America Needs ‘Better Way’ to Deal with Drug Abuse: OK Governor

The opioid epidemic is not a “Republican or Democratic issue,” says Gov. Mary Fallin. She told a conference on women’s incarceration this week that treatment and counseling should be considered legitimate alternatives to prison for individuals charged with low-level drug offenses.

Increasing numbers of conservative legislatures are backing sentencing reforms that divert individuals charged with low-level drug offenses away from prison, says Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” the Republican governor said during an event streamed live sponsored by the Atlantic magazine in Oklahoma City earlier this week.

“It’s about people (with) addiction or mental health issues who are not criminals and need a little extra help.”

She said the nation’s spreading opioid epidemic should persuade policymakers regardless of their party affiliations to find alternatives to punishment strategies that often end up destroying families and especially take a toll on children.

Fallin said the most common complaint by women she had spoken to who were incarcerated for drug offenses was “being away from my children.”

Fallin joined other participants in the event—the first of a three-part series called “Defining Justice: The Experience of Women and Children Behind Bars,” produced by Reveal, the online platform of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting—in identifying “tough-on-crime” drug laws as a leading cause of the high rate of incarceration of women in the country.

Oklahoma was chosen as the opening venue for the series because it has the country’s highest female incarceration rate: 151 of every 100,000 women are behind bars.

A report produced earlier this year by the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force predicted a 60 percent increase in Oklahoma’s female prison population over the next decade if present policies continue. The state’s general prison population was expected to rise by just 25 percent in the same period, the task force said.

“We need to find a better way,” said Fallin, noting that many Oklahoma law enforcement authorities were “starting to pick up on the notion that there are other options” besides prison for troubled individuals involved with the justice system.

Fallin praised two measures approved by Oklahoma voters last year that have spurred major justice reforms, said The Oklahoman in its report of the event. One made certain low-level crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies, including simple drug possession and theft of items valued at less than $1,000. The other aims to use money saved by incarcerating fewer people to help fund drug treatment and mental health programs.

Other speakers at the live stream session echoed Fallin’s criticism of the nation’s “tough-on-crime” approach to troubled individuals who run afoul of  in the justice system.

“We have failed to look at mental illness and drug addiction as a health issue and (have) instead chosen to punish people who have an addiction, rather than treat (them),” said Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), a nonprofit interfaith foundation in Oklahoma City

Steele argued that many state legislatures are pursuing the wrong path with “tough on crime” laws, and they should move to “smart-on-crime” laws that aim to divert troubled individuals to treatment, rather than jail.

Jurisdictions that have already moved in that direction have experienced a decline in the number of women who are incarcerated, the session was told.

Source: Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Table by Eric Segara/Reveal

In Oklahoma’s Tulsa County, for example, a diversion program for women who might otherwise face long sentences for drug offenses and other crimes has contributed to a decrease over the past seven years in the number of women sent to prison.

Former graduates of Women in Recovery show up to support new graduates at a ceremony earlier this year. Photo by Shane Brown/Reveal

The program, “Women in Recovery,” is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, named for a little-known Tulsa oil billionaire. It provides rehabilitative treatment, life-skills classes, and employment counseling to help women  recover from substance abuse.

Incarceration rates are even higher for women in poverty and women of color, according to Reveal, which produced its reporting as a part of a year-long collaboration with The Frontier, an Oklahoma journalism startup.

African-American women are incarcerated at about “twice the rate” of their representation in the state’s adult population, Reveal’s analysis showed. 

And for Native American women, the disparity is almost three times their share of the population—primarily because of drug offenses.

Patricia Spottedcrow told the seminar she was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison after her conviction for possessing about $35 worth of marijuana. Prior to her arrest, Spottedcrow said, she had never been involved with the criminal justice system.

But media attention to her story helped get her sentence reduced. She spent just two years behind bars.

While Spottedcrow’s tale of early release is unusual, her excessive sentence is not.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, tens of thousands of people have fallen victim to harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, as a result of the U.S. “extreme sentencing policies” which have no parallel in other countries.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler believes that addressing the problem must begin with the children.

“Most women blame their drug issues on their childhood abuse,” Kunzweiler said during the session. “We need to put our money towards helping children who deserve protection.”

“The more money we spend on incarceration, the less money we have to spend on health care.”

Other speakers at the session included Tony Tyler of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Task Force; Sheila Harbert, Chief Community Outreach Officer of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma; and D’Marria Monday, Oklahoma Chapter Leader of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

The next live stream sessions connected with Reveal’s reporting will be held in Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. The first part of the Reveal series is available here.

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Can America’s Air Safety Watchdogs Police Aviation Fraud?

A whistleblower’s unsuccessful attempts to prod an investigation of defective airline parts manufactured in China underlines charges by senior aviation specialists that federal air safety authorities and law enforcement are failing when it comes to tackling an emerging global threat from counterfeiters, according to a TCR investigation.

A tide of defective and possibly counterfeit airplane parts has been making its way into U.S. aircraft unreported and unchecked, according to senior aviation specialists and whistleblower attorneys.

Earlier this spring, a government audit of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—the agency responsible for ensuring airline safety—said the FAA had consistently failed to alert federal law enforcement authorities about suspect parts installed in U.S. airplanes.

The scathing audit by the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG)—the first one in 20 years—also charged the agency had closed investigations without ensuring that counterfeit and improperly manufactured parts (SUPs) were removed.

The FAA has since pledged to comply with the audit recommendations. But interviews with former FAA inspectors and other experts raise questions about whether federal law enforcement authorities can cope with the threat posed by a global aviation parts manufacturing industry that has spread to emerging markets like China and India, where many of the fake or defective parts identified in investigations have originated.

The safety threat posed by fraudulent parts is likely to increase unless federal authorities become more aggressive in combating it, the experts told The Crime Report.

 “We’re outsourcing so much work into those regions (that) the propensity for risk increases exponentially,” said Michael Dreikorn, a former FAA safety inspector who helped set up the agency’s first Suspected Unapproved Parts (SUP) program in the 1990s.

Some argue that an equally serious problem is a laissez-faire culture in which the agency effectively allows the commercial aviation industry to police itself.

Whenever the FAA suspects fraud, under its own guidelines, it is required to refer the case to federal law enforcement authorities.

“However, the FAA is loathe to actually refer people for criminal enforcement,” said Mary Schiavo, a former Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (DOT).“They just don’t do it.”

Agency officials respond that the FAA’s current oversight program assures the safety of the American flying public.

Hundreds of defective “single point of failure” parts from China were installed in Boeing 777 spoilers. Photo by Christian Junker via Flickr

“In rare instances where the FAA determines SUPs have entered the system, we issue corrective measures that mandate timely action by affected owners and operators,” the FAA said in an emailed response to The Crime Report’s questions.

The Trials of a Whistleblower

But a Crime Report investigation suggests that despite the sharp rebuke by the OIG earlier this year of FAA practices, ongoing attempts by a Chinese whistleblower to warn both authorities of a potential grave risk to the flying public continues to fall on deaf ears.

In 2016, a supply chain manager at Moog, a U.S. aerospace company that supplies flight control systems to Boeing, alerted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that he had discovered a Chinese subcontractor was producing improperly manufactured parts.

According to an FAA report obtained by The Crime Report, the agency investigated, but found no evidence of a violation.

Unsatisfied, the whistleblower, Chaosheng Shi, asked for a re-investigation.

During the second investigation, the regional FAA inspector found evidence that improperly manufactured parts had been installed in commercial Boeing 777s around the globe. The same subcontractor, according to the report, had outsourced other critical parts to an unapproved supplier.

What’s more, the subcontractor had fabricated production records.

Under the FAA’s own guidelines, when the agency finds evidence of “suspected unapproved parts” (SUPs), it is supposed to refer them to federal law enforcement agencies for a full examination.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead, despite the evidence produced during the second investigation, the FAA concluded that “all corrective actions have been taken. No further action is required.”

‘Accounting Error’

Regarding Shi’s suspicion that the subcontractor was using substitute, sub-standard raw materials, FAA accepted the company’s explanation that it was an “accounting error.”

FAA’s investigation relied entirely on Moog’s internal probe into the suspected counterfeiting. But by the time Moog performed its inspection, claimed Shi, the parts that it tested were no longer representative of the batch that had been installed on aircraft a year earlier.

These parts are still in the air today, installed in wing flaps that control descent and speed for safe landing.

As if this weren’t chilling enough, they are what’s known in the industry as “single-point-of-failure” parts—meaning that if they fail, the whole system fails.

According to Shi, as many as 500 commercial airplanes could be affected.

The Moog case illustrates what some experts say is a worrying failure of oversight by the agency tasked with ensuring the safety of commercial airplanes in the U.S., as well as law enforcement agencies that investigate and prosecute unapproved parts fraud.

Some experts cite a relationship between the airline industry, FAA, and congressional oversight committees that has grown too cozy.

While people within the industry insist that manufacturers have a self-interest in keeping the flying public safe, veteran aviation experts are telling a different story—one in which unreported defective parts invade the supply chain unchecked, with no repercussions.

While it is not the FAA’s role to investigate criminal matters, the agency acts as a gatekeeper, deciding which cases are referred to law enforcement. For cases involving commercial aircraft, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General gets involved, often working with special agents from the FBI. For military aircraft, the Department of Defense, and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service step in.

