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Why Do People Keep Dying in Harris County Jail?

The Texas jail is bursting at the seams as officials push for more pretrial incarceration.

Harris County Jail
Patrick Feller | Flickr

Why Do People Keep Dying in Harris County Jail?

The Texas jail is bursting at the seams as officials push for more pretrial incarceration.

This story was produced in partnership with Type Investigations.

Like all teenagers, Fred Harris longed for freedom. At 18, he was small: 5 feet tall, 98 pounds. He also acted much younger than his age, which meant other kids bullied him. His mother, Dallas Garcia, told The Appeal and Type Investigations, “[He] didn’t understand, like, just extremely how different he was.”

Harris loved to dance. “Music was his No. 1 passion,” his mother said. In one home video, Harris wears an oversized Christmas sweater and dances quietly in the kitchen. He looks calm and happy. “He was real fun-loving,” Garcia said.

Still, Harris’s behavior could be a challenge. As he got older, he would frequently run away to stay with friends. His mother thought the best thing would be to wait it out and rebuild their relationship by encouraging him to come home voluntarily.

Garcia had been over-protective of Harris his whole life. From the time he was a toddler, it was clear to her that he had special needs. She assumed she’d be taking care of him well into adulthood. “I wasn’t prepared to let him go,” she said.

At some point, however, Garcia felt that she had to let Harris make his own decisions. He was a legal adult, and his habit of running away seemed like a typical teenage phase. “I just felt like he would develop a little bit later,” she said.

She also struggled to access the mental health services she thought her son needed, and he did not always take his medication consistently.

On the afternoon of Oct. 10, 2021, Harris walked down the middle of a busy avenue in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. According to a charging document, he was holding a knife. Garcia said that she didn’t think her son owned a knife and that she couldn’t believe he intended to hurt anyone. Onlookers called the police, who arrested Harris.

According to charging documents, Harris had “unlawfully, intentionally and knowingly threaten[ed] [one of the bystanders] with imminent bodily injury by using and exhibiting a deadly weapon, namely, a knife,” which in Texas is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Court documents indicate that Harris’s defense attorney and the judge thought the teen was probably not competent for trial. He was placed in a medical unit in the Harris County Jail in downtown Houston.

Like anyone else arrested for a felony, Harris was entitled to post cash bail, which would let him leave the jail after paying a sum of money as collateral to guarantee that he’d return to court. On Oct. 11, the prosecutor assigned to Harris’s case, Assistant District Attorney Lucas Bay, requested $75,000 for bail, an unusually high number for the offense. To justify his request, Bay wrote only, “Defendant committed the instant offense using a deadly weapon: a knife.”

On Oct. 12, Magistrate Diane Olivera set the bail at $20,000. In denying Bay’s request for higher bail, she noted that Harris had “no convictions, no crimes of violence, no injuries to anyone.” Harris signed his name “Fred” in awkward print letters on court documents.

When Garcia learned that her son was in jail, she was initially relieved just to know that he was somewhere safe. She did, however, have lingering doubts. She called the Harris County Sheriff’s Office about her concerns. “‘He needs his medication. And he’s special needs.… He probably does not understand what’s happening here,’” she recalls telling an officer. “I was afraid. I was so afraid. I was so afraid. I called. I called again.”

Harris spent most of October in the mental health wing of the jail, which holds many people awaiting competency hearings or being treated for severe mental illness. On Oct. 29, according to the sheriff’s office, deputies placed Harris in a holding cell with a 25-year-old man named Michael Paul Ownby, who had recently admitted to attacking a guard and was awaiting trial on domestic violence charges. Ownby was more than twice Harris’s size.

According to eyewitness accounts, incident reports, and a lawsuit Harris’s family later filed against the jail, less than an hour after they were placed in the cell together, Ownby smashed Harris’s head into the concrete floor, kicked him in the head, and used a sharpened utensil to stab him repeatedly. Harris, unconscious and severely brain damaged, was sent to Ben Taub Hospital.

Garcia didn’t learn of the attack until two days later, on Halloween, when she got a call from the jail chaplain. The chaplain told her that Harris had been in a “fight” and was in the hospital. “I was immediately upset…. I thought it was a prank,” she said.

Garcia went to the hospital to see her son. She says it was immediately clear that this was no ordinary fight. “Injured wasn’t even the word for it,” she said. “It was like he had no bones in his face standing.”

According to Garcia, she got into a heated argument with the guards assigned to watch Harris when they told her that she needed to “pull the plug” if she wanted there to be an investigation. “We had people from the sheriff’s office threatening to take him off life support, that he was still a ward of the state,” she said. Jason Spencer, a spokesperson from the sheriff’s office, said that they assigned a chaplain to be a liaison to the family and that “deputies may have been present to ensure the preservation of evidence before the autopsy.”

That night, Garcia signed off on donating her son’s organs, including his heart, and ended his life.

“My son is dead,” Garcia said in an interview. “So it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

Fred Harris dressed for his homecoming dance.
Courtesy of Dallas Garcia

Fred Harris was killed in one of the deadliest jails in Texas. Since the start of 2021, more than 50 people have died in the Harris County Jail: 21 in 2021, 28 in 2022, and four so far this year. These numbers are the highest the jail has seen in more than a decade. (Spencer admitted that “we had a record number of deaths in the jail in 2022,” but pointed out that the jail was “in no way an outlier” when compared to facilities across the country.)

Like Fred Harris, a disproportionate number of those who died in Harris County Jail custody were killed in homicides. According to data from the Texas Justice Initiative, less than 3 percent of all jail deaths in the state of Texas between 2005 and February 2023 were homicides; in Harris County, the number was 6 percent. That’s 19 people, 15 of whom were Latinx or Black. Of course, these numbers all rely on published information, which may not include all in-custody homicides.

Advocates, elected officials, incarcerated people, and jail employees agree that the root cause of the violence at the Harris County Jail is overcrowding. The current population of almost 10,000 has overwhelmed the jail, causing Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to house hundreds of people in other facilities, including a private prison run by LaSalle Corrections in Louisiana and a prison in West Texas, at the cost of at least $25 million.

The population of the Harris County Jail has been steadily increasing for the past few years, with about 115 more people arriving per week since 2020, even though Harris County has been the site of substantive pretrial reform. Like Fred Harris, the vast majority are held pretrial and face felony charges.

Despite a civil lawsuit challenging conditions at the facility and ongoing supervision by a court monitor, the jail remains at a crisis point, leading to both the high death rate and countless other assaults, denials of medical care, and instances of general neglect. In September 2022, the Texas Jails Commission sent the facility a notice of noncompliance for holding people in cells for more than 48 hours at a time, in violation of state law.

Since Harris’s death, the situation has continued to worsen in the jail. “Conditions in the jail are horrific: people are dying, pregnant women are being abused, access to counsel is delayed, and people with serious illnesses are not getting medication,” said Elizabeth Rossi, the director of strategic initiatives at Civil Rights Corps. “All of this violence and harm is being caused by local and state policymakers—the DA, the judges, and the legislature.”

According to advocates, the jail’s population has swelled to its current size largely because Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg refuses to dismiss thin cases and continues to push for high bond amounts, as the prosecutor did in Fred Harris’s case. Meanwhile, media panic around bail reform and crime has created a political climate hostile to releasing people from jail.

Ogg’s office declined to respond to questions for this story, but wrote in a statement that “the District Attorney’s Office shares the concerns of the sheriff and other county stakeholders that there’s an urgent need to address the [jail conditions] with proper funding and resources allocated by the Commissioners Court. This would alleviate crowding and help ensure the safety of the staff and inmates housed there.”

Last July, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez argued for policy changes to relieve pressure on the jail. In particular, he pointed to the backlog of cases awaiting judgment and noted that around 1,000 people in the jail were being held on a bond of $10,000 or less. “We need our jail space dedicated to the most serious, chronic offenders, those not likely to appear in court,” he tweeted.

Nevertheless, the DA’s office has plowed ahead with charging and incarcerating a high number of felony arrestees, even as crime rates stay relatively flat.

Ogg’s office often files motions arguing for high bail amounts. According to the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, the average amount for a felony bail in the county grew from $18,554 in 2017 to nearly $30,000 in 2022. (A spokesperson for the DA’s office noted that while prosecutors suggest bond amounts, “it is judges who set bail.”) The DA’s office is also filing more felonies, even though violent crime rates have ebbed. Between 2020 and 2021, felony filings in the state of Texas grew by 2 percent, but in Harris County they increased by 25 percent, according to the Texas State Office of Court Administration’s latest annual report.

Advocates argue that many more felony cases need to be dismissed. Harris County leaders, Rossi said, “can and should fix [the situation] by releasing thousands of people, dismissing old cases, and stopping the arrest and prosecution of meritless cases.”

There have been many suggestions for how to lower the jail population, but Ogg has ignored them. In 2020, an independent consultant hired by the county recommended that all nonviolent felony cases older than nine months should be dismissed. The consultant’s report noted that while such mass dismissals “may seem unfathomable,” less than half of all cases from 2019 resulted in a conviction. This trend has continued; Ogg’s conviction rate has plummeted, and many of the cases her office files end up being dismissed by the courts.

According to Jay Jenkins, the project attorney for Harris County at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, “This increase in felony cases filed and dismissed is likely driving the increase in the pretrial population at the already dangerous Harris County Jail at a time city officials are reporting a reduction in violent crime.”

It’s clear that dismissing weak cases and allowing more people to await trial from home would ease the jail crisis. But these seemingly simple solutions have become politically toxic.

Harris County was a pioneer in the national movement to challenge money bail practices a few years ago. A consent decree eliminated cash bail for most low-level offenses in the county in 2019. At the time, city leaders and local media hailed the change as a historic moment and a model for other cities. More recently, however, “tough on crime” politicians across the country have turned “bail reform” into a bogeyman blamed for a purported rise in crime. In New York, for example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin campaigned on the alleged harms of bail reform and promised to roll back changes to the bail system. (He narrowly lost, but his opponent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, has called on the state legislature to repeal key provisions of New York’s landmark 2019 bail reform legislation.)

Though data from Harris County shows that changes to the misdemeanor bail system did not increase recidivism, that hasn’t stopped people like Andy Kahan, director of victim services at Houston Crime Stoppers, from arguing that bail reform creates a slippery slope.

Kahan has said that his group supports misdemeanor bail reform, but he also claims, without evidence, that some judges are engaging in “discretionary felony bond reform,” meaning they are releasing too many people pretrial in felony cases, despite the fact that there has been no felony bail reform.

Houston’s local media has also taken to highlighting gruesome crimes committed by people out on bail. In a content analysis of local news coverage, the Texas Center for Justice and Equity found that, after the 2019 consent decree, more than 60 percent of media stories about bail engaged in “cherry-picking and sensationalizing stories about defendants who are arrested while out on bond … [thus constructing] a distorted narrative of dangerous releasees.”

The local Fox News affiliate even produces a regular segment devoted to highlighting these cases while also promoting Crime Stoppers. Taking its inspiration from shows like America’s Most Wanted, each episode of “Breaking Bond” breathlessly covers a horrific crime, usually homicide, allegedly committed by a person awaiting trial for another crime. In his appearances on the segments, Kahan has repeatedly elided the difference between being arrested for a crime and being found guilty, blaming “bond reform” for, for example, a January 2021 incident in which a man allegedly shot two sheriff’s deputies.

Last year, Crime Stoppers gave an award to the “Breaking Bond” series. The Harris County Commissioners Court then passed a resolution congratulating Fox 26 for receiving the Crime Stoppers award.

Kahan, meanwhile, was recently appointed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to the Crime Victims’ Institute Advisory Council, which is tasked with “conducting in-depth analysis of the impact of crime on victims, close relatives of deceased victims, guardians of victims, and society.”

Ogg, who won the DA’s race in 2016 after campaigning on a reform-minded platform, was previously the executive director of Crime Stoppers. She has stridently supported the organization’s attacks on bail reform and has lobbied local and state officials for higher bail amounts and more incarceration.

In 2019, Ogg gave a press conference with Crime Stoppers and then-Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in which she accused district court judges of “granting bonds in cases that historically we didn’t see them—capital murder, aggravated robberies.”

The DA’s office has only gotten more aggressive in the past few years. Last spring, 14 Harris County assistant district attorneys ran for judicial office in the county, as part of what one ADA, in December 2020, called a “reckoning.” Ten Democratic judges lost their primary in that election, including Greg Glass, a judge who had lowered the bond for a 30-year-old man accused of shooting a Houston police officer in September 2021. Ogg’s office has consistently denied that she played any role in urging prosecutors to run for judgeships. Crime Stoppers has also contributed to local elections, causing officials in Harris County to call for an audit of the nonprofit’s finances based on its partisan political activity.

Though the political climate in Harris County has tipped in favor of more incarceration, the crisis in the jail remains solvable, advocates argue. “We made specific policy choices to get here,” Krishnaveni Gundu, the co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said. “We can make specific policy choices to get out.”

As the jail’s population grows, Gonzalez has proposed addressing the problem by building a new jail. Spencer, the spokesperson from the sheriff’s office, added, “We need a placement facility designed to accommodate rehabilitative programs and create a more humane environment.”

It’s a familiar proposition—one the county has already tried in failed attempts to fix violence in the past. In fact, the present facility was built as the result of a 1975 lawsuit over jail conditions.

At this point, even the people who work at the jail agree that the facility is not safe. In December 2021, just two months after Fred Harris was killed, a female sergeant was raped in her office by a prisoner. The alleged assailant was wandering the hallways without an escort.

A Harris County Sheriff’s Office employee who has worked for the HCSO for nine years, and asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, said in an interview that she was not surprised when she learned about the assault. “We knew this was going to happen,” she said, adding, “I know many employees who’ve been stalked. Many.”

Deputies and the deputy union have argued the problem is that the jail doesn’t have enough staff to handle its growing population. In September 2021, a month before Fred Harris was killed, a group of employees at the jail anonymously filed a 200-page class action lawsuit against the county commissioners and the sheriff, arguing that the county and its officials were “violating all Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and due process rights to be free from state created or increased danger.” The complaint also said people incarcerated at the jail were not receiving adequate medical or mental health care because of overcrowding, and some people with mental health needs were not placed in the proper facility because there was no room. (The lawsuit was dismissed for lack of a claim.)

According to the HCSO employee who spoke anonymously, the jail’s problems are largely a result of the culture at the facility. “We’re grossly understaffed because everybody’s leaving. Because it’s so horrible,” she said. “It’s not about staffing. It’s about retention.”

She said that most people booked into the jail are jumped soon after they enter and extorted for their possessions and money. One man, she said, was assaulted by his cellmates; he emerged with a broken pelvis and blind in one eye. She had heard that a woman had given birth alone in her cell and had to bite off the umbilical cord. The deputy on duty was wearing earphones and didn’t hear her cries. “We go into this abyss every day, and nobody knows this is happening,” she said.

Official data obtained by reporter Keri Blakinger shows that there have been more than 5,000 documented assaults on incarcerated people and staff at the Harris County Jail between October 2021 and October 2022. (Spencer said the HCSO is seeking an increase in pay for employees and considering “other moves that might facilitate recruiting and retention.”)

However, jail staff are also participating in the violence. In February 2021, a group of around a dozen deputies killed 23-year-old Jaquaree Simmons, who had been arrested for allegedly possessing a firearm illegally.

After his arrest, guards placed Simmons in an isolated cell, per the jail’s COVID-19 quarantine policy at the time. Frustrated, he plugged up the toilet with his clothing and flooded the cell. Deputies responded by taking his clothes and leaving him in the cell naked. In a report filed with the Attorney General’s office at the time, deputies claimed that at some point Simmons had tried to hit a deputy with a meal tray, causing a fight that ended with a deputy punching Simmons. He was then left unsupervised and found dead the next day. None of this was captured on video.

Simmons’s mother, Larhonda Biggles, learned about her son’s death when the chaplain from the Harris County Jail called her on her cell phone. She remembers the chaplain explaining that her son had been found unresponsive and was taken to the hospital. Then, the chaplain began saying something that started, “Unfortunately…” and Biggles, suspecting the worst, threw the phone on the floor and ran out of the room. Biggles said her daughter picked up the phone and continued talking. “And then I heard my daughter’s scream,” she said. “Her screaming so loud. It’s just me on the stairs. So, I turned around and ran back upstairs, open the door. And she was on the floor, hollering and screaming.” Following the assault the night before, her son had died that morning; the news of his death was already circulating on social media.

Biggles says no one told her what had really happened for months, but she was suspicious at the time.

In May 2021, Gonzalez held a press conference announcing that he had fired 11 deputies and suspended six for “very serious policy violations” in Simmons’s death. These deputies had “betrayed my trust and the trust of our community,” he said. (The HCSO was unable to comment on any pending investigations.)

It took nearly two more years for the DA’s office to announce that it would bring charges—but only against one officer, for involuntary manslaughter.

Concerns about “public safety” consistently ignore the safety of people who are held in or work at the jail. They are subject to conditions that appear to have gotten substantially worse in the past two years as Harris County politicians, criminal-system officials, and the media have sought to muddy the waters about the connection between pretrial detention and crime rates.

State-level politics have reflected this dynamic. Just a few years ago, Texas was seen as a leader in bipartisan decarceration. Republican leaders argued that pretrial detention should be used less often because of the high financial cost. Right-leaning organizations like the Texas Public Policy Foundation argued against wealth-based detention.

Now, however, the tide has turned, and efforts to change the pretrial system are largely aimed at making it harder for people to get out of jail. In September 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 6—also known as the Damon Allen Act—which limits the operations of community bail funds, prohibits PR bonds for people charged with certain crimes, and requires judges to have a full criminal history before setting bail. The law was named after a state trooper who was killed by someone out on a $15,000 bond (though the provisions in SB 6 would not have prevented this death). The bill still allows defendants to pay a bail bond company in order to secure their release from jail before trial, causing critics to argue that the bill limits judicial discretion while strengthening the bail bond industry. Ogg supported the bill and testified in favor of Senate Bill 21, which was similar to the legislation Abbott signed.

According to Civil Rights Corps and other advocates, SB 6 has only increased delays in case resolutions, leading to overcrowding in the Joint Processing Center, which is supposed to hold people temporarily just after arrest.

On Oct. 26, a 70-year-old man died less than 48 hours after his arrest while in joint processing. The official cause of death was heart failure, but advocates question whether his medical conditions were ignored by staff. In January 2023, a 31-year-old man named Jacoby Pillow died when, according to news reports, deputies “used force to restrain” him. Later that same month, a 23-year-old man suffered “a medical emergency” and died while in custody.

Some of the people who died in the Harris County Jail in 2022 could have been released with no threat to public safety, according to data from the Texas Jail Project. One man who died in the jail in the last week of June 2022 had already been released on a PR bond in November 2021 following an arrest for charges related to drug possession. He was re-arrested when police found him intoxicated, and he asked for help. He subsequently died in the hospital from what the police say was an overdose.

On Nov. 13, about two weeks after Fred died, Dallas Garcia released balloons into the air in a celebration of her son’s life. She recently filed a lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, arguing that her son died because the jail lacked sufficient staffing to protect him. “I’m just really confused at how the system failed him so miserably,” she said. “There’s no excuse for anyone’s actions. And all of this was preventable, on so many different levels.”

Finally Free After Decades Locked up, a Former DC Resident is Shackled Again — This Time on a Deportation Flight

Third in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood who was sent to die in prison and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

Finally Free After Decades Locked up, a Former DC Resident is Shackled Again — This Time on a Deportation Flight

Third in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood who was sent to die in prison and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice. Read Part Two of the series here.

Cordell Miller, 49, ached for freedom after spending three decades in federal prisons and three months in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last April, as he boarded a flight to his Jamaican homeland, he was told he was free. He didn’t feel free. Yet again, he found himself handcuffed, with iron shackles choking his ankles.

On the flight, Miller tried to drown out the chaotic conversations of the other passengers — 26 men and two women who were also being deported. Reality was setting in. He was no longer incarcerated. But there was also uncertainty.

“What am I going to do?” he asked himself repeatedly.

What a ‘second chance’ looks like

Miller had a tumultuous childhood that included the murder of his father, the loss of his beloved grandmother, his primary caregiver, and an untenable home where he experienced physical and emotional abuse from his mother. Often on the streets, he was first arrested at age 13, along with a group of friends, for stealing a schoolmate’s coat. That led to probation violations and a series of group homes and juvenile detention. Next came homelessness in his teenage years. That made him prey: A Brooklyn drug dealer offered him a job selling drugs, which Miller accepted.

That fateful decision soon took him to Washington, D.C., where at 17, Miller and four others robbed and killed his then-drug supplier and two others, according to court records.

He was convicted of a triple homicide and sentenced to 97 years to life.

Yet three decades into his sentence, Miller sought relief through new legislation that offered youthful offenders a second chance. In April 2021, Washington, D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act became law. It allows incarcerated people who were convicted before age 25 and have served at least 15 years of their sentence to appeal to a judge for resentencing. The judge must consider the petitioner’s family and life circumstances at the time of the offense, including any history of abuse, trauma, or involvement in the child welfare system. Miller was released.

Miller greets the ocean

As Miller stepped off the plane onto the island last spring, he was escorted by more than two dozen local police officers. A few mocked him, saying he’d abandoned his homeland for the “land of the free” and ended up right where he started. Miller shrugged it off. He simply wanted to get through the paperwork of arrival and embark on his new beginning.

His cousin met him at the airport he last visited when he was a young teen visiting his grandmother. A series of firsts-in-a-long-time came next: A tasty meal of jerk red snapper and a deliciously sweet, cold sorrel drink. A family trip to the beach.

“I sat in the ocean and started crying,” Miller recalled during one of numerous interviews over several months.

But the joyous moments would quickly turn to new obstacles. In the U.S., he had solid job offers, multiple places to live, reentry services, and a robust support system. The U.S. was his home, he’d cultivated relationships behind bars with Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative and had served as a mentor to incarcerated youth. Now, on a Caribbean island nation still reeling economically from the pandemic, where one in four residents lives in poverty, those avenues didn’t exist.

With nearly $5,000 Miller’s friends and family raised through a GoFundMe campaign before his release, he rented a room in a house close to his extended family, an arrangement that soon became financially burdensome. When he purchased groceries for himself, his family expected him to share, and he did. So after a short while, he realized his nest egg would soon disappear.

“Everybody thinks this is the land of the beautiful but they forget about the poverty-stricken part of it. The violent part of it,” Miller said. After a few weeks, he moved to a less expensive accommodation. It was a quiet, gated community, just outside of Ocho Rios. In the mornings, he would take long, meandering walks to the sound of birds chirping instead of the command of a prison guard.

Home life was peaceful, but some adjustments weren’t as easy. His new friends poked fun at him for eating with a spoon, unaware that forks and knives weren’t allowed in prison. Now, when he goes grocery shopping, he still reaches for his commissary favorites: tuna, mackerel, crackers, Cup Noodles, and mayonnaise. Acclimating to new environments is the hardest, particularly large crowds — in his mind, potential danger lurks everywhere. No matter where he goes, his back has to face the wall, his eyes on the door and scanning everyone in the room.

When his fiancé, Tyresa Washington, visited him for the first time in June, they spent a week at the Moon Palace Resort in Ocho Rios. Miller didn’t want to leave the hotel room because he had become so accustomed to being in a cell. Eventually, he followed his fiancé’s lead and tried to live in the moment. They swam in the clear ocean, got couples’ massages, and had a candlelit dinner on the beach. But Miller’s spirit was never settled.

“I didn’t know how to enjoy myself as a civilian,” he recalled.

Assessing someone’s intention within seconds was crucial to survival in prison. He let his guard down once while sitting in his cell writing a letter, and a man came from seemingly nowhere and stabbed him. So, there he was free and feeling the sun on his skin, but worried danger was imminent.

“I’m thinking everybody’s watching me,” he said, and “I’m watching them.”

Miller wanted to share in his fiancé’s excitement, to be happy, but couldn’t find his way there. Friends would give him a simple directive, “Enjoy yourself. Be glad that you’re free.” He’d smile when they said that. But the truth was more complicated, he said simply: “I don’t know how.”

Miller looked happy in the photos from his time at the Moon Palace, but he’s the first to tell you he wasn’t. “I was so sad on the inside,” he recalled. “A sadness that had nothing to do with no one else.”

He was still trapped in his mind.

“Physically my body is out here but my mindset is somewhere else,” he said. “Yes, I’m free. But I don’t feel free.”

Adjusting to life on the outside will take some time, and Miller is a patient man.

After spending time at a local gym, he was eventually hired as a personal trainer and is building his client base.

Miller — who first went to prison as a teen offender and left as a mentor for youth — still believes his calling is to work with young people. He wants to be the kind of person he wished he had in his life, and he’s certain he’ll get there.

As he approaches age 50, he reflected: “I really believe my story is just beginning.”

This story was supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation where Sylvia A. Harvey was a 2022 fellow.

Pregnant People Are Shackled and Abused in Harris County Jail

Pregnant people are among the many casualties of a politically manufactured crisis that has led to abysmal conditions at the jail.

Patrick Feller | Flickr

Pregnant People Are Shackled and Abused in Harris County Jail

Pregnant people are among the many casualties of a politically manufactured crisis that has led to abysmal conditions at the jail.

Each year, an estimated 55,000 pregnant people are admitted to jails in the United States. Many languish behind bars before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay cash bail. Nearly half of U.S. states now criminalize abortion care, forcing them to carry their pregnancies to term and give birth under conditions of grossly deficient medical care. Their babies are then immediately taken from them––a profoundly traumatizing experience.

The full extent of this crisis remains largely unknown. Although jails and prisons have a constitutional obligation to provide adequate health care to all people in their custody, the absence of mandatory care standards and adequate oversight systems renders these protections largely meaningless. Some jails and prisons provide relatively good pregnancy services, but many others provide “care” that is grossly harmful, negligent, or altogether nonexistent. Owing to a lack of transparency and basic data collection, many medical harms inflicted inside jails will never never come to light.

Texas Jail Project, a nonprofit focused on advocating for the incarcerated in the state, has discovered growing evidence of abusive practices against pregnant people at Houston’s Harris County Jail. They are among the many casualties of a politically manufactured crisis that has led to abysmal conditions at the jail, including at least 28 in-custody deaths last year. Four people have died there so far this year as well. Using information gathered from whistleblowers among jail staff and local officials and from the families of those affected, Texas Jail Project has compiled and corroborated numerous reports documenting abuses suffered by pregnant people in the facility. The policy choices fueling the crisis at the jail, along with the county’s failure to hold officials accountable, have allowed repeated violations of pregnant people’s civil rights and basic dignity.

One recent instance of mistreatment at the Harris County Jail involves M.S., who was 12 weeks pregnant with twins when she was arrested in June 2022. She couldn’t afford to pay 10 percent of the $80,000 bond required for her release, so she was stuck in jail. According to M.S. and her mother, M.S. faced extreme abuse from jailers and other incarcerated people. Jailers detained her in a cell with broken air vents (a violation of minimum jail standards), repeatedly placed her in shackles, and gave her a blanket that she said was covered in feces and infested with bed bugs. In one incident, officers shoved her face-first against a wall. Two weeks later, due to dehydration, vomiting, vaginal bleeding, and abdominal pain, she was taken to the hospital and informed that she had miscarried one of the twins. She was then taken back to the jail.

M.S. reports that during the next 10 days other incarcerated people repeatedly sexually assaulted her in her cell. She was then taken to the hospital again and sedated. When she woke up, she learned that doctors had terminated the second fetus without her knowledge. She was transported back to the jail and confined in a solitary cell. For hours, she received no pads, towels, or anything else to clean herself. A few weeks later, she attempted suicide. After all of this, on Aug. 30, 2022, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges on which M.S. had been arrested and jailed. She was released in the middle of the night on Sept. 1.

Texas Jail Project reported M.S.’s mistreatment to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in July, and the commission launched an investigation. The investigation found that jailers inappropriately placed M.S. in shackles at least once and that she received a “soiled” blanket from jail staff. The commission said that the sheriff had taken unspecified disciplinary action against staff in response to the shackling incident and that M.S. had received a clean blanket after staff noticed that the first one was dirty.

A second, ongoing case involves a 24-year-old woman, H.S. Texas Jail Project first heard her story from a jailer who was alarmed by her treatment. According to whistleblowers, court records, and interviews with her family, H.S is a survivor of sex trafficking and suffers from serious mental illness. Originally arrested for possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance, H.S. spent months in jail waiting for a bed to become available in a residential rehabilitation program. While in jail, other people in her unit routinely beat her. She psychologically decompensated to the point that, in May 2021, she was found incompetent to stand trial. In July 2021, she was released with an ankle monitor to an outpatient competency-restoration program.

For reasons that are unclear from court records, H.S. was taken back into custody in October 2021 and a judge reinstated her original $25,000 bond. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest. Three months later, in January 2022, she was placed on court-ordered psychiatric medication––something typically done only when an individual is exhibiting severe psychotic symptoms.

In May 2022, H.S. gave birth alone in a solitary cell, ignored by the jailers who were responsible for ensuring her safety and making sure she got proper medical care. According to whistleblowers, she repeatedly pressed the red call button in her cell to request help. When no one came to her aid, H.S. was forced to sever the umbilical cord herself. Hours later, jailers discovered H.S. had given birth and she, along with her newborn, were then transported to a hospital.

According to court paperwork filed the day H.S. gave birth, H.S. was suffering from such severe psychiatric symptoms that she was expected to need up to 12 months of inpatient psychiatric care. Two days later, the Houston Police charged H.S. with “intentionally and knowingly” harming her child—a felony—while the newborn was in the hospital. According to reports from H.S.’s family, however, the infant, who is now in their care, is unharmed and doing well.

Local media coverage of H.S.’s case has primarily focused on the violent and sensational nature of the charges alleging that she harmed her child. But this coverage has largely failed to interrogate the jail’s claims, or to ask how this could have happened in the first place: Why was a woman with severe mental illness allowed unsupervised access to a newborn in the hospital, and how could she allegedly harm her newborn while under the custodial care of a Harris County Sheriff’s deputy? If she did hurt her infant, who should bear responsibility for that?

Because the jail keeps such incidents shrouded in secrecy, we will likely never know exactly what happened after H.S. gave birth. Nonetheless, it is clear that H.S. is a victim of the jail and of the local mental health authority’s failure to provide adequate care for a pregnant person suffering from severe psychiatric disability. Also, according to jail staff members, Harris County jail authorities never officially documented the fact that H.S. went into labor and delivered her child while alone in a solitary cell. The failure to report this sort of incident is a violation of the jail’s own policies. Despite all this, H.S. is the only one facing legal repercussions for any of the events surrounding the birth of her child.

H.S. remains in the jail’s mental health ward today, now held on a $100,000 bond. Concerned staff have said that she is frequently getting into fights and “being beat up” as she continues to decompensate. She is awaiting transfer to a maximum security unit at a state mental hospital, but the waiting list for a bed is approximately two years long.

Even when pregnant people are released from custody in time to give birth in a hospital, they often suffer lasting trauma. B.M. was eight months pregnant when she was arrested on an out-of-county warrant for alleged misdemeanor theft. She was taken to jail because she couldn’t pay a $1,000 secured bond. For two days, she sat in the booking area, waiting to be processed. During this time, she was denied access to proper food, water, showers, medications, and medical evaluation. Hours after being placed in solitary housing, her water broke.

B.M. repeatedly asked for medical attention, but jail staff instead responded by rushing to discharge her from the facility, leaving her on the street less than two hours after she alerted them that she was going into labor. She had no phone, no money, and no opportunity to notify her family or doctors that she was about to give birth.

Texas Jail Project learned about this incident because an advocate with the organization happened to be outside the jail conducting interviews when B.M. was discharged. B.M. was in obvious distress as the Jail Project advocate provided her with water and food and helped her find care at a nearby hospital. B.M. gave birth later that evening. According to hospital records, her labor lasted for a total of 28 hours. The baby was breech and suffered from health complications that appear related to the delay in B.M.’s care. The child spent three weeks in the NICU before being released from the hospital.

In an interview with Texas Jail Project conducted on the morning of B.M.’s release, a woman who was detained with B.M. and witnessed her water break corroborated B.M.’s account of her treatment in the jail. When we reached out to jail officials about the incident, they denied that B.M.’s water had broken in the facility. They claimed she had simply soiled herself, stating that such “accidents” are common among people who use drugs. Routine toxicology screenings performed while B.M. was in the hospital for the delivery found no illicit substances in her system.

Texas Jail Project has notified the jail of all these events involving pregnant prisoners. The organization also sent the jail a list of recommendations that could improve the situation at the facility, such as launching a specialized unit staffed by officers trained to work with pregnant people and equipped to provide support services to assist with pre- and post-natal care and education, breastfeeding support, case management, and post-release planning. Although the head of the jail has since resigned, nothing has changed inside the facility as far as Texas Jail Project is aware.

It’s also important to note that in each case mentioned above, existing policies should have, in theory, prevented these abuses. Clearly, policy reform is not sufficient if it leaves untouched the underlying problem: lawmakers’ continued reliance on jails and prisons, which foster a culture of abuse and neglect, when what people and communities need is supportive care.

San Quentin’s Rolling Lockdowns Are Not Keeping Anyone Safe

We’re still overcrowded and set up for disaster.

Todd Lappin | Flickr

San Quentin’s Rolling Lockdowns Are Not Keeping Anyone Safe

We’re still overcrowded and set up for disaster.

This story is published in partnership with the Inside/Out Journalism Project by Type Investigations.

After more than a year of ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns at San Quentin State Prison, where I am incarcerated, I longed to get back to normal. In April 2021, I took the Moderna vaccine. In May of that year, I moderated a COVID-19 vaccine information session to convince others to take the vaccine. Epidemiologist Kim Rhoads and Dr. Peter Chin-Hong came to San Quentin, sat at a table on the lawn, and answered questions about the vaccine.

“For every person who takes the vaccine, we’re one step closer to getting out of this pandemic,” Rhoads said.

Almost everyone in the prison listened. Ninety-four percent of our population got vaccinated against COVID-19, far more than the share of people who got the shot outside of prison. The virus that once triggered an outbreak that sickened more than 2,200 incarcerated people and killed 28 people in our San Quentin community is now relatively manageable in most cases. We took the vaccine because we were told it would get us back to normal. But we have not returned to normal, three years after the pandemic began.

Standing in the way of “normal” are hypervigilant protocols that kept San Quentin on rolling lockdowns for most of 2022. These protocols require lockdowns—canceling visits and greatly limiting activities, work and general movement—if a unit has three or more linked cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people over 14 days. The unit can only resume activities once it has no new cases for 14 days.

“Normal,” before the pandemic, meant visits with our loved ones. “Normal” meant being allowed to work in the media center where Ear Hustle, San Quentin News, and films are produced. “Normal” meant access to programs that help better us and prepare us for parole.

During lockdowns at the height of the pandemic, most of us were confined in roughly 4 by 10-foot cells for nearly 24 hours a day, usually sharing it with a cellie. While lockdowns now typically allow for a bit more time outside cells, we are still locked down for most of the day. Until a few months ago, visits, as well as most work and programming, were canceled. The prison changed its COVID-19 policies in September to allow limited visits and participation in programming if residents test negative and mask. But even after the guidelines changed, life has not returned to normal for most of us.

The last couple of years of restrictions has been destabilizing. Most incarcerated employees—who make 35 cents to a dollar per hour, depending on the job—have lost weeks or months of pay. For months, we were cut off from activities like creative writing, transformative mediation, and self-help groups. Even between lockdowns, visits from family and loved ones were limited to a small number of appointments for most of 2022. I only had three in-person visits last year because of lockdown cancellations and lack of available appointments. My education was also affected. I was one history course credit away from getting my associate’s degree in January 2020, but couldn’t graduate until June of last year.

And lockdowns have become routine. The first lockdown of 2022 was in January. While restrictions were initially scheduled for 15 days, they were extended whenever another person in the unit tested positive. Ultimately this spanned two months. Another lockdown starting in May lasted on and off until August, shutting out visitors and pausing programs again and again. The longest we went in 2022 without a lockdown in any part of the prison was two months.

I could understand if the lockdowns prevented San Quentin from repeating “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history,” as the state appeals court called the 2020 outbreak in a landmark ruling. But they are making the same mistakes. Buses have continued to deliver new arrivals from other prisons. Most recently, I’ve spoken with people coming to San Quentin from Susanville Correctional Center, which is set to close this year. While people are now tested before they are transferred, they are not isolated when they get here unless they show symptoms. They’re only tested again five days later.

Transfers like these were at the root of the 2020 outbreak. The inspector general of California found that prison officials were responsible for the San Quentin outbreak by disregarding safety protocols, transferring people to San Quentin from a facility experiencing a COVID-19 flare-up, without up-to-date testing. The state appeals court ordered San Quentin to reduce its population by half.

The state supreme court, however, sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard then concluded that while CDCR’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, the prison did not need to make any changes, because vaccines and new procedures were sufficient to safeguard the population. While the headcount at San Quentin dropped to around 2,600 by the start of 2021, it has since risen to over 3,500 people.

Meanwhile, prison staff are coming and going into an outside world that has largely abandoned masks and vaccine checks. The CDC only recommends five days of isolation for infected people, while San Quentin requires whole units to have no new cases for 14 days in order to resume normal programming. The new guidelines have also relaxed weekly testing requirements for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated prison staffers, making it even more likely that the virus will spread from outside. San Quentin staffers don’t have to test before they come to work, but we are regularly tested inside. I know many people in San Quentin who now avoid testing, even if they feel sick, out of fear that it will trigger yet another mass lockdown and get them sent to the notorious Adjustment Center (the “hole,” as we call it inside). The people with the least power are being held the most accountable. Instead of testing staff to keep the virus out, they let staff come in untested and then test us and lock us down for getting sick.

Though case counts are relatively low, there’s always the threat that a new variant could trigger another surge. If a more severe variant emerges, the lockdowns will not protect us. And we’re still bursting at the seams. The prison is currently operating at 111 percent of its capacity. But I’ve noticed some units seem even more packed. Where I am, there are lines everywhere for everything. There are arguments over the phones because there are only a few available for hundreds of people. Where I am, we’re overcrowded and set up for disaster. Researchers have found that the risk of COVID-19 infection is heightened when you’re stuck in a confined, overcrowded space.

We need a program that reflects where we are now and the danger we will likely face in the future. So far, the vaccines continue to effectively protect most people from severe COVID-19 infections. The people who are most vulnerable are the elderly and the immunocompromised. If these vulnerable people were released, it would safeguard their health and ease the pressure on the prison.

But as long as prison officials overreact and overpack San Quentin, rolling lockdowns will continue to be our new normal.

After Decades in Prison, Should Adults Convicted as Teens Get a Second Chance? A Growing Number of State Laws Say Yes

Second in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood who was sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

After Decades in Prison, Should Adults Convicted as Teens Get a Second Chance? A Growing Number of State Laws Say Yes

Second in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood who was sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice. Read Part One of the series here.

There was, understandably, no sleeping the night before. So when 5 a.m. arrived, Cordell Miller was eager to rise. Wearing his bright orange institutional shorts, he brushed his teeth and performed the customary ablution.

Next, he woke the other men on his unit at the D.C. Central Detention Facility, to kneel on colorful rugs in prayer. Miller converted to Islam a decade into his 97-year-to-life sentence. It was a time when the teen sent to die in prison desperately sought meaning.

He was 49 now and had spent 30 years locked up. On this day, Jan. 21, 2022, prayer was essential. Miller had to prove to Superior Court Judge Craig Iscoe of the District of Columbia that he was far from his 17-year-old self — the one charged with a triple homicide resulting from a drug dispute. It was Miller’s second time going in front of Judge Iscoe.

“What could I possibly say that would convince him that I should be released?” Miller asked himself.

COVID-19 complicated the already-Herculean task ahead. With the virus tearing through the jail where he was being housed at the time, his “re-sentencing” hearing would be held on Zoom. Miller’s friends, family, and supporters would not be filling the courtroom benches, but instead, appear in 40 thumbnail images on a flat screen.

Miller, brown-skinned, bald, and sporting a carefully lined salt-and-pepper beard, was too nervous to smile. But he listened intently, his hands folded in front of him as both sides presented their positions to Judge Iscoe about whether he should be eligible for imminent release.

For decades, there’s been little hope for those sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. But “second look” laws in the nation’s capital, California, Washington, Delaware, Florida, Oregon, and Michigan have changed the prospects for adults such as Miller, some of whom were charged with crimes in their youth — even serious and violent offenses.

Baltimore, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Prince George’s County, and Brooklyn launched sentencing review units to correct excessive and disproportionate sentences.

Washington, D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act became law in April 2021. It allows incarcerated people who were convicted before age 25 and have served at least 15 years of their sentence to appeal to a judge for resentencing. The law expands 2017 legislation by extending the age cutoff from 18 to 25, and reducing the required time served in prison from 20 years to 15.

Still, achieving freedom is no small feat. Defendants have to illustrate that they aren’t a danger to society and that a new sentence would be in the “interest of justice.” They must show they’ve been rehabilitated in prison, kept a clean disciplinary record, and provide statements from supporters. Their attorneys must effectively counter arguments from victims and prosecutors.

Before ruling, judges in Washington, D.C., must also consider something that sets these cases apart from more typical parole and resentencing decisions: “The diminished culpability of juveniles and people under age 25, as compared to that of adults, and the hallmark features of youth.” Those features include “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences, which counsel against sentencing them to lengthy terms in prison, despite the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime.”

Miller is one of more than 500 people eligible for resentencing under the D.C. law. According to the Second Look Project—an advocacy group that seeks relief from “extreme sentences”—under the recent iteration of the law, judges have ruled on approximately 67 such cases. Of those, 49 petitioners have been released on supervised probation.

Since the initial 2017 legislation was passed, a total of 145 cases have been decided, and 115 adults were granted release.

James Zeigler, founder and executive director of Second Look Project, describes the law as making D.C. “a more just and equitable place, and to try and remediate the mistakes of our overly punitive past.”

Federal prosecutors have argued the opposite. They say laws like these free “dangerous criminals” and deny victims a “sense of finality.” Describing the second look law in 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia said it “ignores how painful this process is for victims and will drastically increase the number of victims who must be re-traumatized.”

Prosecutors stated in a press release that it would make more than “500 violent criminals (including many rapists and murderers) immediately eligible for early release.” The prosecutors singled out judges’ ability under the then-pending legislation to release someone “despite the ‘brutality or coldblooded’ nature of the offense.”

