Phil Keith Named to Head DOJ’s COPS Office

Keith, the former police chief of Knoxville, Tn., was expected to be named to head COPS, which the Trump administration wants to downgrade by eliminating it as an independent agency within the Justice Department.

Former Knoxville, Tn., Police Chief Phil Keith has been named director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, DOJ announced. Keith also has served as Commissioner of the Tennessee Peace Officers Standard and Training Commission, a project director for the Major Cities Chiefs Association, and a member of two COPS office boards. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Keith’s experience “second to none” and said DOJ “is committed to backing our state and local law enforcement partners—the men and women that serve on the front lines of the fight against violent crime, the opioid crisis, and criminal organizations.”

Keith is a graduate of East Tennessee State University and from the University of Tennessee. He served in the United States Army Reserves from 1968 to 1974. The Crime Report forecast Keith’s appointment in a story in February on the Trump administration’s plan to downgrade the COPS office.


DOJ Juvenile Justice Unit Faces Big Staff Cuts

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has only 60 employees, but one-fourth of its positions may not be filled after attrition. That would reduce efforts to insure state compliance with a federal law providing juvenile justice aid.

The Trump administration plans to cut thousands of Department of Justice positions, which may mean a 25 percent or more reduction in the already tiny 60-person federal agency focused on juvenile justice, reports the Chronicle of Social Change. The news comes as advocates work feverishly to pass a reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), a 44-year-old law that trades federal grants for compliance with basic juvenile justice standards. “Cuts of this size are alarming, given the amount of work and content expertise necessary to properly administer the duties of the OJJDP office,” said Marcy Mistrett of the Campaign for Youth Justice. “It is also inconsistent with the direction of Congress, [which] has authorized higher levels for the program given its imminent reauthorization.”

The Justice Department aims to make the cuts over the next 18 months through attrition, relying on retirements and early retirement buyouts. If it comes to layoffs, the likely scenario will be a “last in-first out” policy. OJJDP oversees funds related to juvenile justice, mentoring and efforts to help missing and exploited children. At the heart of the agency is compliance with the JJDPA, which was passed in 1974 and lays out core standards for juvenile justice practices, such as not locking up youth for committing status offenses, crimes like truancy that would not be a crime for an adult. One advocate said that staffing cuts would prompt the agency to “greatly loosen enforcement” of JJPDA compliance, especially the law’s requirement that states examine disproportionate minority involvement in the justice system.


Will Sessions’ New Justice Strategy Turn the Clock Back on Civil Rights?

Fifty years after the Kerner Commission set in motion a national effort to fix racial inequities in the justice system, a draft strategic plan crafted by the Attorney General threatens to reopen all our old wounds—and perhaps create new ones, say two reform advocates.

It has been difficult to keep track of an administration that cut its teeth on reality TV—an administration that seems to have an endless supply of daily distractions and made-for-TV scandals.

In addition to degrading the office of the president, these distractions draw our attention away from misguided, consequential policy that can impact millions. A draft version of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ five-year strategic plan for the Department of Justice (DOJ), obtained by the Huffington Post, is one example.

Pivoting away from civil rights, human rights and criminal justice reform, all of which were central to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s previous plan, the DOJ under Sessions will focus on aggressive counterterrorism, securing the borders and enhancing immigration enforcement, and promoting respect for First Amendment rights.

Sessions’ strategy is based on the false premises that violent crime is rising, that conservatives aren’t allowed to freely peddle hate speech on college campuses, and that immigrants are dangerous.

His plan would force federal prosecutors to seek maximum penalties for non-violent drug offenses, unnecessarily increase the federal prison population, and lead to increased criminalization of immigrants and more deportations.

These are all strategies that tear families apart. They won’t do anything to make our communities safer.

And they will inevitably lead to people of color being even more disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system.

In order to compensate for the inevitable increases of mass incarceration, one of the very first orders of business for Sessions’ DOJ was repealing a directive by then-President Barack Obama to decrease the Bureau of Prisons’ reliance on privately run prisons.