Some say the FAA is, in effect, enabling an end-run around potential criminal investigations by withholding these types of allegations from investigators.

“If the FAA is not sharing the information with law enforcement, [offenders] are not going to get indicted, because most of the time law enforcement is not going to know about it,” said Ken Gardner, a retired FAA safety inspector who now teaches certification courses for the agency.

Criminal prosecutions against airplane manufacturers are rare; instead, victims and their families have taken to civil courts to pursue false claims and wrongful death suits. Under federal regulations, installing counterfeit or improperly manufactured parts isn’t a crime unless you’ve done it knowingly. The same goes for falsifying records.

But experts allege that the FAA’s lax attitudes allows the manufacturers to shrug away what little scrutiny they might face with a simple response: We didn’t know.

“Sadly, I’ve heard this many, many times,” said Schiavo, the former DOT Inspector General. “There are so many whistleblowers out of Boeing. But the FAA says ‘Boeing looked at it, and they found it not to be a problem,’ and they pretty much rubber stamp [it].

“They don’t make Boeing go and inspect all the planes. And I suppose a lot of these are out in the hands of end-users now. It’s pretty typical.”

Dreikorn, the former FAA inspector, concurs.

“The fact of the matter is, as a result of this whistleblower’s actions, we know of 273 nonconforming parts installed in the spoilers of Boeing 777 aircraft,” he said. “We are expected to rely on analysis and testing from the very companies that caused the problem.

“Trust must be earned, and the FAA’s aircraft certification office in Seattle has shown itself incompetent in ensuring the largest airplane manufacturer in the U.S. is capable of controlling its suppliers.”

Dreikorn added: “I rest no easier simply because the FAA says I should.”

Asked by The Crime Report to examine the FAA’s report on Shi’s complaint, another former safety inspector, who asked that his identity be withheld, said, “This investigation should have also involved the DOT Office of Inspector General for falsification of production records which are required documentation.”

The inspector was particularly concerned about the hundreds of critical parts that were installed in wing flaps that did not undergo stress relief or proper hydrogen relief treatment (baking).

“Carbon embrittlement is a big concern due to the fact that turbulence can change the normal stress loads that can cause a catastrophic failure,” he told The Crime Report. “The FAA should have followed up with Boeing to gain information of their notice to customers who had those parts installed on their aircraft.”

But the defective parts never even made it onto the FAA’s Unapproved Parts Notification database, which issues warnings to aircraft owners, operators, manufacturers, maintenance organizations, and parts suppliers about potential risks.

The notifications system is also accessible to the public.

Boeing provided the following response to The Crime Report:

The safety of the flying public is our primary concern, and any allegation related to safety is thoroughly investigated. In late 2016 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration investigated several allegations related to Moog Aerospace and confirmed two were substantiated.

Moog, working with Boeing, had already assessed these two issues and taken all necessary corrective actions. The FAA investigation confirmed that no further corrective action was required.

We refer additional questions to the FAA and Moog.

Failing Grades

The May 30 audit by the OIG found that the FAA had consistently violated a 2004 agreement with six federal law enforcement agencies to share reports and investigations about possible defective parts.

“As a result,” the OIG concluded after its two-year review of the agency, “the FAA cannot accurately account for the number of SUPs or track safety-related trends to share with senior FAA management and Federal law enforcement agencies about the risks posed by unapproved parts.”

In response to the audit, the FAA finally did share data with law enforcement authorities on allegedly substandard or counterfeit airplane parts– many of which are currently in use by commercial jetliners flying today.

But the whistleblower’s story also raises questions about whether federal law enforcement is sufficiently aggressive in monitoring possible counterfeiters.

The OIG, which has the authority to conduct criminal investigations, confirmed to The Crime Report that it received Shi’s complaint and had decided not to investigate. But it would not explain on what grounds his complaint was rejected.

The FAA’s defenders argue that the commercial aviation industry itself is better equipped to monitor suspected unapproved parts and remove them if necessary—a laissez-faire approach which they say ensures airline safety.

“Certificate holders (FAA-approved aviation businesses) must protect themselves and their work with or without government help,” said a spokesperson for the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), a global trade association for the civil aviation maintenance industry.

“This responsibility is what keeps flying the safest form of transportation.”

Meanwhile, in response to a request from The Crime Report, the FAA issued the following official statement:

The FAA oversees the design and production of hundreds of millions of aviation products and parts each year. More than two decades ago, the agency developed an enhanced Suspected Unapproved Parts (SUP) program, which resulted in a marked decrease in SUP cases. In rare instances where the FAA determines SUPs have entered the system, we issue corrective measures that mandate timely action by affected owners and operators.

FAA inspectors perform follow-up surveillance of all corrective actions that aircraft owners and operators, and aircraft manufacturers and parts manufacturers, take in response to SUP cases.

In Shi’s case, however, the FAA closed out the investigation without reporting the defective parts as ‘suspect.’

Vigilant in the 1990s

Things weren’t always so lax.

The 1990s saw a more aggressive enforcement period following the 1989 crash of Partnair Flight 394, which killed all 55 people on board, and was blamed on defective counterfeit parts and substandard maintenance.

During Mary Schiavo’s six-year tenure as Inspector General, her office led investigations that resulted in over 150 convictions for fraudulent parts.

“There are a few people still in jail as a result of that,” said former FAA inspector Dreikorn, whose SUP team included several FBI agents who led raids on fabricators of unapproved parts.

But the program was disbanded in 2007.

Gardner, who teaches FAA certification courses (including unapproved parts training) at JDA Aviation Technology Solutions, there are fewer agents assigned to the OIG these days, and they are spread thin across all crimes involving transportation.

“If it’s something that’s not going to draw a lot of attention, and it’s not really a safety issue, they’ll just kind of leave it up to the FAA to deal with it,” added Gardner, who also trains law enforcement how to spot counterfeits and falsified records.

But according to independent experts and whistleblowers, law enforcement lacks the expertise to determine what might be a safety threat, and instead has to rely on the industry itself.

Gardner, like Dreikorn, says the risks have escalated in recent years as aviation manufacturers increasingly outsource to developing markets.

“We know there’s a lot of counterfeit parts coming out of China,” he told The Crime Report.

“There’s a lot of Sikorsky [owned by Lockheed Martin] parts, and the problem is, they have the companies over here send all the data, the drawings and specifications and everything for the parts to be made at other facilities in China as a supplier.

“But they don’t stop there. Because they figure there’s money in it, they can actually manufacture other parts and send them over here with false documentation.”

Shi’s case adds a troubling new dimension to the problem of overseas quality control. Last month, a judge denied him U.S. whistleblower protection because he worked in Shanghai.

Nevertheless, ARSA, the aeronautical repair group, argues that companies outside the U.S. have an equal interest in avoiding fake or fraudulent manufacturers.

“A good repair station won’t risk business on risky parts,” the ARSA spokesperson told The Crime Report, noting that non-U.S. firms have access to the FAA’s database, which “allows certificate holders to help ‘police’ the flow of parts with questionable origins or paperwork.”

Some aviation experts point out, however, that the current system fails to account for human nature.

Mike Danko, a civil attorney and pilot who uncovered the role of an unapproved part in a deadly 2014 plane crash, cites what he says is the “well-known” example that “a pilot is never criminally prosecuted unless he is drunk—it doesn’t matter how stupid, reckless he is, or how many people are injured—[and] because that’s so well known, there’s a small group of renegade pilots who say, ‘this is easy—either I’m not going to get the license, or my license is revoked, I don’t care.

“I’m going to continue to fly because—what happens if I get caught?’”

The audit’s findings underline the charges by many of the outside experts interviewed for this article that the FAA itself is in need of an overhaul.

Even if FAA inspectors were inclined to be more aggressive, they currently don’t have the technical skills to perform physical examinations to determine if there is a safety risk.

“The FAA really defers to Boeing expertise,” said Mary Schiavo, noting that the agency even allows the company to self-certify its aircraft.

“The FAA doesn’t have the expertise to match talent with Boeing.” (Boeing has contended in federal court that it is a “representative” of the FAA).

“It’s a paperwork chase,” added Mike Danko, the former pilot. “It’s not quality control, or quality assurance. As a general rule it’s just a record-keeping inquiry.”

Are Our Planes Safe?

Has the FAA’s current approach to counterfeit parts increased the safety risks for the thousands of passengers who fly U.S. jetliners every month?

The FAA and its defenders say it hasn’t.

But last year, after compiling and analyzing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found that “unapproved parts” had played a role in close to two dozen airplane crashes in the U.S. since 2010, resulting in seven fatalities and 18 injuries.

The majority of the crashes either took place in U.S. airspace or involved U.S. aircraft under FAA jurisdiction, according to an NBC reporter, minus one or two overseas cases referred to the FAA that involved forged FAA tags.

Independent aviation experts think this number may actually be much higher. However, the NTSB refuses to release information on its investigations of major catastrophes that have happened overseas, even when they involved a U.S. manufacturer.

When Danko investigated the 2009 Cessna crash that killed Dr. Ken Gottlieb, he found that an unapproved part had jammed during takeoff, and that Gottlieb’s mechanic had faked an inspection just days earlier. A civil jury awarded Gottlieb’s family over $10 million dollars.