‘An entirely different person’

At Miller’s January hearing, Safa Ansari-Bayegan, one of his court-appointed attorneys, presented first. Without minimizing Miller’s actions or the harm he caused, she told the court why — after serving 30 years behind bars — he is an ideal candidate for release.

“He’s an entirely different person today before the court, nearly 50 years old, than the misguided 17-year-old who took the lives of John Huff, Lester Cowen, and Adrienne Edmonds, and who also recognizes that he caused a lifetime of pain to their loved ones,” she said. Miller has channeled his “deep regret and his remorse into bettering himself and bettering those around him.”

Marc Howard, a professor of government and law at Georgetown University, where he directs the Prisons and Justice Initiative, described Miller as “extraordinary,” and “a committed leader.” Miller attended one of Howard’s classes in the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program, a class for incarcerated individuals and Georgetown students. Howard told Judge Iscoe that he’d happily offer Miller employment, would welcome him into his home, and introduce him to his wife and children.

Miller’s legal team also presented a psychiatric evaluation, letters, and additional witness testimony that drive home the point: He doesn’t pose a future danger to society.

Deputy District Attorney Pamela Satterfield, however, offered a thunderous rebuttal. Recalling prior testimony from a relative of one of the victims, she said they would be “horrified” that Miller wanted to get out early.

Five years earlier, the prosecution noted that Miller received a 37-year sentence reduction under a Supreme Court ruling that found juvenile life-without-parole sentences to be unconstitutional. That was more than enough relief, Satterfield said: He could still be released before he turned 80.

“Now we’re getting down to 11 years per human being, and we just think that further reduction is not in the interest of justice in this case,” she added.

Satterfield also noted a different danger: 41 months that had been tacked onto Miller’s life sentence in 1996.

Context is important for understanding that crime, his attorneys argue: At the time, his original offense had prompted several retaliatory death threats. Miller was stabbed in his head and shoulder by associates of his victims, according to court reports, and one of his co-defendants was murdered by a victim’s nephew. Then in 2007, a prisoner threatened to kill him. In a fight that followed, Miller stabbed the man.

Public safety arguments to keep people with lengthy terms locked up routinely challenge sentencing relief efforts in courts and legislatures. Lawmakers in at least 25 states have introduced Second-Look-style bills like the one in D.C., but have been unable to get them passed.

Challenges to Second Look laws abound

Opponents of early releases insist that people imprisoned for violent crimes, no matter their age at the time the crimes were committed, will likely re-offend if they are freed, and should carry out their full sentences.

In 2019, even before the bill became law, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia condemned D.C.’s second look legislation — an expansion of the 2017 Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA).

An uptick in violent crimes committed by adults during the pandemic has fueled opponents of sentencing reforms. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of murders nationwide rose by 30 percent, according to federal crime statistics, marking the largest recorded jump in a one-year period since the FBI began releasing annual figures in the 1960s. However, the violent crime numbers were still well below the highs of the 1990s. There is a lag in reporting crime trend data, but some studies show the murder rates from 2020 to 2021 have continued to climb slightly in some cities.

In such a climate, judges can be skeptical.

Attorney Destiny Fullwood-Singh, co-executive director of the Second Look Project, concedes that some people “aren’t ready to come home” from prison, and some judges’ denials are warranted. Yet in too many cases, she added, judges discount the science showing that human brains develop well into a person’s 20s—causing impulsivity and an inability to weigh consequences—and they chalk criminality up to a hallmark of a defendant’s character. Others simply don’t consider youth at the time a crime was committed to be a reason for leniency, she said.

Under the first D.C. sentencing reduction law for juvenile offenders—when the age cutoff was 18—petitioners had a 90-percent success rate in achieving release, she noted. But the newer law describing a youthful crime as one committed by those 25 and younger has been a tougher sell in court.

There is no evidence that criminal justice reforms are connected with the recent uptick in adult homicides. Criminologists question whether it has more to do with pandemic lockdowns, a dramatic increase in gun sales, and social unrest. Murder rates have increased in cities run by Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives.

And of the 115 people released under the legislation in D.C., just four people have reoffended, according to the Second Look Project.

Fullwood-Singh said, still, attorneys face resistance from some judges and prosecutors, “maybe it’s COVID, maybe it’s this kind of perceived rise in crime, maybe it’s everything. But while the success rate for IRAA is inspiring, the implementation of this law has not been without its challenges.”

Immature and malleable

Before he was arrested on murder charges in D.C., Miller had grown up with turbulence and successive losses. His father was killed, and his early caregiver in Jamaica — his beloved grandmother — initially left for the U.S. without him.

Then, when he came to join her in Brooklyn, New York, that lasted only a while before she grew too ill to care for him. He moved in with his mother but lived in a violent and abusive household that drove him to act up. Miller lived in a succession of group homes and a juvenile detention center ​​and ended up living on the streets.

His court records describe the impact of trauma on youth with backgrounds like Miller who “often become destructive, have distorted perspective, and poor self-regulation.”

In a series of interviews over the past year, Miller described his behavior as a teenager: he was immature, impulsive, and cowardly. But he was also battling a history of childhood traumas. In aggregate, these factors aren’t necessarily predictors of a criminal trajectory. But numerous studies show they are all high-risk factors.

Miller’s first crime was committed at age 13 with a group of schoolmates: stealing another boy’s winter coat. His next: a 2001 triple homicide.

This was the backdrop to what would become Miller’s life sentence in prison.

Laws that offer a pathway to release for incarcerated people like Miller are supported by a growing body of scientific research. “Emerging adulthood”—defined as ages 18 to 25—is considered a “distinct developmental stage,” in which adult punishment is considered unfair and ineffective, according to research compiled by Columbia University’s Emerging Adult Justice Project.

Youth are also malleable, amenable to rehabilitation, and have a greater likelihood of maturing from their behavior, numerous studies show.

The judiciary has responded. Citing emerging brain science, the Supreme Court has issued six decisions since 2005 classifying minors as less culpable than adults for their criminal conduct. The highest court has also barred the death penalty for youthful offenders, deeming it cruel and unusual punishment, and limited life without parole to extreme cases.

Still, racist stereotypes and exaggerated fears continue to permeate U.S. society.

The recent rise in adult violent crime, for example, has so far not held true for juveniles, federal justice officials say. Youth crime rates have fallen by more than half over the past two decades and continue to drop — including juvenile arrests for serious offenses including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, according to federal crime data through 2020, the most recent available.

Yet Black people, like Miller, continue to be overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Nationally, emerging adults account for 1 in 10 members of the general population, yet they make up 23 percent of all arrests. In D.C., they account for 11 percent of the general population but represent 26 percent of the average daily jail population. The disparity is even worse for Black D.C. residents: They represent nearly 98 percent of incarcerated people serving the longest prison terms, who were sentenced as emerging adults.

My hands were trembling

Meanwhile back in jail, while he awaited word, he sat in an office space and reflected. Miller’s 30 years behind bars were marked by violence, growth, working, praying, mentoring, and finding love as he shuffled through nine federal prisons.

He worked to climb out of the violence, learning to stick to himself, lean into his faith and be of service. He was not allowed to take certain classes because of his life sentence and because he is not a U.S. citizen, but he took every class he could, including college courses. He worked in various jobs, from janitor to health clinic orderly. And he found love. In 2015, Miller started a relationship with Tyresa Washington, 46, and later got engaged.

On this January day, he’s a mentor in the Young Men Emerging program at the D.C. jail. The program, which was founded by incarcerated men, pairs longtime prisoners with newly incarcerated emerging adults. The young men in the program have access to education, one-on-one mentoring, job training, financial literacy, and more.

Living in this unit affords Miller freedoms that the rest of the jail only dreamed of. Not only did he have access to a computer and phone when he wanted, he met congressional leaders, lawyers, and judges who came to visit the program. These were all novel firsts.

“Throughout my confinement, that’s the most freedom I’ve ever had. The most accessibility to the outside world that I’ve ever had. The most respect from staff that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “I actually felt as though I was not locked up. I felt like I was a civilian.”

These liberties were monumental. But they did not compare to the reward he had long felt from relationships he developed with younger incarcerated men. Sometimes it was as simple as offering a listening ear, other times he peaked their interest by creating rap battles or basketball competitions. It was not until he arrived at the D.C. jail that he became a mentor in a formal capacity. Miller often cautioned the young men to use the opportunities offered in the program — and expanded upon them. At one point he launched a late-morning reading group called “Book Crushers.”

Finally, Miller could offer the guidance, concern, compassion and cool temperament he wished he had as a young person.

“I tried to fulfill that void that I think that was in their lives,” he said. His goal was to try to be understanding and relate to the boys through both versions of himself: the misguided youth and the rehabilitated man.

As much as he loved helping the boys, they also fed his spirit. “I need y’all as much as y’all need me,” he would tell them. Miller was eager for freedom but did worry about his mentees.

He’d spent nearly a year with them while awaiting his re-sentencing trial, and might soon be leaving. The idea of freedom was exhilarating, but it was also fraught. He knew his absence could cause his young charges to spiral, and act out. And because of his immigration status, he feared he might leave prison for immigration detention.

Sure enough, a few weeks after his January hearing, Miller got word of the judge’s decision. His petition had been granted. He was working on the computer when an officer came to tell him he was going home.

Miller tried to call his fiancée. “My hands were literally trembling,” he recalled. “It took me about four to five minutes to dial her number.”

The day Miller left, he wore the orange uniform for one last time. It’s customary for anyone leaving prison to give their belongings to those that will be left behind. He gave the bulk of his things to the two mentees, both Muslim, that he was closest to. One mentee was gifted his cosmetics: soap, toothpaste, deodorant, toothbrushes, lotion, shampoo, and hair grease. The other, who Miller describes as financially less fortunate, received his commissary: Kool-Aid packets, soups, rice, chips, canned tuna, oysters, crackers, pastries, and all kinds of condiments.

Afterward, all the men in the unit gathered to say a few words. Miller held a net bag filled with pictures and legal paperwork. He placed his hand over his chest as he listened to his friends send him off. The men all sang a farewell song and shared a few words as Miller backed out the door dancing.

When the song was over, they said, “get out of here, you’re a free man.” One young man said, “freedom is real, now the real is free.”

“He was a good mentor,” one officer said. “We’re going to miss him. The young’uns are going to miss him. But I know he’s going to make it out there.”

His fiancée, Washington, waited outside in the car. But instead of receiving the usual sweatsuit to go home in, he was handed a blue jumpsuit. For the next three months, he’d be locked up yet again, this time by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Find out where Cordell Miller goes next. Read the postscript to Miller’s story in part three, publishing Feb. 13.

This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

A Lonely Child Finds His Way Out of Abuse and Homelessness, It Lands Him Behind Bars

First in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

A Lonely Child Finds His Way Out of Abuse and Homelessness, It Lands Him Behind Bars

First in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

On a typical day in 1990, Cordell Miller, then 16, would play basketball, dominoes, or hang out with his friends in his Brooklyn neighborhood. When night came and others went to their respective New York City homes, Miller made his rounds in search of a place to sleep: the hallway, steps and sometimes the roof of a building he could easily sneak into. An abandoned car. At times, he’d ride the subway all night long.

Fleeing the home where court documents show he suffered “extreme physical, emotional, and verbal abuse,” a park bench eventually became his base. Those dire circumstances were duly noted by a neighborhood drug dealer who approached him. He had an opportunity to propose: peddling crack cocaine.

It made sense to Miller at the time. “I felt accepted. I felt a different sense of independence. I had pocket money and didn’t have to steal food,” Miller, now 49, recalled in a series of interviews over several months. His youth and desperation gave him little pause. “At no given time, were consequences in the equation.”

But the impact of his decision would quickly become clear to the young teen. The drug trade took him to Washington, D.C., where within the year, he was convicted of a triple homicide and sentenced to 97 years to life.

At the time, the country was steeped in increasingly unforgiving “tough-on-crime” laws. Mandatory minimums forced judges to impose often out-of-scale penalties, and “truth in sentencing” required more time to be served behind bars, regardless of good behavior.

Now, decades later, developments in adolescent brain science and the success of hard-fought justice movements have changed the prospects for some adults convicted of serious crimes in their youth. They have new opportunities for release through resentencing hearings.

Miller got this second chance in Washington, D.C. The District’s Second Look Amendment Act, which took effect in April 2021, grants incarcerated people who were convicted before age 25 who have served at least 15 years of their sentences the right to petition for reduced sentences. Judges must consider the petitioner’s family and life circumstances at the time of the offense, including any history of abuse, trauma, or involvement in the child welfare system.

In an Oct. 25, 2021, appeals court record, Miller’s court-appointed lawyer noted: “The research is clear that people who have suffered a great deal of trauma in their lives often become destructive, have distorted perspective, and poor self-regulation.”

Early care from the matriarch

Not all young people with deeply troubled backgrounds end up breaking the law, and Miller is the first to admit that as a teenager he was “young, impulsive, and cowardly.” But the abuse, neglect and feelings of abandonment that marked his childhood are impossible to separate from where they led him: Homelessness and life in a series of group homes and later, Cass Residential Center, a juvenile facility in Rensselaerville, New York.

Miller’s first years were immersed in love and safety. He played under the island sun of Kingston, Jamaica in the care of his grandmother Gwendolyn Stamp, whom he called “momma.” Miller’s mother, Janett Johnson, was a teenager when he was born.

He had “brief and sporadic contact” with his father, court records show. “Tragically, before he could establish a relationship with him, his father was shot and killed. This was another violent incident in his life, which surely impressed upon him at some level the tenuousness of life and safety.”

As a small boy, Miller’s days were filled with his grandmother’s bursts of affection. On Sundays, he helped her gather the ingredients for dinners of rice and peas and curried or jerked chicken. At night, he couldn’t fall asleep unless he was resting on his grandmother’s stomach. Those sweet years were short-lived, however.

When he turned 5, Miller’s grandmother left for the United States, promising to send for him later.

His next home would be with his uncle. A young Miller ran through the dirt roads as his uncle packed the car for their long drive to St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. It was during this time, according to court records, that he witnessed the political violence of the late 1970s which led to a state of emergency and hundreds dead—and yet another lifelong scar for Miller.

In an interview, Miller recalled watching Jamaican soldiers “shooting people down the gullies.”

“People were literally getting their heads severed with machetes in the middle of the street,” he said. “It was very violent at the time. I’ll never forget that.”

For two years, he was shuffled between relatives’ homes. Court records show there were caring family members, but one relative who took him in was “emotionally and physically abusive.” She resented having another mouth to feed, and “she would beat him as if she had no care in the world.”

‘A very gentle, loving little boy’

When he later joined his grandmother in Brooklyn, things got better for a time. Their bond was so close he couldn’t imagine it would ever end. But momma would soon fall ill and return to Jamaica.

In 1983, at age 10, Miller said he went to live with his mother for the first time; Johnson and her three young daughters lived in the same neighborhood. He helped out with his little sisters, picking them up from school, boiling hot dogs and crisping slices of bologna. Sometimes he’d stay home from school to babysit while his mom looked for work, he said.

“All that stuff that regular kids used to do?” he recalled. “Nah, not me. I was taking care of my little sisters.”

Johnson made sure her son’s basic needs were met, he said. She bought him clothes and shoes for school. He remembers Christmas and birthday gifts like his first Atari home video game console.

And Miller admits he wasn’t always the perfect kid. He recalled stealing a book of food stamps and a $20 bill from his mom’s purse on occasion. With the funds, he’d go to the arcade or buy candy to share with classmates to win their favor. Still, he did not think his offenses matched the scorn he felt from his mother.

Home life was stressful on multiple fronts. According to court documents, Miller “witnessed his stepfather regularly beat his mother, often punching her in the face.” A Family Investigation Report in Miller’s court file states: “Thirty years later, he still cringes when he talks about them.”

Miller said he felt he could never access his mother’s consideration or tenderness. He describes their relationship as initially “detached and strained,” and eventually, abusive. He recalls being told that he was “ugly, no good, and going to end up in prison.”

In short, “I felt like she hated me,” he said.

Court records show his mother would lock him out of the Brooklyn apartment when he missed curfew and worse. And Miller said his punishments weren’t like an old-fashioned whooping. He reports being beaten with a broomstick and his mother digging her nails into his neck until he bled.

Afraid to go home, he wandered around playgrounds long after all the other children had left. On a few occasions, his neighbor, Roberta Jackson, saw him in the hallway and took him in.

“We didn’t ask too many questions. But we knew we couldn’t leave him in the hallway to sleep,” Jackson said. She took a liking to Miller from the start, even taking him with her to church.

Miller found comfort in Jackson, who was supportive and nurturing. And she loved him in return.

“He was a very loving, very gentle, loving little boy,” Jackson recalled.

‘Playing stupid in class’

School, however, was not a refuge for Miller. He often found himself on the defense. Singled out and bullied for his Carribean accent, he responded by taking on the persona as class clown.

“Playing stupid in class was considered a way to be popular,” Miller said.

He acted out a bit but didn’t get into too much trouble — until seventh grade.
That’s when, walking home from school one day, Miller and a group of boys eyed a schoolmate wearing a then-popular Polo coat, ski hat, and goggles. They beat him up and stole his gear. At the time, Miller said he didn’t process the fact that his victim was a schoolmate, the boy’s mother knew who the assailants were, and he was likely to get caught.

In 1987, he was arrested at 13 for the crime and given probation. Its terms included reporting every weekend to a park in downtown Brooklyn for cleaning duty. Miller showed up the first few weekends, then skipped one, returning a week later. Eventually, he stopped showing up altogether, choosing basketball with his friends instead. At his age, it felt like shirking responsibilities. The law called it a probation violation.

That sent Miller to the custody of New York State Division For Youth, residential programs and eventually a more secure detention facility.

Tina Maschi, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, reviewed the events of Miller’s childhood. Maschi, who has studied and worked with youth who have experienced trauma and turned to crime, said she often sees outsized punishments for relatively minor transgressions.

Miller’s first offense of stealing a boy’s winter coat set off a chain of events that should have been handled differently, she said: “That was extreme. Everything was extreme in the way that it was treated.”

Next came institutional abuse. At some facilities Miller was sent to, court filings document abuses that prompted him to flee.

In others, life was not that bad, he said. But even in the better residential facilities, his pattern was consistent: Connect for a while, find something that engaged him or someone who seemed to care—a particular counselor, a cooking class or weekend trips to the movies—and then the nagging feeling of being too restricted and confined. Some programs he completed successfully, even those lasting nine months. Still, he constantly yearned to be connected to his friends, to do teenage things—to be free. So he’d hop a train or a bus, and run back to Brooklyn.

Repeatedly on the run from the Division for Youth, its staff would drive around in a van looking for Miller. They always caught him.

Over a three-year period, the settings Miller was sent to in upstate New York became not so easy to escape: A home in Buffalo and then a locked facility in the remote town of Rensselaerville. The counselors there were comforting, he said. Over nine months he kept up his studies, took culinary classes, worked out in the gym—even earned money through odd jobs.

A group home in Staten Island came next, where he completed 10th grade and started his junior year of high school. He liked this place too, but the longing for his friends back home kicked in yet again.

“This group home was the best place I’d ever been,” Miller said. But he admitted to eventually becoming “very combative” and doing things to get kicked out of the program: “One day, I purposely broke the office window with a basketball.”

During a rare visit from his mom, he begged her to take him home. She reluctantly agreed, and for a while he continued commuting from his home in Brooklyn to school in Staten Island.

Before long, however, Miller started to fall back into his old habits—drinking, smoking marijuana, fighting, hanging out with older kids. He stopped going to school. He was 16 at this point and ready to fight back when his mother threatened violence.

“I saw the fear in her eyes. That was the last straw. She couldn’t take it anymore,” Miller said. “She called the police on me.”

So he fled, again. This is the day the park bench became more than a temporary fix.

He accepted the offer to deal drugs and started hustling around the clock. Miller easily outshined the boys who had homes to return to each night. No one expected him back.

‘You’re gonna end up in trouble’

Like Miller, children who experience abuse and neglect and who are exposed to violence are at increased risk of becoming caught up in the justice system. The outlook is worse for boys, and homelessness exacerbates the issue.

Federal studies show youth who have lived on the streets and have experienced physical abuse are twice as likely to be locked up than their peers, often for survival offenses such as stealing, selling drugs, or sex work.

A 2016 report for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families found that among runaway youth experiencing homelessness in 11 U.S. cities, nearly 44 percent had stayed in a jail, prison, or juvenile detention center. More than three-fourths had at least one interaction with the police at some point in their lives, and nearly 62 percent had been arrested at least once.

Professor Maschi noted another theme she saw in Miller’s life: “A lot of people who have been abused don’t know how to say no, or could easily get persuaded.” She also noted “the manipulation and deception” that can hook young people into lives of crime, especially those who, above all, are seeking love and acceptance.

“So that’s why they’re going to sell the drugs and do whatever they need to do,” Maschi said.

Miller had another trait eyed by the drug dealers in charge—his work ethic and the long hours he put in. Imagining the cash he could bring in, they suggested he go to Washington, D.C., where their enterprise was booming.

“The crew in D.C. was coming back to New York in cool cars, wearing gold rings—I was amazed by this,” Miller said. These boys were his peers. They were once “nobodies,” but had earned an admirable level of respect. “I wanted that. I wanted people to look at me with the same awe.”

Not everyone thought Miller going to Washington, D.C., was a good idea.

“He had a lot of issues at home, but we all did,” said Roxanne Vialva, his childhood girlfriend. “We all had issues, but his was a little more severe to the point where he wasn’t able to go back to the house.”

Vialva, now 49, recalled sitting with Miller on the stairs of their apartment complex until her mother called her inside for the night. He was on his own as a young teen, but often downplayed the severity of his living situation. “It was worse than what he told me. It was bad,” Vialva said. “It got to be too much for him.”

When he told her about his decision to go to D.C., she immediately objected.

“No, I don’t feel good about it,” she recalled telling him. “You’re gonna end up in more trouble than just being homeless.”

But he said he had to go. He’d get himself together and come back for her.

“I practically begged him not to go,” Vialva said. Other friends also encouraged him to stay, she said. He went anyway.

In 1990, Miller arrived in D.C. and quickly became immersed in his new life. There was money, and new friends and associates who embedded him in the cocaine trade. He became entangled in turf warfare, debts owed, and rival threats.

On July 1, 1991, according to court records, 17-year-old Miller and four other people robbed and killed his then-drug supplier and two others.

Within a year of moving to D.C., he was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder while armed and other charges. Unlike his co-defendants, he didn’t take a plea deal and decided to go to trial. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

Arriving at Lorton Reformatory, he didn’t require the highest security level. But Miller had a long prison sentence for his first adult offense. So he said he was housed in the maximum security wing for the first seven years of his sentence, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.

In part two of this story, being published Feb. 6: Cordell Miller goes to prison and has the opportunity for a rare second chance.

This story was supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation where Sylvia A. Harvey is a fellow.

To Honor MLK, Let New Yorkers in Prison Vote

Four lawmakers explain why they introduced legislation to finally end felony disenfranchisement in New York.

Marion S. Trikosko, colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd | Unsplash

To Honor MLK, Let New Yorkers in Prison Vote

Four lawmakers explain why they introduced legislation to finally end felony disenfranchisement in New York.

What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say about the fact that embedded in New York State’s Constitution is a provision that disenfranchises the more than 30,000 New Yorkers who are currently incarcerated in New York state prisons, three-quarters of whom are Black and Brown?

As we reflect on Dr. King’s life and the legacy of all of the courageous activists who were part of the great Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s, we are compelled to take urgent action to accomplish one of the goals to which he devoted his life—guaranteeing the right to vote to all. Dr. King considered the right to vote as central to all advances in civil and human rights in this country, and as “the foundation stone for political action.”

Inspired by Dr. King’s work, we have introduced legislation to amend the New York State Constitution to remove the bar on voting by incarcerated people and to affirmatively recognize the right of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to vote. Our bill S. 316/A. 412 would open the door to ending the nearly 200-year-old practice in New York of felony disenfranchisement.

Why is this so important? In New York, there are tens of thousands of people who are cruelly barred from participating in our democratic structures and from exercising what Dr. King called the “number one” civil right.

Dr. King viewed the right to vote in the context of the history of slavery and as a cruel vestige of Jim Crow laws and practices in both the South and the North. He believed, as he said in a 1959 speech, that the success of the Black struggle for voting rights would open “a new era . . . for all Americans” and would, “enlarge democracy for all people.” Thus, full suffrage is not only morally right but also ends the lingering demeaning and racist “badge of slavery” that felony disenfranchisement represents, and would benefit all of us.

In a 1965 New York Times Magazine article Dr. King reiterated this theme, writing, “When the full power of the ballot is available to my people, it will not be exercised merely to advance our cause alone. We have learned in the course of our freedom struggle that the needs of 20 million Negroes are not truly separable from those of the nearly 200 million whites and Negroes in America, all of whom will benefit from a color-blind land of plenty that provides for the nourishment of each man’s body, mind, and spirit.”

Unfortunately, the denial of full suffrage is part of our state constitution in New York, despite reforms in recent years that restored the right to vote to New Yorkers who have been released from prison.

Amending the New York State Constitution to rid New York of this denial of human rights is the right thing to do. Other states have already taken such steps. New York must join them. All New Yorkers will benefit from increased opportunities for civic and political engagement by all of our citizens. And encouraging such engagement will assist people in planning for re-entry into their communities post-incarceration and will make our neighborhoods safer.

We urge all of our colleagues in the New York State Legislature to support the passage of S. 316/A. 412.

Senator Salazar and Assemblymember Epstein are the sponsors of the voting rights constitutional amendment. Senator Myrie and Assemblywoman Walker are the Chairs of the Elections and Election Law Committees, respectively, in the Senate and Assembly.

Fake Victims Lead to Real Arrests in Online Child Sex Stings

Federally funded police task forces carry out thousands of online stings each year, despite little evidence that they prevent abuse.

iStock - LightFieldStudios

Fake Victims Lead to Real Arrests in Online Child Sex Stings

Federally funded police task forces carry out thousands of online stings each year, despite little evidence that they prevent abuse.

On July 8, 2018, Norman Achin, then a 50 year-old public school teacher living in Northern Virginia, signed up for the adults-only dating app Grindr. Two days later, he was contacted by someone calling himself AlexVA. Soon after they started talking, AlexVA told Achin that he was 14 years old. “I was looking for adult fun. Did not expect to run into your age,” Achin responded through the app on July 12. “Not interested in that kind of relationship with a boy.” The next day, he reported AlexVA to Grindr for violating its terms of use, and Grindr suspended AlexVA’s account.

In reality, AlexVA was a police officer in the Fairfax County Police Department who had been communicating with a number of men on Grindr as part of an undercover investigation.

On July 22, Achin sent a nude photo to the suspended AlexVA account—he says he doesn’t know how it happened and that he’d been communicating with other Grindr users, all adults. Achin had made similar mistakes before. On July 12, he’d sent texts intended for another adult user to AlexVA. AlexVA responded but didn’t tell Achin that he had the wrong person until they’d been exchanging messages for several hours. Achin apologized.

“You want something with an adult” he texted to AlexVA. “That’s a bad idea. Don’t you see?”

Despite Achin’s apparent efforts to dissuade AlexVA from seeking sex with adults, he was arrested on July 23, and in May 2019 a Fairfax County judge found him guilty of using a communications device to solicit a minor.

State records show Achin had no prior criminal history, nor did the prosecutor introduce evidence at trial that he’d ever sexually abused children or possessed child pornography. Still, Achin was sentenced to seven months in prison and was put on the state’s sex offender registry. He lost his job teaching at a public school and his pension. He now has a retail job and does gig work to make ends meet and pay off thousands of dollars of legal debt, he says.

Achin’s arrest was part of a bigger trend in policing. From 2018 to 2020, law enforcement agencies across the country launched almost 2,500 such “proactive” sting investigations. These investigations are carried out by special task forces funded by the federal government as part of a national strategy to prosecute online sex crimes against children. (2020 is the last year for which data is available for most task forces.)

However, the law enforcement agencies that run these task forces receive funding based in part on how many arrests and convictions they get. This may create an incentive to pursue fictitious-victim sting operations, which are often cheaper and less time-intensive than investigations of crimes with real victims. But experts on child trafficking say it’s unclear how many crimes against children these stings actually prevent, and the federal government hasn’t looked into whether the money spent on these task forces is actually keeping kids from being victimized.

The rise of the internet, in the 1990s, brought with it new types of crime that police forces needed new methods to combat. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention started a task force initiative, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) program, in response to a proliferation of child sexual abuse images and an increase in adults seeking out underage kids online. That year, the agency made its first grants, which went to ten local police agencies around the country. Still, the program’s history shows no federal funding until 2003, and it remained small through 2008, getting less than $17 million each year.

A horrific crime would change that. On Jan. 1, 2002, 13-year-old Alicia Kozakiewicz was kidnapped outside her Pittsburgh home by a 38-year-old man who had chatted with her online for months while posing as a teenage boy. He took Kozakiewicz to a townhouse outside of Washington, D.C., where he chained her by the neck, sexually assaulted and tortured her, and live-streamed all of it on the internet. Someone reported the livestream to the FBI, and three days later agents broke into the house and rescued her.

Almost six years later, Kozakiewicz told her story to a congressional committee. “I walked out the front door and found that the boogeyman is real and he lives on the web,” she testified. Her account supercharged a bill sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden that became the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008, which quadrupled funding for the task force program, to about $75 million.

“This bill will help us form a coordinated effort to go after child predators…. We know where many of these people are, and we need to go get them,” Biden said when he introduced the legislation.

Since 2010, ICAC’s funding has averaged about $30 million a year. In 2021, task forces conducted more than 137,000 investigations. The vast majority of those have been of people who manufacture, distribute, or possess child sexual abuse images, according to program data. In 2020 for example, California’s ICAC Task Force conducted approximately 3,500 investigations, of which about 3,100 involved alleged crimes involving child sexual abuse images.

However, many task force investigations involve adults using electronic communications to contact minors and going to meetup spots to see them in person. These are known as “traveler” cases, and the majority of them involve no actual children but are proactive stings like the one that ensnared Achin. In 2011, task forces conducted 1,354 investigations in traveler cases. Of those, 77 percent were proactive investigations in which undercover officers, not children, were the only victims, according to a 2011 report to the U.S. Attorney General, which contains the only performance data on the task force program publicly released to date.

Sentence lengths in these cases depend on the state. In Virginia, where Achin lives, prison terms range from 1 to 5 years and the person is placed on the state sex-offender registry. (The registry requirement is no small matter: it can, as New York State’s court system puts it, “lead to social disgrace and humiliation, loss of relationships, jobs, and housing, and both verbal and physical assaults.”)

The Northern Virginia task force that investigated Achin, NOVA-DC ICAC, is one of 61 ICAC task forces around the country. In 2022, it received approximately $400,000 through the program, which was funded at about $35 million the prior year.

For NOVA-DC ICAC, the majority of investigations have involved no real children in all but one year since 2011, the earliest year for which the task force provided data. In 2017, for example, it conducted 169 proactive traveler investigations and only 20 reactive ones, according to data obtained through records requests by the group Citizens Against Government Entrapment (CAGE), which was started by the parents of young men who have been nabbed in such stings in Washington State.

But the methods they use may not square with what the federal government itself requires of grantees. A 2017 ICAC manual on operational and investigative standards notes that officers involved in proactive investigations “shall allow the Investigative target to set the tone, pace, and subject matter of the online conversation.”

That’s not how some police stings seem to go, however. According to a court filing, in August 2022, the Washington State Patrol carried out a sting in which a detective posed as a female named Crystal on the dating app Skout, apparently listing her age as 32. “Crystal” connected with a man named Josh and sent him her number. After nearly an hour of messaging, during which they exchanged more than 30 texts, she finally told him that she was only 12 years old. “I mean it’s cool we can be friends,” he texted, later suggesting they “hang out at Taco Bell.” “[S]orry dude not into just hangin lol,” Crystal texted back. Later that night, Josh appeared to try to disengage, but Crystal responded with several more messages. Eventually, he followed Crystal’s instructions to meet at a predetermined location for sex, where he was arrested, according to a court filing.

Police behavior in that case fits with the approach WSP lieutenant Michael Eggleston described to a local TV station in 2016. “We’re not enticing people to do something they don’t already have on their mind. We’re just taking advantage of their weakness,” he said.

The Appeal asked NOVA-DC ICAC spokesperson Robert Brown for an example of a recent proactive sting. He pointed to a Fairfax County Police Department press release from August, in which the department announced that an operation had netted six men, for allegedly soliciting minors online. Virginia criminal records show that none of the men had previously been arrested for a sexual offense, and that none of the arrests resulted in charges for additional sexual crimes. (The August arrest of one of the six appears to have been for a probation violation related to an underlying 2018 conviction for using a communications system to propose a sex act with a minor, which itself could have been the result of a proactive sting.) Brown referred The Appeal’s followup questions about the men’s records to the FCPD, which didn’t respond to multiple inquiries.

These events fit with the conclusion of a study published in the Manitoba Law Journal in 2020 which examined proactive child sexual exploitation stings by the Canadian police. The study found that such operations “rarely uncover any instances of harmful behaviour, ‘real’ victimization, or any criminal activity aside from the initial conversation.”

Perverse incentives to inflate arrest and conviction numbers may lead ICAC task forces to focus on sting operations, despite their questionable public safety benefits. The PROTECT law ties ICAC funding to the number of investigative leads a task force generates and the number of cases it refers for prosecution.

For many law enforcement agencies, proactive operations are cheaper and easier than those involving real victims. For example, in a December 2015 email, Washington State Patrol captain Roger Wilbur reported to a higher-up about a recent operation in which officers posed as kids online. “Compared to other cases that can take a year or longer, may result in a few years in prison, costs [sic] hundreds of man hours, and still only result in a single arrest, this is a significant return on investment,” he wrote. “Mathematically, i[t] only cost[s] $2500 per arrest during this operation! Considering the high level of potential offense, this is a meager investment that pays huge dividends.”

But operations that target people who don’t appear to be actively looking for sex with minors may actually drain resources from interventions that could rescue real victims, say advocates and experts.

Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, which describes itself as the country’s largest advocacy network focused on preventing human trafficking, says there’s been no evaluation of whether proactive stings are effective in preventing abuse. According to Bruggeman, one way to tell whether the people being arrested are actually dangerous is if, at the time of arrest, police find evidence that the accused committed other crimes against children. If they fail to, it’s “highly problematic,” said Bruggeman. It means those arrested may not have had criminal intent and that these operations are taking time and money away from cases involving actual kids, she says.

Bruggeman, who spent three years at the U.S. Department of Justice as a human trafficking fellow in the Office for Victims of Crime, suggests that instead of evaluating task forces based on arrest and conviction numbers, the Department of Justice could use a deep-dive program evaluation method known as a “grant stat.” This would involve tracking key indicators of task forces’ performance–such as the share of ICAC arrests in which police discover evidence of other sexual crimes involving children—so that they are held accountable for achieving their goals. But that type of review has never been done with ICAC, DOJ spokesperson Tannyr Watkins said in an email. She didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking why it had not been done.

At least one judge has expressed discomfort with efforts to reel in would-be criminals through proactive stings. “The government verges too close to tyranny when it sends its agents trolling through bars, tempts people to engage in criminal conduct, and locks them up for unconscionable periods of time when they fall for the scheme,” federal judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in 2014 regarding a case in which residents of a poor Arizona neighborhood joined an undercover agent’s plan to steal nonexistent cocaine from a fake drug cartel.

Experts have expressed similar concerns about internet sex stings. A team of researchers from the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center wrote in 2010 that the “widening net created by expanding undercover operations and resources appears to be pulling in greater numbers of less hardened and younger offenders.” Law enforcement agencies, the researchers said, should take measures to ensure that they aren’t “increasing the likelihood of entrapment, cases in which individuals that might not otherwise have committed a crime against a youth are enticed to do so.”

Kathleen Hambrick, co-founder of Citizens Against Government Entrapment, said in an email that the group is trying to convince legislators in Washington State to change the focus of the state’s efforts to prevent online crimes against kids. In 2021, CAGE helped persuade lawmakers to do what the federal government has not: fund a study of whether fictitious victim stings done by the state’s ICAC task force—in an ongoing operation called “Net Nanny”—are effective in deterring or reducing crime. The study, which is due to be released next June, also is comparing the criminal histories of those arrested in stings with the histories of those arrested in traditional reactive investigations, an apparent effort to determine whether stings are misdirecting resources toward people who pose a low risk of actually offending.

CAGE also convinced the state’s Sex Offender Policy Board to recommend that the Legislature create sentencing alternatives for those convicted as a result of fictitious stings, though lawmakers haven’t yet acted on that recommendation, according to Hambrick. CAGE is also urging researchers to do more studies of the effectiveness of proactive stings.

In the meantime, Achin has gone public about his case and has gotten involved in efforts to change police procedure. He has been advocating for legislation that would restrict the use of proactive stings and he’s trying to convince criminal justice reformers to talk about the issue more. He is also writing a book about the topic, he says.

Achin’s response to his experience is not typical. Many of those caught in proactive stings do the opposite, staying in the shadows and not talking. “A lot of people, you should know, are on the sidelines, terrified,” Achin said. “The police benefit from this, politicians benefit from this, and it’s destroying lives indiscriminately, and somebody has to stand up and say something.”

FBI Crime Data is Out. Here’s What You Need to Know.

Lies, damned lies, and crime statistics.

Illustration by Daniel Longan

FBI Crime Data is Out. Here’s What You Need to Know.

Lies, damned lies, and crime statistics.

This story was produced with support from The Academy for Justice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

On Oct. 5, 2022, the FBI released its annual report on crime in the United States for 2021, just as it has done for more than 90 years. If the past is any indicator, the new data will likely trigger a slew of media coverage, ranging from clickbait listicles about “the most dangerous cities in America,” to speculative think pieces conveniently blaming year-to-year fluctuations in crime on a single policy or idea.

As we prepare for the reactions to the new crime data, we must be aware of the limitations of the FBI statistics, and the ways they get manipulated for political purposes. The public’s perception of crime remains profoundly disconnected from actual crime rates, with the majority of Americans reporting that they believe crime has increased nearly every year between 1990 and 2020, according to Gallup opinion polling. In reality, violent crime fell during all but seven of those years, and property crime fell during all but two.

To make informed decisions about public safety, we must first establish a common understanding of what crime statistics say, and what they can and cannot tell us.

How Crime Becomes Crime Data

Because the vast majority of crimes never get reported to law enforcement, crime data is never a perfect reflection of crime itself. In order for a crime to end up in the FBI’s crime data:

  • The crime must be reported to or observed by the police.
  • Police must accurately record the crime in their internal database.
  • The respective police department must share its data with the FBI.

Each step in the process presents its own challenges. Surveys conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that more than 50 percent of violent crimes and around 70 percent of property crimes are never reported to police. For certain types of offenses, such as sexual assault, upwards of 75 percent of incidents may never be officially documented.

Reporting rates can vary significantly from year to year, creating the appearance of trends that may not actually exist. For instance, research suggests that in the wake of the #MeToo movement in late 2017, the proportion of rapes reported to police increased by roughly 10 percent nationwide. Conversely, studies have found that high-profile incidents of police violence can make residents less likely to call 911 or report offenses to police. In some cases, much smaller changes can have a major impact on overall reporting rates. In San Francisco, for example, reported incidents of shoplifting doubled for one month last year after one Target store implemented a new security system that automatically reported thefts to the police.

But even when crimes do get reported to police, it doesn’t mean they will ultimately submit accurate data to the FBI. The FBI only audits crime reports from local agencies when the agencies request it, which doesn’t happen often. Reporting by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2012 found that fewer than 1 percent of law enforcement agencies received an audit during each of the preceding five years. Some states, such as Texas, perform their own checks to ensure accurate reporting, but many states do not.

This leaves ample opportunity for departments to report inaccurate numbers, often intentionally. Police have been manipulating crime data for as long as this data has existed. In 1931, just one year after the FBI began collecting crime statistics from local police, a presidential commission concluded that police departments could not be trusted to report accurate data, because they had skewed figures to seek “expanded powers and equipment for the agency in question rather than for the purposes which criminal statistics are designed to further.”

Since then, investigations by media outlets and oversight agencies have uncovered numerous examples of systematic efforts by police departments to manipulate crime data for their own purposes. Perhaps most notoriously, in 2009, the NYPD detained Officer Adrian Schoolcraft in forced psychiatric hospitalization for six days after he blew the whistle on efforts to artificially lower the crime rate by discouraging victims from reporting crimes and misclassifying serious crimes as minor offenses. Similarly, in 2014, an investigation by Chicago Magazine found that the Chicago Police Department had lowered the city’s official murder rate by recording homicides as non-criminal deaths.

Data manipulation can work in the opposite direction, too. A 2014 investigation by the Department of Justice found that a Georgia police department had reported roughly 11,000 aggravated assaults in 2009, even though the department had investigated fewer than 2,000. The over-reporting was ultimately uncovered as part of a bid to win a $3 million federal grant to hire more officers.

Of course, not every inaccurate statistic is the result of intentional dishonesty. In 2018, the Long Beach Police Department admitted that it had over-counted cases of aggravated assault because its crime analysts had misunderstood the FBI’s definition of the offense.

Inaccuracy issues aside, many police departments simply do not report any crime data to the FBI. For most of the past 20 years, somewhere between 15 to 30 percent of law enforcement agencies failed to report complete crime data to the FBI. As a result, we have no crime data for jurisdictions that cover somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of all U.S. residents.

This year, the issue of non-reporting is worse than it’s been in decades. That’s because the FBI is no longer accepting data from agencies that use the Summary Reporting System (SRS), the method of compiling crime statistics that dates back to the earliest days of the annual crime statistics program. Instead, they’re requiring agencies to use the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), a more sophisticated approach to tabulating crime data that tracks an expanded list of offenses and includes more detailed information about each individual criminal incident, such as the property value of goods stolen in a theft.

Although NIBRS was launched in 1989, until last year, the FBI allowed departments to use either method to report crime data. Even though the FBI had announced its plans to phase out the SRS in 2015, many agencies—including the New York City Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department—have yet to update their computer systems to comply with NIBRS reporting requirements. As a result, this year’s crime statistics will include complete data from just over 50 percent of law enforcement agencies in the country. Nearly 40 percent didn’t submit any data at all.

