No Easy Explanation for U.S. Homicide Rise: Criminologists

Why did homicides increase in 2015 and 2016? Some blame the opioid epidemic and others point to the “Ferguson effect” on police, but criminologists say neither explanation is supported by data.

No one is sure why the homicide total in the US increased in both 2015 and 2016, but experts gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss two popular theories: that the change had to do with police withdrawal of services in response to anti-police sentiment after officer-involved shootings—the so-called “Ferguson effect”—or that it was related to the increase in overdose deaths from opoids.

The basic conclusion was that neither theory explains the trend, and that more research is needed on local trends to establish the cause.

The occasion was the third annual “ask a criminologist” session sponsored by the Crime & Justice Research Alliance and the Consortium of Social Science Associations.

The issue of depolicing has been called the “Ferguson effect,” because of anecdotal reports of a reduction in law enforcement activity after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and subsequent anti-police protests.

Criminologist Shytierra Gaston of Indiana University told the briefing that at least some of the homicide rises in 2015 and 2016 might have been related to the idea of “street justice,” that some citizens are “taking matters into our own hands” and not relying on police officers, some of whom reportedly have been acting more cautiously in the aftermath of public criticism over Ferguson and other police shootings.

But it’s not clear how much “depolicing” actually has been occurring, said Howard Spivak, deputy director of the National Institute of Justice, the US Justice Department’s research arm.

Spivak said the available data don’t back the idea that the “Ferguson effect” was a causal factor in rising homicide totals, particularly those involving white victims.

The other major crime trend in recent years is the sharp rise in overdose deaths attributed to opioids.

Spivak said it is clearer in that case that homicides involving white people have been “associated with opioid commerce and use,” but association doesn’t necessarily mean causality.

Police Chief Richard Biehl of Dayton, Ohio, whose city is in one of the areas hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, agreed that there is no proof of the opioid-homicide link.

Drug-related murders in Dayton rose markedly both in 2015 and 2016, reflecting the national trend.

Yet both homicides and violent crime generally dropped fairly sharply last year as opioid overdoses continued to increase, Biehl said. He added that opioids were linked only to about seven percent of murders.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated that murders were down 4.4 percent last year in the nation’s 30 largest cities, but an FBI compilation of the national total won’t be available until later this year.

The experts agreed that more analysis is needed of changing homicide rates in localities.

National data may mask the fact that changes in particular city totals may differ from the apparent U.S. trend.

Spivak noted that, as was the case in Dayton, in some cities violent crime is down while opioid overdoses have increased, raising questions about a possible connection.

Speakers lamented the demise of the federally funded Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program (ADAM), which tested arrestees in many cities for drug use between 1987 and 2004. The testing later was resumed on a limited basis from 2007 to 2014.

Without ADAM, it’s difficult to link drug abuse definitively to criminal activity on a citywide or national basis.

Both Chief Biehl and Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute, who moderated the expert discussion, said they would welcome the resumption of ADAM or a program like it.

Spivak, whose agency blamed lack of funding for ending the program in several dozen places, said there is still no money available at NIJ to re-start the drug testing program.

Spivak and Gaston co-authored with criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri – St.Louis a report on the subjects discussed in Tuesday’s briefing, and Rosenfeld wrote about it in The Crime Report last December.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.


Why America’s Prisons Need ‘Systemic Change’

On the 10th anniversary of the Second Chance Act, veteran corrections administrator and researcher Stefan LoBuglio says attitudes towards prisoner reentry have undergone a “sea change” since the 1990s. But in an extended chat with TCR, he warns of a retrenchment in programming that threatens the overall functioning of the U.S. corrections system.

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the federal Second Chance Act, which has provided aid for state and federal prisoner reentry programs. President Trump declared April “Second Chance Month” to bring attention to programs that “provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.”

To assess the state of prisoner reentry in 2018, The Crime Report spoke to Stefan LoBuglio, who recently completed a three-year stint as director of the National Reentry Resource Center at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. LoBuglio, a former corrections administrator in Massachusetts and Maryland, will speak in Kigali, Rwanda, next week at the Eighth International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform.

The Crime Report: Prisoner reentry became a public issue in the 1990s when then-Attorney General Janet Reno called attention to the fact that more than 600,000 prisoners are released back into society every year. What is your recollection of that era?

Stefan LoBuglio

Stefan LoBuglio

Stefan LoBuglio: There were earlier milestones in this field. One was the early-1970s publication of the review by sociologist Robert Martinson, declaring that “nothing works” in inmate rehabilitation. In the 1970s, we saw suspicion of the corrections system amid the large growth of in-prison population that continued roughly until the year 2000. There has been enormous energy, research and support of the prisoner reentry field, starting at least with Jeremy Travis at the National Institute of Justice near the end of the Clinton administration, and continuing through the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. When I began working in corrections in 1992, the job was usually defined by the mantra “care, custody and control.” When you asked a corrections administrator about recidivism, you’d be told, “That is not my responsibility.”

