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Published: Wed, 22 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2017 13:58:06 -0500


Chicago's Chronic Police Corruption Leads to Its First 'Mass Exoneration'

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 11:50:00 -0500

(image) Guess which city's police department is so corrupt that prosecutors this week performed what they're calling the county's first "mass exoneration" of men framed for drug crimes?

It's Chicago, of course. Cook County prosecutors have just tossed out the convictions of 15 men framed by a pack of police led by Sgt. Ronald Watts. Watts was accused of running a drug and protection racket with his fellow officers and was eventually convicted and sent to prison for taking money from a drug courier who was actually an undercover FBI officer.

There may be more to come. According to defense attorneys with the University of Chicago's Exoneration Project, Watts was involved in nearly 500 convictions, all of which are now considered suspect.

As for the rest of Watts' crew, Chicago Police announced Thursday night that seven other police officers have been put on desk duty while their behavior is investigated. Asked why they're still on the force, a city official said they hadn't been convicted of a crime. Via the Chicago Tribune:

Asked earlier Thursday why several officers tied to Watts' corrupt crew were still on the force, police Superintendent Eddie Johnson noted none had been convicted of a crime — unlike Watts.

"They have due process and rights just like any citizen in this country," he told reporters after his speech to the City Club of Chicago. "… But we just can't arbitrarily take the job away from people."

Apparently, it was even a struggle to get the police to take them off the street during the investigation. Earlier Thursday, the city was adopting a "wait and see" attitude, but they had changed their mind by the evening.

In the private sector, employers don't have to wait for somebody to be convicted of a crime to cut ties with them. It's not "arbitrarily" taking a job away to fire a police officer who is deemed to be dangerous or incompetent or corrupt, even if he or she has not been convicted of an actual crime.

The Tribune notes that the exonerations will now allow the 15 men to file wrongful conviction lawsuits against the city. Chicago has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for police misconduct. Two police officers who were blackballed while attempting to expose Watts' misconduct themselves earned a $2 million settlement in a lawsuit.

Chicago has a serious police misconduct problem. Chicago also has a serious budget crisis that they're trying to tax and fine their way out of (and failing). It's not "arbitrary" to dump out bad cops that are costing the city millions due to their bad behavior. It, in fact, may be necessary to keep the city solvent.

Minor Violations Lead to Massive Prosecution Fees in Two California Desert Towns

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:15:00 -0500

A couple of cities in the California desert have found a novel and remarkably cruel way to make money—force citizens to pay for the privilege of being prosecuted by the attorneys contracting with these cities. We've seen cities across the country abuse their own citizens—particularly its poorest residents and visitors—with vicious enforcement of petty laws designed to create a revenue stream via a cascade of fines and fees. But I don't think we've seen an enforcement mechanism as nasty and cruel as the one the Desert Sun has uncovered out in California's Inland Empire. The cities of Indio and Coachella partnered up with a private law firm, Silver & Wright, to prosecute citizens in criminal court for violations of city ordinances that call for nothing more than small fines—things like having a mess in your yard or selling food without a business license. Those cited for these violations fix the problems and pay the fines, a typical code enforcement story. The kicker comes a few weeks or months later when citizens get a bill in the mail for thousands of dollars from the law firm that prosecuted them. They are forcing citizens to pay for the private lawyers used to take them to court in the first place. So a fine for a couple of hundred dollars suddenly becomes a bill for $3,000 or $20,000 or even more. In Coachella, a man was fined $900 for expanding his living room without getting a permit. He paid his fine. Then more than a year later he got a bill in the mail from Silver & Wright for $26,000. They told him that he had to pay the cost of prosecuting him, and if he didn't, they could put a lien on his house and the city could sell it against his will. When he appealed the bill they charged him even more for the cost of defending against the appeal. The bill went from $26,000 to $31,000. Brett Kelman of the Desert Sun found 18 cases in Indio and Coachella where people received inordinately high legal bills for small-time violations. A woman fined for hanging Halloween decorations across a city street received legal bill for $2,700. When she challenged it, the bill jumped to $4,200. Kelman notes that these thousands of dollars in fees came from a single court hearing that lasted minutes. Silver & Wright representatives declined to talk to the Desert Sun. One of them even claimed attorney/client privilege even though they're serving as prosecutors on behalf of city governments. But the law firm's web site makes it very clear that what happened is not a mistake. It's a law firm focused on helping cities go after private properties for "nuisance abatement" and code enforcement. Among its services is "ordinance drafting." That they offer such services matters because, according to the Desert Sun, the two cities contracted with the law firm first, and then they crafted brand new nuisance ordinances to facilitate Silver & Wright recouping the fees by billing citizens for their own prosecutions without having to go through a judge. "Cost recovery" is another emphasis of Silver & Wright's services. Here's a direct quote from their site: "Our attorneys have developed unique and cutting edge practices to achieve success for our clients and make nuisance abatement and code enforcement cost neutral or even revenue producing." [emphasis added] They're openly bragging about using prosecutions as a way to help cities make money. And then there's this buried deep in the story: Matthew Silver, one of the firm's partners, is also a vice president for the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers. He runs a private law firm but also leads a professional association for government employees responsible for enforcing the laws that lead to his firm's billable hours (or minutes, it seems). In response the Desert Sun's investigations, it appears that Coachella officials will rethink their methods. Indio's interim city manager and a council member, however, defended the harsh enforcement, insisting this "aggressive approach" was getting results. This aggressive approach apparently includes an $18,600 bi[...]

