Is El Chapo a Murderous Drug Lord or a Tool of Corrupt Governments?

In opening arguments of the much-anticipated trial of reputed Mexican drug boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the defense claimed the government’s case was more myth than reality.

In the much anticipated trial of the infamous drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the defense claimed “El Chapo” was not the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel (one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico).

Jeffery Lichtman, one of Guzmán’s layers, argued in his opening statement at Tuesday’s hearing in downtown Brooklyn that Guzmán’s long time partner Ismael Zambada was the real leader, and “El Chapo” was being used as a scapegoat by the Mexican and U.S. governments.

Lichtman also claimed in a groundbreaking statement that Zambada was able to stay in business by paying off both the former and current Mexican president, as well as U.S. officials.

“There’s another side to this story,” said Lichtman.

“An ugly side to the story. This is a case that requires you to throw out what you know about the government. Government officials at the highest level can conspire and be bribed by economic gains. They’re in it for the money.”

He cited both the current and former Mexican presidents, as well as Mexican police officers, and the Mexican military as co-conspirators accepting money from Zambada in exchange for secrecy and cooperation.

But the United States, Lichtman said, is only interested in pursuing “El Chapo” because he is “the biggest prize this prosecution could dream of,” while Zambada continues to roam free.

After escaping from Mexican prison twice, and allegedly transporting over 150 kilograms of cocaine to the U.S., “El Chapo” has earned his name as a notorious drug kingpin, with Netflix TV shows based on his narcos business, rap songs named after him, and even a sandwich called ‘The El Chapo” at a deli in NYC.

However, the defense called “El Chapo” more of a myth than reality.

“If the world is focusing on the mythical creature Guzmán, whose going after Zambada?” Lichtman asked the court.

The U.S. Government was quick to rebut.

The Assistant US Attorney, Adam Fels, painted Guzmán as a hard hitting criminal whose multi-million dollar illegal enterprise was fueled by trafficking drugs via underground tunnels onto American soil.

The much anticipated trial began with opening statements late Tuesday afternoon after two jurors had to be replaced in the morning (one juror had a doctor’s note and was excused, the next juror did not have the funds to withstand jury duty).

Hundreds of people lined up outside the courthouse and stood in the rain waiting to go through security. Viewers got there as early as 3 am to get a spot in the court room. Many of the observation rooms were overflowing, and reporters, lawyers, and the general public were turned away.

When the prosecution began, they highlighted how Guzmán was able to traffic drugs into the U.S. like none of his predecessors. 

“Guzmán slashed delivery time time trafficking drugs by building underground tunnels from Mexico to the U.S.,” said Fels. “Consequently, Guzmán earned the name “El rapido”, or speedy.”

When he wasn’t using underground tunnels, “El Chapo” was transporting drugs by submarine, trucks, tractors, trailers, planes, cars; any transportation method he could get his hands on.

But Guzmán was known for more than just his speed.

According to the prosecution, Guzmán ran a gory, violent enterprise where hitman were hired to murder members from rival cartels and even members within the Sinola cartel, starting various drug wars in Mexico.

Fels noted that Guzmán gave direct orders to have his cousin, who was also his Lieutenant, murdered for potentially working with the authorities.

He also promised the jury there would be forthcoming evidence of Guzmán torturing members of rival cartels, and even pulling the trigger himself on one occasion.

Megan Hadley is the Senior Staff Writer at The Crime Report.


Study: Shorter Sentences Key to Shrinking Federal Prisons

A new federally funded study shows how much the federal prison system would shrink without affecting recidivism by levying shorter prison sentences.

Sentencing-reform advocates will find new ammunition in a federally funded study that shows how much more quickly the federal prison system shrinks through shortened sentences than through diverting low-level offenders to probation.

The study by Abt Associations shows that cutting average federal prison time by 19 percent, or 7.5 months, can save vast sums of money without higher recidivism. Closing prisons saves money by cutting both marginal costs such as food and fixed costs such as administrative overhead and maintenance.

Those effects held true regardless of an offender’s criminal history, offense seriousness, sex, race, and education level, the study found.

The study, published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy, is part of a five-year project by Abt to analyze federal prison data on every U.S. citizen sentenced under federal sentencing guidelines for serious offenses from 1999 to 2014, covering every step from initial booking to post-conviction community supervision. The full text of the study is published here.

The federal prison population is, of course, a relatively small slice of a much larger state and local incarceration pie but it is the largest single prison system in the country.


