Experts Plan Major Research Project on Reducing Police Shootings

Two decades after Amadou Diallo was killed by four New York City police officers in the wrongful belief he carried a gun, fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians continues to mire U.S.police agencies in controversy. Criminologists are planning a new set of studies to examine why–and offer solutions,

Two decades after Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, was killed by four New York City police officers who shot at him 41 times in the wrongful belief he carried a gun, a high-level group of experts is concentrating research efforts on a broad array of ideas to attack a problem that is blamed for reducing public trust in police nationwide.

The experts, mostly academics but also including a former top police training director, gathered in Philadelphia to discuss what is known and unknown about killings by police, and to suggest ways of avoiding many of them.

Diallo’s death, which led to a $3 million settlement with New York City and the acquittal for  the four officers involved, was cited several times in the discussion as a seminal event in the modern history of police shootings, often overlooked since attention focused on the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

More directly responsible for the gathering was a study  published last year by Cambridge University criminologist Lawrence Sherman, in which he argued that shootings by police should be year should be viewed as “system crashes” and studied in the same way as analysts looked at aviation crashes, nuclear meltdowns and other rare events, to help prevent their recurrence.

The setting was the University of Pennsylvania headquarters of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (AAPSS), which will devote an issue of its bimonthly publication The ANNALS to the subject of fatal police shootings.

Fifty big U.S. cities were able to cut in half the number of fatal shootings of citizens by police between 1970 and 1985, Sherman wrote in the study. He called the development the “First Great Awakening” on the subject.

There was less attention to the problem as crime rates rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not until the Ferguson case was there a “Second Great Awakening of concern and debate over police-citizen violence,” Sherman wrote.

There have been no reliable government statistics on police shootings. The Washington Post has tried to fill the gap by maintaining a database of police use of lethal force since the Brown killing, publishing statistics showing a “remarkable stability” of such incidents over four years, says criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University.

The newspaper counted 995 in 2015; 963 in 2016; 987 in 2017; and 995 last year.

About a dozen experts plan to contribute to The ANNALS volume on the subject, which is scheduled for publication next January.

Because some of their research and writing is in progress, observers were asked not to quote from draft papers. Here are some of the main issues being addressed:

Franklin Zimring of the University of California Berkeley is examining the role of different levels of government in the U.S. — federal, state and local — in dealing with what he terms a high rate of “unnecessary killings of civilians by police.” One major question is whether prosecution of police officers should be a main focus of reformers, as distinct from administrative changes within police departments to prevent unwarranted shootings.

David Klinger of the University of Missouri St. Louis is assessing a theory that many police killings of civilians are “normal accidents” that may occur when several police officers become involved with civilians in confined spaces. That is what occurred in New York City’s Diallo case, in which officers mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun in a dark vestibule and fired dozens of shots, mistakenly thinking that he had injured an officer.

Charles Branas and Paul Reeping of Columbia University, and Sara Jacoby of the University of Pennsylvania are examining the policy in some cities of allowing police to transport victims of violent acts by police and others to hospitals rather than waiting for emergency medical technicians. Quicker action to deal with the injured may mean the difference between life and death. In Philadelphia, about 30 percent of assault victims are taken by police officers to medical care, but many cities don’t permit such action.

Robin Engel and Hannah McManus of the University of Cincinnati will assess the spread and impact of police efforts to de-escalate volatile encounters.

Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina and Scott Wolfe of Michigan State University are examining the results of a test of a “social interaction” training program called “Tact, Tactics and Trust” that was administered to police officers in Tucson, Az., and Fayetteville, N.C.

Christopher Winship of Harvard University and Lisa Holmes of the University of Massachusetts-Boston are assessing the roles of current regulations governing police work and the content of police training in affecting the level of police shootings.Winship notes that the rates of fatal police shootings varies widely across cities, with many in St. Louis and few in Buffalo, for example. For four years, Holmes was Chief of the Bureau of Professional Development at the Boston Police Department, which has beefed up its training for officers handling critical incidents.

Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago is studying how police can improve their handling of incidents involving people with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. This includes the use of “gun violence restraining orders,” that are already being used in some states to allow the seizure of guns from people judged to be dangerous.

