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How the Justice System Can Transform NYC's ‘Murder Capital”

By Greg Berman

It has been a head-spinning couple of years for those of us who work in criminal justice in New York City.

Not long ago, if you asked the question “who is responsible?” in criminal justice circles, most people would think you were asking about who deserves the lion’s share of credit for the “New York miracle” that reduced the number of murders from a high of more than 2,200 in 1990 to less than 335 in 2013.

Of course, this is no longer the dominant story about criminal justice in this city.

Today, asking the question “who is responsible?” at a criminal justice conference would summon angry finger-pointing rather than warm pats on the back.

The past two years have been dominated by names like Kalief Browder and Eric Garner—along with growing concern about Rikers Island, the sprawling and problem-ridden jail complex, and about some of the tactics employed by the New York Police Department. Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, is in many ways the fulcrum between these two competing New York City narratives—one of triumph and one of despair.

DNAinfo recently called Brownsville the “murder capital” of New York. The neighborhood ranked dead last (out of 69 communities) for per capita homicide rate. In a 2010 survey of 800 local residents conducted by my agency, 80 percent of respondents identified guns, gangs, drugs, and assaults as the top community problems.

So crime remains one of the defining features of Brownsville.

Another defining feature, unsurprisingly, is the prevalence of incarceration.

According to the Justice Mapping Center, which specializes in using online maps to communicate justice challenges, the state of New York spends $40 million a year incarcerating people just from Brownsville. And these numbers don’t include the Brownsville residents who are held at Rikers Island each year.

The criminal justice system is not an abstraction in Brownsville: It is a daily fact of life.  Thousands of local residents are under probation or parole supervision. And police are a visible presence.

It is safe to say that familiarity has not led to fondness. The justice system enjoys depressingly low levels of community support in Brownsville. To give just one example, the community survey conducted by my agency found that only 16 percent of local residents characterized their relationship with police as positive.

How might things be turned around in Brownsville? What might we do differently in an effort to enhance public safety, to reduce the use of incarceration, and to improve public perceptions of justice?

We know that safety cannot be produced by the justice system alone. 

After all, our safest neighborhoods, whether rich or poor, don’t operate like police states, with officers lurking on every corner. As Jane Jacobs articulated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a crucial element of neighborhood safety is the availability of responsible “eyes on the street” and the willingness of neighbors to enforce local social norms and address conditions of disorder.

As currently constructed, the criminal justice system does precious little to encourage social cohesion in high-crime neighborhoods. Indeed, as we have seen in Brownsville, a great deal of conventional practice (over-aggressive enforcement and the misuse of incarceration in particular) tends to undermine the very elements that are crucial to healthy neighborhoods.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that in recent years a new set of reforms have emerged with  the potential to reduce offending, reengineer the relationship between the justice system and the public, and help activate a neighborhood’s capacity to help produce safety for itself.

One such reform is the community justice center model that we are attempting to implement in Brownsville.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center will be an official branch of the New York State Court System, handling minor offenses from the local precinct. Rather than relying on short-term jail as a response to crimes like shoplifting, vandalism and minor drug possession, the Justice Center judge will have access to an expansive menu of alternatives, including drug treatment, job training, and counseling.

The goal will be to change court outcomes for thousands of Brownsville residents each year.

Beyond a problem-solving courtroom, the Justice Center will also be home to an array of youth development and crime prevention programs designed to serve everyone in the community, regardless of whether they have a court case. These include a teen-led youth court offering leadership training to local young people, an anti-violence program that engages local residents in spreading a message of peace, and the Belmont Revitalization Project, which seeks to beautify and redesign an area that has been a magnet for crime.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center has been endorsed by the Brooklyn District Attorney, the Chief Judge of New York, the Commissioner of the New York Police Department, and the Mayor of New York City, among others.

One reason these officials have signed on to the idea of community justice in Brownsville is that they have seen it work before in Red Hook—another Brooklyn neighborhood that has endured similar challenges. According to independent evaluators, the Red Hook Community Justice Center has succeeded in reducing both recidivism and the use of jail while changing public attitudes toward the justice system.

We are still a couple of years away from fully realizing the vision of a community justice center for Brownsville. The project has to go through the city’s land-use review process before construction work can begin on a state-of-the-art courthouse.

But with any luck, Brownsville will soon be a living example of a new kind of New York miracle—one that not only reduces crime and incarceration, but engages the community and bolsters the legitimacy of justice in a place where it has been badly tarnished for generations.

Greg Berman is the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City and the author of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform. He welcomes comments from readers.

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The Passion of “Marty” Stroud

By James M. Doyle

Glenn Ford was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, and he spent 30 years in barbaric conditions on Louisiana’s Death Row. He was housed in a 5 by 7-foot cell, where summer temperatures regularly reached 104 degrees.

When Ford was exonerated last year he was released from Angola Penitentiary with a $20 gift card. He had chicken (it came with some fries and with tea), and then he was down to $4.

Only weeks later, Ford was told that he had Stage IV cancer. Fellow exoneree John Thompson, who runs the Resurrection After Exoneration community that cared for Ford at the end, says it was: “Like, 'Oh, you thought you was off death row, but you're not. You're still here.'"

Ford died, destitute, within fourteen months.

While Ford was still alive,  the trial prosecutor in his case, A.M. “Marty” Stroud, III, learned that the state of Louisiana was fighting to deny Ford any further compensation, and he wrote a remarkable letter to the Shreveport Times, urging the state to pay Ford something to recognize the injustice that had been done.

