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Published: Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2017 13:52:50 -0500


The Surprising Truth About Gun Silencers

Mon, 16 Jan 2017 00:01:00 -0500

In The Godfather, a Mafioso prepping young Michael Corleone to assassinate some rivals gives him a pistol for the job. After firing a bullet into the wall, Michael complains, "Ow! My ears!" His friend says, "Yeah, I left it noisy. That way, it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away." The Corleones would have had little interest in a bill allowing gun owners to obtain silencers without the federal permits required since 1934. Some people like the deafening boom of a gunshot. Most shooters don't, and the National Rifle Association is pressing for enactment of the Hearing Protection Act, which also has the endorsement of Donald Trump Jr., an avid trophy hunter. The proposal horrifies gun control advocates, who see it as a favor to homicidal maniacs. The Violence Policy Center in Washington argues that silencers pose a grave danger to public safety because they "enable mass shooters and other murderers to kill a greater number of victims more efficiently." Some perspective is in order. Right now, getting a federal permit requires a $200 fee, an extensive background check and a wait of several months. Possession of a silencer without a permit is a felony that carries a 10-year prison sentence. Under the proposed change, silencers would be treated like ordinary guns. Criminals would be ineligible, since they can't pass the required federal background check for purchases. Only law-abiding adults would have legal access. The industry prefers the term "suppressor" because the devices don't eliminate the noise; they merely diminish it. The American Suppressor Association attests, "On average, suppressors reduce the noise of a gunshot by 20-35 decibels, roughly the same sound reduction as earplugs or earmuffs." A shot from a 9 mm pistol equipped with a silencer is about as loud as a thunderclap. Recreational shooters and hunters would like to have silencers because they don't want to damage their hearing but dislike using ear protection. If the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had been around in the 1930s, gun rights lawyer Stephen Halbrook quipped to The Washington Post, it probably would have mandated their use. Silencers also reduce the recoil and improve the accuracy of guns. For the average gun owner, there is no downside. There are collateral benefits, too. In rural and unincorporated areas where shooting is allowed, they minimize the disturbance to neighbors and wildlife. It's not hard to imagine how they could be deployed for bad purposes. Yet there are some 900,000 registered silencers in this country, and they are rarely used in crimes. Chicago has a lot of bloodshed, including 762 homicides and more than 3,500 shootings last year, but silencers figure in little or any of it. Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, told me, "We seldom recover silencers. Sometimes you may get a gun with a makeshift silencer, but even that is rare." A report last year by the VPC cites a handful of shootings in which silencers were used. But the paucity of examples confirms that they are not of great interest to criminals. An earlier study by Paul A. Clark published in the Western Criminology Review found only two federal court cases involving the use of a silencer in a murder between 1995 and 2005. He also unearthed eight cases in which "a silencer was actively used during commission of a crime but not used to physically injure anyone." That works out to one serious silencer-related crime per year, in a country that in 2005 had 16,740 homicides and 417,000 robberies. Supporters of the status quo say this merely proves the effectiveness of strict regulation. But improvised versions can be fashioned out of flashlights, oil filters or metal conduit. YouTube has numerous videos providing guidance for the do-it-yourselfer. If silencers were truly valuable to ordinary criminals, there would undoubtedly be a thriving black market and plenty of crimes committed with them. But the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced only 125 silencers in 2015—not all of which were c[...]

Brickbat: We're Here to Help Ourselves

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Former Dayton, Ohio, police officer Ryan Meno has pleaded guilty to stealing prescription pain medicine from a home that he went to to respond to a possible break-in. He faces up to 30 months in prison.

