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What Caused the Crime Decline? Assessing the Brennan Center Report

By Richard Rosenfeld

It’s now well known that crime rates have decreased in the United States and in other developed nations over the past two decades. The reasons offered have included rising incarceration, improved economic conditions, better policing, aging populations, decreased crack use, abortion policy changes, reductions in childhood exposure to lead, or some combination of these and other factors.

None of these evaluations is considered definitive. Many assessments point to an array of possible causal factors without much supporting evidence. And those that identify a single explanation for the decline, such as changes in abortion policy or reductions of lead in the environment, have been criticized for attributing an implausibly large causal role to that one factor without accounting for the influence of others. No study has incorporated a broad range of possible explanations of recent crime trends in a single analysis—until now.

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After Ferguson: We Need a Presidential Commission on Justice

By Lee P. Brown

Last summer, President Barack Obama addressed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by calling on Americans to “use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment –the potential of a young man and the sorrow of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.”

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which will release its report shortly,  is only the first step in what must be a much longer journey—one that must focus on more than the police.

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Was the Ferguson Grand Jury Misled?

By Caleb Mason

As I’ve previously written here, I think the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Ferguson was probably correct. The forensic evidence tended to corroborate Wilson’s version of events and to conflict with that of Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s friend, who was the other principal eyewitness.

But there’s one lingering question still nagging at me and other commentators: the possibility that the grand jury was misinstructed on the law governing police use of deadly force. 

While St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch released transcripts of the witness testimony, he never released the written legal instructions that the grand jurors were provided. We know from the transcripts that the grand jurors were originally given a printout of a Missouri state statute on police use of deadly force; and then, on November 21, on the very last day of the session, just before deliberations, the Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys handling the indictment told the jurors that they had “discovered” that the statute was invalid under a 1985 Supreme Court case called Tennessee v. Garner.

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Can the Drop in Juvenile Incarcerations Offer Lessons for Adult Policy?

By Marc A. Schindler

After a few years of modest decreases in the adult prison populations, states added 6,858 people to prisons, according to the most recent numbers. This uptick (around a 2 percent increase in state prison populations) has occurred despite modest changes to sentencing structures and the implementation of reinvestment strategies.

By contrast, states have dramatically reduced the number of young people confined in juvenile justice facilities across the country – a 41 percent decrease between 2001 and 2011.

So what’s going on here? Why are we seeing such a profound divergence in trends?   

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Pennsylvania’s Wild Justice: The Perils of a Rising Star

By Matthew T. Mangino

The English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), once wrote “Revenge is a kind of wild justice.” In the modern era of Pennsylvania politics. Justice has indeed been wild.

In the last decade, the state has seen a Supreme Court justice convicted; her sister, a state senator, imprisoned; and two House Speakers and minority leaders in the House and Senate jailed. A host of legislators have left in disgrace. Last month, State Treasure Rob McCord resigned with the intent to plead guilty to federal criminal charges, and in the 1990s a Republican Attorney General went to prison.

Now, in that spirit of “wild justice, the knives are out for Kathleen Kane, the first female (and first Democrat) elected in 34 years as state Attorney General. Prominent members of Kane’s own Democratic party are aligning themselves to take her job. Those hopefuls are not talking about a 2016 primary challenge: they are wooing Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf for a possible appointment.

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Why Do We Place Our Most Vulnerable Prisoners in Solitary?

By Joseph Galanek

Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced that placing inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement will no longer be part of their management practices.  It was a response, in part, to a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ)  that found Pennsylvania inmates with mental illness were “in solitary confinement for months and sometimes years, with devastating consequences to their mental health.”

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How the ‘New Normal’ Convicts the Innocent

By James M. Doyle

Terence Miller is a New Jersey man convicted of a drug offense in 2011, and sentenced to five years in prison. In 2013, he appealed his conviction on the grounds that the trial court judge violated his rights by refusing to delay his trial until he received the assistance of adequately prepared counsel. His appeal was denied by the New Jersey Supreme Court in New Jersey v Miller.

But what could we learn if we assume that Terence Miller is innocent? Examining Miller’s case based on that assumption can show us how a criminal justice system reacts to the pressure of huge caseloads. Too often, quality and safety are sacrificed to generate “production.” The system drifts inexorably up to, and then past, its safety margins until its safety devices lose all meaning, and the system breaks down completely. 

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Let’s Bring Sunshine Into Private Prisons

By Alexa Capeloto

Will someone please sue the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)? Or The GEO Group, Inc.? Or the Management and Training Corporation? I don’t have a problem with these companies, per se. Nor am I saying they do anything particularly wrong or illegal as they operate private prisons on behalf of government agencies across the country.

But challenging them for information related to the 137 facilities they collectively manage in the U.S. might help tighten a loophole that government contractors often slip through with ease.

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Top 10 Youth Justice Reads for Loretta Lynch

By Liz Ryan

It's that time of year. Preparations are being made for a new cabinet member in the Administration. This time it is for a new Attorney General. The Obama Administration's nominee, Loretta Lynch, has a tremendous track record in the justice system, but she is still expected to run the gauntlet of tough questioning by Senate Judiciary Committee members at upcoming confirmation hearings this week. 

To get ready for the hearings, it is almost certain that a staffer somewhere in the caverns of the Department of Justice is going to be working feverishly to put together a briefing notebook for the nominee.

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When Cops Take Their Beefs to Work

By Robin L. Barton

Let’s consider the possible impact a future police slowdown could have on the criminal justice system beyond just the number of new cases added to the system. Suppose the Staten Island grand jury had voted to indict an NYPD officer in the death of Eric Garner based on evidence presented by Daniel Donovan, the Richmond County District Attorney.

Given the current tensions in New York City and the attitude of the police union, it’s not hard to imagine officers refusing to cooperate with the assistant district attorneys in that office on other cases as a form of protest against what they regard as the unwarranted prosecution of their colleague. What are the implication of such a refusal to cooperate? To answer that question, you must understand that the role of police officers doesn’t end once they’ve made an arrest.

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TCR at a Glance

Stress in Prison

April 17, 2015

This essay, by an inmate at San Quentin State Prison in California, was originally posted in The Beat Within, a justice system writing wo...

You Can’t Live Here

April 16, 2015

Do residency bans and other tough measures on sex offenders work? The evidence suggests they are counterproductive—and some states ...

Emergency Rooms and Gun Violence

new & notable April 10, 2015

How patients use the emergency room is a big predictor of future gun violence, found a new report in the journal Pediatrics.

Report: CA Traffic Fines Drive Inequality

new & notable April 9, 2015

Millions of Californians have lost their licenses due to punitive fees and fines, according to a new study by several legal aid and civil...