Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reforms in Alabama's prison system don't ease overcrowding

The number of prison sentences in Alabama has dropped 24 percent over three years and has fallen more sharply since new sentencing guidelines took effect Oct. 1, 2013. From that day through June 2014, felony sentences to prison dropped 16 percent from the same period the previous year, to 5,253.
Other arrest and conviction trends are down.
There were about 10,000 fewer felony arrests in Alabama in 2013 than in 2009, a 21 percent drop.
Felony convictions for drug possession dropped by 33 percent from 2009 to 2013.
Judges are handing down shorter sentences under the guidelines, which were intended to send fewer nonviolent offenders to prison and save room for the worst and most dangerous.
The guidelines apply to many drug and property crimes but not violent offenses or burglary.
For felony convictions covered under the guidelines, the average sentence dropped from 96 months in fiscal year 2011 to 74 months in fiscal year 2014.
But the downward trends have not relieved the packed conditions inside prison walls.
Alabama has about 26,000 inmates in prisons designed for just more than 13,000. Prisons remain at almost twice their capacity because of a slower parole rate, a high rate of return for those released and other factors.
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

PA Supreme Court suspends justice

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspended Justice Seamus McCaffery, who last week publicly apologized for exchanging hundreds of sexually explicit emails with state attorney general staffers, reports the Lehigh Valley Morning Call. The court said it was suspending McCaffery with pay to "protect and preserve the integrity" of the state's judicial system and called on the independent Judicial Conduct Board to complete an investigation in 30 days.

McCaffery, of Philadelphia, has called the email scandal a "cooked-up controversy" that is part of a "vindictive pattern of attacks" on him by Chief Justice Ron Castille. In his opinion Monday, Castille suggested that McCaffery displays "pathological symptoms [that] describe a sociopath" who blames others for his "transgressions." The Morning Call on Oct. 2 disclosed McCaffery's role in an email porn scandal that has gripped Pennsylvania. Castille described the 234 sexually explicit emails he reviewed as "highly demeaning portrayals of … women, elderly persons and uniformed school girls."
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Florida man sentenced to life after 'Stand your Ground' defense

Michael Dunn was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the fatal shooting of Jordan Davis, after an argument over loud music. The judge cited Florida's stand your ground law in the sentencing, saying it has been misunderstood, reported The Christian Science Monitor.
The shooting fueled an ongoing debate over a new breed of self-defense laws, adopted in nearly half of all US states, which make it easier for armed individuals to kill in self-defense in public places.
Florida was the first state to make that change in 2005, and the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 was the most famous test of that law. The unarmed teenager was shot and killed after being pursued in the dark by a neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. In that case, the judge instructed the jury that, under the law, someone who reasonably believes their life is at stake doesn’t have to retreat from a situation before retaliating with deadly force.
Judge Healey cited Florida’s stand your ground law in his sentencing Friday, saying the measure has been misunderstood and suggesting that Dunn’s actions “exemplifies that our society seems to have lost its way. … We should remember that there’s nothing wrong with retreating and deescalating the situation.”
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Sunday, October 19, 2014

California voters to address prison overcrowding

California’s justice system has been dealing with a prison-overcrowding crisis that has embroiled it in a long court fight, reported FoxNews.
Voters this fall, however, could approve big -- and some say "dangerous" -- changes to the state’s sentencing system, aimed in part at easing the overcrowding. On the state ballot is a proposal that would dramatically change how the state treats certain “nonserious, nonviolent” drug and property crimes, by downgrading them from felonies to misdemeanors.
The measure, known as Prop 47, also would allow those currently serving time for such offenses to apply for a reduced sentence, as long as they have no prior convictions for more serious crimes like murder, attempted murder or sexual offenses.
The proposition would reduce penalties for an array of crimes that can be prosecuted as either felonies or misdemeanors in California. This includes everything from drug possession to check fraud to petty theft to forgery. Prop 47 would, generally, treat all these as misdemeanors, in turn reducing average jail sentences. According to a state estimate, there are approximately 40,000 people convicted each year in California who would be affected by the measure.
“[Prop 47] allows the criminal justice system to focus in on more serious crimes,” Hughes said.
According to an analysis by the California Budget Project, state and local governments would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The measure dictates the savings be split among three different areas, with 65 percent going to mental health and drug treatment programs, 25 percent going to K-12 school programs and 10 percent going to victim services.
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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Minnesota sex offenders run for office to gain rights