Children of the Incarcerated Face Multiple Traumas: Study

A West Virginia researcher calls them “prisoners of fate” and argues that “Family Impact Statements” assessing the health and psychological effect of a parent’s imprisonment should be mandatory in pre-sentencing reports.

Children whose parents are incarcerated are the “invisible victims of mass incarceration,” and judges and corrections authorities need to pay special attention to the emotional trauma and financial burdens they encounter, argues a new paper in the Maryland Law Review.

Amy B. Cyphert, author of the study, and a lecturer at the West Virginia University College of Law Lecturer, said research offered several pathways that provided a “ray of hope” for young people when one or both parents was behind bars.

Providing a more “positive experience”  during the visits of children to the facilities where a parent was held has also been shown to reduce recidivism rates among offenders, she wrote.  According to Cyphert, children often resist going to facilities because of the stigma involved.

Cyphert recommended that judges in the federal system order that “Family Impact Statements” be included into a defendant’s presentence report, using what she described as “a heretofore largely unused ‘catchall provision’ of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

The author admitted that such impact statements, which provide information that assesses  the “financial, social, psychological, and medical impact on the defendant’s family, especially any minor children,” have encountered resistance from some who might see them as a means of allowing offenders to escape responsibility for their crimes.

But she noted that “states that have adopted the practice, even on a trial basis, have reported encouraging results,” citing for example New York.

Cyphert said it was crucial to keep in mind that despite committing no crime, children of the incarcerated face deteriorating physical and psychological health, and problems at school, which are reflected in high rates of asthma, obesity, depression and anxiety.

More worryingly, childhood traumas may in turn lay the seeds for increased risk in adulthood for drug abuse, unemployment and involvement with the justice system itself.

Cyphert recommended that authorities consider extending visitation hours for children and partnering with nonprofit organizations to solve logistical issues like transportation to prison.

In a criminal justice system disproportionately represented by black, impoverished and minority groups, the statistics regarding their children are similarly disproportionate.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of children with a father in prison rose by 500 percent, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation policy report in 2016.  This is consistent with the increase in prison population in the United States.

The statistics paint a bleak picture.  Black children are 7.5 times more likely, and Hispanic children 2.6 times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison, the study said.

Cyphert noted the “very obvious conclusion” that having an incarcerated parent negatively impacts all aspects of a child’s wellbeing and development. Often, a family’s finances suffer as well. The lost parental income, court-related fines and fees, and prison transportation costs create strains on families.

She wrote that there were rare cases in which a parent’s incarceration may be beneficial, for instance if they come from  homes where there is abuse or neglect.

Beyond the financial burdens, some children are separated from families when parental rights are terminated. One out of every five children entering the U.S. welfare system has an incarcerated parent.

“Although these children are blameless, policy makers, judges, and prison officials in charge of visitation policies have largely overlooked them,” Cyphert wrote.

The full article can be accessed here.

Lauren Sonnenberg is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


60% of Hate Crimes are Racially Motivated: FBI

The majority of hate crime victims last year were targeted because of the offenders’ race, ethnicity, and/or ancestry bias, according to an FBI report released Tuesday

The majority of hate crime victims last year were targeted because of the offenders’ race, ethnicity, and/or ancestry bias, according to an FBI report released Tuesday.

The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program analyzed data collected in 2017 by 16,149 law enforcement agencies that included information about hate crime offenses, victims, offenders, and locations where such incidents happen.

The report,  Hate Crime Statistics 2017,  classified 7,175 criminal incidents and 8,437 related offenses as being motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity.

About 21 percent of victims were targeted because of the offenders’ religious bias. Last month 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers was charged with 29 federal crimes in the aftermath of a mass shooting killed 11 people and injured six others during worship service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

According to report, about 16 percent were victimized because of the offenders’ sexual-orientation bias,  and most hate crime incidents occurred in or near residences/homes, according to the report.

Though the FBI report adds a glimpse to hate crime in the United States, the report isn’t definitive on whether such crimes are rising or falling. A recent study found that even though hate crimes are surging globally—the United States included—they are drastically underreported as many victims believe their reports won’t be taken seriously by law enforcement and that police officers rather solve other crimes like robberies, murder, etc.

Furthermore, the FBI report yields incomplete data as reporting is voluntary and not all jurisdictions submitted data though nearly 1,000 more agencies reported in 2017 than the previous year.

The full report can be found here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR News Intern.


