New Crime Commission Could Get Nod This Year, says Senator

Michigan Sen, Gary Peters, a key sponsor of a bill to create a national commission studying the criminal justice system similar to the landmark LBJ-era effort, says he is “cautiously optimistic.” He told a Washington briefing that the more incidents occur involving failures by criminal justice officials, “the more people lose trust in the system.”

A Michigan senator who is advocating for a congressional commission to conduct a national study of the criminal justice system says he is “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will approve the measure this year.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) made the comment Tuesday at a briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University on behalf of the American Society of Criminology, which has just published a volume focused on what a new commission could accomplish.

Peters, who is leading the fight for the bill with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said he is concerned that the more incidents that occur involving failures by criminal justice officials, “the more people lose trust in the system.”

Gary Peters

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters via Wikipedia

He added: “Democracy can’t function without trust.”

Peters said that 39 senators have endorsed the bill, which would create a 14-member commission to do the first major system-wide study of its kind since a panel appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a landmark report 50 years ago titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.

A similar attempt by then-Sen. James Webb (D-VA) to create a national criminal justice commission failed by three votes in 2011 to achieve a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

Prospects for the commission this year are uncertain in a Congress that is passing little substantive legislation on criminal justice or other subjects.

In recent years, the commission has been included in broader legislation on federal sentencing reform, but that measure is opposed by the Trump administration, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as an Alabama senator, voted against proposals to reduce many mandatory minimum prison sentences.

The House Judiciary Committee may take up a bill on Wednesday that deals with prison reform measures that are favored by the White House to improve prisoner reentry programs.

Committee members are nearing agreement on the bill, which could reach the floor in early May, Politico reports.

The legislation, which would establish training programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates, is the product of months of negotiation between Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and Attorney General Sessions.

In the Senate, Cornyn has said that if the prison bill can be approved by the House, he will try to get a version approved by the Senate that includes establishing a crime commission.

Obstacles remain, however. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) still favors a broad sentencing reform bill, as do many Democrats. Some Democrats would prefer that no criminal justice bill is approved this year, in the hope that they can regain control of one or both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections and pass a stronger bill next year.

At the Tuesday briefing, criminologists spoke to congressional staff members and others in a review of what the LBJ-era crime commission recommended in major fields, what research has established in the last half-century, and what a new commission might advocate.

Speakers included Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University on science and technology; Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University on policing; Doris Mackenzie of Penn State University on corrections; Cassia Spohn of the University of Arizona on prosecution; Jodi Lane of the University of Florida on juvenile justice; Robert Crutchfield of the University of Washington on race and criminal justice; Bryce Pardo of the University of Maryland on narcotics; Lawrence Sherman of the University of Maryland and the University of Cambridge and Joanne Belknap of the University of Colorado on domestic violence; and Paul Wormeli of the IJIS Institute on crime statistics.

The project was funded by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and was headed by Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists and The Crime Report and Cynthia Lum of the George Mason Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

Ted Gest is Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report


What’s Inside the Prosecutorial ‘Black Box’?

Prosecutors are arguably the least understood players in the criminal justice system, and any reform effort must take them into account. But what do they think about their jobs? Here’s what one researcher found.

“If you are going to reduce the prison population, prosecutors are going to be the ones who have to lead the way.”

Since Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff wrote those words, in a paper published in 2011, analysts have been focusing on his argument that the nation’s historic and unprecedented prison growth since 1994 was not primarily driven, as many believed, by legislation—but rather by increased filing of felony charges by prosecutors.

He concluded that, in order to be successful, justice reform efforts would have to focus on prosecutors.

But until recently, the public had little understanding of what Pfaff also called the “the least transparent part of the criminal justice system,” particularly the enormous power wielded by prosecutors to determine who is charged, who may plead out, and who goes to prison.

Nor did many recognize the considerable influence district attorneys exerted in state public policy debates.

In an effort to pierce what Pfaff has termed the “prosecutorial black box,” the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard Law School conducted a series of interviews with former and current prosecutors.

My colleagues and I were particularly interested in hearing about the experiences of individuals who had tried to enact reforms from the inside. To encourage optimal honesty, we assured confidentiality to everyone we spoke with.

The result was a series of revealing interviews that shed light on why many prosecutors become disillusioned with their jobs, and on the discomfort felt by African-American prosecutors, in particular, about being put in a position of, as one said, “sending other black men to prison.”

