Will Trump Use Science to Fight Crime?

Leading criminologists told a conference at George Mason University yesterday they believe President Trump will embrace evidence-based practices in his administration’s war on crime. Officials “on the front line have to know what works, and how to pay for it,” said Laurie Robinson, a former Obama justice official.

Leading criminologists expressed cautious optimism yesterday that President Trump will embrace evidence-based practices in his administration’s war on crime.

Laurie Robinson, who advocated the use of science in justice as an Assistant Attorney General in the Obama administration, declared, “I do not think the [criminal justice] field is turning back” on evidence-based programs.

Robinson, now a member of the criminology faculty at George Mason University , said that officials “on the front line have to know what works, and how to pay for it.”

She noted that bipartisan justice reform plans had been approved in recent years in such conservative states as Georgia, Louisiana and North Dakota.

Her comments came at the annual gathering sponsored by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at the George Mason campus, in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.. The session opened with a discussion on the “Progress of Evidence-Based Crime Policy in the Last Three Decades.”

Some critics have expressed doubt that the new administration will base policies on scientific evidence, noting Trump’s professed disbelief in global warming and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ advocacy of tough-on-crime practices that studies have found ineffective.

Other speakers echoed Robinson.

Denise O’Donnell, who headed the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance under Obama, said many U.S. policing leaders have concluded that “there is power in data.” She cited such developments as the use of public opinion surveys by police departments in formulating policies on officers’ body-worn cameras.

James Burch, a vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation and a former Justice Department official, offered a “qualified yes” to the question of whether evidence-based criminal justice practices will continue under Trump.

Burch said he detected a “different tone” in discussions among police chiefs and sheriffs at national conventions in recent years. Law enforcement officials are asking themselves “how do we hold ourselves accountable?” he said.

Burch noted that several dozen major police departments had offered to disclose data on officer-involved shootings of civilians since the issue came to the fore after the killing of Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson in 2014. It is now common for police chiefs to concentrate on such issues as officer handling of cases involving mentally ill people and how to provide emergency medical care to people overdosing on opioids, he said.

Speakers pointed out that in opening a national “summit” on crime reduction and public safety last week, Sessions said that in a new national “Public Safety Partnership” involving 12 localities, the Justice Department will provide “diagnostic teams” to “assess the local factors driving increased violent crime, and will help local leaders develop strategies to address those factors.”

Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist on the faculties of both Britain’s Cambridge University and the University of Maryland, discussed the growth of sophisticated studies that are helping to guide today’s policing strategies.

He discussed his establishment of the Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing, which debuted this month, and is aimed at publishing “peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous original research, in clear and plain English, written by and for practitioners of evidence-based policing.” The journal aims to “assist police professionals across the democratic world to reduce crime and harm in their communities, while increasing the legitimacy, legality, and fairness of their police agencies.”

Sherman is a research partner of the American Society of Evidence Based Policing, a relatively new group of police officers in the U.S. who formed the organization after deciding that “there had to be a better way of policing… evidence-based policing seems to be the answer.”

Also discussed at yesterday’s conference was the latest research in topics such as body-worn cameras, mental illness and the criminal justice system, research on school safety, and community and police-citizen relations.

The George Mason center gave distinguished achievement awards to Pennsylvania State University criminologist Doris MacKenzie and James “Chips” Stewart, public safety director of the firm CNA and former director of the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice.

The center inducted six new members into its evidence-based policing Hall of Fame: Inspector William Barritt of the Brooklyn Park (MN) Police Department; Sheri Bell of the Winnipeg (Manitoba) Police Service; Michael Kurtenbach, Executive Assistant Police Chief in Phoenix; Deborah Platz, assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police; Sgt. Gregory Stewart of the Portland, Or., Police Bureau; and Richard Twiss, retired chief of the Indio (CA) Police Department.

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

from https://thecrimereport.org

Analyst Offers Four-Point Plan for Cutting New Orleans Murders

Murder in New Orleans is worse per capita than it is in Chicago, and statistics from the first two months of the year suggest 2017 will be bloodier than 2016. Crime expert Jeff Asher offers some remedies.