In the 25-plus years since then, there has been a sea change. When you go to meetings of corrections administrators now, there is talk about adding “community” to the mantra, and there are hundreds of programs under the Second Chance Act and other laws to improve prisoner reentry. It was once called “reintegration,” but the lexicon did change to “reentry” in the 1990s. One question people were asking is why inmates should have the opportunity to get things like college degrees when people in free society didn’t have that access? Reentry was framed not as a question of what inmates deserved but of necessity—they were going to be released and we had to prepare them.

 TCR: Another, different, anniversary related to the issue of prisoner reentry was marked this year: the “Willie Horton episode,” which many observers at the time believed was a factor in Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ loss to Vice President George W. Bush in the 1988 presidential contest.

Editor’s Note: William Horton, then serving a life sentence for murder, failed to return from a weekend furlough from Massachusetts during Dukakis’ term, and later was convicted of a 1987 rape, robbery and assault in Maryland, where he remains in prison. He was used then, and occasionally even now, as a potent symbol for those arguing that corrections reforms can endanger public safety.

LoBuglio: Horton was a violent and horrible case that had wide repercussions for the field and led to the retrenchment of programs and facilities that allowed individuals to be released gradually back into the community. There was widespread support at the time for such opportunities for people who were soon to be released. Horton was in a furlough program, but there were also many “work-release” programs that were very popular.

Inmates could get jobs, reengage with their families, and seek the support of those community institutions of interest to them. Those programs had become part of the corrections infrastructure, but they disappeared overnight in 1988, and even 30 years later, they are still absent. For 11 years, I worked in the corrections department of Montgomery County, Maryland,, where we ran such programs, and demonstrated the ability to transition violent and non-violent offenders back into the community for those who were soon-to-be released. In corrections, we are not making the sentencing decisions, but rather dealing with the reality that most individuals will leave at some point after serving their court imposed sentence.

campaign button

A campaign button from Michael Dukakis’ doomed 1988 presidential campaign. Photo by palemon escobio via flickr

More recently, in following this area for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, I was struck by how few jurisdictions maintain these release-transition programs. Thirty years after the Horton case, with our better technology and communications, we should be rethinking how to incorporate work-release for the people who are coming back to the community.

 TCR: Were laws like the one that allowed Horton’s furlough common?

LoBuglio: Such programs were not unusual back then. What was so dramatic about the Horton case was that he was a convicted first-degree murderer. After it happened, there were wholesale cancellations of prison systems’ contracts with halfway houses, and those programs that remained were tightly restricted. The debate shouldn’t be focused on transitioning the most heinous criminals but rather whether the vast majority of people in the corrections system have the opportunity to be housed in places like work-release centers.

In my three years at the Council of State Governments, it was clear that programs in prison to prepare inmates for release are not yet robust. Our national conversation on reentry is focused on community corrections, probation and parole. We haven’t really talked much about re-instituting work-release programs in prison. Remember that well over 90 percent of state and federal prisoners are released at some point, and between nine and 12 million people cycle in and out of jails each year.

More people should have the opportunity to use community resources before their release, under strict supervision. Even programs that purport to provide pre-release service don’t. Years ago, I visited the Baltimore pre-release center that housed about 300 people, but only about 30 or 35 were going out on a regular basis for jobs.

TCR: We hear about prisoners who finish their terms just being loaded on a bus. Is that what really happens?

LoBuglio: It used to be predominantly true, and it still is too often true. They might be given just $40 in “gate money.” Much of the support for better reentry procedures in the early 2000s came from reports that people in solitary confinement literally went from being in shackles and chains to being released into the community. In a good corrections system, you want people to be properly classified, for example starting in medium security general population and being able to have their security classifications “stepped-down” to minimum, and to be placed in work-release programs as they neared their release date.

The retrenchment in pre-release centers and the use of halfway-house beds has had an effect of constipating the overall functioning of the corrections system, and having too many individuals “stuck” at medium classification. There should be opportunities for people in prison to behave well, and that if they play by the rules, they should get commensurate privileges. Behavioral change is most likely to happen when you have a clear set of rules to go by.

Years ago, economist Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers University interviewed inmates at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center and found that most all of them could recite from memory what actions they needed to perform to even receive small benefits. Her paper for the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute called the “Powers of Small Rewards” is a reminder that good corrections involves setting up a clear and fair system of rewards and sanctions to encourage behavioral change. If you have the possibility of getting work-release status for a person serving, say, five to seven years, that is a powerful inducement.

Studies of causes of disturbances in prisons have put lack of programming and lack of fairness for inmates at the top of the list. We’re not running correctional institutions as safely as we could. Doing it well provides an element of safety for corrections officers as well as for inmates.

TCR: We’ve mentioned the Second Chance Act. Some people may not realize that it was proposed and signed by President George W. Bush and was pushed by conservatives such as the late Charles Colson.

Editor’s Note: The late Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon, served seven months in prison in the Watergate scandal and later founded the Prison Fellowship.

LoBuglio: Yes, the Second Chance Act was a bipartisan measure that was co-sponsored by Vice President Mike Pence when he was in Congress in 2008. The main sponsors were Republican Rep. Rob Portman, later director of the Office of Management and Budget and now a U.S. Senator, and Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont. There was a remarkable bipartisan consensus for Second Chance, supported also by faith-based organizations.