In that letter Stroud laid out his own role in the destruction of Ford’s life.

Ford had been assigned novice defense lawyers who had never tried a criminal case, and Stroud had exploited that advantage ruthlessly.

He had not followed up on stories that other men were responsible for the killing; he had not disclosed that information to the defenders so that they could follow up.

He used his peremptory challenges to have all African-Americans thrown off the jury, so that Ford’s jury was ultimately all-white.

He presented forensic “science” testimony that was without any scientific (or much rational) basis, and the bewildered defenders could not cope with it.

By his account, at the time of the Ford trial Stroud was “[A]rrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not interested in justice; I was interested in winning.”

He has repeated this indictment of his younger self at length at a symposium presented by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and then, most recently, on 60 Minutes.

The public response to Stroud’s penance has been close to viral.

This probably owes something to the same morbid fascination that would draw a crowd to any whipping in the public square—particularly when the penitent is whipping himself.

And the size of the audience also owes something to the sheer rarity of Stroud’s declaration. Trial prosecutors seldom discuss their roles in wrongful convictions after exonerations, and when they do it is usually to express regrets, not to confess. “I did my best, and my best wasn’t good enough,” is the more traditional statement, when there is any prosecutor’s statement at all.

The reaction of Stroud’s audience has been complex.

Some readers and viewers feel only admiration for a harrowed man who was voluntarily doing a painful and honorable thing.

Maybe, like the title character of Conrad’s Lord Jim, who abandoned helpless pilgrims on what he believed was a sinking ship, Stroud had fleetingly violated his own too-stringent moral code, but would spend the balance of his life expiating the fault.

Others felt that Stroud’s very public penance reflected the narcissism that got Stroud into trouble in the first place. For this group, the histrionic violence of Stroud’s remorse is designed to persuade us (and perhaps Stroud himself) that he is not a bad man, but rather a very good man who had once (long, long, ago) done a bad thing, and is acutely aware of it.

But everyone, no matter how they felt about Stroud, drew the same simple, seductive—and mistaken—lesson from the Glenn Ford story: Namely, if we want a safer criminal justice system all we need is better people.

Good luck with that.

Safety experts in industry, aviation and medicine would argue that the challenge we face is not to protect a presumptively safe system from amoral or incompetent people. The challenge is to build resilience into a vulnerable system staffed by ordinary fallible human beings.

Notwithstanding Stroud’s efforts to assume sole responsibility for the Ford wrongful conviction, he did not do it alone.

Stroud may have been “the engineer on the train of injustice” as he told 60 Minutes, but someone put him in that seat, someone laid the tracks, someone stoked the coal, and someone—actually, everyone in the system—failed to put up the red signal that meant “Stop!”

The Ford death sentence required, besides Stroud, dubious forensics, a judiciary tolerant  of race-based jury challenges, ineffectual defenders (and the creators of the primitive appointed counsel system that assigned them), and a see-no-evil tradition of appellate review.

Ford’s conviction was an “organizational accident,” in which many individual errors—no one of them enough to cause the tragedy independently—combined with each other and with latent system weaknesses. Everyone has something to account for, and “everyone” includes the Louisiana legislature and the Supreme Court.

Safety experts like Sidney Dekker would argue that the right way to respond to Stroud is to treat him as “the Second Victim.”

That term, Second Victim, does not refer to collaterally damaged family members of the exoneree or his community, but to professionals who have been traumatized by their role in a tragic outcome, such as the nurse who, as the proximate operator in a broken health care system, administered the  fatal overdose of medication.

Calling Stroud a “victim” rankles. After all, much of his victimization is self-inflicted, and compared to the horrors visited on Ford, Stroud’s sufferings seem puny.

Still, the Second Victim concept is an important one.

Consider, for example, Jennifer Thompson, a rape victim who discovered that her honest eyewitness mistake sent an innocent man, Ronald Cotton, to prison for more than a decade.

Or, within the Ford case itself, imagine being one of the overwhelmed novice defenders and discovering that the innocent client in your care was wrongly sentenced to death  and consigned to a hell hole for 30 years.

One force behind the Second Victim approach is the humane impulse to help the traumatized sharp-end witnesses or operators who, often, have been set up to fail by the system around them: To comfort people like Jennifer Thompson, or the heart-broken nurse.

But there is another aspect of the Second Victim approach that applies even to problematic figures like Stroud.

Of course Stroud zigged when he should have zagged. He has told us that himself.

But the Second Victim approach argues for including Stroud in the effort to understand why he made that choice. 

The safety experts believe that the disastrous decisions of frontline operators like Stroud may be wrong—even  immoral—but they are still always locally rational: They solve (or promise to solve) an immediate local problem with no locally visible negative impacts. (At least, in Ford’s case, for 30 years.)

If the system wants to be safer, the system needs Stroud to help explain what made his choices seem to be good ideas to him at the time.

In repairing the system, the concern is not with evaluating people; it is with analyzing events.

After Stroud is gone, the conditions driving his choices will remain, and they could persuade the next prosecutor that the same choices are “locally rational.” Finding and modifying those aspects of the environment are the means to safety.

Whether Stroud himself would welcome Second Victim treatment is another question. In many ways Second Victim participation is more demanding than pre-emptively saying the worst that can be said about yourself and leaving it at that.

Even so, while the Second Victim approach may be more demanding than simply fixing blame, or blaming oneself as loudly as possible, the difficult work of performing a new role in the community’s effort to avoid a repeat of the tragedy can be a better route toward healing than shaming and banishment, for both the individual practitioner who strayed and for the overall criminal justice system.

