the treatment of mentally ill people encountered  by law enforcement. He said that too often, jails release such suspects at odd hours with no prospect of getting medical help.


How Much Can Houston Cut Its Jail Population?

With the help of the MacArthur Foundation, Houston’s Harris County is experimenting with various ways to reduce its large jail population.

Tough-on-crime Texas has prided itself on efforts to reduce its prisoner count over the last decade.

A key to continued progress will be whether Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city in a county with the third largest jail population, can trim its own numbers and prevent crime suspects from inundating the state prison system.

Officials from Houston’s Harris County are optimistic that a series of reforms are making headway, they told the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA), which is holding its annual forum on criminal justice this week in Fort Worth.

The changes center on quickly diverting accused low-level offenders to treatment programs instead of letting them languish in jail, Teresa May, the director of Harris County’s community supervision and corrections department, told NCJA’s opening session on Sunday.

When she started work five years ago, May said, suspects were routinely jailed for testing positive for marijuana, and probation officers were responsible for as many as 300 people, making effective supervision of all of them impossible.

May and other county officials arranged to have needs assessments done on incoming arrestees as soon as possible so that many of them could be referred immediately to a service provider and avoid jail cells altogether.

The county last year hired a “chief criminal justice strategist,” Leah Garabedian, who also spoke to the NCJA forum. In the last year and a half, Harris County has been able to process 5,700 pending low-level cases, the vast majority of them through a diversion process that did not require a guilty plea, she said.

The Houston officials said their efforts have had some success. May said that one measure is how many defendants Harris County sends to the Texas state jail system, a number that is down from 6,000 in 2015 to about 2,000 this year so far.

The jail population suffered a setback this spring when court backlogs caused by Hurricane Harvey pushed the Harris County jail over capacity by 200, the Associated Press reported.

The Texas Commission on Jail standards reports that the Harris County jail population last week was 8,902, lower than the 9,350 when May started work in 2013 but higher than the 8,667 figure of a year ago.

In addition to the diversion programs, the county is working to cut a high rate of sending people who are on probation back to prison if they violate rules.

In a draft strategic plan, May’s department says that if a probationer “begins to struggle,” instead of sending the person behind bars immediately, a new assessment will be ordered “to determine if a higher level of care is appropriate to address his or her needs.”

Another speaker, Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice and the Right on Crime initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading conservative theorist on criminal justice, said the Houston reforms “may sound a little touchy-feely but they help people and hold them accountable.”

Levin said the national picture is encouraging on more effective treatment of low-level offenders. He cited a newly enacted program in Ohio, “Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison,” that gives grants to counties that send such law violators to county jails instead of state prisons.

The Harris County jail reforms are being aided by a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice initiative, which is spending $100 million over five years to help localities “rethink justice systems and implement data-driven strategies to safely reduce jail populations.”

NCJA’s opening panel also heard from Mark Gonzalez, a defense attorney who was elected chief prosecutor in Nueces County, Texas, in 2016. He is trying out some of the same kinds of jail policy changes as are under way in the much larger Harris County.

Gonzalez was described by Politico as the “most unlikely district attorney in America,” a Democrat elected in a largely Republican county who is a self-described “Mexican biker lawyer covered in tattoos.”

Chris Asplen, a former prosecutor who now is executive director of NCJA, said he was encouraged that some prosecutors are broadening the concept of “victimization” beyond people who have been harmed by criminals to defendants who suffer from problems like substance abuse and mental illness.


Alan Hanson Leaving as Top Trump Aide at DOJ

Alan Hanson, the top Trump administration official at the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, is moving to the Transportation Department. He’ll be replaced by Laura Rogers, a former San Diego prosecutor who now directs DOJ’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office).

Alan Hanson, the top Trump administration official at the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), is moving to the Transportation Department.

Alan Hansen

Alan Hanson. Photo courtesy DOJ

Hanson will be replaced by Laura Rogers, a former San Diego prosecutor who now directs DOJ’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART Office).

