Want to Shrink Our Prisons? Fix Probation and Parole

Over 4.7 million Americans are under “community corrections” supervision today—more than twice the number of individuals behind bars. Rethinking that 19th-century approach is crucial if we want to end mass incarceration, say the authors of a Harvard Kennedy School paper released today.

In our nation’s expanding discussion about eliminating mass incarceration, advocates, researchers and the media are missing a major contributor to incarcerated populations and a partial deprivation of liberty in its own right.

Mass supervision through probation and parole.

Grouped under the category of “community corrections,” America’s probation and parole systems originated in the 19th century as Progressive-era rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration. But they have effectively become feeder systems for imprisonment.

Today, with a caseload of over 4.7 million—one out of every 52 U.S. adults—community corrections agencies supervise more than twice as many people as the 2.2 million Americans behind bars.

Bruce Western

What’s worse, every year, almost as many people enter our prisons, not because of a conviction for a new crime, but because of a violation of some condition of probation or parole.

That is why, over the past three years, a group of prosecutors, law enforcement officials, corrections and community corrections leaders, formerly incarcerated people, service providers, philanthropists and researchers have been meeting in an Executive Session at the Harvard Kennedy School to discuss what went wrong with community corrections, and what can be done to fix it.

Toward that end, the Executive Session created an unprecedented consensus paper that includes 13 proposals to reduce the footprint of community corrections, have it hew more toward justice, and make it more effective in protecting the community and empowering people to turn their lives around.

There was strong agreement with the conclusion that “America’s community corrections systems do not live up to the core principles of providing well-being and safety, parsimony (no more punishment than is needed to achieve the goals of sentencing) and justice, successful community integration, victim restoration, and respect for human dignity.”

The paper went on to declare:

“Rather than serving as an alternative to, or release valve from, imprisonment, community corrections has become a contributing factor to incarceration’s growth…Major changes are needed to make our system smaller and more focused, less punitive, more humane, and more widely guided by best practices. It will be impossible to meaningfully reduce mass incarceration in America without solving the challenges of community corrections and fulfilling its initial purpose and promise.”

The paper’s proposals include moving “from mass supervision to focused supervision” and “from punishing failure to promoting success.”

Besides the principle of refraining from unnecessary state supervision, there were some practical arguments for reducing the criminal justice footprint. Indeed, shrinking probation and parole supervision, and focusing it on those most in need, can have results that some might find surprising.

When New York City reduced its use of probation by 69% from 1996 to 2014, public safety was not compromised. Half as many New Yorkers went to jail and prison during that time period (a trend that has even accelerated since), and violent crime fell city-wide by 57%.

Likewise, when Arizona policymakers created incentives for people on probation to earn time off their terms for complying with court-ordered conditions and gave probation departments fiscal incentives to reduce probation revocations, new felony convictions amongst people on probation fell by 31% and revocations to prison fell by 28%.

Vincent Schiraldi

The Executive Session also found that the “community” is often absent from “community corrections,” as too many interactions between staff and people under supervision occur across a desk in an unfriendly, citadel-like and out-of-the-way government office. As such, the Executive Session recommended that community corrections move “from isolated to integrated” and “from fortress to community-based.”

Despite the fact that research shows that communities are safer if they are more cohesive and people do better under supervision when it is viewed as fair and legitimate, too much of what passes for probation and parole supervision amounts to an exercise in “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em.”

To combat this mentality, the Georgia Department of Community Supervision did away with its staff offices, so now parole officers meet with their charges in clients’ neighborhoods. New York City partnered with non-profit organizations so people on probation now see their probation officers in supportive locations in their own neighborhoods like drug treatment programs, organizations designed to help formerly incarcerated people with reentry and even YMCAs.

Community corrections too often neglects community— and fails to correct.

If America is to truly rid itself of mass incarceration, we have to make our probation and parole systems more integrative, less reflexively punitive, and pillars of the just principles of a democratic society.

Editor’s Note: This week is national Pretrial, Probation and Parole Supervision Week. For more information please read here.

Bruce Western is Chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice (PCJ) and Principal Investigator of the Executive Session on Community Corrections. Vincent Schiraldi is a Senior Research Fellow at PCJ and former Commissioner of New York City Probation. They welcome comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Building Trust in Police: What Really Works?

The authors of a study of police-civilian interactions in two cities in New York State say their findings challenge assumptions in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that simply treating citizens with fairness and respect is sufficient to restore trust and confidence in law enforcement.

Building trust and legitimacy was the first of six “pillars” identified by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as essential for police reform. The Task Force urged police agencies to establish procedural justice as the “guiding principle” in police interactions with citizens for developing that trust.

Will police departments accrue greater public trust and legitimacy by promoting procedural justice—roughly defined as the fairness with which police authority is applied—in street encounters?

We don’t believe they will.

As well-grounded in theory and empirical evidence as this prescription appears to be, we believe it rests on a misdiagnosis of organizational dynamics and public attitudes.

In our recently published study of policing, Mirage of Police Reform, we found that citizens’ assessments of procedural justice are shaped much less by how officers use their enforcement powers—such as using physical force or conducting searches—than whether they use them.

Here’s what we mean.

When people encounter police, the procedural justice that they perceive is associated with their trust in law enforcement and their sense that police deserve to be obeyed. In other words, it is linked to their perceptions about the “legitimacy” —or lack of legitimacy— of the police.

A large body of research demonstrates the strength and consistency of these empirical relationships.

Police who are “procedurally just” treat people with dignity and respect, give them an opportunity to explain their situations and listen to what they say, and explain what police have done and/or will do. By doing so, they make clear that officers are taking account of people’s needs and concerns, and are basing their decisions on facts.

The National Research Council’s Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices (on which one of us served) asserted that legitimacy is thus “created” in individual police-citizen encounters.