Phillip Atiba Goff of the Center for Policing Equity based at John Jay College of Criminal Justice will assess what scientific methods might be used in “predicting bad policing.”

Gregory Ridgeway of the University of Pennsylvania is looking at the backgrounds of officers involved in shootings to relate which aspects may be more related to involvement in shooting incidents.

Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University is studying the possible relationship between the availability of firearms and incidence of police use of force. He notes, for example that guns are generally more prevalent in southern and western states, and will examine whether there are more shootings by police in those areas.

Lawrence Sherman will look at whether a system of locally-based “extension agents” comparable to the 30,000 already working with the U.S. Department Agriculture on farming issues could be established to work with local governments and private citizens to find ways to prevent police shootings in their areas. Such an effort might be administered by public universities, he suggested.

In his already-published paper, Sherman noted that a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police officers have occurred in cities with fewer than 50,000 residents, which indicates that research projects must be sure to include “very small communities in order to understand and help prevent the majority of all fatal police shootings.”

See additional reading on the topic in The Crime Report:

Can Police Change their Mindset from Warriors to Guardians? 

Punishing Police Won’t Curb Officer-Involved Shootings

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



Weak Gun Laws Lead to Higher Gun Death Rates- Study

States led by Alaska lead in death rates because they have weak gun violence prevention laws and high rates of gun ownership, says the Violence Policy Center based on newly released 2017 data. Hawaii has the nation’s lowest gun-death rate.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that states with the nation’s highest rates of gun death in 2017 are those with weak gun violence prevention laws and higher rates of gun ownership, the Violence Policy Center reports.

States with the lowest gun- death rates have some of the strongest gun violence prevention laws and lower rates of gun ownership. The state with the highest per capita gun-death rate in was Alaska, followed by Montana, Alabama, Louisiana, and Missouri. Those states have lax gun violence prevention laws as well as a higher rate of gun ownership, the center says.

The state with the nation’s lowest gun-death rate was Hawaii, followed by Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Those states have strong gun violence prevention laws and a lower rate of gun ownership. The number of Americans killed by gunfire increased to 39,773 in 2017 from 38,658 in 2016.


Half of MS Jail Detainees Stay Over 90 Days

Long pretrial detentions are particularly prevalent in Mississippi because of impoverished inmates who can’t make bail, delays in appointing public defenders, slow processing of evidence and infrequent meetings of local courts.

A new survey provided to The Associated Press suggests that the number of Mississippi inmates jailed for short periods may be declining, but that those in jail for longer is holding steady. Criminal justice experts and state lawmakers say they need more data to help determine why so many people are in jail, what’s keeping them there, and what Mississippi should do about it. The survey by the MacArthur Justice Center shows almost half of the more than 5,000 people jailed stayed for 90 or more consecutive days. More than 600 had been in jail longer than a year, but that includes an unknown number of people serving sentences in jails and not just awaiting trial.

Long pretrial detentions are particularly prevalent in Mississippi because of impoverished inmates who can’t make bail, delays in appointing public defenders, slow processing of evidence and infrequent meetings of local courts because of the state’s rural nature. Cliff Johnson, a University of Mississippi law professor who has led data collection, blames many extended detentions on judges who set bail that poor defendants can’t pay. MacArthur has repeatedly sued cities and counties in Mississippi for jailing poor people who can’t afford to pay bail or fines. He says prosecutors often drag their feet on indicting jailed suspects and said the state Supreme Court isn’t doing enough to guarantee speedy trials to defendants. “There is no limit in Mississippi on how long a person can be held prior to indictment, so detainees can wait up to a year or more before even being formally charged with a crime,” Johnson said. “They wait months after that for their trial date.” The most recent census conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, showed an average pretrial jail stay in Mississippi of 40 days, the sixth-longest in the country.


States Focus on Transparency, Accountability in Police Bodycam Guidelines

Sixteen states have passed laws on body cameras since January 2017, says the Urban Institute. State policies are mixed on who can gain access to the footage and when.

With more police departments requiring their officers to wear cameras, states are continuing to refine their laws governing use of the devices.