The law was an acknowledgement that the federal government has a role in determining what works to reduce recidivism. There was a recognition that recidivism rates of people who had been in prisons and jails was too high. Also, states and localities didn’t have the ability to do the research and development. The Second Chance Act helped establish research in this area. The correction system consumes an enormous part of state and local budgets, and almost all of that goes to staffing, building and health care.

The federal system used to be the gold standard in corrections systems, and one part of that was setting the bar high. The National Institute of Corrections [in the Justice Department] plays a role in raising the professionalism in the field. In 2008, there was a recognition that states and localities didn’t have enough information, knowledge and resources to do the experiments to figure out what works in corrections. The legislations provided the funding mechanism for the federal government to seed prisoner reentry of different types across the country. More than 800 programs have been funded.

About $500 million has been spent under the law since 2008. To help create and spread new knowledge, the National Reentry Resource Center was created in the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has run it since 2009. The spending under the law is a relatively small figure, but it is significant because corrections is an $88 billion annual enterprise – this part of it represents the R&D. Without it, there would be nothing. The law plays the role of a catalyst in reentry. There are about 5,000 total correctional institutions in this country including 3,000 county and municipal jails. Not many states have had a major commitment to rehabilitation. In some states there has been a tradition of good corrections systems. Many states have not been able to keep up.

The federal prison system used to be known as the gold standard in corrections. It’s quite startling to see now how denuded the system has become. That has been true in state after state – a wholesale retrenchment in programming. We now have the ability to rebuild the programming infrastructure based on sound evidence. We are much smarter in 2018, knowing much better what we should see in corrections.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center held a “50-state summit” on corrections last November, when Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs talked about significant reforms that the state has taken through Justice Reinvestment but he recognized that almost all of them to date dealt with nonviolent offenders. He explained that the next chapter of this work will need to address violent offenders. In 2018 we should be talking about what we can be doing regarding interventions with violent offenders who will be released. That subject needs a dramatic review. We are risk-averse because of Willie Horton-type cases.

As corrections populations nationwide have declined, we need better research to develop a full panoply of correctional innovations, especially because a large proportion of inmates in some correctional facilities are higher-risk people. Those people present generally more complex and more challenging cases.

TCR: The overall recidivism rate is often summarized as two-thirds to three-fourths of former inmates being rearrested in the three years after they are freed. Do we know if that general picture has changed?

LoBuglio: Some states have been able to reduce their recidivism rates. One way it happens is through changes in sanctioning policies so that there are intermediate steps before someone on probation winds up in custody. We have demonstrated that we’re able to reduce recidivism first and foremost through administrative action (changing revocation policy), but also through behavioral change.

Possibly the best study was done by the Urban Institute of Allegheny County, Pa., which found that participation by one group of inmates in a reentry program reduced recidivism by 30 percent.

What concerns me is that the national evaluations have not been very helpful in providing us with good advice. The challenge is to determine whether there are programs with sufficient quality and substance to make a difference. It is very challenging to maintain high quality programs with sufficient dosage. Some discussions with inmates, for example, may devolve into rap sessions. There are many implementation challenges. It’s difficult to give a probationer or parolee sufficient content to make a difference. People have many demands on them, such as maintaining a family. It’s much easier to help them if they are in a correctional setting.

TCR: Some experts have suggested that we should start preparing inmates to leave prison on the day they enter custody. Is that a worthy goal, and does any place actually try to do it?

LoBuglio: I agree with the theory. Some people even say that reentry preparation should begin when someone is arrested. Ideally, there should be a risk-need assessment of someone as soon as they enter custody and a programmatic plan developed. The best implementation of this that I’ve seen was done by Michael Ashe when he was sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts.

There used to be a belief that you can’t start the rehabilitation of individuals until 10 or 15 years down the line. Others say you can’t do much if the person is going to be in jail for only a week. What is the ideal period? This used to be referred as the Goldilocks problem: Is the period to short or too long for rehabilitation, and what is the “just right” period? Well, the answer is “do something” in every case, and recognize that it will be necessarily different based on resources and time remaining.The answer is an individualized treatment plan that takes into consideration sentence length and victims. Some people might have 10 years remaining to serve, but need lots of education and substance abuse treatment. You might have only 50 slots in a program and have to choose between a prisoner who has 20 years to serve and one with six months.

TCR: Where would you say that the U.S. stands generally on prisoner reentry?

LoBuglio: There has been dramatic change in some corrections systems that are paying attention and are focused on change. There have been great gains in the reduction of jail populations, but that can mean more challenges dealing with the people who remain in custody, who are much more difficult to deal with. We shouldn’t be surprised if those people have high rates of failure.

I think we need to look at systemic changes rather than programmatic ones.

We need to change the conditions of confinement, for example, so that some people don’t need to stay in prison so long on the front end, and we can focus on the high-risk individuals who remain there. We need a new type of facility that will wrap in medical and mental health treatment, and we must improve the collaboration between other agencies. We need more businesses as stakeholders. More businesses are rethinking their policies and hiring ex-offenders. It’s new and different to have them at the table—an important part of the conversation on reentry.

