Calling illegal-gun trafficking “contagious,” a Chicago researcher says that despite very strict gun control, someone who wants to use a weapon to commit a crime can easily obtain a weapon using social media or other networks on the underground market.
Calling illegal-gun trafficking “contagious,” a Chicago researcher says that despite very strict gun control, someone who wants to use a weapon to commit a crime is “two and a half handshakes away” from getting one through the underground market.
“Being around a gun increases your chance of being a victim several times over,” Andrew Papachristos, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, told journalists and justice professionals at John Jay College.
Papachristos was discussing the results of his recent study of the relationship between social media and guns at a panel during last week’s Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.
The panel was held as the nation was reeling from the latest school shooting—the gunning down of 17 students at a high school in Parkland, Florida last Wednesday. The 19-year-old shooter appears to have purchased his weapon legally, but the panel was told that recent estimates indicate only one out of every six firearms used in a crime in the U.S. is legally obtained.
The most devastating impact of illegal guns has been seen in America’s inner-city neighborhoods, the audience was told.
“This is obviously the hottest story of the day, but it’s also a perennial story, one that is a great burden on our society,” said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University.
In “The Underground Gun Market: Implications for Regulation and Enforcement,” a paper published late last year in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Cook and co-author Harold A. Pollack of the University of Chicago reported that in the United States there are approximately 270 million guns in private hands, yet 78 percent of American adults do not own one.
In “The Stock and Flow of US Firearms: Results from the 2015 National Firearms Survey,” it was revealed that “in 2015 the median owner had two guns, but 8 percent of all owners who owned ten or more accounted for 39 percent of the stock.”
The bottom-line statistics of deaths caused by guns in America was brought into sharp focus at the Guggenheim panel. Cook estimated the 2017 national murder total at 20,000, with 15,000 of those killings—75 percent—caused by a gun.
“These shootings are highly concentrated in terms of victims—young men, mostly minority, and to an extraordinary extent that certainly makes this a social justice issue, the death rate from homicide for young African-American men is 17 times as high for Anglo white men the same age,” Cook said.
“This is the greatest health disparity that I know about.”
Gun violence wreaks havoc on communities within large cities like Chicago, Cook said.
“It has effects on economic development—people of means leave those neighborhoods, businesses are unwilling to locate there, in additional to the fearfulness of people forced to stay there.”
Current gun control efforts focus on regulation through restrictions on sales—such as denying a purchase to someone with a felony record—and background checks to determine if the purchase should be blocked.
Cook pointed out that in a recent study of criminals convicted of gun crime, 40 percent said they obtained the gun used within 30 days of the crime, and two-thirds within the preceding year.
“This suggests that if we could somehow magically stop all of these transactions, the gun violence problem would be gone in about a year. That’s why the focus on transactions rather than the number of guns there are becomes a very important issue.”
Cook and other panelists emphasized that the illegal gun market is dissimilar to the illegal drug market. “In comparison, the underground gun market is peanuts economically,” Cook said.
The guns used in crime are almost always legally manufactured and first sold at retail by a licensed dealer and then make their way through a number of hands to the illegal owner.
“The best underground gun market definition is it consists of all the transactions that are illegal because the recipient is disqualified from owning or it may be illegal because there is a technical violation of local regulations involved,” said Cook.
Most gun sales resulting in violent crime do not come through licensed firearm dealers but buying from a family member or partner (“the girlfriend problem”), an acquaintance, or a street source, and there are virtually no open-air illegal-gun markets.
“There is a close alignment between the assaulters and the robbers, who in most cases get their guns illegally, while most Americans get their guns legally,” said Cook.
A University of Chicago Crime Lab multi-city study that looked at data from offenders and police records and ATF trace data showed that there is an underground traffic of guns from states with less regulation of guns to big cities in more regulated states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York.
“There is dramatic and irrefutable evidence that when the less regulated state makes it more difficult, they are cut back as a source of trafficked guns immediately,” Cook said. “This market is very responsive to local regulation.”
Papachristos used analysis of social networks to study how easy it is to obtain a gun. He found gun-violence victimization is intensely concentrated within networks of people within certain neighborhoods of a big city. In Boston, for example, he found that 85 percent of all gunshot victims were within a network of 700 people.
In the context of social-network science, gun violence is “contagious,” Papachristos said.
“It is actually spread and transmitted in the same way that other public health epidemics are transmitted.”
The focus of Papachristos’s research was answering the question: How do populations who are severely prohibited from owning guns get access to one in a city like Chicago with strict gun laws?
Within a network of about 127,000 people in Chicago—those who have been arrested or in contact with criminal-justice systems—on average people are within two and a half handshakes away from getting a gun, Papachristos concluded.
Gangs play a pivotal role in facilitating access, he said. If a person is a gang member, it’s “more like a handshake and a half.”
Kimberley Smith, research manager of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, said the lab team attempted to pull together data from different sources and “take a deep dive” to try to explain the 60 percent increase in homicides in Chicago and create a public report, released in 2017. Part of their goal was to understand where the guns used in homicides come from.
“Very few of the incarcerated individuals” who were interviewed got their guns directly from licensed gun dealers, Smith said. Nor were the guns stolen, for the most part. The weapons were purchased from “friends or family.”
Three big-city prosecutors who have formed special units to review—and correct—errors made by their offices say a “cultural shift” is necessary to persuade politicians, police and their own attorneys that it is more important to avoid mistakes than to simply win convictions.
Three big-city prosecutors who have formed special units to review—and correct—errors made by their offices say a “cultural shift” is necessary to persuade politicians, police and their own attorneys that it is more important to avoid mistakes than to simply win convictions.
“My pitch to (county) commissioners is ‘pay now or pay later,’” says Kim Ogg, the District Attorney for Texas’ Harris County, noting that settlements for civil rights suits or wrongful convictions often end up costing more than the money spent on units dedicated to reviewing faulty cases after they’ve already happened.
Brooklyn NY District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Harris County DA Kim Ogg
“It requires changes in every aspect of our policies and practices that support the search for the truth.”
According to Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, the Conviction Review Unit formed by his predecessor Ken Thompson has sent signals to both young assistant district attorneys and veteran lawyers in his office that their job performances will no longer just be tied to the number of convictions they win.
“It’s a cultural shift,” says Gonzalez. “They get as much credit for pointing out errors and mistakes as for securing trial convictions.”
In Baltimore, where investigators are now looking into thousands of cases—some of them years old—which may have involved wrongful or illegal behavior by police, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby tells her prosecutors that the “only way to better the system is to learn from errors.”
All three elected prosecutors, speaking at the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College last week, said it was often an uphill battle to get the resources to fund an approach that is far from popular among justice and law enforcement professionals.
