ProPublica explores why gun reform proposals are almost always driven by mass shootings, not the more prevalent problem of urban gun violence. In 2012, 90 people were killed in mass shootings like the ones in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. That same year, nearly 6,000 black men were murdered with guns. “The incidents of Newtown are very tragic,” says Michael McBride, a 37-year-old pastor from Berkeley, Calif. “But any meaningful conversation about addressing gun violence has to include urban gun violence.”
Gun violence in America is largely a story of race and geography. Almost two-thirds of America’s more than 30,000 annual gun deaths are suicides, most of them committed by white men. In 2009, the gun homicide rate was two per 100,000 for white Americans and nearly 15 per 100,000 for black Americans. Among blacks, the risk of gun violence is mostly concentrated among a small number of men. McBride is an advocate for the Ceasefire program, where police team up with community leaders to identify and counsel the young men most at risk of violence. In Boston, Ceasefire has been credited in a sharp declined in youth homicides.
At least 20 investigations across the federal government have been slowed, stymied or closed because of a long-simmering dispute between the Obama administration and its own watchdogs over the shrinking access of inspectors general to confidential records, reports the New York Times. The impasse has hampered investigations into an array of programs and abuse reports — from allegations of sexual assaults in the Peace Corps to the F.B.I.’s terrorism powers, officials said. And it has threatened to roll back more than three decades of policy giving the watchdogs unfettered access to “all records” in their investigations.
“The bottom line is that we’re no longer independent,” said Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general. The restrictions reflect a broader effort by the Obama administration to prevent unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information — at the expense, some watchdogs insist, of government oversight. The new restrictions grew out of a dispute within the Justice Department. After a series of scathing reports by Glenn Fine, then the Justice Department inspector general, on F.B.I. abuses in counterterrorism programs, F.B.I. lawyers began asserting in 2010 that he could no longer have access to certain confidential records because they were legally protected.
As the scope of human trafficking has gained international attention, Los Angeles County prosecutors have been targeting pimps--traditionally viewed as merely equally culpable partners in the prostitution trade--with charges that can carry significantly greater punishment than pandering, reports the Los Angeles Times. In 2014, prosecutors filed human trafficking charges against 81 people — up from 25 in 2013 and 18 in 2012. The office charged 40 people during the first six months of 2015.
The steady uptick began after voters passed Proposition 35 in 2012, stiffening sentences and making the cases easier to prosecute. The shift is part of a larger change among law enforcement officials nationwide, who increasingly view women and children involved in prostitution as victims, not criminals. Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced the creation of a task force to provide relief to victims of human trafficking. He also ordered his deputies to stop arresting children on prostitution charges.
A county task force studying what to do with downtown Miami’s 87-year-old courthouse recommended building a $360 million replacement — but the suggestion came with a dissenting opinion, says the Miami Herald. A draft version of the Miami-Dade Court Capital Infrastructure Task Force’s report declares that the county’s 1928 civil courthouse is no longer able to support the judiciary in a “dignified and technologically current” way. It urged construction of a new facility in downtown Miami with double the courtrooms.
Architect Maria Luisa Castellanos, one of seven task-force members, said she couldn’t go along with the idea of using so much government money on a judicial facility she described as a “want” instead of a “need.” Paying for the courthouse is a particularly challenging topic, since Miami-Dade voters last year rejected a proposed tax increase to spend $390 million on a new one. There was no chosen site for the new facility or plan for a new building, which backers said was desperately needed. County officials said issues were being addressed by ongoing repairs, leaving space as the primary challenge.
Would the reform of drug laws substantially decrease America's prison population? The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would only reduce the state prison population by about 7 percent, leading some to say that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis, reports the Washington Post. But in a new analysis, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations overlook one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time and the number moving into and out of prison.
Rothwell calls this "stock and flow." He points out that while drug offenses only account for 20 percent of the prison population, they make up 31 percent of the total admissions to prison. The reason for the difference? Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than murderers or other violent criminals. So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration. Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won't end mass incarceration. "But it could help a great deal," he writes.