Post-Midterms Forecast for Justice Reform: Cloudy, But Encouraging

Voters besieged with scary events and frightening rhetoric mostly swung in the opposite direction at the ballot box last week. That’s expanded an encouraging bipartisan reform climate for newly elected, or re-elected, governors, DAs and legislators—if they’re willing to take heed, says a leading justice commentator.

From the 1970s through the turn of the century, criminal justice was one of the most divisive issues in American politics, with the “soft on crime” tag dooming legions of candidates on the campaign trail.

But over the past few election cycles, a wide range of criminal justice reforms has earned public approval, suggesting that the chest-thumping rhetoric of yesterday continues to lose its once-potent appeal.

This month’s midterm elections deepened the trend.

In Florida, where reform has been particularly hard won, voters returned the right to vote to more than a million people convicted of felonies, while Louisiana voters declared that jury verdicts in felony cases now must be unanimous.

These measures erased two of the most egregious vestiges of the pre-civil rights era, and they carry enormous symbolic and practical effects.

Reform-minded prosecutors took over in multiple cities, from Boston to St. Louis. Police accountability was strengthened in Nashville and in Washington State. Though criminal justice wasn’t central to their campaigns, the governors-elect in Wisconsin and Nevada seem much more likely to advance sensible policies than their predecessors.

These gains for safety and justice, and many others, are particularly impressive in light of the political environment. From the time that polls opened for early voting through Election Day, there was a massacre of worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a dozen bombs mailed to prominent political figures, and White House warnings about a caravan “invading” the country across its southern border.

Violence (and the fear of it) had to be high on voters’ minds. And it was: 83 percent of voters told exit pollsters that “extremist violence” was a factor in their votes.

When people are afraid, they yearn for protection, which traditionally has meant support for “lock ‘em up” measures.

Yet across the nation, voters besieged with scary events and frightening rhetoric mostly swung in the opposite direction this month. That suggests a real realignment of public opinion toward crime and punishment—one that distinguishes terrorism from street crime, that views people convicted of crimes as humans rather than “others,” and that recognizes the path to safer communities isn’t paved only with bricks and mortar.

While polls over the past several years have validated these attitudes, it’s what happens at the ballot box that really matters.

But there were caveats and mixed signals as well. Some of the progressive prosecutor candidates were defeated, while others didn’t make it through the primaries. The measure with the most direct potential impact on incarcerated populations—a ballot initiative in Ohio to downgrade some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and reinvest the prison savings into treatment and victim services—went down by nearly 30 points.


Mike DeWine, Gov.-Elect of Ohio. Photo via Wikipedia

The Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, had been a strong supporter of expanding incarceration alternatives for lower-lever drug violators—and he may still be. But when his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Richard Cordray, embraced the ballot measure designed to do exactly that, DeWine came out against it, arguing that as written the policy would make Ohio a magnet for dealers.

(Now that he has won, the legislature may take up and pass a similar package of policies in the lame duck session.)

In California, Gavin Newsom’s victory is likely to reinforce California’s efforts at prison reform. On the other hand, although the ballots are still being counted in Florida, once again, the nominal winner of Florida’s gubernatorial contest, Ron DeSantis, ran on a hardline justice platform while his opponent Andrew Gillum championed changes to the bail system and other reform measures.

Clouding the picture: Gillum, the Democrat, cited the conservative groups Right on Crime and the James Madison Institute as the sources of his criminal justice policy advice.

The Georgia governor’s race was another subtle illustration of how tricky this terrain remains. Republican candidate Brian Kemp took aim at illegal immigration and violent gangs but steered clear of criticizing the extensive efforts of outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who led six consecutive years of nearly unanimous legislative action on criminal and juvenile justice.

Meanwhile, Democrat Stacey Abrams ran on an aggressive reformist agenda, but the messaging in her television ads and in the sole televised debate was far more forceful, lamenting low pay for local law enforcement officers and promising to crack down on drug peddlers.

One possible – and encouraging – takeaway from the electoral tea leaves is that criminal justice has been largely defanged as a campaign weapon. Healthcare, the economy and immigration ranked as the top tier issues; in the big races, bread-and-butter criminal justice policy flew under the radar, with few candidates for major offices featuring it as a core component of their platforms.

When they do raise the subject, it’s typically to call for more safety and justice rather than pitting the two against each other.

Crime’s dimming presence in campaigns follows a long-term drop in both violent and property offenses, which have been cut in half since their peak in the early 1990s. It also comes after a decade in which more than 30 states adopted sentencing and corrections policies that deemphasize prison in favor of programs that cost less and more effectively reduce recidivism, often with broad bipartisan support.