Afterwards, said Danko, “I asked the FAA to investigate. They investigated and found basically no specific violation of any regulation. And that mechanic still has his license.”

As for any criminal investigation, “law enforcement is virtually never interested,” said Danko.

That holds true in Shi’s whistleblower case.

For the past two years, his dogged attempts to alert the OIG, both directly, and through the fraud hotline, have come to nothing. The OIG’s official reply: “We Anticipate No Further Action From Our Office Regarding This Matter And Thank You For Bringing This Information To Our Attention.”

Chaosheng Shi (center). Warren Johnson (left), former president of Moog Aircraft Group, shakes hands with Li Jian of New HongJi (right). 2015. Photo courtesy Chaosheng Shi

New HongJi, the Chinese company that was found to have produced defective parts and falsified records, continues to manufacture Moog parts for installation onto Boeing military and commercial aircraft. Aircraft Group of Moog, Inc, holds the certificate for these parts— meaning the case falls within U.S. jurisdiction.

“You can explain away an accounting error,” said former FAA inspector Dreikorn.

“But when you have that coupled with forged documents— it means there is no reliability in the system, and then everything that comes out of the system is as far as I’m concerned, suspect.”

Appeal to an Irrelevant Authority

An FAA investigation—which the OIG audit shows to be unreliable—can also make or break a fraud case.

Take the 11-year, $4.8 billion false claims suit against Boeing and Ducommun for defrauding the U.S. government, which was thrown out on appeal in 2016. The lawsuit claimed that Boeing used off-spec parts in 737 Next Generation aircraft that it sold to the U.S. military (P-8 Poseidon), and then produced false documentation to cover it up.

The judge made his determination based on the fact that Boeing and the FAA both disagreed with the whistleblowers as to how the manufacturing specifications could be interpreted. Because of this wiggle room, intent could not be proven.

“We know it was willful, because after they ‘discovered’ it, they then went back to the company that was making the defective parts, or the non-conforming parts, and they cut a side-deal with them authorizing them to continue doing it in exchange for some price concessions,” William Skepnek, a whistleblower attorney who worked on the case for over a decade, told The Crime Report.

But, he added: “Because the FAA didn’t make a finding, then I guess reasonable minds can differ, and if reasonable minds can differ, well than you can’t prove intent…. which is of course not the law.”

“I don’t think there ever was a criminal investigation. There was a DCIS investigator who was assigned to the case. And the DCIS investigator simply handed it off to FAA, and accepted what FAA did, and did no investigation on his own.”

Skepnek’s team started digging into the case, and “we found that the DCIS investigator had no knowledge of aircraft parts.”

“So there literally was no independent criminal investigation.”

The FAA, in turn, accepted Boeing’s own internal investigation into the matter, said Skepnek. According to Dreikorn, who was engaged as an expert witness by the whistleblowers: “I was able to independently determine that, yeah, Boeing had done some wrongdoing, they had covered it up, and the FAA at the local level was in cahoots.

“And I took it all the way up to the Associate Administrator, and she killed it.”

Skepnek continued: “Ultimately, the federal judge in Wichita determined that because the FAA hadn’t done anything about it, then that meant that the FAA found it was all good.”

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also sided with the opinion of Boeing engineers and the FAA.

It might be surprising to the average person that the agency tasked with aviation safety doesn’t perform physical inspections and investigations itself. But according to Dreikorn, most judges are unaware of the fact .

“They think that the FAA is infallible. I’ve stood in front of many state and federal judges, and told them that the FAA system is flawed, and they wouldn’t accept it,” he said.

“And as a lone expert, how can I stand up to the FAA?”

The two aviation experts, an engineer, and a former NTSB crash investigator working with Skepnek on the whistleblower case believe that several Boeing 737 Next Generation crashes remain unexplained.

“What our guys said was, and we actually submitted this to the FAA, the real weak spots were in front of and behind the wings. And there are at least 3 or 4 crashes, hard landings, that should have been tolerated, but the fuselage came apart— with some deaths.

And there were a couple of airplanes that came apart in the sky, and nobody lived through that. These were all Next Generations,” said Skepnek.

Dreikorn said he’s been pushing for the National Transportation Safety Board to look into secondary failures for years, which are often more fatal than the primary cause for the accident. “You can’t always prevent the causing event— but make the survivability better.”

“There needs to be more transparency in the industry with these investigations, because they get put under a federal order of stealth— nobody gets to see what’s going on. And even afterwards, it’s under protective order.”

Dreikorn’s FOIA requests to the NTSB for information on crash investigations in Jamaica, Colombia, Kenya, and Ethiopia were all rejected.

“And the reality is, this is taxpayer money, these are our products, the taxpayers’, they should have a right to see what’s going on and be able to get [data]— whether they’re from the media or academia— to look at this stuff so we can understand what’s going on.

“Are our employees, our government employees, working in the best interest of the taxpayers?”

Republican Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon, ranking member of the House Transportation Subcommittee, who requested the original OIG audit, told The Crime Report that he was concerned that FAA’s Suspected Unapproved Parts Program “had not been reviewed in more than 20 years.”

“Eliminating the serious risk posed by unapproved aircraft parts is a critical safety matter that must be dealt with,” he said, adding that the Inspector General’s findings “confirm the need for improved tracking of suspected parts by the FAA and continued congressional oversight of the SUPs program.”

Weakening Federal Regulation

That task may now get harder under an administration determined to reduce federal regulation.

DeFazio has been leading a fight in the House against a bill that would privatize the agency’s air traffic control system and remove over 30,000 federal employees from the federal payroll. The bill was rejected by the Senate on Tuesday, and must go to a floor vote before the September 30 deadline for FAA reauthorization.

In the meantime, the FAA Rulemaking Advisory Committee has recommended rolling back several aviation safety standards earlier this month, including those governing pilot training.

Dreikorn believes that change has to begin with the agency’s leadership, noting that the FAA’s new Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Ali Bahrami, was plucked straight from an aviation industry lobbying position in June. He was director of the Aerospace Industry Association, and prior to that, he worked at Boeing.

“Until there’s a decision within the organization to behave differently, until the leadership holds the entire organization accountable to perform as they should for public safety, nothing’s going to happen,” he said.

Victoria Mckenzie is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


How Texas Turned the Page on Police Reform

The Sandra Bland Act, which came into effect this month, has been called an “example for the nation” in setting policies for police reform and dealing with troubled individuals. Texas State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the bill’s sponsor, sat down with TCR West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick to discuss why one of the country’s toughest law-and-order states adopted it.

Now in his 26th year as a Houston Democrat in a conservative Texas House, Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman is the ranking member of the Public Health Committee, and chair of the powerful, wide-ranging County Affairs Committee.

Sandra Bland. Courtesy Wikipedia

He was the sponsor of the Sandra Bland Act, named in memory of the African-American motorist who, while driving in the Houston suburb of Prairie View in 2015, was pulled over by a white Texas State trooper. Both her stop and her subsequent arrest were caught on video, and proved highly controversial. Most striking was how quickly the trooper moved from mild arguing with Bland to suddenly arresting her with no attempt at de-escalation. Later, in an even more contentious development, Bland—who had some history of mental illness—died in custody in the Waller County jail, in what was later ruled a suicide.

The Act, which came into effect this month, has been called an “example for the nation” in setting policies for reform of police practices. Among other provisions, it earmarks money to train law enforcement in de-escalation practices, and requires authorities to divert justice-involved individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues into treatment.

In a chat with West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick, Coleman discussed why he fought so hard for the Act, the peculiarities of Texas criminal justice law, and how legislators in one of the country’s toughest law-and-order states were persuaded to take a major step towards justice reform.

 TCR: Your focus in the past has been on children’s issues and mental health, yet you played the key role in passing the Bland Act. Why?

 Coleman: It’s very personal. I’m a black, born in the early ‘60s. I grew up at a time when I was a police target for just being me. I was stopped recently [by the police] just before the Bland hearing. And I was scared. All that [police officer] intimidation and worry when you’re stopped. [Editor’s note: In Texas a citizen can be arrested simply for committing a traffic violation, as was Bland.] People react to it differently. But why should someone be fearful for their life when they get pulled over? I have a daughter who is 21, a son who is 25. There were so many other things that this officer [who arrested Bland] could have done to avoid the situation that he didn’t do.

 TCR: What advantages did you start out with in getting the Bland Act passed?

 Coleman: The County Affairs committee that I chair has wide jurisdiction over [Texas] jails and sheriffs and the department of public safety. I’ve been working on mental illness since 1995, so I knew I could get that piece passed. And that’s the piece that had no opposition. The sheriffs and law enforcement were always for the mental health provisions. So I could say to them—and I did—you are getting nothing if you keep blocking the bill.

[In addition] I went to the [House] speaker and told him that the problem had gotten too big, that something had to be done. [Bland] had died; [there were recent videos] of another woman in Austin being violently thrown up the side of a car; a 14-year-old girl tackled in her bikini by an officer for nothing; and a teenager shot in the back of the head by an officer whom [the state of] Texas admitted was at fault in the civil suit.

Texas State Rep. Garnet Coleman

TCR: Who were the opponents of the Act?

