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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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Critics Question Why #2 Secret Service Official Holds Job After Shakeup

Two weeks after the Secret Service forced out four of its top officials, members of Congress question whether the agency should have ousted one more: its influential second-in-command, the Washington Post reports. Lawmakers from both parties are concerned that by keeping in place Alvin “A.T.” Smith, the Secret Service stopped short of fully reforming upper management following a string of embarrassing security lapses. Smith, a top official for nearly a decade and the deputy director since 2012, has managed day-to-day operations and was a key architect of its budgets and policies.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans to invite Smith and acting director Joseph Clancy to appear at a February hearing focusing on the core reasons behind security breaches involving the White House and the president. Committee members have heard from whistleblowers who complain that Smith approved policy changes they say weakened the agency. “I’m worried that A.T. Smith is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” said committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). “He seems to be in the middle of most of these really bad decisions.”

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More Middle-Age Offenders Enter Prison, Driving Up Health Care Costs

Experts often attribute the older prison population to harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws dating from the 1980s. The conventional wisdom is that enforcement of these laws led to longer sentences and more time served, which drives up the average age of inmates. The Wall Street Journal says new research offers an alternative view: The population of graying prisoners has exploded largely because more offenders are entering or re-entering prison in middle age. The finding could force states to rethink efforts to cut the escalating costs of caring for older inmates.

“People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to,” said Shawn Bushway, a public policy professor at University of Albany. Inmates cost $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate. Prisoners older than 50 cost as much as three times more because they are more likely to have medical conditions that require expensive treatments. A separate study on aging prisoners analyzed data from South Carolina, North Carolina, New York and California, where the proportion of prisoners 50 years or older more than doubled since 2000. Economist Jeremy Luallen and statistician Ryan Kling of Abt Associates said “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”

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Supreme Court Delays Three OK Executions While It Considers Drug Case

The Supreme Court has halted the scheduled executions of three death-row plaintiffs who are challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol, the Christian Science Monitor reports. The high court case, likely to be argued in April, will examine whether Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol for lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Executing a death-row plaintiff before the court hears his case is not unheard of. The Oklahoma case originally featured four death-row plaintiffs, but one was put to death before the Supreme Court agreed to take up the lethal injection case. Specifically at issue in the Supreme Court challenge is whether the first drug administered in the execution process – midazolam – is effective in rendering the condemned prisoner into a coma-like unconsciousness before the other two drugs are administered. Lawyers for inmates have expressed fear that if the first drug is ineffective, their clients will be subject to intense pain when the second and third drugs are administered.

 

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Lynch Disagrees With Obama On Marijuana, Opposes Legalization

During her first day of confirmation hearings for attorney general, nominee Loretta Lynch gave answers that seemed in line with President Obama. But then she was asked about marijuana, and whether she supports legalizing it.  "Senator, I do not," Lynch said. NPR reports that the moment stood in contrast to other exchanges between Lynch and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as she defended Obama's right to take executive action on immigration rules and aligned herself with the president's view on U.S. interrogation programs, saying, "Waterboarding is torture."

When Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) asked Lynch if she agreed with President Obama's assessment that pot is no more dangerous than alcohol, she said, "Well senator, I certainly don't hold that view, and don't agree with that view of marijuana as a substance. I certainly think that the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion – neither of which I am able to share." On DOJ's relationship with states that have legalized marijuana, which is still criminalized under federal law, Lynch said she would focus drug-prohibition enforcement on money laundering and organized crime, the National Law Journal reports. Lynch's confirmation hearings continue today.

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Immigration Hearings For Thousands Delayed Nearly Five Years

The Justice Department has a date reserved for thousands of immigrants awaiting a day in court: the day after Thanksgiving 2019. The Wall Street Journal says officials are sending out notices that many immigrants will have their cases pushed back nearly five years, a fresh sign of the pervasive backlogs and delays in the U.S. immigration court system. The delay makes room for higher-priority cases caused by a surge in unaccompanied minors and families crossing the border with Mexico.

The number of people affected could reach tens of thousands. Those bumped back in the system are nonpriority cases, which means most are living freely and not being held in detention. Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said, "This backlog has existed for years, and Congress just doesn’t make it a priority.” There are 230 immigration judges handling more than 375,000 cases. The average time to resolve a case is nearly 600 days.

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