Why Sessions’ Decision to Close Forensic Commission Hurts Victims of Crime

The decision to shelve the 40-member commission and abandon DOJ’s Forensic Science Discipline Reviews is a “troubling” step backwards in efforts to apply scientific knowledge to trial evidence, warns a former commission member.

“You guys are the scientists and legal experts.  How can you let this keep happening?”

That was the question asked by Keith Harward, who spent more than 32 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, due to inaccurate bite-mark testimony.

His audience, the 40 members of the National Commission on Forensic Science, had no reply. That morning earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had announced his decision not to renew the group’s charter—effectively eliminating the group and leaving prosecutors, police, defense attorneys, judges, and juries without unified national guidance on how to improve the use of scientific information in criminal justice.

Improving forensic science should be an oasis of nonpartisan agreement in today’s hyperpolitical world.

Ensuring the accuracy of the criminal justice system is not a prosecution, police or defense issue. It’s a justice issue, and scientific techniques can be very helpful in supporting all parts of the criminal justice system in its most important goal: finding the truth.

Despite the best efforts of our crime lab professionals, however, forensic errors are widespread, with substantial consequences.

A Boston crime lab recently reversed 23,000 drug convictions because a single analyst simply made up results without conducting drug tests.  [Ed. Note: Prosecutors in Massachussetts, as a result, this week agreed to drop the cases.] Houston, Portland, and Las Vegas are wrestling with hundreds of flawed convictions based on unreliable field drug tests.  Crime labs in Detroit, Austin, San Francisco, Washington DC, and elsewhere have been shut down or restructured due to repeated violations of scientific best practices.

Experts from the FBI crime lab, long the gold standard in the field, gave inaccurate testimony on the reliability of microscopic hair comparisons in thousands of cases starting in the 1980s.  Other errors abound, like the junk science testimony on bite marks that wrongfully convicted Keith Harward, or the arson testimony that wrongfully convicted Han Tak Lee.

In fact, forensic errors played a role in 480 (24%) of the 2,013 confirmed exonerations in the US to date.

The National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) was formed by the Department of Justice in 2013 to advise the Attorney General on how to improve forensic science.  Its members include federal, state and local forensic science service providers, research scientists and academics, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and other stakeholders from across the country.

They were tasked with developing recommendations to “enhance the practice and improve the reliability of forensic science,” and its members were engaged across a very broad range of topics designed to improve the application of science in our courts.

The complex challenges involved require precisely the sort of interdisciplinary assessment provided by the NCFS, and the Commission made remarkable progress in its short lifespan.  Lab accreditation standards have improved and expanded, and the NCFS promoted a national code of professional responsibility for forensic scientists, supported and described systems of continuous quality management for labs, and promoted improved analytical structures and improved competency and proficiency testing.

These initiatives will improve the quality of our crime labs so that they operate at the highest possible levels of scientific excellence. But much more remains to be done.

That includes establishing standards for accurate testimony about error rates and levels of certainty in fingerprints, ballistics, handwriting, and other comparative disciplines; setting criteria for assessments of digital forensics, cognitive biases; and improved standards for expert trial testimony.

These were among the important topics still on the NCFS agenda.

Addressing these issues has been challenging, and involved healthy amounts of conflict and debate.  The members of the NCFS have not always been in agreement, but they have learned to respect each other as honest brokers dedicated to improving the criminal justice system.  That respect provides a foundation for progress and improvement.

New presidential administrations are not bound to the decisions of their predecessors, but ending the NCFS, and the troubling decision to abandon DOJ’s Forensic Science Discipline Reviews, can only slow the implementation of improvements.  No other group has the skills and the mutual trust necessary to tackle combined issues of law and science openly and honestly.

Any new approach will take months or years to gel, if it ever does.  In the meantime, errors will continue at their current unacceptable rate.

Allowing the NCFS to expire does nothing to help Keith Harward, convicted due to debunked expert testimony in a field that has been summarily disproved by reputable scientists.  It does nothing to help victims of crime like the woman whose rape was pinned on Harward.  And it does nothing to help the next rape victim, the next wrongfully accused man, or the next lawyers, judges, or juries presented unwittingly with inaccurate or poorly conducted forensic comparisons.

The National Commission on Forensic Science has been an instrument of truth and excellence bringing together the best minds of our country for the greater good.

It should be renewed and allowed to continue its work.

Without the NCFS, or something like it to move forensic science forward, errors will continue to happen.  We owe it to Keith Harward and the thousands of people like him to do better.

John F. Hollway is Associate Dean, University of Pennsylvania Law School and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. He also served as a member of the subcommittees on Interim Solutions and on Human Factors at the National Commission on Forensic Science. He welcomes readers’ comments.


from https://thecrimereport.org

The Immigration Crackdown: Is Anywhere Safe?

In our continuing series highlighting jurisdictions to watch as efforts to deport the undocumented multiply, John Jay researcher Daniel Stageman examines Alamance County in North Carolina, where a civil rights suit stopped local law enforcement from enforcing detention orders. Will it get new life under Trump?

Media and public attention on immigration enforcement has become vital in light of the Trump Administration’s continued impact on the news cycle.

The President’s announcement during his joint address to Congress in February that he was open to ‘compromise on immigration reform’ may not be a deliberate distraction from ongoing developments in enforcement and detention, but it attracted significant media attention that might otherwise have been turned elsewhere.

Among the substantive immigration enforcement developments that this and similar high-profile public announcements from the White House pushed out of the headlines were the increasingly aggressive actions of ICE agents themselves, who appear after the reversal of Obama-era discretion policies to be making symbolic arrests that sow fear among immigrant populations.

Some of these arrests seem tailor-made to communicate the message that literally nowhere is safe.

That undermines any sense of security that might be taken from sanctuary cities or sanctuary campuses. Perhaps more importantly, the arrests undermine the participation of undocumented immigrants (and, frequently, their US citizen children) in constitutionally protected human rights like public education and public safety.

This widespread sense of fear and insecurity compounds two other current issues regarding immigration control: the enormous and growing backlog of federal immigration cases—in a context where immigrants will now be nearly universally subject to mandatory detention while asylum and other immigration cases are under review; and the now-public efforts of DHS to quickly and significantly expand detention capacity by as many as 20,000 beds.

That suggests John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security, expects a nearly 50% increase in the current “average daily population” (ADP) of 41,000 immigrants in detention on any given day.

Such an expansion will not only represent a windfall for private/for-profit detention providers like CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group, but also for the county sheriffs who operate local jails with spare beds that can be leased to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through intergovernmental service agreements (IGSAs) for what is often a lucrative per diem fee.

