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Florida’s gross criminalization of disaster relief

Florida’s gross criminalization of disaster relief

When we talk about the United States being the “incarceration nation,” the facts back it up. A higher percentage of our citizens are in jail or prison than any other nation in the world. How we got there is complicated, but at the root of it all is the over-criminalization of people for things that shouldn’t be criminal. So we end up with kids in high school getting arrested and beaten by police for not putting their phones away in class, or young girls mauled and handcuffed by police because neighbors weren’t sure they had proper permission to visit a neighborhood swimming pool. The end result is not only millions of people in jail and prison, but tens of millions of people forced to operate in society with either the trauma of police brutality or the stigma of an arrest record.

What has happened this past month, though, should shock the conscience of us all. As Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, neared the coast of Florida, the Polk County Sheriff decided to use the moment to criminalize disaster relief — which is a new frontier of sorts in a country that criminalizes so much. Let me break it down.

Polk County Florida is the home of the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. It’s a landlocked county in central Florida that is frequently seen by many to be a place of refuge during storms and hurricanes. With over 600,000 residents, it’s one of the largest counties in America — so it has the capacity to take in thousands of visitors at any one time during a natural disaster.

As residents of coastal Florida began boarding up their homes and leaving them behind to seek shelter inland, Polk County’s Sheriff, Grady Judd, tweeted this:

Then just 45 minutes later, he doubled down and tweeted this:

To make clear that he wasn’t playing, Judd trotted out his spokesperson to state that ID’s would be indeed be checked at hurricane shelters and that background checks would be performed to search for any active warrants. Any person with any warrant of any kind would be arrested on the spot. When pushed on the fact that the overwhelming majority of warrants are for non-violent misdemeanors, Judd’s office didn’t relent — and said it was “their duty” to arrest all people with outstanding warrants regardless of how petty or small they may be.

This meant people who had warrants for outstanding traffic tickets who sought shelter in Polk County could face being separated from their family members and arrested on the spot during what was already a terrifying natural disaster. It also clearly meant that people who didn’t have ID’s or were undocumented immigrants would not be welcome at Polk County shelters.

At a time when people are fleeing for their safety, perhaps leaving their homes and belongings behind to be destroyed by the storm, Sheriff Grady Judd saw it as an opportunity to gleefully advance his cause of mass incarceration and strike fear into the hearts of thousands of people.

This is why millions of Americans operate in the shadows. It’s why millions of good people just flat out don’t call the police or 911 for help — even if they need it or see a crime being committed. If law enforcement sees a natural disaster as an opportunity for arrest and incarceration, our system is worse off than we all imagined.

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

Safety in numbers: Will District Attorneys support saving lives?

Safety in numbers: Will District Attorneys support saving lives?

Supervised injection sites — places where IV drugs users can avoid contracting disease and deathly overdoes — have been cited approvingly by public health experts as one of the most effective ways to control the opioid epidemic. They have been popular in Canada. But, public officials in the U.S. have shied away from them.

The tide may be starting to turn. Larry Krasner, the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia District Attorney, announced today that he approves the use of safe injection sites. “I don’t think saving lives in controversial,” he told the local NBC affiliate. His opponent also indicated that she would support safe injection cites as well.

Philadelphia has been hard hit by the opioid crisis. Last year, over 900 people died from overdoses; about 55,000 are addicted. In the U.S., about 100 people died every day from an overdose, and 2015 overdoses were triple percentages points from those in 2010. Pennsylvania’s deaths are above the national average.

California just killed a legislative bill that would have let counties establish their safe injection sites. The proposed bill would have allowed for eight counties to open safe injection sites without using state funds. Oppositionfrom the California District Attorney Association, the California Sheriffs’ Association, and the California Police Chiefs Association all opposed the bill and helped block its passage. Republicans unanimously voted no.

The bill was supported by a broad range of people, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to recommend that the city begin looking into opening safe injection facilities, although the failed bill might now derail this option.

My colleagues Carimah and Rebecca have previously covered the resistance of law enforcement to safe injection sites. But, Krasner’s support — alongside an increasingly bipartisan realization that the opioid crisis will require a response that isn’t punitive — hopefully represents a chance that will help thousands of people. Last night, I watched Reveal’s new documentary Heroin(e) and what I found most powerful was the idea that people from different backgrounds could come together in hope and find a way to solve what has become an incredibly difficult public health crisis.

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Utah County to Create A Prosecutor Watchdog Group

Utah County to Create A Prosecutor Watchdog Group

Following a handful of local cases that raised concerns about prosecutorial overreach, the Utah County Commission has decided to create a committee that will look into prosecutorial misconduct.

“I don’t want to limit what prosecutors should be doing,” Commission Chairman Bill Lee said. “But it’s important to me that the public also has trust in our legal system as well.”

The County Commission passed a resolution last month affirming its intent to create the committee by the end of 2017. It would be called the Utah County Restorative Justice Commission and would report any allegation of prosecutorial misconduct to the County Commission, which would then refer those reports to another law enforcement agency, most likely the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Lee said he heard from a wide range of people who convinced him that the committee was necessary.

“I had conversations with multiple groups of people who are concerned, and they brought forth allegations, which I don’t know if they are true or not,” Lee said. “I don’t have a legal background, so I’m not going to review cases myself.”

Lee said he wanted the committee members to have wide range of expertise, and possibly include former judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and non-lawyers. The details about exactly how appointments will be made to the commission are still being worked out.

Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank, has been a vocal supporter of creating the committee. As the Daily Heraldreported in May, Boyack appeared before the County Commission and said that the goal of the committee “would be to ensure that, if someone was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, that they would be ‘made whole,’ including reimbursement for costs such as defense fees.”

As In Justice Today previously reported, former Provo City Councilman Steve Turley was charged in 2011 on multiple counts of fraud involving real estate deals. While those charges were pending, prosecutors from the Utah County listened in on conversations Turley had with his attorneys.

All charges against Turley were eventually dropped, and Turley subsequently filed a civil lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution and ethical misconduct by Utah County Attorney’s Office.

Turley was one of the people who urged the commissioners to create the Utah County Restorative Justice Commission.

Another high profile case involved Conrad Truman, who was ultimately exonerated after serving four years in prison for the 2012 murder of his wife, Heidy Truman.

Truman was originally convicted and sentenced in 2014 for first-degree murder and obstruction of justice. But those convictions were overturned in 2016 after it was ruled that misleading evidence was presented at his first trial.

The evidence in question involved inaccurate measurements of the Truman home. Defense lawyers argued that correct measurements of the home increased the possibility that Heidy Truman died of a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head, rather than having been murdered.

Truman was acquitted in a second trial in February 2017.

Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman, who has been criticized for the Turley and Truman cases, said his office would work with the new commission.

“This is done with us,” Buhman said. “This is not the commission independent of the county attorney, this is us working together.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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