Public awareness of the prosecutors’ role is rapidly changing in districts across the country—red, blue and purple—as education campaigns waged by justice reform advocates are galvanizing voters to elect openly reform-minded district attorneys.

In Houston, Mississippi, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn, and most recently, in Philadelphia, these leaders are promising to make the system fairer, more equitable, and more transparent. Many have pledged to reduce the prison population, change bail practices, divert non-violent offenders, end marijuana prosecutions, and reduce racial disparities in the system.

But there’s still a long way to go.

recent survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts found that almost 40 percent of respondents did not even know that district attorneys were elected. As a result, most DAs routinely cruised to re-election, often without an opponent.

With a growing cohort of reformers now ensconced in office, advocates are closely monitoring their actions. In particular, they are questioning whether reform can be initiated and sustained from within the very offices that have been most responsible for “mass incarceration.”

And, if reforms are possible, where are the most promising levers?

Our survey explored these and other questions. Below is a short summary of what we found.

The Career Disconnect

When discussing with prosecutors what had initially attracted them to the job, most spoke of wanting to make a difference in the community, of wanting to be “players,” of finding solutions to social problems, “solving puzzles,” helping victims of crime, and to gain trial skills.

Yet, once in office, they all told us, they were evaluated almost exclusively on a very narrow set of metrics—their trial skills, ability to quickly go to trial and to win convictions:

“You were measured by the speed with which you are moving cases and you better get a conviction,” commented one interviewee. “You charged out everything that you could possibly charge out. A good plea meant a lot of time.”

Another mentioned that a memo would be sent around the office every time a prosecutor won a case, with “a lot of high fives based on how many years someone is sent away.”

Someone else explained that, when a defendant received a 15-year sentence or higher, the prosecutor’s photograph would be hung on a wall, next to a photograph of the defendant and of the referring FBI agent.

Race Matters

We noted a distinction, which needs to be further explored, between how white and black prosecutors initially approached their jobs. Many of the black prosecutors with whom we spoke expressed ambivalence about entering a field which required them to put so many other African Americans in prison.

One told us, “My struggle was being a black man in a position where I would be sending other black men to prison.”

Said another: “During the period I was there, there was no concern about mass incarceration, over-criminalization or reducing prison population. Those issues were never raised.”

While several white prosecutors told us they eventually became troubled by the racial disparities in prosecutions, it was not an initial concern, whereas the black prosecutors raised it immediately.

The Tipping Point

One surprising insight that emerged from several interviews was the deep emotional toll that prosecutorial work exacted over time. Several interviewees mentioned feeling empty, sad, and isolated, particularly because the office culture did not encourage them to be “soft.”

For a few, a particular case became a tipping point:

One moment—a black man had gone to trial for selling crack. It was the same story over and over…I decided to drive by, and sure enough, there was someone else selling crack at the same house where the defendant, now serving a mandatory minimum prison sentence, had been arrested….Nothing had changed.

 Winning a trial was supposed to be this moment of joy and accomplishment. You stand up and hug and laugh—but I felt crushed. This is one big swamp of tragedy. 

One case “overwhelmed me” and sent me over the edge. One mother had a son who was killed, another who killed. She lost both sons. They were from the same communities. Our approach was not working. 

We asked interviewees how they would change or reform the job. Here are some of the recommendations we heard most frequently.

Improve Recruitment and Training

Several of the individuals we interviewed discussed the need to cast a wider net when recruiting for new positions in the field, and, in particular, to seek out individuals “who are not so black and white” in their thinking about the consequences of breaking the law.

A few also noted the vast cultural, racial, ethnic and demographic differences between many prosecutors and the communities where they work.

“You cannot exact retribution on a community without any knowledge or understanding of that community,” commented one.

They recommended that all incoming prosecutors undergo training that included visiting prisons, speaking with incarcerated individuals, and understanding the full impact of incarceration and criminal control on an individual life’s and on the life of his or her family.

Broaden the Metric

Almost every interviewee noted that the metrics for measuring the performance of prosecutors were far too narrow.

Trial skills were valued extremely highly, along with an ability to move to trial quickly (“we don’t want to be the ones to slow the process down”), and, of course, to secure convictions.

But several mentioned that any positive contribution they chose to make, for instance, by working in communities, went largely unnoticed. While they weren’t actively discouraged from taking part in community events, they weren’t rewarded for doing so either.

“Nobody sent an e-mail around the office when I helped someone go to college instead of prison,” said one.