This phenomenon will likely be especially pronounced in jurisdictions along the US-Mexico border, where the ending of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) “catch-and-release” policy will mean yet another influx of new detainees.

Another key question is how the new hardline approach will work in counties where the 287g agreement is no longer in effect.  One example:  Alamance County in North Carolina.

The Alamance County Sheriffs’ Office (ACSO) lost its 287g agreement in 2012 in the midst of federal civil rights litigation alleging racial profiling of Latinos under the auspices of the program.  Thus, signing a new 287g with the ACSO would be a clear repudiation of Obama-era enforcement policy.

Such repudiations are arguably the Trump administration’s stock-in-trade across a whole spectrum of policy arenas, but the symbolism of entering an enforcement agreement with a jurisdiction previously under investigation for civil rights violations would be particularly telling.

The Alamance County Sheriff, Terry S. Johnson, appears in many of his public statements to be an ideologue in the mold of some other sheriffs previously covered in this series, if somewhat less outspoken. Perhaps the most significant differences between Alamance and the other jurisdictions we have examined are demographic. Alamance, with a population of about 150,000 has had a large and growing Latino community since the 1990s—accounting in the last census for over 11% of the county’s population.

From the perspective of those fighting the current administration’s immigration policies, the cancellation of its 287g agreement makes it an important jurisdiction.  Its 287g was ended  through the intervention of a tool—federal civil rights litigation—that is unlikely to be available to advocates under the current administration.

What other kinds of litigation or approaches to grassroots organizing remain possible in the face of an emboldened immigration enforcement apparatus?  That has yet to be tested, but a renewed 287g agreement in Alamance County would arguably represent an attack on civil rights and constitutional protections necessitating an early test of these strategies.

Using the format I applied in previous profiles of “jurisdictions to watch,” here is a closer look at Alamance County.


Graham, North Carolina. County seat of Alamance County. Photo by Doug Kerr via Flickr


Terry S. Johnson, a Republican, has been Alamance County Sheriff since 2002, and is currently under consideration for an appointment to the US Marshals Service under the Trump administration. Johnson, who was accused under the Department of Justice’s 2012 investigation of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) of referring to Spanish speakers as “taco eaters”, “received support [for his appointment] from every sheriff in the other 23 counties in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina.”

The Department of Justice brought suit against Johnson himself (rather than the ACSO as a whole) in 2012, after he categorized the DOJ’s findings in their initial investigation as “completely false. ”In what was then a first for the DOJ’s civil rights actions against law enforcement agencies, the Department lost its case against Johnson in 2015, with US District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder finding that the government had not proved its argument.

While the DOJ originally appealed the verdict, it dropped that appeal in August of 2016.


280 in 2012.  That number is significantly lower than the annual average of 355 that the ACSO achieved in the five preceding years of 287g enforcement, and it likely reflected the pressure that the ongoing DOJ investigation put the department under.

Alamance County’s population of 150,000 was 11% Hispanic or Latino according to the 2010 census.  So if most of the arrestees processed for deportation were Latino county residents, around 2% of this community was directly affected on an annual basis. Given the likely indirect effects of this enforcement on children, partners, other family members, and the community at large, Alamance’s immigrant population may have long been familiar with the level of stress and uncertainty currently being experienced by immigrant communities nationwide.


The Intergovernmental Service Agreement through which ICE contracted with the Alamance County Jail to provide bed space for immigrant detainees appears to have been rescinded along with the county’s 287g MOA in late 2012. At its 2010-11 peak, however, its average of 45 immigrant detainees would have made up 15% of the jail’s average daily population of 300. As recently as 2016, the ACSO shuttered a 76-bed detention center “annex” as a cost-saving measure; as discussed above, there is a clear incentive to monetize this excess bed space under the Trump administration’s expansion of detention capacity.


The Alamance County Jail held an average of 29 immigrant detainees on any given day throughout 2012. This represents a significant drop-off from the approximate ADP of 89 when the county first signed its 287g MOA in 2007. With a per diem of $61, the ACSO’s detention and related operations yielded $2.6 million from ICE that year – $1.87 million for detention, and $730 thousand for transportation.

Alamance’s reduced 2012 ADP indicates a partnership going out of favor in the face of the DOJ’s ongoing civil rights investigation. Under these reduced circumstances, ADP income would likely have been cut by over 50% from documented 2007 levels ($71 x 29 detainees x 365 days) to $750,000 for detention alone. Alamance’s 2007 IGSA gives us the ability to further estimate a proportional income from transportation of $275,000 (730k/541 = $1,350 per detainee in 2007, or $1,565 x 176 total detainees in 2012).

Thus even under DOJ investigation, Alamance probably cleared $1 million in funding for detention and transportation of deportable immigrants. Interestingly, the total funding that could be directly attributed to Alamance’s enforcement activity under 287g—about $1.64 million ($71x 280 processed for deportation x 60-day average stay = $1.2m, + 280 x $1,565=$440k)—is in fact 60% higher than the amount the recorded ADP suggests, illustrating the clear budgetary importance of maintaining the appearance of unbiased enforcement under the Obama-era DHS.


Alamance County entered into its 287g enforcement agreement in 2007, as part of a wave of several North Carolina jurisdictions that joined that year. The ACSO’s original 287g memorandum of agreement was an agreement for jail enforcement only, adding a cautionary note to statements by other 287g-supporting sheriffs that jail enforcement agreements are intrinsically safer than street enforcement agreements or comparatively free of bias.

The crux of the DOJ’s case against Johnson was research indicating that Latinos in Alamance County were significantly more likely than other ethnicities to be stopped at ACSO roadblocks and for minor traffic violations, and more likely to be arrested rather than warned or cited when stopped. This largely replicated the enforcement patterns cited in criticisms that characterized 287g task-force agreements as biased and reliant on profiling.

The material difference between task-force and jail-based 287g agreements lies in the fact that interrogation about immigration status takes place within the confines of the county jail in the case of the latter, and in the public view for the former. This difference does not inoculate jail enforcement agreements from patterns of arrest intended to yield higher numbers of detentions and deportations.


As discussed above, whether under Sheriff Johnson during his remaining time in office, or under his successor at a later date, the reentry of an emboldened Alamance County Sheriff’s Office into the 287g fold would represent a clear symbolic break from Obama-era cautions around profiling-based immigration enforcement by local jurisdictions.

To renew an agreement with Alamance would arguably represent an implicit statement—at most hinted at in Trump’s January 25th Executive Orders and the follow-up Kelly memo—that racial profiling and other forms of biased enforcement would be tacitly acceptable for local jurisdictions acting in support of the administration’s stated detention and deportation goals.