And they made clear that one of the primary values of such conviction reviews was to prevent mistakes from being repeated in future cases.
“When I was a young prosecutor, I was taught that there are no wrongful executions or exonerations in Texas, and that no one in prison was innocent,” said Ogg, who was elected DA last year in Harris County, which includes Houston.
But, she added, prosecutors across America should now be governed by a mindset that “we’re responsible for cases forever, and to ensure the integrity of convictions forever.”
She added that the “worst fear” of any prosecutor should be that someone is wrongfully convicted in their jurisdiction.
“We are the guardians of constitutional protection,” she said. “Without public trust, people won’t participate (and they) will take justice in their own hands.”
Ogg, whose office recently vacated thousands of convictions that were discovered to be the result of faulty evidence or the misuse of lab tests, said she was in the midst of persuading the 94 separate law enforcement jurisdictions in her county to adapt better evidence collection and storage methods—“one police chief at a time.”
“I haven’t had to invoke the nuclear option, which is to say you can present me a case, but I won’t necessarily try it,” she said, noting that her targets included police unions, which resist having their members singled out for justice system errors.
In Brooklyn, where the alleged misconduct of a detective put into doubt hundreds of cases, the Conviction Review Unit now occupies an entire floor of attorneys who do nothing but review old cases, with an annual budget of more than a million dollars.
“Not only do we have to get (wrongfully convicted) people out of prison, we have to learn the lessons about what can wrong in the justice system,” Gonzalez said.
“I tell (our City Council) at budget hearings that every time someone is wrongfully convicted, it’s a very expensive mistake,” said Gonzalez. “So give us the money to make sure we get it right the first time.”
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby
He added: “Public safety is paramount, but we also have the obligation to do justice.”
Mosby said her office of 212 prosecutors was already working on 50,000 cases a year, so it was a “political” challenge to persuade state and local authorities to dedicate separate resources to conviction reviews.
“You have to think outside the box,” said Mosby, who recently secured a $219,000 grant from the Innocence Project in partnership with the city’s defense attorney bar to help pay for the city’s conviction integrity unit.
Mosby said it was equally important to develop resources to help exonerated individuals navigate their path back to civilian society.
She cited one case in which a person died three months after being released from prison after 17 years for a murder he didn’t commit.
“There’s nothing in place (now) to help those who were wrongfully exonerated,” she said.
Ogg said she had also won support from victims’ groups.
“I never met a victim yet who wanted the wrong person prosecuted,” she said.
TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie contributed to this report. The complete panel can be viewed here. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Top police, judges and health experts at the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America weighed in Thursday on the origins of the national opioid crisis—and strategies for reducing the toll it is taking on American families.
America “can’t arrest its way out of the opioid epidemic,” a top official of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) said Thursday.
Paul Cell, First Vice President of the IACP, called for an increase in collaborative efforts among law enforcement, health care workers and social service providers to address an epidemic that is costing more American lives each year than automobile crashes.
“We have to put our egos in check,” Cell said at a conference on “Justice in the Heartland” at John Jay College in New York.
“Our children are dying. The time for silos is past.”
Chief Paul Cell
Cell, who serves as chief of the Montclair (NJ) State University Police and will become president of the 30,000-member IACP next year, was speaking at the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, which brings together journalists, academics and justice practitioners for discussions on criminal justice issues.
He was joined by Rita Noonan, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Cheri Walter, CEO of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Authorities; and José Diaz-Briseño, Washington correspondent for La Reforma of Mexico.
All the panelists agreed that efforts aimed only at punishing addicts or their suppliers failed to address the roots of the opioid epidemic, and did little to help people trying to overcome their addictions.
For example, Walter cited the crackdown on “pill mills” in Ohio a few years ago that was intended to stop the traffic in synthetic pain relievers which had flooded the state, but was not linked to efforts to medically treat substance-abusers.
“If you don’t treat the addiction, they’ll find a new drug,” she said.
“We all need creativity, collaboration and curiosity,” said Noonan, who is chief of the Health Systems and Trauma Systems Branch of the CDC’s division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. “We have to do things we haven’t done before.”
But at a second panel on the epidemic, speakers said it was also important not to lose sight of the responsibility incurred by large pharmaceutical companies for the explosion of opioid addiction over the past decade.
A closer look at reasons for the rise in opioid dependency in tribal communities led directly to the practices pursued by the pharmaceutical firms in marketing the painkilling drugs, said John Chapman Young, senior assistant attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, which is mounting a lawsuit against major drugmakers and distributors.
“We want them to obey federal laws with respect to how many drugs they shift into our jurisdiction,” he said. “They owe us a lot of money.”
The Cherokee Nation lawsuit is one of several mounted around the country, including a major action mounted by a coalition of attorneys-general in 13 states.
Joseph Rannazzisi, a former senior official at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said Congress bore some of the blame for failing to address pharmaceutical companies’ marketing behavior.
“You have to ask yourself a question,” he said. “At the height of an epidemic driven by the pharmaceutical industry, why would Congress pass a bill to protect the pharmaceutical industry?” he said, referring to a law passed in 2016 that limited DEA efforts to crackdown on doctors and pharmacists involved in the black market for pills.
“The pharmaceutical lobby is the strongest lobby in congress. They won’t change until we force them to comply.”
Speakers in both panels also noted that the epidemic had morphed into a surge in heroin trafficking into the U.S., as many addicts unable to afford the cost of prescription medicines, turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
Some 80 percent of the global market for heroin is now located in the U.S., aggravated by the increased traffic in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid even more potent than heroin and which is often lethal, Cell said.
Most of the fentanyl appears to come from China, but “there are labs around the world and we see it now being sold through the Dark Web,” said Chief Cell.
(L-R) Speakers: Chattauqua County Family Drug Treatment Court Judge (ret) Judith Claire, Buffalo Opiate Treatment Court Judge Craig Hannah; Burlington Vt Chief of Police Brandon del Pozo. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR
Craig Hannah, presiding judge of the Opiate Treatment Court in Buffalo, NY, said it was hard to read descriptions of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency, when a similar epidemic of crack cocaine during the 1980s was treated as a law enforcement problem.
”Why didn’t we treat this epidemic when our black and brown people were (suffering from) it in the 1980s?” he asked. “Those years in the past were a tragedy—generations of young people were put in jails.”
But he added that, nevertheless, the current consensus that “you cannot lock up an addiction” suggested the country was ready for innovative approaches outside the justice system.
Buffalo’s treatment court diverts substance-abusers to treatment before any criminal charges are laid.
“For the first 36-90 days, we focus on recovery,” said Hannah.