Collect More and Better Data

The lack of data collected by most District Attorney offices, according to several interviewees, hobbled reform efforts. It kept the public, and the staff, from measuring the office’s effectiveness on a variety of indicators beyond conviction rates.

This has led some to seize upon the work of organizations such as Measures for Justice, which gathers data on a host of criminal justice indicators at the county level in three broad areas—public safety, fair process and fiscal responsibility.

Using this data offers one way to hold District Attorney offices accountable on a far broader set of publically-available metrics for performance.

Ease the Emotional Toll

Many prosecutors spoke of feeling isolated, increasingly uncomfortable with a culture that focused exclusively on convictions and harsh prison sentences, yet fearful of appearing “soft.”

One interviewee suggested “term limits” to ensure that individuals did not develop “shells of hardness.”

Another observed that a broader set of metrics, which rewarded prosecutors for positive efforts within the community, might create more balance for line prosecutors, and ease their sense of isolation.

These interviews represent just a first step.

Johanna Wald

Johanna Wald

We need more data—both quantitative and qualitative—to more fully understand how changes to prosecutorial culture and incentives can accelerate the movement to create a more equitable and humane justice system.

Robert F. Kennedy once said that “every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” It’s therefore ultimately up to every community to insist upon a district attorney’s office that reflects its priorities and values.

Editor’s Note: The results of the survey were first presented at a June, 2017 conference at Harvard. Readers who wish to obtain a copy are invited to contact the author at

Johanna Wald is the former director of strategic planning at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. She welcomes comments from readers.


Public Safety Summit Draws Officials From 50 States

Pennsylvania corrections chief John Wetzel launched the two-day Washington meeting with an appeal to legislators, corrections administrators, police chiefs and health officials to work together on evidence-based solutions. Another speaker said the White House would back unspecified reforms.

To many Americans, “criminal justice reform” means addressing two prominent challenges: reining in abusive police officers or cutting prison populations.

This week, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators brought teams from all 50 states to Washington, D.C., to underline the fact that reform means much more than that.


John E. Wetzel. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

In opening remarks Monday to the two-day “50-State Summit on Public Safety,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel called on fellow justice officials to abandon the “stovepipe approach” of handling issues in isolated silos of the justice system and seek cooperation with experts in other areas.

Wetzel’s remarks set the tone for the meeting, which was aimed at presenting officials in each state with a detailed analysis of their crime issues, including trends in arrests, recidivism and “behavioral health,” and help them come up with evidence-based solutions.

Summit attendees include all state prison directors, 41 state legislators, 35 state behavioral health directors, 15 police chiefs, and 12 sheriffs.

A major theme that surfaced early in the session is that issues often labelled as “criminal justice” problems, such as mental illness and addiction, can be handled just as well by public health authorities.

“Mental health needs are overwhelming the criminal justice system,” warned Fred Osher of the state government group, who presided over a panel on “Growing Crises.”

“Crime in the U.S. often is described only in terms of national trends, while in reality, the problem differs greatly among states and localities. For example, the violent crime rate nationally is much lower than it was in the 1990s, but 18 states have reported rising violence totals in recent years.”

A panel of three police chiefs, Renee Hall of Dallas, J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Md., and Anthony Campbell of New Haven, Ct., discussed a range of approaches being tried in their areas, including more police involvement with schools, and programs to help chronic criminals get jobs.

Hall said police “are not social workers,” but they still believe in forging partnerships with businesses and outside the justice system to help reduce repeat criminality.

In fact, recidivism is another major topic of discussion at the summit, particularly trying to reduce repeated crime among people on probation, a topic not often discussed at such conferences.

Critics often point to the U.S. prison and jail population that tops 2 million, but it’s often overlooked that more than twice as many are on probation or parole.

Repeat crime among those released from prison is 40 percent or more in many states, depending on how it’s measured. The fact that more than 4.6 million people were on probation or parole as of 2015 means that even the lower repeat-crime rate among those convicts mean many more total “recidivism events” by probationers every year, said the Council of State Governments’ Andy Barbee.

Criminologist Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati told the conference that too many probation and parole officers act like “referees” whose main job is to determine whether probationers and parolees have violated rules and should be sent back to custody.

Instead, he argued, they should be trained more as “coaches” to take active steps that would prevent those on their caseloads from reoffending.

Bryan Collier, criminal justice director in Texas, and Kathy Waters, probation director for the Arizona Supreme Court, described how their states have used variations on that approach to reduce the totals of people whose probation and parole has been revoked in recent years. Such offenders have accounted for a large percentage of new prison admittees in many states.