SMART is a major component of OJP, which administers grants to state and local criminal justice agencies. OJP also includes other major Justice Department agencies, including the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Institute of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

OJP has been a central player in the ongoing dispute over federal grants and “sanctuary cities.” The Trump administration wants to prevent many grants from going to jurisdictions that do not support the administration’s tough stance against illegal immigration. The issue is being fought out in court.

Hanson sent news of his departure to fellow employees in an email, calling it “bittersweet news” that he was asked by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to serve as her deputy chief of staff.

Hanson’s last day as Acting Assistant Attorney General is Friday. In his departure message, he cited his agency’s accomplishments in the last eighteen months “to strengthen our violence reduction programs, improve officer safety, enhance victim services, and support critical public safety needs, such as combatting the opioid crisis.”

Laura Rogers

Laura Rogers

DOJ has not made a formal announcement of the change. OJP is headed by an Assistant Attorney General, but the administration has not nominated anyone for the position. Several key DOJ positions have not been confirmed by the Senate.

Rogers leads the administration of standards for states under the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) and oversees $15 million in annual grants. She was the founding director of the SMART Office when it was established in 2006.

Before taking that job, Rogers served on the National Review Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2011–15, where she worked on the revision of the Catholic Church’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Rogers began her legal career in 1988 as a prosecutor for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, where she spent more than a decade specializing in the prosecution of child homicide, including shaking baby syndrome and child sexual abuse. In 1999, she joined the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, where she handled a variety of issues involving child abuse cases.

The departing Hanson joined DOJ shortly after President Trump was inaugurated after 17 years working on Capitol Hill. He had been working principally for Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), now chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Before assisting Shelby, Hanson was legislative director for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), for whom Hanson has been working since Sessions became Attorney General under Trump.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report.


Criminal Justice Research Expands in NIJ’s 50th Year

David Muhlhausen, director of the Justice Department’s research agency, predicted at a Washington DC meeting that research will play “an ever more important role in how the criminal justice field operates.” The National Institute of Justice gave $221 million in grants last year.

Research will play “an ever more important role in how the criminal justice field operates,” says National Institute of Justice (NIJ) director David Muhlhausen.

Muhlhausen, who was appointed to NIJ last year by President Trump, made the prediction last week as current and former agency leaders gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of federal anticrime research.

NIJ was established in part as a result of a 1967 report by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which urged more anti-crime aid from the federal government to state and local justice systems.

David Mulhausen

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen

Last year, the agency awarded nearly $221 million in grants, compared with $2.9 million in its first year, which amounts to $21.4 million in today’s dollars. One grant in that inaugural year was for a paltry $45.

Muhlhausen said last week that, “As our ability to collect and analyze data continues to improve, we will see an increase in the number of research studies and evaluations conducted as randomized controlled trials.”

The director added, “Over the past decade, the evidence-based movement has
begun to take hold in criminal justice. Over the next 50 years, I see data, evidence, and research becoming not just a tool for criminal justice practitioners, but an integral and indispensable part of all criminal justice operations.”

Two former NIJ directors, James K. (Chips) Stewart from the Reagan administration and John Laub from the Obama administration, also addressed the anniversary gathering.

Stewart recalled that at the time of his nomination as NIJ director in 1982, policymakers in Washington generally had a poor impression of the impact of social science research on criminal justice. They often quoted an early-1970s paper by Robert Martinson that concluded “nothing works” to fight crime.

Stewart, a former police officer himself, took the view that NIJ could help police, courts, and corrections agencies around the U.S. verify what approaches do work.

An early experiment supported by NIJ was an examination in Newark, N.J., and Houston by criminologist Lawrence Sherman on how police officers could make a measurable difference in local communities’ sense of safety, Stewart recalled. Crime dropped in the areas studied. The study was received skeptically in Congress, many of whose members favored sending more offenders to prison as the main response to rising crime rates, Stewart said.