Kentucky's public advocate has been pushing for reforms and more resources to ease the burden on the state's overworked public defenders for years — but this time he may have some unlikely allies, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. “There’s a growing group of people across the political spectrum who want something different,” said Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan. He is pushing what he calls 10 common sense reforms amid plans by both conservative and liberals to discuss criminal justice issues in the legislative session that begins in January.
Almost every Kentucky public defender carries a caseload higher than the maximum national standard, putting the quality of representation at risk. And with starting salaries that are among the lowest in the region — $38,770 a year, compared to $47,000 in Indiana — the department has had a tough time recruiting and retaining attorneys. Among other things, Monahan is urging policymakers to reclassify minor misdemeanors as violations; create a “gross misdemeanor” classification for low-level felons; promote employment and reducing recidivism by allowing expungement of Class D felonies; reduce jail time by creating a “clear and convincing” standard for the pretrial release decision, and use the idea of presumed parole for eligible low-risk offenders.
Tough-on-crime rhetoric is out of fashion, but the Paris terrorist attacks and crime spikes in some U.S. cities have prompted presidential candidates too scramble to differentiate themselves on issues of law and order, reports the Associated Press. "You don't have everyone saying they're tough on crime," said Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice. "Instead, you have people offering different policy solutions." Criminal justice has bubbled up on the campaign agency, particularly among Democrats. Among Republicans, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been out front in seeking to "break the cycle of incarceration for non-violent ex-offenders."
Republican Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and a former federal prosecutor, has preached treatment rather than prison for drug addicts. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz criticizes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. But last month he voted against legislation that would make nonviolent drug offenders eligible for shorter prison sentences, saying he was concerned it could also benefit violent felons. And while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has endorsed a review of the criminal code and decried "selective enforcement" of the law, he has written that drug laws had helped restore law and order to America's cities and that shorter drug-crime sentences should be approached with caution.
The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions, reports the Los Angeles Times. For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate "combat air patrols," daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence. Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day, generally from ground stations at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. The Air Force plans to expand that to 10 a day by 2019.
The contracts have generated controversy within the military. Critics, including some military lawyers, contend that civilians are now part of what the Air Force calls the "kill chain," a process that starts with surveillance and ends with a missile launch. That could violate laws barring civilians from taking part in armed conflict. The use of contractors reflects in part the Pentagon's growing problem in recruiting, training and retaining military drone pilots for the intensifying air war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. It is several hundred short of its goal of 1,281 pilots.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has joined the growing opposition to a fast-tracked legislative bill that would hide the identity of police officers involved in shootings in Pennsylvania, reports CBS. House Bill 1538, supported by police unions, passed the house with bipartisan support last week. If the bill becomes law, it would keep private the identity of officers involved in shootings during any investigation of the incident. Once the investigation is complete, officers would be named if charged with a crime, as long as there is no threat against the cop.
“I’m against it," Ramsey said. "I think it’s a huge mistake.” Earlier this year, Ramsey implemented a directive in Philadelphia that allows police officer names to be released within 72 hours of a police-involved shooting. The Fraternal Order of Police claims the policy endangers the lives of officers and their families. Ramsey says the fear surrounding officer safety is overblown and that transparency is the best policy.
Montana retained its dubious title from last year as the state with the worst drivers, reports USA Today. The ranking is based on scores from fatal-crash statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Montana has the potentially deadly combination of high speed limits and severe winter weather that could really be driving up fatality rates," said Tyler Spraul, who directed the study for CarInsuranceComparison.com. New Mexico and South Carolina tied for second place. Others in the top 10 were Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, Hawaii, North Dakota, Delaware and Mississippi.
Categories included in the rankings included fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled; the percentage of fatal crashes involving failure to obey traffic laws such as signals, wearing seat-belts or driving with an invalid license; drunken driving; speeding; and careless driving for fatal collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists. The number of fatalities on American roads rose 8 percent during the first six months of 2015 compared to the same period a year earlier.