A similar program is operated by police in Burlington, Vt.
“We bring addicts directly to treatment,” said Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo. “Police officers like to save lives.”
The two-day symposium, which brings together journalists, academics and policymakers for discussions on emerging criminal justice topics, opened Thursday with remarks by Paul Cell, First Vice President (and incoming 2019 president) of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The 13th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, which opened Thursday with a close look at the nation’s opioid crisis, is accessible via livestream at John Jay College’s YouTube channel.
Chief Paul Cell
Featured speakers at the opening panels include Paul Cell, First Vice President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; Rita Noonan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Joe Rannazzisi, former deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Diversion Control at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The two-day conference, entitled “Justice in the Heartland,” brings together journalists, criminal justice policymakers, practitioners and academics for discussions on the state of sentencing and corrections reform, the homicide “spike” in several major US cities, and the rise of the underground gun market and other emerging justice issues.
The livestream link is accessible here, starting at 9 am EST Thursday. Live proceedings will be from 9am-12:30pm, and from 2:30pm-6:00pm. Friday’s conference will be available on livestream from approximately 9:00am to 12 noon.
In its annual review of crime and justice coverage in US media, Criminal Justice Journalists warns that shrinking newsrooms mean fewer eyes on the statehouses where much criminal justice policy is made.
The continued decline in staffing in news outlets throughout the nation has reduced the media resources available to cover crime and justice, according to the latest annual review of crime journalism in the US.
“Over the last 15 years, the workforce of U.S. newspapers shrunk from 412,000 employees to 174,000 (and) the number of reporters covering statehouses—where much criminal justice policy is made—has declined even further,” said the report by Criminal Justice Journalists (CJJ), citing figures quoted by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.
The annual CJJ review released Wednesday notes that immigration issues, the opioid crisis, sexual abuse scandals, and the continued spate of mass shootings received the most intense attention from the media during 2017.
But public interest in these topics has not helped the print media overcome the decline in readership spurred by competition from online sources.
“Newspapers are not the only source of local reporting, of course,” the review said. “Television and radio stations, and community newspapers, continue to thrive in many areas; (and) websites have filled some of the gap left by the erosion of daily newspapers.”
In one of the starkest examples of the trend, the CJJ Review pointed to the Charleston, W. Va., Gazette-Mail, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for its reporting on the prescription drug epidemic. Last month, the family-owned, 37,000-circulation paper filed for bankruptcy. (The Gazette-Mail said it was seeking bids from new owners.)
“Crime and justice always have been staples of local reporting, and that hasn’t changed,” the CJJ said. But it warned, “There is bound to be less of that reporting as the number of people doing it on a regular basis is much diminished in many U.S. cities.”
The annual review by CJJ, the only national organization of crime and justice reporters, is sponsored by the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice (publisher of The Crime Report) and supported with a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
The review was prepared by Ted Gest, president of CJJ and the Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report; and Rubén Rosario, Metro columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a CJJ board member.
The review noted key findings from an analysis by Andrew Tyndall of news coverage by the nightly news programs of the three major networks:
The most-covered crime stories were mass shootings: the killing of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, followed by the attack on members of Congress at a baseball practice in northern Virginia, and the massacre at a Texas church in which 26 people were killed.
Seven of the top 20 stories on all subjects had some criminal justice element, leading with the investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and including President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the White House ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations, and the immigration crackdown generally.
One subject that received less national media coverage last year than it had in previous years was crime in Chicago, where homicides in recent years had hit the highest levels in two decades. That is because the total dropped in 2017. This Chicago Tribunesummary said that the year’s murder count was down 15 percent, or more than 100.
Even later than the FBI report was the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual victimization survey, which on Dec. 7 estimated 5.7 million “violent victimizations” in the nation in 2016 but said that because of a redesign of the survey, there could not be a precise comparison between 2015 and 2016.
Newsweek magazine reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had misrepresented his own agency’s statistics by saying in a speech, alluding to that report, that there had been a 13 percent spike in the violent crime rate.
“The report he was citing clearly said there had been no measurable change,” Newsweek said.
The fallout from pledges by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to take a tougher line than the Obama administration on crime and punishment, which shifted Department of Justice policies and raised concerns among reformers and advocates, received noteworthy attention from major national media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.
“Return of the war on drugs” was the front page headline in the Washington Post on Sunday, April 9. The story featured Sessions’ hiring of federal prosecutor Steven Cook of Knoxville, Tn., an advocate of tougher federal sentencing. The Post reported that Sessions and Cook “are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ‘90s from the peak of the drug war.”
The following day, in “The Rise and Fall of Federal Efforts to Curb Police Abuse,” the New York Times described another Obama-era policy likely to fall under Trump, the use of consent decrees to impose reforms on policing in cities across the nation. Then in June, the administration replaced the National Commission on Forensic Science with an in-house task force. The Washington Postreported on this, as well as on the suspension of an effort to set uniform standards for forensic testimony and to widen a review of FBI testimony on several controversial techniques.
Another notable example of Trump policy coverage was published by the New York Times on Nov. 22 under the headline, “Dept. of Justice Eases Scrutiny of Local Police.” The newspaper said that many police chiefs lamented the demise of the Justice Department’s “collaborative reform” program in which police departments got Justice Department advice on best practices. The article attributed the conversion of the program to “technical assistance” in large part to the Fraternal Order of Police, which believes that the previous effort was too burdensome on rank-and-file officers.
Immigration Coverage: “A New Standard of Negativity”?
Turning to immigration, the CJJ review observed that the Trump administration’s vow to crack down on undocumented residents made the issue 16th on the top 20 story subjects covered during the year in the annual analysis compiled by analyst Andrew Tyndall of stories covered by the three major broadcast networks in their nightly news programs.
Moreover, a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of media coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days in office found that immigration was the single most covered subject during the period, commanding 17 percent of coverage by the major media (health care was second, with 12 percent).
The study assessed the tone of coverage, finding that overall coverage of Trump “set a new standard for negativity,” with 80 percent of it judged to be negative. Notably, immigration received far the most negative coverage of any topic, by the Shorenstein Center’s assessment, with a full 96 percent of stories judged as negative.
One reason that so much of the coverage is deemed negative may be that news stories often point out misstatements by President Trump and his associates.
For example, on Aug. 10, Slate.com reported on Trump’s repeated references to the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by a man who had been deported from the US five times and who then re-entered the country illegally. (The man was recently acquitted.) Early in his presidential campaign, Trump said, “Public reports routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”
Slate countered: “This is not true. Study after study shows undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general population, and crime rates in cities with large immigrant populations have fallen disproportionately. Regardless, the lie that undocumented immigrants are likely to be violent criminals would help propel Trump to the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency.”