As a consequence, the overall numbers the FBI released at the national, regional, and state levels will be far less precise than usual, meaning it’s not possible to say for sure whether crime rose, fell, or stayed the same between 2020 and 2021.

What Crime Statistics Miss

Most of the crimes included in the annual crime report—homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, rape, arson, larceny, burglary, and motor vehicle theft—were selected by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1929, and they largely reflect concerns about street crime, rather than white-collar offenses and even organized crime.

These offenses aren’t even necessarily the most harmful from a societal perspective. Property crimes accounted for roughly $30 billion in economic losses in 2019; in contrast, a 2014 estimate by the Economic Policy Institute found that wage theft cost workers nearly $50 billion every year. Similarly, homicides killed just under 19,000 people in 2020, less than one-tenth of the number of people in the U.S. who die of pollution-related causes each year. Although most of those deaths are caused by perfectly legal means (operating a coal power plant isn’t illegal), criminal enforcement of environmental laws is virtually nonexistent.

The FBI’s limited definition of “crime” means that official statistics present only a partial picture of criminality. If someone robs a McDonald’s, the robbery might show up in the annual crime statistics. But if McDonald’s steals money out of its workers’ paychecks, the FBI’s crime figures won’t count it. In this way, the outsized focus on the most sensational types of crime allows some of the most egregious offenders to escape notice. This matters because many police departments use crime data to decide where to invest their resources. If the data placed an equal emphasis on white-collar crimes, police might struggle to justify their current enforcement priorities.

Although NIBRS includes an expanded list of offenses, it isn’t much better. Most of the new categories include things like drug crimes, illegal gambling, prostitution, and vandalism. The handful of white-collar offenses it does include, such as bribery and embezzlement, aren’t tracked by many law enforcement agencies, so these crimes are still unlikely to garner much attention.

How to Lie with Crime Statistics

Media outlets and politicians add to the public’s misunderstanding of crime by searching for simple takeaways in the numbers where none exist, in some cases leading them to abuse data that is already suspect to begin with.

By far the most common genre of crime data story, the “Most Dangerous Cities in America” listicle, is also the most erroneous. Writing an article that claims Philadelphia is more dangerous than Houston may be a good way to get clicks, but comparing crime figures across jurisdictions can elide important differences in geography, demographics, and how various municipalities are structured and governed. A city whose borders include affluent suburbs can’t be easily compared with one whose jurisdiction ends just a few blocks outside of an urban core.

Nonetheless, these comparisons are so frequent that the FBI now includes a “Caution Against Ranking” in its annual crime data release. The FBI notes that “rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular state, county, city, town, tribal area, or region” and “lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.”

Another major error media outlets make when reporting on crime statistics is aggregation. When an article talks about the “crime rate,” it’s lumping together each of the individual crimes that make up the FBI’s crime index. The problem is that this counts all crimes equally, regardless of severity. In 2019, there were just over 8 million index crimes reported in annual crime statistics. Of those, more than 5 million were cases of larceny/theft; just a little over 16,000 were homicides. The number of homicides could triple and the overall crime rate would barely budge.

Even when reporters use a slightly narrower measure, such as the violent crime rate, homicides still account for less than 2 percent of all offenses included in the FBI’s violent crime index. Thus, it’s important to be precise about which crimes are up and which are down.

Most importantly, crime statistics don’t tell you why crime rates are changing. Journalists will often turn to experts to try to fill in this gap, but even experts rarely know what causes crime to increase or decrease from year to year, or even decade to decade. Nonetheless, the hunt for simple explanations dominates much of the coverage around the annual crime data release: Crime is up because of bail reform, or because people bought more guns, or because schools were closed during the pandemic, or because kids are playing too many violent video games and listening to Beatles records in reverse. The reality is that all, some, or none of these factors might be at play, but identifying the impact of any single factor is often impossible.

What Are Crime Statistics Good for Anyway?

Given these issues, one might wonder if we shouldn’t just ignore crime statistics entirely. But this data can be helpful if used properly.

The FBI publishes historical crime data going all the way back to 1975, which can provide essential context for understanding how year-to-year changes in crime rates fit into longer trends. The increase in homicides during 2020 was one of the largest jumps in decades, but even so, homicides remain well below their peak in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Additionally, the annual release of crime data includes more than just the topline figures that tend to dominate news coverage. The FBI also releases detailed statistics on topics like arrests, police employment, and use of force. While these data collections come with their own problems, digging deeper into FBI data can help reveal misallocations of police resources, such as departments that arrest thousands of people for low-level offenses while only solving a fraction of murder cases. This data can also expose racial disparities in law enforcement practices.

And, while distinct from the FBI’s annual reporting, many cities, including Chicago and Baltimore, publish detailed data on crimes and police activity in real time. This information can be useful for journalists, community organizers, and policymakers who want to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.

It’s impossible to have a meaningful debate about public safety policies and priorities without reliable facts and figures to ground discussion. Crime data can be a valuable tool in this context, but only to the extent that it’s accurate and the public is aware of its shortcomings. Until the FBI boosts participation in NIBRS—which may not happen until 2025 or later—media outlets and researchers have the responsibility to help fill in the gaps.

DOJ Admits It Has No Idea How Many People Die in Law Enforcement Custody

Thousands of deaths in jails, prisons, and police custody have gone uncounted in recent years. Now the DOJ is calling for changes to federal law.

Emiliano Bar via Unsplash

DOJ Admits It Has No Idea How Many People Die in Law Enforcement Custody

Thousands of deaths in jails, prisons, and police custody have gone uncounted in recent years. Now the DOJ is calling for changes to federal law.

The federal government has failed to count thousands of deaths in law enforcement custody over the past three years, the Department of Justice conceded in a report published last week.

The report, authored by the Office of the Attorney General, offers an unprecedented accounting of the government’s neglect in tracking deaths in U.S. prisons and jails and at the hands of police, as required under the Death in Custody Reporting Act. Since October 2019, the DOJ has missed at least 18 percent of all deaths in state prisons, 39 percent of deaths in local jails, and between 62 and 71 percent of deaths in police custody, according to the report, which compared the number of deaths reported under DCRA with publicly available sources of information.

In total, more than 5,000 deaths in the criminal legal system have gone uncounted over the past nearly three years. Fifteen states failed to report any arrest-related deaths in that period, and seven states failed to report any deaths in local jails.

“This underreporting is widespread, and not the result of a small number of lagging or uncooperative states,” the report says. The DOJ claims that without changes to DCRA, it will be unable to collect “accurate and complete information” on deaths in custody.

The findings seem likely to bolster criticism from congressional lawmakers who have accused the DOJ of “preventable” failures in implementing the law. On Tuesday, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is set to hold a hearing on Capitol Hill that will include testimony from the DOJ official in charge of collecting in-custody death data, as well as two witnesses whose family members died in custody in Georgia and Louisiana.

Shortly before Tuesday’s hearing, the subcommittee—led by Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat—released its own findings on DCRA implementation, documenting nearly 1,000 deaths in custody that went uncounted in the 2021 fiscal year alone. The subcommittee report found that 70 percent of deaths reported to the DOJ were missing at least one piece of information required by DCRA. In roughly 40 percent of cases, no cause of death was reported.

The DOJ report attributes its failure to track deaths under DCRA to “unintended consequences” of the legislation, which “have degraded and hindered the Department’s ability to produce complete and accurate information.”

Congress passed DCRA in December 2014, prompted in part by the high-profile police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The legislation requires states and federal law enforcement agencies to report all deaths that occur in prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities, as well as all fatalities that occur during police interactions with civilians.

States that fail to report data to the federal government risk losing up to 10 percent of their federal funding under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program. Byrne JAG funds are the primary source of federal money for nearly every part of a state’s criminal legal system, including police, prosecutors, public defenders, jails, prisons, and probation and parole systems.

Federal efforts to collect in-custody death data have yielded mixed results over the past two decades. A voluntary data collection program by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) received nearly 100-percent response rates from state prisons and local jails, documenting more than 85,000 deaths between 2000 and 2019, when the program ended. In contrast, a BJS effort to track arrest-related deaths by relying on reports from state governments was abandoned in 2014 after an internal study found that states were failing to report roughly half of all arrest-related deaths.

In 2016, the BJS announced plans to improve reporting by collecting data directly from state and local law enforcement agencies. The BJS was also supposed to supplement the data reported by the agencies using open-source methods, such as databases like Mapping Police Violence. However, as The Appeal reported in 2020, the decision to tie in-custody death data to federal grant funding under the 2014 DCRA unintentionally scuttled this plan. Because the BJS can only collect data for research purposes, DOJ lawyers concluded that the agency could no longer be involved in tracking in-custody deaths. Instead, the responsibility would fall on the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which oversees the Byrne JAG Program but has little experience managing large-scale data collections.

Beset by internal debates over how to best implement the legislation, the DOJ failed to collect any data from states under DCRA for nearly five years after the law went into effect. A proposal released in December 2016 relied on a combination of centralized state-level reporting of death data and open-source data collection. But Donald Trump’s DOJ quickly scrapped this plan, replacing it with a stripped-down version that relied exclusively on quarterly reports from state officials, who were expected to collect data on all three categories of reportable deaths. The new plan also eliminated the voluntary data collection program for prisons and jails under BJS, meaning that states—rather than individual local agencies—would be solely responsible for compiling statistics.

According to the DOJ’s report last week, this reliance on state-level reporting meant that the DOJ had no choice but to replace a program that had nearly a 100-percent response rate with one that relied on state officials “using varied strategies [that] collectively have proven to be ineffective in producing complete and accurate information.“

In a DOJ survey published in the report, state officials responsible for collecting mortality data under DCRA reported widespread noncompliance among local jails and law enforcement agencies. Two-thirds of surveyed officials said that they lacked any leverage to force uncooperative local agencies to comply. Earlier this year, a review of state policies on in-custody death reporting by The Appeal found that just 15 states have laws that require correctional facilities to report in-custody deaths, leaving them with little recourse to compel agencies to comply with DCRA standards.

Because of these systemic failures, the DOJ says that it would be “unfair” to penalize states for failing to report deaths as required by DCRA. “The penalty could be applied to a state, even when that state may be fully reporting to BJA what it has received from local agencies and where the lack of reporting is occurring only at the local level,” the report says.

The absence of official data has left journalists and researchers to rely on open-source data to fill critical gaps in our understanding of the extent of deaths in law enforcement custody. A 2020 investigation by Reuters documented more than 7,500 deaths in 500 U.S. jails between 2008 and 2019, finding a 35-percent increase in death rates over the past decade. A report earlier this year by PennLive revealed that officials in Pennsylvania jails were routinely failing to report deaths that occurred after people in their custody were hospitalized.

With no official statistics on deaths in prison and jails since the beginning of the pandemic, nonprofit organizations have had to lead the way in tracking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on incarcerated people. Figures collected by the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project using publicly available information suggest that at least 3,000 incarcerated people have died from COVID since the start of the pandemic. But this figure may be missing thousands of additional deaths, as there is no consistent standard for reporting COVID-related fatalities in custody.

DCRA’s failures have also left the public with no official data on the number of people killed by police each year. Although data collected by Mapping Police Violence using open-source methods finds that police have killed at least 8,224 people since DCRA became law in December 2014, this figure is almost certainly a substantial undercount.

“[Journalists and nonprofits] have stepped in to attempt the data collection that DOJ is statutorily obligated and best situated to do, as DOJ has the resources, expertise, and tools to facilitate compliance and conduct cross-jurisdictional data analysis,” the Senate report says.

To correct these issues, the DOJ report proposes reforms to DCRA that would allow the DOJ to collect data directly from law enforcement and correctional agencies. Funding would also be provided to help state and local agencies improve their data collection practices, and penalties for noncompliance would be made mandatory. In the meantime, however, the DOJ says it intends to leave the public in the dark.

“DOJ is not required to—and has no specific plans to—publish any state and local custodial death information for FY 2020, FY 2021, or beyond,” the Senate report says.

Instead of Rehabilitation, Prisons Fuel a Vicious Cycle of Instability

Incarcerated people need opportunities to learn and grow.

Sayan Moongklang/iStock

Instead of Rehabilitation, Prisons Fuel a Vicious Cycle of Instability

Incarcerated people need opportunities to learn and grow.

During my 31 years in prison, I have watched as almost all programs aimed at rehabilitating people have been drastically reduced or completely eliminated. What is left is a system that is focused exclusively on punishment—punishment that continues even after a person’s time has been served—and a system that leaves everyone, inside prison and out, at risk and cruelly misserved.

Prisons in the United States haven’t always been like this. When I entered the system, in 1990, things were starkly different. In Maryland, where I first went to prison, the Jaycees and other civic organizations, the NAACP, and various support groups had prison chapters so that the incarcerated population could actively engage with the diverse missions and values of each group. The NAACP used to send sponsors to meet with us and educate us on how to register to vote while still in prison, which is almost unheard of now.

We also had opportunities for leadership and community engagement. I was the president of a youth organization at my prison from 1993 to 1995. We brought in guest speakers that included community leaders and politicians such as the late congressman Elijah Cummings and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Media outlets would cover our annual summit, which featured panel discussions with incarcerated people, their families, and community leaders on topics such as the value of youthful offenders returning to their communities and the importance of second chances.

Our options for education were seemingly unlimited, including the chance to obtain associate’s, bachelor’s, and even master’s degrees, because the Pell Grant was still available to prisoners back then.

It didn’t feel like we were being warehoused. We had seemingly free reign to go where we needed without having to get a pass or wait to be called. One building had religious studies; another had gym equipment; another had a law library. Even though we were in prison, we could use these resources freely, as long as we didn’t abuse them. We weren’t just doing time and looking for trouble; we had activities that not only kept us busy but also helped us to flourish.

In 1994, all of that began to change. That’s when Congress passed President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, which gave states lots of money to build new prisons but took away funding for educational and rehabilitative programs. There were cuts to a number of in-prison programs as a result of the legislation, which was championed by both Democrats and Republicans. One of the most damaging results was the end of our eligibility for the Pell Grant program, which helped incarcerated people pay for college education.

When this happened, I had just started my own college education, studying for an associate’s degree in general studies at Baltimore City Community College after getting my GED in 1992. I was just beginning to enjoy learning for the first time. School helped me be more disciplined, and focusing on my studies kept me out of trouble. Having my access to education taken away at that time was devastating. And I wasn’t the only one. Within a decade, the percentage of prisoners taking college courses fell by almost half, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

When they cut all the programs, there was nothing left for a young person to do besides hang out on the tiers outside our cells, in dayrooms, or in the exercise yard. I was surrounded by young people who were running around without any real supervision or programming. In that environment, my friends and I started getting bad ideas. In 1996, at the age of 25, I became one of the originators of a prison gang that soon became prevalent in the Maryland state prison system, which resulted in me being sent to a high-security prison for five years. My situation was a prime example of idle time not serving the youth! (I left that gang many years ago. After five years in max, I was ready to turn over a new leaf.)

When you imprison people for decades without caring about their welfare, they return to society no better than when they went in. The stigma of prison affects every aspect of their lives. They can’t vote. They struggle to find jobs. Their families may be broken or estranged. They deal with many kinds of mental and physical health issues. By failing to prepare them for life after prison, we are creating a vicious cycle of instability in underserved communities.

When you give people opportunities for education, however, it opens up a whole new world to them. When people come into prison, they often struggle with negative or self-destructive impulses. Learning helps people change their mentality and values—and ultimately their behaviors change, too. If we want people to make better choices, we need to give them better options.

My nonprofit, Inside/Outside Consults, is committed to reimagining prisons and changing their culture from one founded in a philosophy of penalization to one focused on mental health and restorative justice. We encourage state officials to adopt educational programs, mental health treatment, and policy changes based on the Scandinavian model to improve safety, dignity, and respect for prison employees and incarcerated people alike.

Incarcerated men and women are human beings, first and foremost. We have to help them move on from the stigma of prison while they accept responsibility for the harm they have caused. That won’t happen if we don’t give people in prison the chance to learn and grow.

Amid Fears of Crime and Mental Illness, States Move to Expand Forced Treatment

Advocates of assisted outpatient treatment say it could reduce homelessness and mass shootings. Critics call it incarceration by another name.

Cory Mogk | Unsplash

Amid Fears of Crime and Mental Illness, States Move to Expand Forced Treatment

Advocates of assisted outpatient treatment say it could reduce homelessness and mass shootings. Critics call it incarceration by another name.

In 1999, a 32-year-old woman, Kendra Webdale, died in New York City after being shoved in front of a subway train. The man who pushed her, Andrew Goldstein, had been released from a mental hospital just over two weeks earlier.

The media outrage that followed Webdale’s death blamed New York’s mental health system—and the state’s elected officials—for allowing Goldstein to go free in the days before her killing.

“Bedlam on the streets,” a New York Times headline declared. The accompanying story described Goldstein as a “ticking time bomb” who should have a disclaimer on his forehead: “If off medication, run for cover!” Though crime in the U.S. had had reached its lowest levels in decades, the New York Post wrote that New Yorkers were living in fear of being pushed in front of a train by “a crazed attacker.”

The New York legislature responded by passing Kendra’s Law, which gave courts the power to force people with “a history of lack of compliance with treatment for mental illness” into “assisted outpatient treatment”—or AOT—which usually entails a compulsory regimen of psychiatric medication. People who fail to comply with these orders can be detained by law enforcement and face possible involuntary hospitalization.

Two decades later, more than 40 states have enacted some form of AOT legislation. A 2016 study estimated that at least 9,000 people are under AOT orders nationwide, including more than 3,000 in New York alone. Proponents point to statistics showing reduced rates of hospitalization, arrests, and homelessness among people who receive AOT orders, but research also suggests that compulsory treatment is no more effective than voluntary treatment—and, in some cases, may even cause harm.

Now, amid worsening crises of mental health, addiction, and homelessness, several states, including New York, Washington, and California, are in the process of expanding their use of AOT, even as mental health advocates raise concerns that there aren’t enough voluntary treatment options.

“There’s always this rush to force treatment as the answer, but … we don’t have enough treatment services for people who explicitly are like, ‘I want these services,’” said Kimberly Mosolf, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, which has opposed the state’s effort to expand AOT. Many states, including Washington, have “an underfunded, outpatient community-based mental health system,” she added.

In the decades leading up to the passage of Kendra’s Law, New York, like many other states, had sharply reduced its mental hospital population in a wave of “deinstitutionalization,” enabled by the development of the first effective antipsychotic medications. Between 1953 and 1999, the number of people in New York’s psychiatric institutions dropped from 93,000 to just 6,000. As people left these facilities, however, states often failed to provide support. Many people ended up on the streets or entangled in the criminal legal system. By 1999, there were more than three times as many people with mental illness in jails and prisons as there were in state hospitals.

Some mental health experts argued that the turn away from compulsory treatment during the second half of the 20th century was a historic mistake driven by an uninformed concern for civil rights. “Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Americans are eking out a pitiful existence on city streets, underground in subway tunnels or in jails and prisons because of the misguided efforts of civil rights advocates to keep the severely ill out of hospitals and out of treatment,” psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey and attorney Mary Zdanowicz wrote in a 1999 op-ed.

In 1998, Torrey founded the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) to push policymakers to expand the use of involuntary treatment. The organization soon became the leading advocate for the adoption of AOT programs nationwide, pushing AOT as a solution for homelessness, addiction, crime, and even mass shootings. TAC found numerous allies, including major psychiatric organizations, legislators on Capitol Hill, and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Today, AOT represents a small portion of a vast apparatus of state-mandated mental health treatment. There are no official figures, but researchers estimate that more than 1 million people in the U.S. are subject to involuntary psychiatric detentions each year, most lasting for no more than a few days at a time.

Unlike involuntary hospitalization, AOT—which typically lasts several months to as long as one year, with the possibility of renewal—allows people with mental illnesses to remain in their communities while receiving treatment. Nonetheless, civil liberties advocates say that AOT and psychiatric detention both rest on the premise that some individuals need to be compelled to engage with treatment.

“It can be a very traumatic, difficult experience to be forced to do something,” Mark Cooke, a lawyer with the ACLU of Washington, said. “If things don’t go well, how are you going to enforce it? And is that going to compound trauma for people?”

But proponents of AOT say that a court order is the only way to get some people into treatment. The premise of AOT rests partly on the concept of the “black robe effect”—the idea that people who resist psychiatric care will be more likely to comply if they have to meet with an authority figure, such as a judge.

Data from New York show that people who received AOT are less likely to be hospitalized, become homeless, or engage in harmful behavior. However, other studies suggest that these results may have more to do with direct access to mental health services than with the compulsory nature of AOT. A 2017 systematic review of studies on AOT found little evidence that AOT patients had better outcomes than people who received voluntary care.

Nonetheless, amid growing concerns over homelessness and crime, legislators in multiple states have passed or considered laws that further empower courts to require counseling, evaluation, and medication.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently signed a budget that expands eligibility for AOT orders and allows courts to renew orders within six months after they expire if a person experiences an increase in symptoms of mental illness. The original law required that someone exhibit “violent behavior” to qualify for a renewal; Hochul’s budget eliminates this requirement.

For Harvey Rosenthal, CEO of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, the new budget presents a conundrum. “I’ve been calling it a tale of two budgets,” he said. Rosenthal noted that the budget includes crisis response reforms and wage increases for mental health workers, but he said he finds the expansion of AOT troubling.

“It’s about coercion and criminalization,” Rosenthal said.

Part of the logic behind the expansion of Kendra’s Law is that it will improve community well-being. However, critics say placing forced treatment of the mentally ill side by side with other public safety measures promotes the idea that people suffering from psychiatric disorders present a unique threat to the broader populace. In reality, people with serious mental health problems commit only about 3 to 5 percent of all violent crime. “Candidly, it’s an election issue and some mentally ill people have been cast as violent,” Rosenthal said.

Another issue, according to critics of AOT, is that there is a general lack of mental health services that might keep people out of crisis in the first place.

When the Washington legislature considered SHB 1773, a bill to expand the use of AOT, earlier this year, peer support groups, civil liberty organizations, and disability rights proponents said that the legislation would lead to an influx of cases that Washington’s state hospitals were unequipped to handle. In 2018, the state’s largest psychiatric hospital lost $53 million of federal funding after it was found in violation of regulatory standards.

Advocates also say that critical gaps in other services, such as housing, can make it harder for individuals to complete court-ordered treatment.

“I do not have funding for, nor is funding provided for, housing,” said Joshua Wallace, who heads Peer Washington, a community-based group that provides mental health support and other services. “There were some people who … could not be released because there was no housing for them. That’s like 200 people who continue to be held against their will.”

Under Washington law, people under civil commitment orders cannot be released into unsafe or unhoused environments.

“If they weren’t homeless when they went in there, they likely lost their home while they were in there. So no place to release, no release,” Wallace said.

Despite these concerns, the legislature approved SHB 1773 in March, with nearly unanimous support.

In California, lawmakers are looking to expand AOT as a tool to manage growing frustrations about the state’s unhoused population. In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a proposal to invest $12 billion in reimagining the state’s mental health care system, including the creation of so-called Community Assistance Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Courts, which could compel as many as 12,000 people into forced treatment. The California State Senate approved the legislation at the end of May; it’s currently awaiting a hearing in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.

The $65 million CARE program would offer participants no guarantee of housing, according to an open letter published by Human Rights Watch, though Newsom’s budget would include specific plans for what is being calledmental health housing.”

“A lot of the folks that are targeted for this are people that are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness,” Andrew Imparato, the executive director of Disability Rights California, said. “And it’s not clear how the housing aspect of this CARE plan is going to work.”

Imparato worries that CARE Courts will give the state new powers to forcefully remove unhoused people from the public view, under the pretense of providing medical care.

“The politics in California around people who are unhoused—they’re nasty. Every elected official is under pressure to ‘do something’ about homelessness,” Imparato said. “And I really feel like CARE Courts are a way of saying, ‘Well, we need to try something.’”

The Human Rights Watch letter echoed those concerns, saying, “These state actors could place those who disobeyed their commands into the CARE Court process and under the control of courts.”

Instead of increasing states’ reliance on forced treatment, policymakers could expand funding for peer-respite centers, says Stefanie Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, executive director of the peer support collective Project LETS. These centers provide crisis intervention along with support from mental health care workers who have direct experience with being shuffled through psychiatric and drug treatment systems themselves. Peer respites often work directly in and with communities that have high rates of mental health and addiction problems, but they function less as an arm of the state and more as a guiding hand between social services and patients.

These centers offer a holistic set of services in areas such as suicide prevention, drug counseling, and connections to more traditional off-site resources while allowing patients to have more control over deciding how long they stay and when crisis intervention is necessary.

Peer support systems such as respite centers have also been found to reduce hospitalization rates and inpatient intervention, although there is no research directly comparing their outcomes with AOT.

Just as importantly, Kaufman-Mthimkhulu said, peer-led treatment programs allow people with mental illnesses to retain their autonomy while receiving the support they need.

“The reality is … that a cage and imprisonment doesn’t only have to be inside of a physical cell that is outside of your home or outside of your community,” Kaufman-Mthimkhulu, who has experienced involuntary hospitalization, said.

“So, if somebody is being told they can and can’t leave, what they can and can’t put in their body, if someone is being told that they have to see a provider … all of those things, to me, are incarceration.”

Illinois Prison Water Contamination Keeps Getting Worse

Water at 12 state prisons has tested positive for the bacteria this year.

Stateville Correctional Center, in Crest Hill, Illinois.
Photo via Rw2/Wikipedia.

Illinois Prison Water Contamination Keeps Getting Worse

Water at 12 state prisons has tested positive for the bacteria this year.

Legionella bacteria have been found in the water at 12 Illinois prisons since testing began in February, according to lab reports obtained by The Appeal. Legionella can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia. More than 9,000 people are incarcerated across the impacted facilities.

The new testing results seem likely to buoy concerns from community members about water quality issues in Illinois prisons. Earlier this month, local groups called for the state to conduct a top-down assessment of the water infrastructure at the state’s prisons after an Appeal investigation published in March revealed that Legionella was found in five prisons, not two as the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the state health department first announced. The revelation prompted accusations from advocates that IDOC had initially misled the public about the extent of the contamination.

Water sources at 33 out of IDOC’s 45 facilities have now been tested for Legionella bacteria, according to lab reports the department shared with The Appeal. The latest results show that contaminated water has been detected at Jacksonville Correctional Center, Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Taylorville Correctional Center, Dixon Correctional Center, Logan Correctional Center, Decatur Correctional Center, and Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center. Previous rounds of testing returned positive results at Graham Correctional Center, Joliet Treatment Center, Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, Northern Reception and Classification Center at Stateville (Stateville NRC), and Stateville Correctional Center. Testing is conducted by the University of Illinois.

Contaminated water has been a longstanding problem in Illinois prisons, many of which have aging infrastructure. A study of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan showed that old pipes can contribute to the growth of Legionella bacteria. In Illinois, several of the state’s prisons opened decades ago. Stateville, one of the state’s oldest prisons, opened almost a century ago, in 1925. Of the other prisons where Legionella was found, most were built well over twenty years ago.

One person at Stateville was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ in 2015, and in 2020, two people incarcerated in Illinois’ Pontiac Correctional Center—which opened in 1871—contracted the disease. The water at Pontiac was tested in May, and the bacteria were not detected, according to a lab report provided by IDOC to The Appeal.

In February, just a month before legionella was found in Stateville NRC, the civil rights firm Uptown People’s Law Center and Jenner & Block LLP sued the prison’s warden and director over conditions at the facility. They alleged, among other claims, that sink water in the cells smells “like sewage and has a faint, brown color.” According to the complaint, staff bring in their own jugs of water. After The Appeal reported that Legionella have been found at NRC, the attorneys filed an amended complaint, stating that prison officials have not supplied prisoners “with bottled water on a consistent basis.” Several incarcerated people said they had not received “any alternative drinking water sources.”

After the first round of positive tests in March, IDOC hired a water consulting firm to conduct additional testing and implement a “Corrective Action Plan,” an IDOC spokesperson told The Appeal in an email. Steps in the plan include flushing contaminated water sources, posting advisories informing people of contaminated water, and replacing old faucets at certain facilities, according to the spokesperson.

Water sources that have tested positive for Legionella are typically retested within about two weeks, according to IDOC. Subsequent rounds of testing at Decatur, Graham, Jacksonville, Pinckneyville, Southwestern, Kewanee, Logan, and Dixon found that the bacteria were no longer present—though that doesn’t necessarily mean other water sources aren’t contaminated.

At Joliet, a retest of a contaminated water source tested negative, even as testing of an additional six sources revealed a second positive result. The most recent round of retesting showed that this second water source was still contaminated.

A similar pattern occurred at Stateville NRC and Stateville, which are on the same campus. Legionella was detected in both the first round of testing conducted in March and in subsequent testing of different water sources in May.

Legionella bacteria can cause the respiratory infection known as Legionnaires’ disease when it moves from water to a person’s lungs—if it is breathed in through droplets of water while taking a shower, for instance, or if while drinking water it “goes down the wrong pipe,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Person-to-person transmission of Legionnaires’ may be possible but is extremely unlikely.

In recent years, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported at prisons in California, Indiana, New Jersey, and Connecticut. “Large or complex water systems” are especially vulnerable to legionella bacteria, according to the CDC.

“We are showing the effects of decades of deferred maintenance,” Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center told The Appeal in March, after water at five prisons tested positive for Legionella bacteria. “These are old prisons, which for many years… were packed way beyond the capacity of which they were built, and that puts a strain on every system.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect retesting results for Logan Correctional Center and Dixon Correctional Center.

28 Years, 160 Arrests: What One Man’s Record Reveals About San Diego’s Broken Justice System

What do you do with people who are repeatedly failed by social services and the legal system?

San Diego County Sheriff's Office

28 Years, 160 Arrests: What One Man’s Record Reveals About San Diego’s Broken Justice System

What do you do with people who are repeatedly failed by social services and the legal system?

The past 28 years of Angel’s* life are laid out in court files—dozens of them—starting with a drug arrest in March 1994, when he was 19 years old. Now 47, Angel has been arrested by San Diego County law enforcement more than 160 times—including 21 times since May 2021—mostly for misdemeanor drug possession.

According to available records and an email interview with his sister, Angel has suffered from schizophrenia and drug addiction since he was a teen. During one jail stay, he was involuntarily medicated, per a judge’s order.

The sheer number of Angel’s interactions with the criminal justice system suggests both a man unable to overcome his mental health struggles and a set of institutions that has singularly failed to help him do so. Over and over again, prosecutors, judges, and jailers have reached for the same blunt tools, even though those tools have so clearly done nothing to disrupt the pattern of Angel’s life.

The Appeal made multiple attempts to locate Angel while this story was being reported, including by contacting family members and homeless-outreach workers and by looking out for new arrest records. Every attempt was unsuccessful—a testament to how thoroughly the system can lose track of vulnerable people.

Neil Besse, a deputy public defender in San Diego who, until recently, headed up the office’s mental health diversion unit (but has not represented Angel) described Angel as “falling through cracks like few others.”

Even the San Diego City Attorney’s office admits that continually prosecuting Angel hasn’t proved effective.

“It is clear that [Angel] needs treatment services and that repeated booking into jail will not provide him the support he needs to heal and get out of the criminal justice system,” Hilary Nemchik, then a spokeswoman for the office, wrote in an email to The Appeal late last year.

The average daily population of San Diego County jails fell during the pandemic, from 5,630 in 2019 to just under 4,000 at last count. As San Diego officials explore ways to further reduce the population, a question lingers: What do you do with people like Angel, who are repeatedly failed by social services and the legal system, and who account for a disproportionate number of the incarcerated population?

“A criminal legal system that is responding to mental illness and substance use by arresting someone dozens of times per year for years on end is neither humane nor effective,” Aaron Littman, a clinical teaching fellow at UCLA School of Law, said. “Jailing someone over and over is expensive, and that money could doubtless be better spent on providing supportive, community-based services.”

Court records provide a window into the mounting futility of the cycle of arrests and re-arrests that has marked Angel’s life. Minutes from hearings suggest a system and defendant that have grown weary of each other. “[Defendant] refused to get on the bus” appears multiple times in case files, referring to the bus that transports prisoners from jail to court for scheduled hearings.

Angel’s sister, Sandra, said in an email that her mother, who died in 2018, had searched many times over the years for a treatment program that would accept Angel. When those efforts failed, she would try to find him a place to sleep at a shelter or motel because he was often too volatile to stay with her.

“She always worried about him,” Sandra said.

In San Diego, 35 percent of people with a history of substance abuse who are arrested for a felony and 42 percent who are arrested for a misdemeanor also have a diagnosed mental illness, according to a recent study by the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning and policymaking agency. These individuals are more likely to experience housing instability, making treatment difficult.

It seems there were some attempts to grapple with Angel’s mental illness early on. In July 1999, for instance, Angel, then 24 years old, agreed to plead guilty to two felonies—stalking and assault with a deadly weapon—in exchange for the possibility that the judge would recommend he be sent to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment instead of to prison.

“I make no commitments, but I will consider whether to make the recommendation,” San Diego Superior Court Judge Gale Kaneshiro told Angel, according to a transcript of his sentencing hearing.

“That’s what I would like for you to do for me,” Angel responded, “so I can get better.”

Yet, according to court records, there is no indication that Angel was ever sent to a state psychiatric hospital or, aside from being involuntarily medicated during a jail stay, that he has ever received any kind of inpatient treatment. Instead, he has repeatedly been sent to state prison.

Records show that when Angel was offered probation in exchange for participating in a treatment program, he had difficulty following the rules. Multiple case files include warrants for his arrest because he failed to show up to court. At one point, he was arrested for not showing up to get the results of a medical test. He has been kicked out of group homes and, according to recent court records, is currently homeless.

Angel “has demonstrated that he is unable to remain law abiding,” one probation report says, referring to an incident in 2012 in which Angel attacked his mother. The report does say that the probation officer referred Angel to one of San Diego County”s largest mental health services programs, but that he was rejected beause he was deemed a safety risk. In 2014, California voters passed Prop. 47, which reduced low-level felonies, including most cases of simple drug possession, to misdemeanors. Since nearly all his crimes were for drug possession, Angel got caught up in what Besse describes as a “culture of misdemeanors,” in which cases move quickly through the court, leaving little time for judges and attorneys to assess a defendant’s needs.

Angel has a history of addiction to meth, which can exacerbate mental illness, making him a difficult client.

“It takes the experienced attorneys not days but weeks, and sometimes months, for a client to really get thinking clearly after using meth for any sustained period of time,” Besse said. “The methamphetamine and the compressed misdemeanor timetables, they just don’t lend themselves to that.”

Besse described the criminal legal system as being compartmentalized and “out of sync with itself.” He said that the system’s inability to link Angel with the services he needs after arresting him was clear evidence of its failings.

“If they’re not reaching [Angel] on any of the bookings, that raises policy-implementation questions,” he said. “Like, are we going to use the criminal system or not use the criminal system? If we’re going to use it, let’s all work together and use it wisely. If we’re not going to use it, then let’s get the message all the way down to the boots on the ground and tell them to take [arrestees] to a hospital, take them to a sobering center, or don’t even do anything, you know?”

Angel has also found himself caught in a particularly grim trap: some of the very programs that might help stop his cycle of arrests are closed to him precisely because of those arrests.

“Our prosecutors attempted to engage him in various diversion programs, but due to his criminal history … he did not meet eligibility requirements,” Nemchik, the San Diego City Attorney’s spokeswoman, wrote. “Eligibility criteria for these programs is determined by the providers and designed to protect their employees, other participants, and the public.”

When The Appeal reached out to Nemchik in December, she said the City Attorney’s office had referred Angel to the county’s Behavioral Health Services Department. But the City Attorney also continues to prosecute him. While The Appeal waited nearly four months for a judge to grant access to Angel’s 2012 probation report—his most recent—he was arrested another five times and had two new cases filed against him.

Again, both new case files include warrants because Angel did not show up to his arraignments.

Last October, Terra Lawson-Remer, a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, whose election in November 2020 gave the board a Democratic majority, introduced a proposal aimed at identifying gaps in county services, such as drug and mental health treatment, that might help keep people like Angel from cycling through jail.

The proposal, which was passed unanimously by the board, was the first of its kind for California’s second largest county.

In a memo to the board, Lawson-Remer cited a recent report by the American Addiction Centers, which found that it costs $81,000 a year to incarcerate someone with mental illness but only $32,000 a year to provide that person with housing and social services.

“People keep cycling through the system, and it’s not making them better, right? It’s not solving the problem and it’s costing taxpayers a ton of money,” she told The Appeal.

She hopes the study will help explain why existing programs aren’t reaching the most difficult cases. The goal is to have a final report in hand by February 2023 along with a five-year plan for adding services and programs.

“The study is meant to address—to really identify—the gaps in our services,” she said. “And there are many of them, right? I’ve heard this from providers, I’ve heard this from judges, I’ve heard this from police, I’ve heard this from the DA, the public defender. Everyone’s agreed that we do not have the right type of services—and enough of them—and a sufficient infrastructure to meet the need.”

“We’re not building a rocket ship,” Lawson-Remer said. “I mean, it’s a hard problem to solve, but it’s not something we don’t understand or haven’t grappled with before. It’s just that there hasn’t been political will or interest to tackle it, because it’s easier to sweep it under the rug.”

Jerry Hall, a behavioral health advocate and the founder of Civic Mapping, which analyzes data related to behavioral health and the criminal legal system, applauded Lawson-Remer’s proposal.

“I would argue that any day of the week, the lack of data is the No. 1 problem we’re all facing,” he said. “If we had the data, we could hold people accountable.”

He cautioned that interventions for people like Angel, who have been neglected by the system for decades, will cost money before they save money.

“The point is to help the man, it isn’t about the money,” he said.

Will Matthews, spokesman for the criminal justice reform group Californians for Safety and Justice—which authored Prop. 47—also applauded Lawson-Remer’s proposal. He said California’s history of using incarceration to solve societal issues has created the problems of addiction, homelessness and jail churn that San Diego and other counties are grappling with.

“We have never committed to funding a treatment and prevention infrastructure,” he said. “We have committed to a strategy that defaulted to locking people up—and we know that that didn’t work, because at the height of mass incarceration in California, the recidivism rate was around 70 percent. We don’t want to go back to those days.”

* Editor’s Note: Because we could not speak directly to Angel for this story, The Appeal is only using his first name to protect his privacy.

Prosecutor Lauded For Investigating Trump Also Wants to Send Educators to Prison

As Fulton County DA Fani Willis’s profile rises, the glossy coverage has largely ignored her crusade to incarcerate teachers accused of cheating on tests.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis
Ben Gray | Associated Press

Prosecutor Lauded For Investigating Trump Also Wants to Send Educators to Prison

As Fulton County DA Fani Willis’s profile rises, the glossy coverage has largely ignored her crusade to incarcerate teachers accused of cheating on tests.

If you’re not from Atlanta and you’ve heard of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, chances are it was from pundits gushing over her gutsy investigation of Donald Trump. Or maybe it was from her prosecution of rapper Young Thug and 27 people affiliated with his record label, Young Stoner Life, which Willis has cast as a “criminal street gang.” Or you could have seen reports that she’s among the growing number of prosecutors in red states pledging not to bring charges against abortion seekers.

“It is my responsibility as the elected District Attorney to set priorities for the use of my office’s resources,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

But as Willis’s national profile rises, some of her priorities have evaded the spotlight, namely her efforts to incarcerate Black educators—mostly women—for allegedly cheating on standardized tests.

In 2015, 11 Black educators were convicted on RICO charges and sentenced to prison in what’s known as the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, which dominated local headlines for well over a year. Of the 12 people who went to trial, only one was acquitted. Willis was one of three lead prosecutors on the case, but her involvement didn’t end there.

In 2020, with the backing of the local police union, Willis was elected district attorney, making her the first Black woman to hold the office. Her predecessor, Paul Howard, had been the county’s top prosecutor for more than two decades.

Since Willis took office, she’s fought the Atlanta educators’ appeals. Last week, her office opposed a sentence reduction to spare a former principal from prison, but a judge granted it anyway. Six more educators could still be locked up unless Willis changes her stance.

Social justice groups are calling for Willis to hit the brakes on a case that they say has criminalized Black educators, perpetuated systemic racism, and ignored the root causes of cheating.

The prosecution of Atlanta’s educators was unprecedented, from the RICO charges to the prison sentences. Typically, administrators and educators accused of cheating have had their professional licenses suspended or revoked, or they were fined or sentenced to community service. (Thanks to federal policies like No Child Left Behind, cheating is a fairly widespread problem.)

But over the last seven years, two Atlanta educators have gone to prison and seven have had the threat of prison hanging over their heads as they appealed their cases.

One of those defendants can now breathe a little easier. On June 28, former principal Dana Evans narrowly avoided prison when retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter—the same judge who originally sentenced her to a year in prison—agreed to reduce her sentence to probation and community service. (In Georgia retired judges are allowed to preside over cases). “What she has told me today is that she has accepted responsibility for what happened,” Baxter said. He also said he believed that some of the witnesses who testified against Evans had “agendas.” He concluded, “I gotta do what my conscience tells me and this is what it’s saying.”

Evans was not accused of cheating. She was accused of failing to stop it. At the Fulton County Justice Center, Evans apologized for her negligence. Her colleagues at a mental health clinic attested to the valuable community work she has done, and her lawyer, Bob Rubin, said she has fostered positive growth for “refugees, the mentally ill, victims of crime, and children who are poor.” A prison sentence would end that, he said.

Before the judge handed down the new sentence, Fulton County Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney Kevin Armstrong argued that Evans should be sent to prison. When asked by the judge if his position came “from the top down in the DA’s office,” Armstrong answered that it did.

Rubin told the court that before the hearing, he had met with Armstrong and Willis to discuss a sentence reduction for Evans. They were open to it, he said, but they ultimately weren’t satisfied with the apology letter Evans wrote.

“For that reason [Willis] wants to put Dr. Evans in jail for a year,” he said. “And I just don’t think that’s right.”

Tiffany Roberts, public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights and a legal expert familiar with the case, called Willis’s stance “quite disappointing.”

“We are hopeful that DA Willis utilizes a different approach in any remaining cases where teachers are facing similar sentences,” Roberts told The Appeal. “Moreover, we hope that she undertakes a more progressive, evidence-based approach overall in her office to focus on solutions that make communities safer, rather than merely punishment.”

