Watch my interview on Law and Crime Network about the trial on James Prokopovitz, a Wisconsin man accused of killing his wife.
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Though he found Missouri’s practice of putting poor criminal defendants on a waiting list to be appointed a public defender is unconstitutional, a state judge issued a stay to give legislators more time to remedy the situation, reported the Courthouse News Service.
In a ruling issued last Thursday, Phelps County Judge William Hickle cited continued reductions in the number of defendants currently on the list and the prospect of more funding being provided to the public defender’s office that would eliminate the list entirely as reasons for the stay.
The case, which Hickle heard during a two-day bench trial in November, is stayed until June 30, 2021. A review is docketed for July 1, with the state required to provide monthly updates regarding the number of defendants on the list and the status of legislative funding.
“Respondents are optimistic that there will be sufficient funding to wholly eliminate the [Missouri State Public Defender] waiting list sometime this calendar year,” Hickle wrote. “Respondents urge that separation-of-powers and comity interests are furthered by allowing the General Assembly time to provide funding to eliminate the MSPD waiting lists, which in turn will hopefully render moot Petitioners’ requests for relief.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs, objected to the stay. Attorneys for both sides did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the trial, Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project based in New York, told the court that five of the named petitioners spent 93, 107, 116, 1147 and 160 days, respectively, on the waiting list before being assigned representation.
He cited numbers from 2019, when there were 4,690 defendants on the list. Of those, 2,744 had been waiting for at least three months; 2,233 for at least four months; 1,916 for at least five months; 1,546 for at least six months; and 600 for one year.
When the trial occurred, there were roughly 2,000 people on the waiting list. Of those, 1,113 had been waiting for at least three months; 922 for at least four months; 734 for at least five months; 665 for at least six months; and 233 for at least one year.
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Lawmakers in at least 23 states, often encouraged by vaccine skeptics, have proposed banning employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. Most bills are sponsored by Republicans, who say employees shouldn’t have to choose between getting a shot and staying employed, reports Stateline.
“I just kind of like the idea of personal freedom, and that’s one of my biggest things as a legislator,” said Republican state Sen. Dennis Kruse, who sponsored one such bill in Indiana.
Although vaccines protect individuals and communities from disease outbreaks, online disinformation has turbocharged some people’s concerns about vaccine safety and potential mandates in recent years. Some anti-vaccine activists have spread false information about the science and public policy surrounding immunizations.
Yet despite lobbying from anti-vaccine groups, often known as anti-vaxxers, the employer mandate bills are unlikely to pass, experts say. That’s because the proposals threaten employers’ legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace and could put the lives of workers, customers and patients at risk.
Federal guidance issued in December allows employers to require that their workers get COVID-19 vaccines, although they must accommodate employees' religious objections and also make sure vaccine requirements don't discriminate against employees with disabilities.
Accommodating a religious objection could involve changing an unvaccinated worker's job duties to maintain a safe workplace. For instance, employers could ask workers who refuse immunization to work remotely or wear protective gear.
Kruse’s bill would have applied to all vaccines, not just COVID-19, which particularly alarmed public health experts. “The main concern is that this applies to all vaccines in all contexts,” Patrick Glew, a program manager for the Indiana Immunization Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for vaccinations, said when he testified against Kruse’s bill in January.
“If you do not have to get a vaccine for these [diseases] as a hospital worker, as a doctor, as a nurse, as somebody who works in health care, you’re not only making a decision for yourself,” Glew said. “You’re making a decision for everyone else you treat, too. You’re putting them at risk.”
Nationwide, the bills could face opposition from both business and public health groups, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
That’s exactly what happened in Indiana, where the state Chamber of Commerce, health care groups and public health experts all opposed Kruse’s bill. His legislation also would have allowed workers who had been punished by their employers for refusing a vaccine to sue for damages.
Republican state Sen. Phil Boots, who co-sponsored the bill, killed it last week by declining to bring it up for a committee vote.
“There was simply not enough support for the bill to move forward in the legislative process,” he said in an email to Stateline. “Many of my colleagues felt that federal exemptions are adequate … and that the bill went too far in the potential employer penalties."
A similar bill in North Dakota has failed, and most of the other bills have yet to receive serious consideration. But vaccine skeptics say they’re not giving up.
“We are just getting started,” said Ashley Grogg, founder of Hoosiers for Medical Liberty, a group that represents vaccine skeptics and worked with Kruse on his bill. “There’s going to be more to come next year.”
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After years of false starts and failed attempts, New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy signed into law three bills that effectively permit and regulate the use of recreational marijuana in New Jersey, making it the most populous state in the Northeast to fully legalize the drug, reported the New York Times.
New Jersey is now one of 14 states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis for adults 21 and older, while also easing several penalties for underage possession and allowing for the creation of a regulated market that could provide a welcomed boost to the state’s economy as it recovers from the pandemic.
Legal sales likely remain months away at the earliest, as the state takes on its next task of creating a heavily regulated industry large enough to support public demand, with licenses still to be doled out to dispensaries.
But after years of failed legislative efforts to approve the use of recreational marijuana, Monday’s move came as a long-awaited win for supporters, including Mr. Murphy, who had long pushed for the inclusion of measures to address the disproportionate number of marijuana arrests in communities of color.
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A 95-year-old man who lived in Tennessee was deported to Germany on Saturday, one year after a federal judge found that he had served as an armed guard at a Nazi concentration camp where prisoners were forced to work outdoors “to the point of exhaustion and death.”
The deportation of the former guard, Friedrich Karl Berger, capped what could be the last prosecution by the U.S. government of collaborators in Nazi war crimes as most of the targets have died in the more than 75 years since the end of World War II.
The Justice Department said Mr. Berger had served as an armed guard at a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp near Meppen, Germany, where Danes, Dutch, French, Italians, Jews, Latvians, Poles and Russians as well as political opponents of the Nazis were imprisoned in “atrocious” conditions and forced to dig anti-tank fortifications in the dead of winter.
At the end of March 1945, when the Nazis abandoned Meppen to escape advancing British and Canadian forces, Mr. Berger helped to guard the prisoners during their forcible evacuation to the main camp, a nearly two-week march under inhumane conditions that claimed the lives of some 70 prisoners, the department said.
The entire Neuengamme system — which included scores of camps — imprisoned some 100,000 men and women, about 40,000 to 55,000 of whom died, the Justice Department said. Between 3,000 to 4,000 people were imprisoned at two Meppen subcamps, one of which Mr. Berger guarded.
During a two-day trial in February 2020, Mr. Berger acknowledged that he had guarded prisoners to prevent them from escaping as they worked from dawn to dusk, and as they traveled to work sites and back to the camp, the Justice Department said. Mr. Berger also acknowledged that he never requested a transfer from concentration camp guard service and that he had continued to receive a pension from Germany based in part on his “wartime service.”