Murder in New Orleans is worse per capita than it is in Chicago, and statistics from the first two months of the year suggest 2017 will be bloodier than 2016. There is no reason the murder rates must remain this high for the next half century, writes crime analyst Jeff Asher in the city’s Gambit. The city’s commitment to open data and new research into what works in gun violence reduction suggests murder in New Orleans is a problem that can be analyzed, understood, and ultimately addressed by policies and strategies designed to counteract its underlying causes.

Asher offers a four-point plan. Point one: Solve the police manpower crisis. There were 1,473 commissioned New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers when the Saints won the Super Bowl in early 2010 and just over 1,050 as 2016 came to a close. Point Two: Launch a better attack on the drug trade. Drugs, combined with related arguments and retribution, are the motive in nearly three-quarters of all killings, and nearly 90 percent of all New Orleans murders are rooted in drugs, arguments, retribution or robberies. Point Three: Concentrate on areas with the biggest homicide problems. Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos urges sending “trauma specialists, interventionists and police if necessary.”  Point Four: Invest in social intervention programs. City-funded programs should focus on providing employment, housing, education and mentorship specifically to the people most at risk for becoming victims of gun violence, and these resources cannot be devoted exclusively to the city’s children, Asher writes. Ninety percent of murder victims last year were over 20 years old, and their median age was 30.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Justice Reform Under Trump: Some Good News?

An experimental project aimed at helping local jurisdictions examine–and correct–mistakes in the justice system will soon be expanded to up to 25 cities and counties. The expansion of the Sentinel Events program amounts to an endorsement by the Justice Department of a major Obama-era reform initiative.

For those wondering whether any meaningful justice reforms are likely under the Trump administration, here’s one encouraging—but little noticed—development.

Last week, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the Justice Department, announced it was seeking proposals to provide “technical assistance” to scale up its six-year-old pilot Sentinel Events Initiative (SEI) to as many as 25 cities or counties around the country.

The dry language of the announcement belies its significance.

The project, according to the NIJ, is aimed at the “development, implementation and routinization of non-blaming, forward-looking, multi-stakeholder reviews” that are intended to “identify systemic weaknesses” in the administration of justice.

Translation: the NIJ wants to help justice systems at the local level explore ways to examine the mistakes that often trigger outraged headlines—a wrongful conviction, a police shooting, a crime committed by an individual under justice supervision—with the objective of identifying (and correcting) the flaws or missteps that produced those tragic events.

Such mistakes are usually not one-off errors, but indicators (“sentinel events”) of deeper and more entrenched problems or patterns of behavior.

Each of the sites selected for the expanded program will identify an event or set of events for examination, and conduct an exhaustive review of what led to it. Similar reviews already occur in many forms around the country, whether through Conviction Integrity Units established by prosecutors or police civilian complaint boards.

The difference is that all the institutions or agencies which have played a part in the individual event as well as, in some cases, representatives of communities affected by the event, will conduct this exhausting and often wrenching self-examination together.

In a system like ours, which is built in silos—jails, courts, cops, prosecutors, public defenders, all pursuing their separate ends—that’s a transformative idea.

The Crime Report has been covering the Sentinel Events process since it was launched in 2011 and then expanded in 2014 as a pilot project in three cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia and Milwaukee—along with a short booklet called “Mending Justice”, a collection of essays by leading criminologists and practitioners under the imprimatur of then-Attorney General Eric Holder.

The premise is simple. When awful things happen, it’s easy—and tempting—to blame an individual (the cop who fired the gun, the over-eager prosecutor who failed to introduce exculpatory evidence). But such finger-pointing is almost always guaranteed to ensure the same mistake will occur again, in one way or the other.

That’s why the worlds of aviation and medicine, for instance, have long since introduced processes to discover the root causes of tragic mistakes like an airplane crash or a bungled surgery. By getting everyone who had a stake in the decision-making into the same room, the smaller errors or oversights that led to a tragedy can be identified and, possibly, corrected.