We also have more formerly incarcerated people taking part in reentry programs, bringing a level of reality to them.

There are many social service providers involved in prisoner reentry, but the quality of services is very uneven. If there were a rating service like “Yelp” in the social service area, that would be very helpful. It would be good to strengthen the social service community with a smaller number of providers with better quality services.

 TCR: Have programs funded under the Second Chance Act been evaluated?

LoBuglio: The National Institute of Justice has published some, including one on recidivism last year, an October, an evaluation of seven programs.

TCR: What do you make of the Trump administration’s interest in prisoner reentry?

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

LoBuglio: They changed the name of the interagency council established during the Obama administration, to add the term “crime prevention.” It makes sense to have federal agencies working in concert on this issue. The important thing now is for Congress to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which I’m hoping will happen with all of its bipartisan support.

Ted Gest is Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes readers’ comments.


‘Justice Reinvestment’ Holds Its Own Against Trump

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House committee that oversees Justice Department funding, has proposed increasing a program aimed at reducing state prison populations and recidivism that the Trump administration wanted to kill. The chairman also sought a small reduction in the FBI budget, plus increases for immigration judges and the Trump-supported Project Safe Neighborhoods program.

For nearly a decade, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has supported a concept known as “justice reinvestment,” which encourages states to manage their prison populations better and invest the money that is saved in programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

DOJ has recently been devoting about $25 million annually to the program, a minuscule sum in a cabinet department that has more than $30 billion to spend each year, but still enough to fund work in several states. Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and Georgia passed legislation this year based on justice reinvestment principles, the Justice Department says.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project also pursues justice reinvestment in conjunction with the Justice Department. Pew declines to say how much it spends, but it probably is much less than the federal appropriation. The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Vera Institute of Justice help run the program.

In February, the Trump administration unexpectedly asked Congress to end federal involvement in justice reinvestment.

The White House said it would rather spend the money directly fighting violent crime and on projects under the federal Second Chance Act that help released inmates reenter society successfully.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t speak about the program directly, but DOJ watchers noted that given his tough-on-crime rhetoric and his opposition to bills that would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences, he would be unlikely to have much enthusiasm about a project that aims to reduce state prison populations.

The Trump plan failed its first test on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, chairman John Culberson (R-TX) of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget released his spending plan for the year starting Oct. 1. It did not seek to kill the program as Trump sought, but rather proposed to increase annual funding for justice reinvestment to $30 million.

It is important to note that the initial DOJ spending proposal, which will be considered on Wednesday by the full subcommittee, has a long way to go through the legislative process in both the House and Senate and could be subject to change.

Still, support of justice reinvestment by a conservative committee chairman should go a long way toward keeping the program intact, given that most Democrats and many Republicans have backed it in the past.

Recently, 68 House members supported continued funding for justice reinvestment. They asserted that states had saved a combined total of more than $1.1 billion under the the program, and that crime has continued dropping in most of the states involved. Sixteen senators signed a similar letter.

Pew reports that 34 states have changed their laws on sentencing or prisons since 2007 under the justice reinvestment initiative. Pew says that “reforms prioritize the use of prison for serious and violent offenses while expanding alternatives to imprisonment for those who can be supervised more effectively and at less expense in the community.”

Asked before Tuesday’s subcommittee proposal about the Trump administration call to end federal backing for justice reinvestment, Pew’s Adam Gelb told The Crime Report that, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for the last 8 years, and that’s been because state leaders from both parties have made clear to their federal representatives that consensus-driven policy based on the best available data can deliver a better public safety return on investment.

“We anticipate Congress will continue funding the Justice Reinvestment Initiative as states continue to deliver results.”

Overall, the House subcommittee budget proposal would give an increase to DOJ of nearly $800 million. Among major items included, according to the subcommittee and to the National Criminal Justice Association, are:

  • An additional 100 immigration judge teams, which along with 100 more judicial teams being added this year “should drastically reduce the immigration case backlog,” the subcommittee said.
  • For the Drug Enforcement Administration, $130 million additional to help national opioid enforcement efforts and targeting major drug trafficking organizations.
  • An increase of $23 million for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help cut violent crime, among other uses.
  • An $81 million budget reduction for the FBI, which would get $9.3 billion overall. The cut was attributed to lower “construction funding.”
  • $2.9 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance grant programs including $493 million for Violence Against Women Act programs, $442 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants,  $255 million for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, 48 million for Reduce Sexual Assault Kits Backlog grants, $100 million for Anti-Human Trafficking grants, $380 million for Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act grants.
  • Project Safe Neighborhoods, an anticrime program that is a high priority o the Trump administration, would get $50 million, up from $20 million.
  • The new STOP School Violence Act would be funded at $100 million, primarily for grants to states for violence prevention training for teachers and students, development of anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, development of school threat assessment and intervention teams, security assessments, and coordination with local law enforcement. Funds in this program previously were used for academic research, which the Trump administration opposed.
  • Hiring of community police officers under the COPS program would be reduced from $150 million to $91 million.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.


New Crime Commission Could Get Nod This Year, says Senator

Michigan Sen, Gary Peters, a key sponsor of a bill to create a national commission studying the criminal justice system similar to the landmark LBJ-era effort, says he is “cautiously optimistic.” He told a Washington briefing that the more incidents occur involving failures by criminal justice officials, “the more people lose trust in the system.”