Stewart cited several NIJ-supported research projects that had practical results, such as the development of “hot spots” policing in which officers concentrated on proved high-crime areas, requiring drug testing for suspects who were released pending trial, improving body armor that saved many police officers’ lives, and promoting less-than-lethal alternatives than firearms for police use of force.

He hailed the development of DNA evidence analysis, which both identified suspects who had eluded arrest and freed suspects who were mistakenly accused and convicted.

Stewart, who now is based at CNA, a Virginia-based nonprofit research and analysis organization, suggested that NIJ make its future research agenda “more outcome-focused.”

Among questions that deserve more research, he said, are why crime hasdropped in many cities but increased in some, like Chicago and Philadelphia, and how former police chief Bill Bratton was able to help decrease crime both in New York City and Los Angeles.

Stewart urged studying how Camden, N.J., which once was crime-plagued, has seen rates of lawbreaking down and attracted business investments. Police Chief Scott Thompson, who also spoke at the NIJ anniversary, has assigned 80 percent of patrol officers to work in the community and has only 20 percent responding to 911 calls, Stewart said.

Laub, the former NIJ director who returned to his post as a criminologist at the University of Maryland, told the anniversary event that, “Science – not intuition or gut instinct – needs to inform justice policies, practices, and programs.” He cited several subjects on which intuition was wrong: “If you reduce crime, you will reduce fear of crime … As the severity of punishment goes up, crime will go down … (and) boot camps will reduce delinquency and crime.”

Laub urged NIJ to focus on three major areas: “the nature of crime, the causes of
crime, and the response to crime.” He backs the notion of “translational criminology,” meaning that, “If we want to prevent, reduce, and manage crime, scientific discoveries must be translated into policy and practice.”

Laub noted that two of the biggest developments of recent decades—the major increase in prison populations and the decline in crime rates—had no research portfolio at NIJ when he arrived in 2010.

NIJ supported several projects to address these issues, including a National Academies of Sciences study of the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration, a roundtable on crime trends, and research on such subjects as race, crime, and victimization; the victim-offender overlap; police legitimacy, and swift and certain criminal sanctions.

The federal agency has funded an Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety at Harvard, in which “the leading police executives and researchers come together on a regular basis to tackle the major issues facing the field.”

NIJ also is backing an Executive Session on Community Corrections at Harvard.

Laub concluded that NIJ must “do all it can to promote evidence-based policies within the federal government” and to fund “empirical research to inform DOJ policies on matters such as immigration and crime, crime trends, drug use and crime, forensic sciences, and sentencing.” The agency “should strive to be bold and tackle the hard problems,” he said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Will Trump End Federal Support for Justice Reinvestment?

The Trump administration wants to change the direction of a longstanding partnership with nonprofits aimed at reducing prison populations. Thirty-five states have taken part in the program.

Advocates of the 11-year-old national Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) are worried that the Trump administration plans to scuttle federal involvement in the project.

JRI encourages states to reduce prison populations and reinvest money that is saved in programs that help ex-inmates reenter society successfully.

The advocates’ concern is based on two recent developments.

Early this year, the administration asked Congress to end funding for federal participation in JRI, starting with the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Congress hasn’t completed the spending process for next year, but both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees rebuffed the request and included money for justice reinvestment in their proposed budgets for next year.

The Senate panel would fund the program for $28 million. The House panel provided $30 million, although $5 million of that is for anticrime projects unrelated to the core JRI concept. (See earlier coverage in The Crime Report.)

The second action causing concern is a request for grant applications that the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued on June 28.

In it, DOJ sought proposals for a different concept for JRI, one that would focus on reducing recidivism of state prison inmates.

The DOJ document noted that Congress has said that it intends JRI to fund “activities related to criminal justice reform and recidivism reduction.”

The department then announced a “Justice Accountability Initiative” that it says “has been developed to meet the JRI goals to reduce recidivism and reform the  system by improving the effectiveness of risk assessments and to be more data-driven system-wide.”