Applying this to U.S. justice isn’t easy. Our “system” is a really a set of institutions in towns and cities across America that cooperate in widely diverse political and socio-economic environments. And many of the key players are either reluctant or too time-challenged to engage in the kind of self-examination that might result in meaningful changes.

“As justice system professionals, we are deceiving ourselves if we think our decisions and actions are infallible,” Holder observed in his forward to “Mending Justice.”

The pilot “Beta” projects in the three cities have demonstrated, however, that given a chance, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs, police chiefs and any of the other players at local levels, are in fact open to sitting down together and figuring out what went wrong.

The initial responses were enough to persuade the powers-that-be that the idea is worth taking to the next stage by expanding it to more cities.

Last week’s announcement, appealing for applicants for the $1.6 million in funding made available to support technical direction, was not a foregone conclusion, given the impression created by our new leaders that any ideas produced under the former administration were, by definition, scrap-able.

Eric Holder supported this? Forget about it.

But Washington’s green light for this makes sense when you think about it. “Sentinel Event Reviews” are targeted at the critical actors in our federal system, where most “justice” gets done: states, cities, jails, police departments. That happens to conform to the prevailing ideology of empowering local authorities, and lifting the heavy hand of Washington: No federal consent reviews here.

And it, like many of the most forwarding looking justice reform ideas currently under discussion around the country, not only builds on bipartisanship; it requires it.

A good illustration of that came last week, when a small group of people came together at NIJ headquarters in Washington to discuss the Sentinel Review process so far. They included police chiefs, mayors, district attorneys, community advocates, police union officials, public defenders and even crime victims. They were Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives; and they came from every corner of the country.

The one thing they had in common was frustration: For all their good intentions, the systems they were operating in or managed as professionals continued to produce bad results. A loss of community confidence and public trust and, just as significantly, a reduction in public safety (or perceptions of it) was inescapable.

The meeting was held off the record to allow the participants to speak freely—and they did. At times they employed the same rhetoric we’re more accustomed to hearing from angry protesters.

“So many times I’ve seen prosecutors (ignore) their moral compass,” said one, who explained the sheer burden of caseloads led not only prosecutors but judges, public defenders and others to overlook details in the rush to judgment that has driven mass incarceration levels in the U.S.

As part of the meeting, the attendees participated in some model “Sentinel Event” reviews to become comfortable with the practice.

And some of the critical issues at the heart of the tragedies that have made ugly headlines became apparent:

  • The drawbacks of the current justice “culture” in which decisions, and the responsibility for making them, are kicked down the line;
  • The ease with which small inaccuracies in record-keeping and failures in communication can produce fatal mistakes.

The key to the process is that there is no single template or model for how to conduct these examinations. It’s up to each jurisdiction to decide who gets to sit in the room, and how to apply the lessons learned.

A lot of issues will need to be worked out. How transparent should the process be? What role does the media play? Will Sentinel Events reviews allow the “bad apples” in the system to escape blame for what they did? Will they co-opt community activists who are determined to hold accountable the individuals or institutions responsible for errors?

How will they affect disciplinary measures or the rights of those seeking damages for misconduct in lawsuits?

The jury is still out. But supporters of the concept assure those worried about taking a “soft” approach to official misconduct that a Sentinel Event Review is not intended to remove individual accountability.

What’s clear at least from last week’s announcement is that the decision to scale up the Sentinel Events concept provides evidence of a willingness to think differently about our justice system.

That’s refreshing.

And worth watching.

Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Injustice System: Poor Bear Cost of OK County Jail Chaos

In a six-part series, The Oklahoman examines the deeply troubled Oklahoma County criminal justice system, which the Vera Institute of Justice has concluded functions as “a maximum security correctional facility for people who are legally innocent.”