911 Emergency Response System Significantly Reduced U.S. Murder Rate, Says Study

Wed, 11 Jan 2017 12:45:00 -0500

The U.S. homicide rate peaked in 1980 at 10.2 per 100,000 Americans and the number of annual homicides rose to 24,703 in 1991. Since then U.S. homicide rates have been falling and reached 4.5 per 100,000 in 2014 (a rate not seen since the 1950s) and an annual toll of 14,249. Both the rate and number of murders ticked up in 2015 to 5 per 100,000 and 15,809 respectively. Lots of research has been devoted to trying to figure out why homicide rates fell over the past couple of decades. Some researchers focused on higher incarceration rates; others on more effective policing; still others cited the aging population; and some attributed lower homicide rates to better emergency medicine. Given the fact that the data on criminally inflicted gunshot injuries is not collected comprehensively, this this latter claim has been challenged. A fascinating new working paper, "Dial 911 for Murder," by George Mason University economists Thomas Stratmann and David Chandler Thomas argue that advances in the 911 emergency response system over time, combined with the advent of cell phones have contributed significantly to the lower U.S. murder rate because victims are receiving emergency medical care ever more speedily. The argument is that victims of violent gun firearms attacks are increasingly likely to be saved from death thus converting what would have been homicides into aggravated assaults. In addition, they find the establishment of 911 systems initially increased reporting of aggravated assaults and that the subsequent proliferation of cell phones seems to have had a deterrent effect on such assaults. The initial 911 system devised in 1968 connected to an operator who then transferred the call to the police, fire, and ambulance services as appropriate. In the late 1970s, dedicated 911 call centers were established with monitors that displayed the home number and address of callers and from which emergency services were dispatched by trained personnel. Now GPS 911 is rolling out enabling dispatchers to pinpoint callers and dispatch services to people using cell phones. The researchers suggest that "when potential violent street offenders know that cell phone users have a quick way to reach the police, via GPS 911, their incentive to commit a crime decreases." The researchers account for the lethality of weapons over time, socioeconomic changes, improvements in trauma care, and so forth. Once they've parsed the data, they report: While the level of violent crimes, measured as aggravated assaults, is 219 percentage points higher in 2014 than in 1964, homicides in 2014 are eight percentage points lower than in 1964. In this paper, we find support for the hypothesis that the introduction of 911 services explains much of the decrease in homicide rates. Moreover, the introduction of 911 provides an explanation for the divergence between aggravated assault and homicide rates that started in the early 1970s. ...The empirical results in this paper indicate that reductions in emergency response times played a significant role in reducing U.S. homicides over the past 45 years. .... The reported 911 effects are quantitatively important, suggesting more than a 34 percent to 56 percent decrease in homicides that can be attributed to the 911 systems and associated reductions in response times. One simple approach to illustrate the benefits of 911 is to use our estimates to quantify the lives saved by 911 innovations. Such an exercise shows that in 2014, without 911 emergency services, the number of homicides in our sample cities would have been more than 13,000 homicides, instead of the reported 5,872. Citing the trends in Mobile, Alabama they report that the introduction of basic 911 coincided with an immediate 29 percent drop in that city's homicide rate which continued to fall in the following years. However, after the introduction of enhanced 911 in the late 1980s, the city's homicide and assault rates continued to rise. They attribute that increase to the crack cocaine epidemic that drama[...]