The DOJ plan proposes to start pilot projects that would improve risk assessment tools that are now being tested to predict repeat criminality among those on probation.

As of 2016, there were 6.8 million people in the U.S. under the supervision of adult correctional systems, with nearly 4.6 million of them on probation or parole.

DOJ says that today’s probation and parole caseloads typically “include high risk individuals who pose a greater threat to public safety and have more criminogenic needs that may require additional services and increased supervision.”

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study issued earlier this year said that 83 percent of offenders recidivate within 9 years.

“While the use of risk assessments has become wider spread,” DOJ says, “the effectiveness and objectivity of these tools could be improved, updated, or better utilized.”

DOJ is seeking applicants by July 30 that would ‘”develop a new, or improve an existing, risk assessment tool, moving it to a more scientifically rigorous and objective risk prediction tool (based on a computer-driven algorithm), and develop aligned offender monitoring and supervision plans and policies.”

The Justice Department also wants grantees to do related projects, such as assessing  current supervision strategies for former prisoners “and their impact on crime and recidivism and train staff in supervision strategies.”

Other aspects of the proposal include assessing a suggested “data-sharing system” for localities “that would focus on crime and recidivism among offenders released into their communities” and to “improve justice system partners’ abilities to produce a cross-system analysis that provides a better understanding of the contributions of pretrial, probation, parole, reentry, and other services to crime trends.”

The Justice Department proposal, which calls for spending $20 million next year, did not explicitly say that it would end the long-term partnership with outside entities on JRI.

DOJ officials would not elaborate to The Crime Report, but at least one Trump administration official in the department has said he believes that JRI is not consistent with the administration’s “tough on crime” practices.

In a fact sheet issued this week, Pew Charitable Trusts, the principal nonprofit that has partnered with the Justice Department on JRI, said that since 2007, 35 states have reformed sentencing and corrections policies through the initiative.

Other non-federal entities involved in the project are the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Crime and Justice Institute, and other organizations. The partnering organizations declined to comment on the DOJ actions.

It is possible that they will ask members of Congress who support the current direction of JRI to object to the Trump administration’s changes.

As described by Pew, the state reforms vary, but they “aim to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs by prioritizing prison space for people convicted of serious offenses and investing some of the savings in alternatives to incarceration that are effective at reducing recidivism.”

Since 2007, state imprisonment totals have dropped by 11 percent while crime rates have continued a long-term decline, Pew said. State justice reinvestment laws are expected to save billions of dollars in imprisonment costs.

The Pew publication includes a chart that lists various reforms enacted by states. The policy changes date from laws passed by Texas in 2007 that include easing terms of probation and improving government interventions in offenders’ mental health problems.

Six states passed JRI-related reforms last year, Pew said, including Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Rhode Island, and North Dakota.

It was not immediately clear whether Pew would continue the aspects of the JRI project that involve helping states pass legislation on corrections issues if the federal government ends its participation.

Louisiana, which had led the nation in state incarceration rates, recently moved to number two behind Oklahoma as the result of changes enacted as part of the JRI initiative.

This week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state had saved $12.2 million in the current fiscal year, doubling Pew’s initial projections of $6.1 million.

One aspect of the new DOJ Justice Accountability Initiative that could delay or derail it is that like other Justice Department grant programs, applicants must cooperate with federal officials on immigration issues. In other words, “sanctuary cities” or “sanctuary states” would not qualify.

Lawsuits already are pending challenging such requirements for other grants. It is possible that applicants also will contest that announced limitation on the new initiative.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Should the Media Limit Coverage of Mass Shooters?

“When someone is desperate for fame or attention, committing a high-profile mass killing is one of the only guaranteed ways to get it,” criminologist Adam Lankford told a recent gathering of journalists. Responsible media, he argued, should guard against providing killers with a platform.

In the nearly two decades since two students committed a massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, the news media have done extensive reporting on a long series of shooters at other schools and elsewhere.