That, at least seems to be the argument of the practitioners and researchers who called for developing a practice of non-blaming, all-stakeholders review of criminal justice disasters in the National Institute of Justice’s Special Report Mending Justice: Sentinel Events.

You can see the same motivation in the launch, by Jennifer Thompson, the rape victim who became the Second Victim in a wrongful conviction, of the restorative justice project, Healing Justice, that focuses on exonerees and their connections with the shattered crime victims and their survivors who were implicated in their wrongful convictions.

One thing we can do to restore justice is to work to understand where the last injustice came from—so that we can prevent the next one.

As Sidney Dekker puts it: “The past cannot be undone. What can be undone, or changed, is the future.”

James Doyle, a Boston defense lawyer and author, was a 2011-2014 Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Justice. The opinions expressed here as his own. He welcomes comment from readers.

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A Pivotal Season For Justice, Or Just More Talk?

By Ted Gest

Will this Fall prove to be a pivotal one for criminal justice in the United States, or just another flurry of talk with little decisive action?

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced its most significant bill in years on federal crime, one that could roll back many categories of mandatory sentences that have helped pack prisons and strain the Justice Department's budget.

A few hours later, President Barack Obama welcomed to the White House a new group of police chiefs and prosecutors who have vowed to support  steps that would reduce mass incarceration. Next week, as part of a national tour on justice issues, the President will address the largest law enforcement organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

His speech promises to be far different from a presidential address exactly 21 years ago this month to the same group. At that time, President Bill Clinton sought the police chiefs' support for a massive federal crime bill that would bring more police officers, prison cells, "three strikes and you're out" penalties, and capital punishment.

Now, crime rates are much lower, violence isn't as big a political issue as it was in the early 1990s, Washington has less money to spend, and Clinton has expressed regret for parts of the law he championed.

Based on what Obama said yesterday and in his weekly address last weekend, the first chief executive to visit federal prisoners will ask the police chiefs for a more balanced approach that pays as much attention to the lives of those who end up behind bars as the nation has to the process of locking them up.

He'll likely get a good reception when he meets the chiefs in his home town of Chicago, but how far will they really go to support his ideas?

The city's Police Commissioner, Garry McCarthy, will enthusiastically back Obama. McCarthy is co-chair of the new Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration. "Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people," McCarthy said this week.

On Wednesday, he declared that the new movement among law enforcers doesn't spell the end of "broken windows" policing, which calls for officers to address many minor offenses, but rather to concentrate on "locking up the right people for the right reasons."

Yet the IACP, although it sent a representative to take part in the new organization's initial meetings, has yet to endorse its principles, a spokesperson told The Crime Report.

Prosecutors, many of them elected on get-tough-on-crime platforms, have been blamed for many of the policies that have led to mass incarceration. Their main organization, the National District Attorneys Association, also took part in Law Enforcement Leaders' meetings this week but has not formally backed the new organization either.

Many district attorneys apparently aren't comfortable calling for the end of mandatory minimum sentences, believing they are appropriate for many "career criminals."

One of the new organization's main principles is that police and prosecutors "should divert people with mental health and drug addiction issues away from arrest, prosecution and imprisonment and instead into proper treatment."

It sounds good but how should the principle be applied in specific cases?

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton was supposed to be a headliner at this week's criminal justice events in Washington, D.C., surrounding the new organization.

He couldn't make it because one of his officers was killed this week, allegedly by a man with a long rap sheet. Bratton and his boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, denounced a judge for having released the suspect to one of the diversion programs that the new Law Enforcement Leaders group favors.

That is one of the big challenges that faces criminal justice reformers now. Violent crime totals in many big cities are rising, not to the levels that faced Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but enough to give some pause about how far current proposals to change the system should go.

This week, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the federal sentencing bill, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute in New York City said that, "With pedestrian stops, criminal summons, and arrests falling precipitously in urban areas, criminals are becoming emboldened.  While I do not think that the current crime increase is a result of previous changes in federal sentencing policy, it behooves the government to tread cautiously in making further changes."

Her views may have more resonance in the more conservative House of Representatives. There, departing speaker John Boehner favored some kind of justice reform, but it's not clear in the current turmoil over his successor where the crime issue will end up.

Advocates contend that just the fact that issues like "overcriminalization" and long prison sentences are being talked about seriously at high levels of government is promising.

And it's indisputable that many states have adjusted their punishment systems and improved their prisons, whether motivated by economic issues, lawsuits, or research showing what works in preventing crime.

How legislative bodies nationwide, as well as police chiefs, prosecutors and other key actors in the justice system, act in the coming election year may tell the story of whether the U.S. will make significant changes in criminal justice or will suffice with a few token "reforms."

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes your comments.

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‘Driving While Black:’ Anatomy of a Police Stop

By Marlon Peterson

Last month, I spoke at a panel on Urban Policing at St. Francis College in New York about the historical underpinnings of the animus of Back and Brown people toward police. I drew the linear connection between the Harlem Riots of 1943; Watts 1965; Los Angeles, 1992; Ferguson 2014; and Baltimore 2015.

I mentioned that although I work to reduce community gun violence and police violence—and often consult with elected officials about how to engage the community in various endeavors—I am still aware that my Black body is under threat from  violent  policing.

Two days later, my words came back to haunt me. On October 1, while driving a rented white 2016 Hyundai Sonata just two blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn, NY, I was pulled over by a police car.  It was around 10pm. Both officers exited their vehicles. One came to my driver’s window, and the other walked to the rear passenger side window—even though there was no one else in the car but me.