With this research in mind, we worked with police departments in Schenectady and Syracuse, two cities in upstate New York, to make procedural justice a measure of performance for which police managers were held accountable.

Over the course of 18 months, we regularly surveyed people who had recent contacts with police as a result of a call for assistance, a stop, or an arrest; we summarized and reported survey results to command staffs through the departments’ Compstat meetings.

Supposing that “what gets measured gets managed,” we anticipated that managers and field supervisors would pay attention to how their officers treat citizens, and that procedural justice and public trust would thereby improve.

Robert E. Worden

But we found a mixed reception to the administrative push for procedural justice among patrol officers, field supervisors, and mid-level managers. Some officers were receptive; some exhibited a tempered receptivity; others were quite skeptical. Some platoon commanders made procedural justice a frequent topic in roll calls; others neglected it.

With the introduction of these performance measures into Compstat, we detected no significant changes in citizens’ perceptions of, or attitudes toward, police in either city. Citizen satisfaction with police was fairly high at the outset of our study, leaving only little room for improvement.

We linked survey data on citizens’ subjective experience to independent measures of officers’ overt behavior—based on structured observation through the audio and video recordings of officers’ activities which Schenectady police routinely provided. (Syracuse police had neither in-car nor body-worn cameras.) We measured both officers’ procedural justice, e.g., displays of respect, attentive listening—and procedural injustice, e.g., discourtesy, ignoring citizens’ questions—and we discovered that citizens’ perceptions are weakly related to the former and only moderately related to the latter.

Our findings contradict the claim that legitimacy is “created” through police-citizen interactions. We saw no change overall in observed procedural justice, which was moderately high in the first place; or in procedural injustice, which was uniformly low.

However, in one platoon, whose commander and supervisors were all supportive, officers’ behavior measured by procedural justice standards modestly improved.

These findings make sense from the perspective of institutional behavior. The technology of policing—the process of turning the “raw materials” of community conditions and individual crises into the finished products of safer neighborhoods and resolved situations—is not well-developed, and a limited understanding of how and how much police contribute to desired social outcomes makes it difficult for anyone to assess how well police are performing.

The public’s demands on police therefore often rest on assumptions that positive outcomes will follow from the adoption (or imposition) of particular organizational forms, such as community policing, civilian review of complaints, and early intervention systems for misconduct. But in fact such forms often fail because they are only loosely coupled with the technical “core” of policing, where the work is performed—mainly in patrol.

Sarah McLean

Since the procedural justice of officers’ actions is not normally measured, everyone could assume that when a department “adopts” procedurally just policing, its commitment is honored on the street. But the implementation of administrative mandates is determined by officers’ interpretations of their meaning. The procedural justice model would likely be weakly implemented in any case, even if it might nevertheless have symbolic appeal to the community.

Meanwhile, the behavior that tends to generate police-community friction—such as the use of physical force or searches of vehicles or persons—would remain unaddressed. It’s not that we think that procedurally just policing is a bad idea – far from it. But as a reform prescription, our findings lead us to conclude that it offers false hope for better police-community relations.

 As pointed out above, individual officers’ decisions about whether to use their coercive authority matter far more to public perceptions of police legitimacy than how they use it. Searches negatively affect citizens’ assessments of their contacts with police (unless they accede to them). So does the use of physical force.

We conclude that public trust in the police is closely tied to these critical exercises of authority. The experiences of some police agencies suggest that regulating these aspects of police performance will be more effective at achieving police “legitimacy” than mandating certain types of behavior to achieve “procedural justice.”

The Cincinnati Police Department is sometimes mentioned as an example of successful reform, partly because the frequency with which Cincinnati police use physical force has declined substantially. We believe that one key aspect of reform there involved use-of-force policies and procedures that were at least moderately coupled with street-level practice.

Supervisors were empowered to supervise—not merely to enforce policy but to guide officers in developing and using effective tactics. Such coupling cannot be taken for granted—the Ferguson Police Department had a similar policy on the books—but can be achieved and sustained.

Robert E. Worden is the Director of the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, and Associate Professor of criminal justice at the University at Albany, SUNY. Sarah J. McLean is the Associate Director and the Director of Research and Technical Assistance at the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, Inc. They welcome comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

How Concealing Key Evidence Convicts the Innocent

A June 22 Supreme Court ruling that evidence which might prove a defendant’s innocence does not necessarily have to be presented by prosecutors represents a major setback to constitutional guarantees of a fair trial, argues the founder of the National Registration of Exonerations.

On June 22, in Turner vs. United States, the Supreme Court, by a 6 to 2 vote, affirmed the murder convictions of seven men. Unlike most Supreme Court decisions, Turner went largely unnoticed.

It deserves more attention, but not because it announced a new legal rule. Instead, Turner reaffirmed a terrible old rule that has done great harm to the accuracy of criminal trials, and will continue to do so.

The crime in the Turner case was horrific: in 1984, a middle-aged woman was grabbed off the street in Washington D.C., beaten, sexually assaulted and killed in an alley. The defendants were convicted on the theory that they were part of a group of a dozen or more who committed this atrocity.  No DNA, fingerprints or physical evidence of any other kind connected any of the defendants to the crime.

Twenty-six years later, the defendants’ attorneys learned that prosecutors had concealed a laundry list of evidence that would have helped their defense at trial.

In particular, one witness identified a man at the scene of the crime as James McMillian, a local resident who was arrested several weeks later for beating and robbing two other neighborhood women, and was later convicted for robbing, sodomizing, and murdering a third young woman in an alley. And another witness testified that he heard moans—apparently from the victim—coming from inside a garage that was too small for a crime with 12  or even six perpetrators.

The Justice Department agreed that this evidence should have been disclosed at trial. The only issue was whether concealing that evidence made the trial fundamentally unfair, and requires a new trial.

In Brady v. Maryland, in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the government is constitutionally obligated to disclose evidence that is favorable to the defense in a criminal trial if that evidence is “material” to the case.