Since January 2017 alone, 16 states have passed laws related to body-worn cameras, according to a report issued Monday by The Urban Institute.  Some 12 states have legislation pending

The institute, which has been tracking this legislation,has identified five policy trends related to transparency and accountability, according to report authors Nkechi Erondu and Nancy La Vigne.

Many states are developing model evidence-based policies and standards around camera use. In 2016, several states established commissions, study groups and pilot programs.

In January 2017, the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board issued standards that include requiring law enforcement to inform citizens when they are
being recorded and blocking citizens from reviewing recordings at the scene of an incident.

In the same month, Nebraska passed a policy developed by its Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice governing when and how to use body-worn cameras and regulating the storage and destruction of footage.

There’s no national standard on when footage is considered public record. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have either passed or proposed legislation related
to access.

Only a few states exempt all body-worn camera footage from public records requests; most others have a variety of exemptions associated with disclosure or allow requests on a per-incident basis. Many states don’t allow disclosure of records related to an ongoing criminal investigation or disciplinary action.

Privacy issues continue to surface, Erondu and La Vigne said.

In new laws, personal privacy concerns increasingly are at odds with law enforcement investigative needs, prompting a nationwide conversation on the tradeoffs between transparency and privacy.

Utah has prohibited recordings within hospitals, human services programs, or mental care facilities. Tennessee, Kentucky and Washington exempt from public records
requests depictions of vulnerable individuals, such as sex crime and domestic
violence survivors and minors.

State guidelines regarding officer viewings of body camera footage prior to investigations are rare. The issue is whether officers should be allowed to view footage before writing incident reports or make statements after police-involved shootings and other serious incidents.

Police groups generally favor allowing officers to review footage, so they can obtain the best evidence available. Civil rights advocates oppose it, citing damages to accountability and accuracy. Only Arizona, Florida and the District of Columbia have passed statewide regulations. All allow law enforcement to access footage before making a statement or writing a report.

Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon require law enforcement agencies using body-worn cameras to develop written policies.

In the absence of state laws, local police departments have considerable discretion. In Tucson, Az., for example, the police department allows anyone to request footage, and access is automatically granted if the request complies with the state’s public records law.

Legal cases are also shaping policy. In August, a circuit court judge ordered the Mobile, Al., police department to release footage depicting an officer pepper-spraying high school students to WALA-TV/FOX 10 News, but said his ruling did not set a precedent for all body camera videos.

Erondu and La Vigne urged states to “enact legislation that is both responsive to
the demands of community stakeholders and considers evolving technological advancements.”

“Striking the right balance between flexibility in local implementation and comprehensive and uniform standards will be critical in ensuring body-worn cameras enhance transparency and accountability,” they wrote.

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


Do The Nation’s Prosecutors Need Help?

As reform candidates for district attorney are winning office in several cities, it’s time for a new look at the role of prosecutors in the justice system, a Washington DC panel was told Thursday.

Despite their undeniable power over criminal cases, many prosecutors are overworked, understaffed, and in need of guidance from researchers.

That was how some experts portrayed them at a conference held Thursday by the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academy of Sciences.

The committee has sponsored studies of many criminal justice issues over the years, but it has been 17 years since it published the results of a workshop on “What’s Changing in Prosecution?

Thursday’s session was aimed at giving the panel an update on how the role of prosecutors is evolving.

“We know surprisingly little” about prosecutors, even though they are an important component of the justice system, said Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a sponsor of the Law and Justice Committee.

That assessment was echoed by Miranda Galvin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, who summarized research on prosecutorial issues for the committee.

“Prosecutors’ offices are still largely unknown quantities,” she said.

Speakers at the meeting agreed that now is a good time to focus on prosecutors, as candidates in several jurisdictions have been elected district attorneys on reform platforms.

“Prosecutors are getting attention in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Jamila Hodge, who runs the Reshaping Prosecution program at the Vera Institute of Justice, which was established, according to its website, to help prosecutors understand how their decisions can “lead to the overuse of incarceration, racial disparities, or practices that erode public trust.”

Representatives of organizations that specialize in prosecution issues told the committee that prosecutors need up-to-date research to help them make decisions, especially on many lower-level criminal cases that don’t necessarily warrant a prison term.