FBI: Violent Crime Up, Property Crime Down

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 16:40:00 -0500

The FBI has just put out its preliminary report on crime in the first half of 2016. The news is mostly bad, with violent crime increasing 5.3 percent since the previous year. Since the FBI's stats also showed violent crime going up in 2015, there's a good chance we're on track for two consecutive years of rises. (The full report on 2016's crime rates won't come out until the fall.) Specifically, the report shows murders up 5.2 percent, aggravated assaults up 6.5 percent, violent robberies up 3.2 percent, and rape rising either 3.2 or 3.5 percent, depending on how you define the crime. (The FBI revised its definition of rape in 2013, but it continues to offer statistics for both the old definition and the new one.) Property crime, on the other hand, showed a very slight decline, though one particular property offense—auto thefts—became more common. All this is roughly similar to the trendlines from 2015, which also saw an overall increase in violent crime, an overall decrease in property crime, and an auto-theft exception to the property-crime decline. Since this year and a half of increases follows a two-decade drop in crime rates, these levels remain low by historical standards. (That's not true of some specific places, such as Chicago and Baltimore, that are undergoing undeniable crime crises. But these numbers offer a nationwide perspective.) The unanswered question is what these rises represent. Is this a new trend that threatens to undo the gains of the '90s and '00s? Is it a temporary shift, comparable to the brief hike we saw in the mid-'00s before the rates resumed their fall? Or is it something else? John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor and the author of the forthcoming Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, offers a third hypothesis. "Sometimes a rise in crime is causal—the rise in murders that started in 1985 was due to crack-market related violence," he says. "But any rise (or fall) in crime is also partly just noise. So it's perfectly plausible to look at, say, murder rates and say that the mean was about 9 per 100,000 during the high-crime era, with a lot of 'noisiness' around that. The same story may be true now: Perhaps with hindsight we'll realize that the mean murder rate is now going to be around 6, with some good or bad years on either side of that. What some are viewing as a 'rise in crime' could instead just be more a regression to the mean, and to a mean that is still much lower than it was 20 years ago." Just to muddy matters more, the other major measurement of crime in America—the National Crime Victimization Survey—actually showed nonfatal violent crime going down in 2015. (We do not yet have their 2016 results.) The FBI's count and the NCVS count each have their strengths and weaknesses, so that isn't a rival narrative so much as it's a sign that there are limits on our ability to perceive the "real" crime rate. There are two major measurements of crime in America, and at the moment they diverge. (For more on the differences between the NCVS numbers and the FBI's numbers, go here.) Murder, in any event, does seem to be on track to go up for two years running. The NCVS doesn't cover homicides (by definition, murder victims can't be surveyed), and the FBI numbers probably aren't far off (as the saying goes, bodies are hard to hide). While we don't have the FBI's numbers for the second half of 2016 yet, many jurisdictions do have preliminary counts for the full year. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Jeff Asher has gathered data from most of the country's big cities, and he's projecting that we'll ultimately see a national rate of about 5.3 murders for every 100,000 people in 2016—slightly less than in 2008: So the numbers are still far lower than in most of the last half-century, but that line isn't pointing in the direction we want. Pfaff, who worries about the costs of overreacting to crime as well as the costs of crime itself, offers this takeaway: "Don't be complacen[...]

The Idea of a Hate Crimes Offender Registry Is Absurd

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 15:30:00 -0500

Somebody let California Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra (D-San Fernando Valley) know that the current criminal justice reform trend is supposed to be about helping released criminals who have served their time and done their penance re-establish stable lives in their community and get jobs. We're not supposed to be finding ways to make their lives even worse. Bocanegra is engaging in a round of post-Donald-Trump-election legislation as social signaling that is bound to make life harder for a small class of criminals. On the basis of the reported increase in hate crimes in California (which the legislator attributes to Trump's election) Bocanegra is attempting to create a new crime registry. He wants to make a database for people to look up anybody who has been convicted of a hate crime. He declares: The Hate Crime Registry will be an important public safety tool to better protect individuals and communities from hate crimes, help reverse this deeply troubling trend, and significantly reduce hate crimes in California. In the coming months, I will work diligently to bring together Democrats and Republicans, law enforcement and victims' rights groups, to take immediate steps send a clear message to perpetrators that violence rooted in bigotry and bias will not be tolerated in California. He has introduced AB 39, which has no actual content as yet. It's just an announcement of an intent to pass further legislation to establish this registry. On what basis is Bocanegra claiming that such a registry would protect individuals from hate crimes? He provides no data on hate crime repeat offenders. Are there any? A quick check of the state's numbers on hate crime convictions shows 119 total convictions for 2015 (CORRECTION: While there were 119 convictions of various charges connected to hate crimes, there were actually only 59 hate crime convictions for 2015. I misread the numbers). The most annual convictions they've listed for hate crimes in recent years was in 2009: 223 of them. The population of California is approaching 40 million. The model for the assemblyman is obviously sex offender registries, but we're seeing more and more information every single year that sex offender registries are not effective and end up containing the names of people who may have committed crimes in the past but are no danger to the community and are not predators. Lenore Skenazy just went over a case last weekend of a mother of three on the registry forever due to her behavior as a teen. These registries are awful, and there's no reason to think that a hate crime registry would be any better, particularly given that hate crimes are also a sentence enhancement. That means a person could be charged with a hate crime in connection to a murder … or in connection with vandalism. A database assumes that these people are all equally threats to the public due to the commission of a crime and assumes they'll maintain a bigoted attitude toward people based on their religion or race or sexuality or what have you, forever. It's odd for a legislator to propose such a database given the criminal justice "ban the box" push, encouraging employers wait until they're offering somebody a job to check their criminal background. The City of Los Angeles just passed a law prohibiting using criminal history from weeding out early applicants (which is a terrible encroachment on private businesses' right to set employment practices, but that's another issue). The law will go into effect later in the month. With a hate crime database, an employer wouldn't need to ask a job-seeker about their criminal background. They can just look up their name. And heaven forbid they have a name similar to somebody else in the database. This is an awful, terrible law that the legislature should reject out of hand. Based on the data we've gotten from sex offender registries, this proposal will do little good but has a great potential to cause unneeded hardship.[...]