Later cases held that evidence is only “material” under Brady if there is a “reasonable probability” that the outcome of the trial would have been more favorable to the defendant if the evidence had been disclosed. Otherwise, under Brady, the prosecution may conceal favorable evidence from the defense and the trial court.

This standard is impossible to apply.

A prosecutor has to decide whether to disclose favorable evidence before the trial begins. At that point, she does not know what her own witnesses will say under oath (there are many surprises) let alone what the defense might put on. How can she possibly know before trial whether undisclosed evidence might tip the jury’s decision at the end of that trial? And who would trust a lawyer to make that decision about a case she herself is litigating?

Trial lawyers often believe, unrealistically, that their cases are airtight. In this setting, self-confidence is self-serving: it can lead prosecutors to decide that it’s OK to hide troubling evidence, which makes their job a bunch easier.

When a prosecutor does hide evidence, chances are nobody will ever know. If somehow it does come out, a court reviewing the case faces the same impossible question—what might have happened at trial if these facts had been known to the defense?—with an added twist: Judges are extremely reluctant to reverse jury verdicts and order new trials.

Not surprisingly, they usually conclude that concealed evidence was “immaterial” and therefore never had to be disclosed in the first place.

That’s just what the Supreme Court did in Turner. The majority points out that the hidden evidence is only exculpatory if McMillian committed the crime alone and not as another member of a large group. But none of the defendants disputed the prosecution’s claim that the victim was attacked by a group. Instead, each said that he was not involved, but his co-defendants might have been—and two additional defendants pled guilty and testified for the government in return for reduced sentences.

In that context, the majority concludes that disclosing the hidden evidence would have made no difference; presumably because there was little or no doubt that the defendants were in fact guilty.

However, as Justice Kagan points out in her dissent, no defendant argued that the murder was the work of a single person because they had no idea that there was evidence to support that claim.  If they had known what we now know, the trial might have been totally different, including what was disputed and who testified. The two defendants who pled guilty might not have done so, and all of the defendants might have been acquitted—perhaps because they are innocent.

Is that a pipedream?

Consider two disturbingly similar cases:

  • In 1989, five teenagers in New York confessed to being part of a gang that attacked and raped the victim in the Central Park Jogger case, but each denied actually raping her. They were all convicted in 1990—but exonerated 12 years later when DNA confirmed the confession by an older serial rapist and murderer that he committed the crime alone.
  • Also in 1989, six defendants were convicted of jointly assaulting, raping and murdering an elderly woman in Beatrice, Nebraska. Four of them had confessed, and five pled guilty in return for reduced sentences. In 2009, all six were exonerated when DNA evidence proved the crime was committed by a lone man from Oklahoma whom none of the innocent defendants knew.

Nobody doubted the guilt of these eleven defendants when they were convicted—even through, as in Turner, no physical evidence connected them to the crime. All but two had confessed; several pled guilty; none argued that the crime in their case was the work of a single person. All that would have changed if the defense had any information identifying the real criminals.

Concealing exculpatory evidence is not a rare problem. In 2013, then-Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals wrote that “There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land,” because courts have defined “materiality” so narrowly that prosecutors rarely if ever have to face consequences if they hide evidence that favors defendants.

The National Registry of Exonerations (which I founded) lists 2,061 innocent defendants who were convicted of crimes in the United States and later exonerated, from 1989 on, including 802 who were convicted of murder. In half of the murder exonerations (398/802) the prosecution concealed exculpatory evidence at trial, including 17 cases with innocent murder defendants who pled guilty, 57 with defendants who falsely confessed, and 91 with supposed accomplices who confessed and falsely implicated the defendants.

And of course, as Judge Kozinski has noted, the great majority of similar cases are never detected, and the defendants, if they are innocent, are never exonerated.

I don’t know whether the defendants in the Turner case are innocent or guilty, or how their trial would have turned out if all the evidence had been fairly presented. Unlike the Supreme Court, I don’t believe we can tell by looking back and guessing 25 years after the fact.

Our best hope for avoiding tragic mistakes is to present all the evidence that matters the first time around.

Why not eliminate the “materiality” requirement entirely and treat access to exculpatory evidence like other aspects of a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial? If exculpatory evidence is concealed, it’s a violation of the Constitution, period.

This would not mean that every violation requires a new trial. Courts often uphold convictions despite constitutional violations, because they are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the violation had no impact on the outcome. But that’s a tougher exception to meet, and it includes a critical message: Hiding exculpatory evidence is always a violation of the constitution.

Samuel Gross

Justice Kagan concedes in her dissent that the majority’s conclusion in Turner “is not indefensible.”

That’s right, unfortunately, given the rule the Supreme Court applied. But that rule itself is indefensible, and should be changed.

Samuel Gross is professor of Law at the University of Michigan, and the founder and Senior Editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Silencers Aren’t Golden…But They Help!

Will the proposed Hearing Protection Act, which would make noise suppressors for firearms easier to obtain, contribute to more gun violence? In response to a recent TCR Viewpoint, a firearms expert dismisses the idea as “flawed.”

In a recent Crime Report article, titled “Why Silencers Aren’t Golden,” Robin L. Barton argues that silencers (a.k.a. suppressors) should not be made easier to get, as is the intention of the proposed “Hearing Protection Act.”

This bill, introduced last January and supported by the National Rifle Association, would amend the Internal Revenue Code to eliminate the $200 transfer tax on firearm silencers and “treat any person who acquires or possesses a firearm silencer as meeting any registration or licensing requirements of the National Firearms Act with respect to such silencer.” The bill also amends the federal criminal code to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate firearm silencers.

While the author backs up her argument with some facts and numbers, her argument is flawed and misses the point.

Barton maintains that gun owners already have suitable hearing protection, which provides ample protection from the noise of a firearm being fired. She quotes several sources to explain why suppressors alone will not be sufficient to reduce noise of a firearm being fired to an acceptable level.

