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NY Times Urges Congressional Action On Justice Study Panel

Politicians who do not agree on much else agree that the nation’s broken criminal justice system needs to be fixed, says the New York Times. The Times notes in an editorial that a bipartisan group of House members has introduced a bill that would establish a blue-ribbon commission to study the issues and propose solutions. The Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed a version of the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.)

The U.S.  has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. There are a wide array of approaches, including drug treatment and prisoner re-entry projects, that could bring these numbers down, save taxpayers’ dollars, and give prisoners a real chance to get their lives back on track, the Times says. The newspaper says that some resources being wasted on incarcerating minor law-breakers should be redirected to more serious threats to public safety, including violent gangs. Under the proposed federal legislation, a commission of respected criminal justice experts would examine these problems and come up with an action blueprint. The Times concludes that, "Given the current fiscal pressures and rare bipartisan agreement, there is a real chance to address the criminal justice system’s very serious problems."

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Bratton Urges Latin American Policing, Justice System Reforms

Latin American nations can learn important lessons from U.S. policing successes even though  Latin America faces "substantially more challenging crime problems than the U.S. faced even at its crime peak in the early 1990s," former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton writes with Wllliam Andrews in Americas Quarterly. Bratton and Andrews cite Latin America's "exponential growth of cities; the consequent proliferation of densely populated barrios and favelas with extremely challenging patrol environments; communities dominated by criminal gangs that violently resist police presence and police patrol; public distrust of police because of both real and perceived police corruption and brutality; a growing local narcotics trade, as well as a significant increase in the addict population."

Bratton and Andrews urge establishing "manageable enforcement units." In many Latin American cities, police are organized in districts that may include populations of 300,000 or more. "This is simply too large a community to be manageable," Bratton and Andrews argue. Among other reforms they argue for are empowering middle managers who run local enforcement units and better data-gathering and analysis. The authors say that, "something must be done to speed the glacial pace of criminal prosecutions, which can run into years in many Latin American countries."

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Teachers, Social Workers, Churches Key In Gang Fight: Holder

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Latin America Organized Crime Epidemic Enters Some U.S. Cities

The organized-crime epidemic in Latin America, spawned by a U.S. drug policy more than four decades in the making, seems to be leeching into U.S. cities, says the Wall Street Journal. Powerful underworld networks supplying gringo drug users are becoming increasingly bold about expanding their businesses. In 2008, U.S. officials said Mexican drug cartels were serving their customers in 195 American cities.

The violence is only a small fraction of what Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia live with everyday, but it is notable. Kidnapping rates in Phoenix are through the roof and some spectacular murders targeting law enforcement have also grabbed headlines. The full Journal article is available only to paid subscribers.

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Phoenix Sets $10 Million Plan To Improve Jail Inmate Health Care

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Crime Emerging As Issue--Again--In Maryland Governor's Race

Crime in Maryland has fallen to its lowest levels since at least 1975, says Gov. Martin O'Malley, who credited his administration's close monitoring of violent offenders on probation and other initiatives for strides recorded in an election year, reports the Baltimore Sun. Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, O'Malley's likely challenger in November, countered that Maryland remains one of the most dangerous states. Credit for crime reduction, Ehrlich said, should go to police officers, not politicians.

The exchange illustrated that public safety could become a prominent issue in this year's gubernatorial campaign, even as voters seem primarily focused on the economy. In 2006, Ehrlich, a Republican incumbent, repeatedly attacked Democrat O'Malley for high crime in Baltimore, accusing the then-mayor of not doing enough to make the city safer. Rodney Bartlett, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, said "everyone should be proud of the crime decreases." He said he wished O'Malley would give officers more public praise for the work they do. "Initiatives are great. Initiatives give us the tools," Bartlett said. "But the work starts at home. The work is done on the backs of police officers." Baltimore, which leads the state — and sometimes the nation — in violent crime, saw 238 murders in 2009, four more than in 2008. Overall, total crime in the city dropped 4.6 percent during that period.

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Advocates Propose Standards On Teen Detention Sex Cases

The Justice Department should not require states to use medical staff members in detention  facilities to question juveniles about abusive sexual behavior the youths might have engaged in, and states should limit punishment of juveniles who have consensual sex in those facilities. Youth Today reports that those are among recommendations from major youth advocacy organizations on proposed Standards for the Prevention, Detection, Response and Monitoring of Sexual Abuse from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC).