Even in the context of an emboldened ICE and an increasingly indiscriminate immigrant detention and deportation regime, this tacit approval of unconstitutional policing practices would represent a new and extreme departure from established professional law enforcement standards.

Daniel Stageman

It would also be a redirection of the federal civil rights apparatus (encompassing both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security) that has long been tasked with supporting them. Advocates and other close observers may well be expecting this departure, but would do well to keep an eye on Alamance County to see if it is confirmed.

Daniel L. Stageman, PhD is Director of Research Operations at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a criminologist whose scholarship focuses on making sense of America’s punitive approach to immigrants. He can be contacted at dstageman(at)jjay.cuny.edu. Other articles in his series are archived on The Crime Report: Etowah County, AL;    Frederick County, Md.; and Orange County, Ca.;  Read Dr. Stageman’s introduction to the series, “Where Will Trump’s Deportation Force Strike Hardest?” here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

What the Movement for Patient Safety Could Teach Our Flawed Justice System

A unique Massachusetts agency devoted to the analysis of medical errors, inspired by the 1995 death of award-winning Boston reporter Betsy Lehman, could be a model for getting past the bitter debates about who to blame for miscarriages of justice.

Twenty-three years ago, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a prestigious Harvard teaching hospital, killed a 39-year-old woman undergoing experimental breast cancer treatment by giving her massive overdoses of a chemotherapy drug.

She died as she was preparing to leave the hospital and go home to her two daughters, aged 7 and 3.   The doctors didn’t listen to her warnings that there was something terribly wrong, and they missed tests indicating heart damage.

The medication error (four times the intended dose) was not discovered until a routine data check by a clerk months later.   A second patient had received a similar overdose during the same week.  She barely survived.

Betsy Lehman. Courtesy of Betsy Lehman Center (still from video)

The fatal victim was Betsy Lehman, a respected health reporter for the Boston Globe, and the media reaction was apocalyptic.

There were 28 front-page articles damning the hospital.  The Globe editorialized that the mistake wouldn’t have been made by a first-year medical student.  A Globe columnist wrote that the overdoses “would make the Three Stooges look like brain surgeons.”

Sometimes, it seems that the criminal justice system generates a comparable front- page tragedy every day—horrific outcomes that no one wanted, inflicting death and trauma.

An officer shoots a deranged schizophrenic in front of his family.  An innocent man is wrongly convicted, while the real perpetrator goes free and finds more victims.  Dangerous killers are released while harmless low level arrestees wait for years in jail unable to post money bonds, then hang themselves.

The aftermath of these events has become as stylized as Kabuki theater.  There are cries for prosecution or discipline of the cop or Assistant District Attorney at the sharp end of the system.  This happens, or it doesn’t.

And that’s where things usually end.   “Nothing more to see here, move along” becomes the organizing principle.

Until the next time.

The Lehman tragedy, as one writer put it,  “became patient safety’s Chernobyl (and) helped lead to the recognition that medical errors are most often caused by system-wide failures rather than by an individual who goofs.”

People thought that if this could happen at Dana-Farber, and to a savvy health reporter, it could happen anywhere, and to anyone.

The Lehman tragedy won’t help us understand the flaws in the criminal justice system if we insist that criminal justice is an issue simply of controlling the streets.

But it provides invaluable lessons if we start to take the word “safety” in “public safety” seriously.

The safety we’re talking about here is everyone’s safety, and it will have to be co-produced by criminal justice operators and the communities they serve.

We want to be safe from violent crime, but also from wrongful convictions.

We want acutely ill mental patients to be safe from police shootings, but we also want passing pedestrians and intervening cops to be safe from armed and poorly medicated schizophrenics who should never have been left untreated in the first place.

We want everyone in our communities to be as safe as possible from the collateral damage that blinkered efforts at crime control inflict. That means being safe from assignment to a reduced form of citizenship in which residents are injured by fruitless, harassing stops and frisks, or extended pretrial detentions, and in which young men are buried under a “permanent CV“ that compiles bogus misdemeanor arrests and makes  employment impossible.

Dana-Farber’s initial response to the media firestorm following Betsy Lehman’s death was no model of deftness.  Wide discipline was handed out; internal reports were leaked; doctors filed libel suits; lawyers feuded.   There was a period of chaos.

But ultimately under public and regulatory pressure, the hospital shifted its entire organization. It began to focus not on the “who?” behind the medication errors but on the “why?”

Dana-Farber recognized that safety should be a core property of its system of care.  It gave senior clinical leaders safety responsibility.  It recognized a need for a relentless focus on risk, error and harm, and nourished its error-reporting system.

The institute involved front-line practitioners in the design of protective systems:  in all-ranks, all-stakeholders, teams that included the community and the families of patients.  It recognized safety as something “co-produced” by medical staff and patients.

It made transparency a central goal and, most importantly, it recognized that safety work is never finished; that nothing is permanently “fixed” and that continuous work on quality improvement is the only route to true safety.

This thinking is incubating in criminal justice.

The National Institute of Justice’s Sentinel Events Initiative has promoted an exploration of all-stakeholders (and all-ranks) non-blaming reviews of adverse events and “near misses” and “good catches” where only last-minute luck or exceptional skill avoided a tragedy.

The Police Foundation has launched a Law Enforcement Officers Near Miss utility that tracks the lessons of safety incidents.  The National Commission on Forensic Science has called for routine “root cause analysis” of forensic science errors.

And this is a movement occurring not just at the 30,000-foot level nationally, but also at the grass roots.  The City of Tulsa, for example, now recommends that police conduct non-disciplinary peer reviews of critical incidents.  There are signs everywhere that versions of the painful lessons Dana-Farber learned are being incorporated into criminal justice.

But there is one tantalizing product of the Lehman tragedy that criminal justice has not yet emulated and might consider:  a state or local system-oriented center for carrying out the all-stakeholders work of producing criminal justice safety.

The Betsy Lehman Center is now a small Massachusetts state government agency devoted to patient safety.  (The budget is about $1.5 million.)

Its goals are to:

  • Identify and disseminate information about evidence-based best practices to reduce medical errors and enhance patient safety;
  • Develop a process for determining which evidence-based best practices should be considered for adoption;
  • Serve as a central clearinghouse for the collection and analysis of existing information on the causes of medical errors and strategies for prevention; and
  • Increase awareness of error prevention strategies through public and professional education.

And, strikingly, the Lehman Center’s enabling legislation not only provides a place where practitioners and community stakeholders can focus on safety, it provides a safe place.