The article implies that folks firing a gun are too lazy to want to wear ear protection, and that they’d prefer to put a suppressor on their guns. Barton writes:

 Simply put, we shouldn’t make silencers easier to get just because gun owners can’t be bothered to use the hearing protection already available to them

She goes on to write that suppressors are a threat to overall public health and safety, claiming that the sound of a gun being fired is a good alarm for people to let them know there is danger and that they should call the police.

The article goes on to argue that criminals would want to use suppressors to avoid detection. She seems to imply that suppressors are bad because gun owners are lazy, and criminals want to use them for nefarious reasons.

Let me explain why this is wrong.

No one disagrees with the statement that guns are noisy. To give you an idea of just how noisy guns are: the typical 9mm pistol (one of the most common gun calibers in the U.S.) produces approximately 160 decibels of noise. That is even louder than a jet taking off, which produces 140 decibels!

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) states that when a person is repeatedly exposed to noise levels of 85 decibels or more, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can set in. This means that shooting a firearm can have a big impact on your hearing.

Earplugs and earmuffs do provide shooters with some protection from the excessive noise levels, but not enough. If you wear earplugs and earmuffs, the earplugs might reduce the noise level by 26 decibels and the earmuffs might reduce it by 34 decibels. If you wear earplugs and earmuffs together, it should then reduce the total noise level by 41 decibels.

That still does not reduce the noise level to below 85 decibels, which means more protection is needed to reduce the noise level.

The article seems to imply that suppressors are an alternative to other hearing protection solutions, namely earplugs and earmuffs. But that is not the case. Suppressors should be used in conjunction with earplugs and earmuffs. The principle is simple, the more you are able to reduce noise to your ears, the less impact there will be on your hearing.

So while a suppressor only reduces noise level by about 20 to 35 decibels, if it is used with earplugs and earmuffs, it will help to get the noise level closer to the 85 decibel mark.

I would suggest the following equation: Suppressor + Earplug + Earmuff = Better Hearing Health Protection

The second argument against suppressors is basically that criminals will use it for criminal activities and that loud gunshots act as an alarm.

If we were to ban everything that could be used for criminal activities, shouldn’t we then also ban the Internet? The Internet is after all where a lot of crimes seem to be committed these days!

If a criminal wants to use a suppressor, he or she can just search the Internet to find out how to make one themselves. There are literally thousands of videos on Youtube that will show you how to do it.

Here are some examples:

According to The Washington Free Beacon, records from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) indicate that there are approximately 1.3 million suppressors registered in the U.S..

The ATF confirms in effect that suppressors are rarely used in crime. They have recommended prosecution of suppressor-related crimes 44 times per year over the last decade (that means that only .003 percent of suppressors are used in crimes each year).

In fact, a white paper from the ATF argues that suppressors should be deregulated.

Several other countries allow gun owners to own suppressors. These include many European countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden. They certainly do not have a gun crime epidemic as a result of suppressors.

The article concludes its argument against suppressors with this little gem:

In short, I believe that unless you’re a spy, an assassin or the like, there’s no legitimate reason to have a silencer for a gun.

Joe Bradley

I strongly disagree with that statement. Any hunter or person who fires their firearm on a regular basis has a legitimate reason to have a suppressor on their firearm, which is to protect their hearing health, as well as the hearing health of folks around them.

Suppressors are a valuable aid in reducing folks’ exposure to too loud noises. Making it easier and quicker to obtain is a good thing.

Joe Bradley is the editor of smokingbarrelusa.com, a blog that promotes responsible gun ownership, as well as helps debunk myths about guns and gun owners. He welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Child Trafficking: The Tragedy of ‘Princess’

Even when information about online trafficking victims is brought to the attention of law enforcement, they can still be treated as “disposable people” by the system meant to protect them, says a trafficking expert.

Child sex trafficking is a clandestine crime that has increasingly moved off the streets and online over the last decade. However, even when information about these crimes is brought to the attention of law enforcement, victims can still be treated as “disposable people” by the system meant to protect them.

In recent years, law enforcement has become more aware of how social media is used by sex traffickers to target, groom, and recruit victims. Stories about sex trafficking through Facebook and Instagram, dating websites like OkCupid and Tinder, and apps like Kik messenger and SnapChat are becoming increasingly common.

However, as the following story suggests, there is little awareness of how these social media platforms can be used to identify victims, much less what happens to these victims post- “rescue.”

On May 29, 2017, Sandra Sparks, Executive Director of ERASE Child Trafficking, was tagged in an anonymous tip on her organization’s Facebook page about an “underage runaway” in Louisiana who was seen having sex with an “old man” in his truck. She was linked to the girl’s social media account.

“PLEASE alert authorities,” a subsequent post appealed. “There is an underage runaway being trafficked.”

After visiting the social media account, Sparks discovered that the 16-year-old girl, whom I will refer to by the pseudonym “Princess,” had been trafficked for months, despite being previously rescued and returned to her family.

The girl’s social media account, which chronicles her life being trafficked, ballooned with over 60,000 followers in a little over a month.

She told them in one post:

If it wasn’t for u guys I’d b dead I’m not even suicidal anymore.

When they weren’t looking, “Princess” took pictures and videos of her traffickers and posted them for her followers to see. She wrote:

If my pimp saw my page he would literally grab his pistol and shot (sic) me… I do it in secret.

She claims that one of the men pimping her is wanted for gun offenses, and another has multiple warrants out for his arrest. In one of her pictures, “Princess” is shown holding an AK-47 and in several others she appears to be snapping images as the traffickers physically abuse her.

She captioned one image, “Pray for me.”

“Princess” also secretly takes pictures of the men who pay for sex with her. One of them is a truck driver who she calls “Santa.” The old, white, man has a long white beard and white hair, with an oversized frame. There are several pictures of “Princess” in a black bra lying next to a shirtless “Santa.”