Willis’s staff did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

Willis is defending convictions that are steeped in inequity and hypocrisy. In 2010, then-Governor Sonny Perdue launched special investigations into Atlanta Public Schools and the Dougherty County School System based on a statewide analysis of 2009 test scores that found cheating might have occurred in more than half of Georgia’s elementary and middle schools. At the same time, he applied for and won a $400 million federal grant by touting rising test scores that he attributed to “higher standards and harder assessments.”

The investigation into Atlanta Public Schools quickly escalated into a dragnet. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents pulled teachers from classrooms and interrogated them without lawyers present, promising immunity if they confessed and named colleagues who cheated—a recipe for false accusations. The investigations found that cheating was widespread in both Atlanta Public Schools, which was helmed by a Black superintendent, and Dougherty County schools, where the superintendent was white. The Dougherty County investigation was swept under the rug. But in Atlanta, Willis’s predecessor, Paul Howard, indicted 35 educators from 11 schools.

Howard’s indictment pushed the bounds of RICO to claim that Atlanta Public Schools was a criminal enterprise in which educators conspired to cheat to gain bonus money. However, the special investigation had concluded that bonus money “provided little incentive to cheat,” and most of the 12 educators who went to trial never received a bonus. One was a teacher whose students didn’t even pass the tests. Others taught first and second grade, in which students only took practice tests that didn’t count toward “targets”—the goals set by the district.

But these details got lost in the spectacle of the trial. In her opening statements, Willis told jurors, “You are going to learn—surprise, surprise—a lot of teachers are women. A lot of the teachers in Atlanta Public Schools were African American teachers, quite frankly, and that a lot of them were single mamas. They needed their jobs,” implying that they would do anything, even cheat, to stay employed.

While the prosecution peddled in stereotypes, Judge Baxter’s behavior threatened to bias the jury against the defense. Evans’s appellate brief cites dozens of examples.

Baxter was often rude to defense attorneys, even calling one a “peacock” and threatening to arrest him for jaywalking. He allowed a witness to move around the courtroom to identify a defendant and told her she was “getting cold.” And he consistently rushed the defense. The state called more than 200 witnesses, but when it was Evans’s lawyer’s turn to bring witnesses, Baxter complained after the ninth. “How many more of these witnesses do you plan to put up?” he demanded.

Many state witnesses were educators who accepted immunity or plea bargains in exchange for agreeing to testify. Two recanted on the witness stand. There were so many conflicting testimonies that, outside the presence of the jury, Baxter said, “Perjury is being committed daily here.”

The trial lasted eight months—the longest criminal trial in Georgia history.

The appeals have dragged on for seven years. In that time, some have moved more quickly than others. An administrator and a teacher have gone to prison and been released, and now Evans’s case is resolved. Meanwhile, six defendants are represented by one public defender who has been stuck in a fight with the state over providing them each their own attorney.

When Willis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she wouldn’t use “precious tax dollars” to prosecute abortion cases, she conceded a fact that many prosecutors prefer to downplay: that they have immense discretion over which cases to pursue. It begs the question of why precious tax dollars should be used to send educators to prison, especially given the serious flaws in the investigation and trial.

Willis has an opportunity to help correct a long-standing injustice in Fulton County. She can seek a resolution with the remaining defendants that would keep them out of prison and finally put the cheating scandal to rest. And her new national fan club should demand she do it.

Aja Arnold contributed reporting to this story.
Disclosure: Anna Simonton is the coauthor, with Shani Robinson, of None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. Robinson was convicted in the cheating trial. Simonton is a graduate of the Atlanta Public Schools, and Evans was a counselor at Simonton’s middle school.

‘I Did Not Shake My Son’: Is a Father Serving Life for a Crime That Never Occurred?

Expert says trauma from childbirth, not shaking, led to the death of Danyel Smith's two-month-old child.

Danyel Smith and LaTasha Pyatt, June 2016
Courtesy of LaTasha Pyatt

‘I Did Not Shake My Son’: Is a Father Serving Life for a Crime That Never Occurred?

Expert says trauma from childbirth, not shaking, led to the death of Danyel Smith's two-month-old child.

Danyel Smith’s trial didn’t take long. The prosecution wrapped up its case in a little over a day, and the defense in less than three hours. Prosecutors in Gwinnett County, Georgia, alleged that on April 29, 2002, Smith had shaken his two-month-old son, Chandler, who then died from his injuries days later. Prosecutors claimed Chandler showed tell-tale signs of the dubious medical diagnosis “shaken baby syndrome.”

On the stand, Smith told the jury that he was innocent and that his son had stopped breathing during a car ride. He said he’d done all he could to try and save his baby.

“I did not beat my son,” he testified. “I did not shake my son.”

On Nov. 21, 2003, Smith was convicted of felony murder, cruelty to children, and aggravated battery. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Almost two decades later, Smith still maintains his innocence, and his attorneys say that trauma sustained during childbirth led to Chandler’s death. Last month, Smith’s family members held a protest in support of him outside the courthouse. Attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights began representing Smith last year, after the filmmaker Asher Levinthal, who is working on a documentary about shaken baby syndrome, asked them to look into the case.

In May, after years of setbacks and delays, Smith’s case finally inched forward when the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to consider a motion arguing that the trial court erred when it sided with prosecutors and denied Smith’s request for a new trial without holding an evidentiary hearing.

Even though Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson ran on a platform promising criminal justice reform, court records show that prosecutors in her office have consistently opposed Smith’s efforts to prove his innocence.

“As for the district attorney, I had had great hopes for her coming into Gwinnett County,” Smith’s fiancée, LaTasha Pyatt, told The Appeal. “We really were expecting her to do her job.”

Over the past 20 years, the scientific and legal communities’ understanding of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) has dramatically changed, leading to a growing number of exonerations. Just last year, there were five exonerations involving cases of alleged SBS, bringing the known number of SBS wrongful convictions to 26 since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. All but six of these exonerations occurred after Smith’s conviction. Among the exonerated, some of the true causes of death have been revealed to be sickle cell anemia, stroke, and pneumonia.

In Smith’s case, trauma sustained during childbirth, not abuse, led to Chandler’s death, according to his attorneys.

“These people don’t know me to think that I have hurt my son. That has been the hardest burden that I have had to live with the past 20 years,” Smith said in a statement sent via his attorneys to The Appeal. “Being accused of something like this and losing my son.”

On the day Chandler collapsed, his mother and Smith took him to his eight-week wellness visit at the pediatrician and ran errands. Then Chandler’s mother went to an appointment to apply for food assistance. The baby, who appeared to be sleeping, stayed home with Smith.

About 20 minutes after she left, she called Smith and asked him to come meet her and bring the baby; she would not be approved for benefits unless Chandler was present.

On their way to the office building, Smith saw that Chandler appeared to not be breathing. He was on the phone with the baby’s mother and told her something was wrong, according to their trial testimony.

Smith says he pulled over to the side of the road, performed CPR, and then drove to the office building where Chandler’s mother was waiting. He carried the baby out of the car and Chandler’s mother called 911. Two bystanders attempted to perform CPR before paramedics arrived and took Chandler to the hospital.

Almost immediately, the treating physicians concluded that Chandler had been abused. On May 1, 2002, police arrested Smith at the hospital. Five days later, Chandler was taken off life support and died.

At the time, Smith was a father of three, including Chandler, and had never been accused of child abuse, according to his attorneys.

“My dad didn’t raise me, that motivated me even more to be there for my kids,” Smith said in a statement to The Appeal. “That has been robbed from me.”

At Smith’s trial, the prosecution alleged that Chandler’s injuries were caused by shaking with impact.

“We have a collection of findings here that are classic and in some cases virtually exclusive for violent shaking,” the county medical examiner testified. A pediatric neurosurgeon told the jury, “Unless somebody could tell me something else was going on with this child … I think he was a shaken baby. I’ll be happy if somebody can tell me something else.”

In the decades since Smith’s trial, exonerations and studies have shown that the triad of symptoms associated with SBS—subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling—can have a number of other explanations, such as short-distance falls, trauma sustained during childbirth, or illness. In a case in New Jersey earlier this year, a judge ruled that the prosecutors could not bring in testimony of SBS in their case against a father accused of shaking his son. SBS, the judge wrote in his ruling, “lacks scientific grounding” and is “akin to ‘junk science.’”

The evidence in Chandler’s case suggests birth trauma—not shaking—led to his death, according to Dr. Saadi Ghatan, the director of Mount Sinai Health System’s pediatric neurosurgery program. Ghatan, who is working on the case pro bono, reviewed Chandler’s brain scans and medical records, along with the mother’s medical records related to her pregnancy and delivery.

Chandler was born premature, at 35 weeks, by an emergency cesarean. His head was delivered by vacuum extraction, whereby a suction device was placed on his head, according to Chandler’s mother’s medical records. Ghatan noted in his affidavit that vacuum extraction can cause a skull fracture.

Chandler weighed less than five pounds when he was born and was sent to the neonatal intensive care unit. A nurse documented that his head was swollen, but no follow-up was conducted and he was discharged about a week after his birth.

When he was about a month old, Chandler’s mother called 911 because she feared he was having a seizure, but the paramedics who arrived dismissed her concerns. A seizure, they said, would mean he was jerking around, which he wasn’t. But, according to Ghatan, a seizure in an infant can also present as the baby “zoning out or being startled.”

Chandler’s death “was not the result of parental abuse or mistreatment, nor was his death caused intentionally by anyone,” Ghatan wrote in his affidavit. His death “began with his early and difficult birth.”

In May, protesters gathered outside the courthouse in Gwinnett County to protest what they say is Danyel Smith’s wrongful conviction.
Courtesy of Southern Center for Human Rights

In March, less than a month before Ghatan was set to testify at an evidentiary hearing, the trial court granted the prosecutor’s request to dismiss Smith’s motion for a new trial.

The prosecutor argued in his legal filings that Smith’s evidence is not new and, therefore, should not be heard by the court. He even opposed Smith’s motion to appear in civilian clothes at his evidentiary hearing—which was ultimately canceled, at the prosecutor’s request.

District Attorney Austin-Gatson declined to answer The Appeal’s questions about Smith’s case.

“The prosecution has decided to oppose our ability to even present evidence so far,” Mark Loudon-Brown, one of Smith’s attorneys, told The Appeal. “If they wanted to reverse their position and agree with us that he’s entitled to a new trial, they could do that today.”

Smith’s legal team told The Appeal that they asked Austin-Gatson’s conviction integrity unit (CIU) to investigate his case on March 22, 2021—the same month Austin-Gatson launched the unit. Three days later, a CIU attorney emailed Loudon-Brown and said she would be looking into the case. More than a year later, however, Smith’s legal team says they’re still waiting for the unit to complete its review. Austin-Gatson created the unit because she is “a strong advocate for justice and fairness,” the DA’s website says.

“Any cases within our CIU for investigation will not be subject to discussions with the media,” Austin-Gatson wrote in an email to The Appeal. “We appreciate your interest in this matter, but we will not be commenting on it.”

Pyatt, Smith’s fiancée, told The Appeal she doesn’t understand why Austin-Gatson wouldn’t move faster in this instance.

“If she started this integrity unit to truly right the wrongs in Gwinnett County, I don’t know a better case than Danyel’s case to start with,” she said.

Unless the prosecutor’s office changes course, Smith’s fate lies with the Georgia Supreme Court. The path to exoneration through the judiciary is a circuitous one—the state’s highest court can order the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing, which could lead the judge to order a new trial. If that happens, the prosecutors can either start preparing for the new trial or drop all charges.

Smith and his supporters say they’ve already waited far too long for Smith to be released from prison for a crime he did not commit. At the family’s protest last month, they chanted, “No justice, no peace,” and held home-made signs. “Please give my innocent son his life back,” read a hand-written sign held by Smith’s mother.

“My freedom has been taken from me,” Smith said in a statement to The Appeal. “I want the State of Georgia to undo this wrong and make it right. Period.”

It’s Time to Take a Clearer Look at Bail Reform

In the raucous debate over bail reform, simple facts have fallen out of sight.

Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

It’s Time to Take a Clearer Look at Bail Reform

In the raucous debate over bail reform, simple facts have fallen out of sight.

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.

In early March, New York City Mayor Eric Adams lashed out, once again, at bail reform.

“Failing criminal justice laws,” he said in a statement, had allowed a person “with a history of violence who poses a clear threat to public safety to just walk out of court.”

He was referring to a man who had been living in a homeless shelter and was accused of smearing feces on someone in a Bronx subway station. The man had been released after an arraignment weeks earlier without being required to post bail, since he’d been arrested on misdemeanor charges.

“We can’t allow this horrific situation to be the status quo,” Adams continued. The laws must be changed to “keep people who are clearly a danger to others off the street.”

His statement was part of the campaign he began even before taking office to roll back New York State’s landmark 2019 bail reform law, which made a number of lower-level charges ineligible for bail.

His efforts met partial success in the state budget New York passed last month. Governor Kathy Hochul had insisted that the budget include changes to the state’s law. Lawmakers didn’t go as far as she wanted, but they did walk the law back further after having rolled portions of it back in early 2020, which will only further swell jail populations that have recently been increasing.

But in the raucous debate over bail, the actual facts have fallen out of most New Yorkers’ sight. It’s high time to take a more clear-eyed look at the history and impact of bail reform.

What Adams failed to mention is that New York’s bail law is not—and never has been, even before bail reform—about preventing crime. Judges have never been allowed to set bail based on whether someone might commit more crimes. As it used to be throughout the country, bail in New York has only been meant to ensure that people return to court for their later hearings and trials.

Bail reform has in no way failed. In fact, despite concerted attacks from conservative politicians and media, it’s mostly worked the way it was supposed to. The 2019 law was intended as a way to reduce jail populations and ensure people weren’t incarcerated on low-level charges because they couldn’t afford to post bail. And in the years since, it has in fact reduced the state’s jail population while still ensuring that people return to court.

“No one is arguing bail reform is ineffective because people are absconding and we can’t prosecute them,” said Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Greater Justice New York program at the Vera Institute of Justice. “People are returning to court.”

How Bail Works

Judges have the option to set bail during arraignment hearings, which are the initial court hearings that occur shortly after someone is arrested for allegedly committing a crime. If the judge is concerned that the defendant will not attend their next court hearing, they can require the defendant to post cash bail—money that defendants will get back only if they return to court, acting as a kind of collateral. (Judges can also remand defendants and send them to jail without the possibility of bail, though this is relatively rare.)

But prosecutors and judges have abused the cash bail system for years, using it as a way to incarcerate people they deem dangerous. Before bail reform, judges routinely set high cash bail amounts even for nonviolent and low-level offenses, forcing nearly 24,000 people in early 2018 to sit in jail simply because they were too poor to buy their way home.

In 2010, Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he was arrested in the Bronx for allegedly stealing a backpack. The judge set his bail at $3,000. His family couldn’t afford to pay it, and Browder spent three years incarcerated at Rikers Island awaiting trial, never convicted and presumed innocent, two of them in solitary confinement. In 2013, the charges were dropped and he was released. About two years later, he died by suicide.

Browder’s case later inspired reforms to New York’s bail law, and in 2019 the legislature passed a law barring judges from setting cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. If judges do set bail, the law requires them to consider a defendant’s financial circumstances and set an amount that won’t create “undue hardship.”

In late 2019, just ahead of the law going into effect in January 2020, judges started implementing the rules ahead of time. New York’s pretrial jail population—people awaiting trial and not yet found guilty—began to fall. That population stood at 11,906 in November 2019, but had dropped to 8,519 by January 2020, when the law officially took effect. The population continued to fall and reached a low of 7,242 people by that April.

How Bail Reform Is Working

Even though fewer people are sitting in jail before their trials, they’re still returning to court at the same rates as before. Most people who are released without having to post bail in New York City are mandated to check in periodically with one of the city’s three supervised release providers. Those providers report that in all New York City counties except Queens (for which they don’t have data), 91 percent of clients have returned to court in the 14 months since bail reform went into effect, higher than the 87 percent cumulative rate from March 2016 to December 2020 for all boroughs.

The rates are similar throughout the entire state.

According to an analysis by the Vera Institute, between January 2020 and June 2021, 91 percent of people who were released on their own recognizance—in other words, without conditions like bail or supervision—had no bench warrant issued against them, which indicates they attended all their scheduled court dates. The same was true of 84 percent of people under pretrial supervision. The rates are indistinguishable from those of people who had to post bail, 89 percent of whom did not have bench warrants issued against them.

“Bail reform in New York has been a huge success,” said Scott Levy, managing director of policy at the Bronx Defenders. “Tens of thousands of people have been able to fight their cases from home, go to work, take care of their kids, provide for their families, continue with their educations, while meeting their obligations to the court.”

In New York City alone, according to data from the city comptroller, bail was set in 14,545 cases in 2021, a huge drop from 24,657 in 2019.

But ever since New York’s bail reforms went into effect in January 2020, they have been the subject of intense criticism by some lawmakers, prosecutors, and police officers.

Politicians and media outlets have seized on incidents in which a person allegedly committed a crime after being arraigned and released for a different crime. These attacks on the law have prompted state legislators to water down the bail reform law during both the 2020 and the 2022 budget negotiations.

In April 2020, lawmakers rolled bail reform back by making more than a dozen charges eligible for bail that had been excluded under the original law. Many judges have also become resistant to following the law and have started shoehorning cases into the bail-eligible exceptions, and many are failing to ask about defendants’ ability to pay bail, according to court observations conducted by the Vera Institute.

Since the 2020 changes went into effect, the number of pretrial detainees has slowly crept back up. At the end of 2020, the pretrial jail population stood at 9,731—more than a third higher than its record low in April 2020, though still nearly 40 percent lower than its 2018 peak.

Compromises and Carve-Outs

This year’s budget rolls the bail reform law back even further. Two gun charges—criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree and criminal sale of a firearm to a minor—will now be bail eligible. Criminal possession of a firearm—a nonviolent charge involving an unloaded gun—will be subject to bail if allegedly committed after someone was released before their arraignment or trial without bail.

The 2019 reform law made most nonviolent felonies ineligible for bail while allowing judges to set bail for violent ones. According to Yung-Mi Lee, legal director of the criminal defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, criminal possession of a firearm is a nonviolent felony that entails an unloaded gun, with no bullets nearby, that no one was intending to use to cause harm. It would become a violent felony, and therefore subject to bail under the original 2019 reforms, if the gun was loaded, ammunition was in the owner’s residence, the serial number was defaced, the owner had a prior felony conviction, or the owner intended to use it unlawfully to scare or hurt someone.

The original bail reform law also exempted theft—the same crime that Kalief Browder was charged with—from bail, along with most misdemeanors.

Theft is a nonviolent charge—if a gun or weapon was involved, it would become robbery. Instead, theft entails “someone going to CVS and taking a bottle of shampoo,” Lee explained. “You’re homeless and living on the streets and you go to the CVS and you steal a sandwich in the refrigerator aisle.”

Now, theft will be eligible for bail and pre-arraignment detention in certain circumstances. A judge may set cash bail for someone accused of theft if the alleged theft occurred while the person was released on a prior charge or given a desk appearance ticket, which is similar to a summons. The judge must also find that the alleged theft was “in furtherance of other criminal activity” and was not “negligible.”

Neither of those terms—“negligible” or “in furtherance of other criminal activity”—has yet been defined.

“It’s obviously going to be subjected to wide-ranging interpretation,” Lee said, by both prosecutors and judges. One judge, for example, might deem stealing $50 worth of items negligible, while another wouldn’t agree. “There’s probably going to be discrepancy across the state depending on who the judge is.”

Harris-Calvin pointed out that while the legislature may be trying to carve out crimes resulting from poverty, that may not be the actual impact.

“Judges didn’t have to hold people who stole sandwiches or laundry detergent before, and they still would,” she noted. “I don’t know how useful that’s going to be in practice, especially when it’s completely undefined.”

Finally, when deciding to set bail, judges will be required to weigh whether a defendant has been previously charged with causing “serious harm” and whether they have a history of using or possessing a gun. It’s yet to be seen what judges decide constitutes serious harm, which is not defined in the budget—it could include physical harm, economic harm, and/or property damage. And given that Black people are disproportionately likely to be arrested and incarcerated, taking past charges into account risks baking systemic racism into the process.

These changes didn’t go as far as Governor Hochul had wanted. But they still threaten to increase the pretrial jail population and further erode the progress that had been made under the original bail reform law. The Data Collaborative for Justice estimates that they will make about 500 more New York City cases eligible for bail each year, meaning hundreds or possibly thousands more statewide. It will be up to judges to decide whether to set bail in those cases, but their track record shows they are likely to do so. “When given the option, they are willing to put people in jail over low-level crimes,” Harris-Calvin said.

The end result of these changes will be more New Yorkers locked up before their trials—not because people are failing to show back up to court, but because powerful politicians are whipping up fear and papering over the facts.

Will Biden Step up on Solitary Confinement?

After a bold campaign promise, the president has remained almost silent as thousands languish in solitary in federal prisons. Advocates say they remain hopeful that he will find his voice on the issue.

ADX Florence in Colorado
Federal Bureau of Prisons

Will Biden Step up on Solitary Confinement?

After a bold campaign promise, the president has remained almost silent as thousands languish in solitary in federal prisons. Advocates say they remain hopeful that he will find his voice on the issue.

This story was published in partnership with Solitary Watch.

“Biden believes no act can justify the inhumane treatment of an individual in the hands of the government.” This surprisingly powerful statement appeared in the sweeping criminal justice reform platform released during the 2020 presidential campaign as part of then-candidate Joe Biden’s pledge to “ensure humane prison conditions” should he be elected. His first step towards fulfilling this promise, according to the statement, would be “ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person.”

It was a logical place to begin, given the growing international consensus that solitary confinement is torture, as well as mounting evidence of its throng of physiological and psychological consequences—from psychosis, self harm, and suicide to recidivism, unemployment, and drug overdoses after release. Short of the death penalty, solitary confinement is arguably the cruelest form of punishment the United States government leverages against its own citizens today.

Advocates have been trying to hold Biden to his word. In June 2021, a group of more than 150 organizations sent a joint letter to the administration urging it to move forward with plans to fulfill the campaign promise. A “Blueprint for Ending Solitary Confinement by the Federal Government,” released the same month by the Federal Anti-Solitary Task Force (FAST), outlines a comprehensive legal and administrative framework with which the administration could curtail the practice in federal prisons and beyond.

“Ending the practice of solitary confinement would end the pain, torture, and trauma of tens of thousands of people languishing in harsh and harmful conditions,” the letter concluded.

But in his first year in office, the only known movement on solitary confinement to emerge from the White House has been a single paragraph in a 17-page draft Executive Order on criminal justice, composed over the course of fall 2021 and leaked in early January by the right-wing website The Federalist.

Focused largely on policing, the order contains one section titled “Improvement of Conditions of Confinement.” One subsection, which until now has not been reported on, instructs Attorney General Merrick Garland to “submit a report to the President detailing the steps the DOJ has taken…to ensure that Restrictive Housing in federal institutions is used rarely, applied fairly, and subject to reasonable constraints” and “to help ensure that individuals in DOJ custody are housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their safety and the safety of staff, other prisoners and detainees, and the public.”

In order to have anything to report, the Justice Department would presumably need to quickly institute meaningful changes to its policies and practices in the area of solitary—something that, according to the numbers alone, as well as accounts from journalists, advocates, and incarcerated people, it has so far failed to do. What those changes might be is anyone’s guess, since the language, though pitched in the direction of reform, is vague and a long way from the wording of Biden’s campaign pledge.

What’s more, the leaked draft of the executive order has been met with incensed reactions not only from the conservative media but also from House and Senate Republicans and police unions. Some backtracking on the policing reforms, at least, seems likely.

Anti-solitary advocates have not given up hope, though. FAST members have met with staff of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and are still pressing for a meeting with the Justice Department, according to Jessica Sandoval, director of Unlock the Box, one of the organizations principally responsible for the letter and the blueprint. They also believe the administration may soon issue an executive order focused specifically on solitary confinement. “Biden has the opportunity to make significant strides on a fundamental human rights issue,” Sandoval said, “even while he is under pressure on other criminal justice reforms.”

A Past to Reckon With

Both Biden and Harris have plenty to live down in their political pasts if they want to be taken seriously by advocates of prison reform and decarceration. Joe Biden has earned widespread criticism from opponents of mass incarceration for his role in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The “Biden Crime Law,” dubbed so by the President himself as recently as 2008, helped propel the “tough on crime” approach that has come to define the country’s proclivity for harsh punishment and mass incarceration.

There can be little doubt that the 1994 crime bill directly contributed to the expansion of solitary confinement across the country. Two provisions of the law, known together as Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing (VOI/TIS) funding, financially rewarded states for ensuring those convicted of certain crimes served a substantial portion of their lengthy sentences.

A 2003 report by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent prison oversight group, found that after the New York legislature voted to dramatically restrict parole opportunities, the state was awarded nearly $200 million in VOI/TIS funds. All of these funds, according to the report, went to building “high-tech lockdown facilities,” including both solitary confinement units and a supermax prison, with a combined capacity of 3,000. The consequences of such isolation were tragic; the report also found that despite never constituting more than 10 percent of the correctional population, people held in solitary accounted for more than half of suicides committed in the New York prison system between 1998 and 2001.

According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, New York was just one of dozens of states across the country to directly allocate VOI/TIS funds in the late 1990s and early 2000s to adding prison beds, including some used for solitary confinement, and to “harden” the security level of existing units.

Kamala Harris first significantly engaged with calls to end solitary confinement as California’s Attorney General. In 2013, 30,000 people incarcerated throughout the state went on hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) ignored calls to limit the practice on its own, instead obtaining a federal judge’s permission to force-feed the strikers. And the state, under Harris’s direction, fought for dismissal of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of people serving “indeterminate” periods in solitary, many of whom had been isolated for ten years or more. A settlement was reached in 2015, and California agreed to reduce its use of solitary confinement.

Activists have since accused both Harris and her successors of failing to uphold the state’s end of the agreement. This month, a federal judge ruled that the CDCR continues to commit systemic due process violations in its use of solitary confinement.

What the President Can Do About Solitary

If Biden and Harris are looking to redeem themselves for their record on solitary confinement, as they generally have sought to do when it comes to criminal justice reform, there are a multitude of legal and administrative paths they can take.

As outlined in FAST’s blueprint for the administration, Biden could wield his nearly total power over the federal Bureau of Prisons to institute new limits on solitary confinement in all 122 BOP-run correctional facilities. A simple directive could change the lives of more than 10,100 individuals held in isolation in BOP prisons as of last week. That figure constitutes 7.5 percent of the total population in BOP custody (a solitary confinement rate nearly double the national average) and one out of every six people held in solitary confinement in jails and prisons nationwide, according to recent estimates.

Biden’s former boss Barack Obama used his executive power to address solitary confinement and publicly acknowledge its use in U.S. prisons and jails. In July 2015, Obama directed then-attorney general Loretta Lynch to oversee a report on the overuse of solitary in the federal prison system.

Then, in early 2016, he denounced the practice in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, where he also stated that the federal Bureau of Prisons would adopt the recommendations made in the Lynch report. These included restricting the use of solitary on juveniles and people with mental illness, eliminating it as a punishment for minor prison rule violations, and encouraging facilities to provide individuals in solitary confinement with more out-of-cell time.

An analysis completed by Solitary Watch in January 2016 determined that even had it been implemented in its entirety, the Lynch plan would have left out large segments of the federal solitary population. Since Obama remained in office for only a year, the reductions were far smaller. Under Trump, the number and percentage of individuals in solitary confinement in BOP custody grew to more than 12,000 and 8.2 percent in February 2020. The pandemic led to even more widespread isolation in federal prisons as solitary confinement became BOP’s primary tool to fight the spread of COVID-19. Conditions overall in BOP facilities reached a new low under Trump, including staffing crises, high suicide rates, physical and sexual abuse by guards, criminal activity by staff, and a shameful record of preventable COVID infections and deaths.

At the same time, the appetite for solitary reform has grown since the Obama years, says Tammie Gregg, who worked in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division during that time and now serves as a deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She pointed to the high number of states with pending legislation seeking to limit the use of solitary confinement as evidence that “public opinion has shifted on this front.”

Several FAST members Solitary Watch and The Appeal spoke with said they believe Biden should take much bolder steps against solitary than those proposed by Obama. The President could begin by nominating a progressive with a stated anti-solitary record to replace Michael Carvajal, the Trump-appointed BOP head who recently announced his resignation. Biden could then direct Attorney General Merrick Garland to come up with a new plan to address the use of solitary in all BOP facilities, as well as local jails and private prisons that incarcerate federal prisoners.

The goal of such a plan might be to bring the federal prison system in compliance with the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Nelson Mandela Rules), which bar solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 consecutive days, as well as for vulnerable populations like children and people with mental illness. Or it could aim for the even more dramatic changes laid out in the FAST blueprint, which calls for abolishing solitary except as a brief emergency de-escalation measure, and creating alternatives that provide treatment, programming, and safety without extreme isolation.

Biden could also take steps to influence the use of isolation outside of the federal system. He could direct the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to step up investigations of particularly egregious uses of solitary, and challenge them under the U.S. Constitution, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Most recently, one of these investigations found Alameda County, California, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments for their use of prolonged solitary confinement in housing incarcerated individuals with severe mental illness in the county jails.

In addition, Biden could direct the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics to collect meaningful data on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and local jails, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance to work with states and counties to reduce their reliance on solitary. The administration could offer states financial incentives to conform to certain limits on the use of solitary, such as those in the Mandela Rules. Such a move would be a particularly apt response to the legacy of federal incentives in the 1994 “Biden Crime Law.”

Time to End the Torture

Any action Biden takes at the federal level would come at a time when the public has shown a growing appetite for solitary reform. One recent survey found that a strong, bi-partisan majority of registered voters supported meaningful limits on solitary confinement, and a slim majority supported limits similar to those laid out by the Mandela Rules. The issue, all but invisible only a decade ago, is now regularly covered by mainstream press outlets from across the ideological spectrum.

Anti-solitary campaigns are now active in at least nineteen states, and legislation to limit solitary for the most vulnerable populations has passed in a number of them, with additional bills in the pipeline, according to Unlock the Box’s Jessica Sandoval. The movement got what many see as its biggest win yet in the spring of 2021, when New York state passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, creating the first law in the nation to command compliance with the Mandela Rules.

While pressing for an executive order that “makes good on his promise to end solitary confinement,” Sandoval acknowledges that such an action would be second-best compared with the real prize: meaningful federal anti-solitary legislation, which can’t be as easily reversed by changes of administration. Bills have been introduced in Congress in recent years, and Sandoval says that more are in the works; but so far none has moved out of committee. The clock is also ticking on the putatively Democratic majority, and congressional Republicans have shown little interest in limiting solitary for anyone but the January 6th riot suspects in the D.C. jail. The best chance for speedy relief for the approximately 10,000 people in federal solitary clearly lies with Biden’s pen.

“Biden could just say ‘I will make the U.S. federal prison system in compliance with Nelson Mandela rules,’ said Johnny Perez, a FAST member who directs prison policy for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and a survivor of five years in solitary confinement.

“He could lead the world in ending torture by going further than the Mandela Rules and advancing efforts to completely abolish solitary, with meaningful alternatives,” Perez said. “He could do that right now, he could tweet that tomorrow, President Trump-style… I would love to see that happen.”

A New Jersey Woman Claimed Innocence In ‘Shaken Baby’ Death. Now Her Conviction May Get Another Look.

Spurred by an Appeal investigation into Michelle Heale’s controversial 2015 case, a law professor is asking New Jersey’s Conviction Review Unit to “correct an injustice” and set Heale free.

A New Jersey Woman Claimed Innocence In ‘Shaken Baby’ Death. Now Her Conviction May Get Another Look.

Spurred by an Appeal investigation into Michelle Heale’s controversial 2015 case, a law professor is asking New Jersey’s Conviction Review Unit to “correct an injustice” and set Heale free.

Michelle Heale was babysitting 14-month-old Mason Hess in 2012, when, according to Heale, his body suddenly went limp. She called 911.

“He has no movement in any parts of his body,” she told the operator. “His whole body is lifeless.”

An ambulance arrived and rushed Hess to the hospital. He died days later.

Police and prosecutors claimed Heale, who had no history of violence, had shaken Hess, causing his death. Heale maintained her innocence, but in 2015, a New Jersey jury convicted her of aggravated manslaughter and child endangerment. When the verdict was read, Heale “was in complete shock,” she wrote to The Appeal.

Heale was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the time, her twins were six years old.

Significant questions about Heale’s guilt have emerged in recent years, spurred by an investigation published in The Appeal in 2020 that tackled the questionable science her conviction had been based upon.

Now, Heale’s conviction may be on its way to getting another look. This week, Colin Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, is submitting an application on Heale’s behalf to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit, asking that they “correct an injustice and set Michelle Heale free.” Law student Jasmine Caruthers assisted Miller in preparing the application.

Miller, who is also co-host of the wrongful convictions podcast, Undisclosed, began to investigate Heale’s case after reading The Appeal’s reporting.

“This is one of those cases where forensic science has gone haywire,” said Miller, comparing SBS to the discredited fields of bite mark analysis and microscopic hair comparison. False or misleading forensic science has contributed to more than 700 known wrongful convictions since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Former New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal created the conviction review unit in April 2019. Since its inception, the unit, which is headed by former prosecutor and family court judge Carolyn Murray, has exonerated just one person, Taron Hill. Hill was wrongfully convicted of murder in 2006 and was released in July. Over 450 applications have been submitted to the unit, according to the attorney general’s office, each involving a potential miscarriage of justice. Nearly 200 of those applications are in the screening process, and another 95 are awaiting screening. Nineteen applications are “currently under active re-investigation.”

Hill is one of 43 people who has been exonerated in New Jersey since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Heale’s supporters hope she will soon be added to that list.

At Heale’s trial in 2015, the prosecution relied on evidence that, at worst, has been discredited, and at best, remains highly contested.

Shaken baby syndrome, also known as abusive head trauma, is a theory first developed in the 1970s. Proponents claim that shaking a baby produces a so-called “triad” of catastrophic injuries exclusive to victims of SBS — subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling. No other injuries, such as bruising or grab marks, need to be present for the diagnosis. The shaking is so violent, medical experts often testify, that the person last with the child must be the one responsible.

But studies — and a growing number of exonerations — have challenged the tenets of SBS.

“The imprimatur of that incorrect medical conclusion has led not only to wrongful convictions, but also a cascade of collateral harms: decades of incarceration or even imposition of the death penalty, the shattering of families,” said Laura Cohen, a Rutgers University law professor and co-founder of the New Jersey Innocence Project, in an email to The Appeal.

In a 2016 literature review, researchers examined 1,065 studies on SBS in an attempt to determine if shaking, with no external injuries, produced the triad of injuries. In total, 1,035 of those studies were excluded because they had examined fewer than 10 cases. The review didn’t identify a single SBS study that could be characterized as “high quality,” noting that most studies were unable to confirm whether subjects had been the victims of abuse.

A separate study, published by the Belgian Neurological Society, concluded that, contrary to expert testimony common in SBS cases, there are no retinal hemorrhages that are only present in abusive head trauma cases.

“[SBS] has never been validated,” said Keith Findley, co-founder and president of the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences and co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. While defenders of SBS often point to their clinical experience to support their diagnoses that shaking causes the triad, “that doesn’t confirm the shaking is the cause,” said Findley. “It just confirms that they call it the same thing every time.”

Courts, too, have become skeptical of prosecutions based on the SBS triad. In the summer of 2018, about two months after the state Supreme Court refused to hear Heale’s appeal, a trial court acquitted Robert Jacoby of aggravated assault. New Jersey prosecutors had claimed Jacoby had shaken his approximately 11-week-old son. But Jacoby maintained that his baby had unexpectedly vomited and gone limp, at which point he’d taken him to the hospital.

“It is now well established and widely accepted in the scientific community that there are other alternate causes or conditions that ‘mimic’ findings commonly associated with SBS,” the trial judge wrote in his ruling.

In Heale’s case, the prosecution’s medical experts told the jury that illness or an accidental fall — both of which Hess had experienced shortly before his collapse — could not have contributed to Hess’s death.

Alex Levin, then chief of pediatric ophthalmology and ocular genetics at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, testified that the injuries to Hess’s eyes provided a textbook example of the effects of shaken baby syndrome. The only other possible cause of the injuries, Levin claimed, was if “a television or something crushed his head, unless he was killed in a car accident, unless he fell 11 meters.” The prosecutor asked another witness, Lucy Rorke-Adams, then a neuropathologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, if there was any doubt that Hess had been shaken to death. Rorke-Adams replied, “No.”

Both Levin and Rorke-Adams have testified for the prosecution in SBS cases where the accused was later exonerated.

Contrary to testimony from the state’s experts, there were other viable explanations for Hess’s death, according to The Appeal’s 2020 investigation.

The day before Hess collapsed, he threw up at Heale’s home. His mother took him to the pediatrician, who diagnosed him with ear and upper respiratory infections, and prescribed antibiotics. His mother, who’d been friends with Heale for several years, offered to keep him home.

“R u sure i don’t want to get any of you sick,” she texted Heale. “Won’t be the first time, won’t be the last time. Everyone will be fine,” Heale replied.

When Hess was rushed to the hospital from Heale’s home, the emergency room doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia.

Hess had also suffered a fall at home about a week before his collapse, his parents testified. In the autopsy report, the medical examiner noted there was a bruise on his forehead.

“Mason just walked into the sliders… think the bump now looks bigger. Leaving the screen on now!!!” Heale texted Hess’s mother the day before his collapse, according to court documents. “Lol unreal,” his mother replied.

Several studies have concluded that symptoms once thought to be exclusively associated with SBS can be caused by something as simple as a short-distance, accidental fall. There can also be a delay between the fall and a child’s collapse or death, according to several case examples Miller cites in Heale’s application.

“You can have cases where initially everything appears okay and then it’s only later when you realize the impact this had,” said Miller.

Before Heale’s trial began, her attorneys contacted Chris Van Ee, a biomechanical engineer and accident reconstruction specialist. Van Ee prepared a report and emailed it to her attorneys, but never heard back, according to Heale’s application. In his report, Van Ee wrote that external injuries would be present on Hess if Heale had violently shaken him. “There are no reported skull fractures, bruises, or other injuries to indicate that Mason was abusively shaken with great force or otherwise assaulted,” he wrote. But his report was never presented at trial. 

“There was an expert — the leading expert — ready, willing, and able to testify,” said Miller, adding that Van Ee’s report presented evidence that Hess’s death was “far more likely” caused by a short fall than by shaking.

“Shaken baby syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion, not inclusion,” said Miller. “This is something that certainly cannot be excluded as the cause of death.”

In many SBS cases, medical professionals and law enforcement dismiss evidence that supports alternate explanations for a child’s death, said Jessica Henry, a professor at Montclair State University and author of the book, “Smoke But No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened.”

“Once folks come in with this notion that the child is dead because there must have been some kind of abusive act, they stop focusing on the rest of the medical evidence that would suggest otherwise,” said Henry.

Heale hopes the attorney general’s office will review “all the facts of my case” and “recognize that I am not the woman portrayed by the prosecution,” she wrote to The Appeal.

Heale stays in touch with her twins, now 13, through phone calls, emails, and occasional visits. Before the pandemic, she saw her children two or three times a month, but over the last two years, she’s gone for months at a time without seeing them.

“Physically being away from my children and husband is the hardest part of being incarcerated,” Heale wrote to The Appeal. “Nothing can replace being home and involved with them on a day to day basis.”

Even as her faith in the legal system has deteriorated, Heale has tried to remain optimistic, buoyed by the support of her family and friends. On the first day of the month, she wrote, “Happy February…another month closer to home!”

After 51 Years In Prison, Louisiana’s Longest-Serving Incarcerated Woman Is Free

Gloria Williams, who became known as “Mama Glo” behind bars, was released Tuesday, more than two years after the state parole board first recommended that her sentence be commuted.

Gloria Williams embraces her sister Mary Smith-Moore shortly after her release from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.
Fox Rich | PDM NOLA

After 51 Years In Prison, Louisiana’s Longest-Serving Incarcerated Woman Is Free

Gloria Williams, who became known as “Mama Glo” behind bars, was released Tuesday, more than two years after the state parole board first recommended that her sentence be commuted.

Jan. 25, 2022, was the day Gloria Williams, Louisiana’s longest-serving incarcerated woman, had long been dreaming of.

After 51 years in prison, the 76-year-old had been granted parole. Within hours, she walked out of the gates of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women and into the jubilant hugs of her friends and family—including her sister Mary Smith-Moore.

“Over the years, I’ve talked to her, visited her, emailed her,” Smith-Moore told The Appeal. “But to have her touch my face and me be able to hug her, it’s just unexplainable, that emotion, that feeling that you can touch your sister.”

In 1971, Williams, then 25, was arrested in Opelousas, Louisiana, after she and two others tried to rob a grocery store using a toy gun she’d taken from her son. During a struggle with the store’s owner, Budge Cutrera, Williams’s co-defendant, a 16-year-old girl, fatally shot Cutrera with a firearm he kept behind the counter. Nine months later, all three were sentenced to life without parole.

While incarcerated, Williams became involved with the prison ministry and the Big Sisters program, in which long-termers mentor newly-arrived women. Through her counseling and mentoring, Williams earned the nickname “Mama Glo.”

Williams’s release on Tuesday was the product of years of advocacy and patience. In July 2019, she appeared before the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles, which unanimously recommended that Gov. John Bel Edwards commute her sentence to make her immediately eligible for parole. By then, Williams was the only one still imprisoned for Cutrera’s death. The woman who shot him had died 15 years earlier in prison; the other person involved, Philip Anthony Harris, was granted a commutation in 1987.

With the parole board’s blessing, Williams finally had a chance at freedom. But for over two years, the governor took no action on the recommendation for commutation.

Then COVID-19 hit. At the time, Williams was living in a dormitory with dozens of women and no walls or doors separating them.

In early 2020, Williams contracted COVID-19, which developed into bilateral pneumonia. She was hospitalized and placed in the intensive care unit. In May, she was returned to prison. By then, 165 of the prison’s 213 women had tested positive for COVID-19.

Now requiring supplemental oxygen, Williams continued to wait for the governor’s decision. She applied for—and received—an interstate transfer, which would allow her to live with her son and his family in Houston if she were paroled.

Finally, on August 20, 2021, over two years after the parole board’s recommendation, Edwards officially commuted Williams’s sentence, making her eligible for parole consideration. But Mama Glo’s wait for freedom still wasn’t over.