In November 2020, the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld an immigration judge’s decision that Mr. Berger was removable under the 1978 Holtzman Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act because his “willing service as an armed guard of prisoners at a concentration camp where persecution took place” constituted assistance in Nazi-sponsored persecution.
“Berger’s removal demonstrates the Department of Justice’s and its law enforcement partners’ commitment to ensuring that the United States is not a safe haven for those who have participated in Nazi crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses,” Monty Wilkinson, the acting attorney general, said in a statement.
“In this year in which we mark the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg convictions, this case shows that the passage, even of many decades, will not deter the department from pursuing justice on behalf of the victims of Nazi crimes,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
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Authorities say a bail bondsman fatally shot a wanted man inside a Nanticoke home after showing up to take him into custody on a court-ordered arrest warrant, reported The Citizen's Voice.
City police identified the man as 26-year-old Thomas Worthy Painter.
Painter had been scheduled for a bail revocation hearing Friday in Luzerne County Court following a sixth arrest since April, most involving drug charges.
Police said the preliminary investigation revealed Painter pulled a gun on the bondsman, who responded by shooting Painter in the abdomen inside 83 Fairview Drive, which is located in a cul de sac neighborhood in the city’s Hanover section.
Painter was taken to Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre for treatment, but died of his injuries, Nanticoke police said.
Investigators said the bondsman, who was not identified, is cooperating and agreed to be interviewed by police.
Three other people were inside the home at the time gunfire broke out and were also interviewed, investigators said.
“Obviously, it’s very early on. We don’t know what the subject of those statements will be. That’s part of the investigation,” Luzerne County First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said.
Painter’s defense attorney, Larry Kansky, said the incident was a “tragedy” that didn’t need to happen.
“It’s sad a young person’s life had to end when most likely it would have been resolved,” Kansky said. “We were all set for the hearing tomorrow.”
Kansky said his client, who had drug problems, probably feared he was heading back to jail, but he thinks he would have been able to convince the court to keep him free with home confinement or electronic ankle monitoring.
Kansky said Painter lived with his grandmother at the Fairview Drive house and she put up her house as collateral for Painter’s bail with AA Bail Bonds in Wilkes-Barre.
“If he absconded, she would lose her house,” Kansky said.
Kansky said he learned Painter had called the bail bonds company asking that his grandmother no longer be held responsible for his bail, prompting the visit by the bondsman to take Painter into custody for Friday’s hearing.
“Did that mean he was going to run? Or refuse to go to the hearing? Or did he want suicide by bail bondsman? I don’t know. That’s something the district attorney’s office is going to have to investigate,” Kansky said.
A representative who answered the phone at AA Bail Bonds said the company did bail out Painter, but she had no further information.
Records show Painter has a lengthy criminal history and was out on bail on six open criminal cases in Luzerne County since April, including one from August in which he swam across the Susquehanna River following a hit-and-run crash in Plymouth only to be arrested by awaiting police when he reached the opposite shoreline in Hanover Twp.
County prosecutors had previously moved to revoke Painter’s bail, which authorities say prompted the efforts to take him into custody to ensure his appearance at Friday’s bail revocation hearing.
Sanguedolce said it is commonplace for bail bondsmen to be tasked with taking a defendant into custody when the person is subject to their company’s bail.
Thursday’s incident occurred around 2 p.m. inside 83 Fairview Drive.
Sanguedolce said the bondsman was “invited into the residence.”
“As he entered, he tried to take the individual into custody,” Sanguedolce said. “The individual pulled a weapon on the bondsman, who responded with gunfire and struck the individual.”
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Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution in 22 years. More than 58 years have passed since the last prisoner in the Commonwealth was executed involuntarily.
Although Pennsylvania might not be carrying out executions—Governor Tom Wolf has declared a moratorium on executions—Pennsylvania has thousands of de facto death sentences. There are about 5,200 state prisoners serving what has been referred to as “death-by-incarceration.”
What is death-by-incarceration? Offenders condemned to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Under Pennsylvania’s sentencing scheme, offenders—other than lifers—are sentenced to a minimum and a maximum term of sentence. The maximum must be at least twice the minimum.
In Pennsylvania, once an inmate has served her minimum sentence she is eligible for parole. Release from prison is determined by the parole board. Once released the offender is supervised on parole until the expiration of her maximum sentence.
A life sentence in Pennsylvania has no minimum—there is no opportunity for parole—life means life in Pennsylvania.
There isn’t much sympathy for an offender who has been sentenced to life without parole for killing another human being. However, in Pennsylvania more than 20 percent of lifers didn’t kill anyone. Those offenders were convicted of second-degree murder—felony murder.
Felony murder is a statutory crime in Pennsylvania promulgated at 25 Pa.C.S.A. 2502 (b) providing “[C]riminal homicide constitutes murder of the second degree when it is committed while defendant was engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.” The law in Pennsylvania is clear, if a death occurs during the commission of a felony, the death is considered murder and anybody who participated in the felony is equally responsible for the murder, regardless of whether they had any criminal intent to harm or cause death.
The concept of felony murder can produce bizarre outcomes. For instance, two teens go into a convenience store unarmed. They pretend to have guns and ask the store owner to turn over the cash. The owner pulls a gun and kills one of the would-be robbers. The surviving robber can be convicted of Second Degree Murder and sentenced to life in prison, even though he had no intent to kill and no means to kill.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have tried to provide hope for those serving life sentences. A recent proposal would have allowed lifers a chance at parole after serving 35 years on a first-degree murder conviction and 25 years on second-degree murder. The proposal never made it to the floor for a vote.
Now a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of six people convicted in their late teens of “felony murder,” arguing that prohibiting parole consideration for felony murder is cruel and unconstitutional under Pennsylvania law. Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits “cruel punishment.” Pennsylvania’s constitutional provision predates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are three women and three men who have served between 23 and 47 years in Pennsylvania prisons. Each was sentenced to life after a felony murder conviction. None committed or intended to commit any killing in the course of the crime.
The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole has denied the plaintiffs parole consideration through 61 Pa.C.S.A. 6137(a) that prohibits individuals serving life sentences from parole eligibility. The plaintiffs seek to show the parole statute is “grossly disproportionate to any legitimate penological interest as applied to individuals who did not take a life or intend to take a life, and must be struck down.”
With essentially no death penalty in Pennsylvania—and what appears to be the slow undoing of the death penalty nationwide—it is ridiculous to impose the same sentence of life in prison without parole on an individual who commits planned premediated murder and someone who is along for the ride. The legislature must act to provide a sense of hope for those serving a felony murder life sentence and provide the option of parole for those sentenced in the future.