 Coleman: The Sheriff’s Association. We have 254 counties. That’s 254 [very powerful] sheriffs. The Texas Metropolitan Police Association. The Police Chiefs Association. Most of your law-and-order members of the legislature were opposed. They were all opposed. At first, we couldn’t even get it out of the committee in the House.

 TCR: Eventually, as I understand it, the governor and lieutenant governor, who are powerful players in Texas, came out in favor of the bill.

 Coleman: They did not come out for it [at first]. They asked us to remove some important things from the bill: gathering data on pretext stops, on consensual searches and stop-and-frisk vehicle data—the kinds of things that really lead you to being able to have a provable finding of racial profiling. But once that happened, it passed out of the Senate. And I do believe that once the lieutenant governor and governor said this draft is fine with us, that everyone just backed off.

 TCR: So the fact that they were not opposing it, was in itself a message?

 Coleman: That’s exactly right. Once it got to the floor of the Senate, it passed unanimously and I picked it up in the house and the bill went through.

 TCR: Do you still think the law has teeth?

 Coleman: Most definitely. There are [now] more and easier ways to complain about police stops and abuse. Also included is [the requirement to keep] data on every stop and data on [police] violence—whether it’s a death or assault. And then there’s the big increase for de-escalation training.

TCR: Let’s talk about the Act mandated de-escalation training

 Coleman: Every peace officer in Texas now has to go through 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training; meaning they have to undergo 40 hours of de-escalation training in dealing with people who have mental illness; and we also mandated de-escalation training that has nothing to do with crisis intervention—that is to be used routinely in general circumstances. The police departments in Dallas are already using de-escalation techniques.

 TCR: Every peace officer statwide?

 Coleman: Yes.

 TCR: Do you think the 40 hours of training, even if it’s best practices, is enough?

 Coleman: Most definitely. That’s the ideal number of hours, according to best practices in mental health Crisis Intervention Training. Now it’s the law, part of the suite of training that all peace officers must have.

 TCR: Will that 40 hours of training be ongoing?

 Coleman: Yes, it’s on-going. They do the training again every couple of years. It’s not just at the academy. And it’s for both styles of de-escalation—mental health and in general circumstances. [The provisions of the Act] are there in perpetuity unless somebody removes them by law.

 TCR: What does de-escalation mean to you?

 Coleman: Peace officers should not approach people with a command-and-control stance, but use their soft skills to approach in a way that keeps everyone safe. Using distance, using reason to see how that person is at that moment and not rile everybody up, just trying to get everyone to obey what the officer is asking.

Fort Worth just adopted de-escalation training. Dallas is already doing it. So I believe it’s a way to move law enforcement in a different direction rather than just the same old actions every single time.

 TCR: Did you give up anything in terms of the de-escalation provisions now?

 Coleman: No. We still haven’t instituted the de-escalation rules and protocols yet. We want to make sure the training standards are strong, and meet current best practices in de-escalation training, and that we are not doing something that’s four or five years old.

 TCR: So all that still has to be developed.

 Coleman: Yes.

 TCR: You spoke about the mental health provisions bill, which survived and became law?

 Coleman: First, [informational] card swipes now have to be posted on the jail cells of people being jailed who are at risk of suicide or have emotional distress [so that jailers will be aware of a prisoner’s status.]

Joe Domanick

Second, the Act also mandates telemedicine and telemagistrates to be on call so that in smaller areas of the state so that [diagnosis and treatment] can be very quickly available.

 TCR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

 Coleman: I guess that I’m still in disbelief the first bill in Texas named for somebody that was a victim of the police actually passed.

Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Campus Sex Assaults: Will Trump Weaken Title IX Protections?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ announcement that she wants a “better” approach to campus sex assaults has stoked fears that the Trump administration will weaken existing federal legislation banning gender bias in education. TCR examines the reaction from both sides.

Betsy DeVos’ plan to develop a “better” approach to campus sex assaults has stoked fears among activists and victims that the Trump administration is bent on weakening three-decades-old protections from gender-based discrimination in education.

In a speech last week at George Mason University, the Education Secretary criticized the previous administration’s directive mandating that universities take “immediate and appropriate action” to address cases of sexual violence, rather than waiting for cases to be adjudicated through the court system.

The so-called “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Obama administration in 2011 was a response to concerns—supported by statistics—about high rates of assaults against women on campuses around the country, and the failure of the justice system to address them properly.

The directive said a “proactive” response by university administrators would be within the spirit of the protections provided under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act passed in 1972 prohibiting educational discrimination based on gender.

Photo by USM MS via Flickr

But according to DeVos, the directive has “burdened schools with increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines that even lawyers find difficult to understand and navigate.” She said a decision on whether to formally rescind the directive would await a “notice and comment” period for views on both sides to be heard.

But many activists believe DeVos’ comments, such as her warning that the directive sets up a “kangaroo court” for men accused of assaults, suggest she has already made up her mind.

The secretary met with critics of the directive and supporters in separate meetings during a Title IX “summit” in July. Some of the attendees claimed DeVos exhibited dramatically different attitudes towards both groups.

“DeVos did not appear very affected or somber after meeting with us, even though the stories told were powerful and devastating,” one attendee at the meeting with sex assault survivors told The Crime Report. “She certainly did not appear as affected or somber as the men’s rights activists describe her being after their meeting.”

“It’s like DeVos had already made up her mind going in.”

But those who support revising or abandoning the Obama-era directive said they welcomed DeVos’ announcement.

“Schools don’t have access to forensics, they can’t put anyone under oath, they don’t have trained lawyers on each side, so it should surprise no one that there are tremendous injustices in both directions,” said Joe Cohn, policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights for Education (FIRE), an organization that advocates for due process of students accused of rape or sexual assault.

“You cannot create a just world by replacing one injustice with a new injustice. We need to be thinking through ways we can encourage complainants to come forward, where they are treated with decency and respect, but due process isn’t thrown out either.”

According to the 2011 letter, university authorities must take “immediate and appropriate action” on any cases of sexual violence that are brought to their attention, and they do not have to forward the case to law enforcement.

The directive was intended to clarify Title IX provisions that require all federally funded educational institutions to comply with laws prohibiting sex discrimination, or risk losing their funding. Under Title IX, allegations of discrimination are investigated by the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which has already begun keeping a public list of schools subject to investigation, according to The Atlantic.

DeVos supporters have dubbed these “shame lists,” meant to pressure colleges into siding with the victim in order to avoid investigation.

Cohn argues that, although under the current system both the accused and accuser are allowed to have an advisor of choice present with them at a university hearing (which could be a lawyer), that person is prohibited from speaking or taking part in the process, making such advisors “no more useful than a stuffed animal for comfort.”

Cynthia Garrett, co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), an organization created by mothers of sons accused of sexual misconduct, told TCR that DeVos appeared moved by the stories she heard at the meeting with critics last July.

“(She) listened so intently to each person’s story,” Garrett said. “She remembered the story, the names and the details. The room was silent. When we walked out of there, it was like a funeral procession.”

But advocates of greater protection for victims of sexual assaults on campus argued that DeVos showed she did not understand the depth of the problem.

“I think for DeVos and others to assume due process is granted in a criminal or civil setting more than at the university level is making an assumption without [a basis in] criminological theory,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a criminologist at George Mason University.

“The whole system put in place is the trial, which the vast majority of cases never make it to: 95% of the cases are plea bargains.”

Orozco added that she would like to ask DeVos whether she understood the difficulties involved in the trial process, particularly in sexual assault cases.

“If you were familiar (with those difficulties),” she said she would ask DeVos, “How could you remove any types of avenues from these survivors?”

Survivors of sexual assaults worry that removing the directive will add to women’s fears of impunity for perpetrators of campus assaults.

Jessica Davidson, managing director at End Rape on Campus, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, said “It’s important to note that mandatory police reporting is not a good thing for Title IX. Its simple: survivors don’t want to sit next to their rapist in math class anymore, and they don’t want to go to the police for that.”

Douglas Harms, a teacher advocating for reduced sexual assault on campuses, told TCR: “Studies show that the vast majority of campus sexual assaults are not reported to campus authorities, and even fewer are reported to the police; increasing the burden of proof (e.g., from preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing evidence) would, I believe, discourage even more survivors from pursuing justice.”

“Clearly DeVos and the Trump administration have no grip on the epidemic that is happening on campuses,” said one survivor who asked to remain anonymous. “Defending rapists through changing rhetoric is unacceptable, upsetting and invalidates victims’ experiences.

“More than 90% of sexual assaults/ rapes on campus go unreported—including mine—and that’s because the current rules don’t go far enough.”

But the administration’s skepticism about efforts to extend Title IX protections has also received support from law enforcement.

“Title IX can hamper a criminal investigation by alerting suspects to the allegations,” said prosecutor Tim Bookwalter of Putnam County, IN. “In any other case, we approach the suspect for an interview without telegraphing him the allegation in advance.”

According to Bookwalter, sex assault investigations on campus should be handled by law enforcement agencies, just as all such assaults are handled.

DeVos and her supporters argue that the risk to due process posed by investigations conducted by universities is too grave to ignore.

Betsy DeVos. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

“One person denied due process is one too many,” DeVos said, arguing that universities use the lowest standard of proof when evaluating cases of sexual assault.

