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Justices Back Sedative In Lethal Injections; Dissent Opposes Executions

The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the use of the controversial sedative midazolam in lethal injection executions, voting 5 to 4. Justice Samuel Alito said for the majority that arguments the drug could not be used effectively as a sedative in executions are speculative. Two dissenting justices said for the first time that they think it's "highly likely" that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, reports the Associated Press. The court's majority in the case from Oklahoma found that the sedative midazolam can be used in executions without violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The drug was used last year in executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma that took longer than usual and raised concerns that it did not perform its intended task of putting inmates into a coma-like sleep.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, "Under the court's new rule, it would not matter whether the state intended to use midazolam, or instead to have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake." Alito responded, saying "the dissent's resort to this outlandish rhetoric reveals the weakness of its legal arguments." In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the time has come for the court to debate whether the death penalty itself is constitutional. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer. Four states have used midazolam in executions: Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma. Also, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Virginia allow for midazolam, but they have not used it in executions.

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St. Louis Chief, Prosecutor Taking More Local Crime Cases To The Feds

Frustrated with a mounting homicide total and a new state gun law, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce are turning to the feds for help, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The U.S. Attorney’s office has issued federal charges in dozens of gun possession cases after an amendment to the Missouri Constitution made it difficult to get state charges against convicted felons caught with guns. Dotson also is taking some homicide cases to U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan because he believes federal judges and juries are tougher on crime and defense attorneys aren’t so willing to take a gamble at trial, even when witness credibility issues are a concern. He said his detectives were looking for ways to take a case federal from the beginning of a homicide investigation.

“If I have a choice, and there is a nexus to a federal crime, I’ll take it to federal courts because I have better outcomes in federal courts,” Dotson said. “There is more consistency in sentencing from the federal courts, and defendants must serve 85 percent of their sentence. I’m dealing with a state court where a guy can shoot at a cop and get (probation).” Callahan said the crime rate in the city and the passage of Amendment 5, a gun rights law put before voters last year by the Missouri Legislature, were compelling him to get involved. “Our role is to not get in the way but help where we can,” he said. “And right now, because of the increasing gun violence coupled with crime, in part created by a state legislature that has a complete disconnect with urban violence, there is a bigger role for us to play right now and we’re there to play it.

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Guards Report More Rikers Violence After End Of Solitary For Teens

The culture at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex makes reforms difficult, says the Marshall Project. “Jail has a smell,” says one correction officer. "Worse than a sewer. The island is its own island that people on the outside could never understand.” Gangs at the jail are especially powerful now. Bloods dominate, but they, like other gangs, have begun to splinter violently into smaller subsets. Some correction officers believe that recent reforms have hamstrung their ability to do their job. They say the end of solitary confinement for 16- to 17-year-olds has resulted in more violence because they’ve lost the biggest consequences for misbehavior.

Both inmates and officers think that a new generation of COs, many of whom have taken a substantial number of college courses, is less street-smart,  less equipped to deal with the brutal realities of the job, and more likely to clash with inmates. City correction commissioner Joseph Ponte says it will take years of recruiting, retraining, rethinking and spending to fulfill Mayor Bill de Blasio's promise to make Rikers a “national model of what is right again.” Says Ponte: "We put in new leadership with a new direction, we’ve seen great reductions in use of force, in every category. We looked at at basic training, staff hiring, at how did we manage staff probationary periods, what was the oversight and how did that work? All of those things have just been dysfunctional for some time."

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Foundation's Formula To Help Judges Decide Who Should Be Released On Bail

After two years of testing, a formula developed for $1.2 million by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to help judges decide which pretrial defendants should be released on bail is being rolled out to 21 more jurisdictions including states like Arizona and New Jersey and cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, the New York Times reports. The algorithm gives defendants two scores, one for their likelihood of committing a crime and one for their risk of failing to appear in court, and flags those with an elevated risk of violence. In most of the U.S. there is little science behind the bail decisions made thousands of times a day.

In some places, bail is based on the charges alone; in others, courts may weigh a host of factors like criminal record, employment status and substance-abuse history. Hidden biases against the poor and minorities can creep into the decision-making process. A growing body of evidence indicates that the bail system keeps many low-risk defendants incarcerated before trial, while those who may pose a higher risk are released because they have the money to make bail. Many law enforcement groups and defense lawyers support the use of scientifically validated risk assessments, but fewer than 10 percent of jurisdictions use them, partly because of cost. The Arnold Foundation eventually plans to make the tool, called the Public Safety Assessment, available to any jurisdiction.

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Activists Film Police Around U.S.; Are Some Going Too Far?

Tension-filled encounters are playing out across the nation as camera-toting residents seek to document examples of police brutality or other misconduct, says the Baltimore Sun. Activists are linking with residents in Baltimore, Charleston S.C., and other cities to create a network that can expose problems with lightning speed through social media. Among those who have signed on is Kevin Moore, who gained nationwide attention capturing the arrest of Freddie Gray on a cellphone video. After Gray's death, Moore created WeCopwatch Baltimore and has accumulated dozens of hours of police footage and begun "Know your Rights" discussions with fellow residents of West Baltimore. Similar groups around the nation go by various names, including Cop Block, Peaceful Streets Project and Communities United Against Police Brutality. They have a common weapon: candid video that can capture police violating regulations.