Hate Crimes in 2016: New FBI Numbers Show Little Change

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 16:45:00 -0500

After widespread worry over a supposed spike in election-adjacent hate crimes last year, many of the alleged incidents turned out to be hoaxes or misunderstandings. Now new data from the FBI further undermines the idea that 2016 saw a sort of crime wave spurred by prejudice. There were 271 more incidents deemed hate crimes in 2016 than the previous year, according to the latest Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data. There were also 257 more law enforcement agencies reporting last year, so that increase could largely or even entirely be a matter of getting more complete statistics. The higher numbers mostly represent small increases in incidents classified as anti-Hispanic, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, or anti-white. The most common motive animating hate crimes in 2016—and throughout the past decade—was anti-black bias. That accounted for 2,114 incidents last year. Another 888 incidents were deemed to be based on anti-white bias, 448 incidents on anti-Hispanic bias, and 381 incidents on anti-Islamic bias. Crimes motivated by animosity toward Jewish people and gay men were also high in the 2016 crime data (again, a longstanding trend). About 830 incidents were categorized as anti-Jewish hate crimes and 765 as incidents motivated by bias against gay men. The most common type of crime reported was vandalism or property destruction (31 percent), followed by intimidation (26 percent) and simple assault (24 percent). Aggravated assault accounted for 11 percent of all incidents, and rape and murder for less than one percent combined. Nine people overall were victims of murder or manslaughter. "No human trafficking offenses with a bias motivation were reported during 2016," the FBI notes. A Decade of Hate Crime Reporting White Americans were the most likely to commit offenses categorized as hate crimes in 2016, accounting for 46.3 percent of all known offenders. This is actually down quite a bit from previous years. In 2015, 48 percent of known offenders were white and in 2011 it was 59 percent. In 2007, nearly 63 percent of all known offenders were white. Looking at data over the past 10 years provides some other interesting comparisons, too. While the number of hate crime classifications was higher in 2016 than in any of the four preceding years, it was lower than in 2011 and significantly down from 2006-08. We're also seeing significantly fewer victims (a designation that can encompass individuals, businesses, government entities, religious groups, etc.). Last year, the data show 7,615 individual victims. In comparison, there were 7,713 hate-crime victims in 2011 and 9,652 victims in 2006. These things are important to keep in mind when trying to analyze this year's data. Obviously, small upticks can turn into big ones over time and are worth keeping an eye on. But looking at a decade's worth of FBI hate crime data shows the folly in making too much of year-over-year fluctuations. For instance, this year's data show a slight increase in anti-Hispanic incidents, about 69 more overall—a nearly 20 percent rise over 2015. But last year's number (448) is down from 488 in 2012, 681 in 2010, 735 in 2008, and 769 in 2006. That's a 42 percent decrease in anti-Hispanic hate crimes over the past decade. Anti-Jewish incidents were also at their highest level last year since 2012 (834 in 2016, compared to 696 back then), but down from 921 incidents in 2010 and more than 1,000 per year in 2006–2008. There's even some good news on anti-black bias: The number of such incidents in 2016 was almost identical to the number the year before, and was down significantly from 2006 (when we saw over 1,000 more anti-black incidents). Hate crimes categorized as anti-white, meanwhile, were at their highest level last year since 2006 (though still less than half the number of anti-black incidents). Incidents based on anti-Muslim bias were also up last year. Drilling Down on 2016 Data That last point presents the most troubling potential trend. There were about 381 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016 and ab[...]