A Michigan senator who is advocating for a congressional commission to conduct a national study of the criminal justice system says he is “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will approve the measure this year.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) made the comment Tuesday at a briefing on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University on behalf of the American Society of Criminology, which has just published a volume focused on what a new commission could accomplish.

Peters, who is leading the fight for the bill with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), said he is concerned that the more incidents that occur involving failures by criminal justice officials, “the more people lose trust in the system.”

Gary Peters

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters via Wikipedia

He added: “Democracy can’t function without trust.”

Peters said that 39 senators have endorsed the bill, which would create a 14-member commission to do the first major system-wide study of its kind since a panel appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a landmark report 50 years ago titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.

A similar attempt by then-Sen. James Webb (D-VA) to create a national criminal justice commission failed by three votes in 2011 to achieve a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

Prospects for the commission this year are uncertain in a Congress that is passing little substantive legislation on criminal justice or other subjects.

In recent years, the commission has been included in broader legislation on federal sentencing reform, but that measure is opposed by the Trump administration, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as an Alabama senator, voted against proposals to reduce many mandatory minimum prison sentences.

The House Judiciary Committee may take up a bill on Wednesday that deals with prison reform measures that are favored by the White House to improve prisoner reentry programs.

Committee members are nearing agreement on the bill, which could reach the floor in early May, Politico reports.

The legislation, which would establish training programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates, is the product of months of negotiation between Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and Attorney General Sessions.

In the Senate, Cornyn has said that if the prison bill can be approved by the House, he will try to get a version approved by the Senate that includes establishing a crime commission.

Obstacles remain, however. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) still favors a broad sentencing reform bill, as do many Democrats. Some Democrats would prefer that no criminal justice bill is approved this year, in the hope that they can regain control of one or both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections and pass a stronger bill next year.

At the Tuesday briefing, criminologists spoke to congressional staff members and others in a review of what the LBJ-era crime commission recommended in major fields, what research has established in the last half-century, and what a new commission might advocate.

Speakers included Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University on science and technology; Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University on policing; Doris Mackenzie of Penn State University on corrections; Cassia Spohn of the University of Arizona on prosecution; Jodi Lane of the University of Florida on juvenile justice; Robert Crutchfield of the University of Washington on race and criminal justice; Bryce Pardo of the University of Maryland on narcotics; Lawrence Sherman of the University of Maryland and the University of Cambridge and Joanne Belknap of the University of Colorado on domestic violence; and Paul Wormeli of the IJIS Institute on crime statistics.

The project was funded by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and was headed by Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists and The Crime Report and Cynthia Lum of the George Mason Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

Ted Gest is Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report


A New Trump Fact Check on Crime, Justice

President Trump made 24 false or misleading claims in two recent public speeches, reports the Washington Post Fact Checker. Here are four pertaining to criminal justice.

President Trump made 24 false or misleading claims in two recent public speeches, says the Washington Post Fact Checker. Here is a roundup of several pertaining to crime and justice: The President said, “We started building our [Mexican border] wall … We have $ 1.6 billion… and we’ve already started.” The spending bill Trump signed last month includes $1.6 billion for fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, not for Trump’s wall, the Post says. Parts of this all-fence project date to 2009, long before Trump took office.

Trump also said that, “A very important, and respected, in some circles, Democrat, said we want to get rid — we should get rid of our Second Amendment.” Trump was referring to retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who actually is a Republican.  Speaking of the bump-stock accessories for guns, Trump said, “We got rid of the bump stocks. The bump stocks, now, are under very strict control, which I think everybody agrees is fine.” Actually, the administration has proposed to ban bump-stock accessories for firearms, but the rulemaking process takes time and the ban is not finalized. On federal judges, the president said he had appointed 145  district judges. In fact, since Trump took office, the Senate has confirmed 14 appellate judges, 14 district judges, and one Supreme Court justice. Another 45 district court nominees and 10 appellate court nominees are awaiting confirmation. Trump has set a record with judicial appointments, but it’s more modest than he portrays.


‘Smarter Justice,’ Bail Reforms Make Headway Across U.S., Advocates Say

Progressive prosecutors and scientific pretrial release systems are reducing jail populations, say Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. New policies by newly elected Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, were cited as examples.

Policies of prosecutors elected on progressive platforms around the U.S. show promise to reduce the nation’s incarceration totals, two experts told a gathering of state attorneys general.

Jeremy Travis of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation called “remarkable” and “stunning” a set of new policies announced by newly installed Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Krasner told his staff last month to offer shorter prison sentences in plea deals, decline to file marijuana possession and many prostitution charges, and explain case-by-case why taxpayers should pay thousands of dollars per year to incarcerate people.

Travis suggested that Krasner’s practices reflected some of the findings of a Misdemeanor Justice Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which he formerly headed. The project “seeks to understand the criminal justice response to lower-level offenses, from arrest to disposition.”

During a discussion of bail reform, Travis questioned why suspects charged with misdemeanors “should be put in jail [pretrial] if the typical sentence is non-custodial.”