Information, accounts, and data collected by or reported to the Lehman Center are not public records, and accordingly not subject to FOIA requests. They are confidential: not subject to subpoena or discovery or being introduced into evidence in any judicial or administrative proceeding, except as otherwise specifically provided by law.

What if we had these in criminal justice?  Modest state (or city, or county, or regional) agencies devoted not to punishing the last criminal justice disaster, but to learning how to prevent the next one?

The financial costs of criminal justice mistakes are, at least at this point, nothing like those involved in medical malpractice, but they are not trivial.  Cutting the risk of paying for repeated avoidable errors in the future probably makes economic sense.

But there’s more to it than that. Whether a criminal justice mistake costs money or not, it does harm, and it erodes public trust in the law and its officers.

Just as a hospital’s mission is healing, not avoiding lawsuits, the criminal justice system exists to dispense justice, not to evade civil judgments.

Criminal justice life provides many “teaching moments”—good catches, near misses—high frequency/low impact events that don’t implicate worries about damage suits.

Even so, there’s no sense in pretending that the threat of damage suits, professional discipline, and even criminal prosecution does not chill productive discussions of the preventable unintentional slips and errors built into the system.

No system can survive without punishing its conscious rule-breakers and compensating their victims.  Those things shouldn’t stop. (The fact is, there are places where there probably aren’t enough disciplinary reactions.)

But explicitly disentangling the forward-looking safety function from disciplinary and punitive processes by giving it a specific place can be an important step in the right direction.

The investment isn’t huge.  The pay-off—in terms of avoiding death, trauma, public alienation, (and, yes, multiplied liability payments for future repetitive failures)—might be enormous.

And, paradoxically, providing some measured confidentiality could even increase net transparency too.

Events that might otherwise be shrugged off or buried can be studied (as the NTSB studies transportation disasters) with confidentially gathered information, and their lessons and data then reported to the public in aggregated or carefully anonymized form.

Maybe the most interesting lesson of the Lehman scandal for readers of The Crime Report is the decisive role that the media firestorm over Lehman’s death played in launching the modern patient safety movement.

There was plenty of hunting for scapegoats and villains in the aftermath of the Lehman overdoses.

But the cumulative Lehman coverage, because of the depth and duration of the investigation provided a sustained interrogation of an august institution and its systems. It energized a paradigm shift by teaching people to see that these tragedies aren’t single-cause events created by lone “bad apples.”

Coverage of the next exoneration that comes along could move the criminal justice system in the same way.

James Doyle

If anything is clear from the struggle for safety in industry, aviation and medicine it is that we can’t improve things while acting within our silos.  Cops, lawyers, corrections and mental health practitioners, crime survivors, and their communities need a place to work on these things together:  to make criminal justice something done with, not “for” or (as it often seems) “to” the communities.  They all know this.

The Betsy Lehman Center might provide us with a vision of how to make that ambition real.

Build it, and they will come.

James Doyle is a Boston defense lawyer and author, and a  frequent contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes  readers’  comments.



















from https://thecrimereport.org

Why Solving Old Murders Can Help Prevent New Ones

Time is the most important resource for detectives examining the thousands of “cold cases” accumulating on police files since 1980. In the interest of public safety, mayors and police chiefs should make sure they get it, says a former deputy chief coroner.

When “hot” and “cold” cases are handled by the same detectives in a police department, both types of investigations suffer.

I wrote recently in The Crime Report that the number of cold-case homicides is rising across the country at the same time as violent crime is increasing—a parallel that is not just a coincidence.  According to data I compiled from various sources, the number of unsolved homicides since 1980 reached 230,355 by 2014—and indications are that the number has continued to rise through 2016.

That figure represents a threat to public safety, if you consider the possibility that even a small percentage of those un-caught murderers may find new victims.

Solving this crisis requires police agencies to create a “dedicated” unit that only handles issues related to their cold cases, and is not brought into a “hot” investigation when a new homicide occurs.

Why is that important? And, given the strain on many police budgets, can it be done?

The answer to the first question should be self-evident.  In newly reported homicides, the situation is evolving quickly as an investigation proceeds—especially if officers are required to address the immediate threat of a perpetrator who may present a clear and present danger.

The nuances of a cold case are different.  There’s plenty of time to carefully read and evaluate the documented evidence.  There isn’t the constant push from supervisors and mayors—not to mention the media and members of the victim’s family—to clear the case.

Moreover, many of the relationships of the actors in a cold-case investigation have changed, and that could produce more and better information.  There may also be physical evidence that hasn’t been evaluated in years.  There’s no hurry: This case isn’t going anywhere until you do something about it.

The only pressure that exists with cold-case investigations comes from either the investigator’s own personal standards, or a supervisor pushing for clearances.

Ideally, a cold-case unit should consist of at least two primary detectives, a supervisory detective, a crime analyst, a dedicated prosecutor,  and at least one person who can provide administrative support. My most recent research, presented in February at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (not yet published),  has shown that having a prosecutor assigned to the cold case unit significantly increases the chances of a proper resolution.

The problem with many newly formed cold-case units is that the two assigned detectives end up being the only members of the unit, and therefore spend excessive amounts of time doing administrative functions. If they had a little support, they could do what they do best: investigate.

What about the cost?  The fact is, a dedicated cold-case unit can help a department arrange its priorities in a more efficient way.

Many jurisdictions have no idea how many cold cases exist on their docket.  Identifying them and then organizing them according to a standard formula can help establish an efficient workflow. The most solvable ones should obviously lead the file.  One colleague has suggested putting female victims first because they present the highest return for the presence of physical evidence.

Conducting a “triage” of the files based first on the availability of physical evidence, then on those where suspects have been identified, followed by cases where much more work is needed to develop either suspects and/or evidence, is both cost-effective and time-effective.

Technology is changing rapidly.  That’s why physical evidence that has not been tested in the last three to five years should be re-tested.

Efficiency is further assured by proper supervision. Case progress needs to be reviewed regularly to ensure all viable leads are followed, and to prevent tunnel vision—such as becoming fixated on a person or theory unsupported by the evidence.

Without good supervisory oversight, mistakes are inevitable. I have seen cases where persons of interest were named in the case file as the perpetrator(s). Yet after ten years, they still had not been interviewed— not even once.

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Having another set of eyes is always helpful.  Research published in 2003 by Robert Keppel[1] on serial killer cases identified many examples of cases where the perpetrator’s name was most likely already in the case file during the first 30 days of the investigation.

Just as importantly, a separate cold-case unit ensures that it will not be held to the same rapid “clearance” standard by which other detectives are measured.