On Tuesday, Williams appeared via Zoom before three parole board members, as well as Cutrera’s son, grandson, and granddaughter.

Williams listened while the three described the pain of losing Cutrera in 1971. “She took away someone we love. We don’t get him back,” Cutrera’s granddaughter said, crying throughout her statement.

Then, it was Williams’s turn to speak. “I cannot change the pain that I’ve caused the Cutrera family,” she started. “Sorry is not enough. I deprived you of your father [and] your grandfather.” Wiping her eyes with a tissue, Williams apologized, stating that she wished she could go back in time and undo her actions.

The three parole board members expressed their condolences to Cutrera’s family, and reminded them that the parole board’s responsibility was to evaluate Williams based on the present circumstances.

“My job today is not to look at the person who did this horrible thing 50 some-odd years ago, but to look at the person she is today,” said parole board member Sheryl Ranatza.

Parole board member Bonnie Jackson said it was the board’s duty to “not consider the crime to the exclusion of everything else,” before citing Williams’s age and low risk score as determining factors in her decision to support parole.

The board members voted unanimously to grant Williams parole, with the stipulation that she have no contact with the Cutrera family.

Hours later, Williams walked out of prison. In addition to her sister and two sons, one of whom was three years old when she went to prison, Mama Glo’s supporters included members of Participatory Defense Movement NOLA (PDM NOLA), an organization founded by a formerly incarcerated couple that had advocated for Williams’s release.

“Mama Glo’s release from prison set a new trajectory for people to believe what’s possible,” Fox Rich, PDM NOLA’s co-founder, told The Appeal. “It will continue to show that everyday people can make a difference in the system.”

Williams’s sister Mary Smith-Moore agreed. “I’m so grateful for the people who stood with us and behind us, who held the doors open for us to walk through.” Four days earlier, Smith-Moore had buried her husband. After the funeral, she prepared to travel to Louisiana for her sister’s parole hearing and possible release. “You have to have somebody when you can’t be there. Families can’t do it alone.”

Williams is now in Texas, reunited with her family, including her two remaining siblings, adult children, adult grandchildren and great-grandchildren, one of whom was born 15 minutes before her release.

After Years Locked up for Stealing Cold Medicine, Reginald Randolph Is Released

But if he loses his appeal and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declines to grant him clemency, he will likely be sent back to prison.

Randolph and his family in 1997.
Legal Aid Society

After Years Locked up for Stealing Cold Medicine, Reginald Randolph Is Released

But if he loses his appeal and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declines to grant him clemency, he will likely be sent back to prison.

This story is published in partnership with New York Focus.

Reginald Randolph, a 58-year-old visually impaired man who spent years locked up at Rikers Island after his arrest for stealing cold medicine, was released from New York state prison Tuesday, following a hearing at a Manhattan courthouse.

In a brief proceeding at the New York State Supreme Court Building, Randolph appeared shackled before Judge Althea Drysdale, who warned him that this was not a “get out of jail free card,” and that he must abide by the terms of his release.

Randolph agreed, and Drysdale declared that he would be released on his own recognizance. But Randolph remained shackled — his hands cuffed in front of him and his ankles shackled together — for another 90 minutes.

“I feel great,” Randolph told New York Focus and The Appeal as he sat in the courthouse hallway, waiting for his restraints to be removed. “I feel like I have a normal life. I feel like I’m a normal human being.”

Newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who ran for office promising criminal justice reform, agreed to Randolph’s release pending a decision on his appeal, which could take up to two years, according to his attorney with the Legal Aid Society, Jeffrey Berman. If Randolph loses his appeal and the governor does not grant him clemency, he will likely be sent back to prison.

For now, Randolph will move into The Redemption Center, a supportive housing program that serves formerly incarcerated people in New York City, and will begin mental health and substance dependence treatment, according to Legal Aid.

As first reported by The Appeal and New York Focus, New York Criminal Court Judge Cori Weston, a former public defender, sentenced Randolph in August to two to four years in prison for stealing cold medicine from Duane Reade convenience stores. Randolph had already spent more than 800 days locked up at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, even before his state prison sentence began in November.

Randolph’s attorneys have maintained that incarceration poses a potentially deadly risk to their client. Randolph suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, schizoaffective disorder, and polysubstance use disorder. He has lived in poverty for much of his childhood and adult life, and has struggled with chronic homelessness since his mother’s death in 2001.

At the time of his arrest for stealing cold medicine, “I didn’t have no stability in my life,” said Randolph. “I was sleeping in subway trains.”

In September, Legal Aid filed a clemency petition with Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) asking that she commute Randolph’s sentence. New York state Senators Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), and Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), along with more than 200 community and faith leaders, have all urged Hochul to grant Randolph clemency.

Hochul has not made a decision on his petition, according to Legal Aid. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Randolph and his social worker, Afeisha Julien, shortly after his release on Jan. 25, 2022.
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

Randolph’s path to state prison began in drug court, often hailed as a compassionate alternative to more punitive policies of earlier decades.

After being locked up for more than a year while awaiting trial, Randolph was offered a deal that would get him off Rikers and into a diversion program. First, he had to plead guilty. If he failed to complete drug court and was rearrested, he faced up to 14 years in prison, according to his Manhattan drug court plea agreement.

Three days after being released from jail into a court-mandated treatment program, Randolph left. “It was too much,” he told New York Focus and The Appeal in an interview last year. “It was too much coming at me.” The court sent him to another program; he left after less than a month.

Randolph’s experience is common among participants of judicial diversion programs, which include mental health and drug courts. State lawmakers are considering legislation called the Treatment Not Jail Act, which would direct treatment courts to adopt a harm reduction model guided by healthcare professionals.

The bill would allow people to enter treatment courts without pleading guilty, extend eligibility to people with a variety of disabilities — including developmental and intellectual — and expand the types of offenses eligible for diversion. Judges would also be forbidden from failing participants for not obtaining full-time employment or housing.

Under current rules, drug court participants are subjected to arbitrary restrictions and onerous requirements. In the Manhattan drug court, repeated violations of the court’s rules, such as arriving late, can result in jail time. All Manhattan participants must obtain full-time employment or, if they’re disabled, social security benefits. They’re also required to abstain from drugs and alcohol and submit to weekly drug testing.

The legislation would move away from an abstinence-only model of treatment, expanding the definition of success to include reduced substance use or “improved well-being [and] social stability.” It would also give participants the right to a hearing if they’re accused of violations, so they can respond to allegations against them and cross-examine witnesses.

“We know for a fact that providing human beings with housing and with continued access to their community and any other essentials to life actually helps people recover,” Jessica Ramos, the bill’s primary sponsor in the state senate, told New York Focus and The Appeal.

Ramos’s bill would come too late to help Randolph, but supporters say it could spare people like him years of trauma and incarceration.

Meanwhile, Randolph’s team is pushing for the governor to grant him clemency, which would ensure he isn’t sent back to prison, regardless of how his appeal plays out. But for now, Randolph is cherishing his freedom. Shortly before his shackles came off, he said he’d had trouble sleeping for the past few days. “I was excited about being free,” Randolph said. “Being like a human again.”

Why New York Jail Populations Are Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels

After the state rolled back a progressive bail law, data from the Vera Institute of Justice suggests judges are ordering more people be held in jails, amid continued worry over COVID-19.

Design: Natalie Pryor; Photo: Vladislav Rechetnya | Pexels

Why New York Jail Populations Are Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels

After the state rolled back a progressive bail law, data from the Vera Institute of Justice suggests judges are ordering more people be held in jails, amid continued worry over COVID-19.

In mid-September, Angela Reich was sleeping at a supportive living facility for people struggling with substance use when police showed up at her door. They arrested Reich and brought her, in shorts and no bra, to drug court. Reich had started using again, and the facility had contacted the officers.

Kim Durkee, Reich’s mother, said the drug court judge sent her to jail in Broome County, New York, rather than to treatment, “to keep her safe, is what they claim[ed].”

Reich takes mood-stabilizing medication and medication to help with nightmares, which Durkee said she did not receive in jail. As a result, she wasn’t thinking or acting normally, said Durkee, and when presented with paperwork to be released to a treatment program, she did not sign it. She wasn’t released until late November.

Reich’s detention would have worried her mother under any circumstances, but she has been even more fearful during the pandemic. Jails have been “incubators” of COVID-19, according to a recent study. More than 20 percent of people in New York City jails have been infected at least once during their time in custody, and many more people in jails across the state have fallen ill.

But jails are still filling up. Data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice and shared with The Appeal shows that jail populations fell significantly across New York State until April 2020 and then began to rise by late summer,, nearly reaching their pre-pandemic levels by the end of that year. Between April and December 2020, the number of people in the state held pretrial—those charged with a crime and presumed legally innocent—rose by 34.4 percent, or nearly 2,500 people.

Despite some narratives that crime has been on a dramatic uptick, New York’s incidents of the most commonly reported crimes were nearly a quarter lower in 2020 compared to 2011, although there were small upticks in some violent crimes like murder and aggravated assault, according to the state’s data. Those increases are similar to the trend across the rest of the country.

The rise in the state’s jail populations, according to Vera’s experts and a forthcoming report shared with The Appeal, have instead been driven by judges choosing to incarcerate people instead of turning to other alternatives after the state rolled back its landmark bail reform law.

Durkee knows her daughter, like others in jail, struggles with her own issues. “But they’re still people,” she said. “Why is jail the ultimate answer?”

Bail reforms rolled back

In April 2019, in an effort to reduce the number of people in the state’s jails, New York legislators passed a law that barred judges from setting cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and required them to assess someone’s ability to pay before setting bail.

Initially, “bail reform actually worked,” said Jullian Harris-Calvin, who collected and analyzed the data and is the director of the Greater Justice New York program at Vera. Though the law didn’t take effect until January 2020, judges started to implement the new rules ahead of time, and jail populations dropped significantly, according to Vera’s analysis. Between April 2019 and April 2020 the number of people incarcerated pretrial fell by 46.2 percent statewide.

“A lot of judges were taking bail reform seriously,” said Harris-Calvin. And even those who didn’t like it still weren’t able to set bail for a large number of charges, she said. More people were “home with their families, going to work, and taking care of their children while fighting their case from home.”

“It seemed really positive,” said Alexis Pleus, executive director of Truth Pharm, a criminal justice reform organization in Binghamton.

But in April 2020, just months after bail reform had gone into effect, the state legislature rolled it back, making more than a dozen charges newly eligible for bail. The rollback followed a flurry of media reports that amplified select cases of people who were released without bail and then allegedly committed other crimes. The state rolled back its law “before there was any way there could have been data or any analysis to prove that bail reform was leading to growing crime rates,” Harris-Calvin noted.

At first, jail populations continued to decline anyway in response to the public outcry to release people at the start of the pandemic. But all of that began to fade in the summer of 2020. “We’ve been seeing our jail population tick back up,” Harris-Calvin said. In some counties, such as Cortland and Onondaga, the pretrial jail populations were higher at the end of 2020 than before bail reform took effect.

Courts shut down in response to the pandemic so cases took longer to process. Many state prisons stopped accepting transfers from jails, forcing people to wait months, while others were held past their release dates if they had been exposed to COVID-19.

Judges setting bail in many cases

And just as the fear mongering over the bail law got to the state legislature, Harris-Calvin suspects that “it also took hold of judges and prosecutors.”

Between June and October of 2020, Vera researchers observed 300 virtual arraignments in Broome, Erie, and Tompkins counties—counties diverse in their geography, size, and demographics, and where pretrial populations rose an average of 31 percent after the start of the pandemic. Despite the fact that fewer than a third of cases concerned bail-eligible charges, judges set bail or ordered someone to be detained in more than two-thirds of cases, according to data shared with The Appeal.

Vera’s court observations have shown that many prosecutors and judges are “trying to shoehorn particular cases into the new exceptions to the bail law,” she said. Judges are also still resistant to the law: In the court observations, judges routinely stated that they only ordered people to be released when charged with bail ineligible misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies because the law forced them to.

The state’s bail law still requires that judges take financial circumstances and ability to pay into consideration when setting bail. But “judges aren’t taking that seriously,” Harris-Calvin said. In more than 70 percent of cases where judges set bail, according to Vera’s observations, neither the judge nor the defense attorney brought up the person’s ability to pay it. “In courtrooms, there’s actually no discussion at all about someone’s financial circumstances,” Harris-Calvin said.

In response to a request for comment, Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the New York court system, said in an email: “At arraignment, Judges set bail based on the facts and circumstances of the case solely to ensure a defendants [sic] return to court. If a defendant has an issue with the amount set, they can appeal the decision to the Appellate Division.”

Tompkins County has experienced a slightly different trend than the other counties, according to Vera’s data. Thirteen people were held pretrial in April 2020, 23 in August, and 17 in December. “Tompkins is doing very, very well at keeping the numbers as low as possible” thanks to investments it has made in alternatives to incarceration programs, said David Sanders, the former criminal justice coordinator for the county. But racial disparities increased: While the incarceration rates of Black and white people were nearly identical in May and June 2020, the gap had reopened by July.

Dangers of COVID-19 in jails

Being confined to jail is particularly dangerous, as COVID-19 continues to be a threat, according to advocates. The Broome County jail has been declared a COVID-19 hotspot at various points during the pandemic. At first people in the jail weren’t given any protective equipment like masks or sanitation equipment, advocates say; the jail eventually handed out masks but never gave out cleaning supplies. People who Pleus’s organization has worked with have told her that they were given one Tylenol a day when suffering from COVID-19 and little medical attention. Every time someone in a pod of incarcerated people got exposed, they would all go into lockdown for 10 days.

“It’s an unimaginable horror story,” said Bill Martin of Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier.

As in Broome County, the jail population in Erie County “started to creep back up” last fall, said Colleen Kristich, community researcher at Partnership for the Public Good. Advocates were alarmed at the lack of masks and hygiene products — not to mention the inability to socially distance in cramped living spaces.

Cortez Foster was arrested in January 2020 during a traffic stop and barred from posting bail to get out of the Erie County jail because he was on post-release supervision from a prior arrest. When the pandemic started, he said he and other incarcerated people weren’t given access to cleaning supplies and weren’t issued masks until much later in the year. Correctional officers entered units without masks on. Foster worried that his heart murmur put him at increased risk if he were to get COVID-19. “[W]e don’t know if we will contract this deadly virus while being held hostage in this facility that can not provide us with proper medical care,” he wrote in a petition in April 2020. People who tested positive were put into one unit together. “It was sickening. It was horrible,” he told The Appeal.

While in jail, Foster missed the first year of his son’s life, and his fiance struggled to pay her bills while caring for a young child on her own. His mother went into cardiac arrest, eventually requiring surgery, but Foster couldn’t get released to care for her. Once he was released this past January, “she got her confidence … back up simply because she knows her son is home,” Cortez said.

Where lawmakers stand

There’s little appetite in Albany for another fight over bail reform, Harris-Calvin said, and some lawmakers are trying to further weaken the law, not strengthen it. U.S. Representative John Katko, whose district includes Syracuse, has introduced federal legislation that would give judges more power to impose bail if they believe someone might be dangerous. Shortly after winning the election for New York City mayor, Eric Adams said rolling the state bail law back further to give judges more discretion will be a top priority.

But other lawmakers have raised concerns about whether high bail amounts are risking people’s health. In late November, U.S. Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent letters to all five of New York City’s district attorneys urging them to seek lower bail in order to reduce the city’s jail populations. “We have grave concerns that excessive bail amounts are leading to unnecessary pretrial detention and contributing to a humanitarian crisis in New York City’s jail system, particularly on Rikers Island,” they wrote of the jail complex there. Along with U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, they also sent letters to all district attorneys urging them to release anyone incarcerated on a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony, or those who face “significant health risks.”

To reduce jail populations at Rikers and throughout New York State, Harris-Calvin argues that state lawmakers have to “give the bail reform law more teeth.” First, she said, lawmakers need to undo the rollback of the law. But they also need to issue guidelines for how judges and prosecutors should take someone’s financial situation into account.

“We need to continue to move bail reform forward and strengthen its protections of people who are presumed innocent,” Harris-Calvin said. That will “allow for more people to go home.”

Gay And Trans ‘Panic’ Is Still Being Used To Justify Anti-LGBTQ Attacks

Some states have banned the controversial legal defense, but other efforts, including at the federal level, are facing challenges.

Tingey Injury Law Firm | Unsplash

Gay And Trans ‘Panic’ Is Still Being Used To Justify Anti-LGBTQ Attacks

Some states have banned the controversial legal defense, but other efforts, including at the federal level, are facing challenges.

When news broke in July 2020 that Memphis firefighter Mack Bond had been shot to death in his car, his colleagues and community were stunned. Bond, 58, had been with the Memphis Fire Department for 21 years and was remembered as a committed public servant.

“Mack faithfully served as a member of this department for over twenty-one years and was a valued member of our MFD family,” Chief Gina Sweat said in a statement at the time. “He will be greatly missed.”

A couple, Carlton Wells and Danielle Mack, were arrested days later in connection with the shooting, and news reports of the arrest detail a grim motive for the killing. According to a local news report, Wells told police that he shot the firefighter multiple times after Bond allegedly propositioned Wells and his girlfriend for sex, making Wells uncomfortable. The area where Bond was shot was known as a gay cruising area, according to a report in Out Magazine. A grand jury indicted Wells in October 2020 on two charges: second-degree murder and possessing a handgun with a felony conviction. Mack was also indicted on a felony charge of evidence tampering.

Wells’s statement shocked queer activists, who have come to call the claim and others like it the gay and trans panic defenses. And Tennessee is one of dozens of states where defendants are able to make similar statements in court as justifications of their violence against queer people. And while a handful of states have passed laws excluding the defenses from allowable legal arguments, roadblocks still exist, including at the federal level.

The gay and trans panic defenses are not criminal legal defenses on their own, like self-defense, but instead used to argue provocation, diminished capacity, or insanity, as well as self-defense, according to Carsten Andresen, a criminal justice professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. In other words, a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is argued to have provoked the defendant’s “panic” and thus the sometimes deadly violence inflicted on a queer victim.

“I describe it like carbon monoxide,” Andresen said. “There’s a hazardous byproduct of putting out all these toxic ideas about gay people and other LGBTQ+ people — this idea that they’re predatory. It’s ridiculous.”

Andresen said he has identified more than 200 cases in the last 50 years in which the panic defenses have been used. He estimates, however, that there are hundreds of cases he has not yet found. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law recently found that gay and trans panic defenses have appeared in publicly reported court opinions in roughly half of U.S. states since the 1960s.

The institute compiled a non-exhaustive list of cases that used the defense. Those cases typically centered on unwanted flirtations and sexual advances, or discovery of someone’s trans identity. Arguments that focused on flirtations or advances also relied on stereotypes of queer people, mainly queer men, as a sex-craven predators and claims were often made that the victims were attempting to sexually assault the defendant.

In some cases identified by legal scholars as employing the defense, defendants still received harsh sentences. Jaron Nabors was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2006 in Alameda County, California, after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of trans teenager Gwen Araujo, who was beaten and buried in a shallow grave by Nabors and three other men after they learned she was transgender. In 2016, James Dixon was sentenced to 12 years in prison in New York City after he pleaded guilty to manslaughter after beating to death Islan Nettles, a trans woman with whom he’d been flirting. In 2018, James Miller of Texas escaped a murder or manslaughter charge, but he was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years of probation after fatally stabbing Daniel Spencer in 2015. Miller told police that Spencer got angry after Miller rejected sexual advances and became violent.

But as controversial as the defenses are, Andresen’s research shows that they are still somewhat effective. In a sample of 104 cases, he found that murder charges were reduced for people using the defensed 33 percent of the time, resulting in relatively shorter prison sentences. Only a handful of the cases Andresen identified resulted in acquittals.

Andresen and other critics of the gay and trans panic defenses said there is a significant difference between claims of self-defense and crimes that show an obvious anti-queer bias. They point specifically to disproportionate violence inflicted on queer victims that they say belies defendants’ self-defense claims.

“It’s so over the top,” Andresen said. “If you look at somebody that in real life suffered a horrific crime, and then they are lashing out … nobody does it like that.”

In one such case, Joseph Biedermann was acquitted of murder in 2009 in Illinois after he stabbed Terrance Hauser 61 times. Biedermann said he stabbed Hauser after Hauser allegedly drew a sword and threatened to sexually assault him. Rick Garcia, Equality Illinois’ political director at the time, blamed the acquittal on the gay panic defense.

“The gay panic defense is passe but, unfortunately, it still works in some places,” Garcia told the Chicago Tribune. “It seems to me that this jury based its verdict not on the facts but on deep seated anti-gay sentiment.”

Queer people, particularly queer people of color, experience disproportionate violence. An October 2020 study analyzing data from the National Crime Victimization Survey found that queer people are almost four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than people who identify as straight.

And this year is the deadliest on record for violence against transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. As of Nov. 20, there were 47 homicides of trans people in the U.S., mostly Black or Latino. Last year held the previous record, with 44 known killings. Activists have long said the true number is likely much larger if accounting for unreported deaths and those misreported by police departments, the media, and victims’ own loved ones.

Kristen Browde, co-chairperson of the National Trans Bar Association, said the gay and trans panic defenses particularly impact transgender women because of the disproportionate violence they face. “I find it outrageous that any judge in any court would for a moment tolerate the thought that all people are not equal, that all lives are not of the same value,” Browde said. “And that is what [the gay and trans panic defense] is saying. When you allow a defense like that, somehow one person’s life is worth less than another’s because that person is transgender.”

In the face of deadly violence against trans people, some legislators have made efforts, with varying success, to ban the gay and trans panic defenses in courtrooms across the country.

In 2013, the American Bar Association unanimously approved a resolution that called on state legislatures to ban the defenses, and the following year, California became the first state to do so. Virginia, Vermont, Oregon, and Maryland enacted a ban on the defenses this year, bringing the total number of states to ban the defense to 15, along with the District of Columbia.

Maryland Senator Clarence Lam, a Democrat who sponsored his state Senate’s version of the bill, told The Appeal that he was surprised at how quickly the measure passed.

“I was under the impression that it’d take more than one session to get this done and I was pleasantly surprised it passed in one full legislative session,” Lam said. The bill was introduced before the COVID-19 pandemic, but a shortened legislative session left the bill on the floor. It was reintroduced last year and passed unanimously in both the state House and Senate.

“I think it speaks to where society is these days in recognizing LGBTQ+ rights and recognizing that these are regular people just like everyone else,” Lam said.

Among legal scholars, however, views about the legitimacy and legality of the defense vary.

In a 2008 paper about the defense, George Washington University Law School professor Cynthia Lee wrote that legislative bans were misguided because courtroom arguments and education about LGBTQ+ issues were more apt to counter the problematic defenses. But in a 2020 research paper revisiting trans panic defenses, Lee wrote that she has since changed her mind, believing the bans to be an important and effective tool.

“All the education in the world will not encourage an individual who is explicitly biased against transgender individuals to see the victim in a trans panic case as an ordinary human being who did nothing to provoke the defendant other than being a transgender person,” Lee wrote in the paper.

Some, including Andresen, the St. Edward’s University professor, have voiced concerns that the bans could be overturned through lawsuits accusing them of violating defendants’ due process rights. But in her 2020 paper, Lee argued that under the current U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the bans would be constitutional.

“It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would find that a legislative ban on the trans panic defense violates a defendant’s due process rights,” Lee wrote.

But not all efforts to ban the defenses at trial have been successful. “Sadly, there are many, many states where bills to do away with this excuse for violence have been introduced but those bills are languishing,” said D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association. “And it makes me so upset to have to say this, but I have seen it time after time — those bills often will become law only after someone gets hurt or killed.”

In Texas, for instance, a bill to ban the defenses, introduced by state Representative Gina Hinojosa in November 2020, failed to make it out of committee.

Hinojosa, a Democrat who represents parts of Austin, expressed disappointment that the bill failed along party lines after a Republican colleague backed out of an agreement to support it. She says she intends to reintroduce the bill, however, or pass it on to a colleague to sponsor.

“I do think that my Republican colleagues were open and I think some may have even been convinced, but because LGBTQ+ issues have become so polarized … they didn’t think they were free to vote in support of the bill without facing political repercussions in a Republican primary,” she said in a phone call.

Hinojosa said a nonbinary constituent brought the issue to her attention and motivated her to take it up. She believes the ban is a crucial way to ensure equity within courtrooms across the state.

“This is a basic justice issue,” Hinojosa said, “and until we’re able to remedy the law, members of our LGBTQ+ community will be less safe, and less protected by our state laws.”

State legislatures across the country have also tried to limit the rights of transgender and other queer people. Texas legislators in particular have introduced 47 bills this year — three times more than any other state — targeting trans youth in sports, gender-affirming care, and birth certificate updates, according to reporting by The 19th.

Scholars like Browde of the Trans Bar Association say similar gridlocks in Congress could also doom a bill to abolish the defenses in federal courts. In April, U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, both Democrats, introduced the Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act. Markey is focused on building support for the bill as it moves through the House Judiciary Committee, said his press secretary, Taylor St. Germain.

“It’s common sense legislation that has support across the country,” St. Germain said in a phone call. “Senator Markey is of the belief that these so-called defenses only exacerbate bigotry facing people and take away the legitimacy of the federal prosecution.”

How the NYPD’s Troubled Sex Crimes Unit Is Set Up To Fail Victims

Former top cops say a culture of neglect at the NYPD has left inexperienced and poorly trained officers in charge of some of the department’s most sensitive cases.

NYPD officers at an Occupy Wall Street protest in November 2011
Teresa Shen | Flickr

How the NYPD’s Troubled Sex Crimes Unit Is Set Up To Fail Victims

Former top cops say a culture of neglect at the NYPD has left inexperienced and poorly trained officers in charge of some of the department’s most sensitive cases.

The biggest police department in the country has been under fire for bungling sex crimes for years — and retired New York Police Department officials say the situation has only gotten worse.

The Special Victims Division (SVD) is now full of officers who have little to no investigative experience, sources say. At the same time, structural problems created by the NYPD discourage talented detectives from joining the SVD but incentivize those unqualified officers to join in search of a promotion, even if they have no care or interest in investigating the sensitive cases assigned to the division.

Sources also say the SVD has allowed in some “hooks” or “contracts” — members of the NYPD who have used their connections within the department to get the jobs they want, regardless of their qualifications. In addition, training for special victims detectives was suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic began, meaning many inexperienced investigators who joined the SVD since then have received almost no specialized training.

Advocates, lawmakers, and four former Special Victims Division supervisors who spoke with The Appeal say the NYPD has spent years neglecting serious structural problems that have long damaged sex crimes and child abuse investigations in New York City. In multiple cases, women were assaulted and children were killed after detectives failed to appropriately investigate reports of rape or abuse. But, after a city watchdog agency released a damning report on the SVD in 2018, the situation has worsened significantly, sources say.

In a statement shared with The Appeal, Sgt. Edward Riley, a spokesperson for the NYPD, said that the department has made the SVD better in recent years, not worse. “These assertions are false,” Riley wrote in an email to The Appeal. “Training has been enhanced, staffing has been increased, cases per investigator have been reduced. These are just some improvements that were put in place since the report.”

But sex crimes and child abuse victims who have ended up with untrained and unqualified detectives assigned to their cases have suffered real consequences. In 2019, a special victims detective falsely told a rape victim that her identity would become public if she went forward with her case and the only way to avoid publicity was to close it. When the woman’s alleged attacker was later arrested on burglary charges, investigators made several more errors that ultimately led to the man’s release. He then attempted to rape three more women. That same year, another special victims detective falsely told a rape victim that women often lie about being raped to get back at a boyfriend or avoid being deported, then didn’t collect crucial evidence or follow up on leads in her case. At a recent City Council hearing, a woman named Christine said after she was drugged and raped in September 2020, investigators closed her case without her knowledge, didn’t collect video evidence or interview witnesses, tried to make her pay over $1,000 to get her hair tested for date-rape drugs, and refused to connect her to anyone that help her figure out how to pay for the test.

“Rape is not a priority for the NYPD,” said Jane Manning, an advocate for sexual assault victims and director of the Women’s Equal Justice Project. “They could fix this if they wanted to. But they won’t give Special Victims the staff and resources to succeed.”

The 2018 report showed that NYPD leadership ignored requests to provide the SVD with appropriate staffing and resources for years, though the NYPD has about 55,000 employees and a $5.4 billion budget at their disposal to rectify these problems.

“Not a single operational issue listed in the report from three years ago has been resolved,” retired Special Victims Division chief Michael Osgood, who is still in contact with many staff members in the division, told The Appeal. “But worse than that, most of the internal systems have been abandoned or decommissioned, like quality management units and over a dozen training courses. Nothing has been corrected, in fact things have gotten worse.”

Osgood said the SVD is also now “flooded with white shields — police officers directly from patrol with no investigative experience” and that many assignments to the SVD are “political favors called ‘hooks’” which exacerbate problems at the division by adding investigators who may not necessarily care about the work.

Osgood was in charge of the Special Victims Division for nearly a decade before he was forced out in 2018. He says he was ousted in retaliation for cooperating with the Department of Investigation inquiry, despite commands from NYPD leadership to obstruct the investigation. Now, he is suing the city and several top NYPD officials over his ouster and says that the NYPD prioritized hiding the department’s shortcomings over helping crime victims.

“I saw what the inadequacies of the division are doing to thousands of victims,” Osgood said. “Why can’t the NYPD structure a correctly organized SVD? It’s a combination of sexism, ineptitude, and they’re not accountable to anybody.”

Through Riley, the NYPD said, “The accusations made by retired Chief Osgood are not based on facts” and defended the department’s process for hiring and training special victims investigators. “Special Victims Unit investigators bring a victim-centric and evidence-driven approach and work tirelessly to build the strongest possible case. The NYPD is committed to ensuring that all sexual assault survivors feel the safety and support needed to come forward and help the NYPD bring them the justice they deserve,” Riley said.

Chart by Natalie Pryor

Between 2018 and 2020, the number of investigators at the SVD increased by 29, but the experience level of investigators has dropped precipitously, according to data from the NYPD.

The NYPD has a grading system for detectives: third-grade detectives are those with the least amount of experience; second-grade detectives are ones who have been promoted and ideally have much more experience; first-grade detectives are even higher in the ranks. In 2018, the SVD had 12 first-grade detectives and 14 second-grade detectives. By 2020, those numbers dropped to four and eight respectively, meaning the division had lost 14 higher-quality detectives. During that same time, 21 third-grade detectives were added to the division. Fifteen officers were also added, bringing the total number of police officers without detective experience working in a division that investigates extremely complex criminal cases to 63, up from 48 in 2018.

Former special victims supervisors who spoke with The Appeal said new investigators are coming into the division with very little skills or experience. One sergeant said that many of the officers joining his squad were white shields from the transit bureau. He said he could not recall any actual detectives joining his squad.

“It’s one thing to bring in someone doing investigations in another division, they have some foundation to work off of,” said retired Lt. Craig Nilsen, who worked for the SVD from 2015 to 2021. “Taking police officers off patrol with hardly any investigative skills — it’s like taking a quarterback out of high school and throwing them into the Super Bowl.”

“If you’re investigating a rape, there is no room for error,” Nilsen said. “It’s a pervasive issue.”

The NYPD defended the experience level of police officers who have joined the SVD in recent years. In an email to The Appeal, Riley said that “these are seasoned, well-rounded cops,” who “undergo comprehensive training” and are “committed to this important and challenging work.” Riley said some officers previously worked on domestic violence prevention or neighborhood coordination teams and “are familiar with investigating sensitive cases and managing large caseloads.” Regarding the significant loss of first and second grade detectives in recent years, Riley said the NYPD has had “unusually high attrition” over the last 18 months.

It is possible to get more experienced detectives to join the SVD, former supervisors and advocates say, but the NYPD isn’t doing it. Most members of the homicide squad are first- or second-grade detectives, and only 20 percent of the squad are third-grade detectives. There were no officers on the homicide squad as of 2018. Yet nearly 68 percent of investigators in the SVD were third-grade detectives as of 2020, according to data from the NYPD presented at a City Council hearing this year. And nearly one-fourth of SVD investigators are officers without detective shields.

“No police officers go into homicide, you have to be a third-grade detective to be considered for transfer into homicide, so they must have some control over it,” said Mary Haviland, an advocate for sexual assault survivors and former executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

Chart by Natalie Pryor

The increasingly inexperienced members of the SVD also have far more cases than comparable divisions. In 2020, the city’s sex crimes and child abuse investigators dealt with an average of 47 cases each. But the city’s homicide detectives each had fewer than three cases to investigate on average in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

It is difficult to attract highly skilled detectives to the SVD, former supervisors say, because there are no incentives for them to join. Because of the way the NYPD’s detective grading system works, investigators with experience working for other detective squads, such as the vice enforcement or criminal enterprise divisions, may lose their opportunity to get a promotion if they move to another squad.

“If you’ve been in the precinct detective squad for 10 years, they’ll put you on the grade list [to get a promotion], but if you leave the office, you’ll no longer be on that list,” said the former supervisor, who asked not to be named because they still have ties to the division. “So they won’t leave.”

There is also little opportunity for promotion once inside the SVD, sources say. Promotions to second or first grade are discretionary, meaning NYPD leadership ultimately decides which detectives from across the department they want to award the limited number of grade promotions to. Detectives have long criticized the NYPD’s promotion system for being opaque and based more on connections than qualifications. And the NYPD’s longstanding refusal to even allocate the appropriate number of investigators to the SVD has made the impression that there is little chance for getting a grade promotion once inside the division.

“It is totally arbitrary in the NYPD the way the [grade] promotions come down,” said Nilsen, who was also a supervisor. “It’s very hard to get second- and third-grade promotions. It’s who you know and if you’re well liked. It’s extremely hard to get, only a small amount of slots come through every month, and how they’re divvied up are not necessarily fair.”

The Appeal shared its reporting regarding grade promotions with the NYPD, but the NYPD did not respond to statements made about the arbitrary nature of these promotions. Instead, Riley said that SVD investigators have attained grade promotions, but promotions have been less frequent across the department during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inclusion of “hooks” or “contracts” in the division who use their connections within the NYPD to get a job they may not be qualified for exacerbates the problem with detective quality in the SVD. For example, if a rookie cop has an uncle who is a chief, the chief could place a call to SVD leadership and ask that they place the rookie in the division, regardless of qualifications or performance history. These transfers can be approved by the SVD’s commanding officer or by more senior leadership outside the division.

Although there is little incentive for qualified detectives to join the division, sources say that some rookie cops, including hooks, want to move to SVD because they see it as an easy way to get a promotion, since officers are automatically promoted to detective third grade after doing 18 months of investigative work.

In written testimony submitted to the City Council this year, Osgood, the SVD’s former commanding officer, said several people with intimate knowledge of the division’s personnel process told him that a significant number of current SVD investigators are hooks who got in by cashing in on political favors.

“Those unqualified persons will cause investigative damage for the next decade,” Osgood wrote in his testimony.

During a City Council oversight hearing on the Special Victims Division in October, the division’s current commanding officer, Michael King, said people who he has not selected are sometimes transferred into the division. He said in those cases, “the transfer process usually is at the discretion at a level above the Special Victims Division.”

The Appeal reached out to King about systemic issues at NYPD and its oversight of the SVD, but did not receive a response.

Nilsen said the transfers of hooks into the SVD is a symptom of the division having so few people interested in joining.

“It’s that or nothing,” he said. “You need some people there. In a perfect world, you’d have a ton of qualified candidates and you’d choose the cream of the crop, but this is what we’re dealing with.”

Before publication, The Appeal shared findings regarding hooks in the SVD with the NYPD. While a spokesperson for the department responded to many other statements shared by The Appeal, they did not respond to nor deny The Appeal’s statements regarding hooks.

Not only does the SVD currently have many inexperienced investigators, those who joined last year have also received little to no training, according to the NYPD’s own data.

In 2019, 77 investigators took a 10-day course on criminal investigations, 72 took a five-day course specifically for special victims investigators, and 71 people took a four-hour course on trauma-informed interviewing.

In 2020, only eight people took the criminal investigators course, eight took the trauma-informed interviewing course, and none took the specialized course for SVD investigators. And while more people took an additional course on the forensic experiential trauma interview technique (FETI), King said at the City Council hearing that over one hundred investigators still had not received the training and as a result are not allowed to interview victims by themselves.

In an email, NYPD’s Riley said it is not accurate to say many investigators who have joined the SVD since COVID-19 began have received little to no specialized training: “All members transferred to SVD received CIS [criminal investigations course] and SVD [special victims division investigator’s course] training.” But Riley also said the NYPD training attendance data cited above by The Appeal is accurate.

In addition, Riley said that FETI training did stop for a period of time after the department’s contract with the training vendor expired. They have now found a new vendor and “the 100 or so investigators transferred into SVD during this gap period” will get that training.

Course 2019 Attendance 2020 Attendance Length
Criminal Investigations Course 77 8 10 Days = 80 hours, 60 hours of Classroom Instruction
Special Victim Investigator’s Course 72 0 5 Days = 40 hours, 29.5 hours of Classroom Instruction
Trauma Informed Interviewing 71 8 4 hours of classroom instruction
Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview 0 49 7 days = 49 hours, 4 days of classroom instruction and 3 days of practical applications of FETI techniques.

In its training report, the NYPD noted that all training after March 12, 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19. Yet the NYPD’s report also indicates that all of the courses are a mix of PowerPoint slides, lectures, and interactive discussions, all of which likely could have taken place over online video conferences.

Asked at a city council meeting why the SVD did not use online meetings to train special victims investigators during the pandemic, King, the current SVD commander, said that the detective bureau is in charge of training, not the SVD, so he doesn’t know why they didn’t continue the trainings.

“We didn’t have enough people, and they weren’t properly trained, it was sad,” said Sgt. Mike Rothenbucher, who retired in 2020 after spending about seven years working for the SVD. Rothenbucher worked on child abuse cases and said he could not imagine having a child who was a victim of abuse and then having a detective assigned to the case who did not know what they were doing.

He also said that caseloads were so out of control, they were borrowing people from other squads just to handle the cases that were coming in, though other squads were also stretched thin. “We were robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Rothenbucher said.

When detectives failed to thoroughly investigate the cases assigned to them, deaths, further harm, and retraumatization was the result for many New Yorkers who rely on the SVD to respond to reports of sexual assault and child abuse. Being assaulted, penetrated, or violated against your will can cause lasting psychological and emotional wounds. When victims go to the police for help, but are instead treated with scorn and disbelief, it deepens those wounds.

“The failure to fix the Special Victims external systemic factors,” former SVD commanding officer Osgood wrote in testimony to the City Council, “has resulted in thousands of cases diluted, thousands of victims not participating in their investigation, [and] an array of catastrophic events.”

Several children killed in New York City in recent years were known to the NYPD before their deaths. In September, 1-year-old Legacy Beauford was killed and sodomized. The New York Times reported that police had received at least three 911 calls about a baby crying at Legacy’s home in the Bronx since May. The Times also reported that in July, a special victims detective was investigating an allegation that Legacy’s older brother was being sexually abused. According to The Times, the case was closed without any children being examined or interviewed. Legacy was killed two months later.

In an email to The Appeal, Riley said all three 911 calls were made anonymously with no call back information. “One 911 call was dispatched as an ambulance call and was unfounded,” Riley said. “The other two were dispatched as possible child abuse. Officers responded and observed the children to be in good health with no visible marks or injuries and a report was taken.”

In August, child care workers told the police both 4-year-old Jayce Eubanks and his 5-year-old brother had visible injuries. The two were interviewed at a Child Advocacy Center, but said they were injured while playing, the New York Times reported. Police said Jayce was given a referral for a medical exam, but never showed up for an appointment. By Sept. 12, Jayce was dead. An autopsy found that the 4-year-old had a fractured skull, broken ribs, a perforated stomach, and bites on his ears.

At the City Council meeting in October, King admitted that what happened in Jayce’s case “was a mistake by the investigator.” King said the investigator should have filed a report that would have required officers to visit the child’s home after he did not show up for a medical exam. Instead, no report was filed, the case was closed, and Jayce was killed.

Not all sexual assault survivors want police, prosecution, and incarceration to be the only option when it comes to seeking justice. Decades of relying on police to respond to sex crimes has not reduced the prevalence of sexual assault, nor has it consistently produced positive outcomes for victims. But survivors who seek other ways to heal, like restorative justice processes, have limited options and are often left choosing between seeking punishment or doing nothing at all.

The survivors who do choose to report their assault to the NYPD are too often met with cruelty or indifference. A survey of 20 anti-violence organizations that work with an estimated 5,000 sexual assault survivors per year across New York City found that a strong majority of providers say that based on their experiences with victims, the SVD is not doing a good job responding to survivors. Nearly all providers agreed that survivors feel ignored by police.

The NYPD told The Appeal that its 2020 year-end rape clearance rate (a measure of how many cases are closed through arrest or exceptional means, such as the death of a suspect) was 40.7 percent. But that only includes vaginal rape case and exclude all cases of anal and oral rape, a practice of undercounting rapes for which the NYPD has come under fire. Including these cases gave the NYPD a quarterly clearance rate of between 25-33 percent (the NYPD doesn’t publish annual clearance rates). This means that the vast majority of rapes reported in New York City do not lead to an arrest. And it’s possible that clearance rate is even lower, since the NYPD has historically labeled many rape cases as “unfounded,” defined as false or baseless, and those cases would not be included in the overall stats.


NYPD Rape Clearance Data

2020 Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens Staten Island Citywide
Q1 34.1% 24.5% 25.4% 26.0% 0.0% 26.2%
Q2 37.5% 32.4% 6.3% 44.4% 35.7% 32.7%
Q3 29.7% 38.0% 17.5% 15.2% 13.3% 25.0%
Q4 20.8% 26.9% 20.3% 34.2% 22.2% 25.9%

New York City will soon have a new mayor, and with that, a new police commissioner. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has picked Keechant Sewell, the Nassau County chief of detectives, to become New York’s first female police commissioner. But it remains to be seen whether a new mayor and new commissioner will do anything to fix the problems that have been plaguing the SVD for years.

Another option looms on the horizon: In August, sexual assault survivors asked the Department of Justice to investigate the NYPD’s repeated mishandling of sex crime cases. A DOJ pattern or practice inquiry into the NYPD could lead to external enforcement and accountability for a department that has long operated without it. It is possible the federal government could compel the NYPD to make changes.