She claims that he gave her $100 after their sexual encounter, but her pimp took the money away.

Another one of the men who pays for sex with “Princess,” she nicknamed “Bill Cosby” because of his resemblance. The man, who is also a truck driver, is shown on video asking “Princess” for directions to a motel room. Later, she posted pictures and video of the same man laying on a motel bed, rolling and smoking a joint.

In many of the videos “Princess” appears to be happy and smiling, despite living in a roach-infested room and sleeping on a mattress with no sheets or on a towel on a bathroom floor. She is told to have sex with multiple older men per night, while her pimps collect the money.

But she claims there is nowhere for her to escape to.

In one of her videos, she said:

A lot of people are telling me that I should just leave this situation. A lot of people don’t realize I don’t really have a choice, because I ain’t got nowhere else to stay. So if I get up and I leave right now and say, ‘I ain’t coming back, I’m not working for you,’ I won’t have nowhere to sleep and ya’ll don’t understand that.”

“Princess” told her followers that her mom died when she was only 13 years old and her life has been hell ever since. She also reveals that her dad is a pastor in New Orleans.

Some of the videos are extremely sexually explicit, taken mid-coitus with the men raping her for money. The posts prompt mixed reactions from her followers. Some encourage her to continue the pornographic exploits, while others urge her to find a pimp to take better care of her by feeding her properly, as well as providing her with clothes that fit and an appropriate residence.

Some try to convince her to go back home or to a homeless shelter, so that she can leave the sexual exploitation she is facing.

Upon learning of this sex-trafficking situation, Sandra Sparks immediately alerted both state and federal law enforcement. However, the girl’s social media posts continue.

Although some agencies are trying to use the information contained in her posts to help locate “Princess” and bring the men exploiting her to justice, past rescues have failed to provide the girl with trauma-informed services. Instead, she tells her followers that previous rescue attempts left her jailed and then returned to the same living situation that she ran away from.

There is no guarantee if—or when—“Princess” will be found.

She has already been erroneously criminalized and hasn’t received appropriate services, which is unfathomable considering that “Princess” is a sex-trafficked minor, but her experience is not uncommon.

In order to better combat sex trafficking, law enforcement must be given the resources—and the support—to swiftly intervene in these situations and connect sex-trafficking survivors like “Princess” with long-term, trauma-informed care by trained service providers.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Websites and social media services can be used as a catalyst for sex-trafficking victim identification and rescue, but this is meaningless if there isn’t expeditious and appropriate response.

Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Why Global Warming Imperils Global Security

Mass migration fueled by drought and changing weather patterns is an incubator for terrorism, warns the director of John Jay’s terrorism center.

Global warming haunts the imagination of most critically aware people on the planet.  Signs of climate change are everywhere: in rising sea levels, melting ice caps, more violent storms, and spreading deserts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the bold efforts in some areas to develop alternative sources of energy, the radical change, if not collapse, of civilization as we know it seems imminent.  Whole economies could well be disrupted with implications for massive transfers of populations.

In the United States, we are comparatively numb to the consequences of severe climate change.

Those on Cape Cod could see the value of their real estate erode; much of South Florida may have to be given up for waste; and the heat and fires in the Southwest could erode the health of everyone from Los Angeles to Austin.

But as Pope Francis has pointed out in his majestic encyclical, Laudato Si of 2015, the world’s poor—those in the global south and least responsible for climate change—are the ones already most at risk and certain in the future to bear the brunt of the changes.

The deaths could be in the hundreds of millions; the suffering unimaginable.

One underappreciated dimension of global warming is its relationship to security.  Environmentalists in general work diligently to awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change and to develop ways of mitigating the disasters we face.

But for the most part the worlds of climatology and security diverge sharply.

Only the military has been reflecting on issues of security in relationship to global warming for the last 15 years, but even their focus is on what they fear is the potential of wars over resources that could spill over into larger conflicts.

I have been studying climate change and terrorism seriously now for the last four years.  One example of my concerns was the war in Syria.  A drought there from 2006 to 2011 pushed some 800,000 people from their land in rural northeastern Syria.

The climate refugees inundated the cities, especially Aleppo, putting great stress on available resources.

The social and economic disruptions caused by the drought, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, in a small country led by a brutal dictator, brought on a civil war that began in March of 2011.

We cannot understand ISIS except in the context of global warming.

Within two years, Syria became a failed state, which in turn attracted hundreds of Jihadi groups.  Out of that chaos, the leader of the violent pack turned out to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The drought didn’t create ISIS, which surged forth in June, 2014 to wreak havoc; but we cannot understand that uniquely apocalyptic group except in the context of global warming.

Another example is Bangladesh.  This country of 160 million people lies perilously close to sea levels that are themselves on the rise.  The country also possesses a fragile democracy with many Jihadi political entities and an unknown number of individuals and groups waiting for their moment to emerge.

Bangladesh itself was created from East Pakistan in the wake of the 1971 Bhola Cyclone and the civil war and genocide that followed.  Global warming, by all accounts, unsettles weather patterns and tends to intensify storms.  A newly violent cyclone in the future could kill tens of millions in a heartbeat.

Social and political chaos would result.  Millions of climate refugees would flock toward India, which, anticipating just such an eventuality, has constructed a vast wall along its border (some 750 kilometers is complete).

It won’t keep people out.

New violence, even genocide, could well arise between India’s billion Hindus and its minority Muslim population of about 150 million people.   Such ethnic war could well bring Pakistan into the fray.  And both India and Pakistan bristle with nuclear weapons.

With a colleague, I recently conducted some opinion research on American attitudes about climate change and security.  Working with GfK custom Research and LLC (GfK), we asked some focused questions on this issue to a statistically significant group of Americans.

Our recent report, produced by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism  suggests that the public—even those who believe that climate change is happening and that human actions are causing or contributing to it—remains largely unfamiliar with the idea of a connection between climate change and security.