Due to the volume of the information in cold cases, which inevitably necessitates more time spent in reviewing, cold-case detectives need more latitude. They should not be expected to produce quick results.

That’s important to ensure sustainability. The fact that unsolved homicides that have been lingering in the file for years means it now takes a lot more patient and painstaking detective work to finally close them; supervisors should set more flexible standards, backed up by the documentation of every actions taken to solve the case.

When should police give up on a cold case?  Ideally, never.  But realistically, once all viable leads have been exhausted, it’s time to move on.  Not all homicides are solvable.

The ability of the cold case unit to be sustainable over time will go a long way towards getting killers off the streets and helping families move on.

James Adcock

And by implication, it will make a major contribution to public safety.

James M. Adcock, PhD, a retired US Army CID agent, and a former Chief Deputy Coroner of Investigations in Columbia, Richland County, SC, has spent the past 19 years specializing in cold case homicides by training law enforcement, researching, and reviewing cold cases for agencies around the U.S.  He has written two books one on Cold Case Investigations and the other on Death Investigation, both second editions.  In February, he  presented the results of a 15-month study on the status of unresolved homicides to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He welcomes comments from readers.

[1] Keppel, Robert D. and William J. Birnes; 2003. The Psychology of Serial Killer Investigations.  Academic Press. San Diego, CA.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Missing White Woman Syndrome: It’s Not a Media Myth

A Northwestern University researcher finds evidence to support accusations of racial bias in coverage of girls and women who have gone missing–and he says that raises larger questions about how the public perceives victims of crime.

What seemed a shocking statistic out of Washington D.C last month spurred an outcry over the attention (or lack thereof) to missing-persons cases that involve girls and young women.

The statistic, which suggested 14 girls had gone missing in the span of 24 hours, was wrong.  In fact, according to Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department,  which called the figure exaggerated, the number of cases of missing children has actually declined slightly so far in 2017—compared to previous years.

But not all of the criticism is misplaced.  Many observers were troubled by the fact that the girls who were missing  did not seem to be garnering much media attention, given that all of the them appeared to be African American.

Commentators and academics have long targeted perceived disparities in coverage of crime tied to gender and race.  In the specific context of missing persons, the critique has been dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome” or “Missing White Girl Syndrome.”  And as the name suggests, the argument is that missing white women and girls—in particular young, wealthy, attractive white women and girls—garner a disproportionate share of the news coverage dedicated to missing-persons cases.

Examples abound.

The disappearances of Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway, and Lauren Spierer—all of them young white women—have dominated American news cycles. However, less clear is whether empirical evidence supports the “syndrome” on a broader scale.

Surprisingly, despite the substantial amount of time and energy spent trying to explain “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” very little empirical work involving a broad examination of news coverage of missing-persons cases has been done.

In a recent study, I found that disparities do, in fact, exist at two different stages of news coverage of missing-persons cases.

I examined every missing-person news story published on four major news sites (CNN.com, ChicagoTribune.com, AJC.com (The Atlanta Journal Constitution website), and StarTribune.com (The Minneapolis Star Tribune website) in 2013.When I compared the data to the national rates compiled by the FBI, African-American missing persons were significantly underrepresented in the news.

Girls and women were significantly overrepresented.

But these disparities are also compounded by a second factor.

Among those individuals who do receive news coverage, there are additional differences in terms of the amount of coverage—its “intensity”—that each missing individual receives.  Gender and race disparities are actually magnified when considering the quantity of news coverage.  To illustrate, about 33% of the missing persons appearing on the four websites were white women and girls, but stories about those individuals comprised almost 50% of the total coverage.

As a result, there seem to be two different stages of disparities, which are likely driven by editorial decisions about the news value of the story.

Such inequalities in the determination of “newsworthiness” have important implications.  Consumers’ views about crime in general are influenced by news reports.  A disproportionate focus on missing white women reduces public pressure on authorities to focus on minority groups who are seen to somehow matter less.

More research is needed in this area, but if coverage disparities are indeed directly contributing to a fundamentally unfair allocation of police resources, that affects the chances of discovering the fate of the missing individual.

So what can be done to address Missing White Woman Syndrome?

The most obvious changes must come from the newsroom.  News agencies need to make a concerted effort to present a more demographically representative population of missing persons in their coverage, while also ensuring that there are not systematic differences in coverage intensity.

They also must be cognizant of how they represent different types of missing persons.  Previous studies have found evidence that people of color are more often presented in a negative light in news stories on crime.  Factors such as the type of pictures shown of the missing persons or the kinds of descriptors used to characterize them or their cases can unfairly prejudice audiences’ views of these individuals.

Zach Sommers

Increasing awareness of these potential pitfalls can help reduce these harmful disparities.

Going missing, after all, is a tragedy that affects all ethnic groups and genders.  Media coverage should make that clear.

Editor’s Note: For another view, see TCR columnist Robin Barton’s  Op Ed

Zach Sommers is a Law and Science Fellow at Northwestern University.  His research focuses on criminal law and perceptions of crime, and he is the author of Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons. Your comments are welcome.


from https://thecrimereport.org

The Prison Scam That Leads to Violence

Getting a witness to recant testimony is a classic strategy employed by prisoners who have exhausted all their appeals. It never works, says a Washington State inmate—but when that witness is also behind bars, things can get ugly.

There comes a day in every criminal case when police and prosecutors presume there is nothing left for a prisoner to do except serve out the remainder of his sentence.

A jury, unconvinced by his protestations of innocence, has convicted him. Appellate courts have long since rejected arguments that a new trial is warranted based upon claims that his legal rights were violated.  Finally, all of the due process to which a defendant is entitled has been exhausted.

Barring the remote possibility that he will receive a pardon or be granted executive clemency, there is no way for this prisoner to escape the clutches of criminal justice.

But that doesn’t mean he will not try.

In every correctional facility there are small cohorts of prisoners busily devising legalistic schemes to secure their liberty illegitimately.

I have seen such men at work time and again over my 25 years in confinement.  They are cunning and unscrupulous.

Even at such a belated stage of the criminal justice process, these prisoners believe that compromising witnesses is a realistic post-conviction remedy.

Of course, this is sheer fantasy.

Still, this delusion makes them willing to do damn near anything to obtain perjured affidavits from former witnesses recanting their trial testimony.  Then, these prisoners can file legal briefs arguing that this “newly discovered evidence” justifies reversing their convictions and sentences.

I am not revealing a big secret.

In fact, as far back as the Great Depression, the Washington Supreme Court proclaimed, “The untrustworthy character of recanting testimony is well known by those experienced in the trial of criminal cases, and when such evidence is offered, it calls for a rigid scrutiny.”