In a six-part series, The Oklahoman examines the underfunded Oklahoma County criminal justice system, which is buckling under the weight of an overcrowded jail, a backlog of court cases and a mountain of felony and misdemeanor filings. The newspaper says the system locks up the poor, often on minor charges, and then punishes them for being unable to pay fines and court costs. It’s a system that offers judges little flexibility in setting bail, where agencies do not effectively communicate with each other and where poor data collection hampers the ability of officials to shape public policy based on information about who is in jail and why.

The system is beset by case-processing delays, budget turmoil and staffing shortages that lead to nonviolent offenders filling jail beds. As they await justice, inmates also face paying some of the freight when they leave, through crippling fines and fees piled on as they navigate the system. The result can be lost jobs, shattered families and broken lives. On any given day in the county jail sit hundreds of people awaiting charges on low-level offenses, often the community’s poorest who cannot make bail. The Vera Institute of Justice has concluded that Oklahoma County is “essentially running a maximum security correctional facility for people who are legally innocent.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Criminal Justice Reformers Focus on States, Cities

Glenn Martin of JustLeadership USA, which wants to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030, said, “I think what you do during the Trump administration is that you double down locally.”

With President Trump in the White House and Jeff Sessions leading the Justice Department, the focus on criminal justice reform has moved away from Washington, BuzzFeed News reports. “Over 90% of our prisoners are in the state prisons and local jails,” said singer John Legend. “Changing state laws and changing practices on the local level is going to be where most of the change is anyhow.” “Let’s face it, of the 2.2 million people who are incarcerated, only a couple hundred thousand are in the federal system,” said Valerie Jarrett, longtime adviser to former President Obama. Glenn Martin of JustLeadership USA, which wants to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2030, said, “I think what you do during the Trump administration is that you double down locally.”

Martin spent six years in prison more than two decades ago and is now helping to lead the fight to close New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. “I never had a lot of hope that Congress was the answer to this,” he said. “In fact, it was a bipartisan coalition that got us here; forgive me if I’m not inspired by a comeback coalition trying to get us out of this mess.” While some remain hopeful about continuing to build federal momentum for sentencing law changes, most federal efforts will be aimed at stopping or minimizing Trump and Sessions’ proposals, not advancing reform goals. “Is that a very important bully pulpit that we’ll miss? Of course it is, but you have to kind of play with the cards that you’re dealt,” said Jarrett, who pointed to the philanthropic community, mayors and governors. “And if the fact of the matter is that we’re not going to get the support that we want from Washington, then let’s go and work with a coalition of the willing.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Will Justice Reform Survive the Revival of ‘Tough on Crime’ Policies?

Keir Bradford-Gray, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, believes it will. In a conversation with The Crime Report, she argues that the work of local jurisdictions and community groups in developing problem-solving courts, diversion programs and other reforms will be hard to reverse.

Philadelphia has been a focal point of U.S. justice debate in the past several years, with attention centered on court reforms. One of the leading reform voices has been Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, an independent, nonprofit corporation which has represented indigent criminal defendants since 1934. Bradford-Gray was in New York this week to speak at a conference to introduce journalists to Measures for Justice, a free data portal launched in May aimed at collecting statistical information on the justice system at the county level. Data is now available from 300 countries in six states, with more expected in coming years.

In a chat with TCR editor Stephen Handelman, Bradford-Gray explained why data remains a critical tool for understanding how the justice reform operates at the grassroots level,  and why she believes the bipartisan reform movement will continue despite the revival of “tough-on-crime” rhetoric by the current administration.

The Crime Report: Over the last few years there has been a bipartisan movement on justice reform that has gradually abandoned the old “tough on crime” metric. Do you see evidence of that in Philadelphia?

Keir Bradford-Grey:  Yes, there are incremental changes that I see every day. It has became politically popular to talk about changing the way we do things in the criminal justice system, [and it is now ] a household discussion about how the criminal justice system exacerbates issues, that nothing really changed, everything stayed the same. We talked about reform, but the practices and the policies generally stayed the same. We would pick out outliers in our system and place them in a diversion program, say we were working on reform, where 90% of the people in the system were still going through the same types of systems.