According to women’s advocacy groups, DeVos has not followed up with any survivors since the July meeting, despite promising them that this was “just the start” and this “would not be a one-time thing.”

Jessica Davidson argues that DeVos falsely portrays the problem of sexual assault as two equal sides.

“To say that assailants and survivors go through something equal is tremendously insulting to survivors of sexual assault,” she said. “Why would anyone equate violent rape and being kicked out of school? The problem is just not the same.”

Both sides seem to agree that the issue of sexual assault on college campuses is not one of men vs. women. Yet, can a system that has been biased for so long be re-created to ensure equality for both sides?

Christina Seung, former President of Code Teal, a student organization fighting against sexual assault, thinks it can’t.

“The system is already skewed to result in very few consequences for the accused,” she said in an interview. “I do not support weakening protection for sexual assault survivors under the guise of legal fairness.”

At the end of her speech at George Mason University, DeVos listed several options her administration was exploring. One of them was adapting standards in 2007 set by the American Bar Association for the legal defense of victims of sexual assault.

Meanwhile, as both sides lined up for the comment period, the future of federal policy towards sexual assault on college campuses is unclear. Survivors worry this may be the beginning of a systematic attempt to weaken anti-discrimination protections.

“I have never felt completely safe on my campus, even with our current Title IX policies,” another survivor told TCR.

“To know that DeVos plans to rescind regulations that many have fought for years to establish makes me fear for students, particularly those who enter college with knowledge of how frequent sexual assault happens.”

Megan Hadley is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.


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.


Cops and the Mentally Ill: Finding a New Approach

Police around the country are learning how to step back from confrontations that can lead to tragedy. But additional reforms are needed to help divert individuals with serious and untreated mental illness from the justice system.

On December 19, 2013, a man stood on the ledge of a bridge in Spokane, Wash., threatening to jump. Responding officers knew that if they tried to grab him, he would step off the ledge and fall into the river below.

Instead, they spent almost 90 minutes listening and talking to him, in the hopes of calming him down. Their efforts at empathy worked. The man eventually allowed himself to be taken into custody. He was placed in an ambulance, and driven to a nearby hospital. The officer who talked him down rode to the hospital with him.

That story was retold by Frank Straub, currently Director of Strategic Studies for the Police Foundation, who was the police chief in Spokane when the incident occurred.

As he described it in a recent interview with TCR, responding officers lowered tension by turning off sirens and flashing lights that might have antagonized a person in acute distress. They approached the man slowly, instead of running to him, and kept a distance so that he didn’t feel threatened or crowded.

Frank Straub

“It demonstrated that we were truly there to help this person, to help his family, to get him connected to services,” said Straub.

The patient, empathetic approach allowed the officers to obtain the man’s name, and gave them time to contact his mental health provider who, once involved in the conversation, was able to give cues on what and what not to say.

In hindsight, the steps Spokane officers used to talk the man off the ledge seem obvious. But many police departments around the country have only gradually begun to grapple with a problem that has challenged law enforcement, as well as courts and prisons, for decades: dealing with the justice-involved mentally ill.

According to a 2015 assessment by the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.5% of the U.S. population suffers from a mental illness in a given year. Of that number, 4% of the country’s population—roughly 9.8 million people—suffer from a serious mental illness, most commonly schizophrenia and treatment-resistant forms of bipolar disorder.

Of that 4%, more than two million go untreated. This last group is where most problems occur.

But any way you look at it, the relationship between the seriously mentally ill and law enforcement is a difficult one.

“When people ask, ‘Are the mentally ill more violent?’ they are usually asking about this group, the most seriously mentally ill,” said DJ Jaffe, founder of, a think tank providing information about the care and treatment of people with serious mental illness.

Prone to criminality, as well as violence against themselves and others, the untreated mentally ill have been responsible for the deaths of 115 law enforcement officers since 2009, says Jaffe.

Adversely, of the 608 people killed by police this year, mental illness played a role in 144 of those deaths, as recorded by the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database.

Avoiding Violence

However, in the last five years, departments across the country have begun to address the contentious nature of this relationship with new and extensive training methods that teach officers how to deal with individuals in mental health crisis and, hopefully, avoid violence.

“There has been a greater appreciation for the need for officers to be well versed in how to deal with people in crisis,” said Straub.

Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) emphasizes de-escalation, communication and empathy. It’s been successfully implemented in cities such as Seattle, Tucson, and New York.

According to a 2016 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, CIT has been adopted by more than 35 states, with statewide initiatives in effect in Ohio, Georgia, Florida, Utah, and Kentucky.

Teaming with representatives from the mental health community, as well as experienced members of law enforcement, officers in the programs are trained to recognize the signs of a variety of mental illnesses and respond accordingly.

Where once law enforcement may have taken a confrontational approach to any tense interaction with the seriously mentally ill, today the officers learn to identify an observable pattern of mentally ill behavior and, in response, calm things down.

For Straub, the success of this training is exemplified by his own experience as chief of police in Spokane, where, after requiring that all 300 of his officers attend 40 hours of CIT, use-of-force incidents were reduced by 22% in 2014.

Susan Rahr, Executive Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and a former sheriff of Kings County in Washington State, is hoping to get similar results with a statewide law enforcement training program.

Susan Rahr courtesy Wikipedia

“What we’re trying to reinforce is [the need to] do everything else possible before you resort to deadly force,” said Rahr in a recent interview with TCR.

Like Straub, Rahr insists that officers must constantly attempt to position themselves so that they have the opportunity to calm a suspect down and de-escalate the situation.

At the Kings County Police Academy, she points out, 90% of that de-escalation practice is rooted in proper patrol tactics: not rushing into a situation and exposing yourself to a suspect’s gun or knife; maintaining distance between yourself and the suspect; and creating the time needed to assess the best course of action.

While Straub and Rahr agree that practical CIT practices represent some of the largest positive changes to law enforcement’s handling of the mentally in nearly 30 years, both admit that these methods alone are not enough to solve the problem that the seriously mentally ill represent.

The Larger Problem

Rahr argues that all elements of the justice system must work together to deal with persons in psychological crisis, from the moment they are pacified and taken into custody to treating their needs through courts and counseling.

“If there’s no place to take them except jail, we really haven’t gotten much better,” she said.

Most of the players in the criminal justice community agree.

The unavailability of hospital beds, the lack of treatment alternatives, and misallocation of federal funding are among the factors that ensure the seriously mentally ill wind up back on the street without access to the medications and treatments they need to stay out of harm’s way, according to mental health advocates.

“The big picture, over the last forty years, has to do with deinstitutionalization,” said Cheryl Roberts, Executive Director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit organization advocating for justice reform, in an interview with TCR.

A byproduct of the Social Security Act of 1965, de-institutionalization was brought about by a provision called the “IMD exclusion,” which prohibits federal Medicaid payments for treatment in “Institutions of Mental Disease” larger than 16 beds.

Thus, states were incentivized to move patients out of state mental hospitals and into communities with no prior planning or resources to meet their needs. As a result, homelessness increased and, soon after, criminality ensued that was promptly followed by incarceration.

Today, such policies have led to the fact that the largest mental health facilities in the nation are, effectively, jails.

“We’ve really, over the last 40 years, had this trans-institutionalization from mental institutions, and other situations, into jails or prisons,” says Roberts, who stresses that most mentally ill offenders return from incarceration in worse condition than when they entered.

Even if a person is lucky enough to receive some medical attention and behavioral health care while incarcerated and, in some cases, even be stabilized, Roberts points out that when they come out there are often no adequate services available for them.

Members of both the mental health and criminal justice communities agree that incarceration of the mentally ill is not a solution and only “wastes taxpayer’s money.”

And it is the police who bear the brunt of the failure to develop a nationwide system of dealing with the serious mentally ill—and who are most often blamed when encounters go tragically wrong.

“The institution of policing is not designed for mental health treatment,” said Rahr.

“We inherit the failures of all the other systems and then when things don’t go well, the frontline officers become the target of people’s blame and anger.”

In response to these issues, there have been initiatives such as Stepping Up, which asks communities to come together to develop an action plan for achieving measurable impact in criminal justice systems across the country; and efforts by Pew Charitable Trusts, to help states develop alternatives to prison or jail for the mentally ill.

Steering the Mentally Ill Into Treatment

Called “diversion work,” the goal is to ensure that community health providers have the capacity to handle folks who are mentally ill and provide them with regimented treatment.

“Having this population go in, get more ill, and come back out is not serving anyone’s interests,” said Roberts.

It is this understanding of a general need for diversion alternatives to prison that lead her and the Greenburger Center to develop “Hope House on Cratona Park,” a first-of-its kind diversion option for people with serious mental illness who have been accused of felony level crimes.

Located on two adjacent properties in the New York borough of The Bronx, the model would be a pretrial diversion in which a mentally ill defendant, who is competent and obtains the approval of both the judge and district attorney, would be diverted ahead of trial to Hope House via a plea agreement for up to two years of treatment.

According to Roberts, judges and DA’s have been hesitant to divert this population of the mentally ill. They explain that if these individuals were to go to community facilities and decide to leave, the only way to get them back to court would be to arrest them.

This involves going to court, getting a bench warrant, and it taking several days/weeks/months to re-arrest that person.