I felt surrounded. The officer at the driver’s window directed me to lower my window and put the car in park, which I immediately did. In a deceptively cordial tone, he began his inquisition.

The first question the officer asked me was:

“Are you on probation or parole?” to which I answered, “neither.”

After I handed him my license and rental agreement, he went back to the car to radio the information to headquarters. Then he returned with a second question.

“Did you kill someone?” to which I answered, “no.”

Third question:

“Did you stab or shoot them?” to which I answered, “neither.”

Fourth question:

“So why were you convicted of assault in the first  degree? Why were you charged with attempted murder?”

My answer: “That was 16 years ago.”

The cop devalued my time in a disrespectful, intrusive and discriminating manner. And at this point, he still had not told me why he stopped me.

But I knew why.

My hoodie, black baseball cap and Black skin.

The subsequent questions about my criminal past were irrelevant to the stop. Would he have treated any of my White neighbors with the same disrespect? Would a question about whether I was on probation or parole be part of a “routine traffic stop” for them? And once he learned about my conviction—for which I have long since paid my debt to society—would he have subjected a White person to the same grilling?

While I owned the right to reciprocate this officer’s disrespect, I did not. Would I be alive to tell this story if I did?

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In Black and Latino urban centers throughout the United States, memories are long.  The “bad feelings” evoked by aggressive policing cannot be eliminated simply by policy reforms. Placing “community” before the word ‘policing’ falls short of erasing the stain of police violence viscerally embedded into the Black experience in this country.

Even Black cops (the ones courageous enough to admit it)  feel what Sandra Bland felt, what Tamir felt, what Eric Garner felt, what Mike Brown felt—and what I felt that night: Feelings of being targeted, devalued, fed up, disrespected,  infantilized,  and subject to indiscriminate violence—perhaps fatal violence—if I took a step wrong.

As one who served time for my role in a violent crime, my death would have been based on my past, not my present.

If I asserted my right not to be harassed, the news headline would likely have read: “Violent Felon Who Served Ten Years Killed by Police.”

I avoided that fate because I heeded my parents’ warnings—given when I was a young boy, as they are given to many other Black children:  “Marlo, please be careful around them police. You know they could kill you.”

And I did not want to die.

At the St. Francis College panel, a White lady in the audience advised me that if I did not argue with the police and didn’t dress like a slob, I would not need to worry about negative interactions with the police.

I told her and the audience, “This is what White supremacy looks like.”

Dismissing my experiences dismisses me. The core of White racial superiority exists within the erasure of the Black biography—our human experience.

I am irate that I did not tell that cop the same thing.

These micro-aggressions take an immeasurable toll on people. In the VICE HBO specialFixing the System, former Attorney General Eric Holder’s analysis of experiences like mine and that of countless Black people over the decades rang true: “When an incident occurs, all this accumulated anger explodes.”

My accumulated anger almost reached its tipping point when towards the end of the stop the officer tells me why he stopped me.

Officer: “I stopped you because you were driving too close behind me for a [city] block, and when you got in front of me you switched lanes without signaling."

 More questions:

Officer: “Were you drinking?”


Officer: “Are you in a rush to go home?”

Me: “No, I live around the corner.”

Officer: “Well, as long as your license comes up clean you can go.”

My license turned up clean, and the officer let me go, but  he first checked in with his partner:

“What do you think about this one?”

“Let him go,” his partner answered after a pregnant pause.

No ticket written, but the damage was done without incident.

Those officers harassed a person with contacts in city government. I am writer who uses his  pen to advocate on behalf of others.  I was aware of the tools that would allow me to survive the moment of the harassment, but those tools cannot remove the accumulated anger—anger that is justifiable and logical. Anger that justified Eric Garner’s and Sandra Bland’s resistance.

After I posted details of the incident on Facebook, an acquaintance suggested I make a formal complaint to the New York Police Department’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), where I was given the option for mediation with the two officers, and told that if I was satisfied  I had to agree to sign  an agreement that would effectively  disable  a CCRB investigation into the officers.

That option was off the table for me.

There are too many Black women and Black men who feel the way I do. So, I concluded that silencing my feelings of fear and resentment, and not pursuing the incident further, would be a disservice to my work in community empowerment.  I filed the official complaint on October 2 and during my 20-minute hearing with the CCRB on October 13,  I decided to pursue an investigation into the officers’ conduct.

I was told the investigation that could take up to a year.

I wonder if the CCRB investigation will mirror the record 25 days it took to complete the investigation of James Blake,  the tennis star who found himself the victim of a police assault in a New York hotel lobby when he was mistaken for a wanted criminal?

Will I get an apology from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton—as Blake did? Will they also find my accusations of misconduct justified?  Will I get to suggest and implement remedies to these “routine traffic stops” of driving while black?

Editors Note: To see the open letter Peterson wrote to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, please click HERE.

Blake’s “celebrity” status got him an apology and a promise of reform from the NYPD  when the media focused on his case.

I am not a celebrity. But the strategies many of us without celebrity status bring to the table must include more than simply training our way out of bad feelings. We cannot “policy” our way out of bad feelings. Bad feelings and accumulated anger cannot be remedied by surveillance cameras—on the body of cops or those lurking on city streets.

We must seek ways to reduce police interactions with residents. We must allocate more resources to empower communities.  We must explore avenues that remove the bad feelings.

I didn’t take my decision lightly. To tell the truth, I’m scared, and my father is scared for me.