LAPD Officers Recorded Themselves Apparently Planting Cocaine on a Suspect

Mon, 13 Nov 2017 12:15:00 -0500

(image) The Los Angeles Police Department's response to demands that its officers' body camera footage be available to the media and the public has been simple and firm: No.

A news report from CBS' local affiliate showing what appears to be LAPD officers planting drug evidence during an arrest may challenge how long the department may be able to maintain that policy.

Since Los Angeles started rolling out body cameras for its officers two years ago (partly funded by a federal grant, so we're all paying for this), the LAPD has been insistent that body camera footage is not a public record and would not be released.

But a CBS reporter got his hands on a dozen body camera videos from the arrest of Ronald Shields, 52, stopped by police and charged with a hit-and-run in North Hollywood. The videos show what appears to be an officer taking a baggie of cocaine, planting it in Shields' wallet, and then acting like he has discovered it on the scene.

The case appears to be very similar to a situation uncovered in Baltimore where an officer inadvertently recorded himself planting drugs on a scene. And it happened for the same reason. The body cameras continually record and buffer what's happening, but without sound, for the previous 30 seconds, even when they're not technically "on." When a police officer actually turns the body camera "on," the camera also saves the previous 30 seconds and they are captured in the footage.

So the officer's own body camera captured him picking a packet of cocaine off the ground at the arrest scene, putting it in Shields' wallet, and then pretending that he discovered the drugs during the search.

Shields' attorney showed the footage in a pre-trial hearing and now the LAPD is investigating what happened. It may well be a situation where the officer was re-enacting "discovering" the drugs for the camera and didn't actually plant drugs on an innocent man. That was the claim out of Baltimore. That's still a terrible, deceptive practice that needs to stop immediately because it jeopardizes everything else about the arrest. You cannot "recreate" the discovery of evidence and expect people to reasonably believe everything else is real.

The discovery in Baltimore that the placement of the evidence in a case had been staged ultimately ended up in dozens of other criminal cases being dropped by prosecutors. So the discovery here in this one LAPD case could end up rippling out even further.

The LAPD may say they take claims of misconduct seriously and Mayor Eric Garcetti can claim that he "expects the highest integrity from everyone who wears badge," but this case highlights exactly why the police should not have the authority to decide for itself whether body camera footage is released to the public.

Watch the footage in the CBS report here.