President Obama Thinks He Did a Great Job With Criminal Justice Reform, But He Should Have Done More

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 18:40:00 -0500

President Obama published a commentary today in the Harvard Law Review titled "The President's Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform." In one sense, Obama is clearly trying to telegraph to thought-leaders how he believes his legacy regarding one of his key issues should be remembered. In another sense, the article is a pre-emptive warning to anyone concerned with mass incarceration, police-community relations, sentencing reform, and other related issues that they might not have realized how good they had it under the Obama administration. Sure, Obama cherry-picks his data, omits any relevant but inconvenient information that might damage his narrative—he doesn't touch the war on drugs or marijuana legalization at all—but it is easy to understand who Obama is addressing. This isn't a paper that will be widely read by the public, this is for the academics and think tankers who will be among the first to determine where Obama's legacy ranks in the pantheon of American presidencies. In the 56-page commentary, Obama writes "Criminal justice reform has been a focus of my entire career — even since before my time at the Harvard Law Review" a reference to his tenure as the first African-American president of the august legal publication. Obama writes, "I will be the first President in decades to leave office with a federal prison population lower than when I took office even as my Administration saw the rate of violent crime fall to its lowest point in decades," and also credits his administration with helping to reduce sentences for non-violent offenders, make it easier for people with a criminal blemish on their record to gain employment and education, and also helping young people "avoid getting entangled in the justice system in the first place." Among other reform achievements cited are the Justice Department's 2010 decision to reverse "a policy requiring prosecutors in every case to bring charges that could result in the most severe possible sentence," as well as its instruction to federal prosecutors to stop threatening defendants in drug cases with enhanced charges based on previous drug convictions as a means of gaining leverage in plea negotiations. Donald Trump gets some none-too-subtle shade thrown his way by Obama over his tendency to emotionally react on Twitter when hot-button news stories break. Obama writes that "presidents are not private citizens" and thus, when "a viral YouTube video...leads the evening news, incites protests, and drives calls for reform," the commander in chief needs "to be careful about speaking about legal matters before all the facts are in—even if it appears that everyone else in the United States is commenting on them." The president tosses some red meat to the gun control faithful with vague rhetoric about "smart guns," "background checks," and other "commonsense steps to reduce gun violence." He also rails against solitary confinement, zero tolerance polices at school, and excessive bail practices. Also included among his "work unfinished," Obama calls for more transparency and better practices regarding police body cams, treating the opioid crisis as a public health issue, and restoring the right to vote for ex-convicts. Obama boasts of expanding access to substance abuse treatment through Obamacare, but is willing to spread some of the credit around, like when he touts the "red states" of Alabama, Georgia, and Texas for leading and innovating: By reducing sentences and reinvesting some of the savings in other public safety initiatives — especially programs that actually address substance abuse and support for those with mental illness — these states have improved outcomes, enhanced trust, and thus ultimately made better use of taxpayer dollars. The president touches upon his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, launched in 2014, which among other things called for greater cooperation from the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the[...]

One in Six Women Will Be Victims of Stalking, Says Obama. Another False Crimewave?