(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. in New Castle, PA. He is the author of The Executioner’s Toll, 2010. His weekly syndicated column is distributed by Gannett. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)
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Roughly a dozen Portland police officers faced off with a small group at a Northeast Portland Fred Meyer after people tried to take food that had been thrown away, The Oregonian.
Workers at the Hollywood West Fred Meyer threw away thousands of perishable items because the store, like many others, had lost power in an outage brought on by the region’s winter storm.
Images on social media showed mountains of packaged meat, cheese and juice, as well as whole turkeys and racks of ribs that had been tossed into two large dumpsters near the store.
A few people gathered about 2:30 p.m. at the store, 3030 N.E. Weidler St., in hopes of salvaging the food.
But within a few hours, people seeking food from the dumpsters began to report police officers showing up to guard the dumpsters and prevent people from taking the items.
Morgan Mckniff, a prominent activist and outspoken Portland police critic who lives in the neighborhood, said employees were guarding the dumpsters when they showed up to get some of the discarded food. Mckniff began to film the employees and reported staff members threatened to call the police on them for doing so.
The store manager called police shortly thereafter, Mckniff said, and Mckniff began livestreaming the interaction on Instagram.
“After that, other people started showing up and asking them, ‘Why are you guys guarding a dumpster?’” Mckniff said.
Mckniff said about 15 people eventually gathered in an attempt to collect food.
At that point, Mckniff said, a dozen officers arrived at the scene. One officer wasn’t wearing a mask and refused to put one on until a supervisor arrived and brought him one, according to Mckniff.
On Wednesday, Portland police said officers were sent to the scene after employees said “they felt the situation was escalating and feared there may be a physical confrontation,” a police spokesman said in a statement.
Also on Wednesday, a Fred Meyer spokesman responded to what had become a deluge of criticism, noting the company donates more than five million pounds of food annually.
“Unfortunately, due to loss of power at this store, some perishable food was no longer safe for donation to local hunger relief agencies,” the company wrote. “Our store team became concerned that area residents would consume the food and risk food borne illness, and they engaged local law enforcement out of an abundance of caution. We apologize for the confusion.”
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Two Ohio lawmakers are looking to put an end to the state's death penalty, according to WLWT-TV.
State Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Loveland) and State Rep. Adam Miller (D-Columbus) introduced a bipartisan bill that would repeal Ohio's death penalty, which they called "out of date" and "flawed."
Schmidt said she has reevaluated the issue throughout the course of her life. Once a supporter for continuing the death penalty, Schmidt said more than a decade later, she now feels it is time to end the death penalty in Ohio.
In a release, the lawmakers stated that Ohio has had 56 executions since 1999 and there are currently 136 people on Ohio's death row. Schmidt and Miller feel Ohio could save millions of dollars if prisoners were given life without parole instead of the death penalty.
"It is 2021. It is time to end the death penalty," said Miller. "Apart from moral, ethical, and spiritual reasons to oppose capital punishment, the carrying out of executions raises significant concerns on who is sentenced to death and how that sentence is carried out. It is long past time Ohio joins the global community in ending the death penalty. "
In December, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine declared that lethal injection is no longer an option for Ohio executions, and lawmakers must choose a different method of capital punishment before any inmates can be put to death in the future.
It’s “pretty clear” there won’t be any executions next year, DeWine told The Associated Press during a year-end interview, adding he doesn’t see support in the legislature for making a switch in execution method a priority. Ohio has an “unofficial moratorium” on capital punishment, he said.
“Lethal injection appears to us to be impossible from a practical point of view today,” the governor said.
DeWine said he still supports capital punishment as Ohio law. But he has come to question its value since the days he helped write the state’s current law — enacted in 1981 — because of the long delays between crime and punishment.
DeWine called himself “much more skeptical about whether it meets the criteria that was certainly in my mind when I voted for the death penalty and that was that it in fact did deter crime, which to me is the moral justification.”
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An excerpt from a Politico interview with Michael Jensen, an expert on extremism who leads the domestic radicalization team at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism on mass radicalization:
First, you have to have a vulnerable audience receptive to the extremist narrative—individuals who are scared, angry, isolated and looking for answers that satisfy their own personal biases, looking to cast blame for their problems on someone else. They find narratives that tell them their problems are not their fault; it’s the product of a conspiracy trying to undermine your way of life and well-being. Those messages are deeply appealing, because it’s harder to look inside and question your own decision-making and behaviors. Over the past year in particular, we’ve had an unprecedented situation that has left a very large audience receptive to those narratives. The pandemic has left people scared, without jobs and looking for answers to what happens next.
The second thing you need is an influential voice pushing the extremist narrative. And over the past 4½ years, we have had a very influential political leader [President Donald Trump] pushing a narrative that is not only polarizing—not only highlighting that the right and left are far apart on policy issues and disagree on discretionary spending—it’s a narrative of “othering.” It’s a narrative that casts the other side as evil, as “enemies,” as individuals you have to fight at all costs in order to preserve your way of life. We saw this, whether [Trump’s “others”] were Democrats, the news media or the scientific community.
The final thing you need is a mechanism to spread that narrative to the masses. Historically, mass radicalization took time. If an influential leader wanted to spread a message, they’d do it through newspapers or political speeches in towns and cities throughout their country, and it could take a while for that message to spread. But that’s not our reality anymore.
Our reality now is one in which a radicalizing message can be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people in a matter of seconds. And if it catches on, you’re virtually guaranteed that millions of people will [believe] that narrative. We’ve seen this in the more traditional forms of media, with outlets like Fox News pushing some of these conspiratorial views, but we’ve also seen it with social media companies not cracking down on this rhetoric early, and instead letting it fester.
Those three conditions [make people] ripe for mass radicalization. And once that narrative changes into a call for action—when it’s not just about changing someone’s beliefs, it’s about inspiring them to act on those beliefs—you get January 6. You get mass mobilization. That’s what we saw.
The question is moving forward is, are those conditions still present? Does the future of extremism in this country look like January 6, or does it look like something we’ve been dealing with for a couple of decades? In my estimation, we are reverting back to somewhat of a mean. The future of extremism in this country won’t look like January 6, but it will look like what we’ve been dealing with for the past couple of decades, [with a] significant threat we have to challenge in a very smart way.
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Pennsylvania's Lt. Governor John Fetterman says the state's life without parole sentence for second-degree murder needs to be reformed, reported KDKA-AM.