Real Common Sense on Gun Control

Sun, 12 Nov 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Here's how to judge the pragmatic case for gun control: if the pro-control lobby managed to have each of its favorite restrictions enacted, could we as individuals be more casual about our safety than we are today? The answer clearly is no. So what's the point of the restrictions beyond letting their advocates feel good about themselves? A false sense of security is worse than no sense of security at all. Mass shooters have obtained their guns legally, having had no disqualifiers in their records; used guns legally obtained by someone else; or obtained them despite existing laws. Therefore, the controls most commonly called for would not have prevented those massacres. In the latest massacre, the shooter had a disqualifier—a less-than-honorable discharge from the Air Force after a year in the brig for domestic abuse—but the Air Force failed to report that disqualifier to the FBI and so it never got into the database that was checked when the shooter bought guns from licensed dealers. New controls, such expanded background checks, would not have prevented the shooting because the Air Force was already required to report the shooter's conviction to the FBI. Even a ban on rifles with certain features, misleadingly called "assault weapons," would not have prevented the shooting because equally powerful rifles would have been available Thus the victims of the latest shooter, like the victims of the previous mass shootings, would have been no safer under the sought-after gun-control regime than they were at the time they were murdered. But this is not the end of the story. Even if those shooters had been unable to obtain their guns as they did, it does not follow that they would have been prevented from committing their monstrous offenses. How many times must it be pointed out that someone who is bent on murder is not likely to be deterred by legal restrictions on the purchase of guns? The gun-control advocates pretend that legal methods are the only way to obtain firearms, but we know that is not true. People have always been able to obtain guns through illegal channels. Gun-running—firearms smuggling and trafficking—is probably as old as the earliest gun restrictions. Guns can be stolen and sold. (There are 300 million of them.) Guns can be made in garages. Guns will eventually be made routinely on 3D printers. Supply responds to demand. Black markets thrive whenever products are prohibited. But the black market—by definition—is already illegal. So what are gun-controllers to do, make the black market doubly illegal? I don't think that's a solution. Even more drastic forms of control won't change this story. The Australian tax-financed eminent-domain approach, in which the government ordered people to sell their guns to the government, failed to remove all guns from society. "That policy … removed up to one million weapons from Australians' hands and homes," Varad Mehta writes. "This was, depending on the estimate, a fifth to a third of Australia's gun stock." How many bad people do you imagine surrendered their guns? How would an Australia program—which some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, favor—do here? Not very well, I'd guess. Think what would happen if the government tried to confiscate people's guns with a heavier hand than that used by the Australian politicians. Individual rights aside, would that be an acceptable outcome for the sake of reducing gun violence? (Do be aware that most gun fatalities are suicides.) If people with bad intent would continue to obtain guns no matter what gun controls were on the books, it follows that people's responsibility for their own safety remains the same in all circumstances. Even beefing up police forces won't deliver greater safety: the cops are always too far away, and besides, they have no legal obligation to save you. The worst outcome would be for people to believe they were safe simply because Congress passed some piece of mag[...]

Justice Department Bizarrely Uses Madoff to Defend Taking People's Stuff Without Convicting Them First

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 13:40:00 -0500

The Department of Justice has brought out the big guns to defend the largely indefensible law enforcement tool of civil asset forfeiture. In a remarkably deceptive Wall Street Journal piece, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tries to use the Bernie Madoff fraud case to argue that civil asset forfeiture is an important tool to return stolen money to the victims of a crime: Thanks to civil asset forfeiture, the Department of Justice is announcing today the record-setting distribution of restitution to victims of Bernard Madoff's notorious investment fraud scheme. We have recovered $3.9 billion from third parties—not Mr. Madoff—and are now returning that money to more than 35,000 victims. This is the largest restoration of forfeited property in history. Civil forfeiture has allowed the government to seize those illicit proceeds and return them to Mr. Madoff's victims. Why use civil forfeiture instead of prosecution? Not everyone who possesses illegal proceeds can or should be criminally prosecuted. Many criminals transfer ill-gotten gains to relatives or friends, and others use couriers to transport cash. In such cases, civil forfeiture enables the government to recover property when prosecuting the person caught holding it may not be appropriate or feasible. Rosenstein says that the Justice Department has used asset forfeiture (both civil and criminal) to return billions of dollars to the victims of crimes. He wants Americans to come away from this commentary thinking the government takes property from the worst of our crooks and returns it to innocent citizens. The reality is very different. There's a reason why Rosenstein's piece revolves around a couple of high-profile anecdotes and lacks a lot of specifics. That's because civil asset forfeiture is often used against the poor, not wealthy crooks like Madoff. And the police often don't return the money to victims but keep it for themselves, to make up gaps in their budgets or to go on shopping sprees (cowboy hats!). Rosenstein's aim is to stop Congress from restraining the practice. Civil asset forfeiture is a frequent source of scandal because it allows police and prosecutors to seize property without convicting the owner of a crime or even charging them. There have been dozens upon dozens of stories of police and prosecutors abusing civil asset forfeiture to take property from people who are never shown to be criminals at all. Because it's a "civil" process, the evidentiary thresholds to take the stuff are lower, and the owners of the property have to pay for their own lawyer or attempt to navigate a confusing, opaque court process on their own. Rosenstein knows this, but he deliberately downplays the negative consequences, acting like it's just like any other civil property dispute. He adds, "There is no logical reason to demand the elevated criminal standard in a lawsuit about illicit proceeds." The vast majority of civil asset forfeiture cases look nothing like the Madoff case and everything like a brutal shakedown of citizens amid a never-ending drug war. The Washington Post's Radley Balko reported on a case just the day before Rosenstein's op-ed appeared where a drug task force in Alabama raided a home, the stress of the raid prompted a man at the house to develop heart problems, and he ultimately died. Undaunted, the police then seized the family's home, auctioned it off, and kept the money for themselves. There is indeed a "logical reason" to demand a criminal standard to seize property: It's for the very purpose of making it harder for police and prosecutors to take people's stuff without strong proof it's connected to a crime. The point is to reduce the incentives for the government to declare that citizens traveling with cash must surely be involved in illegal undertakings and just seize the money without any additional evidence of wrongdoing. Rosenstein himself encourages this attitude, saying outright in th[...]