At the national level, an otherwise paralyzed Congress just managed to pass comprehensive legislation to combat the opioid epidemic, an effort that focused on expanding treatment and avoided the reflexive sentencing enhancements of the past. It also appears poised to approve both sentencing and prison reforms as part of the “First Step Act,” which would be the first major federal criminal justice policy package in years.

That criminal justice reform has become such fertile ground for bipartisanship may help explain why the reform agenda was neither a grand asset nor a grave liability in last week’s elections. American voters seem savvier about the issue and demand more than baseless rhetoric and simplistic slogans.

Adam Gelb

Adam Gelb

They’ve seen that movie, and now they want real results.

The new crop of elected officials across the country, at all levels of government and up and down the political spectrum, would do well to take notice.

Adam Gelb has worked in criminal justice for more than 30 years as a journalist, congressional aide, senior state government official, and nonprofit executive. He is currently developing a national nonpartisan criminal justice membership organization and think tank.


How ‘Dark Commerce’ is Making Us Poorer—and Sicker

In the last few years, the sophisticated connections enabled by cyber technology have emboldened criminals from all corners of world. TCR talks with Louise Shelley, whose new book explores how the illicit economy threatens our future.

Illicit trade has existed since the earliest establishment of global trade routes, but in the last few years, the sophisticated connections enabled by cyber technology have emboldened criminals from all corners of world and, in the process, are deeply threatening the stability of our planet.

cybercrimeThat’s the central argument of a new book by transnational crime expert Louise Shelley, PhD. In her book, “Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy is Threatening Our Future,” Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University, connects the dots between the largely unmonitored cyber marketplaces for drugs, human and sex trafficking, and illicit trade in timber, wildlife and fish, and high-level political and financial corruption.

The underground cyber markets have had a destabilizing effect on global health and population, Shelly told TCR’s European contributing editor Cara Tabachnick, who caught up with her in The Hague at this year’s conference of Crime Stoppers International, an NGO dedicated to anonymous citizen crime reporting.

In a conversation with Tabachnick, Shelley discussed China’s role in dark commerce, how technology has ensnared rural communities in illicit trade, and why law enforcement needs to become more “computer savvy” if it ever hopes to contain the problem. The conversation has been slightly condensed and edited.

The Crime Report: How did illicit trade grow to the magnitude that we see today?

Louise Shelley: Illicit trade has been growing exponentially in the last 30 years in part because of the rise of new technology. The fact that most of the world’s population is now connected to cell phones, and to the internet, has fueled illicit trade in rural areas that used to be inaccessible. For example, a third of rural India is now using illegal pesticides, purchasing the goods through the Internet and cell phones, and directly affecting the health and food supply of the people. These counterfeit harmful products have shown up in the most remote areas of the world. If you look at the history of illicit trade, it was in ports and big cities; it was along rivers. Now, with transport links and communications, it’s everywhere.

But there are two very potent forces at work simultaneously: the rise of illicit trade through technology, and the rise of trade that undermines the sustainability of the planet. The misuse of regulation around air, land, trees, fish, and wildlife has also contributed to the rise of illicit trade. These regulations are [required] for the survival of human life on the planet.

TCR: In your book, you write illicit trade undermines stable governments and can create worldwide conflict. How is that possible?

SHELLEY: At the start of the conflict in Syria, in the period before the Arab Spring, an enormous drought in Syria was making it very, very difficult for farmers. There was no water for irrigation, so the government introduced regulations on digging wells. Because of corruption, people bribed officials for rights to drill wells, and they did that so much there was just no water left in the ground. And within a relatively short period of time before the Arab Spring, 3.5 million people moved to urban areas which had no possibility of maintaining them, no infrastructure, no support services. It’s in these communities where the Arab Spring started. And people who were displaced once became the illegal immigrants into Europe as they tried to escape the violence.

TCR: The Chinese government plays a large role in the global trafficking of these illicit goods. Why is that?

SHELLEY: One reason is that China is the factory for the world. There is a large, rising middle class who want standards of living they haven’t known before. It’s an enormous pressure on the resources of the planet, on the fish, on the timber, and it leads to a massive illicit trade in these natural resources. In the U.S., we have 50,000 people a year dying from opioid overdoses. Many of these drugs were purchased on Chinese web sites. The Chinese government doesn’t bother with the sites, because it’s meant for an external market. They are not being taken down by Chinese authorities, because they are not charging Chinese citizens.