More experts and victims are concluding that enough is enough, citing a growing body of evidence citing mass shooters who have said that a major goal of their acts is to achieve fame via news reports.

In an unusual session, one of the chief media critics, criminologist Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama, was invited to make his case last week to a major organization of journalists. He got a sympathetic reaction.

Last year, Lankford co-edited an issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist titled “Media Coverage of Mass Killers: Content, Consequences, and Solutions.”

In it, academics and others argue that the media should be more careful about covering mass shooters.

“When someone is desperate for fame or attention,” Lankford says, “committing a high-profile mass killing is one of the only guaranteed ways to get it. In many cases, winning a Super Bowl or Academy Award garners less media attention than committing one of these crimes.”

Last fall, 149 academics joined in an open letter urging media organizations not to name or use photos of mass shooters, “stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators (and) report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.”

In last week’s panel discussion at the annual convention of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), University of Missouri journalism Prof. Katherine Reed, herself a former journalist, worried that the media “may be making celebrities” out of mass killers, encouraging others to copy them.

Lankford quoted a series of shooters who indicated in statements made before their crimes that they were either “attention-seekers or copycats.”

Included was the shooter of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who said, “I’ll see you on national TV,” and the killer at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub massacre, who called the local TV outlet News 13 during his attack and then checked online to see if he had “gone viral.”

The Parkland shooter said, “When you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am,” and the Santa Fe, Tx., school shooter explained that he wanted to “have his story told.”

It isn’t only a matter of seeking fame, Lankford said. By doing stories about each event that focus on how many people were killed in comparison with previous episodes, the media are encouraging shooters to set new records, he maintained.

The shooter in February in a Parkland, Fl., high school, for example, said that his goal was to kill at least 20 people. (He got close, killing 17.)

Lankford does not flatly contend that media should never give a shooter’s name, but he offered an option that the name be mentioned only in an initial story and not be reported in follow-up stories. “How often does the public need this information?” he asked at the meeting with journalists.

Media organizations should not be expected to suppress shooters’ names, Lankford said, but he suggested that after reporting on the initial shooting, media outlets might confine information about the shooter to one page of their websites and not repeatedly mention it in follow-up stories.

Dawn Clapperton, senior producer for investigations at WTVJ, the NBC television affiliate in Miami, which covered the Parkland shooting, said that the station’s staff has had internal discussions about taking care to use appropriate words in describing mass shootings and showing sensitivity to victims in covering such events.

Clapperton said her station decided to use the word “massacre” sparingly, for example.

Lisa Cianci, news content director at the Orlando Sentinel, led coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 were killed. The coverage was intensive, with 48 stories in the first 24 hours after the event, covering nine pages in print. The newspaper also produced 26 videos.

The newspaper “kept the victims in the forefront,” writing obituaries on each of them, Cianci said, and did not show the shooter’s photo on its front page.

Lankford contends that important details about a mass shooting, including who
committed the attack (age, sex, race, religion, background, mental health, criminal record, behavior, etc.) does not require publishing the perpetrator’s name or face.

He contends that limiting identification of the shooter is consistent with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which calls on media to “balance the public’s need for information against potential harms” and to avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

Lankford says that “denying mass shooters de facto celebrity status and
widespread fame does not require keeping their names completely confidential.”

He notes that the names of shooters still will be a matter of public record and widely known, including by witnesses, families, and local community members.

One unofficial experiment took place this year in after a Kentucky school shooting, when the news media withheld the offender’s name for several weeks because he was only 15 years old.


Tabloids cover mass shootings. Photo by scleroplex via Flickr

Lankford contends that the absence of a name “didn’t limit the depth or quality of coverage,” He says that some news outlets ran video footage of his arrest (in which his face was blurred out) and interviews of classmates who described his personality and behavior in detail.

No media representative offered a detailed rebuttal of Lankford at the journalists’ discussion last week, but Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute has contended that it is legitimate for the media to name mass shooters.