Too Many Americans Languish in Jail Waiting for Trials, but Reforms Are Coming

Thu, 02 Nov 2017 12:10:00 -0400

Nearly two thirds of the people sitting in America's jails have not actually been convicted of a crime. We're talking about people who are awaiting their day in court to determine guilt or innocence. According to the Pretrial Justice Institute, that percentage has increased dramatically since 1990, when it was only 51 percent. "The current state of pretrial justice is horrible," institute CEO Cherise Fanno Burdeen tells Reason. But Burdeen is nevertheless optimistic, because she's seeing concrete changes to the pretrial system that ease the unnecessary impact on those who get arrested, particularly those who struggle to afford the costs of bail. To that end, the Pretrial Justice Institute has put out an inaugural edition of what Burdeen hopes will be an annual report documenting and grading states on their programs. "The State of Pretrial Justice in America" grades each state on how successfully it assesses who should remain behind bars and who should be released before trial on the basis of actual community risks, not simply on whether the defendants can afford bail or the severity of the criminal allegations. The report evaluates three categories: the pretrial detention rate for those charged with crimes, the use of a pretrial assessment system to determine who can safely be released from jail prior to trial, and the elimination of money bail. The institute gives the country as a whole a D, and more than half the states received a D or an F. That's not good. But trends favor change. The report suggests that America is in its third wave of pretrial reform, driven by an increased understanding that money bail frequently leaves poor people behind bars while waiting for trial even when there's little risk they'll commit further crimes and when it's likely they'll show up in court. "The most positive trend has been courts realizing they've been using an outdated, unsafe, unfair, and expesive means of determining who should stay in jail and who should be relased," Burdeen says. "The trend over the last decade has been away from money bail to a more comprehensive system." This year saw what may be very pivotal reforms in pretrial detention systems in New Jersey, the only state to earn an A on the report card. In January, New Jersey finally implemented a plan—in the works for several years—that shifted away from a money bail system into a pretrial assessment system. As a result, New Jersey saw a dramatic drop in the number of people languishing in jail awaiting trial: a 15 percent decline in just the first six months. During that same timeframe, crime also dropped statewide. Allowing more people out of jail before their trials did not produce an increase in crime. In 2018, California will be a state to watch for pretrial system reform. A legislative effort to follow in New Jersey's footsteps stalled this year, but reformers have the ears of top government leaders. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic frontrunner to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, has declared his support for eliminating cash bail. California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye headed a work group that just released a slate of recommendations to replace money bail with a pretrial assessment system. Burdeen also has her eye on Ohio and Nebraska. Nebraska is currently phasing in a law intended to reduce the likelihood that people who cannot afford to pay fines for low-level crimes will end up in jail. The law allows judges to dismiss fines or assign community service instead. Civil rights groups and those who get caught up in pretrial detentions are also turning to lawsuits to try to force changes, arguing that it's unconstitutional to keep people trapped in jail, sometimes for misdemeanors such as shoplifting or driving without a license, solely because they cannot afford the cost of bail bonds. Nationally, there's a bipartisan push in the Senate to help facilitate states moving forward with reform. Sen[...]

Brickbat: Police Action

Wed, 01 Nov 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Palm Beach County, Florida, sheriff's deputy Jason Cooke has resigned after he was caught on security video entering a dying man's home and stealing his medication. The man's children had called deputies after cameras in his home failed to detect any movement. Deputies found him on the floor of the bathroom, where he'd fallen and hit his head, and called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. About an hour and a half later, the security system detected movement and the children saw a deputy enter the home and start going through cabinets and placing items in his pockets. Cooke reportedly told investigators he used the garage code in the dispatch log to enter the home.