In the middle 1800s, China was brought down by England in the first opium war, France and the U.S. joined England in the second opium war, in the mid-1850s. They defeated China and this has been an enormous embarrassment, and it’s something they haven’t forgotten, and they still teach their children about it in school. I wonder if in some ways, this trade in fentanyl is revenge for the opium wars. In so much of illicit trade, the past shapes the present.

TCR: What has been the Internet’s role in has sharpening opportunities for illegal trade?

 SHELLEY: It’s not just the Internet; cellphones can send communications on Twitter and WhatsApp, and many other kinds of encrypted technology, that have allowed communications to be quick and anonymous and therefore very hard to trace.

In the book, I talk about the three stages of illicit trade, the first stage is where people know each other; they are trading in tangible goods, and they are using money, valuables and gold. Second, they are going into cyberspace, where they are trading tangible goods, using credit cards, and using other forms of electronic payment; In the third stage, they are working in the cyber world, trading virtual product, trading virtual currencies. All of these exist simultaneously, with variations amongst them.

TCR: Due to cyberspace and marketplaces on the Dark Web, like Silk Road, has there been a change in the type of goods that are traded?

SHELLEY: There are now Trojans, botnets allow you to steal people identities, their credit card information, break into their bank accounts, shut down their computer systems, and use ransomware, so it’s much more intrusive into everyday life than the type of illicit trade we saw before. The Silk Road site, which started out selling drugs, was the first large marketplace on the Dark Web. Within two years it had done $1.8 billion dollars’ worth of corrupt business in the cyberworld.

[Editor’s Note: the Silk Road site was shut down by the FBI in 2013, and its founder, Ross Ulbrecht, was arrested. A month later, it was back on line as Silk Road 2.0 under new management.]

TCR: How has this effected law enforcement strategies?

Louise Shelley

Louise Shelley, Director, Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services/George Mason University

SHELLEY: When things go into the cyber-world, they don’t change fundamentally, but the scale and the speed becomes just enormous. Silk Road Two was over double the size of Silk Road One. Every new level of involvement in this gets larger, with more volume and greater profits. Part of what the cyberspace does is help us understand the magnitude of illicit trade, and law enforcement can get some awareness of its dimensions.

Law enforcement needs to be much more computer savvy. But the problem is that most of the tech world and the technology and information that goes alongside it is housed in the records of computers and software companies. So they have the data, they control access to data, and unless there is cooperation with the technology community, it is not really possible to combat illicit trade at any meaningful level.

 TCR: What are the consequences of this dark commerce if we can’t get a handle on how to control this illegal trade?

SHELLEY: Illicit trade has many different consequences. It’s killing the resources we need to live on this planet. Secondly, the products being traded are produced illicitly are often harmful to individuals, whether they are pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, pills, or cigarettes. They don’t match health standards. When you deprive people of the resources they need to live on, whether its fish from illicit trade, or chemical dumping off the coast of Somalia by Italian mafia crime gangs, regions are destabilized. Funding from illicit trade helps perpetuate conflict and instability, and the profits from illicit trade are providing enormous revenues to bad actors and enhancing corruption which undermines the rule of law and government.

This is not some peripheral phenomenon. Many of the illicit goods go through the same supply chains, ports, legitimate routes; and the money often gets integrated into the global financial systems. One of the biggest problems is it’s so easy to launder money through real estate. Numerous prestigious banks have been fined for money-laundering in connection with drug trafficking, dual-use equipment, and nuclear proliferation. So this has implicated the main sectors of our financial system. There is not yet a clear understanding on the great cost illicit trade great poses to our future. As I say in the ending of my book, there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Cara Tabachnick, former Managing Editor of The Crime Report, is now a free-lance writer based in Spain, where she covers European crime issues for TCR and other publications. Readers’ comments are welcome.


25% of New California Gun Buyers Had No Background Check: Survey

The first comprehensive survey of California gun owners in over 40 years also found that roughly 25 percent of California adults live in households that possess at least one firearm. Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom has promised to “raise the bar” on gun control.

About 25 percent of California adults who purchased firearms recently did not have a background check, according to a survey released Sunday.

The 2018 California Safety and Wellbeing Survey also found that some 25 percent of Californian adults live in households with firearms—and 40 percent of those households included children aged 12 and younger.

The survey, conducted last month by the University of California-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP), was released on the heels of the California gubernatorial election won by Gavin Newsom, who has promised  tougher gun regulations, and the mass shooting  that  left 12 dead at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Ca.