The power of such video clips is clear, even when they do not originate from cop-watching groups. In North Charleston, S.C., an officer was charged with murder after he was filmed shooting a fleeing suspect in the back. In McKinney, Tx., an officer quit after he was filmed slamming a bikini-wearing teenager to the ground. In Baltimore, at least two officers have been suspended in the past year after surveillance video raised questions about brutality. Policing experts say such cop-watchers can go too far. "I think law enforcement by and large understands and respects the bounds of the First Amendment," said Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director and president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. "The friction develops when those folks step beyond simply being passive observers to encouraging action criticizing police. To me, that is where the line is between observing and interference."

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Police Departments Nationwide Reassessing Aggressive Policing Model

Police departments from Seattle to New York and Dallas to Salt Lake City are rethinking notions of policing that have held sway for 40 years, making major changes to how officers are trained in even the most routine parts of their work, the New York Times reports. Changes departments are considering include revising core training standards and tactics, reassessing when and how to make arrests, and re-evaluating how officers interact with the public during street and traffic stops. At the forefront are de-escalation tactics, the variety of methods officers use to defuse potentially violent encounters, such as talking and behaving calmly and reasonably with sometimes unreasonable people.

The question is whether today’s aggressive policing, based in part on the broken windows theory of cracking down on the most minor offenses, is compatible with a more progressive goal of simultaneously catching criminals and building greater trust within neighborhoods. “I was trained to fight the war on crime, and we were measured by the number of arrests we made and our speed in answering 911 calls,” said Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who is overseeing changes in a consent decree with the Justice Department. “But over time, I realized that policing went well beyond that, and we are really making an effort here to engage with people, not just enforce the law.” The efforts nationwide are largely a response to  fatal police shootings of unarmed African Americans, and to pressure from both the White House and the public for local law enforcement agencies to become more transparent. 

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After Deaths, Arrests, Heavy Spending, Heroin Still Is Winning

Years into the heroin epidemic, after hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests and millions of tax dollars spent, heroin is winning, says the Cincinnati Enquirer. Attempts to slow the spread of the drug across Ohio and Kentucky have mostly failed. Often, the response has been ineffective. Sometimes, it made matters worse. The social safety net wasn't built for the heroin epidemic. The system is unwieldy and unfocused, when agility and precision are needed. It is tied to the old ways of doing things, when new approaches might work better.

"We need to hit this from every angle, with every single resource," says Tom Synan, the Newtown, Oh., police chief who is helping lead a Hamilton County task force on heroin. "That's the only way we're going to solve it." That kind of coordinated attack isn't happening yet. Jails house thousands of addicts, but they lack the resources to provide effective drug treatment. Most courts still insist on zero-tolerance rules that bounce heroin users from the streets to jail and back again. Long-term treatment remains a crapshoot for addicts and their families, who often can't find, or can't afford, quality care. "Our entire approach to this is wrong," says Dr. Mina "Mike" Kalfas, a Kentucky doctor and addiction expert. "Our approach as a society has failed miserably."

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Does Tsarnaev Trial In Boston Spell The End For Venue Changes?

Does the decision to try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombing in Boston spell the end to changes of venue in high-profile cases? The Christian Science Monitor raises that question, noting that the 1997 trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was moved to Denver on the grounds that he wouldn't receive a fair trial in Oklahoma. Lawyers for six Baltimore police officers facing charges related to the death of Freddie Gray in their custody could make a strong case for a change of venue. "Whether that [trial] will be held in a different part of the state or not will be a really interesting issue," says Northeastern University law Prof. Daniel Medwed.

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Feds Could File Hate Crime Charges In Charleston; SC Lacks Authority

Federal officials are investigating the Charleston, S.C., church shooting as a hate crime, and the U.S. Justice Department could weigh in with a federal hate crimes charge. South Carolina prosecutors can't add hate crime charges, because the state is one of five without a hate crime law, NPR reports. Defendant Dylann Roof may face the death penalty, regardless of his motives. Proponents of hate crime laws say the additional punishment is important for criminal justice. "People understand that this is something different," said Brandeis University president Fred Lawrence, who specializes in hate crimes. "If we were to say to the African-American community of Charleston, 'we're just going to treat this like any murder, we don't think the race of the victims is relevant at all,' I think that would be an enormous affront to that community," he said.

It's rare for federal law enforcement to get involved in hate crime cases, because most fall under state law. Most hate crime cases involve vandalism, assault, aggravated assault and murder. The feds get involved if they think the state's penalties don't adequately address the crime. In the 45 states with hate crime laws, they can make a big difference in sentencing. They may call for adding years to a prison term or changing a crime from misdemeanor to felony. The FBI found about 6,000 hate crime incidents reported in 2013. It's likely a vast undercount; the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated nearly 300,000 hate crimes in 2012, based on victim surveys. If the laws are effective, wouldn't the number of incidents be going down each year? Not necessarily. Proponents say a stronger law means more people may be willing to report hate crimes who wouldn't have before.

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TCR at a Glance

Treating Mentally Ill Offenders

June 30, 2015

An Illinois lawsuit claims “deliberate indifference’ to the needs of the state’s 11,000 mentally ill prisoners.

Locked Up and Alone

special report June 29, 2015

Is isolating troubled kids solitary confinement? A California debate draws national attention.