“More than 1,000 people are sitting in jail right now on what amounts to a death sentence despite never having taken a life,” Fetterman said. “That’s not because a judge thought the sentence was deserved. It’s because a one-size-fits-all law makes it mandatory. Any reasonable person who looks at the unfairness of these sentences will acknowledge the need for change.”
Fetterman, who says the law ruins lives and costs taxpayers billions of dollars, cites a new study by Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity as confirmation that the law has to change.
The report states that "Unlike almost every other crime, second-degree murder – often called “felony murder” – does not describe an act but a situation: it applies when someone dies related to a felony. In Pennsylvania, that felony is defined as committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing from an act of robbery, burglary, kidnapping, rape, or arson."
In addition, the law is equally applied to anyone else involved in the crime, known as accomplices, no matter what role they played in the crime.
According to the report, it costs the state an average of just under $47,000 a year to house a prisoner in a state facility.
It's noted that an inmate incarcerated the longest on a second-degree murder convictions is a 73-year-old man whose sentence began in 1971. It's estimated that today date, it's cost the state $2.4 million to keep the man in prison.
The study also says age is a factor that should be taken into consideration. More than 73% of those convicted and serving a life sentence on second-degree murder were 25-years-old or younger.
The study says medical and behavioral science confirms that the brain continues developing into a person's mid-twenties and therefore younger individuals are less culpable, but serve the longest sentences than older individuals with mature brain development.
The report suggests that releasing these prisoners at age 50 could save the state near $1.4 billion.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro also agrees that changes need to be made. In a release he said, “As a member of the Board of Pardons, I review the facts and circumstances of each case, and this report has provided valuable context for those deliberations,” Shapiro said. “The findings in this report also support the call I have made on the General Assembly to change the law so second-degree murder is not an automatic life sentence and to provide additional sentencing options, and I renew that call today."
The report concludes "While the mandatory nature of life without parole removed discretion at the time of sentencing, it is without question that the Board of Pardons, and the Governor, are vested by the Pennsylvania Constitution with the power to “override” the decision of the legislature in fixing the appropriate penalty for those who have been involved in felonies that resulted in someone’s death decades ago and are transformed people today. This report provides many instances that the Board of Pardons not only could properly exercise its discretion and recommend clemency, but should.
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The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday that defendants who are facing prolonged incarceration due to COVID-19 trial delays have the right to a new detention hearing if certain requirements are met, reported Jurist.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey and the Office of the Public Defender brought this case. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied the lawsuit’s broad requests that (1) defendants charged with a second-degree offense or less be released if they have been detained for over six months; and (2) defendants charged with a first-degree offense be given a new detention hearing if they have been detained for over six months.
Rather than granting the blanket requests, the court unanimously ruled that defendants have the right to apply for a new detention hearing. The justices explained that the COVID-19 related trial delays constitute a “change of circumstance” under New Jersey statute law.
To reopen a detention hearing, the defendant must have been detained for at least six months. The defendant must also “present new information that was not known that the time of the initial hearing and that ‘has a material bearing’ on the release decision.” Materiality may be dependent on the individual defendant’s length of detention, the length of detention compared to the predicted length of incarceration, the defendant’s plea offer, the defendant’s health risks, and other factors.
Defendants who have been charged with murder or who face a potential life sentence will likely be ineligible to reopen detention hearings.
Regarding the court’s ruling, the ACLU-NJ Director of Supreme Court Advocacy Alexander Shalom said “we’re gratified that the court recognized a desperate need to address the crisis in the criminal courts precipitated by the pandemic.”
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Eric Lander, who co-authored a damning 2016 report on the faulty forensic practices behind hundreds of wrongful convictions, has been tapped to advise newly elected President Biden as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, reports The Intercept. In the PCAST report, Lander and other members concluded that a host of long-used pattern-matching forensic practices lacked sufficient scientific underpinning, according to The Crime Report. After four years of the Trump administration, which saw federally driven efforts at reforming forensics grind to a halt, many hope that having Lander and other well-respected scientists in key policy positions will reinvigorate those initiatives.
Save for DNA analysis, forensic science disciplines were mainly developed according to the needs of law enforcement — bereft of scientific underpinning. That’s particularly true of so-called pattern-matching practices like fingerprint analysis, firearm analysis, bite-mark analysis, shoe tread analysis, and handwriting analysis, all of which involve an “expert” looking at a piece of evidence and visually tying it to a suspect. PCAST was not the first body to point out the lack of scientific foundation to these practices. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark study titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” which questioned the basis of nearly every forensic discipline used to arrest, prosecute, and send people to prison. Roughly a quarter of the more than 2,700 cases in the National Registry of Exonerations involved faulty or misleading forensic evidence; forensic errors have been implicated in about half of the more than 500 exonerations based on DNA testing.
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Last week, the Virginia House of Delegates voted to abolish the death penalty. In the modern era of the death penalty Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of condemned prisoners sent to their death. Gov. Ralph Northam has promised to sign the bill, which will make Virginia the 23rd state in the country without a death penalty.
Virginia’s use of the death penalty dates back over 400 years—to 1608, when Jamestown settlers carried out the first recorded execution in North America. According to TIME, in the centuries since, amid periods of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation, Virginia has executed hundreds of people.
Virginia has also been the setting for at least 87 documented lynchings between 1888 and 1932, including Shedrick Thompson, a black man who was lynched in Linden, Virginia in 1932. According to research by James Madison University, even though a small number of the victims of mob violence were white, lynching was essentially a form of state-sanctioned terrorism against African Americans—few of those involved in lynchings were ever indicted and even less faced trial.
Virginia is also the state that sentenced Daryl Atkins to death twice and where seeking the death penalty for a third time. The irony is that Atkins’ first death penalty was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court when the court declared that executing the intellectually disabled violated the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The landmark decision carries his name Atkins v. Virginia.
Atkins’ case was remanded to Virginia for resentencing and the trial court sentenced him a second time to death. The case was sent back for a third sentencing when Atkins was removed from death row for an unrelated matter.
Gov. Northam was involved in a racist scandal himself. A decades-old photo of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe surfaced from Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
Virginia is the home of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—literally the founding fathers of the United States of America. They were also slave owners. Virginia has a lot to reconcile.
Northam’s scandal nearly forced him from office. He resisted widespread calls to resign and pledged the remainder of his term to rebuilding trust and addressing Virginia’s long history of racism and inequity.
To that end Northam empaneled The Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law in 2019 with an examination of racist laws that—though long unenforced—had remained on the books.
The commission is comprised of lawyers, judges and law professors chaired by a former state chief deputy attorney general. The 100-plus page report focuses on six policy areas: housing, education, criminal justice, health, environmental justice and agricultural equity.