Just 38 percent of all respondents, and 42 percent of those who think human-caused climate change is occurring, acknowledged that climate change may multiply global threats such as political violence or mass migrations, or act as a catalyst for conflict.

Even fewer, only about 14 percent of all respondents, had ever heard or read that a severe drought in Syria, likely caused or worsened by climate change, was one of the factors that helped spark (and continue to fuel) the conflict.

But there was one encouraging note we learned from our survey. Respondents indicated they were open to change their behavior if they came to believe that climate change and security were causally interrelated.  Participants reported the greatest willingness to take action if U.S. national security, rather than global security, were at stake.

What kind of “action”?

Taking an inclusive approach to “openness,” encompassing “definitely,” “probably,” and “maybe” responses, we found that 90 percent of those who think human climate change is occurring  were open to modifying their voting priorities, and 93 percent were open to seriously considering lifestyle changes, if they perceived a threat to national security.

When excluding “maybe” responses, willingness to “probably” or “definitely” adapt behavior along the same lines measured at 66 percent and 67 percent respectively among those who think that human-caused climate change is occurring.

Charles B. Strozier. Photo by Donnelly Marks.

These are cautiously hopeful findings.  They suggest most Americans are open to the idea of climate change while at the same time uninformed about what is happening.

Greater knowledge of the imminent dangers could bring actual personal and political change.  The moral here is clear.  Inform the public.

Charles B. Strozier is professor of history and founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Colombia and Drugs: Rex Tillerson’s ‘Coca Confusion’

Despite a return to hardline drug-war rhetoric, the U.S. has weakened its partnership with other key allies in the war on drugs in the hemisphere, says a hemisphere expert. Exhibit A: the current policy muddle about how to stem Colombia’s increasing coca crop.

“We are at a challenged place with them right now,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of Colombia at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month.

This is a remarkable thing to say about a country that has been the United States’ closest ally in Latin America for nearly 20 years. But it’s probably true, and it’s mostly the U.S. government’s own doing.

Colombia is not the only “challenge.”

Despite a return to hardline drug-war rhetoric, the U.S. has weakened its partnership with other key allies in the war on drugs in the hemisphere.  Funding cuts have already depleted the State Department’s team of Latin American experts in the region, and are raising questions about the future of many regional programs aimed at combating drug trafficking into the U.S.

But Colombia should be of particular concern to Washington’s “drug warriors.”

The country came up often during Tillerson’s schedule of congressional hearings during the week of June 12. Latin America’s third most-populous country is at a critical moment. On June 20, a peace process culminated with the full disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), by far the hemisphere’s largest guerrilla group. Violence right now is near 40-year lows.

On the other hand, new organized-crime groups are popping up, while cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, is at or near all-time highs.

Instead of the challenges of implementing peace, it was the coca issue that dominated discussion during Tillerson’s congressional appearances. The Secretary told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) on June 13 that he sees “flaws” in Colombia’s November 2016 peace accord and is urging President Juan Manuel Santos to revive a U.S.-backed program, suspended in 2015, to spray herbicides from aircraft over the remote rural areas where farmers grow coca.

“We have told them, though, we’ve got to get back to the spraying; we’ve got to get back to destroying these fields,” Tillerson said. “(We’ve told them) that they’re in a very bad place now in cocaine supply to the United States, and the president talked to President Santos directly about that.”

Tillerson’s comments struck a nerve in Colombia, and were widely covered in Colombian media.  It put on the defensive officials in Santos’ administration, which suspended the spraying program after a 2015 World Health Organization literature review concluded that the chemical used in the aerial spraying—glyphosate—is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

With U.S. support, Colombia had sprayed glyphosate mixtures over 1.7 million hectares (about 4.25 million acres) of territory between 2000 and 2015. The coca-producing nations of Peru and Bolivia do not allow aerial spraying: Government representatives eradicate the crop on the ground.

The aerial fumigation program’s defenders in Colombia argued that the FARC conflict made on-the-ground conditions too unsafe.

After 20 years of spraying, the results were mixed. Especially in the early 2000s, fumigation proved capable of causing short-term drops in coca cultivation. But farmers in abandoned, neglected coca-growing zones found ways to adjust, even as they complained of health effects from the chemicals sprayed from overhead.

With no other economic options in stateless territories, they nimbly replanted, at times moving to new areas. A decade ago, when the spray program was at its height, U.S. analysts concluded that  Colombian coca cultivation had  recovered to levels last seen before the spraying intensified.

Post-2007 decreases in coca owed more to an increased on-the-ground presence of Colombian government personnel, and to manual eradication.

Tillerson’s call to revive fumigation had a consequence that the program’s backers surely didn’t intend. Top Colombian officials responded with media statements defending the 2015 decision to suspend aerial eradication, characterizing it in strong terms as a failed program.

These included President Santos, Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo, eradication chief Eduardo Diaz and—most damagingly—Vice President Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a longtime former National Police chief who supervised the spraying program near its height.

“Every strategy runs its course,” Gen. Naranjo told El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper.

Later in the week, the situation became more muddled: it appears that Secretary Tillerson misspoke. On June 14, he spoke to a House committee about “being able to secure areas so people could go in and actually spray these fields; because they have to be sprayed largely from the ground, it’s difficult terrain to spray them from the air.”

Having eradicators wear herbicide sprayers on their backs is still unlikely to reduce coca significantly if it is not paired with a government presence providing basic services, like roads and land titles, in coca-growing zones.

Still, in his later remarks, Tillerson was endorsing something that Colombia is already doing. Officials report eradicating over 15,000 hectares, mostly with this on-the-ground spray method, so far in 2017.

An e-mail response from the State Department to the investigative website InsightCrime made Tillerson’s walk-back more explicit: “The Secretary never talked specifically about aerial erad[ication]. He mentioned ‘spraying’ more generally, and of course coca eradication in Colombia has included both aerial spraying as well as land-based spraying (with officers on-the-ground using backpack units).”