The conference heard about a new “Face to Face” program sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in which public officials are encouraged to meet directly with convicts to hear about their challenges in getting job training or education behind bars.

Attendees were shown a video of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visiting prisons. The effort is a bipartisan one. Participants so far include Reynolds, a Republican, along with Republican governors of Georgia, Missouri, and Nevada, and Democratic governors in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, and North Carolina.

One governor who has criminal justice reform high on the agenda is Republican Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a businessman who made a featured appearance at the summit on Monday.

Bevin has backed reforms including easier expungement of some criminal records by former inmates and “banning the box” to bar state officials from asking applicants about their criminal pasts.

He also has started pilot programs in seven adult and juvenile corrections facilities to improve job training for inmates, and is working to remove prohibitions on former convicts’ obtaining state licenses for many occupations.

Bevin took part in a recent White House meeting with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, to discuss potential justice reforms on the federal level.

The governor said he came away “very confident” that the White House will back reform measures, although he didn’t specify which ones.

Bevin said he was not confident that Congress would agree, although he praised several Republicans, including his state’s Sen. Rand Paul, for joining the reform movement.

After the summit, the U.S. Justice Department will offer “technical assistance” to as many as 25 states to pursue reform measures.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center will issue a report in January with its detailed state crime and justice findings.

The summit is being funded by DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Tow Foundation.

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


Is It Time for Criminologists to Step Outside the Ivory Tower?

Academics should take advantage of the bipartisan movement for justice reform by making their research more accessible to policymakers and ordinary Americans, says the editor of a new four-volume anthology which attempts to do just that.

Polls show that Americans are more polarized than at any point in the past quarter-century. Partisanship now plagues virtually everything we do, even a once-unifying cultural ritual like watching football on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Lost in the struggle between our kneeling athletes and our tweeting president is the original motivation for the protest, namely, bringing attention to injustices in the legal system.

Erik Luna. Photo courtesy The Cato Institute

Ironically, criminal justice reform presents an issue—perhaps the only issue today—on which the left and the right can unite. And, as it turns out, the academic world may be able to help, as demonstrated by a newly released report from a distinguished group of criminal justice scholars.

The story goes something like this.

Recent years have witnessed otherwise strange bedfellows bunking together to improve our criminal justice system. On what other topic do groups like the ACLU and the NAACP join hands with organizations such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Charles Koch Institute?

In our nation’s capital, Republicans and Democrats came together to correct grotesque disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, for instance, and pending bills would address such issues as America’s broken bail process, ruthless mandatory penalties, and recidivism by former inmates.

In truth, the most remarkable bipartisan action is occurring outside of the Beltway, where states such as Texas (yes, Texas) are leading the way in top-to-bottom criminal justice reforms.

Although advocates may have different motivations—political, social, economic, religious—they agree that something needs to be done about criminal justice in America.

Indeed, we all have reasons to support reform.

In an era of overcriminalization, everyone is a potential criminal, pursuant to penal codes that have become bloated under the mistaken belief that every conceivable social ill is a proper subject of the criminal sanction.

The law’s execution is troubling as well. Negative experiences between police and minorities may not only violate civil liberties, but can also alienate entire communities and leave them less willing to cooperate with law enforcement, which then impedes police efforts to do an already difficult job and to assist those communities most in need.

As for people caught up in the pretrial and trial process—whether as defendants, victims, or concerned family members—the entire operation can be baffling and dehumanizing. On occasion, America’s hyper-adversarial system and some shady evidentiary practices can generate the ultimate injustice: the wrongful conviction of innocent individuals.

All told, taxpayers pay billions of dollars each year to arrest, prosecute, and sentence millions of fellow Americans, oftentimes with little benefit but many attendant costs. For people of faith, disproportionate punishment and consequences that extend post-release defy the possibility of redemption, a core tenet of Christianity (and other religions).

In turn, placing lifelong socio-economic disabilities on former offenders runs counter to one the most endearing images of our nation: America as a land of second chances.

Despite these and other good reasons to support criminal justice reform, the movement still faces a daunting task. In particular, a gap in knowledge exists among government actors and the general public. Many officials and most ordinary people tend to be unaware of the character and quantity of crime, the scope of criminal law, the rules of criminal procedure, the reality of pretrial and trial proceedings, the nature of sentencing schemes and their severity, and the lasting consequences of conviction and incarceration.