Manafort Indicted for Hiding Financial Ties to Ukraine

Mon, 30 Oct 2017 10:00:00 -0400

(image) Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump's campaign, was the first to be indicted by Justice Department special prosecutor Robert Mueller. He surrendered to authorities this morning.

But before everybody goes crazy on social media thinking that this is the beginning of the end of the Trump administration and either celebrating or condemning, the charges against Manafort have no clear relationship or connection to any alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

Manafort, along with a former business associate named Rick Gates, have been indicted for conspiracy to launder money, serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign official, and several counts of false statements and failure to file appropriate bank reports.

He's also charged with "conspiracy against the United States," which is going to draw a lot of attention (CNN tossed it right into the headline), but to be very clear here, this charge has absolutely nothing to do with allegations of a relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia. Instead, this is about Manafort's relationship and lobbying on behalf of Ukraine's government and his alleged failure to adequately report the relationship and account for the money he received. This in not about committing anything resembling treason.

In short, Manafort is accused of taking money to lobby for Ukraine and laundering it through other countries and businesses so that they he wouldn't have to publicly account for it and pay taxes on it.

From the indictment itself:


The full indictment may be read here, and the accusations are surprisingly easy to understand given the complexity of the case.

Be very wary of any reporting suggesting this is going to have any connection to Trump or that this proves some sort of collusion with Russia. This indictment is not about Russia. And, honestly, since it doesn't implicate Trump in any way, don't be surprised if the president tosses Manafort directly under the Justice Department's steamroller.

UPDATE: Ken "Popehat" White explains the meaning of the various charges and the indictment itself here.

UPDATE: Trump tweets his reactions:

Massachusetts Mulls Whether to Classify Drug Dealers as Murderers

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 14:20:00 -0400

(image) Massachusetts state senators approved a massive criminal justice reform bill last night that would eliminate many drug-related mandatory minimum sentences (including those arbitrarily connected to "school zones"), restrict the use of solitary confinement, decriminalize sex between minors of similar ages, and set the age the criminal justice system considers you an adult at 19.

Unfortunately, it will also introduce a terrible new tool to the drug war.

To satisfy the urges of the state's Republican governor, Charlie Baker, the reform bill (S.2185) was amended yesterday to charge anybody who deals drugs with second-degree murder if someone they sold drugs to dies of an overdose.

Here's the amendment:

Any person while in the course of trafficking or unlawfully distributing a controlled substance as defined in Section 32E who knowingly or intentionally manufactures, distributes, dispenses, delivers, gives away, barters, administers or provides any amount of a controlled substance or counterfeit substance which results in death shall be punished as murder in the second degree as defined by section 1 of chapter 265. (b) Lack of knowledge of any previous health conditions shall not be a defense to any person who violates the provisions of this section.

According to WBUR, this amendment has itself been amended in order to make it clear that the law is intended to go after dealers, not people who share drugs. If that's the actual intent, Massachusetts Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr may have underestimated the creativity of prosecutors by including the words "barters," "administers," and "provides."

Just look at Florida to see how this legislation goes astray. The state has had a law on the books that allows prosecutors to charge drug dealers with first-degree murder when somebody dies of an overdose. The law's application has absolutely not been limited to trying to lock away drug dealers. A woman was recently charged with murder when her friend died of a drug overdose. The woman had taken money from her friend and introduced her to the dealer, but she was not a drug dealer herself.

It's a frustrating and chronic problem. Even as they recognize that heavy mandatory minimum sentences have not been successful in stopping drug use, politicians—and, honestly, a significant part of the population—cannot set aside the idea that this crisis can be stopped by harshly punishing the right people.

A Transgender Woman Assaulted a Child in a Restroom; New Laws Wouldn't Have Stopped It, and None Were Needed to Lock Her Up

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 12:55:00 -0400

(image) An apparently transgender woman in Wyoming has been convicted of molesting a 10-year-old girl in a bathroom. Casper resident Michelle Martinez—whose legal name is still Miguel Alberto Martinez, so she went on trial under that name—was convicted of two charges of sexual abuse of a child and faces up to 70 years in prison.