In the realm of criminal justice, abolition of the death penalty is a start. Blacks have been disproportionately represented in terms of executions in Virginia. As for education, the commission proposed overhauling the school funding formula, repealing statutory language that limits the power granted to the state to draw school zone lines, and encouraging programs like choice zoning and magnet schools to improve integration, reported The Associated Press.
With regard to housing, the commission recommended increasing affordable housing and reducing evictions through changes to landlord-tenant laws.
The report also calls for collecting better data on racial disparities in the criminal justice system; loosening or repealing restrictions on voting rights for people convicted of felonies; and closing the gap in healthcare access.
The report provides recommendations, not mandates, but it is a start for a state that a little more than three years ago was maligned for a rally of white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville that turned violent and deadly.
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Joe Ligon has been released from a Pennsylvania prison after more than 68 years, as the oldest and longest-serving juvenile lifer in the country. He’s been imprisoned since 1953, when he was just 15 years old, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Leaving the State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County, his white hair peeking out below a prison-issue hat, Ligon was accompanied by a dozen large file boxes. That’s about 10 more boxes than regulations normally permit.
“I’m a special guy,” Ligon explained.
“I guess you accumulate a lot of stuff in 68 years,” said Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia who’s represented Ligon since 2006. Having taken on the mission of getting Ligon home — first legally, then logistically — he had to scramble to fit the materials into his car, commandeering a reporter’s trunk for the overflow.
Ligon, now 82, received his life term for taking part in a spree of robbery and assaults in which two people died. Ligon admits participating in the crime with a group of drunk teens, but denies killing anyone.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that automatic life terms for kids are cruel and unusual, he was one of more than 500 Pennsylvania prisoners all resentenced to terms contingent on lifetime parole.
But Ligon, resentenced to 35 years to life in 2017, rejected the very idea of parole after nearly seven decades in prison.
“I like to be free,” he said. “With parole, you got to see the parole people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.”
Other prisoners tried to coax him out into the free world. John Pace, a former juvenile lifer and now a re-entry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), recalled a fruitless visit to the prison with a group of other ex-lifers. “If you want to fight, fight it when you get out,” he counseled Ligon at the time.
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Months after George Floyd’s death sparked a national demand to overhaul policing, Maryland lawmakers are launching a historic effort to get rid of police protections such as the bill of rights, a decades-old statute that was the first in the country to codify workplace protections for officers accused of misconduct, reported the Washington Post.
The law was a blueprint for at least 15 other states, including Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was paralyzed from the waist down after a police-involved shooting this summer; Minnesota, where Floyd was killed after an officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes; and Kentucky, where police stormed into Breonna Taylor’s home on a no-knock warrant and fatally shot her.
Repealing the protections might seem relatively easy in Maryland, a state where both legislative chambers have supermajorities of Democrats, who have tended to be sympathetic to calls for police accountability and social justice. But prior efforts have failed, including after Black’s death and the fatal injury of Freddie Gray — another unarmed young Black man — in Baltimore police custody three years earlier.
Some blame systemic racism and the disparate treatment of Black people in the state’s justice system, noting that 70 percent of Maryland’s prison population is Black — the highest percentage in the country. Others point to the influence of the police union, which argues that police work exposes officers to special risks and, therefore, requires special protections.
“All I hear is a bunch of adults giving illegitimate reasons for why they can’t do the right thing,” said LaToya Holley, Black’s sister.
“I am not someone who hates the police,” Jones the first Black House speaker in Maryland, said during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “But over the years, I have had my own experiences with law enforcement, as have my brothers and my sons, that have called in to question the way that we as a state and as a society have empowered law enforcement officers to execute their duties.”
Holley has traveled to Annapolis numerous times since her brother’s death to push for a reform bill that Acevero named in her brother’s honor. She was scheduled to testify before lawmakers remotely Tuesday night.
Maryland’s laws must change “to protect the Antons to come,” she said in an interview. “How many more of our brothers and fathers and sons have to die before you do something?”
Protecting the 'good officers'
Since Floyd’s death, 36 states and D.C. have introduced more than 700 police accountability bills. Nearly 100 have been enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
They range from mandating use-of-force training to creating civilian review boards to requiring departments to report when their officers use their service weapons or other force.
But experts say they are not aware of any state that has repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. In addition to making disciplinary records public, Maryland lawmakers are also weighing bills that would require independent investigations of officer-involved killings; a statewide use-of-force standard that includes a ban on chokeholds; and a restriction on no-knock warrants.
“Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done,” Jones said. “This is the time and place to do it.”
Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, described Maryland’s police bill of rights, enacted in 1974, as one of the “worst” in the country because it contains a provision that makes it impossible for civilians to investigate an officer’s conduct. It also gives an officer five days instead of the normal 48 hours to appear before internal investigators.
“It’s really disastrous,” Walker said.
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Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that repeals a decades-old statute that advocates say disproportionately targeted trans people who are simply walking or standing on the street. The legislation also automatically seals any previous arrest records under the statute, reported The Appeal.
“It’s a beginning of a new era,” said TS Candii, executive director of Black Trans Nation and a Black trans woman who has likened the statute—often called the “walking while trans” ban—to stop and frisk, the NYPD tactic of randomly stopping pedestrians to look for guns that disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx people.
The repeal of the 1976 law, which was ostensibly meant to target those “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” comes at a time when similar laws are being rolled back across the country. The Seattle City Council unanimously repealed a similar “prostitution loitering” law in June, and California lawmakers are considering pushing for a similar repeal this year. Activists have also started organizing against similar statutes in Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans.
Next, advocates in New York plan to move forward on efforts to make it the first state to decriminalize sex work. (A bill introduced in 2019 never advanced.) They’ll also advocate for a bill that would vacate sex trafficking-related convictions from people’s records, and push to defund the NYPD’s vice unit. And they’ll have to compete with a bill in the state legislature that decriminalizes sex work while still cracking down on sex workers’ clients, a model that advocates argue won’t protect them.
“We know we’re going to win because we have a majority” of the public’s support, Candii said. A 2019 national poll of registered voters shows a majority of voters support decriminalizing sex work.
The “walking while trans” statute repeal and sex work decriminalization legislation both stem from a growing movement for sex workers’ rights across the U.S. The same year the decriminalization bill was introduced in New York, another was introduced in Washington, D.C. In the recent election, a number of Democratic presidential candidates embraced the idea of decriminalizing sex work.
Although the “walking while trans” statute was intended to target sex workers, its vagueness allowed police to harass trans people of color, advocates say. A 2016 civil rights class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society alleged that 85 percent of people arrested under the statute were Black or Latinx, and that women had been arrested for “wearing a ‘short dress,’ ‘a skirt and high heels,’ ‘tight black pants,’ or ‘a black dress.’”