Much of the local coverage has dealt with aspects of the “sanctuary city” question, with many stories about the administration’s threats to withhold federal aid from jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal authorities on detaining undocumented immigrants. Many big city mayors and police chiefs have not complied, arguing that many citizens, both legal residents and others, will not cooperate with law enforcement on any issue if they could be threatened with deportation.
Police shootings and misconduct were another set of issues that drew national attention again last year. The CJJ Review singled out the Washington Post as one of the few national media outlets that have closely following the problem of police misconduct since the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO.
On Sunday, Aug. 6, the newspaper published results of a major investigation headlined “Fired/Rehired,” concluding that since 2006 at least 1,881 officers had been fired by 37 large police departments. Some 451 of them appealed and won their jobs back through rulings of arbitrators.
Opioids: Deaths (and Media Coverage) Increase
Media attention to the opioid crisis has tracked the rising overdose death totals especially in the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. CJJ singled out CBS’ “60 Minutes” and the WashingtonPost for an investigation broadcast and published on Oct.15, which reported that Congress in the spring of 2016 stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from its strongest weapon against drug companies that are suspected of providing large quantities of prescription narcotics to the public. The law made it virtually impossible for DEA to freeze suspicious drug shipments from the companies.
The reporting had at least one significant result: It highlighted the fact that the legislation had been spearheaded by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who had been nominated by President Trump as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (popularly known as the “drug czar.”) After all the publicity, Marino withdrew his candidacy.
Another notable example of coverage came from The Cincinnati Enquirer, located in the heart of the area most affected by the opioid epidemic, which published a special report on Sept. 10 headlined “Seven Days of Heroin: This Is What An Epidemic Looks Like.”
As described by Nieman Storyboard, during one week in July, the newspaper sent more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers to document the impact of heroin in the Cincinnati area. They went to jails, courts, methadone clinics and psychiatric hospitals. The reporting included witnessing overdoses, listening to 911 calls, attending recovery meetings and riding with police officers who were looking for users and dealers. They tallied 18 deaths and 180 overdoses during the week.
Nieman Storyboard called the paper’s effort “a riveting portrait of the human face of heroin. Instead of a traditional narrative, the project was presented largely as a series of chronological vignettes, interspersed with photos, social media posts, 911 recordings and rap lyrics. The mixed-media collage effectively showed that virtually no local geography or institution was left untouched by heroin.”
These and other stories are indications that the media have covered the opioid crisis both as a public health emergency and as a criminal justice challenge. This contrasts with the treatment of the crack cocaine surge of the 1980s, which was mostly reported on as a law enforcement issue.
Sexual Harassment’s Media Moment
Sexual abuse in the U.S. may not have increased, but news media coverage of it intensified, the CJJ said, noting that “it seemed that hardly a week went by in late 2017 before another celebrity was accused of harassment, some of it dating from decades earlier.”
The issue exploded onto the front pages in early October, when the New York Times published an extensive report that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had quietly settled at least eight sexual harassment complaints over three decades. It was not clear in early 2018 that any of the numerous accusations against Weinstein would lead to a criminal case, but the Weinstein story set the backdrop for a number of other prominent charges against entertainment and media figures as well as politicians, such as U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who was pressured to resign after he was accused of abuse in several cases.
The news media themselves were hit by a barrage of major departures over sexual harassment charges, including Matt Lauer of NBC, Charlie Rose of CBS, Michael Oreskes of NPR, and Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker.
“The news media is supposed to be a surrogate for the public, and most Americans don’t like the thought that our surrogates are living in and endorsing workplace environments in which sexual harassment now seems to be too common,” Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, told The Hill.
“Further complicating the media’s image in all of this is the sanctimonious manner in which the media has covered sexual harassment in other corners of society,” McCall said. “It is difficult for the news media to parade around as haughty overseers of right and wrong in broader contexts of society when they clearly have in-house confusion about first principles of decency.”
Kelly McBride of the Florida-based Poynter Institute, a longtime writer on media ethics, says that many media policies on reporting sexual harassment are behind the times, limited to rules such as “Because of the stigma associated with sexual assault, we do not publish the names of victims.”
Rather than starting with a policy that tells us what to avoid, what if our policies encouraged us to tell the story of sexual assault more completely, so that the public might understand how it happens and how to prevent it? Today’s policies presume that our journalistic motive for telling a sexual assault story is rooted in our urge to improve public safety. But sexual assault isn’t really a public safety problem; it’s a public health problem.
This is a condensed version of the CJJ report. The full copy can be downloaded here. Readers’ comments are welcome.
As the campaign against sex trafficking emerges as a $47 million cottage industry, it has also spurred a “moral panic” that sex workers say has made them increasingly vulnerable to police abuse, and turns them into targets for those with religious or moral objections to prostitution.
At the height of national outrage over what government officials and activists call a human trafficking “epidemic,” sex workers are challenging what they say are misleading and harmful efforts to link prostitution to sex trafficking.
“People have used this moral panic, this idea that there is a trafficking epidemic, to create so much funding and so much policy that now that they’re being pressured to show the evidence—to show the sex trafficking arrests,” said Tara Burns, researcher and founding member of the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current Alaska sex workers allied with sex trafficking victims.
“That’s where we see police arresting [prostitutes] for sex trafficking themselves, just so they can get those sex trafficking numbers up, and match the moral panic they’ve created.”
CUSP is lobbying for the passage of companion bills (HB 112/SB 73) in the Alaska Senate and House which would expand sexual assault laws to explicitly prohibit law enforcement from sexual contact with trafficking or domestic violence victims—as part of its continuing campaign to protect sex workers from laws that make them “vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”
In California, another group is challenging a state law that criminalizes prostitution, and asking a federal court to allow for a closer examination of studies that link consensual sex work to sex trafficking.
In January, a three-judge panel in the 9th circuit dismissed a suit by the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) to declare unconstitutional state laws that make prostitution a crime. The panel sided with 13 state and national organizations that wrote in to oppose ESPLERP, arguing that prostitution needs to remain criminalized in order to combat the “attendant evils” of violence against women, drug abuse—and above all, sex-trafficking.
ESPLERP filed for a rehearing before the full 9th circuit on January 31, wanting the court to subject the studies it cited to a higher standard of review. But in an era when pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” linked to modern-day slavery, researchers who do not openly condemn prostitution are fighting an uphill battle—and sex workers themselves find it hard to be heard over the din of victims’ advocates who would speak for them.
ESPLERP members and their legal team in court on Oct 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Maxine Doogan
Maxine Doogan, founder of ESPLERP, says that denying sex workers equal protection under the law has led directly to abuse by police and other authorities, and that she and other people in the industry cannot report actual cases of forced trafficking without fearing arrest themselves.