Much as I hate to admit it, I know that Black lives still matter too little in our criminal justice system.  But if I do not tell my story—the right story—their story will win.

Marlon Peterson is a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow and founder of The Precedential Group, a New York-based social justice consulting firm. He has served as Director of Community Relations at The Fortune Society and a founding coordinator of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets. A member of the New York City Task Force to Combat Gun Violence, he holds an A.A.S in Criminal Justice from Ashworth University and a BS in Organizational Behavior from New York University. He welcomes comments from readers.





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What We Need to Know About Domestic Violence

By Carol Corden

In New York City on any given night, almost 15,000 adults and children are homeless due to abuse by an intimate partner. Since October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and November is National Homelessness Awareness Month, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.

Family homelessness is a growing problem nationwide—with more families living doubled up, in cars and vans, motels, and shelters, and a significant portion of the family homeless population is comprised of domestic violence victims.  A November 2014 report by the New York City Independent Budget office identified “domestic violence” as second only to “evictions” as a generator of family homelessness.  

Homelessness and domestic violence together exact a huge cost on our society.

Homeless shelters cost significantly more than permanent housing without providing any of the same benefits to their users. Homeless individuals and domestic violence victims are more likely to interact with the police, the criminal justice system, and hospital emergency rooms.

Homeless children, meanwhile, are less likely to attend school or to receive consistent medical care and are more likely to have physical and mental health problems. Because of the dual stigmas of poverty and homelessness, they are less likely to realize their potential as adults and more likely to continue the cycle of poverty. Children who have been exposed to domestic violence have a greater probability of becoming batterers or victims of abuse as adults.

While crisis shelter is important, it is not a long-term solution to the problems facing low-income survivors and their children.

In New York City, which has one of the largest specialized shelter systems for domestic violence survivors, far too many victims find themselves homeless and still at risk of abuse after a relatively short shelter stay—a discouraging outcome given the city’s significant investment in shelters. Many victims and their children find themselves doubled up with relatives and friends, seeking entrance to the general homeless system, or back with their batterers.

Permanent housing is the critical need that must be addressed if low income survivors and their families are to achieve long-term stability and safety.

For survivors with some economic resources or with the capability to become self-supporting, rapid rehousing may be the most cost-efficient and beneficial way for them to leave a dangerous situation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recognized rapid rehousing as an important tool for preventing or reducing homelessness. Providing survivors with assistance—including short-term rental subsidies—to find and qualify for existing affordable housing is a model that has been implemented in several parts of the country with positive results.

The success of this model depends upon linkages to landlords who have affordable housing and are willing to accept applicants, a mechanism for pre-screening and referring applicants, and the availability of voluntary support services once applicants are placed in housing.

For many homeless low-income domestic violence survivors, most of whom have children, success in permanent housing will require access to on-site services to help them remain stable and violence-free in their housing. Survivors often have never lived on their own, are socially isolated, and are still struggling with the trauma of abuse—as are their children.

Maintaining permanent housing—always a challenge for low-income households—is even more difficult for previously homeless victims of domestic violence who, after a short stay in shelter, find themselves in a new section of the city with no social network, while still involved with court cases and child custody issues.

Supportive housing—permanent housing with on-site services—has been successfully used for over 20 years to help chronically homeless individuals with disabling medical conditions remain stable in permanent housing. While the cost of providing intensive on-site services is high, advocates of this model have successfully argued that supportive housing is much less expensive than the cost to the public of homeless individuals who drain resources from emergency rooms, the police, the criminal justice system, and homeless shelters.

Supportive housing can be tailored to address the wide range of issues that victims of domestic violence confront.

An example of what works is the affordable rental housing provided by my organization, the New Destiny Housing Corporation, a New York City nonprofit that works to end the cycle of violence for low-income families at risk of homelessness and domestic violence by connecting them to safe, permanent housing and services. Since 1994, Destiny has developed ten permanent housing projects with units set aside for homeless domestic violence victims and their children. The essential elements of our service-enriched housing model can easily be replicated elsewhere.

They include:

  • A mix of populations—homeless domestic violence survivors and individuals and families from the general population—that does not stigmatize survivors and contributes to a non-institutional environment;
  •  Voluntary services that are client-centered and adapted to the needs of individuals and families who have experienced domestic violence;
  • A focus on housing stability, safety, and rebuilding social networks; and
  • Flexibility in adjusting services as needs change over time.

Given the diversity among victims of abuse, no single housing type will work for all homeless domestic violence survivors.

Rental subsidies, set-asides in public housing and in publicly funded new construction, and supportive housing are all necessary to reduce homelessness caused by domestic violence.

But there should be little doubt that permanent housing linked to voluntary supports remains the key service that homeless domestic violence survivors and their children need in order to move beyond crisis to long-term stability and security.

Carol Corden is Executive Director of New Destiny Housing Corporation in New York City. She welcomes comments from readers.

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Crime Wave? What Crime Wave?

By Richard Rosenfeld

Recent press accounts have the nation’s big cities in the throes of a “new crime wave.”

Police chiefs and mayors have lobbied the federal government for assistance in combatting violent crime. In response, Attorney General Loretta Lynch held a “Summit on Violent Crime” in Washington on October 7th that brought together chiefs, mayors and federal officials to address the crime increase and discuss policy options.

I attended that meeting and had the chance to ask FBI Director James Comey a question that has concerned me throughout the news coverage of the crime increase: Why are we relying on press accounts instead of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) for crime statistics?