The survey represents the first major exploration of firearm ownership in the state in over 40 years, said Nicole Kravitz-Wirst, a researcher who led the survey.

“Much remains unknown about the details surrounding firearm violence,” Kravitz-Wirtz said in a press statement accompanying the report. “Accurate and up-to-date information that could be used to develop effective policies and programs to decrease deaths and injuries from firearms is critically needed.”

According to the survey, 14 percent of California adults—roughly 4.2 million people, personally own firearms; and five percent of the firearms are assault rifles. Handguns are the most popular purchase and “were most often obtained for the purpose of protection,” the statement said.

The state already has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation.

“We alsdo found, unexpectedly, that roughly 25 percent of those who purchased their most recent firearm in California reported that they did not undergo a background check,” said Kravitz-Wirtz.

After a mass killing in 2014, California passed a law that let police officers and family members seek restraining orders to seize guns from troubled people. A year later, a shooting rampage in San Bernardino led to voters outlawing expanded magazines for guns and requiring background checks for buying ammunition.

The state has also banned assault weapons, all part of a wave of gun regulation that began 25 years ago with a mass murder at a San Francisco law firm.

Gun control activists and politicians are already weighing what more can be done, and whether existing measures could have prevented the killing, the New York Times reports.

Newsom has signaled he will introduce even tougher regulations.

“The response is not just prayers,” he said last week. “The response cannot just be excuses. The response sure as hell cannot be more guns.”

In an interview with the Sacramento Bee shortly after the vote, he promised to “raise the bar” on gun control, suggesting he would have signed bills that Brown vetoed in recent years, such as .expanding California’s gun violence restraining order law, which allows police and family members to seek the temporary removal of firearms from someone they believe is a danger to themselves or others.

California has had the most deaths from mass shootings since 1982: 128.

Florida, with roughly half the population of California, has the second most, 118. Most gun deaths are not from mass shootings, and the focus of the gun control movement is on reducing overall gun deaths, in homicides, suicides and accidents. By that measure, California has been successful: It has cut its gun-death rate in half over 25 years, and is among the states with the lowest rates, with 7.9 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2016.

The survey was presented Sunday at the American Public Health Association in San Diego.


The Big Winners in DA Races: Women and Blacks

For decades, the prosecutorial profession has sorely lacked diversity. This year’s midterm elections demonstrated how decisively that has changed.

For decades, the prosecutorial profession has sorely lacked diversity. After analyzing data from 2014, The Reflective Democracy Campaign found that 95 percent of the nation’s elected prosecutors were white.

According to their research, just one percent of prosecutors at the time were women of color.

But in recent elections—including the Nov. 6 midterms—voters have opted for a slew of diverse prosecutors who better reflect the communities they serve, and who promised to do their part to move away from policies that perpetuate mass incarceration.

Rachael Rollins

Rachael Rollins via Twitter

In Boston this month, voters elected Rachael Rollins as the first black woman to serve as District Attorney in Suffolk County, Mass. Rollins has boldly advanced a proposal to not prosecute 15 offenses, including: trespassing and drug possession with intent to distribute –charging choices that align with reforms made by other recently elected DAs in Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Rollins’ win continued a trend towards electing more women, African Americans and Latinos to prosecutorial posts that really became evident four years ago, when Baltimore voters cast their ballot for Marilyn Mosby, the youngest district attorney that city has ever elected.

In 2015, Portsmouth, Va., voters elected Stephanie Morales, the first woman to be the elected Commonwealth Attorney for the City.

Then, in 2016, Chicago voters elected Kim Foxx as Cook County District Attorney, Aramis Ayala as the first black State Attorney in Florida, Mark Dupree as the first black district attorney in Kansas, Kim Gardner as St. Louis Circuit Attorney, and Kim Ogg as the first Democratic district attorney in almost four decades in Houston, Tx.

And this year, in Rensselear County, New York, incumbent County District Attorney Joel Abelove lost to challenger Mary Pat Donnelly, a former town justice in East Greenbush, N.Y., and a mother of five who ran on the Independence Party ticket.

But what may be equally significant is the impact this month’s elections are likely to have on criminal justice reform in America.

While prosecutors on the ballot are often less well-known then individuals running for Congress, or for governor, they wield immense influence in the areas they serve. Prosecutors set the tone for the administration of justice, deciding whether to implement policies that increase incarceration or promote new practices that embody transparency, accountability, and aim to undo centuries of systemic racism.

This month, voters made clear that they’re largely ready for reform.