Therefore, to streamline the process and guarantee security, the Greenburger Center will ask the court to place a bond on this person and hire bond agents to be trained and to be on site 24 hours a day.

However, the issue of bonded release is a red flag for those who consider any form of restriction on a person’s liberty due to inability to pay to be unconstitutional.

According to Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer at the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates for an end to the cash bail system in this country, the Greenburger Center’s model may be merely shifting the insurance industry’s profit center to what she calls “treatment bonds,” thereby creating a system where a mentally ill person will have access to treatment only if they can afford bail; otherwise they stay in jail.

“People with mental illness take about five times longer to post money bail,” said Burdeen, in an interview with TCR.

Cherise Fanno-Burdeen

“They are often estranged from their families or living on the street and they then end up spending more time in jail due to this money bond issue.”

Yet Roberts insists that, as the Greenburger Center moves forward with its model, they will avoid this issue entirely by advocating for lower money bonds. Judges would be asked to set bonds at $100 or less, and, if necessary, allowing individuals to pay the bond out of pocket or through expected donations.

Set to launch in 2018, Hope House seems to be a perfect model of progressive diversion tactics.It has received support from judges as well as the New York State District Attorneys Association.

Unfortunately, as with any potential reform in the treatment and care of the seriously mentally ill, it all comes down to funding.

“When there’s a gap in services, it’s because of a gap in funding,” said Roberts.

Such innovations have received law enforcement support.

According to Michael Biasotti, a former chief of the New Windsor (NY) Police Department and head of the New York State Chiefs of Police Committee on Untreated Serious Mental Illness, the funding for treatment centers is there.

However, incremental funds rarely make it to the seriously mentally ill, while cutbacks always do.

“There’s tons of funding if it’s used properly,” said Biasotti. “It’s about prioritizing the spending.”

As Biasotti points out, in the medical and law enforcement communities, situations are handled on a triage basis: you deal with most serious problem first. He insists that in the mental health community it is the opposite: Instead of dealing with the most serious issue first, millions of dollars are spent on treating people who are not seriously mentally ill.

In a 2016 article by Psychiatric Times, this sort of misallocation of funds has been connected to the established position of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal agency with a budget of roughly $3.6 billion, that has been criticized as spending too much time and money on psychological programs that have little to no effect on the seriously mentally ill.

Thus, while people dealing with bullying, trauma, divorce, or depression have access to mental health plans, the seriously mentally ill are left with next to nothing.

“SAMHSA’s goal has been to increase everyone’s mental health, which is great, but first you need to deal with the ones that are truly suffering and really need the help,” said Biasotti.

Some progress has been made.

In 2016, as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) added a provision that allows Department of Justice funds to be used for assisted outpatient treatment (AOT), under which courts can order somebody with a history of being arrested, violent, incarcerated, homeless, and hospitalized due to untreated mental illness to stay in treatment for at least six months while they continue to live in the community, according to an article by the National Review.

Moving From Response to Prevention

For Biasotti, AOT is the best possible solution. He argues that, while practices such as CIT, and pretrial diversion models such as the Greenburger Center and Hope House, are merely responsive, AOT is preventative.

As a result, according to a report by, AOT has been shown to reduce violence, arrest, hospitalization, and incarceration of persons suffering from mental illness by 70%, thereby saving taxpayers 50% of the cost of care.

“AOT addresses the problem upstream,” said Biasotti. “It keeps the police from ever coming to your door.”

Endorsed by both the International Association for Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriff’s Association, AOT is considered to be a source of relief for law enforcement officers who, as a whole, agree that the criminal justice system is no place for the mentally ill, and are constantly frustrated by seeing the mentally ill that they bring to hospital psych centers for evaluation back on the street—sometimes hours later as a result of inefficient mental health practices and policies.

While changes to the mental health systems treatment and handling of the seriously mentally ill have occurred in fits and starts, they are, nonetheless, occurring.

Most recently, the Trump administration’s 2017 pick for the new head of SAMHSA, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, has attracted significant bipartisan approval.

Her first act? Shifting funds towards a more aggressive treatment of patients with severe psychiatric disorders.

Isidoro Rodriguez

However, the mental health system still has a long way to go in shifting both funds and attention to the small population of the mentally ill that, due to serious mental illness, either cause or experience violence in cities and towns across the country.

“There are officers that are killed by mentally ill people and mentally ill people killed by officers,” said Biasotti.

“The goal is to keep the two from meeting, by keeping the mentally ill person in some treatment protocol that doesn’t bring them to the attention of law enforcement.”

Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Nevada’s New Record-Sealing Law: ‘One of Broadest’ in U.S.

A forthcoming law to seal some felony records five years after probation puts Nevada in the front ranks of the 44 states and territories that employ similar approaches to smooth ex-offenders’ path back to society.

Nevada is the kind of place where a lot of people end up needing a second chance.

It’s a state where the booms and busts of the gaming industry have led many into poverty, drug abuse, even jail time. So, as it slowly recovers from the 2008 recession, legislators have come together to transform Nevada into a place where people can leave past indiscretions behind and reclaim their lives.

An important move in that direction will happen October 1, when a new state law called AB 327 goes into effect.

The law, which allows people to get their criminal records sealed much more quickly than they ever could before, is called by some justice advocates one of the most sweeping state efforts to seal records of the criminally convicted, and ease their re-entry to post-prison life.

It’s life-changing news for 33-year-old Tara Trificana from Reno, who made some big mistakes in her early 20s.

That’s when, addicted to crystal meth, she stole a blank check from her mom, wrote it out for $400, and cashed it. The prosecutor charged her with felony theft and conspiracy to commit grand larceny, which is a gross misdemeanor.

Trificana served three years behind bars. She got out and got clean in 2009. But since then, she says, it’s been all but impossible to get back on her feet.

“Living with a felony and a gross misdemeanor is hellacious,” she says, “Employers look at you a different way. In 2015, I got hired and fired from 14 different jobs.”

Under the old law, she would have had to wait 15 years to get her felony record sealed. Under AB 327, however, people who’ve stayed on the straight and narrow for five years after prison and probation can apply for sealing. The law also cuts the length of good-behavior time required to seal misdemeanor criminal records from two years to one.

Trificana’s misdemeanor was sealed in 2012 under the old law—and she is now working to get her felony sealed, with the help of Nevada Legal Services, a nonprofit that offers free legal advice to low-income clients.

“Of course, this is incredibly important for people who are looking for work, as many, many companies nowadays run background checks,” says Rita Greggio, Trificana’s attorney. “And people with even minor misdemeanor records have an incredibly hard time finding employment.”

Margaret Love, executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, calls AB 327 not only a significant expansion of existing Nevada law, but “one of the broadest record-closing laws in the country.”

“Most states do not allow sealing or expungement of adult felony convictions,” said Love, whose Washington D.C.-based nonprofit tracks legal restrictions imposed on individuals with a criminal record across the nation. “

The issue has won bipartisan support in Nevada. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval quietly signed AB 327 in June, after it passed the state legislature— a body that flipped from red to blue in the last election.

The legislation now puts Nevada in the front ranks of the 44 states and territories which have moved to seal records.

Puerto Rico Leads the Pack

The leader so far is Puerto Rico.

If a Puerto Rican judge decides that an individual has been adequately rehabilitated, that person’s crime, including violent felonies, can be sealed anywhere from six months to five years after his or her prison sentence is completed.

As another example, California automatically destroys adults’ records after seven years once they’ve received a certificate of rehabilitation from the court.

On the other end of the spectrum, North Carolina’s waiting period is 15 years; while Alabama, Alaska and Georgia will not expunge or seal any adult convictions.

The benefits of record sealing vary widely by state. But, in Nevada, sealing means the conviction is treated as if it never existed. Thus, a formerly incarcerated person doesn’t have to mention any sealed conviction when applying for jobs, federal student loans, welfare, rent-subsidized housing and other benefits or opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Nevadans have a criminal record. But it is unclear how many people might benefit from the law, because the state does not track how many citizens maintain clean records after completing their sentences, broken down by types of crimes.

Under the new law, anyone with a spotless post-conviction misdemeanor record can apply to the court to get it sealed one year after the sentence and probation are complete.

For certain Category B felonies, which include assault, identity theft and some drug crimes, individuals can apply to have their records sealed after five years with no new convictions.

The process also requires that there be no opposition from the prosecuting office or arresting agency that first handled the offense. If there is opposition, the judge must hold a hearing and take evidence from both sides.

Greggio said that, in her experience, judges issue an order to seal the case if there is no opposition.

Though criminal records can be sealed in Nevada, they are not destroyed and can still be accessed by the Gaming Board, which regulates the casinos and their employees. Also, judges can order that records be unsealed, but they tend to do so only in cases where the person with the sealed record asks that the case be reopened, usually to recover lost records.

The statute also allows a prosecutor to request a record be unsealed in order to contact someone involved in the prior case if there is newly discovered evidence, or if the person has been arrested for the same or similar offense, and is likely to stand trial.

However, a Nevada prosecutor would only know about the sealed record if he or she dealt with the individual in the past.

Rules on sealing records and expungement vary by state. The Collateral Consequences Resource Center maintains state-by-state details on those rules.