Those arrests and charges can make it more difficult to get government benefits or even employment, Candii said. “It leaves them more vulnerable.”
A surge of protests in New York after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, including a 15,000-person rally for Black trans lives last summer, helped bolster the movement to repeal the law. But reform has been a long time coming, the result of years of organizing and activism by Candii and others.
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Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t allocate general funds for indigent defense
Last November, experts at the Brennan Center, writing in USA Today, observed that “mass incarceration has been a driving force of economic inequality,” that’s only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, reported the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
“Involvement in the criminal justice system — specifically time in prison or conviction of a crime — casts a shadow over someone’s life, limiting their ability to earn a living wage in the short and long term,” the Brennan Center’s Ames Grawert and Terry-Ann Craigie wrote. “The effect of prison is especially pronounced: a 52 percent reduction in annual earnings and little earnings growth for the rest of their lives, amounting to a loss of $500,000 over several decades.”
So it was encouraging to hear senior staffers for Gov. Tom Wolf, say that the administration wants to “build support for indigent defense” into the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t allocate general funds for indigent defense, according to a 2011 study by the Joint State Government Commission. Those costs are borne entirely by the state’s 67 counties, which each maintain their own public defender’s office.
The state took a token step toward redressing the balance in 2019, providing $500,000 in funding to reimburse counties for costs of indigent criminal defense in capital cases, the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported at the time.
The money, tucked into a piece of budget-enabling legislation known as the Fiscal Code, was distributed through a grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The grant program didn’t go far enough for criminal justice reformers, who called it a token amount.
“It’s a small and … an unrealistic appropriation,” Phyllis Subin, a former public defender who now heads the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice in Philadelphia, told Hardison. “This is pretty much a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed in terms of appropriate and systemic change.”
Wolf didn’t propose a specific appropriation in his 2021 spending plan, administration spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-Star on Sunday.
“The administration is looking forward to working with the Legislature to create this program in Pennsylvania,” Kensinger said.
Whatever dollar figure Wolf and lawmakers eventually negotiate, that money can’t come soon enough, Sean Quinlan, a criminal defense lawyer in Cumberland County, said. That’s particularly true in the case of death penalty prosecutions, he added.
“The death penalty is a political tool used by district attorneys in election years to seek career advancement, not criminal deterrence,” Quinlan, also a Capital-Star opinion contributor, said. “If by ‘increased funding for indigent defense’ the governor intends to plug budget holes in counties out of pocket for defense in capital cases, he’ll essentially be subsidizing the campaigns of county district attorneys, not protecting the poor or fixing a a broken system. Enormous capital case defense expenses are just the symptom. The death penalty is the disease.”
Quinlan is right. While other states are moving toward abolition (Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, like Wolf, a Democrat, is expected to sign an abolition bill any day now.), Wolf, who imposed a moratorium on executions, was notably silent on abolition during his budget address.
Pennsylvania, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1999, effectively doesn’t have a death penalty, so one wonders why Wolf didn’t just shoot the moon and propose eliminating this racist, antiquated and immoral relic.
Wolf’s spending plan does, however, call for probation and bail reforms. As we’ve previously noted, state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, has a bill banning cash bail. Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, meanwhile, is expected to soon reintroduce the death penalty abolition bill he pushed in the 2019-2020 legislative session. In a tidy circle, Prejean lent her support to that effort as well.
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Gordon Weekes, the chief public defender in Broward County, Florida, believed that March 2020 could have compelled the start of something different for the criminal legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic had just hit the U.S. Officials all over the nation needed to decide whether they would risk letting thousands of people contract a potentially fatal disease simply because they were incarcerated in overcrowded and unsanitary jails and prisons, reported The Appeal.
At first, he was hopeful. Local cops, prosecutors, and judges worked with defense attorneys to lower the jail population of Broward County, a region of nearly 2 million people that includes the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. By last April, the jail population was less than 3,000 people for the first time in decades. But now, nearly one year later, COVID-19 is spreading at a higher rate, and the county jail population has instead risen once again. Weekes confirmed to The Appeal that, as of mid-January, nearly 3,500 people were being held.
“I was hoping that the pandemic would give people some real-life data to show the justice system, and the ways we’ve been doing things in the past, was inherently flawed,” Weekes told The Appeal. But, he added, “it seems like no one has learned anything from the last year when we’ve been addressing this issue. That is the great frustration you have with the system.”
That frustration is shared in cities around the nation. According to numerous news reports, as well as data obtained by The Appeal, the number of people held pretrial in many of America’s major cities rose during the latter half of 2020. In some cities, jail populations have now risen back to their pre-pandemic populations.
According to a review by The Appeal, jail populations in New York City, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, Broward County, Orlando, and Tampa declined briefly in early 2020 and have since returned to pre-pandemic levels. Other major cities that released some incarcerated people in early 2020, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Boston, Indianapolis, Oakland, Denver, and Austin, Texas, have seen their jail populations swell over the latter half of 2020, but they remain somewhat lower than their pre-pandemic levels.
“I thought everyone would take this as a lesson learned, but it seems old habits are hard to break,” Weekes said.
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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently unveiled, as part of his 2021-22 budget, a plan to invest $1.3 billion in public schools. As part of the initiative the governor has also taken on a taboo subject - increased taxes.
“My legislative plan is an investment in Pennsylvania’s students, but really it’s an investment in the future for all of us - for every Pennsylvanian,” said Wolf.
Investments are typically made with an eye toward cashing in. Can an investment in education pay dividends?
Several years ago the Alliance for Excellent Education reported that America could save billions of dollars in annual crime costs if school districts could raise the male high school graduation rate. While graduation rates have increased according to a 2019 Alliance report, males and “historically underserved students” have lagged behind.
“The nation needs to focus dollars and efforts on reforming school climates to keep students engaged in ways that will lead them toward … a career and away from crime and prison,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “The school-to-prison pipeline starts and ends with schools.”
There was a time when disruptive students were sent to see the principal. Today in some school districts, the disruptive student is handcuffed and ushered off to court. The school-to-prison pipeline is overflowing with students.
According to the Washington Post, more than 3 million students each year are suspended or expelled from school across the United States. Federal data, though limited, show that nearly a quarter of a million students are annually referred to law enforcement.
There is an indirect correlation between educational attainment and arrest and incarceration rates - particularly among males. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56% of federal inmates, 67% of inmates in state prisons, and 69% of inmates in local jails did not complete high school.
The Alliance for Excellent Education found that increasing the male graduation rate would decrease crime nationwide. Annual incidences of assault, larceny, motor vehicle thefts and burglaries could see significant reductions.