The changes supported by the Campaign for Youth Justice, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, Children’s Defense Fund, First Focus, Equity Project, Juvenile Law Center, and the Youth Law Center, were presented to Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday, the last day of the comment period. Holder is due to publish a final rule by June, and funding was announced in April for a resource center that would help correctional agencies comply with the new standards. A state that chooses not to adopt the standards, or does not comply with them after adopting them, could lose up to 5 percent of any federal grant for its prisons. The proposed standards require “at a minimum,” that medical staff should “attempt to ascertain information about prior sexual victimization or abusiveness, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

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Kagan, Criminal Justice 'Novice," Gets Obama Nod For Supreme Court

President Obama today is nominating U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. Ohio State University law Prof. Doug Berman notes that she seems to have "no tangible record whatsoever on any of the criminal justice issues that regularly come to the Supreme Court." Noting that the newest two justices were former prosecutors, Berman says it will be interesting to see what "adding a criminal justice 'novice' to the court could mean for its jurisprudence."

Kagan's record contrasts markedly with that of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for example, who was a prosecutor in New York City and a federal appeals court judge before joining the high court. On the other hand, Kagan, a former dean of Harvard Law School, has far more academic experience than any other sitting justice. The early line from Washington lawyer Tom Goldstein of ScotusBlog is that Kagan may end up with 65 Senate votes for confirmation, three fewer than Sotomayor.

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Newspaper Probe Finds Inmate Abuse In California Behavior Units

More than 1,500 California inmates have passed through behavior modification units in six state prisons. A Sacramento Bee investigation into the units uncovered evidence of racism and cruelty at one  facility. Inmates described hours-long strip-searches in a snow-covered exercise yard. They said correctional officers tried to provoke attacks between inmates, spread human excrement on cell doors, and roughed up those who peacefully resisted mistreatment. Many of their claims were backed by legal and administrative filings, and signed affidavits, which together depicted an environment of brutality, corruption, and fear.

Behavior units at other prisons were marked by extreme isolation and deprivation – long periods in a cell without education, social contact, TV or radio, according to inmate complaints and recent visits by the Bee.  One behavior-unit inmate won a lawsuit last year to get regular access to the prison yard after five months without exercise, sunlight, or fresh air. Prison officials have known about many of these claims since at least 2008, when corrections department social scientists were sent to one unit to assess the reported allegations of abuse – including denial of medical care, racial slurs, gratuitous violence, and destruction of protest appeals. The Bee investigation found a broad effort by corrections officials to hide the concerns of prisoners and of the department's own experts. Their final report downplayed the abuses. Scott Kernan, corrections undersecretary for operations, was quick to dismiss the claims as typical of prisoner gripes, adding: "I don't see drastic abuses."

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VA Student Killing: Can Universities Do More On Intimate Violence?

Every new University of Virginia student attends an orientation discussing sexual consent and respect. October brings events pegged to Domestic Violence Awareness Month; In April, a weeklong Take Back the Night program has students sharing harrowing stories of abuse. The inadequacy of those anti-violence strategies materialized in graphic detail last week  with the discovery of Yeardley Love, 22, dead in her off-campus apartment, allegedly murdered by an ex-boyfriend, reports the Baltimore Sun.

Nicole Eramo, assistant dean of students said, "We are going to be looking at how can we make it easier for students to come forward if they have suspicions or concerns about a friend's relationship, or their own relationship." The case has left school officials wondering what else they can do to protect their students. The most critical element in combating relationship violence will always be a willingness by students to speak out rather than remain silent — out of fear, complacency, or shame. "The problem is you can have 10,000 policies around it, but if nobody talks about [violence], they're not going to work because nobody is going to know," said Claire Kaplan of the university's Women's Center. Intimate partner conflict is the most common cause of assaults on U.S. campuses, said a report last month by the U.S. Secret Service, Department of Education, and FBI.

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TCR at a Glance

How Teens' Outlook on Life Impacts Crime

new & notable April 21, 2014

Youth who believe they'll live a long time are more likely to take seriously the consequences of committing crime, according to a new stu...

Smack Madness

April 16, 2014

Have the media and policymakers overblown the latest heroin “epidemic?”