“There are many people, many women, that I know who are prostitutes, who have been caught up in these prostitution sting operations; and have been sexually assaulted by the police, and raped,” she said in an interview with The Crime Report.
“Our activity is illegal. and so that just gives license for anybody to do anything to us that they want at any time, and get away with it.”
In the document submitted to the California court, opposition groups argued that “prostitution is sexual coercion, and closely related to sex trafficking,” and that “decriminalization of prostitution will legitimize sex trafficking.”
The authors of the opposition brief cited numerous “authorities” for their argument, identifying in particular eight publications by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and anti-pornography activist well known for her view that sex work is “a particularly lethal form of male violence against women,” and an expression of “male hatred of the female body.”
But according to independent scholars in the field, the majority of the publications cited in the opposition brief have not only been debunked, but also discredited in the Canadian Supreme Court during cross-examination. The court subsequently struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, finding them unconstitutional because of the negative impact they had on the safety and lives of sex workers.
Doogan notes that victim advocates are “not challenging the men who really have control over our world.”
She added: “They want to dismiss the sexual violence that we’re talking about that goes on with police.”
Doogan and other sex-worker advocates argue that the majority of people being rounded up and arrested during anti-sex-trafficking sweeps such as Operation Cross Country are not slaves held in bondage, but women working together, or as independent prostitutes– a claim supported by investigative journalists following this arrest data.
CUSP’s Terra Burns, who has analyzed thousands of charging documents from several states over the past five years, said that the most serious cases of child sex trafficking “are for the most part not cases that are being found in prostitution stings, [but] cases that are being found because somebody came forward and made a report.”
And in jurisdictions that aren’t aggressively charging people for prostitution, more sex workers are coming to police with tips, she added.
Burns, who herself was sex trafficked as a child, has lobbied extensively for legislative amendments in Alaska. She helped push through bills at the state and county level to allow immunity for sex workers reporting a crime, and hopes Alaska legislators will place priority on the proposed measure to make it illegal for police to sexually penetrate someone they were investigating.
“When an officer coerces you into having sex with him under the threat of arrest, or another kind of threat, that is an act of violence,” Burns said.
Police don’t need to have sex with someone in order to charge them with prostitution, but it happens. She describes one charging document where a police officer paid for a hand job at a massage parlor. “They could have arrested her right there, but instead he waited and got a hand job. and then he put her in handcuffs. And when that happens, it’s really traumatic.”
Doogan (left) and Burns, introducing their first bills. Photo courtesy of Terra Burns
In addition to government task forces, the anti-trafficking movement has also created a $47 million cottage industry of victim advocacy.
Significantly, in order to receive funding, organizations are still being asked to sign a Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge (also known as the “global gag rule”), even though it was ruled unconstitutional in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
The same goes for researchers, according to George Washington University sociologist Ronald Weitzer, who has studied the sex industry and human trafficking for over three decades, and who served as an expert witness in the case before Canada’s Supreme Court. Before the gag rule was overturned, he was asked to sign the pledge in order to conduct an academic literature review for the National Institute of Justice.
“It’s shocking that even something as mundane as a literature review in this area becomes politicized,” he told The Crime Report.
More recent examples include University of Nevada researcher Barbara Brent, who was part of a 2014 task force developing a trafficking education program for first responders in Nevada.
In an email to The Crime Report, she wrote: “Participants, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who receive federal trafficking funds, indicated that I could not include sex worker rights organizations on the team to develop programs because that violated their grant agreement. The task force eventually fizzled out, and I don’t know what happened to those efforts.”
Last year, the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force broke ties with its grants manager, Kate D’Amato, for apparently supporting decriminalization during a public event. The Manchester Police Department said D’Amato’s opinions violated a federal grant, though it is unclear whether that claim was ever challenged.
“What it means is often you’ll get religious or evangelical organizations, both in the US and internationally, to get funding for anti-trafficking work but have very little expertise in the area,” said Weitzer.
“And this was a major criticism of the bush administration funding for many of these anti-trafficking organizations during that period.”
For example: Priceless Alaska, a Christian anti- trafficking organization that works closely with law enforcement, engages a team of volunteer mentors to work with trafficking victims. By way of preparation, mentors receive a three-day training. According to its website, the training “focuses on the mentor’s personal spiritual development first and sex trafficking-specific training second.”
Among the organizations that signed on to the ESPLERP opposition brief was Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the US that provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Last year, Covenant House worked with Loyola University to produce a multi-city report on forced labor and sex trafficking. The report claims that one in every 5 homeless youth are victims of human trafficking.
But Burns, who has been collecting state and county arrest records for over five years, says that the data don’t add up, and that the report is intentionally misleading.
“Nobody’s been charged with trafficking a minor in Alaska since 2008,” she told The Crime Report.
In 2014, following the national trend, Alaska created the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, which is devoted to finding and rescuing juveniles who are being trafficked for commercial sex.
“They’ve existed with that mission for four years now,” said Burns, “and have yet to charge anybody with trafficking a minor.”
The problem with the Loyola report, according to Burns, is the way it switches between various definitions of a sex trafficking victim; from youth that are not involved in the commercial sex industry at all, “youths that are underage and just trading sex for survival means,” and youths who are being coerced or held in bondage and commercially trafficked.
“If [Loyola researchers] had talked to a youth who actively had a violent pimp, they would have had to report that to police and the police would have gone in— because they’ve been looking to charge somebody with trafficking a minor, obviously, to support all this rhetoric. We would see some charges if it were actually going on in that way,” Burns said.
But when “you’re not being honest about what you’re actually talking about, and then you’re turning around and saying ‘oh these kids are being kidnapped by pimps and forced into prostitution’— then the policy that ends up being created is not going to serve those actually kids that really exist–that are out there having survival sex right now.”
Fundamentally, Burns believes that this study—and others like it—are compromised by the “religious agenda” underlying the moral campaign.
“Covenant House and Loyola University are both religious organizations who have a religious agenda to prevent other people from having sex that they disapprove of,” she said.
What Burns has found by looking at thousands of charging documents is that the majority of people arrested in “sex trafficking” stings are women working together as prostitutes, or with a driver—both things that increase safety in the sex industry, she says.
Just three people were charged with sex trafficking in the first two years of Alaska’s new sex-trafficking law. One was a dancer charged with sex trafficking herself, according records Burns obtained.
Another was Amber Batts, the owner of the online escort service Sensual Alaska. Prosecutors were unable to charge her with force, fraud, or coercion, since people were working for the service of their own free will– but they still convicted her on charges of 2nd degree sex trafficking. She was sentenced to five years in prison.