Minnesota sex offenders fed up with political gridlock over controversial institutional treatment, are bringing their plight to light by running for elected office, reported the Minneapolis Star.
For the last three months, a group of sex offenders has quietly run a voter-registration drive up and down the hallways of the prisonlike treatment center in Moose Lake, where about 460 convicted rapists, pedophiles and other offenders are locked away indefinitely behind razor wire.
Some 155 are now registered to vote — amounting to nearly 20 percent of all voters registered in Moose Lake.
Their goal is to elect sex offenders to as many as eight city and county offices, where they can push for more freedoms and reintegration into the community. Among their demands, the offenders want the right to leave the facility without shackles and handcuffs; and for the city of Moose Lake to allow for halfway houses for offenders who progress in treatment for their sexual disorders.
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Friday, October 17, 2014

GateHouse: Asset forfeitures bolster local crime fighting efforts

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
October 17, 2014
The U.S. Department of Justice has made it possible for local law enforcement agencies to fund some of their policing practices through collaborative civil asset forfeitures. The process known as Equitable Sharing drives revenue to local crime fighting agencies, but not without consequences.

The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 was a component of the Reagan-era war on drugs. The intent of the act was to tap into the illicit profits of drug kingpins. The loss of profits would make the drug trade less alluring and bolster enforcement practices by permitting forfeiture-related revenue to be used to pay informants, purchase equipment, pay investigators and finance complex law enforcement investigations.

The new law also allowed local law enforcement to get in on the action. Pursuant to the act, local law enforcement agencies were entitled to receive a portion of the net proceeds of forfeitures sought collaboratively with federal authorities — up to 80 percent of the seized assets.

In difficult economic times there is an incentive to fund local police departments with money other than from the pocket of taxpayers.

The problem is that not all the forfeited funds were coming from convicted drug dealers or from anyone convicted of a crime. The Washington Post analyzed the spending reports of thousands of DOJ asset forfeitures totaling $2.5 billion and found 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in cases in which no indictment was filed.

The easy money led to an aggressive form of policing known as “highway interdiction.” A vehicle is stopped for a traffic violation, is searched and cash is seized. Owners must prove that their money or property was acquired legally in order to get it back. According to Reason Magazine, “your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.”

Here is how a person not charged with a crime can lose a large sum of cash: A police officer stops a vehicle for a minor traffic violation and then searches the vehicle based either on the “consent” of the occupants or if the K-9 unit shows up and provides a “dog alert.” A dog alert is when a trained K-9 becomes agitated while sniffing around a stopped vehicle for the scent of drugs. If the dog “hits” on a vehicle there is enough probable cause to search the vehicle.

How reliable are dog alerts?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that as long as a drug-sniffing dog is well-trained his performance on the job really doesn’t matter.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote that it was enough that a dog’s “satisfactory performance” in a certification or training program provided sufficient reason for an officer to trust its alert, even though errors “may abound” when dogs get put to the test in the field.

“Law enforcement units have their own strong incentive to use effective training and certification programs,” Kagan wrote.

The incentive for some police departments may be different than Kagan envisioned. Since 2001, there have been about 62,000 cash seizures on highways and elsewhere without search warrants or indictments and processed through the Equitable Sharing program, according to The Post.

The potential abuses of asset forfeiture have long been recognized. In 2000, Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, fought for the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act — with the intent of making it more difficult for the federal government to seize property without evidence of wrongdoing.
This past July, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act. The bill changes the burden of proof in federal forfeiture cases making it more difficult for the government to prove the basis for the forfeiture of assets in court.

The FAIR Act would also abolish the Equitable Sharing Program. The act would make it less likely that police and prosecutors would confiscate the assets of individuals guilty of nothing more than driving around with cash in their car.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Overdoses from prescription painkillers down

New federal data show deaths from prescription painkillers have decreased for the first time since 1999, while heroin deaths have surged, suggesting some addicts may have turned to illicit drugs as new federal and state restrictions made prescription narcotics harder to get, reported USA Today.
Abuse of prescription opioids, such as the powerful painkiller OxyContin, fueled a surge in overdose deaths, which quadrupled from 4,030 deaths in 1999 to 16,917 deaths in 2011. The numbers are based on mortality data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2012, the latest year available, deaths from prescription painkillers dropped 5% to 16,007, according to CDC data made public by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Deaths from all categories of prescription drugs dropped 3%, the data shows.
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