In Pennsylvania, and across the country, the potential savings from an increase in the male high school graduation rate could save literally hundreds of millions of dollars in crime-related costs and produce millions in earnings and tax revenue from individuals who are employed rather than incarcerated.
There is more to the crime and education connection than just coursework and passing grades. The combination of largely unnoticed actions undertaken by individual schools affects education climates for millions of students in thousands of schools across the country. These school climates, in turn, often profoundly affect student performance.
The school-to-prison pipeline is fueled, in part, by “zero-tolerance” policies that accelerate the involvement of the criminal justice system in routine school disciplinary practices. The involvement of law enforcement in traditional matters of school discipline has soared as school districts across the country expanded the use of armed police officers in schools.
The nightly news is flooded with stories like the 7-year-old North Carolina boy with autism, whose mother said he was overwhelmed by the “comings and goings in his classroom,” and began spitting inside his special needs school.
The “school resource officer” arrived on the scene, put the boy in handcuffs, and pinned him to the ground, according to body-cam footage of the September 2018 incident that was recently published by WSOC-TV.
This pattern is all too familiar. Just this week, police pepper sprayed a 9-year-old New York girl during a family disturbance outside of school.
An investment in education is an investment in crime prevention. The potential to save money, generate revenue and minimize the anguish that comes with victimization is too important to ignore.
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A dozen men held at a sex offender treatment center in Moose Lake, Minnesota ended a 14-day hunger strike after state officials agreed to meet with the men and discuss their demand for a “clear pathway” for release from the program, which confines sex offenders indefinitely after they have completed their criminal sentences, reported The Dobb's Wire.
A dozen men who had stopped eating called off the hunger strike after Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead offered to hold monthly meetings between the strikers and leaders of the state sex offender program.
The purpose of the meetings will be to discuss the strikers' primary complaint: They have no "clear pathway" for release from the program and its prison-like treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter.
The strike was organized to protest Minnesota's civil commitment system, which confines hundreds of rapists and other sexual offenders long after their prison terms. Some men have been held at the Moose Lake facility for years or even decades, effectively turning civil commitment into what they describe as a life sentence.
The strikers and other detainees maintain that the state program is more focused on warehousing offenders than treating them, and they have demanded that officials increase the program's historically low rate of release.
The protest organizers had been refusing food since Jan. 21. Several of the men said in interviews that they were prepared to be hospitalized or starve to death if the state did not respond to their demands.
By early this week, the strikers reported feeling muscle pains, dizziness, nausea and rapid weight loss from lack of nourishment, according to organizers.
The men finally called off the protest and resumed eating after Harpstead offered to hold the monthly listening sessions, which are expected to begin this month and last through May.
Under the agreement, the Department of Human Services (DHS) will develop a report on the state sex offender program at the end of the discussions and produce recommendations. The agency has not made any commitments to specific changes.
"I am relieved that no one was seriously hurt or died, but this system of indefinite confinement has gone on far too long," said Merry Schoon of Appleton, Minn., whose 33-year-old son, Daniel A. Wilson, is being held at Moose Lake. "These men have families and they deserve a second chance to be productive members of society just like everyone else."
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The Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of a man who claims sex-offense confessions made to his probation officer as part of a court-mandated program are protected by the Fifth Amendment, reported the Courthouse News Service.
Adam McCoy’s appeal highlights a potential conflict between the state’s rehabilitation programs for sex offenders, their requirements of full disclosure and the constitutional rights of those offenders.
McCoy was charged in 2019 with two counts each of first-degree and second-degree criminal sexual conduct for the 2005 assault of his 2-year-old stepdaughter. A district court granted McCoy’s motion to suppress the statements that gave rise to the charges, which he made to his probation officer and a polygraph examiner during treatment mandated by a court as part of his probation for another sex offense.
The court ruled that the statements, in which McCoy detailed an assault of his stepdaughter along with other unidentified victims, were inadmissible because they violated his right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The case was dismissed, but prosecutors won a reversal in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which found that because McCoy’s disclosures were not compelled because he did not assert his right against self-incrimination before filling out a detailed questionnaire and taking a polygraph test, and was informed that the examiner and probation officer were mandatory reporters.
McCoy’s lawyer, Zachary Johnson of Park Rapids, Minnesota law firm Thomason, Swanson & Zahn, argued Tuesday morning that his client had been trapped in a Catch-22. Without an attorney present, he said, McCoy should not have been expected to know what statements could be incriminating.
“It should not be up to the individual probationer to know where to draw the line,” Johnson said. “The question of whether something is incriminating or not is often a legal question or an investigative question, and often we’re not dealing with sophisticated parties.”
He added that a decision that the ostensibly rehabilitative treatment process can be used to prosecute offenders could lead Minnesota defense attorneys to advise their clients not to participate in sex offender treatment at all.
“Every lawyer would have to advise their clients to participate in sex offender treatment at their own peril,” he said. “No probationer in his right mind would ever agree to cooperate with that.”
Johnson also sought to distinguish McCoy’s case from State v. Murphy, a 1983 case in which the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that the Fifth Amendment does not make statements to a probation officer about crimes unrelated to the probation inadmissible if the probationer does not assert his right to avoid self-incrimination.
“The nature of this encounter was incredibly different than what happened in Murphy. In Murphy, we had a normal probation interview,” Johnson said. “That’s different here, and I think the court can see the difference.”
The state, meanwhile, argued that Murphy was an appropriate precedent to apply. Cass County Attorney Ben Lindstrom, whose jurisdiction lies in the north-central part of Minnesota, pointed out that, like in Murphy, McCoy volunteered the information without being threatened with breach of probation, imprisonment or any other penalty.
“The appellant was never told that he needed to provide information that would incriminate him. As a matter of fact, the polygraph provider was very clear on that, ‘don’t provide us incriminating information,’” Lindstrom said, adding that pleading the Fifth is a legitimate excuse under the rules of probation.
Much of the court’s questioning surrounded whether a threat was implicit in the requirement of a full-disclosure polygraph, especially in light of the fact that McCoy was not read his Miranda rights ahead of time.
“How should we be defining threat?” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea asked Lindstrom.
The prosecutor argued that threats, in this case, would have to be unlawful actions, and that the possibility of a probation violation didn’t qualify.
“I would distinguish consequences from threats,” he said. “I would distinguish the lawful imposition of a consequence versus the unlawful imposition of a consequence.”
Justice Paul Thissen also pondered aloud whether the issues presented by McCoy’s case could be better resolved by amending Minnesota’s rules of evidence to clarify when and whether statements like his could be admitted.
Justice Barry Anderson poked at Johnson’s effort to set his client’s case apart from Murphy, drawing out a sideswipe against Lindstrom.