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 16:08:00 -0500

President Obama has declared January 2017 to be National Stalking Awareness Month. "Every year, stalkers deny too many people the comfort and safety they deserve, violating our basic expectation of dignity and respect for all," starts the presidential proclamation, issued December 28. "This month, we join together in support of victims to raise awareness of this threat and reaffirm the importance of ensuring every person can live free from fear of violence, harassment, and any form of stalking." That all seems innocuous enough, the kind of feel-good pronouncement that means little in terms of concrete action but won't do much damage, either. But then Obama drops this: approximately one in six women and one in 19 men will be victims of stalking. Seems a little high, no? According to Obama's unsourced statistic, more than 16 percent of U.S. women will be stalked in their lifetimes. The closest thing to such a fact among federal data comes from a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, based on data collected in 2011 through the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). The 2011 NISVS data encompasses interviews with 12,727 American adults, who were asked about their experiences with rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion, and stalking. Based on those interviews, researchers concluded that "an estimated 4.2 percent of women and 2.1 percent of men were stalked in the 12 months preceding the survey," and "an estimated 15.2 percent of women and 5.7 percent of men have been a victim of stalking during their lifetimes." But "stalking" as defined by the CDC may fall short of many people's idea of stalking. In the agency's estimation, physically following someone or surveilling them by other means isn't a prerequisite for being a stalker; simply sending an unwanted text, social-media message, email, or phone call will do. Certainly, a string of unsolicited and unwelcome communications from someone could rise to the level of stalking. Messages that are menacing, or persistent, may elicit the same feelings of fear and anxiety that being physically stalked engenders. But for the CDC's purposes, unwanted communications must merely occur once to be counted as stalking. Ditto for someone approaching a "victim" unsolicited on just one occasion. Here's how the poll primed respondents for the stalking questions: I'm going to ask you some detailed questions about times when you may have been contacted, followed or harassed. When answering, please think about anyone who may have done these things to you, including romantic or sexual partners, other people you knew, or strangers. Please do not include bill collectors, telephone solicitors, or other sales people. Respondents were then asked how many people had ever watched or followed them from a distance; spied on them with an electronic device; broke into their homes or cars just to "let you know they had been there"; approached them in public when they didn't want to be approached; left them an unwanted text or voice message; contacted them with an unwanted phone call; sent them unwanted email, Facebook, or Myspace messages; or given them unwanted letters or gifts. The CDC summary report claims that respondents must have experienced more than one type or instance of these behaviors from the same perpetrator to have been counted as stalking victims, but a questionnaire described as the direct survey text contains no follow-up questions about stalking after these that would determine prevalence from the same perpetrator or emotional states of victims. In an older report, the Department of Justice (DOJ) relied on a slightly less expansive definition of stalking than the CDC. For DOJ counting purposes, stalking behaviors—this includes "making unwanted phone calls, sending unsolicited or unwanted letters or e-mails," following or spying on the victim," showing up at places without a legitim[...]

Meet the Community in Louisiana Where Police Throw People in Jail First and Then Investigate

Fri, 30 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500

Imagine being treated the same way a person arrested for a felony is treated—brought into jail, strip searched, imprisoned—even though you aren't arrested. Worse yet, imagine being treated that way because you might have been a witness to a crime and police wanted to interview you. That's exactly what had been happening down in Louisiana in Evangeline Parrish (population 33,500) and its town of Ville Platte (population 7,300). According a long-term Department of Justice investigation that was just released in December, police and sheriff's offices there had a long-established practice of jailing people for days without charges or warrants as "investigative holds." The practice is extremely unconstitutional but apparently had been policy. Police held people for days without charging them with crimes, but often suspected them of having committed crimes. According to the DOJ report the detention was partly because the police thought these people were guilty of something but lacked actual evidence, so police used the opportunity to keep them behind bars while they looked for something to hit them with. They were forced to sleep on the floor in jail and were not allowed to contact the outside world and let people know what had happened to them. They were essentially "disappeared" by law enforcement officials: Investigative holds initiated by [Ville Platte Police Department] VPPD often last for 72 hours—and sometimes significantly longer—forcing detainees to spend multiple nights sleeping on a concrete floor or metal bench. Indeed, VPPD's booking logs indicate that, from 2012-2014, several dozen investigative holds extended for at least a full week. During this time, VPPD exerts control over the detainees' liberty: The detained person is not permitted to make phone calls to let family or employers know where they are, and have access to bathrooms and showers only when taken into the jail's general population area. Similarly, [Evangeline Parrish Sheriff's Office] EPSO's investigative holds often last for three full days. During that time, detainees are forced to sleep on the Parish Jail's concrete floor. One EPSO deputy reported that he saw someone held without a warrant or a probable cause determination for more than six days. As with VPPD, EPSO also controls the detainee's liberty. EPSO does not permit detainees who are "on hold" to make phone calls to let family or employers know their whereabouts. Indeed, we were told that certain detectives have threatened EPSO jail officers (referred to as "jailers" in the Parish Jail) with retaliation if the officers allowed detainees to make phone calls. One EPSO jail officer described an incident in which an EPSO detective reprimanded him after the jail officer provided toothpaste and other personal supplies to a person locked in the holding cell. These investigative holds are not even ostensibly supported by probable cause. Both EPSO and VPPD detectives acknowledged that they use investigative holds where they lack sufficient evidence to make an arrest, but instead have a "hunch" or "feeling" that a person may be involved in criminal activity. One VPPD officer noted that they use investigative holds specifically where the officer needs more time to develop evidence to support a lawful arrest. Similarly, an EPSO detective described using investigative holds when he had "a pretty good feeling" or a "gut instinct" that a certain individual was connected to a crime. The DOJ report goes on that it was not just suspects who were treated this way. They even locked up people they thought might be witnesses to a crime, meaning just about anybody could have been subjected to this treatment: For example, one woman told us that VPPD officers detained her and her family in 2014 after a grocery shopping trip during which they may have witnessed an armed robbery and shooting. The woman was on her wa[...]