Given this “rigid scrutiny,” I have yet to see a court hoodwinked by such a scheme.  Nevertheless, countless prisoners continue laboring to present manufactured evidence in a pro se legal brief.

Bribes, extortion, manipulation—all are employed to try and obtain a new trial.

One classic method that I have seen utilized repeatedly to get such evidence I refer to as “Granting Immunity.”  Its success rests upon the foolishness of witnesses who continue to live lives of crime after they assist the government in sending someone up the creek.

All too often prisoners were sold out by accomplices whom the government rewarded by allowing them to remain free.  At other times, the testimony of a prisoner’s criminal associates contributed to his loss of liberty.

Fortunately for prisoners who wish to try their hand at beating the system, the snitches who testified against them are likely to end up in the penitentiary for their own criminal misdeeds.

This is the point at which “immunity” can be granted by either the prisoner who was testified against or his confederates.

The offer is simple: Sign an affidavit claiming to have lied on the witness stand in exchange for not having their corporation with authorities disclosed. Alternatively, suffer ass-whippings and harassment for the rest of their confinement and be shunted to the bottom of the prison hierarchy.

Needless to say, signing a pre-typed affidavit to ensure one’s skeletons stay closeted is the prudent thing to do under these circumstances.

Indeed, were guards to search the legal boxes of prisoners throughout the correctional facility where I am confined, I can guarantee that numerous affidavits signed under duress would be unearthed amongst the documents.

Yet even after all of the efforts to obtain this bogus evidence, the justice system has erected legal barriers to foil the best efforts by the worst of us.

For instance, to obtain a new trial in the State of Washington based upon a witness recanting their testimony the evidence must be credible, it cannot simply be cumulative or impeaching, and, it must be compelling enough to convince a jurist that had the evidence been presented originally it would probably change the results of the trial.

The failure to meet any one of these (or other criteria) is a basis to deny a new trial.  This highlights why such sophomoric plots to deceive the courts are doomed from the start.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am unsympathetic to these prisoners’ motive.

I do morally object to their actions.

However, when police are shielded from real accountability and prosecutors all too often can commit misconduct with impunity, I refuse to condemn prisoners who attempt to beat the system to obtain their liberty.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Ultimately, these cunning and unscrupulous prisoners are simply a funhouse-mirror reflection of those who are willing to subvert the law in their pursuit of justice.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

The Unfinished Business of Juvenile Justice

Most states, with some notable exceptions, have raised the age at which youths are exposed to the adult justice system. But the harder task of improving services for troubled young people is still ahead, warns a Justice Policy Institute expert.

Lawmakers in New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and Texas are currently debating proposals that would move 16-or-17-year-olds (or both) out of the adult criminal justice system and into the juvenile court.

This development comes after seven states raised their age of jurisdiction over the past decade. In those states, as a result, half the number of youth who were previously automatically sent to  adult courts now appear before a juvenile court judge—an outcome which  increases the likelihood that a young person will move past delinquency, and avoid the abuse and harm youth can face in adult facilities.

The governors of New York and North Carolina support “raise the age” proposals.  Now, with a new report issued by the Justice Policy Institute, legislators have evidence that states which made the shift experienced improved public safety and youth-development outcomes, all without overwhelming their juvenile justice systems.

But even with these advances, no state “finishes” the process of building a more effective youth justice system simply by changing a law. Policymaking is an ongoing process of continued improvement and of adopting approaches that will help youth succeed.

For those states that have “raised the age,” and have managed the change without increasing juvenile corrections costs, the next phase of reform will involve revamping their “reinvestment” approach – and stepping up support to serve youth in the community.

There are a number of reasons why Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts served tens of thousands of more teenagers in their courts and corrections systems without seeing costs spike.  The juvenile crime decline that the latest national data says is continuing played a big role in helping these three states absorb new populations of youth without overwhelming the system, which should help persuade New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas to make the shift.

There is another reason why states that have already changed the age of juvenile jurisdiction were able to keep costs in check.  They took parallel steps to reduce reliance on the most expensive, least effective ways to address a young persons’ behavior.

The most effective youth justice system approaches are focused on serving more youth in the community and reallocating existing resources to support youth and their families at-home.  By diverting more youth from the courts, improving how probation and aftercare processes work, ramping up treatment for youth in the community if they need it, and using strategies to keep youth out of pretrial detention and youth facilities, youth justice systems can manage raising the age of jurisdiction while keeping corrections costs in check.

But unfortunately, just because facilities close it does not mean that all of the dollars saved are reinvested in strategies to help youth succeed.

Connecticut and Illinois raised the age for 16-or-17-year-olds (or both) in the past decade, and significantly downsized the deep end of their correctional continuum.  But in both states, cuts to children’s health, housing, education and workforce development threaten to undermine efforts to serve youth through the “right door”—through strong schools, mental health treatment if they need it, and by organizations staffed by people from young people’s own communities.  

As the Justice Policy Institute interviewed stakeholders in the states that led the raise the age trend, we heard that years of tightening budgets might mean cuts to youth-serving systems that could inadvertently undermine the very approaches that can reduce reliance on the most expensive parts of the youth justice continuum.

Youth corrections budgets—even probation and aftercare budgets—are relatively small compared to mental health, education, workforce development, human services and housing.  When a young person isn’t deeply involved in the justice system, other child-serving agencies coordinate resources, and harness multiple funding streams to address a young person’s needs in their community.

Taxpayers are already paying for an infrastructure to serve young people in the community.  Ideally, stakeholders who fund and run community based services outside of the justice system should coordinate with juvenile justice agencies to provide the support that young people need to make it less likely they will reoffend.

Research has also shown for a decade that youth are less likely to reoffend when they are served by the youth justice system rather than the adult system – something that will save us all money by curbing downstream crime costs.

The community-based approaches that were key to Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts avoiding a spike in costs as they raised the age are less expensive than confinement; but they are not free.

Jason Ziedenberg

Lawmakers in New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Texas should vote to raise the age this year. But after lawmakers celebrate the bill signing, they need to be focused on coordinating and supporting efforts to sustain the community-based approaches designed to address what any young person – justice involved, or not—needs to thrive.

Doing so will result in successful implementation of a move to raise the age.

Jason Ziedenberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies. He is a coauthor of Raising the Age: Shifting to a More Effective Juvenile Justice System. He welcomes readers’ comments.


from https://thecrimereport.org

Correcting America’s Bail Crisis Isn’t Out of Reach

On any given day, there are about 450,000 people in jail who haven’t been convicted of anything–at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $38 million a day. These men and women sit in jail because they don’t have the money to get out. It’s time to change the system.