“When you think of sex trafficking, you think of people that are held against their will and made to do things that they don’t want to do,” Batts’ sister, Tiana Escalante, told The Crime Report.
Escalante described being shocked to learn that a woman can be charged with sex trafficking in Alaska for a consensual act—even when she is working independently.
“I think it’s kind of outrageous. It’s her body, her right to choose.”
Meanwhile, despite the funding for sex trafficking “rescue” operations, Burns says that as a first responder she has been unable to get law enforcement to investigate two recent cases where victims were held against their will and sold for sex. In the first case, she said the FBI told her there was not enough evidence.
“I’ve been involved in or around criminal investigations for quite a bit,” she said. “There was so much evidence, there were text messages.”
In the second case, she said, despite having an admission from a violent pimp on social media, “the FBI told me they didn’t have time.”
A year ago, Burns helped one victim who was violently trafficked make a report to the FBI, and managed to get her money from the state Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Fund.
“But the people from the violent crime compensation board actually called me up and let me know, ‘you won’t be able to receive this money on her behalf because we can’t give money to organizations that don’t oppose prostitution,’” she said.
Describing people who have illegal sex as being incapable of making a choice, or too corrupted to understand their own victimhood, isn’t a new strategy.
“It’s very similar if you look at the history of the laws against gay sex and the stigma around gay people… you look back and remember [people said] ‘well, there’s only gay because they were abused as children. And so the gay people are going to go out and they’re going to rape our children,’” Burns said.
“That’s the same kind of stigma that we see around the sex work. Well, prostitutes are all either victims, or they started out as victims and now they’re going to go and victimize somebody else.
“Imagine if you saw the same kind of rhetoric around domestic violence victims. Saying that domestic violence victims need to be arrested because they’re too morally damaged to know what’s good for them.”
This is precisely what Doogan and her cohort are trying to face down in court. As a sex worker and founder of ESPLERP, she insists that she is not a victim.
“If you were a victim advocate, I wouldn’t even bother talking to you,” she told The Crime Report. She calls them the “Anti’s.” “I think that they’re extremely tone deaf.”
“They’re treating us like the sex slaves that they think that we are. That’s the problem with their approach. I stopped talking to them because they don’t want to hear, and take responsibility for their own exploitative behavior.”
Members of the media are some of the worst perpetrators of this narrative violence, says Doogan, “renaming us, reclassifying us, stripping us of our agency.
“We have been barred from our own authority on these issues.”
Those interested in watching oral arguments in ESPLERP v. Gascon can view them here. Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.
Even small changes in police procedures, like requiring officers to carry hemostatic bandages in patrol cars to help shooting victims—including those they shoot—can have a large impact on how cops are seen by communities, and how they see themselves, a Fordham Law School panel was told Wednesday.
If cops provided first aid to individuals they shoot, regardless of the reason for the shooting, would that change the festering hostility towards law enforcement in America’s at-risk communities?
Soon after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in Tulsa last September, a Los Angeles officer told criminologist Lawrence Sherman that SWAT teams in his city were trained to provide immediate medical help to anyone injured during police actions—even those shot by police themselves.
“Didn’t they get that memo in Tulsa?” he said, half-jokingly.
Sherman recounted the story at a panel at Fordham Law School Wednesday to argue that the recurring tragedies of police-caused homicides in the U.S. should be addressed by “reengineering” police procedures and training in ways that encouraged them to save lives, not take them.
“Little changes can cause huge impacts,” Sherman said, suggesting for example requiring all patrol cars to carry hemostatic bandages, often used by the military on the battlefield, that can prevent shooting victims from bleeding to death before they get medical help.
In another example, Philadelphia cops drive victims—including those they have shot—to hospital emergency rooms, added Sherman, who is director of the Jerry Lee Centre for Experimental Criminology and Chair of the Cambridge Police Executive Program at Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology in the UK.
His point was expanded by Phillip Atiba Goff, Director of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College, who said such changes needed to be incorporated into a larger “political ecosystem” that recognized the racial biases built into the history of US policing and that rewarded police for perceiving their jobs as protecting the most vulnerable members of the community, rather than just catching “bad guys.”
“It’s about the difference between ‘warriors’ or ‘guardians,’” he said. “First responders or first line of defense.”
Sherman said addressing the factors that lead police officers to use their firearms in the first place—ranging from a perception that they needed to act quickly to save their own lives to the fear that a suspect’s refusal to follow their commands would “humiliate” them before their peers—was critical to achieving changes in officer behavior.
A lot of shootings can also be explained by officers feeling the urgency to resolve a confrontation quickly so they can be somewhere else where they are needed, Sherman said.
“The solution is to slow things down, create space…so there’s an option to be patient,” he said.
He added later, “Sometimes it’s not just when to shoot, but when to stop shooting.”
Sherman, who also holds the post of Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, was elaborating on a paper he published last month in the Annual Review of Criminology.
The paper argues that the failure of recent attempts around the U.S. to convict officers for shootings of unarmed civilians underlines the difficulty of using legal strategies to punish officers for their actions, and would have little long-term effect on changing behavior or police culture—especially in the smaller cities where most of police shootings occur.
Tulsa police officer Betty White, for example, was acquitted in the September, 2017 shooting of Terry Crutcher after a jury decided that White acted according to departmental procedures and training.
Sherman noted that while larger cities had witnessed a great deal of progress in reducing officer-use-of-force incidents, in cities with populations of less than 10,000 some 18 percent of homicides were caused by police.
“This isn’t a New York City problem; it’s a Ferguson problem,” he said.
Goff, whose center works with police agencies across North America, countered that while measures like placing hemostatic bandages in police cars or training police to slow their responses are helpful, fundamental change requires police managers and their political masters to acknowledge the systemic biases that pervade American society, of which policing is only one part.
“Neighborhoods that suffer from this problem have a color,” said Goff, noting that the majority of police shooting fatalities were African-American or Hispanic men.
“You can’t use training to shift culture unless the culture is ready to receive training,” Goff said.
But both speakers agreed that looking at police misconduct as evidence of flaws in the systems and procedures established by law enforcement managers to monitor and control police behavior was critical.
Goff cited work his center had done with police in Toronto, Canada to reduce the high number of police stops, mostly affecting individuals of color, as an example. When that city’s police authorities admitted that the criteria they used in promoting officers included the number of street stops they made, Goff’s researchers suggested they eliminate that metric for judging police performance—and let all officers know it.
At the same time, officers were required to give their badge numbers and hand out cards to anyone they stopped and questioned on the street.
Within two months of instituting the new policy, the number of stops recorded plunged from 7,000 to 26, Goff said.