So it is really helpful that these discussions are taking place, that we are being more data-driven, more policy-driven, more research-driven. And it does help when it comes to the political forces that are trying to become re-elected, like the DAs, the mayor, all those people who are responsible for making sure that our justice system is doing what it is supposed to be doing. It creates a better platform.

TCR: Do you see the results on the street level? Do you see more public safety, more understanding, and less of a tough on crime mentality? Is it showing itself in more public safety?

KBG: That is a really good question, and that is something I think we have yet to understand. What does contribute to public safety? Every day, we see violent crime being touted on the news, but we don’t know what’s happening to those who are in our systems, or were in our system, or no longer are in our systems, who are charged with non-violent offenses.

Are they better off by leaving them alone? Or are they better off by bringing them into contact with the criminal justice system and giving them diversionary services? These are the things that I have yet to understand, and I would love for someone to do research around that.

TCR: Justice in this country is done at the retail level, whatever the feds will say, or what they’d like to see. But there’s now an overall political climate, where it’s being suggested that things are worse rather than better, that we need to be tough on crime again. Are you seeing manifestations of that in Philadelphia?

KBG:  Various jurisdictions in Pennsylvania do see that. There are people trying to pull back on the problem-solving courts, saying that we still have recidivism; so why put so much effort into problem-solving courts. And you know, problem-solving courts look at the case and the individual, and put a lot of wrap-around services for that person to go through over a period of years.

One factor influencing (the revival of tough on crime rhetoric) is the fact that people attribute certain costs associated with helping those who are more vulnerable in our society as a waste of money. Of course you can say we were doing just that by locking them up in jail without them having a real chance of rehabilitating. But that rhetoric has been moving up in some areas in Pennsylvania. Not necessarily in Philadelphia, where we have a higher urban area and understand social issues. But you can see that in areas where crime is looked at as a drain on society, and (the public) would much rather spend the money locking people up rather than giving them the tools that they need to actually rehabilitate.

TCR: But cities and towns, and state legislatures can resist. We’re seeing some evidence of pushback to the new climate in places like Wisconsin, Missouri and California for example.

KBG: Yes, that’s encouraging, especially in the larger cities, who kind of reject (President) Trump’s policies in terms of criminal justice issues– or I should say, the policies of our new Attorney General. I think what’s been happening in those cities is that a lot of work has been done by policy groups, social justice organizations, and civil rights organizations, to really show the effect of what we’re doing in our justice system. And people have taken that, and used it as more of a political platform and tools to become re-elected. So these things will stay. When you have smaller, more rural areas, that’s not the discussion.

TCR: In the area where you specialize, are we seeing real progress in fulfilling the constitutional right to defense, particularly among people who don’t have the money to pay for it?

KBG: Well, I honestly think we can do a lot more, but we are moving the needle. So I can always applaud progress

TCR: How do you measure progress?

KBG:  Narrowing the net of the justice system. If we’re looking at offenses or actions in the appropriate light, in making sure that we’re not doing one thing to one group of individuals that we are not willing to do to another. We see it with the heroin and opioid epidemic: a lot of funding, a lot of money has gone to not putting those people in custody, and not arresting them, but diverting them directly to treatment and giving them opportunities to relapse, or whatever—to crawl out of these habits. When we don’t see that for another segment of society, that’s when i think we need a lot more in the area of reform, because it’s not that we’re saying that these people are going to create an extreme danger to our communities; we’re just saying that we’d rather handle them this way– and that way has a generational effect.  It will never overcome that poverty cycle.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a video interview conducted By Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report. The Measures for Justice conference for journalists mentioned above was organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report. A partial clip of the video is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Art Patron Gives $100 Million for Criminal Justice Fund

Art collector Agnes Gund sells 1962 Roy Lichtenstein “Masterpiece” and donates most of the proceeds to start a project supporting criminal justice reform and reducing mass incarceration.