Although judges make ultimate decisions on sentencing, more than 90 percent of U.S. criminal  cases are resolved through plea bargains, meaning that prosecutors have a great deal of leverage over the penalty that is imposed.

Many prosecutors have large caseloads and hold their jobs only for a few years, and as a consequence they lack experience on sentencing alternatives, said David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. (Criminal defense attorneys have made similar complaints about caseloads.)

Better research is particularly needed on the efficacy of “diversion” programs, in which prosecutors may agree to putting a defendant in some kind of rehabilitation program without bringing the case to court, said Kristine Hamann of the Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, which works with district attorneys’ state organizations.

The U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, the National Institute of Justice, has commissioned several study projects involving prosecutors, the agency’s Howard Spivak told the committee.

One of them is a “sentinel event analysis” in which major justice system errors are analyzed in an effort prevent their recurrence.

(See “Looking Beyond the ‘White Bear’ in Criminal Justice,” The Crime Report.)

Still, considerable research on how prosecutors operate remains to be done, experts and committee members said.

Travis of the Arnold Foundation suggested, for example, examining the large role elected prosecutors  play in determining prison and jail populations in their areas.

Travis noted that while he served as president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., started an Institute for Innovation in Prosecution to serve as a “national laboratory” for improving prosecution practices. (See John Jay College, Manhattan DA Start Think Tank to Study Prosecutors.)

Based partly on Thursday’s session, the National Academy of Sciences’ committee will decide whether to launch a new study of U.S. prosecutors.

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


Violent Crime Rate Dropped Slightly Last Year, FBI Says

Murders also dropped slightly from 2016. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has spoken frequently about reports of rising crime numbers and has warned that the crime decline had “ominously reversed,” didn’t issue an immediate comment.

After two consecutive years of increases, the estimated number of violent crimes in the nation decreased 0.2 percent last year compared with 2016, said the FBI in its annual report on “Crime in the United States,” released on Monday.

Property crimes dropped 3 percent, marking the 15th consecutive year that category declined.

Taking a look at 5- and 10-year trends, the 2017 estimated violent crime total was 6.8 percent above the 2013 level but 10.6 percent below the 2008 level, the FBI said.

The data were released as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which compiles reports submitted voluntarily by local law enforcement agencies.

It differs from the U.S. Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which measures crime based on interviews with U.S. residents on whether they had been victimized in the previous year.

Because much crime is not reported, the victim survey reports much higher numbers. Its estimate for violent crimes around the nation for 2016, the latest available, was 5.7 million incidents. the FBI number for 2017 released on Monday was 1,247,321.

Of the 18,547 city, county, university and college, state, tribal, and federal agencies eligible to participate in the UCR annual report, 16,655 submitted data in 2017.

Among violent crimes in the FBI report, the estimated number of robberies fell four percent last year. The estimated number of murders and non-negligent manslaughter offenses decreased 0.7 percent from 2016.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University last week predicted that the murder rate in the largest 29 U.S. cities would drop 7.6 percent in 2018 over the previous year. The FBI compilation for this year won’t be issued for another year.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has spoken frequently about reports of rising crime numbers, didn’t issue an immediate comment on the FBI data.

In a speech last week to an Illinois conference, he noted that after several years of declining nationally, “in the last two years of the previous administration, the trends ominously reversed. From 2014 to 2016, the violent crime rate went up by nearly seven percent. Assaults and rape went up nearly 10 percent. Murder shot up by more than 20 percent.”

Speaking in the Chicago area, Sessions lamented that, “more people were murdered in Chicago in 2016 than in New York and Los Angeles combined—even though Chicago has one-fifth of the population of those two cities.”

The Brennan Center report projected that Chicago murders would decline this year to 515, much lower than last year’s 671 but still almost as high as New York and Los Angeles’ combined 574.

In Monday’s FBI compilation for 2017, reported aggravated assaults and rapes increased one and 2.5 percent respectively.

The FBI changed the definition of rape in 2013, effective last year. The term “forcible” was removed from the offense name, and the definition was changed to “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

Nationwide last year, the FBI reported an estimated 7,694,086 property crimes.