The UCR, after all, is the nation’s official source of crime data from the police. If we were facing an influenza outbreak, we would be getting weekly case counts from the Centers for Disease Control. If the unemployment rate had jumped, we would turn to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for last month’s job figures. So, why doesn’t the FBI release timely statistics to track monthly crime rates so that policymakers and the public can determine whether the country is, in fact, in the midst of a significant crime increase?

In answer to my question, Director Comey said that, as far as he knew, the FBI could not release up-to-date crime figures because it doesn’t have them. He also said he would check with the UCR program to see what might be possible in the future. 

The Uniform Crime Reports

It is useful to recount how the UCR program compiles crime data from the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In most instances, the program no longer receives the data directly from local law enforcement agencies. Instead, as the Data Quality Guidelines for the FBI’s reports make clear, most agencies report monthly crime and related UCR data to their state-level UCR program or comparable Statistical Analysis Center (SAC).

The UCR’s state partners check the data for completeness and accuracy and then send it on to the FBI, where final checks are done and the data are readied for release in the annual report Crime in the United States.

At any given time, therefore, the FBI has on hand monthly crime information that has gone through an initial data quality evaluation by its state partners. State UCR programs and SACs vary in how rapidly they submit their data to the national UCR. Some do so monthly, others wait until after the collection year.

If many state programs do not currently submit timely crime data to the national UCR, nothing prevents the FBI from requesting more rapid reporting. Even if the national UCR program received timely crime data covering just five percent of the nation’s law enforcement jurisdictions, we would have a picture of emerging crime problems in 900 areas across the country, rather than the few dozen cities that the most diligent news reporters have managed to survey—which has led to what one writer has characterized as “scare headlines.”

 Editors Note: The following two sections are drawn in part from “The Big Picture: 2010 Presidential Address to the American Society of Criminology,” by Richard Rosenfeld, published in Criminology (v. 49, pp. 1-26).

 Back to the Future

Crime in the United States is released annually about nine-to-ten months after the end of the collection year. The FBI published yearend data for 2014, for example, in late September of this year.

It has not always been this way. The FBI has actually taken several steps backward over time in promulgating the UCR data in the slender time increments needed for rapid policy evaluation and response.

When the UCR program began in 1930, the data were released on a monthly basis. A quarterly release schedule was adopted in 1932. True, there were fewer law enforcement agencies back then, but the data were entered in pen and ink, or on typewriters, and sent by the post office to the FBI.

As a cost-saving measure during World War II, the FBI switched to semi-annual reports, which lasted until 1958 with the publication of the first annual volume of Crime in the United States. So, here we are, well into the twenty-first century when most law enforcement agencies compile crime data in electronic form, looking back in envy to the good old days of 1932—when the nation’s crime statistics were released on a schedule that made them useful for tracking crime problems as they arose.

It is difficult to believe that the FBI is incapable of reviving this 80-year-old best practice in an age of electronic data entry and instantaneous submission.

The Need for Comparative Crime Data

We also know that it is possible to disseminate the UCR data more rapidly than 21 months after the beginning of the collection year, because a large and growing number of local police departments already post monthly and, in some cases weekly, crime counts on their public websites. And, as noted, many state UCR programs obtain and in some cases publish crime statistics well before they are made available by the FBI.

But the move to real-time data availability at the local and state level prompts a question: If the more rapid release of UCR crime data is tenable, why is it necessary? After all, local police departments, especially the larger ones, are now capable of producing real-time data that can be used to address emerging crime problems.

Rapid data collection and retrieval are the digital foundation for the hot-spots and problem-oriented policing strategies now so much in vogue. If the St. Louis or San Francisco police department has adequate data for monitoring and responding to local crime problems, what use would they have for comparable data from Cleveland or Chicago?

The same question might be asked about the policy relevance of public-health or economic data. If we already know the local heart-disease or unemployment rate, for example, why do we care about the prevalence of heart disease or unemployment elsewhere? The answer of course is that the origins of heart disease and unemployment transcend local boundaries. The local conditions are manifestations of broader patterns and trends. The same is true of crime, a point made repeatedly by the local representatives at the Attorney General’s crime summit.

If local crime rates represent variations on a common theme, then the first task of the policy maker is to place the local changes in the context of general trends. Knowing whether local crime rates correspond with or diverge from broader patterns is essential for developing effective local responses. If local conditions are part of a general pattern, then interventions proven effective elsewhere should be high on the list of candidates for local adoption.

If the local rates are diverging from common trends, it is a good bet they are being driven by idiosyncratic local conditions (e.g., a flare up in gang conflicts), which would call for interventions specifically tailored to the local scene. Either way, comparative crime data are needed to determine the nature of local crime problems and to respond appropriately.

What Should Be Done?

FBI staffers are currently working with the Bureau of Justice Statistics to upgrade national statistics on crime and police shootings. Director Comey urged the mayors and police chiefs at the October 7th crime summit to adopt the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) in their jurisdictions, which has been in the works since the 1980s but still covers only about a third of the US population. These are welcome steps, but they will not help national and local policymakers address current crime increases. We cannot respond knowledgably to this year’s crime problems, determine their size and scope, or figure out what may be causing them with last year’s crime statistics.

Reporters have done due diligence in informing us that crime rates are up in some cities. They have filled an information void that is almost unimaginable in any other policy arena well into the 21st century.

The FBI should close the crime information gap now, or hand off this urgent policy priority to another federal agency that will.

Richard Rosenfeld is the Founders Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. He welcomes your comments.