Art collector and patron Agnes Gund sold a prized 1962 Roy Lichtenstein “Masterpiece” for a whopping $165 million, disclosing she parted with the painting to create a fund that supports criminal justice reform and seeks to reduce U.S. mass incarceration, the New York Times reports. The new Art for Justice Fund will start with $100 million of the proceeds from the Lichtenstein (which was sold to the collector Steven A. Cohen through Acquavella Gallery).

“This is one thing I can do before I die,” said Gund, 78. “This is what I need to do.” Together with the Ford Foundation, which will administer the fund, Gund has asked other collectors to do the same, in the hopes of raising an additional $100 million over the next five years. The undertaking is noteworthy, not only for the amount of money involved, but also because Gund is challenging fellow collectors to use their artworks to champion social causes at a time when the market has made their holdings more valuable than ever.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Business Lobby, Conservatives Helped Pass LA Justice Reform

Criminal justice reforms finally passed this year in Louisiana as a result mostly of conservative groups that have taken up the mantle of prison reform and offered their blessing to GOP members who cast their votes for the changes.

Traditionally, Louisiana’s Democrats and liberal social justice advocates have pushed for reforms in the state’s criminal justice system, asking for more lenient drug sentences, programs to rehabilitate criminals and softer penalties for nonviolent offenders. Those efforts have always run into stiff headwinds from policymakers who preferred a “tough on crime” approach. This year, a Republican-dominated Legislature signed off by large margins on sweeping changes that will trim jail sentences and expand parole opportunities to offenders in jail. Analysts predict it will reduce the overall jail population by 10 percent over a decade, The Advocate reports. While the effort that had the backing of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, the actual passage of the changes this year was the result mostly of conservative groups that have taken up the mantle of prison reform and offered their blessing to the GOP members who cast their votes for the reforms.

“For me, having some of the more conservative groups like (the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry) and the Family Forum bring a balance to the perspective” was important, said Rep. Barry Ivey, who supported all 10 of the reform bills in the legislative session. “Having their buy-in goes a long way to reassure the public.” During a few tough votes on the House floor, Ivey took to the microphone to remind his Republican colleagues that the measures were backed by the Family Forum, an influential conservative Christian organization that lobbies for traditional family values legislation. Help also came from Right on Crime, a conservative organization, that emerged out of Texas’ experience to help other states tackle similar reforms. Besides Louisiana and Texas, Right on Crime has worked in states like Alabama, Mississippi, Utah, North Carolina and Georgia.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Too Poor to Drive?

Thousands of Michigan residents lose their driver’s licenses each year because they cannot pay their fines. Punishing people for being poor is bad public policy, writes the director of Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, DC non-profit.

Kitia Harris is a single mother raising her eight-year-old daughter in Detroit. Recently, she picked up a minor traffic ticket for “impeding traffic” totaling $276 in court fines and fees. Living off just $1,200 a month in disability payments—not enough to cover rent, utilities, food, clothing, and other basic needs—she was unable to pay her traffic fines.

Because she cannot afford her outstanding court debt, Michigan suspended her license.

Kitia has never committed a crime, and for many years she worked hard in low-wage jobs to support herself and her daughter. In 2014, she was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a painful condition with no cure that prevents her from working.

Without a driver’s license, everything is more expensive. Kitia’s disability requires regular medical treatments. Now, instead of driving herself to her appointments, she must pay others to drive her. And because Detroit has the worst public transportation system of any major city in the country, she must also pay for rides for daily tasks like grocery shopping, or picking up her daughter. By forcing her to pay more just to get around, Michigan has trapped her in a cycle of poverty.

This is not fair, and it’s not justice.

Like Kitia, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders have lost their driver’s licenses simply because they are poor. In 2010 alone, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses for failure to pay court debt or failure to appear.

These residents have not been judged too dangerous to drive; they are not a threat behind the wheel; they have not caused serious injuries while driving. In the vast majority of cases, their only “crime” is that they are too poor to pay.

Michigan’s model creates two different justice systems based on wealth-status. For the rich, a minor infraction (like changing lanes without a turn signal) would result in a fine of maybe $135. For those who are poor and unable to pay, the same infraction could eventually lead to a license suspension. This suspension scheme violates our commonly held standards of justice: States should not dole out punishment simply based on wealth-status.