McBride says that, “When you name an individual and tell his story, you give people important context for the backstory,” and that “knowing who was behind the gun allows us to identify trends,” such as that most mass acts of violence have been committed by young white males.”

Naming the shooter also can prevent misinformation, she says, recalling that after the 2012 Newton, Ct., school shooting, some media outlets misidentified the shooter as his brother.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


No Easy Explanation for U.S. Homicide Rise: Criminologists

Why did homicides increase in 2015 and 2016? Some blame the opioid epidemic and others point to the “Ferguson effect” on police, but criminologists say neither explanation is supported by data.

No one is sure why the homicide total in the US increased in both 2015 and 2016, but experts gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss two popular theories: that the change had to do with police withdrawal of services in response to anti-police sentiment after officer-involved shootings—the so-called “Ferguson effect”—or that it was related to the increase in overdose deaths from opoids.

The basic conclusion was that neither theory explains the trend, and that more research is needed on local trends to establish the cause.

The occasion was the third annual “ask a criminologist” session sponsored by the Crime & Justice Research Alliance and the Consortium of Social Science Associations.

The issue of depolicing has been called the “Ferguson effect,” because of anecdotal reports of a reduction in law enforcement activity after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and subsequent anti-police protests.

Criminologist Shytierra Gaston of Indiana University told the briefing that at least some of the homicide rises in 2015 and 2016 might have been related to the idea of “street justice,” that some citizens are “taking matters into our own hands” and not relying on police officers, some of whom reportedly have been acting more cautiously in the aftermath of public criticism over Ferguson and other police shootings.

But it’s not clear how much “depolicing” actually has been occurring, said Howard Spivak, deputy director of the National Institute of Justice, the US Justice Department’s research arm.

Spivak said the available data don’t back the idea that the “Ferguson effect” was a causal factor in rising homicide totals, particularly those involving white victims.

The other major crime trend in recent years is the sharp rise in overdose deaths attributed to opioids.

Spivak said it is clearer in that case that homicides involving white people have been “associated with opioid commerce and use,” but association doesn’t necessarily mean causality.

Police Chief Richard Biehl of Dayton, Ohio, whose city is in one of the areas hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, agreed that there is no proof of the opioid-homicide link.

Drug-related murders in Dayton rose markedly both in 2015 and 2016, reflecting the national trend.

Yet both homicides and violent crime generally dropped fairly sharply last year as opioid overdoses continued to increase, Biehl said. He added that opioids were linked only to about seven percent of murders.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated that murders were down 4.4 percent last year in the nation’s 30 largest cities, but an FBI compilation of the national total won’t be available until later this year.

The experts agreed that more analysis is needed of changing homicide rates in localities.

National data may mask the fact that changes in particular city totals may differ from the apparent U.S. trend.

Spivak noted that, as was the case in Dayton, in some cities violent crime is down while opioid overdoses have increased, raising questions about a possible connection.

Speakers lamented the demise of the federally funded Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program (ADAM), which tested arrestees in many cities for drug use between 1987 and 2004. The testing later was resumed on a limited basis from 2007 to 2014.

Without ADAM, it’s difficult to link drug abuse definitively to criminal activity on a citywide or national basis.

Both Chief Biehl and Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute, who moderated the expert discussion, said they would welcome the resumption of ADAM or a program like it.

Spivak, whose agency blamed lack of funding for ending the program in several dozen places, said there is still no money available at NIJ to re-start the drug testing program.

Spivak and Gaston co-authored with criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri – St.Louis a report on the subjects discussed in Tuesday’s briefing, and Rosenfeld wrote about it in The Crime Report last December.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.


‘Justice Reinvestment’ Holds Its Own Against Trump

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House committee that oversees Justice Department funding, has proposed increasing a program aimed at reducing state prison populations and recidivism that the Trump administration wanted to kill. The chairman also sought a small reduction in the FBI budget, plus increases for immigration judges and the Trump-supported Project Safe Neighborhoods program.