The coca confusion, and resulting damage to the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship, points to larger dysfunction in the Trump administration’s foreign policy apparatus.

The State Department has no lack of seasoned officials with years of working on Colombia, who could explain to higher-ups both the history of eradication techniques and the Colombian government’s plan, within the context of the 2016 FARC peace accord, to eradicate coca in a less confrontational manner.

Unfortunately, the State Department is badly depleted right now, with a severe lack of mid-level officials including an assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. It’s evident that the mid-levels are not transmitting important knowledge to the upper echelons.

With greater communication and less dysfunction, it’s more likely that even the hardline Trump administration would view the current moment as an opportunity more than an emergency.

Instead of scolding and “pressing” Colombia (Secretary Tillerson’s word) to readopt an old solution whose record is mixed at best, or making the bilateral relationship all about cocaine (essentially bringing us back to the 1990s), the U.S. could be doing more to help make the plan laid out in the peace accords a reality.

Adam Isacson

Colombia needs financial and technical help to follow through on its commitments to work with tens of thousands of families in neglected rural areas, getting them to stop growing the crop. As foreseen in the peace accord, Colombia’s government has signed agreements covering about 80,000 families and over 60,000 hectares of coca—but its ability to follow through is uncertain.

For the U.S. to play a useful, forward-looking role, the State Department needs to get its act together, with responsible officials in place and more fluid internal communication so that the Secretary is able to convey a more coherent message to Congress and the Colombian government.

Adam Isacson is Senior Associate for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Justice Reform Under Trump: Some Good News?

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

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

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

The dry language of the announcement belies its significance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Holder supported this? Forget about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s refreshing.

And worth watching.

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

from https://thecrimereport.org

Can We End Terrorists’ ‘Free Pass’ on Social Media?

Preventing violent extremists from accessing the Internet is now critical to the fight against terrorism, argues a cyber security specialist. A recent Facebook announcement may point the way.

Historically, illicit actors have utilized media sources to gain supporters and new recruits, engage in psychological warfare, and spread propaganda. The perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide, for example, used the radio to vilify a target population, incite violence, and spread hate propaganda.

They, like other propagandists who exploit media platforms, wanted to polarize society by classifying the targets of their hatred as enemy “others.”

While the aims haven’t changed, the platforms have. And so must the measures used to combat them.

At the time of the Rwanda genocide, proposals to jam the radio signals of those spreading hate propaganda and inciting violence were dismissed as being too difficult and too costly to implement.

This inaction was devastating. Hate messages spread. Calls on the radio for the extermination of an entire ethnic group influenced listeners to viciously attack and kill. An estimated 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsi population—between 500,000 and one million people—were murdered during a 100-day period in 1004.

Today, terrorists use social media platforms to spread messages of hate. They use the Web to call supporters to take up arms, to kill or harm their purported enemies (a category very broadly defined), and to terrorize target populations.

Meanwhile, arguments against limiting terrorists’ access to such platforms are similar to those made during the Rwanda genocide. Once again, opponents say blocking terrorist sites is both too technically difficult and too costly.

The terrorist groups have taken advantage of the free pass they have effectively been given.

If there’s any doubt about how important social media is to their strategy, consider that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made death threats against Twitter employees who attempted to take down terrorists’ accounts.

Most social media companies acknowledge that terrorists and those who support and encourage terrorism have no place on their platforms. Yet terrorism-related content is proliferating, giving terrorists unfettered and unprecedented access to millions of users around the globe.

Let’s not forget that terrorism is a form of theater. Each act is designed to provoke emotions (that is, fear in the population) and a desired response (an over-reaction by the public, security professionals and government agencies in the form of discriminatory practices against a misidentified target population and/or expansive police and surveillance powers).

The over-reactions in turn are used in terrorists’ propaganda campaigns to legitimize their cause and actions.

But quashing the use of social media by violent extremist groups should not be considered an “over-reaction.” It has become essential to the fight against terrorism.

Social media platforms must proactively take down accounts that support, encourage, and promote terrorism. Currently, the majority of these platforms only react when threats or dangers are brought to their attention, and the reaction is usually selective. With a few exceptions, most of the major Web service companies place the onus of identifying content that violates their terms of service on the public.

That’s wrong.

Some private groups, such as Anonymous, have acted on their own. A case in point is their takedown of ISIS and ISIS supporter Twitter accounts following the 2015 terrorist attacks in France.

It is important to remember that social media platforms are private and not public platforms, which means that these private platforms can regulate conduct as they see fit. When users utilize them, they effectively agree to the terms of service that set appropriate rules of behavior online.

Such rules of behavior include barring certain types of conduct, such as nudity, abuse, and hate speech. More recently, the rules have explicitly included bans on the support, encouragement and promotion of terrorism.

So a new law or regulation isn’t really needed. Nor do we need an expansion of police powers to monitor and search social media content.

The platforms should merely live up to their terms of service, by enforcing them pro-actively. While many suggest the complexities of the web make this unfeasible, social media platforms already have developed programs to monitor illicit activities ranging from child pornography and bullying to the theft of copyrighted works.

Surely, such programs can be modified to block and take down terrorism-related content.

The tools for doing so are already there. Social media platforms can “shadow- ban” a user—that is, they can make the offending users’ posts invisible to all but the person who is posting. Why can’t this practice be utilized on terrorists and terrorist supporters?

Another program, which can hash and detect questionable images on both visible and deep web sites, can be easily modified to identify and block images of terrorists and terrorist propaganda.

Still another can copyright both images and videos to prevent them from being uploaded online. An example of this type of program is YouTube’s ContentID, which enables users to upload copyrighted videos to a database; the program then searches for the copyrighted content on YouTube.