This lack of appreciation is hardly surprising given the sheer breadth and complexity of American criminal justice. What is needed is a means to help people grasp the system’s workings and its many, interrelated problems, so Americans and their representatives can have a full and thoughtful discussion of possible solutions.

This is where academics have a role to play. After all, their work is fundamentally all about reform. Criminal justice scholars spend most of their time studying, critically analyzing, and writing at length about crime, punishment, and processes, with an eye toward providing greater understanding of the criminal justice system and proposing changes to that system.

Traditionally, however, academic authors have written to themselves—that is, to other criminal justice scholars—not to the public or even to policymakers, professionals, or policy analysts interested in criminal justice. As a result, academic scholarship is inaccessible in the sense that it is dense, filled with jargon, and, as a general rule, painful to read and unfriendly to normal human beings.

Oftentimes scholarly works are physically inaccessible as well, published by academic presses and journals and buried in libraries or hidden behind paywalls.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between scholarship on the books and legal reform on the ground, a loose-knit group of well over 100 scholars has issued a four-volume report titled Reforming Criminal Justice, which takes on some of the most pressing issues in criminal justice today.

Broken down into individual chapters, each authored by a top scholar in the relevant field, the report covers dozens of topics within the areas of criminalization, policing, pretrial and trial processes, sentencing, incarceration, and release. The goal of each chapter is to increase both professional and public understanding of the subject matter, to facilitate an appreciation of the relevant scholarly literature and the need for reform, and to offer potential solutions.

Today, the United States is unique among Western nations in terms of the scale and punitiveness of its criminal justice system. Academics can’t directly change this: We’re teachers and scholars, not elected officials or other policymakers.

But, as the report hopes to show, the academic world can enlighten the public and their representatives and help guide reform efforts through the insights of those whose lifework is the study of criminal justice.

See Also: Federal Sentencing Reform Alive, Senators Insist (TCR Oct 27, 2017)

Erik Luna is the Amelia D. Lewis Professor of Constitutional & Criminal Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is the project director of the Academy for Justice and the editor of its four-volume report, Reforming Criminal Justice. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Setting the Stage For Criminal Justice Reform

Talk about criminal justice reform has ebbed on Capitol Hill, but outside the legislative chambers, three major projects led by academics are underway this year that could set the stage for comprehensive changes at federal and state levels.

Talk about criminal justice reform has ebbed on Capitol Hill, but outside the legislative chambers, three major projects led by academics are underway that could set the stage for comprehensive changes at federal and state levels.

Two of the efforts are tied to this year’s 50th anniversary of the landmark criminal justice report issued by a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which was formally titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.” These two involve public presentations of papers this fall, with publication next spring.

The third is on a faster track. Publication is planned next month of more than 50 papers that were commissioned with a grant from the conservative Koch Foundation, which has involved liberal scholars and has not dictated an ideological bent.

The Koch-funded program is headed by Arizona State University law Prof. Erik Luna, who has assembled a large group dominated by law professors examining a long list of justice topics.

Under the title “Academy for Justice,” the project aims to “bridge the yawning gap between academic scholarship… and the reform of criminal justice in the real world.”

The papers are organized under five main subjects: criminalization, policing, pre-trial and trial processes, punishment, and incarceration and release. It is based partly on a conference held last winter in Arizona.

The contributors include conservatives such as University of Utah law Prof. Paul Cassell, writing about crime victims’ rights, as well as liberals like University of Minnesota law Prof. Michael Tonry, writing on “community punishments,” Rutgers criminologist Todd Clear and consultant James Austin, both of whom are writing on mass incarceration.

Luna says that the entire publication should be available in mid-October at academy of

Next month, students at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., are sponsoring a two-day session keyed to the LBJ commission’s 50th anniversary. Like the Arizona State University project, this review is mainly being led by law professors such as Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia and Tracy Meares of Yale.

The school also will feature a panel that includes staff members of the original commission, and prominent justice system practitioners such as retired Judge Patricia Wald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The third criminal justice program was organized by the American Society of Criminology, whose annual convention in November in Philadelphia this year features the theme “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform: Fifty Years After the President’s Commission.”

A dozen scholars have been asked to address the major subjects that the LBJ panel dealt with, plus additional topics such as race and domestic violence. The criminologists are reviewing major developments in the last half-century in each field, and assessing what a new commission could accomplish.