On any given day in the United States there are about 450,000 people in jail who have not been convicted of anything. According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, they cost taxpayers about $38 million a day.

Those 450,000 people have been charged with a crime, and all—except for a small percentage facing life in prison—have a right to be free. These men and women sit in jail because they do not have the money to get out, pending trial.

Bail is an age-old tool that allows judges to release defendants pending trial by requiring them to post a certain amount of money as a way of ensuring they’ll return to court. To make bail, defendants post collateral, pay the amount in cash or get a bail piece—insurance policy—from a bail bond company, which typically charges a 10 percent fee.

Let’s do the math.  Mr. Smith gets arrested for assault.  The court sets his bail at $1,500.  The bail bond company needs $150 to post Smith’s bail.  Smith doesn’t have it, so he sits in jail for 75 days awaiting trial.  Smith pleads guilty and is sentenced to time served and released.

Because Mr. Smith didn’t have $150, taxpayers shelled out $85 a day for a whopping $6,375.

Bail serves two purposes: To guarantee that defendants appear for court; and to protect the public from those who are a potential threat.  Proponents of cash bail say the money to post bail often comes from family members, and serves as a deterrent to fleeing.

Bail is not punitive. Although violent crime rates are at historic lows, the Trump Justice Department has made violent crime a top priority.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions would do well to be smart, as well as tough, on crime.  A first step might be setting aside funds for states who commit to reexamining pretrial detention.

A recent study in Maryland found that people arrested in the state from 2011 to 2015 paid combined bail premiums of more than $256 million. Those who use the services of a bail bond company do not get back any of the money paid.  More than 25 percent of that money was paid by people who were acquitted or never faced trial.

Last fall, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh told members of the House of Delegates that judges and court commissioners must take into account the accused’s ability to pay before setting bail. According to the Baltimore Sun, Frosh said that if bail is out of reach for a defendant, the courts would find that unconstitutional.

Two years ago, New Jersey voters changed the state constitution to implement a new bail system that focused on expanding assessments of defendants to determine whether they should be released.  The New Jersey Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act went into effect in January.  The new law will rely on a computerized risk assessment tool to make bail decision and is expected to reduce costs and significantly reduce the state’s jail population.

In New York City, Mayor William de Blasio earmarked $17.8 million to supervise 3,000 defendants in the community who are awaiting trial. The “supervised release” initiative permits judges to release defendants to a supervisory program that allows defendants to remain at home with their families and continue working while awaiting trial.

Those awaiting trial represent 63 percent of the total jail population.  Less than four out of 10 men and women sitting in county and local jails are actually serving a sentence. Those sitting in jail not serving a sentence drain about $14 billion a year from public coffers.

America’s bail system has become a central issue in the fight to reverse mass incarceration. According to NBC News, in courthouses, statehouses and ballot boxes across the country, civil rights lawyers and progressive policymakers are working to curb the practice of demanding money in exchange for freedom before trial.

“The nation needs to reform its bail system. But it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Eliminate cash bail,’ ” Kevin Burke, a Minnesota district judge and past president of the American Judges, Association told Stateline.

According to Burke, judges only get a few minutes to assess a defendant’s case, and often judges set bail without knowing the full circumstances.

“The fear (they have) is ‘I’m going to let somebody go and they’re going to go out and do something terrible, or they won’t come back, so I’ll set bail,.’”  Burke said.

The current bail system denies freedom to thousands of people who are presumed innocent but are financially challenged. Those who sit in jail are at risk of losing their jobs, their homes, and their families.

Certainly, it’s unfair to incarcerate someone merely because they cannot afford bail. It is equally unfair to every man and woman in America to spend about $1 trillion, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute on pretrial incarceration, which amounts to about six percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the use of bail has exploded in the past two decades, driving a 59 percent rise in the number of un-convicted jail inmates.

Matthew T. Mangino

Correcting America’s bail crisis is not out of reach.  This isn’t about being tough on crime.  It’s about being fair.  For some, even a nominal bond is out of reach. When an accused has no money, $1,500 might as well be $150,000.

For taxpayers the issue is just as compelling.

If the cost of pretrial detention could be cut in half, taxpayers could save $7 billion a year. In these challenging economic times those dollars are difficult to ignore.

.Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. He welcomes readers’ comments.




from http://thecrimereport.org

Police Deflection: The Screen Door at the Front of the Justice System

Confronted with people clearly in need of treatment and social services, law enforcement officers need a way to respond, because they know they’ll see them again. A new approach gaining traction across the country offers “a public health approach to better public safety.”

Law enforcement officers know the routine well. They encounter someone who has a drug addiction or a mental health problem. Sometimes they stop the person for a low-level offense, such as drug possession, petty theft, or vagrancy.

Sometimes this might mean arrest, but often it means not being able to do anything.

If an arrest is made and the person is prosecuted, then very often, he or she will be arrested again and the cycle continues.

Confronted with people clearly in need of treatment and social services, law enforcement officers need a way to respond, because they know they’ll see them again. Confronted with violations of the law, officers cannot simply ignore what’s happening.

But continually arresting individuals for low-level offenses only exacerbates problems. As officers have said for decades, “we cannot arrest our way out of social problems.”

What if officers had a third option?

Increasingly, in jurisdictions across the country, they do.

They do in Tallahassee, Florida. In Gloucester, Massachusetts. In Lucas County, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Seattle, Washington. These are some of the more than 250—and counting—jurisdictions across the United States that are part of rapidly emerging criminal justice efforts that collectively are called “deflection.”

Deflection is a term coined in 2014 to represent a broad range of alternatives that take place as part of law enforcement’s decision-making before an arrest is made. Existing deflection initiatives may include pre-arrest or pre-booking diversion, law enforcement diversion, and police-assisted diversion.

Deflection involves a different approach than prosecutorial or court-based diversion, where a person already faces criminal charges and is subsequently moved out of the system. It is defined as moving a person away from the justice system and toward community behavioral health and social services without ever being arrested and processed into the criminal justice system.

Deflection is a public health approach to better public safety.

Earlier this month, the Center for Health and Justice at the Chicago-based nonprofit called Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) and the Civil Citation Network co-convened the first-ever National Deflection Summit in Alexandria, VA.

The summit brought together 45 leaders representing law enforcement, behavioral health, research, and public policy partners. Among the participants were “brand name” deflection programs, including Adult Civil Citation, the Angel and Arlington models (part of the PAARI network, the largest number of deflection sites in the country), LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), and STEER (Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate, and Rehabilitate).