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Sentencing Reform: A Page From the Old Playbook?

By William R. Kelly

It has been a busy month so far for federal criminal justice reform. On October 1, the Senate unveiled the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. On October 8, the House Sentencing Reform Act was introduced.

The bills share much in common and have been portrayed as “comprehensive,” “extensive,” “landmark legislation,” a “game-changer,” and “the most important federal criminal justice overhaul in a generation.” But there are many questions about the mechanics of this legislation, as well as questions about the longer-term consequences—such as their impact on federal incarceration levels, racial disparities in sentencing and, importantly, recidivism.

There are also serious questions about whether they will ever see the light of day, given that Congress seems hopelessly mired in partisan politics.The bills’ provisions include the following: 

  • reducing some mandatory minimum sentences for low level, non-violent drug offenders;* reducing the mandatory life without parole for a third drug or violent felony to 25 years:
  • reducing the mandatory minimum 20 years for a second drug of violent felony to 15 years;
  • closing the crack-powder cocaine disparity and making it retroactive;
  • providing judges with more discretion in sentencing selected low-level drug cases:
  • reducing the 15- and 25- year mandatory minimum sentences for certain gun crimes to 10 years and 15 years
  • reducing the federal three-strikes law from life to 25 years;
  • reducing time served for inmates who participate in prison programs; and
  • creating some new mandatory minimum sentences. 
  • While this legislation seems to be a step in the right direction, there is a bigger picture here that I believe it misses.

Granted, the majority of federal prison inmates are drug offenders, so a focus on reducing sentences for some low level, non-violent drug offenders is a good thing. We saw some of that last  week with the announcement of the early release of 6,000 non-violent drug offenders, who received what many consider exceedingly harsh penalties under the federal sentencing guidelines. Closing the crack-powder disparity should have been done years ago, and the evidence is clear that three-strikes laws are ineffective, as is much mandatory sentencing.

Giving judges the opportunity to mitigate sentences in selected low-level drug cases is a plus, as is motivating selected offenders to participate in programing while in prison.

My concern is not that this legislation doesn’t go far enough in what it proposes, although I believe that is the case. Rather, my concern is what it doesn’t propose.

The fact is: It’s based nearly exclusively on the old playbook.

It is the same tired story of trying to punish the crime out of offenders. Granted that punishment has been reduced in some cases. Nevertheless, a punishment-centered approach to crime and recidivism reduction is what has resulted in recidivism rates north of 70 percent and has cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Not an impressive return on investment.

This “comprehensive,” “landmark,” “game-changing” legislation says very little about addressing why offenders end up in prison in the first place.  Both bills are essentially silent about the factors that commonly underlie criminal offending.  There is little in this legislation that seriously addresses the causes of  recidivism.

The evidence for a broader approach to justice reform is compelling.

Criminal offending is commonly a function of a variety of genetic and environmental influences, such as substance abuse, mental illness, neurodevelopmental and neurocognitive deficits, as well as educational deficits, employment problems, and homelessness.

Yes, sometimes crime is just a bad decision or the result of hanging around with the wrong crowd. But for the most part, crime is more complex and challenging.  In turn, reducing crime and recidivism requires that we focus on mitigating those factors implicated in offending.  Failure to do so has resulted in what most today would conclude is a wasteful, ineffective justice system.

Let me be clear.  These deficits, impairments, and disorders are not excuses for crime. They are not get-out-of-jail-free cards. But they are the more common crime-related factors that, if left unchanged, dramatically increase the likelihood of reoffending and re-victimization.

The bills pay insufficient attention to  the fact that 80 percent of individuals in the criminal justice system are substance abusers, that 40 percent have a diagnosable mental illness, and 60 percent  in prison have at least one traumatic brain injury.

We cannot punish away mental illness. Incarceration does not reverse traumatic brain injury, lack of impulse control, or PTSD. Simply not using cocaine in prison is not addiction treatment.

There’s nothing in the Senate or House bills that improves the rehabilitative efforts for offenders on probation, or enhances diversion programs like drug courts. The SAFE Justice Act, an alternative House bill, includes many of the sentencing changes discussed above. It also includes some provisions for recidivism reduction, but the scale of those provisions is unclear.

In short, federal criminal justice policy has been, and seemingly will continue to be, drastically out of balance, focusing nearly exclusively on punishment. Unfortunately, punishment does not change the underlying reasons many offenders are involved in crime, and that is the primary reason we have out-of-control recidivism and a failed criminal justice system.

We need incarceration, but on a much reduced scale. Since punishment does not change behavior, prison should be reserved for the truly dangerous, chronic, habitual offenders, and rehabilitation failures, those we need to separate from society. Prison should be for those we realistically fear, not those who simply make us mad.

Why is it important to discuss these limitations of federal reform efforts?

First, while there are some provisions for recidivism reduction in the legislation, it is unclear how extensive those efforts would be. Moreover, none of the bills make recidivism reduction a priority. This needlessly compromises public safety and wastes taxpayer money.

Second, while the federal system is actually quite small—federal prisons incarcerate only 12 percent of the total prison population in the U.S.—federal criminal justice reforms are quite visible and can provide a roadmap for others to consider.

Federal efforts can and do help set the agenda for the states. Unfortunately, the pending Senate Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 and the House Sentencing Reform Act, which are garnering a considerable amount of attention and praise, set the wrong agenda.

Editor’s Note: For another view of the Senate’s Sentencing Reform Act, see Adam Gelb’s Oct 7, 2015 Viewpoint, “Another Step towards Sentencing Reform.”