Their findings will be presented at the November 15-18 criminology conference and published next year in the journal Criminology & Public Policy. The project, organized by Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists and The Crime Report, and criminologist Cynthia Lum of George Mason University, has obtained a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation that will enable it to hold briefings for members of Congress and their staffs and for state criminal justice policymakers.

Criminologist James Lynch of the University of Maryland, president of the criminology society, said, “Currently, there is a great deal of concern about our criminal justice system even in a time of historically low crime rates. A number of high profile politicians including Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) are joining calls for reform and a new assessment like the original commission. We are hoping that by asking criminologist in their annual meeting to assess the need for  and nature of a new commission through the prism of the original one, we can gain perspective on what is advisable and achievable today.”

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators is backing a bill to create a new commission that would comprise 14 memberse designated by the president or congressional leaders from each major party so that seven are named by Republicans and seven by Democrats.

A lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), says that “too many Americans see growing challenges in our justice system ranging from overburdened courts and unsustainable incarceration costs to strained relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Peters says a modern-day panel could “help reduce crime, improve public safety and promote more equitable criminal justice practices.”

Another key sponsor is Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), who says that “strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and our communities begins with open dialogue, and through an objective review system we can modernize and reform our criminal justice system.”

A similar proposal by former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was approved by the House several years ago, but fell three votes short of 60 votes needed to add it to a bill in the Senate.

A task force on policing appointed by former President Barack Obama recommended that he appoint a criminal justice study commission, but he did not act on the proposal.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have not expressed a view on the idea of a new commission.

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


Sessions Takes DOJ ‘Back to the Fifties,’ Says New John Jay President

In a swipe at the agency she recently left, former Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, the new president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says she plans to expand the school’s role so that it leads the national conversation on innovations in the courts, corrections and policing to fill the “void” created by the current Department of Justice leadership.

Karol Mason, the new president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, envisions expanding the school’s role so that it leads the national conversation on innovations in the courts, corrections and policing now that, she says, the U.S. Department of Justice has essentially bowed out, reports The Chief Leader in New York City.

Charging that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is moving the clock back on justice issues by decades—“I’d say to the fifties”—John Jay is well-positioned to step up, said Karol Mason, who served as an Assistant Attorney General under President Obama.

“We no longer have the federal leadership we’ve had on these issues and I’d like for John Jay to fill that void,” she said. “We don’t need the federal government to lead us and guide us to do these reforms. We can do it ourselves.”

She cited the importance of research on criminal justice, which she oversaw at DOJ and for which John Jay is well-known, to determine what works, so that money and lives can be saved.

“You assess things to find out if they’re a good investment,” she said. As an example, she said Sessions’s order to seek maximum prison terms for drug violators flies in the face of studies that show it’s addiction treatment, not incarceration, that breaks the cycle of criminality.

She also mentioned Scared Straight, a program popular in the 1980s in which troubled young people were brought to prisons and chastised by drug offenders. “They finally assessed it and realized that at best it does no good but that it also does harm,” she said.

At DOJ, Mason oversaw six agencies supervising such areas as juvenile justice, state and local grants, sex-offender reporting, crime prevention, statistics, and assistance to crime victims.


Measures for Justice: ‘America, How Are We Doing?’

A free data portal to be launched next week will provide the first–ever window into how justice is done (or not done) at the county level. Founder Amy Bach tells TCR how it can be used by anyone who intersects with the criminal justice system, from prosecutors and journalists to ordinary Americans.

For the past six years, Measures for Justice has been hard at work on a dream tool for policy analysts, journalists and criminal justice activists. The tool, a free criminal justice data portal that so far covers over 300 counties in six states—with more on the way—will be launched next week. Lead funders for the project include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.

The founder and director is Amy Bach, a member of the New York Bar and a journalist who has written for The Nation, The American Lawyer and New York Magazine, among other publications.  She  chats with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie about how her journalism background led to creating the nation’s first ambitious attempt to gather county-level data on the criminal justice system, how journalists and policymakers can use it, and why she believes it will make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans.

The Crime Report: How did your career in journalism lead to an enormous data collection project?

Amy Bach: In 2009, I wrote a book called Ordinary Injustice; How America Holds Court. I sat in many courtrooms across America, and I learned how it was possible for people in the justice system who have the very best intentions to turn a blind eye to enormous problems, because they couldn’t see what was going on. It’s not their fault— they don’t have data. People can’t compare themselves to a county next door, they have no idea how they’re doing. The conclusion of the book says we have to find a way to measure justice, and put it in a form so that everyone can see it.