Another panelist at the meeting, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, described the new prosecution trend in some cities as “smarter justice.”

Frosh noted that since 2013, police in his state have been empowered to issue citations instead of arresting people for many lower-level offenses, a change he said has “reduced the workload for judges, police and prosecutors.”

Travis and Frosh spoke on a panel Friday in Washington, D.C., at a conference organized by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine for the National Association of Attorneys General on “Reducing Violence: Innovations That Work.”

Their main subject was efforts around the nation to eliminate or reduce the use of cash bail and base pre-trial release decisions on a scientific assessment of the risk that defendants will commit more crimes or fail to make future court appearances if they are released.

Maryland’s Court of Appeals last year overhauled the state’s bail system, requiring judges to consider whether defendants are able to make a bail payment when they set conditions for release.

Under the change, about one-fifth of defendants are being held because they can’t or don’t pay bail, down from 40 percent in the months before the reforms were enacted, chief state district judge Judge John Morrissey said in January.

Attorney General Frosh said on Friday that the policy shift has resulted in a six percent decline in the state’s jail population. “Overall, more people are being released,” he said.

Frosh was a proponent of bail reform when he served as a state senator. He persuaded his fellow senators to approve a reform plan but it “crashed and burned” in the other legislative body, the House of Delegates, amid opposition from the bail bond industry.

After he was elected Attorney General, Frosh took another tack–asking the state judiciary to impose the same kinds of changes he had advocated as a legislator.

Preliminary results show that the changes have worked so far, with defendants returning to court and committing new offenses after release at about the same rate as they did under the previous system, Frosh said.

Attempts by bail bondsman in the legislature to reverse the judicially-imposed policies have failed so far.

Travis said New Jersey has had a similar experience under a statewide change that went into effect last year, in which judges use an algorithm devised by his foundation to help make pretrial release decisions.

The initial results are “promising,” he said. The number of people charged with minor crimes who were locked up until trial because they couldn’t post bail fell by 20 percent in the system’s first year, found a report issued last month.

Travis acknowledged criticism that the new system perpetuates racial disparities in pretrial releases. Some say that more minorities continue to be denied release because risk assessment tools consider defendants’ prior criminal records, where minorities are disproportionately represented.

“It’s a tough one,” he said of the issue, which is still being studied.

Overall, Travis contended, it is good that more attention is being paid to the “profound” power of judges to decide on the pretrial release issue, which each year affects the family and employment situations of millions.

Seema Gajwani of the D.C. Attorney General’s office, who advocated for bail reform previously at the Public Welfare Foundation, told the conference that 11 million people in the U.S. cycle in and out of jails each year and that even having to serve a few days in jail after arrest can be “incredibly destabilizing” for many defendants.

“The number one reason that people stay in jail is that they are poor,” she said.

Although most of the discussion focused on low-level offenders, Frosh contended that the cash bail system doesn’t make much sense for alleged serious offenders, either.

He noted that the process essentially allows judges to set a money amount that defendants can pay to win release and “continue to wreak havoc.” The current bail system used in most of the U.S. “doesn’t make sense at any level,” Frosh said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Crime Victim Aid Getting Big Boost in Spending Bill

Grants to help crime victims and to support programs that assist them will get a 78 percent increase in the current fiscal year, estimates one expert.

Programs that serve the nation’s crime victims will benefit greatly from the bill approved by Congress on Friday to fund the federal government through September. The Senate voted 65-32 for the $1.3 trillion spending package on Friday morning. President Trump threatened to veto the measure because it does not include enough funding for his long-promised border wall between the U.S. and Mexico or protections for young immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The legislation allows for $3,285 billion in victim assistance grants, a 78 percent increase over last year, estimates Steve Derene of the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators (NAVAA), who monitors spending under the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA).

The money comes from a fund made up of fines and forfeitures paid to federal courts. This includes large fines that are periodically imposed on corporations in major white-collar crime cases.

Congress for many years capped expenditures for crime victims at under $750 million. However, this is the fourth consecutive year that the spending allowed by Congress has exceeded $2 billion.

The funds are used for many different purposes, including supplementing state aid to reimburse victims of violent crime and paying for direct victim assistance services such as counseling, emergency shelter and rape crisis centers, NAVAA says.

In another federal budget development, it turns out that the $75 million that Congress is providing to the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, as reported Thursday by The Crime Report, will not be going to academic research on school violence.

A provision of the spending bill says that although funds in the initiative have gone to the National Institute of Justice for four years to support research, the money this year will be spent in a new school safety bill called the STOP School Violence Act that is being enacted by Congress in the same appropriations bill.

The measure says that the funds can be used for a number of purposes, including training school employees and students “to prevent student violence,” the operation of anonymous reporting systems for threats against schools and students, and “school threat assessment and intervention teams.”

Our story on Thursday should not have stated that continued funding of the initiative would include a large amount of academic research.

The Trump administration has said that the first several years of research under the bill, which was first passed after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, has not yet produced many results.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.


Overhaul of Crime Stats Should Include Data Theft, Toxic Spills: Expert Panel

A 15-member panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences said Wednesday that current statistics collection has left gaps in data about many offenses affecting American life today. It also recommended that the government consider centralizing the control of collecting crime statistics.