In many ways Sessions’ wish list is already being carried out. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of immigrants with no previous criminal conviction increased by 146 percent last year.

Moreover, Sessions is trumpeting a blatantly misleading narrative that claims undocumented immigrants are causing a so-called ‘spike’ in violent crime.

It is a painful historic irony that Sessions is leading a contemporary assault on civil rights on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Baines Johnson established in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination to examine and provide recommendations for addressing the discrimination and violence facing black Americans.

Upon Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986, Coretta Scott King warned Congress:

The appointment of Jefferson Sessions to the federal bench would irreparably damage the work of my husband…and countless others who risked their lives and freedom over the past twenty years to ensure equal participation in our democratic system.

Sessions was rightfully kept off the bench back then, but is now threatening to undo the critical and hard-fought civil rights progress achieved over the last 50 years, and particularly the gains made under the Obama administration.

On this anniversary of the Kerner Commission, we should be reminded that black men in our country receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than white men for the same exact crimes. Put simply, our country has failed to provide African Americans equal protection under the law.

Brent Cohen

Brent Cohen

As a result, the share of blacks in U.S. prisons or jails has almost tripled since 1968, and there are more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850.

After decades of advocacy, including by people directly impacted by the justice system, the federal prison population fell under Obama for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in office.

Marc Schindler

Marc Schindler

Under Sessions’ directives, the federal prison population will certainly begin to grow again.

Americans concerned about justice and fairness must cut through the noise to protect the civil rights advances of recent years—and not let this administration turn back the clock by pressing forward this type of strategic plan under the radar.

Brent Cohen is Interim CEO and Vice President of JustLeadershipUSA. He previously served as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. Marc Schindler is Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. He previously served as General Counsel and Interim Director of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. They welcome readers’ comments.


DOJ Death Penalty Chief Out After Gender Bias Claims

Kevin Carwile was removed from his job running the U.S. Justice Department’s death penalty unit after the New York Times inquired about grievances against him, including complaints that he promoted gender bias and a “sexualized environment.”

Kevin Carwile has been removed from his job running the U.S. Justice Department’s death penalty unit after the New York Times inquired about a series of grievances against him, including complaints that he promoted gender bias and a “sexualized environment.” Carwile fostered a culture of favoritism and sexism, according to court records, internal documents and interviews with current and former employees. In one episode, his deputy groped an administrative assistant at a bar in view of their colleagues, according to some who were present. Carwile allegedly asked the witnesses to keep it secret. Employees of the capital case section complained about the issues to Justice Department officials, the inspector general and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at least 12 times. Both Carwile and his deputy, Gwynn Kinsey, remained Justice Department employees despite the inquiries.

Six employees, including the administrative assistant, said they left the section or quit government altogether in part because of the toxic climate. A defendant in Indiana has asked for the government to drop the death penalty recommendation in his case because of the unit’s emerging conduct issues. “The Department of Justice takes these allegations extremely seriously but cannot discuss specific employee disciplinary actions, or comment on internally handled personnel actions or matters that may impact personal privacy,” said DOJ spokesman Ian Prior. The unit is poised to gain power. President Trump has suggested executions of drug dealers, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has urged prosecutors to seek the death penalty whenever possible in drug-related crimes. The Justice Department created the capital case section in 1998 to help the attorney general decide when to apply capital punishment.


Sessions ‘Remarkably Effective,’ His Liberal Critics Say

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has put the full force of law behind President Trump’s racially coded rhetoric, his critics tell Time magazine. Ironically, the same detractors who despise his policies say that President Trump should not fire him.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made the cover of Time magazine, which reports that “even if his tenure ends tomorrow, Sessions would leave a legacy that will affect millions of Americans.” The magazine says Sessions has “dramatically shifted the orientation of the Justice Department, pulling back from police oversight and civil rights enforcement and pushing a hard-line approach to drugs, gangs and immigration violations.” He has cast aside attempts to rectify inequities in the criminal-justice system in favor of a “maximalist approach to prosecuting and jailing criminals.”

“I am thrilled to be able to advance an agenda that I believe in,” he told a group of federal prosecutors in Lexington, Ky., recently. “I believed in it before I came here, and I’ll believe in it when I’m gone.” Sessions’ liberal critics agree that he’s been remarkably effective, Time says, because he has put the full force of law behind President Trump’s racially coded rhetoric. “The Justice Department is supposed to be protecting people, keeping people safe and affirming our basic rights,” says Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who testified against Sessions’ confirmation. “But he has rolled back the Justice Department’s efforts to do that.” Ironically, the same critics who despise his policy initiatives are adamant that Trump should not remove him. “Jeff Sessions is not acting in defense of the rights of Americans. He should not be in that job,” Booker says. “But I do not think he should be fired for the reasons Donald Trump would fire him.” Sessions and his supporters, including many in law enforcement, say justice reformers have it backward. Under President Obama, Sessions believes, the DOJ sent all the wrong signals, demoralizing police officers and soft-pedaling the dangers of drugs. He cites the shrinking prison population not as a breakthrough but as a worrisome trend. “We’ve got some space to put some people!” he says.


Background Check Lying Cases Called ‘Less than Compelling’

A Trump administration plan to crack down on people who lie to buy guns relies on federal agents and prosecutors who are already overwhelmed with other responsibilities. More than 500 “lie-and-try” cases were referred to the Justice Department in recent years, but only 32 were considered for prosecution.

A Trump administration plan to crack down on people who lie to buy guns relies on federal agents and prosecutors who are already overwhelmed with other responsibilities, the Associated Press reports. Prosecutors and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have historically preferred to use their limited resources to deal with violent crimes rather than aggressively pursue people who give false information on background check forms. Lying on the forms is a felony, and prosecutors sometimes struggle to win convictions. By enforcing existing federal law, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan allows the Trump administration to show it is taking action on gun crime after the Florida school shootings.

Tens of thousands of people are denied guns each year because of problems with their background checks. Prosecutions for lying during that process are rare. ATF referred more than 500 so-called lie-and-try cases to federal prosecutors between 2008 and 2015, but fewer than 32 each year were considered for prosecution. Sessions told federal prosecutors to focus primarily on people denied guns because they are violent felons, fugitives or have domestic violence convictions. Some current and former law enforcement officials feared that emphasis on such cases would detract from more pressing concerns, such as prosecuting people who buy guns on behalf of felons or those who try to buy guns illegally and are successful. Lie-and-try cases are hard to try in court because prosecutors must convince a jury that a prospective gun buyer intended to lie, rather than just made a mistake or misunderstood what the law allows. “There is a reason why they are not getting prosecuted heavily at the moment, and that’s because they are less-than-compelling cases. They’re not getting guns,” John Walsh, a former U.S. attorney in Colorado, said. “This is in the nature of window dressing.”


Rosenstein Defends Mueller Probe, DOJ Priorities

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tells USA Today that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is “not an unguided missile” and says the Justice Department is “restoring” the authority of federal prosecutors to bring down the U.S. homicide rate.

Despite unrelenting criticism from the White House on the course of the investigation into Russia’s election interference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein offered unqualified support for special counsel Robert Mueller. “The special counsel is not an unguided missile,” Rosenstein told USA Today. “I don’t believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel.” The deputy attorney general, who oversees the special counsel, appointed Mueller last May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself because of his prior contacts with Russia Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Rosenstein estimated that less than 5 peercent of his week is related to briefings or other matters involving Mueller’s investigation. He dismissed the near-constant and pointed criticism aimed at the Justice Department from the White House and from an ultra-conservative Tea Party Patriots group. The group has run an ugly ad campaign, describing Rosenstein as “a weak careerist” and suggesting that he tender his own resignation. “I believe much of the criticism will fall by the wayside when people reflect on this era and the Department of Justice,” said Rosenstein. He said the department was responding to the priorities laid out by the president, while “restoring” the authority of federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials to bring homicides down across the country after two years of increases. Rosenstein also referred to the DOJ effort against the scourge of opioid addiction, with Justice pledging to pursue manufacturers. “Most of the work goes unheralded and un-criticized,” he said, adding that his work is focused in “implementing the priorities of the president and the attorney general.”