“I fully support a DOJ investigation,” said Osgood. “The damage caused to the SVD over the past few years can only be corrected by an outside source.”

To Understand Gun Violence, Talk to People in the Trenches

Utkarsh Tiwari | Unsplash

To Understand Gun Violence, Talk to People in the Trenches

If you’ve tuned into the news lately, you’ve probably heard that gun violence has been on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Shootings increased by more than 30 percent across the United States in 2020, with nearly 4,000 additional firearm homicides and more than 9,000 additional firearm injuries taking place last year compared to 2019. We’re seeing the escalation of an epidemic that even in normal times claims almost 40,000 lives each year, including suicides, and costs the nation an estimated $280 billion annually.

Gun violence is “expensive pain,” to borrow a phrase from rapper Meek Mill, whose hometown of Philadelphia is on pace for a record high in homicides this year. And we all pay a price: Researchers have concluded that nearly everyone in this country will know at least one victim of gun violence in their lifetime.

But in many Black communities, the recent rise in gun violence is much more than a topic covered in news reports. It’s a fixture of daily life, and Black men in particular continue to suffer disproportionately. Despite comprising less than 7 percent of the total U.S. population, Black men have regularly made up over 50 percent of gun homicide victims each year. We don’t have complete demographic data for the last two years, but early indications suggest this share may have only grown.

If you’re viewing this problem from the outside in, it’s possible to get the impression that there are simple ways to address this epidemic — by blanketing neighborhoods with police or cracking down more harshly on gun possession. There are certainly plenty of voices in academia, law enforcement, and the media who have earned their reputations as “experts” by advocating for measures like this.

But framing gun violence as solely a law enforcement problem only further criminalizes and weaponizes Black and brown bodies. And as we’ve seen with firearms task forces in poor communities of color like Baltimore, a police-first approach can give way to corruption and abuse, which further compounds this issue by breeding additional distrust of law enforcement.

The prevalence of these narratives only shows how painfully uninformed the mainstream discussion remains around gun violence and its causes, effects, and potential solutions. Most analyses of gun violence are what we call “flyovers,” done at 30,000 feet, with little understanding of the context and ecosystem in the most affected communities. These portrayals are often absent the voices of the survivors and perpetrators of gun violence — those most affected by a disease that continues to infect the nation.

This brand of research is myopic at best and lazy at worst. It’s like trying to understand the fabric of a complex interpersonal issue by looking at satellite images.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Black gun violence researchers and ethnographers, we have spent our careers getting close to what’s happening on the ground. We live in the trenches, proximate to human suffering, and it’s this direct contact that forms the basis of our research. Although we use some sociological and criminological theories in our work, our analysis also incorporates the theories generated by the street scholars whose lives are intertwined with the issues we’re tackling. Their theoretical frameworks are far more insightful than the 30,000-foot theories broadcast from the ivory tower.

After all, if you want to understand what’s driving this recent increase in shootings, shouldn’t you ask the people who’ve been living through it?

Slim’s theory

In Fall 2020, while filming our award-winning docuseries “Life After the Gunshot,” which centers on the lives of young Black male survivors of gun violence in Washington, D.C., we asked a cast member named Slim why he thought 2020 was on pace to be his city’s most violent year in decades.

Slim grew up in a Southeast D.C. neighborhood notorious for high rates of gun violence. He had witnessed shootings throughout his life, and had been shot in two separate incidents, the last in 2019. When we brought up the recent violence, Slim explained that since COVID hit, it had become difficult for people to sell and buy drugs. The supply on the street had quickly dried up.

Though we knew drug prices were increasing, Slim’s theory expanded on this idea. With borders closed and ports backed up, the vast underground network that delivers drugs to communities across America had snarled nearly to a halt. As the supply decreased, the cost of drugs on the street surged. With more pent up demand from consumers stuck at home and often socially isolated due to COVID restrictions, the few sellers who still had access to drugs were able to do brisk business.

But just as it had with the mainstream economy, COVID sent shockwaves through the labor market in the underground economy.

For many people in poor communities across the country, selling drugs is a job. It is a means of economic survival. Market fluctuations in the drug economy threatened that survival, as people lost jobs or saw their income drastically reduced. For the low-level dealer who got by selling drugs, COVID potentially squeezed them out of the game. Now, only those individuals with connections and access to the limited supply of drugs were making money, and even they were paying a premium price for product. Others with no connections to the supply would have to find a new occupation. But where does one go when they lose their job in the illegal economy?

As the destabilization of this ecosystem gave way to mounting community violence and trauma, more young people decided to carry guns. In the end, this is a rational choice for individuals forced to navigate a precarious environment, where the threat of victimization is constant, whether by robbery, or an argument or slight that can lead to being shot. We’ve heard this narrative numerous times from young people: “I carry a gun because I’m on defense.” But someone is always on offense.

Beyond the flyover

Are we saying that Slim’s theory is an all-encompassing answer to a question that others have been unable to answer? Not quite. But Slim does offer a perspective that a flyover analysis could never capture. Although some attempts to explain the recent increase in gun violence have identified COVID-related economic stressors, they haven’t applied this rationale to the black-market economy.

For neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment, where some people survive on the underground economy, Slim’s theory is plausible. Yet very few people appear willing to have such a nuanced conversation. Academics who do their research from 30,000 feet might assert that there is no evidence of the theory in official data like police reports or unemployment figures. Police would likely resist an explanation that recognizes the realities of the drug trade and their inability to stem it. And policymakers might prefer not to rely on a premise that could highlight their own failures, which have forced many people in communities of color to turn to the underground economy in the first place.

But if you listen to the narratives coming from those in the trenches — the voices of the street scholars who frame their theories from the inside out, not the outside in — it becomes clear that this sort of gun violence goes much deeper than a few bad individuals who can simply be locked away in cages.

To address this problem, we must acknowledge that it is a symptom of the vast structural violence and disadvantage embedded into so many poor communities of color. Confronting structural violence is obviously not an easy task. Many of our social structures and institutions have been configured to perpetuate harm, inequality, and suffering for members of marginalized groups. It will require a broad, concerted effort to account for that historic damage and begin realigning these systems.

We can start by approaching gun violence as a public health issue — not one of enforcement alone. In any other context, we would not hesitate to pour resources into understanding and combating a threat of this magnitude. When the U.S. decided to take a public health approach to preventing traffic fatalities, the nation was able to prevent 3.5 million deaths over 50 years.

State and federal funding for gun violence research has been severely choked off since Congress enacted the Dickey Amendment in 1996. Even the $25 million for research allocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health in 2020 seems a paltry amount for a $280 billion-a-year issue. But this is a microcosm of the fundamental challenge on this issue: If policymakers truly want to address gun violence, they must be willing to make a commensurate investment in comprehensive solutions.

The flyover analysis can obscure this difficult reality. And it’s impossible to ignore the racial dynamics associated with this shortsightedness. Many white, middle-class academics, policymakers, and journalists pride themselves on their analytical prowess, even though they never get close to this problem. To entertain Slim’s theory, they would first have to engage with Slim as an individual with agency and ideas, capable of making his own analytical observations. But their identity limits their ability and willingness to do so, and as a result, the flyover becomes the default.

At 30,000 feet, Slim, his neighborhood in Southeast D.C., the people who live there, and the gun violence they experience is all theoretical. These issues become abstractions to be examined, rather than complex, interconnected problems with life-and-death consequences for millions of people.

To echo human rights advocate Bryan Stevenson, no progress in understanding human suffering has ever been made without being proximate to it. The truth and the answers are on the ground.

Dr. Joseph Richardson is the Joel and Kim Feller Professor of African-American Studies and Medical Anthropology at the University of Maryland, and lead epidemiologist for the Center for Injury Prevention and Policy at the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, where he investigates gun violence, violent injury, community trauma, and the effectiveness of violence prevention and intervention programs.

Che Bullock is executive producer and director of the award-winning documentary “Life After the Gunshot,” and co-owner of Change Agents LLC, which specializes in trauma-informed care, peer support, and hospital-based violence intervention programs.

Why Atlantans Are Pushing to Stop ‘Cop City’

After the city council passed the ground lease for massive police facility known as “Cop City,” local opposition hasn’t ceased; it’s evolved.

Fakurian Design | UnSplash

Why Atlantans Are Pushing to Stop ‘Cop City’

After the city council passed the ground lease for massive police facility known as “Cop City,” local opposition hasn’t ceased; it’s evolved.

This story was produced in partnership with The Mainline, an independent women-led magazine based in Atlanta.

On Sept. 8, the Atlanta City Council gathered after listening to nearly 17 hours of comments from over 1,100 constituents across the city. The flood of messages concerned one thing: a proposed $90 million police militarization training facility known among locals as “Cop City.” The renderings of the facility include a mock city for officers to train in, as well as a helicopter landing base, new shooting ranges, burn tower sites, and more. Its development is being spearheaded by the Atlanta Police Foundation and two-thirds of the funding comes from “philanthropic” and corporate donors, kicking the remainder of the bill to the public.

The project’s supporters, who include Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, have described the facility as a vital tool for improving police morale and fighting crime. Yet about 70 percent of the people calling in expressed their opposition to Cop City. Beyond the basic objections to such a major expansion of the city’s policing footprint, environmentalists are also up in arms, since the site’s proposed location lies within the South River Forest, which is the Atlanta area’s largest remaining green space and, scientists say, one of the city’s greatest defenses against worsening climate change.

The land also carries a dark history. Originally inhabited by the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe before their forced removal in the early 19th century, the land became part of a complex of farms that included a slave plantation and federal prison labor site. The area slated to be Cop City was eventually sold to the city of Atlanta, which used it for forced agricultural labor by incarcerated people from 1920 to the late 1980s. (Bottoms has said that the city “didn’t have anything else to choose from” in terms of a site.)

None of these things deterred the City Council. Nor did the 17 hours of comments. After brief deliberation, the council passed legislation to authorize the ground lease of the forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation in a 10-4 vote. The legislation leased 381 acres of land to the foundation for $10 a year. But there is still a chance that Cop City could be stopped, and people who flooded the City Council meeting with their opposition have vowed to make sure that it is.

The Cop City vote was the culmination of a process that has seen Atlanta’s political establishment — often with the support of the city’s corporate media — relentlessly determined to give Atlanta police what they wanted. This stance is nothing new.

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, along with the police killing of Rayshard Brooks last June, ignited historic protests in Atlanta. But the city’s government has firmly stood in the way of any significant police reform efforts. When the protests began, mass arrests took place throughout the city along with numerous incidents of police brutality, such as that toward college students Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim. The Atlanta Police Foundation paid bonuses to city cops after some staged a sick-out after Officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with felony murder in Brooks’s killing. (Officer Devin Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault after video showed that he kicked Brooks while he was on the ground after being shot.) A City Council member later pushed for additional bonuses to come from the city’s budget. The City Council killed one reform bill at the behest of Bottoms, who then vetoed separate, compromise reform legislation. Officers who were publicly charged in Young’s, Pilgrim’s, and Brooks’s cases have since been hired back on the force and given back pay. The Atlanta Police Department’s budget is now slated at $230 million, a roughly 7 percent increase from the previous year. Now, the city government is working directly with the police foundation to develop its new “state-of-the-art” police militarization facility.

From the beginning, the process to create Cop City has been secretive. Mayor Bottoms quietly ordered the formation of the advisory board for the project on Jan. 4. There was no press release issued and no local coverage. The board consisted solely of police and fire department chiefs, foundation heads, and city employees, seemingly violating the mayor’s administrative order, which said the board should have community members.

Legislation to lease the land for Cop City was introduced in the City Council in June. (Although the land is city-owned, it resides in unincorporated DeKalb County, where residents do not have representation in the City Council.) As public opposition mounted, the police foundation hosted two “public input sessions” over Zoom in July, during which it presented a slide show, answered pre-submitted questions with no time for residents to respond, muted all constituents, and disabled the chat feature. Administrators of the meeting had their cameras turned off and names anonymous.

The police foundation could also count on support from its longtime allies within the city’s corporate and media elite. The editorial board for local legacy newspaper The Atlanta Journal-Constitution vociferously supported Cop City ahead of the vote, and the paper’s “Voices Against Violence” section regularly gave space to pro-police pieces full of tough-on-crime rhetoric that echoed the APF’s talking points. (The paper’s parent company, Cox Enterprises, is a donor to the Atlanta Police Foundation; Cox CEO/President Alex Taylor is leading the fundraising efforts for the facility.)

Ahead of the September vote, it appears the police foundation pulled out all stops. The nonprofit filed as a lobbying group on state and local levels on Aug. 25 with no previous records indicating they had done so in previous years. Nicholas Juliano of local lobbying firm Impact Public Affairs, whose clients include Delta, Uber, and others, is listed as the foundation’s lobbyist with a payment exceeding $10,000.

Map of the proposed police training facility

Over the summer, residents in Atlanta joined in building a widespread coalition in what became known as the “Stop Cop City” campaign. The campaign’s focus was to counter the heavily supportive messaging circulating in the press and from officials, and to push the moderate-to-conservative City Council to oppose the facility. Although the council passed the legislation, the opposition hasn’t stopped; it has evolved. Construction hasn’t yet broken ground and the lease includes a provision that would allow the city to terminate the agreement with the requirement of giving the police foundation 180 days notice. (Atlanta will also be getting a new mayor in January: Andre Dickens, one of the 10 council members to approve the lease legislation.)

Since the vote, organizers have shifted their focus toward connecting with the Muscogee (Creek) community. On Nov. 27, Muscogee (Creek) community leaders from Alabama, Oklahoma, and Georgia gathered in Atlanta to connect with their ancestral lands through a traditional stomp dance ceremony and cultural sharing tradition. The event, which was organized in collaboration with community leaders of the Stop Cop City campaign, took place in the forest at the proposed construction site.

“One of the things that I hope is that this would just be the first step of a migration of our indigenous communities coming back to their homelands,” Rev. Chebon Kernell, of the Native American Comprehensive Plan and Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds, told The Mainline in an interview. “My hope is that together, as we foster this migration back to recognizing our homelands, that also we can educate the public at large, and say, ‘We want a healthier society. We want a safer society for all of our people, especially for our communities of color who have been displaced in so many different ways.’ … We’re hoping that we start with recognizing indigenous peoples, but then we also recognize the intersectionality that takes place with just having the right to exist.”

Organizers have stayed in the streets and kept up their public criticism of Cop City. In a statement ahead of a march on the police foundation’s headquarters on Oct. 23, Community Movement Builders, a local organizing group that has been a core part of the campaign, described the facility as “a war base where police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements,” adding, “they are practicing how to make sure poor and working class people stay in line. So when the police kill us in the streets again, like they did to Rayshard Brooks in 2020, they can control our protests and community response to how they continually murder our people.”

Community leaders in Atlanta have also strengthened their demands for corporate divestment from the Atlanta Police Foundation, which, in addition to Cox, counts among its donors such companies as Delta, Bank of America, and Verizon. The aim is to make police funding an issue not just for governments, but for some of America’s biggest corporations.

“[These corporations] came out with their public campaigns, supporting Black Lives Matter, saying they stand with Black people,” said Kamau Franklin of Community Movement Builders, “but at a moment’s notice, these same corporations … decided to side and build out what is potentially the largest training facility in the country for police to be trained in tactics of suppression. We believe [this] is only for the interest of corporate development and protection of private property, but do nothing for issues of safety and concern for the larger community. So we think targeting these corporations is a really important next step.”

On Oct. 7, Color of Change released a report exploring financial ties between police foundations and corporations across America, identifying connections to at least 55 Fortune 500 companies. The study features 23 cities, including Atlanta, where the police foundation’s actions in relation to the killing of Rayshard Brooks spurred Color of Change to launch the wider study.

After the “Cop City” issue became more well-known, Color of Change became allied with local organizers in their efforts to stop the construction of the facility. Since the vote, Color of Change’s senior director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns Scott Roberts says their intention is to essentially do more of the same.

“We want to continue to mobilize people and … to try and paint an even clearer picture of what’s wrong here and educate more folks on it,” Roberts explained in an interview with Mainline. “We’re still looking to collaborate with local organizers in terms of both supporting what they think will work, but also to be aligned strategically … I’m pretty sure people are going to continue resisting Cop City even up to the moment where it’s going to try and break ground.”

‘Rage Induced Policing’: Hacked Documents Reveal D.C. Police’s Aggressive Robbery Crackdowns

Internal emails and their attachments show that a roving Metropolitan Police Department unit attempted to suppress robberies in 2012 and 2013 by stopping and frisking and surveilling residents of Black neighborhoods.


‘Rage Induced Policing’: Hacked Documents Reveal D.C. Police’s Aggressive Robbery Crackdowns

Internal emails and their attachments show that a roving Metropolitan Police Department unit attempted to suppress robberies in 2012 and 2013 by stopping and frisking and surveilling residents of Black neighborhoods.

On its 28th day in the streets, a Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department unit decided that it needed to launch a “Shock and Awe” campaign. James Black, a sergeant with the MPD’s Criminal Intelligence Branch and the apparent head of the unit, wrote in an October 2012 email that the officers wanted to “rattle the safety” of members of supposed criminal groups in the area they were patrolling — the “do-bads,” as Black called them — “and let them know the game has changed.”

The unit was the Robbery Intervention Program, or RIP, a little-known MPD intelligence branch initiative that operated in 2012 and 2013. The department assembled the unit to gather information about and develop tactics to curb the district’s high rates of robbery. But according to regular narrative updates that Black would email to colleagues and superiors — including then-Chief Cathy Lanier; her successor, Peter Newsham; and current Chief Robert Contee — the RIP spent most of its time roaming the streets of poor and Black neighborhoods, stopping and frisking residents, and arresting them for seemingly any infractions its officers could find.

On its “Shock and Awe” day, for instance, no robberies occured in the area the RIP was patrolling. But the unit still stopped 25 people, according to Black’s email, including one man for “aimlessly” hanging around a Metro station, another for “pausing in dark areas” while walking, and another for a traffic infraction. RIP officers stopped a group for loitering and watching passersby “in an obvious manner,” another group for drinking in public, and another because some were wearing face masks. Black didn’t state a reason for six of the stops. The RIP arrested three people: one man for carrying an open container of alcohol, another on a warrant for a parole violation, and one for having drugs and a gun, according to Black’s narrative. Despite the lack of robbery activity, Alfred Durham, an assistant chief of police, replied to the email congratulating the unit on a “productive day.”

The narratives are part of a trove of over 70,000 emails and their attachments, sent and received by an analyst with the MPD’s intelligence branch between 2009 and 2017, and stolen from the department as part of a hack by a ransomware group known as Babuk. The documents were published in May by Distributed Denial of Secrets, the transparency collective behind BlueLeaks and other recent high-profile document dumps, and made searchable by Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago-based collaborative.

Taken together, the RIP emails illustrate the extent to which the MPD officers aggressively surveilled, and often presumed the guilt of, members of the communities they policed. The documents reveal that RIP officers talked about and likely engaged in “jumpouts” — an intimidation tactic during which officers speed up in cars to people and jump out, often with guns drawn — as recently as late 2012, despite MPD assertions as early as 2014 that the tactic is a foregone practice of another era. They also shed light on the extent to which the MPD has focused on schools and youth in its efforts to crack down on poor and Black neighborhoods. And they show how the MPD championed stop-and-frisk, militarization, and tough-on-crime-style policing among its ranks.

“Our neighbors are not community to D.C. police, they are enemies to be subdued,” said Valerie Wexler, an organizer with the Stop Police Terror Project DC, which advocates for alternatives to policing. “Whenever they don’t think their words will be heard or seen, they show what they really think of the people they are supposedly meant to protect.”

The MPD did not respond to The Appeal’s emailed questions.

‘Rage Induced Policing’

The Robbery Intervention Program was assembled from “the best plain clothes officers from across the city,” according to the MPD’s 2012 annual report, one of the few publicly available documents that mention the unit. According to the hacked documents, the unit “deployed” three times — once for 70 shifts, once for 46 shifts, and once for 32 shifts, totaling close to 150 10-to-12-hour shifts between September 2012 and August 2013. Each shift typically involved about 15 officers, according to the documents.

The unit operated about three-quarters of its shifts in D.C.’s largely Black sixth and seventh police districts, which include all of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, working from the early evening to early morning hours roaming the streets, surveilling communities, and making “contact” with people its officers thought could be robbers or who were otherwise acting “suspiciously.” (In D.C., robbery is considered a violent crime and defined as taking anything from someone’s person by virtually any means — an especially broad definition that includes pickpocketing.)

In several of Black’s narratives, he indicated that the unit was able to prevent some robberies from occurring and solve other robberies that had recently taken place. But in order to do that, RIP officers cast a wide net, stopping many bystanders for questionable reasons and arresting people on charges unrelated to robberies, including technical violations and nonviolent crimes.

According to an email from Black and a report from an MPD analyst, the unit made more than 400 arrests and performed over 1,200 stops that didn’t involve an arrest. Of the arrests the RIP made during its first two deployments, only 42 — or 12 percent — were for robbery. Another 15 percent were for weapons possession charges, 18 percent were for drug possession with intent to distribute, and 16 percent took place when an RIP officer encountered someone with an outstanding warrant. The documents do not appear to include a breakdown of arrest data for the third deployment.

Despite focusing on robberies, the RIP appears to have tried to arrest as many supposed troublemakers as possible during its shifts. Some days, Black wrote, the unit went “hunting” for group events, like outdoor dice games, to disrupt. “Deployed to the watering holes and started hunting,” he wrote in February 2013. He referred to one slow day for focus area robberies as a “lock up all the Drug-boys day.” Those whom the RIP couldn’t find a reason to arrest were deemed to be part of the “future arrestee pool,” another of Black’s favored terms. In one email, he passed on an officer’s joke about “today’s criminal” having “their will to resist … RIP’ed from them.”

Black did not respond to The Appeal’s emailed questions.

The RIP’s aggressive approach earned it the admiration of many MPD superiors, who likened the unit to a militarized force. “Your tactics and deployment schemes are aligned with those of a Special Ops group,” Durham, the assistant chief, said in an email congratulating the unit on an arrest-filled day in a new focus area in October 2012. “You all were deployed to a new district and have already sized up enemy and terrain,” he said. He resolved to call the unit “Black Ops” after the sergeant in charge, and said the RIP’s methods “should be passed on to all [crime suppression teams] district wide.”

Three days after Durham’s email, Black recounted that about half of the RIP decided to hit the streets despite it being the unit’s day off because they were “too keyed up” after shooting handguns and shotguns at the firing range. A week and a half later, he joked that RIP officers had come up with another nickname for their unit — a play on its morbid acronym: “Rage Induced Policing.”

Black had his own nickname for the RIP: He called it the “Karma Delivery Unit.” In about two dozen of his RIP emails, he recounted a “karma delivery” moment during which, in his view, a community member found their just deserts by getting arrested in an ironic or amusing way. In one instance, a man had his third run-in with the unit in two weeks. In another, a man unwittingly rolled a joint next to an unmarked RIP car. One time, by coincidence, the unit arrested two half-brothers nearly simultaneously at different locations, Black wrote. Lanier, the chief of police, responded to that email: “As usual, your morning write up kept me entertained as I drank my coffee. Great work Karma Kids.”

Lanier retired from the MPD in 2016 and became the chief security officer for the National Football League. NFL spokespersons did not respond to The Appeal’s emails.

‘Robber Finishing School’

The people stopped by the RIP included children and adolescents. According to a spreadsheet the MPD analyst compiled, at least 17 percent of those the unit stopped or arrested during its first and longest deployment were minors — some as young as 12 — and at least 36 percent were teens.

The RIP would come across many of these minors on the street. But it would also target schools to identify and investigate possible suspects.

In September 2012, Black explained in an email that he had been passed along a tip from a school resource officer — an armed school cop — at Anacostia High School in Southeast D.C.: A parent had told the school administration that their son had been robbed by an Anacostia student near the campus. From the parent’s description, the school came up with a suspect, which it shared with the RIP, according to the email. Then, according to Black, the school shared a list of seven other Anacostia High students “known to associate and be seen regularly” with the suspect, along with “info sheets” that included the eight students’ names, photos, addresses, dates of birth, contact information, guardian information, and demographic information. The suspect and supposed associates were all Black boys between the ages of 16 and 19.

Black also noted that, according to the school, the boys were part of a small crew, which the MPD had labeled as a gang. Ten weeks later, three of the boys were added to the department’s gang database, according to a spreadsheet of the database found within the hacked documents. Previous reporting in the Intercept about the hacked documents revealed that the D.C. gang database is riddled with errors, employs nebulous criteria, and is used to justify aggressive policing of Black communities. It also showed that the MPD has used information from school resource officers to add students to the database; in response to that reporting, the D.C. Council banned the practice.

To a list of questions, Anacostia High School principal William Haith responded that he was not working at the school in September 2012, and referred The Appeal to Deborah Isaac, deputy press secretary for D.C. Public Schools. Isaac did not answer The Appeal’s questions despite repeated emails and phone calls.

The Appeal attempted to contact the former Anacostia students, as well as more than 20 other people who appear in the RIP emails, but received no response or encountered disconnected email addresses and phone numbers.

Four months after the Anacostia High School incident, during the RIP’s second deployment, Black turned his attention to another east-of-the-river school: Friendship Collegiate Academy. He noted that, over the course of the unit’s activities, it had stopped or arrested several children who attended Friendship. He also asserted that kids whom the RIP stopped frequently asked questions about the unit, and that robberies tended to spike in districts after the unit stopped focusing on them. These seemingly disparate trends led him to theorize that Friendship students were planning robberies during school hours.

“What if [the students] communicate with each other at school DAILY and let each other know where they have seen us each day so they now [sic] to focus their robbery efforts in Districts where they know we aren’t working and targeting them,” Black wondered. “A large majority of the juveniles we encounter seem to link together at Friendship,” he asserted, dubbing the academy “Robber Finishing School.”

Black admitted that he had “no concrete proof, just conjecture,” regarding his theory about Friendship, but it still prompted an assistant chief with the MPD’s Homeland Security Bureau to order intelligence officers to rotate through the high school to “see if we can get any info.” It also prompted an intelligence officer to ask D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to add “school placements” to a weekly list of juvenile “violent offender” whereabouts it was already sending to the MPD so analysts could create maps and “help connect dots related to the info sharing about RIP.”

The RIP’s targeting of Anacostia and Friendship highlight why many advocates and activists have been calling for “police-free schools” in D.C., and why the district will begin phasing out its school resource officer program next year.

“Systems-involved youth need support, not more policing,” said Miya Walker, policy and advocacy manager for Black Swan Academy, a programming and advocacy organization focused on Black youth in D.C. “Especially when the intel that happens with policing just pushes them further into the system.”

“Where police are, arrests will happen,” Walker added, noting that police are particularly present in Black communities.

‘We aren’t just jumpouts’

The RIP emails illustrate how the unit engaged in controversial tactics attributed to more well-known MPD squads, like the notorious Gun Recovery Unit and the department’s so-called crime suppression teams.

One of those tactics is stop-and-frisk, or a police search that needs to be legally justified only by a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. The RIP operated during the height of stop-and-frisk’s use by city police departments across the United States. The practice remains a point of contention between the MPD and many D.C. residents, particularly Black residents, who were the subjects of more than 80 percent of documented stop-and-frisks between 2010 and 2017 despite making up less than half of the district population. In the RIP emails, Black refers to “frisk” or “stop/frisk” only twice, opting to describe most of the non-arrest encounters as simply “stops.” Yet documents “prove how frequently stop-and-frisk is deployed,” said Wexler of the Stop Police Terror Project.

One day in March 2013, RIP officers stopped 20 people that the unit came across while roaming Southeast D.C., according to an email from Black. They stopped one man because he had his arm inside his sleeve, he was holding his waistband, and he was “favoring [his] right side”— the officers presumably suspected that he had a gun. They stopped another man for having an open container of alcohol, a pair for blocking a passageway, another person for holding his waistband, then another for “suspicious behavior,” stuffing something in his waistband, and walking in the opposite direction of officers after spotting them. They then stopped a group for wearing ski masks and loitering, then another group for blocking a stairwell, then one man for wearing a ski mask. They stopped a car for a traffic violation, then another because the driver was wearing a ski mask. And they stopped three separate people for running away when they saw the officers on the street. Of all those stops, one resulted in an arrest — for marijuana possession.

These actions undoubtedly fit into the parameters of stop-and-frisk, according to Scott Michelman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C.

Stop-and-frisk wasn’t the only controversial policing method the RIP engaged in. The MPD is notorious for “jumpouts,” which Newsweek has called “D.C.’s scarier version of stop-and-frisk.” They became commonplace among drug squads in the 1980s, and D.C. residents and activists say they’re used to this day by various MPD units for both arrests and as a way to shock people into submission during stop-and-frisks.

The MPD has denied that it still uses the practice. In October 2014, when the issue came to the fore around the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lanier testified to the D.C. Council that “there are no ‘jump out’ units in the MPD,” and what was commonly referred to as jumpouts were likely vice units and crime suppression teams making quick arrests or rapidly conducting time-sensitive investigations. Six weeks later, she told the news website ThinkProgress that talk of jumpout squads was “fantasy,” then denied their existence again to Newsweek a month later, despite both outlets having interviewed several people who had experienced them. Newsham and Contee, Lanier’s successors, have also denied that the MPD conducts jumpouts, despite a continued trickle of firsthand accounts. In 2020 and 2021, MPD whistleblowers claimed the department still took part in the practice.

The RIP emails show that the unit minimized and even weaponized community concerns over jumpouts, and suggest that RIP officers engaged in the tactic. On Oct. 9, 2012, Black wrote that an intelligence branch officer had informed him that people in Southeast D.C. were asking about jumpouts, describing unmarked cars the RIP had recently used — one of which was provided to the unit by Contee, the current chief of police and then-commander of the sixth police district — to arrest a robbery suspect. Seeing an opportunity, the RIP decided to mimic the appearance of a jumpout squad to keep the rumor mill churning as part of the unit’s “Shock and Awe” approach. The goal was to “sow confusion” among nefarious figures, Black wrote in an Oct. 24 narrative. “We used all overt cars to encourage the offenders to talk about a new jump-out unit using obvious police cars today, so we can come back tomorrow in our soft cars and regular subdued approach to hopefully catch them slipping,” he wrote.

And in an Oct. 20 email, Black seemed to confirm that the RIP had conducted jumpouts in earnest: “We aren’t just jumpouts, we have a focus…usually,” he wrote.

Lanier, Newsham, and Contee were among the recipients of the Oct. 9 and 24 emails. Contee did not respond to The Appeal’s emailed questions.

Patrice Sulton, founder and executive director of DC Justice Lab and member of the D.C. Police Reform Commission, has called for the banning of jumpouts. After Lanier’s 2014 denial, Sulton said she remembers thinking “she doesn’t know what’s going on or she’s lying about it — it’s one of the two.”

“There’s a frustration about them continuing to rename and be dishonest about the practice,” she said.

“The MPD can play a little shell game with the names of the units,” said Michelman of the ACLU of D.C. “But the types of tactics in which it engages — the stop-and-frisk, the jumpouts, the detentions on little or no suspicion — remain constant.”

‘Specialized Unit of the Year’

At its annual awards ceremony in February 2013, the MPD honored the RIP as the “Specialized Unit of the Year.” The ceremony program stated that “the most important measure gained by the Program was the sense of camaraderie between the team members and the opportunity it created to share experiences and work together under a unified plan.” But it also touted some short-term, hyperlocal statistics to boost the case for the RIP’s efficacy during its first deployment: “Robbery events” fell 23 percent in the sixth police district and 10 percent in the seventh district when the unit was patrolling them.

However, six months later, after the RIP’s third deployment, Black noted that he was having a hard time finding statistical justifications for the RIP’s work. “Statistically, there is no way to show any marked difference during this deployment of RIP from the 2012 years [sic] Robbery Stats,” he wrote in one email. Then, in a private email to the MPD analyst, he wrote, “I couldn’t make the numbers say anything I wanted this time…every time I tried to push them one way, they would push back…sigh.”

Still, the MPD seems to have used the RIP to inform and justify a new project. In 2016, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the creation of a Robbery Intervention Task Force, whose strategy, as described in Bowser’s announcement, mirrored the stated strategy of the Robbery Intervention Program: While the RIP said it used “the most up-to-date intelligence from the department’s analytical team,” the task force was to assign “Criminal Research Specialists within MPD’s Crime Information Center to identify robbery patterns in real-time.”

In 2017, Bowser highlighted the robbery task force’s work, noting that the district saw a 27 percent reduction in robberies that year and a 35 percent reduction since the end of 2014. The year prior, however, she also noted a longer-term downward trajectory in robbery cases, which mirrors a national trend.

The reliability of D.C.’s robbery numbers is an open question. In some emails, Black expressed concerns that patrol officers were over-reporting robbery incidents. And FBI data, which excludes pickpocketing and purse snatching, shows smaller reductions in robberies in the district.

According to advocates, the means of units like the RIP do not justify the perceived ends. “It’s a practice and an attitude we see continued to this day,” said Michelman. “Seeing residents of eastern neighborhoods of the city, and in particular people of color, and in particular Black people, as presumptively suspects.”

“These are the tactics,” said Wexler, “of officers and a department interested only in terrorizing and oppressing the neighborhoods they have invaded.”

State Senators Ask Gov. Hochul to Commute Sentence of Man Who Spent Over 800 Days in Rikers

Reginald Randolph is currently serving a two to four year sentence in state prison for stealing cold medicine

Randolph and his family in 1997
Courtesy of Legal Aid Society

State Senators Ask Gov. Hochul to Commute Sentence of Man Who Spent Over 800 Days in Rikers

Reginald Randolph is currently serving a two to four year sentence in state prison for stealing cold medicine

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.

A group of New York state Senators is urging New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) to commute the prison sentence of Reginald Randolph, a 58-year-old visually impaired man who was sentenced to two to four years in state prison for stealing cold medicine. Since his arrest in 2018, Randolph spent a total of more than 800 days incarcerated in the city jail at Rikers Island. Last month, he was transferred to state prison. The Appeal and New York Focus first reported on Randolph’s case in November.

In a letter sent to the governor’s office on Thursday, Senators Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), and Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) warned that Randolph’s health was rapidly deteriorating, and that he could die if his sentence is not commuted.

“In commuting Mr. Randolph’s sentence and allowing him to avoid the possibility of serious illness, medical decline, and possibly death in our state prison system, you will be acknowledging that Reginald Randolph’s life matters,” the three state senators wrote in the letter, which was exclusively shared with The Appeal and New York Focus.

Last month, a spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney’s office told New York Focus and The Appeal that they do not oppose Randolph’s clemency petition and have communicated that to Joshua Norkin, the governor’s assistant counsel for housing and civil rights.

“While we cannot comment on pending clemency applications as the process is confidential, Governor Hochul is committed to improving justice, fairness, and safety in the criminal justice system, and we are reviewing applications in that context,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, the governor’s press secretary, in a statement to New York Focus and The Appeal.
Randolph is blind in one eye and losing his vision in the other. In addition to his vision problems, Randolph has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, polysubstance use disorder, and schizoaffective disorder.

If the governor grants Randolph’s clemency petition, he will be able to move into a transitional supportive housing program and then into long-term housing with wraparound services, according to Randolph’s attorney with the Legal Aid Society. Randolph’s legal team has also secured intensive outpatient mental health and substance dependence treatment, as well as medication management services.

The governor can either return Randolph to the “care of his community or she can continue to deny a man with a disability a chance to access healthcare,” Senator Ramos said in a statement to New York Focus and The Appeal. “I hope Governor Hochul makes the right decision and grants him clemency soon.”

‘Extraordinarily Abusive’

Randolph has struggled with mental illness and poverty for much of his life. He left school after the eighth grade, and by 19, he was using cocaine, LSD, and PCP. Since his mother’s death in 2001, Randolph has been suffering from chronic homelessness. He has primarily received mental health care while incarcerated or at emergency rooms.

“Mr. Randolph needs treatment and assistance as he deals with his addiction and medical conditions, which is why I am urging the Governor to strongly consider his request for clemency,” Senator Rivera said in a statement to New York Focus and The Appeal.

By the time Randolph was arrested for stealing cold medicine in 2018, he’d been convicted of more than 50 misdemeanors and a handful of felonies, the most recent in 2005 for attempted robbery and sale of a controlled substance.

“[Shoplifting] was just to support my addiction and to deal with my homelessness, deal with my poverty,” Randolph told New York Focus and The Appeal in October, in a phone call from the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City.

Following his 2018 arrest for taking dozens of bottles of cold medicine from two Duane Reade stores, the DA bumped up his charge from a misdemeanor to a felony — two counts of third-degree burglary — because Randolph had a “no trespass” order that banned him from the convenience store.

In their letter, the legislators called Randolph’s prosecution “extraordinarily abusive,” and noted that “the prosecutor was not required to enhance his charges.”

Randolph spent more than a year on Rikers Island waiting for his case to be resolved. In August 2019, he was finally accepted into Manhattan Drug Court and released from jail. But when he was unable to complete the treatment programs, he was sent back to Rikers. Then, on August 12, 2021, Randolph went before Criminal Court Judge Cori Weston — herself a former public defender — for sentencing.

At the time of sentencing, Randolph was on crutches. His attorney told the court that he had slipped and fallen in the shower at Rikers due to his vision problems, according to a transcript of the proceedings. Randolph spoke briefly; he thanked the judge and his attorneys.

Weston then sentenced him to two to four years in state prison.

“Mr. Randolph, I hope that you feel better, and I hope that you can get some help in prison,” Weston told him. “I know that you have done a substantial amount of time, so I hope that while you are still there, you can get some help for your drug problem, and that when you get out, you can do well.”

Clemency and Rehabilitation

In September, the Legal Aid Society, which represents Randolph, submitted a clemency petition to the Executive Clemency Bureau, which conducts a preliminary review of applications before sending them to the governor.

In its petition, Legal Aid requested that Hochul grant Randolph emergency clemency and a full sentence commutation so he could be immediately released to The Redemption Center, a supportive housing program for formerly incarcerated people. At the time the petition was submitted, Randolph was still on Rikers Island, awaiting a transfer to state prison to begin his sentence.

On Nov. 23, with no word from the governor, Randolph was taken to Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York. During the bus ride, his feet and hands were shackled, and a black box kept his hands in the front so he couldn’t move them, according to Jeffrey Berman, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and counsel for Randolph. When Randolph arrived at the prison, the “walking device” he had used at Rikers was reportedly confiscated from him.

Randolph feels his vision is getting worse and said he puts his hands out when he’s walking to make sure he doesn’t bump into anything, according to Berman who has remained in communication with Randolph. Randolph was not available for an interview with New York Focus and The Appeal.

Hochul, who took office in August, has never used her clemency powers. (The day after Randolph was sent to state prison, Hochul issued one pardon — for a turkey.) During his more than 10 years in office, Governor Andrew Cuomo granted 41 clemency petitions.

“Further incarcerating Reggie puts him at risk of eventual homelessness and does nothing to further public safety,” Berman said in a statement to New York Focus and The Appeal. “We call on Governor Hochul to grant Reggie clemency so that he can be released to a community that is ready to care for and support him now.”

Read the full letter below:

Meet the California PR Firm Helping Cops Fight Off Bad Press

There’s a growing business crafting law enforcement narratives about police shootings and officer misconduct.

Matt Chesin and Tommaso Teloni | Unsplash; Kindel Media and The Climate Reality | Pexels

Meet the California PR Firm Helping Cops Fight Off Bad Press

There’s a growing business crafting law enforcement narratives about police shootings and officer misconduct.

This story was published in partnership with the Vallejo Sun, an independent news organization based in Solano County, California.

In May 2020, the town of Pacific Grove, California, had a problem with a police officer. Residents noticed a white pickup parked outside the police station with decals including LGBT — for Liberty, Guns, Beer, and Trump — and the Three Percenters, a loose-knit anti-government group connected to terrorist plots nationwide. The officer was placed on paid leave, and the city launched an investigation.

The seaside town of about 15,500 residents, once home to author John Steinbeck, wasn’t used to such controversy. It has one of the lowest crime rates in Monterey County and hasn’t had a homicide in 11 years. Its police department has only 22 officers.

The truck belonged to Officer Michael Gonzalez, who had been named Officer of the Year two years prior. The city issued a statement in September 2020 saying Gonzalez thought the Three Percenter symbol showed support for protection of the Second Amendment and removed the stickers after the complaints. Federal prosecutors have argued that the Three Percenters believe in armed rebellion against the federal government.

As the officer returned to work, pressure from residents continued. In October, the city hired a public relations firm, Cole Pro Media. The company’s website advertises that it helps police and sheriff’s departments add clarity to their social media presence and enhance their crisis communications abilities.

Cole Pro Media is owned by former TV journalist Laura Cole. The company is one of the largest of a small but growing number of firms focused exclusively on providing public relations for local governments and police departments. “We understand the challenges facing public agencies and take great pride in our ability to communicate transparent, easily understood, messages about our clients — WITHOUT SPIN,” Cole Pro Media’s website says.

But a review of contracts, invoices and email records from 21 of Cole Pro Media’s clients that were obtained from local government agencies via public records requests by The Appeal and the Vallejo Sun shows how her company’s advice appears designed to help police agencies evade transparency and accountability and to deflect scrutiny by traditional news media. The emails show that Cole Pro Media’s advice is often to avoid difficult questions or directly confronting problems.

Ahead of a December 2020 Pacific Grove City Council meeting, a Cole Pro Media consultant drafted talking points about the Gonzalez incident for the mayor and council to use. The firm advised elected officials to tell community members that “continuing to bring this up has become counterproductive and does not allow us to move past this as a community” and “an emotional response is not the appropriate response and does not benefit anyone.”

Days later, a Parler account that appeared to be from Gonzalez was publicized by multiple media outlets, where there were memes posted that included “Fuck Black Lives Matter.” Police Chief Cathy Madalone appeared to use at least one of Cole Pro Media’s talking points at a Dec. 2, 2020, city council meeting when she said, “the actions of one are not indicative of our police department’s culture.”

In January, Madalone held a press conference to announce that Gonzalez was no longer with the department. Around the same time, a resident’s public records request revealed Cole Pro Media’s talking points, which fueled further backlash against city officials, who were accused of hiring a firm to help them tell residents to “shut up.” On April 21, Pacific Grove ended the contract with Cole Pro Media five months early, saving the city $14,500.

But despite Pacific Grove’s decision to cut ties with Cole Pro Media due to public criticism, law enforcement agencies continue to hire the firm to help shape police narratives.