Neither speaker suggested such measures were the ultimate answer to the problem of police misbehavior, but Sherman said that many U.S. cities which had made an effort to reform police procedures had experienced drops in officer-involved shootings.
A “Tactical Operations Procedure” first established by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1970s that required all officers involved in a shooting to go before an internal board to justify their actions sharply reduced the incidence of police shootings in the 1970s. But a 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Graham vs Connor, which allowed police involved in a shooting incident to defend their actions by claiming a “reasonable” fear of danger, undermined its effect, Sherman said.
Similarly, police-involved shootings as well as overall crime rates were sharply reduced in Camden, NJ, once ranked as one of America’s deadliest cities, after the entire police force was restructured in 2015 following a financial crisis.
Sherman conceded that many officers would continue to resist advice from academics, community activists and even their police bosses to use patience when dealing with potentially dangerous confrontations because they felt their lives were on the line.
But a coordinated strategy that used some of the same principles of avoiding system “crashes” employed by the aviation and healthcare industries could be effective in smaller cities where police agencies were often understaffed and under financial pressure—with little ability to vet and monitor new officers.
“There would be fewer police killed, and fewer civilians would die,” Sherman said.
Wednesday’s Fordham panel was moderated by Tracey Meares, Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law and Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.
Leaders of the campaign to close New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail are celebrating the announcement that one of the facility’s nine detention centers will be closed this year. But they said that fundamental justice change requires reform of the money bail system.
A month after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the closure of one of Rikers Island’s detention centers by this summer, grass-roots activists who powered the movement said fundamental change in criminal justice policies required reform of the bail system.
The creation of “a fairer, more just pretrial system that ends money bail” was critical to long-term change in New York State, a Jan. 30 “victory” rally held at the New York Society for Ethical Cultural in Manhattan.
“No one should be held just because they can’t come up with the money for bail,” activist Marilyn Reyes-Scales said at the rally.”It’s become a ransom people have to pay to get out of jail.”
Activists at the Rikers rally on Jan. 30th expressed pride in their success and determination to keep pushing for criminal-justice reform. Photo by David Etheridge-Bartow
Pointing out that almost 70 percent of the people held in New York State jails have not been convicted, Reyes-Scales said, “This isn’t Monopoly—they’re playing with real people’s lives!”
The Jan. 2 announcement that the George Motchan Detention Center, which currently houses nearly 600 men, will be the first of Rikers’ nine jails to shut its doors later this year was the first step in a phased closing down of the jail complex that’s projected to take 10 years.
Often ranked as one of the 10 worst jails in America, Rikers Island, which now houses about 6,800 people and at its most overcrowded held 20,000, was the target of the #CLOSErikers campaign, which grew in strength as it organized rallies and marches beginning in 2016—including a march in September 2016 on the bridge leading to the 400-acre island itself, which sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.
There have been complaints of civil-rights violations, corruption, violence, and excessive use of force at the jail.
“The time has come to close Rikers Island,” co-wrote Judge Lippman and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a widely read New York Times article following the report’s release.
Rikers, a “de facto penal colony” and a “stain on our great city’s reputation,” has problems “that run too deep” to be “fixed with a fresh coat of paint, new trainings or even a major facilities overhaul,” they wrote.
At the Ethical Cultural rally, speakers exulted over Mayor de Blasio’s post-Lippman-commission announcement that it would now be “the official policy of the city of New York to close Rikers Island,” while pointing out the earlier instances when “he tried to hide from us,” and stressing that 10 years is way too long to wait.
“We demanded (that) the world see the hell that was on that island,” said community activist Shanequa Charles, claiming their campaign “changed the national conversation about criminal justice.”
But speakers said Rikers’ documented miseries are only one part of the problem with criminal justice in New York State.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer decried the “commercial bail industry” and said, “Judges play a role in this—there are more humane ways to treat people. A judge can change a person’s life. We need to hold judges accountable.”
Rikers Island victory rally Jan 30. Photo by David Etheridge-Bartow
As they push for an accelerated closure of Rikers Island, leaders of the grass-roots campaign said they will look to Governor Andrew Cuomo in his next budget to “commit to ending mass incarceration in New York and include gold standard bail, speedy trial and discovery law reform proposals.”
“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Brandon J. Holmes, the #CLOSErikers campaign coordinator.
“Probation and parole are tools that the criminal justice system has used to target my community,” said Vidal Guzman, JustLeadershipUSA Community Organizer.
“These are traps that keep fueling a cycle of criminalization and poverty across our city and state. I know from my own experience on parole how much we need to change these systems. That is why we’ll keep organizing directly impacted communities that can bring attention to the need for reforms that limit probation and parole sentences and use the least restrictive versions of supervision whenever it is used.”
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.
Almost six months after Hurricane Maria, residents are still suffering from the breakdown of an already-troubled justice system, aggravated by a police walkout and a rise in domestic violence calls, according to the latest episode of John Jay College’s “Criminal Justice Matters” program. Experts said the island’s problems serve as a warning for other communities where climate change increases the risk and frequency of weather catastrophes.
Almost six months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, residents continue to suffer from the breakdown of a criminal justice system that was already in crisis because of funding shortfalls.
One key indicator of the “chaotic” state of the island’s infrastructure is a fourfold increase in the number of domestic violence calls in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 20 storm, according to John Jay College Professor Jodie Roure, who works with human rights and women’s organizations there.
Roure cited unofficial figures showing the number of 911 calls relating to domestic violence skyrocketed from 211 in the immediate aftermath of the storm to 889 the following month—with some 1,747 calls received through November, 2017.
“These are astronomical numbers,” Roure said in an interview on CUNY-TV’s “Criminal Justice Matters” that will be aired next week, adding that “the lack of access to food and electricity has exacerbated stress” in many families hit hardest by the storm, and contributed as well to a number of “murder-suicides” related to domestic conflicts.
Roure joined William Ramirez, director of the American Civil Liberties Union branch on the island, who noted earlier in the program that the destruction of many police stations and courts—particularly in remote mountain towns—and a walkout by police to protest the lack of overtime pay threatened authorities’ ability to cope with an increase in security threats, such as “bands of criminals” looting houses and stores.
“Public safety is compromised and crime is up,” he declared. “(But) Maria unmasked the ‘human crisis’ that has been growing for a while, related to our bankruptcy and insolvency.”
William Ramirez. Photo courtesy Criminal Justice Matters.
Even as some infrastructure services, like electricity and communications, have begun to normalize, Puerto Rico still faces a long uphill struggle to rebuild its justice system at a time when the island’s financial crisis is far from solved.