Every civic institution uses data to monitor performance, right? There are basic measures for hospitals, like mortality rates; in schools, you’ve got test scores. And all of this data can be accessed by anyone. But people in the system in criminal justice don’t have those tools. If you wanted to assess your physical health– what’s your BMI? What’s your heart rate, what’s your blood pressure? Together, these give us a sense of where we need to focus our attention.

Amy Bach

The same applies to all of the work in the criminal justice system. We need the criminal justice system measures to get a picture of how various [local] criminal justice systems are working. There are more than 3,000 counties in America, and each one has its own criminal justice system. Right now, we focus on whatever’s on the front page: if there are shootings in Chicago, if there are bail problems in Houston. But is that really what’s going on in America? We don’t know, because we haven’t had measures to go across counties and we haven’t had the data.

We’re non-partisan, non-profit, and we’re dedicated to bringing transparency to criminal justice, to enable more informed discussions and decision-making. And these are the things that are really different about us: we do the whole system, from arrests to post-conviction, and we do it on the county level.

All the performance measures go toward one of three neutral goals: public safety, fiscal responsibility and fair process. So the idea is if you’re a money person, there’s something for you in fiscal responsibility. if you’re a public safety person, if you don’t want someone hurting your neighborhood, you get that. If you believe that people should be treated based on due process no matter what the color of your skin, there are fair process measures.

What’s revolutionary about our work is that we’re bringing this to the county level for the first time.

TCR: How did you identify the measures that you’ve chosen?

AB: Measures for Justice was founded in 2011, and the first thing that we did was bring together a “Data Council.” These were people who are experts in local measurement in the United States. They came to our offices in Rochester, NY, and we ended up hiring most of [them]  after we got some funding, and then we created two more councils.

The councils have some of the best people in the US— for example, we’ve got the two former heads of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jim Lynch and Bill Sabol. We’ve got the former head of the National Institute of Justice, and Michael Jacobson, who’s head of the Institute for State and Local Governance, which manages the Macarthur Safety and Justice Challenge. They’ve gone through many, many versions of the measures to figure out what is a valid measure…

TCR: Did you have a wish list, or did you begin with data that was possible to find?

AB: The very first outside council came up with a group of dream measures. Then, we tried to find a county that we could get data for against the measures…so we started in Milwaukee County, because one of the members of our data council was John Chisholm, the district attorney.  We started collecting all of the available data— prosecutor data, public defender data—and then we saw that there was a state database with something called the administrative office of the court, and we got that too. In that database, we found data for about 70% of our measures—so instead of measuring Milwaukee, we measured 72 counties.

Then we created more measures, and eliminating others, as we tried to figure out what was valid and possible. We went to every county in Wisconsin, and tried to get prosecutor and public defender and sheriffs’ data. Then we keep on showing it to people in the state, in the counties, saying “here’s some analysis, does this make sense to you?”

We showed it prosecutors, public defenders, representatives of the courts, judges. We also were funded by the Department of Justice to do a stakeholder initiative, where we went to five counties and showed them their data, and got feedback and input to make the measures better. Then, we had many other people who reviewed the portal over and over again to make sure everything was right. And if something wasn’t right, we eliminated it or qualified it, or refined it.

TCR: is this meant to be a policy tool? Who is it meant for, and how do you expect people to use the portal?

AB: It’s meant for everyone, and that’s really important. It’s meant for insiders, people who work in the system for example; [But it’s also] meant for people who want to write about the justice system, or for anybody who is a citizen [and] has felt that they want to understand their justice system more, or has felt that there is something that needs to be improved. They can look now and see patterns.

We went to one prosecutor in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, and he noticed when we showed him his data that poor people were failing to pay low bail at a much higher rate than rich people. And this might seem intuitive, but he figured out that poor people were being detained simply because they were poor, and not because they were a flight risk, or [endangering] public safety.

So he decided that poor defendants who were jailed for failing to pay low bail over the weekend or holidays didn’t need a prosecutor to present his or her probable cause hearing, which means judges can free these defendants if they want much earlier. The result is that the county treats defendants more equitably while saving itself $64,000.

There will be many, many stories of people using our data to notice things. And sometimes they’re doing things well: one prosecutor in Utah noticed that his prosecutors were reducing charges less often than the state average, and that they had fewer dismissed cases than the state average. The portal allowed him to verify that his team was making good decisions up front. That’s a huge goal.