Brickbat: You Know What I Find Offensive?

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Canada's Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu calls a proposal proposal by a Conservative Party politician to legalize pepper spray so that women can better defend themselves "offensive to women." She says the proposal "places the onus on women to defend themselves rather than focusing on addressing and preventing gender-based violence."

Brickbat: Stocking Stuffers

Wed, 28 Dec 2016 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Iesha Conley, a postal worker in Brooklyn, has been charged with stealing gift cards from from the mail. She reportedly used one card to buy almost $100 in sex toys.

Death Penalty Sentences in America Continue Decline

Wed, 21 Dec 2016 12:15:00 -0500

Voters in several states may have given a thumbs up to the continued application of the death penalty in November, but actual sentences and executions are continuing a massive decline across the country. That's the latest from the year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a D.C.-based non-profit devoted to analysis and reports about the use of executions in the country. The two most important stats (shown also in the graph to the right): Not only are actual executions down from a peak of 98 a year to 20 a year; even sentencing somebody to death has dropped significantly from a peak of 315 a year (in 1996) to 30 this year. The 20 executions were confined to just five states: Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, and Florida. The report notes that even in these execution states, actual death penalty sentences are declining. Texas saw only four new death penalty sentences in 2016. Juries in Georgia and Missouri didn't impose any new death penalty sentences at all this year. Voters in three states—Nebraska, California, and Oklahoma—voted to maintain or enshrine the death penalty as a valid sentence for crimes. But despite those votes, the Death Penalty Information Center also noted that support for the death penalty in polls continues its decline from a high point in the mid-1990s. For the first time in 45 years, support for the death penalty has dropped in polls below 50 percent. More still support the death penalty than oppose (49 percent to 42 percent), but the gap is closing. The Death Penalty Information Center also took note of an election trend that we've also highlighted here at Reason: Voters are bouncing prosecutors with reputations for attempting to implement harsh sentences or practices: Prosecutors in four of the 16 counties that imposed the most death sentences in the U.S. between 2010 and 2015 were defeated by candidates who expressed personal opposition to the death penalty or pledged to institute reforms in the county's death penalty practices. The report takes note of vicious Florida prosecutor Angela Corey, who was blown out in her primary by a candidate who is now promising to build a "conviction integrity unit" to go back and look for previous wrongful convictions. Corey wasn't the only prosecutor to get bounced in this new trend: In the November general election, incumbent Harris County, Texas District Attorney Devon Anderson lost to challenger Kim Ogg. Harris County has carried out more executions than any other county in the U.S., and Ogg said during the course of the campaign that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city [Houston] and our county." She pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg administration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions." Similarly, reform candidate Andrew Warren defeated incumbent Hillsborough County, Florida State Attorney Mark Ober, whom public defenders said had been seeking death in 20% of all murder cases, overburdening their office to a "critical point" at which it might not be able to take more cases. Warren said that "[o]ur use of the death penalty needs to be fair, consistent, and rare." He has proposed the creation of a conviction integrity unit to identify and redress wrongful convictions in Hillsborough County. The report takes note of important judicial trends and decisions that may continue the death penalty's decline. Florida's Supreme Court ruled its system of sentencing defendants to death was unconstitutional for allowing non-unanimous juries to make the call. The U.S. Supreme Court had previously struck down Florida's death penalty for giving judges—not juries—too much control over the determination. The 19-page report details many statistical and procedural concerns about how the death sentence gets handed down and now the increasing secrecy b[...]