For nearly a decade, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has supported a concept known as “justice reinvestment,” which encourages states to manage their prison populations better and invest the money that is saved in programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

DOJ has recently been devoting about $25 million annually to the program, a minuscule sum in a cabinet department that has more than $30 billion to spend each year, but still enough to fund work in several states. Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Georgia passed legislation this year based on justice reinvestment principles, the Justice Department says.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project also pursues justice reinvestment in conjunction with the Justice Department. Pew declines to say how much it spends, but it probably is much less than the federal appropriation. The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Vera Institute of Justice help run the program.

In February, the Trump administration unexpectedly asked Congress to end federal involvement in justice reinvestment.

The White House said it would rather spend the money directly fighting violent crime and on projects under the federal Second Chance Act that help released inmates reenter society successfully.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t speak about the program directly, but DOJ watchers noted that given his tough-on-crime rhetoric and his opposition to bills that would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences, he would be unlikely to have much enthusiasm about a project that aims to reduce state prison populations.

The Trump plan failed its first test on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, chairman John Culberson (R-TX) of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget released his spending plan for the year starting Oct. 1. It did not seek to kill the program as Trump sought, but rather proposed to increase annual funding for justice reinvestment to $30 million.

It is important to note that the initial DOJ spending proposal, which will be considered on Wednesday by the full subcommittee, has a long way to go through the legislative process in both the House and Senate and could be subject to change.

Still, support of justice reinvestment by a conservative committee chairman should go a long way toward keeping the program intact, given that most Democrats and many Republicans have backed it in the past.

Recently, 68 House members supported continued funding for justice reinvestment. They asserted that states had saved a combined total of more than $1.1 billion under the the program, and that crime has continued dropping in most of the states involved. Sixteen senators signed a similar letter.

Pew reports that 34 states have changed their laws on sentencing or prisons since 2007 under the justice reinvestment initiative. Pew says that “reforms prioritize the use of prison for serious and violent offenses while expanding alternatives to imprisonment for those who can be supervised more effectively and at less expense in the community.”

Asked before Tuesday’s subcommittee proposal about the Trump administration call to end federal backing for justice reinvestment, Pew’s Adam Gelb told The Crime Report that, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for the last 8 years, and that’s been because state leaders from both parties have made clear to their federal representatives that consensus-driven policy based on the best available data can deliver a better public safety return on investment.

“We anticipate Congress will continue funding the Justice Reinvestment Initiative as states continue to deliver results.”

Overall, the House subcommittee budget proposal would give an increase to DOJ of nearly $800 million. Among major items included, according to the subcommittee and to the National Criminal Justice Association, are:

  • An additional 100 immigration judge teams, which along with 100 more judicial teams being added this year “should drastically reduce the immigration case backlog,” the subcommittee said.
  • For the Drug Enforcement Administration, $130 million additional to help national opioid enforcement efforts and targeting major drug trafficking organizations.
  • An increase of $23 million for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help cut violent crime, among other uses.
  • An $81 million budget reduction for the FBI, which would get $9.3 billion overall. The cut was attributed to lower “construction funding.”
  • $2.9 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance grant programs including $493 million for Violence Against Women Act programs, $442 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants,  $255 million for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, 48 million for Reduce Sexual Assault Kits Backlog grants, $100 million for Anti-Human Trafficking grants, $380 million for Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act grants.
  • Project Safe Neighborhoods, an anticrime program that is a high priority o the Trump administration, would get $50 million, up from $20 million.
  • The new STOP School Violence Act would be funded at $100 million, primarily for grants to states for violence prevention training for teachers and students, development of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, development of school threat assessment and intervention teams, security assessments, and coordination with local law enforcement. Funds in this program previously were used for academic research, which the Trump administration opposed.
  • Hiring of community police officers under the COPS program would be reduced from $150 million to $91 million.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.