Attorney Greggio says the records for some types of crimes can never be sealed in Nevada, such as a DUI with grave bodily injury, and certain sex crimes. However, she adds, most of her clients have been prosecuted for relatively minor offenses.

“The bulk of what we see is small, misdemeanor petty crimes, possession of drug paraphernalia, things like that. Those are very commonly and very easily sealed.”

Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, says Nevada’s new approach is generous.

“Overall it is consistent with a trend to make sealing more widely available but I would say it is on the progressive end of that trend in terms of the amount of time that you have to wait,” she said in an interview.

Opportunities Denied

Dietrich adds that sealing records counters the discrimination against the formerly justice-involved that is rampant among landlords and employers across the country.

“Sealing takes it out of the hands of those people to do the right thing and follow the law,” she said. “We regularly see people who have cases that are not even convictions, cases that were dropped, and they’re still being denied the opportunity to get jobs just because they were once arrested.”

According to Erica Webster, Communications and Policy Analyst at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in California, a felony conviction can hamper a person’s ability to become a contributing member of society for many years, reinforcing the cycle of poverty.

“And it’s not just jobs,” she said. “Some state licenses require you not have a felony conviction. If you’re trying to go back to college and you need a student loan there can be ramifications.

“You’re not eligible for affordable housing and you can jeopardize a family member’s section 8 housing by living with them, even if they have a completely clean record.”

So-called “ban the box” laws are the next wave of legislation aimed at smoothing the path back into society. Last year, California removed the box on state and county job applications that asks if a person has ever been convicted of a felony. Employers are still free to ask about it during a job interview, but the idea is to get employers to give the applicant a chance to explain.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a similar measure, AB 384, on the same day he signed the record-sealing bill, which Trificana applauds. “Now I’m working, and I’ve moved into my own place,” she said. “It’s a dream come true. These laws are a real blessing.”

Suzanne Potter

She earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Brookline College in Phoenix and is now pursuing a bachelor’s in psychology at Ottawa University, also in Arizona. She says she wants to give back to the community once she graduates.

“With the new law I am changing my course and want to have a career helping ex-felons rehabilitate into society when they come out of prison.”

Suzanne Potter runs the Nevada News Services arm of Public News Service, a small nonprofit. She welcomes comments from readers.


The Real Lessons of Bernie Madoff’s Crimes

The jailed Wall Street financier has been a poster symbol for the corruption and fraud that many believe led to the 2008 financial meltdown. But a new book by sociologist Colleen Eren argues that the real problem is the economic culture that allowed him to flourish.

Bernard Madoff has been a poster symbol for the corruption and fraud that many believe led to the 2008 financial meltdown. Now serving a sentence of 150 years for perpetrating a multi-billion-dollar billion Ponzi scheme that bilked an estimated 4,800 investors over three decades, he has never ceased to fascinate.

But a new book by sociologist Colleen P. Eren of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York challenges the popular image of him as a cold-blooded Wall Street monster—most recently portrayed by Robert de Niro in HBO’s The Wizard of Lies—who singlehandedly wrecked the nation’s financial ecosystem.

In Bernie Madoff and the Crisis: the Public Trial of Capitalism (Stanford University Press), Eren suggests that the focus on Madoff as the incarnation of financial corruption ignores the economic culture that has allowed him and other white-collar fraudsters to flourish. And his role in the Wall Street meltdown is poorly understood. “In some people’s minds, he’s to blame for the whole 2008 crisis, but he had nothing to do with mortgage-backed securities or the credit crunch,” Eren says. “There is a feeling that he’s in prison, and so all is well.”

In a chat with TCR Deputy Editor Nancy Bilyeau, Eren discusses her interviews with Madoff as well as the journalists who wrote about him, why some of those reporters shed “tears of joy” at covering his story, and how some individuals benefited from his scheme. “It kind of breaks my heart when people say to me, ‘You wrote a book about Bernie Madoff,’ ” said Eren. “It is about Bernie Madoff, yes, but it’s more about us; and what his case and our reaction to it say about our relationship to free market capitalism.”

The Crime Report: What prompted your interest in writing about the media’s coverage of the Madoff story?

Colleen Eren

Colleen Eren: There was an image in Psychology Today of his disembodied head on a platter and it was all about the blood lust of the Madoff victims. I was in graduate school at the time and we had always been taught that white collar crime is not that titillating and it doesn’t inspire intense anger. This image really contradicted that. It was what first sparked the question: Well, what is going on here?

TCR: In your book you describe the joy that some reporters felt when the Madoff story broke and their enthusiasm for covering him.

CE: I was talking to one financial editor, and he was effusive. The story broke at such an incredible dark period in history. The feeling was, “We were all exhausted, we couldn’t take any more bad news, and all of a sudden across the desk comes Madoff.” It was like a holiday. I was told, “We were almost in tears of joy with Madoff.”

TCR: What sustained the media interest? In your book you identified five components.

CE: First there was the mythological sum of $50 billion. In the midst of the economic crisis, if it was millions of dollars or even a few billion, it wouldn’t have been the same. Second, they liked that it was the scheme of one man and in the American and British press’s favoring of individualistic narratives we want to find one person responsible for the crime. Then there was the celebrity factor that almost brought the story to a supernatural level. If Steven Spielberg could be affected, and Kevin Bacon and John Malkovich are affected, then it was tabloid- worthy.

But the case wasn’t confined to the celebrities; it was about sympathetic, ordinary Americans. And so the fourth thing is that it invited the narrative that this is the perfect example of the rich taking advantage of the poor. Fifth: there was an ethno-religious dimension to Madoff because it disproportionately impacted the Jewish community. This was during a time of rising anti-semitism with horrible stereotypes reemerging, and the story fed into that, consciously or subconsciously.

TCR: The $50 billion is not correct?

CE: It is a myth circulating and I hear it all the time about Madoff—the $50 to $65 billion Ponzi scheme. It was $17.5 billion, which is still a huge number. That was funny money.

TCR: Where did the larger figure come from?

CE: It originally came from Madoff, which I find interesting. Is it part of his narcissism that he threw out that $50 billion number? It had nothing to do with the actual money that was in play. At some point the newspapers should have stopped using the wrong number.

TCR: I was taken aback to learn that many people in the end financially benefited from Bernard Madoff. The image in our collective mind is of everyone being wiped out.

CE: I read about 20,000 articles, and I’ve never seen an article that pointed out that the majority of individual investors made more money on Madoff than they put in. So yes, they were victims in some sense, but they got their principal plus some money. I do wonder why no one was willing to touch that data.

TCR: One of the themes of your book is that by focusing so intensely on Madoff we ignore many things that really should not be ignored.

CE: The first question I’ve been asked by the press about my book is, usually, “Is Madoff a sociopath?” My response is I can’t conjecture [whether] he’s a sociopath or not—that’s a psychological question—but that kind of obscures what enabled him to commit a crime like that for 30 years. It wasn’t just his sociopathy. It was a host of different socio-political economic constructions.

TCR: You argue that white collar crime is difficult to write about without that emotional narrative of one terrible criminal at the heart of it.

CE: It’s marginalized and ignored at our peril. Even in the academic world, I believe that 3.5 percent of all journal articles in the top 10 journals are about white collar crime. But in the media we need thoughtful discussions about what enabled Madoff to (operate) in the first place. (Issues such as) the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) being defunded….are not discussed.

Without trying to understand how his crime could have possibly happened—why did the SEC miss him seven times?—and by just focusing on him being a pathological character, you’re not understanding what made (his crimes) possible to begin with. If they had checked to see whether or not the securities he said he held he actually held, he would have been stopped ten years before his arrest.

TCR: It is a matter of controversy that there were so few prosecutions that came out of the 2008 meltdown. What’s your theory?

CE: These cases are expensive and long to pursue, so if you can get a plea bargain or go about it through a fine, you get a fine that is substantial and it doesn’t require any kind of sustained criminal prosecution. There is the knowledge among the prosecutors that these companies have ample funds to fight back, and you might not win.

See also “White Collar Crime: Why Top Execs Escape Prosecution” in TCR July 12, 2017.

TCR: Madoff himself in his emails and his interviews with you is angry over the fact that there were so few criminal prosecutions.

CE: I think it’s kind of ironic that it takes someone who perpetrated one of the largest Ponzis in history to point out structurally what’s wrong with the way we treat white-collar crime. It may be a technique of neutralization, a rationalization, or sociopathy—but you have to admit he’s on point in his discussion about the lack of prosecution of large-scale economic crime.

TCR: In your dealings with him, he was very manipulative. He was not certain at first he would cooperate with your book, and he created this image of an exclusive club that you might not get into.

CE: He’s an elitist. The book being published by Stanford University Press helped. He can be charming and say, “Your analysis is particularly on point. Other people don’t get what I’m saying but you do,” He sends out these emails with a blind cc and you don’t know how many other people are reading the emails.

TCR: Has he read your book?

CE: I haven’t sent him a copy yet, because they can’t take hard-cover books in a prison, it’s against the rules. So I have to send him a soft-cover copy which I am waiting on.

He’s a narcissist, so he will always see something that was not portrayed in the way he dreamt it would be. I didn’t try to be sympathetic, but the overall message, that Bernie Madoff distracted us from larger problems with free-market capitalism, would appeal to (him) because he wants that story out, but for different reasons than I do.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Fighting Drug Cartels in California’s Emerald Triangle

A private security firm battles pot traffickers who are destroying northern California’s pristine wilderness. LEAR Asset Management says it is filling a gap left by the depleting numbers of park rangers and game wardens.