Trump Bullies on NYC Subway Weren't Real

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 07:20:00 -0500

(image) It was the hate crime that launched 1,000 ally memes: a young Muslim woman, Yasmin Seweid, harassed on the New York City subway by three white men shouting about Donald Trump and how she was probably a terrorist. According to Seweid's initial story, the men got up in her face, yanked at and ripped her bag, and tried to tear off her hijab—all while a car full of other train passengers failed to intervene.

"It breaks my heart that so many individuals chose to be bystanders while watching me get harassed verbally and physically by these disgusting pigs," Seweid wrote on Facebook. "Trump America is real and I witnessed it first hand last night! What a traumatizing night."

Soon social media was filling up with admonitions about the negligent, heartless bystanders and cute, illustrated memes about how white women can save their brown counterparts from subway harassment. But perhaps the people of New York City aren't as bad folks feared: the incident never actually took place. Seweid admitted as much to police this week, telling them she made up the story to avoid getting in trouble with her strict parents for coming home late.

On Wednesday, the New York Police Department (NYPD)—who had initially opened a hate crime investigation into the incident—arrested Seweid on misdemeanor charges of filing a false report and obstructing government administration.

Her story is one of several high-profile "hate crimes" reported throughout November and December that turned out to have been fabricated, exaggerated, or misinterpreted. In a number of instances, messages initially interpreted as anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, or racist intimidation attempts were revealed to be the work of liberal-leaning individuals attempting to comment on Trump's presidency.

Brickbat: 'Fake News'

Mon, 12 Dec 2016 04:00:00 -0500

(image) Police in Santa Maria, California, are defending their use of a false news release. The release reported Santa Maria police officers had arrested two men for identity theft and turned them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In fact, police now say, the two men were targets for assassination by rival gang members and they had taken them into protective custody.

Sherri Papini Sex-Trafficking Evidence Almost as Flimsy as PizzaGate Proof

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 12:30:00 -0500

I first learned about Sherri Papini, the 34-year-old California woman who went missing for 22 days in November, from a Today Show headline asking: "Was Sherri Papini kidnapping linked to sex trafficking?" In People magazine's December 9 issue, John Kelly, "a noted serial killer profiler," said Papini's abduction had all the hallmarks of human trafficking, with her mistreatment typical of the "shaming and degrading" of victims that traffickers deploy. Other wide-reaching media outlets—NBC News, ABC News, Us Weekly, the Sacramento Bee—have likewise floated the idea that the mysterious duo of Hispanic women Papini fingered may have been part of a sex-trafficking ring. Yet there is almost nothing to support the idea that Papini's disappearance was related to sex or prostitution. The whole theory hinges on the fact that Papini was "branded," as her husband Keith initially put it. Police later confirmed that Sherri did have something burnt into her skin, specifying only that it was not a "symbol" but a "message." But even accepting the premise that sex-traffickers frequently "brand" their victims—a common claim also utterly lacking in evidence—Papini's burns could just as easily have been an act of torture or a way to relay a message to Papini, police, or the public. And the latter explanations certainly make more sense than the former when taken with the facts that nothing else about the abduction belied an intent to force Papini into commercial sex and, in fact, Papini's assailants eventually just let her go, according to what she told police. Who is Sherri Papini? For those unfamiliar with the case, Papini—a stay-at-home mother of two living with her husband in Shasta County, California—disappeared on November 2 while Keith was at work and the kids were in daycare. The case came to a happy ending on Thanksgiving day, when Papini was found on the side of a rural road a few hours from her home, malnourished and knocked around but not severely injured. She has since been reunited with her family, the Shasta County Sheriff's Department is investigating, and the Papinis are taking some time away from the spotlight in an undisclosed location. Papini's disappearance, and subsequent return, earned ample national attention. The story seemed to have legs both because of the mystery surrounding Papini's disappearance and because of who Papini is: a pretty, young, white woman with a photogenic family and a Pinterest-perfect collection of hobbies: crafting, baking, exercise, home decorating, party-planning, and prayer. She was quickly dubbed a "supermom" in headlines. California State Police found Papini roadside in Yolo County, near Sacramento, with one hand chained behind her waist. She was "taken to an area hospital, and treated for non-life threatening conditions," according to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosekno. Keith Papini has said that his wife's captors beat her, cut off her hair, and "barely fed" her. When she was discovered, Keith said, Sherri was bruised, had lost 15 percent of her body weight, and had a broken nose, "severe burns, red rashes, and chain markings." Police, however, have been less forthcoming with details about Sherri Papini's condition. Whatever injuries she suffered, overnight hospitalization was not required, and by Thanksgiving night she was back at home with her family. Sherri told police that her abductors had been two Hispanic women driving a dark SUV. She said they wore masks over their faces and spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. Upon first questioning, she provided police with little detail, which Bosenko attributed to her still recovering from the experience. But if she has since provided more information, Shasta County authorities aren't[...]