Burglaries dropped 7.6 percent and larceny-thefts decreased 2.2 percent, but motor vehicle thefts rose 0.8 percent. Collectively, victims of property crimes (excluding arson) suffered losses estimated at $15.3 billion.

In its report based on victimization interviews, DOJ estimated 15.9 million property crimes in 2016.

The FBI estimated that law enforcement agencies nationwide made 10,554,985 arrests in 2017 (excluding those for traffic violations) in 2017. That was a slight decrease from the 10,662,252 arrests reported for 2016.

Some 45.6 percent of violent crimes were cleared by police through arrests or identification of suspects. That was the same percentage reported in 2016.

In 2017, 13,128 law enforcement agencies reported staffing levels. As of October 31, 2017, they employed 670,279 sworn officers and 286,662 civilians—a rate of 3.4 employees per 1,000 inhabitants.

The FBI started a Crime Data Explorer (CDE) on June 30, 2017, to help users more easily find data in UCR system. The CDE is a web-based, interactive environment where users can query, view and download crime data.

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


Justice Reformers, ‘Fueled by Sense of Urgency,’ Vow to End Status Quo

Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western, leaders of the so-called Square One Project, say their project will sponsor a series of roundtables across the nation aimed at transforming the justice system. According to Travis, the status quo in criminal justice is “profoundly unacceptable.”

A new push to “reimagine” the criminal justice system is “fueled by a sense of urgency” that the status quo in criminal justice is “profoundly unacceptable,” says Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Jeremy Travis. Courtesy John Jay College

Travis, former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Bruce Western, now of Columbia University’s Justice Lab, led a study by a National Academy of Sciences panel four years ago that traced the sharp growth in incarceration in the United States since the 1970s.

Now, Travis and Western are leaders of a new effort funded by the Arnold Foundation along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations that was formally launched on Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The so-called Square One Project, promoting the idea that the justice system should be redesigned from “square one,” consists of two primary segments—an “executive session on the future of justice policy” that will help generate “a new narrative of justice in America,” and a series of roundtables across the nation to hold open discussions of key criminal justice issues.

Travis and Western made clear that the new project was conceived as a follow-up to their study on the nation’s prison growth. (It was the same issue—the fact that more than two million people are locked up in prisons and jails—that prompted former U.S. Sen. James Webb to promote the so-far-unsuccessful idea of a new national crime commission.)

Western noted on Thursday that since the National Academy of Sciences study was issued, the U.S. incarceration rate has declined a bit but remains far above the level of the mid-1970s.

In a paper on criminal justice reform issued as the new project began, Western cited “a large racial disparity: black men are five to six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men.”

Despite a series of criminal justice reforms in recent years, the fact remains that “prison populations are extraordinarily large and criminal justice agencies are focused in myriad ways on the task of punishment,” Western said.

Bruce Western

Bruce Western

One focus of the “reimagining” justice project will be on the intersection of three problems: racial inequalities, poverty and violence, Western explained.

He wrote that poor neighborhoods must “contend with violence” and that “violence can flourish where poverty has depleted a neighborhood of steady employment community organizations, and a stable population that can monitor street life.”

The first roundtable sponsored by the project, to be held in October at North Carolina Central University in Durham, will concern issues involving race and criminal justice.

Arthur Rizer

Arthur Rizer

Another strand of the project discussed on Thursday was a “call for a revised set of values in criminal justice” from Arthur Rizer of the R Street Institute, a research organization that describes its aim as helping “to promote free markets and limited, effective government.”

Rizer published a paper for the project advocating application of the limited government concept to criminal justice. He contends that “the overcriminalization and overincarceration of justice-involved individuals has resulted in the depletion of state coffers across the nation.”

“Local, state, and federal policymakers should be continuously seeking … to increase an individual’s likelihood of rehabilitation and, therefore, to reduce crime while wisely stewarding taxpayer dollars,” Rizer argues.

Travis stressed that a goal of the project, which is scheduled to last for three years, will be to “build a network” of people nationwide who will press for more effective criminal justice practices.

