Thursday, October 30, 2014

National Journal Op-Ed: Actually, the Founders Rejected the Death Penalty

, The National Law Journal
The debate over the Constitution's meaning, pitting originalists against living constitutionalists, has raged for decades. And nowhere has that debate played out more dramatically than in the context of America's death penalty, with the U.S. Supreme Court hearing frantic, last-minute death-row appeals every term, as it will in this one.
The conventional wisdom is that America's founders were gung-ho about capital punishment. But that is a myth. Although early U.S. laws authorized executions, the founders greatly admired a now little-known Italian writer, Cesare Beccaria, who fervently opposed capital punishment. They also were fascinated by the penitentiary system's potential to eliminate cruel punishments.
In 1769, George Washington bought a copy of Beccaria's book, "On Crimes and Punishments," first published in Italian 250 years ago and translated into English in 1767. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Washington told Congress that executions were too ­frequent.In 1770, during the Boston Massacre trial, John Adams quoted Beccaria's treatise in defending British soldiers accused of murder.
"I am for the prisoners at the bar," Adams said, "and shall apologize for it only in the words of the Marquis Beccaria: 'If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport, shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind."
Thomas Jefferson — our third president — read Beccaria's treatise in Italian. "The 'Lex talionis,' " he wrote, "will be revolting to the humanized feelings of modern times." Jefferson later emphasized: "Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death."
In Virginia, James Madison — the father of the Constitution — advocated for Jefferson's bill to curtail capital crimes. Madison told one correspondent: "I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it."
It is true, as Justice Antonin Scalia is fond of noting, that the Constitution contains the words "capital," "life" and "life or limb." But no modern American judge ever orders offenders' limbs to be lopped off, and those words in the Bill of Rights were designed to protect individual rights when the death penalty was a mandatory penalty.
Juries, however, now impose discretionary sentences, with executions arbitrarily meted out based on geography or race, which itself runs afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection principle. Death sentences and executions have dwindled while life-without-parole sentences have skyrocketed. In the United States, roughly 50,000 inmates are serving life-without-parole sentences, compared to 3,054 death row inmates. The 39 executions in 2013 were clustered in just nine states.
In short, executions — long considered cruel by men like Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, in 1787, called death "an improper punishment for any crime" — have gone from being cruel and usual to being cruel and unusual. Meanwhile, nonlethal corporal punishments, like ear cropping, have long been abandoned and would be considered cruel and unusual by any modern-day judge. Even Scalia has described himself as a "faint-hearted originalist" because he rejects a return to founding-era punishments like branding and public flogging.
Early Americans like George Washing­ton, Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson sought to reduce the frequency of executions. And William Bradford — one of Madison's closest friends — specifically invoked Beccaria's name in seeking to curtail executions, with Washington later appointing Bradford as the nation's second attorney general.
"The name of Beccaria," Bradford wrote in 1786, "has become ­familiar in Pennsylvania, his authority has become great, and his principles have spread among all classes of persons and impressed themselves deeply in the hearts of our citizens."
In adopting an evolving-standards-of-decency test, the Supreme Court has squarely rejected an originalist approach. But its case law remains highly unprincipled. The Eighth Amendment is said to protect prisoners from harm, but executions do exactly the opposite. And while the Eighth Amendment's touchstone is said to be "human dignity," there is nothing dignified about executions, as the recent series of botched executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma illustrates.
Death-qualified juries, in which jurors who oppose the death penalty are stricken during voir dire, are troublesome, too. Public support for executions is declining, yet death penalty opponents are ­systematically excluded from jury service. By allowing "death-qualified" juries, the court perversely skews the outcome of the verdicts — and thus the data — it ­considers.
No matter what interpretive ­theory one embraces, one thing is clear: the Founding Fathers were deeply ambivalent about capital punishment. Indeed, they embraced the principle of Montesquieu and Beccaria that any punishment that goes beyond what is "absolutely necessary" is "tyrannical."
In an era of maximum-security prisons and life-without-parole sentences, the death penalty can no longer be considered necessary. It should, therefore, go the way of the whipping post and the pillory.