There’s a story in [my] book about a public defender who pleads 48 people guilty in a day, and thinks he’s doing a great job because speed equals success. Is that really the right measure, or is there another measure? That’s what Measures for Justice is about.

TCR: What’s been surprising about this process?

AB: I think that prosecutors are going to be our early adapters. They enjoy playing with the data, they’re creative, gregarious, and want to do better. We didn’t realize that when we started out. If you are a prosecutor, and you see an issue through our data, you can always go to your community and say, look—there was no way for me to know this before, [and] here’s what I’m going to do about it. And that’s the idea of Measures for Justice.

TCR: What’s an example of some measures that is still not possible to get?

AB: What’s the … [the number of] people held for failing to pay low bail, or [those who have had charges reduced], or cases dismissed? Another important thing to know is that we have filters. You scroll across the page, and you pick some counties— you can pick counties in a state, or among states– so you could compare Raleigh to Milwaukee to Seattle. Then, you pick a measure: for instance, people held on bail for under $500. And then you can filter the measure by race:  white vs. non-white, sex, indigent vs. non-indigent, age, and type of attorney, type of crime, or level of crime.

TCR: Everything that you’re saying about how the justice system is blind due to lack of data seems to apply equally to the media.

AB: Now, journalists will have a way to look across the entire state, tell stories, and find stories that they never could have before. In order to do this project, you have to have enormous experience in criminal justice data, and substantial resources, [and now] we’re bringing those resources to everybody— whether you’re a journalist, or somebody who works in the community, or someone who is a concerned citizen or an advocate.

Imagine that your whole life depends on this. Imagine that you’ve got a family, you’ve got kids at home, and you’ve been arrested for a misdemeanor. And it’s your first crime, you haven’t had any previous arrests in the past 3 years, and you think that all the white people, or people with means get diverted, but you’re not being diverted. And you think there’s something wrong, but you can’t prove it. How could you possibly prove the disparity?

Victoria Mckenzie

Now there’s a single measure where you can. and not only can you do it in your county, you can do it in the county next door, the county above you, the county to the south, the county to the east, and you can look across the whole state. and if you think it’s messed up in your state, you can compare it to another state.  It’s the first time that you can be able to reach into the heart of America and ask, “How are we doing?”

 Editors’ Note:  The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, TCR’s publisher, is holding a special symposium next month (June 12-13) to train journalists in using the portal . Interested reporters can apply to attend through this link. Space is limited.

 Victoria Mckenzie is deputy editor of The Crime Report. TCR will make the portal available online via Measures for Justice after the launch. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Trump Voters Want Criminal Justice Reforms: Survey

The Administration’s hardline approach to crime gets scant support from Americans, including those who voted for Donald Trump in the last campaign, according to a survey released to coincide with the President’s first 100 days in office.

The Administration’s hardline approach to crime gets scant support from Americans, including those who voted for Donald Trump in the last campaign, according to a survey released to coincide with the President’s first 100 days in office.

The survey, released by the right-of-center Charles Koch Institute (CKI), reports that 81 percent of voters who supported Trump during the campaign agreed that criminal justice reform was either a “very important” or “somewhat important” priority for the country.

“There appears to be an appetite among conservatives to get ‘right on crime,’” said Vikrant Reddy, a senior research follow with CKI.
“Conservatives …want reforms that prioritize public safety, respect individual rights and advance human dignity.”

Underlining the pro-reform attitudes, more 63 percent of Trump voters agreed with the notion that “judges should have more freedom to assign forms of punishment other than prisons,” such as civil or community service.

At least 54 percent of those surveyed reported knowing someone who is or has been incarcerated.

The poll surveyed 1,200 voters on their views on a range of criminal justice issues, including civil asset forfeiture, overcriminalization and mandatory minimum sentencing.

A majority of the voters also agreed that police should not have the right to seize private assets of a suspect even if that individual is never prosecuted, a major argument advanced by leading conservative supporters.

For survey details, please click here.


Some Offenders Believe That Justice Reforms Are BS

Subtitles: Are we playing a game of meaningless gestures? Is Ban the Box pointless? Is voting a hollow gesture? Offenders, criminals or justice-involved individuals; are labels important? Author By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s […]

Subtitles: Are we playing a game of meaningless gestures? Is Ban the Box pointless? Is voting a hollow gesture? Offenders, criminals or justice-involved individuals; are labels important? Author By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s […]