But perhaps more importantly: Michigan’s scheme is terrible public policy.

These suspensions laws are trapping productive residents in a cycle of poverty. It’s crushing for Kitia and her daughter, and it is especially bad for Michigan. As a state famous for its poorly managed fiscal situation, Michigan should help its residents pay back their court debt. Instead, the state is making it much harder for them to do so.

On May 4, Equal Justice Under Law filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Michigan for this wealth-based suspension scheme. Our lawsuit seeks to return licenses to the hundreds of thousands of drivers who have had their licenses suspended solely for the inability to pay court debt, and it asks the state to cease poverty-based suspensions in the future. We are not asking Michigan to change the way it treats drivers who are truly a threat on the road. Nothing we’re asking would allow a driver to commit reckless driving offenses.

We’re only asking that the state stop punishing people for being poor.

We are also asking that Michigan consider alternatives that many other states successfully employ. There should be an ability-to-pay hearing before any license is suspended. If someone is unable to pay due to poverty status, they should be given alternatives, like community service or payment plans. Some states offer payment plans as low as $5 per month.

Some supporters of Michigan’s suspension law claim that those who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets should drive more carefully. But this argument is exactly the kind of unequal justice we must fight against. Our justice system should not be premised on the notion that the rich get to buy their way out of trouble while the poor live under a sword of Damocles for not using a turn signal.

Others say that it’s unfair for poor people to get out of fines just because they’re unable to pay. What I ask of those folks is empathy. For many people—including Kitia Harris—poverty is not a choice. Kitia was raised without a mother or father, spending the majority of her childhood in foster care.

Now 25, she has never had a reliable, supportive adult in her life. She has lived her life in poverty. Calling it “unfair” that Kitia keep her driver’s license even though she cannot pay her court debt misses the fact that Kitia is doing everything in her power to make ends meet.

If she could pay her court debt, she would.

Instead of punishing someone who cannot pay their court debt, Michigan—and every other state—would be better off if people like Kitia were helped to break the cycle of poverty and repay the debt they owe.

Phil Telfeyan

Rather than making life harder and more expensive for Kitia, Michigan could provide her with the tools she needs to get back on her feet. Especially in a place like Detroit, which offers no meaningful public transportation option, Kitia needs a way to get around.

She needs empathy from us, and justice from our justice system.

Phil Telfeyan is founding director of Equal Justice Under Law a Washington, DC based nonprofit that challenges “wealth-based discrimination.”  He served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice for five years, where he specialized in employment discrimination and immigrants’ rights. He welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Is Conservative-Liberal Justice Alliance Coming Undone?

“Hurt feelings are impacting meaningful discussion” about reform measures said the Heritage foundation’s John Malcolm. Some hope that President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will take a larger role in the issue.

Last year, liberal and conservative criminal justice reformers agreed to back a modest proposal to relax some mandatory minimum sentences. The plan died, and “so did some of the spirit of common cause,” report The Marshall Project and The New Yorker. As the presidential election campaign ended, “the alliance started to come undone.” Since President Trump took office, the strain on the coalition has intensified. Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation says the movement should turn its attention to the states, where most criminal justice is dispensed.

Groups from the right and left still meet monthly at the Heritage Foundation, but momentum has been hard to regain. “Hurt feelings are impacting meaningful discussion,” said the foundation’s John Malcolm. Many believe that the prospects for reform at the federal level now depend largely on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, who has added criminal justice to his thick portfolio. Kushner’s father spent two years in federal prison on various white-collar charges. The only notable federal criminal justice measures showing signs of life would only create more opportunities to put people in prison or to hand out longer sentences, such as a bill that would allow probation officers to arrest anyone who interferes with their work. Given this inhospitable climate, Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said that perhaps the best course for reformers is to hope for “benign neglect” from the Trump administration.

from https://thecrimereport.org