For example, Boston voters appear to have decisively rejected the perspectives of Rollins’ opponent, Michael Maloney, who positioned himself as tough on crime.  He had told  The Boston Globe that he would prosecute violence and gun crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

In Rensselear County, Donnelly came out in favor of implementing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (“LEAD”), which encourages officers to bring low-level arrestees to treatment or social services, rather than to booking. Meanwhile, her opponent, Abelove, may have suffered from criticism of his handling of a 2016 fatal police shooting in Troy, N.Y., of an unarmed DWI suspect.

Then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed criminal charges against Abelove related to that case.  The charges were later dismissed, but could be re-filed by the state’s newly elected Attorney General, Letitia James, the first African-American women ever to hold that position in New York.

Another revealing result came in Dallas County, where voters elected John Creuzot, a former judge who helped pioneer the county’s first diversion court two decades ago, and who pledged to continue the strategies he pursued on the bench of ensuring those charged with low-level drug offenses received treatment in lieu of incarceration. During his campaign, Creuzot made clear that his priorities as District Attorney would align with his thinking as a judge.

“In the first 90 days, I’m going to give you a plan to end mass incarceration,” he promised.

In Texas’ Bexar County, Joe Gonzales registered a decisive win over his opponent Tylden. On the campaign trail, Gonzales stated he would immediately work on better implementing a policy allowing police to issue tickets to those found in possession of less than four ounces of marijuana instead of arresting them.

And also in Texas, in Fort Bend County, Brian Middleton beat GOP opponent Cliff Vacek, a veteran judge, becoming the first black district attorney for the county of more than 765,000 residents. Middleton campaigned on moving bail reform forward and examining racial biases in the prosecution of his office’s cases.

Criminal justice reform was not a winning issue in every prosecutor election.

Oklahoma boasts the nation’s highest incarceration rate, and in its Payne and Logan counties, District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas was reelected Tuesday. She defeated challenger Cory Williams by more than 4,400 votes. Back in June, Thomas described reform efforts as a “fun and nice and popular” sound byte, but largely full of “empty, empty words.”

Those prosecutors who are embracing reform, however, join a growing movement.

Working with others who are part of the Fair and Just Prosecution network, they are challenging the status quo and taking on innovative practices to create solutions that promote safer and healthier communities.

Many of these prosecutors are promoting changes to fortify the trust of their constituents.

Recently, State Attorney Kim Foxx published a groundbreaking report revealing demographics of defendants prosecuted and data on sentencing and dispositions. Others are promoting accountability by creating conviction integrity processes, including in Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida (where none existed previously in that state), and in Kansas City (where over 50 justice system leaders wrote to support the vital role of DAs to correct past injustices).

And it’s not just DA races.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

Lauren-Brooke Esen

Voters chose to transform the criminal justice system in a number of ways. In Colorado, a constitutional provision that allows prison slavery was overturned. And Floridians decided to amend the state constitution to restore the voting rights of those convicted of a felony crime, which is expected to impact at least 1.4 million disenfranchised people in that state.

The movement away from the punitive criminal justice policies of the last four decades is gaining momentum, and on Nov. 6, a significant number of Americans said that was exactly what they wanted.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen is Senior Fellow in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and the author of Inside Private Prisons: an American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration. She welcomes comments from readers.


Are Americans Finally Turning Away From ‘Tough-on-Crime’ Era?

The victories of reform-minded prosecutors like John Creuzot in Dallas County last week could signal a “sea change” in public support for reductions in mass incarceration and the easing of sentencing guidelines, advocates and experts tell TCR.

Democrat John Creuzot, who defeated Republican incumbent Faith Johnson in the Dallas County District Attorney’s race last week,  had a campaign website that declared in big, bold letters, “It’s time to END Mass Incarceration.”

Republican Locke Thompson ran a successful campaign in Cole County, Missouri, with a campaign platform that included eliminating cash bail for low-level misdemeanors.

The victories chalked up by Creuzot and Thompson underlined a fact that has largely been overlooked in postmortems of this month’s midterms: the growing support of voters for genuine change in the criminal justice system regardless of their party affiliations—-and there is perhaps no clearer bellwether for how far voters think the needle should move on criminal justice reform than how they vote for local prosecutors.

While legislators run on a variety of issues, we are left with clear choices on a single subject in district attorney races: How will they handle the prosecution of crime?

In addition to the passage of pro-reform ballot initiatives and the election of pro-reform candidates to national offices, the outcome of some local district attorneys’ races last week represented encouraging signs for justice reform advocates.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system,” says Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Campaign for Smart Justice, which worked to inform voters about where candidates stood on criminal justice reform.