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


Square One Project to ‘Reimagine’ Criminal Justice

Two major foundations, the Laura and John Arnold and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations, along with Columbia University’s Justice Lab, are starting a new project to examine “if we start over from ‘square one,” how would justice policy be different?”

Two major foundations are funding a project they hope will “reimagine” the criminal justice system by discussing ways to “start over from ‘square one.’ ”

The Laura and John Arnold and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations, along with Columbia University’s Justice Lab, will formally launch the Square One Justice project on Thursday in Washington, D.C.

As outlined on the project’s website, it “is taking on the fundamental issues: poverty and racial inequality, violence and safety, criminalization and punishment.

“We’re challenging traditional responses to crime, and looking in new places for more effective responses, by asking a new question: if we start over from ‘square one,’ how would justice policy be different?

The project’s sponsors contend that justice should be “created” in “neighborhoods that suffer from injustice and that deserve public safety that works.”

They contend that “the left, the right, and everyone in between agrees we need this to happen–and now is the time.”

Project leaders do not declare that they have the solutions to problems in the justice system, but they want to “incubate new thinking on our response to crime, promote more effective strategies, and contribute to a new narrative of justice in America.”

The Square One Justice project will include two new programs to help achieve its goals.

An “Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy,” backed by from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, will assemble about two dozen researchers, practitioners, policy makers, advocates, and community representatives to “generate and cultivate new ideas.”

This group will meet in an “off-the-record setting” twice annually to examine research, consider new concepts, and discuss proposals from group members.

The session will publish papers to “catalyze thinking and policy reform that can reduce incarceration and develop new responses to violence and other social problems that can emerge under conditions of poverty and racial inequality.”

The project identified members of the executive session, who include Harvard Prof. Bruce Western and Vincent Schiraldi of Columbia’s Justice Lab, Jeremy Travis of the Arnold Foundation, former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Vikrant Reddy of the Charles Koch Institute, retired federal judge Nancy Gertner of Boston, and former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, among others.

A separate program, called the “Roundtable on the Future of Justice Policy,” funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is a series of public, live-streamed forums involving leaders, community members, academics, and other experts to talk about discussion papers by leading researchers.

Sponsors say the papers will be “designed to spark transformational thinking about what we can expect for our communities and our justice system … creating a public record for learning and sharing information about what a new “square one” might look like.”

The first roundtable will take place Oct. 11-13 at the North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, N.C., with the title, “Examining the History of Racial and Economic Inequality: Implications for Justice Policy and Practice.”

The Square One Justice project will be directed by Katharine Huffman of the Washington, D.C.-based Raben Group. She is a former state affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance and a former Soros Justice Fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The new project is one of a number of efforts in the last few years to examine broad aspects of the justice system.

These include three described last year in The Crime Report: the publication of more than 50 papers on criminal justice in a project called the “Academy of Justice” sponsored by the Koch Institute, an American Society of Criminology review of the LBJ-era commission on crime and justice, assessing what a modern-day commission could accomplish, and a parallel review of the LBJ commission on its 50th anniversary, led by the George Washington University law school.


Iowan Dummermuth Heads DOJ Justice Programs Agency

The Trump administration names Matt Dummermuth, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, to head the Justice Department branch that includes six agencies, including the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Bureau of Justice Statistics, and National Institute of Justice.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs has a new leader.

The Trump administration named Matt Dummermuth, who was U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa during the George W. Bush administration, to the job.

Dummermuth replaces Alan Hanson, who headed the agency since Donald Trump became president. Hanson left recently for the Department of Transportation. He never was nominated by the White House to serve as Assistant Attorney General, the formal title of the agency’s director.

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) includes six agencies well known in criminal justice. They are the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which gives anticrime grants to states and localities; the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART office, which administers federal programs on sex offender sentencing, monitoring, apprehending, registering, and tracking.

Laura Rogers, director of the SMART agency, has served as the acting head of OJP since Hanson’s departure in July, as reported in The Crime Report.

In a memo to OJP staff members, Rogers said Dummermuth as U.S. Attorney “supervised criminal prosecutions of drug trafficking, child exploitation and financial fraud, and orchestrated the nation’s most successful criminal immigration worksite enforcement action. He also created the first human trafficking task force in Iowa, bringing together law enforcement and victim service providers.”