The summit involved an exchange of experience, insights and thoughts about deflection, including how deflection can be used in confronting the opioid crisis. At the conclusion of the summit, it was decided to move forward together—law enforcement, treatment, researchers and partners—to provide national vision, leadership, voice and action regarding deflection.

Accountability Without Arrest

Drug use and mental health issues are the major drivers of criminal justice involvement.

Deflection identifies and treats these underlying issues as a health issue first, and public safety event only when they present a real risk to others’ well-being. Through this approach, encounters with law enforcement involve screening to determine who may be deflected to services before an arrest is made and without locking people up.

This real-time sorting is done by officers and behavioral health experts based on the person’s own desire to receive help, behavioral triage, or if criminal charges could be brought, it might involve their risk to re-offend and identified treatment needs. If deflected, there are no criminal charges filed and many deflection initiatives do not require criminal charges even be present in the first place.

Early deflection programs show promising results. For those communities that have practiced pre-arrest diversion to treatment for several years, the rearrest rates for those receiving behavioral intervention services have significantly decreased.

Beyond these early initiatives, there is now a sizable expansion of programs that connect law enforcement to community-based treatment, and that paradigm shift can transform the front door of the justice system. When deflection is scaled using universal screening, referral, and intervention/treatment, the numbers of individuals entering the justice system should drop —assuming the availability of sufficient behavioral health services in the community.

Through expanded use of deflection, law enforcement could become the largest referral source to behavioral health and social services in U.S. criminal justice history.

Deflection makes every law enforcement officer a potential pathway to behavioral intervention services, drug treatment, mental health treatment, and social services when called for. Based on the street-level experiences of police officers who see the same drug users and people with mental illness daily on their beats, and know an arrest will do absolutely nothing to solve the situation, deflection adds to the justice system something new.

A screen door.

By reshaping the American criminal justice system so that it holds only those deemed a danger to society, we will achieve a system that is more nimble, agile, and able to focus on addressing offenses that present a real risk to public safety.

This new type of American justice will be able to systematically focus its full attention, resources and efforts on a smaller number of the most dangerous criminals, most urgent public safety challenges, and most intransigent crime issues, while also providing more support for victims of crime.

Perhaps one of the most timely, though not initially obvious, outcomes is improved police/community relations.

Surveys of officers often show that one of the reasons they joined the profession was to help people. Deflection gives law enforcement departments the opportunity to provide and train officers to use an effective alternative to arrest that has a positive outcome.

And the community will see law enforcement repeatedly doing much more than arresting, by truly understanding what residents and their loved ones may need: A place to stay, treatment, or a real shot at a job.

Jac Charlier,  a national expert on police deflection and criminal justice systems-change initiatives, is National Director for Justice Initiatives at the Center for Health and Justice at TASC. He welcomes comments from readers.


from http://thecrimereport.org

Getting Away With Murder: The National Crisis of Cold-Case Homicides

The murder rate in 2016 was up nationally. But that’s not the worst of it. The unsolved rate of homicides is also on the rise, and that means every year, there are more people who get away with murder than the year before.

The murder rate in 2016 was up nationally. But that’s not the worst of it. The unsolved rate of homicides is also on the rise.

That means every year, there are more people who get away with murder than the year before.

Between 1980 and 2014, according to data I compiled from the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the Bureau’s Supplemental Homicide Reports, we accumulated well over 230,355 unresolved homicides.  Nationwide, police agencies on average clear—where an arrest is made—about 62% of the cases, which means that over one third of those cases remain unsolved.  Sadly, for 2016, there are indications this clearance number will drop below that percentage to its lowest in our nation’s history.

This isn’t justice. It is also not good for public safety.

Those who kill will continue to commit violent crimes, perhaps even more homicides, until they are arrested and convicted.  At the same time, relatives of the victims will continue to suffer as long as those who took their loves ones from them remain unidentified and un-caught—a population that is likely to grow.

That’s why authorities must make resolving these cold cases as much of a priority as solving the “hot” ones. If we are going to successfully address this problem, we cannot do just one without the other.

The national figures for unresolved homicides are alarming, but they look even more disturbing at the local level.  To take some random examples, listed by order of magnitude:

  • Chicago—9,757
  • Detroit—7,500
  • Washington DC—3,884
  • Philadelphia—3,392
  • Phoenix—2,136
  • St Louis—1,629
  • Memphis, TN—1,480
  • Birmingham, AL—1,364
  • Nashville—1,213

And these just reflect the figures for 1980-2014. The nationwide numbers continued to grow in 2015 and 2016.

Focusing on the problem of open homicide cases means that law enforcement leaders must first identify the unresolved homicides still on their books. That seems obvious, but in fact, many police chiefs have no idea how many cases exist in their jurisdiction.

Yes, you read that correctly. How can this be the case?

First, they are concentrating their efforts more on the present than the past. Smaller agencies might justifiably claim they are constrained by budget or staffing issues, but for the larger ones cold cases just do not have the same priority as more recent homicides.

In fact, avoiding the cold cases only makes their problems worse.

Second, they also must come to understand that by resolving cold cases they will in turn take bad actors off the streets who are committing other crimes. This is accomplished by creating a dedicated cold case team trained on how to properly conduct a cold case investigation.

A dedicated cold case team is defined as a team that does nothing else but investigate unresolved homicides.  The team members should not be introduced to—or brought in— to investigate the hot cases that occur on a regular basis.

Finally, the over-reliance on technology can actually impede quick resolution of these cases.  Research suggests that good, old-fashioned detective work can solve more cases than resorting to poring over physical evidence like DNA.

Cold case detectives tell me that if there isn’t a DNA “hit” or other evidence that comes back from their crime laboratory which is positive for the identification of a perpetrator, then the case is not pursued further.

Have our officials bought into the CSI effect? This type of approach is wrong and it’s making the matter worse.  Technology is no silver bullet. If it were, we would not be suffering the huge backlog of unresolved murders that we face today.

For the sake of justice, and the surviving family members, we should demand that our police agencies properly address this problem with dedicated cold case teams that have received specialized training into the nuances of investigating decades old homicides.

If they don’t, the unresolved homicides and an untold number of surviving victims will continue to increase by the thousands each year.  It’s a national crisis that can no longer be ignored.

James M. Adcock, PhD, a retired US Army CID agent, and a former Chief Deputy Coroner, has spent the past 19 years specializing in cold case homicides by training law enforcement, researching, and reviewing cold cases for agencies around the U.S.  He has written two books one on Cold Case Investigations and the other on Death Investigation, both second editions.  Last month, he presented the results of a 15-month study on the status of unresolved homicides to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He welcomes comments from readers.





from http://thecrimereport.org