The company has grown to contract with more than 30 agencies in California, Cole wrote in an email last year. The contracts typically cost taxpayers $3,000 to $5,000 per month each. Cole’s spinoff company, Critical Incident Videos, produces videos that add police narrative to body worn camera footage at a cost of up to $5,000 per video.

Cole’s two companies help agencies downplay bad news, advise them to remain silent about damaging revelations, and draft scripts and responses excusing police use of force. As law enforcement has increasingly turned to PR firms to bolster their public image, Cole’s companies employ the kind of aggressive social media marketing usually reserved for large corporations, not the transparent communications without spin that the firm advertises.

Laura Cole did not respond to an interview request, a phone message, nor to detailed questions sent via email.

Former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper said police have hired PR consultants for decades to help shape statements and respond to crises. But he sees something new and troubling in what companies like Cole Pro Media are offering.

“This is more blatantly PR, more conspicuously selling your organization,” he said. “It’s not as much, how do we most effectively, honestly, ethically, accurately tell the story of the relationship with the community.”

Shaping the narrative

Cole, who was a TV news reporter for a decade, started her police consulting business in 2014. Cole Pro Media helps agencies build a robust social media presence, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, encouraging law enforcement officers to post daily by profiling staffers, highlighting government actions and how they benefit residents.

Her firm has also hosted classes titled, “Managing the mainstream media: the street smart class to outsmart reporters.” The all-day course cost $89 and promised to teach police officers “what to do when controversy strikes” and “how to make reporters work for you.”

But Cole Pro Media’s biggest impact is as a crisis consultancy. When police are involved in a controversial incident, the firm anticipates questions from reporters, drafts initial press releases, and shapes scripts for the televised responses and interviews of police and sheriff’s representatives.

In some cases, Cole Pro Media has advised agencies to not respond to damaging revelations unless they are widely shared on social media, despite its website stating that it places an “emphasis on transparency.”

“Working with Cole Pro Media provides you with a transparency engagement advisor who can help you navigate the most sensitive of subjects so that the facts are heard,” the website states.

Cole Pro Media’s earliest clients were in its home base of Vacaville in Solano County, including the Vacaville Police Department and the Solano County Sheriff’s Office.

At the sheriff’s office, Cole Pro Media worked closely with public information officer Daniel “Cully” Pratt, the brother of actor Chris Pratt. With Cole Pro Media’s assistance, Pratt used his brother’s celebrity to promote the sheriff’s office. For example, in 2019, after a photo of their mother that Chris Pratt posted was shared widely, Cully Pratt sent the news coverage to Cole. “Let’s break the Internet!” Pratt wrote. “Using cops and their families!”

Cole wrote back, “OK write us up something and we will work on it!” The resulting post received 1,000 likes and 129 shares. The emails do not show what role Cole had in the finished product, but in other exchanges she would edit and advise on the wording of social media posts.

When this reporter revealed in a February article that Cully Pratt and other sheriff’s deputies displayed Three Percenter symbols on their social media pages, the sheriff’s office wouldn’t answer questions prior to publication. The next morning, a Cole Pro Media transparency engagement advisor sent an email to the sheriff that said they were “on call.” After the story received widespread attention, the sheriff issued a statement nearly a week later, saying he had “personal conversations” with the deputies and that each had sought to show support for the Second Amendment.

When Pittsburg, California, hired Cole Pro Media in 2018, police Chief Brian Addington was enthusiastic. Ahead of the department’s first meeting with Cole, he wrote in an email, “I hope to get an overview of what the consultants will offer, discuss expanding our team, and focus on getting ‘our message’ out to our community, instead of relying on main-stream [sic] media.”

Last year, Pittsburg settled a lawsuit for $7.3 million for the death of Humberto Martinez in 2016, who died when officers used a carotid restraint — similar to a chokehold — and held him face-down while handcuffing him. Cole Pro Media advised the department not to make a public comment about the settlement in response to reporters’ inquiries.

“We’ll watch for a flare-up on your social media, but if it remains mostly quiet I wouldn’t address the settlement,” consultant Ken Pritchett wrote in an email. “It would elevate something that might be gone by tomorrow.”

Addington responded, “I think this is a good strategy. Thank you!”

Michael Haddad, an attorney for Martinez’s family, said he was “concerned about the police chief and the department taking that advice.” He pointed out that the lawsuit revealed structural problems with the way Pittsburg police handle these kinds of restraints. For example, it had no policy to prevent compression asphyxia and the department’s top trainer had never heard of the term. But rather than respond to these issues directly, Haddad said Addington sought to “cover up his personal substandard leadership.”

“This is a huge settlement and a matter of great public importance, a death that was similar to George Floyd’s death here locally,” Haddad told The Appeal and the Vallejo Sun. “What are they doing to prevent something like this from happening again?”

Pittsburg did ban officers from using carotid restraints last year, not because of Martinez’s death, but because of national outrage over Floyd’s.

The approach in Pittsburg is far different from what Cole has advocated for in public statements. “When departments don’t give out information, it brings about secrecy,” she told the Los Angeles Times last year. “If a department did something wrong, or somebody messed up, they must own it.”

Pittsburg police did not respond to requests for comment.

An opportunity in a new transparency law

Hayward, California police shot and killed Agustin Gonsalez in 2018 while he was holding a razor blade and experiencing a mental health crisis. Days after the incident, Cole Pro Media’s Pritchett wrote a press release and scripted answers for a lieutenant’s TV interview.

Even though the investigation was ongoing, Pritchett advised the lieutenant “If the issue of crisis intervention is floated” to say that there was “no opportunity as an armed Mr. Gonsalez immediately approached officers.” (The televised portion of the interview did not include these statements and it is unclear if the lieutenant used them.)

Pritchett then helped compile a video of the shooting to post on the department’s social media accounts.

A few weeks after the video was published, Cole registered a new company: Critical Incident Videos, LLC. A new state law, Assembly Bill 748, would take effect in July 2019 and require police departments to release video of uses of force that result in death or serious injury.

With Critical Incident Videos, Cole substantially increased her client base as departments scrambled to comply with the law. The East Bay Times reported that Critical Incident Videos soon had more than 100 clients in California.

The videos typically open with a police chief stressing the importance of transparency. They then provide a narrative summary of the incident, often coupled with maps or other graphics, and play 911 and dispatch audio from the incident. The videos often pair body camera footage with video from surveillance cameras or other sources.

The structure has been criticized by civil rights advocates for including a narrative that goes beyond what the video depicts, such as in the June 2020 Vallejo police shooting of Sean Monterrosa, where Chief Shawny Williams described Monterrosa’s alleged actions just before police fatally shot him. Those moments aren’t captured on camera.

Some departments say that the heavily produced videos are sufficient to comply with AB 748. In a lawsuit by this reporter to compel the release of public records in Gonsalez’s death, including the unedited body camera footage, the city of Hayward and the police department argued that the city did not need to produce more than the Critical Incident Videos release.

After nine months of litigation, the city released the full videos directly to this reporter, including video from Officer Michael Clark that had never been publicly released because he did not turn on his body camera until after the shooting but captured its aftermath.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said departments must provide the unedited video in response to a public records request.

“The whole purpose of the Public Records Act is to give the public the unvarnished, unredacted documents, not what the departments describe,” he said. “They have to give the public the videos, not their Hollywood take on the videos.”

Working with the Riverside DA

In 2019, Cole Pro Media contracted with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, where emails show the firm has worked closely with Sheriff Chad Bianco to help him shape his public communications and to produce critical incident videos to frame shootings in a more favorable light. Bianco gained notoriety recently when hacked records revealed that he once was a member of the extremist Oathkeepers organization, which federal prosecutors have said encouraged members to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

When a Riverside County deputy fired on an unarmed man during a chase in September 2020, Cole Pro Media’s Pritchett suggested emphasizing that the deputy did not hit the suspect. Critiquing a script in the critical incident video, Pritchett wrote in an email, “One thing that I felt was missing was an emphasis on the fact that this dude was not shot.” He added, “Making that clear will diffuse [sic] the power of the incident.”

In another Riverside County case last December, a man named Ernie Serrano died after deputies shot him with a stun gun and hit him with batons in a grocery store. Email records show that three days after the incident, Cole shared communications about the media response between the sheriff’s office and the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, which was also her client. Although the DA is expected to conduct an independent investigation into officers’ conduct, the early coordination about the public narrative raises questions about how independent the DA really is.

A Twitter post showed cellphone video of deputies hitting Serrano. The DA’s office communication manager Amy McKenzie sent the post to Cole and DA Michael Hestrin. After back-and-forth emails from Hestrin and McKenzie, Cole replied that the sheriff’s office was putting together a critical incident video “that should be released later today.”

Cole then forwarded the exchange to Bianco and wrote, “As you know, the DA’s office is also my client and wanted to make sure I was aware. I’m passing this along to you guys to make sure you are aware.”

Days later, Bianco gave a press conference where he released videos and said that Serrano appeared to have died from a drug overdose. Bianco said the DA’s office would lead the criminal investigation and make an independent review of the deputies’ actions. In California, DAs are typically relied on to conduct such reviews, though police reform advocates have argued they are too close with law enforcement to treat such cases objectively.

In an emailed response to questions about the communications between the sheriff’s office and the DA, McKenzie wrote that they “were about a potential protest for the purposes of security of our personnel working in our downtown office should a protest occur. There was no discussion of a public relations strategy.” She did not respond to follow up questions about why Cole was included in the email exchange. The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions.

Serrano’s autopsy has not been released and the DA’s investigation has not been completed.

Max Szabo, a former assistant district attorney and spokesperson for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, said a firm representing both the DA and sheriff could have a conflict of interest if the DA was involved in prosecuting someone in the sheriff’s office. In Szabo’s view, the communications between the sheriff and DA could be grounds for the DA to recuse himself from evaluating the incident.

“If the DA is coordinating on messaging with the Sheriff just days after an in-custody death, it suggests he’s made his decision on the legality of the use of force long before the investigation is complete,” Szabo said in an email. “This is the kind of thing that erodes public trust because it suggests there’s a two-tiered system of justice, one for law enforcement and one for everyone else.”

Humberto Guizar, a civil rights attorney representing Serrano’s family, said he was “furious” after The Appeal and the Vallejo Sun provided him with the email exchange. He said there should be an investigation into the coordination between the sheriff and the DA.

“The DA’s office is supposed to be investigating them, not working on the narrative,” Guizar said. “Based on what I’m seeing [in the emails], the people who are responsible for evaluating the facts are trying to come up with a narrative that’s consistent with the sheriff’s office. They’re in cahoots.”

Growing influence

Cole Pro Media is just one firm that has been providing PR guidance to police departments seeking to improve their communications and soothe backlash during crises. Media reports suggest that such PR contracts are becoming more common and large departments have expanded the roles of spokespeople.

Cole Pro Media’s role in police communications has also grown. The company has expanded outside California. In Asheville, North Carolina, police Chief David Zack also worked with Cole Pro Media at his previous job in Cheektowaga, New York, and hired them again after he transferred to Asheville in early 2020. The company offered advice and worked on briefing videos after some Asheville police officers were recorded destroying a medic station, including slashing bottles of water, during George Floyd-inspired protests that June.

Cole Pro Media has pitched its services and approach to a national audience. According to its website, Laura Cole has spoken about her “crisis communications philosophy” at events held by the California Police Chiefs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Cole is even helping to train the next generation of California police chiefs. She is listed as an instructor for a four-day course offered by the California Police Chiefs Association, “Becoming a Police Chief: Developing a Mindset for Success and Service,” which is certified by the state Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.

“With commitment and dedication to strengthening the relationship between district attorneys, law enforcement and the community,” Cole Pro Media’s website states, “Cole continues to lead the charge in steering agencies in the direction of best communication practices.”

How Prison Writers Struggle to Be Heard

Sky-high email and phone costs, fear of retaliation by prison staff, and isolation create roadblocks for incarcerated people to share their experience and join a growing national conversation on reforming the criminal legal system.

Photo: Rodnae Productions | Pexel

How Prison Writers Struggle to Be Heard

Sky-high email and phone costs, fear of retaliation by prison staff, and isolation create roadblocks for incarcerated people to share their experience and join a growing national conversation on reforming the criminal legal system.

This piece is published in collaboration with the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a project of Prison Renaissance that works to support the hiring and payment of incarcerated people for journalism and creative work.

When a person goes to prison, some of their constitutional rights vanish. But their right to free speech remains intact.

Many incarcerated people are eager to exercise that right and contribute to the conversations in our communities around racial inequality, criminal justice reform, conditions of confinement, and numerous other issues. After all, who better to comment on the issues that affect us—and our loved ones—than us?

Like us, a small percentage of the over 2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are finding a voice by publishing national and local articles, writing blogs, and sitting for interviews with other journalists across the country.

But there are tremendous hurdles to being heard. Slowly and reluctantly, the prison system has allowed some forms of technology for those who are incarcerated. But exceedingly high costs, isolation, restrictive working conditions, and fear of censorship render a prisoner’s right to free speech extremely fragile and often impossible to exercise. And any time a citizen’s rights are infringed upon, we as a society become less free.

Having a voice is expensive.

Most people in prison pay for virtually every form of communication they have access to.

For those lucky enough to have email, there is a cost connected to each correspondence. Where we are, in Washington state, people in prison can use the technology service JPay to send monitored emails and transfer money. Qualifying prisoners can purchase a personal JPay tablet at about $139, and prisoners must purchase “e-stamps” to send messages. Stamps cost 17 to 33 cents each, though the price can be higher in other states.

This may not sound like much, but if you consider the fact that most prisoners in Washington state make only 42 cents per hour at prison jobs, sending a message home through JPay can represent nearly 40 percent of an hour’s labor. For a person on the streets making $20 an hour, that would be the equivalent of $8 each time they sent an email or text. The tablet is the equivalent of over 330 hours of prison labor.

Phone calls are even worse. A local 20-minute phone call from a prison in Washington state costs around $2.50 or nearly six hours of prison labor, though excessive call costs are a national issue. Last year, a federal judge in New Jersey approved a $25 million settlement after prisoners in the state sued GTL, a phone service provider, for inflated costs.

For prisoners who are dependent on communicating using paper or a typewriter, costs can get outrageously high. Those confined in Washington are only allowed to purchase from one vendor, Union Supply, when ordering supplies, meaning they have no choice over what they pay. A typewriter from Union Supply costs over $300 and requires a $15 deposit. Supporting supplies such as correctable ribbons are $12.95 each; correction tape is $17.55 for a six-pack, and a packet of 100 sheets of typing paper is $1.71. Getting set up with a typewriter and supplies to write requires a prisoner to spend around $350 or 833 hours of prison labor. If a person in prison used a ribbon, one correction tape, and a packet of paper each month, they would need $17.58 every month. That is a third of a prisoner’s monthly paycheck in Washington state.

The outrageous cost of being heard has a chilling effect. People simply can’t afford to speak. They are silenced through overpriced, unobtainable, outdated technology.

People who speak up can be targeted for retaliation.

Prisoners who speak out publicly about system injustices often place themselves in danger by doing so.

Corrections officials have labeled prisoners who find success as writers and advocates as troublemakers or threat risks. As a result, prison writers may find that their communications are given a higher level of censorship, more often rejected by mailroom staff, and sometimes delayed. Corrections officials have also attempted to pit prisoners against one another, threatening to take away computer privileges for a whole group because of one person’s writings or communications.

If the department isn’t successful in suppressing prisoners’ voices, officials may claim that prisoners’ accounts are false. And too often, outlets—fearing litigation perhaps—will accept and print those claims and comments, regardless of their veracity.

Prison writers have to weigh their personal safety and freedoms against getting their message out. They must brave everything to speak for those who often find themselves without a voice.

Work product can disappear.

All aspects of a prisoner’s personal property, including writings, are subject to search and confiscation at any time. Prison writers work with this awareness, and veterans of the system handwrite backups and painstakingly rework it all if any writing is lost or stolen.

When work is completed, it must clear the gauntlet of prison mailrooms without being denied. If a prisoner’s work is taken or destroyed, they have no way of proving it ever existed. To get it returned, prison writers are at the mercy of the very people they may be writing about.

Prisoners also have extremely limited means to back up their data and work product, and are forbidden from having any type of electronic storage. In August, a JPay update erased large portions of tablet user data, including all drafts and thus hundreds of hours of work. John J. Lennon, a prolific prison journalist incarcerated in a New York state prison, lost everything upon updating his player. Though the files have since been restored, “it was like my life stopped,” he said. Joshua Rodriguez, a prison poet incarcerated in Washington state, initially lost over 400 poems and pieces of spoken word he had been working on. “Everything just vanished. I was devastated, I put my heart into the pieces I write, sharing deep pieces of my trauma from my life and childhood,” he said.

Although JPay eventually restored some content and features weeks later, and insisted that the disruption was inadvertent, it’s unclear what, if anything, would have happened without immense pressure from incarcerated journalists, free-world journalists, and advocates who sounded off about the system issues.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, and prison journalists regularly deal with disruptions in their work and threats to their work product.

System-impacted people are isolated from each other.

Prisoners are barred from contact with prisoners in other institutions. Though there are some legitimate arguments for this policy, the effect of this isolation means that prisoners have enormous difficulty participating in discussions that are integral to modern life.

Most incarcerated people cannot access the blogs, forums, and chat rooms available to those on the streets without being at risk of violating corrections policies. This forces prison journalists to be limited to the small bubble they live in for input. Some people may overcome this with help from loved ones or other support networks, acting as surrogates, but it is still a serious hurdle and strain on our networks and makes doing important work vastly more difficult.

Additionally, when a person leaves prison, they are banned for up to two years from contacting prisoners—the people that they built a community with for the last several years, and in some cases decades.

Potential problems with intra-prison communication could still be avoided with much less restrictive measures, ones that allow incarcerated individuals to constructively work together in bettering their conditions.

Already, change is coming to the prison system, and prison journalists and activists are helping to drive the narratives for that change. The public is eager to hear from people who are incarcerated, seeking transparency around solitary confinement, health risks, and other abuses that have occurred for years in the shadows. And legislators and state officials are now looking to us to lead the discussions around prisons and jails, calling on incarcerated people to testify about their experience.

But even then, obstacles remain. In September, Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven González requested that one of us participate in its Race and Criminal Justice Task Force panel, writing in a letter to the Department of Corrections that it was “critical to include in this discussion someone who is incarcerated.” But the DOC denied the request, citing “the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the resulting intense impact on prison staffing,” according to a letter sent to the chief justice.

We cannot let the impediments to communication while incarcerated deter us from having a voice and maintaining our First Amendment right. The public arguably knows more today than ever before about the prison system and its conditions, largely because of voices from inside. But those leading the charge and speaking out do so at considerable risk.

America’s Largest Police Department Is Neglecting Rape Cases

America’s Largest Police Department Is Neglecting Rape Cases

The Appeal is back and we’re worker-run.

We’re excited to bring you the fifth edition of our weekly newsletter as we continue to work toward an official relaunch.

Today, we also published our first story in a series of pieces we’ll be publishing in the coming weeks as we continue rebuilding and working toward an official relaunch.

In it, reporter Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg tells the story of Reginald Randolph, a man with a tragic life who has spent over 800 days enduring horrific conditions at the Rikers Island jail complex in NY after stealing cold medicine. Read more here.

Every dollar we raise helps us produce vital journalism. Help us return to publishing full time by donating here.



America’s Largest Police Department Is Neglecting Rape Cases

by Meg O’Connor, The Appeal

“I did not expect that I’d be told that even though I was asleep when the assault began, it wasn’t rape because I didn’t fight back,” Jennifer Welch Demski testified before the New York City Council on Oct. 18. “I did not expect to have a sergeant sit across from me and say he has sex with his wife while she’s asleep, and she’s not reporting him for rape.” New York City Police Department officers ultimately classified Demski’s rape as a “dispute.”

Demski was one of many women who recounted their traumatizing experiences reporting sexual assaults to the NYPD’s Special Victims Division (SVD) during an oversight hearing on the troubled department two weeks ago. Another woman, Christine, who used only her first name, testified that after she was drugged and raped last year, investigators closed her case without her knowledge, failed to collect any video evidence, did not interview witnesses, and tried to make her pay $1,000 to get her hair tested for date-rape drugs. Another woman said the SVD detective assigned to her case tricked her into signing a form that closed her case against her will.

The systemic failure of the nation’s largest police department to investigate sexual assault underscores fundamental flaws endemic to American policing. In New York, politicians and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea seem to have largely shrugged at the documented deficiencies of the SVD. They have allowed the unit to continue neglecting and mistreating victims, despite the fact that the NYPD has more than enough resources—a $5.4 billion annual budget and about 50,000 employees—to fix the problem, if they truly wanted to.

But police won’t invest in things they don’t actually care about. And the actions of police departments across the country have made clear that sexual assault is simply not a priority. Police have refused to collect crucial DNA evidence in hundreds of thousands of sexual assault cases. A 2018 report found that police assigned to investigate sexual assault in Austin, Texas, could not even understand lab reports documenting DNA evidence, and often had such a poor understanding of basic female anatomy that one officer said he had to “Google stuff like ‘labia majora.’” In the 1990’s, police in Philadelphia refered to the department’s sex crimes division as the “lying b**** unit.” On many occasions, police have simply decided not to investigate a reported rape—and in doing so, allowed many more women to be raped.

New York City leaders have shown no interest in improving this broken system or building up alternatives. When the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) exposed the rampant dysfunction at the SVD in a 2018 report, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the NYPD (and oversaw a nearly $800 million increase to the department’s budget during his years in office). De Blasio also replaced former Police Commissioner James O’Neill with Shea, who, when he was chief of detectives, ousted longtime SVD Commander Michael Osgood, purportedly in retaliation for cooperating with the DOI inquiry.

While it may seem like a good sign that the City Council held an oversight hearing on the SVD at all, the council held similar hearings in 2019 and 2018 and little has changed. The way advocates and survivors tell it, things have gotten worse.

The DOI report found that NYPD brass had ignored the SVD’s requests for appropriate staffing and resources for years. In 2017, the division had 67 detectives assigned to investigate 5,661 adult sex crimes (about 84 cases per detective per year or between one and two new cases each week). By comparison, the NYPD assigned 101 detectives to investigate 282 homicides that same year (three cases per detective per year). When then-SVD commander Osgood told NYPD leadership that this caseload made it impossible for detectives to investigate all cases they were assigned, an NYPD deputy commissioner responded by saying detectives “did not have to investigate every misdemeanor [sex crime].”

Since the DOI report, the NYPD has changed Special Victims Division leadership twice. The NYPD has said it increased staffing, but in reality it mostly just shuffled people around. Shea notoriously disbanded a handful of important SVD units during a “restructuring” that filled the division with beat cops instead of trained detectives. Victims have subsequently sued the NYPD over its mishandling of sex crimes cases, and have asked the Department of Justice to open a federal investigation into the SVD’s practices.

Testimony from advocates and survivors at the City Council hearing last month makes it clear that the SVD’s problems persist under its latest chief, Michael King. Now advocates want King out. They told the New York Post that he has prioritized filling out paperwork over keeping in touch with victims, and doesn’t interview investigators before they get assigned to the SVD. King’s own commander, Chief of the Department Rodney Harrison, laid into him earlier this month for the SVD’s shoddy paperwork and inadequate training.

So New York City’s SVD is understaffed, poorly trained, and, apparently, full of rude and insensitive detectives. But that’s not because the NYPD doesn’t have the funding or staffing to fix it. Refusing to assign qualified detectives to the Special Victims Division is a policy choice. The NYPD’s $5.4 billion budget is larger than that of some countries. The 255 people currently assigned to the division account for roughly 1 percent of the NYPD’s massive police force. The NYPD has complete and total discretion to assign police officers to investigate crimes with real victims who are asking for help—or to send them out to do nonsense like push subway goers out of stations for telling officers to put on a mask as the subway requires. The choice is the NYPD’s, and by now it’s pretty clear where its priorities lie.


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Security video shows that police lied when they said people on a Pennsylvania commuter train recorded a sexual assault on their cell phones and did nothing to intervene or call 911. Many news outlets ran with the police account of the crime before realizing it wasn’t true. [Rudy Chinchilla / NBC 10 Philadelphia]

Miami’s most infamous cop and former police union boss, Captain Javier Ortiz, just keeps getting his job back. Multiple current and former police officials told Politico they wished Ortiz—who has a history of use-of-force complaints, suspensions, racist statements, and media fiascos—was off the force. But insiders said Ortiz avoids termination due to pro-police state laws and American cops’ culture of lawlessness. [Marc Caputo / Politico]

Another shaken baby syndrome case was tossed out. In 2003, Kim Hoover-Moore was wrongfully convicted in Ohio of shaking to death a baby in her care. This month, she was finally released from prison. [Associated Press] See also: The Appeal’s reporting on SBS.

Alabama executed Willie B. Smith III, who was intellectually disabled, according to his lawyers. During the execution, one of his lawyers raised his fist to the glass that separated Smith from the witnesses. [Kim Chandler / Associated Press]

The Intercept obtained an internal investigation of Efraín Romero de la Rosa’s death in ICE custody that showed staff falsified documents, did not follow their own procedures, and placed him in disciplinary isolation despite his deteriorating mental health. In 2018, Efraín, who had schizophrenia, died by suicide after 21 days in solitary confinement at Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. [José Olivares / The Intercept]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants to give unvaccinated cops $5,000 bonuses to relocate to Florida and join police departments in the Sunshine State. [Andrea Salcedo / Washington Post]

Christina Nance had been missing for nearly two weeks when police said they found her body inside a police van parked outside the Huntsville, Alabama, public safety complex. Members of Nance’s family find her death suspicious and say they want answers. [Derek Hawkins / Washington Post]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

A Homeless Man Has Spent 800 Days At Rikers After Stealing Cold Medicine. Now His Prison Sentence May Be Beginning.

Blind in one eye and at risk of losing vision in the other, 58-year-old Reginald Randolph is now on the verge of being sent to state prison to serve out a maximum of four years.

Randolph and his family in 1997.
Courtesy of Legal Aid Society.

A Homeless Man Has Spent 800 Days At Rikers After Stealing Cold Medicine. Now His Prison Sentence May Be Beginning.

Blind in one eye and at risk of losing vision in the other, 58-year-old Reginald Randolph is now on the verge of being sent to state prison to serve out a maximum of four years.

This story was published in partnership with New York Focus.

After failing out of drug court, Reginald Randolph, 58, was sentenced in August to two to four years in state prison for taking dozens of boxes of cold medicine from two Duane Reade stores in 2018.

“[Shoplifting] was just to support my addiction and to deal with my homelessness, deal with my poverty,” Randolph told New York Focus and The Appeal in a phone call from the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City.

Blind in one eye and at risk of losing vision in the other, Randolph is now awaiting a transfer from Rikers to a New York state prison.

“We’re not treated as humans in here,” he said, referring to Rikers.

Randolph says he goes without meals for three or four days and has lost about 40 pounds. At a recent dinner, a mouse was found in a pan of potatoes. For the 50 people in his unit, there are three working toilets, but they occasionally back up while someone is using them. There’s one working shower.

A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Correction told New York Focus and The Appeal in a statement: “We are committed to a safe environment in our jails where every person in custody is fed healthy food and has access to functioning facilities and to services.”

The agency also said Randolph’s housing area was inspected and all showers and toilets are operable; food is provided regularly; and they were not able to substantiate a rodent complaint like the one described. The agency’s denials conflict with widespread reports of inhumane and dangerous conditions at Rikers from elected officials, incarcerated people and their family members, the federal monitor overseeing the city’s jails, and public defenders.

In September, the Legal Aid Society, which represents Randolph, submitted a clemency petition to the Executive Clemency Bureau, which conducts a preliminary review of applications before sending them to the governor. Legal Aid is requesting that Governor Kathy Hochul grant Randolph emergency clemency and a full sentence commutation so he can be immediately released to the supportive housing program that Legal Aid has already obtained for him.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney’s office told The Appeal that assistant DA Megan Joy, counsel for collateral consequences, sent an email on Oct. 15 to Joshua Norkin, the governor’s assistant counsel for housing and civil rights which says: “Under the conditions presented by defense counsel (that defendant has a place in supportive housing and will go to the supportive housing), we do not oppose a commutation of his sentence.”

The governor’s office told New York Focus and The Appeal that they cannot comment on pending clemencies.

Randolph’s case is one of many examples of New York’s continued criminalization of mental illness, substance use disorders, and poverty. As of Oct. 15, almost half of the more than 5,500 people incarcerated in the city’s jails received mental health services, according to city data.

“Clients like Reggie have been failed by nearly every system they have touched since birth— from health care to education, housing, mental health, courts, and beyond,” Legal Aid attorney Jeffrey Berman, a member of Randolph’s legal team, told New York Focus and The Appeal in a statement. “There is an opportunity to right a wrong here, and to release Reggie from the shackles of this system so he can take a step forward in his journey of healing and recovery.”

Homeless, sick, and trapped in the system

Randolph’s biography is replete with trauma, untreated mental illness, and institutional failures, according to Legal Aid’s filings—details familiar among those trapped in the legal system.

Randolph’s stepfather regularly beat him, his mother, and his siblings. Randolph left school after the eighth grade and was first arrested when he was 16 years old. By 19, he was using cocaine, LSD, and PCP.

He’s been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), polysubstance use disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and asthma. Homeless for more than two decades, he has primarily received mental health care when he has been locked up or at emergency rooms.

By the time he was arrested for stealing cold medicine in 2018, he’d been convicted of more than 50 misdemeanors and a handful of felonies, the most recent in 2005 for attempted robbery and sale of a controlled substance.

Although the DA’s office had the discretion to charge Randolph with a misdemeanor (or not pursue charges at all), they chose to bump up the charge to a felony—two counts of third-degree burglary—because Randolph had a “no trespass” order that banned him from Duane Reade. (Manhattan DA nominee Alvin Bragg, who most likely will be elected, wrote in his Day One memo that “ordinary shoplifting cases should not be charged as burglaries.” Bragg, a Democrat, was not available for comment.)

His bail was set at $15,000, although the DA’s office had asked for $20,000. Unable to pay, he stayed on Rikers Island. (The current version of New York’s bail reform law, which went into effect last year , allows judges to set cash bail for nonviolent offenses in limited circumstances.)

More than a year after Randolph’s arrest, he was accepted into Manhattan Drug Court. In August 2019, he was released from Rikers to an inpatient treatment program. If he didn’t complete the program, but was not arrested on a new charge he would be incarcerated for two to four years, according to the plea agreement he signed with the drug court. If he was arrested again, he faced up to 14 years.

Randolph left the treatment program after three days. “It was too much,” he said. “It was too much coming at me.”

Over the next two years, Randolph picked up more shoplifting charges and tried a second court-ordered treatment program. He left that one after almost four weeks.

“​​It was another residential program, it was basically mental health slash drug treatment,” said Randolph. “We only go out for one-hour walk a day. … It was really intense.”

Randolph’s experiences in drug court are not unique. The DA’s office told New York Focus and The Appeal that between Jan. 1, 2019 and Oct. 28, 2021, 404 people in Manhattan’s felony drug court had their cases resolved. Of those, about 47 percent graduated and over 50 percent failed out of drug court.

Court-ordered treatment programs are often highly regimented, emphasizing obedience and entry into the low-wage workforce, according to Kerwin Kaye, an associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University and the author of the book “Enforcing Freedom: Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State.”

“Think of it like boot camp,” said Kaye. “There’s a lot of discipline and there’s a lot of rules to follow.”

Drug court—often hailed as a more compassionate alternative to the ’90s-era war on drugs—too often acts as a speed bump before prison, said Kaye.

For drug court participants in Manhattan, minor infractions can result in a range of punishments. For missed appointments, “rule breaking at program,” or arriving late to drug court two times, a judge can order participants to write essays and letters, or take away “program privileges,” according to the Manhattan Drug Court handbook. Repeated violations of these rules can result in jail time, reads the clip-art illustrated handbook.

“The [drug] court is still using prison as a threat in order to coerce people to do what they want them to do,” said Kaye. “It’s not really ending the war on drugs … It’s modifying the way that the war on drugs is waged.”

“Deterrence and retribution”

After he left the second treatment program, Randolph’s chances with drug court had run out.

In August, he went before Criminal Court Judge Cori Weston—herself a former public defender—to be sentenced on the charges from 2018. Before Weston’s appointment to the bench in 2016, she she was an attorney with Legal Aid for seven years and with the New York County Defender Services for almost 20 years. New York County Defender Services, which represents indigent clients in criminal cases, has publicly criticized the Manhattan DA’s practice of charging people who shoplift with burglary.

When Randolph attended the sentencing hearing, he was on crutches. He had fallen in the shower, he told New York Focus and The Appeal, “due to my vision situation.”

Weston sentenced Randolph to two to four years in prison. For each count there was a mandatory surcharge of $375, which Weston deferred until Randolph is released from prison.

Before he was sentenced, Randolph’s legal team filed a motion asking the court to reduce his charges or dismiss the indictment entirely, citing his deteriorating health and mental illness. The Manhattan DA’s office opposed the motion, and Weston denied it.

“Dismissal of the charges could adversely impact the safety and welfare of the community, and would undermine the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system,” Weston wrote in her ruling.

The purpose of imposing Randolph’s sentence, she wrote, was “deterrence and retribution.”

Continued incarceration will have potentially catastrophic consequences for Randolph, according to two medical experts who reviewed his records. He needs consistent, timely medical care to have any hope of preserving his vision, they wrote in letters attached to his clemency petition. But in prisons and jails, medical care for incarcerated patients is routinely denied, delayed, or inadequate.

In a letter submitted with Randolph’s clemency petition, Dr. Alexander Bardey, a former director of mental health services at Rikers Island, wrote that Randolph’s “best hope of keeping what is left of his remaining vision would be for him to be removed from a carceral setting and reside in a supportive residence.” Bardey warned that Randolph is also at risk of potentially fatal complications if he were to contract COVID-19.
“In an environment like Rikers Island or a DOCCS facility, the risk of a sudden, catastrophic outcome is increasingly likely for Mr. Randolph,” he wrote, referring to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

A life in the governor’s hands

Sentenced more than three months ago, Randolph hasn’t been transferred to state prison; the reason for the delay is unclear, said Berman, the Legal Aid attorney. And although he’s been eligible for parole since July 18, he has not yet gone before the parole board. Since his arrest in 2018, Randolph has spent more than 800 days at Rikers Island.

But Legal Aid and Randolph’s supporters are not requesting an expeditious release on parole.

If Randolph is granted parole, he’d likely be sent to a shelter, according to Legal Aid. In 2019, Legal Aid and other groups sued the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for holding people with mental illness past their release dates. After the suit was filed, DOCCS started to parole people with mental illness to homeless shelters and psychiatric institutions, instead of housing with supportive services. Legal Aid amended the complaint to challenge this practice as well. Last month, the court denied DOCCS’s request to have the class action suit dismissed.

His team at Legal Aid — Berman, along with co-counsel Yvonne Nix and mitigation specialist Afeisha Julien — wants Randolph immediately released so he can move into The Redemption Center’s transitional supportive housing program. Randolph will stay there until he moves into long-term housing with wraparound services, according to Berman.

If Randolph is released he’ll receive additional support from the Bridge Back to Life Center, which will provide intensive outpatient mental health and substance dependence treatment, as well as medication management services, the organization’s CEO wrote in a letter to the Executive Clemency Bureau. Medical care for his eyes will continue at Bellevue Hospital, according to Berman.

“We have the opportunity to get him in a transitional housing program with supportive services,” said Mark Graham, executive director of The Redemption Center. “We’re going to ensure that he’s fed, has a place to sleep. … Parole is not going to do that.”

If Graham could speak with the governor, he would tell her: “When we hear the term and the concept of travesty of justice, we’re looking at it in Reginald’s case.”

The governor’s decision on Randolph’s clemency petition could determine whether he continues a cycle of homelessness and incarceration, or whether he can finally attain the kind of stability and support that he’s been denied for almost 60 years.

Randolph said that if he is released, he plans to participate in treatment programs, take his medications, and “live a normal productive life.”

“I’ll be able to do that cause I won’t have too much poverty to deal with,” he said. “My attorney has me connected with The Redemption Center. I have living quarters there. … I’ve never had that stability in my life. And I would appreciate the opportunity to be able to have that.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Randolph’s attorneys filed their motion to reduce his charges or dismiss the indictment before Randolph was sentenced, not after, as the story originally stated. We regret the error.

These November Elections Could Dramatically Change Local Police Departments

These November Elections Could Dramatically Change Local Police Departments

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Illustration by The Appeal. Photos courtesy of YES 4 Minneapolis, Cooper Baumgar, Josh Hild, and Munshots at Unsplash.

These November Elections Could Dramatically Change Local Police Departments

by Anna Simonton, The Appeal

On Oct. 16 in Minneapolis, advocates for reforming police and public safety were on a roll. Volunteers gathered in Longfellow Park—just a couple of miles from the spot where police killed George Floyd—and fanned out to knock on hundreds of doors, talking with residents about Question 2, a measure on the November ballot that could bring sweeping change to the city’s police department. Even though 2021 is considered an “off year” for electoral politics, many local elections like this one in the coming weeks may still shift the status quo for criminal justice around the country.

If it passes, Question 2 will create a Department of Public Safety, which would employ a “comprehensive public health approach to safety,” according to the ballot language. It would lift a requirement that the city maintain a certain number of armed officers depending on the population, opening the door for officials to create a model where professionals other than police prevent or respond to emergencies.

“What we have currently in the city of Minneapolis is an armed police response only,” JaNaé Bates told a crowd at a public forum held at Mayflower Church, across town from where volunteers were canvassing. Bates is the communications director for the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, which represents more than 50 organizations that support the ballot measure. Voting yes on Question 2, she said, would ensure that people in crisis get help that’s appropriate for their specific situation. “Sometimes it will be a police officer. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it will be a mental health professional.”

This election is one of a handful of local races across the country that may be a barometer of how efforts to transform the criminal legal system have fared since George Floyd’s murder last year sparked massive protests calling for change.

  • New Orleans voters will choose whether to re-elect Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who since 2004 has overseen a jail rife with human rights abuses. Four challengers are running against him in a nonpartisan Nov. 13 primary. Among them is a former police watchdog, Susan Hutson, who opposes jail expansion, wants to make fewer arrests, and plans to end the exorbitant fees incarcerated people have to pay for phone calls.
  • In Seattle, a self-described “abolitionist” candidate for city attorney, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, is competing against a tough-on-crime opponent after incumbent Pete Holmes, who steered the office in a more progressive direction over the last decade, lost in the August primary. Kennedy, a former public defender, says she will stop prosecuting most misdemeanors and seek alternatives to prosecution where available. But a recent poll shows her falling behind Ann Davison, an attorney who flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2020, has advocated for homeless encampment sweeps, and wants to ramp up misdemeanor prosecutions.
  • Mayoral elections nationwide are a battleground over the future of criminal justice. When community organizer India Walton won the Democratic mayoral primary in June in Buffalo, New York, her vision for reducing the scope of policing seemed likely to become policy. But the defeated incumbent, Byron Brown, has staged an aggressive write-in campaign that could prevail on Nov. 2. And in Boston and Cincinnati, left-leaning candidates want civilian-led teams to respond to some low-level offenses or emergency calls, but their challengers want to maintain, or even expand, the size of each city’s police department. Elsewhere, candidates have fallen prey to reactionary rhetoric about the rise in violent crime; most of the candidates for Atlanta mayor are touting policies, like creating a gang task force, that hearken back to the 1990s tough-on-crime era.
  • Last year, Austin cut its police budget by about a third by moving civilian functions like dispatch and forensics outside the department, and redirected $70 million to programs like supportive housing and substance use treatment. But that could come undone if voters approve Proposition A on Nov. 2. The measure would expand the city’s spending on cops and potentially force cuts in other areas, like firefighters, medics, and librarians. A long list of labor and social justice groups, elected officials, and local residents are fighting Prop A.
  • Gubernatorial elections are taking place in New Jersey and Virginia this year, and the latter is a tight race with high stakes for the criminal legal system. Virginia abolished parole in 1995; now Democratic lawmakers are aiming to reinstate it. The effort would likely have support from former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is seeking another term. But Republican contender Gary Youngkin instead wants to take parole options away from those convicted before 1995.

In Minneapolis, activists are cautiously hopeful. Question 2 needs a simple majority to pass, and a September poll suggested that 49 percent of voters supported the measure.

“Coming together across race, across region, across income to say that Black Lives Matter and that we’re ready to put that proclamation into policy was a necessity” after police killed George Floyd, Bates told The Appeal.


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People with disabilities at New York’s Five Points Correctional Facility say they’re denied working wheelchairs, unable to attend meals, and at risk of being disciplined because of their disability. One plaintiff was kept in solitary when he couldn’t push another person in a wheelchair. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg / New York Focus and The Nation]

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined JPay $6 million for “engaging in unlawful conduct that targeted people released from the corrections system, siphoning off taxpayer-funded benefits and people’s own hard-earned money in the process,” CFPB director Rohit Chopra said in a statement. [CFPB]

Since 2015, the agency responsible for parking and traffic enforcement has cost the city of Los Angeles $192 million more than it generated in fines. [Cari Spencer / Crosstown]

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy Gregory Van Hoesen killed two people in 18 months: 16-year-old AJ Weber and 21-year-old Jamaal Simpson. Van Hoesen was not disciplined for either shooting, faced no criminal charges, and is still working. [Cerise Castle / Knock LA]

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan wants to “re-fund the police” with his $150 million plan to give police across the state even more money. Budgets for state police departments and grants to local police departments have already increased during Hogan’s tenure. [Bryn Stole / Baltimore Sun]

A Black person in New Jersey is more than 12 times more likely than a white person to be incarcerated—the highest Black-white disparity rate in the country, according to a new report by The Sentencing Project. [Ashley Nellis / The Sentencing Project]

A new article in Science, the peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, details how public and private actors have turned America’s criminal legal system into a “vast network of revenue-generating operations.” [Joshua Page and Joe Soss / Science]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

People Are Being Tortured Inside New Jersey’s Prisons

Lydia Thornton embraces another activist while Nafeesah Goldsmith stands in front with raised fist at a rally and vigil outside Edna Mahan.
Photo: Ibrahim Sulaimani

People Are Being Tortured Inside New Jersey’s Prisons

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Lydia Thornton embraces another activist while Nafeesah Goldsmith stands in front with raised fist at a rally and vigil outside Edna Mahan.
Photo: Ibrahim Sulaimani

People Are Being Tortured Inside New Jersey’s Prisons

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, The Appeal

Inside New Jersey’s Bayside State Prison, corrections officer John Makos allegedly tortured incarcerated kitchen workers. In one incident, he approximated a “crucifixion” by handcuffing his victim’s outstretched arms to fences and doors, then beat him, according to a criminal complaint issued by the Department of Justice last month.

Makos’s victims feared that if they spoke out, they might lose their job in the prison’s kitchen, which gave them access to more and better quality food, according to the DOJ complaint and an investigation by NJ Advance Media.

During the course of at least nine months in 2019, the complaint says:

  • Makos ordered a victim to pull down his pants, then repeatedly spanked the man with a ruler with such force that the ruler broke. He later forced the victim to show his bruised buttocks to other incarcerated people.
  • Makos told a victim that if he wanted to keep his job in the kitchen, he’d have to ride “the motorcycle.” He ordered the victim to put his back against the wall and sit, as if on a motorcycle. Makos then kicked him in the chest.
  • To avoid a beating, another victim ate hot peppers that Makos brought to the prison.

Makos’s alleged actions aren’t an isolated incident of depravity. Corrections officers across the country regularly make headlines for egregious acts of cruelty like killing a mentally ill man by locking him in a scalding hot shower or putting a woman in an outdoor cage on a 107-degree day for four hours, killing her. What Makos is accused of doing is a symptom of an entrenched pattern of abuse inside the country’s prisons—abuse that disproportionately impacts people of color and haunts generations of survivors.

Nafeesah Goldsmith was incarcerated for more than a decade at Edna Mahan, New Jersey’s prison for women. She told The Appeal that she wasn’t surprised by the abuse at Bayside or that it occurred so openly for months.

“I’ve been desensitized when it comes down to just what officers of the DOC will do,” said Goldsmith, who is now chairperson of New Jersey Prison Justice Watch. “What is disheartening is the fact that this is something that is accepted—the fact that an individual feels that comfortable and has that kind of freedom at work to perform in such a manner that others are aware of it, your colleagues are aware of it.”

What happened at Bayside “speaks to a culture … that says that we are dispensable,” added Lydia Thornton, who was also imprisoned at Edna Mahan. “Because, after all, we’re criminals.”

Thornton works with New Jersey Prison Justice Watch and founded the advocacy group, The Scarlet F (the F stands for “felon.”)

That culture of dehumanization permeates New Jersey’s prisons. Last year, I wrote about a man incarcerated at Mid-State Correctional Facility who was handcuffed for days while he was hospitalized with COVID-19. In April, Akela Lacy reported for The Intercept that contaminated water at East Jersey State Prison likely caused a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak among the men housed there. And sexual assault has been rampant at Edna Mahan, according to a DOJ investigation. Just this month, a corrections officer was charged with sexually assaulting an incarcerated woman. Earlier this year, the state Department of Corrections entered into a preliminary multi-million dollar settlement with survivors.

Even while the DOJ was investigating Edna Mahan, the abuse continued unabated. On the night of Jan. 10 into the early morning hours of Jan. 11, correctional officers attacked several women; they cut off the victims’ clothes, punched them dozens of times, and pepper sprayed them as the women bled, cried, and pleaded for them to stop. The state attorney general’s office has charged 10 officers in connection with the assaults.

“It took a year and a half for this to even come out,” Thornton said of the abuse at Bayside. “I understand investigations have to happen. … But it seems to me that when it comes to us, the process slows down. We’re not quite as important.”

But survivors of New Jersey’s prisons are fighting back.

Goldsmith, Thornton, and other formerly incarcerated leaders championed a bill to restrict the use of solitary confinement, a common practice in prisons and jails throughout the country that the United Nations Human Rights Council has said can be tantamount to torture. In 2016, Governor Chris Christie vetoed the bill, but current Governor Phil Murphy later signed it in 2019. Last year, loved ones of those inside, along with formerly incarcerated people and their allies, held a funeral procession at the state Capitol to honor the incarcerated victims of COVID-19. Earlier this year, they protested outside Edna Mahan. They’ve demanded the release of thousands of people trapped inside New Jersey’s prisons and jails.

“We put human beings away in cages and behind giant walls and all that for public safety,” said Thornton. “And so that we can forget about them.”

The abuse of people who are incarcerated, whether in blue states like New Jersey or red states like Texas, will continue as long as elected officials—and the people who elect them—act as if a person living on the inside is less human than a person living on the outside.

Disclosure: From 2018 to 2019, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg worked for New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which advocated for the passage of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (A314/S3261.)

The New Jersey Department of Corrections has agreed to a preliminary multi-million dollar settlement in the Edna Mahan class action suit. Every person who spent a single day imprisoned at Edna Mahan since January 1, 2014, (through now) is entitled to at least $1,000—(and as much as $250,000). The deadline to file a claim is next week on Oct. 29, 2021. Click here to learn how to file a claim.



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A former Kansas City, Kansas, police detective has been accused of raping women and coercing women into giving false testimony. The detective, Roger Golubski, is now facing a grand jury investigation after the Kansas City Star repeatedly reported on the accusations against Golubski. [Dan Margolies and Steve Vockrodt / Kansas City Star]

Recently released body-camera footage shows police officers in Dayton, Ohio, ripping a paraplegic Black man out of his car by his hair. The city’s police union has since defended the cops filmed brutalizing the man, Clifford Owensby. [Jen Balduf / Dayton Daily News]

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinement in prisons under the guise of “medical isolation,” a Solitary Watch report warns. “In some ways, the COVID-19 unit was worse than the hole, a term used to describe solitary confinement in prisons and jails and which is used as a form of punishment,” HuffPost wrote. [Jessica Schulberg and Christopher Blackwell / HuffPost]

Arizona Department of Corrections Special Operations training materials are full of offensive imagery, including patches with skulls and shotguns on them. The materials also include a training video showing Special Operations officers pepper-spraying imprisoned people set to Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” [Jimmy Jenkins / Arizona Republic]

The crisis inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex is much deeper than previously reported. The COVID-19 pandemic and the rollback of bail reform exacerbated an extant staffing issue—and guards have stopped supervising entire wings of the facility. Although some have noted that detained people have used the crisis to take better care of one another, incarcerated people have also been victims of violence and neglect inside the compound. [Jan Ransom, Jonah E. Bromwich, and Rebecca Davis O’Brien / New York Times]

A group of New York state lawmakers is pushing to make all prison phone calls free. Imprisoned people in New York (and their loved ones) pay among the highest rates for phone calls in the country. [Rachel M. Cohen / New York Focus]

Overtime pay for NYPD officers is costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars per year, even as the practice encourages over-policing, takes resources from other social services, and has no clear effect on public safety. [Fola Akinnibi, Sarah Holder, and Christopher Cannon / Bloomberg]

City of Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, a former chief of the Houston and Austin police departments in Texas, was fired weeks after writing a memorandum accusing multiple Miami politicians of corruption and misusing the police department for personal gain. (Acevedo further stated that he would be alerting “the proper authorities.”) Acevedo had been on the job for about six months. [Joshua Ceballos / Miami New Times]

The Philadelphia City Council on Thursday became the first big city in America to ban police from pulling people over for low-level, “pretextual” driving offenses—such as broken tail lights or improperly displayed registration stickers. According to the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the new law could eliminate around 300,000 police interactions with civilians each year. [Sean Collins Walsh / Philadelphia Inquirer]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

Why the Media Won’t Stop Using ‘Officer-Involved Shootings’

Photo: Unsplash / Munshots

Why the Media Won’t Stop Using ‘Officer-Involved Shootings’

The following text appeared in the second edition of our weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

Last week we announced that we’d completed our worker-led takeover of The Appeal. If you haven’t read our full statement, you can find it here.

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Why the Media Won’t Stop Using ‘Officer-Involved Shootings’

by Jerry Iannelli, The Appeal

On Oct. 5, officers with the Simi Valley Police Department in California shot and wounded a woman.

That previous sentence may seem simple to write, but many nearby media outlets in Los Angeles were incapable of composing such a straightforward description of that night’s events.

Instead, readers had to weed through garbled, action-obfuscating language crafted to avoid any implication of fault by police. In its initial story on the shooting, the Los Angeles Times reported that a woman was “hospitalized after Simi Valley officer-involved shooting,” and that “at some point the officers engaged the female, and an officer-involved shooting occurred.”

More than a dozen words obscure what the police commissioner plainly told reporters in five: “An officer shot the woman.”

That one of the nation’s premier newspapers still uses such police-centric language more than one year after the international uprising following the murder of George Floyd is a microcosm of the sad state that American media finds itself in at the moment.

Reporters in newsrooms across the country still insist on using the term “officer-involved shooting” despite the fact that the Associated Press updated its stylebook last year to instruct reporters not to use the phrase. On Oct. 7 alone, at least five news outlets across the country used the phrase “officer-involved shooting” to describe police officers shooting—and in two cases killing—people. The headline “Bodycam video captures deadly officer-involved shooting in Mantua Township” completely fails to make clear what actually happened: A New Jersey resident called 911 fearing armed trespassers on his property. Police arrived, then killed the caller.

Many newsrooms continue to hold on to a phrase that absolves police officers and dehumanizes their (disproportionately Black) victims. When it comes to state-sanctioned violence, reporters all too often repeat the language of the powerful, thereby legitimizing it. (Just look at the way police initially described Floyd’s murder.) It’s not torture, it’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It’s not a child prison, it’s a “juvenile detention facility.” It’s not murder, it’s an “officer-involved shooting.”

Why continue to publish such a jumbled and outdated phrase then? Money, for one. It seems impossible to imagine that the Times would ever refer to a mayoral embezzlement scandal as a “politician-involved corruption case.” But newspapers don’t symbiotically depend on politicians for scoops in the same way that police beat reporters lazily rely on cops to fill the paper each morning. Major newspapers like the South Florida Sun Sentinel even explicitly state that they want a cops reporter “who posts the news immediately and then hits the streets to find the story behind the police report.” So they want reporters to uncritically publish a police report, then do actual reporting to find out if it’s even true?

The journalist who wrote the LA Times’s original piece on the shooting is a breaking news reporter, whose job overwhelmingly consists of writing short stories based largely on statements from government officials—be they fire chiefs, meteorologists, or the police. I myself worked a virtually identical job for about three years, cranking out a day’s worth of short pieces in an adrenaline-fueled scramble, and it can be easy for some to cut corners by essentially copying and pasting a press release into print. Government statements also have the added benefit of generally being protected against libel lawsuits by default. In major daily newsrooms, the typical breaking news reporter is also rarely asked to actually hold the police (or anyone) accountable—such jobs are often shuttled to the investigative desk or elsewhere.

If the purpose of journalism is to inform, there is almost zero value in a 200-word blurb alerting readers that a cop was perhaps, maybe, just a little bit involved in pushing a bullet out of their gun toward an unknown person that they may have hit. But publishing before competitors is a quick and easy way to game the search and social media algorithms to get as many eyeballs on your story as quickly as possible. (Eyeballs or clicks, of course, generate advertising dollars for the rapacious investment firms or fourth-generation American Hapsburgs that generally own most U.S. for-profit newspapers nowadays.)

Police departments know all this and use it to their advantage—their PR departments notoriously remove critical reporters from their email lists and slow-walk requests from contentious journalists. Departments overwhelmingly send out news alerts to reporters via email, so removal from the hallowed police Listserv means a reporter is at a significant speed disadvantage when it comes to breaking news against their competitors.

There are certainly still a large number of American crime reporters who are either: A) outright conservatives who think cops should be able to kill “bad guys” who somehow deserve whatever brutality the police hand out, or B) at least fine not passing judgment on the issue of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings in order to uphold the press’s farcical sense of “objectivity” (which in reality is simply the bias of the white men who have traditionally dominated the field). But just as many journalists are simply overworked and willing to do whatever it takes to crank out copy as fast as possible.

Journalists generally get how language works and know “officer-involved shooting” obscures who actually fired a gun. But when reporters have to choose between reporting that tells the whole truth or reporting that doesn’t anger the people that keep their free conveyor-belt of easy stories coming, most of them keep choosing the latter.

But it does not have to continue this way. Collective action works (just ask our old bosses). Newspapers are abandoning the grotesque practice of publishing mugshots. “Incarcerated person” is slowly replacing dehumanizing words like “inmate” or “felon”—something that Malecia Walker, The Appeal’s copy editor, instituted in our style guide back in 2018. And with continued public pressure, “officer-involved shooting” could be scrapped as well.



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For at least six years, a Texas district clerk separated jurors by race and geography before assigning them to panels for criminal, civil, and family law trials. Now, her method is under investigation for possibly violating state law—and thousands of verdicts could be challenged. [Michael Hardy / Texas Monthly]

Police in Tennessee arrested four Black elementary schoolchildren for not breaking up a fight between other kids. Those senseless arrests are just one example of the illegal jailing of children happening in Rutherford County for years. Judge Donna Scott Davenport, the only elected juvenile court judge the county has ever had, has described her work locking up children as a mission from God. [Meribah Knight / Nashville Public Radio & Ken Armstrong / ProPublica]

A newly released batch of body camera videos from protests last summer shows officers with the Minneapolis Police Department driving around in an unmarked van and indiscriminately firing rubber bullets at passersby. None of the involved officers have been disciplined for their conduct. [Deena Winter / Minnesota Reformer]

A Boston Police officer who bragged on camera about running down protesters with his cruiser in footage released to Appeal contributor Eoin Higgins is now back on full duty, showing once again that cops rarely face meaningful consequences for committing violence. [Eoin Higgins / Substack]

And the Kenosha police officer who shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake last year will not face any federal civil rights charges, prosecutors announced on Friday. State prosecutors also declined to charge the officer, Rusten Shesky, and he has since returned to work without facing any discipline from the department. [Alicia Victoria Lozano / The Associated Press]

A new report from Color of Change highlights how large corporations like Coca-Cola and Bank of America bankroll police foundations, which in turn help bloat police budgets, fund police militarization, and expand surveillance. [Color of Change]

Federal investigators last week raided the Manhattan headquarters of the controversial Sergeants Benevolent Association police union, as well as the Long Island home of the organization’s president, Ed Mullins. Mullins has since resigned and been stripped of his gun and badge. He’s also filed for retirement. [New York Daily News]

A recent investigation by CNN found that even when cops are convicted of crimes like rape and murder, they still get to keep their pensions. The reporters identified over 350 police officers convicted of felony crimes who have already received pension payments, or are eligible to receive them in the future. These officers have been paid about $70 million in total so far. [Blake Ellis & Melanie Hicken / CNN]

Texas spent more than $20,000 fighting to keep a prisoner with a wool allergy from getting a cotton blanket. [Keri Blakinger / Twitter]

Arizona’s Department of Corrections has come under fire in recent years for maintaining inhumane conditions and mistreating people in custody. Rather than address those issues, the state appears to be rewarding the department by spending millions in COVID-19 relief funds on renovating its administrative offices. [Katya Schwenk / Phoenix New Times]

“Vicious beatings, fence crucifixions. N.J. corrections officer turned prison kitchen into ‘Fight Club.’” An alarming story from NJ Advance Media details the alleged reign of terror of a now-former corrections officer at Bayside State Prison. [Joe Atmonavage / NJ Advance Media]

A new Bureau of Justice Statistics report draws a particularly grim portrait of the dangers of pretrial incarceration, finding that more than 75 percent of the 6,217 jail suicides between 2001 and 2019 involved people awaiting trial, with nearly half taking place within a week of booking. [Bureau of Justice Statistics]

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

In coverage of recently released 2020 homicide data, major outlets like The New York Times and NPR gave police and their allies a platform to blame increased violence on bail reform and protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. This was just the latest example of the “pro-police worldview deeply ingrained in journalism,” wrote public defender Scott Hechinger in a column for The Nation last week. [Scott Hechinger / The Nation]

During oral argument at the Supreme Court last week, justices spent a lot of time debating the meaning of the word “occasion,” all while ignoring more fundamental questions about whether the plaintiff in the case had been correctly sentenced as a “career criminal.” The court’s focus on that single word shows how “ill-equipped the courts are to rectify … the inhumanities that plague the criminal legal system,” writes Appeal advisory board member Josie Duffy Rice. [Josie Duffy Rice / Balls & Strikes]

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Simi Valley Police Department is not in Los Angeles County.

The Recent Rise in Violence Should Be a Rallying Cry for Reform

The Recent Rise in Violence Should Be a Rallying Cry for Reform

The following text appeared in the first edition of our weekly newsletter. Sign up here.

Earlier today, we announced that we’d completed our worker-led takeover of The Appeal. If you haven’t read our full statement, you can find it here.

As we continue to work toward an official relaunch, we decided we couldn’t wait to get back to doing what we love. Today we’re launching the first edition of The Appeal’s weekly newsletter! We’ll provide you with perspectives on the issues currently shaping the criminal legal system, along with a roundup of some of our favorite content from across the justice space. Each week you’ll hear from a different member of our team, or experts in the field.

And since we’re just getting started, we’d love to hear what you want to see us do with this newsletter. Please share your thoughts here.

We’re so excited to be back, and thanks for sticking with us!


Photo: iStockPhoto

The Recent Rise In Violence Should Be A Rallying Cry For Reform

by Nick Wing, The Appeal

Last week, the FBI published its Uniform Crime Reporting data for 2020. The annual dataset offers the most detailed accounting yet of crime during a year defined by a crushing pandemic and nationwide protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. The report tells an incomplete story—mainly because it relies on voluntary reporting by police departments, which submit data slowly and inconsistently (and sometimes inaccurately). But the topline finding confirms what many had already understood to be an unusually violent year: Homicides rose by nearly 30 percent in 2020, the largest year-over-year increase since the U.S. began collecting national data in 1960. All told, more than 20,000 people were murdered in America last year at a rate not seen since the 1990s—though the U.S. murder rate remains substantially lower than the peaks of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Acknowledging this increase in homicides doesn’t mean giving in to the clamor for punitive responses. It doesn’t mean agreeing with the elected officials and law enforcement groups who’ve been given space in major publications to make unfounded claims blaming the violence on efforts to rein in abusive policing and the harms of mass incarceration.

This data is undeniably concerning, and it should serve as a rallying cry for those who believe violence can be better addressed with methods that don’t rely exclusively on police, prosecutors, and prisons. After all, that status quo is exactly what got us here. For all the debate in 2020 over “defunding the police” and other more modest reforms, few if any jurisdictions actually deviated significantly from the narrow framework that has defined public safety for decades.

Before we go on, a few clarifying points about the 2020 UCR report:

FIRST, while homicides increased in 2020, the data also confirms that overall crime—including robbery, rape, and burglaries—decreased nationwide. We can’t let valid concerns about violence give way to disingenuous fear-mongering about crime more broadly.

SECOND, the rise in killings last year was felt in every region of the country, across population size and political affiliation. Any attempt to attribute this to a single cause, or even set of causes, is completely dishonest.

THIRD, 2020 is just one year, and an incredibly abnormal one at that. Two data points do not make a trend. And while some preliminary data suggests that homicides continued to rise in the first half of 2021, albeit at a much slower rate than in 2020, we just don’t have enough data yet to make dire pronouncements—or rosy ones—about the murder rate.

Even if 2020 proves to be a statistical anomaly, that doesn’t mean we can ignore the violence that’s tearing through neighborhoods across the U.S. This bloodshed continues to take a disproportionate toll on Black and brown communities, which have historically felt the brunt of this issue and the failed responses to it. This is a crisis that kills, maims, and traumatizes residents. It drains communities of resources and opportunity, and gives way to an oppressive police presence that does further harm to the individuals they are supposed to be helping.

Despite rhetoric from law enforcement officials—who believe that any criticism of racist, out-of-control policing threatens the supposed “thin blue line” between order and chaos—the spike in homicides last year occurred in a nation where police remain the only well-funded resource for addressing violence. These murders occurred on their watch, at a time when police budgets mostly increased. The 2020 data shows alternatives are not just possible, but necessary. And as some cities have already begun to see, non-police methods of violence prevention can be effective, at a fraction of the cost—both social and monetary—of policing.

There are plenty of tools and strategies that can be used to address violence, without doubling down on the punitive mindset that has done so much harm. We can meet this crisis head on by investing in these alternatives—but only if we’re willing to acknowledge the need for urgency and respond by fighting for solutions that make us all safer.


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Appeal alum Lauren Gill investigated the unprecedented surveillance of mail sent to people incarcerated at federal prisons and the toll it takes on those inside. Instead of a card or handwritten letter, incarcerated people often get scanned, sometimes illegible copies. “It’s just like receiving a fake dollar bill,” one incarcerated person said. [Lauren Gill / The Intercept]

Appeal transition staff members Ethan Corey and Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported last month on the case of Anthony Sims, who has served more than 20 years in New York prisons for a murder he says he did not commit. The Brooklyn DA’s conviction review unit declined to review his case in 2016 without even interviewing him. The head of the CRU at the time, Mark Hale, was the prosecutor who put Sims in prison. [Ethan Corey and Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg / New York Focus]

Former Appeal reporter George Joseph and New York Focus editor-in-chief Akash Mehta combed through data to find out exactly who is responsible for driving up the number of people waiting for their trials at Rikers. (Spoiler alert: It’s judges.) [George Joseph and Akash Mehta / Gothamist & New York Focus]

Bonus: A chart showing the NYC judges with the highest rates of setting bail.

After the release of 2020 crime data, media outlets were quick to platform voices suggesting the rising violence was due to backlash over last summer’s protests against police abuse. Former Appeal contributor Jon Ben-Menachem has a new column outlining the dangerous logic of the so-called Ferguson Effect—a debunked criminological theory that claims “de-policing” or “police pullback” cause increases in crime. [Jon Ben-Menachem / Slate]

Congress is moving forward with legislation to eliminate the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. The disparity had been reduced in 2010 from a 100-to-1 ratio to an 18-to-1 ratio. [Sarah N. Lynch / Reuters]

Two narcotics officers with the Columbus, Ohio, police department were arrested for allegedly attempting to distribute nearly 8 kilograms of fentanyl. (And to think cops keep telling us they can OD just from touching fentanyl dust.) [Associated Press]

A tough-on-crime Republican district attorney in Pennsylvania has been charged with rape after allegedly showing up at a professional acquaintance's home uninvited and violently assaulting her. He's not the first DA in the state charged with sexual assault this year: In February, a prosecutor in another county was accused of sexually assaulting at least five women. [Dave Sutor and David Hurst / The Tribune-Democrat]

Alabama is proceeding with plans to use $400 million in COVID relief funds to build new prisons. [Mike Cason /]

A judge in New York tried to send an immunocompromised homeless man to Rikers—for allegedly stealing blankets. [Nick Pinto / The Intercept]

Sean Worsley, a decorated veteran with a Purple Heart, was sentenced to five years in prison in Alabama for bringing his legally prescribed medical marijuana from Arizona to Alabama. He was released on parole last fall, but the conviction has continued to haunt Worsley and his wife, who have since struggled to find work and housing. [NOVA | PBS]

Maryland police reforms started going into effect on Friday. When cops kill someone, “a new team of independent investigators will show up at the scene and sort out what happened,” the Baltimore Sun reported. “And when misconduct complaints are made against officers, they will be public.” [Jessica Anderson and Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun]

The UCR data we discussed at the beginning provides a lot of numbers to wade through, and there are important caveats and limitations to consider. This new open-source book by Jacob Kaplan, the chief data scientist at Research on Policing Reform and Accountability, has tons of great info to help you avoid pitfalls while analyzing and interpreting the data. [Jacob Kaplan /]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

The Appeal is back! And we’re worker-run.

We’re back with some big news! Thanks to your generous support and the hard work of our transition team, the workers have officially taken over The Appeal.

The Appeal is back! And we’re worker-run.

We’re back with some big news! Thanks to your generous support and the hard work of our transition team, the workers have officially taken over The Appeal.

In June, the staff resolved to save The Appeal after our bosses decided to shut us down. We are now well on our way to relaunching as a worker-led nonprofit news outlet dedicated to critical reporting on the criminal legal system. We’ve taken ownership of The Appeal’s intellectual property, including our website, social media, and everything else we need to serve our audience.

And we’re on track to publish a special package of stories in November. More on that later.

The Appeal transition team has accomplished all of this by working as volunteers, and we could not have done it without your solidarity. Although we retain The Appeal’s name and rights to our work, we are an entirely new entity. With old management no longer involved, we — the workers — are excited to grow from and improve upon The Appeal of the past. 

There’s more work to be done before our official relaunch — and you can help us return to publishing full time by donating here. In the meantime, we want to get back to serving you, our readers.

Later today, we will be launching our weekly newsletter, which will provide The Appeal’s perspective on issues shaping the criminal legal system, along with a roundup of some of our favorite content from across the justice space. Each week you’ll hear from a different member of our team or one of our allies in the field. (You can sign up here.) 

Thank you all for sticking with us. Please share our donation page with your networks. Every dollar we raise gets us closer to producing vital journalism that helps communities address the harms of the criminal legal system.

Thank you,

Molly Greene
Anna Simonton
Tara Francis Chan
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg
Malecia Walker
Natalie Pryor
Bilal Baydoun
Meg O’Connor
Nick Wing
Jerry Iannelli
Ethan Corey

Two Mayoral Elections May Shape Policing Next Week

The Appeal: Political Report’s April 2 newsletter

Two Mayoral Elections May Shape Policing Next Week

The Appeal: Political Report’s April 2 newsletter

April 2, 2021: Two mayoral elections with stakes for policing are coming up on Tuesday, and at the state level this past week brought milestones on marijuana and youth justice. Today’s menu:

  • New York legalized marijuana. Virginia and New Mexico may soon follow.

  • Nebraska: Omaha’s GOP mayor faces challengers who want a new path on policing

  • Missouri: St. Louis will turn over a new leaf on policing and jail with Tuesday’s mayoral race

  • Virginia: The state greatly expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions. But the next governor, who will be elected this year, could wipe away those gains.

  • Kentucky: A new law bans the mandatory transfer of children into adult court

  • Louisiana, Maryland, and New York: Prosecutors roll out new declination policies and drop cases

In case you missed it, catch up with last week’s Political Report newsletter, which dives into Virginia abolishing the death penalty and into the continued harms of working with ICE. You can also visit our interactive tracker of legislative developments and our interactive tracker of the latest reforms being implemented by prosecutors nationwide.

Nebraska: Omaha’s GOP mayor faces challengers who want a new path on policing

Like most of the country, Omaha was rocked by policing protests last year. Its mayoral election is now putting issues tied to criminal justice and policing on the table. Mayor Jean Stothert, a Republican who has been endorsed by the local police union, faces a slate of challengers who are running on charting new paths.

Anoa Changa reports this week in The Appeal: Political Report on the stakes of this election, which is next Tuesday and will likely be resolved in a “top two” runoff in May.

“Local activists are rallying behind two Democratic challengers: criminal justice reform advocate Jasmine Harris and school board member Kimara Snipes,” Changa writes. “The election of either Harris or Snipes would give Omaha its first Black female mayor. Both candidates have spoken about the need for a more holistic approach to public safety that recognizes the root causes of crime that simply increasing policing doesn’t address.”

Activists like those with Omaha Abolition Research are pushing for candidates to embrace major investments in housing and transportation, in part to decrease the involvement of police and criminal justice in socioeconomic issues.

Missouri: St. Louis will turn over a new leaf on policing and jail with Tuesday’s mayoral race

St. Louis will vote for its next mayor on Tuesday. City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and Alderperson Cara Spencer will face off in a runoff after grabbing the first two spots in a primary round last month. 

Jones and Spencer were the two most progressive candidates in the primary field, and both ran on changing the city’s status quo on criminal justice and policing, though differences between them exist as well. In her preview of the election’s stakes for public safety and incarceration in late February, Meg O’Connor reported that Jones ran on decriminalizing sex work and that she has said she supports reducing the police budget; she faced attacks on both fronts during the primary campaign. Jones and Spencer also support closing the infamous Workhouse jail, and O’Connor wrote a follow-up article last week exploring how they would go about doing this.

“We need to close the Workhouse because it’s not only harming the people who are inside every day, it’s really harming the community of St. Louis as a whole,” Madison Orozco, an advocate with ArchCity Defenders, told O’Connor last week. “Millions of dollars are being held hostage. That money could be used to help St. Louis thrive.” ArchCity Defenders and other St. Louis organizations have fought to transform local practices and policies, and the mayoral race is the latest in a string of results that testify to their success.

New York legalized marijuana. Virginia and New Mexico may soon follow

Marijuana possession is now legal in New York. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law yesterday to legalize marijuana in the state, and the provisions legalizing possession apply immediately. The bill, which was adopted by the legislature on Tuesday, also establishes a system of regulated sales.

The issue has languished for years in Albany, but a confluence of factors—including neighboring New Jersey voting to legalize marijuana in November—considerably increased pressure on New York to follow suit. Legislative leaders and the governor announced a deal just this weekend.

Reform advocates are celebrating the details of the law as a win for social justice. For one, the package includes a provision to expunge past convictions over behavior that will now be legal. It also bars the police from invoking the smell of cannabis to justify vehicle searches, an excuse the police has used aggressively. “The time has come to reject the canard of marijuana emanating from nearly every vehicle subject to a traffic stop,” a judge wrote in a 2019 opinion.

New York has a long legacy of extremely harsh enforcement of marijuana laws. There were more than 500,000 arrests made between 1996 and 2010 over marijuana possession, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and 54 percent of those arrested were Black.

New York is the 16th state to pass a bill or a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. And efforts accelerated elsewhere over the last week: Two other states may soon take that step as well.

In Virginia, the legislature adopted a bill in February to legalize marijuana, but reform advocates criticized its provisions. First, the bill delays legalization until 2024, which would continue the harms of prohibition for years; second, it created an array of new marijuana-related crimes. But yesterday, the governor sent the bill back to the legislature, requesting an amendment that would speed up legalization by three years, to July 2021; he also requested other changes that would speed up expungements. If lawmakers vote to accept this amendment, the bill becomes law immediately without any need for further action by the governor.

And in New Mexico, although the legislative session ended in March without final approval of a long-debated marijuana bill, the governor has now called a special session. Marijuana is one of the few issues lawmakers are expected to address.

Virginia: The state just expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions. But the next governor could wipe away those gains.

When Virginia resident Jacqueline McBride accompanied a family member to the polls last fall, she was elated to see how enthusiastic people were to vote. “That was something special,” she says of the turnout she witnessed. “These young kids are the future.” But she was barred from voting because she was still on probation after her release from prison.

Even under those circumstances, she would have been able to cast a ballot had she lived in 19 other states—but Virginia had harsher rules. “I’ve always voted,” she recounts, “and when I couldn’t vote last time around, it made me feel like I wasn’t part of something anymore.”

McBride regained her right to vote last week, as part of an executive action by Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to restore the voting rights of tens of thousands of Virginians who are on probation and on parole. “I was so ecstatic,” she says, recalling how she grew up around people who were stripped of that right and never regained it.

Now the future of this vastly expanded, though still not universal, electorate hinges on the state’s upcoming elections for the governorship and legislature.

Read my full article on how Virginia’s 2021 elections may impact voting rights for people with felony convictions.

Kentucky: A new law bans the mandatory transfer of children into adult court 

Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has signed into law Senate Bill 32, which Kentucky’s Republican-run legislature adopted in March. Once it goes into effect, the law will end any mandatory transfer of minors into adult court. Transfers will happen through decisions made on each individual case by the court system.

Ever since a wave of “tough on crime” laws in 1996, Kentucky has automatically sent children age 14 and older to adult court when they are charged with offenses involving firearms. And the adult prosecution of children overall has disproportionately harmed Black youth. Fifty-seven percent of the children transferred to adult courts in Kentucky are Black, according to a recent study.

This bill would not bar the adult prosecution of children, though, and racial inequalities are likely to persist. At least the discretion to transfer a child into adult court will not solely rest on the prosecutor, as is the case in many states, nor on any one actor; a prosecutor will have to request to transfer a child, and a judge will have to approve it.

As I reviewed in 2019, when Oregon adopted a bill that took a similar step, the vast majority of states allow mandatory transfers into adult courts. Kentucky is just the 16th state to end this.

In related news: Lawmakers in North Carolina are considering bills to raise the minimum age at which children can be criminally prosecuted to 10, the News and Observer reports. Many stakeholders are pushing for a higher age. 

North Carolina currently allows children as young as 6 to be criminally prosecuted, the lowest minimum age in the nation. (That said, many states do not set any minimum age.) 

The state’s draconian system came to national exposure last month with the explosive story of a 6-year-old boy brought to court for allegedly picking a tulip in someone’s backyard. Nearly half of the children under age of 11 who face criminal complaints in North Carolina are Black.

Louisiana, Maryland, New York: Prosecutors launch declination policies and drop cases

The notion that district attorneys would adopt wholesale policies of declining to prosecute entire categories of charges burst onto the scene in 2018 with the prosecutorial election in Boston. Rachael Rollins’s decision to run on a list of 15 offenses she would not prosecute was heralded by reform advocates for pushing the boundary of what was being debated in DA races.

A new academic study, released this week, measured some of the benefits of avoiding prosecution: In comparing low-level cases over which people were prosecuted to equivalent cases over which others were not prosecuted, the study found that individuals in the latter group were far less likely to come in contact with the criminal legal system in the future. 

“Prosecuting these defendants actually decreases public safety,” said Rutgers University professor Amanda Agan, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

Over the last week, three more prosecutors made news for policies in line with this approach.

  1. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office would not prosecute a list of low-level offenses, including drug and drug paraphernalia possession, attempted distribution, prostitution, trespassing, open container violations, and urinating and defecating in public. “Today, America’s war on drug users is over in the city of Baltimore,” Mosby said. “We leave behind the era of tough-on-crime prosecution and zero tolerance policing and no longer default to the status quo to criminalize mostly people of color for addiction.”
  2. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced in January that he was no longer prosecuting sex workers, though he said he would continue prosecuting people who solicit sex work. Last week, Gonzalez announced his office was dismissing 857 outstanding warrants that the Brooklyn DA’s office has issued dating back to the 1970s. 
  3. New Orleans DA Jason Williams, who came into office this year after running on decreasing the footprint of the criminal legal system, announced this week that he was dropping more than 400 cases, many of which were open for years. The majority of those cases were drug-related. 

Other jurisdictions that have made news this year for declination-related actions include Athens, Georgia, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Efforts to Abolish the Death Penalty Triumph in the South for the First Time

The Appeal: Political Report’s March 25 newsletter

Efforts to Abolish the Death Penalty Triumph in the South for the First Time

The Appeal: Political Report’s March 25 newsletter

March 25, 2021

  • Virginia abolished the death penalty yesterday, a historic win for the abolition movement

  • The future of immigration enforcement: Biden replaced Trump. Here’s why that does not mean that local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE again.

  • Pennsylvania: As his election nears, The Appeal dives into Larry Krasner’s DA record

  • Legislative roundup: Utah repeals its bail reforms and restricts the public release of mugshots, Kentucky raises the felony theft threshold, and Maryland may end life without parole sentences for children

  • Louisiana: Here’s one illustration of how the 2020 local elections changed New Orleans

  • Longer reads: on prosecutors, probation, voting rights, mayors, and immigration 

In case you missed it, catch up with last week’s Political Report newsletter. You can also visit our interactive tracker of legislative developments and our interactive tracker of the latest reforms being implemented by prosecutors nationwide.

Virginia abolished the death penalty yesterday, a historic win for the abolition movement

This is a historic week for the movement against the death penalty in the United States. Virginia, the state that has executed the most people throughout the nation’s history, has abolished the sentence and vacated its death row. 

This brings abolition into the South for the first time, which could well be remembered as a landmark moment for broadening the scope of abolition. Virginia, which in recent years has adopted other reforms such as ending life without parole sentences for minors, is the fourth state in four years to abolish the death penalty.

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reported on this milestone yesterday in The Appeal: Political Report.

The future of immigration enforcement: Biden replaced Trump. Here’s why that does not mean that local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE again.

The Biden administration has shifted from former President Donald Trump’s approach to deportations, instructing ICE to only prioritize some groups for deportation. And Biden has also shed his predecessor’s naked xenophobia. That may in turn lead some local officials—starting with those in charge of law enforcement and prosecution—to say that it is now appropriate for them to resume cooperating with ICE, offsetting the activist successes of recent years.

Felipe De La Hoz lays out in the Political Report this week why local cooperation with ICE will continue to harm immigrant communities regardless of the president’s t guidelines.

Priorities set by the president are often ignored by ICE and turn carve-out balloons into open invitations, de la Hoz explains. Even low-level interactions with the criminal legal system can snowball into deportation proceedings. De La Hoz also talks to local officials including Eli Savit, the new prosecutor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Kristin Graziano, the new sheriff in Charleston County, South Carolina, who are doubling down on cutting ties with ICE this year even after Biden took over the White House.

The Appeal dives into Larry Krasner’s DA record

In 2017, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner became one of the nation’s most emblematic district attorneys after running on promises to reduce incarceration. More than three years into his term, and as Krasner prepares to face voters in the May 18 primary, The Appeal’s Joshua Vaughn reports this week on his record as DA and how his promises to reduce incarceration have fared.

“He has prosecuted significantly fewer cases than his predecessors,” Vaughn writes. “He has reduced the use of cash bail and limited parole and probation terms. And he has reinvigorated his office’s conviction integrity unit.” Krasner has also faced criticism, including from people on the left who urge him to be more transformative since “his office still seeks cash bail and asks that people convicted of certain crimes be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”

But one of Krasner’s most important legacies, Vaughn writes, may be to have blazed the trail for other progressives to run for the prosecutor’s office around the country, setting in motion broader transformations—the sort we are now seeing in New Orleans, for instance, as chronicled below.

Legislative roundup: Utah repeals its bail reforms and restricts the public release of mugshots, Kentucky raises the felony theft threshold, and Maryland may end life without parole sentences for children

Utah: Utah has repealed the bail reform it adopted in 2020, which may ramp up pretrial detention. Governor Spencer Cox signed a bill this week despite his earlier statements indicating he may veto it. As Rachel Cohen reported last week in The Appeal: Political Report, the 2020 law encouraged judges to opt for the least restrictive mode of detention they deemed adequate, and reduce the reliance on cash bail. Some Republican lawmakers and sheriffs had made the case that the new law is too lax, but many others—including the district attorneys of the state’s three biggest counties—urged the governor to veto the repeal, to no avail.

Last week, Cox signed another bill into law: It will bar the public release of mugshots until there is a criminal conviction, with some carve-outs. Route Fifty reported on the bill in February. “The reality is today, in doing so, we hang a virtual scarlet letter around the one that’s been accused or arrested,” said Representative Keven Stratton, the reform’s Republican sponsor, appealing to the presumption of innocence. But the state’s simultaneous choice to lean into pretrial detention threatens that presumption

Kentucky: Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, signed into law this week two bills passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature that should reduce the number of people convicted of felonies. One bill increases to $1,000 from $500 the threshold of the value at which theft is prosecuted as a felony rather than a misdemeanor; another bill increases to $2,500 from $1,000 the amount of unpaid child support that can be prosecuted as a felony. A felony-level conviction carries far heavier consequences in terms of sentencing and incarceration, and comes with additional consequences such as a loss of the right to vote. The Lexington Herald Leader provides more context on the legislative session that produced these new laws; other bills are still in limbo.

Maryland: Two bills that address youth justice are moving through the state legislature. The Senate passed a bill this month that concerns how children who are transferred to adult courts are treated. Most notably, it would abolish sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors. The House, meanwhile, passed a bill that would restrict some punishments imposed in juvenile courts and limit when young children are prosecuted.  


Louisiana: Here’s one illustration of how the 2020 local elections changed New Orleans

New Orleans is offering a powerful display so far this year of the ability of local elections to change people’s lives. And a recent development that illustrates this stands at the nexus of different threads of electoral activism that the Political Report closely covered last fall.

Act I: In the fall, local activists in New Orleans worked to boost public defenders who were running for judge on promises to use judicial discretion to fight mass incarceration. Two of them won in November, Nandi Campbell and Angel Harris. (Harris is a former employee of The Justice Collaborative, of which The Appeal was a project.)

Act II: In December, a runoff decided the city’s hotly contested open prosecutorial race. Leon Cannizzaro, the incumbent prosecutor with an exceptionally carceral politics, had chosen to not seek re-election. The winner, City Council president Jason Williams, ran on a reform platform that promised to reduce sentences, avoid sentencing enhancements, and review past convictions. He began delivering on some of these promises after taking office.

Act III: Yutilo Briley, a 27-year-old who had just spent the past eight years in prison over a wrongful conviction sought and obtained by Cannizzaro, was released from prison this month. Williams agreed to his releaseand the judge who ordered the release was Harris.

Briley … walked out of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel and threw his arms around his mother, thanks to a newly elected district attorney and judge who hold sharply different views from their predecessors,” writes Matt Sledge in the New Orleans Advocate. “Instead of fighting Briley at every step, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams agreed that Briley’s latest appeal should be granted.” Said Harris: “This was a textbook example of the failings of our criminal court system.”

Longer reads: on prosecutors, probation, voting rights, mayors, and immigration

The Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties devotes a special issue to progressive prosecution. The issue includes an article by the ACLU’s Taylor Pendergrass and Somil Trivedi on how DAs can move “beyond reform,” and an article by California public defenders Avanindar Singh and Sajid Khan that proposes “a public defender definition of progressive prosecution.”

Vincent Shiraldi explains in The Lab, The Appeal’s policy vertical, how the criminal legal system harshly punishes “technical violations” of parole and probation conditions and drives up incarceration.

Kevin Muhitch and Nazgol Ghandnoosh write in the Sentencing Project about why all citizens should be able to cast a ballot.

Damià Bonmatí, reporting for NBC News from Roma, Texas, talks to children and adolescents with wrenching stories who are coming into the United States to find their parents.

Stephanie Murray writes in Politico about six mayoral elections that are being reshaped by the Black Lives Matter protests over policing. 

Virginia Bridges reports in The Herald-Sun that thousands of children under age 11, disproportionately Black children, face criminal complaints each year in North Carolina. One 6-year-old was taken to court, standing accused of picking up a tulip from a yard. 

Debates Around Criminal Justice Reform Take Center Stage in a Slate of Red States

The Appeal: Political Report’s March 11 newsletter