According to the Casper Star Tribune, Martinez knew the victim and lured her into a bathroom to assault her. Nurses examined the girl after the assault and found medical evidence of the attack. Martinez and her family maintain her innocence and plan to appeal.

So now we have an actual case of a transgender woman assaulting a little girl in a bathroom. So does that mean the right-wing culture warriors were right to worry about the trans infiltration of American ladies' rooms? Not if you look at the particulars of the case.

First of all, this wasn't a stranger lurking in a public bathroom looking to prey on a random child. As is often the case when children are molested, the victim knew her attacker, and the restroom in question was in somebody's home. This crime, as serious and awful it is, sharply diverges from the bathroom-panic narrative of the stalker in a restroom laying in wait for prey. No law gender-policing bathroom use would have meant anything in this case.

Second, existing law on the abuse of children is clearly adequate to tackle this sort of situation. If Martinez gets the maximum penalty, she's clearly not going to be in a position ever to attack another child. What would an additional law restricting restroom access have accomplished here?

Think of the demands for more gun control that frequently come in the wake of a high-profile shooting. When gun foes propose new restrictions that would not have done anything to prevent the crime in question, people who actually understand firearms and the laws that regulate them are quick to point out (accurately!) that such laws would not have stopped the shooting, and to list the consequences a poorly-thought-out gun law would have for law-abiding citizens.

The same logical consideration applies here. There's no evidence that yet another law would have prevented this assault from happening. There's no evidence that existing law is unable to deal with the extremely rare cases when a transgender sexual assault of children does happen. No changes in the law are necessary.

Do Psychedelics Make People Less Likely to Commit Crimes?

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 14:00:00 -0400

People who have used psychedelics are less likely to commit property and violent crimes than people who haven't, according to a new analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). A press release from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where three of the study's four authors work, says these findings "suggest that treatments making use of classic psychedelics like psilocybin could well hold promise in reducing criminal behavior." Although I agree that psychedelic-assisted therapy looks promising based on other studies, this interpretation of the survey data seems dubious to me, mirroring the faulty logic of prohibitionists who assume that associations between drug use and antisocial behavior are causal. UAB psychologist Peter Hendricks and his colleagues looked at 13 years of NSDUH data and found that "lifetime classic psychedelic use [i.e., use of ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine, LSD, mescaline, peyote or San Pedro cactus, or psilocybin mushrooms] was associated with a 27% decreased odds of past year larceny/theft, a 12% decreased odds of past year assault, a 22% decreased odds of past year arrest for a property crime, and an 18% decreased odds of past year arrest for a violent crime." That is after controlling for sex, race, education, income, marital status, religiosity, and several other potential confounding variables. Hendricks et al. say their results "were consistent with a protective effect of psilocybin for antisocial criminal behavior" and "contribute to a compelling rationale for the initiation of clinical research with classic psychedelics, including psilocybin, in forensic settings." They argue that the associations they found bolster the evidence from three studies conducted in the 1960s indicating that psychedelics might help rehabilitate criminal offenders: two LSD studies with tiny samples and one psilocybin study with a larger but still small sample. The latter study, known as the Concord Prison Experiment, was conducted by Timothy Leary. Hendricks et al. note that a 1998 review of the Concord Prison Experiment by Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, "concluded that these findings were overstated, inadequate support was provided outside of psilocybin sessions, and that serious methodological flaws preclude any conclusions." It is certainly worth trying to replicate those early, tentative findings. But so far the evidence that psychedelics curb criminal tendencies is thin, and the NSDUH results do not make it much thicker, because they could be due to pre-existing differences in the sort of people who are inclined to try psychedelics. Only 15 percent of Americans say they have tried psychedelics, and they are bound to be different from the 85 percent who haven't in ways that a) cannot be readily measured and b) may affect their propensity to commit crimes. In seems plausible, for instance, that they are, on average, more introspective, more patient, more tolerant, and more open to alternative perspectives, even before they have dropped acid, drunk ayahuasca, or eaten magic mushrooms. Hendricks et al. concede that cross-sectional data like the NSDUH results "limit causal inferences," that "a number of shared underlying or 'third' variables may be responsible for the associations reported here," and that "we could not evaluate potential mechanisms of action underlying the associations of classic psychedelic use with criminal behavior." The importance of those points becomes clearer when you consider what NSDUH tells us about people who use other illegal drugs, who unlike the psychedelic fans are more likely to commit property and violent crimes. Hendricks and his colleagues found that people who had tried heroin were almost [...]