Link to Column:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Law enforcement partnership calls for background checks on all gun purchases

The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence is calling for background checks on all gun purchases, including private and gun-show sales, reported the Orlando Sentinel.
The partnership is comprised of nine national law-enforcement groups, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which is holding its annual conference at the convention center on International Drive.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, gunfire has been the leading cause of death for officers killed in the line of duty in the U.S. this year. So far, 41 officers have been gunned down this year, up 64 percent from last year, according to the data.
The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence has previously called for expanded background checks, as well as other firearm reforms.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which went into effect in 1994, requires federally licensed firearm dealers to conduct background checks. However, in Florida, sales between private citizens, including some at gun shows or initiated online, do not require background checks.
To read more Click Here

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mexican crime rates fall, terror continues

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto touted to bankers in New York City recently that criminal violence had fallen sharply in Mexico, reported the Christian Science Monitor. Murders have fallen 29 percent since 2012, he said, and Mexican states bordering the United States have seen an average 40 percent fall in violent crimes.
“These results allow us to see that we are on the correct path . . . the path to diminishing levels of violence,” Peña Nieto said.
However, drug gangs continue to terrorize the country. Recently, commandos cornered a blue Chevrolet Suburban of national legislator Gabriel Gomez Michel. The next morning, the vehicle turned up in a neighboring state with two charred bodies inside. Authorities said DNA tests confirmed that Mr. Gomez and his aide, Heriberto Nunez Ramos, were the two victims.
To read more Click Here

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Police departments are stuggling to keep pace with expenditures

Public expenditures on policing have more than quadrupled between 1982 and 2006, reported Governing Magazine. But with city budget shortfalls opening up across the country, police departments and their chiefs, once used to ever-growing budgets, were now facing a new reality of cutbacks, layoffs and even outright mergers and consolidations of entire police departments with others.
With federal subsidies disappearing (federal support for criminal justice assistance grant programs shrank by 43 percent between 2011 and 2013), thanks to a frugal Congress, police had few options.
As always, funding continues to be an issue. In May, the major law enforcement agencies sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committee asking that the National Preparedness Grant Program reconsider a series of proposed changes that would reduce funding for terrorism prevention. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Justice found that 78 percent of law enforcement agencies had their grant funding cut since 2010 and 43 percent reported cuts of between 11 and 25 percent.
New technologies might ease some of the financial burdens in the long run, but take an initial investment.  Police department should proceed with cause and be prudent in there technology choices.
New technologies must be benchmarked, with metrics that forecast just what their impact will be on operations before they are fully implemented. Second, police departments need to set policies, especially around tools that gather data about individuals, such as video, to ensure that the civil liberties and privacy of law-abiding citizens is not compromised.
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Crime rates rise in the summer

Seasonal swings in crime occur also vary for different types of crimes, reported Governing Magazine. Cities often experience far more property crimes during the summer, likely attributable -- at least in part -- to the fact that the primary perpetrators aren’t in school. Pittsburgh police receive more reports of nuisance-type crimes, such as car break-ins and graffiti, during the summer months, according to Sonya Toler, a city police spokeswoman.
Murder counts climb in the summer months as well. Police agencies reviewed saw monthly murders increase an average of 15 percent from June through August, with larger variations occurring in places like Cleveland and Rochester, N.Y.
In Erie, Pa., totals for the seven major crime types rose by an average of 35 percent during the summer months -- one of the highest increases nationally. The city’s harsh winters likely help push down crime totals, and police there also see more activity from visitors during the summer months.
A few of the law enforcement agencies that registered the steepest fluctuations in crime serve summer tourist destinations. Take Virginia Beach, Va., for example, where crime increased an average of nearly 23 percent. A few million people visit the city’s oceanfront each year, and agency statistics indicate about 30 percent of those arrested annually are from outside the Hampton Roads metro area.
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Thursday, October 23, 2014

New study: The Unpredictability of Murder

A new study published in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice examined data from the longitudinal "Pathways to Desistance" study, which followed 1,354 youths charged with serious crimes in order to predict the likelihood to commit murder, reported The Crime Report.
Of the sample of 1,354 youths, 18 had been charged with homicide. Researchers analyzed eight demographic characteristics and 35 risk factors associated with youth violence, to see whether any distinguished the homicide group.
“Among the predictors, age, intelligence quotient (IQ), exposure to violence, perceptions of community disorder, and prevalence of gun carrying are significantly different across the two groups,” researchers wrote.
But “only lower IQ and a greater exposure to violence were significant.”
More importantly, researches concluded, the presence of a high number of risk factors in a youth’s background increased the likelihood that he or she might be charged with homicide.
Researchers conclude that juvenile justice practitioners should be “mindful” of the many risk factors associated with violence.
“Youth who display many or perhaps all of these risks certainly warrant additional services and oversight on the part of staff, as they might be the youth who are most likely to perpetrate a homicide,” researchers write.
Read the full study Click Here

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.
To read more Click Here