When the blacktail deer population of California’s Mendocino County started to decline in the early 2000s, Paul Trouette began investigating why.

It didn’t take long to figure out. Mendocino County is part of an area of northern California, also encompassing neighboring Humboldt and Trinity Counties, that has been called the “Emerald Triangle” because of its production of cannabis plants.

Starting in the 1960s, busloads of hippies migrated to northern California’s redwood forests to tune in, turn on and drop out with the help of “weed”– Cannabis sativa.

But what started out as mellow recreation evolved into a billion-dollar business—accelerating with the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 which legalized medical marijuana. A decade later, in 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64 to legalize recreational pot.

While pot legalization has been celebrated in many quarters, it has also engendered an illegal grow industry powered by criminal cartels that developed to meet the increased demand. And those cartels, which illegally operate on private, federal and state lands, have in turn destroyed the habitat of wildlife such as the blacktail deer.

Trouette, 55, a former commissioner in Mendocino County’s Fish and Game Commission who has lived in northern California all his life, decided to do something about it.

Photo Courtesy LEAR

Trouette created a company called LEAR Asset Management Inc. to patrol privately owned wilderness areas and engage in what he calls “Counter Trespass Operations.” Established in 2012, the firm employs 15 to 20 contractors who are mostly non-deployed counter drug military, and federal protective security, as well as active law enforcement.

They are contracted by corporate clients to protect privately owned forests and wildlands, and they also perform forest reclamations that are frequently funded by government grants. They are tightly connected with all local, State and Federal agencies in jurisdictions where they operate, often working side by side on operations.

“Deep in the woods,” he says, “We cut down trespass marijuana, arrest growers and scrub the environmental footprint produced by the backwoods drug trade.”

Some might ask why a private security firm is doing work that should properly be done by law enforcement.

Thinning Ranks of Law Enforcement

But the ranks of law enforcement agencies tasked with protecting wilderness areas— game wardens, and rangers working for the Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management—are due to budget cuts that began in the Obama Administration.

This international drug trade rapes the landscape. Criminal groups who are setting up illegal marijuana grows on public and private forests and wildlands are measurably adding to the increase in crime and violence in America’s wilderness areas—even as they wreak environmental damage


The growers cultivate pot gardens with thousands of plants fed by miles of black plastic irrigation pipes that draw water from streams, mix it with illegal fertilizer and pesticides, and produce plants whose street value is now over $1,000 each.

Each plant in these gardens uses about 6-15 gallons of water per day over 150 watering days; and so a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or 9 million gallons in a season. Little wonder that legal growers and farmers are complaining about water shortages.

Paul Trouette. Photo courtesy Paul Trouette.

These growers are all armed. They arrive not long after the snow melts and stay on site 24/7 until the crop is harvested. And they are fueling violence. If growers from two different groups decide to grow on the same area, they settle the claim with guns, burying the dead in the woods. Illegal growers also shoot at outdoor recreationists.

In 2011, Jere Melo, the former mayor of Fort Bragg,CA who was then a councilman, was killed while looking for a marijuana plot.

Rich Russell, former commander of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s major crimes task force who has a current relationship with Trouette, estimates that about half of the county’s residents work in the marijuana economy. Some are legal, but many others are illegal.

Today, illegal marijuana gardens on both private and public wildlands typically have 5,000 to 30,000 plants. According to DEA Agents and the California game wardens, a cartel “owns” every national forest, national park, state park, and wildlife refuge in the state.

California has the most cartel-run illegal pot gardens, but they’ve been found in 20 other states and 67 national forests. The Emerald Triangle situation may well be a sign of what’s to come.


Weapon found at a pot trespass site. Photo by James A. Swan

Law enforcement agencies have made game attempts to address the challenge. In 1983, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement established CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Production) to eradicate illegal marijuana cultivation and trafficking in the state. In 2011, Operation Full Court Press—a three-week raid carried out by CAMP —netted some 632,000 marijuana plants in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with a street value in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

California’s game wardens have also created a special tactical unit to eradicate illegal marijuana gardens, which I described in an earlier article for The Crime Report.

But they are now outmatched by the Emerald Triangle’s powerful cartels.

1.8 Million Pot Seedlings Planted Every Year

Grow areas are increasing, despite the best efforts of CAMP and the game wardens. It’s estimated that in Mendocino County alone, 1.8 million marijuana seedlings are planted every year. California’s legalization of pot has resulted in an even larger demand, which is being met by criminal cartels. The increased demand is associated with higher demand for marijuana, and cartels simply selling their crop in greater quantities and lower prices than at licensed stores.

LEAR Asset Management stepped in to assist Law Enforcement. They began patrolling private properties and that led to timber companies hiring LEAR to tackle the trespass problem. As time passed, LEAR has been accepted into interagency efforts.

“We don’t conduct vigilante activities,” Trouette said in an interview. “Our officers are licensed by the State of California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS).”

LEAR employees also receive certification from the California Department of Justice Rural Operations, and have received training by the elite Los Angeles Metro Police Department in Counter Terrorism response, he said.

James A. Swan

“We aren’t deputized—it isn’t necessary,” added Trouette. “We have arrest powers under the California Penal Code and our capabilities and working relationships with Law Enforcement are established. Our funding comes from government contracts and private contracts.”

In cooperation with federal and state law enforcement, LEAR has made a specialty of marijuana eradication, but the company also goes after wildlife poachers, water thieves and even fugitives

According to Trouette, LEAR Assets is the “only private security company in the U.S. that primarily focuses on wildlands conservation and protection.”

Are they the future of law enforcement in America’s embattled wilderness?

James A. Swan, Ph.D., is a Co-Executive Producer of the “Wild Justice” TV series and co-author with Lt. John Nores Jr. of “War In The Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels on America’s Wildlands.” Read his earlier op /ed for The Crime Report: “The Thin Green Line Could Use Some Help.” He welcomes comments from readers.


Governors Face Up to Criminal Justice Reform

The DOJ’s “Face to Face” program launched Monday will bring governors and other top state officials together with inmates and corrections officers. The program, organized by the Council of State Governments Justice Center is aimed at encouraging criminal justice policy makers to talk directly to those affected by their actions.

Critics say that criminal justice policy often is made without much regard for some of the people who will be affected by it.

Some politicians call for “tough on crime” sentences, for example, with no apparent recognition that those convicted of crimes will end up serving long terms behind bars with little real hope of rehabilitation.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) has started a project to remedy that aspect of policymaking.

With the help of a U.S. Justice Department grant, CSG is arranging for governors and other top officials in states, where most criminal justice policy originates, to meet with inmates, correctional staff members and crime victims.

The “Face to Face” project starts Monday with events involving three governors. They will be joined between now and Aug. 23 by five other governors, a lieutenant governor and a state attorney general.

Gov. Nathan Deal (R-GA), who has led an extensive criminal justice reform effort in his state, said in a statement issued by CSG, “I have learned through my own experience that criminal justice policy decisions are best made when they prioritize the needs and challenges of the people they ultimately impact.”

Then-President Barack Obama took part in a similar activity in July 2015, when he visited the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma, where he spoke to inmates. He apparently was the first chief executive to tour a federal prison.

Another participant in the CSG project, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D-CT), suggested that if more officials spoke directly with inmates, they would not take “a distant and hard line approach with respect to corrections and public safety policy.”

Malloy urged “a more thoughtful approach to criminal justice policy that focuses not only on data and numbers but also the people behind those numbers.”

The project is issuing a list of “potential action items” for officials to pursue after they meet with inmates and corrections officers. They include things like eliminating occupational licensing restrictions for those with criminal records and addressing the well being of corrections system employees.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators, the organization of state prison directors, is taking part in the project. Its director, Kevin Kempf, said, “The job of a corrections professional is immensely challenging, and often leads to post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Other organizations taking part include the National Reentry Resource Center, JustLeadershipUSA, and the National Center for Victims of Crime.

JustLeadershipUSA was founded by Glenn E. Martin, who served six years in a New York prison. He said, “Incarcerated people and those returning from prison or jail face statutory and practical obstacles that are often misunderstood. There’s no better way to inform our leaders of these issues than connecting face to face.”

The events scheduled so far by the project are these:


  • Gov. Dannel Malloy (D-CT) meets with advocates for victims of crime and ex-inmates.
  • Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) meets with former prisoners now in a “transitional house.”
  • Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO) works with corrections officers in a prison.
  • Attorney General Mike DeWine (R-OH) visits a mental health facility in a maximum security prison.


  • Attorney General DeWine visits women in a pre-release program, and volunteers.
  • Gov. Gary Herbert (R-UT) meets with inmates in an employment-focused reentry program.
  • Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) meets with incarcerated women and prison staff.


  • Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) meets with incarcerated women.
  • Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R-WI) meets with inmates.


  • Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV) has lunch with former inmates and their families.

August 23

  • Gov. Nathan Deal (R-GA) speaks about his interactions with parolees at the premiere of a film on the challenges of serving on community supervision.

For more information, see the project’s website .

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Matters and Washington bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcomed.