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Dear Jeff Sessions, prosecuting guns more aggressively won’t make us safer

Jeff Sessions
Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Dear Jeff Sessions, prosecuting guns more aggressively won’t make us safer

Jeff Sessions is at it again. In yet another public statement, the Attorney General has voiced his support for a range of discredited or highly controversial criminal justice policies. This time, Sessions delivered a series of tough-on-crime bromides to the National District Attorneys Association: harsh penalties are the solution to drug addiction; broken-windows policing works; more criminal prosecutions can resolve questions about immigration policies; and prosecutors should seek the most severe charge in every case.

There’s a lot in Sessions’ speech to worry criminal justice reformers and confound academics who study criminal law. To narrow the focus, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider Sessions’ statements on gun crime and what he gets wrong.

“I want to see a substantial increase in gun crime prosecutions,” Sessions told the assembled state prosecutors. “I believe, as we partner together and hammer criminals who carry firearms during crimes or criminals that possess firearms after being convicted of a felony, the effect will be to reduce violent crime.”

The Attorney General’s call to “hammer criminals” and increase prosecutions for illegal gun possession reflects an unfortunate view of gun control as an enterprise best suited to aggressive criminal enforcement. (In fairness, Sessions’ speech — and most of his public comments — indicate that he generally views aggressive criminal enforcement as the solution to social problems.)

As I have argued elsewhere, criminal gun possession statutes and “gun-centric” policing embody much of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system.

From a civil libertarian perspective, this mode of addressing gun violence is a nightmare: New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, the shooting of Philando Castile, and a range of Fourth Amendment cases show that gun possession crimes serve as an invitation for intrusive, violent policing. From a racial justice perspective, gun-centric policing and gun-crime prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color. And criminal gun possession statutes often carry mandatory minimum prison sentences, yielding lengthy terms of incarceration.

Gun violence in the United States is a serious problem. Full stop.

But, just because there’s a problem, it doesn’t mean that any solution is justified or that any policy response is a good one.

In his powerful new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. describes how progressive black activists in Washington, D.C. inadvertently helped contribute to a racialized system of mass incarceration. Forman emphasizes that these activists were confronting real problems of crime and violence in their communities, but that the response that emerged — harsh sentences and aggressive law enforcement — ultimately hurt those communities and helped cement an underclass of people with criminal records.

Forman’s account is critical to understanding the problem with the Attorney General’s full-throated endorsement of more criminal punishment. Sessions’ comments reflect a troubling argument — he cares about crime victims (as does his audience), and the only way to serve the interests of victims is to pursue harsh punishment and to “hammer criminals.” (It’s worth noting that, even if gun possession might raise the odds of eventual injury, possession itself doesn’t victimize.)

Forman’s account shows that harsh punishment doesn’t always serve victims, and that there are ways to address violence other than more punishment for more people. Recent studies suggest that many victims want a larger role in the criminal justice system and reject a punitive approach. And even preeminent victims’ rights advocate Paul Cassell has been critical of “unjust” sentences that result from mandatory minimum provisions of gun possession statutes.

Critics of mass incarceration have shown that defaulting to more punishment doesn’t necessarily prioritize the voices of victims, and it doesn’t necessarily reduce crime. Prosecutors on the state and local level should remember these lessons and examine other alternatives to addressing violence rather than advancing Sessions’ punitive agenda.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney has used forfeiture funds to help pay $2.2 million in no-bid contracts to friend and former colleague

Cincinnati, OH, seat of Hamilton County (Wikimedia Commons)

Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney has used forfeiture funds to help pay $2.2 million in no-bid contracts to friend and former colleague

A recent report by CityBeat shows that Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters has engaged a longtime friend and former subordinate in a number of no-bid contracts totaling approximately $2.2 million. Two-thirds of the funds paid by Deters to Dennis Lima and his technology company have come from funds collected by his office through criminal forfeiture efforts.

Because Deters has deemed Lima and his business a “consultant,” Ohio law requiring the county to seek competitive bids does not appear to apply. The CityBeat, howeverargues that what Lima’s company has done goes far beyond consulting.

“But Lima was more than just a consultant,” writes CityBeat reporter James McNair. “He replaced and installed entire IT systems, software and databases. Hamilton County offices such as the Board of County Commissioners, the auditor and the sheriff routinely seek bids for such work.”

Lima was the Hamilton County prosecuting attorney’s in-house information technology person when Deters was the elected county prosecutor from 1992–1999. When Deters was elected state treasurer in 1999, Lima left and started his own company, LimaCorp, and later its successor, OnLine Business Solutions.

Deters was again elected to be the Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney in 2005 and quickly hired Lima’s company on an 11-month no-bid contract worth $181,000. Since then Deters has continued to hire Lima’s company as a consultant for his office on one-year contracts without ever bidding out the work. This relationship has continued despite Lima at one point filing bankruptcy, at which time he disclosed “more than $500,000 in debts, mostly bank loans to LimaCorp.”

The relationship between Deters and Lima raises ethical concerns, as Ron White, an ethics professor, explained to CityBeat: “In an ideal world, everyone that has the ability to spend taxpayer dollars would be trustworthy and wouldn’t use their position of authority to reward friends with lucrative contracts.”

Prosecutors in Ohio are allowed to use money obtained by way of criminal forfeiture, a process that involves the selling of cars, computers, firearms, land, and other items, usually at auction, that were used in the commission of a crime and later seized by the state. By law, forfeiture money is supposed to go for law enforcement purposes, although prosecutors enjoy wide discretion in how the money is spent.

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New documentary explores the false freedom of life on parole

New documentary explores the false freedom of life on parole

There’s a story the mainstream media trumpets most loudly when it comes to parole, and it’s a frightening one: A violent criminal is released from prison, and within weeks or months of their release, a heinous, tragic crime is committed again. The lesson this story teaches the public is toxic, and largely inaccurate. When the only stories of parole we tell are those that end in bloodshed, “getting out on parole” becomes synonymous with fear, and imparts the idea that no one should ever receive parole.

A new documentary from Frontline and The New York Times, released Tuesday, seeks to tell a very different and far more common story. Life on Parole follows the stories of four formerly incarcerated people in Connecticut as they navigate the conditions of their release from prison. The film chronicles a lesser-told truth about what it really means to get out on parole, and just how easy it is to violate the terms of release and wind up back behind bars.

Under Gov. Dannel Malloy, the state of Connecticut has seen dramatic change in its criminal justice system. In 2012, the death penalty was abolished, and following the legalization of medical marijuana, lawmakers in the state are now considering legalizing marijuana for personal use. In 2015, Malloy launched a package of reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, which included speeding up the parole process for nonviolent offenders. But as more people are released on parole, the state now grapples with the rate at which they end up violating the terms of their release and winding back where they started.

The documentary offers a vital counter narrative to the most commonly told story, and illustrates that the most frequent violations that land someone on parole back in prison are a far cry from the dramatic violent stories that most often wind up in the headlines. Living under intense scrutiny and supervision, the experiences of the four subjects of the film demonstrate just how easy it is to misstep, for everything from visiting a loved one to buying a coffee at the wrong store.

“Some people think that being on parole is you’re free,” says Jessica, one of the film’s subjects who is on parole for five years. “You’re not.”

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