William R. Kelly is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment (Columbia University Press, May 2015) and The Future of Crime and Punishment: Smart Policies for Reducing Crime and Saving Money (Rowman and Littlefield, July 2016).He welcomes comments from readers.


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The Pope’s “European” Approach to Criminal Justice

By Saska Cvetkovska

When he addressed the United Nations during his visit to the U.S. last month, Pope Francis touched on many of the issues he has put high on his agenda elsewhere—especially in his visits to European nations.

Speaking to the European Union parliament last year, for example, he discussed the challenges posed by the huge migrant flows from the Middle East, the struggle against poverty and inequality, and the crisis in human values.

But in the U.S., he spent time on criminal justice—an issue he has hardly mentioned in other  papal visits. Speaking to the U.S. Congress, he condemned the use of the death penalty and, in a visit to a Philadelphia jail, he called for greater attention to the rehabilitation of prisoners.

The difference in focus—to a European like myself—was hard to miss.

There’s a good reason why criminal justice has never been part of the Pope’s homilies in Western Europe. 

The death penalty, for example, is abolished in every European country—with the exception of Belarus. Russia put the death penalty under moratorium in 1996, with an act signed by former President Boris Yeltsin. The last Russian execution happened that year.

The European Union has one of the strongest positions among the global community against the capital punishment.  No nation can enter the EU unless it strikes capital punishment from its criminal code. The EU’s anti-capital punishment position was the first human rights guideline adopted by the European Council in 1998.

Things weren’t always so clear-cut in Europe.  Although bans on capital punishment were introduced in some regions as early as the 18th century (Tuscany in 1748), during the interwar years the death penalty was applied widely by fascist regimes. After World War 2, however, a continent that was emotionally and physically damaged no longer wanted the state to be an executioner. By the middle of the last century, nearly all Western European countries had abolished the death penalty—and they were soon followed by the former Communist satellites in eastern Europe.

As for prisons, while Europeans and Americans agree in principle that they serve as tools for ensuring the protection of society, European policies are dramatically different.

The figures make it clear. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 716 Americans were incarcerated for every 100,000 people in 2012.  Most European nations come nowhere close. According to EUROSTAT (the European Union Statistics Agency), the EU-28 average stood at 128 prisoners per 100,000.

In many countries it is much lower. In the Netherlands, for example, the incarceration rate is around ten times less than the U.S.: 76 prisoners per 100,000 in 2013,  according  to the  UK-based International Center for Prison Studies.

The Dutch Ministry of Justice announced in 2014  plans to close 19 prisons because of  the lack of prisoners, and the Dutch have taken their entrepreneurial spirit a step further by renting some of their empty cells to other European countries, such as Belgium, that have a shortage of prison space—earning millions of euros for the “service.”

(At the same time, the number of crimes recorded in the Netherlands declined by 35 per cent between 2005 and 2012.)

The Dutch are not “soft” on crime, as they might say in the U.S. But their criminal justice system is focused on rehabilitation.  Offenders convicted of less serious crimes can choose electronic tagging instead of incarceration, which enables them to work.

Many minor crimes are handled with fines adjusted to income. A similar approach has been adapted in Germany.

German prison conditions would sound odd to any American. John Jay College President Jeremy Travis and Nick Turner, head of the Vera Institute of Justice, wrote the following in a recent New York Times Op Ed essay after they participated in a tour of the German prison system:

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

There is nothing special about the German approach. You can see similar scenes even in the former Communist countries of the Balkans, as I found when I visited a prison in Slovenia during research on a story for the Macedonian TV magazine “Eurozoom.”

A few critics say some countries have gone too far. A few years ago, photos of Norwegian prisoners relaxing on a lakefront beach in Norway triggered accusations that offenders were living in “luxury.” Those prisoners, in any case, were closely guarded.

But let’s put aside the cozy furniture, the beaches and the hot showers. The key difference in the European approach is the emphasis on rehabilitation and re-socialization. Most of Europe’s correctional systems offer prisoners opportunities to study, to work, to train, and to learn new skills or improve old ones.

There is still plenty to criticize. Not every state in Europe has postcard prisons. While our homicide rates are low in Macedonia, we struggle with the inhuman practices that sometimes lead to torture in our prisons.

It might be our communist past or our uncertain future, but in my career in journalism I have lost count of the number of articles I’ve written on the abuses that still exist. When my own country, Macedonia, became a candidate country for membership in the EU in 2005, we had to  introduce serious reforms in our justice system.

We’re still a long way from fulfilling the human rights principles that the Pope called on us to observe.

But we are also a long way from the U.S. approach. Even as I am impressed by the efforts underway here to focus on rehabilitation, and to close prisons, I believe Americans could take some lessons from Europe in this regard.

Many Americans argue that the situations are very different, and even reformers concede that reducing prison populations here will require some tough choices.

The discussion has preoccupied U.S. criminologists, legislators and advocates. But only the emergence of a popular consensus to make those hard choices—-as there has been in Europe—will make reform a reality.

It may take an outsider like the Pope to encourage more ordinary Americans to go outside their comfort zone on criminal justice issues—just as he has pushed Europeans to overcome their prejudices and stereotypes about migrants.

“This time in your life can only have one purpose,” he told prisoners at the Philadelphia jail. “To give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society.”

Europeans have long since accepted the point. Will Americans?

Saska Cvetkovska is an investigative journalist from Skopje, Macedonia. She is currently working with the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College on a four-month IREX journalist fellowship. She welcomes comments from readers.

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