Why can’t such technology be used to take down leading jihadist propagandist videos from YouTube, such as those of Anwar al-Awlaki, which many law enforcement specialists say has inspired recent terrorist actions in London?

As most people know, ISIS has posted videos on YouTube depicting violent acts such as beheadings and Mujatweets, which are brief videos that depict ISIS as a generous organization and positive presence in its territories.

Why can’t a program like ContentID be leveraged to remove these videos from YouTube—videos which clearly violate the site’s terms of service?

A limiting factor in taking a proactive approach to blocking and removing terrorism-related content is not difficulty, but cost. Social media platforms apparently don’t want to invest their time, or their human and financial resources to engage in this practice. In view of that, social media platforms should be provided with incentives to offset the costs that these organizations incur by engaging in these practices.

The reality is that there are solutions; they just take time and money.

Marie-Helen Maras

There’s no reason why the media mega-giants who dominate the Internet today can’t take a proactive approach to dealing with terrorists’ use of social media. In fact, Facebook recently announced that it would use artificial intelligence to remove terrorist content from its platform. This illustrates that social media platforms can do more.

They just need to be persuaded that it is in their interests, as well as ours, to do so.

Marie-Helen Maras is a former U.S. Navy law enforcement and security specialist and author of “Cybercriminology.” She is currently an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Why Silencers Aren’t Golden

The NRA is lobbying for a bill that would loosen access to gun silencers. But there’s more at stake here than meets the ear, argues TCR’s legal columnist.

If you heard that a proposed law was entitled the “Hearing Protection Act,” you might believe the law was intended, say, to strengthen protections for the hearing of workers exposed to high noise levels on the job or to require healthcare plans to cover the costs of auditory tests.

As reasonable as those assumptions may be, they’re wrong.

The Hearing Protection Act of 2017 is actually a bill being lobbied for by the National Rifle Association and the American Suppressor Association—who even knew such an organization existed!—which aims to loosen restrictions on access to silencers for guns.

Their argument in favor of easy access to silencers (which they refer to as “suppressors”) isn’t based on the Second Amendment but on health concerns. Their claim is that gun owners need silencers so they don’t go deaf from the noise made by their firearms.

If passed, the Act would:

  • Eliminate a $200 transfer tax on silencers;
  • Treat anyone who acquires or possesses a silencer as meeting any registration or licensing requirements under the National Firearms Act (essentially eliminating the need to undergo fingerprinting and a federal background check); and
  • Amend federal criminal law to preempt state or local laws that tax or regulate silencers.

Presumably, President Trump would happily sign the Act into law. His son Donald Trump Jr. is a key backer of the bill. In a recent speech to the NRA, the president himself declared an end to the “eight-year assault” on gun rights.

Yes, guns are noisy. For example, a study of noise levels at a firing range found that, during most training exercises, firearms instructors were exposed to peak sound pressure levels greater than 150 decibels, which exceeds NIOSH’s recommended limit of 140 decibels.

Although silencers don’t completely suppress the sound of a gunshot, they do muffle it. (On the NPR website, you can hear what several kinds of guns sound like both with and without silencers.)

Yes, continual exposure to loud noises such as gunfire can irrevocably damage your hearing, causing conditions such as noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus.

But gun owners already have easy access to suitable hearing protection: earplugs and earmuffs. Even the American Suppressor Association acknowledges, “Suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by an average of 20–35 dB, which is roughly the same as earplugs or earmuffs.”

In addition, hearing experts advocate the use of hearing protection by anyone firing a gun.

For example, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) doesn’t recommend the use of suppressors to minimize hearing loss from firearms noise. Instead, it advises the use of appropriate hearing protective devices, such as earmuffs or earplugs.

Similarly, a position statement by the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) explains that the use of a suppressor doesn’t eliminate the risk of noise-induced hearing loss; it only reduces the risk by reducing the intensity of the sound emission.

So, manufacturers can’t guarantee that use of silencers alone will prevent hearing loss. As a result, the NHCA recommends that consumers wear hearing protection whenever shooting firearms—including when using a silencer.

Of course, earplugs and earmuffs are only effective if shooters actually wear them.

However, studies have shown that only about half of shooters wear hearing protection all the time when target practicing, says the ASHA. Hunters are even less likely to wear hearing protection because they say they can’t hear approaching game or other noises. But the organization notes that there are many products that let shooters hear softer sounds while still protecting them from loud sounds such as gunfire.

Simply put, we shouldn’t make silencers easier to get just because gun owners can’t be bothered to use the hearing protection already available to them. Instead of advocating for easier access to silencers, the NRA would be better served by upping its efforts to encourage gun owners to wear earplugs and/or earmuffs whenever they shoot their guns.

The hearing protection argument is just a smokescreen. The NRA is reflexively against any measure that it perceives as limiting in any way the rights of gun owners to have access to any and all guns—and gun accessories—that they want.

Although silencers may provide increased protection of the hearing of shooters, they arguably undercut overall public health and safety.

The sound of gunfire alerts people that someone is firing a weapon nearby and that they should take suitable precautions. If that sound is muffled, people may be unaware that they’re in danger and thus not take cover.

In addition, the sound of gunfire may drive individuals to call the police, alerting authorities to a possible crime or accidental shooting. But if a gun has a silencer, no one may hear it when it’s fired and so someone in need of medical attention may not get it in time.

Moreover, if the sound of a gunshot is suppressed, it may not trigger gunshot alert systems, such as the ShotSpotter System used by various police departments including the NYPD.

Of course, the NRA contends that silencers aren’t frequently used by criminals. However, loosened restrictions on this equipment may result in an increase in their use in crimes.

Robin Barton

In short, I believe that unless you’re a spy, an assassin or the like, there’s no legitimate reason to have a silencer for a gun.

If the NRA has its way, gun owners across the country will not only be able to carry concealed weapons practically anywhere, but also to silence those weapons. If that prospect doesn’t make you nervous, it should.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org