An expert committee organized by the National Academy of Sciences called Wednesday for centralizing the control of collecting crime statistics as part of an overhaul of the nation’s crime-data collection system.

Such an overhaul, which would fill in gaps on reporting of offenses like data theft and environmental crime, is essential to developing a “more inclusive picture of crime in the United States,” the committee said.

The changes  would help managers and policymakers better assess the effectiveness of crime-fighting policies, evaluate the effectiveness of existing policies, and make justice agencies more accountable, it added.

The experts did not specify which agency should lead the process, but it said “what is critical is that national crime statistics be produced, coordinated, and governed pursuant to the expected sensibilities of a statistical agency, one for which data collection and dissemination—and attention to issues of data quality—are essential to the agency’s mission.”

The 15-member panel, headed by criminologist Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri St. Louis, said policymakers and justice practitioners currently lack “key and timely” data to help them improve and measure the effectiveness of their work.

“There is great benefit to be realized from better statistics in the nation’s crime problems,” said the panel. “It is time to develop a more inclusive picture of crime in the United States.”

Overall, the panel contended that “modern crime statistics require consideration of completely different ways to measure crime,” including, for example, assessing the “harm imposed by, or the costs associated with, crime.”

The group also cited the “problematic lack of solid information about the relative magnitude of the costs, harms, or importance across crime offense types or specific incidents.”

The call for a centralization of crime statistics would replace a system in place for decades, in which authority has been split between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which issues an annual report on crime statistics voluntarily submitted by police departments, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, which publishes a yearly report based on interviews with Americans on whether they have been crime victims in the previous year.

The reports differ greatly because a large number of crimes are not reported to police.

The expert panel, formally known as the Panel on Modernizing the Nation’s Crime Statistics, offered several examples of the gaps in data on crime. Among them:

  • Thefts of data from businesses or government agents may put millions of Americans at risk of identity theft and serious financial harm. Cyberspace is a “perpetual domestic crime scene,” the committee said, but national crime statistics “have not been well equipped to measure cybercrimes such as the deployment of malware or coordinated attacks on computer networks.”
  • The opioid overdose crisis highlights the fact that production, sale and possession of narcotics are important crime categories, but those activities “are not well characterized in current crime statistics,” which largely consist of counts of seizures and arrests for drug law violations. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy periodically issues estimates on the dollar value of major drug markets, and data on drug users, but they are not part of routine crime reporting.
  • Materials “disappear” daily from the stocks of retailers and businesses, but the phenomenon is known as shrinkage “poorly understood by the public, in part because businesses do not commonly report all of their losses to law enforcement …even though the billions of dollars in losses almost inevitably affect all consumers.”
  • Available crime data “lack the detail and the timeliness to address important concerns,” the committee said. Both in 2006 and 2015, “news accounts and general perception fueled concerns about major increases in homicide despite the fact that the current homicide rate is less than half the rate of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Although some media outlets and advocacy groups collect their own data, the panel said, “the nation as a whole was hindered by the typical 10-month gap between the end of the calendar year and the release of current national crime statistics, unable to understand whether local patterns were part of broader regional or national patterns or whether increased homicide activities were limited to specific forms of homicide such as drug-related murder.”

The committee’s last reference was to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which typically is issued in late September for the previous year. The Justice Department’s victimization survey usually comes out even later.

The panel noted that merely counting the numbers of incidents, especially in the case of of relatively new crime types, is insufficient.

It cited as an example “ransomware” that denies computer users access to their data until a ransom is paid. There is a huge difference between locking up one home computer and the data system of an entire hospital or medical group.

Similarly, with environmental crimes, improperly disposing of a computer battery and spilling large volumes of toxic materials into the water or air each may represent a single violation of the law, but they are likely to have vastly different consequences.

Another problem cited by the panel is that both the FBI report and the victimization survey tend to report “coarse tallies” of how many crimes in particular categories occurred in the previous year.

That is not enough, said the experts, “to meet the needs of the full range of users and stakeholders.”

The committee mentioned some recently evolving offenses like arson, hate crime, human trafficking and cargo theft whose nuances are difficult to capture in totals of how many crimes were committed in a year.

The panel discussed the lack of detail in the FBI’s annual report, which provides totals of crime types like homicide and robbery that are reported by most of the nation’s 18,000 police departments.

For many years, the FBI has been trying to get more information on each crime through a system known as the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) that includes as many as several dozen details of each crime incident.

Police departments have been slow to compile and submit the data. Former FBI director James Comey called for the system to be adopted nationally by 2021.

The DOJ victimization survey also has had limitations because of a lack of resources. While the FBI data provides city-by-city crime counts, until recently, the victimization survey has been unable to make anything but national estimates. A few regional totals now are available.

The committee, which has been working for about four years, issued an earlier report with a proposed new classification of crimes to take into account modern-day violations in areas like environmental and computer crime, fraud, and national security.

Citing the historic split between the FBI and BJS in collecting crime data, the committee said that the U.S. has a “crime statistics system that lacks essential leadership.”