Florida Woman Introduced a Friend to Her Dealer. Now She Faces Murder Charges.

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 15:00:00 -0400

(image) A Central Florida woman has been charged with first-degree murder in the fentanyl-related overdose death of a friend simply for helping the friend connect with a drug dealer.

Florida's drug war is particularly vicious. Prosecutors there can charge people who provide drugs with murder if their customers die from drug overdoses. Earlier this year, the state added fentanyl and other opioids to the list of drugs that can trigger murder charges (and some new mandatory minimum sentences as well).

But Jamie Nelson, 34, was not the dealer who provided the fentanyl and heroin that killed Tracy Skornika in June. According to police, Skornika gave Nelson $50 to help her to find a heroin connection. Nelson took her to a dealer she apparently knew. Skornika overdosed and was found on her bathroom floor. She was pronounced dead three hours later at a hospital.

There's nothing is this story that even suggests that Nelson wanted her friend dead. The Orlando Sentinel report on the case notes that Nelson cried when she found out Skornika had died.

It's an absurd upending of justice to think someone should be indicted for first-degree murder without intending to kill anybody. But Florida's drug war is so focused on punishment that prosecutors and lawmakers don't even care about intent. Nelson could face the death penalty if she's convicted.

This story needs attention, because these laws are sold as mechanisms to punish sinister drug dealers. But that's obviously not what's happening here, and this isn't an anomaly. A Reason investigation by C.J. Ciaramella and Lauren Krisai showed that Florida's prisons are full of people like Nelson: fellow addicts, not high-level drug dealers. Read what their data show here.

Brickbat: See No Evil

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) United Kingdom Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called for a law that would criminalize reading "terrorist content" online, including "jihadi websites" and "far right propaganda." Those convicted under the law would face up to 15 years in prison.

The CDC, Like the FBI, Dramatically Undercounts Deaths at Hands of Police

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 13:50:00 -0400

The media do a better job at keeping track of who the government kills than the government does. Go figure. By "who the government kills," I specifically mean who the police kill. A new study released this week shows that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which tracks stats on causes of death in the National Vital Statistics System, seriously undercounts how many people in the United States are killed during encounters with police. The report was put together by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who compared the CDC's numbers for 2015 to The Guardian's database of people killed in police encounters in the United States. Not only did the CDC undercount the deaths, but it did so dramatically, catching only half of them. The researchers counted 1,166 fatalities that year. The Guardian's database caught 1,086 of them. The CDC registered only 643. Justin Feldman, lead author of the study, explained to Reuters that the CDC relies on diagnosis codes in state death certificates that indicate "legal intervention" was involved in the death. But many medical examiners and coroners fail to mention police involvement on these documents. This seems to happen most frequently with deaths that don't involve guns (such as a person dying after getting Tasered) and with deaths in less wealthy counties. As just one example, none of the 30 people killed by police in Oklahoma in 2015 were included in the CDC count. The CDC isn't the only agency doing a bad job of tracking these deaths. In fact, the Guardian project—and another by The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer—were devised because the FBI's efforts are so insufficient. The FBI does have a program to track police killings, but participation is voluntary and many law enforcement agencies do not participate. In some cases, entire states don't participate. So the FBI, tasked with tracking national statistics on violence and crime, does not have good numbers. They've got amazing stats on how many police are themselves killed or assaulted every year. But they don't have reliable figures on how many people the police themselves kill. The FBI announced in 2015 that it will work on improving these statistics to make them more reliable, but the bureau lacks the authority to mandate full participation by law enforcement agencies. Civil rights groups would like the FBI to try to tie federal grants to participation in the program. If we don't have the most basic information on how many people the police kill, that makes it all the harder to evaluate the circumstances behind these deaths, the trends they might represent, and whether there are changes that could reduce the risks of someone dying. "As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the U.S.," notes Nancy Krieger, one of the report's authors, in a press release. Check out the report out here at PLOS Medicine.[...]