Both Ramirez and Roure told Criminal Justice Matters host Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report, that the chaotic conditions experienced by the island’s post-hurricane justice system served as a warning lesson for communities who might face similar problems in future natural catastrophes.
Many police stations were destroyed. Courts followed unpredictable schedules leaving many detained suspects waiting for trials that might never happen. And strict curfews put at risk even law-abiding residents, many of whom were victimized by racial profiling, Ramirez said.
He cited one example of a black employee of a power company who was arrested for breaking curfew even though he was assigned to repair downed electricity lines.
While similar problems were experienced in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Houston following the flooding left by Hurricane Harvey last August, Puerto Rico was particularly hard hit because so many residents were stranded in remote areas without communication, power, roads, or police protection, Ramirez said.
Added Roure: “With any natural disaster, globally, considering climate change, we’re going to be seeing this increasingly.”
CJM Host Stephen Handelman and Jodie Roure.
Focusing on the problem of domestic abuse, Roure said women’s organizations on the island had begun to mobilize to train shelter workers to deal with the traumatic impact of disasters on families—and develop plans to address even apparently minor details such as ensuring shelters were protected.
“Shelters (on the island) were full, but many fences were down and they weren’t secure,” she said, making them easy targets for angry spouses—particularly when the lack of telephone communication effectively prevented shelter workers from calling police for help.
The complete episode of Criminal Justice Matters, a joint production of CUNY-TV and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, will be aired in the New York metropolitan region Feb. 6 and Feb. 7—and repeated on the weekend of Feb. 10-11. Readers’ comments are welcome.
Dozens of states are now facing up to the challenge of reducing correctional spending while improving public safety. In an excerpt from a forthcoming book, two experts examine “accountability courts,” one of the initiatives launched by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal that have already curbed the projected growth in state prison populations.
On Monday, The Crime Report, in partnership with The Pantagraph, described the criminal justice reforms that have resulted in major reductions in prison populations in Illinois. We are pleased to publish an excerpt from a book looking at similar efforts in Georgia and elsewhere. The book, “Start Here: A Road Map to Reducing Mass Incarceration,” will be published in March by The New Press. Its authors are Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based think tank that works to improve the performance of state courts and criminal justice agencies; and Julian Adler, the center’s director of research-practice strategies. The excerpt has been condensed for space.
When Republican Gov. Nathan Deal took office in January 2011, Georgia’s prison population was still growing; the corrections budget had already reached $1 billion per year. “I was told that as Governor, I should be prepared to build two new adult prisons because our prison population would grow by another 5,000 during my first term,” recalls Deal, a former prosecutor.
Georgia is not alone in its efforts to analyze the future trajectory of its criminal justice system. In recent years, dozens of states have sought to simultaneously reduce correctional spending and improve public safety. Much of this work has been driven by something known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The idea behind justice reinvestment is simple: to encourage administrative and legislative changes at the state level that will result in significant cost savings in terms of reduced spending on corrections. These savings can then be “reinvested” in community-based rehabilitative programs.
The idea behind justice reinvestment might be straightforward, but the implementation is not. It involves all three branches of government agreeing to work together. It requires intensive data analysis. And it demands a commitment to bipartisan political consensus. To help states interested in embarking down this path, nonprofit groups, including the Council of State Governments and the Pew Charitable Trusts, provide research support and strategic advice, much of it underwritten by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Tackling Drug Crime First
“The fact that we were ultimately able to [institute change] in Georgia, a state that has legislative and executive branches run by Republicans, makes for a pretty interesting conversation about the soundness of smart-on- crime policy reform initiatives,” notes Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael P. Boggs. In 2012, Boggs was appointed by Gov. Deal to serve as co-chair of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, a group charged with finding problems to solve within the criminal justice system that might yield to bipartisan consensus. The first problem the council chose to tackle was drug crime.
Justice Boggs had witnessed the potential of alternatives to incarceration firsthand, having once presided over a felony-level drug court in Georgia. Even those without a personal connection were won over when they reviewed the research literature, which credited adult drug courts with appreciable reductions in both recidivism and drug use. Several studies documented even larger effects for higher risk individuals and users of more serious drugs (for example, heroin and cocaine).
The Criminal Justice Reform Council recommended expanded funding for drug courts and other specialized “accountability courts” in Georgia. “We’ve not only expanded the number of accountability courts but we’ve enlarged the scope,” explains Boggs. “We are now increasing the number of veterans’ courts, family dependency courts, DUI courts, mental health courts, and of course adult felony drug courts.” Georgia’s accountability courts now have the capacity to serve upwards of 3,500 participants each year…
The decision to start with drug crimes in Georgia was strategic. “By focusing on this segment of our prison population first, we proved that there was a better way,” explains Governor Deal. He adds that the success of this initial reform effort paved the way for a more expansive and ambitious approach to rethinking incarceration in Georgia … Deal says, “That allowed us to move into some of the more difficult areas of criminal justice reform: community-based diversion programs for juveniles; reforms within our prison system which focused on increasing educational and technical skills of inmates.”
All of these moves were accomplished with bipartisan support. According to Zoë Towns, of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the ultimate impact was dramatic: “In a state like Georgia, the governor put the brakes on forty years of very fast, very steep growth in the prison population.” The numbers suggest that Georgia has indeed succeeded in bending the curve, significantly altering the projected growth in the state prison population.As we write this, Georgia’s prison system has about 8,000 fewer inmates than was projected for 2017. And the number of African Americans committed to Georgia prisons had dropped to roughly 10,000 from more than 13,000 in 2009.
That said, the number of Georgians behind bars is essentially the same today as it was in 2009. Years of effort and energy by really smart and committed people have altered Georgia’s trajectory, but they have not dramatically reduced the number of people behind bars.
Change ‘Won’t Happen Overnight’
So what are we to take away from the Georgia experience? The most important lesson is that reducing incarceration in the United States is not going to happen overnight. Reformers in Georgia have devoted an enormous amount of time, money, and political capital to the cause of reform. They have found that the criminal justice system changes course slowly, if it changes course at all …
Seizing the current window of opportunity means more than just identifying the right policy goals or providing money to scale up model programs. We need to be thoughtful about the details of implementation, and give practitioners the tools and training they need to do things differently. We need to actively engage frontline justice professionals in the reform process to ensure that they will take ownership of new ideas rather than working behind the scenes to subvert them …
And we must also have the patience and resolve to pursue the goals of reform not just for an election cycle or two, but over the course of a decade or more. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions here. But there is a lot of room for improvement.
Greg Berman is director of the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based think tank that works to improve the performance of state courts and criminal justice agencies. Julian Adler is the center’s director of research-practice strategies. The authors welcome readers’ comments.