The committee did not take a stand on which agency should take the lead in the future or whether a new structure should be created.

“It is not clear if either BJS or the FBI is currently positioned to be successful in expanding the collection of crime statistics,” the committee said, suggesting that the White House Office of Management and Budget investigate the subject and make a recommendation.

Because most crime is reported on a state and local level, the report emphasized that state and local authorities should be included in planning any changes that will be coordinated on a federal level. The report includes a state-by-state summary of the laws and regulations on reporting crime statistics.

Joining Lauritsen on the study panel were Daniel Bibel, retired head of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Reporting Unit; Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University; Kim English of the Colorado Department of Public Safety; and Robert Goerge of the University of Chicago; Nola Joyce, a retired official of the Philadelphia Police Department; David McDowall of the University at Albany; and Jennifer Madans of the National Center for Health Statistics.

Other panel members were: Michael Maltz of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Ohio State University; Michael Miller of the Coral Gables, Fl., Police Department; James Nolan of West Virginia University; Amy O’Hara of the Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research; John Pepper of the University of Virginia; Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas; and Jeffrey Sedgwick of the Justice Research and Statistics Association.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.


Can Better Health Care Help Ex-Inmates Avoid Returning to Jail?

Giving former inmates better health care through Medcaid and other coverage can “enhance public safety, reduce recidivism, and more efficiently use public resources,” says a new guide from the Urban Institute and the law and consulting firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Returning inmates need cooordinated and effective health care coverage to escape the “revolving door” that cycles many of them back to jail or prison, according to a policy guide released Friday by the Urban Institute.

The guide, prepared by the Urban Institute and the law and consulting firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, is aimed at helping justice-involved individuals enroll efficiently in Medicaid and other health coverage to obtain “coordinated physical and behavioral health care.”

Currently, the “revolving door” between incarceration and the community leaves many people alternating between correctional and community-based providers, the guide said.

Better-coordinated health coverage will “enhance public safety, reduce recidivism, and more efficiently use public resources,” wrote the authors of the guide.

If states can improve health care for released inmates, they “will be in a stronger position to address (the) substance abuse issues, chronic physical and mental illness, unemployment and employment instability, and homelessness that result in many justice-involved people cycling in and out of jail or the hospital,” the authors wrote.

Maintaining health coverage is a common problem for released prisoners.

Prison inmates have four times the rate of active tuberculosis found in the general population, nine to ten times the rate of Hepatitis C, eight to nine times the rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, three times times the rate of serious mental illness, and four times the rate of substance abuse disorders, the guide said.

Jail populations have similar high levels. Many inmates fail to get needed care, and when they are released, they often face disruptions in medical care that contribute to recidivism, drug use, and poor and costly health outcomes. One study found a 12-fold increase in the risk of death in the two weeks after release.

Another study of people returning from prison in Ohio and Texas found that, within 10 months of release, a fifth had been hospitalized, and a third had sought care in emergency rooms.

The project, supported by the U.S. Justice Department, is called the “Connecting Criminal Justice to Health Care Initiative” (CCJH), and was developed by corrections and health care officials in Maryland and Los Angeles County, Ca.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Trump’s ‘Bipartisan’ Nominees to Sentencing Commission Tilt Conservative

The president has nominated four people to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, including three well-known conservatives. Families Against Mandatory Minimums opposed one of the nominees–Georgetown law Prof. William Otis, a former prosecutor—for his “outdated views.”

President Donald Trump’s four nominees to the U.S. Sentencing Commission include three well-known conservatives who may be inclined to support tougher sentences in federal criminal cases.

The White House announcement Thursday described it as a “bipartisan group” of nominees, but if all of them are approved by the Senate, the voting majority of the six-member commission (two of whom serve as ex-officio, nonvoting members), could tilt rightward, according to observers.

The commission, an independent judiciary agency, was created by Congress in 1984 “to reduce sentencing disparities and promote transparency and proportionality in sentencing,” according to its website.

The nominees are: federal appellate judge William H. Pryor, Jr. of Alabama, who has been considered by Trump for the Supreme Court; federal appellate judge Luis Felipe Restrepo of Pennsylvania, an Obama appointee to the court; federal district judge Henry E. Hudson of Richmond, Va.; and William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor who now is an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University.

William J. Otis

William J. Otis

Judge Pryor currently serves as Acting Chair of the commission. If his re-appointment is confirmed, he will serve as chair, the White House said.

Sentencing expert Douglas Berman of Ohio State University noted on his Sentencing Law & Policy blog that Hudson as a prosecutor was known by the nickname “Hang ’Um High,”  and that Otis “prominently shares his (tough-on-crime) sentencing perspectives in many media.”

Reason noted that Otis has called for abolishing the sentencing commision.

Otis has written for The Crime Report about the Justice Department and sentencing.

Berman describes Pryor as an “Alabama pal” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Restrepo is a former defense attorney.

The advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums said it had never taken a position on sentencing commission nominees, “but we feel compelled to change that policy in light of today’s announcement. Mr. Otis’s outdated views are well-known and well-documented.

“This is not a person who will be guided by evidence and data. The Senate should reject this nomination.”

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of the Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcomed.