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Obama Policing Task Force Meeting Today; Live Webcast Available

The Obama administration's Task Force on 21st Century Policing is meeting today in Cincinnati. The public may view a live webcast of the proceedings here. Among topics on the agenda are police use of force and investigations of such incidents, mass demonstrations, law enforcement culture and diversity, and civilian oversight of police.

Witnesses include Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, criminologist Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, Kathy Harrell of the Fraternal Order of Police, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Police Chief Rodney Monroe.

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Unlikely Criminal Justice Reform Bedfellows Make Their Pitches In D.C.

Criminal justice reform may be the only issue in Washington, D.C., now that could bring together the Koch brothers’ top lawyer, an environmental activist, the former head of the National Rifle Association and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), says Yahoo News. In a city best known for dysfunction and discord, the issue has stood out as a rare area of common ground between some Democrats and Republicans. At a panel on reforming the criminal justice system hosted by the Constitution Project advocacy group, the bipartisan array of speakers seemed nonplussed by the harmony across an otherwise gaping political divide. 

Van Jones, former Obama administration official and liberal commentator, was seated next to Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel and the face of the conservative mega-donors’ efforts to lower incarceration rates. Jones said he hoped politicians would seize on this moment to reform the U.S. penal system so that the U.S. no longer imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation. Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Franken spoke on a bill they’re reintroducing to provide more mental health services to prisoners and to fund special mental health courts that emphasize treatment over doing time. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wi.) said he believes lawmakers should review every federal regulation or law that carries prison time to decide if it’s merited.

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"Significant Moment" In CA Prisons: Inmate Count Down To 113,000

California’s prison system has hit a milestone, with new figures showing that the inmate population inside the state’s 34 adult prisons has fallen below a court-ordered cap more than a year ahead of schedule, the Sacramento Bee reports. After legal battles that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state’s prison population has been decreasing steadily. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation put the latest inmate numbers at 113,463, below the cap of 137.5 percent of capacity set by a panel of federal judges in 2009. The prison system’s design capacity is 82,707 inmates, and the population as of midnight last night was 137.2 percent of capacity.

Corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said. “We’re clearly making progress, but much work remains.” One of the lead inmate attorneys in the effort to force reductions in the prison population called the development a “significant moment.” California’s prisons steadily filled in the 1990s as tough-on-crime measures such as the “three-strikes” law won public support. In November 2006, the prison population hit 162,804. Under the latest court orders, California has until Feb. 28, 2016, to cut its inmate population to the 137.5 percent benchmark



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DOJ Auditors Question Federal Drug Agents' "Cold Consent" Stops

The Drug Enforcement Administration needs to do a better job with the potentially sensitive "cold consent" stops made at mass transit locations, the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) warns in a new report, says McClatchy Newspapers. Noting the potential for “civil rights concerns,” including racial profiling, OIG called for more data and better training. One problem, auditors say, is that DEA agents haven’t been collecting demographic information on the people they stop. “Without this information the DEA cannot assess whether they are conducted in an unbiased manner,” OIG noted.

Prompted by complaints by two African-American women resulting from DEA-initiated encounters at an airport, the auditors examined the practice of cold consent encounters. These can occur when an agent approaches an individual based on no particular behavior, or based on the officer’s perception that the person shows characteristics indicative of drug trafficking. The officer asks for consent to speak with the individual and, if the agent thinks it warranted, seeks consent to search their belongings. OIG said DEA supervisors and managers “questioned the effectiveness of these encounters.”



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NYPD Ramps Up Neighborhood Policing, Creates New Counterterror Unit

The New York Police Department will create a unit of 350 specially trained officers dedicated to counterterrorism efforts, says Commissioner William Bratton, the Wall Street Journal reports. Bratton also promised to ramp up neighborhood policing by requiring that officers from the city’s 77 precincts spend more time in communities. The plan would result in a reduction in officers assigned to specialty roles and increase the number of patrol officers.

The move comes as the commissioner, in his second year under Mayor Bill de Blasio, tries to improve relations between officers and some communities after high-profile incidents, including the death of Eric Garner in July and the killing of two officers in Brooklyn in December. Bratton will meet with de Blasio to determine if the department can hire more officers. A senior police department official said, “It’s clear more officers are needed….” The counterterrorism unit, the Strategic Response Group, is expected to begin operating within the next six months.

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"Parallel Welfare State"--How Court Fines, Fees Hurt Defendants' Families

A new report on the growth of court fines and fees charged to often-impoverished offenders is focusing on another group that pays: their families, NPR reports. Titled "When All Else Fails, Fining the Family," the study finds that most impoverished people who go through the criminal justice system get cash from family and friends to help pay their court-ordered fines, even though those family and friends are often poor, too. The report was published by the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York-based advocacy group that promotes alternatives to incarceration.

The study says "the incarcerated individual's friends and family ... become, in effect, a parallel welfare state." The report was based on interviews with 39 ex-prisoners. Last year, NPR reported on how cash-strapped courts, states and municipalities help fund themselves by charging a growing number of user fees to defendants and inmates, even for services like a public defender. For an individual, those costs typically add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

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NYC Makes Good On Pledge To Lower Number Of Marijuana Arrests

New York City’s pledge to stop making so many marijuana arrests is playing out on the streets, where arrests and summonses for small-time pot possession have fallen sharply, the Associated Press reports. After a mid-November turn toward violations and summonses instead of misdemeanor arrests for carrying modest amounts of pot, such arrests plunged by 75 percent in December compared to the year before, from about 1,820 to 460, according to state Division of Criminal Justice Services statistics. The November numbers fell 42 percent, from 2,200 to 1,280.

Summonses have fallen by about 10 percent since the policy change, to 1,180, compared to the same period a year ago, New York Police Department figures show. “Since the inception of our policy in 2014, marijuana enforcement activity is trending down in all categories” for the bottom-rung marijuana charge, said Deputy Chief Kim Royster. Critics who decried the once-spiking arrests see the decline as promising. They say it’s too early to draw lasting conclusions, especially since low-level arrests and summonses of all kinds plummeted for a few weeks after the deadly shootings of two officers Dec. 20. “Clearly, progress is being made,” but it needs to continue and deepen, said Gabriel Sayegh, the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York state director.

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Republicans Use Lynch Hearings To Have Witnesses Assail Holder

Loretta Lynch wasn't at the second day of her confirmation hearings yesterday, either physically or in the testimony of many of the witnesses, who criticized the Obama administration at large and the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, reports the National Law Journal. She was just as missing from the testimony of many of the committee witnesses who addressed her nomination, much to the dismay of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Democratic members.

All five witnesses invited by Republican committee members criticized the Obama administration and Holder's leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice. Former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson, did not mention Lynch in her opening statement, which focused on her and other journalists’ fraught relationship with the Justice Department. Attkisson is suing the department over allegations government officials hacked her computer. David Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County, said Holder’s “incendiary rhetoric” after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., about his own experiences with racial profiling, “created a pathway for the false narrative that then became the rallying cry for cop haters across America.”

 

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TCR at a Glance

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