“This issue’s been around a while, and Murphy’s been around a while, and I don’t see any indication that the roof is falling in,” Anderson said.
Johnson agreed, with a major caveat.
“The reason why you haven’t seen the sky falling in… is because these prosecutions should be rare,” he said. “Many prosecutors in the state, the idea of prosecuting a crime on the basis of these statements is just something they would not choose to do.”
“These prosecutions should be relatively rare. I would hope they would be, at least,” he added. “But now that we are faced with one, it could be a case where bad facts make bad law.”
Minnesota’s sex offender rehabilitation process has been at the center of several controversies in recent years, many of them focused on the state’s civil commitment program for offenders deemed to be sexually dangerous persons.
A federal judge’s 2015 order requiring the state to create pathways to release for committed offenders was overturned by the Eighth Circuit two years later, but releases have become slightly more common regardless. Before 2015, no one had ever been fully released from the program in its 20 years of operation, and only three people had been conditionally released.
Since then, 13 detainees have been fully released, and 11 were conditionally released in 2020. Those numbers are still dwarfed by the approximately 740 current detainees and the 86 who have died in the program’s custody.
McCoy was not civilly committed at the state’s sex offender treatment facility in Moose Lake, but Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Eric Janus said his dilemma is not unlike ones faced by many of those offenders. Janus leads the St. Paul law school’s Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center, and has written critically about Minnesota’s program.
“Certainly, this whole area is fraught, because obviously on the one hand, full disclosure and telling the truth is critical in terms of sex-offender treatment. You’ve got that notion kind of in conflict with the idea that full disclosure can be self-incriminating,” he said.
“That information can be, and often is, used if there’s a sex offender civil commitment proceeding brought,” he added. “And that’s problematic from the perspective of the individual, but it’s also problematic because it creates a disincentive for people to participate in treatment.”
All in all, he said, sex-offender treatment is an admirable goal, but hitches like McCoy’s can make it difficult for offenders to go through the program without fear of consequences.
“We’re pretty sure that participating in sex-offender treatment is a positive thing. It’s helpful, in terms of helping people reenter society. It’s just a conundrum,” he said. “And when you couple that with mandatory reporting laws, even in situations where normally one would expect some confidentiality… these mandatory-reporting laws often mean that the expectation of confidentiality is violated.”
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A study released by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, along with the Houston-based philanthropic organization Arnold Ventures, found killings rose dramatically across the U.S. last year, and suggested that coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice unrest were factors, according to The Associated Press.
at crime rates in 34 cities of varying sizes. It found a 30% spike in homicides in 2020 compared to 2019. Study leaders called for urgent action to improve police-community relations and expand anti-violence initiatives.
Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist and one of the study’s lead authors, said officers around the country were forced off the streets and into quarantine due to either contracting COVID-19 or to avoid being exposed by colleagues. Even when on the job, social distancing requirements kept officers from interacting closely with the community, he said.
“That really reduced the ability of law officers to engage in the kinds of proactive policing that can reduce crime,” Rosenfeld said in an interview.
Rosenfeld’s home city was among those studied, and among the most violent. St. Louis recorded 262 killings last year, the most since 267 in 1993, when the city’s population was substantially higher.
St. Louis was far from alone. Homicides rose in 29 of the 34 cities studied. Killings more than doubled in Chula Vista, California, and Chandler, Arizona.
Larger cities were hit hard, too: Milwaukee’s homicides rose 85%, Seattle saw a 63% increase, Chicago killings jumped 55% and New York City saw a 43% increase.
Milwaukee police Sgt. Efrain Cornejo said in an email that several factors contributed to the city’s rise in killings. Efrain said the city is still researching the cause “to develop better and new strategies to reduce gun violence in the future.”
The study found that the pandemic “has disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, placing at-risk individuals under additional physical, mental, emotional, and financial stress.”
The virus also strained police, courts, hospitals and other entities tasked with responding to violence, and hampered violence reduction outreach efforts, the study found.
Homicide rates in 2020 topped 2019 levels during every month, but the increase was steepest after massive protests spurred by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25. The study found that in June through August, homicides rose 37% compared to 2019.
Rosenfeld said that deploying large teams of officers to demonstrations “reduced policing out in the community where it’s needed to keep crime in check.”
The authors said homicides also spiked in the mid-2010s when protests followed the deaths of young Black people at the hands of police, including 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
While it will be months before the federal government compiles full national statistics, authors of the study said it is likely that 2020 will see the worst one-year homicide rate increase ever, topping the 13% increase in 1968.
The study noted that despite the spike in killings, homicide rates in the U.S. have dropped sharply over the past quarter of a century. The overall homicide rate for the 34 cities study was 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2020, compared to 19.4 deaths per 100,000 residents in 1995.
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Local jail costs increased despite falling crime and fewer people being admitted to jail, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. Historically, the roughly 3,000 local jails operating in the United States have received less public and policymaker attention than prisons. But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put jails—secure correctional facilities, generally operated by county or municipal governments, where people are detained before trial or confined post-conviction for periods usually lasting less than a year—under additional scrutiny. Jails rely on close confinement and so are high risk for disease transmission. Local governments are also confronting the budget implications of the pandemic and looking for potential savings, especially in costly areas such as corrections.
This environment provides an opportunity to examine correctional expenditures and consider strategies that may offer enduring public safety and fiscal benefits. The available data indicates that to mitigate COVID-19 exposure risk, jurisdictions reduced jail populations by about 31% nationwide from March to May 2020, and although those populations partially rebounded, they were still 15% below March levels as of October 2020. Further, people released from jail in March were readmitted less often over the ensuing six months than those released in January, suggesting that the pandemic-related decreases in jail populations did not affect public safety. These reductions may not yield immediate savings, but a sustained commitment to safely cutting the number of people in jail could provide long-term financial benefits. The recent experience of reducing prison populations offers a glimpse of the potential cost savings: The 9% drop in the prison population from 2008 to 2018 virtually flattened corrections spending, which had averaged 5.4% annual growth from 1991 to 2007.
To support state and local efforts to reduce jail spending and protect public safety, The Pew Charitable Trusts undertook an analysis of jail costs, using expenditure data for all U.S. localities, primarily from 2007 and 2017, and related criminal justice data. (See methodology for details on definitions and analyses.) Key findings include:
Local governments spend billions on jails. As of the end of 2017:
Jail costs rose even as crime and admissions to jail fell. As of the end of 2017:
Nationwide, counties and cities are seeking to address budgetary pressures during these difficult fiscal times and for the long term. New policies and practices—including many they already have embraced in response to the pandemic—can safely reduce jail populations and associated costs and help them achieve those goals.
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