On LinkedIn, Dummermuth said that until recently he was a partner in the law firm of Hagenow Gustoff & Dummermuth, LLP, leading its eastern Iowa office in Cedar Rapids.

He did not mention his criminal justice experience, noting that he handles “government litigation, including constitutional and civil rights issues, as well as investigations and regulatory matters.”

Dummermuth said that as a seventh-generation Iowan “still actively involved with my family’s livestock and crop farm, I have significant interest, background, and experience in agricultural law, handling matters ranging from commercial litigation and regulatory compliance to complex business and estate planning.”

There was no immediate indication whether Dummermuth has any possibility of being nominated to head the agency, which requires Senate confirmation.

That may depend on the future of his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who President Trump has indicated may be fired after the November elections.

One of Dummermuth’s major challenges may be to help determine whether federal anticrime funds will be given to “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration officials. That issue is pending in several federal courts.


A New Way to Forecast State Prison Populations

The Urban Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union have developed companion tools aimed at helping states understand the factors that drive their prison populations, and fashion policies that can reduce them without affecting public safety. The ACLU says its tool can help produce “transformational change” in the nation’s prison system.

With more than two million Americans behind prison and jail bars on any given day, many state leaders have been struggling with how to reduce that total while maintaining public safety.

The Urban Institute released on Wednesday a new tool allowing users to project prison populations state-by-state by experimenting with different variables.

In partnership with the institute, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) simultaneously issued “blueprints” that 24 states could use to cut their inmate totals by 50 percent in the coming years. The ACLU will release similar plans for the other states later.

Imprisonment is mainly a state issue, although the federal government also maintains a large prison system.

The Urban Institute notes that “every state has its own unique set of factors and challenges that contribute to mass incarceration,” adding that “there is no one-size-fits-all national solution for reducing the total number of people in prison.”

The institute offers a few examples. In Arizona, reducing admissions for drug offenses by 50 percent would lead to an 11.7 percent decrease in the state’s prison population by 2025.

Doing the same thing in California would lead to only a 1.5 percent decline in inmate numbers in the next seven years.

Much of the discussion in recent years about reducing mass incarceration has focused on non-violent crimes.

The institute says that violent offenses are major drivers of states’ prison populations, and those populations can’t be substantially reduced without dealing with such offenses.

In Minnesota, cutting the length of prison terms for violent offenses in half would reduce the population nearly 25 percent by 2025. A similar reduction for property-crime offenses would lead only to a 5 percent decrease.

Large reductions in a state’s prison population would produce “significant savings in correctional spending, which frees up resources for investment in other public safety priorities such as crime prevention,” the institute says.

Conversely, increasing prison admissions for drug offenses by 50 percent would add $83.7 million to Illinois’ correctional budget, and $150.1 million to Texas’, the institute says.

The institute cautions that reducing the prison population does little to reduce the proportion of the prison population made up of people of color, and in some cases would worsen the racial disparities in incarceration.

As of 2016, there were 487,300 blacks, 440,200 whites and 339,600 Hispanics in state prisons, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The totals for African Americans  and Hispanics far exceeded their proportion of the national population.

The ACLU says that its blueprints based on the Urban Institute’s new tool are the “first-ever analysis of its kind and will serve as a tool for activists, advocates and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.”

Each blueprint analyzes who is being sent to jail and prison, racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the justice system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.

Among examples the ACLU offers:

  • In Louisiana, more than one-third of new prison admissions in 2016 were were convicted of property offenses, and thirty percent of admissions were for drug offenses. Louisiana, which already has passed legislation aimed at cutting prison numbers, could also reclassify drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
  • In Pennsylvania,  the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56.5 percent between 2006 and 2016. That state could focus on reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to violations of probation supervision.

The material issued on Wednesday differs from a 50-state report on public safety put out this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which was billed as including “tools and strategies to help states reduce crime, recidivism, and costs.”

That report presented more than 300 “data visualizations” comparing crime, recidivism and correctional practices across all 50 states.

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