California Legislators Look to Reform Bail System to Stop Punishing the Poor

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 17:05:00 -0500

California finally managed to reform its asset forfeiture laws to make it tougher for police to use the state's poorer citizens as a piggy bank earlier this year. Will the state's residents see reform to bail regulations that keep poor people behind bars even if they aren't at risk of continued criminal behavior or flight? A pair of Democratic California state legislators, Rob Bonta (in the Assembly) and Bob Hertzberg (in the state Senate), are hoping 2017 will be the year. The two announced this morning that they'll be introducing legislation in the state intended to try to reduce the number of people who are being held in California's jail system not because they're threats, but because they're unable to pay bail. The Los Angeles Times explains, with Bonta's assistance, how that ultimately works out in California: Under state law, bail is set when a person is arrested according to a county fee schedule and depends on the gravity of the alleged crime. Offenders must post the amount upfront, or pay a 10% fee to a bond company, before they are released. Those who can't afford to do so either can remain incarcerated up to an additional 48 hours before they are formally charged and arraigned. A judge then sets the conditions for release before trial, weighing such factors as whether the defendants pose a flight risk or are a threat to their community. Those conditions typically include bail, and lawyers and legal experts say the rules on how high that monetary amount is set vary by city and county, often allowing courts to keep people in jail based on their inability to pay their fees. "We have to make the criminal justice system more just," Bonta said. "When you have a system that is making decisions simply and solely based on a person's wealth, something is fundamentally wrong and that is simply not acceptable." The stats provided by the legislators show that California has a pretrial detention rate higher than many other states—63 percent, or 46,000 people. This comes at a cost both to the counties (More than $4 million annually) and to the prisoners (who, we will remind, have merely been charged with a crime and not convicted). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California and several other criminal justice reform groups are helping attempt to push a bill forward. An ACLU fact sheet notes that 80 percent of jail deaths in the state are those in pretrial custody, and of those, one-quarter are suicides. They also note that pretrial detention increases the likelihood that defendants will plead guilty (some will likely point out this is a feature not a bug). Hertzberg's office sent Reason a media package of releases and research studies that detail the consequences of pretrial detention. And while they've included wording of a bail reform bill for the state, what is provided so far does not actually reform bail. The draft bill they've sent, after an introduction discussing the problems with excessive pretrial detention, concludes "It is the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation that would safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial, while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system, and to ensure that people are not held in pretrial detention simply because of their inability to afford money bail." What that ultimately means is going to have to be negotiated. In New Mexico, voters recently passed some bail reform. We know that initially defense attorneys in the state initially supported legislation to reform bail so that it couldn't be denied simply due to a person's inability to pay. But after the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment was changed to give the court the authority to de[...]