Sessions Defends Himself After Trump Attack

Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to do his job with “integrity and honor” after President Trump criticized him for asking the Justice Department’s Inspector General to investigate the FBI’s surveillance activities in the Russia probe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions rebuffed criticism from President Trump, vowing to do his job with “integrity and honor” after the president said it was “disgraceful” that Sessions asked an internal watchdog to investigate Republicans’ claims of inappropriate behavior by FBI agents, reports Politico. Trump’s tweet blasted Sessions for directing Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to investigate the FBI’s activities surrounding surveillance of ex-campaign adviser Carter Page starting in 2016. “Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc,” the president tweeted. “Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”

In an unusual public response that did not mention Trump, Sessions rejected the attack. “We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary,” Sessions said in a statement. “As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.” The dispute — two years to the day after Sessions became the first senator to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign — was the latest flap in which the president has taken Sessions to task over his handling of the ongoing federal probe into Russian election interference and whether any Trump campaign aides were involved. Trump has bristled at Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation. Shortly after that, Trump demanded Sessions’ resignation, but he decided not to accept it at the urging of White House advisers. Despite Trump’s calling Horowitz an “Obama guy,” he has been appointed to jobs by presidents of both parties.


DOJ to Prioritize Gun Background Check Cases

The Justice Department will ask U.S. Attorneys to prioritize the prosecutions of prospective gun buyers who lie on federal background check forms. Few such cases have ever been filed.

The Justice Department will ask its U.S. Attorneys to prioritize the prosecutions of prospective gun buyers who lie on federal background check forms, the New York Times reports. The request, part of a set of recommendations expected to be announced in the coming days, would essentially enforce existing laws that govern gun purchases. It allows the Trump administration to take action on gun-related violence without riling opponents of more restrictive gun policies. The renewed emphasis on background checks would not have stopped Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who legally purchased several firearms, including an AK-47, within the past month.

Thousands of prospective gun buyers are denied firearm purchases every year through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Prospective buyers must fill out a six-page application, including whether they have ever been convicted of or indicted in a crime, which would disqualify them from purchasing a firearm. The buyer can be approved, denied or issued a delay for the purchase. Under the third option, the firearms dealer must wait three days while the FBI determines whether the buyer’s application is truthful and whether that person is eligible to buy a gun. While lying on the background forms is a felony, it is a crime that has rarely, if ever, been prosecuted. Thousands of prospective gun buyers are denied firearms purchases annually, but between 2008 and 2015, fewer than 32 cases a year were even considered for prosecution, according to the DOJ inspector general. Gaps in the system have prompted scrutiny in an array of high-profile failures. Its three-day waiting period loophole allowed Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine people in a Charleston, S.C., church, to buy the gun used in the shooting, despite a drug charge that same year.


DOJ Announces New Policies on Forensic Science

The practices will “advance the Justice Department’s commitment to reliable science that helps us to find and report the truth,” says Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced new Department of Justice policies to advance forensic science at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences 70th Annual Scientific Meeting in Seattle, the department says. The new guidance implements quality assurance measures based on science-informed practices, enhances forensic capacity and efficiency, and increases coordination and collaboration between the department and state, local, and federal partners.

“Forensic science, used appropriately, will help us accomplish our mission,” Rosenstein said. “The policies that I am announcing today will advance the Justice Department’s commitment to reliable science that helps us to find and report the truth.”

DOJ released uniform language for testimony and reports for use by its forensic examiners to provide testimonial consistency and quality assurance and department-wide testimony monitoring practices to ensure testimonial consistency and accountability by  forensic examiners.

Rosenstein said that DOJ forensic laboratories that support criminal investigations and prosecutions will begin publicly posting current quality management system documents and summaries of internal validation studies online. DOJ also will “re-charter” its Council of Federal Forensic Laboratory Directors, which will begin meeting again this May.  All executive branch agencies with forensic laboratories and digital analysis entities are invited to join.