He said that while gubernatorial candidates with platforms to end or reduce mass incarceration won 78 percent of the races and 71 percent of federal races, the district attorney results on Nov. 6 also continued to show a steady drumbeat toward reform in even the reddest parts of the country.

Ofer added that “95 percent of elected prosecutors are white men in the United States, but the prosecutors elected on Election Day in Dallas, Birmingham, Boston and St. Louis, were all black.”

In Dallas, Creuzot’s victory over Johnson, the county’s first female African-American DA, lent itself to a more nuanced interpretation.

During the campaign, Johnson touted her “tough on crime” stance, but, according to The New York Times, she also oversaw a program in which people with an arrest but no conviction could have their records wiped. She promised not to seek cash bail for those arrested with small amounts of marijuana.

Creuzot, however, appeared willing to go a step further, defining drugs more as a “public health problem” and pledging to cut incarceration by 15 percent to 20 percent by the end of his first term.

While there was a  “Blue Wave” in the Texas courts on Election Day, giving Democrats majorities on seven of the state’s 14 appeals courts compared with only three before, Ofer said the outcome of the Creuzot-Johnson faceoff was the most exciting in the nation.

“In the Dallas DA race, there was both a very contested primary and a very contested general election, and the candidate who ran on a platform of reducing incarceration by 15-20 percent won,” he said. “That’s a big deal,”

Added Ofer: “Even the Republican candidate who had not taken a criminal justice reform platform embraced it. It became a referendum on which candidate is better on criminal justice reform.”

In Jefferson County, Ala., pro-reform challenger Danny Carr become the district attorney after committing his office to stop jailing people for low-level marijuana offenses. Ofer said his stance was linked to a report showing that black people in Alabama were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Locke Thompson

Locke Thompson, elected DA in Cole County, Mo..

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that with far-right libertarian groups and reformers getting on the same page, politics is playing a smaller role in determining voters’ criminal justice stances.

Measures such as eliminating cash bail or changing marijuana policy, are not “going to drastically affect the problems of mass incarceration,” she told The Crime Report, but these kinds of changes are “starting to reflect the fact that people think differently about a prosecutor’s role.”

Ofer said the polling ahead of the Nov. 6 election indicated that voters were hungry for reform.

An ACLU poll, for example, found 78 percent of likely voters, including 71 percent of Republicans, were more likely to support a candidate who believes in criminal justice reform; 59 percent of likely voters said they wanted candidates who would reduce jail and prison populations; and 75 percent of voters said they were more likely to support candidates who pledged to reduce the criminal justice system’s racial disparities.

The results, he said, build on the gradual sea change that had already begun.

“This is a continuation, so it’s not a blip, it’s yet another milestone in the movement to holding prosecutors accountable for fueling mass incarceration in America,” he said.

Kate Pastor is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Readers’  comments are welcome.


The Ruth Bader ‘Gins-Bubble’ Calms Worried Fans of 85-Year-Old Justice

Noting the flood of anxious tweets and the creation of a tongue-in-cheek protective bubble by TV host Jimmy Kimmel, after Justice Ginsburg was hospitalized last week, BBC observed that “half of America panics when this woman falls ill.”

Although Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned home on Friday after being hospitalized from a fall, anxiety surrounding the health of the oldest sitting justice will continue, reports BBC News Magazine.

Noting that the reaction from the liberal corners of social media was an instantaneous mixture of well-wishes and barely-suppressed horror, the magazine noted that “half of America panics” when the justice falls ill.

The magazine cited  one typical comment on social media: “#RuthBaderGinsburg DON’T YOU DARE DIE WE NEED YOU!

“I hereby donate all of my ribs and organs to Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” wrote Lauren Duca, a columnist for Teen Vogue.

On Friday evening, after the justice was released from the hospital, and her spokesperson said she was “doing well,” according to a report from USA Today, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel introduced the “Ruth Bader Gins-bubble” on his program, saying the 85-year-old needed to be “protected at all costs” as a Ginsburg stand-in rolled on stage encased in a gigantic plastic bubble.

If Ginsburg were to retire or become too ill to serve, President Donald Trump would be able to cement the court’s conservative majority with the appointment of his third justice, after Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, BBC noted.

The fall kept Ginsburg from attending Thursday’s formal investiture ceremony for new Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

See Also: Justice Ginsburg Released From Hospital, ‘Doing Well’